This month, we welcome the return of the All-Nighter, a periodic feature in which Robin Beery takes advertising “back to school” and attempts to convince his old comp-lit professors he was paying attention.
It’s possible that the most enduring metaphor of our current moment—that of the COVID-19 coronavirus—will be neither the obvious viral metaphor, nor the exponential curve. No, the most enduring metaphor of this virus may be the box.
After one mere month of isolation, we see boxes almost everywhere we look. Every day, cardboard packages filled with books and puzzles and food and shampoo show up on our doorsteps. Whose hands delivered them? Since we have no idea, they must be handled with care and disposed of safely.
Our houses are boxes, of course, as are the rooms inside. There are suddenly too few of them, and they are too full of stuff we realize we don’t really need or want—at the very moment when it’s inadvisable, and maybe impossible, to give it all away.
Our backyards, though less claustrophobic, are boxes of a kind—little corners of the outside world we have all to ourselves. Our refrigerators are boxes, the contents of which measure our security against having to venture further afield.
On the virtual side, our inboxes fill with reminders and requests that otherwise might have been made in person. Tiny squares of news and everyday complaints cascade down our social feeds. The little windows in a Zoom meeting Brady Bunch our faces together.
Our phone cameras box us up, crop our faces, compress our voices, and fling them across the void. Celebrities (we’re thrilled to realize the extent to which they are just like us) broadcast from their living rooms, music rooms, and bathrooms. Like us, they sometimes wear sweatpants or bathrobes. Like us, they are not always certain whether vertical or horizontal video is the way to go.
But vertical seems to be winning, and so our televisions (for now, resolutely horizontal) flank these dispatches with thick black bars. The bars suggest omission—a part of the story deliberately out of frame.
For French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard, it was useful to propose that our societies, our communications, and even our very beings were becoming increasingly virtualized. “At a certain level of machination, of immersion in virtual machinery,” Baudrillard wrote, “there is no longer any man-machine distinction: the machine is on both sides of the interface. Perhaps you are indeed merely the machine’s space now—the human being having become the virtual reality of the machine, its mirror operator.”
Baudrillard was also an early thinker about the ways in which our economy has become less concerned with production and consumption and increasingly driven by virtual concerns, writing, in 1988, of an economy “relieved of ideologies, social sciences, history, and political economy and yielded up to pure speculation.” (This is part of what crashed the financial system back in 2008.)
And what we’re seeing from inside our boxes right now is another great example of Baudrillard’s tension at work: real realities insisting on their relevance while virtual realities persist in holding sway. We know the virus is real. But we rely on models more than observation, not having an effective tool for knowing where it really is.
And the most inapt metaphor for the current moment, and one you’ll hear alluded to again and again, is the “brave new world” metaphor: the idea of this time of the virus as a new experience—a temporary condition to be mastered and subdued.
There’s nothing all that new about this moment. We’ve known all along that this could happen but chose to act as if it wouldn’t.
At this moment, the walls between those coping the best they can on the inside and those coping the best they can on the outside are suddenly more pronounced. It’s easier than ever for those of us inside our boxes to feel that everyone else is having the same experience.
What are we not seeing behind those black bars? What’s going on outside the box?
Right now, staying home and staying apart is making a difference for the greater good. But if we really want to be there for one another, we’re going to have to do more than get back to normal.
We’re going to need to spend more time living outside the box, in the parts of reality that separate us rather than connect us: where health and food and safety and security are not the norm, and where a box might be more than a metaphor for home.