The Coronavirus and ‘The Great Operation’

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Rosemary Milne offers useful advice on how to remain fully human in a digital age. 

“‘Have you heard about this new operation they’re supposed to have developed — the one where they cut out the imagination?”

‘Yes, I know. Why do you bring it up?’

‘Because, if I were you, I’d go see about having it done’”

         — Yvgeny Zamyatin, We (London, Penguin: 1993), 79-80.

In battling coronavirus we are becoming increasingly estranged from the physical world. As social distancing forces us deeper into the digital realm, it can bring certain unforeseen positives for many – more acceptance of home working, more family time, reduced commutes, decreased carbon emissions, and others.

Yet there are also a range of negative outcomes, the lasting ramifications of which are uncertain. Through an understandable need to remain connected with others, work and just generally get on, we are relying on methods which are almost completely digital. 

Let’s not mince words … this is a serious problem: if we become totally divorced from an embodied reality and reliant on technological methods, we risk leaving no room for the imagination; we create a world where there will be no rooms, no sensory engagement and no shared experiences in physical space. 

With the latest leap into the digital realm, do we risk a technocratic tyranny and the loss of our imaginations?

A wonderful, witty, but also alarming illustration of this problem can be found in Yvgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. A highly prophetic book, written in 1924 at the dawn of the Soviet revolution (and censored in Russia until the 80s), it is said to be the inspiration for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. With this connection, we might expect a similarly bleak and harrowing read. Instead the tone is lighter (unusual for a Russian novel!) while remaining highly incisive and relevant nearly a century after publication.

In the ‘OneState’ dystopian society in We, there are no longer people, but Numbers. Made up of a series of records by Number D-503, We is initially intended as a joyful ‘ode’ to OneState’s totalitarian regime of ‘non-freedom’. 

In this state, individuals are relieved of the ‘burden’ of privacy and the terrible unpredictability of individual decision-making. Instead, every fork and spoon is lifted, every job undertaken – in accordance with the ‘Table of Hours’ which perfectly prescribes each activity for each moment of each day.

The result is that the dire danger of spontaneity no longer threatens society; ‘number-kind’ – for such is the new humanity – lives only in the empirical, reasonable realm of linear time, with no room for such superfluous concepts as memory or imagination. The city itself is a grid of identical glass boxes, robbing individuals of privacy and personal expression. Even poets are subject to this general reductionism, becoming slaves to OneState’s ideologies rather than advocates for individual expression.

Yet, though he begins with joyful exultation, D-503 quickly begins to encounter problems. He falls in love; he looks inside the opaque world of a wardrobe – an overlooked space in OneState where personal possessions and expression still dwell. 

D-503 discovers an entire political resistance lives behind the false back of one of these humble cupboards; he starts to dream and to imagine — he begins to ‘grow a soul’. This is of course a serious ‘sickness’ for any Number in OneState, since the unpredictability of imagination resists control by mathematical reason. ‘StateScience’ has even come up with a solution: to solve the pesky problem of having a soul, one must simply undergo the ‘Great Operation’ to have one’s imagination removed:

“You are not to blame. You are sick. The name of your illness is: IMAGINATION …The latest discovery of State Science: the imagination is centred in a wretched little brain node in the region of the pons Varolli. Expose this node to three doses of X-rays — and you are cured of imagination. FOREVER.”

The Great Operation is OneState’s final attempt to enforce perfect submission to pragmatic reason. 

In the midst of our response to coronavirus, we find that out of a very real necessity to socially distance, we are relying primarily on digital means of communication to bridge the gap between us. Universities have moved teaching online through virtual white-boards and pre-recorded lectures. Companies are able to continue working through the use of software like Microsoft Teams. Friends are able to keep up through Zoom, and restaurants can help keep distance by having people use apps to order food.

For so many reasons all these things are a blessing – it is not my intent to say that everything must open in the name of embodied reality; that would be un-compassionate and a mistake that would cost many lives. We must adapt to our circumstances in order to save lives.

Yet we must also continue to do the things that make life worth living. We must take stock of what we may be losing by these technological props as well as what we are gaining. 

Moving deeper into the digital realm brings problems – online platforms exist in what Heidegger would term the ‘calculative’ realm.

Calculative thinking likes things to happen algorithmically and pragmatically. Events occur in response to data predictions, whole conversations are reduced to sound bytes and 100 character comments, and texts are reduced to fragments of a whole book. In the digital world, tweets and short videos taken out of context often inform our opinions rather than person-to-person debates or in-depth reading of physical publications.

Things which are dis-incarnate, disembodied, distanced from the physical reality tend to give us a reduced version of reality, and present us with a distorted sense of human relationship.

Humans were made for connection and intimacy – everything about how we operate is orientated toward the ‘other’. Our eyes look outward; hands can lock together; we can speak and hear one another. Every act of true love, whether it is a familial love, the love of a friend, or romantic love, points towards a physical intimacy.

The joining of hands of a father and his daughter, a kiss shared by two lovers, or speech shared between friends, given from the mouth, running through the air and heard by the ears – these are all physical exchanges that respond to the reality, irregularity and spontaneity of the human person.

When we put machines between us, we put screens between us – in both senses of the word. We use the term ‘screen’ now of course to mean a device that shows us things, but in its original sense a ‘screen’ is an object which hides a view, not reveals it. A screen door keeps the bugs out. A screen in a room prevents visibility between two parts of the space.

We see on our screens, yes. But we also remain hidden behind them – the fullness of a person as body and soul is not revealed through the screen of our device, but, conversely, it is reduced and hidden, so that all we see is a low-resolution shadow. Consequently a full relationship cannot be established, digital engagement is always already an affront to intimacy.

A hidden victim of this new digital reality is the imagination, for it is in the irregularity, irrationality and beauty of the imagination that we see the individual flourish. There is a reason an autocratic state such as the one in We would wish to stifle the individual – for individuals left to their own devices may come up with their own ideas. 

They may come up with original, imaginative thoughts that are not in line with the consensus followed by the masses, the agenda set by OneState, the opinions of the many, the views of ‘we’. 

So, naturally, OneState constrains the individual by removing every opportunity for personal expression: it removes the need to decide who is in power; things are decided for them and no thinking power beyond calculative pragmatism is necessary. Eventually OneState has each Number’s imagination scientifically removed, and with it die the humanity and the rogue individuality of the characters.

It is in the stumbling over our words, the mood of a room, the freedom to reply to speech spontaneously, the responsibility to own up to our views – in these things which are irregular and surprising – that imagination thrives and a human relationship can be established. And conversely, it is in things which are over-linear, hyper-bureaucratic, pragmatic and predictable that human relationships founded on intimacy suffer.

No longer are we expected to converse or discuss deeply, with all the irregularity and spontaneity that getting truly ‘caught up in an idea’ entails. Instead we merely ‘chat’ about things as vast and deep as Plato’s dialogues (if they shall even make their way into the new canon), Brunelleschi’s Dome, the greats of Russian Literature, the ins and outs of American politics, or any other complex thing worth having a decent conversation about. How can these methods, so far removed from the senses, hope to produce sensible beings?

Yet, there is hope, for it is in times of great restriction the imagination often triumphs. Even in OneState there were still wardrobes, peppering the transparency of the world with their thickness and obstinate opacity and capacity to carry the secrets of human expression (a serious oversight by OneState in my estimation, if one considers the literature — we have only to look to C.S. Lewis for an insight into the depths of the humble wardrobe). Indeed, it was in falling deep into a wardrobe that the main character, D-503, begins to discover that he has a soul.

What wardrobes can we make in our own glass cities that some unsuspecting Number might fall into and so discover that they, too, have a soul? What devices might we craft to remind each other of the power of our own imagination and original thoughts? How can we retain some trace of sensibility in a world that is increasingly non-sensible?

Of course, universities cannot simply open their doors and bring everyone back into lectures in the name of imagination and real dialogue. We cannot all start to visit whoever we like, whenever we like, in the name of real relationship and human intimacy.

We can’t simply ignore the rules of lockdown because of the threat to embodied reality – this is a matter of saving lives. But we must also continue to do things which make life worth living. 

Therefore, if we must engage in ‘calculative’ modes of being in our workplaces or universities, or whichever area happens to be affected in a given moment – we should seek a ‘meditative’, embodied, and incarnate mode of being elsewhere.

Take a long walk and experience creation around you. 

Give the car and computer screens a break for the weekend and move at a natural pace, coming in-step with the embodied world around us.  

Discuss something of depth with a neighbour or a friend, something which challenges us and means something and happens in real-time, and allowing that conversation to take a spontaneous turn, enabling us to freely get caught up in ideas and in speech itself. 

Take time to pray or meditate or think deeply. Take time to actually read a physical book, cover to cover. Take time to journal, write, sing … sing at the top of your voice!

We need to balance the ‘calculative thinking’ of the technologies which currently dominate us, with the ‘meditative thinking’ that gives meaning to life and connects us in deeper ways to the world around us.

If we don’t, then, as Zamyatin has demonstrated, technology becomes a tyrant. The meaning of life will be reduced to 1s and 0s. Humanity will become an easily replicable algorithm. Persons will be reduced to numbers. Conversations, speech, imagination, relationship, and any other thing that is spontaneous, irregular, or seemingly irrational (and beautiful because of that) will be snuffed out, and we will forget what it means to be human. If we don’t find a balance, we risk losing our capacity both for productive discourse and for meaningful relationships.

This is a call to be grounded whilst our heads are up in the data-clouds, and a call to be guarded. For it would be a great shame if the Great Operation of curing the coronavirus accidentally cost us our imaginations.

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