When I was a child in Dundee, in the era of three-channel TV, my family watched Nationwide, an early evening BBC news magazine. It seems to me now that the show was a conscious work of psychic unification. It tried to rejoice in the differences between the different regions of the UK while cultivating a spirit of oneness in the country as a whole. The viewer saw, behind the main presenters in London, a bank of screens – it would look, to modern eyes, like a primitive CCTV centre – showing live feeds from a dozen studios in other parts of Britain. Sometimes the regions would supply their own news items; sometimes the viewer would be presented with a gallop-through of the way different regions, represented by a reporter with the appropriate accent, were dealing with a particular national issue, or celebrated a particular holiday: ‘Here in the north-east, New Year wouldn’t be New Year without…’; ‘In the Midlands, where violent crime has gone up for the second year in a row…’
Nationwide faded away in the early 1980s. The attempt to offer TV viewers a sense that they were present, like some strictly British god, in all parts of the country at once, different but all in it together, gave way both to a more diffuse psychic relationship between the nation and the individual – more channels, more actual travel, a broader cultural space, the internet, social media – and to a different kind of proxy ubiquity, aided by ever-niftier technology, in which quick-fire sequences of reports from different parts of the country were tied to specific events and points on the map. Live reports from two flooded villages in Wales, one in Somerset and one in Yorkshire, for instance, rather than half a dozen studios talking about floods because it was their turn.
Not since the financial crisis of 2008, when there were fewer smartphones in the world by a factor of ten, has the world as a whole faced an emergency like the coronavirus epidemic. And while the financial crisis affected countries differently, Covid-19 affects countries in pretty much the same way. One of the results has been that the coverage begins to look, without premeditation, like a kind of global Nationwide. Such different parts of the world, all the same, all in it together. The fear, the uncertainty, the panic-buying, the masked figures swarming around hospital beds and public buildings. Palm trees in the background, then snowy mountains in the background, then apartment blocks in the background – is this San Francisco, Milan or Shanghai?
In no country is the global news coverage free of national interest. ‘Our’ casualties prioritised over ‘theirs’, ‘our’ people stranded overseas, ‘here’ being infected by a traveller from ‘there’. The kind of coverage that encourages suspicion, hostility, racism, tighter borders, even violence. Sometimes the coverage becomes the vehicle for a criticism, implicit or explicit, of something ‘their’ society does that ‘our’ society – we imagine – would not: in China, drones yelling at old women in the street to put their masks on; in South Korea, apps that track and broadcast the movements of individual spreaders; in the United States, individuals forced by the government into quarantine without assurance that they won’t be billed for it. And yet, alongside the anxiety and narrow-mindedness, comes the representation of a world all in action at once, against a common threat.
The most common visual representation of this threat, in video or still image, is a masked figure in a banal setting. Masked on a bus, in a restaurant, at the shops, in the park. If the first instinct of the camera operator is to capture the contrast, in which the mask has the status of dramatic novelty and the setting the status of bland normality, the first instinct of the amateur semiotician is to focus on the meaning of the mask. But there is a third strand for the viewer to address: the nature of that bland normality, its superficially exotic and essentially universal character.
In most disasters and crises, the menace – a volcano, a crash, a war – has something unique about it, and leaks out into the bland normality with which it is contrasted. Despite the attack on the Pentagon, 9/11 came to seem uniquely of Manhattan and uniquely tied to the image of the Twin Towers, and the intrusion into bland background normality was portrayed not so much by juxtaposition as by the effects of ash and fire on that normality. None of this applies to Covid-19. The visualisation of the crisis – masked faces – is the same everywhere. Indeed, masking has the effect of partially erasing differences of skin colour and face shape that trigger socially conditioned responses to news. And because, unlike an earthquake or a tsunami, Covid-19 leaves no direct trace on the humdrum backdrop against which the masked figures are contrasted, the paradoxical effect is to draw attention to the backdrop. Other people’s bland normality is foregrounded in a way I don’t remember seeing before on a global scale. It is as if, wherever we are, we can see, all over the world, the dull texture of the everyday we take for granted acquiring the lustre of the memory of ordinary things now lost – the memory of working bus routes or running water in a city under siege, for instance – without its actually being lost.
I don’t know whether it’s a common response, or just me, but I find my eye drawn not to the masked figures but to the kind of glasses they’re wearing, or the street furniture, or the way they lay out the things in their offices, or their coffee cups, or the cloth their uniforms are made from, or the way the escalators on their subways compare to their counterparts in London, or the universally ugly furniture beside hotel pools, or the mixture of slapdash and careful craft in tiled surfaces. But could it be an intimation, in the midst of a emergency that may soon preclude such detached thinking, of a way of representing ‘world’ to ourselves as we have learned relatively recently to represent ‘nation’? Of a world that doesn’t look increasingly exotic the further we get from home, but in which the textures of the ordinary, the remarkable and the distinct are woven tightly together everywhere. In view of the much greater emergency that is moving more slowly towards us, it would be good if this change in consciousness were coming.