Data walk reflections in locked-down London

Introduction: Of data walks and the pandemic

A little over 32 years ago, the alternative rock band R.E.M. released a song which prophetically imagined an apocalyptic world which people nonetheless quickly adjusted to, as they sang, ‘Its the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’ (1987: Track 6). The song was popular in its time, but over the next three decades acquired a near-legendary status, regularly finding its way to doomsday playlists (CNET 2020). Its principal invocation, as history concomitantly reminds us, is that the phenomenological everyday of a catastrophe differs by populations and demographics. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has been no exception, bringing into sharp relief its variegated lived experiences as defined by class, religion, ethnicity, and boundaries, to name a few.

Inspired by Dr. Alison Powell’s data walking project, which intends to engender ‘discussions about data based in … [the] … experience of observing and moving through space’ (Data Walking 2020), I undertook a data walk of my own, by going for a midday run in Central London on 25 April 2020, well into the UK’s nationwide lockdown. At the time of my data run, as I like to call it, regulations mandated staying at home to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The government however, permitted daily exercise as a ‘reasonable excuse’ for stepping out, subject to the norms of social distancing (BBC 2020).

In this visual essay, I table my reflections in the context of the lockdown, both on the day of and leading up to my data run on 25 April. I use a mix of photographs and screenshots, whose captions assume a certain hermeneutic significance for my endeavour. In the end, I argue that there is a selective pluralism at play, which subcutaneously masquerades as resistance in the face of the deafening Foucauldian discourse on the pandemic.

My data run in images (and captions)

Figure 1: My data run route. I confined my 45-odd-minutes’ data run to the Central London neighbourhoods of Bloomsbury and Holborn, with a small touch-and-go detour onto Fleet Street. In keeping with the regulations, I ‘stayed local’ in my outing.
Figure 2: The home page of bbc.com on 25 April 2020. Every single news item is about Coronavirus. I would imagine that any visitor to the site would have, if nothing else, been alarmed.
Figure 3: The Bing Covid-19 Tracker Map, Figures and Graphs for the UK on 25 April 2020. The pandemic is often broadcast and consumed in the form of data. The semiotic relevance of how the colour red is used to construct a visualisation of the aggressive spread of the virus, against an insipid and impotent grey world, is hard to miss. Is this perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the great outbreaks of smallpox, plague or measles?
Figure 4: A sign on a hedge. It exhorts the need to be careful, and to maintain social distancing.
Figure 5: A chalk-sign drawn on a pathway. There is in a sense, a spatial translation of the message of social distancing, as the sign on the hedge is realised from abstraction, on the ground.
Figure 7: Security personnel in the Bloomsbury shopping complex. Staying at home during the pandemic is simply not possible for some.
Figure 8: Markings on the ground. These will be used by public works personnel, as they execute repairs and redevelopment of sidewalks over spring and the summer. Is this then, not precarity?
Figure 9: Markings on the ground (continued).
Figure 10: Cordoned off pavements and construction material. This is a photograph from early April. This pavement in Bloomsbury underwent redevelopment, expansion, beautification slap-bang in the middle of the lockdown. Notice the worker in an orange vest in the far right corner.
Figure 11: Redevelopment of the pavement. This is a photograph from the week ending 19 April 2020. The workers are not wearing masks or gloves. The lockdown has quietened the neighbourhood down, and I often hear them laughing and guffawing during their lunch breaks, even from across the street. They speak in a tongue which I have only been able to identify as Slavic.
Figure 12: A food delivery cyclist. With the lockdown in force, going out for a meal is not possible anymore. People have turned to food delivery apps. While they stay home, and stay safe, the friendly neighborhood delivery person does the rounds. Precarity much?
Figure 13: People in Bloomsbury Park. 25 April 2020, like the rest of the month, saw some fine weather. Neither the pandemic nor the lockdown could keep people away from soaking in some sunshine in London’s parks.
Figure 14: A sign outside a liquor store which I ran past on 25 April 2020. Is the pandemic reshaping the economic spheres of exchange?

Conclusion: And I feel fine.

A principal insight from my data run, gestures at the contested social field of the Covid-19 pandemic. Locked-down London reverbates in a reality which is at odds with both itself, as well as with the pandemic, as it is imagined and embedded in the social everyday. The city’s streets and lanes are quiet, while its parks are defiantly buzzing with life. And while the several many are now having to stay home, there are some who cannot even if they hope to.

Staying at home is the news-and-media-fueled ‘power of the Norm’ (Foucault 1995 [1977]: 184), but people step out to sip a cup of coffee on the lawns, on the pretext of using their permitted quota of daily exercise. Foucault tells us that resistance is but another manifestation of power. Those frequenting the city’s parks rationalise their actions against the ontological yardstick of permitted daily exercise, and make sure that they are at least two meters away from the next person, thereby adhering to the social distancing guidelines. In this disregarding of the specific act, there is in a sense the parturition of the wholesome, individualized, and responsible pandemic citizen. And I advance that their individuality is hereby constructed in a governmentality (Foucault 1991: 102), which is brought into focus as they are nudged through an ensemble of messaging and signages to take on the responsibility for their own health. The disciplinary project of the pandemic is at once established in the everyday act of staying safe, contra being kept safe.

There is also, a manner of perpetuation of the colonial project in the pandemic, a continued othering which is intent on retaining the Radcliffe-Brownian ‘social roles’ (Kuper 1983: 53) from a pre-pandemic world. There is the underprivileged hourly wager, either earning her daily bread by delivering somebody else’s, or stocking the supermarket shelves. She has to go out, so that the large majority can stay home. And then there is the migrant worker beautifying the city’s pavements, in a pantomimic undertaking of late capitalism.

The reality of the virus in its lived experience, thus stands at odds with its representation online, in the media, and by the State. The pandemic exists in a perennial form of Deluezian multiplicities and becomings (Mansfield 2000: 143–146). As a discourse of knowledge, duty, and language, it is selective. As an embodied reality, it engenders a pluralism of ‘intersubjective … [and] … complex imbrications of subject and object, self and other’ (Desjarlais & Throop 2011: 89). I conclude then by arguing that what my data walk has thus revealed, is the fluidly logocentric, selectively pluralistic, and mixed realities which characterise the lifeworld of the Covid-19 pandemic in locked-down London.

Bibliography

BBC 2020. Coronavirus: What are social distancing and self-isolation rules? (available online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51506729, accessed 25 April 2020).

CNET 2020. Coronavirus puts R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It on charts. (available online: https://www.cnet.com/news/coronavirus-has-r-e-m-s-its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-climbing-charts/, accessed 25 April 2020).

DATA WALKING 2020. About the Project. (available online: http://www.datawalking.org/about/, accessed 20 April 2020)

DESJARLAIS, R. & J. THROOP 2011. Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40, 87–102.

FOUCAULT, M. 1991. Governmentality. In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (eds) G. Burchill, C. Gordon, & P. Miller, 87–104. Hemel Hemstead & Chicago: Harvester Wheatsheaf and University of Chicago Press.

FOUCAULT, M. 1995 [1977]. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (trans. A. Sheridan). New York: Vintage Books.

KUPER, A. 1983. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The modern British school. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

MANSFIELD, N. 2000. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. New York: New York University Press.

R.E.M. 1987. Document [CD]. Sound Emporium, Nashville, Tennessee: I.R.S. Records.

LagomWorks is an applied anthropology and ethnographic research-led design and innovation consulting firm.

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