Can Europe Make It?

Coronavirus and everyday life

Immunity to virus, and as a matter of fact, to any threat, is tantamount to a task that directly concerns everyday life.

Firat M. Haciahmetoglu
Firat M. Haciahmetoglu
14 April 2020
An empty café in the park of the Palais Royal, Paris, France, 28 March 2020.
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Christian Bohmer/PA. All rights reserved.

With the increasing number of lockdowns all around the world, what coronavirus has deprived us of the most – besides, of course, the unfathomable absence of our loved ones – is what we have been most effortlessly ignoring and even sneering at. Everyday life: life as it flows ceaselessly through streets, squares, bars, cafes, restaurants, bistros, shopping malls, nightclubs, grocery shops, opticians, cinemas, theatres, operas, kindergartens, schools, universities, business centres, dorms, offices, trains, buses… It is, though, not only these places, each of which has its own affective tonality and atmosphere, but also the very material soil out of which they are orchestrated – “the very solidity of the filled space” as Harry Harootunian puts it.

Trees, mountains, meadows, rivers, flowers, plants, mud, stones, dust, wind; and, of course, animals, bugs, insects, viruses are part of what we call everyday life. Not only organic life, but also furniture, clothes, utensils, tools, windows, glass, concrete, computers, cell phones, chairs, tables, screens, lots of screens, and all sort of tangible yet inanimate products in the midst of which we dwell. In other words, places, nature and artefacts, by which we experience space. Everyday life – a gigantic number of interactions of an enormously complex nature impossible to represent in a single event. In its most renowned thinker Henri Lefebvre’s words

And it is in everyday life that the sum total of relations which make the human – and every human being – a whole takes its shape and its form. In it are expressed and fulfilled those relations which bring into play the totality of the real, albeit in a certain manner which is always partial and incomplete: friendship, comradeship, love, the need to communicate, play, etc.

Were we to understand everyday life in terms only of nature, places and artefacts, it would seem rigidly rational: planned, organized and stable (i.e., repetitive) in such a way that even nature’s cycles, paths in forests, parks in cities, canals, animals with collars, would be relegated into discrete units of perception, processed in a linear fashion.

We would miss the fact that in the middle of this, there remains an indestructible nebula of emotions constantly shifting and never lending itself completely to a rational order with its neat and clean categories. Something that participates in the rational, but cannot be ruled by it. And it is precisely in this strange cacophony of emotions, places, nature and artefacts that the mystery of everyday life consist: “The days follow one another and resemble one another,” notes Lefevbre, “and yet – and here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness – everything changes.” Everyday life, where the same and the different, the static and the dynamic mysteriously exist together, is a peculiar chaos that can only be predicted as such.

We have become tourists 

The reason we are bored, nervous, scared, and frustrated is not primarily because we, 1.7 billion people, are stuck at home, it is rather because a virus appeared and forced us into exile from the mystery of everyday life. As a result, not only do we lose a substantial part of “material” access to the everyday life, but also we find ourselves cut off from the cacophony of emotions that drives us, guides us, feeds us, and confuses us. All in all, we lose what connects us to one another. At once phenomenologically the most familiar and the most foreign, “the most universal and the most unique condition, the most social and the most individuated, the most obvious and the best hidden,” (as Lefevbre puts it) everyday life is, in fact, closer to us than our home. It is our rhythm and tempo, without which everything is as flat as our screens.

We now walk in the deserted streets, across the empty shops and cafes, pass through the silent avenues and parks, always on guard, in case an “intruder” shows up. Everything intrudes, yet nothing is even unwelcome, for there is no invitation. The spring sun shines over us, a fresh wind blows, neither is the same. Nothing is the same and nothing changes – the mystery is gone: places are empty, nature is muted, emotions are nil. Contradictions are suspended. Being unhomed from everyday life, we have thus become weird tourists in the world. Not even what we call “home” is spared: an unsettling sense of distance is growing between us and “it”. Alienation of a peculiar sort, a disenchantment – a global tourism without any spectacle; a perfect synchronization that modernists have been long longing for, leaves nowhere untouched.

Everyday life, for revolutionary conservatives like German philosopher Martin Heidegger, was a notorious concept which connoted inauthenticity and fallenness. It was thus marked by a failure to keep one’s promise – a promise to become who one already is. Yet, a virus proved that without such a failure there isn’t any “origin”, any home, to which one would yearn to return. The “idle talk” that permeated everyday life turns out to be not so pointless after all. Take that away: there remains no refuge. 

Unevenness and the virus

At this point, though, we shall slow down. If we were to remain nostalgic about everyday life, reminiscing solely how we ordered that sophisticated coffee roasted with raspberry, vanilla and floral, amidst a group of charming people, on a street with ornate streetlights in the middle of spring, we would miss the crucial lesson that might be learned from this crisis. For "everyday life" is not a “golden past”, such that now that we seem to lose it, we can celebrate its idealised absence. We should resist such idealisations and instead use the distance thereby opened between us and "the everyday" for critical engagement. As Peter Osborne underlines, Lefebvre also stressed that everydayness is “primarily a category of capitalism, of modernity, and of postwar 'consumer' capitalism - capitalism as modernity, in particular;” it is not, in other words, another autonomous resource, immune to every virus which might attack from a “corrupted now”.

Everyday life is also ghettos, gangs, poverty-stricken streets and neighbourhoods, unchecked bazaars, unrepentant black markets, unashamed corrupt businesses and unbridled bribed bureaucracies. Factories, exploitation, hunger, injustice, war, coercion, rage and endless misery – something you might push away to peripheries of nations, of the world, but never get rid of. Everyday life is, in effect, the space of unevenness where both the cure and the disease take place. It thus should not be understood in terms of its idealised absence invented in the aftermath of the coronavirus, in response to the sickness (a corrupt now). Everyday life, the victim, is also the culprit: it is a complex constellation that allows as much being sick as being healthy. 

Fabrication became fate

The loss of everyday life due to the coronavirus is, therefore, a symptom and an outcome of an everyday life whose unevenness has exceeded any sustainable threshold under which decent daily transactions can take place. Fabio Vighi, in a recent article, explains this in terms of “agro-economic industry”: “As pointed out by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS, together with similar pathogens like Ebola, originate from an increasingly aggressive agro-economic industry, which devastates entire ecosystems by placing in close and explosive proximity animals deprived of their habitat, intensive livestock breeding, and urban suburbs with high population density and poor sanitation. In technical terms, these are zoonotic diseases – that is, diseases transmitted directly or indirectly from animals to humans.” Such conditions are generated by human beings in what we called everyday life.

In this domain where “fate” is supplanted by “fabrication”; and subsequently, fabrication has become fate, we have been witnessing massive inequalities in power, wealth and income, global hierarchies of labour, colour, gender, and ethnicity, and the concomitant social fragmentation that allows only for individual consumer choices but never for collective action. Along with these, instead of developing campaigns of shared responsibility and systemic analyses that would help us tackle the unprecedented crises that are waiting for us, there is the constant production of fear-mongering, bigotry and conspiracy theories which become our new “normal” in what is called the post-truth era.

If we would like to understand coronavirus not only as a crisis but also as a possibility for a better future, we should then grasp how precarious, in fact, the entire mystery of everyday life is, in which the possibility of home resides. Immunity to virus, and as a matter of fact, to any threat, is tantamount to a task that directly concerns everyday life. Instead of fleeing to the past (i.e., to idealise a bygone golden era) or to the future (to a utopia), we might listen to Walter Benjamin and stay in the “now”.

Angelus Novus
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus. | Wikicommons/The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Some rights reserved.

Green coda

Amazed by environmental improvements thanks to the increasing lockdowns around the world, some people claim that “we are the virus and the coronavirus is earth’s vaccine.” Of course, what is missed in these semi-romantic attempts to make sense of this unprecedented scene is precisely capitalism and its hostility towards alternatives. The virus is not us but everyday life that is choreographed by this barring of alternatives.

If we care about life on earth, we should seek to keep everyday life as decent as possible not for the rich and privileged, just as we don’t abandon the old and the vulnerable to die in our struggle against the coronavirus – for this crisis is only the beginning to come.

We should not forget that we are all connected through nature, artefacts, places, and emotions as part of one big global, overwhelming and mysterious constellation that is called everyday life. It is our genuine home that shelters the possibility of each individual hearth, without which we all become faceless tourists in an inhabited world without life.

Coronavirus is not the end of everyday life; rather, everyday life whose unevenness and the growing “darker side”, nested for so long in our persistent avoidance and ignorance, returns as coronavirus now, just like all those ghosts that we buried under our national, progressive temporalities, which never gave up haunting us. But this time, it cannot be forced back to the place whence it comes from; quite the opposite, that place forces us back to where we have come from. That place – everyday life. 

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