Reflections on 2020


Photograph taken in Burgess Park, Summer 2020

Weak mortals, chained to the earth, creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods, you unfortunate race, whose life is but darkness, as unreal as a shadow, the illusion of a dream, hearken to us, who are immortal beings, ethereal, ever young and occupied with eternal thoughts, for we shall teach you about all celestial matters; you shall know thoroughly what is the nature of the birds, what the origin of the gods, of the rivers, of Erebus, and Chaos; thanks to us, even Prodicus will envy you your knowledge – Aristophanes, The Birds

Hope resides in the trees…2020 did not see the third summer of love, although I spoke to someone who felt that the connections people had made this year, the decisions about who and what they valued, did in fact constitute a revivified mode of being – and after all, why should 2020 or 2021 look like 1967 or 1989? Perhaps our collective gatherings will no longer take place in fields and parks and outside, although I can’t really imagine that there are other ways of being together that could possibly be as meaningful. But, after all, there were raves aplenty in 2020, and some protests were ideologically sanctioned, while others were not. Nature and the outside were increasingly contentious: the anti-nature ideologies of our age were translated into further material contestation, further policing. Dystopian technophilia from both the left and the right (although after a certain point of madness this political distinction stops mattering), promises us to rid us of our own nature, our own history, our own relation to tragedy and comedy, even as it also claims to be able to solve all the problems it created in the first place…just a bit more…progress…please! But ‘online’ is not the solution: the internet disembodies, it saddens, it creates sad affects, even as it ‘connects’ us. Whatever modes of being-together it permits, it cannot replace them. We are proximate creatures. While there are beautiful forms of solitude, isolation, loneliness and atomisation are devastating, looping into a hyper-individualistic rumination that creates not heightened being but absolute ruination of the self.

they swear that everything can be controlled technically, that there is no need for either a new god or a new sky, only prohibitions, experts and doctors – Agamben, ‘When The House is On Fire’

Starlings over Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice, via English Heritage

Suddenly a walk with a friend in the open air became a matter of permission, of restriction, just as domestic space and intimate life became the subject of shifting government edicts. To me, there is no greater image of freedom than thinking in company in the open air, in the midst of trees and animals. There is a reason prison works the way it does. Inside, I often felt gloom. I briefly contemplated living in a tent in the park. I thought about nomadism and about how many laws and forms of control operate precisely to curtail these forms of movement. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 sought to redefine ‘persons of nomadic habit of life’, just as it endeavoured to make raves illegal. Since then, we have only become more and more pinned down, more locatable, all our numbers and addresses and signals. The plague is Cartesian, in that it causes us to doubt our senses, we can no longer smell, but it is also unimaginable without the internet: the virus goes viral. As Keith Ansell-Pearson puts it in Viroid Life (1997):

In its own terms the spectacle represents an ‘affirmation of appearance’, of all human
life as nothing but an appearance, amounting to the end of history as a history
of depth. The spectacle is like a virus, spreading everywhere and infecting
everyone who becomes contaminated by its illusion, and whose only goal is
self-replication … ‘Spectacular technology’ does not dispel the religious clouds under which mankind has led an alienated existence, but merely provides it with an earthly cloak.

The virus is now a spectacle. It viralises numbers, it proliferates ‘experts’ who prophesy doom or salvation. It spreads itself across piecharts and tables and graphs. It is everywhere and nowhere, infecting hearts and minds, seeping into the way we feel about each other, what we do, what we imagine our collective being to be, how we understand ‘care’ of the self, of the other.

Every day in the summer I went to see the crows in the park, to the extent that I started to feel as if I knew individual birds, and understood what they were thinking. The interaction of the crows with the pigeons and the geese took on epic storytelling dimensions. They all saw the world from a great height; they know things we did not.  When Mao in 1958 encouraged citizens to bang pots and pans, to smash eggs and to kill birds in the ‘Smash Sparrows Campaign’ (along with the desired destruction of rats, flies and mosquitoes), he brought on a great famine in which many millions died, as birds, these ‘public animals of capitalism’, turned out to be useful in eating the locusts that would otherwise (and did) eat the crops.

The older I get, the more I understand how close to collective madness humanity is, all the time. The more we imagine we can ‘solve’ problems, the closer to creating new, colossal catastrophes we get. To take time to reflect in nature, while we can, to remember what our ancestors understood: what else is there? We did not progress, if we forgot everything. On the contrary, we are without guidance.

Perhaps we missed our chance to do nothing. Perhaps we will be told not to leave our house again, if we have one. To see your face again: freedom.

Published by Nina Power

Writer, Philosopher

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