Switch It Off and On Again

“We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet.”

-The Slow Science Academy (2010)

We are halfway through January already, but I am only beginning to gather energy to restart again. Over the years this blog as been many things, at points becoming merely some kind of listing of things I have done (but never all). Here I’d like to reflect on what could be done differently, here, and elsewhere.

The World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, but it already feels like more than two years of pandemic living. I’ve tried to reflect on what has been learnt, and personally I would like to attempt a different way of being in 21st century capitalism, in the awareness that there are limits to what one as an individual can do differently when so much depends on social forces beyond our direct control.

Having said that, we do have degrees of agency to take different types of actions, including how we react to those forces we can’t directly control. For example: engaging with our own place(s) and role(s) in the world in a more mindful way, in deeper awareness of how our actions impact others. Refocusing our energies more sincerely and more directly on what we consider meaningful tasks, those that remain fundamental reasons behind the decisions that made us take the paths we have taken. To make sure we do not take for granted the privileges we enjoy, and the uniqueness of the set of opportunities presented by the every day. To not withdraw into jaded pessimism or narcissistic inwardness, but to emphasise the political agency of the personal and the intimate, including importantly the way we manage our own space, time and energy, those often-non-renewable resources. To act individually thinking collectively; to be always-already aware of the knock-on effect of every action. To take care of the self is to take care of the Other. A burned-out person can no longer ‘perform’. Burned-out people can often become toxic, and hurt others.

Time is of the essence: not a premise to justify acceleration and a headless chicken rush towards mindless ‘productivity’, but one to frame a culture of thoughtfulness and generosity. A form of active resistance to the commoditisation of everything we hold dear, not as a draining effort or a daily grind, but through reflective thought and meditation. Better things must result from careful consideration; the ongoing, permanently panicked emergency-response mode of the 24/7 switched-on mode only leads to collective burn-out and shortcircuits any important projects’ goals. This is more a mission statement than a new-year resolution; an ambition more than a promise. To make more space where there is little; to re-own the time perpetually robbed from us.

A type of via negativa for personal and professional life (because it remains important to separate them, particularly in fields such as higher education, or the arts), where that which we don’t do leads to positive, productive outcomes. To define ourselves also for what we decide not to do, rather than for all the things we do, or for doing all the things. This would mean re-defining “productive”, and, importantly, resisting auto-exploitation. Auto-exploitation is never purely individual- overperforming hyperachievers do also create more labour for others who are likely to be in less privileged circumstances, and who are already overwhelmed within their own exploitative conditions of production. Less can be more, much more, in a different sense to usual quantification. A different way of being with ourselves and the Other would require to stop turning ourselves and the Other into means to ends. We need to start from our own positions.