Wednesday, June 24, 2020

COVID Topologies: Compelled to Be Present

At the suggestion of a colleague, I recently read J.G. Ballard's "The Enormous Space." The short story, about a man who decides that he's never going to leave his house again, has a "Bartleby The Scribner" meets Don DeLillo vibe to it, where -- as his self-imposed isolation sets in -- he starts to explore the space of his home more intimately, with predictably hallucinogenic results. But his initial explorations resonate with work in New Materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology: particularly as he explores his own relationship with his physical environment. 

I believe the story has gotten more attention in the shadow of COVID and its resultant quarantines (which, as of today, June 24th, 2020), people in the United States have seemingly become bored with and "prefer not to" follow. But the ongoing, slow collapse of the United States is something for another entry. I also believe that strict quarantines will be in effect again in some states after death tolls reach a level that registers on even the most fervent pro-life, evangelical conservatives' radar: that is to say, when enough of the right people die for the "all lives matter" crowd to actually notice; and/or when "bathing in the blood of Jesus" is no longer the necessary tonic to mitigate the long, slow, isolated, and painful COVID-deaths of loved ones. I have no doubt those deaths will be inevitably and preposterously blamed on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and somehow Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

On some level, however, I think that broader politically- and religiously-based science denial is linked to the same emotions that people felt when they were compelled to stay home: an abject fear of seeing things as they are. Now that's a philosophically loaded statement, I know: can we ever see things "as they are"? Let's not get mired in the intricacies of phenomenology here, though. Those who were in quarantine for any length of time were suddenly faced with the reality of their living spaces. Those home environments were no longer just spaces in which we "crashed" after work, or the spaces which we  meticulously crafted based on home decor magazines. Whether living in a "forever home," a "tiny house," or the only space a budget would allow, people were faced with the "reality" of those spaces -- spaces which became the material manifestation of choices and circumstances. Those spaces no longer were just the places we "had" or "owned" or "rented," they became the places where people actually lived. We were thrust into an uninvited meditation on the difference between occupying a space and living in one.

Much like Geoffrey Ballantyne in "The Enormous Room," we found ourselves subject to the spaces which previously remained "simply there." Some, I know, went on J.A.K. Gladney-like purges as they suddenly realized just how useless -- and heavy -- much of the objects around us were, and instead of finding ourselves surrounded by the fruits of our labor, we were instead trapped by the artifacts of the past. How many people during quarantine fumbled through their possessions, timidly fondling knicknacks, looking for some kind of Kondo-joy. Others, I'm sure, went the opposite route and ordered MORE things from the internet to serve as an even more claustrophobic cocoon of stuff to block out all the other stuff which we couldn't bring ourselves to face -- let alone touch and purge. While still others continued to fail to notice their surroundings at all, yet found themselves suffering random anxiety and panic attacks -- blaming the fear of COVID rather than the fact that their surrounding spaces were becoming increasingly smaller as the detritus of daily life "at home" collected around them. 

Those spaces ... the spaces in which we "live" ... which were once relegated to the role of a background to the present, were suddenly thrust into the foreground, reclaiming us and our subjectivity. They didn't just become present, they became the present -- a present in which we were implicated; a present with which we may have grown unfamiliar. And, given the circumstances, can you blame anyone for not being too keen on the present? Whether its seeing more unrest on the news or on social media, or being compelled to haplessly homeschool your own children? The present isn't always that much fun. 

I think, though, that there is at least one positive thing that we can learn from Geoffrey Ballantyne: that it is possible for us to more consciously occupy the present moment instead of trying to avoid it. While I don't advocate the extremes to which Geoffrey goes (no spoilers here, but you may never look at your freezer the same way again); I do think that there is something to be said for noticing and engaging the spaces in which we are implicated. The spaces in which we "live" should be the ones which with we engage rather than just treat as some kind of visual or ontological backdrop. Engaging with our spaces is a way of seeing things as they are. It's a way of being aware.


No comments:

Post a Comment