Culture and the pandemic

3 December, 2020

1 During the past decades it became evident that there was a massive addiction to antidepressants and anxiolytics. The first months of recession and pandemic have further increased their consumption. Even in Spain, where a medical prescription is required to buy them, we are talking about a sales increase of 15%. In France, the news speaks of of hundreds of thousands of people collectively shareing nightmares: distressing dreams which are more intense than usual and in which fear of contagion, the impossibility of touching others and various apocalyptic images appear.

2 There is no need to resort to large theoretical apparatuses to discover the social fears below. In Germany, the yearly survey of middle-aged people – between 30 and 59 years old – reveals that respondents notice that society is increasingly unsafe, impatient, aggressive, and selfish. 72% feel greater fear and uncertainty; 71% that aggressiveness has increased and 52% believe that selfishness is rampant. The bottom line is also no mystery: more than a quarter of respondents have suffered loss of income, another 13% believe they will suffer it soon. 23% feel an acute fear of losing their own job – in 2019 it was only 14 percent. And we are talking about Germany, not the Mediterranean and Eastern countries.

3 In France, one of the supposedly most crohesive and communitarian countries of the continent, a study published today by the Fondation de France claims that there are already 7 million people living in isolation, 3 million higher than in 2010. That is, the percentage of the population without emotional relationships and family and community support increased from 9% to 14% of the population. Another novelty is that between the ages of 18 and 29, extreme atomization increased from 2% to 13%. Isolation is joined by a feeling of shame which predicts the worst.

Reinforcing the aforementioned, the new working methods aggravate isolation and atomization. Teleworking, which was supposed to improve reconciliation and encourage collaborative work in teams, has finally been implemented in such a way that 54% of those who adopted it during the pandemic in France claim to suffer from a feeling of isolation and loneliness.

4 In Asia they can talk at length about this often deadly and always crushing mix of fear of unemployment, work pressure, long hours and atomization. A reality so present that it does not cease to express itself in cultural phenomena. The last one: the surprising success of Pengsoo, a children-oriented character on educational television, among young workers. The mascot, a migrant penguin who has become the character of the year in South Korea, is a success among young people in their 20s and 30s because it reflects their struggle to enter the labor market and their feeling of helplessness in the face of precariousness, endemic violence and authoritarianism in the workplace. The function of the dummy is to propitiate a catharsis… and to avoid unrest or collective organization:

If the mantra of the previous generation was “grit your teeth and hold on,” the mentality of this generation has definitely shifted towards the belief that tolerating the intolerable is not the right thing, says Yeum, one of the writers of the network. I think Pengsoo does a refreshing job of highlighting that tension and, in turn, viewers can get the vicarious satisfaction of seeing how he challenges that reality.

Pengsoo, who appears on the show as a full-time intern at EBS [educational television], is notorious for workplace antics. It calls its bosses by their first names, never misses a chance to get away from the office, and has frankly stated that those who contact me during my day off can go to hell. The penguin has since been unofficially coronated by netizens as president of the workers.

The comforts: neither cooking nor Art

5 The rest of the world also does not lack comforting stuff provided by the media apparatus. The most obvious one is the sudden passion for cooking that arose during lockdown and that continues to produce records of audience for programs like MasterChef. MasterChef is truly an aberration: a mixture of Darwinian competition, Taylorist rhythms and employer violence, in which a recognized employer, known for his abusive treatment of workers, loudly disqualifies the work of participants. It is only the tip of the iceberg. What triumphs in all the televisions of the world are programs of recipes more or less dressed in travels, folklore, cult to the chef or self-help. But the centrality of recipes is not innocent.

Only three generations ago, knowing how to cook was not about knowing recipes. It was about having a knowledge of how to mix and process food. Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers didn’t know how to make paella valenciana or cocido madrileño or any other standardized dish by following some predetermined steps. They knew how to make rice and stew according to what was available. In great numbers, whatever there was, in each place and in each season, expressed ecological and economic optima. And knowing how to cook was one of the forms that gave power of resistance to the working and peasant families, who did not pass on recipes from generation to generation, but rather knowledge, techniques and stories learned during hours in front of the stove.

First appeared the state, which as part of the process of national construction homogenized and codified that knowledge in recipes, always the same, conceived to reduce knowledge to a pile of lists of ingredients and steps. It was like going from knowing how to program to knowing how to load software programs for each task. A loss of knowledge and sovereignty of the families in favor of the state. And with that logic already installed, things like the Thermomix appeared, whose recipe books make it almost impossible to develop new techniques even by analogy with the familiar recipes. And later, when the food markets opened up and new foodstuffs arrived, television cooking shows appeared.

Today the kitchen is pure politics: the same apparatus in charge of creating public opinion from the state and the media, modifies the diet and the ways of cooking by inventing traditions and fashions with decreasing resistance. The kitchen as defined by the media and the authorities does not regain ground against general alienation, but feeds on atomization, family uprooting and loneliness to create false autonomies and commercially profitable securities.

6 But what about Art? As it could not be otherwise, more decadent than ever. Has anyone felt that understood his own and the world’s situation during the pandemic thanks to some plastic work or some exhibition? Even when the media wonder who is shaping the market, we see a civilization incapable of providing real cultural development. The art that can be bought -which includes works that were once Art in its full sense- is a speculative market. And as in all speculative markets, the ones who in the end influence it are the funds and the billionaires, the academics who advise them and the activists who entertain them by creating internal discourses and debates. Everything revolves around the valuation and revaluation of a production that has long since divorced from society and has no impact on the understanding of the world, not only of the great majorities, but of the very classes that buy these works.

Museums and the media teach us to associate characterizations such as decadent art to Nazi repression and totalitarianisms. The only alternative to this non-art, to the dead art of the market, would be the most inhuman and totalitarian propaganda, as dead as Art itself, of the fascisms and the stalinism. But the reality of galleries, museums and collections makes clear the social irrelevance of a mercantile activity that can no longer have a place for anything that does not express decadence.

Conclusions

7 Our era’s culture reflects a social order increasingly confronted with the most basic human needs. The great steamroller routinely produces murder, occupational accidents, mental illness, but also – on a massive and almost general scale – feelings of fear, helplessness, and anguish. The more contradictions the system suffers, the more difficult it is to sustain accumulation, and the more it needs to atomize and deny us as a class. Because reducing us to solitude and isolation allows it to reproduce and aggravate without resistance that which is its reason for being: exploiting our work. In doing so, it also destroys what would allow us to better resist the daily consequences of that exploitation: from solidarity among friends and neighbors to family relationships, to such basic things as eating decently or keeping high our daily morale and mood.

The irremediable result is a decadent, sick culture, as deformed and dissolving of human development as the very system which animates it. As in everything else, the pandemic and the recession have only further accelerated the anti-human trends that have already been accelerating for decades. At this point, when even the opium of the masses is an adulterated synthetic drug and playing and gaming are synonymous with industrially organized destructive addiction, it no longer makes sense to even speak of false comforts and criticize them as such. One cannot separate the struggles in the workplace from the action in the neighborhoods aimed at defending ourselves from the effects of atomization and at strengthening our capacity for grouping and resistance.

We are waiting for you.