The idea for this experimental post began when I asked myself, friends, and acquaintances what might be worth sharing about what we are learning from the pandemic. Though answers to the question aren’t exactly chronicles, they are characteristic of the reflection of the memoir. The “diaries” in the title of this post references the again famous diary entries of Samuel Pepys; “pandemos” – etymologically – means (belonging to) all people, referencing the division of the district of the common folk. The etymology also points – by way of contrast – to the Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphic of sacred purposes and glyph carvings.
This opposition – between the common folk and ‘something higher’ that gets monumentally engraved for future memory – informs this post.
What it is that we are sharing
When I wrote to friends and acquaintances asking what they have learned through the pandemic, many responded that they still have no time or are still too burdened to be able to think. I wish to make space for some time to care for this, and for anyone else who has been losing sleep for whatever reason because of the pandemic. This post will not go into pandemic-related deaths, but for all of the above,
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One of my colleagues wrote, “like any crisis, this has been a moment when a person needs to stop and question themselves and their values in life, when it is necessary to make choices and to differentiate what is important from what is not”. Have we been doing this as society; what is the picture we are painting?
The social picture of recent times
- Includes a breakdown in communication, e.g. a lack of dialogue and listening, radicalized argumentation,
- a push for even more sectors of life to go online with inadequate public dialogue about the decisions made in this shift (are people even aware that this is happening?)
- the increasing prevalence of a systemic lack of empathy, a systemic lack of service-as-care; hostile and manipulative digital practice operating on grand scales and across knowledge domains, e.g. business malware masquerading as software or software services, or toxic workplaces (link leads to therapeutic resource, not further diagnosis)
- healthcare remains sick and new priorities keep taking center stage, e.g. warfare. Andrea writes that this shows that we, on the societal level, have learned nothing from the pandemic. So many people who were already going through difficult treatment have had treatment interrupted, delayed, or sidelined in other ways, like entire cancer wards being periodically evacuated due to pandemic outbreaks.
Is this a crisis of the (Eliadean) myth of advancement?
To deny that the 21st century is a time of advancement – despite the points above – is to deny the ability to conduct video conference calls with people all over the world at such low costs or the greater availability of what appear to be ‘luxury goods’. Why would I call this a myth?
Mirca Eliade in Myths, Dreams, Mysteries maintains that myths are always at work in society; however, as modern man has lost an awareness of this significance, myth manifests itself in deviant ways.
Richard Kearney references this book in an interview with Paul Ricoeur. He asks whether it is a valid point that, “if we do not explicitly recognize and reappropriate the mythic import of our existence it will emerge in distorted and pernicious ways”.
Ricoeur answers Kearney’s question by saying that myth needs to be approached critically and reinterpreted in terms of universal liberation:
To the extent that myth is seen as the foundation of a particular community to the absolute exclusion of all others, the possibilities or perversion – chauvenistic nationalism, racism, etc. – are already present (Ricoeur 1997: 486)3.
But it is not only a critical approach that can help cultivate a healthy relation to the mythical. The threat of destruction can also prompt a return to mythical roots:
For it is only when [society] is threatened with distruction from without or from within that a society is compelled to return to the very roots of its idenitity; to that mythical nucleus which ultimately grounds and determines it. The solution to the immediate crisis is no longer a purely political or technical matter but demands that we ask ourselves the ultimate questions concerning our origins and ends: Where do we come from? Where do we go? In this way, we become aware of our basic capacities and reasons for surviving (Ricoeur 1997: 484)3.
Let us say that the crisis of the pandemic is an opportunity to reconsider our origins and ends. But several decades ago, Ricoeur was writing of another crisis, the crisis of industrialization, which remains unresolved. In this crisis, developing countries experience the double bind of finding their “own identity in a world already marked by the crisis” of more ‘advanced’ countries – being forced to adopt the technologies that advanced cultures are critiquing while the “means and the tools for development” have long since been “confiscated” (Ricoeur 1997: 190-191). To simplify a line of this reasoning, because the path to learning has already been ‘figured out’ by the ‘advanced’, there can be no new discovery by anyone else.
How can something be learned from the pandemic so as to reset how we see ourselves and our place in the world? Work in decolonized design shows that “changing the way that we think” is of value, to cite Anoushka Kandwhala’s great primer on the topic. The problem of changing how we think could be illustrated by the recent lobst.rs post What might degrowth computing look like? where the first comment reads, “I find this all to be irritatingly naive”.
Without diminishing the legitimacy of the valuable comment, the same general criticism could be made of thinkers who are not moving towards exercises in holistic thinking. At the present time, much institutionalized education does not bring structural support to epistemic fluency. This means that thinkers interested in an interdisciplinary or bigger-picture approach are still working out how to develop such fluency. For example, what is the literacy that will be shared going to be based on? What are the various ways in which we can blend different types of knowing? (Here, I am largely drawing on work by Marheineke 2 and Goodyear 1.) Establishing shared literacy is itself a phase of learning – and to deny that there are stages in learning is to deny learning itself.
The pandemic has only highlighted the critical need for interdisciplinary cross-over and holistic questionning, such as through just-in-time logistics which involves geopolitics, economics, manufacture; issues of trust in technology and media; systemic structures that deny basic goods such as health care to the poor at a time of general abundance, and our uploading knowledge to software and services that use this knowledge to inform algorithms that make decisions about us, shaping our lives, and to train artificial neural networks that will shape the future of knowledge. There are many opportunities and many dangers.
Why make a personal response, and an exampleMy personal response to the dangers I could see was to:
- Create an alternative digital tool for my students to at the very least not be just another teacher pushing students to user-using, prefabricated, automaticized learning environments
- try to articulate the pedagogical and philosophical significance of my favorite digital tool, Emacs
- try to talk about why it makes sense to talk about digital freedom – which harkens back to the idea of universal liberation, if by way of Tagorean synthesis
- hope to gain a personal learning network through these efforts
- do my best to create a better alternative, no matter how small my efforts
- do “extra” work, outside of my large teaching load and other academic obligations, to say nothing of the book I am writing at snail’s pace. But I could not and still do not see another way: sometimes life requires we make sacrifices if we want to ex-press a response. Ideally, I would not have to do so much on my own; ideally, I would be better-rested; ideally – I could go on, but what I want to ask is: if things are not ideal, does one just stop trying?
you should not copy the bad just because they are many, Seneca
To ‘go with the flow’ is deceptively easy. I am interested in the kind of learning that gives us a repertoire of thinking tools and experiences that will increase our chances of giving a good dialogic response to the changing contexts that life brings.
Life is dialogic. This can be demonstrated if we ask whether the pandemic has affected our response to life. I don’t think that ‘responding’ is easy but I do think that we are called to respond creatively and not to react. So, if life is a dialogue and we are stars in a human drama, how do we reach catharsis in a pandemic?
Let us segue into monologue – derived from quondam correspondence with professor, poet, essayist, and translator Gabriel Gudding who wrote very effectively about the five friends and enemies of writing. What follows is an adapted, abridged version.
I can doubt myself, I can doubt the use of creation in general, I can doubt what I am doing. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to listen and respond. It is stupid. I hate listening. I hate this whole idea. I don’t like this aspect. I don’t like… I want to do something else. I want to be an expert NOW. I have to consider all of this?!
Or: I believe this is worthwhile, that I have something to say, that shared dialogue makes sense. I am ready to learn something. I can focus, I can bring my mind back to the task. My mind can watch itself and be self-responsive. I understand that endeavors have their ups and downs. “Cultivating a state in which it’s possible to muster energy without agitation, effort without worry, a capacity not to become despondent about the disappointing times – to keep working through them. An understanding that each of these friends can be cultivated” – Milarepa
A monumental ending
What do we want to see engraved for posterity?
Is how we treat each other something ‘sacred’, or are we fine with double standards (I can tread on you, but don’t tread on me)?
A lot depends on how we choose to respond even if we are attuned to block out the meaning of opportunity in crisis.