'Spreading Stories' - The Pandemic Academic as a Collective Online archive
Catharina Hänsel | Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Georg-August University of Göttingen and Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa
‘To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Just like many other PhD students, I had to cut short my fieldwork in India in March 2020 due to the pandemic. However, we felt fortunate and privileged that this was the only way of the virus affecting our lives. Yet, there was a strong urge to understand and reassess what was happening around us. The Pandemic Academic emerged on April 27, 2020 based on these observations – an interdisciplinary platform collecting stories of experiences by artists, students and healthcare workers in Europe and Asia. Recording the qualitative changes and ruptures over time, the Pandemic Academic became an archive of phenomena, a collective first aid kit diary. How can blogs document individual voices in the sea of noise within the world wide web?
A viral year? – online spaces during COVID
‘First, I worried about my family and friends in China. Then, this became a global pandemic.’, writes Frida, a Master’s student in the UK. This reality created ‘real physical effects’ due to the disorders it caused in mental health, as Sarah put it on the blog. Pursuing a PhD in Italy while her family lived in Egypt, she explains how the catastrophe in Beirut led her to ‘consciously switching off from the news’ since she felt powerless being at the same time connected (online) yet disconnected (in physical space) from other parts of the world. Her social media accounts had turned into ‘places of mourning’ with devastation either caused by the explosion in Lebanon or by the COVID-19 virus in Egypt and people passing away.
In times where the internet has often been the single most important tool to organise a locked-down everyday life, online tools have been lately exposed to much criticism, from mental health concerns to lack of privacy. But technology is never either good or bad, it is shaped by power relations of the underlying mode of production. Even though the internet may be shaped by tech giants such as Google and Facebook, the philosopher and activist Slavoj Žižek is calling us to form alternative networks in the form of collectives for active collaboration. Indeed, as we have spent much more time in-between physical spaces last year, we have formed so many online connections. Yet, does that mean we were able to build up meaningful networks? This is where alternative mapping tools can help by looking at the process of subject formation through narrating one’s story online. The perception of individual history is crucial for the collective pandemic memory, as an indicator of self-agency and social relations within the online system.
The first post of the Pandemic Academic appeared on April 27. On this date, most countries had imposed a lockdown. ‘It feels like everything is standing still, yet so much is eroding, moving under the surface’, reads the first note of the blog. There was a sense of numerous parallel times flowing in various directions. Whereas physical immobility led to pauses, there was a strong sense of acceleration at the same time with regulations changing overnight and borders closing. Between February 2020 and April 2020 there was hardly any country that did not restrict entry. This impacted field work, exchange programmes and work routines. Once such changes were implemented, time was suddenly beginning to feel very slow. This multiplicity of times was experienced by watching news unfold online in other parts of the world, observed from the stillness of home offices.
The relationship with the outside world was mediated by the rhythms and speeds of COVID-tests, which at some point were required to travel as far as to one’s city centre shops. The experience of time was not only stretched and contracted by test results, but also the event of testing contained various phases in time. In ‘The Pandemic as Theatre’ one Pandemic Academic author describes the processes of waiting, queueing, failing to obtain the results during a COVID test in Florence as a ‘divine comedy’ – where the flow of time becomes entirely uncontrollable with no choice but to humour one’s own misery.
These new flows of time, however, also opened up possibilities of being appropriated by students for their own benefit. Kelly from the US outlines how she used online technologies to bridge barriers of time and space she would not have crossed under different circumstances: ‘I know everyone is sick of Zoom and not being able to meet in person, but I really think that it has opened up great opportunities for connections that might not have happened otherwise. It has allowed me to reach out to more people to interview and to share my project’ She had also participated in online conferences she could have not afforded to travel to.
The Pandemic Academic Self
Sneha wrote in Delhi in July 2020: ‘Lines have been blurred and work stress and anxiety have somehow spilled all over, often taking over my entire life.’ Such confusions of the self being located in multiple spaces at the same time, yet experiencing a very static, repetitive everyday home office life led to an internalisation of divisions between work/non-work, online/offline. As the sociologist Bauman has shown, moving boundaries of power transgress bodies and minds of individuals. Objects become fluid in their identities, shaped by uncertainty and change. The process of self-narration, of telling one’s own story, serves as a tool to grapple with these fluid, divided selves.
However, there was also a lot of awareness of perspective, of looking at the pandemic crisis unfolding from the window of a relatively well-off position. For example, the account of Gerardo in Naples reverberates with the optimism of being ‘lucky’, while at the same time being very conscious about his privileged position with regards to other countries as well as non-academics, ‘between those who are fortunate enough who receive university education and between those who do other forms of training…many people in Naples work without having any contract, cash-in-hand.’
Yet, this perspective was also subject to questioning the category of ‘home’ in itself. Three students enrolled in the University of Edinburgh shared their experience of being from China and India, faced with the difficult decision of either leaving the UK to unite with their family or staying. As Blessy from India reports, ‘Anxiety levels were high, with some saying, If I have to die, I want to die with them, I don’t want to be left to my own devices in a foreign country and my body could not be returned to my home.‘ She and her friends eventually decided to stay and form a community of a shared flat to make a home together. However, this was not always easy, since they encountered ‘racist attacks’ in the UK, particularly with regards to wearing masks in public. Mingxi elaborates that this was initially a practice mostly followed by the Asian community, whereas others were hesitant and even challenging outright those who wore masks. She comments: ‘I was wearing a mask because I wanted to protect me and people around me as well. I am fine if everyone is not comfortable putting on masks but it was hard to understand why people were so actively against it.’
Conquering online and offline spaces
How to conquer spaces online and offline which increasingly seemed to be frightening and divisive spheres during the pandemic? In times of increasing isolation, seeing people connecting in public spaces became an extraordinary experience. This was especially true during the short period between the first and the second wave. Physical presence suddenly presented the opportunity to convey strong messages. This happened for example in Israel, as Or from Tel Aviv explained. She had been one of the first participants in the movement against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu which had grown increasingly stronger despite, or probably because of, the pandemic conditions with ‘the act of walking together itself being a sign of contention.’
Maria, a PhD student from Romania who was stuck in India with her fieldwork interrupted, co-founded an initiative for the self-organisation of community kitchens for stranded workers in Delhi. She observed new connections being forged: ‘In a moment of crisis, these caste stigmas related to food preparation seemed to become lifted. There was also a lot of inter-religious exchange.’’
All these examples show a re-evaluation of what it means to be connected, which did not necessarily break with old forms of communication and common action, but still hint at shifting territories potentially being transformative, such as the re-valuing of community and the strong acknowledgment of other’s presence.
This is still a history in progress and there is more need for documentation than interpretation, as many directionalities of the virus are still unforeseen. Overall, the blog rendered visible a strong sense of shared experiences of divisions. Three divisions, causing varying degrees of stress, were discussed the most on the Pandemic Academic: being between homes, within homes and inside of individual’s minds. This growing tendency to internalise such divisions may not be new, but it was definitely accelerated by the pandemic.
We can counter these divisions with a process of online archiving and storytelling. The memory of the pandemic can only be complete if we include as many voices as possible, by forming decentralised yet connected networks of resistance and support. As stories spread, so does peoples' awareness of not being alone. Even though modes of connections have changed and may be altered by the technologies we use, we are still connected.
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Catharina Haensel is a Ph.D student of Global History and Governance at the ScuolaNormale Superiore, Pisa (Italy) and the University of Goettingen (Germany). With an interest in the future of historical methods, she founded Pandemic Academic in April 2020, a platform documenting the impact of COVID-19 on academics and frontline workers.