The Virus Diaries, Chapter 1: Working from Home

Rodanthi mobilises science fiction to debate the intrusion of work into the domestic hearth in the context of ‘Stay at Home’ policies aiming to curtail the COVID-19’s spread

1 April 2020
The postmodern Calvin and the spirit of capitalism
In American sci-fi horror film Life (2017 – director Daniel Espinosa, screenplay Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick), the crew of six-member International Space Station (ISS) discovers signs of life on Mars. Excited by the prospect of having met humanity’s first sentient neighbours and following the set protocol of capturing, preserving and studying the data at a safe (from earth) distance, the crew create a water-tight laboratory ‘home’ on the ship for their multi-celled finding, which is named by young earthlies ‘Calvin’. A transparent slug-like organism that interacts with the crew’s scientists and custodians in dance-like aerial moves, ‘Calvin’ develops to the cutest pet children apprehend via social media in a remote Q&A show, as well as an international scientific focus. As for Hugh Derry, the crew’s exobiologist who is paralyzed from the waist down (and had lost the will to live before he was assigned this job), ‘Calvin’ is the most fascinating daily care routine. A power surge renders the alien organism dormant, and when Hugh tries to revive Calvin with electric shocks, the alien slug crushes his right hand and escapes. By devouring living earth organisms, including a lab rat and some crew members, ‘Calvin’ grows in size. The last two surviving crew members, David and officer Miranda North, understand that they have to exterminate the extra-terrestrial species. David decides to sacrifice himself by luring ‘Calvin’ into one of the two remaining escape pods and drive it into deep space, allowing for Miranda to return home in the other pod. Unfortunately, the two pods swap direction, and David lands on earth with a much-grown ‘Calvin’ wrapped around his body.

I see in Life an effective metaphor of postmodern work styles. The movie’s alien articulates the themes explored in the Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism – especially the ways the bureaucratisation of work has extended its transparent ‘Calvin’ tentacles in the sphere of everyday life. I would like to believe that the book’s author, Max Weber, would have approved of my makeshift sci-fi metaphor of an alien form’s invasion into our designated liveable sphere – indeed, in Life crew members, like Hugh and David, regard the spaceship as their home. A ‘sphere’ is the space humans view as their hearth, a domain of conviviality and intimacy. Spheres exist in contradistinction to the ‘globe’, an abstraction of space that exists ‘out there’, independently from our emotional roots, anthropologist Tim Ingold (2000/2011) explains. Floating the expanse, and communicating with the earthly globe via social media, the ISS becomes a spherological allegory of home invaded by the outside – a bit like the stay-at-home Calvinist work environment currently imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. As much as new technologies and the internet have enabled humans to not just perform their work duties from a distance, but maintain communication with their loved ones and establish connectivity with communities of interest dispersed in different countries, their role in amplifying to amplifying its rational(ised) nature at the expense of the good life is immense. COVID-19 is the power surge we hoped to never experience; Calvin is growing fast and furious, taking over the space of our little websurfing pods. When we will eventually land on the ocean’s surface and the fishermen will open its door, life will never be the same again.

The impossible multitasker

meme anonymous

Reliable Calvinist advice: every time you want to have a rest from work, use chilli. Meme by anonymous, Facebook

In the Calvin-controlled pods we call ‘home’, people are asked to perform several contradictory tasks at once, in an attempt to curtail the rapid spread of the latest SARS life-eating virus. My perspective in this section is clearly dystopian: it mirrors the sensibility and feelings held by many people, especially those who lost loved ones to this pandemic, but also others consumed with anxiety about the future. ‘The Virus’ is a peculiar modern plague borne out of the human ability to modify natural environments and their systems, allowing for other species, such as bats (the COVID-19’s original carriers) to evolve biologically and produce new microbial ecosystems catastrophic for humans.

Similar ‘power surges’ are produced in social environments, in which humans want to control and improve their life standards. Nature and society stand in a metaphorical relationship here, not a literal one. ‘The Virus’ has unprecedented social side-effects, which now produce their own ‘power surges’. Where initially modern life dictated the spatial and temporal differentiation of social tasks, our postmodern viral present imposed an impossible re-mixing of them: men, women and other sexes/genders are now asked to work, childcare, sickcare, practice hobbies, make love, do exercise, cook, eat and much more in a few square meters. Such activities are also released from the (welcome to some) constraints of time: you can now work, while changing nappies, teleconferencing and developing products for your employer. Time is fractured to such an extent with the help of technology, that each and every one of the working citizens lives in a succession of moments, which are hastily distributed across different realms of being and acting like a human. Though some may insist on a gendered critique of this new labour arrangements, and whereas others may interject that who does what at home in the current circumstances is also affected by education, ethnic custom and class, the new viral reality levels up with all family members indiscriminately: they all stew in the same pot.

Much like the Calvin-induced spaceship malfunctions in Life, our home pot boils in high temperatures and malfunctions in socially productive ways, which can also be damaging for some. I have read of news stories of domestic violence being on the rise and of women complaining that the government-imposed restrictions in the UK place teenagers in a little home-leisure box at time frames they would spend on their own social activities. One could interject that not all teenagers can be carefree, and that their physical vulnerability is better managed at home or in the presence of parents. None of these developments is easy, nor is it good to raise a patronising finger on working mums or dads for failing to live up to the state’s self-isolating expectations. My observation here is somehow different however: ‘Calvin’s’ invisible tentacles spew acid on our eyes, and we cannot see how the children’s ‘timetabled activities’ are part and parcel of the right kind of ‘citizenship’ that young people must learn to perform. The ‘inside’ of our home sphere now has to reflect the ‘outside’ of the globe, the public sphere, so that families produce ‘reliable social soldiers’ and subsequently ‘labourers’ at the youngest possible age. At the same time, the globe’s ‘social distancing’ rules are thrown out of our home-pod’s window: simply put, we must stay two meters apart in public, when we practically live zero meters apart at home. Only those with the luxury of living in a mansion can really self-isolate in the case of infection or maintain their private space under better circumstances. This oxymoronic necessity reaches its apogee in the slum living conditions of countries, such as India, where people literally live on top of each other.

How to make friends with ‘Calvin’

Image by Dioniso Punk ‘Working from Home’

‘Calvin’ needs a thorough makeover in the viral age (maybe not as experimental as this fellow’s here), which can facilitate different types of work from home to thrive as separate (from salaried ‘labour’) forms of experience. This separation, which has suffered by the speed with which measures of social distancing had to be implemented, is paramount for the maintenance of an optimistic outlook and the sanity of voluntarily isolating individuals and families. Hannah Arendt recognised the significance of self-fulfilling work for human flourishing, in contradistinction to labour as an instrumental activity. Work of this type can involve the use of timeframes normally spent on clocked labour for hobbies; walking and gardening; or even having a long virtual coffee with friends. I heard how the daughter of a colleague had her birthday party remotely via the internet, an event which involved several networked participants ‘popping in’ and ‘out’ of the home screen. Surely, this is going to be a memorable event for her and her loved ones, marking the ways conviviality can beat the Virus and its alien extension, ‘Calvin’.

Image reproduced with permission of Chia-ling Lai
March 29 at 3:39 PM ·
My mom’s handmade masks!!

There are several such examples of DYI cosmopolitan connectivity to account for: a friend’s mother has taken to making face masks in lively patterned fabrics – an activity with decorative dimensions keeping Calvin at a safe distance more than COVID-19. The most important element in such acts of defiance toward labour is that humans act against ‘fate’: the temporal fragmentation they have to live with is turned into a pleasurable experience. Calvin’s acid has blinded us to the importance of doing nothing goal-orientated, of succumbing to the call of play, leisure and disinterested socialisation. If COVID-19 ‘home inmates’ are looking for ways to transgress a stay-at-home rule out of boredom or lack of meaning, this is a good start.

Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at Leeds and current Chief Editor of the Northern Notes Blog.