‘That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination…’
– Hannah Arendt in Men in Dark Times (:ix).
The present pandemic of Covid-19 despite being a crisis is also illuminating for us, as it lays open those fissures and gaps that have been immanent in our lives and world structures. It has revealed all those secret wounds that we have been hiding in the name of civility and it now falls on us whether we choose to take care of these wounds by attending to them or we continue to hide them as if they don’t exist. Agamben (2016) captures the monstrous secrecy of our lives by pointing out how ‘life is truly like the stolen fox that the boy hid under his clothes and that he cannot confess to even though it is savagely tearing at his flesh’ ( Agamben refers to Montaigne quote here that reads, ‘A boy from Sparta stole a fox and hit it under his cloak, and because his people, in their foolishness, were more ashamed of a botched robbery than we fear punishment, he let it gnaw his belly rather than be discovered’ (Essais, I, XIV)
The pandemic has revealed the fragility of our lives, relationships as well as larger systemic processes and structures. It is not adequate on our part to completely blame this almost invisible, insignificant virus for the downfall that humanity is witnessing, as the foundations of our world has been fraught with these fissures which are revealed to us now. Virus’s role in the present downfall of our structures is not more than that of a catalyst. The world that is crumbling down – most visible in the case of the economy and health – had fragile foundations and all it needed was a little push to experience its own precariousness as it crumbles down. They were fraught with so many fissures that their downfall was bound to come. Our tendency to blame the virus for the destruction and the downfall that we are witnessing only demonstrates our inability to face those gaps and fissures that are inherent in our selves, relationships, work culture as well as in our larger world structures. By scapegoating the virus, as a human race we risk getting distracted and miss an opportune moment of confronting and addressing these fissures. Zizek (2020) summarizes this sentiment well when he calls it a stupid, idiotic virus which shouldn’t get more importance than what it deserves.
Gap between the past and the future
Arendt in the section on ‘The gap between past and future’ in her ground-breaking work The Life of Mind, point out the time sequence of ordinary life, where three tenses, i.e. past, present and future smoothly follow each other. For her, we owe this ‘time continuum not to time itself but to the continuity of our business and other activities in the world, in which we continue what we started yesterday and hope to finish tomorrow’ (:205).
The human race today is witnessing an unprecedented interruption in the ordinary, everyday humdrum of life that was continuing before COVID 19 had hit us. As we experience a halt in all the spheres of our life, we can also witness this interruption of businesses and activities bringing disruption in our experience of time. In other words, this crisis has brought break in the temporal continuity that is otherwise experienced by human beings. Today we experience our present as a gap and an in-betweenness, as its earlier continuity with past and future lie in abeyance.
Capitalist response to this temporal interruption is notable which also summarizes their tendency to exploit crisis. In an attempt to salvage the temporal continuity, it posits present as abnormal, while past is attributed with normalcy. In this frame, future is then projected as a recourse to the normal past, as attempts are made to retrieve that past. Hence, it is the future past that we are looking forward to when we imagine the post-crisis world. In other words, by posing present as abnormal, it intends to repeat the past, by not just glossing over the problems and challenges which it was fraught with, but even intensifying them further. Such a repetition then becomes a ground for further crisis, which is again benefitted by capitalist forces. For instance, in the present times, we all are made to look back at our past wistfully, same past that had gaps and problems, and it is the digitalization that offers this recourse to the normal past.
Instead of ignoring and covering the gap in our experience of time as well as in the everyday business and activities, we need to affirm it. It provides us with an opportunity to address those holes that had punctured our earlier lived lives, relationships, as well as the world structures and processes with which we were living. Philosophers like Arendt and Levinas find more reasons to have faith in this timelessness of present as it exists as a gap. When affirmed, it can be site of creativity and productive work. Arendt locates thinking on this important gap which has a potential to explore more possibilities, as is clear from her following long comment,
‘In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of “umpire,” of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about’ (ibid.: 209-210).
Hence, it is exactly this break or gap that needs to be asserted even if it makes us anxious. The response to this break is not to salvage the past, by attributing normalcy to it, and thinking of future in terms of the continuity with the past. If for the imminent future, we would be replicating that past then the illumination that is bound to come from this crisis and from this darkness would be lost for ever.
Crisis, capitalism and education
Our response to the pandemic has to be cognizant of the relationship that capitalism shares with crisis. Capitalism has an important linkage with crisis, and after every crisis, it spirals up, and doesn’t go down. These are the forces that exactly know how to appropriate and exploit the crisis times, laying the base for new normal for the post crisis phase, stabilizing themselves till the next crisis comes. Education is one such realm where this move is visible in the name of digitalization. We are entering into a world where virtual platform is clearly spreading its roots, as schools, colleges and universities are forced to go online. With unending online classes, webinars, mock test, open book tests, we find a wave of digital education.
In what seems to be a recourse to education, this mindless rush into online education will further mutate our formal education processes by only intensifying their exclusionary, mechanical, utilitarian, meritocratic nature. Hence, there lies a sense of urgency with which educators need to address the chasm being laid open by COVID 19 before capitalist forces completely appropriate it.
If on one hand, educators are still grappling and wondering about the response to this crisis, we find market forces on the other hand with these ready-made implementable modules and packages for classes, practicals and even examinations. The unfortunate part is reaching that point in our society where we lack the confidence and courage to assert the ability to wonder and imagine in the face of instrumental, utilitarian forces, as is clear from the popularity and the solid ground that online education is able to garner for itself; however it is catastrophic when both these positions become oppositions with no space for dialogue between the two. Consequently, either we choose not to adopt online mode and be seen as luddite, or we succumb to market forces and let big corporates decide on the direction that education is going to take. It is this conundrum that has become the existential crisis of most of the educators. Knowing the divisive nature of technology and the exploitative tendency of capitalist forces, educators are not wrong in finding former to be a tempting choice.
Despite being a sound and a sensible option, it has become important for educators to abandon their own diffidence to technology, specifically towards online education, and ask questions that make it accountable and non-permanent. While universities and schools would push for virtual platform even in the post-covid world, it is important to challenge and question these tendencies and moves. For doing so, we must enter in this space, before it gets totally appropriated by market. Unless educators and civil society learn to engage with it, challenge it and make it accountable even as a temporary solution, we will only find an intellectual chasm between these two positions, as capitalism would fill this void with real, irreversible consequences.
Jyoti Dalal is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi, New Delhi.