Authors: Cally Gatehouse
Posted: Mon, April 20, 2020 - 9:31:01
Like many HCI researchers, I’ve found that the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences has made it almost impossible to continue doing research as normal. Not only am I suddenly remote from the resources and communities that I work within, but I find myself newly cautious about the speculative methods that I use. It seems irresponsible to speculate at a time like this when we’re not able to predict what the end of each week might bring. Asking questions of what shape our shared futures might take feels fraught when so many lives are on hold and at risk during lockdowns. However, as the pandemic has unfolded, I have started to recognize uncanny similarities to my experiences of doing speculative research. Much like speculative research, these events seem to ask us to renegotiate our sense of what is possible, probable, plausible, preferable on almost a daily basis. And while the events that I am normally concerned with involve myself and a handful of other actors rather than the global scale of the coronavirus, I have started to wonder if speculative research might offer some concepts that can help us to make sense of this current moment in which the world feels turned upside down.
In my research, I often use a variety of material, visual and performative devices in pursuit of a carnivalesque unsettling of the authority of what-is to dictate what-may-be. This draws on Bakhtin’s description of the carnival as time and place for “working out, in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-playacted form, a new mode of interrelationship between individuals .” Carnivals, by standing in contrast to normal life, are spaces in which social hierarchies can be questioned and reconfigured. Previously, I have written about how participatory speculative workshops took on exactly such a carnivalesque atmosphere to create a space and time in which we could collectively reconsider what it would mean to take young LGBT people’s experience of hate crime seriously . This upending of the normal world enables us to imbue parodic and unconventional propositions with a sense of provisional seriousness. While these events do not banish existing social hierarchies, they give heightened sense that these hierarchies are open to revision.
Coronavirus and the measures taken to slow its spread have created a similar sense that normal rules have been suspended temporarily. However, the new rules of these events are in some senses an inversion of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin’s account of the carnivalesque has four distinct elements: free and familiar contact amongst people, eccentric behaviour, profanity, and carnivalistic mésalliance (the bringing together of opposites such as light and dark, serious and silly, life and death, etc.) . The temporary regime that coronavirus necessitates with limited physical contact between people, strict policing of deviance from the new rules of social distancing, and the careful control of all things bodily is a darker mirror image of these characteristics. Most important, rather than a carnivalesque inversion of existing hierarchies, we are seeing inequalities like those that result from the digital divide, precarious and low paid work, and unequal access to housing and healthcare play out in ever more striking terms.
But even in this inverted carnivalesque, there remains some of the same inventive potential to produce newly improvised forms of social relationships. Pubs, exercise classes, and religious services are moving online. We are also finding new ways to enjoy the limited public spaces we still have access to, from spectacular mass performances like singing from apartment balconies to clapping to show support for healthcare workers. On a personal scale, we are all learning how to negotiate public spaces while keeping a safe distance. Normally trivial or mundane activities like going to the supermarket bring a new sense of risk, but people are also finding new ways to derive pleasure or comfort from whatever access to outdoor space is available to them. In my neighborhood, I’ve seen sunbathers sit on flat roofs, garages turned into gyms, and badminton games played across garden fences. I saw a woman visiting what I took to be her daughter and grandson, trapped at the garden gate by social distancing. The visitor was throwing a ball the length of the short garden path for the little boy to kick back to her. This seemed a little risky, right on the edge of physical contact, but the boy was laughing with delight.
These kind of deeply ambivalent experiences are perhaps the strongest affinity between what we’re currently experiencing and the carnivalesque. Both are experiences in which we are forced to acknowledge the ways that horror and joy coexist. The experience of lockdown is streets that feel like a peaceful Sunday afternoon all week long and the dread of daily reports of a rising death toll. It is a sudden expansion of police powers and the invention of new social safety nets. It is being painfully cut off from one another while finding new ways to connect to those physically distant. It is by creating these new ambivalences that gives what we’re currently experiencing a speculative power. Things that seemed impossible are suddenly a reality: Air pollution drops as we reconsider what economic activity is really “essential,” homeless people are housed overnight, and universal basic income has gone from a fringe proposal to a national policy in Spain. Perhaps troublingly for HCI, we are also seeing a growing acceptance that the necessity of intrusive surveillance technology outweighs privacy concerns.
As HCI has increasingly engaged with the broader social, political, and environmental implications of our work, we are increasingly confronted with problems that far exceed our individual or collective capacity to respond as HCI researchers. Coronavirus is arguably one of these problems. Many HCI researchers, including myself, have turned to Donna Haraway’s rallying call to “stay with the trouble”  as a way to navigate these new territories. How do we stay with this particular moment of trouble? At some point this crisis will end and we will find ourselves in a post-corona world, one that will look and feel very different to the world we knew before. What will persist of this moment in which “business as usual” became impossible is hard to predict. However, looking back through the lens of the carnivalesque ambiguity, we can begin to account for the ways in which this time brought together elements that are both painful and pleasurable, ugly and beautiful, isolating and uniting, in a host of unexpected ways. Understanding how these discordant aspects have come together in new ways can help us design for not just the world we have, but for the other possible worlds that these strange times allow us to glimpse.
Perhaps this is why I am cautious about speculative methods, particularly in moments like this. Speculation produces novelty but offers no guarantee that we will like the novelty that it produces. Indeed, the hope and the risk of speculative methods is that they will produce something that requires entirely new values with which to judge it. In a similar way, these times, as troubling as they are, sharpen our senses to the way in which Karen Barad reminds us that what is “out of sight may be out of reach but not necessarily out of touch” . While we may be physically distant at the moment, the ways in which we are inextricably interdependent have never been more obvious. While it is far too soon to fully account for what new values coronavirus will produce, speculative methods offer some insights into how these risks can be shared and how we can work to develop our collective capacity to keep responding to these events even when solutions remain beyond our grasp.
1. Folch-Serra, M. Place, voice, space: Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogical landscape. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 8, 3 (1990), 255–274; https://doi.org/10.1068/d080255
2. Gatehouse, C. A Hauntology of farticipatory speculation. Proc. of the 16th Participatory Design Conference 2020 - Participation(s) Otherwise - Vol 1; https://doi.org/10.1145/3385010.3385024
3. Bakhtin, M. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. U of Minnesota Press, 2013.
4. Haraway, D.J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
5. Barad, K. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke Univ. Press, 2007.
Posted in: Covid-19 on Mon, April 20, 2020 - 9:31:01
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