Minutes from March meeting

Discussion of COVID from the Margins chapters and Lupton article:

  • The introduction chapter from the COVID From The Margins (CFTM) book was useful for its definition work e.g. defining what it actually means by ‘margins’ and subsequently how the work in the book seeks to centred these marginalised voices. This centralising of otherwise alienated groups helps to show structural issues within our societies which should not (and during a pandemic, cannot) be swept under the rug. Data from the margins is almost inherently interesting as well, as we can expect it to behave differently from ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ data. 
  • Similarly, it was appreciated that the book was not strictly in English, as this again allows for a centring of people who would normally be somewhat maligned (in academia, in this case). The difficulty that English-only speakers have with this was seen to reflect the difficulties faced by non-native English speakers in Anglophone societies. 
  • However, the definition of The South in the CFTM book was questioned. While it does attempt to be more flexible in its application than a strictly geographic term, it still initially seems to be a spatially situated term. Within the COVID pandemic, particularly, this becomes an issue because it has been handled so differently (and been differing levels of an issue) in different places within ‘The South’ and ‘The North’. Even if these terms take on more nuance in this book than they normally would, they still act as a master category which doesn’t take on the very particular circumstances of countries, cities, and general populations which feed into the impact of the current pandemic. 
  • The question was raised of where these readings fit into a discussion of platforms; where were the platforms in the paradigms presented in either readings? This led to a discussion of platform affordances; how platforms create possibilities while also constraining other possibilities, depending on your identity. Jenney Davis has done work on how these platform affordances create constraints for those on the margins, through not recognising their data. In CFTM book however, the focus tended to be on individuals, making the platforms less apparent. The book works from the tradition of resistances, which is normally human-centred. Looking at the issues from a COVID-centred perspective may lead to a more networked (and platformised) approach. 
  • It was also raised that platforms are introduced in the CFTM book as proxy government services, which have integrated themselves into government infrastructure during the pandemic. This serves to legitimate platforms’ replacement of government services. Platforms appear to have been well positioned (prior to the pandemic) to step in and hoover up weakness in societal/governmental structures. The question then becomes, how will this be restructured (if at all) after the pandemic? In a world in which governments offer no real consolidated identity to their populations, the nation-state imaginary can become the platformised-infrastructure imaginary.
  • The idea of considering the nation as a free-flowing platform (rather than the strict network based language from an ICT perspective) was brought up here, particularly around the logics of quarantine and managing ‘problem populations’. An example of Baudrillard’s essay on HIV/AIDs was given around ‘problem populations’ and how the medical gaze is used to ‘civilise’ discrimination.
  • There was then a discussion of if the COVID pandemic (as opposed to other pandemics, such as HIV/AIDs) shows a shared commonality, due to the health of the poor (who are more impacted by COVID) impacts the rich (who are less impacted by COVID, on the whole). The pandemic doesn’t make the experience of the pandemic equal for all (see LA heatmaps on vaccine rollout) but if the inequalities ultimately impact everyone, at what point do they force a society-wide response? Exclusion and marginalisation is a cornerstone of maintaining the status quo but if the wealthy have to interact with everyone else, those on the margins must be helped (eventually, at least). There is a fundamental limit to possible exclusion when we are so interconnected, is the basic idea here. We are normally able to ignore inequities due to a thin veil of entitlement and access offered to those considered ‘mainstream’ but this is challenged by the pandemic (and by margin-based readings of the pandemic). 
  • Regarding the Lupton chapter, it was questioned if the sociocultural perspective on the pandemic was the most useful one or the most fashionable one (or both). Public debates and discourses around diseases shift and mutate over time (see Mol’s The Body Multiple). So it is worth asking if Lupton’s exploration of different perspectives on the pandemic is seeking a multiplicity of understanding, or if it is seeking to find one ‘best’ interpretation. 
  • In a more abstract sense, this is an issue to be dealt with for a lot of publications around the pandemic. It may be fashionable and a good way to get your name out there through publications but it then becomes very important to ensure we are not repeating mistakes from past pandemics (again, things like languages of exclusion). This is not to say all publications do this, rather that it is an important consideration when discussing pandemics. 
  • Whether or not Lupton is claiming the sociocultural approach as the optimal one, this does not mean the article is without merit. It moves away from a health-dominated perspective on an issue which pervades all elements of society (as well as being an issue which is not strictly anthropocentric). There is more to the pandemic than healthcare, essentially (which again speaks to the Baudrillard essay linked above). It is worth noting that this is only one part of what will be a larger book too, so should be read in that context.
  • It was raised that the issue of the pandemic being a zoonotic one must be dealt with, as this may require a language or construction which is able to deal with actants/non-human actors; the sociocultural approach offers this. Similarly, medicalised language is not easily accessible; it is not easy to explain (nor easy to understand) what mRNA actually is, for example. This raised the question of, what would a popular, useful way of understanding the socially constructed nature of illness look like and how could it be operationalised?
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