“First Looks” is a forum that captures the sense of an “unsettled” pandemic interregnum to ask: can the irresolution, the waiting, the vanishing certitudes of the interregnum be productive?

first looks

One year after the first recorded cases of COVID-19, we are still in the eye of the storm. This forum comprises of initial attempts to process how we can understand an unfolding crisis that, like the virus itself, continues to mutate and transform.

First Looks: Notes on COVID-19

Michael Berry & Bishnupriya Ghosh

 

A year after the first recorded cases of COVID-19, we are still in the eye of the storm. Experts from all walks of life struggle to make sense of events in the not-too-distant past, even as they readily acknowledge the unsettling uncertainties that persist. We are in the COVID-19 “interregnum,” so to speak, a gap or discontinuity that has fractured existing economic, social, and cultural orders.[1] In the wake of these myriad upheavals, some wittily refer to pre-COVID-19 existence as the “beforetimes.” “First Looks” captures this sense of the “unsettled” to ask: can the irresolution, the waiting, the vanishing certitudes of the interregnum be productive? In this spirit, we invite scholarly and creative “notes” on the pandemic as a form anterior to seasoned argument.

We take our cue from historian of science Lorraine Daston’s early call (Critical Inquiry, April 10, 2020) for a “ground-zero empiricism” attuned to “chance observations, apparent correlations, and anecdotes that would ordinarily barely merit mention,” since it is all to soon for the fullness and coherence of analysis.[2] Early scientific societies confronted with the black plague around circa 1660, argues Daston, had no settled script for “how to go about knowing.” It was not only the lack of knowledge but they also did not know the vectors, parameters, and dimensions of the problem at hand. Their commitment to patient observation prepared the ground for the production of knowledge. Daston’s point is well-realized in the many short-form writings on the pandemic over the last few months that dot journals and digital platforms, constituting a burgeoning archive ready for the long view. The preliminary, unfinished, and evolving nature of “notes,” as records of qualitative observations, we argue, makes them especially fitting for knowledge making in the interregnum.

This special forum develops “Notes” as a dispersive form of observation. As a multi-leveled crisis-event, the pandemic ensures a constant dispersion of attention. We tune into the virological identifications of more coronavirus genomes, clinical reports of proliferating symptoms, guidelines on dangerous respiratory mucosa, socioeconomic analyses of stark healthcare disparities, political debates on diminished medical supplies, ecological tracking of lively intermediate hosts, conspiracy theories of leaky labs, and international curtailments of global travel. In the midst of a classic emergence, the pandemic occurs across different orders of association, boggling the mind, challenging synthesis and diagnoses. Instead of resisting dispersion, what flexible forms are adequate to the task of capturing scattered perceptions?

 “Notes” are an intermedial form oriented toward a distributed sense of crisis. We draw inspiration from scholarship on “field notes” which are highly singular even as they follow disciplinary diktats. In one famous articulation, James Clifford (1990) defines field notes as admixtures of inscription (observations jotted down in the order remembered), transcription (noting already formulated discourse), and description (representation of observed reality); other scholars writing on ethnographic practice, elaborate variants of field notes (from scratch notes to head notes), their relation to journals (as methodical chronology) and diaries (as personal, reflective notations).[3] Similar architectures for field notes emerge in other disciplines, from archaeology to biology. Field notes are often deeply linked to relying sensory perception; they are flexible in form; and they articulate local/particular with institutional/academic modes of knowledge. Still more relevant to the pandemic are “notes from the field” that report epidemic findings. One of the most prestigious platforms for sharing notes with the larger scientific community is the Centers for Disease Control’s Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Reports (MMWR): the novel coronavirus reports date to February 5, 2020.[4] Such reports as institutional “first looks” of pandemics past can later become the basis for historicizing and theorizing early confusions and creative responses in the interregnum. For the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for instance, several frontline health workers recall the debates published in the MMWR when the first recorded cases of HIV/AIDS appeared in 1981, followed as they were with multidimensional alliances of that long interregnum (the first certainty arising with the identification of the retrovirus in April, 1984). These remembrances of the early years, as one formulation goes, are a genre of “first looks” which found transcription much later in open-access databases (notably, the National Institutes for Health “In Their Own Words” and the University of California, San Francisco’s AIDS Oral History Project).[5] These two critical genealogies of “field notes” or “notes from the field” from ethnography and epidemiology are obviously different in scope and audience; yet the notes in both instances remain qualitatively emergent and provisional.

Further, the proliferation of media platforms and recording technologies have made all manner of notes highly collaborative, sometimes irrevocably changing the one-to-one address of the traditional notebook across disciplines and practices. The reflective ornithologist observing and inquiring, jotting and sketching, for example, has given way to the citizen-scientist armed with devices and apps, gathering, aggregating, and sharing data; the introspective journal writer has become a micro-blogger, sometimes an inadvertent historian of crises. These changes motivate the deliberately loose rubric of “notes.” All in all, notes might aspire toward temporal consistency (a diurnal pace, for instance), but they vary substantially in length, style, and other formal features. Notes can be internally directed, mnemonics to the self; but faced with historical upheavals, they are equally public in their commitment to witness and record. Above all, notes are freely observational, even as they interleave reflections and ruminations. As emergent forms, they are foundational to analyses to come—the building blocks for theory or history. Note-makers are observers and documentarians, translators and witnesses, of occurrences at once too complex and too fleeting; their flexibility makes for an open-ended form, constantly updatable in current media ecologies.

We draw inspiration from perhaps the most famous of “first looks” in the COVID-19 pandemic. Those notes exploded into a media event of epic proportions: we are referring to the publication of Fang Fang’s The Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City (2020) translated by Michael Berry. Wuhan Diary began as a series of blog entries which ran between Jan 25, 2020 and March 25, 2020 that were accessed by millions of Chinese readers. Both Fang Fang and Michael Berry were viciously attacked for their collaboration; the diary became the target of a smear campaign and was later expunged from web platforms.[6] Yet these notes from ground-zero survive in print media and in the eddying Wuhan diary ecologies. The media event brings home the historical urgency of observation and its monumental impact on how we might know this pandemic in the future. With this instance as touchstone, we invited scholars and artists to present their notes on the COVID-19 crisis-event around the globe. The following notes provide a glimpse into how this pandemic has been witnessed, processed, and approached in this novel interregnum.

 

If you are interested in submitting an essay, video, work of photography, or other creative work to the First Looks series, please contact Bishnupriya Ghosh and Michael Berry at: bghosh@english.ucsb.edu and berry@humnet.ucla.edu 

 
 

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NOTES

[1] Classically, the Latin interregnum refers to the interval between two reigns; in fact, it entered the English language in the 1530s as “interreign.” Moving beyond the political reference, the experience of a hiatus or lapse seems a fitting description of post-lockdown life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

[2] Lorraine Daston, “Ground-Zero Empiricism,” Critical Inquiry (“In the Moment”), April 10, 2020 (https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/10/ground-zero-empiricism/)

[3] See, James Clifford, “Notes on (Field) Notes,” in Roger Sanjek, Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology (Cornell UP, 1990), 47-70; in the same volume, see also, Sanjek, “The Secret Life of Footnotes,” 187-270, and Christine Obbo, “Adventures with Field Notes,” 290-302.

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/Novel_Coronavirus_Reports.html

[5] See discussion of these archives in Bishnupriya Ghosh, “Epidemic Frontlines: The Slow Science of Observation,” forthcoming in Configurations (summer 2021).

[6] For a discussion on The Wuhan Diary as media event see: The controversy over Fang Fang’s ‘Wuhan Diary’” Sinica podcast, a conversation with Michael Berry and Kaiser Kuo (https://supchina.com/podcast/the-controversy-over-fangfangs-wuhan-diary-a-conversation-with-the-translator-michael-berry/)

 


Michael Berry teaches contemporary Chinese cultural studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has recently completed a monograph that explores the intersection between Sino-US relations, COVID-19, and disinformation campaigns through the lens of Wuhan Diary.

Bishnupriya Ghosh teaches in the Departments of Global Studies and English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is completing a monograph entitled The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media which explores how mediatic processes detect and compose epidemics as crises events. In the COVID-19 interregnum, they found a sudden interface in their research trajectories: hence, the imperative to share first looks that reflect upon the COVID-19 pandemic.


first looks

One year after the first recorded cases of COVID-19, we are still in the eye of the storm. This forum comprises of initial attempts to process how we can understand an unfolding crisis that, like the virus itself, continues to mutate and transform.