Changes in Space, Surveillance, and the Establishment of a ‘New Normal’

Harris Morris
BSc Anthropology

At the end of the Great Gatsby, Nick Caraway is laid down on a beach in the ‘West Egg’ of New York City, reflecting on the Europeans coming to America and how these people were ‘face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to (mans) capacity for wonder’ (Fitzgerald 1925). Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic is nothing like the encounter of a new world, the breakthrough of spirit and community is certainly ‘commensurate’ of ‘wonder’. Our desire to support key workers in a united effort by staying apart has changed the fabric of our familiar life by reshaping social interaction and moulding it into something that promises unprecedented change for the foreseeable future. I intend in this article to talk about the revolution of commonplace and how this has effectively established a new ‘Collective Consciousness’ (Durkheim 1893), before drawing similarities from other Societal Models like Durkheim and Foucault, commenting on how these theories are resonate of the current crisis.

‘The Production of Space’ (Lefebvre 1995) states “the crisis of community, [is] its dislocation,” the effects of which we are experiencing in the current social climate. The ‘dislocation’ has been the working from home, refraining from interaction with others, only leaving the home if necessary and facing medical and economic uncertainty. The ‘crisis’ brought upon by the pandemic has provoked the ‘community’ to yearn for the mundane and return to the routine we a few months ago complained about. Lefebvre later explains the importance of the interactions we are having (or not) in pandemic: ‘a deserted street at 4pm has as strong a significance as the swarming of a square at market or at meeting times’. The emptiness of our streets like Lefebvre insists are incredibly important, as if ‘space is a practised place’ (Certeau 1984), the nature of avoiding areas reflects an instinct to care for the vulnerable in our society and adhere to the rules, instead of using a geographically designed area for interaction. 

This response comes from a growing ‘Collective Consciousness’, as ‘the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of members of a society’ (Malczewski 2015) are helping to create permanence in a chaotic period. From a structural-functionalist perspective and in light of the roles each one of us are playing in this pandemic – by avoiding others and abiding to governmental guidelines – the ‘Collective’ are maintaining stability by the shared values of health, security, and resolution to the crisis. Durkheim would view the importance of the ‘deserted street at 4pm’ as an example of the ‘organic solidarity’ (Durkheim 2014), as various ‘types’ of individuals are acting for the preservation of society and its members. The masses are adapting to the ‘dislocation’ in order to overcome the ‘crisis’ and whereas the experiences of the individual are still unprecedented, the wellbeing of the other creates a will to overcome it. Whilst the ‘Collective Consciousness’ is being established, one cannot ignore the nature of those people who are unapologetically going against the lockdown procedures, damaging the cohesion of the majority, creating a divide, as well as an ‘us vs them mentality’. It’s important to look at the challenges of creating a unity within society without hinderance, and for this pandemic the Collective has been not fully formed due to lack of confidence in the government, economic uncertainty and selfish ignorance (Aritiga 2020). Whilst it is easy to  forgive someone questioning return to work dates for their personal welfare, it seems less agreeable that someone can travel to a place of leisure just to see if their eyes work (Tidman 2020). The backlash against people breaking lockdown however indicates the will to not be complacent to the rules, justified by ones endured isolation. Those going against advice, thus, in reality, can bolster solidarity, as heavy stigmatisation is sanctioned by most leaders in all parties, which trickles down to the general public.

The developed commonality is reflected by newly materialized interactions outside of our homes – we move to the other side of the street, wear masks and actively avoid any close contact with other people, all of which help to create new social parameters. For example, we don’t actively believe the person walking near us has Covid-19, and the likelihood is that they don’t, but we still know they could, so we act accordingly for our own benefit. This indoctrinated thinking serves the purpose of reducing interactions and stopping the spread of the disease, thus having a positive influence on society. The societal model being established is enforced through vigilance and regulation, where everyone is wary of their surroundings and limited of their social encounters. I would like to draw upon two examples of other societal models, to draw similarities from – Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Prison (1791) and Émile Foucault’s example of the Plague Town Quarantine (1977).

Bentham’s theory is that power should be visible,  utilising a prison surveillance system to envisage it (Burns 2005). It operates by the following: ‘The Prisoners (are) in their Cells, occupying the Circumference – The Officers, the Centre. By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence’ (Bentham 1791). The ‘invisible omnipresence’ derives from the prisoner not being able to see the guard in the tower but having knowledge that the guard could always see them. Thus, the prisoner would constantly act as if under surveillance, meaning behaviour would be regulated, and power and control could be kept effectively. With fines being attributed to lockdown disruptors and the public reproachful of those who defy social expectation, it is easy to see how we, like the prisoners, are feeling watched and silently condemned by those around us, imitating this social model where our homes are the prisons, and our neighbourhood are watching and judging our movements with vicious contempt. 

This being said, it is abundantly reductive to suggest we are at all like the prisoners in Bentham’s model, especially with eased restrictions and a slow transition back to normality being introduced. Whilst we surely feel watched and judged, as we silently judge others ourselves, we are not forced under lock and key, and are instead allowed the freedoms not given to those in chains. This was the major criticism of Panopticism, its inability to be wholly applied to the excess society, leading to Foucault’s adaption of the theory. He illustrates that the physical ‘guard’ has to become obsolete, and the feeling of vigilance has to be made redundant. The solution for this adapts ‘Collective Consciousness’ and a ‘dislocation of society’ and applies it to a French town under quarantine from the plague. In his example, he illustrates how a unity between people derives from the social normality created and by shared hardship and experience. 

It is not exclusion but quarantine. It is not a question of driving out individuals but rather of establishing and fixing them, of giving them their own place, of assigning places and of defining presences and subdivided presences. Not rejection but inclusion. You can see that there is no longer a kind of global division between two types or groups of population…. there is a close and meticulous observation…(a) constant examination of a field of regularity within which each individual is constantly assessed in order to determine whether he conforms to the rule, to the defined norm of health. (Foucault 2016)

The ‘Plague Town Model’ illustrates how knowledge formed power, and by knowing where everyone was, what they were doing and by controlling their movement, the plague could be eradicated from the village. Confinement for Foucault performs the task of creating a unity within space by effectively distilling the concept that it is all done for their own good. This in term creates this social norm – society will begin to police itself and meaning ‘Power finds itself ever more easily creating the conditions of its own further reinvestment’ (Lepetic 2013). Instead of forcing the surveillance, the urban environment transitions into its new forms with everyone idly contributing. We today can perceive a lot of similarities to this model and see how our interactions are helping to create a much more cautious interaction to those around us. By the instinctive avoidance of others on the streets, it shows that this consciousness of social estrangement has been firmly established as the current normal, but also so has a sense of unity, we celebrate our healthcare services, have socially distanced street parties and communicate with others more, all through a lens that illuminates our desire to avoid the virus but stay together. 

The plague-stricken town traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town Immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. (Foucault 1977)

Thus, whilst we may bare eerie similarities to Bentham’s Panopticon by feeling under the gaze from neighbours and each other, people are ultimately choosing to socially distance, not because of police, or because they are being watched, but because of the newly established social norm, with people inclined to follow this for their own (and others) safety. In that sense the ‘Plague Town Model’ helps more to look at how our perspective of space and ‘dislocation’ create platforms for unity from chaos and is a more accurate representation of the Covid-19 Pandemic. This being said it is impossible for everyone to concretely share the ‘Collective Consciousness’ felt due to the obvious anger, grief, financial hardship and deprivation felt by many. Thus, it really is essential for Anthropologists to look at the relationships and interactions that occur due to the pandemic. Our ‘Collective Consciousness’ is creating social norms where we feel responsibility and unity towards others, but at the same time we can’t forget there are those who feel isolated with the ‘emptiness of the streets at 4pm’, which can be telling of sequestered loneliness, and hardship in which a street party won’t heal.

Title image: ‘Die Pest’ by Arnold Böcklin (Wikimedia Commons)

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