By Ian Olasov
A pause in economic activity has a way of bringing the whole economic system into focus. We need to work to pay the rent, and the landlords need the rent to pay their mortgages, and the banks need mortgage payments to pay their debtors, to make new investments and loans, to pay themselves. We could cancel rent payments, but then we’d need to cancel mortgage payments. We could cancel mortgage payments, but then banks would be jumpy about new loans. We could issue those loans ourselves, but…
The fixes to our most urgent problems suggest whole new ways of life, even once this particular crisis is behind us.
I took my dog for a walk a couple of nights before the restaurants and bars were shut down. Flatbush Avenue was still full of pedestrians. I looked into the windows of the restaurants I passed: none were completely empty, but they were all getting there. The restaurants seemed to have bled into the streets. It felt weird to be in a place that hadn’t changed, surrounded by places that had changed so starkly.
By now, the streets have largely bled into our apartments. Other than a smattering of extra supplies, the apartment looks like it always did.
Immediately after writing that last note, we went for an evening walk around Prospect Park. It turned out that what I had just written wasn’t quite right. People weren’t all holed up in their apartments – they were out in the parks, at least, and who knows where else. It takes a bit of vigilance to remember that not everyone is dealing with this exactly as I am.
The park was too crowded. Runners skirted past us one after the other. My attention lingered on the ones who breathed the most heavily. So much of the experience of this thing is a matter of subtle shifts in attention and perception. What changes when you see a person as a disease vector? What changes when you see other people seeing you as a disease vector?
It’s hard to tell where to draw the line between perception and other mental states. What is literally a way of seeing the world, say, and what’s a belief or habit or memory? But I like the thought that the contents of perception are richer and more exotic than we usually allow. Perhaps we perceive opportunities for interaction; we see things as graspable, edible, to be avoided. Perhaps we perceive objects at the periphery of our senses, or just outside of their ambit; even while I sit in bed typing these words, my ongoing stream of experience is somehow constituted by my awareness of Jen in the other room, the intermittently quiet street, the shuttered stores…
It’s stranger than usual to sit in the apartment typing away. How much of this boils down to a mismatch between the regularness of my immediate surroundings and the marked stillness outside? It’s stranger than usual to walk the dog. How much of this boils down to a mismatch between seeing opportunities to interact with businesses and people and dogs and knowing, on reflection, that I have to leave them alone?
What goes on in our heads is determined by what goes on outside of them in some surprising ways. There are the familiar causal relationships between our minds and our environments. We think more about what’s around us than what’s far away, and we think more about what people around us talk about than what they don’t. But there are also some less familiar, more intimate relationships between our minds and the world. What our thoughts mean is determined by the people and things we get along with. When I think “that,” what my thought is actually about is determined by the distal object my attention is fixed on. What I mean when I use some piece of half-understood technical jargon – what exactly is the difference between the novel coronavirus and all the other coronaviruses? – is determined by the community of experts who own the term.
More tendentiously, what we think of as mental states stored in our skulls are dependent on the cooperation of our environments. We are built to rely on what the philosopher Andy Clark calls ecological control: “the kind of control that occurs when a system’s goals are not achieved by micro-managing every detail of the desired action or response, but by using a strategy that devolves a great deal of problem-solving responsibility, making the most of some robust, reliable source of relevant order in the body, elsewhere in the brain and/or in local environment.” We might solve a problem entirely in working memory or by counting on our hands, but we might outsource some of our working memory to a nearby notepad; we might keep time in our heads or feet, but we might use a metronome. The point is that these are different ways of doing the same thing.
Crucially, the more we rely on “robust, reliable sources of relevant order” outside of our bodies, the less capable we are when that external order breaks down.
When I walk outside, I’m told, I need to keep a six-foot distance between myself and everyone else. Someone comes too close and I get annoyed. But if they come too close to me, I come too close to them – being too close is a symmetrical relation.
I realize for the first time that there’s a baroque casuistry to the distances between people. We calculate and compare one another’s trajectories and accelerations, we plot them against obstacles and curves in the road. I guess we have to in order to figure out how to walk, but we also have to in order to figure out why other people are wrong.
The last time I visited someone else’s house was just a couple of weeks ago. He was decorating, and I thought of a painting that would look good on one wall. I had seen Alexis Rockman’s Manifest Destiny at the Brooklyn Museum years ago. It shows a futuristic New York City mostly submerged, at sunrise or sunset. Different scenes unfold in different strata. Some dramatically lit birds fly in all directions among mostly unrecognizable skeletons of buildings. Underwater, the buildings are largely intact. A big jellyfish swims in the foreground. The water is clear enough for buildings to cast shadows on the riverbed. Underground, cross-sections of tunnels and beams poke out between layers of rock.
Jen and I are both working from home. We’re both healthy and our families are healthy. I worry that this is going to come off as ruminating or melodramatic or insufficiently appreciative of how well things are going for us, all things considered.
We watched The Conversation the other day. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a man who becomes obsessed with a recording of a mysterious conversation. Caul is a painfully private person. He recoils at the prospect of revealing himself to his landlady, his coworkers, his lover. Eventually, we see Caul in a dream, chasing a figure off in the distance. He confesses to a litany of childhood sins. I think: This is all he has to show? Even after seeing his dreams, I still don’t have much of a sense of who Caul is. When the movie ends, I think: One danger of living too privately, of hiding too much, is that eventually we run out of things to hide.
Mr. Olasov is a doctoral student in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College. He organizes Brooklyn Public Philosophers, a monthly philosophy speaker and discussion series for a general audience. You can read some of his writing for a general audience at Slate, Vox, and Public Seminar. He is Brooklyn born and bred.