Kandida Purnell By: Kandida Purnell
Assistant Professor of International Relations
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06 Jan 2021 : To clap or not to clap..

'Clap for Carers' is to return on Thursday under a new name of 'Clap for Heroes' and I feel compelled to say something.

For ten weeks in a row during the first wave, every Thursday at 8 pm, here in the UK we would be called to action. Television shows would be paused as we were instructed to ‘clap for our carers.’ Every week, we were told to 'clap louder'  and more enthusiastically as those valued highly  – because of their functions and uses within the NHS and care homes – were clapped on by high- profile, elite clappers, including our Prime Mnister, cabinet members, and celebrities who encouraged the wider British public to join in.

Throughout this pandemic carers have been rhetorically lauded by our politicians while being materially discounted, used, and used up in service. On his discharge from hospital, PM Johnson even referred to NHS workers, in econo-speak, echoing White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett’s dehumanising mid-pandemic reference to the American public in May 2020 as ‘human capital stock,’ as our ‘greatest national asset’ (Johnson, 12/04/2020). Even while striken with the virus, on Thursday 2nd April - just four days before he would find himself on an ICU ward - Johnson appeared, still dressed in his suit and tie at 8PM sharp to perform a solo clap for carers and lead the nation in giving ‘thanks to our wonderful NHS.’

Towards critiquing the weekly clap in this short entry, in addition to demonstrating the utter reliance of necropolitical systems on the uninterrupted extractive use of human bodies in the service of capital, the performative clapping on and of many towards death in service through the pandemic provides a prime example of the co-constitutive relationship of emotions and bodies as it involves the touching, moving, impressing, and, indeed, pressuring and oppressing parts of the body politic: the public pressured to clap and NHS and care workers who in lieu of living wages and PPE, are pressed and oppressed into continued service.

On the block I lived through the United Kingdom’s spring 2020 ‘lockdown’ on, strange as it seems, no one could be heard clapping. I could hear the block over the road clapping more loudly as the weeks went by and banging on pots and pans too towards the end of the ten weeks. The cars driving past at high speed on the main road outside, however, honked their horns voraciously from the start. Friends would mention it in the group chat. ‘We’re clapping tonight!’ one announced. The next day, ‘it brought a tear to my eye’ another reported, while others, including me, stayed quiet. I noticed my partner would become anxious as 8 pm approached each Thursday, start shuffling around the flat, opening the front door at five to, for the purpose of looking to see if anything was ‘going on.’

‘Should I clap?’ he asked me one week. ‘I don’t want to, I don’t feel comfortable,’ he answered before I said anything.

I think he felt pressure to do it, and he later confirmed to me that this was the case, filling me in on his ‘shuffling’ during those evenings and admitting that during the last event on Thursday 28 May, he had briefly stepped outside and ‘feebly clapped’ – after ‘giving in’ to the guilt while feeling increasing anger at having done so given his beliefs that clapping was an ‘empty gesture’ and what carers really needed was PPE to be immediately provided by the government. However, he was not alone in feeling increasingly under pressure during the weeks of being asked repetitively to ‘clap for carers’ as more succumbed to the virus daily. As one ex-colleague from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland - living on a street with apparently more enthusiastic clappers tweeted:

'I do feel there are elements of this weekly national activity that are somewhat Orwellian. Like maybe being paranoid, but I’m pretty sure we were being judged by our street last week for not being out (when we had a pretty tired wee girl trying to get to sleep...).... I’m fine, and I really like it, or at least the idea. But the mad folk in our street have taken it to new levels of Orwellian nightmare. I’m pretty sure there’s a list of who isn’t out.' (@MalcH, 09/04/2020)

Here, Harvey, even provides his excuse for ‘dipping out’ of a clap (putting his infant child to bed) in his tweet. As if you need an excuse. Meanwhile, others began to speak out – naming the habitual clapping as ‘peer pressure’ and accordingly condoning it. See the following for example:

'Don’t feel this pressure to clap. I don’t. I live alone and just find it awkward. I show my respect by sticking to all of the rules thereby saving lives, and taking the pressure off the amazing carers. Which is more than I can say for a good few.' (@MattieJameson, 30/04/2020)

'Lets have clapping peer pressure on the NHS and carers whilst they are aban- doned again by #notmygovernment where is the communal anger, mourning and pressure on the govt whilst our FL workers are bit busy?' (@tassybullah, 14/04/2020)

All three of the previous responses to the ‘call to clap’ demonstrate the social- political stakes of clapping/not clapping. At the community level, not clapping could lead to social ostracisation – ‘being judged,’ as Harvey puts it, while Jamison similarly feels the need to provide his ‘excuse’ for not clapping – ‘feeling awkward’ in his case. Finally, Bullah calls out the instruction to clap as a form of ‘peer pressure’ and asks, as I did and do again now, about the absence of particular emotions in the vicinity – anger and grief for example. 

Given that bodies are emotionally moved into or prevented from action according to how they feel and with the government directed clapping demonstrrating how politics itself is operating increasingly in the affective mode, the question remains as to the capacity of pressured parts to disrupt the emotional and political landscape of a body politic being attemptedly puffed up with pride by our politicians.


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