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What do public events say about how we relate to the world when in lockdown?

Dernière mise à jour : 14 août 2020

A virus, a pandemic outbreak, was eventually forcing us, collectively, to rethink what being together — even as we each remain home — really means.

Co-authored by G. Deslandes. See the original French version in by clicking here

Today, a third of the world’s population is in lockdown. Two and a half billion people, between four walls, for the same reason. What started as a recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), has now become the watchword, implemented with various degrees of strictness depending on the country, when there are confirmed cases in over 200 countries and territories.

This never seen before situation is putting us all “in the same boat” as two and a half billions of other people worldwide.

As the Director General of WHO said on March 19th last:

“The only way we can defeat this pandemic, as we have always been saying, is through solidarity.”

Staying home to continue protecting others, thereby avoiding overloading healthcare professionals already overwhelmed by the situation, seems to be the paradox in which the whole of humanity is being plunged. Everything unfolding as if a virus, a pandemic outbreak, was eventually forcing us, collectively, to rethink what being together — even as we each remain home — really means.

Interrupting the silence of the solitude

However, this unprecedented situation generated new convivial moments all around the world: from yelling messages of support to the population from the top of the high tours of the Wuhan area at the beginning of the outbreak, to the Canto della Verbena sung proudly in Italy, to the rounds of applause in support of care givers in Spain and in France, people on the planet found odd ways to transgress the measures of social distancing.

Everywhere, although not without some difficulty on one hand and a touch of humor on the other, humanity sort of reinvented unique ways to come together, unplanned, joyful too, under the form of unexpected activist events, impromptu concerts or online quarantini (quarantine + Martini) parties.

Maintaining distancing while favoring proximity, this is truly what the double movement of forced isolation and the simultaneous fight against social death we have all witnessed around the world, is all about.

While our collective survival depends on our seclusion, and in the face of this preventive measure and our fellow citizens’ reactions both here and everywhere, we cannot but wonder about the philosophical and anthropological implications. Indeed, what do emerging renewed public spaces consist in, when the coronavirus is emptying out our streets? What do glimpses of smiles on a balcony mean? And what about these sudden popular outbursts of enthusiasm around 08 pm?

Is this just a way to celebrate our white coat heroes? Is it a political statement? Mimicry? A way to give courage by showing a sign of solidarity, that some will surely find to be all too easily done? Or more commonly even, a way to entertain ourselves and forget the sheer misery of our condition? This last thesis is the one we would like to explore, with the help of Blaise Pascal, the philosopher.

Where entertainment reigns, there will be no sorrow

The following quote by Pascal is well-known:

“I’ve often said that all men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Yet, we may be too quick to make a poor rendition of this quote while imagining Blaise Pascal as a lockdown zealot; when in truth, it could be quite the opposite.

For Pascal, it is precisely because this solution is in fact not a solution that we are relentlessly trying to elude it via entertainment in our lives. Being entertained, as a means to achieve happiness, seems to be a lesser evil, an ephemeral and transient solution (since “diseases occur”, just like viruses for instance).

But self-withdrawal would be even worse, a mere display of our pride, as an open door onto all sorts of depressions.

As indicated by Laurent Thirouin, professor of XVII century French literature in an episode of Les Minutes de Port-Royal, a mini series of videos made for the occasion of the current sanitary crisis, Pascal is no “apostle of closed doors”. He is primarily indeed, the protector of communication, and proved so when he gave up abstract sciences, which he blamed for allowing discussions with specialists only, for philosophy.

It must be also noted that Pascal initiated the first experimentation ever, of urban transports, called the carrosses à cinq sols (five-sol coaches), which allowed the different neighborhoods of Paris to be linked together in 1662.

Under Louis XIV, the carrosses à cinq sols foreshadowed the system we now know in all big cities, presenting three main characteristics, namely: a relatively low price, fixed itineraries and regular intake of passengers going from one place to another in Paris (from porte Saint-Antoine to rue Dauphine, in reference to the first line created in 1662).

Feeling that affectio societatis This concern for communication is the same one driving us to open our windows, isn’t it? The same one driving us to share our lockdown feelings on social media. Such actions of communication and socialization despite (or may be rather thanks to?) quarantine, seem to emerge as signs of some sense of co-belonging between individuals. According to the philosopher Michel Henry, this inherent autoaffection which characterizes us as living individuals — and which he was made aware of when he experienced resistance during World War II — we are feeling it in these times of confinement and isolation more than ever, as the very condition of any affectio societatis. With this notion, what we are dealing with is to retrieve, in spite of the radical singularities of our existences, our sense of co-belonging to one and a same shared life. Showing your face at the widow, thereby feeling the affectio societatis, is a way to recognize this common being, this relationality between me, we and the world which is often described in philosophies of affect in Europe and elsewhere; it is this bond that connects us with an inner network of affects on which all societal projects are built, in a way, precedes them. In truth, we are currently witnessing some kind of metaphysical experiment, one in which we are made aware of others’ humanity via “inner resonance”, that is by means of an embodied collective experience — this lockdown being currently the biggest common denominator of humanity — in which our feeling of a common condition, a common living, is growing.

This article was written in collaboration with Ghislain Deslandes, Professor of Philosophy of Sciences , ESCP Business School. This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in french.

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