Order/Disorder in Times of Pandemic

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By RENATO ORTIZ*

The solution offered by the inversion rituals was comforting, symbolically ensuring the permanence of things; with the pandemic, instability prevails over security

The coronavirus pandemic puts the social order on hold and, in a way, challenges us in our intellectual condition. What does order mean, what is the meaning of its rupture? Anthropologists are familiar with rituals of liminality and inversion, which exist in different cultures and manifest themselves at different moments of life in society. An example: the Zulu ceremony that precedes planting. On this occasion, the goddess who taught humans the art of planting and harvesting is revered. Only the women participate in the ritual, who, by altering their usual conduct, violate a series of customary taboos: they drive cattle (an exclusively male activity), carry the warriors' shields, sometimes walk naked and sing impudent songs. The men remain in the huts, and if by chance they leave, they are attacked by them. Another example: the enthronement of a new king in Côte d'Ivoire. A captive-king, chosen from among the servants, temporarily exercises the royal functions of domination over free men. The captives wear sumptuous swimming trunks, feast, drink in abundance, defy sacred norms and ridicule the nobles of the court. However, shortly after the king's funeral, the "rebel power" breaks down; the silk loincloths are torn and the captive-king is executed. The examples could be multiplied, but they transcend their particularity: the inversion rituals are symbolic mechanisms for reinforcing the social order. After a moment of liminality, of “chaos”, when everyday things are shaken, everything returns to normal, the status quo is preferable to disorder, it imposes itself. Something analogous occurs in modern societies, the mechanisms of order inversion are not restricted to indigenous cultures (as if the past were a revolving dimension). An example: disaster movies. In them, the narrative is organized in three stages: in the first, the daily order of things is presented, in the second, its destruction, in the third, the return to normal life. The element that triggers the destruction can vary, a monstrous being (King Kong), an environmental catastrophe (avalanche, earthquake, tidal wave, etc.), an epidemic (Ebola). In a certain way it is arbitrary, it is important to find convincing data capable of directing the story to be told. Catastrophe narratives are quite standard, follow a simple exposition scheme and function as an inversion ritual in which the ordering of things is temporarily interrupted. The spectator, in the comfort of an armchair in the cinema, contemplates the landslide from a distance, he does not reach it, he is ritually controlled by the structure of the story.

The pandemic directly implies a break in everyday life. However, if in the inversion rituals this is only symbolic, now it is reality in its materiality that is put in check. It is not about questioning the notion of order as opposed to disorder, it is its “essence” that collapses. Every ritual implies order, that's why there are specialists who manage it correctly (sorcerers, magicians, priests), everything and everyone knows its place. The captive-king, in the previous example, or the unsubmissive women, in the Zulu case, play a role determined by a script that transcends and guides them. Their actions are predictable, they belong to a collective memory that organizes gestures and intentions. The ritual controls the “rebellion” by sheltering it in its disparate symbolism. The pandemic situation is different, in it disorder is unregulated. The rationality of modern societies goes into crisis due to the unpredictability of events. The idea of ​​management (rational control of actions) weakens: industries, commerce, hospitals, transport, the flow of goods, everything, for a moment, becomes “irrational”, that is, random, fortuitous. There is no cure for the bad. Scientific diagnoses only touch their superficiality, the “predictions”, based on mathematical essays and epidemiological experiments, concern possible scenarios of contamination, but the threat remains: it has not been eliminated, it needs to be contained without, however, having a definitive outcome for that. The solution offered by the inversion rituals was comforting, symbolically ensuring the permanence of things; with the pandemic, instability prevails over security. It is still global, not restricted to one area or region of the world, the planet is the soil of its desolation. There is no way to escape risk, it is inexorable. In this sense, the closing of national borders is not a dip in itself, a kind of affirmation of the local as opposed to the global, on the contrary, they are closed due to the globalization of the virus. There is nothing of “nationalism” in this closure option, it is a reactive artifice, a safeguard, it means dependence and not autonomy in relation to threats.

The rituals of rebellion have one quality: by inverting the everyday order, they make visible some of the “structuring” mechanisms of societies. In the examples I used, the relationship of subordination between masculine/feminine and dominant/dominated is clear, what was latent, hidden, acquires a manifest feature. Something similar happens in a pandemic situation, some “pillars” of social life, which seemed natural, immanent to us, are made explicit in their denial. An important element concerns the idea of ​​circulation. Sociologists claim that this dimension is specific to modern societies. Contrary to traditional, agrarian societies, in which the movement of people and goods was restricted, reduced, with modernity there is an “uprooting” of things. They no longer belong to a geographic place (the village, the region) to circulate on a larger scale. One example: the advent of the industrial revolution and modernity in the XNUMXth century. As the weight of tradition weakens, the circulation of things, objects, people expands rapidly. This is the case of urban reforms (Paris by Baron Haussmann; Rio de Janeiro by Pereira Passos), the emergence of public transport (trams and buses, first drawn by horse, then powered by electricity), intra-class mobility, migration from the countryside to the city, the increase in national and international trade. Technical innovations, trains, automobiles, ships, telegraph, and later cinema, radio and television, will make circulation a permanent feature of our lives (particularly in the context of globalization). The pandemic brings with it something of a counter-modernity. First, there is a restriction of movement: airport closures, a decrease in trade, travel bans, etc. The flow of people and products is moderate on a global scale. Isolation, and not mobility, becomes a virtue, the only alternative to halt the spread of the disease. It is necessary to withdraw so that the disorder existing “out there” does not reach us. Another essential dimension must still be overlooked: the individual. He is a kind of emblem of modernity. With the industrial revolution and the political revolutions of the XNUMXth century, the individual becomes a symbol of freedom. Each one, according to their beliefs and needs, would choose their religion, their ideology, their clothes (one of the edicts of the French Revolution said: from now on, any man or woman can dress the way they want). Individual freedom, political or social, should not be curtailed, it would represent the maximum expression of a right and a condition guaranteed to all (an ideal that is not confirmed in practice). With the development of a consumer society, this idiosyncratic trait is reinforced, the motto, “I want and I want it now”, reveals the expectation of conjunction between personal desires and their fulfillment. The pandemic reverses this relationship of autonomy. It is a “social fact” (I use Durkheim's definition), that is, an event external to the individual that is coercively imposed on him. We cannot escape it. That's why a feeling of frustration, anxiety and fear prevails among us. The feeling of impotence prevails over action, collected in isolation we look at the world from a distance without interfering in it. lockdown).

Inversion rituals belong to societies marked by a cyclical time, the present, that is, tradition, must be maintained at any cost (this is the role of myths). Symbolic disorder is just the sign of its permanence. In modern societies change is the decisive element. However, the epidemic paralyzes the march of time, opens a gap between now and later. A fissure is established in the face of the unpredictability of things, as if fate were slipping out of our hands. When what we knew collapses, what remains is the indefinition. The current that seemed so solid (it was said that the entertainment society favored presenteeism) falls apart. In a pandemic situation, order is put on hold (it is not annulled) and the accelerated time of our lives becomes slow, sluggish. Waiting is lived. There are two ways of looking at this gap between distinct temporalities. The first is to value the return to a “normal” life, to what existed before. The existing problems (they are countless, from injustice to inequality) would be sublimated, minimized in the face of the current disorganization. However, the prognoses for the future are not the best, the epidemic has disastrous consequences (unemployment, increased poverty, hunger, destruction of companies, etc.). The desired present reveals the bitter taste of its redemption, it is incomplete, unsatisfactory. But the fissure between today and tomorrow can be understood as a situation of liminality in which the order of things, when broken, would allow us to imagine another world, a way of living different from the current one. The break with everyday life would thus work as a stimulus to the utopian imagination, even knowing that this is a dreamlike condition, we would find an entirely different world. A window would open on the horizon and the end of the “end of utopias” would free us from the meshes of the present.

* Renato Ortiz He is a Full Professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Universalism and diversity (Boitempo).

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