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The Great Humbling


Jan 31, 2022

We’ve been listening back to the first episode we made, almost two years ago, in the early weeks of the time of Covid.

Maybe it’s the influence of revisiting those early episodes, or maybe it has to do with Dougald turning up to our January recording with a glass of bubbly in hand, but we find ourselves ranging freely – and at some length – in this conversation we’re calling ‘Remapping Lava’.

Before we get onto the main theme of the discussion, we bring back the tradition of asking each other what we’ve been reading or listening to lately that’s got us thinking.

Ed talks about Bewilderment, the new novel from Richard Powers, whose last book was The Overstory.

Dougald has been discovering the joys of Tintin and gives us his Captain Haddock impression. He also talks about David Cayley’s book of interviews, Ideas on the Nature of Science, based on the epic CBC radio series, How to Think About Science.

Ed reads us a little from The Owner of the Sea, Richard Price’s retelling of three Inuit stories, and tells us about a serendipitous connection with Lucy Hinton’s poem, Singing Bone.

Talk of Inuit poetry takes Dougald back to Taqralik Partridge’s challenge to consider the pandemic as the ‘warning shots’ of a larger storm into which the world is headed.

So what is the shape of the storm, how is the lava looking, as the pandemic enters its third year?

Talking about the atmosphere in the UK, Ed mentions Cassette Boy’s Rage Against the Party Machine. He also brings up the Dutch museums and arts institutions that reopened as hair salons and gyms in response to Covid restrictions. 

As another marker of the sense of shifting stories over recent weeks, Dougald brings up the Guardian interview with Clive Dix, former head of the UK’s vaccine tax force, headlined ‘End mass jabs and live with Covid’ and a report from the second week in December on protests in Austria that was the first time he’d noticed these treated as legitimate, rather than reduced to a story about the far right, conspiracy theorists and ‘anti-vaxxers’.

Talking about who has had a ‘bad’ pandemic brings us to the role of public intellectuals and the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith’s Substack piece Covid is Boring, where he expresses puzzlement over his peers enlisting as ‘full-time volunteer nodes of information on epidemiology’. Smith is in favour of mandatory vaccination, yet he’s also disturbed by the failure to question ‘the regime that covid has helped install’.

Dougald connects this role of ‘thinking on behalf of science’ rather than ‘thinking about science’ (in the sense of Cayley’s book and radio series) to the enlisting of artists to ‘deliver the message’ about climate change – and refers to the work he did with Riksteatern on what other roles art might play under the shadow of climate change.

We decide that there are different ways of answering the question of who’s had a ‘good’ pandemic. 

Oxfam’s wealth aggregation analysis gives a pretty clear picture of who has benefited economically from the pandemic – answer, billionaires (which may be why they are all throwing themselves into space…).

But talking about whose moral standing emerges strengthened from the past two years, Ed brings in an interview with Rosebell Kagumire, talking about the role of women in recovery.

This reminds Dougald of something Laura Stephens says about ‘recovery, discovery, un-covery’ as three aspects of what’s going on.

Ed talks about Julia Hobsbawm’s book The Nowhere Office, on the future of the workplace.

We mention Paul Kingsnorth’s three-part essay series, The Vaccine Moment, and the questions he asks about ‘the machine’.

We talk about valuing uncertainty – and that reminds Ed of Sam Conniff’s Uncertainty Experts.

And having started the episode by marvelling at how we used to make hour-long episodes in series one, we end up … making an hour long episode!