Out of touch, out of tune: the social-political construction of atmospheric walls during the COVID-19 pandemic first wave

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  • 1 Richmond, The American International University in London, UK
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This article contributes to knowledge on the co-constitutive relation between emotions and bodies by describing the mechanisms enabling the social-political construction of ‘atmospheric walls’ () during the COVID-19 pandemic first wave of spring-summer 2020. Using auto- and digital ethnographies this article underlines gendered, raced and classed angles of arrival into the spring-summer ‘first wave’ and describes the social-political implications of individual bodies and parts of the body politic losing touch through the pandemic. In particular, this article highlights three mechanisms – angles of arrival, discord and losing touch – leading to the containment of grief within parts of the UK body politic, which, through the COVID-19 pandemic first wave worked to build up atmospheric walls segregating parts of the body politic and allow the continued circulation of some bodies while facilitating the continued circulation, use and using up of others.

Abstract

This article contributes to knowledge on the co-constitutive relation between emotions and bodies by describing the mechanisms enabling the social-political construction of ‘atmospheric walls’ (Ahmed, 2014) during the COVID-19 pandemic first wave of spring-summer 2020. Using auto- and digital ethnographies this article underlines gendered, raced and classed angles of arrival into the spring-summer ‘first wave’ and describes the social-political implications of individual bodies and parts of the body politic losing touch through the pandemic. In particular, this article highlights three mechanisms – angles of arrival, discord and losing touch – leading to the containment of grief within parts of the UK body politic, which, through the COVID-19 pandemic first wave worked to build up atmospheric walls segregating parts of the body politic and allow the continued circulation of some bodies while facilitating the continued circulation, use and using up of others.

Introduction

It is Thursday, 12 March 2020, and the last time I will see my students in person this year. I am on campus to teach a class but it is somewhat hijacked due to distress about the incoming coronavirus. Teresa Brennan (2004: 1) was right, because I ‘felt the atmosphere’ the second I walked in to the room. In fact, this article is motivated by my own affective-embodied experience of the pandemic from that moment onwards, and includes analysis of research I went on to carry out over the spring and summer of 2020. In it I use auto- and digital ethnographies and draw and build on Sara Ahmed’s (2014) little-developed conception of the ‘atmospheric wall’ to argue that over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic first wave, the UK saw the materialisation of an increasingly sharpened and segmented emotional landscape, thanks to divergent angles of arrival and discord working to move individual and collective bodies out of touch while physically-affectively containing grief and some bodies – but allowing other emotions and bodies to continue circulating, with deadly consequences.

To provide further context and a summary of my contributions, before the above-mentioned 12 March seminar I had been able to blissfully ignore the pandemic. However, being located and somewhat sheltered in the town of Chertsey in Surrey (one of the South East of England’s home counties) for the duration of the UK’s lockdown and beyond, as it went on, the pandemic seemed to get to me in a way that others in my immediate vicinity and demography could not fathom. Thus, over spring-summer 2020 I poured my energy into investigating the gap between myself and others, so physically nearby but affectively distant, as the unfathomability of what I was experiencing on an increasingly regular basis continued to drive my investigations into the emotional landscape engendered and embodied during the first wave of the pandemic. In particular, I began investigating the question How does COVID-19 feel? and considering social-political mechanisms leading to the emotional landscape of the pandemic becoming so very uneven. Of course, people in certain professions and communities would come to know and feel the effects of COVID-19 before others. As Avril Maddrell (2020: 107) reflected, the public took on an uneven ‘emotional-viral-load’ with the virus revealing the extent of and entrenching pre-existing classed, raced and gendered health inequalities. Indeed, with Maddrell (2020: 110) warning of the dangers of the pandemic producing ‘new geographies of death, and deathscapes […] in regions and communities unprepared for the effects and affects of a pandemic as well as those sadly familiar with historically high death rates’, it was Ahmed’s (2014) notion of the atmospheric wall – introduced and described briefly in a, to date, single blog post on the topic – that provided my first breakthrough. As Ahmed (2014) explains:

An atmospheric wall: can involve conscious decisions and collective will. People can ‘in effect’ turn their backs to form an atmospheric wall, a way of preventing some from staying. Or an atmospheric wall can be the effect of a habituation: someone who arrives would stand out, would not pass in or pass through, and the difference becomes uncomfortable by virtue of being a difference at all.

As I reread Ahmed’s (2014) short blog post and searched in vain for subsequent mentions of the term in her work (there are none), I realised that atmospheric walls were exactly what I had begun encountering during the spring of 2020. As the cyclist yelled at me or the jogger laughed at me when I asked them to ‘stay away from me!’, I had been hitting walls – atmospheric walls – that came between myself and other bodies. Indeed, moving and keeping bodies apart and keeping some bodies moving while containing others is exactly what atmospheric walls are designed to do.

Towards explaining my findings and overall response to how COVID-19 feels – that the pandemic feels different according to which side of the ever-heightening and socially-politically constructed atmospheric walls that bodies are cut off on – this article provides a literature review, more detail on methodology and expansion on the unique situation, during which I conducted auto- and digital ethnographies. It then progresses through discussions on the particularities of the emotional landscape carved out and embodied over the course of the first wave of the pandemic by focusing on three affective-embodied mechanisms: (1) gendered, raced and classed angles of arrival, (2) discord, and (3) losing touch. Furthermore, through these mechanisms I suggest that atmospheric walls were constructed and heightened, ultimately coming to segregate parts of the body politic and to contain grief-stricken bodies, which in turn allowed for the continued circulation of other bodies.

Literature review

Necropolitics of emotion and embodiment

With Maddrell (2020: 110) referring to ‘new geographies of death, and deathscapes’ produced in the time of COVID-19, the analyses presented in this article, while embedded in everyday embodied experience – describing local reorientations and re-embodiments throughout spring-summer 2020 – nonetheless consider how ‘bigger’ local-global social-political processes played out, in and through individual bodies and collective bodies, and indeed resulted in the production of dead bodies at every turn during the pandemic’s first wave. In particular, picking up on Maddrell’s use of the term ‘deathscape’ the experiences and observations brought into discussion in this article are motivated by my own concern about not only the emotional landscape but the physical deathscape engendered and embodied during the pandemic also. Therefore, following Achille Mbebme,1 to understand necropolitics as a mode of governance oriented towards death and concentrated on dividing populations of bodies into (a) those allowed, encouraged and even made to live and (b) populations of others allowed and even required to die, this article highlights the patterns of classed, racialised and gendered ways of living and dying exacerbated and exposed by the pandemic.

In addition to understanding the social-political context framing this article’s empirical investigations as necropolitical, my understanding of the relation throughout between the two phenomena of most interest – bodies and emotion – is one of mutual constitution. Thus, before going on to explore the emotional body politics of the pandemic, it is important to explain and underline the social-political implications of how emotion contributes towards shaping and moving individual and collective bodies and vice versa. However, preceding this it is paramount to underline my understanding of embodiment as emotion is understand as crucial towards this process.

Embodiment is the continuously contested and intense local-global social-political pro- cess through which bodies continually come to be or not be (hence my use of (re/dis)embodiment within this article). Judith Butler’s (1993: 2) theory of performativity – ‘the reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomenon that it regulates and constrains’ – informs this conception of the body as an ongoing socially-politically contested process due to Butler’s emphasis on how operations of power(/knowledge) get literally under the skin to flesh bodies out. Indeed, Butler’s work complements phenomenological-sociological theorists’ descriptions of the process of embodiment, which also emphasise the social-political-economic2 rather than ‘natural’ qualities of the body by explaining how embodiment involves social-political-economic forces, including the structures of gender, race and class, and making it plain that the ‘critical relationship between ideas and actions makes it difficult to separate social ideas from their embodimentʼ (Seymour, 1998: 36).

The role of emotion in the process of (re/dis)embodiment is crucial towards my approach to studying the social-political construction of atmospheric walls and containment of grief during the pandemic. Indeed, understanding emotion as an intersubjective phenomenon which floats and intensifies in the atmosphere in between bodies before touching, moving, and making bodies materially different and therefore contributing to (re/dis)embodiment I crucially find emotions to be in a mutually constitutive relation with bodies. As Ahmed (2004: 4) has argued, ‘emotions shape the very surfaces of bodies’ while conversely and simultaneously, bodies shape affective atmospheres, meaning that, as Ahmed (2014) describes,

an affective atmosphere might be electric; it might be tense. It might be heavy, light. Maybe an atmosphere is most striking as a zone of transition: an upping, a downing. The laughter that fills the room: more and more […] Or a sombre situation: quiet words, softly spoken; bodies tense with the effort of holding themselves together by keeping themselves apart.

From this perspective, in making bodies materially different, emotion gets under the skin and into the body and hence Brennan’s (2004: 1) description of the transmission of affect as a process ‘responsible for bodily changes’ after which ‘physically and biologically something is present that was not there before’. We know this implicitly and refer to it often, saying for example that we have been touched by something or that something has made an impression on us. Indeed, Ahmed (2004: 4) has emphasised that ‘we need to remember the press in an impression’. In short, once emotion gets under the skin, something (the feeling) is present that was not there before and it is important to underline the materiality of this process and therefore the role of emotion in (re/dis)embodiment.

On top of touching, pressing on, and getting into bodies, emotions ‘move’ bodies; we refer to this colloquially, by saying, for example, that we attended a moving service or listened to a moving speech or piece of music. Indeed, to return to the etymological root of emotion (emovre: to move, to move out) and to Ahmed’s (2004: 2) argument that ‘emotions are directed to what we come into contact with: they move us “toward” and “away” from such objects’, it is important to underline the ability of emotions to move bodies, not only closer together but also further apart from one another. It is also important to underline that, by moving bodies, emotion also works to (re/dis)embody collectives, and hence Ahmed’s argument (Ahmed, 2004: 6) that ‘emotions work to shape the surfaces of individual and collective bodies’. Accordingly, in this article I not only explore the implications of individual bodies being moved apart from one another and separated by atmospheric walls but the implications of collectives being affectively segregated too. In this article I do this through the notion of the body politic, and following Stephanie Fishel (2017) to understand this as a ‘lively’ metaphor, which materialises and becomes embodied at the collective level of political community while atmospheric walls are understood as materialising to segregate both individual and collective parts of bodies politic.

Crucially, drawing and building on the mutually constitutive conception of the relation of bodies and emotion and the broader necropolitical framing thus far introduced, in this article I specifically consider the mechanisms facilitating the social-political construction of affective walls erected during the spring-summer of 2020 – between both individual and collective bodies. Indeed, though the discussions of this article’s substantive sections, I argue that such walls worked to carve out an increasingly sharpened and segmented emotional landscape, and in turn worked to place parts of the body politic further out of touch during the spring and summer of 2020 with social-political, and even deadly, consequences.

Methodology

Mixing methods (in a time of pandemic)

Methodologically, this article is the result of qualitative empirical research conducted between March and September 2020 using auto- and digital ethnographies. However, before expanding on the methods, it is important to note that conducting research during a global pandemic, as it unfolds, comes with a series of challenges ruling out the use of a number of research methods. For example, due to lockdown restrictions and personal reasons, I did not break social distancing of 2 metres and stayed out of pubs, restaurants and even my workplace – even when government guidelines would have allowed me to re-enter. I therefore was unable to ‘feel the atmosphere’ (Brennan, 2004: 1) inside these public spaces as they reopened after the initial lockdown beginning 23 March and gradually released from 10 May onwards. Indeed, due to my personal circumstances and affective angle of arrival into the pandemic I therefore most probably missed a great deal and in these ways my ethnographies are very obviously limited. However, with the invisibilities and losses of the pandemic being precisely of interest to me, I have explicitly confronted and contemplated what remained out of sight and touch to me during the pandemic as a means to respond to how COVID-19 felt.

To provide further context, on 23 March I was locked down in a one-bedroom rented flat in Chertsey, Surrey, in the South-East of England. Chertsey is a commuter and green belt3 town. It is where I was born and by chance moved back to, just in time for the pandemic (see Purnell, 2020a). Chertsey is an obviously divided town, where half of the residents speak with ‘common’ English accents and the other half sound ‘posh’. The former are those from ‘round here’; the latter come from elsewhere – buying up properties in the town for the just about manageable commute and less than London house prices, normally after tiring of the capital itself. (I fit in to neither and both of these categories.) Retail, hospitality and other service industries provide employment for many in the town while public sector and key worker jobs are rarer.4 As a state school-educated, first-generation student and working-class academic,5 I like to think I can ‘code-switch’6 between the two local dialects, but in honesty I probably don’t sound right ‘doing’ either. However, from a research perspective, being located in between as the pandemic plays out, I find my, albeit partial, membership within the two coexisting social groups to be an advantage.

Demographically, as part of the Runnymede borough, the residents of Chertsey are predominantly UK born (81.3 per cent), English speaking (91.1 per cent), and Christian (63.4 per cent). Economically, it is a prosperous town, with an above-average level of employment (78.2 per cent compared with the 71 per cent national average), a mean house price of £510,001 (coming in at nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average of £300,560), and only 12 per cent living in social housing compared with the 18.2 per cent national average. Finally, and with particular relevance to the pandemic, the people of Runnymede enjoy above-average levels of ‘health and wellbeing’ (with 51.3 per cent in ‘very good’ health compared with the national average of 47.6 per cent) and life expectancy (with males and females living on average to 82.1 and 84.6 years compared with national averages of 78.4 and 82.2 years, respectively), while 13 per cent (the national average) work in health and social care.7

Auto-ethnography

My approach to the reflexive auto-ethnographic research conducted from the circumstances outlined above is a result of my critical, feminist perspective on research that considers the embodied self as ‘a site of scholarly awareness and corporeal literacy’ (Spry, 2001: 706), meaning that I count my own embodied experience as data. As a way to keep track of my thoughts, feelings and reactions during the pandemic, I began keeping a diary. I did not do this consistently because on some days I could not find the words or bring myself to write. However, when I could, I did. Sometimes a diary entry would stem from a hastily posted and often quickly deleted tweet. I even began sharing some of my more coherent diary entries publicly when I be came a contributor to the Global Public Health COVID-19 Diaries, established by Owain Williams in April 2020.8 Extracts of entries published there feature in this article alongside the incorporation of reflexive field notes, as well as the presentation, discussion and analysis of other materials including the online testimonies garnered from my digital ethnography. However, being simultaneously aware and reflective of my own unique position and status while considering my response to the question How does COVID-19 feel? throughout the period of spring-summer, I was also increasingly aware of how, being a young(ish),9 White English woman and a permanently employed academic, my body, profession and socioeconomic status afford me a great deal of privilege, making and keeping certain things (in)visible to me, and keep me safe from harm. Indeed, it is precisely acknowledging and reflecting on my privilege that allows me to explore the extreme emotional-embodied landscapes and (in)visibilities of the first wave of the pandemic.

My digital ethnography conducted during spring-summer 2020 led to including the testimonies of members of the public beyond my local vicinity in this article’s analyses.10 As an immersive digital ethnography, this element of the research was an extension of my offline auto-ethnographic efforts, wherein I continued to ‘take in’, read about, watch footage of and discuss the pandemic and local-national-global developments via platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp. As a result of considering my online but no less embodied and affective experiences as data, this article duly includes my reflections on government announcements, news articles, Whatsapp group chats, Twitter posts and blogs, alongside the auto-ethnographic reflections on my activities in real life.

As a result of this methodology, the analyses presented in this article are deeply rooted in the everyday, embodied and often mundane experiences of myself and others during spring-summer 2020, and detail the performative materialisation of a sharpening emotional landscape through the following substantive sections on (1) angles of arrival into the pandemic and (2) the containment of grief during it.

Angles of arrival

Ahmed (2014) has written that ‘what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point.’ And indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic looks and feels different to everybody, and depends on each and every one of the precise angles from which every body arrived into it. It would therefore be unwise to generalise about the emotionality of the pandemic as our affective situations depend very much on our positions within local-global raced, classed and gendered hierarchies. In this section, I therefore sketch out the emotional landscape of the pandemic’s first wave in the UK by considering divergent affective angles of arrival – beginning with my own – and taking into account personal histories of trauma as a means to explain how the onset of the pandemic felt.

Given the ways in which people behaved and events occurred around me throughout the pandemic’s first wave, sometimes, during the spring and summer of 2020, I felt like there was a protective wall around the town of Chertsey, shielding it from the virus and everything that comes with it. Only, this wall is not made of bricks but is rather an affective wall: you can still hear the wail of ambulances through it, and, most crucially, it only provides some bodies with protection. Social distancing quickly became a thing of the past here and I’d get looks of bemusement and irritation for even attempting to maintain it as the weeks and months went by; for this reason I felt increasingly out of place in Chertsey as the spring turned to summer in 2020. However, it was not so much what was going on around me during the first wave and English lockdown between 23 March to 10 May 2020 – the group cycle rides, kayaking, swimming, boating, large group picnics, paragliding and partying. Instead, it was the feelings of social dislocation and alienation that were most unpleasant and which motivate this article. At times like these I would question my own sanity, sometimes returning to the flat shaking, but knowing what I’d experienced was ‘a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel “crazy,” creating a “surreal” interpersonal environment’ (Sweet, 2019: 851). This is known as ‘gaslighting’ – an intentional act. However, within this pandemic context I am in no way suggesting that those around me were doing anything to me on purpose. Nonetheless, the expansive emotional disjuncture between them and me and what our divergent moods allowed or prevented each of us from doing motivated me to write this article. Contemplating the ever-widening gap that was now appearing between myself and others, I found Jessica Auchter’s (2014: 16) reminder that ‘we’re all of us haunted and haunting’ useful. Indeed, we are all of us haunted because our personal histories, traumas and memories are all embodied. What’s more, the repetition of a previous experience or trauma will work to trigger both the memory and our affective-embodied reactions accordingly.

Stan Papoulias’s (2020) blog-post account of his affective-embodied experience of COVID-19 is certainly haunted. Indeed, Papoulias’s testimony speaks of the resurrection of his younger body in 1970s Athens as he describes how

[w]ith each movement, Covid-19 lockdown London is undone and that other place-time, which is always here too, sharpens to life. Athens, the seventies. For twelve years, between the age of six and eighteen, from the cusp of childhood to the end of adolescence, the same ritual ended our family visits to my gran – first weekly, later monthly. Smelling rough olive oil soap and surgical spirit as I stood arms akimbo and legs spread wide in our small bathroom, like a caricature Vitruvian man as my mother methodically disinfected me. (Papoulias, 2020)

As Papoulias’ re-embodiment demonstrates, every body arrived differently into the first wave. Towards reflecting on my own anxious disposition during the first wave and to further make my auto-ethnography reflexive, I began thinking about my own arrival and looking back at my deeper, embodied history of trauma to consider my own potential hauntings. Of course, as an international political sociologist specialising in the politics of emotion (Purnell, 2018; 2021) and (re/dis)embodiment (Purnell, 2015; 2021), the pandemic provided an example par excellence through which to push forward understanding of the relation between bodies and emotion, and I was therefore acutely and academically tuned in to it from the start. However, further sharpening my angle of arrival, the pandemic arrived as the latest in a series of unfortunate and unfortunately traumatic events occurring since 2015, meaning that by March 2020 I was anxious and jumpy. I had begun to think and expect the worst after the very sudden deaths of not one but two (thereby comprising all) of my siblings-in-law, my mothers’ diagnosis and deterioration with lung disease, and my younger brother’s diagnosis with an ‘underlying’ and life-shortening heart condition. These traumas have made me acutely aware of not only the always close proximity of death and prevented me from feeling invulnerable. In particular, with my mother, immediately classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ and instructed to ‘shield’ by the UK government when the pandemic arrived but living in a multigenerational household with my brother – a pub manager working behind a busy and unventilated bar throughout much of the pandemic11 – it is no exaggeration to say that I imagined what remains of my small family being wiped out by COVID-19. Reflecting on these hauntings and with trauma having its etymological root in the Greek word trayma, meaning pierced or perforated and implying bodily disruption and damage, I think that being traumatised as such and having become haunted by the above-listed experiences made me more sensitive and able to pick up on what others around me could not during the pandemic, especially given the height of the atmospheric walls dividing parts of the body politic throughout the first wave.

The experiences detailed so far brought the local-global body politics of the pandemic literally home to me while revealing the subtle – but no less social-political – (re/dis)embodiments of others, which had been sped up with the onset of the pandemic. However, the unique angles of arrival described so far would inform ongoing emotional trajectories through the pandemic and would make bodies in shared affective atmospheres ever more discordant as the spring and summer of 2020 went on.

Bodies in discord

Discord is the opposite of harmony, and it is Ahmed’s description of affective attunement which further explains the social-political construction of atmospheric walls in this section. As Ahmed (2014) describes it:

Attunement does not simply happen; there is a history at stake, or a timing, often experienced as a having been here before, even in the mode of anticipation […] in how we become responsive to some things and not others; how we learn to be affected and not affected by what and who we encounter.

Crucial in this conception of affective attunement and in common with the notion of haunting, Ahmed underlines that it is histories which angle bodies as they arrive into the present. However, what is also underlined in Ahmed’s conception is the process of learning. Indeed, it is with the aim of further exploring the learning processes which contribute to informing angles of arrival into pandemic atmospheres – as well as affective trajectories – throughout the spring and summer of 2020, that I turn again to my own auto- and digital ethnographies in this section. Moreover, consideration of these COVID-19 learning materials of shared insights and stories of infection demonstrates that uneven access and visibility lead to the further heightening of atmospheric walls: bodies without an affective education of COVID-19 were unable to comprehend the feelings of those who had been more directly exposed to risk and death during spring-summer 2020.

For the six months I spent conducting the research underlying this article, in lieu of the gym I made a new habit of pacing laps around a meadow just two minutes’ walk away. During my peak-pandemic workouts, I would look on in disbelief at scenes taking place as COVID-19 deaths peaked at over one thousand per day, as they did for 22 days in a row between 2 April and 23 April (see Pyman, 2020). Swarms of people lined up daily during the hottest days of our frequent heatwaves, sunbathing on deckchairs and mats brought from home and placed along the banks of the river, groups huddled under umbrellas to catch some shade or gathered around speakers pumping out music, while children zipped through the crowds, splashing down into the river to cool off, all while smoke from portable barbecues would sting my eyes as I looked on. It was an unpleasant and surreal experience – you could call it ‘uncanny’ – and chimed exactly with something that James Duesterberg (2020) wrote in The Point in May, about the look and feel of things in a time of pandemic:

It is a mood, an atmosphere: everything looks fine, and yet something is wrong, off, uncanny. People and animals, houses and trees, strike us as so many pasteboard masks and mechanical dolls. It is hard to describe it, but it radiates out of the screen when you watch David Lynch.

Walking around Chertsey, and while it felt uncanny, throughout spring-summer of 2020 you could have been forgiven for thinking you had dreamt up the pandemic. Sometimes, on early morning walks through the sun-baked meadows or along the winding River Thames, I would allow myself to believe it, for just a moment. Meenal Viz, a pregnant NHS doctor said something similar in April, about her trip to Central London, made to protest about unsafe working conditions after a similarly pregnant 28-year-old nurse died of COVID-19:

‘It was such a stark difference, standing there in the sunshine. You know the people making decisions are there inside these beautiful buildings. But we are seeing life and death. We are fighting for aprons. Outside, you can believe that everything is OK. I even probably fooled myself – but then you come home and it’s another 800 dead. It’s why I had to do this now.’ (Cadwalladr, 2020)

Unlike Viz however, I do not learn the lessons that come with having to enter a hospital’s acute care ward and ‘fight for aprons’ to pay my bills. I do not have to be near or even see the COVID-19 dying and dead and, with Ahmed (2014) writing that ‘an atmospheric wall can be the effect of a habituation’, I can easily see how it would easily be possible for me to slip into the habit of enjoying an easy life of denial here in Chertsey.

At the level of individual embodied experience of the pandemic, Johanna Mannergren Selimovic writes that what she will remember about this time of pandemic is her embodied and in particular tactile experience of how the pandemic literally felt, saying:

Raw hands. Itchy face masks. Missing other bodies. Fearing other bodies. At the core of this experience is the universal loss of a web of relations and its nodes: markets, extended families, cafés, shopping malls, choirs, museums. The disappearance of embodied interaction in our lives is thus an intimate loss. (Selimovic, 2020)

What Salimovich is underlining is at once the unusual tactile qualities of the pandemic coupled with a simultaneous losing touch with and therefore also losing the ability to touch others. In contrast, I would not describe my re-embodiment during the first wave as unpleasant; rather, I realise the immense privilege of being a body ‘let go’ – from cramped, claustrophobic and now dangerous commutes, for example – because I can do my job from home. Let go from running around – from morning until night – travelling to and from local, national and international events, while trying in vain to balance out work by keeping up with and attending events with family and friends. When the pandemic hit I was therefore immediately let go from certain pressures. I get more sleep now and more vitamin D too. In short – and while the pandemic came with new pressures – I do feel better. Indeed, this re-embodiment as perhaps being even healthier further reveals the uneven learning processes engendering such acute affective disparities during the first wave of the pandemic. National statistics (see ONS, 2020) demonstrate too how health inequalities have been exacerbated during the pandemic. These focus on and rightly highlight the alarming rate at which disabled people and those with ‘underlying conditions’ have died with COVID-19. However, I could not help but speculate as to the improving bodily health of those in my vicinity during the first wave as I took my daily exercise – those now jogging and cycling in packs seven days per week along the river as it meanders through Chertsey, for example. As I mused about them in one entry to the Global Public Health COVID-19 Diaries:

About 8/10 times they are men, and I recognise all of them, in fact I’d know them anywhere. These are a very particular kind of man that I used to encounter and be pressed up against on commuter trains into and out of London. […] They are the usually man-spreaders and man-splainers. They are the loud work callers in the quiet coach and throughout this pandemic their flouting of social distancing guidelines has been absolutely flagrant. […] They cycle and jog alongside one another in pairs and packs daily – seemingly using this time to ‘train’ … for something. (Purnell, 2020b)

Towards further investigating the social-political construction of an extreme emotional landscape and the atmospheric walls emerging to segregate parts of the body politic during the spring-summer of 2020, in the following section I consider the implications of bodies becoming cut off from one another – literally losing touch – during the pandemic and hone in on the containment of grief, which I argue was caused during the first wave by a combination of angles of arrival, discord and losing touch.

Containment of grief

One consequence of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in our already stratified and segmented body politic has been to set different social groups of people – (body) parts of the body politic – literally apart from one another: physically, visually and affectively. In this section, I discuss the affective-embodied effects of losing touch, both at the level of individual embodied subjects and that of the collective body politic, finding yet again that losing touch leads to the further heightening of atmospheric walls along raced, classed and gendered lines, which not only re-entrench the social divisions that pre-date the pandemic but also work to contain grief in particular (body) parts of the body politic.

Losing touch

With the onset of the pandemic, the physical setting apart of the population meant chance encounters and the intermingling of disparate parts of the collective body politic were severely limited. This is vital towards understanding the heightening of atmospheric walls during spring-summer 2020, because there is something about the sight, touch and smell of a body – in the flesh – that no Zoom call or FaceTime can fully capture. Affect is subtle, it is what ‘gives you away: the tell-tale heart; my clammy hands; the note of anger in your voice; the sparkle of glee in their eyes’ (Highmore, 2010: 118), meaning sometimes you have to be there to pick up on it (affect) and to pick it up: to become touched, and be moved accordingly through the transmission (of affect). Of course, to some extent, affect can be transmitted from a physical distance and translated from analogue to digital; but not everything can, meaning the rest goes missing and this is what I mean by losing touch. Indeed, as the pandemic hit, bodies lost touch as they were set literally, viscerally and, I suggest, violently apart. As a biopolitical theorist, appreciating the literal embodiment of collectives as I do and hence my reference to the body politic throughout this article, Robert Esposito also sees a violence in the separation of parts, saying ‘the immunity system is necessary for survival, but when it crosses a certain threshold, it starts destroying the body it aims to defend. That threshold is crossed exactly when social distancing demands a total rupture of social bonds’ (Christiaens and De Cauwer, 2020). However, coming apart and losing touch as collectives entails violence in a myriad of ways – especially for more vulnerable parts of the body politic.

Over the course of spring-summer 2020, more privileged bodies – those able to work from home for the duration and those ‘shielding’ (those aged over 70 and those extremely clinically vulnerable) – withdrew from public space completely. Mixing during the pandemic became much more limited as the population was encouraged to limit socialising. We might have interacted with our co-workers (students in my case) and with our friends and families when restrictions allowed, but some of us didn’t feel like it for the reasons already discussed, and for the rest of the population there were certainly fewer opportunities: to make small talk with the barista or bartender, for example, or when sitting cramped on the Tube next to whomever, often close enough to literally smell another body. In this loss of literal touch we also lost the ability to become literally affected by one another. Indeed, along with lowering transmission of the COVID-19 virus, social distancing and wider restrictions would also limit the transmission of affect. Of course, we still had our digital bodies and mediated meetings and Zoom parties, but it is not the same. The online world I access via my laptop, from the safety of home feels flat and yet fatigues me quickly. It is a Twitter feed filled with journalists, politicians and academics – people who take the pandemic seriously because often they are paid to. It is an Instagram gallery depicting persons as brands, trying to sell me the things. It is Facebook – now mostly filled with ads and ‘old people’, according to one of my students, who made me laugh when they made this comment in class earlier this year.

From social distancing measures, to restrictions on public gatherings, to the peak lockdown instruction to stay at home, policies to guard against COVID-19 aim to keep the ‘R-rate’12 down and therefore to increase human security. However, and beyond the social implications of lockdown described earlier, being forced apart and out of touch with one another is also very distressing. As NHS palliative care doctor Rachel Clare (2020) writes in The Guardian newspaper:

Everything about this is wrong. The physical barriers between us. The harsh and jarring words that conceal rising panic. The glaring need – that can’t be met – to rip off the masks and gloves and shake hands, sit down, read each other’s expressions and begin, inch by inch, to cross the gulf that divides us.

Of course, as Clare writes, the most acute distress has been experienced by those no longer here to describe what it is like to die in a hospital or a care home COVID-ward, and therefore as a biohazard accordingly cut off without and beyond the touch of family and friends in your final days, hours and moments. The horror is simply unimaginable. For those who were unable to provide comfort in those last moments, the loss of touch is something that will need to be grieved, on top of the loss of those who died during the pandemic. As Dr Nigel Kennea explained in July, due to COVID-19 restrictions, “The most harrowing thing is knowing that many said goodbye to their loved ones in an ambulance” (Roxby, 2020). Moreover, in the time of COVID-19, those mourning the dead have in turn been denied the comfort of touch, as funerals have been restricted and social distancing measures applied to mourners. How, then, to grieve the COVID-19 dead? Especially when ‘there has been no national moment of silence or day of mourning, no collective call to pause and grieve together’ (Cep, 2020). Rather than public rituals and gatherings – the bereaved dressed in black and overspilling from the pub, like they did ‘before’, news and mourning of the dead is circulated and contained within social networks where it echoes around the online chambers inhabited by those particular communities paying the highest price.

Such containment of grief, while distressing for those directly impacted, has knock-on affects – or more precisely, has no knock-on affect – and instead works to shield others from the sight, feeling and, indeed, the very touch of death. In a time of pandemic, grief is not so much disenfranchised,13 but entirely disqualified from the affective registers of some (body) parts. In being so, such affective disqualification further sharpens the emotional landscape of the pandemic and continues to set communities further apart from another, enabling some bodies to keep going, to remain unaffected and to continue circulating, while others feel the toll of the pandemic in private.

Beyond the horror of dying as a cut-off COVID-19 case and the new order of unconsolable grief experienced by those left behind, in a time of pandemic being forced out of touch has a series of further implications in the form of affective reverberations at the community, regional, national and international levels. Indeed, losing touch has profound affects (literally) and social-political effects which have already reverberated around the body politic, working to further define and sharpen the emotional landscape of the pandemic through the construction of atmospheric walls working to emotionally segregate parts of the body politic as it was re-embodied during spring-summer 2020.

Beyond the violence entailed by the scattering of particularly vulnerable parts, and as a further example of the implications of parts of the body politic losing touch during this pandemic, and as an example of how ‘well’ death and grief have been contained during the pandemic, as I sit down to finish revisions on this article,14 over one hundred thousand people have died ‘with’ COVID-19 in the UK,15 and yet, I know none of them personally. Moreover, providing a stark contrast to a community in mourning, in the town I live in and the spaces I dwell online there has not been a face or even a name of anybody dead ‘with COVID-19’ to be seen or commemorated. I know people have died from it – in this town, borough and county, and at the time of writing government statistics tell me that the number is 1,775.16 However, the faces the number refer to have been kept from my sight and that invisibility has not happened by chance. Alternatively, it is understood as being intensely political, and again as contributing to the heightening of atmospheric walls during the pandemic’s first wave. Thus when Nesrine Malik (2020) speaks in a Guardian op-ed of grieving families as a British ‘us’ being ‘united by loss’ during the pandemic, she does not speak for ‘us’ all. Malik is speaking from and for specific parts of the body politic, saying:

[W]hat unites us all is loss, and the inability to seek comfort in each other. Maybe one day, when the pandemic is past us, and this government safely socially distanced from power, other leaders will recognise the extent of Britain’s bereavement and honour it. In the meantime the British public will once again, unsupported and unacknowledged by its government, have to find a way to salve its wounds. (Malik, 2020)

As the man interviewed on the English south coast’s Bournemouth beach said in late June, having flocked there along with thousands of other bodies during yet another heatwave, “I still don’t know anyone who’s even had it so, in my eyes it doesn’t really matter” (Kindred, 2020). Indeed, while the virus spreads, grief is contained behind an atmospheric wall while also containing other bodies – unwilling or unable to go out to the beach or anywhere else, for that matter.

Disruptive parts?

In this article I have zoomed in to the level of my own embodied experience though the spring-summer 2020’s first wave of the pandemic and combined this with digital ethnography in the hopes of gaining a better appreciation of the mechanisms facilitating the heightening of atmospheric walls within the UK body politic and finding these to be (1) angles of arrival, (2) discord, and (3) losing touch. As an empirical endeavour aimed at responding to how COVID-19 feels while contributing to knowledge in the co-constitutive relation between emotions and individual and collective bodies, this article has begun to map out the emotional landscape constructed and embodied during the pandemic’s first wave, finding it divided intersectionally along raced, classed and gendered lines by atmospheric walls keeping some bodies, and grief itself, contained. In particular, this article has also fleshed out the concept of the atmospheric wall provided by Ahmed (2014), by describing atmospheric walls as socially-politically constructed and working in line with raced, classed and gendered necropolitical logics of bodily (e)valuation, which appear to keep some bodies contained while allowing and indeed encouraging others to continue circulating – even when they are in grave danger.

Questions raised by this article, particularly in light of the uneven emotional landscape and deathscape materialising through the COVID-19 pandemic, include considering the capacity of bodies contained by and containing grief to become wilful, breaking down atmospheric walls, and in turn touching and moving other parts of the body politic, thereby reshaping not only the emotional landscape and social-political responses to the pandemic but interrupting the circulatory flow of systems of governance and pandemic (mis)management operating in the necropolitical mode. However, with the landscape described in this article being carved to exactly prevent these parts’ affective-embodied experiences becoming known, felt and learned throughout the body politic, the affective unevenness of the pandemic should be considered a deadly threat to some bodies and a saving grace for others.

Notes

1

Achille Mbembe (2003: 39–40):

‘I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.’

3

Urban growth in Chertsey is restricted, to preserve a ‘green belt’ around the capital.

4

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 29.1 per cent of respondents were designated as ‘key workers’.

5

I am the first person in my family to attend and be awarded a university degree, let alone three (BA, MA, and PhD).

6

Code switching is the ability to alternate between languages or linguistic styles (see Auer, 1998).

9

I was aged 34–35 while researching and writing this article.

10

The secondary sources are those cited at length and most profoundly influencing the arguments presented in this article are: Cadwalladr (2020), Clare (2020), Duesterberg (2020), Malik (2020) and Papoulias (2020).

11

English pubs closed during the first nation-wide lockdown but reopened afterwards when the public were actively encouraged to return via the UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. This scheme was later blamed for the subsequent rise in COVID-19 cases recorded during the summer of 2020 (see Hern, 2020).

12

‘R-rate’ is the term used to refer to the latest reproduction number (R) and growth rate of COVID-19 ().

13

Doka (1989: 4) defines ‘disenfranchised grief’ as ‘A loss that cannot be socially sanctioned, openly acknowledged or publicly mourned.’

14

The date was 27 January 2021.

16

See GoSurrey’s Coronavirus dashboard: www.gosurrey.co.uk/coronavirus/.

Acknowledgements

I would like to sincerely thank the anonymous peer reviewers and editors of Emotions and Society for their constructive feedback on previous versions of this article. Thanks also to Owain Williams of the Global Public Health COVID-19 Diaries for encouraging me to write reflectively and reflexively throughout the COVID-19 pandemic first wave.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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  • Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender, London: Sage.

  • Spry, T. (2001) Performing ethnography: an embodied methodological praxis, Qualitative Enquiry, 7(6): 70632. doi: 10.1177/107780040100700605

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sweet, P.L. (2019) The sociology of gaslighting, American Sociological Review, 84(5): 85175. doi: 10.1177/0003122419874843

  • Young, I.M. (1980) Throwing like a girl, Human Studies, 3(2): 13656. doi: 10.1007/BF02331805

  • Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion, New York/London: Routledge.

  • Ahmed, S. (2014) Atmospheric walls, Feministkilljoys, 15 September, https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/09/15/atmospheric-walls/.

  • Auchter, J. (2014) The Politics of Haunting and Memory, Oxford/New York: Routledge.

  • Auer, P. (1998) Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Brennan, T. (2004) The Transmission of Affect, London/Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, New York: Routledge.

  • Cadwalladr, C. (2020) ‘They can’t get away with this’: doctor who took protest to No 10, The Guardian, 20 April, www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/20/coronavirus-doctor-ppe-protest-downing-street-london.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cep, C. (2020) Telling Stories of the Dead is Essential Work, The New Yorker, Conde Nast, 14 May.

  • Christiaens, T. and De Cauwer, S. (2020) The biopolitics of immunity in times of COVID-19: an interview with Roberto Esposito, Antipode Online, 16 June, https://antipodeonline.org/2020/06/16/interview-with-roberto-esposito/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clare, R. (2020) ‘This man knows he’s dying as surely as I do’: a doctor’s dispatches from the NHS frontline, The Guardian, 30 May, www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/30/this-man-knows-hes-dying-as-surely-as-i-do-a-doctors-dispatches-from-intensive-care.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Doka, K. (1989) Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Lexington, MA: Lexington.

  • Duesterberg, J. (2020) In bloom, The Point, 20 May, https://thepointmag.com/politics/in-bloom/.

  • Fishel, S.R. (2017) The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Hern, A. (2020) ‘Eat out to help out’ may have caused sixth of Covid clusters over summer, The Guardian, 30 October, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/30/treasury-rejects-theory-eat-out-to-help-out-caused-rise-in-covid.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Highmore, B. (2010) Bitter after taste: affect, food, and social aesthetics, in M. Gregg and G. Seigworth (eds) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kindred, A. (2020) SAND STORM Man on packed beach tells TV ‘I don’t know anyone with COVID, it doesn’t matter – but admits there could be a 2nd spike, The Scottish Sun, 26 June, www.thescottishsun.co.uk/news/5746649/man-beach-coronavirus/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Maddrell, A. (2020) Bereavement, grief, and consolation: Emotional-affective geographies of loss during COVID-19, Dialogues in Human Geography, 10(2): 10711. doi: 10.1177/2043820620934947

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malik, N. (2020) A nation mourns its COVID-19 dead. But for Boris Johnson it’s a time for triumphalism, The Guardian, 3 August, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/03/nation-mourns-covid-19-dead-boris-johnson-triumphalism#comment-142762942.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics, Public Culture, 15(1): 1140. doi: 10.1215/08992363-15-1-11

  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge.

  • ONS (Office for National Statistics) (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales: deaths registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020, 28 December, www.ons.gov.uk/releases/coronaviruscovid19relateddeathsbyoccupationenglandandwalesdeathsregisteredbetween9marchand28december2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Papoulias, S. (2020) Wine spirit, The Polyphony, 30 April, https://thepolyphony.org/2020/04/30/wine-spirit/.

  • Purnell, K. (2015) Body politics and boundary work: nobodies on hunger strike at Guantánamo (2013–2015), Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 39(4): 27186. doi: 10.1177/0304375415575208

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Purnell, K. (2018) Grieving, valuing and viewing differently: the global war on terror’s American toll, International Political Sociology, 12(2): 15671. doi: 10.1093/ips/oly004

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Purnell, K. (2020a) From PhD to pandemic, Global Public Health COVID-19 Diaries, 29 April.

  • Purnell, K. (2020b) Calm the f*** down!, Global Public Health COVID-19 Diaries, 3 May, https://covid19healthdiaries.com/diary?did=180.

  • Purnell, K. (2021) Rethinking the Body in Global Politics: Bodies, Body Politics, and The Body Politic in a Time of Pandemic, London/New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pyman, T. (2020) Government is accused of underplaying coronavirus death toll at height of crisis as it is revealed more than 1,000 people died every day in the UK for 22 consecutive days, DailyMail, 20 June, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8441651/More-1-000-people-died-day- UK-22-consecutive-days.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roxby, P. (2020) Coronavirus: ‘many said goodbye to loved ones in an ambulance’, BBCNews, 1 May, www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52441692.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Selimovic, J.M. (2020) Remembering corona: the politics of memory and the pandemic, Utrikesmagasin, 22 May, www.ui.se/utrikesmagasinet/kronikor/2020/remembering-corona-the-politics-of-memory-and-the-pandemic/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seymour, W. (1998) Remaking the Body: Rehabilitation and Change, London/New York: Routledge.

  • Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender, London: Sage.

  • Spry, T. (2001) Performing ethnography: an embodied methodological praxis, Qualitative Enquiry, 7(6): 70632. doi: 10.1177/107780040100700605

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sweet, P.L. (2019) The sociology of gaslighting, American Sociological Review, 84(5): 85175. doi: 10.1177/0003122419874843

  • Young, I.M. (1980) Throwing like a girl, Human Studies, 3(2): 13656. doi: 10.1007/BF02331805

  • 1 Richmond, The American International University in London, UK

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