Like many other topics talked about on the internet today the novel coronavirus has been picked up by users who discuss it on social media. The coronavirus pandemic also quickly became an infodemic. Many of those social media discussions include the spreading of exaggerated claims, fake news, and conspiracy theories in relation to COVID-19 (Zarocostas 2020). An epidemic of misinformation, inaccuracies, and panic. It is not just fake news, but the sheer amount of information that we are provided with on a daily, minute-by-minute basis on newspaper websites and social media is staggering. It might be harmful and beneficial for us at the same time. Users post, share, and like constantly, and unsurprisingly, all we seem to talk about is the virus. In fact, talking about anything else seems strange, inappropriate, or out of touch. This was particularly the case as the first wave of Covid hit many parts of the world in the spring of 2020. At the time of writing this article, many countries are in the midst of a second wave and the virus has continued to dominate subjects’ lives. Reflecting about our times of a global health crisis, it struck me what we post on social media and that our posts not only reveal something fundamental about our psyches (are we calm, scared, in denial, disavowing reality, blaming someone, or hopeful) but about social media themselves. Some have said that the coronavirus has brought out the best in many of us online and that social media are now truly social: we talk to each other, post encouraging messages, send hope, but also give each other strength in times of catastrophe and death everywhere. At the same time, there is so much uncertainty and the unknown: When will this be over? What will the world look like afterwards? In her reflections on the pandemic, the psychoanalyst Jill Gentile (2020) has argued that even before Covid, we were living in strange times, times that were marked by rising right-wing populism and an unfolding climate emergency. Two apparent fundamental pillars of (Western) civilization—democracy and nature itself—had been taken for granted by many and were starting to crumble. As Gentile points out, this act of taking our world and its wider social structures for granted may in itself have been an act of fantasy. In the light of climate change, the election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote in the UK, such a fantasy of stability and harmony, could no longer be sustained. ‘In short, for many of us, reliable psychic defenses against knowing too much, or too well, have grown increasingly feeble. Life is getting weirder, less coherent, more disturbing.’ (Gentile 2020, p. 651). Then came Covid. For many, life was getting even more feeble.
Many wonder what the world is going to look like after the coronavirus pandemic has ended, or if our world is going to change in particular ways and that we may lose loved ones, old habits, secure jobs, or in fact parts of ourselves to the virus. Letting go of the old or routine ways of living has felt like a sharp cut through all our lives. We are being told that it is now or never: stay at home, do not go out, and flatten the curve. All or nothing. Even as lockdown measures were eased, and then reintroduced in many countries, we are reminded to constantly stay alert, vigilant, and not to take any unnecessary risks.
‘Essentially: coronavirus has ruined communication forever, and, intellectually, Britain will never return to a time before it. We are two weeks in.’, Golby (2020, online) claimed with some irony in a column for the Guardian published at the beginning of the lockdown in Britain. This has been a claim I have seen repeated time and time again: the world will never be the same again—but will it?
Gentile has similarly argued that subjects are now joined in Real time in the Lacanian sense (Lacan 1974, 1993). The Real for Lacan refers to the traumatic core at the heart of the subject that can never be fully known and symbolized. It is outside of reality but can enter reality in the form of traumatic or raw, unmediated experiences. Covid constitutes a universal intervention of the Real that ‘affords us an opportunity to experience a long-deferred breakdown that makes it possible in the now shared space to experience what has not yet been experienced.’ (Gentile 2020, p. 657). Covid may afford us a potential to share a universal traumatic core, but individuals may have already encountered the Real in different forms that to them is similar or worse than the Real of Covid. We should be careful not to render the current pandemic as completely unprecedented, novel, or overshadowing. The Real has always been there.
In this short article, I want to argue that the world in its current state seems split, divided along harsh, brutal and clear lines, boundaries, and borders: the healthy and unhealthy, the young and the old, the vulnerable and non-vulnerable, the recovered and those still at risk, and the dead and the living. Such splits are mirrored and amplified by social media which, as I show, depend on splitting mechanisms themselves.
As we self-isolate, quarantine, practice social distancing, and seem so far apart, we move closer on a virtual level through Zoom, Skype, Facetime, or social media chats, meetings, conferences, and parties. We feel, as Sherry Turkle diagnosed about our contemporary technoculture some time ago, truly alone together in such times (Turkle 2011). In her 2011 book, Turkle argued, based on many interviews with teenagers and young people, that they had become dependent on technology in order to be in constant contact with the world and their peers. Technology facilitates a sense of connection for many, while at the same time they feel alienated, isolated, and lonely. Many people are not only anxious about being alone, but also about how to present themselves online so that they seem most likeable and desirable by others. Balick (2014), Singh (2019) and Johanssen (2019) have similarly argued that social media are so attractive because they offer relational opportunities for connection and recognition of the individual subject. Such themes have also been explored by clinicians from different perspectives (Russell 2015; Lemma 2017). The positive sense of coming together via technology is surely present in our current times. However, there are also distances, division, or separation that seem to have come upon us. Kleinian object-relations and Lacanian psychoanalysis can help us analyse them from a conceptual perspective.