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The Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot

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A new paper by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic and the special difficulties that it poses for thinking about the future. Here, David Kaposi presents an abridged version of the paper. He begins by considering the Queen's recent address to the nation:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed - and that success will belong to every one of us… We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. (5th April, 2020)

Queen Elizabeth II here shows that it requires no special expertise, social psychological or philosophical, to conceptualise this phase of global pandemic and ‘lockdown’ as a period of suspended normality. Surely an essential characteristic of such a state of suspension is that it will end, that we will overcome? Following the lockdown, ‘we will meet again’. But how do we think about this period of suspended life? Here the event is simply positioned in-between a stable past (A) and a stable future (B). This suspension may be global in scope, and last longer than hoped, but nevertheless – to use a metaphor that has recently proliferated – we are invited to think of the suspension as an instance in which life has pressedpause. The suspension will pass and a ‘new normal’ will return. The suspension is thus figured merely as an element in an ordinary narrative sequence (or in the narrative sequence of the ordinary). 

Yet, in attempting to reassure us by assimilating the current period into a larger narrative sequence in which ‘we’ll meet again’, the Queen’s speech cannot help ‘raising’ the more disturbing spectre of what it is reassuring us against – the possibility of ‘us not meeting again’, either because ‘we’ are dead, or because ‘we' are not we anymore. The current events actually have the power to transform us beyond recognition. Together, the two seeming solidities explicitly invoked by the Queen serve as the frame for this unstable chasm that threatens the now. They draw attention away from the chasm as if ‘we’ must notlook down into it.

In our paper, we argue, the words of the Monarch notwithstanding, that we do need to look down into the chasm. It is important to grant the phase of transition the dignity of its own reality, because to create our future it is essential that we engage with what happens in the transitional chasm itself: the unsettling force of this in-between, the suspension of the norms that hitherto had constituted us. To this end, our paper proposes that we should recognise the worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown as liminal events. 

Understood in this way, the pause cannot be equated with something familiar like the pausing of a song we have been listening to. Instead, we need to understand how it can be that the song that plays after the pause may be different from what was playing before. And furthermore, we may find that the song we thought was playing before the pause may turn out to have been an entirely different one.  We need to understand how a liminal event inaugurates a period of radical uncertainty which can disrupt and re-order expectations of the future, re-configure memories of the past, and thereby transform the very seat of reality: the present.

And what are the human capacities required to deal with such radical uncertainty? Uncertainty and paradox (where our lives no longer conform to the past nor yet to the future) engender a phase of anxiety: we shift from rumination and no engagement with action, to attempts to escape into unthought solutions. Our paper argues that, on the contrary, what is required to shift from paradox to pattern change is a zone where thought meets reality, and where action is imaginative and thought is creative.

What was unsayable at the time the Queen spoke (and our paper was originally written) was that the lockdown, to point to just one obvious aspect, will not simply go away now that it has entered our lives. Naturally, the first weeks were dominated by the idea that the lockdownwill one day be lifted – yet this expectation already strikes us today as coming from a different world. On one level, we now know that distancing measures will be revoked, then re-introduced, maybe here and maybe there. The blanket ‘all or nothing’ approach will be replaced by a new rhythm and precision. Yet this will not simply be a matter of political measures. A previously more or less unknown entity has now entered our political, social and personal realities and is interacting with them in ways we have even not begun to understand. What it makes of us will depend upon what we will make of it. And this will require the blend of ideals and practicality that underpin creative thought and imaginative action. 

The original paper Virus ante portas:  the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot' by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi will be published here(https://diecisiete.org/ Full publication details will be available on ORO, the Open University research depository

You can read about David Kaposi's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

You can read about Paul Stenner's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ps7476

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