No, this isn’t another boring post about coronavirus lockdown and/or conspiracy theories and/or the apocalypse. If you’re in Eschaton Incoming mode and you’re looking for some blogging to suit your mood, jog on. There’s plenty out there to cater to your taste.
Instead I’m going to use this post to think about the collective desires the pandemic is unfolding – not just the dystopias it threatens, but also the utopias it suggests.
To do that, I’m going to draw on some Surrealist ideas and a bit of anthropology. But I’m not going to lard the post with a lot of heavy theory, because I know that many readers don’t have the headspace for that at the moment. And I don’t either.
Animals Have More Fun
My train of thought about this has been prompted by a special category of pictures and videos that’s turning up in my social media feeds. There’s been a positive flood of them since the various national lockdowns started. I spend little time on social media, so if even I have noticed the trend, it must be a hell of a big one.
Yeah, you’ve already guessed what I’m talking about: all those images of animals “taking over” empty urban spaces that are usually overrun by humans.
Peacocks lording it over Bangor High Street. Stags on the loose in Romford. The much-celebrated Llandudno goats. Wild boar in the streets of Italy and Spain, coyotes roaming San Francisco, deer on the underground in Japan, dolphins disporting themselves in Venice. Etc., etc. Add your own examples.
Now, not all of these images are as wild (pun intended) as they seem. The Venetian dolphins reports were false, for example. Goats and deer are nothing new in Llandudno and Romford, although lately they’ve probably become bolder and/or more numerous than usual.
But what I’m interested in here is not the factual truth or falsity of the claims that “Nature just hit the reset button on us” (as one of the dolphin tweeters put it). Rather, I’m interested in the strength of such images’ appeal. They are everywhere; they’ve gone as viral as images can go in these viral times. What do they mean?
“A First-Class Upheaval”
On 2 January 1937, the English Surrealist Charles Madge wrote a letter to the New Statesman announcing a new project:
[A reader’s letter] suggested in your columns the other week that the constitutional crisis had begun to produce material for an anthropology of our own people.
Some days before the precipitation of the crisis, a group was formed for precisely this purpose. English anthropology, however, hitherto identified only with “folk-lore,” has to deal with elements so repressed that only what is admitted to be a first-class upheaval brings them to the surface. Such was the threatened marriage of the new “Father-of-the-people” to Mrs. Ernest Simpson. Fieldwork, i.e., the collection of evidence of mass wish-situations, has otherwise to proceed in a far more roundabout way than the anthropologist has been accustomed to in Africa or Australia. Clues to these situations may turn up in the popular phenomenon of the “coincidence.” In fact it is probably that in the ultra-repressed condition of our society they can only materialise in this form, so mysterious in appearance. But the “mystery” is part of the mechanism of repression. It can be reduced scientifically into the constituent terms of the hidden wish, and referred back to the accepted principles of anthropology. These principles and those of psycho-analysis, and the sciences dealing with the behaviour of man, have been applied by the group to the Crystal Palace-Abdication situation.
The “Crystal Palace-Abdication” situation refers to two events that had strongly caught the public imagination in Britain: the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace in November 1936, and the abdication of Edward VIII in December the same year.
Madge’s project for what he called “anthropology at home” quickly became “Mass-Observation”, described in more detail in another letter to New Statesman on 30 January:
Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man – but it plans to work with a mass of observers. […] The following are a few examples of the problems [i.e. study topics] that will arise:
Behaviour of people at war memorials
Shouts and gestures of motorists
The aspidistra cult
Anthropology of football pools
Beards, armpits, eyebrows
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke
Funerals and undertakers
Female taboos about eating
The private lives of midwives
[Mass-Observation] does not set out in quest of truth or facts for their own sake or for the sake of an intellectual minority, but aims at exposing them in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood and thus constantly transformed.
Although it did not remain Surrealist for long, Mass-Observation did indeed become a huge and enduring social research project. I’ll resist the temptation to get sidetracked into the longer M-O story, which involves head-hunting on Borneo and the coronation of George VI. For this blog post I just want to pull a couple of plums out of M-O’s fascinating pudding:
- The first letter’s emphasis on coincidences as expressions of “mass wish-situations”. I gloss this as a version of the Freudian interpretation of dreams, except that the “dreams ” in question are not those of an individual but of a whole society. Just like individual dreams, these mass “coincidences” are vivid images that express in codified form the wishes and desires that a society cannot otherwise acknowledge. The Surrealist notion of coincidence as “objective chance” is obviously in play here too.
- The second letter’s emphasis on transformation. Although some superficial commentators have described the list of examples in this letter as resembling a Surrealist poem, it’s in the emphasis on transformation that its Surrealist heart really lies. It’s a vision of revolutionary change that’s at once personal and political. As André Breton had famously put it in his “Speech to the Congress of Writers” just a couple of years earlier: “‘Transform the world,’ Marx said; ‘change life,’ Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us.”
From Mass To Viral
Now, Madge and his colleagues were obviously writing during the age of “the masses” in general and mass media in particular. No self-respecting anthropologist would use the term “the mass” any more, not just because of its condescending undertone, but more importantly because it’s not how techno/media-saturated societies work. The days are long gone when millions of people in the same country would all watch the same newsreel, or even the same broadcast TV show, at the same time. It’s all about niches and networks now, not masses…
At any rate, that was the story back in the 1990s and early 2000s when I was a professional anthropologist. But if everything changed between Madge and the Internet, everything’s changed again in the meantime, because social media.
Thanks to social media, it’s become common for millions of people to not just see but actively spread the same images, at a speed, volume and planetary scale that Madge never imagined. To take a random example from the animal images I mentioned above, one single Tik-Tok user’s short video of a family of wild boar supposedly roaming a coronavirus-abandoned Italian street has been viewed 1.5 million times. For many it will have been just a drop in a torrent of similar images. There’s a mass wish-situation for you!
If anything, the fact that this video too turned out not to have anything to do with coronavirus lockdown merely reinforces the point: it may not have been factually true, but it was fervently desired.
In the age of virus, the viral image is king. And instead of relatively isolated “mass images”, disseminated top-down from media institutions via newsreels and broadcast TV to “the masses”, we now have proliferating and mutating strains of viral images – in this case, different strains of what we might call the Nature Reset Button virus, with different animals in different locations, all expressing the same basic mass wish-situation.
But but but but but… hang on a minute. What is it that’s being wished for here, exactly? Because everyone loves a cute dolphin, but not many people love lockdown. And nobody whatsoever loves the motherfucking coronavirus.
Here’s what I think: the reason why these Nature Reset Button images are so popular is precisely because they’re both utopian and dystopian at the same time.
We all know that the planet is in the grip of a human-made climate emergency, and that is what gives the images their utopian power: look, the earth is healing itself! But it’s doing so at the cost of (at the time of writing) almost 68,000 deaths worldwide, in a pandemic that’s still in full swing, with millions living in lockdown conditions that match any dystopia you care to name.
Actually, while the Nature Reset Button is a beyond-grim example, the same utopian/dystopian ambiguity is also present in Madge’s Crystal Palace-Abdication situation. Personally I think all monarchs everywhere should abdicate right now and mind their manners while they’re about it, but the Edward VIII abdication was experienced as a crisis, which was exactly why Madge was interested in it. The same goes for the destruction of the Crystal Palace, which was perceived as both a national disaster and an omen of worse to come. If there were mass wishes in play there, they were being expressed not in dreams but in nightmares.
This is only a little blog post, not a ruddy great dissertation (honest – I’m going to shut up in a minute, I promise), so I won’t wheel out any theoretical Big Berthas at this point. I’ll just say that this coexistence of the utopian and the dystopian within the same image (or strain of images) is characteristically dialectical.
The Nature Reset Button strain are images that show us a new world trapped within the old, a promise wrapped up inside a threat, life drenched in death, freedom frozen mid-burst within oppression. And vice versa. Fixed-explosive, conceptually if not visually.
My hunch is that all images that would be recognisable as “coincidences” in Madge’s sense – images that capture the collective imagination and express a “wish-situation” – are always dialectical. The wish always contains its own negation. The dream is always the seed of a nightmare.
Dialectics: Dolphins May Be Cute, But Aufhebung Is Even Better
Thinking about Nature Reset Button images as dialectical in this way explains their power. But it also highlights their limitations.
Dialectics is about change and transformation. It’s not a question of choosing one half of the dialectical pair over the other. It’s about making a leap through and beyond them both, a leap to something new.
These dreamlike images are expressing wish-situations that cannot be expressed in other ways. And they can’t be expressed in other ways because what they point towards does not yet exist.
They’re yearning for a world where we don’t have to choose between health and freedom, animals and humans, society and the planet. A world we have to build for ourselves.
I’ve seen a lot of speculation online about how the coronavirus is going to change our collective consciousness and our society. Some of it’s pipe dreaming; some of it’s catastrophising. It sounds silly to suggest that a smartphone video of a goat invading someone’s parking space is a herald of a new world. But if we can look through and beyond both the goat and parking space, we might see a way forwards.
Beneath the pavement, the beach!
Behind the goat shed, the planet!
And also: please stay as safe as you can, be well, take care of the folks around you, and try not to freak out. Blogging about goats is fun, but coronavirus is a total shitter.
Splendor Solis peacock image in the public domain.
Pathé newsreel of the Crystal Palace fire via the British Pathé YouTube channel.
Freud gif created by sidewaysideways.
Hellmann’s/Benjamin gif created by canek zapata.
Baphomet image by Éliphas Lévi, in the public domain.
Take a peek behind the veil.