Now, it’s as though we’ve been staring into a fun-house mirror for a long time and our vision is correcting — but it’s correcting imperfectly, so that we may not pick up on all the bulges and dents. We are awash in what Hagen referred to as an “onslaught of narrative repair,” scattershot attempts to clarify or justify our experiences, assignments of blame, misunderstandings and misinformation flying in all directions. It will play out and reverberate for years or decades, Hagen told me. “And I wouldn’t have been sensitive to that, I don’t think, if I hadn’t watched, in these interviews, people struggling to do it hundreds of times in real time.”
Consequently, the “normal” that American society is now scrambling to return to may be an even more irreconcilable array of normals than the normal we lived with before. “The pathological normal,” Hagen calls it: a patchwork of homespun, bespoke realities, each one invested in a different story about what exactly happened when Covid ruptured the story of our lives.
I am so thankful people are doing this research. The similarities between these accounts and my own entries on this very blog are remarkable. I used to think the project of healing is going to take decades, but…
There’s an idea in sociology that, as social creatures, we are only ourselves because we perform being those selves every day; our individual identities depend on the frameworks in which we’re embedded. But during this first act of the pandemic, the entire theater in which many people gave those performances crumbled. “Like, if I’m working in a hospital,” Milstein explained, “I think of myself as a doctor. I’m someone who can save my patients. But now I’m in a situation where I can’t save my patients. So am I still that? Or am I still a teacher if I’m not going to school?” This kind of subtle identity crisis was replicated millions of times, all across New York City and the world. Hagen and Milstein were also picking up on a separate kind of “socio-material crisis”: a breakdown in the predictability of the material world around you. That elevator button you push every day might suddenly be a vector of disease. Grocery shelves might be empty. Even the city itself seemed to be, in an experiential sense, dissolving; “New York City is right now a very abstract concept,” one woman in the Bronx explained: a disjointed set of neighborhoods that most people had ceased traveling among.
It is day 1080 and I am still suffering from this socio-material crisis, general pandemic anxiety, and - maybe worst of all - rage at the lack of shared language and rituals.
It is like we were lobotomized. We don’t know how to talk about it. We don’t know when to talk about it. And frighteningly few works of art have been made to confront it.
Taylor Garron’s As of Yet stands out as the only new media I’ve seen that even acknowledges the pandemic.
Told entirely through video calls and digital diaries, Naomi (Taylor Garron who also wrote and co-directs) navigates a problematic roommate and a burgeoning romance all while locked down during the Coronavirus pandemic.
This film does a incredible work normalizing everything from people simply wearing masks on camera to the hideous interpersonal negotiations of exposure risk.
We need more writing, art, and music about this stuff.
Back to the NYT piece:
The sociologists told me about a third, more abstract crisis as well: In their view, time basically stopped working. They showed me a diagram they had worked up to illustrate this three-pronged predicament. It bore the title “Phenomenological Model of Crisis With No Resolution,” and, though it was just two blue shapes with some hot pink arrows running between them, it expressed ideas that would take several paragraphs to break down. But the upshot was: People were stuck. With everything suddenly up for grabs — with people’s identities undermined and their surroundings untrustworthy — the narrators struggled to negotiate, and find meaning in, the details of their daily lives. And without any sense of when the pandemic would end, it became impossible to break out of that malaise, to project oneself into a future that kept evaporating ahead of you.
To describe that limbo, Milstein and Hagen used the term “ontological insecurity” — a play, they explained, on “ontological security,” a well-known concept within the field. In sociology, the term is most associated with the English sociologist Anthony Giddens who defined ontological security as a “person’s fundamental sense of safety in the world” — a belief in the reliability of our surroundings and the continuity of our own life stories within them. It’s ontological security that allows us to “keep a particular narrative going,” Giddens wrote.
Many (most?) have decided the pandemic is over. Others, somehow, think the whole thing was a hoax. As of writing: 6,868,493+ dead. (This number kept ticking up as I was writing.) I feel insane; as though I’m of the increasingly dwindling cohort going, “Wait, can we, ugh… talk about this a little bit? I have questions.”
Trauma, abuse, health problems, financial insecurity, racism, misogyny, disrespect, disappointments, exploitation, self-loathing, self-doubt, resentment, anxiety, perfectionism, regret, restlessness, a miscellany of hassles, stresses and damages leveled on people by faltering systems, stark injustices, the inevitable foibles of being human and small-bore cruelties of every kind — it all surfaced in the narrators’ interviews in long, unstoppable digressions or poignant asides. Unhappiness sprouted, fungal-like, into all kinds of lives, at all levels of privilege and in unusual forms. So many people seemed uneasy, overtaxed and sometimes even torn apart by the strain of simply existing in society that all it took was someone — the interviewers — to get them talking on Zoom for an hour for those feelings to burble out.
I’m now convinced there simply isn’t going to be opportunities for collective catharsis, global days of remembrance, or anything like that. The world has moved on.
We must each fend for ourselves and make our own meaning.
But I suppose this is how it’s always been.