TITLE: CITIZENS AND STATES DURING CRISIS
Interview with Professor Susanna Trnka, medical anthropologist.
- INTRO: THE UNIVERSITY RESEARCH HUB? (00:00)
PAULINE: Hello. My name is Dr. Pauline Herbst and you’re listening to Pandemics Reflected, a podcast about the humans conducting arts based research during a pandemic. In this episode, we’re talking to Professor Susanna Trnka, the mastermind behind the Pandemics Past, Present, Futures Research Hub at the University of Auckland. Professor Trnka is a professor of social and medical anthropology who has conducted research in Fiji, the Czech Republic and New Zealand on a range of topics, including crises and states of emergency patients, objectivity, state, citizen relations and embodiment. Susanna, welcome to Pandemics Reflected.
SUSANNA: Hello. Thank you for having me.
PAULINE: It’s a pleasure. Susanna, for those listeners who aren’t familiar with academic research, what is the university based research hub?
SUSANNA: Well, the hub is a really excellent opportunity to bring together researchers from different disciplines. So often we work in our disciplinary area, be it anthropology or sociology or political science, and we have sometimes quite productive, intense conversations with other members of those disciplinary areas. But of course, if you’re an anthropologist working on a pandemic, there’s also historians, there’s also political scientists, there’s also art historians, poets: a huge range of variety of people working on similar interests, but from different perspectives and bringing different kinds of knowledge to the table. So the hub is a really great way to bring those people together and either to do a collaborative project or they keep doing their own thing, but they can be enriched through conversations with one another.
PAULINE: That’s right. We’ve had the opportunity on Pandemics Reflected to have many of those members of the Pandemics Research Hub talk to us. And it’s absolutely fascinating the research that they’ve been conducting and the valuable insights that they’ve been having during this rolling pandemic that we’re having. What project were you working on kind of at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, when COVID 19 arrived? Can you recall?
SUSANNA: It seems so long ago. I mean, I’ve been working on a project with youth and health and how young people use digital technologies to understand what it is to be healthy. But before that, I was working on asthma. And before that you mentioned I worked in Fiji. I was working on political violence and the political coup of 2000 that occurred in Fiji.
- THE LINK BETWEEN COVID & POLITICAL CRISIS (02:40)
SUSANNA: There are sort of two reasons why I jumped in to study coronavirus as we talked about it then. One was that I had this background looking at states of emergency at political upheaval and crisis. And also through the asthma work, I had this background looking at respiratory health and in particular the political movements and political questions raised by respiratory health. What does it tell us about citizens state relationships, which used to be a really weird question, like go from asthma to citizen state relationships? But now when you talk about health and you talk about how citizens and states interact, everybody, the first year students sort of go, “Yep, we know all about that, we’ve lived through it”.
SUSANNA: But the second reason for doing the COVID research was I felt (this is a bit revealing), but like everybody else, I felt kind of panicked. And when we went into the first lockdown, I was like, What does this all mean? And for me personally, one way of trying to satisfy that is to research something. So I thought, I’ve got the background. I may as well start actually looking at this analytically, which both gave me some sense of security… I don’t know, like this is something I can study. Like the other things I’ve studied. I’ve lived through a political crisis, I’ve lived through a curfew, I’ve lived through a state of emergency when you can’t leave your house, that was in Fiji. So I can live through this and study it in the same way, but it also put it at times at a little bit of a remove. So it was an object of study as well as something we were all going through.
SUSANNA: So what I did was the first day of the first lockdown, I started writing on Facebook and I’m not a big Facebook person. I mean, I had an account, but I didn’t really post very much, but I started posting everyday – anthropological observations about what was going on and people started commenting. And it put me into a space of conversation with other scholars that was really enriching and just personally as well as professionally provided some sense of focus. And so perhaps that was the very beginning of the Pandemics Hub, that the idea that there’s conversations to be had here.
- TRAVERSING – A 30 YEAR RESEARCH JOURNEY (05:05)
PAULINE: That’s right. And I remember those Facebook post views. They were incredibly illuminating. And I think we had some discussions at the time as well. Those – did they get turned into a paper or did they make it into your book Traversing?
SUSANNA: They did but no, Traversing was out by then. Traversing was a book that kind of came out in the middle of the pandemic when there was no conferences, no… you know, I think we were just shifting to doing things online, but we hadn’t sort of figured out how you do a book launch online at that point. So Traversing sort of came out very quietly. My copies of the book sat at the university while we were in lockdown for about, I don’t know, five or six weeks before I could actually come in and pick it up. So that was just a sign of the times…
PAULINE: That is such an exciting, defining moment, seeing your book actually in person. While we’re talking about Traversing, I just don’t want to miss the opportunity for you to tell us a little bit more, because the book itself is excellent and I think it speaks to a lot of the things that you’ve been talking about.
SUSANNA: It was a fantastic project. It was a very different project than anything I’ve done and probably anything I will do because it was based on 30 years of observations, because I first went to the Czech Republic, which was then Czechoslovakia when I was 16, and it was before 1989, before it opened up. My parents were Czech immigrants and I’d been born in England. I was the first of the family born outside of Czechoslovakia, but they managed to get special permission for me to visit in 1987.
SUSANNA: And at that point, you know, we didn’t know 1989 was coming, right? So it was a chance for me to meet the extended family and meet my grandmother, meet my aunts and uncles. And I was a keen diarist. I had my journal with me and I started taking notes. I well, I obviously didn’t know what anthropology was, but I was very aware of what was going on around me. And I started documenting what I saw. And from those very early scribbles from when I was a teenager, up through the research I actually did, in subsequent years – all of those notes were later reflected on and compiled and came in different ways into the book. So it’s 30 years in the making.
PAULINE: That’s great. Yeah, it’s really fantastic. And as always, we will post the notes for all of the books and people that we talk about here on the show, in the show notes on the website. Speaking of books while we’re still at it (And the Czech Republic), One Blue Child was also a comparative analysis. You’ve talked about state citizen relations and respiratory disorders, and that was a book that that very much spoke to those.
- ONE BLUE CHILD- POLITICS AND ASTHMA (07:53)
PAULINE: Do you want to tell us a little bit more about One Blue Child? Because that’s what came to my mind when you first mentioned that.
SUSANNA: Yes. So that was the asthma book. So that was a comparison of looking at how asthma is not just lived through, but also politically responded to, as well as responded through the health care system and more broadly in terms of activist engagements in New Zealand versus in the Czech Republic. And it really was quite an endeavour of comparison.
PAULINE: Susanna, do you want to tell us a little bit more about activism, perhaps in the Czech Republic and here in New Zealand?
SUSANNA: Yes, sure. So what was really striking to me when I went to the Czech Republic to do the research on childhood asthma was I arrived in Prague and I had a list of medical professionals I was going to interview and families, parents as well as children about their asthma.
SUSANNA: First of all, it was a very provocative topic. It was everywhere in the newspaper. It was on TV. You could hardly go a week without there being some sort of debate around children’s respiratory illness in the public spaces. So everybody was sort of aware of this as a big pressing issue in the Czech Republic. And just about everyone I spoke to in Prague said, well, you’re going to Ostrava to look at the steel works, right? And Ostrava was quite far away in Moravia, which is actually where my father came from so I knew a bit about Moravia, but I’d only been there once and I thought, well, no, I’m looking at medical professionals, I’m not looking at air pollution and steelworks. But one person after another was saying, so when are you actually going to go look at the steelworks?
SUSANNA: And as a good anthropologist, I thought you let your interlocutors lead you where they think the story is. So I became very interested in air pollution and social activism around asthma based on what not just parents, but also doctors – medical professionals were telling me about the asthma situation in the Czech Republic. And then you come back to New Zealand where we perhaps don’t have such pressing issues with air pollution, but there’s plenty of things that exacerbate respiratory illness here and respiratory illness in children more specifically that you could get very activist around. And there are indeed activists trying to draw attention to these issues, issues of healthy homes and mould and damp and issues of general care of catching asthma quite early when a child first gets sick, bringing them to the doctor and enabling care for them. But there’s no marches on the streets. There’s no parents protesting. There’s no wearing of gas masks to say our children can’t breathe properly. And so that sort of really brought home the stark differences in how something that the same illness can get politicised in one context when it isn’t seen as a political, hot issue or a political trigger around the world in a completely different context.
- THE START OF THE RESEARCH HUB (11:00)
PAULINE: Okay. And then coming full circle, you were mentioning the Facebook posting that you were doing during the lockdowns. And it was really interesting for me to hear what you were saying around how as an anthropologist and a researcher, you tend to analyse it because that’s something very much that I did, and that’s something that many of our guests here on the show have also said. They turned to those skills that they have honed over a lifetime in academia and as professional researchers and academics to really try and work out what was going on. You mentioned that the Facebook group gave you some of the ideas, the first stirrings of the idea for the research hub. Do you want to talk us through how that developed?
SUSANNA: So it seemed like there was a lot of people that were analysing COVID from incredibly diverse angles, and it seemed like there was a space for conversation But outside of things like on social media or at conferences. How could we set up a structure to enable these conversations to carry on? And as I said earlier, outside of our sort of disciplinary silos, there was a lot of potential. So the university has this nice thing, these research hubs that you can put together where you get funding to create a platform. I remember it said, I can’t remember if it was six or eight, it was just a handful of people that you needed to initially raise their hands and say, “I’m interested in joining this”. And I remember sort of thinking, well, there’s probably six people I could shoulder tap, I can kind of line up a few people and we can go for this and then see if it grows. So I put out the call all across the Faculty of Arts, and within a week I had about 30 or more people and we ended up being 38. And we had people, mainly from the Faculty of Arts, but also from the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Science, Psychology… so we had people coming from all sorts of different angles that were really looking for a space where you could have these conversations.
SUSANNA: And so we’ve had people come together on a few publications, so we have a special issue of Anthropological Forum. Actually, it’s a two part special issue, so two issues, which is coming out later this year. And Steve Matthewman has put together a book that was independent from the hub, but we’re going to be having a book launch to promote that because several hub members were involved with that. We’ve had a seminar series and again, it’s been really lovely because it’s cross-disciplinary and Miriama Aoke’s going to be our next seminar speaker. So a big range of diverse people coming together, as I said, partly to understand, obviously, the scholarly academic side, but also just for themselves because we’re all living through this.
PAULINE: And regular listeners to the show may recall that in the last episode we talked to Miriama Aoke and Rochelle Menzies around the parallel pandemics that people were experiencing within New Zealand, particularly with Maori communities.
- CHANGING RESEARCH METHODOLOGIES (14:14)
PAULINE: Susanna, you’re an anthropologist. You’ve talked us through a little bit about what research usually entails: going into the field, observations… How did your research methodology change during lockdown? You couldn’t go out into the field.
SUSANNA: Yes. I think of anthropology as a conversation, and that is not to say it’s all about discourse, because a lot of it is about material culture and, you know, visual anthropology. But to me, my kind of approach has always been: you ask the questions, you’re the naive learner and you want to create spaces where people can articulate their experiences. So whether you’re doing that by going on a plane to a field site somewhere or whether you’re doing that locked in at home, but through conversations with your family members, with your students, with people online, I mean, obviously, there’s different you know, you search out different communities and you need to obviously think through: who am I talking to? Whose positions are being represented and who’s being excluded. And that’s something that you do in any, you know, field context, because anthropology is about those intimate, in depth exchanges. And you’re not going to have that with a representative from every single group in your field site.
SUSANNA: So you’re always sort of aware of the positionality, of the kinds of information that you’re getting, but it’s about probing people’s reactions to things in particular when you don’t understand them, which I think most of us in lockdown, We were quite surprised by some of the phenomena that came our way. You know, one of the examples I like to give is, okay, so we learnt how to teach on Zoom. And we all became, you know, really adept at Messenger and video conferencing and all of this but we also learnt at the same time what gets lost in those processes. And we learnt the power of human contact and being face to face in a room versus looking at each other over a video screen.
PAULINE: Yeah, real Zoom fatigue there. But as you say, there were also benefits and opportunities. And again, refer to the show notes for those who are listening, because Susanna published a raft of papers that covers these ideas around ethnography and conducting research, not necessarily out in the field, but how important and valid it is to do it, as you’ve just explained here. And I’ll pop some references to those articles at the end of the show.
- ACADEMICS IN THE PUBLIC EYE (17:00)
PAULINE: So in addition to these peer reviewed, published academic journal articles, which are sort of the stock standard of academics, you also seemed to suddenly pivot to becoming a media personality or profile on a small scale.
SUSANNA: I wouldn’t say I’m a media personality. I had done some media stuff around the Fiji coup. There’s a few times I’ve said no to media interviews, but generally when I get asked if I feel that I have something to contribute, I’m more than happy to do that. I think during the pandemic (still, I say that as if it’s past like I’m being very hopeful here), I think there’s been a lot of interest in seeing what academics have to say. I mean, we all know Michael Baker now, right? You would recognise him if he was in the shops. So I think there’s been more space for kind of scholarly analysis of current events in popular mainstream media. So many of us have been called upon.
SUSANNA: There was one time in lockdown, This was TV One News, and we were quite far into the lockdown. I can’t remember what day it was. But, you know, we were all kind of feeling quite isolated. And I remember the reporter came and I was (because they’re essential services, they were allowed to move around). And I was so jubilant. This is that face to face, right? I’m talking to students. I’m talking to family members. But there’s a real life person who’s not in my family who I’m not in lockdown with. And he came for an hour and a half and I was just and we talked about something really interesting and I was just so thrilled. And at the end, I said, look, I’ve probably talked your ear off. I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen anybody. And he said: “I get that all the time”. So it was almost like a therapy, you know, service to have people to talk to about what was occurring and a different perspective. A very informed perspective, but differently informed than another academic.
PAULINE: Yeah. And do you think it’s important for academic analysis to be accessible to the public at a larger scale, as we’ve seen?
SUSANNA: Absolutely. Because a lot of people are not going to read these papers and yet they’re very interested in what’s going on. And I think it’s important for anthropologists in particular, and I greatly value the knowledge of epidemiologists and other hard science folks. But sometimes they get asked questions where you think, hold on, that’s not part of their kind of analytical skill set. You know, why are they…? You know, they can talk about what happens in terms of disease control and borders, but why are they commenting on human rights issues, for example? And that’s where I think, you know, we and sociologists and political scientists and other social science and humanities scholars can have a lot to contribute and we should contribute. And also it attracts the younger generation. It shows them that, you know, there’s something to say about pertinent issues. And then you hope that you’re not just speaking to the general public, but that there’s also political figures who are shaping some of these responses who are also listening. So you hope that you’re having an impact there as well.
PAULINE: Yeah, it’s incredibly important to have that that discourse throughout community and society. After all, isn’t that what universities were originally founded to do?
SUSANNA: Yes. Yes. And we like we sometimes like to think we know how people are going to respond to things. If lockdown has shown us anything, it’s that we don’t. We can’t always assume all people are going to go for this or people are going to be upset by that. It’s much more nuanced, these social processes, and that’s what we as social scientists study. And so we have quite a bit of insight to lend there.
- LOCKDOWN BUBBLES (21:05)
PAULINE: That’s great. Now, when we were talking about the media, I didn’t mention that I was delighted to see your face pop up on the news at various times. And something that people seem to be quite taken with was the research that you were conducting at the time on this idea of bubbles, these lockdown bubbles. Do you want to talk us through that collaboration?
SUSANNA: Yes. So that was one of the first papers we wrote, and that actually started off as an article in the Spinoff that Sharon Davies and I put together. She was one of the people that was commenting on the Facebook post, we’re very good friends, have been friends for years, and Sharon was also friends with an academic in the UK at the London School of Economics, Nicholas Long and he had reached out to her saying that (you know, he was also in lockdown, but in London) that he was interested in doing a collaborative project. And so that’s how I got involved in this group that’s called CARUL: Care and Responsibility Under Lockdown. And we’ve done… I can’t count them. There are so many papers on different aspects of not just lockdown, but in the end, looking more broadly at COVID. But one of the initial collaborations was between Sharon and myself trying to understand this concept of bubbles and what it means to be part of a bubble. I was in a very privileged position where my bubble was pretty self-explanatory. My child came up from Wellington and joined us, but otherwise it was the members of my direct household. But I was very aware that there were people where it wasn’t that simple. When you were told to get into your bubble, the question wasn’t “For how long,” or “How do I do this?” It was, “who is this bubble and how do I make this bubble work?”. So that’s what we tried to analyse.
PAULINE: Yeah, safety came up as well. During that time I wrote a haiku on domestic violence and it was published in the New Zealand poetry anthology, and that was through seeing some of the work that you were doing and some of the work that other scholars were doing around these concepts of bubbles and what the space was like for different people. So it’s yeah, it’s stimulated all sorts of things.
- DIGITAL HEALTH WITH CHILDREN (23:27)
PAULINE: So you mentioned the quite prestigious Marsden project that you’re working on. Again, for non-academic listeners, the Marsden is a very prestigious research award and that is the funder for the project that you’re working on with Digital Health with Children. So what’s next? Are you still working on this project and wrapping it up? Is that your main thing? Academics usually have many irons in the fire and you certainly usually do.
SUSANNA: I think of wrapping it up as being a bit generous. We have a huge data set. I don’t really like that word, but we have a lot of material. I was very lucky that as I was pulling together the Marsden Project, I had some funding from the university as a sort of start up, and so I ran this pilot project. I say pilot in quotes because we ended up interviewing over a hundred young people on the pilot project and then we have the Marsden interviews. All of these are done. The pilot project and the Marsden are with young people looking at their ideas about health.
SUSANNA: The Marsden focuses on mental health, but the pilot project, we said: “When you think about health, what is health to you? And that was quite stunning, the things that young people came up with. mental health, physical health, fitness, sexual health, spiritual health, social media health, just in and of itself, that finding revealed to me that there’s a generational difference here. When I say I’m focussing on my health, I might mean something very different than my 14 year old son when he says he’s focussing (not that he said that to me), but if he was. But the things that young people focus on: how many hours a week online, how many minutes have I run? The range of things that fall under health is just absolutely phenomenal. And so I’m using the pilot interviews as well as the Marsden ones, which focus more on mental health, to write a book that tries to look at these different facets of health. And I think there’s been a lot of emphasis – and it’s accurate – There’s been a lot of emphasis on young people sort of doing projects around the self, like I’m going to fix my fitness or I’m going to focus on my mental health.
PAULINE: Sounds like Nikolas Rose all over again.
SUSANNA: Yes. And I think that’s very important. But there’s another side to it, which is that they’re reaching out to other young people, as well as other family members of people of all sorts of generations, all ages. And they’re also very conscious of how those people are interrelating with them around their emotional health or their mental health or their physical wellbeing. So the book tries to explore both sides. It tries to look at the sort of self-management of health that young people are engaged in, but also these exchanges and interactions that occur around their own health and the health of others. So a kind of broad take on what health means to this generation. So I’m working on that.
- ESSAY ON STATE-CITIZEN RELATIONS (26:30)
SUSANNA: And then what I had lined up was I was going to write a long essay looking at state citizen relations in New Zealand around COVID because that’s something I’ve been writing on since the beginning. So one of the things that I’ve been focussing on is sort of a thread through my writing around the pandemic has been citizen state relations because it was so fascinating to me around the first lockdown, the way the Prime Minister sort of galvanised the New Zealand public and the literature on states of emergency, which I knew quite well from Fiji. I’d been writing about that during the Fiji coup. It’s very I don’t want to say it’s uni- dimensional, but you can say there is a message that emerges from that literature around responses to crisis and in particular the imposition of a lockdown or a curfew or some sort of state of emergency as being very much top down.
SUSANNA: So Giorgio Agamben, the philosopher, has written about how the sovereign or the state but more specifically an individual entity (in our case, the Prime Minister of New Zealand) declares the state of emergency and then he has done an absolutely brilliant analysis of the ways that that is an act of care for the populace. It’s represented as an act of care, but it can actually be a way that the government takes control and expands its powers. And so I found I was very sympathetic to this analysis until we had our first lockdown. And I was very aware that there was segments of New Zealand that were calling for the lockdown before we even went into the lockdown. So it wasn’t about the Prime Minister standing up there and telling us you are going to do this. And in an interesting way, when she did say you are going to do this, she said it in a way that tried to drum up a sense of unity, like we are doing this together, we’re in this together was one of the catch phrases.
00:29:50,400 –> 00:29:55,560
SUSANNA: So even though it is a classic state of emergency in the sense that the sovereign has declared it, there was moves in the populace calling for it before it even happened. And the first lockdown (if you can cast your memory that far), the first lockdown, there was a lot of support for the steps that the government was taking. So I became very intrigued on sort of pushing back on this more traditional line about states of emergency. And I wrote a little piece for Social Anthropology. They were at that time looking for very short, sort of 500 word essays. So that idea of — this is a bit more complicated than what the scholarly literature would tell us – that was a sort of niggling thought way, way back then at the beginning of the lockdown.
PAULINE: Was that the Ranui and teddy bears piece?
SUSANNA: That was the second one. So it got a little bit longer. And I looked at the phenomenon of New Zealanders putting teddy bears in windows to show their support and to try and make lockdown a bit more, bit more cuddly and a bit more warm and comforting. And so that was a slightly longer piece with several photographs, and then it grew from there. And I’ve been doing little bits of, of writing. I did some work with Lisa Wynn looking at Australia versus New Zealand, because we have quite different experiences of the way the Government has handled, and especially in Australia with different states having different responses but in comparison to New Zealand there’s some quite stark differences. And then I had this idea in my head that I would write this long essay where I would say when COVID was done, which I had the sense there would be an end point when the health book, the Youth and Health and Digital Tech book was done, I was going to take a year and I was going to reflect back and write this essay looking at state-citizen relations and how they’ve changed.
SUSANNA: And then I was invited to write the introduction for this special issue of Anthropological Forum. And I was told you can write a standard introduction that introduces the papers, or you can write an actual article. And so I sat down and I wrote 13,000 words. For people who are not academics, that is a massive article. And it does an overview of how things were from day one of the lockdown up until now. And it traces out, I think of it as three phases. The sort of collective unity phase where the government and the people were, and obviously not everybody, but there was a real palpable sense in New Zealand of “we’re doing this together”. Then the phase of public shaming where we had people who had contravened lockdown regulations, they were often given alphabetical monikers. So New Zealand listeners might remember the case, “Case M,” whose sister was at a school where there was an outbreak of COVID and everyone was supposed to stay home. The Case M did not stay home and there was a real sort of public shaming.
SUSANNA: DJ Dimension was another case who came from the U.K. and was supposed to be in quarantine and went out and about in the community before his last COVID test, which was actually positive. And the government on some level was not prohibiting some of the sort of shaming, the blame game that was going on. There was bullying online. There was a lot of accusations against these people. And I remember there was an interview with Chris Hipkins, with regard to DJ Dimension: was he going to be prosecuted for breaking lockdown regulations? And Hipkins almost laughed and he said, Oh, well, you know, something along the lines of, well, he’s already been judged and sentenced in the court of public opinion. So why would we actually take judicial proceedings against him? So that was the second phase.
SUSANNA: And then now we’re in the personal responsibility phase where it’s sort of hands off. You’ve had your vaccine. Are you going to wear your mask? You’re not going to wear your mask. Are you going to go into public spaces? Are you going to go to a concert venue or somewhere where there’s a lot of people? It’s really sort of up to you. You manage it.
PAULINE: And this is something that, as you speak, I recall the various conversations we’ve had across these stages. And when I was writing a reflective photo essay on images seen during the pandemic, and you and I spoke about how in that first stage there was all these public expressions of support in graffiti and drawings. And then I remember I spoke to who was writing this article and said, it’s amazing the photos that I’m getting now. There’s nothing. No little, little stones (that’s wish stones) that say, you know, hope and love – nothing.
SUSANNA: There’s dissension, you know, I think around the vaccine mandate, yes, there was a lot of dissension. I remember we went on holiday in Raglan and there was signage somebody had put up. “The narrative is crumbling”. And I thought, yeah, you know, there was a there was a real sense of there had been a narrative, there had been a conversation that, again, not everybody, but there was a general conversation that a lot of people were taking part in about a collective effort. And that started to get fragmented.
- COMPETING RESPONSIBILITIES (34:05)
PAULINE: Absolutely. What I’ve loved about this conversation with you is, academics generally build layer upon layer of research over decades. And what I love about the conversation we’ve had today is that that’s really clear. When you were talking about care, responsibility and how we’re now entering this phase of personal responsibility. I immediately thought back to your book with Catherine Trundle: Competing responsibilities, which was a really good comprehensive overview of the work you were both doing at the time in care. At the time you invited one of the foremost thinkers in that area, Nicholas Rose, to the country and had an international conference with him as well. And it’s interesting to see how those ideas are very valid and still important, but being shaped in different ways. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that book?
SUSANNA: The Competing Responsibilities book was an amazing undertaking that Catherine Trundle at Victoria University and I conducted together. To me it had it, (yes, it’s still relevant), but it had its moment in terms of when it came out in 2017 was really when these discourses of responsibility were not just being used in public spaces, but there was a lot of sort of academic attention to them. And what we tried to do, our motivation in that book was to take Nicholas Rose’s work and others who had looked at this sort of move towards personal responsibility, but actually look at how we enact that in our daily lives, like I was saying, with the young people and their ideas of health. You can certainly find those self-improvement/ self-management/ I’m responsible for my health and you can certainly find things that are very, I would say stark. And I would take that negative connotation, it’s up to me if I’m going to be healthy, it’s has to be me that manages if I have a chronic condition, the person who’s responsible for that, for doing the best I can with that condition is me, rather than my medical specialist. If I’m going to be fit, that’s up to me to go out and eat healthy food or to run or exercise.
SUSANNA: But as I said, with that project, the minute you get young people talking, you know, and then you say, tell me more about your health, they say: “Well, I run with my mate. And, you know, my mate used to be overweight and now he’s lost all this weight and I’m so proud of him. And we go, you know, three times a week and we run together. So the minute they actually start describing what they’re doing, you realise that this personal responsibility is actually a collective endeavour and that’s part of what we tried to do in that Competing Responsibilities book is to say, I have my responsibility for myself, but I’m also responsible for my children, I’m responsible for my students and that’s a different kind of responsibility. Both of them are caring responsibilities, but obviously how I relate to my children is different. They’re my students. I’m responsible for my colleagues. I am responsible for my dogs. I am responsible for the stream in the neighbourhood that I live in. And these things are responsible for me in different ways.
SUSANNA: And so we tried to map how I almost think of it as a web that you’re sort of suspended in. And to say, yes, we have this rhetoric of personal responsibility and it’s right to critique it. But just to stop there is almost to let those discourses and that sort of government, top-down, you know, you’ve got to take responsibility narrative. It’s to let it win. Because actually when you look at how we engage in our daily behaviours, it’s a lot richer, it’s a lot more complex and I think there’s real traction in that. There’s a power in that and we need to keep reminding ourselves, okay, I’m responsible for my mental well-being, but so are my children. Sorry children, but you’re responsible for me and I’m responsible for them. The actual way that we live our lives is a lot more complicated than some sort of public health banner. That because we saw a lot of this during COVID, a lot of mental health campaigns on TV telling you how to take care of yourself, which is fantastic. But we can’t just stop there.
PAULINE: Absolutely. And for those who don’t know, Susanna is an expert on Foucault and various other theoretical experts in this field. So she certainly does know what she’s talking about when she talks about top down governmentality.
- ZOMBIE FILMS AND SENSE OF TIME (38:55)
PAULINE: So back to your current book project. I’d imagine this has got a great deal of depth due to COVID suddenly occurring in the midst of the project. Has that contributed at all to your analysis or you’re just using the data from the pre-COVID period, or was that data still coming in?
SUSANNA: The Marsden interviews, all of them came just after COVID was on the horizon. But the pilot interviews, projects tend to overlap, so you would think the pilot interviews were over when the project started, but there was still money. There were still students to be employed. There was still interesting questions to ask. So both sets of materials, we have young people reflecting on what it means to use digital technology and their ideas about health in the midst of COVID. For the digital ethics project, the pilot project, we have another two years up to COVID, so it’s really interesting in terms of looking at the contrasting material.
PAULINE: Susanna, you’ve been in progress with a couple of findings from the Marsden COVID project. Can you talk us through that?
SUSANNA: Yes. So you were asking before whether we did the interviews during COVID. We did and a number of young people were very keen to be interviewed on Zoom because they were locked in and they were bored and this was a way they could make 20 or 30 dollars. The money aside, I think some of them found it quite an enriching process to have that chance to reflect on what they were going through. And I had a really wonderful team of interviewers, of students that were conducting the interviews. And at the end of some of the transcripts, you hear the young people say that that was fantastic. I loved having that opportunity. Some said that was like a therapy session. Several of them actually used that that language because it was you know, it was a very difficult time for all of us, but particularly for youth, I think, because they’re going through such a dramatic period of their lives already and youth by, you know, the very nature of the term is a transitional period. You’re supposed to be moving from childhood to adulthood and when you suddenly feel that you’re suspended in time and you’re not going anywhere, you’re not going, you know, both metaphorically, you’re not moving forward in your life, but you’re also not going to school. You’re not going to the sports team that you’re a part of. I think many youth found that deeply disconcerting and didn’t know what to do with themselves.
SUSANNA: So one of the things was over the summer I started a project with my eldest child, Revena, who is doing a Masters at Victoria University, looking at media representations and gender and a summer scholar, Sanchita Vyas, and the three of us had been talking about representations of pandemics in film because my eldest, Revena, is quite a film buff and had been rewatching these films like Contagion and Outbreak like so many people around the world. And that was stunning to me when I actually looked at the figures of how, you know, Outbreak was 25 years old and it was, you know, one of the top films on streaming services. And then the other facet that Revena brought to the analysis was looking at zombie films, because Revena argues there was a resurgence of interest to the zombie motif because of how it resonated with pandemics. So, Sanchita and I did the analysis of the interviews and we looked at when young people spoke about watching films, but we also noted this strong thread of discussion around time and temporality. And we looked at the films. I’m not a media scholar, but I can say this about films: they have a beginning and an end, right? So on a Friday night when you’re thinking, I need some downtime, you go on 90 minutes or 2 hours and I’ll have some sort of hopefully experience, some sort of affective experience. I’ll go on an affective, emotional journey.
SUSANNA: But it’s going to be limited, unlike living through one lockdown after another and not knowing where your future is going to be, you can suspend yourself in a film. Now, for me, as someone that wasn’t watching zombie movies, Outbreak, Contagion, I was like, why on earth would you want to watch films about pandemics when you’re going through a pandemic? Where is the escapism in that? So that got us thinking about temporality and the different ways you live through time and how films, when you watch them, they structure a very particular kind of affective movement. And I draw on the work of the literary theorist Mikhael Bakhtin to look at what he calls chronotopes, which is a very particular way he’s looking at novels. But you can do it with films, you can do it with real life, a very particular way of structuring time and space. And so we look at the chronotopes in these films, and Revena has done a brilliant comparison of the sort of science films like Contagion or Outbreak versus the zombie films, and the different sort of emotional resonances. And then you look at how young people describe the time of lockdown and what it did to real time.
SUSANNA: Okay, lockdown was real time, but there was a sense of almost being in a different time, like time keeps running and you’re on this track that’s right next to it somehow, living this lockdown time. And so we look at the differences and we try and look at the cross-overs. So the really interesting thing about lockdown is – it’s not interesting. It is boring. And that’s what you get from the young people’s sense of like: time is almost stopped, things are repetitious. I get up in the morning or I don’t get up in the morning. Who cares? Like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no one to see. many of them spoke about this sort of awareness suddenly, that time is a structure. It’s a culturally imposed structure. Yes, there is 24 hours and there is a sunrise and sunset. But, you know, within those parameters, whether you set your alarm at 8 a.m. or you get up at noon, when you eat, when you’re expected to kind of socialise, all of that is something that we have culturally staged and when you suddenly completely contravene that by putting, locking people in, in their bubbles and telling young people will, now you’re going to be learning online, but you can do your homework at 2 a.m., you can socialise with your friends, you know, all night long and then sleep all day, which is what some young people said they initially started to do.
- TIME “SPENT WELL” – THE SELF AS A PROJECT (46:05)
SUSANNA: And so young people started to reflect on, “so what am I going to make of this time?” And this is where to me it got really interesting and a little bit sad because to me the lockdowns were, how do I get through this? How do I cope? A lot of young people, particularly a few weeks into it, not at the initial stages, turned that into what should I be doing? And it became very morally loaded. Going back to those self-management, making the self a project, one young person after another told us, I had all this free time, I should spend it on something, I should spend it wisely, I should spend it on something beneficial for my future. So I should exercise. I should do healthy eating, I should keep a journal. And then where they landed was different. Some said, This is what I did do.
SUSANNA: We had one young man who ran half a marathon. He was a runner, but he’d never run a marathon and suddenly he started training during lockdown. We also had a lot of young people who “did not do what they should in” using their terminology and who felt very guilty about that. So while and I don’t want to generalise about the older generation because we didn’t talk to them, so I’ll talk from my perspective as a 50 year old woman. Well, my sense was how do we cope? Their sense was, what are we turning this into? How do we maximise our time during this lockdown?
PAULINE: That certainly resonates, particularly in terms of the narrative young people were thinking they needed to create, and perhaps it links to the social media side of life. I came to the Pandemics Hub working on two projects, one at the Liggins Institute with Dr. Jacqui Bay’s project COVID Youth Voices, which was a survey run at the very beginning of lockdown. And a lot of the mental health challenges that you’ve raised have come up in that project. And then the other project that you’re aware of that I was working on was ethnographic journals where students that were asked to keep a journal about the environment, broadly speaking, and then we suddenly went into lockdown and a lot of that, as you say, temporality came into being, a lot of reflexiveness on the constructedness of time and of life itself And a lot of what I’ve been talking about are these speculative ideas of what are we creating, what is a potential future that we think is being created versus the reality?
SUSANNA: Yes. So in this paper, what we do is we then analyse the youths’ perceptions and discourses of temporality versus what they’re getting from the films. And that’s what we’ve put into the Anthropological Forum volume with Sanchita and Revena as co-authors.
PAULINE: Great. I can’t wait to read that.
- RESEARCH HUB WRAP (49:00)
PAULINE: Final questions. Research Hub wraps up at the end of September sadly. So what are your thoughts on the importance of arts based research for pandemics and what has the hub really shown us?
SUSANNA: I think the hub has shown us, well, some good things and some bad things actually. So in this special issue, I’m the guest editor for Anthropological Forum, when we started pulling together the papers, as I said, we had this rich conversation of very diverse perspectives. But then I thought, okay, where are we going to publish this? And one of the things I realised, which is rather obvious, was there’s so few really interdisciplinary journals and I know there’ll be editors and other academics thinking, oh yes, I can list off a few. But when you’re actually thinking about a collection of different perspectives on a single issue, COVID in New Zealand but from the perspective of cultural historians or poets or political scientists, where are you going to publish that?
SUSANNA: So we were lucky to find a space that would embrace these different perspectives, but it really drove home to me the need for more venues. So we’re always talking about breaking out of our disciplinary silos but if we’re going to do that and we’re going to do that properly, we actually need more journals that are willing to take these collaborative endeavours and really embrace them in terms of the academic collective that we’ve put together. There have been some really nice collaborations formed and I’m very hopeful that that will go forward, that some of these will continue on their own. The Hub has had its time. It’s been an incredible experience. We get the podcast, which you’ve been leading up and put together for us, but also, as I mentioned, some of the special publications have come out of it and the seminar series and I think it played its role when we really needed a space to be looking at what is this very historic moment that we’re living through and how are we understanding and processing it now and how will we understand it differently in in the future?
SUSANNA: And there was a joke, my son, at the beginning of the pandemic, when he was just 12, he told me a joke. And at the time I said, this is not going to be funny. It’s funny now, but I’m nervous about it. And it was that there was a time traveller from the future who came back to March 2020 and said, “What’s the date?” And the person they meet says March 2020 and they say, “Oh, the first year of the lockdown” and in March 2020 this was going around the intermediate me schools and it was really funny and now it’s not. But I think there’ll be many moments like that where having a space to do this early work and people I remember at times I thought, Why am I commenting on this? I don’t have the distance, the critical distance. It’s too soon. But actually there is something to be said about how, you know, really thinking through and putting down how we see it now so that we can see it differently in the future and look back and recognise, you know, that was funny in March 2020. It’s not funny now.
PAULINE: Absolutely. Well, Susanna, that’s such a wonderful way to end today’s episode. Thank you so much for coming to join us. And do you have anything final you want to add?
SUSANNA: No, just that it’s been a pleasure and it’s been a pleasure listening to these podcasts and to the many more that I know you’re putting together. And thank you for doing this work.
PAULINE: Well, thank you, Susanna. It’s a pleasure. So you’ve been listening to Dr. Pauline Herbst in conversation with Professor Susanna Trnka here on Pandemics Reflected. Check the show notes for any mentions of books, people and interesting stuff that we’ve mentioned today. And follow us on your favourite podcast host.