Nothing has so comprehensively invaded the minds of the healthy than the virus still ravaging the bodies of the sick. Even Sayulita, Mexico — a place where masks were previously as rare as Americans fluent in Spanish — is no longer safe. Until the past few weeks, the only threat posed by the pandemic was the chilling effect it had on conversation among near-strangers, brought together, ironically, by their escapist will to party and fuck while the rest of the world finishes burning. Who can blame them?
Arriving in Sayulita was both a dream come true and a nightmare deferred. Here seemed to be everything which a Florida boy previously trapped in Brooklyn might need for recuperation: a palm-tree paradise with a tolerably backgrounded hippiedom, waves perfectly crisp for an amateur surfer, little pressure to know much Spanish, a multitude of tan and fit bodies to appreciate at a distance, with the ambrosiac white plumeria — my personal favorite — among the regions natives.
But more important than these abundances was that which, at first, it explicitly lacked.
So few of those signifiers of existential concern and implicit dread, especially when compared to the epicenter that was New York, were to be found in Sayulita. For those first two months, face-masks were a rare threat to the peace of mind that I and the droves like me were seeking. At the time of my arrival, even Oxxo and Kiosko — the two competing convenience store chains and the only corporate businesses in Sayulita, besides the ever-vacant Subway — didn’t require masks for entry. The town was so decidedly, and delightfully, open. It took little time, if any, to adjust.
I never did become a pandemic zealot in New York, having only committed to wearing a mask consistently around the end of April and refusing, on principle, to wear one out-of-doors entirely. I had little room for new social calculus. And so, I took comfort in knowing tourism had been deemed an essential industry in Sayulita and accepted the figures reported by the New York Times for the state of Nayarit’s case volume at face value — which has remained incredibly low. But I also found more than just these scraps of information as reassurance.
In my first week, while visiting the local library to look for books in Spanish or of Spanish instruction — despite the signs that read liberia, there were only books in English — I became painfully trapped in conversation with a senior American named Jessie. What started as a recommendation for Seabiscuit, a book I will never read, turned into a two-hour marathon of head-nods and affirmative ‘hmms’ as Jessie wound his way through an incredible litany of topics: types of seaweed and their medicinal properties; glacial water and the Soviet research into old age; Lockheed Martin’s use of ‘gold can Lysol’ to dispel ‘non-corporeal electrical entities’, or demons, corrupting their experimental technology (maybe they were angels?); and how it was possible to jump out of a plane at 20,000 feet and land safely without a parachute, the truth of which, according to Jessie, the CIA has always known and which the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier exposed to Marvel audiences the world over.
Jessie introduced himself as a retired medical doctor, and before he eroded most of the credibility that title imbued, he mentioned something told to him by a friend — a coroner working in New York. Having processed several hundred COVID deaths, Jessie’s friend reported that over 97% of the bodies contained no detectable vitamin D in their bloodstream. “You don’t mean to suggest [vitamin D] as a curative?” he recalled asking her. “No. But perhaps highly preventative,” she answered.
And so, to the Times’ statistics I added the sun’s plentiful rays and my time spent under them to the list of facts providing for my personal absolution (regarding my preference for a mask-free outdoor experience).
There are, of course, few places one can go in Sayulita that are not outside. In such places, walls are less prominent a feature than are thatched palapa roofs. And indeed, if the caseload for Nayarit is as low as it has been represented, perhaps the sunny weather has something to do with it. Not to mention the abundant youth and fitness of the general population. These are all features that many equatorial, developing countries (i.e. a more physically, and therefore out-of-doors, laboring population exposed to year-round sunlight) hold in common with Sayulita, presenting a curious point of inquiry into the reason behind their typically low rates of infection, which otherwise seem generally assumed to be inaccurate, or worse, manipulated.
(Moreover, it might explain, to a degree, the outsized impact of coronavirus on communities of color situated in non-equatorial climes, where sunlight is far less prevalent both in general and particularly during winter months. There have been several studies regarding vitamin D deficiency and rates of serious infection and death in the UK where the government seems to have considered, at least cursorily, distributing the nutrient to the wider public. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin has expressed concern over the potentially acute impact of D3 deficiency on people/communities of color who “receive less UV light in the deeper layers [of skin] where D3 is made, and so are prone to more severe D-deficiency at the end of winter in northern latitudes than their fairer-skinned counterparts.”)
Then again, I have also heard — but never bothered trying to confirm — that a significant share of the town’s elderly had already succumbed to the virus last spring, after which lockdown measures spanned the summer, before conveniently ending in time for the high season. Admittedly, I have seen very few locals of advanced age. But, on the other hand, this is how age works — old people tend to die and it is not necessarily unusual to see fewer of them. This is especially so when most of your day occurs between those two places — the bar and the surf line-up — more common to the relatively youthful. And whether or not all of this is true, it is unfortunately of little consequence to the revolving door of comers and goers looking to shoot both tequila and loads of semen into their travel companions.
In accordance with this behavior, rumors of more recent positive test results have been whispered here and there, especially among the crowd at the Selina hostel, where signs encouraging social distancing and mask-wearing pepper the stairwells and bathroom doors.
I now like to joke, cynical as it may be, that while Mexico has continued importing tourists and their American currency, it has also been, until recently, exporting COVID cases — a new and improved iteration of Moctezuma’s Revenge. Such a jest would feel more distasteful if it were not true that a significant portion of the established local population appeared to be just as cavalier towards global health guidelines as their short-term counterparts. Having observed numerous below-the-nose masks, I’d wager that much of the mask-wearing is being done more so for show than for safety.
The surprise of Sayulita’s COVID-inspired curfew (initially scheduled from January 15th to February 5th and then extended until the 15th), along with the heightened number of masks walking the streets, created in me only a petite dismay. Ultimately, with bars closing early, it confirmed that I had chosen the right month to not drink. Otherwise, the signs of escalating concerns were always there.
Just before the holidays and the curfew that followed, Krystal, a new acquaintance, entered the orbit of my Selina family-of-convenience. Having a pre-existing comorbidity, she became the first person I noticed who always wore a mask — two, in fact, though the outer served a mostly aesthetic purpose. I found it more difficult to interact with her, and not only because the mask offered its own barrier to the kind of nonverbal communication we have taken for granted. Until Krystal’s arrival, the masks of Sayulita held only a fleeting signification of a person’s attempt at pandemic awareness, a gesture near-emptied of materiality. This one was much more similar to a New York mask (it was actually a Seattle mask, but same difference, as in both liberal cities they seem to be overworn to the point of being socially oppressive). It was an out-of-doors mask, nonetheless; the kind that functions more often as a political statement than medical necessity — though this one belonged decidedly to the latter category.
Krystal’s masks evoked the spectre of the thing I had fled. But for my Burner friend Brad, they inspired a lengthy reflection on personal privilege, an exercise I generally find to be as distasteful as it is useless. People seem to reach Sayulita for any number of reasons. COVID — its avoidance — is most commonly reported. Though for others, like Brad just-now waxing conscious, the pandemic played little role in their initial decision to seek respite in Sayulita.
I could not help noticing, as Brad carried on a needlessly interpersonal attempt to reconcile his station with global circumstance, his consistent use of the third person.
We never really think about it but not everyone has the opportunity to be here in a place like this, you know? A lot of people are having a real rough time of it and we’re so lucky get to be here in paradise by the beach [blah blah blah]…
Sure, we were both “lucky”, as Brad declared, to be in a place like Sayulita. But there is no ‘we’ to my mind.
After three months in Sayulita, I have not discovered an archetypal group to which I belong. The perfect opposite is the case for Brad. He belongs to a sort of hive, swarming to full moon sound healing ceremonies, acroyoga sessions and whatever other hippie-adjacent activity promises the highly aestheticized, though equally vague, form of the vapid spiritual growth its members hunt down like nectar. Nothing better signifies Brad’s membership to the hive — which has additional, perhaps even more robust, branches in places like Tulum and Bali — than his strong preference for shawls as his sole item of upper body clothing.
(Surely, there must be other non-joiners around, and I am already in a group of non-groupers. And perhaps there are also others, like me, who find their fists naturally tightening around dwindling unemployment funds. If there are, they’ve not been observably transparent. Because, of course, there are those who have money and don’t hide the fact, others who haven’t any and seem to hide it vigilantly, and still others who do have money but would much rather be perceived as having none at all — so that they may go on masquerading as bartering paupers. Strange town! It might be the center of the universe.)
If there is one commonality among the blurred variety of cliques, it is that everyone who comes to Sayulita extends their stay. And thanks to the pandemic’s tremendous lean-in to telecommute technology, short-term tourists and fledgling expat ‘lifers’ alike are free to focus on that particular form of leisure utterly disarticulated from work. Nowhere and at no other time has ‘the job’ been more the thing you have to do in order to do everything else — and there is so much everything else. Jobs become side hustles, trips become returns, returns become moves, and the vacation becomes an endless hang by the water cooler, only this one has gold-flecked sand, coconut palms, a DJ, and a pair of oily tits.
But vacations, as lovely and restive and extended as they can be, always carry an inherent negative value; they are always ‘time away from’.
And though my time here is nothing like a vacation — there’s no home, no center of gravity, anticipating my return — it is still ‘time away from’ the oppressive conditions of the pandemic and its accompanying slaughter of those portions of social life not already colonized by work or corrupted by social media. (Though, quixotically, I see more and more out-of-doors masks on people who were clearly determined to travel and be relatively more social; they have, with the same ease as one would squeeze any other item into carry-on luggage, brought the pandemic’s oppression with them.)
Of course, I do not mean to suggest that anyone vacationing or on the lam in Sayulita — or elsewhere for that matter — ought to do away with concern and caution with respect to the physical health and safety of themselves and others. I merely mean to offer an observance of those contradictions that exist between the choice to flee the freedom-crushing effect of lockdown and the act of maintaining certain concessions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, that cut against the very freedoms sought. And while these contradictions are especially prevalent and so readily apparent in the lives of travelers, short and long-term, they are contradictions that many of us are now living out.
Despite the presumption of Brad’s self-moralizing, the discomfort it produced was nothing compared to the grating culture of constant antagonism I rediscovered soon after a quick trip to the States for the holidays.
Out of a desperate need, however misguided, to alleviate the psychological regression that seems, at least to me, to so often arise upon one’s return home, I could not help but log back into my social media accounts and surf the aggregate mind therein. In just two short months of life unplugged in Sayulita, I had forgotten the pathological tendency towards shame and bitter condescension — admittedly, an impulse that I, too, am drawn in by — that so comprehensively pervades the ego’s digitized, and necessarily incomplete (or, perhaps, perfected) form. It is not in the least ironic that such aesthetic aggression should accompany a manner of communication so inherently passive; indeed, this is the way social media is designed to work, however unintentionally — the fewer opportunities, precluded or ignored, that exist for direct and honest communication, the more reactionary and heated its indirect variants become.
No other issue has made this online phenomenon more apparent than the pandemic, which has so universally demanded, in one form or another, our concern and attention.
COVID has served as an umbrella topic, unifying our computerized consciousness under one subject with which we all must engage. Regardless of one’s position in time or place, there is no freedom to be found from pandemic discourse. This is resolutely true with regards to social media, if not much of social life: Who has not attended a social gathering in the last year that did not begin or eventually involve at least one conversation, however hopeful or dismal, about the pandemic? And yet, our social reality seems at odds with social media in its relationship to the subject — with the former being generally free of interpersonal judgement and the latter saturated in extrapersonal condemnation.
I feel it necessary to use the adjective ‘live’ or ‘real’ for actions that previously required no qualifier. Anyhow, non-digital interaction seems generally to result in agreement, especially among friends — with regards to COVID — on the basic precautions and minimal acceptable behavior. This is what is so important about Emmanuel Levinas’s underappreciated concept of ‘proximity’ and its role in interactions between human beings; people accessed digitally become digital people, no digital person is a real person, and no conversation with a digital person need be constrained by the subtle and universal rules of conversation with real people. And so those too timid — or, perhaps, too human — to speak harsh words directly to another, regularly let fly all of the politicized vitriol that they’ve developed in the private realm of their own unsocialized thought.
At times the commodified digital ‘space’ of Instagram functions much like a mall — and like a mall, its emptiness has grown increasingly and depressingly apparent. But really, it is much more like a church in that it accepts currency and returns only a promise. Erected by our own, digitally expanded psychopathic excesses, this is the Temple of Shame. It collects offerings in the form of guilt — or the electronic sacrifice of someone determined by the PC to possess a sufficient amount of it — and provides absolution in the form of self-importance. The latter is, of course, wholly independent of ‘live’ action.
Having been sucked back into ‘the feed’ as I was, it was inevitable that I would regularly be exposed to opinions I felt were indicative of this urgent kind of exaggeration.
One such post confidently expressed the sentiment that holiday travel was an “act of violence”. The linguistic overreach of posts created by would-be influencers peddling this sort of academic backwash contains more symbolic violence in its dilution of the meaning of powerful words. Travelers and tourists are not, in any literal sense, committing violence, just as staying in place under the threat of impending dire circumstances is not inherently self harm — disagreeing with the former statement would necessarily affirm the reverse of the latter. Characteristically, no alternatives to holiday travel were suggested in the post itself — not that there is any satisfactory replacement for the real, and at present much-needed, company of family and friends. But posts like this are, of course, created by people who are far less concerned with reasonable solutions than they are with the narcissistic impulse to improve their own standing through misdirected concern and condemnation.
I too am guilty of this, even of perpetrating its worst manifestations. And, in this way, it is far easier to exit the Temple of Shame than it is to conquer from within.
There is something rather bathetic about social media’s browbeating political evangelism. Admonishing posts about the personal responsibility owed to the ‘stop the spread’ effort miss entirely just how non-personal a virus really is; in them is something akin to the campaign against the use of plastic straws, or the changing of profile pics to the color blue during the Sudan Uprising, as if individual action, even on a large scale, is at all an adequate replacement for the far grander efforts of governments the world over. If we are to direct our ire anywhere it should be towards those with considerably more political capital. I do not mean the former president specifically, nor his party generally. (I would very much like to discuss my thoughts on the political behavior of Nancy Pelosi and Governor Cuomo here, but after conversation with my editor, I agree that it would be, dialectically speaking, a crap shoot; so suffice it to say, nobody’s dick isn’t covered in dog shit.)
While visiting New York for the first time in several months, a paradox became immediately clear. Being in the city for New Year’s Eve, during which (and despite) the raging case load, there were plenty of social gatherings to be had; for my part, I had at least three to choose from despite arriving only several hours before festivities were due to begin. As much as the citizens of America’s liberal core appear to behave on the extreme end of caution, they are equally desperate for the kinds of interaction that nearly a year of depressed sociality has made imperative. Of course, this paradox is not uniformly distributed; the young and healthy seem much more willing to privately shed their public concern.
The paradox here is the rising need to live by a contradictory set of sentiments regarding the pandemic and its consequences, roughly equating to the distinction between public and private.
Despite being non-homogenous in its distribution, this paradox (which is mimed on social media, where the extremes are made more so) is universal. It is, to my consternation, present here in Sayulita as well, though of a different flavor altogether.
Instead of acquiescing to the reality of the pandemic outwardly, short-term tourists and longer-term travelers flaunt their disregard publicly, saving their acknowledgement for private conversations. In recent weeks, however, this equation has flipped as the additional masks have more and more invaded the private thoughts of the previously unbothered, like my friend Brad. Sayulita may be a beach paradise, but even paradise has the pandemic — there is no complete escape.
In a recent essay, founder and former Editor-in-Chief of defunct cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000, discusses something he calls ‘peak indifference’, the point at which nihilism sets in and collective apathy towards social ills reaches an untenable zenith. “Denial doesn’t make problems disappear,” Goffman writes, “it incurs policy debt, and the interest on that debt is human suffering.”
And while denial is not the only path to nihilism — exhaustion and a history of futile effort lead there as well — social media would have us believe that much of the ‘debt’ falls on us as individuals. This is nothing less than the product of the worship being done at and the evangelism emanating from the Temple of Shame. Realistically, individual responsibility is impotent within the larger context of government ineptitude, of gross structural inadequacy. This has been largely left unexplored by the brief rash of editorials and reports on what has been dubbed ‘pandemic fatigue’, which has been mistakenly presented as a uniform and linear phenomenon instead of one inherently linked to and dependent upon all other forms of fatigue long pre-existing this one.
One need only consult the liberal mainstream press — which, as the in-house choir of the Temple of Shame, peddles the same academic, pseudo-intellectual nonsense — to see just how absurd claims of individual responsibility really are. “The moral weight of our individual decisions has increased,” claims a recent article in the New Yorker, which only months ago decried public shaming as a pandemic all its own. The article concludes that “just because we’ve been given permission to do something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do” — meaning that just because restaurants might be opening, you still shouldn’t go eat in one — suggesting not only that individuals carry, now more than ever before, greater responsibility than the government but are better equipped (on a person to person basis no less!) to determine which actions are appropriate (even under the newly inaugurated and ostensibly preferable administration). Coming after nearly a year of severely depressed sociality and peaking desperation, this opinion will age like fish. But liberal editorialists are nothing if not the perfect songbirds for the implicitly shaming and alienating hymns song at the Temple of Shame.
Consider for a moment the impact of neoliberalism — the overarching mythology for which Shame is the preeminent deity — which has created a grossly underpaid and overworked population made desperately insecure without anything approximating adequate physical and mental health care. Within the context of such austerity and alienation, should we be at all surprised by the advent of those perfectly willing to accept outlandish conspiracy theories, such as Q-Anon, rather than engage in politics at face value? In other words, not every camel began the pandemic with a full load of straw on its back, but most did. And so, ‘pandemic fatigue’, my own included, did not take long to set in when layered on top of a burden that was already too much to bear — the looming psychological spectre alone was enough to break certain backs.
Eugenics and human capital theory take the focus of the remainder of Goffman’s essay, and though I find his connection to ‘peak indifference’ somewhat absent, he does offer an analogy that serves the purposes of my own argument.
Goffman is intrigued by the research conducted by the geneticist William Muir, who attempted to increase chicken egg production by grouping together those hens which laid the most eggs. In attempting to assemble an all-star team of egg layers, Muir created the exact wrong conditions for egg-laying. When he placed high-volume hens with other high-volume hens, they became competitive to the point of turning violent, causing egg production to plummet; controlling for a group’s collective ability resulted in the reverse.
Chickens, as Goffman reiterates, are social creatures, and egg laying, as Muir discovered, is not a genetic trait but a social one.
Of course, this does not mean every hen produces equally in successful groupings; some necessarily take a passive role, remaining relatively apathetic towards the project of egg production all while ceding valuable resources (bedding material, feed, etc) to those more gung-ho about the whole thing. In other words, if the collective goal is to be met, ‘peak indifference’ can never be controlled for on the level of the individual.
With respect to the pandemic — and, really, any other systemic issue — we cannot all be high-yield hens. Indeed, we must not be. Even with the Temple of Shame fiercely demanding, as it does, uniform tribute, some of us will have to go on living as exhausted camels and barren chickens. It is only that some of us would much rather do so under the coconut palms near to those oily tits.