The fourth instalment of Reflections in the time of COVID-19 comes from Kira Lussier, a historian of psychology at the University of Toronto
It feels strange to be a historian living through historic times. In some ways, historians are the least well-suited people to write timely reflections on current events. I was drawn to become a historian, after all, because I felt a need for time and distance to reflect to understand what mattered. Yet it’s also hard to resist the pull of imagining how historians will treat the historic moments that my generation lived through, be it 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Trump’s election and now, a global pandemic. Less world-historically, I wonder how the future version of me would reflect back on these moments, asking how my own tiny limited experience of an event would fit into the grander historical narrative.
At the beginning of this crisis, I resolved to be a good historian and keep a journal of this historic time, for some sort of posterity. Ambitiously, I even divided the journal into sections for ‘news’ and ‘personal thoughts’; I wondered what format would best allow it to be preserved for posterity, settling on Microsoft Word, that old frenemy of mine. I dutifully recorded a few pages in the ides of March, when the news changed so fast—borders closed, restaurants shuttered, bylaws enacted, gatherings banned. It was a strange kind of news to be transcribing into a private diary: public news, on a global, national, provincial, municipal scale, that paradoxically made my world smaller and smaller until the only space allowed was the most private. A public, collective, shared, mandated privacy.
My small slice of experience is comparable to the experience of many others, and yet I’m acutely aware of how radically different, limited, and fortunate my tiny slice of quarantine is.
Every single day, I reflect on the good fortune and luck, the draw of the cards, the privilege, I carry with me—my housing, family, financial situation all contribute to making this situation decidedly easier on me than others. And so it feels the height of whininess to say; I’m bored, I miss my friends, when so many are acutely suffering, when the faultlines of an unequal society are cracking open, when so many have it worse than me. Those two thoughts tangle in my head, a wicked ouroboros—don’t complain you’re fine and, the other snake, you’re allowed to feel sad that everything is cancelled. All I’ve concluded is that both things can be true. Boredom is a luxury, but a consolation prize. Loneliness is bearable, but it also sucks.
There has been no dearth of creativity in getting our social fix. Zoom dinner parties! Online cards games! Distanced porch hellos and drive-by waves! More phone calls than I’ve had in the past year. By now, the initial novelty has faded into the gradual recognition that videos don’t replace the sights, smells, feelings, of other people. Across vast differences in cultures and communities, humans share the impulse to gather together; to drink and eat together, whatever the particularities of the food and drink are; to mark milestones, to mourn losses. Selfishly, I want to hold my friend’s babies, drink an overpriced beer somewhere other than my couch, stand in a crowd of people and feel the collective pulse of live music, to invite friends back into my home and break bread. I want spontaneous encounters, gestures, days, feelings— spontaneous anything. I miss the feeling that home is one place among many, that there are places to go; that home is a refuge from the world, not the only world.
The strangest, most unsettling, and most depressing part of the current reality is this flattening of time. The disappearance, diminishment, flattening of The Future, that far-off place, a foggy horizon. Until confronted with the foggy, diminishing horizon, I hadn’t realized how much hope, thoughts, plans, even anxieties about the future guide me and shape my daily reality. Planning the next trip, the next conference; what I’ll do on the weekend; where I’ll be a year from now. When that all gets yanked away, what’s left? Another hour passes by, another day as monotonous as the next one. Wake up, work, send emails, write some things, take a break, eat lunch, drink another coffee, work some more, procrastinate on the internet, finish work, open a beer, chop an onion, consume some media, wash the dishes, feed sourdough starter, do a load of laundry, rinse, repeat.
I remarked, in this early journal, about the dilation and extension and compression of time all at once: each day, a week’s worth of news transpired. Things you did a day ago, a week ago, that seemed normal now appeared foolish beyond fathom. Journaling was one way of coping with the onslaught of news, a strategy that allowed me to marshal and mage the grim statistics, the dire projections. I swung from endless doomscrolling, determined to absorb every last piece of news, and utter withdrawal, plugging my ears to avoid even the most casual references to COVID in conversations with friends. Since those early days, the journal languished, with only the most sporadic entries jotted down during moments of particular despair. I flushed my sourdough starter down the toilet, having learned that a global pandemic does not inspire me to bake my own bread.
So much control has been taken away from me, choices so circumscribed, that the texture of my anxiety has changed. My old decision fatigue has vanished, replaced by other kinds of concerns. I’ve given myself up, realized how powerless I am in—we all are—in the face of natural forces and governmental decrees. The existential anxiety remains, amplifies, percolates in the background of newly monotonous days. The future is always a radically uncertain place, despite all the best-laid plans, but now it has become almost unimaginable.
On a collective level, discussions of the future of work, future of technology, future of university, always struck me as futile, or maybe just naïve. The history of attempts to forecast the future are, well, embarrassing, just as our predictions will be embarrassing too. And yet, for this historian of work, it’s impossible not to imagine new futures of work, given the way that work is being altered right now. In a grand social experiment, millions of people are newly working from kitchen tables and couches. They are logging into multiple software platforms to hold virtual meetings and webinars, sending more emails than ever, and video chatting with their colleagues who are holed up in their respective homes. For this class of white-collar, professional, knowledge workers, their jobs can be done with a computer and an Internet connection. And yet, despite all the guidelines to remote work available, the technical possibilities of working from wherever, they are trying to work while parenting and home-schooling, or work while worrying about layoffs or non-renewal of contracts. Millions of other essential workers risk exposure for low pay and less respect. The unequal burdens of risk and labor have always been there, but it becomes impossible to avoid seeing them now.
What does work mean, and what will it mean? Where are the spaces of work? What work is essential, and which is not? What is the future of remote work, open offices, union movements? Talk that a month ago seemed radical (a universal basic income? A living wage?) are now legitimate policy plans—glimmers of hope that, out of crisis, new ways of being, living, working, might emerge. At least, that’s what I believe during my more optimistic days. During my more pessimistic days, I see the further entrenchment of inequality, I see some companies profiting off pandemic while low-paid care workers perform care labor with no protection and less pay. The future of work might look a lot like the history of work.
At a moment when the future seems to radically unknown, it is no wonder so many are reaching to the past, a terrain that seems more familiar than our own reality. My social media feeds are filled with people reaching for history to make sense of a moment that otherwise feels singular and unprecedented. The 1918 flu, SARS, the Black Death, world wars, are all mined for lessons and cautionary tales. Like a news-hungry Goldilocks, we want to know: did we [our town, our province, our nation], under-react, over-react, or react just right? Counter-factual history seems better-suited to novelists than to academic historians, and I’m already imagining the counter-factual tales to come out of COVD-19.
In these early days of quarantine, I resolved to create a scrapbook of newspaper articles about COVID-19 (and to make use of the stacks of month-old newspapers cluttering up my living room). I came across a headline from February about the ‘promising state of the US economy,’ and the low risks of falling into a recession. I could only laugh in response (and post it on Instagram, of course). This current crisis has shown how radically uncertain and unknowable the future is. But, perversely, it has shown how much we rely on the future to guide our present lives.
On one grey Toronto day, I walked through High Park and stumbled upon the deserted amphitheatre, used for theatre performances in sunnier, less distanced days. It felt like a dream and a metaphor all in one. I paced up and down the stairs through seats usually field with revellers, picnicking and watching theatre, bodies pressed close together in sticky summer nights. In the absence of us, there are so many presences. Red-winged blackbirds peck at trees, foraging for dinner; ducks swim, fly, dive for food. Dogs get walked by their owners, runners and bikers passed by on roads newly cleared of cars. High Park is shuttered now, barricaded to prevent hordes flocking to view the blink of an eye that is cherry blossom season.
Despite our perceptions, time does, stubbornly, march on. Each time I take a walk, I pass by the same plot of land, a sloping, wild garden. I watched the first flowers poke out of the ground, tentatively, and bloom; others followed, white, red, vibrant purples and yellows, unfurl. Hair grows, with no barbers to trim. Flowers bloom. Dust accumulates in the corners of my apartment. This too will pass.
Kira Lussier is a historian of psychology and work in 20th-century North America. She holds a PhD in history of science from the University of Toronto, and currently works is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is working on a book manuscript on the history of corporate personality testing.