Remembering to Forget
And the nightmare of being buried alive
We’ve reached a new stage of Covid-19: pandemic memorialization.
As you know, the pandemic is not actually over — but it’s been buried. And now come the eulogies.
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The new genre, the Covid retrospective, is typically elegiac, almost nostalgic. These articles tend to shrink “the pandemic” to a blurry few months of whatever passed for lockdown. They seek to wring lessons from it, congratulating themselves on how they’ve slowed down because of it, how deeply they now cherish their time with loved ones.
I admit it’s an addictive genre. In the absence of any hard news or science about Covid, I click on almost any confirmation that this thing I know to be real is recognized as real by others.
But these retrospectives are not innocent. The field known as “memory studies” has shown that all the ways humans represent the collective past — with words, images, monuments, calendar days — serve to cultivate a certain kind of subject. And in tandem, commemorative practices bind their societies to a certain vision of the future.
Right on cue, the Covid memorials celebrate and center the voice who looks back, who can reflect detatchedly, who does not acknowledge the reasons to fear getting Covid. The retrospectives ignore their survivor bias. They bracket the crisis so they can enshrine continuity and business-as-usual.
“The pandemic is over. Long live normal!” they seem to cry.
On the surface, the irresistible retrospectives of the pandemic are anxious not to forget. They want to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. Ironically, these pieces set us up to do just that. Their recognizable pandemic tropes suck us back into the churn of the algorithmic present. Looking backwards, like Benjamin’s angel of history, they sail along with the endless reproduction of catastrophe.
As Andreas Hussyen argues in Present Pasts, our obsession with consuming the past feeds a cultural amnesia, flinging us into a “vortex of ever-accelerating circulation of images, spectacles, and events.”
I wrote letters during the pandemic, and my letters remind me to remember it differently. I remember the articles that tried so earnestly to understand the attitude of the anti-maskers, who were seen as unbelievably irrational, reckless and callous — an attitude, of course, which is now celebrated as healthy and normal.
Globally, the majority of humankind has made a massive mistake: choosing to let Covid make us dumber and sicker. Life has become nastier, shorter, and more brutish. The political consensus to give up on eliminating or even controlling Covid-19 is a moral and practical catastrophe.
But retrospectively, it makes for a nice, sad story.
The Covid minimizers have become the Covid memorializers, and they’re trying to bury the pandemic with eulogies….
But the virus is not dead yet. They’re speaking over the grave of a deceased relative they didn’t like, but about whom they now have only good things to say.
Watching these memorializations is like the nightmare of being buried alive.
Those of us who realize that Covid is still a very present danger are left with two tasks. We’ve got to unbury the past-that-is-present. And in the process, we’ve got to midwife a new way of being-together, a new world.
So when I come across the Covid retrospectives, I recall Faulkner as an antidote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
We will need a deeper, more honest reckoning with how the Covid-19 pandemic was pronounced dead to engender an alternative future, free from Covid.