When Strange Is the New Normal, What is Strange
Trying to recall the reality humanity occupied just weeks ago already feels steeped in a cocktail of nostalgia and amnesia. The jolt instigated by the pandemic has disrupted and reoriented everything we know, and the sudden barrage of new contingencies for how it might unfold is fast eliminating all vestiges of life before COVID-19. The results of the stress it has placed on our ways of organizing and responding have thus far highlighted just how rampant levels of inequality are around the world, and increasingly so in economies like the United States.
Meanwhile for some, the knowledge that our way of life can unravel quicker than we feared will inevitably bring higher levels of anxiety and depression. But in a rare Nietzschean twist, the suffering brought on by this tragedy has also been accompanied by the necessary sacrifice of social distancing and the cessation of the everyday bustle—providing those fortunate to escape physical harm with the space and impetus to formulate some of this century’s harshest critiques of the world’s prevailing socioeconomic order.
In The Gay Science Nietzsche counsels, “Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit….I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’; but I know that it makes us more profound.” (1) It is not hard to imagine how a collectively shared experience with pain today might lead many to ask fundamental questions of themselves and contemporary society.
When thinking of how the brutally efficient wheels of our social and financial mechanisms have grind to a halt, I was reminded of the verfremdungseffekt theory of German playwright and dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Loosely translated as “estrangement effect”, the avant-garde writer classified the concept in a 1936 essay on Chinese theatre titled "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting." (2)
He saw this as the possibility of restructuring theatre to take what is familiar and make it strange for the audience. Inspired by legendary Beijing Opera actor Mei Lan-fang, Brecht identifies this idea of rendering the audience conscious of each mise-en-scène in order to create an unsettling emotional distance, forcing observers to engage critically with the blatantly unfamiliar in front of them. His “epic theatre” achieves this through techniques that gleefully reject the conventions of naturalistic drama, such as routinely breaking the fourth wall, replacing traditional character dialogue with third person narration, relying on unusual lighting techniques, and using episodic structures. The performance becomes an historical event. The actors on the stage and the audience are both openly cognizant of one another’s presence.
One of the most socially radical artists of the 20th Century, Brecht was clearly wrestling with how to agitate the audience into actively questioning the status quo—in theatre and in society. Far from serving as an alienating effect in the traditional sense, the notion of creating space, or distance, is actually intended to bring the spectator intellectually closer to art’s social message, even if it might dampen its visceral impact.
Can we not say that the strange conditions of life under quarantine constituted a sort of “estrangement” from normal everyday life? Can this experience force us to reckon with things as they are, and question whether or not they can be different moving forward? In a similar vein to the verfremdungseffekt, will the pandemic not force us to question the way we work and communicate, but also what we care about, prioritize, value, and cherish? Indeed, it feels as if COVID-19 granted many both the distance and reason to question what have always felt like axioms in modern society. Axioms that once again reared their heads in this crisis.
Although the specter of the virus has been unique in the way it has impacted each region, there have also been commonalities among its rubble. These have predictably been, with even more intensity than usual, the same features that have come to define our global political order and its responses to recent financial crises and natural disasters. As maelstrom unfolds and systems come under stress, inequalities entrenched within and among nation states tend to worsen.
Those who do not sit close to levers of power and influence policy—the poor, the homeless, the working class, teachers and students, nurses and health care workers, communities of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, the indebted, the imprisoned—are afterthoughts to those who do. (3) Within countries, this is true at both an institutional and an individual level.
In the United States, still the world’s "privileged exorbitant,” (4) the ability of the financial and banking industries to essentially write their own bailout terms during the last few crises has now been extended to almost all corporate sectors. (5) At the level of the individual, access to COVID testing and its morbidity rates have been shamefully unequal, divided by both race and income. (6) In an already convoluted health care system with poor public health planning and the rapid slashing of jobs and benefits, the vulnerable are left to fend for themselves among the underfunded mess of social safety nets. (7)
The spectacle has grown even more dystopian as widespread protests have broken out in response to repeated law enforcement assassinations of Black Americans. A history still dripping in the blood of America’s Original Sin, the systemic perpetration of state violence with impunity towards Black communities has amounted to one more public health failure. (8)(9)(10)
However, in what should be celebrated as an inspiring inflection point in public opinion, the indignation over the injustice this time has brought thousands of people of all races and from all 50 states (and around the world) to the streets in protest for accountability and change. The Black Lives Matter movement, initially viewed with caution, has exploded onto the mainstream with its message now literally painted in bright yellow letters near the White House. (11) Repeated demands from demonstrators include reallocating huge police budgets, demilitarizing the police force, and creating stronger accountability to communities police are intended to serve.
"The ensuing divide between a working class and a managerial or professional class does not end with just cultural or geographical differences."
Beneath this unrest, deep layers of inequality are being compounded by the novel coronavirus. All around the country, we saw those with the luxury of teleworking from private spaces with access to resources protect themselves and stay productive while sheltered. More often than not, the genesis of these advantaged circumstances is a genealogy filled with examples of how inequality is propped up almost everywhere in American life—starting from early childhood education all the way to how the tax code is structured.
The ensuing divide between a working class and a managerial or professional class does not end with just cultural or geographical differences. (12) It is now also starkly reflected in wide gulfs among wealth, education levels, political representation, media coverage, access to information networks, mobility, and health and child care, and thus naturally, life expectancy outcomes. (13) The once storied ability to ascend socioeconomically, in other words, is now mostly just a story. (14) An event like a pandemic, or one of any imminent climate change crises, was always going to expose these underlying fault lines. Such society-altering events, as Alain Badiou would suggest, always do. Still, the staggering speed and scale of this one have been remarkable.
The interconnectedness of the world’s trade, communication, and industry tied together through complex air travel patterns serve as the lifeblood of capital. This means that a pandemic presented one 0f the most obvious threats to business as usual. Experts have been plainly sounding alarm bells about the vulnerability of our biosphere for years.
Still, early evidence of the response reflects abysmally on most governments and the World Health Organization. Slow reacting regimes were paralyzed by the fear of revealing incompetence or sacrificing some short-term economic activity, while the WHO seems to be an incoherent mess caught within its own political loyalties. The result was that accurate information was not shared, appropriate measures were not implemented fast enough, and responses were initially generally inadequate. (15)
The fault lines of inequality and corruption have been exposed, so what? Proof of their reality is now mostly accepted anyway. Discontent and rising distrust in institutions have transmuted into angry anti-establishment voting blocs among both the Left and Right across the world. What has, up to this moment, hardly been a consensus, is that: a) Inequality is a priority that needs urgent addressing and b) Addressing it will require large-scale state intervention where markets have been designed to work against the best interests of society and the planet.
Decades of debate have been miraculously compressed and resolved overnight, dogma melting in the face of an inscrutable enemy. By interjecting an exogenous, disruptive shock to both supply and demand, COVID has turned even some libertarians into supporters of universal basic income and government investment. Rather abruptly, massive state intervention in the economy has become the only way to save market capitalism, a reality from which it will likely never entirely return. (16)
As stimulus checks roll out and unemployment rates climb, the role of centrally planned state and banking intervention becomes more critical to guaranteeing some semblance of stability—a floor for the free fall. (17) Meanwhile, support among the American public, especially the relatively young, is at all-time or near all-time highs for once radical measures such as: free universal health coverage, an increase in paid sick and maternal leave, worker representation on corporate boards, higher corporate taxes, closer scrutiny of lobbyists, an increase in the minimum wage, student debt relief, free internet access, an increase in government funded R&D, and a Green New Deal to rival FDR’s ambitions. All the while, sympathy for unionization is reigniting as organized strikes against unsafe working conditions are popping up across the nation (150 since the start of the pandemic as of this writing). (19)
The fact that the Left continues to lose federal elections and cede leadership around the world even as progressive ideas dominate cultural discourse and enjoy popular support is a damning stain on its establishment. Still, it should be celebrated that workers and the average citizen seem somewhat freed and emboldened to challenge what we have come to accept as normal.
Physical isolation has severed us from the quotidian regimens of everyday life under capitalism. Yes, the loneliness is hard, and it has temporarily warped our sense and ability to truly be with others immersed in our social relations—a necessary condition for being human according to Heidegger. (20) This is a reality that will certainly have hard repercussions and is touched upon below. But in the meantime, it has opened the consciousness of many to the alienation they feel from themselves in the harried lives they are routinely expected to fill.
The continued public health and economic fallout from this pandemic will linger onward; it will take on political forms and seep into our cultural memory. Some of its deepest effects might yet be unknown. Unfortunately, no matter how dire things become, there are no guarantees that the newly found public sentiment in favor of systemic change will actually translate into tangible action. As recent history suggests, crises have been missed opportunities for structural change, and if we are being cynical, they have really been grounds for socializing losses while protecting private risk-taking behavior among the holders of capital. The incentive structures producing this behavior still remain in place across much of the world’s sociopolitical and economic landscapes.
The current crisis again presents a crucial opportunity to address some of the shortsighted greediness and racism widespread in our system. If we do not insist on it through political and civic engagement, targeted activism, and an individual dedication to change things, we risk not only returning to business as usual but falling prey to an even more insidious mutation of neoliberalism, one now laced with digital authoritarianism too.
"Massive state intervention in the economy has become the only way to save market capitalism, a reality from which it will likely never entirely return."
Predictably, authoritarian leaders have thus far invoked the usual scapegoating of foreigners and displayed the grandstanding we have historically come to expect. More harmful than the rhetoric is the potentially outsized growth of surveillance and control measures over populations. This of course is not the sole domain of governments as tech companies have been mining and commoditizing our data for well over a decade now. (21)
We already inhabit an era of late-stage capitalism that scholars and theorists have identified with such monikers as Surveillance Capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff), Psychopolitics (Byung-Chul Han), and Cognitive Capitalism (Warren Neidich). All three suggest that we now occupy a sort of digital panopticon in which forms of power revolve around the information we produce as individuals and collectively. As the means of production increasingly shift from material to immaterial and data replaces oil as commodity king, control is shifting to cyberspace too.
The accelerated reliance on digital networks brought on by COVID means that we are at the mercy of the digital age more than ever. And even as we appreciate the connectedness it engenders and the potential for the democratization of information it creates, we know that governments are relying on it to watch us and corporations are manipulating it to nudge our behavior. (22) Now we are told that minute-by-minute location tracking apps, cameras in buildings to check for body temperature and masks, as well as increased employer monitoring of employees might become normal to combat the spread of the virus. (23)
The UK’s proposed contact tracing app would centralize all data in one place with no guarantees of anonymization. In India, the Aarogya Setu app has already been downloaded almost 90 million times, the fastest app to scale that number in history. It records and sends information including age, address, location history and people that users have come into contact with over the previous 14 days to a government-controlled server. In China, the surveillance state has burst out from the shadows as ubiquitous facial recognition cameras have been closely policing those under quarantine. With scarce oversight or accountability for either governments or corporations, we must be more skeptical and vigilant in protecting our privacy than ever. Our minds are now also real estate for rent.
Unquestionably, the strange emotions associated with this pandemic will already go a long way in altering the nature of our psyches. Sheltering in place comes with an increasing sense of dissociation as avatars replace corporeality, offering a glimpse into what the near future may hold. A century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis that “man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow…that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind.” Does this not seem more apposite now than it did then?
"Our minds are now also real estate for rent."
Renewed interest in psychoanalysis in the West today, as well as the desperate search for wellness and meditation-type fixes and a booming self-help industry, are telling signals of just how precarious the status of mental health is. We feel connected to everywhere and everyone at once and control more material possessions than ever, yet something rather large feels like it is lacking as general dysphoria and anxiousness plague our modern minds.
During a tragedy such as this, with almost 400,000 people having perished (and that number rising still), there are really no silver linings. What was probably a stroke of indifferently bad luck has brought devastating physical and psychological havoc on our species. Yet, even amid a collectively punishing time that demands mourning, it cannot be denied that the solitary condition of life under quarantine for much of the first world has also triggered a needed critique of the status quo. Perhaps this falls right in line with our nature according to Albert Camus. Maybe we are fulfilling a human desire for metaphysical rebellion against conditions that have become unjust and untenable to us.
We are constantly reminded by politicians and the titans and theorists of industry that there is no alternative to capitalism. And yet COVID-19 has seemingly ripped open a whole world of possibility, creating an opening to potentially translate a dark time into meaningful change towards a more equitable and inhabitable planet. It has granted some the distance and space to imagine how things can be different. It has provided a fresh look at what mass-scale decarbonization can look like as global air and water pollution levels have fallen drastically alongside demand for oil.
This is indeed the time to challenge the spirit of an age religiously tied to an understanding of human subjectivity and ethics through the individual alone, fancifully detached from the sense of community that in fact grants us being. Only when we have done that can we move towards what the indispensable Judith Butler calls “radical equality.” What will likely remain certain as we navigate through these uncertain times is the upending of what we once thought of as normal and strange, and that might not be an absolutely bad thing.