What we knew then…

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 34
Digital Citation

Coronavirus and the carnivalesque: What speculative methods can tell us about Covid-19

Cally Gatehouse

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Like many HCI researchers, I've found that the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences have 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 regarding 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, in contrast to the global scale of the coronavirus, I have started to wonder if speculative research might offer some concepts that can help us make sense of this current moment in which the world feels turned upside down.

I have started to wonder if speculative research might offer some concepts that can help us make sense of this moment.

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 [1]." 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 [2]. 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 a 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 among people, eccentric behavior, profanity, and carnivalistic mésalliance (the bringing together of opposites such as light and dark, serious and silly, life and death) [3]. The temporary regime that coronavirus necessitates with limited physical contact between people, the 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 in support of 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 sunbathing 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 kinds of deeply ambivalent experiences hold 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 in which horror and joy coexist. The experience of lockdown means streets that feel like a peaceful Sunday afternoon all week long with the ongoing dread 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 with those who are physically distant. It is by creating these new ambivalences that what we're currently experiencing gains 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 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" [4] 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 from the world we knew before. What will persist of this moment in which business as usual became impossible? 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 pleasurable as well as painful, beautiful and ugly, uniting and isolating, 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 also 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 resulting novelty. 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" [5]. While we may be physically distant for now, 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 uncover, 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 such events, even when solutions remain beyond our grasp.

back to top  References

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 participatory 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. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2013.

4. Haraway, D.J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke Univ. Press, 2016.

5. Barad, K. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke Univ. Press, 2007.

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Cally Gatehouse is a lecturer in communication design at Northumbria University. She is a design researcher, with a background in graphic and communication design. Her research uses feminist STS to frame and develop an understanding of critical and speculative design research as a means of "staying with the trouble." [email protected]

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