Rachika Nayar

Start as you mean to go on

Fresh tracks and deep thoughts on COVID chic, the “short sharp shock” and more!

Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper, “Opening” (Glassforms Version Edit), Glassforms Versions (InFiné Music)

“Opening” by Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper

There is an infamous image you will no doubt know — a black-and-white optical illusion, which portrays either a vase or the profile of two faces staring at one another, depending on how you look at it. Some will see the faces first, others the vase. Switching from one view to the other, though, should come easy to most people. The image’s trick rests upon the average observer’s casual ability to perceive the image both ways, and the subsequent delight experienced therein.

In the U.S., and to a certain extent the West in general, an opposite metaphorical scenario now characterizes the socio-political scene. There are those who see only faces, those who see only vases, and no delight between them in acknowledging the other’s point of view.

Rachika Nayar, “The Trembling of Glass,” Our Hands Against the Dusk (NNA Tapes)

“The Trembling of Glass” by Rachika Nayar

To curb the transmission of COVID-19 leading up to the holidays, there were numerous calls for what legislators and the media called “short, sharp” lockdowns. More than 70 Alberta physicians signed an open letter to that province’s leaders endorsing a “two-week short, sharp lockdown.” First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, introduced a four-week, poetically worded, “short, sharp, shock to turn back the clock” in mid-October. Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, recommended a “short and sharp lockdown” in November. The World Health Organization additionally urged that the most universally effective lockdown, if any, should be “a short, sharp measure” to stop the virus from proliferating exponentially.

John Conington coined the phrase “short, sharp shock” in his 1870 English translation of the First Satire of Horace. Conington interprets the passage:

What says the merchant, tossing o’er the brine?

‘Yon soldier’s lot is happier, sure, than mine:

One short, sharp shock, and presto! all is done:

Death in an instant comes, or victory’s won.

The “short, sharp shock” to which Horace makes reference is the soldier’s heroic and immediate demise on the field of battle — “Death in an instant comes, or victory’s won.”

Although some might better remember the expression spoken in the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them,” on the 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. In dialogue, the band’s roadie, Roger Manifold, advises on how to win a fist fight, encouraging a “short, sharp, shock”, a swift punch in the nose.

The association of a psychedelic bar brawl, soldiers valiantly dying, and harsh lockdown measures is implicit in the deliberate phrases that ministers, experts, and the media adopt now. In addition to infecting bodies, viruses infect language and ideas. Clichés are memetic, a universal structure with local variants. They replicate, go viral, mutate.

Kode9, “Rona City Blues,” The Jackpot / Rona City Blues (Hyperdub Records)

“Rona City Blues” by Kode9

In an article for The New Yorker entitled “The Slob-Chic Style of the Coronavirus,” Patricia Marx notes how the pandemic influenced fashion trends in 2020. “In April, clothing sales fell 79%, the largest decline since records have been kept,” remarks Marx. “But tracksuit purchases were up 70%, and sweatpants 80%. Sales of pajamas rose 143%.”

Working from home muddies the line between labour and leisure, the Protestant work ethic to be productive, to boost efficiency, in constant friction with the capitalist-escapist longing to maximize relaxation. Technologies smear together our time for work and play — the weekly teleconference and calls to family both taking place over Zoom, our laptops as much sites for production as for consumption, equally a visual and psychological screen.

The sociologist David Riesman in his influential mid-20th century text The Lonely Crowd cited “the decline of evening dress, especially among men” as evidence of an emerging “cult of effortlessness” — the nonchalance with which the new inner-directed modern subjects cling to their occupations. “Most men today simply do not know how to change roles,” Reisman grouses, “let alone mark the change by proper costuming.”

CTM, “Quartet OST” (prod. MC Boli), Under Stars / Shells in Colour (Posh Isolation)

“Quartet OST” by CTM

There is one reliable thing that has kept us all feeling safer in the post-pandemic era, and it’s not wearing a mask, anticipating a vaccine or even dispensing with the double kiss. It is media — the reassurance of media, the feedback bubbles we circulate in, isolated, the spectacle in absence of spectacle, the spectacle amidst an abundance of time.

We turn to media every morning to orient us within the on- and offline world. At day’s end, media lull us with infotainment, endless analyses, premeditation. The internet’s shadowy nighttime economies are pornography, conspiracy and vice. The media is both virus and therapeutic, infection and inoculation, the cause for and solution to all our troubles.

Loscil, “Bipolar” (dir aAron Munson), Lifelike (independent)

“Bipolar” by Loscil

According to Newsweek, the accumulated wealth of America’s 651 billionaires rose by 36% in the months between March and December 2020. Meanwhile, in the same period, the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. nearly doubled.

“The top 10 U.S. billionaires — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Steve Ballmer and Alice Walton — currently have a combined net worth of more than $1-trillion,” reports Christina Zhao. That means that 10 people hold almost half the wealth of 165 million of their fellow citizens. Let that sink in.

There can no longer be any doubt about what this pandemic is: a global shakedown, plain and simple. There may be a deadly virus called SARS-CoV-2 that is killing people, but there also exists the most cynical, contemptuous, evil greed — unblinking avarice that has no qualms about making unprecedented profits in the wake of disaster.

Will 2021 be the year that we finally reject this obviously rigged system? I hope so. The fate of our world depends upon it. ■

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