Image credit: Bar-Am Micha
It’s been 70 days since my family and I hit “go” on our particular lockdown, only preceding the overall lockdown in Denmark by a few days. In that time period, a lot has happened for us and for everyone else, but it’s been consistently encapsulated anticipation — that we’re waiting to understand the road we’ll be on tomorrow. I’ve heard a lot of folk describe our current state as a kind of limbo.
A year and a half ago, I interviewed a number of people who worked with refugees and displaced peoples. One of these was Nick Hayes, who wrote this article on his time volunteering at the Calais camps (colloquially known as The Jungle) in Normandy, France. Nick’s article comes to mind right now as I think about the cause and effect of anticipation.
For a refugee who finds themselves at the Calais camp, waiting is the imposition of a system against you. Many things can drive someone to migrate — war, hunger, opportunity, persecution — but that act of migrating suddenly situates you within a system that is both outside of what you can tacitly navigate, and often actively hostile to your social interface with it. Nick’s description of the Calais experience becomes one of waiting: for an opportunity to continue onwards, for something to happen, for strength to return, for a system to open. This is a limbo where you KNOW something is on the other side, and for reasons outside of your control, you don’t have access.
We are all experiencing a different kind of waiting. Instead of transitioning between systems and social contexts, we are instead seeing a system reshaped around us. The flash of anger when someone gets too close in a grocery store, the anxiety around consuming what was a few weeks ago a basic service, or even the recognition of “essential” labour within a society (and what that actually means) — all manifestations of our orbits being changed relative to some new and sudden phenomenon.
In Hyper Objects, Tim Morton describes a class of object that are almost larger than we can understand, possessing a complexity that we can’t wrangle, aggregate, multidimensional, atemporal, etc. Climate change is one such example: a phenomenon that transcends time, space, and location yet is descending on us like a bomb (but we don’t know when). Styrofoam is another: physical, but lasting forever and accumulated beyond our control. Coronavirus is too, which Morton pointed out on twitter. In fact, one could argue that a pandemic as an abstract thing and THIS pandemic are now independent — covid-19 having presented itself to society.
One quality of hyperobjects is that they exert their own gravity: pulling other things with lesser weight off kilter and transforming the world around themselves. We’ve already seen this with the refugee crisis of the past decade— for all the horrible dynamics of the Syrian civil war, there’s a strong argument that climate change served as a primary factor. A friend of mine, Britt Wray, has spoken about this in her research around climate change and anxiety. We collectively sense what’s coming for us: whether we respond to that with denial, activism, or just slowly increasing blood pressure. That same force has hit us with Covid-19, which projects its own gravitational force today— bending existing plans and shifting our orbits towards previously unknown axes.
I’ve personally found that projecting a degree of objectivity overtop of the current existential threat helps. Not because I can do anything about It with a capital I, but rather because those things that I can affect are often highlighted against its surface, and likewise pulled into its orbit. We’re all waiting to see what our new orbit will be.
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