Roger Chartier – On COVID-19 - The Meaning of the Event

Roger Chartier – On COVID-19 - The Meaning of the Event


Covid-19 has inspired a new discursive practice: writing about the pandemic. Innumerable are the texts devoted to the event that express hopes or fear, utopia or dystopia, desires for a better world after the nightmare or the certainty that that world will be worse than the one we are losing. It seems to me that the plurality and polarity of these writings refer to two different manners of thinking about the event.  The pandemic, indeed, is an event. A global, a connected, a durable event, but, nevertheless, an event.

(Saint Michel District, Paris – April 14, 2020)
Saint Michel District, Paris-April 14, 2020


As historians, our first temptation is to locate it in Fernand Braudel’s conception of layered temporalities. In such perspective, the event is the necessary result and spectacular symptom of previous processes belonging either to the conjuncture or to the “longue durée”.  The process that led to the pandemic that is devastating our lives is the early modern opening-up and globalization that produced what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie called the “microbial unification of the world” between 1300 and 1650. Covid-19 could be considered as a paroxysmal modality of such an evolution, accelerated by colonization, the destruction of the planet’s ecosystem, and the multiple connected histories that have intensified interdependencies at a global scale. 

According to this first definition of the event, the pandemic can be understood and domesticated. Even if we do not know everything about its specific morbidity, it is however possible to think that right decisions and actions will be able not only to tame it, but also to influence or reverse the processes that made it possible. The Braudelian event may be close to a necessity but powers and people can decipher its causes and its effects. As an outcome of the past, it does not challenge our capacity to understand it.     

(Downtown Los Angeles - March 20, 2020)
Downtown Los Angeles - March 20, 2020


There is another way to conceive of the event: as an advent. In Michel Foucault’s definition, the event is an eruption, an emergence, a birth (a word often used in the titles of his books: The Birth of the Clinic, The Birth of the Prison).  It is the matrix of a radical discontinuity and one looks in vain for its origins. The “chimera of origin” that supposes that the event is already present before it occurs, and dissolves its singularity in an illusory continuity, impedes a full understanding of its inaugural force. Must we think that the pandemic is an event like this?  Is it the prefiguration of a world we can scarcely imagine? Recently, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his book La peau fragile du monde, compared the present time with the end of the Roman Empire, when people neither understood nor controlled the radical transformations that were inexorably modifying their lives.  

If we accept this interpretation of the event, it becomes quite impossible to grasp the meaning of this summer of our discontent. We are unable to know if the exceptional situations created by the pandemic, the confinement, the need for social distancing and our quite exclusively digital life will become normal behaviors in a future we cannot predict. The issues at stake concern our most fundamental gestures, feelings, and thoughts. The pandemic has transformed not only all the modalities of communication, formal or informal, but more fundamentally our relation to essential practices and rites.  It is the first time in the history of mankind that the living are unable to accompany the dying and to pay homage to their dead. A new tragic chapter must be added to Ariès’ The Hour of Our Death and Elias’ The Loneliness of the Dying

The proliferation of writings (among them, this short text) about our dramatic present and our possible, desirable or dreaded future is perhaps the expression of such disarray. Have we already entered into a new epoch without being fully aware of it? Is the way of life imposed by Covid-19 a prefiguration of our future? We do not know, but we know that no Roman was able to change the course of history. On the edge of this undiscovered country, we can still hope that Covid-19 is an event more “Braudelian” than “Foucauldian.” We must at least think and act as if this were the case.

Roger Chartier, Paris, August 3rd, 2020
Annenberg Visiting Professor in History