Letter to my doctoral advisor, in flight during the COVID crisis

Dear Hervé,

It sounds from your latest post as if you have landed in Wyoming, where the speech acts of the pandemic have at last captured your flight-by-car. Can you describe Wyoming? You said it was beautiful. I don’t know how much of its scenery you might be able to access at present, but my friends and I are all hungry for descriptions of the outdoors and the faraway right now, and any descriptions would be welcome. And pictures.

Lately I find myself thinking of you every time I stand in a line—which is to say, once a week, at the ever-dwindling farmer’s market. You (and Harold Garfinkel) taught me to see the ongoing creation of social order in how we make a line. You taught me how the rules differ from place to place, describing how in France, an elder might push their way into a crowd at the butcher and demand attention at the counter, without much argument from anyone else. You have maybe missed the granular evolution of New York City lines, as you’ve been out of the city and out of state, but I think you would find it fascinating.

It is poignant to struggle with the new rules for making a line, and watch my neighbors do the same. The first day that the farmer’s market changed their order of operations, I found it nearly impossible to check my reflexes. The booths are all cordoned off with tape now, all products behind that line and the vendors handing you your order with nitrile-gloved hands, segregating the activities of the one who handles the produce and the one who handles the money. No prodding or smelling the fruit to see if it’s in good condition, which causes a certain level of anxiety at a time of year when the fall apples have mostly gone soft.

But the lines—they don’t even look like lines. I found myself walking up to the counter between loose assortments of neighbors, frustrated that they weren’t being definitive in their physical declarations that they were waiting to be served. And of course, they gave me the stink-eye, because they were trying to maintain six feet of distance from each other. I had not realized that had gone into effect until I saw some signs explaining it. There are more interactions where people snap at each other and correct each other. This weekend an older gay couple approached, one man sidling up between me and the person six feet in front of me. Through body language and eye contact I somehow communicated to his partner that I was, in fact, in line; he pulled his partner back, correcting him and apologizing. I tried to comfortingly explain that from the standpoint of social order, changing how one does lines is, in fact, very challenging! But it is hard to explain Garfinkel casually in a few sentences. And also, somehow, hard not to radiate frustration at someone disrupting a line even when the order is new to all of you. We all learned how to make lines so long ago. We are all forced to make a new culture of lines, re-negotiating the order of operations with every new speech act, every new news article, every new interaction.

The farmer’s market vendors, too, who we see every week, looked fractious when you got too close to them. They have gradually been begging off the market, apparently, fewer of them each week. Who can blame them; we’ve got a third of the city’s cases here in the city, and some of them may live out on farms, where their exposure risk is minimal. We’re their biggest risk.

The queer community… I don’t know if you’ve been hearing from the queer community, trans and gay folks of a certain age, but their reaction to this situation is colored by a very different history than those of us who progressed relatively cluelessly and without incident through the AIDS epidemic. There is a lot of grief, a lot of rekindled rage. They are teaching us what they learned then: you understand now, they tell us. You see why we were furious and bereft when they closed the bathhouses and the clubs. You understand now how hard it is to be kept from people you love. Maybe this time you will choose differently.

Hervé, while you observe the speech acts that increasingly shape our activities, what fascinates me is watching the speed at which we socialize each other, unevenly, to what “quarantines” and “social distancing” mean we should be doing. It is like watching a wave move in slow motion, gradually lapping at and engulfing the people around me. There are innovators, early adopters, the early and late majority, and the laggards (thank you, Ellen Meier and Everett Rogers). From day to day, you can actually see individual people change their minds:

One early day, my sister in Michigan, who always reads CDC websites out of anxiety even during an average flu season, is exhorting all of us by text message not to go outside. She has been keeping her children home from school for a month already, and quarantining groceries in the garage for days before she brings them in. My family responds with bemusement; I smugly attend a memoir reading by an elderly friend, and go out to drinks with her after. The streets are full; it is New York City, after all. My roommate and I stock up on beans, rice, and toilet paper at the store, with no competition from the neighbors.

In a few day’s time the rest of my neighborhood has denuded the shelves and is thronging the lines at the supermarket; it is hard to move. My roommate can’t find more than a small box of cat litter; forget toilet paper. I only go out on a few errands and for bike rides along the West Side greenway. People wearing masks on the street are rare. The liquor store has a party bus out front, playing loud dance music and encouraging people to sample scotch.

My sister yells at us by text about flattening the curve and I ignore it. But then I see the idea in the news, and the science behind it seems sound. I cancel my next event with my elderly friend, who is still casting about for the right way to source food. I send my roommate the article about flattening the curve, and encourage her to show it to her bosses, so they’ll let her work from home rather than taking the subway from Inwood to Brooklyn every day. She snaps at me to get off social media and go outside for some fresh air.

Then the state and city authorities perform a speech act, demanding all non-essential businesses go to at least half staffing. My roommate, an avid news watcher, begins to complain that the law firm where she works the front desk keeps asking her to come in to work. She gets her bike fixed up so she won’t have to take the subway. Slow adoptions: stockpiling, remote work, social distancing. The streets still look normal, though; New Yorkers will go out.

A friend in Philly throws her efforts into making cloth face masks. I am dubious. Will any hospital accept the masks? What is the scientific consensus about this? The feeling of health workers on the front lines? My friend and I do research.

Independently, my roommate sets out to sew a mask for her fiancé, who drives an ambulance. She’s going to disassemble a brassiere to do this. While I have been known to disassemble a bra for creative purposes (see: puppets), I find that because of the work of my friend in Philly I already have strong feelings about proper mask construction. I give my roommate a reproachful look and print her out my friend’s preferred pattern. By the end of the day, my roommate has improved on the pattern, and taken a dozen more orders from friends in healthcare. I have looked at my own lumpen sewing efforts and decided I’m better suited to logistical problems. I turn my efforts to removing blocks to homemade mask distribution.

My traveling cybersecurity training job, based in the vast, socially-distanced state of Texas (and ironically, working for FEMA), is the absolute last to cancel its events, waiting until just a week before I was to fly from the hotspot in New York to the hotspot in Washington. To this day they still have no plans for remote work.

On that Monday, the authorities demand all non-essential businesses implement social distancing. Relieved I don’t have to book a flight, I stumble out into the chill spring (in shorts, sandals, and loud fuzzy socks, with my bed-hair untouched; I have long since forgotten what I should wear outside to avoid getting funny looks, but was that because I’ve worked alone at home since 2018, without social correction, or because we’ve all gone feral under quarantine?) to look for a source of shoelaces to use as mask ties.

Now there is an appreciable difference outside; things feel “weird.” As I make my way to the drugstore, I realize that the people on the sidewalk outside aren’t just loitering, they’re in line—they are being let in one by one, not allowed to congregate within the store itself. About half the people I see are wearing masks. And people move away from each other on the street.

An unmasked white man on the street blows his nose into the open air, aiming mucus at the sidewalk. Before I realize I’m doing it I’m shouting at him about doing that during a pandemic. He actually looks at me with surprise.

You hear about the gradual changes, the proverbial water slowly warming to a boil so the frog doesn’t even notice and jump out. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it in action. I wonder what will happen next.

Please stay safe out there, Hervé. You taught us how to understand what’s going on, here; it would hurt like hell to lose you.

P.S. You had some questions about how the media determine what is to be published about coronavirus, and suggested those with more background in media studies could perhaps explain this further. Having had some training in journalism myself, as well as media studies background, I can at least say that in the ideal, journalists are not in fact supposed to allow sources to see or correct the final text of what they put out to the public before they do so, as, in cases of investigation of corruption, etc., it would allow the sources too much leverage over what objectivity the journalist has managed to muster. They may go back and double-check their facts with that source and other sources, if they are allowed to do their job well, but in the ideal, the text is not shared with the source.

Here is an artefact from two of your former students in which that particular journalistic rule was maybe mis-applied.  You know Portia, and I am, of course, the puppet interviewing her. (Funny story there, I actually forgot the puppet on the other side of the country and had to interview without her; we had to edit the puppet in in post, but that has no impact on the story at hand…) As it happens, when I published this, Portia got in a bit of hot water with one of her label’s internet distributors for speaking disparagingly of the rates they pay for streaming music (and, um, I’m not sure if I’m still on her bad side because of that). As I said, I may have mis-applied the journalism rule here; I didn’t show Portia the video before I posted it because that reflex kicked in. But, of course, this is a video interview with a puppet, between two professionals who share an academic research background, one of whom now runs a record label…?!  a rule for “journalism” probably does not apply in this context, but then, who knows what does.

As for whether journalists have any expertise in science to apply to their work… if you’re lucky, the person writing is a “science journalist” who actually has some science background or specific training in reporting on research and data. My stepmother, who did a lot of public-facing work with Caltech, was involved with workshops for science journalists and spoke highly of the training they got there. But the caveat stands: not everyone reporting on COVID is a science journalist, obviously, and they may fall into traps about the generalizeability of a study, its construction, the meaning of a dataset, significance, etc.

This is where we get into Walter Lippmann, who Todd Gitlin over at the CU J School had us reading at one point. Lippmann made the case that we need a well-trained elite class of journalists for the effective functioning of a democracy. The situation in which we read and discussed Lippmann’s The Phantom Public was itself very historically interesting. At the head of the class: Todd Gitlin, who had led Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. In the class: myself and Chris Anderson, both of whom had been involved with the Independent Media Center (Indymedia) in the early Aughts. Both movements were exercises in participatory democracy, arguing that more power needed to be given to the people. Todd was quite adamant, by the point we studied with him some fifty years after his SDS days, that we needed an elite class of journalists as interpreters, because the general populace didn’t have the time or resources to interpret news events on their own. And here we find ourselves with rampant disinformation on social media… some of which (Twitter specifically) can trace their technological and ideological roots directly back to the creators they shared with Indymedia, who were among the first to make it possible for anyone to post anything they wanted to online.

anyway. Latour also did a great deal of work more recently on journalistic interpretation and dissemination of scientific findings; that’s worth a read. In the copious spare time we have when not washing our hands or researching the data on which cloth masks are effective against the virus.

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