I’m currently working on a PhD in how meaning moves through our physical environment. European societies have been shaped by the idea that meaning is separate from the material world, but now we’re beginning to realise that this fantasy allowed us to ignore the processes that actually created the ‘real world’ we live in.
The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing this reality into our consciousness. We might not really understand the science of viruses (even scientists aren’t sure where they come from), but we can visualise the little blighters, spiky balls of risk that get splurted out of infected peoples’ lungs and try to find their way into the holes in our face. We can comprehend the idea that viruses spread rapidly, because when people come together an infected person can pass a virus on to several others.
I wrote this back in March, in the final days before social distancing rules were enforced. I was sat in a cafe in the heart of Cornwall’s historic mining country. Out the window I could see the engine house in the image above, and behind it, the Diaspora Garden. With flora from Mexico, South Africa, California, Australia and New Zealand, the garden celebrates and commemorates Cornwall’s global mining exports. In the early 19th century, Cornwall led the world in hard-rock mining and the Cornish diaspora set sail for far-flung lands in which to find new fortune.
Mexico owes its football-craze to Cornwall and the All-Blacks their rugby. Seams of tin and engines of steam are the geological and mechanical forces that drove economic and cultural change. The Boer War was sparked by disputes over mining rights, where British domination had been made possible by Cornish exports – and extraction. In this small garden are lines that trace their way across the globe, infecting far-flung places with new technology, imagination and risk.
What Covid-19 forces us to face is the deep, physical connections that already make our world go round. The device you read this on was probably manufactured by workers in East or South-East Asia, using resources mined in sub-Saharan Africa, based on designs drawn up in America, using capital invested by one of a handful of billionaires, routed via one of a number of tiny ocean-island tax-havens. We think ‘phone’ or ’tablet’, but more important than the product is the process that formed it, and continues to form it. Every time I plug in this laptop I draw on more natural resources to keep it alive.
Just like Covid-19, the spread of connections in our world can both increase risk and – over time – produce resilience. The choices we make, about when to connect and when to separate, are not just identity choices; they are material choices with real consequences. As Cornwall’s historic culture tries valiantly to assert itself within the chronic spread of soulless, globalised Anglo-fug, the choice to recall connections in the Diaspora Garden is not just an ode to fading memory; it is the conscious retracing of real-world lines that formed this place and a reminder that the banality of globalisation is equally traceable to real people in real places, real movements of capital and real consequences.
At this moment in our history, when climate change still poses the much greater threat than Covid-19, looking for the lines that form the world is more vital than ever. It is not just that our obsession with products is destroying the world by demanding more resource than the planet can sustain. It’s that thinking in terms of products blinds us to the way that every product is a process, every object is a series of events, every culture is a meeting-place for different stories. Until we trace those movements we are stuck on default. Only by opening our eyes to them can we make responsible choices.
If Covid-19 forces us to expose and encounter the physical threads that connect the workings of the world then it may yet save us as much as it kills us.