Remembering corona: the politics of memory and the pandemic

Column. When we look back on the corona pandemic, what will we remember? Memory is about power: controlling the past means controlling the present and the future. So when we think about a world post-corona, writes UI senior research fellow Johanna Mannergren Selimovic, we need to think about the emotional and political work that the remembering of the pandemic will do in that world.

Publicerad: 2020-05-22

As the pandemic moves across the globe, translated into the by now familiar curves and zig-zags across our screens, a social, collective memory is in the making. Experiences and material objects related to the disease are being collected in archives set up through museums, universities and other institutions.

Will a shared, collective memory be at all possible? One thing that has been made painfully clear these last months is how our experiences differ, as some suffer sickness and death, others spiral into poverty and yet others experience authoritarian clampdowns and loss of freedom. Some risk their lives, others suffer inconvenience. And yet, the pandemic is a collective experience. The crisis is an embodied, emotional experience that plays out in intimate spheres for all of us. Raw hands. Itchy face masks. Missing other bodies. Fearing other bodies. At the core of this experience is the universal loss of a web of relations and its nodes: markets, extended families, cafés, shopping malls, choirs, museums. The disappearance of embodied interaction in our lives is thus an intimate loss. It is also an ‘ambiguous loss’. Ambiguous loss includes losses that have no definite endings, no protocol and no predicted path towards closure as imaginations of the future are blocked. Things have changed but how much and for how long? Who were we? Who are we becoming?

Politics of memory is politics of emotions and it seems that default templates for remembering cannot hold this intimate and ambiguous loss. We see a lot of war rhetoric these days that conjure familiar emotions into play, using language that gets its power from urgency and the extraordinary and tempts us with fantasies of control through recognisable metaphors and actions. But this top-down corona narrative in the making is the opposite of what we need to learn and understand and remember for the future. It is manipulative and dishonest and completely unhelpful for dealing with intimate and ambiguous loss. At the same time, the collective experience of the Spanish Flu has not been passed down through generations, despite the fact that it is estimated that about a  third of the world’s population got infected and that between 17 million to 50 million people died. There must have been countless stories that we could have turned to for solace and for learning, and we lost them.

So, in a world post-corona (or a world that has learnt to live with pandemics), how can we work to make our collective memory as pluralistic as possible? Instead of grand narratives of war it seems that it is the intimate everyday experience that can  guide our attention and be the locus for our collective memory. The extraordinary is experienced in the ordinary, in the everyday. It is a realm that is often misunderstood as banal or unimportant and outside politics, but in fact the opposite is true. It is through our private grief, as we say digitally goodbye to those we love as they die alone, that we can see and act upon our long-time failure to care for the elderly. And we can experience that unpaid labour of women in the home (a burden that is getting heavier every day of lockdown), and the underpaid (and now so dangerous) labour of women in caring and cleaning professions, is part of the same persistent gender dynamics. Likewise, the call to ‘stay home and stay safe’ makes us open our eyes and see that millions and millions do not actually have homes to be safe in.

These deep wounds become visible exactly through linking intimate micropolitics to macropolitics  – something that feminist International Relations scholars such as Cynthia Enloe has taught us. It thus makes sense that it is attention to the intimate and ambiguous loss in the everyday that can give us a memory politics that is also a transformative politics. Institutions across the world are now acting swiftly to create ‘corona archives’ and many of them focus on ‘everyday stuff,’ turning material objects and digital traces into a tangible and intangible cultural heritage.  For example, in Italy, the Central Institute for Sound and Audiovisual Heritage, in collaboration with the Department of Cultural Heritage of the University of Padua and LYS – Locate Your Sound, collects home recordings of sounds from people’s windows during the quarantine. The National Library of China has launched a collective memory bank that will include such things as pictures, letters, paintings and calligraphy. In the U. K., Victoria and Albert Museum has launched the collection of Pandemic Objects and in Sweden Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) collects personal stories about corona.

People want to engage, they come forward to share their diaries, photos, letters, videos, also posting their reflections in social media under #coronadiaries. Clearly, memories of the ordinary in extraordinary times matter to many people who struggle with intimate and ambiguous loss. To interpret and interact with this heritage will be a vital undertaking in years to come.

Johanna Mannergren Selimovic
UI senior research fellow