On crisis and normality

As late as February this year, I was planning my birthday party. The hotel function room was booked and over 60 guests had confirmed attendance.

Now, I find myself in the seventh week of lockdown, which my family and I are conscientiously observing (whilst so many – particularly young men, who represent an issue in so many contexts – have chosen not to observe at all). Outside, a global pandemic rages, despite the voluntarism of those who seek to assert that it is in some way simply not happening.

The contrast could not be starker. Beyond my windows, I am acutely mindful of sickness and death, the acuity of which the developed countries have not seen for so many years. In the confines of my home, all seems as it ordinarily appears: there is food, light, and heat; wi-fi works to connect us to the world; the most pressing decision of the day is what to watch on TV.

These tentative observations have sent me back to Freud’s fascinating study of the Uncanny. My reading of this work is that the uncanny is a sensation experienced when something looks like something familiar to us – but about which we have a deep and unspoken sense that it is not what it seems.

It is this familiarity, I suspect, that is leading so many people – commentators and so-called “thought leaders” – to offer their opinions as to how we can accelerate out of these current circumstances into the cliche of what is laughingly (and irritatingly) called the “new normal”. Social media platforms such as Linked In are chock full of gung-ho declarations, clunky pep talks, and half-baked ideas as to how we can get ahead in a time of plague. There is little time taken for reflection amidst this seemingly endless and pointless clamour.

It reminds me of an exchange early in the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. A small group of human survivors of a zombie apocalypse find themselves drawn to a large US shopping mall, which is strangely besieged by the undead hordes:

[Fran and Stephen are observing from the roof of the mall]

Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?

Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

In the face of the uncanny, the large professional services companies – zombified husks at the best of times – and the soi-disant gurus respond to the instinct to do what they used to do, instead of using this rupture as an opportunity to pause and reflect. There is doubtless something deeply psychologically defensive in this regard. Perhaps the assumption is simply that “If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, then where we’ve always done it will magically reappear”. Such interventions appear as though they are future-focused; in fact, they are painfully nostalgic.

Commentary on the Dawn of the Dead by Kyle William Bishop (2010) makes an interesting observation, which is that,

On a purely metonymical level, the zombies represent the existing horrors of a society brainwashed by the capitalistic need to consume…Although they have some primitive ties to their former lives, they do not organize or act according to any kind of plan; any autonomy they manifest is a direct result of the instinctual drive to consume.

Despite capitalism seemingly having come to an end in light of the zombie apocalypse, it is embodied in the undead – and they unthinkingly act it out through their automatic behaviours.

We persist as consumers in the face of a global crisis: many are still using up the toilet paper that they seized upon as circumstances began to unfold; the roads remain full of poorly paid delivery drivers, bringing us things that we want but do not need; we are steered towards “binging” (an interesting choice of word in this specific context) box sets of entertainment; and we peddle each other ideas and practices that generate the illusion that we can control what is unfolding and hence shape a new future for ourselves that flies in the face of grim reality. (Using “we” in this context is not academic conceit but recognition that this piece of writing is part of that somewhat vacuous marketplace.)

A reminder, then, that – notwithstanding a general feeling that this represents a disruption to our lives from which we cannot return – it is instead, as noted already in this post, merely a rupture, wherein the possibility of radically different ways of being, connecting, organising, and working are bursting through how we have ordinarily done things. And ruptures, of course, are repairable…and that repair may derive from people carrying on in the ways that they always have done, like the zombies at the mall.

A cursory glance at the web presence of a company such as McKinsey underscores this notion. If you were in a gullible frame of mind, you’d assume that they have got everything pretty much sorted – and sorted in a way that neglects the practicalities of the pandemic and instead offers a route of return roughly to where we were. As ever, there’s a checklist for CEOs about how to “restart” economic activity; elsewhere, we are offered (somewhat clumsily, in terms of choice of language) the chance to move from surviving to thriving as we consider what they describe as the “post-COVID return“.

Of course, this evidences for me the argument persuasively advanced by O’Mahoney and Sturdy (2016) that this company is an ideological apparatus, simply churning out, normalizing and disseminating weakly constructed management ideas and techniques (as opposed to thoughtful and considered options) that reinforce the false notion that the world at large is in some way controllable.

To be fair, the government indulges the absurd notion of control, even in the face of chaos and complexity that we currently face. Of course we need to make sense of the circumstances we face. I think it useful to juggle their various elements through a range of specific frames, as can be found in Snowden’s Cynefin framework. This sort of approach offers a useful means by which to support our own critique and fresh thinking about the world, particularly for those with leadership responsibilities (as specifically discussed by Snowden & Boone in 2007).

But the absurdity of the UK government adopting the slogan “Stay Alert – Control the virus – Save lives” is breathtaking, unless it is understood as an ideological rather than a scientific shift in official advice: we have stopped being directly told to stay home and instead we are expected as individuals to stay alert…so the second wave of the disease will be the fault of all of us, for failing to be alert enough. It signals, for one author, a transition from a Subject to a Consumer story in all of this – and the possibility for a Citizen version, should we all choose to write it. However, the fact remains that, for the Conservative government (and their ideological hue is significant in this regard), the buck has been well and truly passed…

All of the noise and declaration that intrudes upon us from the professional service companies websites and social media platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, is reinforced (and reproduced) by the overbearing sense of the uncanny at present. But it seems to me that all of this clamour – in terms of white papers, checklists, podcasts and posts about creating a definitive understanding of the current chaos and designing the “new normal” is akin to someone sitting down in June 1940 in order to write the definitive and exhaustively comprehensive history of the Second World War. Partly hubris, partly delusion…and partly (whether knowingly or unknowingly) ideological, in terms of trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.

The satirical website The Daily Mash joked recently that “Visitors are sharing photos of the eerily deserted pages of LinkedIn as everybody gives up on bullshit self-promotion and settles for the job they have.” (I am not unaware of the irony that I will doubtless share these musings via that platform – and so someone may well end up reading this via Linked In. I am not immune from the zombification that I sense around me – and also within me. But I need to draw attention to it – and my implication in it.)

But, in fact, when it comes to the desertion of LinkedIn, I sense that increasingly the opposite is true.

Having nowhere else to go and little else to do, we creep back into spaces such as this and reproduce the past in the hope perhaps of recapturing it in the face of a crisis that humankind struggles to acknowledge in terms of the gloomiest possibilities that it carries with it.

Given the profundity of all of that, a little more time spent in reflection, reflexivity and critical thought would look to be a more productive use of time, rather than chuntering on about a fleeting idea, a hastily crafted model, and a new checklist.

But that requires us to acknowledge and explore our experience of the uncanny, even as we are drawn to settle down for yet another episode of the gaudy circus show that is Tiger King (subtitled Murder, Mayhem, and Madness) or exercise ourselves with the “murder-and-giggles” schtick of Killing Eve.

That means stopping doing what we’ve always done – that is, stop behaving like the zombies heading for the shopping mall – and find new ways of thinking, knowing and being. And that is a collective endeavour – not an individualised and private activity, as neo-liberalism would have us think, which will derive its richness from the human connection that provides its foundation.

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