M4C Logo AHRC Logo

Pandemic Perspectives

Historians, Philosophers and other thinkers debating the post-covid future

Pandemic Perspectives: A call to arms for the relevance of the humanities. 

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, I found myself, perhaps like everyone else, endlessly speculating on the long-term impact of covid-19. I also found myself struggling to reach even the most tentative conclusions as to how the post-covid future would unfurl, as each time I poked at one aspect of the virus’ potential impact, the ripples spread outward in waves of ever-increasing complexity, leaving me bewildered. The best I could achieve were two, fairly banal, thoughts: that more people would work from home, and that we wouldn’t be travelling internationally for some time. However, even if the consequences of the pandemic were limited to these two elements alone, it seemed to me that the changes to the global and national economy, patterns of consumption, the spatial ordering of cities, domestic life and the environment would be so significant, that the post-covid world would be profoundly different to the world we had known before. The depth of any changes would, of course, depend on how long the crisis lasted, and that was, and remains, unknown, but I felt a desperate need to talk about it with others, and, as a historian, felt that I needed to connect with the practitioners of our discipline, who as people whose preoccupation was reading the past to look at patterns of change over time, would have a unique insight.

To that end, I initially contacted my university, assuming that the academic staff would share my preoccupation, and envisaged myself sitting in the corner of online seminars, listening in while the brilliant minds of the faculty engaged in heated debate. However, whilst the response was encouraging, it became clear that the academic staff were largely preoccupied by fire-fighting, coping with both frantically re-writing the entire teaching programme in order to be able to deliver it virtually, and the severe blow to the university business model that covid had brought about. There was no seminar I could join. (For covid and the university sector – see https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/08/08/covid-19-will-be-painful-for-universities-but-also-bring-change)

Undaunted, I decided to set up my own, and, in an entirely unmethodical manner, contacted people I had met, liked and found shockingly clever, (the great benefit of academia being that people with these characteristics are in ready supply), and created a weekly online discussion group that we later called ‘pandemic perspectives’. I was highly fortunate in my random selection, which, despite, my initial thoughts regarding the unique role of historians, was interdisciplinary from the outset. Comprising literature researchers working on accelerationism, dystopias and the impact of the black death, historians of long-distance communication, cities in the ancient world, financial crisis in revolutionary France and masculinity, philosophers studying the concept of freedom in Nietzsche and the rights of animals and a sociologist looking at Muslim identity in Britain.

We began meeting weekly on zoom in April 2020 and are still going strong in late August.

I’m tempted to try and summarise the nature and content of the debate: the profound disagreement between my optimistic view that despite the terrible loss of life, the pandemic was an opportunity for positive social change, and that of the majority of the group who viewed the changes as being at best transient, leaving the ‘new normal’ looking much like the old normal, or negative, seeing the crises as an opportunity for entrenched power to gain greater purchase and would lead to a further increase in already unsustainable inequality. But my purpose in penning this article was not to share our insights and tentative conclusions, but to argue that for the importance of this kind of collective debate during both a global crisis and at a time when the humanities themselves are under severe threat.

Historians, as natural empiricists, are nervous about speculating over ‘future history’. In addition, a whole generation of scholars have not only presided over the death of meta-narratives and great theories of historical change, but whose right-minded investigation into the specificity of experience has belied such approaches, forcing us further into our own micro-disciplines and led us to believe that history has little to contribute in understanding our present and is of even less value in predicting or shaping its future. Perhaps typically, Ernesto Fernandez-Armesto, despite the sweeping nature of his overview of human civilizations, states at the outset ‘I disbelieve in patterns and am sceptical about development.’ [1] My claim here is not that historians have any preternatural power to envisage the future, or that it runs on synchronous predictive tracks uninfluenced by contingency and accident, but that, if we pool our collective expertise we possess a unique body of knowledge and understanding that does, and should, be brought to bear in both debating and influencing the future ahead of us. Geoff Mulgan recently made a similar call to arms for the social sciences,  https://campaignforsocialscience.org.uk/news/social-sciences-and-social-imagination/ bemoaning that ‘one of the less attractive legacies of several decades of post-structuralism and post-modernism is that many academics believe they have much more of a duty to critique than to propose or create’, and that what future-orientated work was taking place was only in ‘small pockets’ and is perceived as ‘marginal’.

In addition, whilst I would like to lay claim to history as the all-encompassing Ur-discipline, it is clear that such informed debate is immeasurably enhanced by interdisciplinarity. Contemplating the future requires creative imagination, which literature researchers can provide, and the contribution of an expert on dystopias, where a myriad of future scenarios have already been worked through, and another looking at technological anticipation in the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, JG Ballard and accelerationism, have been a tremendous assets to our group.[2] Despite Lachenal & Thomas’ pessimism, https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/covid-19-when-history-has-no-lessons/ , I contest that medieval and ancient historians do possess  important insights derived from the impact of plague and pestilence on past societies. The relevance of a historian of economic crises scarcely needs pointing out, and although our group’s representative specialises in the travails of revolutionary France, he guided us toward Rebecca Sprang’s article that argues for the contemporary relevance of the events of 1789, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/revolution-only-getting-started/609463/  Different specialisms bring different perspectives, often throwing up questions the others in the group would never had contemplated, of which philosopher Will Gilead’s work on morality and animal rights is a pertinent example, https://theecologist.org/2020/jul/09/meat-and-pandemics-surprising-link The arrival of a sociologist in our group not only seemed a necessary part of the jigsaw puzzle, but also led debate into the issue of the impact of the pandemic on both faith and organised religion, areas that were beyond the purview of the rest of us. My own research on homelessness was significantly altered by the pandemic, and its relevance to contemporary social policy, perhaps increased. https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/covid-19-the-end-of-homelessness/

Hence the subtitle of this piece as, ‘A call to arms for the humanities’. At a time when the government seems to be questioning whether studying the arts holds any value whatsoever, the, sometimes awkward, process of stepping beyond our specialisms and disciplines, allowing ourselves to re-contemplate the existence of patterns and trends in history, speculate about their likely development, and engage with the present and the future, seems a vital direction for us to take. We do have unique insights and expertise and we should use them.

I’ll end with a proposal. Many of you may have already formed groups like ‘pandemic perspectives’ and be debating the very same issues in different configurations of disciplines. If you haven’t yet done so, why not flick through your contacts list and set up a pandemic perspectives group? Geographical distance is no obstacle in the age of zoom, and even if you have yet to be persuaded that such dialogue has importance, it’s certainly a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours a week, and in a time when loneliness among academics is an ever-present spectre, it’s a fantastic way of breaking down isolation and deepening your relationships with colleagues.   

Furthermore, in the longer-term we could think of looking into ways of linking up groups, perhaps developing a national conversation across the humanities disciplines, on the impact of the pandemic, one that will be deepened and enriched by the addition of every new perspective, creating a repository of shared expertise and insight that can be fed back into the wider dialogue far beyond the academe. 

Pandemic Perspectives Group Membership

David Christie (History M4C Birmingham), Niall Gallen (Literature, M4C Birmingham), Ellen Smith (History M4C, Leicester), Liam Knight (Literature, Birmingham), Sadegh Attari (Literature, Birmingham), Hanan Fara (Sociology, Birmingham), Richard Kendall (Ancient History, Edinburgh), Jakub Benes (Lecturer, History, UCL), Ronan Love (History M4C Warwick), Will Gilead (Philosophy, M4C Warwick), Eleni Eldridge-Tull (History, Birmingham)

  

[1] Fernandez-Armesto, F., Civilisations, (Macmillan, London, 2000), p.4.

[2] ‘Accelerationism’, is a contested term, but can be broadly considered as a supposition that the accelerating pace of technological change is more rapid than society’s capacity to absorb its impact, leading to probable collapse followed by radical change. For Covid, accelerationism and the Far-Right see,

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/05/23/why-some-protesters-in-america-wear-hawaiian-shirts