I sometimes imagine that I had been living in Paris during the long, hot summer of 1789. Would I have perceived that the chaos, the violence, the uncertainty and insecurity was also the French Revolution? The birth of western democracy? The formation of the secular nation state? Probably not. More likely, I would have been too busy trying to keep my shop open, to stay in touch with my friends, getting my kids to do their homework and waiting until the dust settled so life could resume. Looking back on it ten years later, would I have wished I had made investments? Written pamphlets? Courted the daughter of a deposed nobleman? That’s kind of where we are now.
Hegel, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, remarked that “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” The outlines of a historical epoch become clear to us only from a distance, only when patterns have begun to form, the inconsequential details are distilled from the truly world-historical events, and we have risen high enough above the trees to discern the contours of the forest.
Wisdom—the omniscient owl perched upon Athena’s shoulder—has not yet taken flight and I don’t believe that we have even begun to understand the larger meaning of the coronavirus pandemic.
A few things, however, are clear. The ecological historian Alfred Crosby described the Spanish Flu of 1918 as “America’s Forgotten Pandemic.” Drowned out by the Roaring Twenties, the global catastrophe that killed between fifty and one hundred million people (depending on whom you read and how you count) quickly faded from collective memory. But that was 1918, an era of daily newspapers, weekly magazines, heavy mechanical typewriters and harried telephone operators. It would be another seventeen years before readers held the first paperback book.
Today’s media-saturated infosphere, with its tweets and tik-toks and 24-hour news cycles, ensures that though we may be misinformed and disinformed, we will never be uninformed. We know in pretty close to real time what is the state of affairs in Brazil and Bangladesh. We are updated continuously about the antics of celebrities, politicians, and celebrity politicians. And in the hyper information regime of 2020, we can rest assured that every detail, no matter how banal, vile, or embarrassing, will be preserved for all eternity. The Internet, we are constantly reminded, never forgets.
Accordingly, the documentation of today’s pandemonium will be boundless and inexhaustible and in contradistinction to every previous era of human history, our curse will not be too little information but too much. In this regard, we are in no better shape than our continental forebears whose lives may have been consumed—without their knowing it—by the incoherent cacophony of events that would become the French Revolution.
But we have to try, or we will have squandered an immeasurable opportunity not just to make sense of an epochal historical moment, but to seize whatever potentialities may be hidden within it. It is of the utmost importance that even as we keep one eye fixed on the day-to-day challenges of life under the grip of the coronavirus, we survey with the other the expanding landscape of possibilities and probabilities. By the time anyone reads this, we will have a new vaccine, a new president, and the sun will have come up once again.