The Time before Words
I stand in the kitchen of my rented sabbaticalhomes.com, leaves all around. North Carolina woods, and windows. It’s nice and quiet first thing.
No, it’s actually not: the birds are noisy.
The fridge is noisy. A pine cone just fell on the porch. The house hums and sighs.
But it is the time before words.
I have not seen any, read any, heard any. Not even the clock or the scale.
Where are the words? Outside
leaves at the windows and birds at the feeder. Inside I am still.
I’ve ground the beans and poured water in the filter. I’m waiting for the day to begin,
the words to come and go, in and out.
On the cusp.
And now, here: in flutter and out tumble the words of my quarantine poem!
What is the rhetoric of this pandemic? Where to begin? How can one possibly know all that is said “out there”? Can one know one’s own moment? What is it to be “in the midst of” or “amid” as so many headlines proclaim?
I begin with words, words used to announce and explain and describe and prescribe. Words that one hears or reads in spurts and gushes of news and updates. As I shelter in place and work remotely (if at all), words come at me largely from the screen and audio I encounter, as information or commentary, as announcements or gossip, on social media and, increasingly, through Zoom meetings. If you’re lucky, words may come to you unmediated or in-person from those with whom you’re sheltering in place or encounter on your trips to pick up groceries, or even — if you’re very lucky — on walks or runs nearby.
coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, virus, incubation, intubation, antibody, immunization, infection, shelter-in-place, social distancing, what you need to know, dry cough, ventilators, N-95, asymptomatic, testing, governors, Fauci, CDC, WHO, self-isolation, domestic violence, stay-at-home, wash-your-hands, work remotely, essential goods and services, ZOOM, don’t touch your face (maybe not even your pet), unemployment rate, flatten the curve, the peak, 6 feet apart, Italy, Florida, senior hours, home schooling, DIY masks, hydroxychloroquine, Easter, White House press briefing, hoax, sanitizer, cardboard, NYC, outbreak, mortuaries, South Carolina, South Korea, Spain, Singapore, Wuhan, China, Asia, Paris, London, India, Peru, Louisiana, travel ban, immigration detention, environmental racism, dating online, risk factors, herd immunity, community spread, fatality rate, containment, mitigation, extended access, digital learning, curbside pickup, health workers, prison overcrowding, lockdown, contact tracing, unemployment, stimulus, Georgia, . . .
I stay inside. The words come as voice and image, as sound and display. The screens and speakers — audio and human — from which they issue have been at home here for a while. The words less so. Insistently, they announce their own arrival: “4 days ago,” “1 h ago,” “12 m ago,” “Live and streaming now.” Listen to them, take them in. Together, the uttering and hearing of them transform what had been a domestic or personal retreat of sorts into the center of a dangerously swirling world, a permeable place of confinement that even if properly treated offers only conditional protection.
The words speak. They inform of, qualify, or reject current risks and potential horrors. Then they report, amend, or deny potential risks and current horrors. Horror current risk potential horror risk potential current. Play and repeat. Endless variations. Stop. Breathe. Block one’s ears, click one’s screen, turn though one might to old movies and older songs, to viral videos and online games, the words of the pandemic worm their way into my head, find a place to lodge and settle.
Where do all the words come from?
Why, like the virus, like the illness, from the outside in, of course!
But is it really that simple? Distinctions between inside and out, private and public, self and society, are no longer so clear. The 3 Arendtian domains of cyclical and reproductive household labor, of productive work for society, and of political speech and action in public are already difficult to parse (Arendt 1958). Perhaps later — when the histories are written — we shall learn of shifts and transformations in lines and borders, and of tests and numbers, that will recall and challenge our current reliance on already admittedly contextual uses of words and their claims. Perhaps later we will ponder the uncertainties of centers and peripheries, minds and bodies, hearts and homes, and gnaw at the edges of today’s absolutes.
I stay inside and listen. Am I keeping away from friends and family for me or for them? From the grocery story, for me or for others? Both; we’re in this together. (So much for public and private, household and politics.) Where are the ventilators? Is the Task Force vetting the CDC’s messages? Are there comparative per capita rates? Where are the tests? Am I not wearing a mask to protect health workers, or am I wearing one to protect others from myself? And why aren’t you wearing yours to protect me? (So much for science and logic.) Is anything really different though? Individual health and well-being are indeed matters of public concern; protection of public health requires some regulation of personal and domestic life. Such has long been the case. Do present practices mark a qualitative change (a cascade, to borrow from another jargon)? Are government guidelines that limit gatherings, including those of religious groups, during emergencies truly unprecedented? Haven’t politicians, despite separation of church and state, always marked time through religious holidays? Exactly what has changed?
Those questions muddy the waters. They go nowhere. Neither should you. Stick to what you know and stay in the house.
In the house, I get to work. Screen and audio technologies no longer separate and distinguish those who don’t or won’t or can’t come in to work from those who do; now all join equally in office meetings and classes — as long as they are not otherwise engaged in caring for family members or delivering essential public services. Don’t worry though. Stock up and don’t hoard: now with the explicit endorsement of the state, agribusiness continues to exploit undocumented farmworkers and the food supply chain remains robust! (Dairies dump milk and industry ploughs cabbages under.) Even if field laborers are not quite like other gainfully employed local heroes, they can still hang out online for recreational happy hours and family birthday dinners — as long as they have internet access, that is; the public library is closed.
Meanwhile, private institutions and some public ones make copyrighted material widely available. To boost morale, employees receive satisfaction surveys, with assurances of confidentiality, from administrations going broke. After a couple of turbulent weeks of transition to teaching and advising remotely, in a pre-spring break Message of Gratitude, one university chancellor writes, “I am certain that our old way of life will come back” (UC Berkeley 2020). Zoom booms. Enterprises of health and of touch — exercise and haircuts, for instance — have been deemed especially risky; those lessons too go virtual. Businesses sneak messages into your inbox to thank you for your service although they’re closed, and to plead for donations. In the United States alone, tens of thousands of deaths are recorded, hundreds of thousands test positive and that’s not counting those who haven’t been tested, millions file for unemployment, including —
Hey! You digress. This paragraph is supposed to be about working. At home.
Okay, okay, I lost track, as I do working from home. I’m in a new paragraph now, back at home. The waiting periods on voice calls to banks and agencies lengthen. Is it just me or is the canned music increasingly tinny? Intimacies grow over FaceTime. A text says a friend’s older relative has died — alone. So dies another. Guests illicitly parked outside a building watch a wedding in real time take place inside on cell phone screens. Rates of domestic violence soar: it’s like being locked in with your abuser, one woman says. Data providers track smartphone users’ movements. They offer (hmmm, no cost or price mentioned) the information to governments, not for enforcement, they maintain, but to hone projections of outbreaks. Basement closets and storage rooms are turned inside-out, instruments and art supplies retrieved. Songs and crafts make a resurgence. Gardens, too, and nurseries grow low on supplies. Homespun take-offs on musicals about the coronavirus go viral, Great Depression tales recalled. Chain letters to be forwarded to 20 of your friends solicit inspirational verses or — much more popular judging by the number I received — favorite quarantine recipes.
The happenings named above are all known to me through the words I have heard or read in my house. The social practices that these words name or allude to show the melding of work and nonwork (in Arendt’s sense and otherwise) and suggest some ways that those who are housebound carry out their activities. Most importantly, these things are done, in large part, with words. Their performance depends on language. From comparing the latest data to digital learning and teaching, from requesting COVID-19 tests to filing for unemployment, from posting and forwarding spoofy memes and sending or receiving condolences to sharing mask-making tips at virtual Seders or distracting oneself with the NYT Spelling Bee, many of today’s pandemic practices happen through language. The words and practices of the pandemic surround us in our homes. They bring the world near. Even if they come into the house from outside, they turn those on the inside out.
Whether or not explicitly rhetorical, the history of the 2020 pandemic will have to engage with words and word practices. On the one hand, we are in the midst of words, as the previous section showed. Words surround us and, from the outside in and the inside out, they bring the world near. On the other hand, or conversely, words are among us, in our midst, binding us to one another even when we are apart. Parties in a lawsuit are sometimes said to be joined over the issue that divides them. Like a legal issue or cause of action, words both join and divide relevant or interested persons. Who speaks what to whom and how? What communities of discourse have emerged? How do its members associate with one another and manage their utterances? How do they limit membership and regulate speech? What is said and unsaid? What is unsayable?
The pandemic’s history will have to be more than an account of medical discourse, as Max Weber once wrote of “A History of the Black Death.” Such a history, he writes, has to incorporate knowledge of what he called “‘cultural’ facts” and be governed by “cultural values” that can offer a context in which to place understandable human action (Weber 2012, 54–55). Even before or behind any cultural or causal Weberian explanations of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, lies a plethora of words.
The community of our “pandemic” (from pan, all, and demos, people) is by definition expansive. No person stands beyond or outside the fray. Past plagues too joined and divided members of a community. Affecting community, they are necessarily political. What do its members say to one another? How do our community’s arrangements — like the leper colony and the plague-stricken city — reveal, in Michel Foucault’s words, its particular “political dream” (Foucault 1975, 198–99)?
The pandemic today reveals many and conflicting dream fragments. In what some critics at the time read as too totalizing, Foucault describes the development, from out of a disciplinary “archipelago” or chain of institutions, of a “carceral continuum” covering the globe. Perhaps even Foucault’s account is not totalizing enough for our moment though? Or perhaps power-knowledge of our pandemic drifts between dream and interpretation? However insidious he considered disciplinary power, that is, Foucault writes that the exercise of Panoptic power (the architectural figure representing the composition of forces that constitute discipline) “may be supervised by society as a whole.” The body of the king, he writes, “is at the opposite extreme of this new physics of power represented by Panopticism” (208). “No risk, therefore,” he declares, “that the increase of power created by the panoptic machine may degenerate into tyranny; the disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible ‘to the great tribunal committee of the world’” (207).
So far, I have skirted around what one conventionally considers politics. In the United States, a self-declared “wartime” president who yearns for sovereign power engages in shameful retaliatory and vengeful acts, and bold lies and contradictions, in public briefings. Do the words and deeds of this figure function at the “opposite extreme” of technologies to contain and mitigate the pandemic? Or do they manifest the incoherence of current measures, the anxiety dreams of “we the people” no longer able to “supervise power”?
Or at a grander level, sounding another note, could it be that the invisible viral enemy now circling the earth may succeed where vastly more visible planetary issues — of rising sea levels, parched soils, and mass migrations — have failed? Might the pandemic open our ears as pan-demos to an Arendtian shared human condition on earth, in world, and as public, in which today persons labor, work, act, and speak, in the midst of a language and politics turning inside out?
Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
“A Message of Gratitude from Chancellor Carol Christ.” Berkeley News, March 20, 2020. https://news.berkeley.edu/2020/03/20/a-message-of-gratitude-from-chancellor-carol-christ/
Foucault, Michel. 1975. Surveiller et Punir. Published in English (1977) as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
Weber, Max. 2012. “Roscher and Knies and the Logical Problems of Historical Economics.” In Collected Methodological Writings, ed. H. H. Bruum and Sam Whimster. New York: Routledge.
— Marianne Constable, Professor of Rhetoric, UC Berkeley
The poem and essay were written in March to April 2020 while the author was William C. and Ida Friday Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. The essay is reprinted with permission; it was first published in a special issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric, under the title, “In the Midst of . . . Words Inside-Out: Pandemic Rhetorics.”