The world is too much with us—William Wordsworth
My phone starts pinging; I watch as the notifications illuminate the screen, one after another. I last about two minutes before I’m compelled to open them. Six messages from O in belated response to a request I had sent for an analysis of a line that haunts me from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: ‘Something there badly not wrong’.
O’s interpretation, dispatched with a warning that any attempt to find precise meaning in any one sentence necessarily misses the point, is sent in rapidly fired fragments. I’m only halfway through the fourth message with O bemoaning the widespread tendency to domesticate Beckett (‘the irony is this is probably both his least read and most quoted texts, cf t-shirts and motivational posters emblazoned with ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better’ ‘), when my phone pings again. It’s E, with whom I have been commiserating about our parents’ cavalier attitude to social distancing rules. She tells me that in the past week her father has turned a very sharp corner, inaugurating a family ranking and risk assessment system. At the end of each day the family now receives a breakdown of raw data, as well as a daily score for ‘virus-alertness’, based on a crude algorithm measuring essential activity against sundry acts of carelessness. Included is guidance on contact minimisation, tailored to each individual’s level of compliance and risk; next to her mother’s name, is a note: ‘Likely vector. Unstable.’
I start to reply but am quickly distracted as the notifications from my other groups flood in. A meme from an outlier in an extended family WhatsApp group (the creation of which was short-sighted and for which I am daily punished); a screenshot of a paragraph from a Lancet article from M outlining the dangers of rapid COVID testing kits; a link to Jamieson Webster’s NYRB piece Psychoanalysis in the Time of Plague; I’m reminded—although the association isn’t clear—that I can’t find my copy of Freud and the Sexual so I abandon the Wapp nightmare and search for an e-copy. Acquiring it feels suddenly urgent; the process(es) of ordering it—creating an account, logging into PayPal, ceding yet again my ‘personal’ data to Them and waiting the likely two-fourweeks for its arrival—would invariably be an experience of frustrated desire; and besides, I know the desire belongs to now, so if and when the book were ever to arrive, it would only serve as a mocking reminder of my own abjection.
Mercifully I don’t have to dwell too long on the fear of breakdown because I get a phone call that I should answer but don’t; I return instead to my immediate family’s Wapp group, wherein a discussion is being had about the best potato for gratination, during which time I receive a separate message from M, offering a meta-commentary on the gratination discussion; the other Wapp groups have produced similar spin-off dyads, largely concerned with the analysis of the dynamics of the main group and the myriad personal failings of their members.
Group life, so psychoanalysis tells us, is a form of madness. Please stop sending me your neoliberal YouTube mindfulness meditation videos, I don’t say. While I’m dwelling on the possibility of muting a work Wapp group that has degenerated into an exchange of WFH memes, an email arrives reminding me about a self-care workshop—a great way to ‘check in on where you’re at’.
Where I’m at, of course, is home. The coping strategies include a self-monitoring self-care sheet ‘for when things get overwhelming’; the list of symptoms I’m told to look out for range from sleeplessness to mood swings, difficulty concentrating to feeling out of sorts. What I might be failing to concentrate on, or what the point is of sleeping when there’s nothing to get up for seem like questions that might only prompt further alarm and possibly result in another email with an EMERGENCY self-care sheet attached. My reverie is interrupted by the arrival of an email, containing a confidential document reminding me that I am essential and may therefore be required to leave my home. Not very self care-y. The letter is signed by the ‘chief people officer’. Before I have a chance to screen shot the lols, my email pings again; this time, a Zoom link from a psychoanalytic seminar group, with a list of readings for the upcoming lecture on addiction. The oxymoronic but reassuring private browsing window won’t allow me to download the pdf; I search the title instead but end up falling down what the kids call a wormhole, which leads me to a paper on perversion, love and politics. ‘The discourse of the capitalist’, it reads, ‘is a variation of the discourse of the master, and to that end, it tends to disavow lack and non-rapport.’
As if by design, my email pings again; this time, an email from Slack, an app on to which I was involuntarily platformed when the world suddenly collapsed a mere four weeks ago; It was a reminder about an unread post so I dutifully clicked on the link. The post—a matter of such urgency that it had overridden my instruction to not ever notify me about anything—was from a manager telling the group that she had forwarded an email regarding the use of Teams, but that no action was required at this time; so, an email from slack notifying me of a post notifying me of an email notifying me of another email that I was to disregard.
I’m saved momentarily from the death drive when my screen suddenly goes black. Panicked relief; I search for power but am interrupted when my phone tweets at me. The Fit Golfer Girl (byline: golf fitness specialist and blogger!) has liked a Hannah Arendt quote I recently tweeted. Confusing sure, but a like is a like. By the time my computer has relaunched, three new emails have arrived, including one announcing the launch of a Wellness Hub (can a hub be anything else?), promising tips to optimise my day.
I spend a moment fantasising a reply-all with Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy attached; but I’m too quickly distracted by an email from M, attached to which is an article, To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe and I. I abandon the Wellness Hub and start reading: ‘Quarantine is only tolerable’, the author writes, ‘if you quarantine from it…; an epoché, a suspension, a bracketing of sociality is sometimes the only way … to feel close to all the isolated people on Earth.’ I have no idea what it means but for some reason I’m reminded of Winnicott’s description of the capacity to be alone—a condition of which is the full acknowledgement of one’s dependence.
And then my phone lights up. It’s a meme from L: the iconic self-portrait of Van Gogh, with a face mask dangling off his only ear, captioned ‘Fuck’.