Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Sociological Experiencing and Reflecting – The Loss of World in Times of Corona

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Martin Repohl, Max Weber Centre of Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, University of Erfurt, Germany

Am I Really Affected?
It took quite some time until I realised that the global Corona pandemic is also affecting my personal life. I life in Jena, a small city in eastern Germany. The rate of infections here is not very high. In the beginning, it was difficult to notice the containment activities. The schools and public playgrounds were closed, but I do not have children. Then we were ordered to stay at home and to avoid social contacts, but I had not seen my friends for weeks and the almost sparkling Spring forced me to stay at home anyway, because my allergies had worsened, so I did not have the desire to enjoy the outside world. So, what does personal affectedness really mean? To me? To other people?

The increasing spreading of the virus, reminded me of my own work on the Chernobyl catastrophe, because most of the victims reported the experience that something invisible, unpredictable and hasardous was taking hold of their bodies and lifeworlds [1]. Of course, many people feel this today, but still I thought it can’t be that bad at all, because the virus isn’t an eternal threat, like the radioactive contamination almost is. Only when the Max-Weber-Centre in Erfurt – where I write my dissertation – was closed, that I started to feel that Corona has now reached my personal lifeworld. But that was not the main reason why I really started to feel concerned. No, Corona did not hit me hard, but then very rapidly it came into my mind what the virus means to me.

Breathing – A Risky and Vulnerable Way of World Contact
Already in January my allergies had worsened completely unexpectedly. Breathing became more and more difficult, a feeling of narrowness began to grow in my chest. I started visiting doctors and took medication. The symptoms become worse during February, when Corona was only a problem in faraway countries. I visited my doctor almost weekly. And then, in the middle of March, when the virus reached Jena, when the playgrounds were closed and the social distancing began, my doctor said in all seriousness the following words to me: ‘You have chronic asthma. You are part of the risk-group. You really must take care of the virus. Wear a protection mask. And: In case you become ill, we must do everything to prevent you from getting a lung infection’. These words touched me in a way that all the measurements did not do. Within one moment, my whole perception changed. I started to realise my personal affectedness: The virus is threatening me in a very serious way through my vulnerable lung.

Breathing is, like Hartmut Rosa has written in his famous study Resonance, the most fundamental, intimate, and direct way to establish a relationship to the world [2]. Breathing is so unquestioned, that most of the time we do not recognise it reflexively. How fundamental and necessary this way of world contact really is, we only realise it when there is a sudden danger – like Corona. When the self-evidence of breathing becomes risky, a deep feeling of insecurity is established in our whole contact to the world. As the asthma took away from me the feeling of the self-evidence of my own breath, the virus also took away this kind of feeling of reliability for the world and for the air around me. It is the breathing itself which makes us vulnerable, stopping it is almost impossible, in terms of controlling what I am breathing in. The virus becomes an omnipresent danger.

When breathing becomes difficult and precarious – as diseases like Covid-19 or asthma cause it ­to be – all other ways of world contact, no matter how simple, seem to be unattainable. The lung not only provides our bodily capabilities, but first and foremost establishes a necessary feeling of safety and self-evidence towards all our physical expressions. Pictures of artificial respiration are so frightening because they show that losing breath means losing world-contact in every thinkable way. It makes sense to say that the lung itself is at the very centre of our world experience. Through its functioning, it establishes the condition of possibility of having a relationship to the world at all. This thin and vulnerable membrane is giving me the possibility to experience my existence as being in the world. Corona turned this calm reliability of breathing into a feeling of exposure, helplessness and mortality. The way we breath shows how we experience world itself.

Figure 1: The numbness of breathing (Copyright by Svenja Rosenbaum 2020)

The Loss of Ontological Security
The daily life experience of the pandemic can be summed-up as the establishing of an increasing feeling of insecurity at the bottom of world experience. No matter how different – and difficult – every individual situation is, all experiences share this kind of feeling. Anthony Giddens calls this a loss of ontological security [3]. This term indicates that this feeling of reliability is absolutely important, because it constitutes the underlying ground of all our ways of world contact. It establishes the condition of possibility to experience one’s own lifeworld as trustworthy and friendly. The sudden threat of the Corona pandemic undermines this feeling of world-stability, because what once seemed to be familiar now shows up in a different light. In this way, the virus is an unexpected break-in of contingency. The philosopher Hans Blumenberg shows in his phenomenological works [4], that the daily life mode of world experience is founded on a reduction of contingency. Only when things, contacts and relationships can be made reliable does this feeling of stability emerge, which is the main reason that the outer world can be perceived as a lifeworld at all.

In times of Corona, especially places like stores and schools, playgrounds and workplaces, universities and libraries or public transport become risk zones of infection. These places are attractive to us, because they provide social relations, contacts and communication. The undermining of their reliability changes them into places that are better avoided. Corona is dividing the world into zones with a higher or lower risk of infection. This kind of experience has a large impact on our daily lives, because it turns world-relationships upside down. A deep feeling of discomfort lies on everything, because self-evident reliability is getting lost. Attraction changes into repulsion, and avoidance becomes the guiding action. The world as a space of contact is continuously shrinking. The almost forgotten German sociologist Dieter Claessens described this dynamic of relationships as a loss of world [5]. Many years before Chernobyl or Corona, he identified the loss of world as the key experience of modernity. The shutdown of almost all life activities confirms not only the vulnerability of an interdependent society, but also, first and foremost, that all social relations depend on a stable ground – usually called the world. If this ground is lost, the whole way we experience our existence starts to disintegrate.

Alienation in Times of Corona
When feelings of discomfort consolidate, they turn into alienation. This is what I felt during a train ride to Erfurt – to pick up some indispensable books. With gloves and respiratory protection on – and always looking out for people coughing – I felt alienation, not only because of doing something perhaps forbidden or stupid, but because I was exposing myself to an unpredictable risk. I realised how the virus is affecting my relation to the world. Everything I want to do – no matter what – now involves a lot of consideration and overcoming. The simple and naïve way of being in the world – as Ulrich Beck said [6] – is lost. Maybe this is the most depressing consequence of the pandemic.

But even this consequence offers new ways of relating to the world. I also noticed a more sensitive perception. All recent catastrophes, like heatwaves, the extinction of insects, or the still ongoing nuclear accident in Fukushima did not register, because my lifeworld and my body were not affected. It seems to be that our daily mode of world experience only starts to change when a direct affectedness is given. So maybe the pandemic also causes alienation from our daily mode of experiencing the world through ignorance, a lack of empathy and the will not to know. The pandemic will leave a very different world behind, and a full return to self-evidence seems to be impossible. But it is the continuous growing of solidarity, sympathy and sensitivity which allows us to reflect upon our way of being in the world, and to get a different account of our existence, on both an individual and societal level.

[1] Repohl, Martin (2019): Tschernobyl als Weltkatastrophe. Weltbeziehung in einer kontaminierten Welt. Ein Beitrag zur materiellen Fundierung der Resonanztheorie. Baden-Baden: Tectum.
[2] Rosa, Hartmut (2016): Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
[3] Giddens, Anthony (1996): Konsequenzen der Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
[4] Blumenberg, Hans (2010): Theorie der Lebenswelt. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
[5] Claessens, Dieter (1963): Weltverlust als psychologisches und soziologisches Problem. In: Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, 49. Jg., S. 513-525.
[6] Beck, Ulrich (1986): Risikogesellschaft. Auf den Weg in eine andere Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

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