The privilige of academics during the pandemic

The organisational theorist Martin Parker (2021) compares the pandemic to “an acid eating away at the flesh” which enabled us “to see the bones of the social structure”. He highlights the “inequalities that mean some have to travel to work in care homes and fruit-picking fields, while others self-isolate and edit books”. The fact that working from home was not a universal experience would be easy to lose sight of if one had relied solely on print and broadcast media which, at least in the UK, continually foregrounded the transformation in professional work which could more or less smoothly be transferred into the home. Yet in the UK only 46.6% of UK adults worked from home even at the height of the pandemic in April 2020 (ONS 2021). This isn’t to minimise the challenges involved in this, particularly with the 25-49 years olds most likely to work from home also being the most likely to have school age children who they were expected to educate alongside their work during the time. But it’s important we push back against the universalisation of a particular classed experience of the pandemic, from which it could often be inferred that the most pressing concern during this time was nature spots being overly crowded and a struggle to perfect one’s sour dough when ingredients were in short supply. It’s curious that otherwise thoughtful reflections on the experience of lockdown by philosophers such as Latour (2021), Beradi (2021) and Zizek (2020) are largely silent about this inequality and tend to assume their own experiences of quiet, occasionally frustrated, waiting can be unproblematically generalised. As Beraid (2021: loc 642) puts it, “We stopped consuming and producing, and for over a year we stayed home, looking at the blue sky from the window and wondering how all this will turn out”. In fact it’s a curious feature of the social organisation of knowledge production that those most likely to have their reflections on the philosophical implications of this crisis widely read are those whose own experience of it is deeply atypical, in the combination of their wealth, autonomy and absence of caring responsibilities. 

For example Latour’s (2021: 24) suggests the experience of the pandemic sensitises us to ecological interdependence, leading to people “suddenly realising that they live with Earth, forever entangled, ensured, ensured, overlapping, in and on top of each other without being able to limit these ties to either cooperation or competition”. This speculatively suggests an important cultural and political implication of the crisis, as well as periodising in in terms of the end of the “old-fashioned human being” who is “free, whole and mobile” (Latour 2021: 3). The problem is the disjuncture on which it depends, in which Latour could retreat to his flat before emerging bleary eyed and masked into the Paris streets, preoccupied by a deep sense of ontological transformation. The point I’m making is not that there’s anything wrong with fact he’s done this, only that what Bourdieu (2000: 1) described as “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world” (skholḗ) which the pandemic entailed for Latour almost marks the profound atypicality of his experience. The philosophical ruminations which ensue are ones which risk obliterating the material inequalities rendered so stark by the pandemic, even as they bring to attention conceptual and normative issues which by their nature cannot be resolved through empirical research into inequality. To his credit Latour (2020: 29) fleetingly recognises this, qualifying one of his observations with the caveat “or at least the most privileged of us” before immediately returning to the same register of untrammelled generalisation which characterises the rest of the book, in spite of its frequently arresting insights and observations. 

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