On a given day, our experience of the world feels stable, even if it isn’t. On the other hand, at least for those in the States, where public policy appears designed to keep COVID around longer than is necessary, one characteristic of the past four months has been an increased attention to the “uncertainty” of “our times.”
Rather than approaching the pandemic (which is certainly ravaging the world) from a position of decisiveness (as in for example Italy, where the government shut the country down for about a month in order to get a handle on things), the response in the states has been to privilege a kind of middle-place or liminal zone. We are free to go outside, but not free of the virus; we are certain about what we should do (wear masks, fund unemployment, freeze rent), but we aren’t really doing those things. Significant portions of our citizens, relative to other places, don’t believe the pandemic is real; so we’re not even “certain” about that.
We have become habituated to a place of contingency. As the ubiquitous (and ubiquitously mocked) COVID-era advertisements well articulate, we are living in “uncertain times,” when the contingency, fragility, and precariousness of the structures we had built up around us become so obvious as to overdetermine our experience of the present. Uncertainty is, as Arendt put it, “the decisive character of human affairs.” But while we usually spend a great deal of energy denying or avoiding this fact, at the moment, we appear doomed to live by it.
This, as we are all discovering, demands improvisation.