During the coming weeks, this blog will publish posts written by students from the Master Arts & Culture and the Research Master Arts, Media and Literary Studies, which they wrote for the course ‘Arts and Humanities in Times of the Corona-crisis’.
In this course, students reflect on the consequences of the crisis for the field of the arts, as well as trying to make sense of the crisis from a humanities perspective by analyzing concepts such as ‘crisis’, ‘biopolitics’, and ‘precarity’.
museum, as an architectural typology, has its roots in the art collection which
was typical of Renaissance Italy and its fascination with the past and products
of antiquity.  However, it can be argued that its function as a cultural
institution and a public service only began during the Enlightenment era. Prior
to the 18th century, such collections were private and exclusive. Their aim was
primarily due to their aesthetic value; for the pleasure and entertainment of
the aristocracy and the wealthy.  In accordance with their enlightenment ideology,
these private collections were opened to serve the general public. Thus, the
museum was born: a building, renamed after the Greek ‘mouseion’ -μουσείο- , in
which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored
and exhibited. A prominent and early example is when Sir Hans Sloane donated
his collection to the British government in 1753, with the note that it should
be exhibited to all the people of Britain. This resulted in the construction of
the British Museum, open and free to all.
change of ownership, from private collections to public, had consequences,
resulting in the typology becoming a cornerstone of public and civic life. Since
its conception, the significance of the museum has only increased. Many of them
are compelling works of architecture, designed by the world’s most renowned
architects and designers. H. P. Berlage’s Kuntsmuseum in The Hague and Zaha
Hadid’s The Maxxi National Museum in Rome are just a few notable examples. This
both reflects and expands upon the institute’s credibility and prominence
within the city and society. Furthermore, the museum has the power to influence
and regenerate the urban fabric, as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Tate
Modern in London have done. Perhaps even more crucially, the museum is the
conductor and curator of the individual’s particular experience of art in its
many forms. This is supported by Anne de Haij, strategic advisor at Kunstmuseum
The Hague, who mentioned the value a museum can have for people and for a
community. She considers the cultural institutions as ‘vital for the mental and
emotional health of our society.’ 
significant position then comes to the fore at a time of the global pandemic. A
situation which has had widespread drastic effects. However, at a time of great
anxiety and difficulty, museums were forced to close their doors to the public.
While a necessary move to protect the health of the population, it offers a
sensible opportunity to ponder on the response of this cultural institution
during this trying time as well as its role in society.
While the museum was physically absent from public and individual life, much like many other forms of interaction during the coronacrisis, there was a very strong digital presence. Online exhibitions, virtual tours, and a stronger presence on social media platforms became the new norm, practiced by many. From the National Theatre to the Royal Opera House, there are many institutes that have contributed their content online free of charge. 
trajectory towards digital means, which has been hastened due to the current
crisis, is by no means a novel initiative. As far back as 2005 the British
Museum boasted of its partnership with Google, which brought forth the
possibility to view 5000 if its objects online.  It cannot be denied that
digital content has the potential to reach an audience that far exceeds the
boundaries of any physical building. The director of the British Museum at the
time exclaimed how ‘that Enlightenment fantasy, about 25 years ago became an
internet possibility, and today, thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, it is
a practical reality.’  There are numerous benefits in having this digital platform.
Its availability and accessibility fulfill some of the institute’s roles; both
in terms of education and research as well as merely entertainment and
curiosity. In this way it does perform the Enlightenment’s aspiration to bring
art and education to the general public which is at the root of the museum’s
perhaps be apt to ponder on whether this move towards online platforms has
rendered the cultural institute’s physical entity as superfluous. Yet, in
certain places museums are slowly opening their doors, mindful of protective
measures to ensure the health of their staff and visitors. It is again possible
to look around The Kunstmuseum, and The National Gallery in London will
showcase its collection to the public once more. It would be mistake to portray
their role as merely a tool for educational purposes. Museums are also about
the experience of art, within the space, at a given time. The immersive quality
of certain exhibits is intertwined with the experience of the space. To
reiterate Robert Oosterhuis, research coordinator at the Dutch Ministry of
Education, Culture and Science: these virtual and digital contents are no substitute
to art and the experience it provides up close.
coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an increase in this interaction between
individuals and the museum’s online content. Traffic on the British Museum’s
website is now three times higher than before the crisis. However, this does
not translate to a replacement or substitution of the museum experience. It
rather addresses a more urgent and humane need within society during the
current crisis. A study of the cultural field in Turkey during the pandemic
accentuates how this online presence of cultural institutions ‘have offered
people the sense of hope and unity they need’.  The document affirms the
role that culture and arts have in dealing with the difficulties of the global
crisis and refers to them as ‘one of the great uniting and healing powers for
Therefore, it can be said that the role of the museum as an institute is manifold and applies at various scales. From education, research, and entertainment on an individual level to the scale of the community and the city as a whole. While digital and online content are of value, and have offered a significant and necessary opportunity during the coronavirus crisis, it only provides a partial fulfillment of a museum’s role in society at best. It is not a replacement for the experience of the arts.
Pevsner, Nikolaus. (1976) A History of Building Types. London: Thames and
Newhouse, Victoria. (1998) Towards a New Museum. The University of Michigan: Monacelli Press.
Due to COVID-19 the activities of many cultural institutions, as well as of creative/artistic businesses and of self-employed creative workers had to be suspended. The situation has exposed and amplified the usual precariousness of the cultural industry’s workers, being exceptionally difficult for those dealing with artistic media that require liveness or social contact: music venues, festivals, theatres, etc. Many, for instance Berliner Schiller-Theater can count the losses from the performances that got cancelled in millions of euros, threatening the existence of the institutions and the jobs they offer (Wagińska-Marzec). Although audiences are usually encouraged to keep the tickets for events they already bought to use at later dates, any need to return the revenue already made adds extra pressures to the situation of reduced income. At the same time, arts and entertainment are consumed by the society of lockdown probably more than ever: stuck at home, many turn to watching series, films, reading books, listening to music, and participating in online cultural events from the comfort of their couches. The switch to online events allowed many institutions – for instance, the Groningen music venues Simplon and OOST who decided to stream their DJs live on platforms like Twitch or Zoom – to preserve their audiences; however, as the online events are normally expected to be free of charge, they cannot make up for the revenue lost from predicted ticket sales. While arts and entertainment are then nowhere close to disappearing, the threat of cultural institutions and workers not being able to deal with the financial losses experienced in the pandemic leads to widespread calls for crisis funds, grants, and larger subsidies from the cultural sector.
In these times, it might be especially crucial to examine what leads to such vulnerability of cultural institutions in the times of crisis, and how it might be dealt with. As Bojana Kunst pointed out in 2018, precarity is at the core of cultural institutions – a highly flexible, but also insecure sector (168). With a focus on projects, institutions are grounded in projective temporality creating a peculiar loop between the present and the future (Kunst 169). They are simultaneously imagined and suppressing irrational imaginations through protocols, bound by the neoliberal falsehood of progression and economization of creativity, in a “complex rhythmical loop between acting as-if and imagining of what is not-yet” (Kunst 178). In her view, already before the pandemic there was a strong “need to develop imaginative temporal forms of working that would have the power to resist the flexibility and precarity of contemporary work” (Kunst 177). Today, this need seems more urgent than ever. In fact, the crisis appears to intensify the “not-yet” aspect of cultural institution workings: maintaining grants and previously made ticket sale profits depends largely on the promises of delivering the live performances/festivals to the public in an unspecified time of ‘once the COVID-19 pandemic is over’.
In response to the social calls for supporting the arts, many financial measures have been promised by governments, ministeries, and art funds on national and European level. In the Netherlands, funds for non-subsidized professional arts workers, programs of support for subsidized cultural institutions, and allowances to pay fixed costs have been already introduced; a few more funds and loans are waiting to come into action (CulturalPolicies.net). Some other countries- for instance Poland- still wait for the proposed financial measures for the cultural sector (“subsidies for the development of digital forms of artistic creativity and an additional programme compensating losses in culture caused by the epidemic”) to be implemented, with the only one adopted so far being the “Anti-Crisis Shield” fiscal leniency program (CulturalPolicies.net).
The pandemic – and the financial losses associated with it- do not wait. Still, the procedures for obtaining funds, grants, and subsidies continue to be lengthy, even in the times of crisis. Often, they require artists to participate in creative project competitions and to prove the economic value that their “not-yet” imagined futures (in which they obtain the funds) would bring. The bureaucracy associated with such competitions leads to their potential inadequacy for the fast-developing crisis: for instance, choosing the winning projects within the Polish ministerial program promising “20 million Polish zloty for culture on the internet” took around 2 months, causing the program to not be implemented until the end of May – the time by which many cultural institutions were already allowed to begin reopening (Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego). Additionally, as Daria Gosek-Popiołek (a Polish Left deputy) argued, many relief plans and grants assume that the no-contract employees of the cultural institutions are artists only, which leads to a failure of financial measures to address the loss of income experienced by other workers carrying out activities in connection with such institutions: an example could be workers who contribute to language, sport, and psychological courses publically available in regional cultural centers (Januszewska).
The reason for the inadequacies of some financial
measures can often be traced back to deeper misunderstandings of the role of
arts and culture within the neoliberal framework. Art subsidies, as Robert
Oosterhuis stated, are often not viewed as legitimate by the public in the
first place – this is the result of the subsidy boards catering mainly to the
opinions of professionals rather than employing audiences, users, and participants
in their decisions. Cultural institutions need to constantly prove their use
for the society; project proposals and competitions exist to codify human
creativity in the constraints of “progression” and “economystification” (Kunst).
While seeking to liberate the arts from such constraints of neoliberalism can
be an ultimate goal, one might also ask – within the system, why is culture
regarded as inferior (for example, to the sciences) in economic value and
potential of contribution to the society in the first place? Seeing as the arts
make substantial contributions to the national GDP of most European countries
(e.g. in the Netherlands: 3.7 percent, which is considerably more than
agriculture, forestry, and fishing (CBS)), the prevalent questioning of
economic and social legitimacy of art appears to be ideological rather than
practical. In other words, it might be that the issue was never in an actual
lesser socioeconomic value of the arts; but rather, in the difficulty to
discuss the “logic of imagination” (Kunst) in terms of contained solid spaces
and protocols which the current social order came to privilege.
For the cultural institutions to persist in the pandemic, the support offered to them should aim to resist precarity first and foremost. It could be beneficial for application procedures to be simplified and de-bureaucratized at least; additionally, the funds could address the crisis better if they were developed in close discussion with cultural institutions.
CBS. ‘’Culture and Media Contribute 3.7 Percent to
GDP”. CBS, 3 Dec. 2019,
Paulina. ’’Koronawirus Zabija Instytucje Kultury. Czy Rząd Wyciągnie do nas
Rękę?”. Krytyka Polityczna, 17 Mar.
Kunst, Bojana. ’’The Paradox of the New Institution:
On Time and Imagination”. The Future of
the New, edited by Thijs Lijster, Valiz, 2018, pp. 168-179.
Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego. ’’20 mln zł na Stypendia dla Artystów!
Rozstrzygnęliśmy II Część Programu Kultura w Sieci”. Gov.pl, 22 May 2020,
Maria. “Niemieckie instytucje kultury w okresie pandemii
koronawirusa”. E-Teatr, 24 Mar.
The Covid-19 outbreak is a crisis that is showing us the true face of our
society: the virus, in itself so ‘democratic’ -everybody can get it and die
because of it-, reveals with crude realism the inequalities present in our
times. The most vulnerable categories are suffering the most, their precarity
enhanced. How can you stay home, if you have none? How can you wash your hands,
if there is no water? We could say that the health crisis provoked by the virus
is actually a symptom or an indicator of a deeper crisis. We call it ecological
crisis, doomily summarized as climate change.
Of course, looking at this bigger crisis which is threatening our own
survival as a species, the question that spontaneously arises is: what are the
causes of climate change? How can we mitigate it (we are already so far that it
is unavoidable)? Science is warning us since a very long time: “In 1972, Limits
to Growth was published as the first worldwide report on the human
environment. […] The report stated that if human habits did not change,
industrial production did not revolutionize, and ecological concerns were not
embedded in business models, the limits of the Earth’s resources would be
reached in the next 50 to 100 years” .
Evidently, things did not take a different path: not only our habits did
not drastically change, but also the very denial of the problem has been
ongoing: “Faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our
entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only
with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it” . We
can agree that this denial seems to be the real problem, the scientific facts
are ignored as not valid. But why? Following Castillo and Egginton, the spread
of anti-intellectualism and the subsequent disregard for scientific indictments
can be analyzed as follow: “The explanation for this apparently willful
ignorance lies in today’s medialogy.”. This
statement summarizes in the concept of medialogy the problems of our times.
This term, at once, describes both the partiality of media and their specific
functioning as framing device. Medialogy, which can be intended as the logic of
the media, is the current state in which media are used by a limited elite as
the main tool to make people see reality in the way that will make the elite
profit. The logic of medialogy is neoliberalism, and it works for the latter’s
aims. Medialogy’s interpretation of the world reduces it into a series of
exploitable resources, while the person is represented or intended just as a
consumer. The aim of this frame is the unlimited growth of the market, its
constant expansion, as well as an increase of profit. Our medialogy frames
reality as such, pretending to be the only viable way of interpretation.
Thus, survival of our species seems to lie in a battle of interpretation,
where what reality could be and how we should read it is at stake. Here the
Humanities enters in the game, as the possible savior, being the field where to
practice interpretation: “Literature, art, and philosophy have the capacity to
teach us to think differently, precisely and especially when they are not
captive to a strictly representationalist or objectivist logic. […] Reading
literature and viewing art and thinking and writing about these experiences is
the vital and indispensable foundation for any possible liberation from today’s
medialogy and the self-destructive traps of desire it engenders”. This
because the Humanities allow us to see not just a different version of the
world, but “[…] how the world can produce so many versions of itself”.
But here it emerges the hardest observation that is truly needed, the
real crisis that the Humanities are facing. Humanities are a medicine nobody
knows it is needed, and this ignorance is not only medialogy’s fault. In order
to save the world, the Humanities have to overcome an even longer-lasting
crisis: their own crisis, the crisis of culture tout court. A crisis brilliantly
diagnosed already in 1936 by Denis de Rougemont in his book Penser avec les
mains. He finds that the problem lies in the separation between culture and
the productive world; in other words between intellectuals and who is described
as “profane”, who is not an intellectual (I would say, who is busy with state
or market affairs). De Rougemont believes that intellectuals are guilty: “The
fault I imputed them (the intellectuals), is not to have badly guided public
opinion. Rather, they have refused of guiding it, invoking the pretest of our
cowardice: the pretest of impotence” . What
is the result? That culture speaks in a vacuum. This happens because: “[…] it
asks nothing […] culture in considered as a commodity and not as an activity
of production”. The active side of
culture has been lost. Culture should be a “battle, […] a means for fighting”.
Action and words have to join forces again, to change culture’s fate as well as
The Humanities resemble democracy in that they share the same risk of “talking to nobody”. Both should keep in mind that they have practical implications, as suggested by the title of George Huszar’s book Practical Implication of Democracy (1945). When he wrote his book, his worries were that: “[…] the nation might soon experience the kind of “disintegration” of democratic culture which enabled the rise of dictators in Europe and Japan. And this was because democracy had become a thing of words rather than actions. Huszar writes, “Democracy is something you do; not something you talk about. It is more than a form of government, or an attitude or opinion. It is participation” (xiii)”. Paraphrasing it: culture is something you do. It is an active participation in the ongoing process of society. And today, this process needs all of our creativity and engagement for the good of our own survival. We need to imagine differently, and we need to make these alternative visions a shared value. This could be the duty of the Humanities right now: “In the all- pervasive market society, it is not enough to defend the value of the humanities in an increasingly corporatized university. Instead the humanities can and should go on the offensive to denounce the blinding effects of market fundamentalism and poke holes in the media- framed reality that’s coextensive with it”. Humanities, let’s get our hands dirty.
Once we’re all agreed that we’re living in a world in ruins, the ways in which we go about tackling the possibilities for change are important. (Fabrizio Terranova in interview with Sophie Soukias, BRUZZ 2016).
memory of George Floyd.
The world is
trembling, injustices hit harder and riots cannot but spread.
It is not
enough to be non-racist and we need to be anti-racist. Non-racism resembles the
appearance of talk-democracy, while anti-racism the one of do-democracy. We
need to be engaged, one by one, and take a stance, and our behavior has to
follow our values, and our values have to shape our behaviors. I think the same
of culture, of the Humanities. It is not enough to be non-ignorant. We need to
be anti-ignorance. And maybe the combination of anti-ignorance, anti-racist,
anti-homophobic acts and values will make the difference needed to break the
 N. Petrešin-Bachelez, On Slow Institutions,
in How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse,
eds. P. O’Neill, L. Steeds, M. Wilson, MIT Press, 2017, p. 41.
 N. Klein, This Changes Everything, 2, quoted
in D. Castillo, W. Egginton, The Humanities in the Age of Information and
Post-Truth, Northwestern University Press, 2019, p. 99.
The time of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the profound fissures of neoliberal capitalism.This pandemic discriminates against vulnerable people. This pandemic also allows and justifies state violence and constructs new modalities of living and co-existence under state surveillance tactics which demonstrate a problematic relation between the concept of freedom and security. To paraphrase Michel Foucault, this pandemic seems to be the utopia of the perfectly governed city (/society). In a more precise wording, it could be said that responsible for all the above is not the pandemic itself but the sociopolitical handling of it. Worldwide, presidents’ addresses highlight that we are all dealing with the same enemy. However, the only equal position that we have in the face of the corona crisis is that this virus threatens equally the health of all of us and our loved ones (Butler 2020). In this crisis we do not all have equal rights; homeless people are exposed to the virus, refugees are in camps unprotected without being provided with hygiene products, not everyone has equal access to health care, unemployment rises, there are more and more victims of domestic violence, there are more deaths of African-Americans than any other group in the U.S, there is racism against Asian people and populations are interpreted on the basis of a positivist and impersonal division between infected and non-infected bodies.
Although the dichotomic conditions based on the sociopolitical dilemma of whose lives matter the most, solidarity between vulnerable people becomes their protective shield and a praxis of resistance against inequality. Collective initiatives of creating common spaces of solidarity and resistance emerged during the corona crisis shaping new social movements and collectives against these precarious conditions.
In historical moments of turbulent periods and great depressions, it is observed that spontaneous movements and collective actions emerge whose structure is usually not based on political parties ideologies and they deal with the precariousness of instability through alternative ways. I am referring to anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti- sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic collectives and movements which put clear boundaries against racism and they are in solidarity with vulnerable subjectivities. As Varvarousis and Kallis demonstrate; in a liminal period “sharing solidarity or horizontality are not introduced as indisputable a priori identity values. They emerge as the worth is experienced in practice in solving practical problems or in organizing collective actions” (2017, 132). In other words, it could be said that in the initial phase of a crisis these collective actions function as initiatives of temporary relief of precarity. Particularly, in Commoning Against The Crisis (2017) Varvarousis and Kallis by focusing on the Greek Commoning Movement during Greece’s great depression (2009) present the idea of alternative commoning practices in periods of precarity claiming that these “new forms of commons follows a rhizomatic pattern” (2017, 129). Varvarousis and Kallis reflect this idea on Greek commoning initiatives and projects of austerity period such as the occupied squares by indignant citizens (Aganaktismenoi), communal kitchens and the occupations of Athens Metropolitan Clinic, Plato’s Academy, Empros,Vox, Scholeio, Hellenico, etc. where since the election of the current government (2019) the majority of them was violently evicted by police forces. Some of these commoning initiatives such as Aganaktismenoi (Indignant Citizens Movement) of Syntagma square (2010) became rhizomatic, namely “they have no center or periphery…and they are not stable but appear and disappear within a highly accelerating spiral” and others are still sustained till today and adapt to the new conditions such as the communal kitchens and occupations (ibid.,141-144) . While the Indignant Citizens Movement started as a collective spontaneous anti-austerity initiative, after a while the square was divided into the lower and the upper part(ibid.,138). This distinction had to do mainly with the “different functions of each zones”; the upper part in front of the Parliament was identified by protests “with the presence of nationalists or xenophobes” while the lower part was a space of “settlement, discussion and creation” (ibid., 138). In 2011, the presence of the Aganaktismenoi Movement in Syntagma square began gradually to weaken especially due to the violent intervention of police forces. Varvarousis and Kallis’ study shows us thoroughly how Greece, despite its deep rooted tradition in party interdependence, started to believe in the potentiality of heterogeneous assemblies with anti-capitalist and anti-racist character as well as in the existence of commoning initiatives outside the party orientation and hierarchy. The evolution of this phenomenon can be seen in recent movement of #SupportArtWorkers that started by people of the Greek art scene in May 2020 in the face of the corona crisis claiming support for the arts and cultural sector which has been particularly affected by the general lockdown.
Although the recent Greek extremely conservative government represents itself in local and international mainstream media as a great “rescuer” protecting Greek people from the “invisible enemy” some important visible facts are missing from this representation. Importantly, since the beginning of the corona crisis a number of significant shortages emerged in the public health care system such as shortages of ICUs (Intensive care units) and insufficient number of medical supplies, such as shortages of medical face masks, gloves and antiseptics. On top of that, according to the government decree which was published at the beginning of Covid-19 outbreak, due to the lack of medical staff in public hospitals doctors are forced to work overtime and to perform overnight duties without getting paid.
Furthermore, numerous professions that have been hit by the pandemic are not included in the two-month state support allowance. In particular, the Greek government is completely indifferent about the irreparable damage of the sector of Arts and Culture as theater performances, concerts, dance performances, museums and gallery exhibitions have been postponed until this summer. In the face of this precarity, in May art workers started on Avaaz webpage – one of the most known nonprofit organizations which promotes activist practices – an initiative of gathering signatures asking for solidarity support in their fight against the marginalization of Greek art workers. The movement appears on Facebook and in other social media with the hashtag #SupportArtWorkers, and art workers have already held a number of performances in public spaces and protest rallies in Athens, Thessaloniki and other Greek cities publicizing their demands. (1)
The “Art Workers Initiative” claims three key rights: firstly the enactment of a long term support plan which will contribute to the economic recovery of Arts and Culture sector, secondly the radical reformation of Cultural workers’ rights, as especially musicians and songwriters have for decades been enduring the results of a flawed and non-transparent system, and thirdly the governmental decision for an immediate and precise plan of the gradual return of Arts and Culture sector as it has already been announced for other professional sectors. The #SupportArtWorkers movement is not connected to any institution, organization or party-based politics, it is a spontaneous initiative which through these demands pursues to claim the immediate relief of art workers’ suffering. The spontaneous gatherings of art workers in squares and public spaces through dancing, singing and performing acquire a festive, powerful and bodily character. The forcefulness, the peacefulness and the non-hierarchical principles of the #SupportArtWorkers movement reminds us of the pulse of the first period of the Indignant Citizens Movement. The Art workers’ movement either becomes rhizomatic or expands to claim further fundamental rights, at least for now it has achieved to create a solidarity circle and a common space of resistance where art workers claim their rights which have been depreciated by the Greek state.
Some of us constantly live under the “feeling of precariousness” with a “damaged sense of future” related to the fear of unemployment, the “anxiety of illness and mortality” – especially if we do not have the privilege to be covered by health insurance – and the fear of the threat of violence (Butler & Athanasiou 2013, 43). In this crucial sociopolitical moment of high precarity, solidarity and collectiviness between us, the vulnerable, seem to be (once again) our only option.
In the short story “La autopista del Sur” (The Southern Thruway, 1966) the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar narrates a highway traffic jam on a Sunday afternoon. After several hours, all calculations of yards versus time become useless, and the characters begin to speculate about what has paralyzed traffic to such an extent. A few days later, with no conclusive news, the people get out of their cars and begin to constitute modes of organization: they put together all the food and water they have and ration them; they start sharing cushions and blankets at night; and they create a common fund to buy more provisions for everyone whenever necessary. In addition, as weeks pass and the weather gets colder, they create an inventory of coats and sweaters available in the group; and since people cannot afford to keep the heaters on all the time because of battery life, they decide to reserve the two best equipped cars for the sick. The traffic jam is so big that beyond this specific group, other cells become organized and face similar problems. Around them, there are fields and farms, but no one approaches them to help.
Finally, one day, after various changes in terms of seasons and what could have been weeks or months, the traffic finally clears up and people are able to drive back to the city. Amid the excitement, the protagonist realizes the created sense of community has been lost in a split second, but he keeps moving, “[…] not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead” (Cortázar 29).
There are a few factors present in the story by Cortázar that are applicable to the real world during times of crisis. For instance, the way in which the story unfolds is a good example of the ideas posed by Elinor Ostrom’s research, as “more often than not communities self-organize and manage to control access and use of shared resources” (Varvarousis and Kallis 30). In this line of reasoning, the main drive behind commoning is “always bounded to an economic reasoning directly related to a community’s survival” (Ibidem). Varvarousis and Kallis suggest to approach these alternative economies and practices as commoning projects, thus “emphasizing processes of cooperation and sharing that produce new forms of economy and also new forms of living in common” (ibidem). The authors further argue that often times these new commons are generated through liminal conditions, which leads to an “in-betweenness” that makes it possible for individuals to forego (at least temporarily) their fixed identity.
Cortazar’s story shows this both metaphorically and explicitly: during the traffic jam, people are not known by their names, but by the cars they are driving; as names stop being important, the characters let go of a vital part of their identity. Moreover, while being stuck on a highway, they are quite literally in between places. These are people from all over the country, some of them foreigners, and what brings them together is the fight to survive on the highway for as long as necessary; as explained by Varvarousis and Kallis, “in a liminal commons, the glue that brings the actors together is the practical production of the common” (131). Further, the need for this is brought forward by the crisis. Thus, the dynamic created by the traffic jam is “the result of the loss of an established identity, which allows space for a precarious and fluid ‘we’ to emerge” (Idem 132). As the state fails to provide for them and simply claims to work on the road, the people in the story find an alternative social organization.
Now, some aspects of the current health crisis can also be compared to Cortazar’s story. As we approach day 80 (is it?) of staying at home, there is a sense of time not mattering as much, of the days flowing into each other in a stagnant way, similar to the traffic jam. Secondly, there is an urgency to go back to our “normal” lives that is not questioned enough: in the story, this is portrayed when, in the last minute, the sense of community created by the characters is immediately and unavoidably forgotten.
However, this leads to a key difference between reality and fiction that must be mentioned. Although in these times there is, to some extent, a sense of community worldwide that stems from the fact that we are all fighting against the same threat; the story can unfortunately seem a bit utopian as, for instance, distribution of resources and provisions across the world has never been done fairly and is still not being done fairly now. In addition, new complications arise since, as explained by Doug Antin in an article for Medium, “a global pandemic creates a tragedy of the commons when self-interest conflicts with the actions that need to be taken for the greater good”. This is easily exemplified by the hoarding of groceries, toilet paper or personal protective equipment, but can also be applied to controversies about the duration of lockdowns and moreover, the use of economic resources to help various nations through the upcoming crisis.
On another note, a health crisis as grave as this one entails an added tragedy for the commons, since commoning is based on gathering and there is currently a clear impossibility around this. Hence, we have to resort to a new way of commoning, one that is applicable to the circumstances we are facing today. (1)
Although I do not have an answer for the puzzle this creates, I do know one thing: the current health crisis and the imminent climate one call for what the sociologist Ulrich Beck urges as a “global” response. If we turn towards the arts and humanities, we can surely find examples of this to inspire us – even if they are utopian or only metaphorically applicable, such as the one in The Southern Thruway. In this way, we might be able to let go of (parts of) our national identities and personal interests, even if just temporarily, for the common good.
Antin, Doug. “How
Coronavirus Creates A Tragedy of The Commons”, Medium, March 2020. Web. May 2020.
“The Southern Thruway”, in All Fires the
Fire and Other Stories, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1993.
Varvarousis, Angelos and Giorgos Kallis. “Commoning Against the Crisis” in Another Economy in a Time of Crisis. Ed. Manuel Castells, Polity, 2017.
Wimmer, Jeffrey, and Thorsten Quandt. “Living in the Risk Society: An Interview with Ulrich Beck” in Journalism Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2006, pp. 336-347.
(1) An example of this would be some sort of virtual commons. For instance, the Mexican initiative Albora.mx, which is dedicated to share, through their digital platform, an inventory of initiatives which are worth common funding knowing about.
In this brief essay I draw attention to the effects that momentous historical events – such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brexit referendum or the 9/11 attacks – can have on a film viewer’s interpretive horizon. How we interpret films that were shot long before the event can be altered rather abruptly with the onset of the event and we seem to see the film with different eyes.
The essay appeared in the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft: Open Media Studies Blog:
After about eight weeks of an ‘intelligent lockdown’, people in the Netherlands are looking forward to the first of June. Then, according to the press conference by the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on May 19th, restaurants, coffee shops, and cinemas may re-open for a maximum amount of thirty people at a time, excluding staff. Preconditions for being allowed to have a dinner at a restaurant, or to enjoy an ice cold beer on a sunny public terrace are that visitors make a reservation in advance and pass a pre-health check, which means that they declare to not have any symptoms which could be related to the corona-virus. Another precondition for the resumption of public life is by now so self-explanatory that it almost goes unmentioned; at all times, a minimum distance of 1.5 meter from each other must be maintained. If this is not possible, protective means such as mouth caps need to be used. Further regulations concern, among others, gatherings, sports and visiting old people’s homes (Rijksoverheid 19-5-2020).
Regulations and guide-lines that may sound clear in a press conference, create quite some ambiguities in practice. One ambiguous aspect was touched upon by Ulrich Beck long before the crisis. While politicians communicate the regulations by using terms such as ‘family’ and ‘household’, those concepts are no longer defined in a contemporary way (Wimmer and Quandt 2007). Cycling trough the city last week, I came across a group of four young people, discussing with two police officers about if they get a fine or not, for drinking beer together in front of a house. While the police defined this as a forbidden gathering, the boys explained that all four of them live together in a student house. As they would therefore count as a household, none of them had done anything wrong. I would have loved to hear the outcome of this discussion, but being aware of the prohibition of gathering, as an outsider to this conflict, I did not dare to stand still for too long and quickly cycled on when my eyes and the ones of the police man met.
This situation raises a number of interesting questions. The most obviously one, namely who is right, the police or the boys, confirms Beck’s claim that many societal concepts are no longer justifiable. However, much more interesting are the reasons why the boys did or did not stick to the rules, or why the Corona-crisis ensures that I suddenly no longer dare to stand still or move freely on sidewalks and cycling paths. Why do some people shout at you if you accidently cross their way on only one meter distance in the much too narrow supermarket aisles, while other do not seem to care too much about social-distancing measurements? An explanation can again be found in the writings of a philosopher, dating back way before the Corona-crisis.
Already in 1995, in his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault wrote about quarantine during the plague as a means of discipling people. Even though people were physically able to go outside, different to inmates of asylums or prisons, people stayed at home. The mechanisms which ensured that people did not leave their houses were surveillance and the threat of the disease (Foucault 1995). While elaborating on these disciplining mechanisms at the end of the last millennium, Foucault could not have foreseen that his theories would be so topical and relevant again today. Suddenly, the concept of ‘biopower’ is on everyone’s lips again (Clover 2020, Latour 2020). Foucault describes biopower as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (Foucault 1977-78, 16). This strategic implementation of power is exemplified in his analysis of states’ health care systems, through which states in the end decide who lives or dies (Foucault 1995). However, these power-structures are already noticeable far earlier. It begins with the fact that authorities such as doctors determine what is health and what is illness (Foucault 1988). Based upon their categorisation, the government, represented, for example, by the Dutch minister for public health, Hugo de Jonge, determine who may soon visit a restaurant, use public transfer or even leave the house for groceries.
The reason why we (more or less) follow these rules lays in the fact that we, as a part of a society or population, form an active part of the dominant power-system we life in. “By means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the “value” of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy)” (Foucault 1982) we have internalised social behavioural measurements since childhood. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, Foucault stated that all of these norms and regulations are not grounded in one universal true rationality, instead, there are many different realities, dependent on the different dominant power systems (Rabinow & Rose 2006).
Just as little are the current corona-crisis approaches and related government measurements based upon one universal truth. That different power-systems go along with different regulations can be seen by comparing the crisis-related regulations of different countries. Therefore, this current crisis invites every one of us to critically question the current measurements and driving forces of current developments. With this, I am not implying in any way that we should ignore the government regulations and thereby endanger the lives of our fellow human beings. Especially older people or the ones with poor health definitely need special protection. However, what I am asking for is that every one of us needs to use his/her common sense by following or implementing the rules, and should criticise them were necessary. In his last press conference, Rutte explicitly invited the younger generations to engage in a dialogue and actively participate in shaping the future during and after Corona. We definitely should follow up his call, as not all current measurements make sense if adapted to the practice one by one. Many people spoke up during the last weeks, criticising the no-visit policy for old people’s homes. Again, we should not endanger the lives of others, however, if our 90-years-old grandmothers still live on their own, we should discuss with them directly, if suffering from Covid-19 would really be worse for them than suffering from loneliness. Even though, we are supposed to minimalize our social contacts and keep a distance, if a young and healthy friend of ours is really sad, the most reasonable, in my opinion, is to give him/her a hug anyway. If only focussing on our officially home addresses registered on our passports, my boyfriend and me do not form a household and would therefore be supposed to keep a 1,5 meter distance in public. Off course, we don’t do this. Yet, this is not a case of us breaking the rules, but of implying them by using our common sense, and realising that ‘household’ is not a fixed concept. Instead, such as the other concepts and measurements, this rule needs to be critically evaluated by every one of us.
In the article “Slavoj Zizek: Coronavirus is ‘Kill Bill’-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism” on RT.com, Zizek elaborates on phenomena people have experienced during this pandemic, which he believes is a fatal attack on not only the communist rule in China, but also and more importantly, on the capitalist system in the world, and he argues the necessity of a radical change – the reinvention of communism based on trust in the people and in science. Zizek sees this as an “ideological virus” that he wishes could “spread and infect us”. Related to the pandemic, Zizek brings up Fredric Jameson’s attention on cosmic catastrophes in the movies that always boost global solidarity. In order to avoid misunderstandings, he emphasizes it’s not that he enjoys the widespread sufferings, the point is that it’s sad that the solidarity doesn’t appear without a catastrophe. No matter the cause, Zizek makes it clear what is the result of these catastrophes: a global coordination (modeled after the World Health Organization) that should be given more executive power. In the following part of the article, Zizek doesn’t hide his opposition to capitalism. He criticizes the “capitalist animism” manifested during the pandemic and argues that the disturbed world market indicates an urgent need for a reorganization of the world economy. In the end he introduces Viktor Orban’s words: “There is no such thing as a liberal. A liberal is nothing more than a communist with a diploma” and advocates his ideal communism – liberals with a diploma.
It is valuable to hear different voices in a society, based on which Zizek’s idea is valuable in itself. But this utopian thinking is not solid enough to persuade. Let aside the discussion on whether it’s a good idea, it’s questionable whether the idea is even possible. In the article Zizek argues that it’s sad that the world needs a catastrophe to be really united, as if the global solidarity and coordination that he advocates can be achieved through a catastrophe, however sad it might be. However, the fact we currently see is even sadder, with this catastrophe – the global pandemic – global solidarity and coordination seems to not even happening, if one takes a glance at the prevailing news on China and the US’s blaming each other, or Germany’s intercepting Switzerland’s masks. On the other hand, yes, liberals with diplomas sound promising, but in Zizek’s article it seems so urgent that we need to replace the capitalist system with this communism. The problem is, can the liberal population graduate and get their diploma in such a short time? Not even mentioning the segment of people who don’t even believe in liberalism. In addition, Zizek suggests a global healthcare network, but would all the participants abide by all the rules so that it’s fair for all participant states? It’s also a question if one takes a look on whether the Chinese Communist Party has abided by all the clauses negotiated and signed by themselves when China entered WTO.
Despite what’s mentioned above, the bigger question to ask is actually whether it is so urgent and correct that we need to replace capitalism with Zizek’s new communism. In the article Zizek doubts the smooth running of the world market which is true, but there’s no evidence that a powerful global executive power organized by human intelligence can run the market smoother in a time of crisis as this pandemic. What’s to be worried is the efficiency of a heavily burdened big government, global or national. Based on what’s shown in China, bigger executive power requires bigger organizational structure which diminishes the efficiency in action, so the question is how to build a global executive power big enough to handle worldwide urgent issue yet keep a high efficiency. In the end, an example about masks manifested in the pandemic tells a story that actually favors capitalism mechanism: back in the time when the corona virus started to spread in China, the market request of masks naturally raised, which needed to be fulfill through a higher mask productivity which can be achieved through higher profitability. However, in order to make sure the majority can afford a mask, the Chinese big government intervened in the market and set rules that limited mask prices, which led to a fact that, with a higher production cost (higher cost in labour, raw material, and freight) and un-raised price, many mask manufacturers went bankrupted or stopped producing masks to avoid bankruptcy. As one factory owner said, they want to help and would continue producing masks even if there’s zero profit, but the reality is they lose money every time they produce and sell a mask, so they had to stop because they can’t afford to help. This price limitation policy, with a good will, led to a phenomenon that the mask productivity significantly went down in a time that masks are hugely needed, which then made even those who wish to get a mask in a higher price can’t buy one. So, when China got hit by the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” and sat and went through the price limitation policy, would they reconsider to let the invisible hand freely run the market and let the price go up? Would the situation be better if they allow high prices that generate a high profitability that attracts more investment in the mask industry and drives all the mask manufacturers to conduct production in their full productivity? In this case, maybe capitalism is still working, even in a time of crisis as such, and communism can better be achieved through the development of productivity that takes time and goes natural than a political structure design motivated by urgent call.
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” — Milton Friedman
Reinhart Koselleck provides us with a historical and etymological reading of the word crisis. The word crisis finds its origin in ancient Greek with various meanings attached to it; to “separate” (part, divorce), to “choose,” to “judge,” to “decide”; as a means of “measuring oneself,” “to quarrel,” or “to fight” (1). In ancient Greece, it had a predominantly political meaning. Later on, it was used to describe military situations, illness, religious occurrences, economic events, etc. The vast amount of historical events that Koselleck describes in detail, pertaining to the use of the word crisis and its meaning in that specific event, leads us to believe that it’s often used in a different manner and with different connotations. He even sums up four interpretative possibilities; crisis can mean “a chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point at which action is required”, “a unique and final point, after which the quality of history will be changed forever”, “a permanent or conditional category pointing to a critical situation which may constantly recur or else to situations in which decisions have momentous consequences”, or “a historically immanent transitional phase”.
Looking at these four
possibilities and returning back to the root(s) of the word crisis, the core concept of what makes
something a crisis is quite clear. Crisis has to do with something that
challenges us – or one person, or a specific group of people – and requires us
to make a decision. It is not something that will resolve itself on its own. Sometimes
this decision is made hastily and in an unconscious matter. Nevertheless, the
decision – or multiple decisions – that ultimately resolves the crisis or
attempts to, changes the situation drastically.
This is exactly what Noami Klein warns us about. We are now in the midst of a global crisis, and decisions have to be made – will be made, that is inevitable. Whether those will be ‘good’ decisions or ‘bad’ decisions, that is still undecided. The fortunate elite of the world will always be the first to gather knowledge about an upcoming crisis: “What causes the crisis? Who is at risk? How can we prevent it?” but also “How can we profit from it?” The corona crisis has made it abundantly clear that the schism between poor and rich is still very much intact, and much larger than we gave it credit for in certain places. Whilst homeless people in Las Vegas were ordered to sleep in the same parking lot, in freshly painted squares separating them from each other at the required 1,5 meters, the multimillion dollar corporations behind the casinos and hotels had other issues to deal with (2). Locks. The ‘24h-365 days a year’ Las Vegas strip has never in its history closed down and was now confronted with the issue of having to put locks on all the casinos and hotels.
Why not use one of the hundred now empty hotels to house these people in temporarily? Because that idea had never been ‘lying around’? According to Klein, times of crisis will be used to enhance the fortune of the richest corporations, and to politically make dubious decisions while the rest of the country is dazed and confused in the midst of the crisis. Remember that the rich always see it coming first? They are more informed and knowledgeable — and simply put, rich — and therefore able to adapt to the crisis much faster than normal people. They will attempt to push ideas that enhance their profit that previously seemed too outlandish, but now in a crisis atmosphere might pass. Klein argues that the same tactic should be used by others — those with ‘good’ intentions — as they also have a stack of ideas lying around that could now finally be implemented.
Are the only tools we have to fight a crisis really the ideas that are already ‘lying around’? Or can we create new ideas during the crisis, inspired by the crisis? I believe we can. Otherwise we have to believe that somebody once had an idea of putting a bunch of homeless people in imaginary boxes on a parking lot, and that this was the idea which was the most convenient and suitable to address this crisis — and that it was ‘lying around’. Just like Koselleck quoted Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls”, I strongly believe that this is true. We are being challenged, and decisions must be made. But a crisis sometimes confronts us with questions that don’t have answers yet. Occasionally, we might be able to adjust an old idea that was ‘lying around’ to provide the necessary solution. But often, we have to think quick on our feet and come up with something completely new. New ideas that surface during a crisis are not any less viable in my eyes. Perhaps they will take longer to be implemented than ‘old ones’, but they are no less important. California’s governor Gavin Newsom proved this when implementing ‘Project Roomkey’ at the end of April to house the homeless during the pandemic. In the five weeks since the start of the program, over 7000 people have been provided with temporary shelter (3). Unlike Las Vegas, California is not only using empty hotels to house the at-risk homeless population, but has also set up unsold trailers and RV’s to function as temporary housing. Many homeless advocates and state officials are now realizing the benefits of this setup and new ideas have sprung up that might allow this initiative to become permanent. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, argues that some hotels might go bankrupt due to the crisis and could easily be bought up by the government to allow the shelter to remain while at the same time giving the community an economic impulse (4).
I am not yet able to give you a list of all the questions that surround the arts and humanities during this crisis, nor am I able to provide any solutions either. But perhaps, after some contemplation, I will find an idea that was lying around. Or I’ll think of something completely new.
(1) Kosselleck, R. & Richter, M. W. (Apr., 2006). Crisis. In Journal of the History of Ideas, (Vol. 67, no. 2), pp. 357-400. University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30141882
(2) Koran, M. (March 31, 2020). Las Vegas parking lot turned into ‘homeless shelter’ with social distancing markers. The Guardian. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/las-vegas-parking-lot-homeless-shelter
(3) Palmer, P. (May 15, 2020). Project Roomkey: Can state program help resolve Los Angeles homelessness? Eyewitness News. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://abc7.com/los-angeles-homelessness-coronavirus-project-room-key-governor-gavin-newsom/6184507/
(4) Kim, C. (Apr 21, 2020). It took a pandemic for cities to finally address homelessness. Vox. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://www.vox.com/2020/4/21/21227629/coronavirus-homeless-covid-19-las-vegas-san-francisco