Subway Diary



— Heidegger’s stammering brother Fritz

The pandemic is over (though it has been over probably since last May as a real, tangle, experience-able public health emergency), but the damage—specifically the cognitive damage caused by the pandemic—lingers, digs in, entrenches itself. I feel it. I feel how hard it is to close my laptop, turn off my iPad, my phone and just go out; I have become a creature of the QuarLife even as I resisted it, written about it, complained about… actively tried to live a non-QuarLife. My brain is a QuarBrain, a function of the global crisis simulation which has played out across the Internet for more than a year; I’ve learned that, as a healthy person with a healthy immune system, I could completely ignore Covid, disregard it, and in fact laugh at it, scorning the fear of others, but I could not ignore the sense of the crisis: the governmental emergency, the state of emergency that was not only declared or by mandated by institutions, but internalized as an operating procedure by individuals. In this sense, a state of emergency, the phenomenological experience of crisis, became not only normalized— but an addiction, a longing…

Stuck on the island of the digital self, not everyone can become their own Crusoe—many just seem to starve or go mad: shipwrecked in hypermodernity without survival skills. 2020 might have been the end of contemplation, colonizing the last realms of cognition free from the Internet, the System. Counter-intuitively, the past year of isolation has meant a great divestiture of privacy, a surrender of inner-life to the hive-mind. Emptiness, a vague sense of scarcity seem to be the dominant mood; I meet a lot of people whose anxieties and ego-needs have hypertrophied during Covid, who seem more like children than adults, who have aged backwards…. I often listen to college students at outdoor restaurants talking in therapy jargon about people they know, or themselves, as if they were getting anywhere, saying something, and not just passing around the baton of rote psychology discourse; they seem so impressed with their own insights.

The commons seem to have partially recovered in the past few months, only something seems to be missing. The Covid commons is a Zombie commons. There are new, invisible boundaries between people. We’ve developed frightening and pointless way of living and being: inside the game-ified isolation silo. Re-opening was a myth. What we’ve returned to is Disneyland celebrating the world that existed before Covid—but not that world itself. Something strange has happened to us: we crave the game version and not the real thing—the artificial to the natural, the advertisement to the product. Going outside without a phone—without a tether to the Internet Game—is frightening, discomfiting, alienating.

Kitsch creeps in, displaces the sacred. Habit creeps in, replaces the unstructured, the free. And it becomes frightening to live, to be otherwise. It becomes impossible.

Each day, I follow roughly the same circuit under New York: along the 2 or 5 train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and back again; a few years ago, when I was a high-school teacher, I would write on the train, usually in my journal or on a novel, but now I mostly read; strangely enough, the subway, because it’s mostly cut off from WiFi, is where I get the much of my reading done. I, strangely or not, look forward to my 90 minutes of aggregate commuting each day: it gets me away from the buzz of my home/office—my QuarPod. I feel grateful enough, as it is, that I have a little office in my apartment; working from my bed or kitchen table seems distressing: a weird and comfortable conflation of leisure and cognitive labor.

I worry about my mind, which I can tell, despite my homely attempts at self-improvement, has gone fallow, unexercised and lethargic. The scrolling brain is just not the same as the brain that reads, falls in love, strolls, and this is something that I think most of us are aware of, but subtly and regularly normalize and repress because it’s too depressing: proof positive that the human animal is rather easily hacked and turned into something approaching a cyborg.