When the Covid-19 pandemic started one year and a half ago, forcing us to remain at home and teach remotely, I found myself wondering how I could maintain some degree of social proximity with my students in spite of the physical distance between us. How could I re-create an intimate online space conducive to vigorous intellectual exchanges and debates of ideas when face-to-face interactions were no longer possible? What kind of knowledge could we possibly generate from behind our computer screens? How could I capture their attention, awaken their curiosity, encourage them to articulate their views when the technology drastically limited the fluidity of our communication? And most importantly, how could we move beyond our collective feeling of isolation and anxiety and turn this extraordinary experience into an opportunity for imagining a more hopeful post-pandemic future?
Surprisingly, our new condition, marked by daily updates in news reports on infection rates and case-fatality ratios and announcements of new governmental measures, mirrored to some degree the humanitarian contexts we explored in my course on ‘comparative humanitarianisms’. Confronted for the first time with life lived in limbo made us particularly sensitive to those who face deeper forms of existential stuckedness such as asylum-seekers waiting for their case to be dealt with. Our class therefore became an ‘experiment in emergency teaching’ during which we collectively reflected on our confinement experience, drawing inspiration from the scholarly literature on humanitarian action. Together, we sought to examine the ‘state of exception’ under which we were kept, observing how new humanitarian techno-legal designs developed to maintain ‘biological life’, such as masks, hydro-alcoholic gel, gloves as well as QR codes, PCR tests certificates and circulation permits – which constitute the banal material reality of emergency situations -- had become ubiquitous parts of our everyday. We examined how hitherto devalued professionals (nurses, cashiers, delivery persons, cleaners) had suddenly been turned into national heroes whose lives were ‘sacrificed’ to protect the life of the ‘general population’. We pondered upon the hierarchies of life that were reinforced as lockdowns were uniformly imposed on everyone, including those who had no ‘home’ where to take shelter.
During the first confinement, students kept a learning journal in which they recorded their experience and tried to make sense of it through the texts I asked them to read. To break free from isolation, I asked them to join small reading groups that met once a week prior to the class to discuss some questions I had given them in advance.
But as the second and the third waves erupted and a supposedly momentary situation of physical distancing became a more permanent condition, I searched for new ways of teaching and engaging with students. As a co-founder and editor of the online publication platform Allegra Lab which specializes in multi-modal anthropology, I am deeply convinced by the multiple research and teaching potentials afforded by new communication mediums, especially when production techniques are taught simultaneously to research methods. Ian M. Cook, an anthropologist based at the Central European University in Budapest and one of Allegra’s multimodal editors, has a long experience of using podcasts for teaching and research. He agreed to accompany my students in their podcast production process, teaching them the art of writing ‘for the ear’, recording and editing podcasts and conducting an interview. He made himself available during the entire term to give students feedbacks and advice on their creations. Students revised their plans accordingly, identified new interviewees, reworked their analytical frame, searched for soundtracks to create sonic atmospheres. The quality of the podcasts you will hear in this series reflects the quality of his mentoring and the enthusiasm this project triggered among students.
Podcasting was relevant to the course because it enabled students to collect information on the ‘humanitarian response’ (from state and non-state actors) to the coronavirus pandemic and to develop their analytical skills through preparing interview questions, a framing introduction and a synthesis. It also enabled students to develop their research and networking skills, to reach out to experts, activists and professionals whose experiences and perspectives they sought to better understand and to work and think with material they had collected themselves. This initiative was intended to encourage them to work on their oral skills, engage with their peers and undertake collaborative work. But most importantly, podcasting offered them a unique opportunity to engage in the practical application of their research and communicate it to a non-specialist audience.
A variety of themes and experiences are captured in this series: from mutual aid responses in Mexico, the relationship between revolutionary protests and the imposition of sanitary measures by the government in Lebanon, emergency health care in Japan, the situation of asylum seekers living in camps in Greece, to a comparison of the challenges faced by humanitarian actors in New York and Mogadishu. By documenting the perspectives of various actors directly involved in or concerned by the response, the podcasts reflect on the growing significance of humanitarianism as a means of governing populations and explore the overlaps between neoliberalism, the politics of security and relief. Together, they offer timely insights into the ways in which the pandemic has reshaped our lives as well as refreshing food for thought for re-imagining global solidarity in precarious times.