On the Disappearing Normal

Samia Rahman

Muslim Institute

20 May, 2020
Millennium Bridge, London
London from the Millennium Bridge before Covid-19, photo by C Scott Jordan

CM 34: ArtificialThis article first appeared as "The Last Word: On the Disappearing Normal" by Samia Rahman in Critical Muslim 34: Artificial (Spring 2020, Edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Published by the Muslim Institute and Hurst Publishers). To see other great articles and to get your copy of this or past issues of Critical Muslim visit their website. And perhaps you are interested in supporting a good cause and obtaining all the benefits that come along with becoming a fellow of the Muslim Institute.

 

Samia RahmanSamia Rahman is the director of the Muslim Institute and Deputy Editor of Critical Muslim. She lives in London, UK.

 

 

The Covid Chronicles

On The Disappearing Normal

Waking up on 23 March 2020 to a surreal new reality, it felt like we were
in a scene from a film: let’s call it Locked Down in London. Except this
was not a disturbing nightmare or one of those apocalyptic TV serials. This
was really happening. ‘Well, this is all a bit postnormal,’ I thought. But
then I didn’t really understand, let alone appreciate what postnormal
times was all about. Despite my best efforts to learn about complexity,
contradictions and chaos, it was all too speculative for my evidently
arrested development to contend with.

Of course, some of it did make sense. It’s true that history is
accelerating in a way that was incomprehensible half a century ago,
perhaps even a couple of decades ago. Things that used to take months or
years, such as receiving a message from someone on the other side of the
world, are now occurring over days, maybe even seconds. But aren’t
‘these times’ always postnormal, in the eyes of every generation? My
six-year-old nephew often asks me what life was like in The Olden Days
and I am in awe of my nine-year-old niece’s tech savvy that far outstrips
anything I am capable of even now, never mind when I was her age. Life
seemed a little postnormal before it became, like, really, post-normal.
For the physicist Carlos Rovelli, all of reality is a consequence of
interaction, negating entirely the notion of ‘here’ and ‘now’, because
there is no such thing as the directional flow of time, or even the existence
of time; fundamental physics after all, does not distinguish between past
and future. He argues that it is far better to understand the world as
‘happenings’, as we know the rate that time passes varies according to
altitude and speed. By viewing time in this way, we create space for the
complexity of our existences, our emotions, and our approach to what
we otherwise perceive of as the ‘normal’ passing of time.

But, the happenings of right now are definitely not in any version of my
understanding of normal when we compare it to the Before Times. Here we
are, cast into an unreal existence that throws everything we took for granted
into question: the norms of our societies, our values and who we are. The
shock has reverberated in every possible way, from a deeply personal to a
societal and global level. But perhaps we are a little hyperbolic in our
distress at the loss of our natural state. Instead of viewing this as a battle
between life and death, we might do better to remind ourselves that death
comes to us all. This is the feature of these times, a reminder that every one
of us is mortal. The shock comes with the fact that we have been yanked out
of our comfortable bubbles and forced to confront our mortality.

Our new normal comprises a global effort to support our health
systems, to buy more life, more time. And if there is anything good that
has come out of this it is that perhaps we will look hard at what is
important to our societies and take the opportunity to manifest change and
renewal. How many workers were told it was unfeasible for them to work
from home? And then, in the blink of an eye we are all magically working
from home. But again, the machine is relentless in its artificial drive for
normality, as employers worldwide spared no thought for the anxieties,
pressures and struggles of workers and expected them to carry on as
normal. Are we absolutely not in the grip of a disorienting pandemic,
wrenched into the most unprecedented moment of our generation, often
cut off and far from those we love and fearful of this unconventional
enemy that is all round us? We are rendered helpless, and yet plunged into
uncharted territory, juggling home, kids, cabin fever, in our attempts to
keep calm and carry on. Meetings that could easily have been emails are
not cancelled, merely postponed and converted into Zoom conference
calls as data security and privacy concerns fall by the wayside. Wellbeing
and mental health do not feature despite an already fragile climate.

We can talk about everyone pulling together, and calling on the blitz
spirit, but let’s not romanticise the past, which, do I need to remind you,
is ostensibly an illusion, a convenient memory function to assist humans as
they grapple to comprehend their incomprehensible existence. Poverty
and class divisions were as pertinent then as they are now. After all, who
isn’t able to show resilience in their spacious suburban semi-detached
home complete with garden, compared with a family crammed into a
one-bedroom flat in an urban sprawl. Just as they did then, today people
are turning on each other, egged on by a hysterical media. How dare my
neighbour take a stroll, pedestrians accuse runners of breaching social
distancing etiquette, locals are launching vigilante campaigns against those
who dare to venture into their territory for fear they are bringing the
‘plague’ with them. Yet, just as before, there is also the solidarity that
comes with being in a worldwide existential crisis as communities pull
together in wave after wave of breathtaking humanity. Every Thursday at
8pm almost every single household on my street stands at their front door
clapping, cheering, and singing for those who are at the front line of this
fight and no that’s not a tear in my eye. This scene is replicated all around
the country, all over the world. It’s emotional. A moment when we can
forget social distancing and self-isolation, and remember how we once
enjoyed evenings with friends and family, danced and socialised, a wistful
memory in these strange times. But we need more than applause, we need
everyone to think about who they voted for, we need to remember which
employers are treating their workers shoddily, and we must never forget
who, in a time of crisis, revealed themselves to be the helpers.

This unreality is a humbling experience for humanity. Has it sunk in yet?
We are not a master race. It’s time we listened to nature, to remember to
listen to ‘experts’ such as those who warned that this threat was coming
and implored us to be more prepared. This mess has been exacerbated by
the mistakes made by governments who under-estimated the threat that
was posed. We should work together now to collaborate instead of
compete. To be humble and accept our weakness – that is what I hope will
come out of this.

The twenty-first century has seen two seismic events that dramatically
impacted our lives. Both times we have failed collectively. For a short
while after 9/11, the US held the sympathy of the entire world, but
instead of reaching out, they chose to bomb and kill. Iraq became a
catastrophe and we are still reeling from the consequences. In 2008 the
financial crisis was an opportunity for politicians to evaluate and transform
the economic system but it was business as usual. The banks were bailed
out, heralding a decade of crippling austerity that caused untold misery to
many and brought the NHS to its knees. By the middle of the next decade,
the top 1% in the UK had made enough money to pay off the government
debt. Meanwhile, the rest continued to foot the bill. Anger with the
present economic system was deftly re-directed with the help of a fearmongering
right-wing press, creating fertile ground for insidious populist
movements such as Brexit here and Trump across the pond.

We are now in the middle of the third seismic event of this century and
judging by our reaction, we have been slow on the upkeep. In the first
week of lockdown, thousands of teachers in the UK received a letter from
the Education Secretary thanking them for their efforts. Really? The same
politicians who decimated the health and education system? The same
politicians that cut public services by up to 40% are now praising care
workers, bin men and other public service workers who haven’t received
a pay rise for years. The lowly paid, the unskilled, the migrants, all those
who are keeping essential services running as the economy grinds to a halt.
The mantra of the last decade is that if you are poorly paid then that’s
because your job has no value, and therefore you have no value.

Suddenly, those unskilled workers are heroes for being at the frontline,
lauded by the same tabloid media that demonised them, for keeping the
country from falling apart. Forty years of neo-liberal orthodoxy has been
washed away in favour of state intervention. We are all socialists
now. Those people saying the government is doing all it can to protect
livelihoods must realise this. They haven’t done it for altruistic reasons.
They’ve done it because there is no other choice as they desperately strive
to keep our broken economic system from complete collapse. Imagine if
wages and jobs had disappeared and you still had to pay the mortgage and
rent and bills. How long do you think before disaffection became full scale
revolt? Maybe it still will; we can only hope. There are plenty more
people who, betrayed by their government, have nothing to lose.

Within a matter of days, the lives we know have gone, temporarily at
least. You’re not going out for dinner any time soon. You’re not getting the
builders in to create that new extension on your house. You won’t be going
on that family holiday to the South of France this summer. Twenty-first
century materialistic capitalism has been postponed, for now anyway. The
artificial world has become our reality and the virtual world our lifeline.
And what a lifeline. Social media got me through the first week as hilarious
memes perfectly captured the surrealism of our collective experience.

Making day one immeasurably lighter, Kevin Farzad, Iranian singer and
songwriter, tweeted the most relatable quarantine experience on the
beginning of the onset of numbness, grief and disbelief:

My Quarantine Routine.

I just wanted to share what works for me.
This is just to give me structure and a sense of stability.

9am – 2am: wake up and stare at my phone

Variations on lockdown schedules flooded social media, helping us all
feel a little bit better about the extent of crazy we were faced with. As
shock and disbelief subsided, social media users explained how the hours
of each day would slip by in a miasma of paralysis and existential dread:

Unknown tweeter:

7am Breakfast
7.15am Dessert breakfast
8.30am: Panic snack w/news
9.45am: Chocolate
11.30am: Snack while standing up staring
12.30pm: Lunch w/small dessert
2.00pm: Post nap luncheon
4.30am: Trail mix
6.00pm: Dinner w/weird vibes
10:00pm: Ice cream

Social media has stepped into the breach of the new social distancing
normal. As a result, we find ourselves permanently online courtesy of a
dizzying array of apps that promise entertainment as well as the chance to
connect. With so many people isolating alone it has become a thing to
organise a virtual coffee and catch up with a friend or a dinner date with a
romantic interest. I’ve been assured that Tinder-ing is as buoyant as ever,
with singletons navigating these new charters and bringing a whole new
meaning to the notion of being locked down.

We’re adapting well to our new normal. The news has become essential
viewing as we follow the twists and turns of this gripping plotline. Truth
is stranger than fiction they say, but that was before. Terms such as
flattening the curve have become essential to our discourse as we study the
graphs and calculate the death-tolls every day. Statistics hold a morbid
fascination, perhaps filling the void for sports fans looking for a winner in
every scenario. Is the winner the one with the best infection to death ratio
or the most spectacularly flattening curve?

There are winners and losers already in the new ‘entertainment’. For
smug celebrities and social media influencers, so used to fans obsessed
with their every artificial, contrived and airbrushed move, nightmare
scenarios are coming true. They are being ignored, made irrelevant by the
all-consuming spectre of Covid-19 that has sucked up every second of
airtime in the jostling world of Instagram likes and internet views. Instead
of adulation and fawning, no ones cares and they are getting desperate,
resorting to barrel-scraping gimmicks to get attention. Millionaire actor
Gal Gadot was one of the first off the starting blocks, recruiting a bunch
of other tone-deaf and clueless celeb mates to put together a cringeworthy
rendition of the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. With ill-advised
lyrics yearning for a world ‘without possessions’ just as people were losing
their jobs and facing financial despair, the artificiality of celebrity culture
was made all the more stark and ugly.

We are living in a new age, in postnormal times, where old orthodoxies
have been replaced by a new normal. When this is all over can we ever get
back to ‘business as usual’. Do we even want that? Surely not. There must
be a reckoning. We must not forget what came before. And with a new
public awareness of the artificial constructs of capitalism that have
exacerbated our plight, there yet may be a chance. For what will public
opinion be once this is over? The politicians will gaslight the public,
blaming anyone but themselves and will try to go back to the way things
were but public opinion can and should push back. What would you
choose? Life or the economy? You can’t bring back life.

We humans are arrogant. We fell for the false belief in our own superiority.
And now? Consider how the world has been upended and the fault lines in
our fraught societies exposed. A British friend went to Uganda for a work trip
in late February, planning a March safari holiday in Kenya before returning to
London. By the time he was scheduled to arrive in Nairobi, African countries
were closing their borders to those from the epicentre of the virus,
Europeans. How ironic. Power dynamics have become skewered and the
current chaos problematises the usual prevalent populist stereotypes. It turns
out that the corona originated in China but was spread around the world by
middle class (predominantly) Westerners hopping on flights to various parts
of the world. The fault lay with the globalised elite, not the usual scapegoats:
‘unskilled’ migrants and asylum seekers seeking a better life in accordance
with neoliberal capitalist calls to aspire.

An organism that emerged only a few months ago begs to differ. Perhaps
now we can remember to respect that organism and acquiesce to the
demands of nature instead of putting our needs first. Let’s not revert to
the Before Times. It is, after all, the human brain that determines what we
call the flowing of time and the sense of the speed at which it appears to
proceed. Artificial constructs that champion productivity to the detriment
of humanity and neoliberal values of ‘time equals money’, must surely
take a step back in the new re-ordering of priorities. In these less than
normal times, all delusions of what went before must pass and healing,
however long it takes, must be allowed its journey.

Citations

For more on Carlo Rovelli’s work his The Order of Time, (Penguin,
London, 2019) and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (Penguin, London, 2015).
See also, Arwa Mahdawi, ‘The coronavirus crisis has exposed the ugly
truth about celebrity culture and capitalism’, The Guardian 31 March 2020,
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/31/thecoronavirus-
crisis-has-exposed-the-ugly-truth-about-celebrity-cultureand-
capitalism
; and Aisha S Ahmad, ‘Why you should ignore all that
Coronovirus-inspired productivity pressure’, The Chronicle of Higher
Education 27 March 2020, – https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-
You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366/?fbclid=IwAR2Qs1YErfPYSahhyP
lbYl4cLVRnyuJfAEKraEp2BhMPKCCo5acTwrz451E

Timeline

I think therefore I am
I progress therefore I am
I shop therefore I am
I share therefore I am
Defined
Monolithic
Relative
Contradictory
I am tradition and culture
I am science and technology
I am what I buy
I am online
Simple, Closed
Complicated, Closed
Complex, Open
Open, Interconnected, Chaotic
Conquest, Supremacy, Progress
Progress, Efficiency, Modernization
Relativism, Plurality, Individuality
Complexity, Chaos, Contradictions