The American Pandemic Experience
Baudrillard: “If you approach this [American] society with the nuances of moral, aesthetic, or critical judgment, you will miss its originality, which comes precisely from its defying judgement and pulling off a prodigious confusion of effects. To side-step that confusion and excess is simply to evade the challenge it throws down to you…you must come to see this whirl of things and events as an irresistible, fundamental datum.”
Much has been made of how America’s response to the pandemic is inextricably tied to the current political moment: our divisive politics functions as “the explanation” for why we can’t all agree on whether or not to wear masks, take a vaccine, or trust an election. This explanation is typically rooted in the notion that we’ve insulated ourselves into our own customized bubbles of information: we seek information primarily from sources whose very sustainability is tied to their ability to salve our pain, to comfort us by chasing away our doubts and guilt, keeping cognitive dissonance at bay. The functional end of mass media has led to its practical replacement by personal media, and we are now in a “new era” of political conflict. Or so the story goes…
This particular explanation is typically tied to 21st Century developments in American life – a narrative that hits on key plot points: 9/11, the war on terror, Bush’s bumbling, Obama’s optimism, Trump’s narcissism, Biden’s paternalism, the growth of digital media, shifting demographics, the concentration of wealth, the existential threat of climate change, etc. In this telling, the story of 21st Century America is one of a nation under constant threat, of a people united only by the shared trauma of long years of constant and all-consuming fear, by their shared susceptibility to populist demagoguery, and by their naivete about both past greatness and a better future. In this story, the American pandemic experience is the inevitable result of this trajectory: a predictable effect, given the causes.
Let us consider, instead, that there is an unnecessary conflation of cause and effect in this explanation. These developments and events should not be understood as the collective underlying cause of the American pandemic experience, but rather as themselves a series of connected effects. To use an analogy: these moments in American political life are each a serialized episode in an ongoing series. Our pandemic experience is not a narrative climax, it is this week’s episode of Black Mirror, or 24, or The West Wing. Its contours are the same as each prior episode: we knew what we were in for. It is not meant to be contextualized, but it can be recognized. While we may feel unmoored in our daily life, we are not actually in uncharted territory: we know how this will play out, because we’ve seen this before.
What have we seen? With the global scale of the pandemic, we’ve more clearly seen deeply-ensconced American principles thrown into sharp relief against those of the rest of the world. If, following Baudrillard, America is a nation defined by the “whirl of things and events,” the American pandemic experience is the whirl par excellance.
Baudrillard: “[America] is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe.”
In this narrative of American life, it is these core principles that serve as eternal catalysts for the events that unfold. These are not the values that Americans typically profess in public – they are less amenable to our collective conscience than ideographs like “freedom” or “justice” or “greatness”. The pandemic experience exposes the rawness of this “rotten” world; it pokes at the primitive nature of our society (Baudrillard: “[America] is the only remaining primitive society”). It is not, from this perspective, at all surprising that America is reckoning with some of its past sins – racial injustice and indifference, income inequality and poverty, etc. – at the same time that those sins are exacerbated by the present event. These events, as effects, are closely connected.
For this reason, the American pandemic experience should not be understood as a singular aberration in the story of America, but rather it must be considered as yet another “whirl,” grounded in the same primitive contradictions that formed prior events (many of which also seemed singular at the time). It is not a unique product of Facebook, Trumpism, and anti-intellectualism, it is the continuing saga of things and events. If history is at all a guide, its particulars, its players, its lessons, and its very reality will be forgotten by the next episode.
Speeding this up? The coming return to national tourism: “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.”
Baudrillard, Jean, and Geoff Dyer. America. Verso, 2010.