Pandemic Diary – Day 45 – May 9 – Liminal times.
Liminal times. Anyone who has been alive in the past fifty years has been living in a liminal time. This time began in the 1970s when the first popular publications on the limits to the growth of global industrial civilisation emerged. Shortly after this the denialist efforts by those profiting from global industrialisation, with its concomitant relentless exploitation of humans and other species, and the rocks, soils, water and air which support life, began to ramp up. I have written about this at Pandemic Diary – Day 21 – April 15 – How do we know what’s going on?
Why do I call it a liminal time? Because it has the characteristics of liminality as defined by various sources, which include “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process”; “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold” and “between or belonging to two different places, states”. Also “In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.” Waking up is a liminal time and state – not fully asleep nor fully awake, but at the end of the pathway of sleep and on the threshold of wakefulness.
Waking up for each human being is usually a short time and state, whereas the liminal stages for civilisational change are typically long – much longer than any human lifetime. In the past pandemics could cause liminal times (as the Black Death did in 14th century Europe) but the difference with previous pandemics and Covid-19 is that the times brought forth the pandemic. The plague of the 14th C was caused by a very old bacterium, Yersinia pestis, which had caused trouble many times before the 14th C and is still active in the world today. Covid-19 is a novel corona virus, as were SARS, responsible for a deadly outbreak of disease in 2002-2004, and MERS (2012-2013). In all cases, animal to human transmission is implicated in the initial outbreaks.
This is also the case with the Ebola virus, which was first identified in Africa in 1976 and by 2013 was responsible for around 1600 deaths. Since then its spread and impact have increased, with an epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2015, and an outbreak in the Congo in 2019 which the World Health Organisation has declared a world health emergency (the same status as Covid-19).
The twentyfirst century is therefore (so far) a unique time, with four new viruses causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of bouts of illness plus widespread social and economic disruption right around the world in the first two decades alone. Also unique to these times is the rise in average global temperature to 1 degree above what it has been in all previous times experienced by Homo sapiens, and the associated breaching of planetary boundaries.
Liminal times are historically characterised by outbreaks of mental ‘viruses’ as well. I was reminded of these while re-reading The Long Descent (2008) by John Michael Greer. He writes (very presciently it seems, for these times, but then his methodology is one of backcasting to the first and subsequent civilisations) about the way in which liminal times bring forth liminal thinking, some of which turns out to be useful but a good deal of which is and always will be utter rubbish, and some of it dangerous rubbish at that. An example he gives of such thinking in 2008 is David Icke, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. Twelve years on, he is still propagating his toxic nonsense. In 2020 he has been specialising in coronavirus lies, leading to his Facebook page on the subject being deleted, and then his youtube channel. But he has plenty of other anti-social media outlets, and friends with outlets. So tens of millions of people are being infected with his lies, and the lies of others, including political leaders. Randy Rainbow’s A Spoonful of Chlorox parody provides some light relief by sending up one of these lies, but really, they are no laughing matter when people are dying or becoming ill as a result of heeding this crazy ‘advice’, and putting others at risk by ignoring or flouting sound advice instead.
The liminality of these times is further exaggerated by the speed at which lies can now spread, and the huge reach they can have. This is also unique to the twentyfirst century, and contributes to the general sense of instability and incoherence of the present day. Or at least as today is experienced by someone who has lived through the past fifty years and noticed how the times have changed. Is it just me?
Too many books? My line has always been that one can never have too many books, only too few bookshelves. That line just fell foul of the fact that bookshelves require wall space, and that is something our house is now starting to run out of. Assuming we also want places for chairs, tables, dressers, cupboards and other amenities. I spent an hour today shifting books from the part of the living room which is to be renovated to the part which has been done. Stage One of the renovation is removing the hideous wallpaper, doing any necessary repairs, and then painting the walls a restful cream. Stage Two will be building bookshelves in the shady corners. Martin is doing all the actual work, so the least I can do is move the books. But even with new shelves coming up I still need to make some hard decisions about which books to keep and which to find new homes for.
This is a problem faced by anyone who keeps a library, but for home libraries it is a problem which resolves itself whenever the ‘librarian’ decides which books are still useful and/or valuable to her, and which are not. Or when she dies and her heirs dispose of the books as they see fit. For public libraries, including and especially the National Library of New Zealand, which is supposed to collect and retain all books which were bought with public money and still meet public value criteria, it is a different matter. In 2019 the National Librarian advised the Minister of Internal Affairs that almost all of the books in its Overseas Publication Collection should be disposed of. This amounts to some 600,000 titles. When a former librarian and archivist began to raise questions about the decision when news of it finally became public, the Department of Internal Affairs hired a PR company to run spin on it – at a cost of $20,000 of public money.
New Zealand is currently experiencing a period of national isolation, in which few New Zealanders can travel overseas and few non-New Zealanders can come here. No one knows how long this state of affairs will last, let alone what the conditions will be under which New Zealanders can visit other countries from now on. Assuming there are affordable flights to take them. This is a big assumption, as is the assumption (more like a fantasy) that New Zealanders will have easy access to ‘all the world’s information’ digitally, which is the line being peddled by the National Library management. As we saw in the 2016 census debacle, one in six New Zealanders did not participate in this first ‘all digital’ census, largely because they did not have the means and/or ability to do so.
In 2015, the National Library (under government instructions) stopped lending books to school libraries. This further disadvantaged already disadvantaged learners, who had no family resources to buy books, or to own a computer and pay for an internet connection. The pandemic has exposed just how many of those there are, and what further difficulties they face in getting an education if it is done digitally – even if the 17,000 free computers and 10,000 internet connections which the Ministry of Education starts providing from next week are all fully used.
Books in homes and libraries are stable, do not require electricity or telecoms connections to be useable, generally contain more reliable information and certainly more actual knowledge than is available in all but a few places on the Web, and they are easy to access at no further cost. A country which was serious about preparing for the lower energy, less connected future which is surely coming would be placing a much higher value on books and a much lower value on digital devices.