There is no going back, and no going outside of this event — we can only go forward into the new world that is always-already intra-actively emerging before us

The Cambridge Unitarian Church taken last Tuesday afternoon
Back on Saturday 28th March, one week into the official lockdown but two weeks into our our own church’s closure, I wrote a piece for you called Time will tell — ‘It is impossible to think in advance of experience, and no experience is merely empirical’The second half of the title is a line from the English philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott’s (1901–1990) earliest book, “Experience and Its Modes” (Experience and Its Modes, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 117). Exactly 120 days later I’d like to return to and re-present a couple of the key points I made.

The first was to take seriously the thought that “it is impossible to think in advance of experience” and, in my piece, I noted that for ministers of religion and politicians (whether putatively ‘radical’ or ‘conservative’) the major temptation when suddenly finding themselves in a new and challenging situation such as the COVID-19 event is, all too swiftly, to present to their audiences some confidently and authoritatively expressed, soothing ‘big-picture’ about what the situation means (and will go on to mean) for us in the future. It is to present a picture primarily based, not upon the actual, unfolding events themselves, but upon their own preferred, predetermined, abstract theories or ideologies (blueprints) about how the world is and our place in it.

But, as you will see if you (re)read my earlier piece, it seemed to me 120 days ago, that actual events had already driven innumerable coaches and horses through key elements of everybody’s social, cultural, religious, political, national, financial and economic blueprints. What was clear four months ago is, surely, patently even clearer now.

Back in March I suggested that the biggest mistake we could make would be for us to believe that we could yet think appropriately about what this event meant or might mean for us before our actual experience of it. Consequently, I suggested that it was vitally important for me, for us all, properly to enter into the experience and so allow it to teach us some necessary lessons about its potential meaning/s for us and the appropriate responses we might consider going on to make.

But today, as our own government (and other governments around the world) attempt to ease the first round of lockdowns, it would be all too easy for us to be seduced into thinking that the COVID-19 event is, somehow, nearly over and that a return to our old, “normal” lives is just round the corner.

The truth is that, with or without second or third spikes (or, indeed, persistent/permanent levels of infection in the population), the COVID-19 event far from over and has destroyed any chance of returning to anything like the old normal. I would, therefore, strongly encourage all of of us to continue to resist the temptation to pick up any of our former, pre-COVID-19 blueprints and, instead, continue courageously to enter into the possibilities being opened up by the actual, ongoing experience. One thing we have already learnt is that it’s an experience which has revealed very clearly that many (perhaps, most) of our old blueprints — whether economic, financial, political or religious — are, to varying degrees, busted flushes.

I suspect that most of us had already intuited this but, in pre-COVID-19 times, inertia played a key role in stopping us from ever radically acknowledging and addressing this intuition. But, thanks to the COVID-19 event, that inertia has been forcibly overcome and, consequently, we find ourselves unexpectedly gifted with a once in a generation opportunity to allow to fall away our old ways of being-in-the-world and understandings of what our life together in this country (and on the whole planet) meant, and so help create the necessary space for new and more appropriate (and, perhaps, more just and loving) ways and meanings slowly to emerge in their own time and place.

Let me now turn to a second, related, thing I brought to your attention in my piece of 28th March (and a couple of times since), namely, the idea of “intra-action” (see three-minute video explainer below) which relates to the second half of Oakeshott’s quote, that “no experience is merely empirical.”

Intra-action is a term/idea borrowed from the American feminist and physicist Karen Barad (b. 1956). She reminds us that during the last century of empirical research we have been discovering more and more that the world is not made up of discrete and essentially inert things about which our observations can ‘simply “disclose preexisting values” or properties but, in fact, [our observations] also always play a role in constituting them.’ In a recent paper Gamble, Hanan and Nail go on to observe:

Barad argues that since there is in fact no strict or fixed boundary line dividing even a scientific laboratory from the rest of the world, humans can therefore never observe the universe as though from outside of it. Thus, she argues, “[t]o the extent that humans participate in scientific or other practices of knowing, they do so as part of the larger material configuration of the world and its ongoing open-ended articulation.” As such, humans (like everything else) always partly constitute and are partly constituted by that which they observe (Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) WHAT IS NEW MATERIALISM?, Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2019.1684704).

The COVID-19 event and our current, empirically based, scientific knowledge are, together, reminding us in some deeply challenging ways that our world is intra-active all the way up, down and around and that we can never truly isolate ourselves from any other thing, whether that’s each other, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, insects, plants, fish, coral, rock, soil, air, sun, water or anything else, ad infinitum. In short ‘No property of any discernible thing that is — whether its physical features, agency, or even its speech or thought — entirely precedes or remains unchanged by its actions or encounters with other things’ (ibid).

Here’s what the authors (Stacey Kerr, Erin Adams, & Beth Pittard) of the explainer video above have to say about this. They were talking in the film about the “Ebola phenomenon” and “Africa” but here I’ve changed those to read “the Coronavirus phenomenon” and “China”:

We can say the Coronavirus phenomenon is not just the virus itself but is an intra-action of the actual virus, human, and non-human actors including human bodies, political discourses on China, pandemics, the role of politics, political pundits, news channels and fear. Coronavirus is not just a virus it’s a phenomenon that’s made and unmade through intra-actions between nature, culture and technology. Through intra-action we are all brought together into the Coronavirus phenomenon, and yet this intra-action separates us into new, co-constitutive subject positions. Through intra-actions we become, at least temporarily, the afflicted and non-afflicted, the at-risk and the not-at-risk, and the exposed and the non-exposed. So studying these inter-actions reveals how differences get made and unmade. It’s unlikely that many of us will intra-act with the Coronavirus but we will all intra-act with the Coronavirus phenomenon and, therefore, we are all responsible for the matter produced in these intra-actions: the discourses, the materials, and the subject positions. Interactions defer and deflect responsibility but, in intra-actions, responsibility is distributed among the constitutive entities.

I bring these two thoughts before you before Susanna and I try to take a little break for the month of August because I continue to think that we are only at the very beginning of the COVID-19 event. Given that it is now clear we cannot rush through it we must, therefore, a) learn to be fully in the event, patiently and attentively open to the possibilities for future action that might begin to show up in it and, b) to see that the whole event (all reality in fact) is always already intra-active.

There is no going back, and no going outside of this event — we can only go forward into the new world that is always-already intra-actively emerging before us.

Our journey to a  “new normal” will take a considerable time (in fact it will never definitively end) and we will need much patience, strength and courage to undertake it. So, may I suggest, that we all try to rest as best we can during this August to prepare us for for the creative intra-action that is to follow.