with contributions from Christiane Brenner, Eveline Dürr, Hannah Michel and Brendan Röder
When was the first time you became aware of your Whiteness?
In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, the conversation about racial privilege and the need to become “woke” has gained new urgency. To what extent are we aware of our Whiteness and how does that shape our actions?
At the interdisciplinary “Subjectivation Working Group” of the conspicuously White Collaborative Research Center “Cultures of Vigilance” at the LMU Munich, my colleagues and I routinely reflect on why people become vigilant and in what ways that vigilance comes to shape who they are. Vigilance often involves self-observation, such as when Christian individuals seek to avoid falling into sin, or when Black Americans anticipate how they will be perceived by White Americans.
This led us to some self-reflection of our own. How vigilant are we ourselves with respect to our “White privilege”? What is it and how do people become aware of theirs?
Aureo Lustosa Guerios is a PhD student at the University of Padua interested in Comparative Literature, Cultural History and Medical Humanities. His research surveys the literary representations of epidemic cholera in the 19th and early 20th centuries.He writes and presents the podcast “Literatura Viral” in Portuguese in which he discusses how epidemics influence history and art.He holds a master’s degree in “European Literary Cultures” and wrote his thesis on the Divine Comedy. While pursuing his BA in Brazil, Aureo’s research focused on literary modernism (Joyce, Baudelaire, Mann) and the translation of children’s literature (Dr. Seuss).
LF: Your PhD dissertation deals with literary representations of epidemic cholera in the 19th and 20th centuries. Can you tell us more about it?
ALG: My dissertation is part of a collective effort to address a gap in the research on this disease. Cholera was the great pandemic disease of the 19th century. It started to spread around 1817 and it circumnavigated the globe four or five times before the 1920s. From this point onwards, some believed that cholera had been eradicated. However, a new wave hit in 1961, which has never been declared over. Today we are still living in the 59th year of the 7th Cholera Pandemic. Cholera has been a scourge for so many and for so long, and it has definitely left its mark on literature and art. But this has often been neglected. Only in the last decades have literary scholars started to pay closer attention to representations of disease. However, most of them focus on tuberculosis and syphilis, so other diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhus or even the Spanish Flu have been ignored.
The Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed shops, a bank, and garment factories, collapsed on the 24th of April 2013. The upper four floors were illegally constructed on an already weak structure that had been initially designed for shops and offices. The garment factories, which employed around 5000 workers, produced clothes for major international brands including Gucci, Prada, Benetton, Versace, Mango, and others. The heavy weight of the machinery and the vibration it generated in these factories overwhelmed the strength of the columns, and it resulted in what trade unions called “mass industrial homicide.” The death toll was 1134, and the number of the injured was around 2500 people. Such an extent of loss and suffering captured international attention on the lack of safety measures in the garment industry in Bangladesh. It also underlined the concerns for the risks created by the complex and unregulated outsourcing models across global supply chains, which exploit cheap labor and insufficient health and environmental regulations in less developed countries.
The Rana Plaza collapse gave a stimulus and wider legitimacy to political campaigns and global movements that had started earlier advocating an international legal framework to put an end to corporate impunity and make parent companies responsible for the consequences of their subcontractors’ operations along their supply chains. The campaign of several civil society organizations which had begun before the presidential elections in 2012 in France was one of these efforts.1 The French campaign was organized by a coalition of NGOs including Amnesty International France, Sherpa, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, ActionAid France-Peuples Solidaire, Amis de la Terre France, and Collectif Éthique sur l’étiquette. Their struggle came to fruition in 2017 when the French Parliament finally promulgated the “Corporate Duty of Vigilance” law (loi relative au devoir de vigilance des sociétés mères et des entreprises donneuses d’ordre). Olivier Petitjean, a journalist who wrote a book on the law, considers it “atypical legislation“, because it was initiated by a coalition of NGOs with the support of a group of deputies whose support they secured before the elections. In that sense, it is an example of “citizens’ initiative legislation.”
(Eine deutsche, leicht abgewandelte Version des Artikels findet sich hier oder hier als Podcast)
Depuis le début de l’année 2020, l’apparition d’un nouveau virus met à mal la quasi-totalité du globe et l’intérêt pour l’histoire des épidémies et des pandémies est à son comble. Alors que la lutte sanitaire contre le coronavirus bat son plein, la recherche scientifique et universitaire travaille d’arrache-pied sur les moyens d’endiguer le fléau. À différents niveaux de la société, le virus entraîne une vigilance accrue, marquée par des normes sanitaires très strictes. Une pandémie, terme dont l’étymologie grecque signifie « tout le peuple » (πᾶν = tout, δῆμος = le peuple) comporte effectivement une dimension transnationale. Dans les 100 dernières années, la grippe espagnole de 1918, le SIDA ou encore le COVID-19 en constituent des exemples marquants.
Dans ce propos, j’aimerais m’intéresser de manière plus particulière à la peste – une des maladies mortelles les plus répandues dans le monde jusqu’au xxe siècle. Dans cette optique, je prendrai l’exemple de la peste de Provence de 1720–1722, épidémie durant laquelle les autorités ont décrété certaines mesures qui ont une forte résonance actuelle. Il s’agira donc de faire le point sur l’état de la recherche sur la peste de Provence, d’en étudier les origines et dans un dernier temps de mettre en exergue certains parallèles et certaines différences avec la pandémie de Coronavirus. La vigilance face à un fléau épidémique a en effet traversé les siècles.
Après deux mois d’arrêt complet, le 11 mai 2020 est le jour de la reprise pour les pongistes helvétiques. Ceux-ci peuvent à nouveau pratiquer leur sport préféré, mais à quel prix !
En tant qu’historien, je devais être actuellement à Marseille pour travailler dans les archives sur des sources traitant de la lutte contre la peste au 18e siècle. Privé de voyage, je suis resté en Suisse et je me consacre aux conséquences d’une autre épidémie, le Covid-19. Avec mon club de tennis de table de Fribourg, je suis occupé à mettre en œuvre la pratique de mon sport dans le respect des mesures sanitaires. Situation inédite qui demande une vigilance accrue !
Certes, le tennis de table n’est pas un sport de contact (si l’on excepte la poignée de main avant et après le match). Pourtant il n’échappe pas aux mesures sanitaires, loin s’en faut !
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?
A battle between fear and hope, anxiety and positivity, panic and opportunity. This is how the coronavirus crisis is sometimes depicted. Not only as a battle against a virus, but also an inner struggle between our feelings of hope and anxiety. This dichotomous perspective may be better understood if we consider the culture of self-help, which is bent on overcoming negative feelings. Finding routines, creating to-do lists, acquiring new skills or habits and even starting your own ‘side hustle,’ self-help explodes online. Motivational speakers give tips and advice on how to deal with stress and anxiety. From quarantine workout plans to meditation, building mental resilience or finding opportunities to grow, calls for personal development abound online. A few critical voices also begin to emerge: see for example the call to “stop romanticizing lockdown”.