In Contact: Thijs Witty

Like most people capable of feeling, I have been depressed the past five months. And like most people’s, my depressions depend on predictability: things won’t change you fool and yes that glass is definitely half empty. So far, so predictable indeed: the roll-out of the pandemic has gone more or less exactly as I had claimed it would in March. After reading the Imperial College report, I told my friends and colleagues that it would drag on for years, that we’ll get hit by wave after wave, that paranoid white people will be marching against lockdowns, and that demagogues across the overdeveloped nations will be doing less than nothing about it all. And how the fuck can you get people to commit to an indefinite quarantine-like protocol anyway, if its successful application would mean low death counts? People need spectacles before they believe something is terrible. Sure, there will be local organisation and mutual aid, but vulnerable people will still die in disproportional amounts while the pundit class deliberates whether we shouldn’t just let them die anyway. 

The predictability of the pandemic is indicative of how we are primed for disasters. Once you get attuned to the cruelty of the world, it gets difficult to move beyond pessimism. The pandemic has created countless situations that call for drastic solutions, but the pessimist will always know that the world is run by literally the worst people ever and that worst scenarios are the most likely. While correct, that pessimism also paralyses, especially when its many triggers are live streamed. And mediated cruelty makes you stupid by accumulation. But pessimism carries both perverse and pedagogically useful power.

I don’t know what and how I’m going to teach next semester. I do know that I’ll try to do it as pessimistically as possible. Of course I want openings, optimism, a sense of continuity, but unfortunately there is no way but through the dark. While I don’t think we should teach ourselves how to moderate – no stoicism for the plague era! – education after Covid should definitely offer a curriculum in realistic expectation management and depressive realism.

Let’s get to work first. For many people in the Netherlands, old things either continued or simply intensified (hi home worker bees!), while for others everything came to a crushing halt (looking at you kids in the cultural sector). My own work life had been fractured to gigs long before the plague. And although my contracts tethered me to nice work environments, they gave me no real sense of ground. So that part has basically stayed the same. The real change was how I had to do my job from March onwards: for the foreseeable future I would only be doing online teaching. I wrote a somewhat hysterical mail to a colleague about it, sharing my worries that we would never return to real classrooms. I only got an answer around six weeks later, at a moment when that worry had already subsided. But it still seems unlikely that meaningful classroom education will return anytime soon. And tech industries couldn’t be happier about it: they have been shilling their data mining operations to schools worldwide at an unprecedented rate.

I know it’s fucked up but I’m currently more annoyed that I’m not really allowed to use Zoom for my classes, especially because the mandatory Microsoft Teams won’t screen my PowerPoints properly, making my online teaching even more exhausting. I already knew there are very real limitations to the virtual classroom anyways, but now I have also witnessed its many destructive effects: eye balls get sore, thinking never really takes off because of unreliable bit flows and performative confusions, and the shared sense of isolation is basically the only palpable thing going around. At least you can make break-out rooms with Zoom.

Who has done meaningful research on the damaging consequences of doing everything online? Is anyone actually learning? I know how to add entertaining slide transitions and how to ‘flip the classroom’, which by the way is Silicon Valley newspeak for homework, but I’ve lost what made me want to teach to begin with: an actual classroom with both its predictable and contingent potential. We are talking to each other, sure, but no one has the equipment to decode things coherently. But maybe I’m projecting.

What does it mean that I’m so torn from myself and my work that I have mostly been looking for creative workarounds? Probably only that I lack imagination and will power. I could quit, sure. I could also go live under a bridge. Not sure which option would distance me further from the fascist sellout I would otherwise become. I tend towards indecision because I cannot fathom making decisions in the absence of promising alternatives. Or I am just scared shitless that my current shitty situation will only be followed by something even worse. 

All this is to say: the real issue here is powerless individualism. Many of us have lost the sense of real collectivity and from our atomised positions we bargain with whatever eases our current pains. From a ‘collective’ viewpoint all I can say is that the Dutch government barely acknowledges its many mistakes in virus containment so far. That I am furious that schools are supposed to open fully again with a second wave looming. That people hate the arts so much that we are barely even talking about the devastation that has already been caused to the sector. But again, I’m not really surprised. We have inherited a system of pure individual responsibility. Notice the contradiction there?

And yet. The virus doesn’t kill systems, it kills people. Systems recuperate, regurgitate, resurge and reenergise. Meanwhile we in the arts want the virus to have meaning, desperately. A catalyst, sure, but for what…

Good writing about the pandemic raises that question in three modes: the prognostic, the diagnostic, and the elegiac. The first looks forward, wavers between squinting and boldly speculating, and tends to be cautiously optimistic. The second has a ‘told ya so’ rhetoric, covering the Cassandra calls from climate science, late capitalism, pervasive alienation, or whatever else is slowly killing us. Perhaps the third is more a mood than mode, but seems also the most appropriate, as it acknowledges that the old world is dead, but also indicates the future is as-of-yet known.

A lot of this writing orbits around communication technologies. It will disrupt, replace, colonise, ‘touch’ everything by making everything untouchable. Although billions of people were already spending big chunks of their day on data mining apps and attention deficit disorder had already become a stale description of the world before the pandemic, now the margin of critique and reform is rapidly collapsing in virtual space. I think we are supposed to call it ‘best practices’ instead now.

What I dread: the further destruction of public infrastructures that would otherwise have mitigated the existential dread of coming disasters. What I mourn: the delusion that, all things considered, things really aren’t that bad. What I hope: a weird collapse of systems that will make us conscious again of the fact that there is only one economy and it definitely isn’t digital.

Thijs Witty is a teacher and researcher based in Amsterdam.