Tantalus. Oil painting by Gioacchino Assereto (circa 1640s) / Alte Galerie at Landesmuseum Joanneum, Schloss Eggenberg, Eggenberger Allee 90, A-8020 Graz / (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

COVID-19 and Our Purgatory of Consumerism

Our pandemic quarantine has become the sublime enactment of Baudrillard's theory of consumption – that modern consumption, with its myth of individual liberty and choice, is in fact 'de-socialising'.

Take heed that thou wash said the Angel to Dante before opening the gates to the Purgatory with two keys, a silver key for remorse and a gold key for reconciliation. Irrespective of where the path leads henceforth, this is where COVID-19 has placed us. In the purgatory of our normal, the normal we regard as the endowment of our “advanced world” with its material bounty and its banishment of uncertainty. Yet in this purgatory, the entire dramaturgy is dictated by the one thing and one thing alone: the R number, whose value is the measure of COVID-19’s capacity to spread.

In simple terms, a value of R above 1 means COVID-19’s spread can increase exponentially, a value below 1 means its spread is shrinking. So below 1, we can come out of the enclosure of our forced quarantines to a semblance of normality; and when it goes above that number again, we can go back into — for those of us who are able — our domestic confinement. The value of R trumps the Wall Street index, the Footsie index, and the Dow Jones as the barometer of what matters now. R is a number that rules and its value is entirely dependent on us, as it’s only through our social interaction that the virus spreads. Nothing contrived by nature could be more democratic, more simple than R.

In an imagined post-COVID future, an old man recollects the corona Winter of 2020, when the second wave arrived. An invisible danger threatened everything we believed, as the script reads with a call: Special times require special heroes. Our hero answered the call. He rose to the challenge, he did the right thing, the only thing he could have done. Which was nothing, absolutely nothing.

But what the German state video hides in the messaging is the reality of absolutely nothing in an affluent post-industrial society. To do nothing means to do nothing but consume – buy online, eat takeaways, watch TV, consume as much media as possible, and engage in social media. Zoom, Skype, Whatsapp, Netflix. In our isolation our appetite becomes insatiable, we are stuck to our screens, wired into our apps – these are our means of escape. We watch, see, talk to but we can’t touch or be with. It’s as if our technology has recreated the character of Tantalus right out of Dante’s purgatory. The Tantalus who, in the ancient Greek myth, is condemned to stand in a pool of clear water beneath a low hanging fruit tree; when he reaches for the fruit, the branches rise up; when he bends down to drink, the waters recede.

So it is in our contemporary purgatory as the R value goes up and down. In our pandemic purgatory, we are being tantalised. Stuck indoors we consume the things that heighten our deprivation. The tabloids and media networks taunt us with social distancing songs and “quarantunes”. We crave human contact, we crave the touch and the feel but mass media and pop culture betray us. We fail to realise, as Spencer Kornhaber points out in The Atlantic, that Pop Music’s Version of Life Doesn’t Exist Anymore.

Kornhaber writes, “songs of bodily contact tend to rely on exciting rhythms, obsessive mantras, sharp dynamic peaks, and a sense of gathering frenzy. They care less for romance than for flirtation, lust, body brushes, and onetime make-outs. But their real purpose can be as an everyday utility. They convert the listener’s on-the-couch inertia into out-the-door vim. They conjure the motivating thought of weekend messes and mingles, and then they soundtrack them.” Reeling off a playlist, Kornhaber suggestively refers to a “party so hot that sweat drips off the walls” only to ask, it all seems a bit disgusting right now, doesn’t it?

The question doesn’t apply only to hedonist party goers – it has far broader connotations in the making of contemporary desire and how the beat and rhythm of pop syncs the world of mass consumption.

Times have changed cus I always go in but now I wanna go out/ Show out/ In the cut like I put the phone down / Put my clothes on but for what really don’t count / Segway down the hallway Fifa on the couch….

Lady Leshurr’s rap lyrics draw out the culture shifts. First from rapping about etiquette in crowded dance floors to the newfound bodily hygiene in her Quarantine Speech. And then onto the neurosis of social isolation in “(Ft Busy Signal) Quaranting“as everyday rituals turn meaningless.

Feels like I’m sitting in a cell / Eating junk food all day nothing else / Been cooking up taking bare selfies in house / Tryna get my hair did wanna do my nails /

So it is in the purgatory of the digital age. Tantalus returns to bring us a new form of alienation, in a mix we can barely swallow – connection, disconnection, isolation, powerlessness, omnipotence, confusion, detachment, anxiety, loss of our normal. Our alienation in this pandemic is, of course, rooted in the alienation innate to modern life Karl Marx identified via Ludwig Feuerbach (that with God begins the alienation of the human from its own being). Marx extrapolated this; for him, alienation in the modern sense lay in the fragmentation that capitalism brought about in artificial (social) environments. Like the factory with its machinic routine where we were reshaped for work as atomised individuals. The nature of its labor tore us out of the web of pre-modern life relations in their totality.

As Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), “In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.” These lines also tear at the circumstance of where we are now. There is the inner alienation or estrangement from our own nature and each other as from our greater ‘species-being’. But further, it is by how COVID-19 has so literally turned our animal bodies to disadvantage that Marx’s lines renew with a significance. Our alienation is now compounded. To capitalism’s tearing us away from each other in spirit, each in our atomised existence, is added enforced physical separation by the pandemic. The organic body becomes the disadvantage, the danger.

The signs are everywhere. Stay 2 meters apart. In a way the specificity of a new alienation is to be found in the misnomer ‘social distancing’; as a term of what it actually demands: physical distance. But in how one means the other, or one substitutes the other reveals the mutation in the nature of modern alienation as Marx would define it. A mutation of the body against the spirit so the alienation that sustains the normal is irrevocably changing or possibly has changed without us knowing it. What we are experiencing today is as much this mutation of alienation, a pandemic alienation against the alienation modern life has habituated us into, our normal.

A new alienation comes from how COVID-19 has broken up both the rituals (of social contact) and the routine (of work and leisure) on which the normal is based. The way the pandemic has done that selectively (between those who must stay with it and work and those placed in the do-nothing enclosure of ‘enforced leisure’) has exposed deeper fault-lines in the nature of our normal. That it is built on and cares the more,
not for those who work, but for those who consume. That the pandemic draws out the distinction the philosopher Jean Baudrillard makes in The Consumer Society (1970) that consumption unlike work is structural and obligatory, the “social fact” that plays the defining role in the making of our society which masquerades as choice. Choice comes bundled with work, liberty, and leisure but, as Baudrillard says, “The apparent division into working time and leisure time — the latter ushering in the transcendent sphere of liberty — is a myth”.

The myth that rules our liberty is exercised as the choice which, in all its infinitesimal splendour, runs to the one and same factory: the desire factory where information and enjoyment and fun become drivers for the compulsion to consume. Without this factory, its commercialisation of alienation, the machinery of our social order that depends on superfluous consumption as our normal would grind to a halt.

This is
why our corona purgatory is different to the mediaeval purgatory. If overconsumption or gluttony was once a failing of individual morals, in our society superfluous consumption is necessary to maintain our normal, its margin of profit. Our modern social rituals have been designed to enable that. Wasteful consumption becomes functional, systemic; hence the “social fact” that lies outside of morality. We balance alienation with consumption. To quote Baudrillard, “Just as medieval society was balanced on God and the Devil, so ours is balanced on consumption and its denunciation.”

My iPhone goes ping ping… But it’s not a ting ting… Got money in the bank like Ching Ching .. And I shine like bling bling …So don’t start me up like an engine .. Skrrrr!

In a few words, Lady Leshurr raps the whole cycle for us, but this is pre-corona Lady Leshurr in her “Queens Speech Episode 3“. How would a Queens Speech post-corona sound after the cumulative effect of month after month of quarantine and the absence of normal social interaction? Virtual socialisation becomes the stable source of our daily dose of dopamine (the hormonal triggers in the brain that reward our sense of selfhood). A new alienation incubates in this environment, in a sea of information and misinformation, anxieties and insecurity called the infodemic. The infodemic that, according to the WHO, causes greater harm than the pandemic. The WHO warns of its dangers as conspiracy theories roam in its space; the G5 conspiracy, libertarian ideologies like QAnon, the anti-vaxx movement, and so on. But through this pandemic-infodemic quarantine, we are being subliminally impelled day by day to a new place, a new state of mental order, and a re-emergence.

An argument that the pandemic could in fact be pushing us to a new world and a new normal is one that the philosopher
Slavoj Zizek makes. As he writes in RT, “It’s time to accept that the pandemic has changed the way we exist forever. Now the human race has to embark on the profoundly difficult and painful process of deciding what form the ‘new normality’ is going to take.” Zizek suggests that if the first wave of the pandemic was marked by the death count, the second wave consolidates long-term economic damage. However, he warns that “if the vaccines will not prevent the third wave, one can be sure that its focus will be on mental health, on the devastating consequences of the disappearance of what we perceive as normal social life.”

For Zizek, the pandemic marks a turning point. His post-COVID projection lies in what he calls a ‘post-human’ world fundamentally different from the one we are in now. It would be a time when the ‘heroes for special times’ messaging no longer works. When we realise the normal is lost, that its desire factory does not feed us our hormonal fix. This hypothesis turning real would be the new normal the pandemic brings.

“Which word in your language do you especially like? What was the last snippet of a sentence you overheard coming out of someone else’s mouth, whether or not the meaning was clear, or if the words were addressed to you?” These are questions Blixa Bargeld of the German experimental group Einstürzende Neubauten put out in a call to supporters scattered in different countries. In our dispersed domestic confinement, this becomes a poignant mirroring of the way Einstürzende Neubauten’s work is sustained financially by contributions from its network. Einstürzende Neubauten harvests the pandemic alienation.

The Alles in Allem album is released in May at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. The result, according to Hendrik Otremba, the musician, author, and visual artist writing in KTT Berlin, is “a song [Ten Grand Goldie] that pre-formulated the album [Alles in Allem] epilogically, in which Bargeld’s text fragments and the callers’ answers got woven into a narrative.”

If the term ‘epilogical’ implies an ‘end-is-in-the-beginning’ fable, we can read the outcomes through the Ten Grand Goldie song. The lyrics begin with Fatherfiguretraitor and mothercornflowerblue, here come the daughters of the desert and the sons of snakes, My family, exactly.

Blixa Bargeld, masked, sings the nature of our self-betrayal, our purgation. The enclosure, the limbo, the separation, the uncertainty, the hope. At the end, there is the promise. See you in the aftermath… See you in the aftermath. Then there is the resignation.Nothing works, nothing works … Nothing works, nothing works.

We live this limbo, in the zoom world of our living rooms and bedrooms. It intensifies our craving for the normal that brought us here, to this purgatory where confinement can be recompensed by consumption. Which is why Bargeld does not forget to ask of ‘Ten Grand Goldie’ the all important question: Will she pay by card?

Our pandemic quarantine has become the sublime enactment of Baudrillard’s theory of consumption – that modern consumption, with its myth of individual liberty and choice, is in fact ‘de-socialising’. In the de-socialised spaces of our domestic quarantines what unfolds is the terror of this myth. Baudrillard describes it all in a chapter on anomie in the affluent society. Anomie the sister of alienation as the loss of moral bearings and “normlessness”, out of which comes “the real, uncontrollable violence secreted by plenty and security”. As the ‘objectless’ violence “virtually endemic in all developed or overdeveloped countries” that emerges from the “fundamental contradictions of affluence“. Which is that modern affluence requires and creates scarcity. For unlike affluence in primitive society, which had little use for accumulation or monopoly, Baudrillard tells us that affluence now demands it to sustain its social order of consumption, the means by which we can identify and support our selfs in a world of personal self-hoods.

So it is from the consumption bubbles of our private lockdowns and quarantines that the outcomes of the pandemic spill out. The virtual malls are open 24/7. Amazon, Zoom, Facebook, Whatsapps, Netflix. It’s a bonanza. As the Guardian Observer lists, “ten of the richest people in the world have boosted their already vast wealth by more than $400bn (£296bn) since the coronavirus pandemic”. But by its logic over the same months, millions are pushed into poverty and reliance on charity handouts and foodbanks. Report after report from thinktanks in Britain – the Legatum Institute or the IPPR — detail newly created poverty, above and over what we regard as our normal — the 20% of the British population that already live in poverty.

But in this pandemic purgatory, moralising on inequality doesn’t work. We are in a 21 st century post-morality purgatory. The pre-modern medieval purgatory offered remorse and reconciliation as a way out. But not today. Our way out of this purgatory is the same as the way in. It’s why even as the ground of modern desire is being broken down by the virus, the desire factory works overtime through the pandemic, it plays the same tunes as before. It tells us that the contract of consumption must be fulfilled, for us to return to our normal. That is the real work in this pandemic.

Far from Zizek’s vision of a post-human new normal, from the summit of our purgatorial mount, our Christmas of quarantine, the conflicts that beset us could not be more clear. The politicians’ promise of Easter as the new Christmas is not Orwellian double-speak, but to throw us life jackets to hold on to. To hold on to the belief in our normal. We must be patient, we must do nothing. For the redemption by the vaccine is upon us and our normal will be returned to us in the post-COVID vita nova new life.

But as the pandemic loosens the moorings with each month, inner conflicts become unbearable. The agony of Tantalus is everywhere. It pushes our compounded alienation to the point of the uncontainable. Modern sirens appear in the form of social media apps like vybe with the lure of illicit gatherings where we can mix freely once more in laughter and gaiety. A taboo to be damned in this pandemic purgatory at the mercy of R.

Yet the affirmation the virus brings to us in its universal purgatory is the necessity for humans to be together; that separation is the bearer of our alienation. We understand this perfectly now, and yet we crave so badly the very means by which we got here – our normal. So in the separation of the spirit at the heart of modern life and the separation of the body in quarantine, in the alienation upon alienation, we fail to recognise the nature of choice the pandemic presents. That the subject for redemption is not us, but our normal.

We are in the purgatory of the normal. A place where, at the stroke of the New Year, fireworks blaze and thunder over the river Thames and we are showered with light and hope, whilst police sirens wail and blare all night to keep us apart.

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Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society Myths and Structures. Sage Publishing 1970

Einstürzende, Neubautenm. “Alles in Allem”. 2020

IPPR (The Progressive Policy Thinktank) “1.1 million more people face poverty at end of 2020 as a result of coronavirus pandemic, finds IPPR” 6 April 2020

Kornhaber, Spencer. “Pop Music’s Version of Life Doesn’t Exist Anymore“. The Atl antic. 19 March 2020

Lady Leshurr. ” (Ft Busy Signal) Quaranting“. YouTube. 2020

Lady Leshurr. “Queens Speech Ep. 3“. YouTube. 2016

Legatum Institute. “Poverty during the Covid-19 crisis“. 30 November 2020

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. 1844

Neate, Rupert. “Wealth and COVID-19 Report“. Guardian Observer. 19 December 2020

Otremba, Hendrik. “Einstürzende Neubauten: Alles in Allem (2020)“. KTT Berlin. 2020

WHO (World Health Organisation) Managing the COVID-19 infodemic. September 2020.

Zizek, Slavoj. “There will be no return to normality after COVID“. Russia Times. 8 December 2020