The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly contracted and enlarged our frontiers of being.
On the one hand, our days have been distilled down to the minutiae of living. It often seems as if life has been reduced to a series of banal tasks – eating, brushing teeth, packing the dishwasher, watering the plants – which we would ordinarily complete on auto-pilot. In the process, a whole array of wider meaning-giving life projects have simply dropped away from our lives. And yet, as the frontier of the oikos contracts, heaths and homes are also flung open and overtaken by the impersonal force of an uncertain present and an uncertain future. None of us have been untouched by this exhausting paradox through which we now live every day.
An implication of this paradox is that the juxtaposition between private and public life has, de facto, never been starker (we currently live lives defined by social distance); and, yet, we also find that we can no longer maintain this distinction in thought.
In the traditional liberal paradigm, the distinction between the private and the public realms is often emphasised: the private sphere is characterised by concerns of self-actualisation and personal liberty, while the public sphere is concerned with human suffering, cruelty, and the demands of justice. The liberalist attempt to demarcate these two realms clearl, has been the subject of much criticism. By way of illustration, simply consider how many of our freedoms have of late been reigned in to spare human suffering.
This said, the philosopher Richard Rorty (a self-proclaimed, romantic bourgeois liberal) nevertheless argues that although crude divisions do not hold, the vocabularies developed in pursuit of private and public goods are vastly different, which leads him to conclude that we must be “content to treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable.” However, I would argue that what the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that these vocabularies can no longer be thought of as incommensurable. On the contrary, it is likely that even a self-proclaimed romantic, bourgeois liberal would agree with me after having lived through the past three months!
However, conceding as much does not make thinking any easier. I would venture to suggest that at present we struggle with what thinking means precisely because we have paradoxically (in isolation of the public domain) lost the luxury of separating the public and private domains of our lives, and along with that, the luxury of confining specific problems to specific spheres. Commenting on the challenges of globalisation, the complexity theorist Edgar Morin writes that “the more we are grasped by the world the more difficult it is for us to grasp it”. More than ever, we are truly beginning to internalise the interdependent nature of living in both private and public domains, whether it concerns matters of health (the pandemic), social justice (the Black Lives Matter movement) or potential climate collapse. We can no longer pretend that we can, or have, isolated a vital problem – important for purposes of either personal self-actualisation or public justice – precisely because as Morin comments, “[t]he planetary problem is a whole fed by multiple, conflictual, crisical [crisique] ingredients; it encompasses, surpasses, and feeds them in return.”
Since the doors of the oikos are unlikely ever to close shut again, perhaps we should start thinking via a new vocabulary – one in which the demands of justice for the many and the demands of self-actualisation of the one rub up against each other along the same frontier of being.