Arts & Humanities Faculty Research in the time of COVID-19

April 21, 2020
Megan Burke

Megan Burke, Professor of Philosophy

When did you first start thinking about COVID-19? I mean beyond responding to it in your daily life, sheltering in place, and in your professional life, reconfiguring your classes for remote instruction?

It took me some time. I think, like most people, I was first trying to orient myself to what was happening. There was no “sense making,” at least initially. And that is of importance, too; it gestures to how intellectual work is always a privileged disposition, requiring certain material conditions. One has the capacity to reflect when one’s life is not in the throes of upheaval, survival, or death. This isn’t to say that thinking isn’t done in those moments, but that having the time and space to make sense of and share what is happening to oneself, to the world around oneself, is definitely something that happens under prime conditions of  existence—conditions that have been and remain undermined in deep ways for marginalized and vulnerable people, including women, the poor, people of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities. In the presence of deep material insecurity about one’s existence, intellectual reflection isn’t usually an option. This is what was so disturbing to me about the circulation “historical tidbits” on social media that so-and-so made a groundbreaking intellectual contribution, e.g. Isaac Newton, during a pandemic or plague. I mean, the possibility that one can do intellectual or scientific work in a pandemic requires quite entitled material conditions and the labor of others to sustain those conditions. That reality was often completely obscured or overlooked in those posts.

My reaction to those posts started to redirect my attention from getting oriented (in my quite privileged living conditions) to thinking about what was happening and in particular, to being concerned with how people were making sense of what was possible amidst COVID-19.

But, I’d say I really started thinking philosophically about COVID-19 after President Trump’s White House press briefing on Monday March 23, 2020. I became interested in and concerned with Trump’s push to get things back to normal. That we even could do so is a question probably best left to experts in science and medicine, but I am concerned with the moral implications of ending the shutdown soon. Ought we do so? And if we can, why, morally, ought we resist such urgency?

What were the research questions you were asking beforehand and when did you first start connecting COVID-19 to these questions?

I’ve been preoccupied with temporality, or the lived experience of time, in relation to gender and embodiment for several years now. It was Trump’s press briefing, one of his first public declarations of accelerating the end of the shutdown, that really got me thinking about how the lived experience of time was figuring into COVID-19.

As a philosopher, I am concerned with the ethical implications of lived time or temporality. When most of us think of time, we think of clock time. The ticking of our lives in seconds, minutes, hours, and days. For a phenomenologist (a particular kind of philosopher) such as myself, clock time is distinct from temporality. Lived time is our individual and collective experience of time. While clock time viscerally shapes how we all live time, lived time is more dynamic. The clock may still tick as it usually does, but my sense or experience of an hour, for instance, could be quick or long depending on what is going on in my life or in the world around me.

I became preoccupied with Trump’s urgency to get back to things quickly. Certainly, I think this sentiment of urgency is shared by many people for different reasons. I mean, I too have a sense of urgency about its end. I want all of this to be over sooner than later.  But, is my urgency the same as Trump’s? Is urgency a moral way to live time in the face of COVID-19? How ought I live time now? What does Trumpian urgency disclose about how we live time more generally? What will this urgency do, not just in terms of disease and death, but in terms of how people experience time? Does urgency compress time? Does it open it up by bringing the future closer? 

I just so happened to be studying Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age while asking these questions and, I think, Beauvoir offers a meaningful way to begin to think through them. In her discussion of aging in a capitalist society, Beauvoir shows how the ruling class eschews long-term interests in favor of profit. In terms of time, this means the focus of the ruling class is rooted in immediacy and expediency. The focus is on who can be of use now and in the proximal future. She remarks on the way those who cannot be of use, particularly the elderly, to the urgent capitalist are a “mere throw-out,” “a reject, a piece of scrap.” Beauvoir notes how “humanitarian feelings…do not enter into account at all.” The concern, then, is with productive life. From this view, Trump’s urgency can be understood as a morally impoverished impatience, a rush toward the future rooted in productivity above all else.

Yet, because this focus on productivity relies so much on how one’s time can be used, it also exposes something far more fundamental about the lived experience of time. As humans, we have a capacity to change our relation to time in ethical and unethical ways.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be urgency around protecting those who are suffering from, exposed to, or whose lives have been upended because of COVID-19. But that urgency might benefit from slowing down rather than speeding up time. The trouble, of course, is that to slow down ethically, we would need social systems of care, especially economic ones, we currently don’t have. But, living time in this moment can be a part of establishing those systems. The very ways we live time in the face of COVID-19 can entrench violent structures of time or undo them.

What questions do you think you’ll be asking six months from now?

I’ll keep with the questions I was thinking about before—ones focused on embodiment, particularly as it relates gender, time, vulnerability, violence, and power. But, like many people I’m sure my work will be impacted in some way by what is happening now. How exactly I cannot say, and maybe I won’t know for some time.