It seems that at the time of writing, the trend has already almost passed and the dust has already settled. Whether this is because the need for those messages to be spread has reduced, granting less reach to them, or that I simply don't go out as much to actually witness these events, I don't know. The fact is, that the current and ongoing pandemic has acted and still acts as a collective crisis and at the same time produced a particular form of collective action, the likes of which it seems we can witness each time there is one such crisis; for each mass shooting, ecological disaster or whatever crisis you want to describe, there is a collective action and need that arises from such a terrible event.
For example: Remember how when walking around at 9pm outdoors in the last few weeks, you could suddenly hear clapping coming from balconies and open windows all down the street, not to mention the countless videos on social media of those actions? Remember how somehow after each mass shooting with a racist background there seems to be some sort of local event promoting communal values and unity? Or remember how after the attacks on Paris on November 13th you couldn't unfriend anyone on Facebook without coming across their blue-white-and-red coloured profile picture?
And while the degrees as well as the ways of these collective actions vary each time, there is an underlying pattern that seems to crystallise. What such crises seem to produce might cynically and overtly be called a need to feel good. However, far from being the only explanation for such collective acts, there are implications from such acts that go beyond the mere hip cynical you‘re-just-trying-to-show-that-you‘re-a-good-person criticism.
So what does it mean when people are clapping and singing for their healthcare professionals in such a crisis, when their disadvantages have long been public and voiced? How can it be that, time and time again, in times of crisis, we as a society place so much weight on seemingly harmless but arguably effortless collective acts?
The quick solution to antisemitism
Several days after a terrible event in the german city Halle in 2019, wherein a shooter tried to force his way into a synagogue and subsequently killed two people, the city of Halle organised a concert with the name #HalleZusammen („Halle Together“, a play on words of „alle zusammen“, i.e. „All Together“), which was attend by nearly 15'000 people. And while my aim is not to single out people who attended or felt the desire to attend such a concert, I can't help but wonder what kind of message something like this can and does send. Not only does the question arise, who such a slogan and event might be for, but also who is it not for?
It is obvious that Germany has and had a difficult history with antisemitism as well as racism. The Jewish community (as well as other minority communities) has faced countless adversities in Germany for a long time. Furthermore what is so poetically termed “Vergangenheitsbewältigung“ (i.e. coming to terms with the past) in Germany continues to refuse to connect the past with the present. Or as Max Czollek wrote in his book Desintegiert Euch (De-Integrate yourselves):
“ Perhaps it was just the ... refusal of the 68-generation to draw a connection between the criticism of the inhumanity of National Socialism and themselves, which resulted in the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung to become the central term of [historical] reappraisal. The included distancing of their own present from the past is a central element of the construction of the German self-perception (Czollek, 2018: 54) [Own translation]
So how come that suddenly the German population comes together to celebrate its unity? Why is such a terrible event a catalyst for a uniting event?
Of course it's easy to decry people's efforts to show solidarity and it would be even easier to invoke this above-mentioned hip cynical attitude of „I know this doesn‘t do anything“.
Timo Reinfrank, the manager of the German Amadeu-Antonio-Stiftung voiced his opinion in an interview with the Deutschlandfunk, stating that such events are an „important instrument «to bring people together and demonstrate unity»“, while adding that the danger of such events lie in the possibility that they provide the feeling that you have done something, while „changing basically nothing in everyday life“. Deutschlandfunk [Own translation]
My goal is not to pick out examples of when communities demonstrate solidarity and try to show why that‘s not really the case. What is more interesting, is that you can find such examples of collective - again being cynical here - surface-level action in reaction to such crises time and time again. So can we somehow find a pattern in these actions?
For the sake of not upsetting order
What is important, albeit obvious, is that those collective actions are always reactive. As detailed above, the rampant antisemitism in Germany has been known for a long time, which gives a concert of solidarity an icky aftertaste. The precarious situation that healthcare workers find themselves, in both economically as well as socially, is also nothing new, having been - at least in Germany - part of political discourse and for example generating short-lived outrage during the 2017 election when a young medical worker criticised chancellor Merkel on live tv. However any collective actions on the scale that we have seen during the current pandemic or as with HalleZusammen - where, again, 15‘000 people came together - is nowhere to be found.
Further, it seems that, what Reinfrank expressed in his interview - although not it seems with this connotation - is that such collective actions are primarily a demonstration. While the demonstration of cultural values of solidarity and unity is commendable, the underlying problems of an antisemitic and racist terrorist attack - such as the growing radicalisation of young, often, male adults online, the rampant and continued right-wing infiltration of government branches - are not addressed by this in the slightest. The same goes for the thanking of healthcare workers, whose economical and social problems will of course not be solved by thanking them and painting them as heroes.
Perhaps in order to unterstand such reactionary collective actions to crises better, we need to conceptualise what such crises demonstrate on their part. On an abstract level, terrorist attacks, as well as a life-threatening virus, can be thought of as transgressions. A notion I already attempted to explore in another post, these events can be thought of as one part of a play between order and transgression. As Chris Jenks writes:
“To transgress is to go beyond the bounds or limits set by a commandment or law or convention, it is to violate or infringe. But to transgress is also more than this, it is to announce and even laudate the commandment, the law or the convention. Transgression is a deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.“ (Jenks: 2)
What a crisis, such as a terrorist attack or a pandemic, does first and foremost is upset some sort of order. They go beyond that order, they fall out of any possible and agreeable categories. But the second part of Jenks‘ quote is even more important in order to understand our examples of collective (re-)action; just as we can not understand punishments and power as simply repressive but as productive as well, as Foucault demonstrated, transgressions are, by their very nature, affirmative. In „violat[ing] or infring[ing]“ a „law or convention“, this law or convention becomes visible - sometimes perhaps they only become visible through transgression. Further down Jenks writes:
"It is only by having a strong sense of the ‘together’ that we can begin to understand and account for that which is outside, at the margins, or, indeed, that which defies the consensus. " (Jenks: 6)
Conversely it is also "that which is outside" that defines what is inside. Just as social groups define themselves reciprocally by what they are not, that which they are not defines them in what they are. It is the difference between the supposed or postulated core, and the outside, the difference between the order and the transgression that defines and reinforces both of them interchangeably.
The antisemitic and racist attack in Halle exposed, i.e. it rendered visible, the order as an underlying self-image of German society as one that is, at its core, united and united in solidarity1. The overworking of healthcare workers during the pandemic exposed the self-image in which the now-famously titled essential workers for our society are treated as such and not as dispensable tools in a machine. Further one could present the argument that the changing of social media profile pictures exposes a European self-conception of international unity that is betrayed in times of say the yellow-vest protests.
If we understand times of crisis such as a terrorist attack or a pandemic as transgressions of some order, it becomes quite easy to understand the reactionary nature of the collective acts that they provoke. The self-image of German society as anything other than united and based on solidarity is commonly not violated. Even though the Jewish population in Germany has voiced their criticisms time and time again, as well as healthcare workers, as shown above, such attacks on the social order do not seem to be as transgressive, or perhaps monumental as a terrorist attack or a worldwide epidemic that has the potential to shut down our medical system.
It seems as though such common and only local exposures of the social order can easily be waived away or integrated into the social order. Transgressions of another magnitude however directly threaten the social order. It seems as though, after a terrorist attack or a pandemic2, the subliminal social order can not be restored by simply waiving it away. In other words, transgressions of a larger magnitude create a need to reaffirm the social order, the social self-image on a greater level.
A society then somehow needs to integrate such a transgressive situation in their self-image in order to return to the status quo. A transgressive situation that is left to stand on its own defies the status quo. A society in which an antisemitic terrorist attack takes place needs to reaffirm the transgressive nature of said attack; the transgression needs to be integrated as a transgression and not as a transformation.
By reacting to a transgressive situation, by reaffirming the social self-image that it exposes, the transgressive element is supplanted by a reaffirming element and thus loses its transformative, its upsetting power. A terrorist attack is not a situation that sows fear and division, one that exposes the problems of antisemitism and radicalisation, but one that produces unity and solidarity.3 Thus we can see a crisis as a defiance of the social order in some way, whereas the collective (re-)actions that it invokes are not so much reactions to the transgression, but reaffirmations of the defied and/or shaken social order.
From this perspective it is quite obvious that such collective actions are not intended as critical progress and change. Since the self-conception has previously been upheld even with many subliminal problems - such as antisemitism in Germany, or the exploitative situation of healthcare and other essential workers - it is on the one hand easier to return to this state and on the other riskier to question this previous order based on ignorance. Instead of such events acting as wake-up calls of which we are able to somehow harness their revolutionary power, they are producing a quiet complacency - a "reflexive impotence" (Fisher: 21) - to what has worked before.
Addendum: What happens now?
To finish this I feel like I need to at least mention that what this conclusion naturally brings up is the question of an alternative. Could we imagine a collective re-action to a transgression of the social order, that aims not to return to the status quo, but that engages the transgression and the order it exposes? If we conceive times of crisis as transgressions that expose the social order, do we gain a vocabulary to engage this social order? If we‘d try to psychoanalyse this collective re-action, it feels as though as a society, we are not able to withstand the tension that such transgressions and the subsequent exposure of the social order entail. There seems to be a collective unwillingness or inability to let that tension between self-image and exposure, between self-image and reality play out.
Instead of being quick to reaffirm the status quo, we would need to engage with what transgressions expose and how we can, if at all, reconcile the transgression with what we thought of as given. This is where the transformative power of a transgression lies.
Czollek, Max (2018): Desintegriert euch! Carl Hanser Verlag.
Deutschlandfunk Kultur (2019): Wichtig, dass es solche Zeichen gibt
Fisher, Mark (2009): Capitalist Realism. Is there no alternative? 0 Books.
Jenks, Chris (2003): Transgression. Key Ideas. Routledge.