Truly “historical circumstances”

Thoughts on Covid-19 and historicity


When Corona hit, I remember, spring was just about to come. The cherry tree in front of our house was blossoming, and the violet petals gave away quite charming impressions. London was in its usual mode, which, for me at least, always meant distress. Cars and noise everywhere, crowds in the underground, no space to respirate, crowds in the halls and hallways of the university, crowds on these pavements which were just never meant to accommodate the population of a global metropolis. So, what I recall from February are the usual impressions of an undergraduate who has never come to terms with the tempo of the city. The memories involve me getting up after a night of unrestful sleep, me munching a couple of sandwiches and preparing some to go in a Tupperware, me running to the bus station to just miss the 188 to Russel Square, me waiting with a couple of smoking Londoners in baggy pants at the bus station in the rain to take the next bus to the centre. It would be number 1, going to – I don’t remember anymore. The two minutes interval between the two busses always felt like an eternity. I would nervously check my phone and answer the leftover WhatsApp-messages from the previous day. By the time bus 1 arrived, my playlist on Spotify would perhaps have calmed me down and the day could begin with a seminar to which I would arrive more than 10 minutes late.

Back then, the news on Corona did trickle down gradually. We were all aware of it. A person in my course even started wearing a high-end facemask in the middle of February. It looked and sounded pretty sci-fi. And it took time until the new reality became part of my life. I noticed the first changes in people’s behaviour towards the end of February. I recall a nightclub in which a couple caught my attention when they sanitized their hands at 6 AM in the morning, making jokes about “not catching the virus”. A somewhat funky and peculiar scene, given all the (undisinfected) bodily fluids around. Life went on. People discussed the outbreak in China, but they did so as with any other humanitarian catastrophe or political event which makes it into the media. What made the university cancel lectures and seminars was a strike, not a pandemic. So, I was used to somewhat empty classrooms. The first time I realized there might be some impact on my life was in an Ethics seminar in the second week of March. I was the only one attending. At the end of the session, the professor made a comment on the “weird situation”. I asked: “What’s weird? That no one’s showing up?” He laughed and said: “No, but this whole self-isolation thing going on. And the oil prices are just crashing like they have not done in years.” I hummed and was like: “Hm. Things might get interesting. See you next week!”

Of course, there was no next week. Around this time, Italy became the hotspot of the pandemic in Europe and the first cases were registered in the UK. The media coverage of the virus rapidly changed. Over the course of a few days, the public got nervous. Students demanded a lockdown of the universities. Teachers sent e-mails around in which they asked students to stay home and to watch the lectures online. Institutions were beginning to cancel their events and to try out “new online formats”. For me, the weekend between the 13th and the 15th of March was the last time to actively leave the house and to travel inside the country. The trains were empty and a few people were already wearing face masks. My personal lockdown began on the 16th of March. From that date onwards, entire courses were being moved online and Zoom-calls and videoconferences started to become a thing. And nobody, for some weird reason, continued to use Skype.

Over the course of the following week, student accommodations emptied out. International and European students started to travel home. I was one of the few students to stay in the UK. A first instance of how decision-making feels in times of uncertainty. Perhaps the blooming trees in front of our house were too much of a pull-factor. It was the beginning of an interesting time. Suddenly, there was so much free time. Not that there would have been nothing to do. But the schedule of a week now just looked blank. For a couple of nights, I tried something that I had not done in years: video games. It was also the time of the first warm and sunny days of the year. And London was just as empty as its supermarkets.

From these days I recall surreal scenes. On one Friday night, I was walking around Bermondsey and Southwark until I reached Tower Bridge. The entire area which would have normally been buzzing with people was just still. There was no wind, either. Even the water was not moved by a breeze. For the first time, the river Thames looked wildly romantic. And the most remarkable fact of all was: the silence. London continued to be silent even throughout the following days. Roads which would have normally been loaded with traffic and noise were suddenly walkable in plain daylight. Everything smelled better. Quite likely this was also due to the sunlight which made London’s flora explode. Not the worst reason to spend most of one’s time outside. Most Londoners must have thought that, for the perceived complete population of the city was now practising social distancing in the park. Yet although the green spaces were unhygienically packed, all life had disappeared from the streets. Stores and boutiques which had their windows nailed up with planks added to the charm of a ghost town. But above all, I think the surrealism of these days is best expressed in the first sound which I heard every morning. It was the lonely bell of the ice-cream-man who was steering his buffoonish car from green space to green space. For me, his “ding-a-ling” indicating a world of childish pleasures will probably forever be tied to the springtime of Covid-19.

Around the time when the ominous ice-cream-man had just disappeared into a different quarter of the borough, I remember taking a walk in the Leathermarket Gardens, close to the Bermondsey street. It was one of the first really hot afternoons. A few people were sitting on the benches with their books. Some were just passively sunbathing. Even though it was a workday, there was a unique atmosphere of tranquillity and rest all over the place. And I realized: the city had come to a halt. All the usual regularities governing the behaviour of the people and the rhythm of the city were suspended. The offices were deserted. The flowers were blooming. The life was upside down. Without actively recognizing, we had just started to behave according to new rules. No one had actively set these rules into practice, no one had planned or initiated them, especially not in Britain, where the government was notoriously slow in implementing measures. Yet people had started to adapt to conventions which, still a month ago, would have seemed entirely unbelievable. Without noticing, an old game had come to an end. A new game had begun. Where did the new rules for the game come from? They had grown out of the historical circumstances.

In hindsight, I sometimes think that what I experienced that day was something a philosopher might call historicity. I do not think that there is any canonical definition of what exactly historicity is. The problem with it might be that one needs to have actually felt or witnessed a historical situation before one can adequately understand the concept. In this, historicity resembles the rather rare and bizarre cases of mystical or religious experiences about which one can only speak if all the participants of the discussion are actually on the same page. This is not something that philosophers are usually fond of. Philosophers normally want to have concepts well defined, and they also want concepts to be potentially comprehensible to anyone. Yet this did not stop some philosophers, like Hegel or Marx, to make historicity (or historicalness) a key term of their thought, or to develop even an entire philosophy around it – let alone the historism of figures like Wilhelm Dilthey or Ernst Troeltsch. What is common to all these thinkers is that they made “the historical event” a fundament of their explanation of reality. To explain what something is, thereafter, means to explain how it came to be. Of course, this is of particular relevance for the explanation of everything that’s social – that is, for everything that can be changed and shaped by human action over time, or by external events. To explain how something came to be one has to understand the specific historical circumstances that gave rise to it. One has to put oneself into the mindset of an agent at that time. And this, of course, one can only do if one really understands and feels the specific challenges, the specific obstacles which needed to be overcome, as well as the specific framework and conditions which allowed for the agent’s actions. In short, one has to get to know the spirit of the time. How, though, can one understand the spirit, or Geist, of an era? It makes sense to go full circle and to say that one can only do this by experiencing the very historicity of it – it’s historical uniqueness, it’s “historical event”.

Philosophers of historicity probably had their own experiences in mind when they went into such reasoning. For Hegel, for example, who talks about “historical consciousness”, it was the French revolution and the battles of Austerlitz and Jena which brought about a new “Zeitgeist”. Marx, who sees “history as determined by economical laws” took the troubles of his own times, the arising factory work, the revolutionary upsurges and finally the Parisian Commune as a sign of the introduction of a new historical subject into history – the working class. These philosophers – like many others – did experience moments or developments in which an old order appeared to be overthrown and replaced by a new one and they drew their conclusions.

I don’t want and cannot assess Marx’s and Hegel’s claims here. Probably I don’t even know enough to say exactly what they claimed. Yet I think it is very interesting to see that historicity has served as a philosophical topic again and again, at least in the modern age. And even more interesting it appears to me that we have seldomly spoken about historicity or about historical events as far as I can remember. Until now. Because now it seems as if everything that is happening cannot be justified but with a reference to the “historical circumstances.” Inasmuch as it seems to be impossible to write an e-mail that not does contain something like the formula: “I hope you’re well given the circumstances.” Everyone knows what these circumstances are. They change the game. They create new rules. They make us adapt – and suddenly the old game just looks like an assemblage of meaningless and hollow conventions.

Was it not possible to work from home before? Many people did it. Yet it was considered to be normal to wake up at 7 AM every morning, to use public transport and to go to office or to college. Was it not possible to hold video-conferences or zoom-calls before? Yes, but somewhat we rather preferred the technical difficulties of an intercontinental flight to the technical difficulties of the internet. Why did we move so much? Because it was just normal to do so. Historicity reveals absurdity. Or rather, new rules make old rules look absurd.

Now, I don’t know whether everything which is currently established as new normality will stay this way. We already experience how, after the loosening of the measures, people return to old routines which suddenly don’t seem to be that absurd anymore – like being on holiday. But I don’t think that this in any way contradicts that at least my generation has now seen its first collective moment of historicity. This means that we have suddenly become aware – or at least implicitly uneasy about – what it means that rules and order, regularities and routines are subject to historical circumstances. We had the opportunity to experience what it means that social structures are not necessarily the way we experienced them to be, but they can be subject to contingency – that is, to historical change. Orders can break down. What appears to be stable can be actually very weak – at a certain point in time.

For philosophers, this is an important lesson. Because many different conclusions can be drawn from this. We could ask: what do we need our rules for? What kind of order is worth maintaining? We could demand a further rearrangement of the rules that we are following. We could also start to appreciate the rules that already are in place more. We could work for the strengthening of certain frameworks, or for the disassembly of others. Whatever we choose to do, it has to do with what we value, what we consider to be right, and so it ultimately has to do with philosophical reasoning. I do not propose any of this sort here. For the time being, I am happy that I do not need to wait in the rain at the bus station tomorrow – thanks to the historical circumstances.

Illustration: Hannes Pfeifer

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