The insistence on the scientific novelty of SARS-CoV‑2 has contributed not only to the global bewilderment at the consequences of its spread, including the belated reaction of the West after fixating on its “exotic” and “anachronistic” character, but also to multiple narratives that have tended to understand the state of the global “quarantine” as a kind of zero state of the world. However, not only in the common interpretations that have since flooded the media and public space, but also in the eminent humanistic insights, this novelty has paradoxically settled into obsessive cultural and epistemological positions. Instead of the expected “syncope,” a salutary moment of floating in the uncertainty and arbitrariness of scientific knowledge, the far-reaching projections of the as-yet unforeseeable implications of the post-pandemic age have been immediately launched and soon landed in compromise and the meaningless term of “new normality.”
Is there, then, anything truly new in the daily records of spectacular pandemic culture, any novelty that has entered the world 1Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994. that might “surprise” the normalization of cultural change as an inevitably conservative feature of both intellectual and everyday discourse? What, in other words, are the conditions of resisting the phenomenology of the new to be tamed in terms of cultural and then political “oldness,” repetitiveness, and circularity?
The implicit tendency towards neutralizing cultural novelty is also very much in the epistemological background of the cultural anthropological stance, which insists on establishing, or just confirming, the structural-systemic procedures of processing the, however “spontaneous,” contingent cultural-historical content for which it is in constant search.
Such double conditions of performing a trans-subjective, open, and secular, but at the same time self-regulated mechanism of understanding, also construct the epistemological perspective of the cultural subject known as the ordinary man. And, with the proper metaphorical-rhetorical fuses and the proverbial use of quotation marks, it appears here under the name of “folk smartness,”2The reader is advised to understand “folk” as a term in the usual sense of people, which includes the meaning of public and popular. serving as a counterpart to the phrase folk health 3 None of these translations can convey the meaning given in “Narodna,” as used in this text for smarts, health, wisdom, and thought. For example, “narod” can be translated as people, folk, or nation, but there are significant differences in meaning based on the choices there; they are not the only possible ones. Folk is the most appropriate one, but since the concept to which the author refers is related to the concept of “narodno zdravlje,” as developed and used by Andrija Štampar, a scientist, epidemiologist, doctor, and public health ideologue, the meaning of “narodno” is least related to nation and most related to folk or people, but also to public. The syntagm “narodno zdravlje,” when translated as “folk health,” does not correspond to the meaning to which it refers and has been translated and used generally in the meaning of “public health.” Since the concepts are connected, it would be unwise to uncouple them by giving them translations that remove their connection, but by simply assigning them the meaning of folk, something of “narodno zdravlje” is missing. Hence, the introductory remark to consider folk as a multi-layered concept, encompassing both the public and the popular. from the nowadays re-updated heritage of Andrija Štampar.
One of the challenges of the cultural-anthropological standard of putting oneself in the shoes of a common cultural subject is that it also implies a severe limitation on its evaluative capacity. And it is certainly a more complex problem when encountering the slippery terrain of populist initiatives, which are enormously agile nowadays, not to mention pandemic issues, while sharing not only an etymological but also, to some extent, an epistemological kinship with “folk smartness.” Such a silenced professional vocation requires a self-regulation of one’s ethico-epistemological position that insists, above all, on understanding the sources, motives, models, and positionings of all the products originating from the reservoir of thoughts, in which, nowadays, the different subjects of both authorized and secular knowledge find themselves dialogically aligned in the same stream of existential difficulties.
Apart from the fact that, in the worst outcomes, the credibility of professional, i.e., scientific and general intellectual discourses, seems to be severely damaged in this torrent, the recent impression is that the flow of proverbial folk wisdom has also partly turned towards irrational spaces and potentially destructive behaviors. Thus, we are now instructed in the additional self-regulation of the discomfort of the anthropological obligation of understanding, the position already known and verified as Romantic-Enlightenment controversy: on the one hand, admiration for the creative and meaningful potential of “folk smartness,” and, on the other hand, the awakening of educational, monological impulses for establishing the sensitive limits of such a wit.
Although the severity of the pandemic situation was also supposed to establish the mitigating criteria for this professional trap – by limiting the freedom of the “romantic,” in potentially threatening the life of its “enlightened” subject – recent negotiations over its possible solutions have blurred the certainty of even this stronghold. By arguing the collateral life-threatening effects of existing safeguards, conceived as life-saving, they encroach not only on the efficacy but on the core rationality of the factual-performative contingent from which the instructions have been formed. From the very level of supreme arbitration, the confirmation of such a twisting point has come in an unexpected statement of the Constitutional Judge of the Republic of Croatia, when evaluating the anti-pandemic measures of the National Headquarters in the midst of the corona crisis. Despite the rest of the decision, which confirmed the constitutionality and proportionality of the sanctions and recommendations of this body, in a dissenting opinion, he retrospectively concludes on the mandate of the Headquarters in the following Aesopian-Mandarin terms:
the dachshund weighs 10 kg, and the grizzly bear 500 kg, i.e., it weighs 50 times more. Both can bite a man, and surely no one wants to be bitten. But it is unusual to have all the measures ready to defend against grizzly bears, and then – as necessary – to look for some urgent new measures when the dachshund appears. The SARS-Cov‑2 virus is, without a doubt, a dangerous virus, but, fortunately, it is infinitely less dangerous than some other viruses for which we already have rules of conduct. It is hard to shake off the impression that the fly was first made into an elephant, and then sold to ivory.4DB. “Što piše u izdvojenom mišljenju troje sudaca: ‘Neobično je imati spremne mjere za obranu od grizlija, a onda tražiti nove kad se pojavi jazavčar.’” Dnevnik.hr, 24 Sep. 2020, dnevnik.hr/vijesti/koronavirus/izdvojeno-misljenje-troje-sudaca-ustavnog-suda-nakon-odluke-da-su-mjere-nacionalnog-stozera-bile-zakonite — 621520.html. Accessed 28 Sep. 2020.
The statement came at the moment of awakened criticism of government anti-pandemic measures as excessive and prone to repressive mechanisms of state control, latently supporting the growing inclinations towards looser and more democratic models promoted from the niche of the so-called business intelligence, i.e., economic-statistical analyzes and models by experts with mostly neoliberal agendas.
The distrust in the tentative and contextually grounded epidemiological conclusions, with their potential or actual turns into the domain of daily political pragmatism, is now replaced by the trust in a “more exact” professional knowledge. Devotion to strict quantitative methods should be able to ensure a departure from all ideological impacts and, together with the coincidentally much more optimistic perspectives of their calculations and prognosis, confirm the elements of mass deception: intimidation and exaggeration in the service of various hidden agendas and with unforeseeable consequences for physical, psychological, and public well-being.
At the half-time of the pandemic narrative, we are thus witnessing what in narratology is called a teleogenetic point, a vantage point from which a whole series of preceding events can, or must be, retrospectively grasped, in accordance with the revealed counterpoint of the plot.
In a broader sense, such a framework enables the marking of the dynamics that divided the “Croatian corona-scenario” into two distinct, almost unexpectedly different, states of public communication of expert knowledge about the infection together with the legally regulated recommendations for its control. Concerning the mechanisms of forgetting the stressful times of the then freshly introduced state of emergency, as well as “revisionist” inscriptions that follow the recent radical turn of action, we will have to address the first, quarantine phase, which ended some time ago, almost in the mode of the politics of remembrance that is otherwise characteristic of rethinking historical times.
Namely, it is plausible to speak about this first period of crisis-regulation both as successful (almost idyllic in invoking motifs such as the renewal of nature, equality, solidarity, trust in expertise and institutions, etc.), and as an initial systemic error, an equally failed assessment of epidemiological knowledge that opens space for Fearmongering, that is, the deliberate evocation of fear from the centers of ideological manipulation, wherever they may be.
We have reached a point where the frantic accumulation and mutual annulment of forces and sources of differently qualified knowledge culminates in the cognitive-emotional emptying of an average consumer who is left with the deceptive choice between the repression or freedom side of the pandemic condition, while realizing that both imply, in their own way, the consequences of social injustice or privilege.
In an age already marked by the excessive production of insights and opinions, not to mention narratives and other “raw material” which some ant-worker will probably collect and systematize years later for the mysterious purposes of digital archives, and in an age when any new opinion might remain as a spectacular denial of the previous one with far-reaching implications, the process of exact scientific knowledge is particularly exposed to criticism, doubt, and even ridicule. Faced with the unknowns of a new form of pathogen, the race against time, unexpected reversals and mutations, and the impossibility of clear projections, this slow, protracted process, insufficiently supplied with comfort and instant solutions, has been replaced by another, more agile and seemingly wiser “discourse of enlightenment,” a grocery bag fit for everyday consumption.
And where the insights and predictions placed from elevated intellectual positions have often seriously failed, the need for rudimentary theorizing and anecdotal pointing, much like the proverbial folk wisdom, persists. At some point, they have met in the same line of the long-term, routinized social criticism, forming the joint place of the cunning intelligence trained in reading between the lines and automatically recognizing, for example, the threat to civil liberties in what have been presented as measures to save lives. A pathetic cry for (personal) freedom sent out by the assumingly progressive intellectual stances at the very beginning of the movement restrictions (which were then aimed at the bare protection of exposed medical staff) could thus also stand as an announcement of the perseverance of future populist initiatives, however repulsive and obstinate.
The intellectual commitment to understanding the “irrational” and sometimes truly outrageous consequences of the bewildered “folk smartness” that characterizes pandemic times should also remind us that, at one point, what was at stake for both high cultured and common cultured perspectives was adherence to a few simple protection measures capable of saving lives and providing relative existential security.
The breakdown of self-regulatory, “smart” mechanisms in expressions of the “common man” will, nevertheless, hand us over to a saving arsenal of analytical interventions able to plausibly conclude that what has happened was a cultural transfer of a lay taboo: the compensation of incompetence in the distant expert issues through the carnivalization of what turned to be their surprisingly simple and often seemingly “stupid” performative outcome of a few anti-contagion measures.
Still, and despite the “romantic” satisfaction for the defrayal of justice which was thus symbolically exhausted, the fact that such maneuvers of “folk smartness” entail forms of social behavior that may pose an exact public health risk indicates the alarming need for enlightened intervention in analytical conditions aimed at their condescending understanding.