Hypervigilance: Stayin’ Alert and the visual tropes of the war on Corona

by Christopher Balme

Image: Boris Johnson answers questions on UK’s plan to lift lockdown. 11.5.2020. Screenshot.

We are told to “stay alert”, but if alertness could conquer this virus, we would all be fine. The anxiety many of us are experiencing is actually hypervigilance. Alertness implies we can create an antiviral force-field around us. Well, it’s cheaper than personal protective equipment, testing and all that faff. (Suzanne Moore, The Guardian, 11 May, 2020)

Few public announcements by Boris Johnson, the UK’s notoriously publicity-hungry PM, have earned such mixed if not downright dismissive reactions as his call to ‘Stay Alert’ announced on 11 May, 2020. Conceived as a liberalising measure from the restrictive ‘Stay at Home’ policy, Johnson’s appeal to his fellow citizens’ innate propensity for vigilance went down like a cold kipper on Brighton beach.

But why such a lukewarm reception, when everybody should have been relieved that they could finally get out and play a round of golf or replenish their supplies of compost at the garden centre?

Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore pointed predictably to the implicit class distinctions contained in Johnson’s examples but more importantly, and almost en passant, she grasped the culture of vigilance at stake here.

Staying at home is a concrete act of physical dissociation from the outside world and its many potential virus carriers. Viruses can’t travel through walls yet, so most people, except the hardcore conspiracy theorists who insist that 5G telephone masts are responsible for its diffusion, accepted the sense and probable efficacy of the initial lockdown measures. Johnson’s new measures, designed as Moore suggests, by a second rate PR agency (but more probably by his advisor Dominic Cummings who detests any political slogan longer than three words), place the responsibility for combatting the virus fair and square with the individual.

While most agonising about vigilance has been directed at the technologies of surveillance associated with tracing apps because they fit so nicely into the well-worn grooves of Foucauldian moulds, the ‘stay alert’ project would seem to push vigilance onto a whole new level. If we can combat and perhaps even beat the virus through acts of individual vigilance, then the state would seem to be freed of some of its obligations, which in the UK in the beginning it so obviously did not meet.

The imperative ‘Stay alert’ is itself a well-worn trope with a chequered history. It may have started in 1954 with a promotional campaign by the US National Safety Council for traffic safety, which distributed day-glo dashboard stickers bearing the slogan “Stay Alert, Stay Alive”. Perhaps because the campaign explicitly recommended drinking coffee or coke on long trips, the coffee industry launched a jingle, “Stay Alert! Stay Alive! Through the holidays!, sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”.  The slogan took a more martial turn when the US adopted it as the title of a training film made during the Vietnam War to focus the minds of new recruits on what to expect.

Whatever its origin, the three step process that is now plastered all over government pronouncements both live and mediated

STAY ALERT => CONTROL THE VIRUS => SAVE LIVES

demands some analysis. The colour coding and frame remind of a traffic sign, a warning of dangers ahead.  But more crucial are the two green arrows between the three verbal admonitions. This visual punctuation sets up a clear chain of casual responsibility between the individual’s state of alertness, the control of the illness and the onerous obligation to ‘save lives’ which is normally the task of medics or specialized professions such as the police, fire brigade or surf live-savers.

That vigilance may save lives is a well-worn trope, but here it now seems to indicate that alertness is shifting into a whole new territory, namely of moral charge and accountability. It is already close to the World War I recruitment poster of Lord Kitchener with his famous fore-shortened finger – “Your country needs/wants you” – which was literally designed to shame Britain’s young men into serving their country.

Image: Alfred Leete, Lord Kitchener calls upon British citizens to enlist. 1914, Wikimedia Commons.

Boris Johnson also makes use of a variation of the Kitchener finger in his addresses to the nation so that his preferred metaphor of a “war” on the virus taps into the nation’s collective visual memory. Just as Kitchener’s index finger points the wavering office worker towards the nearest recruiting office, so too do the small arrows indicate the paths of responsibility.

What does hypervigilance mean then?

It is more than the ironical “antiviral force-field” that Moore alludes to because that is just an extension of the ‘safe’ physical world of the home outside into the wider environment where it remains a set of physical safety procedures. The hypervigilance that “staying alert” (a precondition of the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive”) admonishes us to practice could be understood as a new set of moral responsibilities placed on the individual. Compared to normal vigilance, it is the state saying we cannot look after you anymore; if you want a return to normality then you have to do the job yourself. Hypervigilance is the ultimate admission that the pandemic is a matter for the individual to solve. The unanswered question is whether the arrows of hypervigilance will lead us to safety or off a cliff.

Image: An example of the memexplosion that greeted Boris Johnson’s announcement. Screenshot. Source: Twitter #stayalert.
Cite this article as: Christopher Balme, Hypervigilance: Stayin’ Alert and the visual tropes of the war on Corona, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 13/05/2020, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/167.

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