Yesterday

If I start this sentence with “yesterday,” it will forever refer to the yesterday of whoever reads it whenever. Even when I want it to refer specifically and only to my yesterday, it will always first bring back memories of your, the reader’s, yesterday. There is no way around this. I have no way of making sure my yesterday is the only yesterday you think of when I start out by saying “yesterday I…”.

I can describe my yesterday in sentences both poetic and factual, even include photos of what I’ve seen and drawings of how I felt, but it still would not come close to my actual, lived experience. Not that my yesterday, the day before my today, was so exiting or enervating that I would want you to feel and know it the way I experienced it. You’ve probably had a yesterday of your own that was equally worth going through.

It’s more that these days, these long and monotonous COVID-days, seem to equalize all days to a terrifying degree. Get up, shower, coffee, study, break, study, dinner, book/Netflix, bed. Some days I’ll add in a walk, friend, or family, but most of my days just remain… days. It sometimes feels as if, where before the days constituted a dialogue, Tuesday happily chattering with Wednesday, now they are just monologues, all mumbling to themselves in the same dusty corner.

Maybe my yesterday actually looks a lot more like your yesterday than I initially thought. Sure, some verbs or nouns might be different (maybe you’d take tea over coffee), but the ceaseless continuity and the endlessly recurring pattern share a likeness. This pandemic, all-encompassing as it is, has come to structure our experience of the world, our yesterday and tomorrows. I wonder a lot about how this will affect our future experiences. What will it do to our collective, and individual, mental being? Will we see this as a sign to finally start being serious about the climate crisis on an international scale? And, less urgent, will the handshake survive?

My concern with how each of us, individually, experiences the world and how these divergent experiences might consequently come together again, stems from the field of biosemiotics. Biosemiotics states that everything living does so by using and interpreting signs. Some life forms are more adept at this than others but it is in the interplay of using and interpreting that human and nonhuman meaning is created. As biologist Jesper Hoffmeyer explains in “A Biosemiotic Approach to the Question of Meaning,” biosemiotics is thus an approach to living systems “that takes the production, exchange, and interpretation of signs to be constitutive for life” (368).  

One of the seminal contributors to the field of biosemiotics is the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Von Uexküll coined the term Umwelt (sometimes translated as environment) to denote the world as it is constituted by each individual’s circuit of perception and action. Every creature, human and nonhuman, floats in its own bubble of reality. We ascribe functional qualities (signs) to the things we encounter and in turn base our actions on them but we can never have complete access to the sign-systems of another being. Our activities give “quality” (Von Uexküll calls this Ton) to the things that surround us, and through this these objects or events gain significance. The coffee in my daily pattern, for instance, has the “quality” of a break for me. I have come to perceive it as a sign for the action of relaxation. To someone else, however, it might be a sign of intensification and of stressful moments. 

These days, these COVID-days, might have unforeseen impacts but they also seem to bring our individual Umwelts more in line with one another. The word “monotone” not only stems from the Latin monotonus, meaning “unvarying in tone,” but also from the Greek monótonos, meaning “steady,” or “unwavering.” The pandemic has brought a weird and, at times, uncomfortable steadiness to our worlds that causes them to overlap in unexpected ways. Activities and entities that would otherwise only have been part of the background of our lives, have now become a qualitative and meaningful part of our daily experience. I, for example, have come to appreciate the wood pigeons that surround my studio more than I normally would have. Providing a daily dose of comic relief, with their clumsy bodies and awkward courting, they help me stay somewhat sane. I do not really have comforting words to end this piece with. Maybe for now, it’s enough to find some solace in the knowledge that my corona-impacted yesterday at least partially coincided with your corona-impacted yesterday.

Pauw Vos

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