The predominant sense of “culture” once meant something that was grown in a petri-dish. In our current period of coronavirus pandemic, it is once again being framed biologically. Living in lockdown, culture is symbolised for me by sourdough being cultivated in the fridge. The periodization of historical time is governed by my meal plan. And my academic curiosity has also shifted into a four-walled space.
Eighteenth-century socially critical idylls, such as those by the German writer Jean Paul — which lightly but ironically depict the frustrations of domestic life — now resonate with me. Epicureanism, or the philosophy of bodily pleasures, and the question of how nuanced the reception of Epicurus actually was in the Age of Enlightenment, is suddenly especially interesting (another book added to my Amazon order). Looking outside, who knew there was once the idea of an Epicurean garden? I didn’t, and now I want one.
But the cultural questions about current times extend beyond the home, of course. In the first few days of lockdown, a few cultural critics — notably the reliably contrarian Claire Fox — were quick to decry a police state. Foucauldian medicalisation critiques seemed freshly relevant to some, although opinion polls suggest that most people, in the UK anyway, support the public health measures in place. I soon logged off from the debates, as part of a social media diet.
I do not wish to trivialise the pandemic, nor the cultural-political questions that arise from it. I am not leading a Ludwig II-like life in isolation, listening to Wagner on my own as drink goes to my head. But I have become wary of wading into a debate when I am out of my depth. The guiding discourse at the moment is epidemiological, about which I have very little prior knowledge. That is not to say that the sciences should overrule cultural considerations. I welcome the fact that, more broadly, expertise is explicitly front and centre of policy again, and that the public sees that expertise is never clear-cut. The background of facts is often
dispute, which is now played out in questions tabled to daily Downing Street briefings. I am simply cautious about how my own humanities-based work might apply to world events.
To take one example, in the past year I have spoken and written about luxury, both academically and more publicly. I also teach a module on “luxury and liberty”, which considers Germany and Britain, and to a lesser extent France, between 1750 and 1850. Luxury is often a litmus test for the socio-political direction of society, especially at times of civil upheaval. I’ve given a few examples of this already, and there are others. In the Second World War, those who continued dining in hotels were scathingly dubbed part of a “Ritzkrieg”. In the current coronavirus crisis, luxury conglomerate LVMH was entitled to take advantage of the French government’s scheme for financial aid for companies, but decided to go without as it proved to be a PR problem. In the salubrious suburbs of Connecticut, a soirée is reported to have been a “superspreader” event. And the Austrian Alps are said to have kept a lethal secret: skiing hotspots have been accused of hiding COVID-19 cases. The Alpine area has, of course, long been associated in the cultural imagination with cosmopolitanism, decadence, and disease — in fiction and film. That upscale splurges lead to the downfall of society is also a popular idea, applied — often wrongly — to the end of the Roman Empire, the Dutch Golden Age, or the French monarchy. But particularly in the cases of the recent Austrian and US gatherings at ski resorts or high-end homes, the media stories are borne out by epidemiology. They may gain more traction since they tap into well-worn cultural narratives, but they are neither fake news nor obviously caused by the cultural topes that I explore, historically, with my students. I’d like to make a cultural argument for our present pandemic, in short, but for the moment I’m wavering.
I’m not proposing that we shouldn’t speculate on how our scholarly work relates to, and might inform, cultural debates surrounding COVID-19. And obviously, some colleagues’ interventions will be much more relevant than mine. It is more that the severity of the situation has made me step back from wanting to make my own reflections while sat at home. That needn’t mean that I practise silence, though — clearly not, since I have submitted this reflection…
The mission of the BBC, for instance, is to not only to inform, but also to entertain (the old Horatian tandem dulce et utile). In a similar way, perhaps now more than ever it is reasonable for us in the humanities to content ourselves with being, well, interesting. That is a value in itself. Isolation is many things, and it is experienced inequitably. But we surely all have some degree of boredom in common. My modest goal, not least inspired by lockdown living, is to distract (myself and others) — in an enjoyable, and hopefully in an intellectual way. All while privately keeping up with the latest social issues, political thinking, and scientific insights. Such, at least, is my personal quest for culture in quarantine.