On March 12th at half past one in the afternoon, my phone rings. The organiser of a dinner in Rotterdam, where I am to speak later that evening, is calling to say that the meeting - contrary to the information from the day before - will still be cancelled, because 'sources close to the cabinet' hinted there will be a press conference later that day in where far-reaching corona measures will be announced. I put my formal clothes back in the closet, switch off the printer and elect to consider the rest of the day as a welcome evening off. Just like the next day, which also turns out to be unexpectedly empty.
Since that day, about three months ago, we all live in a new reality, in which many new questions arise. What are essential professions? What is the price of a human life? Is it possible to console someone at a distance? How much science can politics endure? What is normal? Do we have to go to a new normal?
The task for the Dutch population in the meantime was: to live as normally as possible, as good and as bad as that might be. And that is what we have done. We have continued to work, despite all the limitations. Teaching children. Taking care of our loved ones. And we stayed at home en masse. We stayed home a lot.
Slowly the days became weeks, and the weeks became months. We stayed home. I forwent dozens of lectures, and birthdays. We didn't go to Jan van Eyck in Ghent, nor to the Beethoven and nor to Nick Cave. We kept our distance.
Young people, who wanted nothing more than to flee their parents, were tied back to their homes. Schools, which, until recently, scrupulously and avidly reported any truancy to the inspector’s office, unapologetically shut their doors. Nitrogen, Urgenda and the Brexit seemed to have been forgotten for a while, and we listened en masse to our prime minister. No theatre, no cinema. The nursing homes closed. Public life was at a standstill for 11 weeks and 4 days.
The most primary relationships remained intact. More than ever I realised the vital importance of living in a 'household', because that 'household' defined the only relationships to which the government imposed no restrictions. Restrictions were imposed on all other relationships, lifelong friendships, family ties and neighbours. The most primary processes continued, but as locally as possible. Going shopping. Getting some fresh air.
Contacts with the rest of the world continued, as good and as bad they ever were, whether mediated via screen, telephone connection or Plexiglas. I've had dozens of meetings with people I only know through my screen, with whom I have had to complete the 3rd dimension myself (Could they be big or small, thick or thin? - I have no idea).
What has this experience done to us?
At the beginning of the 21st century, the German philosopher Rudiger Safranski wondered in his book Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch?
what globalization was doing to our experience and our worldview. He observed that our range of action could not keep up with our range of sensory experience and wrote: '[The global information community in this context means the amount of stimuli and information dramatically exceeds the possibilities of action. The sensory range extended by the media prostheses has completely detached itself from action. You can no longer respond adequately when you act, in other words, you can no longer turn the stimulation into action and dissipate it'. In other words: the media provide a lot of information about suffering and violence in the world, and there is very little we can do about it through our actions. It creates fear, but there is no point in fleeing or fighting. According to Safranski, this inevitably leads to alienation.
This observation, which starts from the idea that sensory information must have an outlet, raises a question for me: How much virtualization can a human being manage? In our interactions over the past three months we have real only used the senses that communicate remotely: hearing and sight. Sitting behind our screens, we have no use for smell and touch, let alone taste. Of course I have also experienced that a lot could get accomplished. More than I thought. There are countless variations of video calls, and of many things that might have seemed impossible, we found a way. But the emphasis on technological solutions resulted in many small annoyances and misunderstandings and an explosion of project management and excel sheets. This shows everyone's good will to carry on, but at the same time the poverty of working remotely - with the particular inconvenience that the colleague who is speaking the most appears the most on your screen. We now know how much more tiring online meetings/teaching and/or just filling in can be. That has to do with the exceptional efficiency you strive for online. No smalltalk, no noise, no side issues. Colleagues become cubicles on a screen. Off you go, kick the ball from the center spot straight to the goal.
Our digital systems have created a virtual parallel world that is more systematic, more procedural and more efficient, I suspect, than the form of life we were used to and on which we had depended. The Italian writer Alessandro Baricco believes that this parallel world makes us appreciate our human world more. We also see that it is precisely this growing digital civilization that makes our human aspects more valuable, more beautiful, more important and even more economically useful: bodies, natural voices, tangible dirt, imperfections, skilled hands, contacts, efforts, proximity, caresses, temperatures, sincere laughter and real tears, unwritten words, and I can go on like this. Humanism will not be limited to learning at school. It will become part of our daily lives, it will become our only real wealth and we will never let it be taken away from us again," he writes in La Repubblica
. Apparently there’s a limit to the amount of virtualization we can handle.
While Safranski was concerned with the astonishing increase in economic stimulus and the concurrent lack of business opportunities, the recent lockdown has not only created a virtual parallel world, but has also revitalized our situatedness. We are more dependent on our immediate surroundings. We have become good neighbors again, as Nietzsche recommended, even though that neighborly relationship is constrained by strict regulations.
What does it do to us
- that we only see others in two-dimensional versions on a screen?
- that we visit our parents, sometimes separated by plexiglass
- that you console a loved one with a nod of your head
- that touch and proximity are a privilege and limited to your own household
Is that the new normal? A society from which spontaneity and proximity have vanished, loses its resilience. Of course we find new ways to meet at a distance, just as we have found new rituals to say goodbye and mourn. But without real closeness, we are irrevocably lost.
As of today, however, we are allowed to take our first tentative steps outside.
Anyone who has ever had a leg in a plaster cast, or has otherwise been immobilized for a while, knows the loss that comes with standing still. Atrophy, the breakdown of muscle tissue, mercilessly sets in after a few days of immobility, and the longer the immobility, the longer the path of recovery. Already after 5 days of rest, the muscle mass decreases and the loss of strength begins.
How vital is the shared life we gradually may now return to? Does it still have mass, or has it atrophied too far?
Everything we have done up until now without thinking, now requires attention. Everything that was taken for granted, we have now, at least temporarily, put in parentheses. What was once normal, is now no longer.
Although I myself can not fail to affirm the importance of philosophy and critical thinking at a time like this, I would also like to emphasize the vital importance of art.
Thanks to our imagination, we have the possibility to extend the boundaries of our world, or even to create new worlds. There is not only a virtual parallel world, but also a literary, a musical and a theatrical one. According to the French writer Albert Camus, art is a place of resistance. In L'homme Revolte
he writes about our special ability to create imaginary worlds. There man finally avails to himself the form and the reassuring limits that in his real life he pursues in vain. The novel is full of tailor-made destinies. In this way he can provisionally compete with creation and triumph over death'. Our imagination allows us to reject the world without leaving it. We will need this creative power more than ever in the time to come.
It's June 1st. The cast can come off. What about the atrophy in the cultural sector?
We don't need Youp to see that the cultural sector was lacking support and that the package that's been made available is far too meagre to maintain a vital cultural climate. It is apparently acceptable in our society to generously support companies that have evaded paying taxes for years, and to shrug off the loss in the cultural sector. The first theatre, in Boxmeer, went bankrupt in mid-April. Youp performed there regularly, according to the playbill.
This season is lost, apparently. We're just barely going to get through the summer. And the big question is what happens next. Are we going to visit theatres and concert halls again from the 1st of September? How will we do that? And what will there still be to see?
In the widely reread novel La Peste
, Albert Camus describes the atmosphere when after many months the city gates finally open again: 'There was dancing in all the squares. From one day to the next the traffic had increased considerably, the cars were struggling in the overcrowded streets. (...) But at the same time the entertainment centres were bursting at the seams and the cafes stocked up on alcohol for the day without thinking about the future. (...) It seemed they had survived for this day: for months everyone had put their souls on the back burner and now all the life force they had saved up would be consumed in one day. Tomorrow life itself will begin again.
You all know the story of the past few months. You were there. It's now about today, now that something of normal life begins again. After all these months of cultural drought, the first thing we need is a catharsis, a cleansing and purifying experience of the soul - what Aristotle described of theatre. The theatre, which touches both body and mind, makes the spectators open to a collective release of emotions and tensions.
Today, the release. Tomorrow, life itself.
The future belongs to what makes us human: messy, warm and inefficient.
I look forward to it.
Daan Roovers was born in 1970 in Veghel. After secondary school she studied medicine and philosophy in Nijmegen. During her studies she became an intern at Filosofie Magazine. In 2001 she became editor-in-chief there. After being succeeded by Leon Heuts in 2015, she started her own company in the field of philosophy. She is chairman of the debate in the centre of Amsterdam, the Rode Hoed, and teaches at the University of Amsterdam. From 29 March 2019 Daan Roovers is the Denker des Vaderlands. In her two-year term of office, she wants to “focus primarily on ‘public thinking’: that is thinking out loud, together and interactively”.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.