Posts from the Pandemic

Since early March, Critical Inquiry has been publishing a series of short pieces about the global outbreak of the coronavirus. “Posts from the Pandemic” features critical writing by Lorraine Daston, Bruno Latour, Catherine Malabou, Slavoj Žižek, Achille Mbembe, N. Katherine Hayles and others, many of whom are frequent contributors to the journal. Sometimes speaking alone, but often in conversation with each other, these blog posts have touched on the environmental, political, and economic consequences of the spread of Covid-19. The online response to the series has been overwhelming. With over 200,000 views so far, the blog is being read and commented on by readers all across the world. We’ve never seen anything like this. And we hope to keep posting as contributions to the series continue. Thank you for reading and writing!



W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Groundhog Day and the Epoché”

Slavoj Žižek’s “Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?” (3/18/20)

Nikolaj Schultz’s “The Climatic Virus in an Age of Paralysis” (3/21/20)

Catherine Malabou’s “To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and ‘I’” (3/23/20)

Kyle Stevens’s “When Movies Get Sick” (3/25/20)

Bruno Latour’s “Is This a Dress Rehearsal” (3/26/20)

Joshua Clover’s “The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour” (3/29/20)

Michael Taussig’s “Would a Shaman Help” (3/30/20)

Andrea Brady’s “Hanging in the Air” (4/1/20)

Daniele Lorenzini’s “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus” (4/2/20)

Carol J. Adams’s “Anticipatory Care” (4/5/20)

Norman MacLeod’s “COVID-19 Metaphors” (4/6/20)

Alexander Garcia Düttmann’s “A Letter to Oliver Vogel,” translated by James Fontini (4/8/20)

Lorraine Daston’s “Ground-Zero Empiricism” (4/10/20)

Achille Mbembe’s “The Universal Right to Breathe,” translated by Carolyn Shread (4/13/20)

Peter Szendy’s “Viral Times” (4/15/20)

N. Katherine Hayles‘s “Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus” (4/17/20)

Emmanuel Alloa’s “Coronavirus: A Contingency that Eliminates Contingency” (4/20/20)

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith’s “The Demon of Distraction” (4/22/20)

Charles Bernstein’s “Covidity” (4/24/20)

Bill Ayers’s “OK, Zoomer” (4/27/20)

John Wilkinson’s “After Lucretius” (4/29/20)

Bernard E. Harcourt’s “On Cooperationism: An End to the Economic Plague” (5/5/20)

Chiara Cappelletto’s “Arguments for a New Aesthetic of Presence,” translated by Samuel Fleck (5/13/20)

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Net-munity, or The Space between Us . . . Will Open the Future”(5/20/20)

Lydia H. Liu’s “The Incalculable: Thoughts on the Collapse of the Biosecurity Regime” (5/26/20)

Leela Gandhi’s “Skeptical Conditions” (6/1/20)

Romi Crawford’s “Connecting Breaths” (6/3/20)

Jenny Holzer’s “COVID-19 / EXPOSE” (6/8/20)

Ewan Jones’s “How to Learn Together, Apart” (6/12/20)

Hannah B Higgins’s “Sonic Images of the Coronavirus” (6/17/20)

Robert Gooding-Williams’s “Revisiting the Ferguson Report: Antiblack Concepts and the Practice of Policing” (6/19/20)

Lennard Davis’s “In the Time of Pandemic, the Deep Structure of Biopower Is Laid Bare”(6/26/20)


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

The Fragility of Democracy: Now Everywhere and Anywhere

Homi Bhabha

During the presidential election, Joe Biden made frequent references to the fragility of democracy. In his inaugural address, Biden returned to the subject. In the days between these repeated warnings of the perilous state of democracy, all Americans, and much of the rest of the world, witnessed the pageantry of the vandalism of the US Capitol on 6 January. Is the fragility of democracy any different from our ongoing apprehensions about the fate of democracy or the future of democracy? Does the phrase “the fragility of democracy” strike a different note of alarm?

I believe it does. The value of words lies in using them cautiously and reading them carefully. Phrases like the “future of democracy” anticipate the next chapter of the democratic experiment, however dark and difficult it may be. It may not be business as usual, but there is little doubt that our view of democracy is still in business. “The fragility of democracy” expresses the anxiety that, for the present moment at least, democracy, as a political idea and a repertoire of normative practices may not only be losing ground but losing the plot altogether. Well into February, three quarters of Republican voters still believed the lie that the election was stolen.

This has, of course, happened before, but each time it happens we have to rethink it in the moment by holding on to the shock of its iteration and interruption, rather than relegating the short moment to the long-known lessons of history.

There are moments in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life where Friedrich Nietzsche suggests something similar. Our reverence for monumental history and its longue durée, he argues, might prevent us from taking our place on “threshold of the moment,” standing on a single “point,” and hence recovering a necessary feeling of strangeness and “astonish[ment]” in confronting and conceptualizing the history of the present.[1] Without occupying the temporal threshold of strangeness and astonishment, contemporary history is in danger of becoming presentist, while monumental history is vulnerable to celebrating the archaic and the anticipated.

On 6 January, the Make America Great Again mob mounted an assault on electoral rights and democratic institutions in the name of “all Americans”—threatening to hang the vice-president in the process. They were responding, as the case for Donald Trump’s impeachment made plain, to a carefully crafted call to arms: “we fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump beat the war-drums to egg his followers on to fight the courts with frivolous petitions, to fight the constitution with fraudulent actions, to fight the election with insurrection.

The story doesn’t end there. Trump’s 6 January speech contains a dark racial conceit that suggests that America is now in danger of sinking to the status of a “third world country”—those nations that he had once called “shit-hole” countries: “It’s a disgrace. There’s never been anything like that.” Trump hollers: “You could take third-world countries. Just take a look. Take third-world countries. Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country. It’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.” After ranting against his bêtes noires—Biden, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton—Trump turns on those Black Americans, faux Americans to a person, as he sees it, who are most responsible for America’s impending “Third World” doom: “And then I had to beat Stacey Abrams with this guy, Brian Kemp. I had to beat Stacey Abrams. And I had to beat Oprah, used to be a friend of mine. . . . And I had a campaign against Michelle Obama and Barack Hussein Obama.”

The devil lurks in the details. You can almost hear Trump’s disdain: Are Black Americans really American citizens at all, or are they more like Third World peoples? Does Barack Hussein . . . Hussein . . .Hussein . . .even sound American to you? Trump never tires of asking. As I watched the insurrection in real time, the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer were never far from my mind. Why? Because the MAGA mob had chosen as their totemic symbol—their monument—the lynching gallows. The gallows and the Confederate flag were the standards they raised against the election result; it was the gallows and the confederacy that they associated with Trump’s restoration.

While the attention of the world was focused on the violent break-in at the Capitol, it was the gallows with its twisted, hanging noose, and its dire history of racial death, that caught my eye. “Hang them” and “Stop the Steal” were meant for Senate Democrats and Republican “Never Trumpers”; but the dire reality of American racial death haunted the MAGA monument of gallows and noose.

Black death by lynching or police chokeholds or shots in the back; and Native American death by genocide and territorial dispossession. Trump protesters mockingly appropriated “I can’t breathe”—Floyd’s dying words—to express their discomfort at being teargassed as they broke into the Capitol. In a tableau macabre, two MAGA members enacted Floyd’s death beneath a Black Lives Matter banner displayed at the National City Christian Church in D.C. before participating in the storming of the Capitol. “The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history,” Timothy Snyder writes in The American Abyss, his remarkable account of that January day.

The United States of America is by no means the only country vulnerable to the fragility of democracy. The insurrection at the Capitol signals the fragility of democracy in other ethnonationalist regimes across the world—most recently in Myanmar and repeatedly in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Israel, and Brazil. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all model for authoritarian regimes, but what they share are tyrannical leaders whose principal line of attack is an assault on minorities, migrants, and dissidents—a world of enemies. These leaders, populist narcissists to a man, share a political ideology that Hannah Arendt once described as “tribal nationalism”:

Tribal nationalism is introverted, concentrates on the individual’s own soul which is considered as the embodiment of general national qualities. . . . Tribalism . . . starts from non-existent pseudo-mystical elements which it proposes to realize fully in the future. It can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.

Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.[2]

While the world’s press was counting Trump’s lies—30,573 “misleading claims” in four years, The Washington Post reports—Trump’s rhetoric of untruth was loudly and restlessly doing its work. The untruths uttered by tribal nationalists—to whom majoritarian ethnonationalists bear a striking family likeness—have no real epistemic stakes in making a political argument; their ambitions are more performative than epistemic. To describe a public discourse as generating untruth or post-truth (Snyder’s term) does not mean that you affirm, in contrast to it, an absolute or universal realm of the truth. To shortcut this complex argument, let me resort to a common phrase—“to arrive at the truth”—that catches something of what I mean. To arrive at the truth is to acknowledge the long and hard journey of judgment: map reading; consulting a GPS, making decisions en route, starting the journey all over again. To arrive at the truth is as much duration as destination: a process of arguing, reflecting and judging on the grounds of evidence, facts, interpretations, and interventions. Self-doubt and epistemic uncertainty are essential parts of the process. Arriving at the truth is to subscribe to the verifiability of a framework of facts and values that commits you to making up your mind and to standing your ground. This is as true of the judicial process as it is of philological procedures and psychoanalytic practices. Untruth resists this difficult journey; its unverified end point exclusively serves its own interests; it rushes to allege and accuse because it refuses the duration that it takes to arrive at the truth.

To accuse tribal nationalists of not telling the truth is to miss the point that their arrogant self-concentration is only committed to selling themselves. Their public images and political brands are constructed to transgress party systems and transcend national interests. This, I think, is what Arendt means when she considers tribal nationalist leaders to be “introverted,” elevating themselves as “embodiments of general national qualities” at the cost of the multiethnic, interfaith traditions of a people’s “visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.”

Leaders who resist press conferences, who demand lofty platforms to rally the people as massed bodies, seek to turn citizens into sycophants and the people into partisan mobs. These leaders are arbiters of power who thrive on the arbitrariness of governance to keep citizens and residents in states of anxiety and unpreparedness in times of emergency. The Chinese government concealed the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan for weeks, leaving vulnerable inhabitants exposed to the virus, unprepared for the pandemic. The Indian government gave migrant workers and wage laborers four hours between 8 p.m. and midnight on 24 March to de-densify cities and head to their hometowns and villages to be locked down without any provision of food, money, or transport. Ethnonationalist rhetoric, in its rabble-rousing recruiting mode, is based on “non-existent pseudo-mystical elements”: COVID-19 will disappear like a miracle in April, Trump prophesied; Light a lamp for nine minutes on 5 April to ward off the pandemic, India’s Prime Minister Modi advised, and join in Vedic prayer: “Lead us from unreal to real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” Death, be not proud, just be untruthful, is the tribalist leaders’ adage.

When truths and facts are pitted against untruths and conspiracies, populist leaders and their followers brazen it out. Untruth disregards evidence, science, deliberation, and due process, because the tribalist promise to its own unique people—one against all—is the achievement of a racially pure and culturally homogenous nation in the future. Populist power, articulated in the language of untruth, wagers the perils of the present against a promised, yet provisional, future. There is always a political and psychic risk involved in such a promissory bet on an uncertain future—like Trump’s loss in the 2020 election— so the anxiety associated with future risk requires a blind belief in untruths uttered in the present moment. Time is as much an instrument of the tyranny of tribalism as it is the political manipulation of place and people. When the promise of the present doesn’t come to pass, then all hell breaks loose, and the intimidatory maneuvers of the police force assume a directly political role. In some countries the army is called in at this point and democracy dies. In others, the violence of electoral autocracy makes its symbolic presence felt in the hanging gallows and the swinging noose.

Make America great again; make India Hindu again; take back control and make Britain a sovereign nation again—it is the futurity of the again and the yet to come that drives tyrannical leaders to take risks with inflationary cycles of untruth and that put the lives and livelihoods of their followers at risk—over 315 members of the MAGA Capitol mob are facing criminal charges to date; over 500,000 Americans have died of the little flu that Trump insisted would not, and should not, change the way we live. This is to say nothing of the everyday risks faced by ethnic minorities, whom White supremacists see as a “world of enemies.” The January riot does not reveal the sudden fragility of American democracy; it is symptomatic of structural failures within American democracy. This is the American nightmare from which the American dream never fully wakes.

The shadow of death does not enter the corridors of power uninvited. When a political system hinders the people’s right to speak truth to power by alleging that dissent is sedition and protest is antinational—and that peaceful demonstrators are antipatriotic anarchists—then dogmatism and demagoguery destroy the checks and balances of representative democracy. The silencing of public voices and the devaluing of public reason open the door to untruths and conspiracy theories. Snyder puts his finger on the dangers of “pre-fascism” that lurks within ethnonationalist “tribal” democracies: In Snyder’s view:

Post-truth is pre-fascism. . . . A joint statement Ted Cruz issued about the senators’ challenge to the vote nicely captured the post-truth aspect of the whole: It never alleged that there was fraud, only that there were allegations of fraud. Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way. . . . Allegations define the lifeworlds of minorities mauled by indignity, inequality, and psychic injury. Allegations attached to skin color and race; allegations exploiting inequalities of caste and class; allegations against religious and political affiliations; allegations related to the embodiments of gender and sexuality. The content of conspiracist allegations may seem outrageously out of touch with negotiated realities, but conspiracists, amongst whom I include racists, set their clocks by these “facts”; they read the weather by these facts; they interpret causes and consequences in the light of these facts. To oppose conspiracy theory with the ballast of reason serves only as a foil for its own game of denial and victimhood, which is wired into the repetitive logic of allegation, allegations, allegations all the way. The content of allegations of allegations may seem outrageously untruthful but, as the poet Claudia Rankine writes, these “fantasies cost lives” as the American record of recent police killing of Black people attests:[3]

From Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, 2014), p. 134.

Systemic racism leans heavily on legal justice and policy reform, but the phenomenology of everyday traumatic racism—violent, iterative, interruptive, erratic—plays out on streets and neighborhoods: the quick stab of hate speech; the precarious moments of “stop and search”; the eight minutes and forty-six seconds it takes to kill George Floyd on the side of a public throughfare in Minnesota. These risky moments in which life and death hang by a thread—these risks to minority living that end up as a risk to minority life itself—find their voice in the haunting evocations of Rankine’s call to poetic justice. Because white policemen, protected by the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, cannot police their imaginations, Black people are dying. Black Lives do not Matter. This is a condition we might conceptualize as the burdened life, not Giorgio Agamben’s bare life.

Short measures of traumatic time, as the lyric form demonstrates, have an intense and encrypted existence. Institutional incidents of systemic racism are recorded in linear or evolutionary narratives of the progress of policy or the failure of political will—or vice versa. The risky uncertainty of traumatic racism takes a different form of time and place, which was perfectly captured by W. E. B. Du Bois over a century ago: “Now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta. That’s the hell of it.”[4]

Rankine’s poetic enactment of a Black encounter with the police is narrated in the temporality of the traumatic “chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta.” It happens in that brief, sudden moment of stop-and-frisk, before the police statement is written, before the union intervenes and the judge accepts the plea of reasonable doubt. Generations of cases filed against police officers accused of unlawful killings of Black men and women fail because of the legal provision of qualified immunity,  which inevitably determines the “truth” in favor of the police. Qualified immunity, granted by the courts and protected by police unions, has led to a situation that Noah Feldman makes no bones about: “The Supreme Court wants few lawsuits against the police to go forward”:[5]

A force within whiteness is forcing the whiteness

What is the feeling that pulls, that is pulling, that pulls it out, what sensation uncivilized the utterance. . .

Then the black person is asked to leave to vacate to prove to validate to authorize to legalize their right to be in the air in air in here and then the police help help the police is called help help

. . .

“NYPD Union Lawyers Argue That Eric Garner Would Have died Because He Was Obese,” New York magazine. . . . “Were he not overweight and asthmatic, they argue, he would have survived the violence to which he was subjected.”[6]

Post-truth kills: Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Traumatic racism keeps you anxious and uncertain, but it also keeps you vigilant in the cause of freedom and the witness of justice. James Baldwin knew this only too well, which is why his life and work were built around psychic and social risk. This is how he saw it:

[If] we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it’s not too much to say that he … must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?[7]

James Baldwin’s ethic of psychic and social risk is a mode of repair and reparation across races and ethnicities; it is picked up as much on the suddenness of the street as from narratives of literature and history. Whatever the psychic or social risk, White Americans must pay the price of giving Blacks unconditional freedom, now anywhere and everywhere, today in Boston, tomorrow in Atlanta, for that’s the price of the ticket. And Black Americans, as Baldwin says, must take the psychic and political risk of learning how to use the past, not drown in it—”to accept the fact . . . that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other.”[8]

Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, 1980), pp. 9, 8.

[2]Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1976), p. 227.

[3] Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Minneapolis, 2020), p. 329.

[4] W. E. B. Du Bois, “On Being Black,” The New Republic,

[5] Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal 127, no. 2 (2017): 6.

[6] Rankine, Just Us.

[7]James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York, 1993), p. 94.

[8] Ibid., p. 81.

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The Revolution Was Televised

W. J. T. Mitchell

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised.

–Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

The Trump-inspired insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 was a made for television event. In contrast to the revolution that Gil Scott-Heron was urging in 1971, it did not involve a change of heart or mind, much less a change of behavior. Showing up for a “wild time” was enough. Sticking to your guns, and better yet, bringing them along. Acting out and dressing up for a selfie was enough. Waving a flag and shouting slogans was plenty. Breaking a window, sitting on a dais, stomping on a fallen policeman was a bit extra. Scouring the office spaces for a member of Congress to kidnap or kill was more than enough, and setting up a gallows for Mike Pence was excellent theater.

The thirteen minute “supercut” of the video archive assembled by the House of Representatives’ impeachment managers condensed the entire spectacle, cross-cutting three distinct, simultaneous lines of place and time: (1) Trump’s speech near the White House with its incendiary call to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal” known as the peaceful transfer of power; (2) the main spectacle of the mob surging into the Capitol carrying the American flag along with banners of the Confederacy, QAnon, and Trump; (3) the quiet scenes of mounting anxiety inside the Capitol as the Congress realized that its defenses were crumbling. If an eighteen minute “gap” in an Oval Office tape recording spelled the end of the Nixon presidency, this thirteen minute video played the same role for Trump. His defense lawyers recognized this when they accused the house managers of employing professional film editors to manipulate and manufacture evidence.[1] 

The Trump epoch, gestated by reality TV and birthed by a popular vote defeat and an electoral college victory in 2016 ended with a spectacular bang not a whimper. Hopes that the defeated coward would slink away into retirement faded when he turned out to be the authentic psychopath and malignant narcissist that the American Psychiatric Association had been describing since before his election. Psychiatrist Jerrold Post’s final public appearance to promote his book about Trump, Dangerous Charisma, included precise descriptions of what would happen during the transition period between the election and the inauguration: not merely a refusal of the results but a manic spree of lawsuits, rallies, conspiracy theories, and threats of a military coup. Post‘s theory of charisma involves what he calls a “mirror psychosis” endemic to leader-follower relations. It is clearly one bridge (there are surely others) between individual and collective forms of madness. Charismatic individuals tend to be narcissistic in the first place, but when their wounded narcissism becomes malevolent, coupled with paranoia and grandiosity, they can become dangerous.  Especially when acted out with the powers of the American presidency. 

6 January 2021 exposed those dangers for all to see in the most completely televised revolution in human history. It will continue to resonate as more details surface from the archive and the time line is reconstructed down to the minute. The subgroups, lost souls, tourists, militants, and voyeurs will be exposed. Were you there to see or be seen? What did you really think would happen? What was the outcome you were hoping for? 

The behavior of the First Spectator of the event, bathing in enjoyment in the Oval Office will begin to fill in. We might learn how he felt about the gallows; we already know about his affection for monuments of the Confederacy. All his darkest desires were made manifest, bringing to the surface what had been lurking in his language all along, and in the specific American psychoses (racism, white supremacy, predatory capitalism). All the hints, metaphors of violence, and sly provocations suddenly became literal and spectacular; Trump’s lawyers tried in vain to remetaphorize the “fighting words” by creating a counter-montage of Democratic politicians using the word, as if context of utterance, speech as action, was irrelevant. 

We can hope that 6 January 2021 be the final spectacle of the Trump regime, its obscene underside finally exposed completely to view. The big question remains: What sort of beginning did it threaten? What did this unmasking of an endemic pathology in American national culture accomplish? Did it reveal an awful truth that has the capacity to awaken a nation to its own madness? Or will it (as many of the insurrectionists hope) stand as a historic triumph for White supremacy and fascistic nationalism? The very idea that a nation, much less an individual, could awaken from a collective psychosis may be impossible. The fact that the word woke has now become a sneer to chide anxious liberals is a sure sign of steadfast resistance and disavowal. The American dream, always a comforting delusion of an exceptional destiny, has become the American nightmare.

The television coverage created an unrivaled spectacle, emphasizing both the “big picture,” provided by the iconic architecture and landscape of the Capitol invaded by an overwhelming mob, and the innumerable little pictures, the closeups of agonized cops being stomped and crushed, the faces of frenzied rioters, the absurd images of militia members rifling through Senators desks and arguing about the meaning of the papers found there. Dozens of journalists armed with cameras accompanied the invaders, and the mob members themselves carried enough cell phone cameras to ensure that not a moment went unrecorded. Meanwhile, outside the building, rioters set about destroying the equipment of the main stream media (the “fake news”), blissfully unaware that the most comprehensive audio-visual archive ever made of an insurrection was being assembled in real time by their own traceable cell phones. 

How can we grasp the choreography of the masses that gathered to perform at a sacred national temple whose symbolism dates back to the founding of the “USA”? The crowd chanted those letters (and other three-syllable slogans coined by Trump—“Stop the Steal,” “Hang Mike Pence”) as the rhythmic accompaniment to its movements. Superficially, the crowd was a chaotic mob, in sharp contrast to the geometries of Siegried Kracauer’s “mass ornament” of the Tiller Girls’s precision line dancing, an emblem of capitalist rationalism. Or the massed dancers of George M. Cohan’s “It’s a Grand Old Flag”:

Trump’s mob was an exact inversion of Cohan’s dancers, following a more archaic choreography, complete with a charismatic cult figure (already being compared to a Golden Calf), a gathering, parading, and demonstrating the vulnerability of American democracy to a premodern style of military siege and sacrilegious ritual. Wall climbers and columns of militias snaking through the crowd led it toward access points of the sacred space, where sacrilege and the instruments of public execution were put on display.[2] Most notable was the relation of the Trump insurrection to the landscaping and architectural form of the Capitol. The crowd’s movements followed the geometric laws of political power as expressed in built space and the radial lines of force indicated in the Washington, D.C. street plan. The Capitol sits on a hill, the highest point in the city, visible from everywhere. It sits at the center of the enormous geometric web of radiating lines and concentric circles that emanate from it. If there is a symbolic center to American power, it is there, not the relatively modest White House or the Supreme Court.[3] The route of the crowd, from its starting point on the ellipse near the White House, precisely mapped the narrative of an insurrection incited and inspired by the executive branch against the legislative, reversing the normal direction of the inaugural parade. Abraham Lincoln insisted on continuing work on the great dome as a symbol of American unity during the Civil War, and the presence of Confederate flags waving under that dome gave the whole scene a sense of uncanny reenactment or of an alternate history and a possible future.[4] 

If the Capitol is primarily a place of assembly, the building itself is a kind of “assemblage” of the generic conventions of neoclassicism. No single architect of any note can be assigned as its “author.” Its history is one of constant renovation, expansion, and remodeling, often delayed or stymied by the contentions of the legislators assembled under its roof. All the same, the overall impression remains one of monumental unity, the central dome and two wings symbolizing the rational balancing of powers within the deliberative branch of the government, the House of Representatives standing for the rapid fluctuations of public opinion, the Senate symbolizing the more settled, “older” branch, resistant to the passions of the moment. As an architectural allegory of the nation and its constitution, it is the “first” and most important branch of the government, the place where the nation does its thinking––and therefore, where it periodically goes undergoes a “change of mind” induced by an election.

The analogy of architecture with the human body goes back at least as far as Vitruvius.[5] Exterior walls are the skin, the supporting structure is the skeleton, rooms are internal organs, the windows are eyes, the porches and doors are orifices for hearing/speaking, and the façade is the face. But the analogy does not stop with the individual body. In governmental structures, the metaphor extends to the “body politic,” a collective entity that, like an individual organic body, possesses a constitution that is more or less healthy, a structure that can endure and survive stress, just like a well-made building or a healthy body. The “framers” of the US Constitution regarded themselves as just that––architects of both structures and landscapes, and as designers of a mentally healthy body politic, constituted with a “balance of powers.” 

The dome is thus the most conspicuously readable feature in the analogy of building and body. It is the head, the skull under which the collective “brain” of the nation takes shelter. The circular row of columns that supports the dome are the “thousand eyes” of a panopticon, admitting light and scanning the horizon in all directions. The association of domes with sovereignty and the heavens goes back to ancient times, and in its modern, secularized form becomes a symbol of popular sovereignty by the demos, the rule of the people as contrasted with the (temporary) head of state in the White House.[6] The Capitol, therefore, is deliberately an open, rather porous structure at ground level. Just the opposite of a citadel or fortress, it is vulnerable to invasion by design, and radiates its power and attraction outward in all directions.

So the mass ornament of 6 January 2021 derived its meaning from the backdrop against which it occurred, the stage set, as it were. Despite the chaotic and random appearance of the crowd, it rapidly became clear that significant numbers of the mob were following a choreographed plan, namely to penetrate to the center of the building and seize by force the power it symbolizes on behalf of one man. The threats to “hang Mike Pence” and the efforts to locate various Democratic legislators and take them hostage or murder them were designed to literalize the metaphoric relations of building and bodies.  

Once inside the Capitol, the spectacle’s strange combination of absurdity and menace became evident. While some invaders were furiously searching through the offices for potential human targets, pounding on doors, others were like awestricken tourists, strolling through the Rotunda, carefully respecting the roped-off pathways across the open space. In the Senate chambers, rioters began quarreling among themselves about whether they should vandalize the space or respect its sacred character. One authoritative elder draped in military garb admonished his comrades that this was strictly an “informational mission,” and nothing should be damaged. A lone cop pleaded with the group to leave. And the QAnon Shaman howled like a banshee from the gallery above, then descended to arrange a photo op of himself occupying the chair of the President of the Senate. 

The historic character of this spectacle was rendered instantly legible, with the comparisons to the British invasion of Washington in 1812 leading the way on the nightly news, while the rioters themselves (and their media allies) presented their activity as a replay of 1776.[7] In the made for TV spectacle, members of the intoxicated mob posed for selfies, while masked stage managers lurked around the edges, coordinating siege routes for the masses. Many members of a crowd that would ordinarily refuse to mask themselves in recognition of the contagious virus, masked up to preserve anonymity like ordinary criminals. Others, recognizing the historical importance of the spectacle, wanted to brag about their presence at the overthrow of American democracy, and posed brazenly next to statues of presidents or stationed themselves in positions of symbolic authority, feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

Another aspect of the spectacle has to be acknowledged, one that might not occur to someone who is steeped (as is this author) in the aura of the Capitol.[8] What about those viewers who see that building, not as an allegory of democratic openness and freedom, but as itself a monument to American imperialism and white supremacy? The easiest way to reframe the spectacle in this way would be to image an alternate scenario. What if it had been Black Lives Matter marching down Pennsylvania Avenue? Does anyone think that a demonstration by people of color, Latinx immigrants, or Muslims would have penetrated the Capitol’s defenses so easily? Would the “optics” have been so accommodating?[9] Would some Capitol police officers have taken selfies with the protestors and ushered them into the building? The bizarre irony of a White supremacist mob overwhelming a citadel of white power takes the spectacle beyond mere shock into a surreal fantasy of some very dangerous chickens coming home to roost, clearly feeling that they had every right to be there. 

What will stick in memory? The mass against the backdrop of the Capitol? Or the individual portraits and the banners? What does it mean that Jacob Chansley, the QAnon Shaman, with his horns and Coyote pelt, has become the iconic figure? Was he there to personify the “mana” or magic of the mass?[10] 

Even for the most devoted insurrectionists, it put the whole spectacle in danger of becoming a clown show. In many ways this was the final Trump Carnival-as-Carnage, where Lords of Misrule and Anarchy have always been tolerated. The Shaman presents himself as an avatar of “native Americanism,” as a composite of animal attributes, elaborate Nordic tattoos associated with white supremacy, face painted with national colors. He is evidently a compulsive performance artist who has been showing up at Trump rallies for some time. But I wonder how welcome he was among the more serious insurrectionists, the ones who came for violence. It must have made them uneasy, as if he were presenting a satirical caricature of the event, rendering it not only a tactical military failure, but a symbolic fiasco.[11] The QAnon Shaman is also the Fool or Clown at the carnival, the “licensed Fool” who personifies the mad magical thinking of the tribe. One of Trump’s ex-lawyers tried to circulate a rumor that he was a member of antifa, carrying out a “false flag” operation.[12] But the flags––Trump and Confederate most notably––made it clear that this carnival was a symbolic reenactment of the American carnage of the Civil War that Trump invoked four years earlier at his inauguration. Has Trump come full circle?  Back to the clownish one-man band of his apprenticeship? Or are these images of a possible future, a rehearsal of sorts?

One issue that haunts this entire argument: What is the status of psychiatric language in diagnosing the American psychosis? The unleashing of psychiatric discourse into the public sphere is not without its dangers, a reduction of the language of mental illness too little more than polemic and accusation. On the other hand, as Jerrold Post argues, psychiatric understanding of anti-democratic, authoritarian leader-follower relations includes an ethical “duty to warn.” The Goldwater Rule, which protects the privacy of individual mental disorders from public exposure, clearly has to be revised for dangerous public figures. Those who are “woke” to the madness of the moment will have to adopt a politics of care for the enemy, and recognize that they too are inside the nightmare. We may want to put the dangerous leader in jail or at least keep him out of office. But we must try to understand his followers, to see the world through their madness. 

In short, it looks as if liberals have to find a way to care for our deluded fellow citizens with patience and firmness. There is something deeply rotten in the USA at this moment, reminiscent of the onset of the American Civil War. The daily news of families and long friendships falling apart over political differences, of shunning and censuring those few Republicans who stray from fealty to Trump is deeply alarming. Even more ominous is the strong majority of Republican legislators who, in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, actually voted to ratify the goals of the mob by nullifying the election. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency, supported by a narrow and fragile majority in Congress seems to signal a return to normal after the madness of the Trump epoch and its final episodes of plague and insurrection. But “normal times” are a comforting delusion we will have to move beyond if the republic, not to mention the planet, is to survive. After all, the status quo is a state of emergency for millions around the world.

A state of emergency is the new normal.

[1] See defense attorney David Schoen‘s speech to the Senate, “WATCH: David Schoen Defends Trump in Senate Impeachment Trial,” Youtube, 12 Feb. 2021,

[2] The Oath Keepers used a military tactic known as the “stack,” where a line of soldiers with arms on the shoulder in front of them penetrated to the front of the guard and led the break-in (Alan Feuer, “Oath Keepers Plotting Before Capitol Riot Awaited ‘Direction’ From Trump, Prosecutors Say,” New York Times, 11 Feb. 2021,

[3] The symbolism of Pierre L’Enfant’s “sacred design” for the layout of Washington D.C. has been documented exhaustively in Nicholas Mann’s The Sacred Geometry of Washington, D.C. (Somerset, 2006).

[4] See Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). 

[5] See Philip D. Plowright, “Extending Skin: Architecture Theory and Conceptual Metaphors,” ARCC Conference Repository (Sept. 2018):

[6] See Earl Baldwin Smith, The Dome: A Study in the History of Ideas (Princeton, N.J., 1950).

[7] The British actually set fire to the Capitol in 1814. A timely rainstorm prevented its from burning down. See The US Capitol Building website,

[8] I want to acknowledge the timely advice of Omar Kholeif in thinking through the final drafts of this very provisional essay.

[9] Paul Irving, Sergeant of Arms of the House of Representatives said he wasn’t comfortable with the “optics” of treating this as an emergency (Laurel Wamsley, “What We Know So Far: A Timeline Of Security Response At The Capitol On Jan. 6,” NPR, 15 Jan. 2021,

[10] For an account of the link between ancient ritual and revolutionary crowds, see William Mazarella, The Mana of Mass Society (Chicago, 2017).

[11] The QAnon Shaman was later accused of being an agent of antifa. The charge is false, and he has since expressed regret for being part of this.

[12] Trump defense lawyer Lin Wood appears to be the source of the “false flag” attribution of the insurrection to antifa moles.  The lie has been repeated across the right-wing media, including Fox News. See Spencer Sunshine, “I’ve Been Tracking the Far Right for Years. Then Lin Wood ‘Exposed’ Me as the QAnon Shaman,” The Daily Beast, 3 Feb. 2021, In the video documentation of the police being crushed by the mob in a tight corridor, the black clad Proud Boys (they dressed especially for the occasion) started chanting  “we are antifa,” as they pressed against the police. For the video track, see

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In Memoriam: J. Hillis Miller and the Hospitality of Criticism

W. J. T. Mitchell

J. Hillis Miller, a massively influential literary critic and theorist, passed away at his home in Maine on 9 February 2021.  Miller was the author of dozens of important scholarly books on American and English literature, including The Disappearance of God, Poets of Reality, The Linguistic Moment, and The Ethics of Reading. Miller was generally associated with the renowned Yale School of Deconstruction, along with Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida.  His work was central to a “golden age of theory” in the 1970s and ’80s that transformed teaching and research, not just in literary study, but across the humanities and social sciences.  During his long and storied career, Miller taught at Johns Hopkins University, then at Yale, and finally at the University of California, Irvine.  He was a cherished mentor and friend to numerous students, notable for his vast learning, serene patience with apprentice scholars, and irrepressible humor.

Hillis was the second reader of my dissertation on William Blake, which I defended in 1968.  After the passing of my director, the formidable Earl Wasserman, Hillis moved readily into the position of mentor and friend to me for the next half century.  I have met a lot of smart, even brilliant people in my long career in academia, but Hillis stands out above them all as the wisest man I have ever known.  His generosity was legion.  He could be a formidable debater, and his mastery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in both English and French was remarkable.  But he was always happy to return to the text alongside apprentice scholars and lead them into that marvelous labyrinth known as reading where he guided our searches for both the monsters and the hidden treasures.

I want to recall just one episode from that dark night of the soul known as graduate school.  I had arrived as a student in the Johns Hopkins English PhD program in 1964, exactly when Hillis was moving from his own long apprenticeship as a “phenomenological” reader toward the linguistic orientation of deconstruction—in short from a reader of minds to a reader of texts.  We were all learning the mantra of Georges Poulet, who taught a generation of critics to identify the cogito of the author:  “For Thomas Hardy the world is….[fill in the blank].”  In order to find this cogito it was of course necessary to read “every word that the author ever wrote,” a feat that I only accomplished once in my life, but Hillis must have done many times.  In his seminar on modern poetry we were discussing T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and one of my fellow students filled an awkward silence with the observation that Prufrock’s name, with its first name replace by a single letter, was an obvious sign of pomposity and class snobbery.  There was a long silence around the seminar table as we took in the implications of saying this in front of a distinguished professor with the name of “J. Hillis Miller.”   The student began to blush furiously and the rest of us buried ourselves in our books and notes, afraid to look up.  Suddenly a deep booming laugh broke the silence, and we looked up to see Hillis convulsed in laughter.  “You know,” he said, “I wonder why that never occurred to me before.”

This episode may help to explain why, many years later, a symposium at Irvine in Miller’s honor was organized around the permutations of the letter J.   Much of the symposium consisted of elaborate jokes and speculations about Hillis’s enigmatic initial, and what might have become of him if he had gone through life as plain “Joe Miller.”   My job as an iconologist was obvious.  I had to write about the shape of the letter J.  And so I wrote a paper for the symposium entitled “The Serpent in the Wilderness”[1] building upon Hillis’s observation about narrative design:   

Retrospective narration is then the retracing of a spatial design already there. That spatial design has been left as remnant after the events are over.   The meaning of such remnants is created magically, after the fact, when the results of an action that marked the world are seen.

–-J. Hillis Miller

What then, is the “shape of J”?  I argued that it was the trace of Miller’s own itinerary through texts, an incomplete U-turn that, when grafted to a second J would result in the familiar S-curve that is an invariable feature of British landscape painting and architecture, famously reinterpreted by Hogarth as the line of beauty, curiosity, and the shape of the devil’s pathway in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Hillis greeted this over-reading of his initial with characteristic generosity, noting that it could have been worse.  The juncture of a double J could have led to an image of circular race track where narrative progression would have been impossible.

Hillis was a long-time supporter of Critical Inquiry, both as a member of our editorial board and as an author.  His most famous essay, The Critic as Host” appeared in CI’s pages in 1977 as the opening salvo in what was to become a central debate in the coming decades.  The debate was launched at a famous session at the Modern Language Association pitting him against M. H. Abrams, whose magnum opus on British Romanticism, Natural Supernaturalism, had recently been published.  Many versions of the stakes in this debate have been proposed:  was it about the possibility of truth and certainty in literary interpretation?  The relation between critical frameworks and interpretive results?  The status of “obvious” and “univocal” meanings?  The relation of speech, writing, and consciousness?  The ethical relation of authors and readers?  Of readers and those who write about reading (critics, scholars, and interpreters)?  About language as a tool for communication, or as the environment in which human life is located? 

M. H. Abrams critique of Miller was entitled “The Deconstructive Angel,” a title that drew upon an allegorical dialogue in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Devil and Angel argue over their respective visions of the world.  Each accuses the other of imposing their metaphysics on the other.  The Angel’s vision of the Devil’s lot is of an “infinite abyss” with a burning city, “vast spiders,” and a fierce Leviathan “advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.”  When the Angel withdraws from the argument, however, the Devil finds himself “sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp. & his theme was, The Man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

As a Blake scholar, I always thought that Abrams had made a fatal mistake by labeling Miller the deconstructive Angel.  Everyone knew that Miller (along with every competent reader of Blake) was on the side of the Devil.  In fact, Blake ends the dialogue with a conversion experience:  “Note.  This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend:  we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense.”   Abrams and Miller remained particular friends for the rest of their days

I don’t know what contemporary readers will make of the Miller/Abrams debate from 1976, or Hillis’s tour de force of transforming the role of criticism from that of a parasite on literature into an expression of boundless hospitality to innovative readings, and new paradigms.  What I know for certain is that “The Critic as Host,” was published in Critical Inquiry in only its second year of existence, and helped to launch this journal as the critical host for numerous memorable debates and explosive new critical movements over the next half century.  Hillis continued to guide and inspire us well into the twenty-first century.  His life as a scholar, mentor, and friend will endure long beyond his passing.

W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry.

[1]Later published in the proceedings of the conference as “The Serpent in the Wilderness,” in Acts of Narrative, ed. Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman (Stanford, Calif., 2003), pp. 146-56.


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The Plastic Controversy

Ranjan Ghosh

In June 1833, Charles Darwin asked the captain of the HMS Beagle to delay the departure from Tierra del Fuego because a “strange group of granite boulders” had stirred his investigative and imaginative energy – “One of these, shaped somewhat like a barn, was forty-seven feet in circumference and projected five feet above the sand beach,” he later wrote.1 In his accounts of the voyage, Darwin described crystalline boulders of notable size and abundance near Bahía San Sebastian, south of the Strait of Magellan. Darwin was curious about the shape of the boulders and could not understand how they got there and this intense interest in granite is an expression of his geological and romantic imagination.

Surprise. Those large masses of rock were later called Darwin’s Boulders – erratic and enigmatic, speculative and romantic.  Geologically, Darwin attributed the “erratic to ice rafting,”2 but their enormity and strangeness added to their wild beauty, and they ignited Darwin’s post-Lyell geological temper and imagination.

Bizarre. Granite has its own complicated formations – unstable and not simple in its petrological origin as the granite controversy attests – “consisting of known materials yet combined in a secret manner, it is impossible to determine whether its origin is from fire or water. Extremely variable in the greatest simplicity, its mixture presents innumerable combinations.”3

Becoming. The granite genesis has its competing explanations: “magmatic (granites are igneous rocks resulting from the crystallisation of magma) and metamorphic (granites are the result of a dry or wet granitisation process that transformed sialic sedimentary rocks into granite), because granites are the result of ultra-metamorphism involving melting (anatexis) of crustal rocks.”4 When H. H. Read suggested that “there are granites and granites,”5 he was referring to an overwhelmingly variegated schematic emergence – something that stares back at us as a prospect for a petri-becoming.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “On Granite” (1784) speaks about the antiquity of earth, a nearly unfathomable processual build-up within the Earth’s crust—the romantic and scientific imagination in a becoming earth. He observes that “composed of familiar materials, formed in mysterious ways, its origins are as little to be found in fire as they are in water. Extremely diverse in the greatest simplicity, its mixtures are compounded in numberless variety.”6 Granite has its own mix of quartz, feldspar, and mica, as Goethe observed in “On Geology,” particularly the Bohemian, in which he tried to analyse the mysterious trinity of Dreieinheit. The solidity, interestingly, conceals a fluidity of coming together, a kinesis in mineralization.

Conglomerate.  The “word Granitgeschiebe indicates,” argues Jason Groves, that “these ‘granite boulders’ are neither conceived in terms of static form nor in terms of the anteriority of ruins but rather in terms of an ongoing movement of ruination; rather than as a substance, granite is presented as a thing in motion.”7 Goethe’s sensitivity to earth formations is revealed in his principle of incongruence, in which the earth is left to transform and transit in a complex geoerotics. Reflecting on such “mineral actants,” Groves observes further that “stones and rock formations present themselves, express themselves, transform themselves, let themselves be seen, produce themselves, spread themselves out, alter themselves, and conceal themselves [zeigensich, sprechensichaus, verwandelnsich, lassensichsehen, erzeugensich, verbreitensich, verändernsich, verbergensich]. In this drama of things, mineral agents take humans as accusative objects: they direct our attention, they address us, they come together to make formations.”8

But the fascination and fetish, imagination and indignation today, is with plastic, and an aggrieved and aggressive turn to plastic has brought us not before granite or Darwin’s boulders but a strange petri-kin in “plastiglomerate.” It is a mixture of plastic-intermateriality – surprising, bizarre, becoming, erratic, and aberrant. Like granite, it is the “plastic-controversy.” Granite and the plastiglomerates are deeply embedded each in their own way – poesis in petrology and the petrochemical. Plastic was formed a little more than a hundred years ago; it was made formative and formable; finally, it forms itself. Today, like Darwin’s and Goethe’s granite, plastiglomerate comes through as a romantic rock, speculative and spectacular, with its distinct geological aesthetic.9 Like Goethe’s erratic granite (umherliegendeGranitblöcke, and Granitgeschiebe) and Darwin’s errant boulders, plastiglomerate – as an idiorhythmic emergence – signals a fresh poesis in geopoetical thought and the lithospheric imaginary. Living through inhuman time, we are attuned to a nonhuman surge and profusion both on land and in water. Humans had their event with plastic and now the whole of Earth is an event itself. If granite is the Ur-stone, plastiglomerate is the novice stone, the controversial stone. One demonstrates geological plasticity, the other a kind of plastic materialization – both attesting to an extraordinary geological becoming.

Plastiglomerate, this new-found geo-reality, is a product of hardened molten plastic holding sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris, natural debris, and sedimentary grains. If sedimentary or igneous rock speaks about the impact that a changing earth had on its own formations, plastiglomerate leaves behind the traces of a predatory human species and what it did to extinguish itself through an invention that ensured an eventual ruin. Patricia Concoron and Charles Moore admit that plastic melts beyond recognition in some plastiglomerates and in some it is still visible and recognizable as “netting/ropes, pellets, partial containers/packaging, lids, tubes/pipes, and confetti.”10 Embrittled remains– in the form of containers and lids, ropes, nylon fishing line, and parts of oyster spacer tubes– countenance the rock identity.

If granite grew out of a blend of quartz, feldspar, and mica – building its own mineralization with certainty and mystery– then the materials identified in the formation of the plastiglomerate speak of a larger story of civilization and its discontents and of a febrile controversy in the making:  a “kind of junkyard Frankenstein.”11 In the spirit of transcendental geology, standing on ground that has always been a dynamic ungrounding, we are left to ask: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks?12 As plastic is made to sieve through into the remotest nonhuman corners of this planet, the subterranean infiltration is no less emphatic – call it plastiturbation. Within anthropogenic morphostratigraphy, we have human inputs influencing sedimentation and the lithoscape. Imagine reading in a future textbook:

The history of the Earth can be read in the pages of geologic layers, built up sediments, igneous volcanic flows, rock stacked and folded until strata are formed. Each layer deciphered is an understanding of a past moment of natural history. In the year 2855 CE, a startling discovery was made that unfolded the mystery of what happened over 10,000 years ago, revealing clues of what happened in a time our popular press has come to call “The Age of Grease.” It was a time when fossil fuels were sucked out of the earth, dug out of the earth to drive a civilization towards its demise. A layer of brilliantly colored substances was found sandwiched between layers of rock: substances that civilization called “plastic”. The layer which is so distinctive that our geologists and archaeologists have come to call it a discontinuity, a term used to describe nonconforming conditions. Hence, “The Plasticene Discontinuity” is aptly named. 13

The interesting part of this development is in seeing how rocks that signaled inhuman time come to be humanized through the material remnants of a particular species. If geological imagination aspires to make the scalar and stratigraphic developments comprehensible to us, plastiglomerate evokes a new imagination that projects its own post-anthropocenic potentials – a future that will talk only about the past. “Plastifossilization” is a relentless and inexorable process that recharacterizes an already unstable earth that is a “compilation machine, an assembly line,” where “trash, construction debris, coal ash, dredged sediments, petroleum contamination, green lawns, decomposing bodies, and rock ballast not only alter the formation of soil but themselves form soil bodies, and in this respect are taxonomically indistinguishable from soil.”14 Plastic seepage and sedimentation keep changing the soil’s character and habit – plasticization of the soil-ego – to create a deterritorialized Earth weighed down by irrevocable plastic sink. Earth’s deep time, hence, is increasingly invaded by plastic time. Besides its nonplasticity and decay-resistant trajectory, this time includes forces that are global, capitalist, economic, and political. The processes that make the Earth’s crust chemicalize differently involve a temporality of a different order as soil organisms, including plants, face a different order of existence and expiry. When other fossilizations generated interest in the earth depths, tele-plastic fossilization has left us frozen in options: deposition as depravity, consequences as controversy. Plastiglomerate, however, announces no abrupt collapse of time and historical distance in understanding; it speaks of a clear trajectory of evolution even in the last sixty years, wedging the subject and the object together – the antiromantic formulation of reversal of subjectivity where the object formation has its own precise scientific understanding and clear heuristic discourse on the relational map with a transforming object. Plastic geolayering has its own telematic genealogy. It is here that a controversial parallelism builds between the plastic materiality and biological plasticity, where running away from plastic is always already a running into plastic. The plastic hardwaring of Earth develops its own vanishing and expiry moments, points of sustainability, composite fractures – a kind of ‘variantology.’15

The plastic objects swept up and unearthed reveal the threshold points of anthropogenic understanding of Earth and its elementality and phenomenality. It is in the exceeding of the scope of human knowledge and systems of representation that Amanda Boetzkes finds an “excess of the earth.”16 The elemental in artwork encourages a fresh sense generation where nature comes to create its own forms of representation that challenges our limits of understanding about what makes an intelligible form. Plastic nature never returns to itself, it merely re-turns. It is strange to itself and has become its own alterity. The plastic stones and the geo-sea profile come to reinforce our sheltering within the elemental. John Sallis points out that “fleeing to one’s home as a storm approaches does not allow one to escape from the storm but only to shelter oneself from its force. Cultivating the field, fishing in the sea, and cutting wood in the forest do not open a path beyond the field, the sea, or the forest but rather constitute certain kinds of human comportment to these elementals in which one is encompassed.”17 Fleeing and staying away from plastic is to dwell in the plastic elemental.

The plastic controversy questions: How could a toothbrush or nylon rope get into a particular rock? What force and instant synergized with the melting of the rock, the temperature gradient, the flow, the molecularity, the seepage and the conjugation? The interlocking of matter is unstable, unpredictable, and dynamic. If plastic clams its way into the digestive system of a fish and clanks out a space in the human body, it clings to rocks in exquisitely esoteric forms too. The earth delivers the unknown – plastiglomerate, in that sense, is a controversial event. Plastic at large, in its nonlaboratory avatar, is not limited to hylomorphic materialism. The turn to plastic has become a turn to composite plastic, dynamic multiform plastic, and nonstructural plastic in the sense of exceeding forms beyond human cognition and imagination. Where do we identify the connectors between a plastic toy and the degraded ghost of its own form after unknown periods of forcible weathering? How does the toothbrush we use relationalize with the frayed and frumpy toothbrush in the body of the plastiglomerate? Jeremy Skrzypek points out that in hyloenergeism “a material object is not itself an activity or process; it is something composed of matter, which comes into existence when that matter is engaged in a certain activity or process. Understood mereologically, a material object is composed of both its matter and the activity or process that is occurring in that matter.”18 Plasticofutures, through synchronic mineralization, reveal altplastics that infuse each other through substructural changes and processual energy. The figurality of plastic as an event (in the sense of a formation) and as an occurrence (as a state of occurring) emphasizes the “endurantist account of the persistence of material objects.” There is a chance in the indifference of altplastics, the hasard objectif (objective chance) – a sudden confluence point of contrasting objects. It’s the random in a process, causality not without probability. Mark the nylon-inscribed plastiglomerate.

Here is a displacement of agency that the invention of plastic a hundred years ago had never envisaged. The nylon-stamped rock announces a distant human hand to it. It’s both about how the Earth separates from its inmates and from itself; altplastics remind Earth how it can surprise itself and be its own cause of wonder. Isn’t that controversial enough?

Ranjan Ghosh teaches in the Department of English, University of North Bengal. His forthcoming book The Plastic Turn will be published by Cornell University Press in 2022.


1 Richard A. Lovett, “Darwin’s Geological Mystery Solved,” Nature, 20 Oct. 2009.

2 Edward B. Evenson et al., “Enigmatic Boulder Trains, Supraglacial Rock Avalanches, and the Origin of ‘Darwin’s Boulders,’ Tierra del Fuego,” GSA Today 19 (Dec. 2009):  4-10.

3 See Heather I. Sullivan, “Collecting the Rocks of Time: Goethe, the Romantics and Early Geology,” European Romantic Review 10, nos. 1-4 (1999): 346.

5 Guo-Neng Chen and Rodney Grapes, Granite Genesis: In Situ Melting and Crustal Evolution (Berlin, 2007), p. 4.

6 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “On Granite (1784),” in The Essential Goethe, trans. pub., ed. Matthew Bell (Princeton, N.J., 2016), p. 913; my emphasis.

7 Jason Groves, “Goethe’s Petrofiction: Reading the Wanderjahre in the Anthropocene,” Goethe Yearbook 22 (Rochester, N.Y., 2015): 95-113.

8 Ibid.

9 See Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Ideology (Ithaca, N.Y., 2010). See also Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (New York, 1997). 

10 Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore, and Kelly Jazvac, “An Anthropogenic Marker Horizon in the Future Rock Record,” GSA TODAY 24 (June 2014): 4-8.

11 Angus Chen Jun, “Rocks Made of Plastic Found on Hawaiian Beach,” Science, 4 June 2014.

12 See Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth after Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? (New York, 2008). See also The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History (New York, 2010).

13 Judith Selby and Richard Lang, “Plasticene Discontinuity.” Plastic Forever.

14 Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis, 2015), p. 110.

15 Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), p. 7.

16 Amanda Boetzkes, The Ethics of Earth Art (Minneapolis, 2010), p. 3.

17 John Sallis, Elemental Discourses (Bloomington, Ind., 2018), p. 95.

18 Jeremy W. Skrzypek, “From Potency to Act: Hyloenergeism,” Synthese , 21 Jan. 2019, p. 28.

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It Could Be So Much Worse

Pato Hebert and Alexandra Juhasz

From: Patrick Hebert

Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

Hi Alex,

Sorry for slow reply. School has been extremely difficult and I’m having 1-2 medical appointments daily, including rescheduled endoscopy and colonoscopy on Mon for ongoing GI challenges.

In terms of your prompts, for me, the photos I’ve been making are the embodiments of many of the questions you are asking.

What is a COVID body? Who is a COVID person? What is the value of COVID disclosure? They are less literal and textural, and very ambivalent. Is the body always human or can it be land? What do living relations and public space (parks) have to teach us about time, access, endurance, cycles, the human (and therefore dis-ease) in perspective?

I see the PPE as embodiments of care. When in touch with the ground or shrub growth they become something else, somewhere between fallen (accident) and abandoned (agency). No longer of practical use, now of environmental destruction, they slide between the titles of the two series—Disembodies and Lingering. They have many attendant feelings and states. Sadness, wonder, gratitude, concern, hope, fear, appreciation, curiosity, attentiveness, doubt, loneliness, connectedness. And as my friend Reid Gómez so astutely observed early on in the work, the land is very present. The human body (COVID or otherwise) is absented in the most obvious, representational forms but ever implied. The virus and pandemic are at once abstract and visceral, everywhere and nowhere, immediate and endless. And, of course, isolation. Ghosting. Care that is essential and not enough. The limits of the human.

I’ve attached but a few images. I continue to make more. Or maybe they, and COVID, make me. Saw gastroenterologist, neurologist and acupuncturist this week. The lingering is exhausting. 

From: Alexandra Juhasz
Sent: Saturday, December 13, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Patrick Hebert
Subject: Re: some prompts

I’m sad about all your appts, but glad you are being seen.

I get to see hives dr. at long last on Tuesday.

I’m attaching a response to and enlargement of the writing you sent to me.

In this experiment, I’ve used our email exchange as a format for socially distanced attention, respect, and learning.

Since March, our interactions over text, email, phone, Zoom, PowerPoint, and shared Word docs, have been places of ongoing comfort for me. 

I have found in you a wise and attentive ally who brings your new experiences of the body to long-learned interpretations of the body politic.

It has been startling, frustrating, and saddening to see how knowledge hard-won through AIDS activism does not simply carry over into our struggles with another virus.

I am most curious, today, to think alongside you about COVID-19 stigma.

We have both been practicing disclosure since the first weeks of the US pandemic.

And yet, each and every time I do it—come out with COVID in a Zoom room, express that I am sure that others have or have had COVID, have suffered and lost loved ones—it stays equally, or perhaps even more taboo, and yet always somehow also experienced as a relief.

At a recent event with the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective, I expressed to those in the Zoom room that I was becoming increasingly perplexed by COVID stigma and a related lack of disclosure.

The pressure not to tell is definitive. 

The sense that I am dirty or have done something wrong is palpable.

It is clear that my words of disclosure will muddle an unstated and shared contract rooted in hygienic fear and oozing control.

But why? Where does this come from?

This is not the same as AIDS stigma, given that virus’s close connections to sex and drugs.

With COVID—while real-time reporting has made clear that the poor, the worker, the brown, the aged are suffering and dying disproportionately—we also see the most powerful contract the illness.

Fellow-Doula, Nick D’Avella suggested that COVID stigma is generated by a neo-liberal commitment to and investment in self-care and regulation.

I think this is true.

You and I, the COVID body, are asked to be ashamed of not managing properly; we must close the spread.

We are requested to repress contagion’s symptoms: its sores, fevers, fears.

And, oddly, we are also pressed to tell and show all, as part of a mystical act of warding off.

As if our revelations can hold the space for all future violations.

Why should I be ashamed of having COVID?

I caught it in early March on a train, or in a store, or at an expensive restaurant, or in my living room, or in bed with my partner. At a movie?

Maybe I didn’t catch it: I was never tested. In March, only the ill suffered this verification.

I am not ashamed of having COVID. I am an AIDS activist and viral shame’s mandate is racist, homophobic bullshit with a history of destruction, pain, and indifference I know too well to re-engage. My defiant pivot into disclosure is a podium that starts from privilege: that I “got better,” have a job, am white, like to write (with you.)

Our writing is a privilege: a public, inter-active disclosure that might be holding a place and promise for more.

Thinking with you is part of what keeps me most alive,

and yet this runs aside your enduring illness.

Your images help me see your pain, and also healing.

Your fear, and also calming.

Your isolation, and also connection.

But I’d rather you were well.

I look forward to your thoughts.



From: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Tuesday, December 22, 2020 1:05 AM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

From: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

Dear Alex,

I’d rather I was well too. I wish I could undo my own ableist underpinnings therein, even as I also wish that some combination of rest, mindfulness, acupuncture, naturopathic supplements, Western pharmacology and countless care from beloveds could undo all that COVID continues to unravel in this body.

Buddhism teaches me to make room, to cultivate spaciousness for the uncertainty, discomfort and many feelings that arise on the ronacoaster.

I am reminded not to cling to outcomes like getting “well,” to not be averse to the nasty flare-ups I still experience. I practice sitting (or slumping, or stumbling, or striding—and weeping) with this COVID body in its many shifting states. I recall old urban slang for the remarkable: “That’s sick!” It makes me laugh, and heed that inversions hold open the prospect of something else arising from the here and unwanted.

Still, I wish I trusted our words and images to be enough, because thinking and feeling with you is part of what keeps me alive too. “And yet this runs aside your enduring illness,” you write. Yes. And what comes to me as I read your caring wisdom is that it also runs inside my enduring illness as well as the broader pandemic. Lingering is the name I have come to use for one of these photographic series.

I might also call it a body, a body of work. Like my (this) body, it is a series of uncertainties, a series of possibilities.

Living with COVID is not only about discomfort, frustration, impatience, yearning, or concern. There can also be enduring, healing, revelation, learning, and pleasure. But so much is disorienting and unknown. Long COVID is a dispiriting and confusing lingering. This reveals my temporal and spatial preoccupations. I have been living somewhere between the unpredictable, the possibly chronic, and an inverted now. But I am living, as fully as I can and then some.

A few weeks ago, my students gave each other a lovely prompt for their weekly writing reflection: “Has there ever been a time when you felt like a part of your body was not yours?”

I do not feel that this body is mine, in the sense of being anything I possess or control. But I also don’t feel that it is COVID’s. We now belong to each other and to something more. This is a bit like the way that we are fortunate to steward land (not own or extract or vanquish it), and perhaps even belong to a place with time and care.

I am trying to sit with the longing and belonging, the bodies and disembodiments that come with COVID. A lover once told me that he wanted to own his HIV. He meant that he didn’t want it to get the best of him, didn’t want being poz to be the primary determinant of his life. This was in the mid-late 1990s, and I think he also meant that he did not want to die.

I often think about his agency and resolve, even as I desire no ownership over COVID. When I walk the park and pay attention to the things that can be found there, the land helps me to feel connected to another kind of enduring, seasonal cycles and geologic time, things much larger than this moment. And then the PPE bring me back. Masks, soil, shimmering light, a COVID body.

Where does the COVID body belong? What is it that COVID undoes? What is undue on this never-ending timeline of lingering? I want vaccines and relief packages and universal healthcare. These political and structural necessities are vital. Yet I have learned to stop grasping at I will be healthier if, things will be different when, we will be better because …

COVID feels like an endless sky of uncertainty. Perhaps this is the COVID body. In the parlance of the day, our bodies got receipts. Our bodies are receipts.

Of course, there is nothing uncertain about 318,000 COVID deaths in the United States alone. Any talk of the COVID body must contend with these COVID bodies. Our dead, disproportionately brown, Black, Indigenous, elderly, poor. Devastating. Yet we don’t all die. 76.8 million people are infected worldwide, and it is estimated that at least 10% of us are COVID long haulers. How will we get ready for a few more years or a decade or generation or lifetime of the recovering COVID body? Are we ready?

We cannot get there, without being here.

A colleague recently commented on what she sees as my tenacity and grace. I told her that I don’t feel that way at all. I was tired that day. I was asked how I’m doing while on camera in a 1:1 breakout room. I could barely stop from crying in the face of the question, my condition, and my utter exhaustion. My not crying was not about tenacity or grace. It felt more banal, an effort to simply stay on (the) call, manage the basics.

If I expressed the fuller truth, if I cried, all those frightened non-COVID bodies might collapse under the details, our density and duration, the intensity and the agony. They just want to be reassured. But some days I don’t have any reassurance to offer. Only resilience.

I am not dead. I am profoundly uncertain. I have moments of hope amid deep ambivalence. I am curious. I have no idea what to prioritize, or even when or how to return this message. Sometimes I don’t give a damn about anything. Whole hours disappear and I have no idea why or what has happened.

The fog.

When I disclose, as I often do in Zoomed group settings, I find that the uninfected sit back and go quiet or offer murmured condolences, while the infected lean forward into their own imminent disclosures and a desire to connect. We survivors are often restrained and weary, yet also stretching and eager. It seems many haven’t had the space to reveal their experiences with COVID. They ask if we can talk 1:1, later, compare notes, exchange strategies and resources. There is a sharing, a solidarity, that pushes against the loneliness, hurt, and angst. It can help to know someone else is going through something similar. To be believed from jump. To meet someone who’s had it longer than you and is still going. To not have to translate.

The stigma you write about is real, the shunning that so many people experience, the shame. The “How did you catch it …” tinged with “How could you?” The virus’ threat and people’s fears converge in our infected flesh, a flesh that to others feels neither warm nor cold because it is mediated by the screen. COVID’s constant disembodiment cum abstraction.

I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of the screen as a form of care. If we cannot gather or travel or touch as we’d like, the screen becomes as important as masks, and just as normalized yet alienating.

I’m trying to understand the isolation that is endemic to COVID, and how little the needs of the infected are foregrounded when media and public health talk of quarantine. Isolation and control are the structure of the plot and the protocols—protection of the uninfected—not consideration, connection, and care of the recovering. No wonder stigma is produced on endless loops. We hear far too little about the nuances of harm reduction, the dangers of shaming and fear as strategies of safety.

The voices of the coronavirus that do get featured too often bounce between the tropes of pitiful, lucky, or heroic. Mostly we are seen as vectors of infection and a risk to others, not agents of and partners in change. And for the long-haulers, we disrupt the dichotomy of dead or recovered, sick or well, risky or safe.

You and I often talk about people’s voracious fascination with the parading of symptoms. Perhaps this cataloguing animates in part because it makes COVID more real. The detailing or worrying or reciting through the screen brings the “it” that is COVID back into the body. But I think this is also part of why stigma persists. People’s fear and collective suffering are brought to bear on the individual body. The COVID body. We don’t see or experience people infected with COVID spending time and space with one another. Nary a long hauler march, or even a small gathering. Isolation. Beyond the specter of the ER’s triage is the mirage of long hauling.

If I can stigmatize that body—over there, on the other side of the screen—then COVID can’t be me, and I have no accountability or reciprocity, just the Corona Games of survival, la COVIDa loca.

Are narcissism, stigma and greed the COVID body? Isolation, worry, distance? Diligence and fierceness, instability and porosity, beauty and persistence? The body of best intentions. The body as shared aerosol. The body of amalgamations. The body as plural, ecological, lyrical, vulnerable, incidental, magical, speculative, tentative, developmental. The COVID body of becoming.

My neurologist offered me a new medicine that used to be prescribed in large doses in psychiatric treatments but was later discontinued. It’s now being used in the COVID care clinic as part of an experimental approach to headaches, insomnia, and brain fog. Check, check, check. For some patients it seems to help, for reasons that aren’t yet understood. I’ve only been on it a week. We’ve doubled my dosage and will continue to add 10 mg in exploratory stages. I can’t yet tell if it’s working.

The neurologist also mentioned another med that can help with my bouts of crying. But it can conflict with and counteract the first med so she says we should hold off for now.

Then she reminded me that anxiety and depression are very common in COVID long haulers. This, too, is the COVID body. Anxious and depressed. Not only, but typically. She asked if I have a therapist.

For months I’ve had a GI surgery scheduled for tomorrow. But it’s just been postponed due to the COVID surge that has left Southern California’s ICU capacity hovering dangerously close to 0%. All non-essential surgeries cancelled. Los Angeles has become COVID’s epicenter, a cauldron of accelerating suffering. The gastroenterologist counters the surgeon, says that maybe I don’t need the surgery after all, that perhaps my guts are just experiencing the lingering effects of COVID and things will improve with time. “You’re doing all the right things. Keep exercising and adjusting your diet, and let’s see how things are in a few more months.” Inflammation. Confusion. Lower abdominal rumbles playing hide-and-seek.

These, too, are the COVID body, as are the blood draws and endless bills, the future appointments with the pulmonologist and acupuncturist. Follow-ups.

How are your rashes?

Un abrazo,


To: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Tuesday, December 28, 2020 1:05 AM
From: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: The COVID Body poem-list and other notes

Dear Pato:

Can you believe it? My hives appointment has been cancelled and rescheduled yet again.

I realize I’ve had these grotesque, flowering, burning eruptions of skin, everywhere multiplying, since summer. So macho am I, that for months I simply overlooked them, naming them as bug bites. Then, over more months: I endured. They will and do pass.

Perhaps they—like the after-menopause bleeding that also began this summer, which I’ve monitored and treated with sonograms, pelvic exams, a DNC in a surgery ward, visits to a gynecological oncologist, hormones, late-life maxi-pads, and ever more COVID-aware follow-up visits—are an enduring symptom of the undiagnosed COVID that no one, let alone me, understands.

And yet, it could be so much worse. 

I endure these real indignities, threats, symptoms in the small gratitude and niggling embarrassment of my privilege: aware that for others, for you, for the dead, for the intubated, for the poor, for the families, for the uninsured, my COVID body is an easy price to pay.

I am learning that this calculus—it could be so much worse—is the logic and lifeblood of the sick and shameful COVID body. Words as a talisman; as a way of not having to see the self; as a method to honor and acknowledge the other; as a tactic, when so few are available, to name the structural imbalances of race, class, health, and education that make our distinct COVID bodies.

But as your work and words reminds me: the earth, time enduring, the trees, the sky, the colors and textures of pleasure and solace, all meet us through great imbalances. Their unequal scales create horizons by which humans can also make sense of our pain, our place, our commitments—by embracing them.

And as crazy as this dissymmetry is: I am so appreciative each time you ask after my lowly, silly hives; in turn, I ask back about your bones, surgeries, brain. I learn with you how to hold the particularities of pain, the possibilities of power, the certainties of oppression, and the joys of life, in one shared unequal embrace; a different logic for COVID bodies; one I hope we can pursue as a COVID politics, also unfolding. 

with love, alex

NOTE: Second to last image is by Alexandra Juhasz, 2021. All other images are by Pato Hebert, from the Lingering and Disembodies series, 2020.

Pato Hebert is an artist, teacher, and organizer. His work explores the aesthetics, ethics, and poetics of interconnectedness. He has exhibited in galleries, museums, and community spaces around the world. He is currently working on projects about nuclear energy, American football and resistance to colonialism. He has also worked in grassroots HIV prevention initiatives with queer communities of color since 1994. He serves as Chair of the Department of Art and Public Policy at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. You can follow him on Instagram @volandito.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Author and/or editor since 1995 of scholarly books on activist media in light of AIDS, black lesbian and queer representation, feminism, and digital culture, she also makes videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy as well as producing the fake documentaries The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Cheryl Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about feminist internet culture and AIDS with two recent books: AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, co-edited with Jih-Fei Cheng and Nishant Shahani (Duke University Press, 2020), and We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production, with Ted Kerr (forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2021).

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An Era of Pandemics? What is Global and What is Planetary About COVID-19

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Let me state at the outset the point that I wish to get across in this short essay.

The current moment of the COVID-19 pandemic belongs not only to the global history of capitalism and its destructive impact on human life, but it also represents a moment in the history of biological life on this planet when humans are acting as the amplifiers of a virus whose host reservoir may have been some bats in China for millions of years. Bats are an old species, they have been around for about fifty million years—viruses for much, much longer. In the Darwinian history of life, all forms of life seek to increase their chances of survival. The novel coronavirus has, thanks to the demand for exotic meat in China, jumped species and has now found a wonderful agent in humans that allows it spread worldwide. Why? Because humans, very social creatures, now exist in very large numbers in big urban concentrations on a planet that is crowded with them, and most of them are extremely mobile in pursuit of their life opportunities. Our history in recent decades has been that of the Great Acceleration and expansion of the global economy in the emancipatory hope that this will pull millions of humans out of poverty. Or at least that has been the moral justification behind the rapid economic growth in certain nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. From the point of view of the virus, however, the environmental disturbance this has caused and the fact of human global mobility have been welcome developments. Humans may win their battle against the virus––I really hope they do––but the virus has already won the war. This is no doubt an episode in the Darwinian history of life. And the changes it causes will be momentous both in our global history and in the planetary history of biological life.

The Global: Great Acceleration and the Emerging Era of Pandemics

That we did not have this tragic global pandemic a decade or so ago now appears to have been purely a matter of human luck. A team of scientists in Hong Kong warned the scientific community some thirteen years ago, in 2007, that because coronaviruses were “well known to undergo genetic recombination” that could lead to “new genotypes and outbreaks,” the “presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”[1] The warning was not heeded.[2] The “most crucial factor” about SARS-CoV, remarked David Quammen in Spillover (2012), was the way it affected the human body: “Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after, that person becomes highly infectious.”[3] “The much darker story,” Quammen observed, “remains to be told” (S, p. 207). Scientists were guessing that when the “Next Big One” came, it would likely conform to the opposite pattern: “high infectivity preceding notable symptoms” (S, p. 207). The “moral” is his finding, Quammen thought, was this: “If you are a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the Next Big One arrives” (S, p. 290). Prophetic words, but nobody was listening in either 2007 or in 2012.

Pandemics and epidemics have accompanied humans ever since the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Hunter-gatherer communities also suffered some infectious diseases, but, “like the sparse populations of our primate relatives, they suffered infectious diseases with characteristics permitting them to persist in small populations, unlike crowd epidemic diseases.”[4] Agriculture with the concomitant domestication of animals played “multiple roles in the evolution of animal pathogens into human pathogens.”[5] Humans have seen many epidemics and pandemics since the rise of agriculture. But the difference today is this: These crises of the past “were once separated by centuries, or at least many decades,” write the infectious-diseases specialist David Morens and his coauthors in a recent paper, but the emergence of these diseases is now becoming more frequent.[6] Beginning from 2003, Morens and his colleagues recount the outbreak in seventeen years of at least five pandemics or potential pandemics in the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, 2003), “a near pandemic;” an influenza pandemic (H1N1 pdm, 2009), a chikungunya pandemic (2014), a Zika pandemic (2015), and a “pandemic-like extension of Ebola over five African countries” (2014–2015) (“P,” p. 1). They grant that “the meaning of the word ‘pandemic’ has recently been reinterpreted according to differing agendas,” and yet conclude with words that stare us in the face: “It seems clear that we now live in an era of pandemics, newly emerging infectious diseases, and the return of old contagious foes” (“P,” p. 1). A more recent paper by Morens and Anthony Fauci comes to the same conclusion:

Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases have been threatening humans since the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. . . . Ancient emerging zoonotic diseases with deadly consequences include smallpox, falciparum malaria, measles, and bubonic/pneumonic plague. . . . [But] the past decade has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions: H1N1 “swine” influenza (2009), chikungunya (2014), and Zika (2015), as well as pandemic-like emergence of Ebola fever over large parts of Africa (2014 to the present) . . . . One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era.[7]

All of the pandemics named here, and Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS that emerged into humans from dromedary camels in 2012, are zoonotic in origin––they are infections that have resulted from viruses and bacteria switching hosts from wild animals to humans, sometimes via other animals. A 2005 inquiry found that “zoonotic bugs accounted for 58 percent” of 1,407 “recognized species of human pathogen” (S, p. 44). A 2012 review of the sixth International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses, held in Cancun, Mexico, on 24–27 February 2011 with eighty-four participants from eighteen countries noted that “some 75 percent of emerging zoonoses worldwide” were of “wildlife origins.”[8] It further remarked: “With 1.5 billion animals being imported into the United States each year, as well as an extensive international illegal animal exports . . . EcoHealth has become a necessity, not an optional policy goal.”[9] The majority (92 percent) of imports of animals into the US, we learn from another study of 2009, “were designated for commercial purposes, largely the pet trade.”[10] Nearly 80 per cent of shipments contained wild animals, the majority of which had had “no mandatory testing for pathogens before or after shipment,” and nearly 70 percent of imported live animals “originated in Southeast Asia . . . a hotspot for emerging zoonotic diseases.”[11]

 What causes pandemics? Morens and his colleagues could not have been more blunt in their answer to this question: “Human beings are the ultimate causes of pandemics.” They point out that it is “deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and ecosystem disruption” that “bring people into contact with wildlife and their potentially zoonotic pathogens” (“P,” p. 4). This opinion is not exceptional by any chance. Most studies of pandemics underline this conclusion. Quammen writes: “To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. . . . There are three elements to the situation,” he explains––humans are

causing the disintegration . . . of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. Logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals . . . clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change . . . and other “civilizing” incursions upon natural landscape––by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart. [S, pp. 40–41]

Second, “millions of unknown creatures” that inhabit such ecosystems­­––including “viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists”––constitute what virologists call the “’virosphere,’ a vast realm of organisms that probably dwarfs every other group” (S, p. 41). And finally, “the disruption of natural ecosystems seems more and more to be unloosing such microbes into the wider world” (S, p. 41). “Spillover” is indeed the term used by “disease ecologists . . . to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another” (S, p. 43).

This understanding of the frequent emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases is backed up by several other publications: The United Nation’s Environment Programme’s Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (2020) and The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (2020) published by Word Wide Fund for Nature.[12] The first publication highlights “seven major anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence”: (1) increasing demand for animal protein particularly in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa where “per capita increase in animal protein consumption has been accompanied in many low- and middle-income countries by significant growth in population;” (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification, in particular of domestic livestock farming that “results in large numbers of genetically similar animals” more vulnerable to infection (swine flu being a case in point); (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries that include mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, and encouraging “new or expanded interactions between people and wildlife:” (5) the increasing amount of human travel and trade; (6) changes in food supply chains driven by “increased demand for animal source food, new markets [including “wet” markets] for wildlife food, and poorly regulated agricultural intensification;” (7) climate change as “many zoonoses are climate sensitive and a number of them will thrive in a warmer, wetter, and more disaster-prone world foreseen in future scenarios.”[13]

The publication by the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics, puts forward very similar propositions:

Human activities are causing cataclysmic changes to our planet. The growing human population and rapid increases in consumption have led to profound changes in land cover, rivers and oceans, the climate system, biogeochemical cycles and the way ecosystems function – with major implications for our own health and well-being. According to the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), three-quarters of land and two-thirds of the marine environment have been modified in a significant way, and around 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 charts a 60% average decline in abundance of vertebrate populations across the globe in just over 40 years. . . . Land-use change, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for nearly half of emerging zoonoses.[14]

A study sponsored in the early 2000s by the Johns Hopkins University and the Cameroon Ministries of Health and Defense of Cameroon investigated in detail the impact of deforestation on traditional wildlife hunters. Authors of the study observed that “selective cutting” of high-value timber species––the chosen method of logging in Central Africa for reasons of costs of extraction and transportation––involved “constructing roads and transporting workers into relatively pristine forest regions.”[15] This in turn affected both hunting patterns and the reservoir hosts for pathogens. Building logging roads led to habitat fragmentation for wildlife. In some cases, it resulted in a loss of the “richness” of the “vertebrate reservoir host species” (“B,” p. 1823). This loss of diversity in the host species leads to an “increased abundance of highly competent reservoir of some zoonotic agents, increasing the risk for transmission to humans” (“B,” p. 1823). This fragmentation could also increase the zone of contact between human populations and reservoir hosts. The authors of the study write: “Historically, hunting activities radiated in a circular fashion from isolated villages, with decreasing impact at the periphery of the hunting range. . . . Roadside transport means that hunters can lay traps and hunt at the same distance from roads. This [shift] . . . from a circular pattern to a banded pattern [of human-animal contact] surrounding developed roads” increased the area of hunting and the risk for microbial emergence (“B,” p. 1823).

All this makes the pandemic a part of the phase of globalization that we equate with the Great Acceleration: the exponential increase, since the 1950s, in all parameters of growth of human presence on the planet, of economies, of travel, of population numbers, of greenhouse gas emissions, of human consumption, of human mobility, and so on. A recent (2017) report from the Brookings Institution informs us that:

It was only around 1985 that the middle class [with capacity for purchasing consumer gadgets] reached 1 billion people, about 150 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It then took 21 years, until 2006, for the middle class to add a second billion; much of this reflects the extraordinary growth of China. The third billion was added to the global middle class in nine years. Today we are on pace to add another billion in seven years and a fifth billion in six more years, by 2028.[16]

This is indeed the story of the intensification the process of globalization has undergone at the beginning of this century with China emerging as an industrial-military powerhouse of the world. Deforestation, loss wildlife habitat and biodiversity, factors that contributed majorly to the rise of this “era of pandemics” are thus critical parts of the story of the Great Acceleration of the global regime of capital.

But there is another aspect to the pandemic that points to the process that Bruno Latour and I discussed elsewhere under the heading, “The Global Reveals the Planetary.”[17] This emerges clearly when we read how virologists and specialists of infectious diseases understand the role of viruses in stories to do with pandemics. Understanding the emergence of this new era of pandemics actually requires us to look not only at the Great Acceleration of the process of globalization but also into the deep history of the evolution of life on this planet and how the current pandemic constitutes an episode in that history as well. This is what I briefly consider in the next section before concluding this essay.

The Pandemic and the Planetary

In a 2004 article examining “the challenge of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Morens, Gregory Folkers, and Fauci opened their essay with a discussion of the only natural predators humans had failed to conquer in their technological and evolutionary history: microbial forms of life. They remembered the warning that Richard Krause, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1975 to 1984, issued in The Persistent Tide (1981), that “microbial diversity and evolutionary vigor were still dynamic forces threatening mankind.”[18] They ended their article by referring to the role that the evolution of microbes played in the history of infectious diseases. “Underlying disease emergence are evolutionary conflicts between rapidly evolving and adapting infectious agents and their slowly evolving hosts,” they wrote (“C,” p. 248). “These are fought out,” they added, “in the context of accelerating environmental and human behavioral alterations that provide new ecological niches into which evolving microbes can readily fit” (“C,” p. 248). This is an ongoing, unending battle in which humans are forced constantly to improve and upgrade their technology while the microbes evolve and manage, in particular situations often created by humans themselves, to switch hosts. In concluding their essay, Morens and Fauci observe:

The challenge presented by the ongoing conflict between pathogenic microorganisms and man has been well summarized by a noted champion of the war on EIs [emerging infections], [the Nobel Laureate] Joshua Lederberg, “The future of microbes and mankind will probably unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be entitled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.” [“C,” p. 248]

Morens and Fauci return to this theme in their recent reflections on the current pandemic: “In the ancient ongoing struggle between microbes and man,” they write, “genetically adapted microbes have the upper hand in consistently surprising us and often catching us unprepared” (“E,” p. 1078). Even the technologies we create to fight microbes to ensure human flourishing generally open up new pathways of infection and evolution. This point was very clearly made in another paper on infectious diseases by Nathan Wolfe, Claire Dunavan, and Jared Diamond:

The emergence of novel pathogens is now being facilitated by modern developments exposing more potential human victims and/or making transmission between humans more efficient than before. These developments include blood transfusion (hepatitis C), the commercial bushmeat trade (retroviruses), industrial food production (bovine spongiform encephalitis, BSE), international travel (cholera), intravenous drug use (HIV), vaccine production (Simian virus 40), and susceptible pools of elderly, antibiotic-treated, immunosuppressed patients.[19]

A particular evolutionary advantage that coronaviruses––one strain of which is currently a pain in the backside of humanity (if we could imagine a body-social for this abstract entity!)––have over humans is the “genetic instability of microorganisms allowing rapid microbial evolution to adapt to ever-changing ecologic niches” (“E,” p. 1080). This, Morens and Fauci say:

is particularly true of RNA viruses such as influenza virus, flaviviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses, which have an inherently deficient or absent polymerase error-correction mechanisms [no proofreading capacity, in other words, as they reproduce themselves] and are transmitted as quasispecies or swarms of many, often hundreds or thousands of, genetic variants [which makes it difficult to humans to fight them]. [“E,” p. 1080]

This is fundamentally an evolutionary struggle that reminds us that humans, the species called Homo sapiens, for all their mastery of technology, are not outside of the Darwinian history of life and evolution that unfolds on this planet. Infectious diseases in humans are about microbial survival “by [their] co-opting certain of our genetic, cellular, and immune mechanisms to ensure their continuing transmission” (“E,” p. 1078). Morens and Fauci refer to Richard Dawkins on this point: “Evolution occurs on the level of gene competition and we, phenotypic humans, are merely genetic ‘survival machines’ in the competition between microbes and humans” (“E,” p. 1078). As human degradation of the environment creates opportunities for coronaviruses of various strains to switch hosts by moving from their reservoir hosts to various mammalian species, they get preadapted to human cells by working inside other mammalian bodies. Morens and Fauci write: “Viruses have deep evolutionary roots in the cellular world. This is exemplified by the SARS-like bat b-coronavirus, or sarbecoronavirus, whose receptor binding domains appear to be hyper-evolving by sampling a variety of mammalian receptors” (“E,” p. 1980). And they go on to add: “Evidence suggests that there are many bat coronaviruses pre-adapted to emerge, and possibly to emerge pandemically” (“E,” p. 1081).

Ultimately, these infectious diseases remind us of the deep evolutionary connections that exist between our bodies and other bodily forms of life (one reason why we can develop vaccines by testing them first on other animals). Quammen makes the point in a telling fashion:

By a strict definition, zoonotic pathogens (accounting for about 60 percent of our infectious diseases) are those that presently and repeatedly pass between humans and other animals, whereas the other group of infections (40 percent, including smallpox, measles, and polio) are caused by pathogens descended from forms that must have made the leap to human ancestors sometime in the past. It might be going too far to say that all our diseases are ultimately zoonotic, but zoonoses do stand as evidence of the infernal, aboriginal connectedness between us and other kinds of host. [S, p. 137]

What is planetary then about the current pandemic is that, for all the human tragedy it has already caused and will cause (partly due to the failures of political leadership), it is an episode in the evolutionary history of life on this planet. In the struggle between microbes and humans, made more acute by factors that have contributed to the Great Acceleration of processes of globalization, “it may be a matter of perspectives [as to] who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat,” comment Morens and Fauci––microbes or humans (“E,” p. 1078). Microbial forms of life have persisted on this planet for 3.8 billion years. Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. “This perspective, say Morens and Fauci, “has implications for how we think about and react to emerging infectious disease threats” (“E,” p. 1078).

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of, most recently, “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category,” in the Autumn 2019 issue of Critical Inquiry. He is also a consulting editor for the journal.

Thanks are due to Fredrik A. Jonsson for discussing some of these ideas with me.

[1] Vincent C. C. Cheng et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews 20 (Oct. 2007): 683.

[2] See David M. Morens et al., “Prespective Piece: The Origin of COVID-19 and Why It Matters,” American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 103, no. 3 (2020): 955.

[3] David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (New York, 2012), pp. 207–208; hereafter abbreviated S.

[4] Nathan Wolfe, Claire Panosian Dunavan, and Jared Diamond, “Origins of Major Human Infectious Diseases,” Nature, 17 May 2007, p. 281

[5] Ibid.

[6] David M. Morens et al., “Pandemic COVID-19 Joins History’s Pandemic Legion,” mBio 11 (May/June 2020): 1; hereafter abbreviated “P.” 

[7] Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” Cell, 3 Sept. 2020, p. 1077; hereafter abbreviated “E.”

[8] R. E. Kahn et al., “Meeting Review: 6th International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses,” Zoonoses and Public Health 59 (2012), p. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 7.

[10] Katherine F. Smith et al., “Reducing the Risks of the Wildlife Trade,” Science, 1 May 2009, p. 594.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See The United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (Nairobi, 2020); World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (Gland, 2020).

[13] Preventing the Next Pandemic, pp. 15–17.

[14] The Loss of Nature, p. 14.

[15] Wolfe et al., “Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease Emergence,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 11 (Dec. 2005):1823; hereafter abbreviated “B.”

[16] Hannes Bergthaller, “Thoughts on Asia and the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocenic Turn: The Interplay Between Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Responses to a New Age, ed. Gabriele Dürbeck and Phillip Hüpkes(New York, 2020), pp. 78–79.

[17] See Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Global Reveals the Planetary,” in Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, ed. Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., 2020), pp. 24­–31.

[18] Morens, Gregory K. Folkers, and Fauci, “The Challenge of Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases,” Nature 430, 8 July 2004, p. 242; hereafter abbreviated “C.” The full title of Richard Krause’s book is The Restless Tide: The Persistent Challenge of the Microbial World (Washington, D.C., 1981). For biographical details on Richard Krause (1925–2015), see Morens, “Richard M. Krause: The Avancular Avatar of Microbial Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) 113 (Feb. 2016): 1681–683.

[19] Wolfe, Dunavan, and Diamond, “Origins,” p. 282.


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Robert Bird (1969–2020): A Remembrance

Zachary Cahill

From left to right: Robert Bird, Christina Kiaer, and Zachary Cahill. Image Michael Christiano.

Robert Bird, a scholar of vast erudition of film and Russian literature, passed away on 7 September 2020, after a prolonged struggle with cancer. His book Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema is considered a landmark contribution to the scholarship on the Russian film director. Professor Bird was a storied teacher in the Departments of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.  Bird also curated major exhibitions of Soviet art at the university’s Smart Museum including: Vision and Communism: Viktor Koretsky and Dissident Public Visual Culture (with Christopher P. Heuer, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Tumelo Masaka, and Stephanie Smith) and Revolution Every Day (with Christina Kiaer, Diane Miliotes, and the author).


As many of those close to Robert have expressed in the past few days—there are no words. No words and too many memories flooding in. Still, there is one word that keeps coming to mind as I remember Robert Bird: comrade.

This word, especially as applied to him, means something deeper, and conveys a relationship that is broader, than perhaps the more familiar word, friend.  I think it has something to do with a common cause, a cause worth devoting one’s life to. To be comrades with Robert Bird meant to be a witness to, and to share, his passion. It was a passion marked by a deep intellect, grace, gentleness, wit, and a poetic soul. It is one of the great fortunes of my life to share in some of his passions; it meant I would be one of the many beneficiaries of his genius and insight.


In my experience of academia, when folks are talking about art, the discussion tends to dwell on how artists affect scholarship. How artists lead thinking—that artists are the seers of knowledge production and culture. Less frequently do we hear the stories of how scholars impact artists and their work.  This latter perspective is the vantage point from where I write. So maybe this is a remembrance and an acknowledgment of a debt.

For the past decade, my time with Robert has had an enormous impact on my artwork. Always supportive and inquisitive, his energy and intellectual generosity buoyed my spirits as well as enlarged my mind and my art. For any artist knowing that there is even one person out in the world who not only understands but cares about your work is the ultimate life-line. Whether he knew it or not Robert was that lifeline to many artists, not just myself.

We met at the first birthday party of the daughter of our mutual comrade, Matthew Jesse Jackson. To my amazement, during casual party chit-chat, I had stumbled into talking with one of the world’s foremost scholars of Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker whose work I was in awe of. But more than that, he also was a scholar of some of my favorite writers, Soviet authors like Andrei Platonov and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. It was at this first meeting that I would start to accrue my many debts to Robert Bird. Fanboy enthusiastic, I blurted out something to the effect that Memories of The Future collected some of Krzhizhanovsky’s “real” writing (distinct from his work on say, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia—or so that was what I had thought I had read), to which Robert graciously pointed out that this claim was unclear and that, in fact, the author did not necessarily make such distinctions between his work on the encyclopedia, editorial work, and his novels—it was all his writing. For the Soviet writer there was no such divide between art and life. It was a casual thunderbolt, as was Robert’s way. This observation was both inspiring and liberating for me as an artist because I no longer felt hemmed in by a profession, or role, that my art wasn’t dependent on being claimed as such by other people, nor could anyone ever pay me enough in a job to stop being an artist: artist in the studio and artist in the office. Robert gave me that and so many more insights.

Time and Art

The metaphysical study of time was one of Robert Bird’s great passions. This is evidenced not only by the fact that he was a keen observer and interpreter of the time-based art of film, not only because he was a prolific writer on revolution and memory. His passion for time culminated, I believe, in the Soviet-style tear-off calendar-cum-exhibition catalog for Revolution Every Day. This little 800-page brick-shaped machine for art and primary research on what it was like to live everyday life in the Soviet Union was his invention for the exhibition. In it, Robert had essays about the Soviets early attempt to create a new sense of time through changing the workweek to changing the annual calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian (where 25 October became 7 November). These essays were placed alongside reproductions of the wildly creative soviet calendars, numerous diary entries that he translated at an unbelievable rate. The book and the exhibition Revolution Every Day had an ecstatic quality to it, not simply due to the revolutionary subject matter, but because he was working alongside his life comrade and wife, the renowned art historian Christina Kiaer. Two giants of Soviet art scholarship engaged in a true labor of love, and this labor was a gift to the city of Chicago that drew rock-star writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard (one of Robert’s favorite contemporary novelists) and real rock-and-roll stars like Ian Svenonius to the museum.

Robert Bird will surely be remembered for his scholarly work, but he also was a great curator. He had a discerning feel for space and vision for what would make an exhibition interesting. Robert was a wonderful collaborator (an essential ingredient for successful curation) open to other people’s ideas, he possessed a genuine desire to hear from people some beside himself (this no doubt was one of the things that made him such an excellent teacher.) Yet one key reason for his adeptness at curating had everything to do with his reverence for art and his enduring belief that, in fact, art could change the world. Standing beside him and Christina in this photo I definitely believed it could and, because of everything Robert gave to us, I still do.

Thank you, my comrade.

May you rest in peace and in art.


Zachary Cahill is an interdisciplinary artist. Since 2010, he has worked on his artistic project the USSA a fictitious nation-state, which has taken the form of discreet artworks, exhibitions, performances, and a novel. He is the Director of Programs and Fellowships at the University of Chicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry and editor-in-chief of Portable Gray, the center’s journal published twice yearly by the University of Chicago Press

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CI since 1978: Celebrating Tom Mitchell’s Editorship

To celebrate his forty-two years as the editor of Critical Inquiry, we asked past and present contributors and editors Homi Bhabha (0:55), Frances Ferguson (7:35),  Elizabeth Abel (10:07), Lauren Berlant (16:08), Slavoj Žižek (19:20), and Hillary Chute (27:30) to share their experiences of working with W. J. T. Mitchell at the journal. To read his farewell editorial note, see the Summer 2020 issue of Critical Inquiry.

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In the Time of Pandemic, the Deep Structure of Biopower Is Laid Bare

Lennard Davis

In regard to disability, the ableism that puts on a compassionate mask in milder times now reveals its brutal face. While laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act acknowledge human rights and subjectivities involved in disabled identity, a pandemic brings into play a war of survival whose rules are simpler and deadlier. Limited resources and pressured levels of triage create a situation in which medical decisions have to be made quickly and almost reflexively.  When those kinds of pressured judgments occur, health practitioners must rely on a wartime gut reaction as well as a combination of health ethics templates and cost-benefit analyses assessing whose life is worth saving and whose is less so.

Any metric used for determining who should get limited resources will inevitably be drawn into a eugenics sinkhole. It is here that biopolitics and thanatopolitics display a unity which might have seemed to have been oppositions.  The urge to let live and the urge to let die morph nicely into each other.  In order to let live, doctors must let die. An unenviable choice arises at every tension point in every hospital in every country. This proliferation of life/death decisions blunts the emotional response to what might be seen as programmed executions or even annihilations.


While biopolitics and thanatopolitics have been drawn to dramatic personae like the comatose patient and the concentration camp prisoner, the more mundane bit players—the person with mobility impairments or the cognitively disabled person—barely get attention. Those in disability studies are well aware of this minor role assigned by the majority to the minority. Yet the actuality is that the disabled or Deaf person experiences the effects of communitas and immunity on a rather consistent and, to others, undetectable basis.

Bare life can be translated to equate with various physical and mental states, but it rarely includes, nor should it, people with what I might call routine disabilities.  The driving out of the homo sacer seems dramatically if not historically sound; but the social and political sequestering of disabled people, while far less dramatic, is far more widely practiced, even by people whose goal is to be intersectional and liberatory.

Enter the pandemic which, like a skilled taxidermist, lifts off the skin of this kind of discrimination to find the invidious structural armature that gives it shape and form. Now there seems to be a greater availability of ventilators (but only in richer countries in the global north) and a realization that some other life-saving techniques might work as well.  With a free market vision of limited supply and expansive demand, not only did the price of such equipment skyrocket, but the cultural capital, one must ultimately call it, of each individual determined their power to secure a machine, skilled nursing, and trained technicians. I say individual, but in reality, protocols were being developed to group individuals into risk groups.  Those who were older, disabled both physically and cognitively, were seen to have reduced buying power to claim treatment.  Those with underlying conditions (read: disability) who were less healthy (read: normal) were also to be triaged.

Who is worth more than whom?  Medical ethicists, and I use the word advisedly, have tried to quantify this worth.  There is a WHO metric called “disability adjusted life years.{DALY].” This measures years lost to disability and compares those years to those of someone in “ideal” health.  One can calculate the difference between your and my DALY and see, in effect, whose life has more value. Currently in the US a human life is calculated to be worth ten million dollars.  In poorer countries that worth could plummet to colonial chump change.

It may seem logical and even obvious that in pandemic settings, as on the battlefield, there must be triaging.  Many states have adopted such utilitarian guidelines, including the state of Washington, cited in a complaint by disability groups because Washington’s official guidelines recommended giving limited resources only to younger, healthier people, not to older patients. Alabama has specified that people with intellectual disabilities “are unlikely candidates for ventilator support,” while Tennessee has excluded from critical care people with spinal muscular atrophy who need assistance with activities of daily living. As with the social and political critiques of utilitarianism, one might want to be skeptical of any “greatest good for the greatest number” argument.  While founding texts of utilitarian philosophers usually grounded their arguments on economic principles, current applications fall prey to simple analogies.  Disease is translated to discussions about health.  Health is notoriously hard to define, but healthier patients become the priority.  The ideology of health is deeply imbued with ableist notions of the normal and the abnormal.


In contrast to the utilitarian approach, the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund [DREDF] suggests “When dealing with patients with a similar level of treatment urgency, providers should maintain their existing practice of ‘first come, first serve,’ rather than prioritizing people who would require the fewest resources.”  Ezekiel Emmanuel and others, while recognizing certain well-worn aspects of triage note in the New England Journal of Medicine “Limited time and information during an emergency also counsel against incorporating patients’ future quality of life, and quality-adjusted life-years, into benefit maximization.” Some have suggested a lottery system in which the health identity of the person is not a factor.

In the battle between letting live and letting die, there really is only one grand loser—the person with a disability or two. You can throw in old people, people who are overweight, people of color, poor people.  Yes, they are there, but the calculus within the hospital walls is basically over disability.  Race will factor in dramatically, and its combination with disability is an accelerant to any eugenic decision-making process. Social politesse, charitable involvement, religious concern all crumble in the face of the grand bargain of choosing those who appear “normal”—not those who are seen as weakened, abnormal, debilitated, less-than. There is a term for this demographic, and the Nazi’s used it with abandon Lives Unworthy of Living. The T4 Project, which gathered disabled people into institutions and then gassed and cremated them, provided the template for the death camps in Poland for Jews and other minorities. It is easy for us to blame the Nazis for these egregious and unimaginable deaths, but the current calculus about which lives are worth living provides a sobering if less overtly dramatic parallel.

In some sense, the discussion over the healthy person is a discussion about the formation of the modern citizen.  As Michel Foucault and others have noted, the development of a medical system is of course also a system of control.  If it works well, it is hidden and undetectable—powered by self-will rather than heavy-handed regulation.  And the system has worked very well, until now when the evolution of the word “health” suddenly becomes more clearly a way of talking about power and setting one group over another.  Enforcement now becomes a matter of medical metrics in a time of necessity.  This can be shown through a simple thought-experiment.  Choose any identity—gender-based, income based, race-based—and put it into the sentence “[People with this identity] won’t be given ICU beds during a time of pandemic shortage.”  While there is still clearly sexism, homophobia, racism, and neoliberalist capitalism, no one can publicly make that statement.  But include the term disability and the statement is being made without much embarrassment or consequence around the US and the world.

As the pandemic waxes and wanes, its tidal undulations will continue to affect populations and policies.  While ventilators may be in better supply, a new spike in cases could counteract that advantage. Even now, as I write, Texas is facing a shortage of hospital beds.  Countries in South Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa are unable to secure and provide even the basics for treatment, including ventilators, and oxygen tanks.  When the time comes for an effective vaccine to be distributed, again we will see shortages—and metrics to determine distribution—in the push to provide immunity to a staggering number of people worldwide. If herd immunity requires 80 percent of the population to be vaccinated, in the US alone that would be somewhere around 260 million doses (if only one dose per person is required) and worldwide that would be six billion doses.  Issues around cost (read: profit for the pharmaceutical industry), class (read: global north versus global south) and minority status will be crucial.  There will more life and death decisions about who is first in line.  In this case vaccine delayed could be vaccine denied.

And now we are seeing remnants of discrimination based on health status in institutions like nursing homes.  These for-profit institutions are uniquely suited to make decisions about who lives and who dies. Recently nursing homes  have begun evicting elderly people with disabilities so that they can bring in more lucrative patients with COVID-19.  When cognitively disabled people contract COVID-19, they die at a rate 2.5 higher than other patients.  The social and medical forces at work clearly have placed these lives at the bottom of lives worth living. Until critical theory and social justice advocacy recognize this form of devaluing human life, a liberatory approach will only be partial–and far from impartial.

26 June 2020

Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the departments of English, Disability Studies and Human Development, and Medical Education. His most recent book is Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans With Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights (2016) and he is the editor of the Disability Studies Reader (2013) and Beginning with Disability: A Primer (2017).


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Revisiting the Ferguson Report: Antiblack Concepts and the Practice of Policing

Robert Gooding-Williams


Now is a suitable moment to revisit the US Justice Department’s Ferguson Report.[1] What the report suggests, I propose, is that explicitly disparaging and stigmatizing antiblack racial stereotypes shaped the ordinary, business-as-usual, communications of the FPD, and that we may err in taking these stereotypes simply, or primarily, as evidence of bias or of the intent to discriminate—that is, as evidence of psychological states attributable to discrete individuals.  To be sure, I do not deny the power of such an approach.  Here, however, I take a different tack and suggest that we take FPD employees’ taken for granted, quotidian email communications of pejorative stereotypes as evidence of the workings of a practice of policing in which police officers participated—as evidence, that is, of what the DOJ report describes as a policing “culture.”


In recent work, law professors Bryan Stevenson and Paul Butler have considered racist policing in a similar perspective.  According to Stevenson, “People of color in the United States . . . are burdened with a presumption of guilt and dangerousness. . . . This presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it have significantly shaped every institution in American society, especially our criminal justice system.”[2]  In a similar vein, Paul Butler has argued that “what happens in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland—where the police routinely harass and discriminate against African Americans—is not a flaw in the criminal justice system.  Ferguson and Baltimore are examples of how the system is supposed to work.  The problem is not bad apple cops.  The problem is police work itself.  American cops are the enforcers of a criminal justice regime that targets black men and sets them up to fail.”[3]  While Stevenson and Butler present historical and sociological evidence for their claims, my related but different aim is conceptually to illuminate the picture of policing and criminal justice that they outline and defend.  More to the point, it is to use the Ferguson Report to construct a partial model of American practices of policing black Americans that captures Stevenson’s and Butler’s suggestion that, typically, the perpetuation of antiblack racial domination through the criminalization of black Americans, especially black men, is “integral” to these practices.[4]

Consider, then, the Ferguson Report’s summary description of the policing culture exhibited by Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement:

Partly as a consequence of City and FPD [revenue generating] priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.

This culture within the FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing.  Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority.  They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.  Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct.  The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. [I, p. 2; my emphasis]

At least three features of the practice of policing sketched here merit attention.  I note, first, that the Ferguson Report describes a practice of subjecting black neighborhoods to the arbitrary power of police officers.  Because police supervisors failed to hold officers accountable to the requirements of law and policy, Ferguson’s police officers consistently discarded several of the constitutional rights (elsewhere, the Report documents Fourteenth as well as First and Fourth Amendment violations).  In effect, the police force degraded and debased the citizenship of black citizens. In Ferguson, the practice of policing black neighborhoods was a practice of politically subordinating black citizens, for it was a practice of coercively and wrongfully stripping their citizenship of some of its generally treasured prerogatives and, therefore, of rendering it inferior in rank to the citizenship of the white citizens of Ferguson.

I note, second, that the internally related roles of police officer and offender partly constituted the practice of policing black neighborhoods and politically subordinating black citizens in Ferguson.  Indeed, a scrupulous reading of the Ferguson Report—over and beyond the summary description I have quoted here —suggests that the FPD treated black citizens not simply as “potential offenders” whose offences could be financially exploited, but as actual offenders whose offences could be so exploited.  In effect, the FPD’s political subordination of black citizens obtained through the indefinitely many acts of indefinitely many police agents who, through their actions, exhibited a practice structured by the roles of police officer and criminal.

I note, third, that FPD members acted in accordance with the role of the police officer tasked with policing black neighborhoods when they assigned black citizens the role of actual offender—that is, the role of criminal; or, in other words, when they applied a concept of criminality to black citizens.  In Ferguson, enforcing and perpetuating the racial domination of black citizens by subsuming them under a concept of criminality was an essential feature of the role of policing black neighborhoods; thus, the operation of some such concept was a general, constitutive feature of a practice of policing that intrinsically functioned as mechanism of antiblack racial domination.  Put otherwise, when FPD police officers violated black citizens’ constitutional protections—based on their interpretation of black citizens’ “exercise of free speech rights as unlawful disobedience” or based on their interpretation of black citizens’ “innocent movements as physical threats” or based on their interpretation of black citizens’ “indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence”—they were applying a practice-constitutive notion of criminality to black citizens and satisfying an anonymously general demand of their role.[5]

The concept of criminality operative in the practice of policing—not, necessarily, the manifest concept that would be endorsed by way of reflective equilibrium (by comparing our intuitions about individual cases, both actual and hypothetical, to the definitions we formulate when asked to reflect on our concepts)—was, I conjecture, the concept of criminality tracked by the emails cited in the Ferguson Report as stereotyping racial minorities.[6]  In addition, I believe that the concept operative here was a cluster concept, such that having no one property was necessary to make a person a criminal, while having any one of several properties, or several sets of properties, sufficed to make a person a criminal.  I refrain from spelling out the details here, except to propose that one of the properties the possession of which sufficed to satisfy the FPD’s operative concept of being a criminal was the property of being black.  If that suggestion is right, then the FPD’s operative concept of criminality was racially loaded, for it licensed the tendency to interpret black citizens’ rejoinders to police actions, their innocent movements, and their expressions of illness as so many instances of criminal behavior and hence as warranting police actions that in fact violated black citizens’ constitutional protections.  In Ferguson, the role of police officer required subsuming black citizens under a concept of criminality that counted black citizens as criminals just in virtue of being black. An email that circulated among police supervisors and court staff seems explicitly to have tracked and expressed precisely this concept when it “joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control” (I, p. 5).

It is reasonable to characterize the concept of criminality that was operative in the FPD’s practice of policing black neighborhoods as a racist, antiblack concept: a concept that authorizes citizens to infer, from the consideration that a fellow citizen is black, that he, she, or they is an outlaw—broadly speaking, a deviant whose beliefs, character, capabilities, and/or behavior contravenes conventional and mainstream norms and expectations, thereby rendering that person a misfit, an inferior, a dysfunctional  blight on civil society, a threat to law and order, or, at the very limit, something other than human.[7]  Another, perhaps obvious example is the notion of personal responsibility that was operative in the emails sent between police officers and court supervisors in Ferguson, where it seems that having the property of being black sufficed to rule out the possibility of being personally responsible.  A less obvious example is the notion of romantic love, but Darryl Pinckney’s reading of Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)—specifically, his claim that the film “bestows the capability of feeling romantic love onto a figure that has long been a symbol of predatory sexuality: the big, bad black male”[8]—interprets it as exposing the antiblackness implicit in that notion. As Pinckney views the film, it prompts us to see, to our chagrin, that our operative concept of romantic love excludes the possibility that big, bad black men enjoy tender, amorous feelings of affection. In a similar vein, Chris Ofili’s Rodin . . . The Thinker (1997–98), a portrait of a hypersexualized black woman in the image of Rodin’s famous sculpture, compels us to see that the concept of intellectual seriousness operative in some of our colleagues’ professional practices and some of our fellow citizens’ daily lives excludes the possibility that black women think weighty thoughts.[9]


Unnoticed antiblack concepts constitute and shape ordinary practices (like policing black neighborhoods) and involvements (like falling in love and deciding whose ideas to take seriously). When antiblack concepts become the stuff of our entrenched common sense, a part of the point of ideology critique is to render them explicit and unsettle them.  Regarding practices of policing and political subordination of the sort that we have seen in Ferguson and elsewhere, the Black Lives Matters movement has played a salutary role in advancing precisely these aims.  For to take seriously the exhortation that “Black Lives Matter” (and “Black Lives Matter” is not simply a statement of fact, it is also an exhortation) is, in part, to answer a call to acknowledge and challenge the latent yet pervasive antiblack practices and conceptual repertoires that the movement has relentlessly brought to light, demanding that we see and transform them.

19 June 2020

Robert Gooding-Williams is the M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies and Professor of Philosophy and of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including the award winning In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard UP, 2009).  His current projects include a book on Du Bois’s political aesthetics and a book on the political thought of Martin Delany.

[1] United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, 4 Mar. 2015,; hereafter abbreviated I.

[2] Bryan Stevenson, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Legacy of America’s History of Racial Injustice,” in Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, ed. Angela J. Davis (New York, 2017), pp. 4-5.

[3] Paul Butler, Chokehold: Policing Black Men (New York, 2017), pp. 2, 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Following Butler and Stevenson, my central claim here is that in Ferguson, Baltimore, and through much of US history racial domination and the conceptualization of blacks as criminals has been integral to practices of policing black neighborhoods and residential communities.  But that is not to deny that there could exist practices of policing black neighborhoods that, without degrading black citizenship, fairly enforced the law.  If such practices were to exist, however, then they would not be defined by the same internally related roles and role-related demands and expectations that have defined the practices of policing to which black Americans have typically been subject.

[6] I borrow the idea of an operative concept from Sally Haslanger and Jennifer Saul, “Philosophical Analysis and Social Kinds, II, Gender and Race,” The Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 80 (June 2006): 124.

[7] In the language of John Locke’s Second Treatise, antiblack concepts, at the limit, support the inference that, if a someone is black, he/she/they is “a Criminal, who having renounced reason, the Common Rule and Measure…hath…declared War against all Mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger”(John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Haslett [New York, 1960], p. 274).

[8] Darryl Pinckney, “Moon Over Miami,” The New York Review of Books, 20 April 2017.

[9] As I interpret Ofili’s painting, it lets us see that our operative concept of intellectual seriousness tends to exclude black women, for in the eyes of the “white gaze” they are hyper-sexual and hence incapable of intellectual seriousness.  Ofili’s painting and Moonlight demonstrate what Martin Heidegger famously described as the world-disclosive power of works of art, for they expose the ready-to-hand, antiblack conceptual motifs that contaminate the world, or worlds, inhabited by US citizens.

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Sonic Images of the Coronavirus

Hannah B Higgins

First the images of absence became common place. Pictures were taken of a newly ubiquitous nothing: of no people on city streets, no people in major plazas of the world, no people at rallies, no people in classrooms, no one in abandoned markets, no one in desolate businesses, no one in churches without mourners where closed coffins conveyed the ever-silenced dead into the afterlife. These empty spaces were also quietly reassuring of state-mandated efforts to contain the spread of disease. For the most part these were images of relative silence.


Even as these sonic images of silence bore an alarming resemblance to postapocalyptic scenes of mass extinction, these hushed public spaces were almost always paired with images or descriptions of noisy places where essential workers were busy saving everyone else: these raucous hives took the form of hospitals, warehouses, essential markets, and factories making respirators and PPEs. Live human noise would become equivalent to possible contagion, to the sounds of humans working and dying together. Images of these spaces bear the imprint of these sounds in every respirator, every image of hoarding, every act of crowded public speech.

With time, the images of public silence denoted a sign language of publics that had listened to governments, whose response to the epidemic placed us in all manner of plywood, or brick, or gilded cage. The alternative to our physical isolation was to break the social contract and be placed behind iron bars, in noisy spaces that we now know are a perfect breeding ground for the virus.  Whatever the physical nature of our cages, we who can self-isolate came to see the world through a crystal plane, the metaform of the handheld or computer or television screen ever mediating between our many physical architectures.

Conditioned as I became to the images of silent streets and noisy essential-worker zones, the images of public protest against social distancing initially read as more images of mere contagion. The silence of the public sphere rendered the throngs of protestors (first) in Michigan, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania especially loud (even in photographs). The experience was jarring. These protestors were flouting the rules by standing on streets and plazas and carrying signs that said things like “Freedom Trumps Safety,” “Set Us Free,” or (as the hymn goes) “Let My People Go.” Their slogans were shouted out passionately, as they stood in close quarters, oral vapors spreading the disease alongside convivial reunions with like-minded friends, family, and publics. The handheld signs said they were not afraid:  “Live Free or Die” (some will), “I’m not afraid of COVID” (you should be) or “Give me Liberty or Give me COVID” (your liberty will give you COVID-19—this is not an either or prospect).


These early the images of protests  from the political right demanded reopening economies. As a group they are a largely non-compliant public of predominantly white protestors. Especially in rural communities, where the virus was less common, I understood their rage, but not their actions. Small wonder that a few weeks on and we are seeing spikes in states where these first in-person protests occurred.  I knew how to hear and see those early images in terms of the habituated dualism of silence versus noisy sonic image.

That is, until late May, when the words I can’t breathe resurfaced. Even without viewing the video (I haven’t), the image of George Floyd on the (at that point in the pandemic) mostly silent street amplified his suffering first a hundred, then a thousand, and now millions of fold. The phrase, an echo of the same phrase moving through contemporary time marked by violence against the black and brown bodies of Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, and Derrick Scott now appears on the facemasks of protestors, on T-shirts and the walls of cities and town world-wide. The simple phrase forms the seed bed of the din of protest chant and anthem alike, both forms of expression not coincidentally shared in space by the human voice box. As written words placed over the mouths of protestors’ masks, the phrase “I can’t breathe” identifies each wearer as a potential victim, both of police violence but also of the virus.

Even as someone with family participating in the George Floyd protests, my eyes at first saw contagion in these protests. The continued violence against the poor and black and brown communities before and during the pandemic makes me sick, but the images of protestors elicit terrible anxiety as well. Arguably, my seeing contagion is a holdover from the first scenes of vocal rage, from the other side of the political spectrum. But these recent sonic images also feel like they’re planting seeds, like I’m sprouting eyes and ears all over the place.

These new sonic images turn the world upside down, or maybe more appropriately, inside out.

As I write this, I am sequestered with my elderly mother who has lived in SoHo since 1958. In these few weeks in New York City, I have encountered many different forms of the coronavirus sonic image. These mix and mingle before my eyes and around my ears. First the one, the near total silence captured in the image of an empty street, now newly walled off from pedestrians by plywood on every window. Then the other, a throng of masked protestors and a vocal din and sirens and violence and probable contagion captured up close by journalists walking alongside the protestors – brave journalists and citizen journalists putting themselves in terrible danger by being there. And finally, stillness seething with rage as voices and sirens and helicopter sounds move across the city, invisibly vibrating the surfaces of buildings as I watch the empty street from a rooftop.

Sound, more than pictures of various scenes, links us to each other in our daily lives: not just by way of the proximate voice of a friend or a coworker or a family member, but also through the live sounds of shoes crunching debris beneath our shoes, of cars passing, of trains and buses, and public experiences. During the pandemic, many of these sounds almost disappeared or became very rare. But for me, and people like me who can isolate, the threshold between wellness and contagion has been embodied in the sonic baffles between domains of quiet and noise.

As I see and hear the early sonic images with the benefit of hindsight, I understand that to be an essential worker has always meant inhabiting the range of sound environments that connect us to each other but which were, until the protests, closed off to the self-quarantining and privileged-to-be-so, like myself. Unlike me in my silent bubble, essential workers have been in sound and silence throughout the pandemic, weaving back and forth across the boundaries of family and work since this began in earnest in March.

At the level of sound as a diagnostic tool, these protestors (arguably both sets of protestors, but the latter in a more socially responsible way through mask wearing) have inserted actual public speech into actual public space during a pandemic, physically erasing the threshold between essential and nonessential worker by both class and racial forms of segregation. The shrinking distance between a banker, a nurse, and a manicurist, between people on the political right and the political left, between white protestors on one side and black and brown and white protestors on the other, not to mention the rich and poor, feels collapsed to irrelevance, although I know it is not. No doubt the burden of COVID-19 has been felt most vividly by the poor of all colors, but the changing meaning of the images of silence and the images of sonic activity first in hospitals and Amazon warehouses and then in protests of both kinds, means we are bearing witness to seismic shift both in how we see and hear the pandemic but also in how we see and hear responses to it in the imagery of sound.

I am, by equal turns, awake and inspired by the emergent sound of transformation, afraid and diminished by my fear of the virus and for the future, and increasingly alert to how present conditions are reshaping perception.

17 June 2020

Hannah Higgins is professor of art history and University Scholar at University of Illinois, Chicago. In addition to articles on the historic and neo-avant-gardes, her books include Fluxus Experience (2002) and The Grid Book (2009), and an anthology Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of Digital Art (2012), coedited with Douglas Kahn. She has received DAAD, Getty, and Philips Collection fellowships in support of her research on sensation, cognition, and information across the avant-gardes and contemporary visual and material culture. She is coexecutor of the estate of Dick Higgins and the Something Else Press.

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How to Learn Together, Apart

Ewan Jones

If, in years to come, an intrepid researcher writes a dissertation upon the history of technology-assisted synchronous learning, her first chapter may well find room for 7 January 1977. It was on this day that the Collège de France attempted what it didn’t yet call a simulcast of Roland Barthes’s inaugural lecture, Barthes having recently been elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire. The Collège live-broadcast the proceedings to the overspill of students unable to access the main lecture hall. Barthes’s performance uncannily anticipates the present order to which, with drastic quickness, we’ve become accustomed. Claude Coste notes that “the first session in particular suffered a number of interruptions: the retransmission not working, the irritated amusement of the students, having to send out for a technician, Barthes’s own embarrassment at the many technical failings.”[1] This anecdote reassures me whenever I loiter in the limbo of a Zoom waiting room.   


In addition to its means of delivery, the substance of Barthes’s lectures has much to say to our present selves. The first course of public talks and seminars that he delivered from January­–May 1977, under the nearly impossibly large title Comment vivre ensemble, parallels and prefigures our contemporary world so uncannily that at times I wonder whether it’s a trick of the lockdown-induced paranoid mind. Barthes surveys a wide variety of isolated, ascetic or otherwise self-distancing communities: the quotidian rituals of monastic life in Mount Athos; the sanatorium in which Hans Castorp intended only to spend days; the small room in which Blanche Monnier was sequestered for twenty-five years by parents disappointed by her refusal of an eligible marriage, and who later inspired André Gide’s “Confined Woman of Poitiers.” “What distance must I maintain between myself and others if we are to construct together a sociability without alienation, a solitude without exile?”[2] Barthes: as with much besides, the inadvertent prophet of COVID-19.


The laundry van that hit Barthes requires us to start thinking where his unfinished lectures left off. I’ve been using the hyphenated thoughts and trailing ellipses of Comment vivre ensemble as essential tools to help me make sense of and stay sane through the current times in which we live. Barely a half-day goes by without my being reminded of a concept that Barthes borrows from Jacques Lacarrière’s L’éte grec: “idiorrhythmy”—a constraining social space that nevertheless does not preclude individual freedom. Quotidian lockdown life is itself an idiorrhythmic case study. A conversation just the other day with a colleague, returned to care for her frail and elderly mother, Zooming her students as the distinguished academic that she is, from a childhood bedroom that reminds her of the child that she also still is. (She was shaken from her scholarly reflections when, through the window, she saw her mother, hanging laundry, fall.) My students, attempting as best they can to curate bare bookshelves in houses where reading was not encouraged. My own experience, stranded in an unfamiliar city, ordering cheap and pathetically small prints of artworks by Amy Sillman and Georges-Pierre Seurat, which I pin to the white walls of my unfamiliar apartment, just as when young I used to glue culture cut from newspapers (I was terrified that I would lose it). Art for art’s sake, revealed for what it always was: a means of getting through the day.

The pandemic has enabled an efflorescence of thoughts on the modalities of isolated thinking and feeling—to which the Critical Inquiry blog has provided signal contributions. As a means of opening up a dialogue with work that has sustained me, I want for the remainder of this disquisition-cum-diary-entry to pick up and carry further Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith’s discussion of lockdown distraction, which itself shares much in common with Barthes’s considerations of monastic cohabitation. What follows are flash reflections (half-cooled hot takes) on what the continuing pandemic might entail both for critical theory and applied pedagogy. I list these two aspects of life and thought as if they were separate, when what I really want is to heal their rift.


First, critical theory. COVID-19 doesn’t only append a further compelling case study to the several recent scholarly treatments of attention; it radically alters the position from which any theorist of distraction speaks. Much of the most distinguished work in this field has considered cultures of attentiveness (or inattentiveness) from a broadly Foucauldian or immanently critical perspective.[3] Yet such work often betrays a revealing tension, between a one-size-fits-all process of “subjectivation” through which societies trammel or compel or mutilate attention and the curious freedom of the critical theorist to (undistractedly) read artworks or conduct often brilliantly erudite ideology critique. The present pandemic disallows us that privileged freedom: if nothing else, COVID-19 might help us to acknowledge the cognitive distractions and corporeal fatigue that always operate but which are now raised to a new and possibly useful level. In so doing, we might undo the distance between subjects and objects of knowledge; we might view the many previous cultures of distraction (ranging from the religious communities that mortified the senses, to the manual workers who labor automatically or involuntarily, to the nineteenth-century psychophysiologists who willfully overextend cognitive reach) not merely as pathologies or casualties of society but also as prospective resources. Immanent critique might then finally assume the concrete form to which it more often than not only pays lip service.

Such questions are to my mind inseparable from our teaching practice. In his Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North proposes “radical pedagogy” as one means by which the humanities might heal its diremption from social praxis.[4] I could not agree more vehemently, while at the same time wishing for a clearer sense of what such practice might entail, beyond a charismatic reading that compels assent. I teach English at Downing College, where decades ago F. R. Leavis famously held court; returning alumnae often tell me how much his forcefulness depended upon the small-group supervision. We cannot now gather in such small rooms for the foreseeable future (on the morning that I write this, my university has just announced that all lectures for the 2020/21 academic year will be conducted online). Yet this sad eventuality might enable forms of pedagogy less dependent upon charisma: “perhaps the ideal lecture course would be one,” Barthes self-deflatingly declared, “where the professor—the locutor—is less interesting than his audience.”[5]

And yet even Barthes struggled, in this respect. He had intended the thirteenth and concluding lecture of Comment vivre ensemble to take up the varying responses of his audience and by so doing produce a practical instance of “Living Together.” As things transpired, however, the session did not take place, with Barthes retreating (with uncharacteristic bashfulness) behind the dialogical yet defiantly written form of A Lover’s Discourse (1977), on which he was concurrently engaged.[6] But I believe that spatial constraints and technological innovations, which COVID-19 has thrust upon us, can inspire us to recover Barthes’s cancelled utopia of pedagogical idiorrhythmy. Not, perhaps, by adopting the forms of instantaneous feedback that increasingly characterize digital life: I am not calling for students to annotate lectures as they can new music tracks via SoundCloud, or to “react,” live on YouTube, to literature or to taught content. (Though why not? Such experiments might prove valuable, particularly if they reconnect students to the immediacy and gesturality of aesthetic response.)        

Rather, I’ve been developing over the past weeks a range of technologically mediated pedagogical exercises that intend both to extend and to reorient the forms of close and slow looking and listening that have historically characterized our critical practices. They include: asking undergraduate students to curate their own bedrooms, by cutting out images from newspapers or printing photographs from the internet so as to produce an exhibition in which they live; “paraphrasing” the television or Netflix series upon which for excellent reasons they need to binge into a prosodic form (ottava rima, Spenserian stanzas, and others) that they choose or that is chosen for them—or the relating of a given poem to the texture of objects in their immediate environment, so as to focus attention upon the tactile experience that has not only been overlooked by so much art criticism but also prohibited by the pandemic.

Such exercises might provide means not only of reanimating our own pedagogical approaches but also of building tentative bridges to other forms of communal or institutional life with which higher education presently seems to hold little in common. I don’t know about you, but most days I spend some of the time feeling like the teacher of literature that I am, sometimes like a prisoner fortunate enough to have a stable internet connection, sometimes like an insatiably curious child, sometimes like a premature retiree person trying to stave off early-onset cognitive degeneration. We all are all these things. COVID-19 is not a crisis that we can afford to waste.  

12 June 2020

Ewan Jones is a lecturer in English at Cambridge and a fellow of Downing College. He has just finished a second book on the history of the concept of rhythm in the nineteenth century and is working on a series of oblique pedagogical strategies that seek to extend and to deform historical practices of close (or slow) reading, looking, and listening. 

[1] Roland Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, trans. Kate Briggs (New York, 2013), p. xviii.

[2] Ibid., p. xxv.

[3] A representative instance is Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).

[4] Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, Mass., 2017), p. 107.

[5] Barthes, How to Live Together, 133–34.

[6] Ibid., 130–31.

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Jenny Holzer

8 June 2020

For more than forty years, Jenny Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including 7 World Trade Center, the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, or an LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the delivery of her work. Starting in the 1970s with the New York City posters, and continuing through her recent light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivaled ignorance and violence with humor, kindness, and courage. Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996, and the Barnard Medal of Distinction in 2011. She holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College. She lives and works in New York.  

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June 8, 2020 · 12:58 pm

Present Tense, Part 3:  The Two Plagues Converge

W.J.T. Mitchell

This is the third Part  of an essay on time located in the present moment in human history, an attempt to align “my time” with “our times.”[1]  It is impossible of course, to write about the present, because the moment one writes the words down, they are already in the past.  Time, like writing, marches on beyond our thought, our desires, our meanings, and it will write our epitaphs after our pens have gone dry.  We make up our stories in the moment, but time will tell.   It is the inexorable and fatal figure with the scythe that cuts us all down.  But the sickle is also a cycle, and the days and seasons and years return.  It may be a moment of ripening, of possibility, perhaps even opportunity.  Kronos, Aeion, and Kairos, the ancient personifications of the (usually grim) Reaper, the Zodiac, and the decisive moment converge today with special intensity.


This convergence of time scales is especially evident in the days in which these words are written, early June of 2020.  The planetary time of climate change was pushed to the background by the intense temporality of pandemic, which is in turn over-written by fourteen days of global protest against the plague of American racism.  As summer arrived in North America, after an endless spring of pandemic and plague that is not yet over, and that swept away hundreds of thousands of lives, a single death suddenly captured the imagination of America, and of the world.  A Black man named George Floyd was subjected to a slow motion execution, strangled to death by a white police officer while a protesting crowd looked on in horror, and video-taped the excruciatingly slow death.  The officer, the aptly named “Derek Chauvin” (chauvinism acquires a proper name) calmly put his hand in his pocket as he pressed his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-seven seconds, ignoring Floyd’s cries for help, for mercy, for his deceased mother to come to his aid.  The video immediately “went viral” in a nation that has perhaps become all too accustomed to scenes of this sort, reported, even video-taped, but perhaps less intensely focused on a single prolonged act of snuffing out a human life.  It is what Gilles Deleuze memorably called a “time image” as distinct from the “motion image” that is so central to cinema.[2]  A prolonged moment of steady, pitiless focus and unrelenting attention to a single act in which motion is almost completely absent, and then utterly vanishes into the real presence of death.

It is this time image, this prolongation of a merciless police murder that I think captured the imagination of the public so powerfully in the days after George Floyd’s death and mobilized one of the largest and longest mass protests in American history.  It was as if the literal plague of the coronoavirus and the figurative plague of American racism had somehow blended in the most intense moment of national mobilization since the heady days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  Added to the intensity of that convergence was the deeply felt contradiction between the moral imperatives dictated by the convergent plagues:  on the one hand, COVID-19 demanded “social distancing” and protective masking of individuals to inhibit infection;  on the other hand, the murder of George Floyd demanded social intimacy, assembly, crowding, a rushing together of masses of Americans in the name of ending the plague of American racism and fascistic militarism.[3]  Stay apart or come together?  In an instant, the first mandate was overtaken by the second.

William Blake, in his prophetic re-telling of the American Revolution in 1793 described this kind of historical moment with striking precision.  Then, as now, popular revolutions against absolutist monarchies in America and France were consistently described as devilish uprisings of  terrorists, to be suppressed by the angelic forces of order and social control.  When “Albions Angel,” the British Prime Minister, gives the command to suppress the Revolution, he does so by unleashing the plague of military violence against the American colonies:

In the flames stood & view’d the armies drawn out in the sky
Washington Franklin Paine, & Warren Allen Gates & Lee:
And heard the voice of Albions Angel give the thunderous command
His plagues obedient to his voice flew forth out of their clouds
Falling upon America, as a storm to cut them off. . . .
Then had America been lost, overwhelm’d by the Atlantic
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite,
But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire
The red fires rag’d! the plagues recoil’d then rolld they back with fury
On Albions Angels.

Blake wrote these words in 1793 with the advantage of hindsight, about events that he followed in the British press in 1776, when he was nineteen years old. He wrote them in the midst of the French Revolution and the rise of the Reign of Terror.  He was soon to follow them with Visions of the Daughters of Albion, a polemic against the African slave trade and in favor of the emancipation of women, his poetic echo of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.


So the American people, black, white, and brown, male, female, and LGBTQ, “rushed together” in nights of wrath and raging fire from 28 May to 5 June 2020, recoiling both plagues simultaneously.  The racist sexual predator who squats on the throne of the American presidency tried to stage a photo op as the angelic guardian of order and religion.  He assembled his armies to drive out protestors from the park across the street from his palatial slave-built White House so that he could stand on the steps of a church and hold a bible up to mobilize an evangelical reaction against the devilish descendants of the American revolutionaries.  And of course the predictable upsurge of looting and destruction of property that inevitably accompanies popular protest gave the right-wing media plenty of images to declare that the peaceful protestors were terrorists.

As the fires subsided, however, the rushing together continued, consolidating itself into articulate demands for reform and revolution, for the disarming of American police departments that see themselves as armies of occupation.  Meanwhile, one of the most powerful images of revulsion against actual racist terrorism imprinted itself on the ubiquitous masks that had been donned by the vast majority of American citizens during the COVID-19 plague:  “I can’t breathe,” the last words uttered by the dying Eric Garner in 2014, were echoed by George Floyd in his final moments.  It had become, along with “Hands up, don’t Shoot” and “No justice no peace,” the slogan of Black Lives Matter, the antiracist coalition rushing together in hundreds of cities across America.  Remarkably, the protest was multiracial and (in some cities) the police actually dropped their weapons and joined hands, taking a knee alongside the demonstrators.  It was as if the biological respiratory plague that drove us apart in the preceding months had transferred itself to the plague of police brutality and militarism that was sweeping across the nation.  Patients dying on short-supply ventilators in American hospitals, and Black men dying under the knee of white cops say “I can’t breathe,” calling out to one and the same corrupt system of racial capitalism.[4]  The police choke-hold and the Covid assault on human lungs suddenly converged in what Walter Benjamin called a “dialectical image,” capturing history at a standstill.

The right to breathe is not just put in danger by the police but by a lack of money and medicine. Black and brown Americans die from these biopolitical plagues in much greater numbers than white folks.  Well before the uprising of racist police violence in the summer of 2020, the toll of the coronavirus had disproportionately affected the people of color and the poor.  One of Trump regime’s central campaign pledges was the destruction of the meager healthcare system created during the Obama presidency.  The unleashing of the forces of speculative capital during the Trump regime was accompanied by the dismantling of centralized planning for the control of contagious diseases.  While the markets skyrocketed, the poor were herded into minimum wage jobs or part-time work devoid of health insurance.  Then, with unconscious irony, the underpaid workers in meat-packing plants, Amazon warehouses, and “essential services” like health care workers and even the police were declared to be “heroes” on the front lines of the newly declared “war” on the virus.   Already, while the coronavirus continues to rage, Amazon and other beneficiaries of contemporary wage slavery are beginning to announce that any bonuses and benefits conferred during the plague are strictly temporary and will soon be withdrawn.[5]  Workers concerned about their health, with insufficient access to medical care, had better show up for work or face termination.

Black Lives Matter is teaching an important tactical lesson from the last thirty years of racist police violence:  when you stage your demonstration, don’t do it in the poor, underserved neighborhoods and food deserts of South Side Chicago or South Central Los Angeles.  Take your protest to the doorsteps of racial capitalism in Beverly Hills and the Million Dollar Mile.

“We want to go to places of white affluence so that the pain and outrage that we feel can be put right in their faces,” said Melina Abdullah, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter.  The group wanted to bring its rage over the Floyd case and so many others to L.A.’s elites, in their own neighborhoods. Its officials said their goal was not to cause looting but to send a message.[6]

Looting is not the message, but it is a predictable side effect.  Police seem to have no difficulty in distinguishing white folks from black.  Why is it so difficult to discriminate between peaceably assembled citizens and looters smashing windows?  Isn’t there a reasonably clear difference between protecting property and protecting the right of people to assemble?[7]  Between arresting a vandal who is breaking into a store and assaulting a citizen who is making a political statement by refusing to leave a public space?  The militarization of the police makes these distinctions very difficult, so-called training that leads police to treat protestors as terrorist enemies, makes it impossible.  If this is a teachable moment, these would be the minimal lessons to be learned.

Not to mention the much larger, planetary lesson that our species is struggling to learn in these extraordinary times.

W.J.T. Mitchell is the editor of Critical Inquiry.

[1] Part One appeared on October  2018, as “Present Tense:  Time, Madness, and Democracy,” on the CI Blog, “In the Moment.”  Part Two appeared in May of 2020 as “Ground Hog Day and the Epoché, on the same Blog.  All three essays will be revised and merged in the days after the U.S. Presidential election on November 3 2020.

[2] Gilles Deleuzes,  Cinema 2: The Time Image trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).  


[4] On Racial Capitalism:

[5] “Uneasy Workers Risk Losing Jobs by Staying Home,” NY Times, Friday June 5, 2020, 1.

[6]  Unfortunately, South Side Chicago has not been spared, and looting has made life difficult for already underserved neighborhoods. 

[7] One of the most encouraging signs of learning on the job has been the behavior of police who protect the protestors, and even join in their ranks.



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Connecting Breaths

Romi Crawford

“I can’t breathe”—these are now America’s defining words. Back once again in the national imagination, the words refer to Eric Garner, the young black man who died from a chokehold by a New York City policeman in 2014. At this point, there are so many accrued police-violence cases that a tally should be in the making, not unlike the tallies that have rolled out each day to monitor COVID-19 deaths. Perhaps they should be combined? In fact, connecting these two occurrences is critical. COVID-19 and the police violence against black men are both pandemics.


In 2020, “I can’t breathe” intertwines the history of the coronavirus with the history of racially inflected police violence. The words now resound in both scenarios of COVID-19 and the recent instance of police violence experienced by George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. The world is transfixed by both events and the emphasis on breath that they both stage: COVID-19 and the struggle for air that often comes with it, as well as George Floyd’s plea, a reinstantiation of Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe.”

It’s hard not to reflect upon the strange familiarity of Floyd’s last words and the resonance of his case with Garner’s. This has been noted and remarked upon in news media and by the protesters on the ground in Minnesota and elsewhere. Less has been said about how “I can’t breathe” also resonates with the current COVID-19 crisis. There are attempts to remove the discussion of the one from the discussion of the other. True, they are entirely different situationally, but there is a crucial common thread—racial and economic oppression. Giving these stories space from each other makes sense but so too does bringing discussions of them closer together.

Connecting rather than siloing COVID-19 and the George Floyd case is important and crucial.  An opportunity arises, now, from the pervasiveness, the territorial as well as the situational globality, of “I can’t breathe.” Its expansion into the universal medical complex and also its routine occurrence on American streets, in part motivated by the prison industrial complex, compels action and redress. While the circumstances of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death are not the same, the outcomes of both are heavily impacted by American race and class imbalances. COVID-19 death statistics reveal racial disparity in American society and so does the George Floyd incident. Only an unarmed black man could be kneed to death in broad daylight with bystanders and three other police officers there to witness it.

Recognizing how these are on the same continuum is imperative. Why? Because they both make American race and class discrimination abundantly clear and apparent. Exploring the common ground would be productive on various levels. It would also help in finally recognizing and thinking through the ongoing racial violence and systemic racial injustice that impact black people’s bodies, making them more susceptible to hypertension and heart disease. As Achille Mbembe puts it in “The Universal Right to Breathe”: “Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body.” The black body shows up in response to a long history of racial violence and oppression, with injuries such as high blood pressure and heart disease. They are what ultimately make COVID-19 a more detrimental and life-threatening virus; according to the coroner’s report, they may have contributed to George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation. Then, it seems that the preconditions of a COVID-19 demise and the preconditions for Mr. Floyd’s death also correlate and connect in ways that should not be underestimated for what they both reveal about the black body in America.


“I can’t breathe” is a phrase that now indexes the black body. Compounded utterances of it in both the locale of the hospital and the locale of the streets are eerie and unsettling. This is disturbing because breath is the most basic human birthright. Life commences with an all-important first breath and life ends when breathing stops.  Insofar as breath is symbolic for life, the lives of black people are crucially at stake, always perhaps but, at this particular moment, in numbers that are even more profound due to the coterminity of COVID-19 and police incited racial violence.

3 June 2020

Romi Crawford is a professor in the Visual and Critical Studies and Liberal Arts Departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her research revolves around ideas of race and ethnicity and their relation to American art and visual culture.

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Skeptical Conditions

Leela Gandhi


But He’s Much Bluer than When I Went Away

Many of us will recognize two cognitive phenomena from the intense experience of the coronavirus lockdown. The first is fairly ubiquitous. It is a perception that something is as likely to happen as not. It is as likely as not there will be a vaccine by the summer of 2021. It is as likely as not covid-19 is here to stay. Educational institutions are as likely as not to convene in person at some point in the coming academic year. Most countries are as likely as not in the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and so on. Forebodings of this type index the disquiet of our times. They also index a condition of skepticism—in the precise philosophical sense of the term. Such obtains from diverse intersecting traditions, as South Asian Mādhyamika Buddhism, Hellenistic Pyrrhonism, some chapters of American pragmatism and European poststructuralism, included (see W. J. T. Mitchell on the concept of the epoché).


Philosophical skepticism describes the equality of all antilogies. This means that cheerfulness and dejection, pleasure and pain are random points in a torque or shades of the same palette. Each leads to the other and back again. As well, each holds, each fails to hold, each both holds and fails to hold, each neither holds nor fails to hold. The Pyrrhonist and Buddhist so-called tetralemma formula of noncontradiction gets to the heart of the matter. Any position or theory or belief (indeed, any deed, act, or advantage) is no more than it is not; it both is and is not; it neither is nor is not.

The second cognitive phenomenon at hand is harder to pin down. It is a state of consciousness about something we have known for a very long time without bringing to the forefront of understanding. The experience is similar to an “aha” moment. Aha! The virtual face is more companionable than the telephonic voice. Aha! Distraction serves concentration better than homogenous empty time. Aha! Consumerism may be bad for the soul, but it certainly energizes the spirit.

There are more exacting examples. The disproportionate covid-related death toll of African Americans in the US and of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and other black communities in the UK brings awareness to perfectly well-known, longstanding racialized disparities in health and access to medical care. The mass exodus of starving migrant workers making their way home from locked-down cities in India is arguably the worst such after Partition. Yet it relays no new data. It is a stark resume of known unknowns: every single aspect of routine lifestyle in the subcontinent runs on the back of precarious informal livelihoods.

The two phenomena under review may seem incongruous but are closely linked. Skeptical conditions (those we cultivate and which beset us, as at the present world- historical moment) are not ends in themselves. Nor are they alibi for existential defeatism and the view that the external world is just a rumor. Made over as spiritual exercises they show the way to ataraxia, the Greek word for undisturbedness, and to sthitaprajña, the Sanskrit word for something like a standing-still mentality. Both words are from the ancient skeptical lexicon, and the eventual respite from uncertainty that they hint at is the opposite of insensibility. (After all, the peaceful skeptic sage is depicted as enlightened rather than asleep).

A well-honed practice of noncontradiction is a deep epistemological cleanse that deflects attention from content, argument, and expectation to the quality of what is manifestly staring us in the face. It prompts us to trust direct interactions with the world rather than be swayed by prejudice and convention. It intensifies what is given and makes us present and alive to such—namely, woke, to follow the AAVE, or African American Vernacular English word. In this way, skepticism is a sine qua non of consciousness.

Consider a literary gloss. In his 1908 play, The Blue Bird, the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck (an acknowledged skeptic and mystic) tells the story of two disaffected children who embark on a quest for knowledge. They learn nothing new. They stop searching. Once back home they notice that their pet bird, a turtledove, is much bluer than when they went away.

Wear a Mask

There’s some more to learn on the topic from the Consciousness-Raising (C-R) projects of 1960s and 1970s second-wave feminism that took hold in various postwar welfare societies. The C-R concept was put to circulation in 1968 by Kathie Sarachild, a member of the New York based Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement and coeditor of Woman’s World newspaper. In time, the meaning of consciousness in this context became as diverse as its constituencies across civil rights venues, gay liberation, speakout and zap action groups, antiwar forums, and (within the academy) women’s studies programs, including feminist poetics, spirituality, and science.

There was a consensus that consciousness does not target the unconscious, namely, any sum of mental operations to occur well below the level of conscious awareness. Nor is it the rarefied presentism of mindfulness meditation with a limit on recursive and projective thinking. It is, rather, an orientation to what is already there but so much in plain view as to be unintelligible, much like Maeterlinck’s turtledove—and the daily housework performed by a homeless migrant laborer in Delhi and the calculus of risks for women in the present conditions of compulsory domestic confinement (as Bikas Sarma and Shruti Sarma observe in their response to Catherine Malabou in this forum). There’s another problem. The already there is hard to grasp, tout court, because it is obscured, variously, by false consciousness, bad representations, and estrangement, to name but a few malefactors.

C-R protocols do not pave the way to some unalloyed jewel of consciousness. The major payoff of an elevated consciousness is the end of isolation. The systems that obscure are the very same that quarantine. Once free of these—and to borrow some words from the American skeptical philosopher, George Santayana—we begin (to think, to act) in medias res; that is, right into the unpartitioned middle of things.1   Where there is consciousness there is connectedness, according to many flag bearers of the C-R movement.

To be conscious is to be minimally aware of the ambient world and the presence of others (no different from Thomas Nagel’s echolocation bats). A conscious person is not particularly brilliant or wise. But they are likely to be good company in a lockdown. They are also likely to wear a mask in public, less to protect themselves as others who are vulnerable to infection.

Coda: Companion Species

Ancient and medieval Indic philosophers are very taken by a Ṛgveda parable of two birds, beautiful of wing, who shelter in a common tree. One eats the fruit of the tree. The other does not eat but watches its fellow. The birds are said to stand for the duality of consciousness (active/passive, finite/infinite, mundane/enlightened, and so on).

In the soteriological gloss on this parable, the noneating bird is perched above and measures her distance from the lower bird, somewhat smugly. Her actual sights are on the insipid metaphysical fruit further up in the canopy. In the devotional gloss on the same story there is no arboreal hierarchy. The birds are close companions and look upon each other adoringly. They grasp the inextricability of testimony and witnessing, eating and not eating, breathing and not breathing. Whatever they know they know with each other.

1 June 2020

Leela Gandhi is John Hawkes Professor of Humanities and English at Brown
University. She is the author of Postcolonial Theory (Second edition, 2019), The Common Cause (2014), and Affective Communities (2006).

1. George Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy (New York, 1923), p. 1

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The Incalculable: Thoughts on the Collapse of the Biosecurity Regime


Lydia H. Liu

It makes a world of difference where the novel coronavirus travels.

For the first time, I feel as vulnerable as my eighty-eight-year old mother who is locked down in another part of the world. Neither she nor anyone I know has ever, in living memory, been through a moment like this. Has the world woken up to a new catastrophe, or are we pretending that we do not know what we have always known?

This is a terrible thought, and it haunts me as my city, New York, succumbs to the COVID-19 outbreak. Sirens wail day and night on the streets as doctors and nurses struggle to keep critically ill patients alive while exposing themselves to the deadly pathogen. To the astonishment of the world, American society has not prepared itself for a disaster of this magnitude; and worse, many in Europe and America had initially been led to believe that the novel coronavirus might be one of those isolated, regional affairs, not unlike SARS (2003), MERS (2012), and Ebola (2014) or what gets reported from those remote, disease-prone countries of Asia and Africa.[1] Therefore, US travel restrictions on flights from China on 2 February and from Iran on 29 February should have taken care of the matter, but they didn’t. Recent genomic analyses suggest that the vast majority of coronavirus cases in New York came from Europe, not from Asia.[2] Blindsided by its own racism, the political calculus of the US biosecurity regime has misfired. It forgets to reckon with the incalculable.

Donald Trump’s remarks during a press conference on 19 March 2020 where “corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.” Source: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The moral balance sheet of the ruling caste in America is bankrupt. How would you weigh the losses and gains of human lives on the scale of a global pandemic? You simply can’t. People are dying, and tens of millions are suffering and faced with economic hardships. There are so many questions bearing upon the incalculable—and the possibility of a second or third wave of the pandemic in the coming months or years—that we must heed W.J.T. Mitchell’s call to reflect on the moment itself.

When I say that the incalculable escapes the political calculus, I do not mean to suggest that it falls outside of the calculating machine but rather, it penetrates the core of that machine by virtue of being excluded from its terms of reckoning. The incalculable contaminates the political calculus with its own shadow—in the manner of the return of the repressed—which is why we must be careful with our facile metaphors and comparisons. The analogies with the Spanish flu and with other plagues from the past may help us talk about the tragic consequences of a major public health fallout, but they are misleading if we let them guide our thought on the fallout itself. For such analogies often dissimulate what they simulate and, therefore, can do more to obscure the truth of the moment than clarify it. To return to the question I have raised: Are we pretending that we do not know what we have always known?

Take the most recent U.S. biosecurity exercises—code named Crimson Contagion— organized by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This is a series of simulation exercises that ran from January to August 2019, involving Washington and 12 states including Illinois and New York.[3] During those exercises, the HHS asked its federal and local partners to imagine a fictional scenario where a global pandemic breaks out in China. What should we do to prevent the deadly respiratory virus from spreading to the U.S.? How would the federal government, state governments, hospitals and private stakeholders coordinate effective operations? Here is the HHS script as summarized by New York Times reporters:

The outbreak of the respiratory virus began in China and was quickly spread around the world by air travelers, who ran high fevers. In the United States, it was first detected in Chicago, and 47 days later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By then it was too late: 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading to 7.7 million hospitalized and 586,000 dead.[4]

Call it prescience or extraordinary coincidence. Sometimes, fiction provides the kind of insights that intelligence or the facts on the ground cannot. But in this case, the fictional scenario bears uncanny resemblance to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that would actually happen in Wuhan within three months of the conclusion of Crimson Contagion. Chicago, for instance, participated in the simulation exercises in the summer of 2019 and, according to Allison Arwady, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, “We actually did a preparedness exercise here in Chicago that, believe it or not, was actually written as an exercise for a new virus emerging from China with the first cases seen here in Chicago.”[5]

By contrast, the government officials in Wuhan, a city regarded as China’s Chicago for its central geographic location and its function as the nation’s transportation hub, wasted the summer of 2019 doing absolutely nothing to prepare its eleven million residents for the possibility of a SARS-like respiratory disease. Rumors abound as to how the virus—be it crimson or red contagion—got there in the first place; while we await the pending independent WHO investigation, all we can say at this point is that people of Wuhan became the first casualty of the pandemic. But here is the rub: Had the officials there adopted the same biosecurity regime as did those in Chicago or other American cities, would Wuhan have had a better chance of averting the initial catastrophe?[6] Sadly, the answer is “no,” if we look to New York for inspiration.

Not only was New York involved in the Crimson Contagion exercises last year but it was also the location of a high-level pandemic exercise code-named Event 201 that took place in October 2019, just four weeks before the actual novel coronavirus outbreak. Led by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, this tabletop exercise partnered with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to simulate the outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus modeled on SARS. The fictional pathogen, originating from Brazil, is transmittable from bats to pigs to people and then becomes highly transmissible from person to person. One poignant detail predicted by Event 201 is that the coronavirus spreads more efficiently in the low-income, densely packed neighborhoods, and this is exactly borne out by New York, Detroit, and other American cities where African American and Latinx working-class communities have suffered the highest death rates. The close parallel with Event 201’s fictional scenario is so unnerving that it has prompted the Johns Hopkins Center to issue a statement to disavow its uncanny prediction of nCov-2019.

This is a shocking revelation. The political calculus of the world’s most advanced biosecurity regime has failed miserably. Bear in mind that the US is ranked at the top of the 2019 Global Health Security Index, with the United Kingdom running a close second, in the most recent worldwide survey of 195 countries conducted by the same Johns Hopkins Center and Nuclear Threat Initiative and published four weeks before the actual coronavirus outbreak in China.


With our best-funded research, farsighted preparations, carefully designed simulation exercises, and timely warnings, we are supposed to outperform all other nations in coping with a pandemic. Instead, we are currently ranked highest in the number of deaths and COVID-19 cases as of late May, when I last checked. It is not as if there had been no political will or that the biosecurity regime had not seen action until 2019, leaving the federal and state governments little time to fix the vulnerable links they identified, such as the stockpile of masks and ventilators.

Has knowledge failed to translate into action? This seems unlikely. We will have learned nothing from this fiasco if we think that COVID-19 is just another worldwide public health disaster like the Spanish flu, pretending that we do not know what we have always known since the HIV/AIDS pandemic.[7] The US imperial biosecurity regime, both before and since Trump, has been unusually active in leading the world in preparations, mobilizations, and simulation exercises like Dark Winter (2001), Atlantic Storm (2005), Clade X (2018), Crimson Contagion,  and Event 201, to name just a few. And then, how do we end up in a state of unpreparedness in the midst of advanced preparedness? The biosecurity regime is the key to understanding this, not the pandemic nor the virus itself. Driven by its imperial fantasy of world control, the regime has allowed itself to operate on a logic of racism in its conceptualization and implementation of the political calculus; yet it forgets to reckon with the unintended consequences of its own logic.

It is my hope that a safe and effective vaccine for SARS-Cov-2 (the virus responsible for the disease COVID-19) will become available and get us out of the mess in a year or so. Even so, will the scientists be able to put us back in control of our destiny by bringing uncertainty to tolerable levels as suggested by Lorraine Daston? I confess that I feel some trepidation: Is there the likelihood of SARS-Cov-3 or SARS-Cov-4 coming in the wake of SARS-Cov2? What if the incalculable—be it the infinitely small or the infinitely gigantic[8]—escapes the political calculus of the imperial biosecurity machine time and again?

26 May 2020

Lydia H. Liu is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She is the author of The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (2010); The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004); Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (1995)    

[1] On 3 February 2020 just as the ICUs in Wuhan hospitals were being overwhelmed by dying patients, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece under the headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The uproar on social media over the paper’s callous display of racist disregard for the suffering of nonwhites led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expel three WSJ journalists from China. Instead of taking urgent action to protect the lives of the American people when time was running out, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.”

[2] Carl Simmer, “Most New York Coronavirus Cases Came From Europe, Genomes Show,” New York Times, April 8, 2020.

[3]Crimson Contagion 2019 Exercise Draft After-Action Report,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, October, 2019.

[4]Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded,” New York Times, 19 March 2020 and updated March 22, 2020.

[5]Chicago Officials Held Exercise Last Summer Preparing for New Virus Emerging From China,” 4 March 2020, NBC Chicago.

[6] Under unprecedented lockdown measures, Wuhan’s pandemic was actually contained by the central government who swiftly moved in and implemented its military style campaign. According to South China Morning Post dated 17 March, the campaign was literally led by the PLA army, navy, and air force medical personnel who swooped down in full protective gear as if they engaged in a large-scale defense exercise against some bioterrorist attack.

[7] There are many academic studies on how this biosecurity regime came into being. See Andrew T. Price-Smith’s Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology, and National Security in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 2008).

[8] “The gigantic” is an allusion to one of Martin Heidegger’s observations in “The Age of the World Picture.” See The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, Garland Publishing, 1977), p.135.

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Net-munity, or The Space between Us … Will Open the Future

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

I write this during a time when we feel acutely the stakes and consequences of connection, polarization, infrastructures, models, and habits.  To many, it seems a world turned upside-down, in which the unimaginable has become possible: “socialism” and extensive surveillance within the US; the retraction of the Chinese economy and the negative price of oil; the invocation of Cold War shelter-in-place ordinances; and KKK masks worn as protective masks in California. This crisis has highlighted and augmented already existing divides: from white collar employees who seek the “perfect” gadget for working from home; to the mainly non-white and poor essential personnel who have had to balance daily financial and medical risks; from French dentists without proper protective equipment who posted naked pictures to protest back-to-work orders to Donald Trump supporters—compared to a “modern-day Rosa Parks”–who publicly demonstrate against orders by Democratic governors to stay at home.

It is a time of uncertainty and therefore responsibility—and something like community.  Scientific, economic, and political knowledge and models are constantly evolving.  Many of the first guidelines presumed similarities between SARS Cov-2 and SARS Cov-1, which were later proven to be untrue, such as the period during which a person is most infectious: in SARS Cov-1 it is when one is most symptomatic; for SARS Cov-2 it is just beforehand. Our current knowledge of Covid-19 is mainly correlational, with mechanistic-genetic explanations, as always, lagging behind observation and comparison. For example, SARS Cov-2 is widely assumed not to be airborne because it is far less contagious than airborne diseases such as measles. In desperation turned pharmaceutical opportunity, drugs are being approved, such as remdesivir, which were discontinued in early clinical trials due to debilitating side effects.  Most significantly, because of the lack and poor quality of existing tests and testing materials, the scope of the pandemic—necessary for modelling the basic reproduction number (R0)—is poorly known.  It is even unclear if “recovereds” are immune or for how long.

This uncertainty, however, does not undermine science or politics; it drives research and makes political decisions difficult and necessary. Intersecting this cloud of uncertainty are correlations and probabilities, which can guide our decisions, even if they cannot guarantee them, for the pandemic and its “cures” confront us with responsibility in the strongest sense of the word.  As Thomas Keenan has argued, we face responsibility not when we make decisions by following guidelines and rules but when we desperately want to but cannot: “when we do not know exactly what we should do, when the effects and conditions of our actions can no longer be calculated, and when we have nowhere else to turn, not even back onto our ‘self.’”[1] Not even back onto our self—because at these moments we realize that the individual is, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s evocative phrase, “the residue of the dissolution of community.”[2]

Tellingly, although ostensibly about the human death toll, calls for communal responsibility are mainly framed in terms of infrastructure: things that ground and touch us, even as we strive not to touch too many others. The April UK motto of “staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives” encapsulates this perfectly (fig. 1).  By caring for infrastructure, we care for ourselves and others. In countries with national health services, the fear is becoming another Italy. In other countries, such as the US, the motto would seem to be “work, save businesses, and save your grandchildren’s livelihoods (and your pension, if you have one) (fig. 2). Or, more positively, “stay home/distant, flatten the curve, and save lives and the city.”





The “cures” proposed, emergency powers granted, and sacrifices demanded reflect and reveal profoundly different national, regional, and local perceptions of which curve matters—the number of “infecteds,” the stock market, national employment figures, GDP, the mortality rate—and which ties bind most strongly—capital, public health, taxes, national deficits, public transportation, and others.  These cures acknowledge that exit is impossible, even for the most nonessential wealthy, whose New Zealand bunkers and seasteading dreams still rely on the value of capital and the lives of “essential workers.”

The proposed cures and sacrifices reveal different diagrams of the social.  If the nation is mainly viewed as a network , the goal is to produce “safe” exceptional neighborhoods: to create/augment clusters so that the “infected” are separated from the “recovereds” and “susceptibles” (fig. 3).



Surveillance to track and manage contagion and contacts becomes the key to amplifying social distance.  In this worldview, community cases become mysteries to be solved via stalking and recording undocumented cases and silent spreaders.  Tracking “patient zero” becomes a national pastime, as does blaming other countries for viral spread.  Safety—resting as it does on inequality and dreams of emptying space—is precarious.  Think of everything that must be erased for an edge to represent a friendship: institutions, such as schools and bars; interactions with “nodding strangers” (which during pandemics turn out to be essential); social media prompts to say “happy birthday”; regular meetings and events. In order for there to be networks, there must be gaps. Networks hollow clouds of uncertainty—that is, infrastructure and in/difference—in order to foreground clean connections across empty space.[3]

Perversely, the logic of networks spreads the word neighbor everywhere, in order to impoverish it conceptually. Machine learning is filled with “neighborhood” methods used for pattern recognition and collaborative filtering, which create segregated clusters of agitated sameness. Networks presume and prescribe homophily—that birds of a feather flock together, that similarity breeds connection.  A banal and therefore dangerous notion of friend becomes a synonym for neighbor: segregation becomes naturalized and hatred becomes love.[4] How do you show you love the same? By fleeing when others show up. Hatred attracts and repels at the same time, creating angry clusters that need to hate:

if homophily == true

neighbor := self := other.hate :=

ethics := narcissism

society := nul


If the nation is mainly viewed as a community—what I’m calling “net-munity”—the onset of nontrackable cases demands treating everyone as “infected,” in order to suppress the disease (we have to remember that viruses, such as SARS Cov-1, have been eradicated without vaccines). The Vancouver Parks motto “the space between us will hold us together” encapsulates vision, for rather than treating the population as a series of nodes and edges, it attends to the spaces that enable community to emerge.  Community presumes community transmission—community is communication and space.  Once a virus is endemic to a community, neatly drawn graphs become impossible and the goal becomes widespread habitual changes to save others and public infrastructures: physical distancing, wearing facemasks, washing hands, avoiding mass gatherings, cleaning public spaces. Even as the disease and these changes affect “vulnerable” populations differently, there are no exceptions to the call for—if not the act of—sacrifice.  Friends and mobility become dangerous, and addressing the needs of those “at risk” populations becomes key.

At its best, net-munity follows the call made by the Combahee River Collective to treat everyone as “levelly human,” by engaging—rather than ignoring—identity politics and individual experience.[5] In British Columbia and elsewhere, houseless populations finally are being moved into safer shelters, such as hotel rooms and empty apartment buildings, after individual consultations.  Appallingly, Vancouver’s long-standing housing and drug crises are finally being addressed, not because of the dangerous living conditions of the houseless or the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women or the Overdose Crisis public health emergency declared in 2016, but because of the need to contain Covid-19 (tellingly, 113 people in BC died due to illicit drug toxicity in March 2020 ; in comparison, a total of 141 people have died of Covid-19 as of 15 May). This sheltering, however, can also destroy. The construction of spiked fencing to prevent tents from re-merging in Oppenheimer Park evokes other clearances: Japanese Canadians were removed from this area into Interior internment camps during World War II; Vancouver lies on the still unceded lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

We must engage neighbors and relations in all their rich ambivalence. Neighbors are not innocuous—the term neighbor literally recalls “boors.” They are nosy and noisy. They can provoke hostility, resentment and ambivalence. They intrude, even—and especially—when they are inert. They offer, however, a way to reside in/difference and to engage interactions that go beyond homophily: not just heterophily (heterosexuality, electromagnetism and other opposites that attract), but also ambivalence, compassion, and neutrality.

Neighbors space.[6] At their best they un-settle, for their spacing resonates with what Ariella Azoulay has called “potential history.”[7] Diverse worlds and lands persist despite being crossed out in official maps and graphs.[8] The task before us, as Kara Keeling has put it, is to “listen, with others, for the poetry, the refrains, and the noise a world is making.”[9]

So, let us shelter in space; let us care for the infrastructures that touch us, so that “we” might surface and endure, in/difference.

20 May 2020

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University and leads the Digital Democracies Group. Dr. Chun is the author of Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (2016), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011), and Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2006), as well as numerous articles and edited collections.  She has received fellowships from< various foundations and institutes, including the Guggenheim Foundation, ACLS, American Academy of Berlin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She was Professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she worked for almost two decades. Currently, Dr. Chun works with the Digital Democracies Group to undertake the proliferation of misinformation, abusive language and discriminatory algorithms. Through the investigation of natural language processing (NLP), political theory and critical data studies, the group aims to develop methods for creating effective online counterspeech and alternative models for connection. Her work has appeared in Critical Inquiry.

I would like to thank Lynn Festa and Paul Moorcroft for their comments, suggestions, and conversations, and Hannah Holtzclaw for her editorial help. They have been invaluable.

[1] Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford, Calif., 1997).

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor et al., ed. Connor (Minneapolis, 1991).

[3] Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh, 2014)

[5] Combahee River Collective, How We Get Free (Chicago, 2017).

[6] Kenneth Reinhard, “Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor,” in Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner and Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago, 2005).

[7] Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Brooklyn, N.Y., 2019).

[8] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.

[9] Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York, 2019).


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Arguments for a New Aesthetic of Presence

Chiara Cappelletto

Translated by Samuel Fleck

The dominant narrative of the COVID-19 illness plays into the most conservative iconic order. On the one hand, there is a widely circulated, glossy image of SARS-CoV-2 that makes use of the realist rhetoric of photography: the virus is this. It hardly matters that such an image is not a depiction of the pathogen but an illustration designed “to grab the public’s attention.”[1] On the other hand, the virus is “invisible” above all else, and its symptoms largely “mimic” those of the seasonal flu, which they resemble. It is therefore said to be unknowable. The lay observer is once again caught in a double bind between optical efficacy and the phantasmal quality of the image.

Apart from its well-known paradoxes, the logic of the sign—still applicable to AIDS, which has in fact been termed an “epidemic of signification”[2]—is completely inadequate for understanding the current pandemic. The “pestiferous bodies,” the carriers of contagion, cannot be detected because they are largely asymptomatic. The virus strikes without marking the sick person, as confirmed by the frantic search for a tracking system that will compensate for the dearth of symptoms, using geolocation data to make up for the lack of stigmata.


Indeed, since anyone could be sick without knowing it, we are all asked to maintain distance from one another. This policy might have been called “physical distancing,” so as to grant relevance to all the forms of attachment, care, and aid that we have mobilized during this time. The fact that it has been called “social distancing” clearly underscores the aesthetic-political implications of this extraordinary type of negative performance. Social distance is the suppression of gestures of contact. It entails not shaking hands with, hugging, or leaning in toward—much less slapping, hitting, or attacking—one another. It abolishes the affordances of the world, thus working like an anesthetic. If, as Adam Phillips writes, “attention seeking . . . is a form of sociability, an appeal to others to help us with our wanting,”[3] then social distancing inhibits our desire to give and receive attention.

We talk about the pandemic using surface codes, but we live it as bodies embedded in our homes, as though in a cultural version of locked-in syndrome. Are we a new kind of freak in a new kind of circus? It will be interesting to see to what extent future reflections about the transformation of public space into media space, the virtualization of private space through the systematic use of online platforms, and new codes of social representation where only the upper half of the body is displayed remain reliant on our culture’s privileging of the iconic, and to what extent they acknowledge that vision itself is situated. We are currently living a critical stalemate and paying for it in the flesh.

Suffering due to suspended sociality alone does not account for the profound sense of disorientation that we are experiencing. Are we not asked to stay in what is, by definition, the most welcoming space for us: our homes? Why then does this space appear so inhospitable to us? Coming from decades where being mobile was everything, home confinement suddenly becomes the cutoff point where our experience of near and far, neighbor and stranger, collapses. After living so freely, after having the very notion of open space shape our understanding of what living space is in itself, we all find ourselves confinable.

A different understanding is needed to account for the current state of human affairs. The latter calls for a new aesthetic of presence.

We know that our bodies are coextensive with the physical, social, and cultural environments in which goods, medicine, laws, and artifacts play a part; that emotions, thoughts, practices, and tools modify the neurobiological processes of individuals and of our species as a whole. Cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy use the term embodiment for the interconnectedness of man, nature, and technology: our bodies cut the world into a continuous reciprocal dynamic of action and reaction. We are all cyborgs. We have supposedly known this for decades, though we resist the idea and continue to observe this embodiment from the outside, as a notion to be put in perspective; we thus have a paradoxically disembodied understanding of it.

This critical inertia occurs at a time when COVID-19 has raised the question of embodiment to a higher level: an institutional level. The problem has been clear from the outset: by all getting sick at the same time we would have made it impossible for doctors and hospitals to care for us. Sick people make the system sick. We have thus acknowledged a link between the vulnerability of the individual and the vulnerability of the government infrastructure responsible for medical care. The moral imperative has been to “flatten the curve.”

The ongoing pandemic shows us governments as institutional actors whose power to lead lies unexpectedly in their capacity for care and protection. I am in favor of rethinking political action as an exercise in care because it would entail an ecological, feminist, and intergenerational agenda and would acknowledge that citizens are an aggregate of women and men, children and older people, with different potentialities, who make up networks of knowledge, affections, desires, and abilities. Nevertheless, while care as an active and mutual practice is a positive and productive engagement, being taken into care suggests an attitude of submissiveness that weakens personal initiative, the freedom to try and fail. If responsibility is the ability to respond, as Karen Barad has put it, then the political perspective of being cared for can weaken us to the point of making us nonresponsible.

We are at a crossroads. We have the opportunity to implement an ecological agenda and finally recognize that a butterfly flapping its wings can indeed cause a hurricane; to increase individual responsibility and inventiveness as a result; to overcome the ill-conceived alternative between social justice and freedom; and to build a fair and inclusive system of power. At the same time, we run the risk of turning our vulnerability into passivity; of assimilating individuals into two broad categories—reliable healthy people and socially dangerous sick people, each tagged with its own health code; of substituting the medical specialist for the political leader and the military, driven by a magical faith in science, which we are asked to believe in as we might a patron saint and whose praxis and verification system are unfortunately largely unknown to citizens.[4]

This choice, which calls into question the ultimate meaning of democratic citizenship, arises at a time of increased implementation of the prosthetic nature of the human body. Since sealing ourselves in our homes, we have never been so unbounded: with all of us connected 24/7, using privately owned platforms, whether for birthday parties, dissertation defenses, homeschooling, or work meetings, we are redefining the experience of our self and of the outside with a blind faith in the openness of the web and its democratic accessibility, both of whose shortfalls we prefer to ignore.

To pursue the best way forward we need to queer the dominant narrative and finally abandon the regime of “natural iconicity,” with its divide between presence and absence, which has unfortunately withstood decades of academic studies; we need to think about how embodied and gendered minds perform freely in spaces where the affective values of near and far have taken on enormous political relevance. We need to be able to be in touch and respond.

13 May 2020

Chiara Cappelletto is Associate Professor of Aesthetics at the Philosophy Department, University of Milan, where she teaches Poetics & Rhetoric and Contemporary Aesthetics, and heads the Performing Identities Seminar (PIS).Her work focusses on the fabrication of personal identity through public discourse and theatrical performance. Her books include Neuroaesthetics: Art, Braincentrism, and the Embodied Mind, forthcoming Columbia University Press.

Samuel Fleck earned his PhD from Columbia University with a dissertation on Antonio Fogazzaro and late nineteenth-century Italian literature. His experience as a translator of French and Italian texts into English spans more than twelve years. Among his recent works are translations of the poetry collection Valsolda by Fogazzaro, with selected poems set to appear in the Italian Poetry Review, and the book Neuroaesthetics: Art, Braincentrism, and the Embodied Mind by Chiara Cappelletto, forthcoming Columbia University Press

[1] Cara Giaimo, “The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World: How C.D.C. Medical Illustrators Created the Coronavirus Pandemic’s Most Iconic Image,” New York Times, April 1, 2020,

[2] Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification,” Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (1987): 263–305.

[3] Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 7.

[4] To complexify the question at hand, consider the notion of “therapeutic citizenship” coined by Vinh-Kim Nguyen. See Vinh-Kim Nguyen, “Antiretroviral Globalism, Biopolitics, and Therapeutic Citizenship,” in Global Assemblages, ed. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), pp. 124–44.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Groundhog Day and the Epoché

W. J. T. Mitchell

I thought that, by seventy-eight, I had seen everything.  Every epidemic from polio to AIDS to SARS. Every war from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and the endless, stupid “War on Terror.” Every terrible president from Nixon to Reagan to Bush. Around the fall of 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, I was reminded of the old proverb, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Now, in the spring of 2020, we see how deep nothingness can be, a black hole in time that has sucked the entire world into its gravitational field. And so I began thinking about time, the present moment, and asking why and how it might provide a unique moment of insight.

Of course, since we are in a state of emergency, crisis, and exception, who has time to think about time? Nurses, orderlies, doctors are overwhelmed with sixteen-hour days of nonstop work; grocery clerks, immigrant fruit pickers, and meat processors are essential workers, while  the poor and people of color line up with millions of unemployed at food banks. Politicians scurry about covering their asses, or making up for the incompetence at the helm of the national government, and we watch as the richest, most technologically advanced country on the planet, with 2 percent of the world’s population, catches one-third of the cases of coronavirus at the latest count and boasts the worst record in the first world for mismanagement of the crisis.


Antony Gormley’s Clearing No. 1

So who has time to think about time?  The answer is stunningly clear.  We do.  I mean those of us who are paid to think, and write, and teach and who may be lucky enough to still be on the payroll of some academic institution.  Or those of us who are retired, drawing a pension, lucky to be sequestered at home rather than condemned to the petri dish of a nursing home.  As someone who is on the verge of retirement, in the process of stepping down from the helm of Critical Inquiry, a journal I have edited for the last forty-two years—the time of “theory”—I had already been thinking about time, numbering my days, and reflecting on the question of time itself.  Inspired by the maddest American political epoch in my lifetime, launched by the election of 2016, I had already plunged into the vast philosophical, historical, and scientific literature on time, trying to make sense of what makes this moment both unprecedented and utterly predictable, unique and yet exemplary, terrifying and yet filled with potential.[1] Above all I wanted to ask what makes this a teachable moment, one from which we could learn something together. And so I have found myself writing in the present tense about an extraordinarily tense present.

I have not been doing this alone.  On every side, pundits, essayists, poets, artists, intellectuals, novelists, historians, political theorists, and philosophers have been weighing in.  The present “Posts from the Pandemic” on the Critical Inquiry blog, “In the Moment,” have been pouring in from all over the world, crossing the screens of our editorial collective for debate and evaluation, and then reaching out to a readership much more numerous and far-reaching than the usual audience of a scholarly journal devoted to criticism and theory.

The result has been an enormous outpouring of thoughtful reflection gathered up in these posts.  They range from the personal and confessional (Slavoj Žižek noting that he finds himself hoping he will catch the virus) to the apocalyptic and prophetic (Bruno Latour and Achille Mbembe linking the pandemic to climate change, and Joshua Clover bringing it all back to capitalism).  Science (Norman Macleod urging us to “show some respect” for viruses and viral metaphors) and the history of science (Catherine Malabou and Lorraine Daston reflecting on how intellectuals have responded to plague).  Practical wisdom (Carol J. Adams on “anticipatory care-giving” and why we shouldn’t shake out clothes before washing them; Bill Ayers on the trials and dangers of Zoom teaching).   Virus-inspired reflections on biopower and biopolitics are everywhere as Michel Foucault’s prophetic writings continue to resonate (according to Daniele Lorenzini), and Jacques Derrida’s metaphorics of autoimmunity looms on the horizon. Katherine Hayles’s posthumanism relocates our bodies as the battleground between simplicity and complexity, viruses and the counter-virus of human intelligence. Affect theory and collective emotion go global in new forms of wonder and anxiety; the poetry of domestic immersion (Andrea Brady’s “Hanging in the Air”), ferocious tirade (Charles Bernstein’s “Covidity”), and John Wilkinson’s meditation on a time that has lost its legs to love. Mick Taussig’s shamanism finds a vocation, amid the “comic dimension” of self-isolating critical theorists, scholars, and poets laboring at their laptops, promoting their pet theories, predicting both u- and dys-topia, a new world of Green Socialism or a suicidal species hell-bent on authoritarian populism, nationalism, and racism.


Antony Gormley’s Clearing No. 2

Are these “end times”?  Trump’s favorite Evangelical minister, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church, recently conjured with the possibility that the coronavirus is an apocalyptic judgment from God. Although he asserted with total confidence that “all natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin,” he reassured his flock that this is not the Biblical plague that signals the apocalyptic end times. The reason: the Antichrist has not appeared yet.  Please excuse the uncontrollable laughter that follows this remark as I watch the Dear Leader pontificate on the medicinal virtues of Lysol. Just kidding, wasn’t he?

So, are we experiencing the onset of a New World Order? Peter Szendy’s “Viral Times” explores the temporal paradoxes of “hypervelocity and standstill,” the onset of a surprise that was unthinkable a few short months ago and utterly predictable after “decades of neoliberal dismantling of health and research infrastructures.” Emmanuel Alloa, on the other hand, finds himself “envying the confidence” of those who are “eager to explain to us that everything they have been saying for years has thus proved to be right.”  Meanwhile, Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith comfort us with reminders of monastic life as a precedent for temporal stress and chances for the “care of self” produced by “social isolation.”  If Hans Blumenberg were still among us, he would no doubt remind us that the trope of “Shipwreck with Spectator” is a “metaphor for existence,” especially that of the philosopher who withdraws from the world to observe it from the solid ground of reason.  But he would then go on to note that Nietzsche launched an epoch in the history of philosophy by declaring (with Pascal) that “we have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”[2]

Let us agree, then, that we are “all at sea,” and even “all in the same boat,” Spaceship Earth drifting like a modern Titanic whose fate is still unknown, with first-class cabins protecting some of us from the chaos in the engine room and steerage, while the band plays on in the cyber salons.  We live in what historians call an “epoch,” a crazy, possibly revolutionary turning point in history in which old certainties collapse and science reveals its true nature as a discourse of contingency, uncertainty, and the incalculable.  At the same time, it feels like we socially isolated hermit scholars are trapped in the film Groundhog Day (1993), caught in a time loop in which every day feels like the last, but we are given one more chance for an imaginary do-over.  One prediction seems secure:  the dates of B.C. and A.D. will now designate the “before” and “after” of COVID-19 as a caesura in the time of our species on this planet.  A global pandemic coupled with a financial crisis on the scale of the Great Depression looms before us.  In the scale of cosmic time, this is a mere moment that will pass in the “blink of an eye,” what Germans call an Augenblick. In human history it promises to be a game changer.

The concept of epoch, the revolutionary turning point or “momentous moment,” is not the sole property of history.  Philosophy, especially skepticism and phenomenology are also grounded in the concept of the epoché, Edmund Husserl’s method of “bracketing” or “suspending” judgment in order to ponder our percepts and concepts for just a moment before getting back to work.  We lucky scholars thrive in “down times,”  “time-outs,” moments of suspension or bracketing of judgment, when we are compelled to meditate on both our objective perceptions and the “objectless representations” of collective hallucinations, dreams, fantasies, and ideologies.  The distinct scales of immediate, urgent, and microscopic “viral times” and the macroscopic planetary scale of climate change converge, as Achille Mbembe argues, and so with every breath you take, every move you make, CI will be watching you.

11 May 2020

W. J. T. Mitchell is the editor of Critical Inquiry.

[1] See also “American Psychosis:  Trump and the Nightmare of History,” Lecture at the University of Geneva, January 17, 2017.

[2] Shipwreck with Spectator:  Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 19.   


Filed under 2020 Pandemic, WJT Report

On Cooperationism: An End to the Economic Plague

Bernard E. Harcourt

Over thirty million Americans just filed first-time unemployment claims as a result of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, pushing unemployment to its highest levels since the Great Depression. Despite that, the US stock markets recorded in April their best month since 1987; after an initial shock, the markets rallied steadily, rising over 30 percent since their lows in late March. Most economists sounded puzzled and offered fanciful daily explanations. Even Paul Krugman had little to say, suggesting that “Investors are buying stocks in part because they have nowhere else to go.”

But it’s no wonder the markets defied the economic crash. For the markets, there is nothing like a good crisis when the right people are in power. Philip Mirowski wrote tellingly about this during the last debacle—the financial meltdown of 2008—under the moniker “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Now too, the Faustian logic as to why institutional investors just put their bets on the market should not escape us.


First, Donald Trump and the Republican Senators have made it crystal clear that they have the backs of the large-cap corporations no matter how bad things get. By strengthening the largest corporations now, the bailouts will help them weed out their smaller competitors and facilitate monopolistic practices later. After the pandemic, the large-cap corporations will be poised to reap extractive profits, while most small businesses and mom-and-pop stores will be out of business.

Second, the sunset provisions on the bailout restrictions will allow shareholders and managers to enrich themselves when an economic recovery eventually happens, again without ever needing to build reserves because they know they’ll be bailed out next time as well. As Tim Wu details, these recurring bailouts have allowed wealthy managers to pillage in good times—through stock buy-backs and exorbitant executive pay—and get rescued in bad. This too enhances market value while extracting capital for the wealthy.

Third, Trump has sapped any momentum toward universal health care by promising financial exceptions for coronavirus-related health care costs. These COVID-19 carve outs will protect the Republicans from backlash in the November 2020 elections. After it’s all over, the less fortunate will continue to be ravaged by ordinary cancers and poverty-related diseases without any coverage, to the financial benefit of private insurance and corporate and wealthier taxpayers.

Fourth, the pandemic is disproportionately decimating the most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the poor, the uninsured, the incarcerated, and persons of color. The racial imbalance is unconscionable: the coronavirus mortality rate for African Americans is almost three times higher than the mortality rate for whites. The rates of infection in prison and jails are also horrifying. The populations at risk are disproportionately older and poorer, so on Medicare and Medicaid. Some refer to this as “culling the herd.” Market investors can expect that social security will be less of a drag on the economy in the future.

Fifth, the Republicans have been able to secret into the bailouts tax bonanzas for millionaires. One such provision temporarily suspends a limitation on the amount of deductions to nonbusiness income that owners of businesses established as pass-through entities can claim as a way to reduce their taxes owed. The nonpartisan congressional body, the Joint Committee on Taxation, estimates this will disproportionately benefit about 43,000 taxpayers in the highest tax bracket (over one million dollars in income) who will receive an average windfall of 1.63 million dollars per filer.

The markets have become the mirror of an ugly truth. Michel Foucault presciently observed, back in 1979, that markets are the touchstone of truth in neoliberal times. And the ugly truth that they reveal today is that the pandemic is a goldmine for large-cap corporations, institutional investors, and the wealthiest. I once overheard a New York real estate tycoon talking about the land grab in the Adirondacks in the 1930s and commenting “Wasn’t the Great Depression grand!” Institutional investors must feel the same way about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sadly, one can hardly expect that much difference in a Democratic administration, especially one that is equally beholden to Wall Street and wealthy donors. The last two—those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—avidly embraced neoliberal policies such as workfare for the unemployed and welfare for the corporate elite. The Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner bailouts of 2008 were the model for today’s.

Mia Ruyter Hank Paulson 2008 v1

Mia Ruyter, Hank Paulson (oil on fake leather, 2008)

The only way forward—beyond a next Democratic administration—is a genuine legal transformation that replaces our existing corporate regime with cooperative, mutualist, and nonprofit enterprises. The many of us who create, invent, produce, work, and serve others need to displace the few who extract and hoard capital and put in place a new cooperationism that favors the equitable and sustainable distribution of economic growth and wealth creation.

The legal structure that enables the corporate form—what Katharina Pistor accurately calls the code of capital—has to be repealed and replaced with a new economic framework that circulates the wealth generated from production and consumption. These alternative legal forms, which have existed for centuries and surround us today, include cooperatives for producing and manufacturing, credit unions for banking, housing coops for living, mutualities for insuring, and nonprofit organizations for good works and learning.

This is also the only way to address head-on the global climate crisis. The logic, principles, and values of cooperative arrangements can serve to slow down our consumption-at-all-cost society. The goal of the cooperative enterprise is not to maximize the extraction of capital but to support and maintain all of the participants in the enterprise and to distribute well-being, which includes and depends on a healthy environment. By replacing the logic of capital extraction—the extractive logic as Saskia Sassen calls it—with an ethos of equitable distribution, we can prepare to address the climate crisis after the pandemic is over.

In hindsight, the term capitalism was always a misnomer, coined paradoxically by its critics in the nineteenth century. The term misleadingly suggests that capital inherently functions in certain ways, has a certain DNA, and is governed by economic laws. That’s an illusion though. Capital is just an artifact shaped by law and politics. Its code is entirely man-made. And as Thomas Piketty and others demonstrate, the current concentration of capital and increasing wealth inequalities today are nothing more than a political choice, not the product of any laws of capital.

In truth, we do not live today in a system in which capital dictates our economic circumstances. Instead, we live under the tyranny of what I would call “tournament dirigisme”: a type of state-directed gladiator sport where our political leaders bestow spoils on the wealthy in order to get reelected (and increasingly, to self-fund their own political campaigns).

We need to displace this tournament dirigisme with a legal and political framework that favors cooperation and collaboration between those who create, invent, produce, work, labor, and serve others. Rather than corporations that extract capital for the few shareholders and managers, we need cooperatives, mutuals, and nonprofits that distribute the wealth they create widely to everyone in the shared enterprise; and continually guard against the gross disparities in pay that now characterize our gladiator dirigisme. It will be the only way to tame our obscene and destructive consumerism.

It is not enough to increase progressive wealth taxes on the billionaires and invest more in public hospitals and public schools, as Piketty recently suggested. That won’t fundamentally change the Faustian logic and temptations. Instead, and urgently, it’s time to replace our system of tournament dirigisme with a new cooperationism.

Too many of us in this country are still entranced by the myth of American individualism—the idea that we can go it alone and invent and create and build things by ourselves and reap all the benefits. It is so ingrained in the public imagination, tied to the image of the pioneer gold digger and the shiny rewards of solitary hard work. The ideology undergirds the corporate form and the logic of capital extraction. But for the most part, we succeed in inventing, creating, and producing through mutual support, working together, and collaboration. It is these forms of cooperation that must ground a postpandemic economy.

This pandemic and economic crash must not prevent us from working together to place ourselves in a better position to deal with the other crisis—climate change—still looming on the horizon. On the contrary, these times call for a legal, political, and economic revolution to ring in a new epoch of cooperationism. This will demand political will. It will not come from our political leaders, so beholden now to corporate contributions. It will have to come from us all united.

5 May 2020

[A version of this post appears in French at AOC]

Bernard E. Harcourt is a professor of law and political science at Columbia University in New York City and directeur d’études at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.  He is the author of The Illusion of Free Markets (2011) and The Counterrevolution (2018), and of the forthcoming book Critique & Praxis (2020).


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Filed under 2020 Pandemic

After Lucretius


John Wilkinson

The lights have fallen dumb and refuse to travel,
preserving their angles is all that concerns them;
clothes hang in their creases, while in seed-banks
weevils curl up at the futility of spoiling green further.

This time had been expected to have legs, to move
formations across the plain. This time believes love
a moving force, but takes delight and bandages it,
runs closed captioning behind closed doors. What if

an elevator loses purpose, flashlights fail to search,
if empty buses void the timetable – did you survive
Rome’s marauding gangs, did you survive plague?
Lovers take turns round apartments, seek to bring

stars to earth, starring the recesses of bodies plainly
felt, might that stop the fever? – Courses deviate,
the very bricks lift off to touch skin, skin will float
song that pulmonary rises, falls and rises in the street.


29 April 2020

John Wilkinson is professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago and director of the program in Creative Writing and the program in Poetry and Poetics. His first collection of poetry, Useful Reforms, was published in 1976. More recent publications include Reckitt’s Blue (2013), Ghost Nets (2016), and My Reef My Manifest Array (2019). A selected poems, Schedule of Unrest, was published in 2014.

This video is an excerpt from a longer reading featured in “Writers in Residence,” the University of Chicago Program in Creative Writing’s virtual reading series. For the full reading and more videos in the series, visit the Creative Writing YouTube channel.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

OK, Zoomer!

Bill Ayers

Yes, yes, I’m teaching my classes on Zoom (☹️).

It’s weird for me, but I’ve got it (I think) and, against my will and better judgment, I feel a little thrill and a burst of relief each time class ends without the internet exploding. I  push all the right buttons, issue all the appropriate commands. Oh, joy! (😀).


Image by Beyza Ozer

So here we are, suddenly, all of us: distance learning, e-learning, online teaching, virtual classrooms—the whole bewildering turmoil. I soldier on, necessarily but not happily, all the while with an irritating chorus of cheerleaders in the background pushing me forward: “online learning is an excellent way to increase student engagement and differentiate instruction;” “digital tools save time and do the heavy lifting by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional materials, and assessments;” “distance learning can continue delivering instruction without disruption even in events like snow days or the COVID-19 pandemic.” Every line offends what I know to be true about teaching, and my sense of what it can achieve, but, wow! snow days or COVID-19—that pretty much covers the waterfront; wait! better add floods and fires and extreme weather.

I was particularly annoyed when I saw my neighbor Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, on TV finding, as always, a silver lining in the catastrophe (after Katrina, you may remember, he famously declared that New Orleans was now liberated to create a whole new school system from  scratch!), this time ushering in the pandemic as dress rehearsal for the “classrooms of the future.”

Come on, Arne— Zoom is not the future of classroom life or teaching. In fact, that response betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of each. When I saw Arne jogging while on my walk the other day, I suppressed the desire to strangle him, and, fortunately, remembered that  I couldn’t get closer than six feet.

Of course distance learning is nothing new—I took a correspondence course on figure drawing in the 1950s (a bust in my case, although I liked the colored pencils) and was tempted to take another on body building offered by Charles Atlas (the advertisement in the back of my comic books promised I could transform myself from a “97-pound weakling” into a tough guy who would never again allow a bully to kick sand in my face at the beach—of course I didn’t have a beach, but whatever). Correspondence courses and distance learning stretch in all directions—back to 1873 and the founding of the US Society to Encourage Studies at Home, onward to 2008 when salvation was offered in the form of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. A colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Chicago told me in 1995 that e-learning represented the end of educational inequity: “In the remotest village in the Third World, or the most segregated poor neighborhood in this city, a student will be able to access the best professors and hear the best lecture ever given on Romeo and Juliet!” OMG!


The “Great Books Program” has been around for decades, and the “Great Courses,” a series of video classes produced and distributed by the for-profit Teaching Company based in Chantilly, Virginia, claims to have developed over seven hundred courses and sold over fourteen million copies—once again “the greatest scholars and their classic lectures.” So with these and other entrepreneurs already up and running, along with the millions and millions of books out there, why are we even bothering with Zoom? Or classes. Or bricks and mortar. Or professors.

A colleague with experience in distance learning told me that online classes are to actual classrooms what frozen pizza is to home-made pizza: similar ingredients but a vastly different experience. Staying with the metaphor, pizza delivered is straightforward and concrete, as well as often delicious; real classrooms can be delicious as well, but not because the teacher/pizza person “delivered instruction.” Teachers might write books and record lectures—I’ve done both—and those can be more-or-less delivered into the waiting hands (pizza-style) and upturned heads of hungry consumers.

Classroom teaching is quite different—it’s a relationship, a transformative journey for everyone involved. That’s why good teachers come to class ready to teach, but also primed to see, to hear, and to know their students as three-dimensional creatures, much like themselves, each the one-of-one, each a member of the group—an intimate encounter that cannot adequately take place at a distance. The teacher comes as a student-of-the-students, prepared to change lives, and simultaneously prepared to be changed by the propulsive, life-altering energy that’s released whenever a human being’s mind expands or rearranges itself.

Caution: Class Underway—May Be Explosive!

Social distancing is such an awkward, ugly term as well as an unfamiliar but necessary practice we’re all learning to implement together. As we move through these dire and unpredictable times, we might change that language and call it what it is: social solidarity—among the zillion things we can do to help one another out as part of a shared community is to break the chain of contagion and allow some sensible space between us—it’s an act of cooperation, really, not distance or isolation, and an expression of human harmony and not dissonance. Let’s call it by its truer name: social solidarity!

I have two seminars this term, one on Writing Creative Nonfiction, and one on Ethics and Education. I have students zooming in to class from western Canada, Eastern Europe, the Bronx, South Asia, Texas, and places in between. Their circumstances are dramatically different, of course, and yet they are uniformly flexible and forgiving, kind and generous with me and with one another, comrades facing the world arm-in-arm. Each seminar is scheduled for three hours a week, but I’ve kept  to about an hour and a half, supplementing with extensive office hours, and regularly correspondence with my students.

Both courses invite us to peer into the pandemic and shine a bright light on the many, many  contradictions that the virus illuminates. The ruling class—the powerful, the wealthy, the 1 percent and their enablers in the political class—has an agenda that’s aggressively promoted in good times and in bad, an agenda pulled quickly from the bottom drawer in any crisis and rushed relentlessly toward center stage. So here we are: the privatization of public goods and services, massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private, the destruction of participatory democracy and the erasure of the public, the suppression of voting, the reduction of education and health care and public safety to products, the intensification of white supremacy, and more. And so we wrestle in class with the outlines of an alternative agenda—what are we willing to fight for?

The perennial contradiction between “we” and “me”—a basic human tension with vast social, cultural, and political differences and dimensions—lurched violently toward an exclusive “ME” in our country in 1980 with the “Reagan Revolution” and its racist dog whistles, its opposition to any concept of collectivity or the public, its weaponized individualism, and its anemic, libertarian definition of freedom. Public safety became “own a gun;” “public education” became a product to be bought at the market place; public health was reduced to “take care of yourself.” The word itself—public—in some contexts was racially coded: public welfare, public housing, public aid, public transportation. Saint Ronald Reagan, godhead of the Right and the icon to whom every Republican leader bends a knee and genuflects piously to this day, famously said this at his inauguration: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” That’s the dogma we’re now suffering together now, and that’s the orthodoxy under examination in seminar.

In the opening scene of the Cohen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Johnny struggles to explain to the big crime boss, Leo, how he’s been wronged by an associate mobster, Bernie.  “I’m talkin’ about friendship,” Johnny says, and the camera lingers on the saliva forming in the creases of his thin, menacing smile.  “I’m talkin’ about character,” he continues structuring his case. “I’m talkin’ about—Hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word—I’m talkin’ about ethics” (pronounced e-tics).

“When I fix a fight,” Johnny proceeds indignantly, “Say I play a three to one favorite to throw a goddam fight. I got a right to expect the fight to go off at three to one.”  Then Bernie, the lying cheat, hears of the deal, manipulates the situation, and the “odds go straight to hell.”

“Now, if you can’t trust a fix,” Johnny whines, “what can you trust?”  Without ethics, he concludes, “we’re back into anarchy, right back in the jungle. . . . That’s why ethics are important.  It’s what separates us from the animals, from beasts of burden, beasts of prey.  Ethics!”

“Do you want to kill him?” asks Leo, cooly.

“For starters,” Johnny replies earnestly.

Johnny, Leo, Bernie—and the Trump mafia—are all talkin’ about ethics.

And the crisis rages on.

27 April 2020

William Ayers, formerly Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has written extensively about social justice, democracy, and education, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. His books include A Kind and Just Parent; Teaching toward Freedom; Fugitive Days: A Memoir; Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident; To Teach: The Journey, in Comics; Race Course: Against White Supremacy; and Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto.







Filed under 2020 Pandemic



Question Mark

Susan Bee, Question Mark (2017, 30” x 24”, oil on linen) used by permission of Susan Bee.


Charles Bernstein

The covid gonna get me
If not now, it will
The covid gonna kill me
Find me where I live

Buried under covers
Sheltered in the hall
Trading goodbyes to all my friends
Through goddamn15-foot walls

The covid’ll get me
Get me bad
My lungs are weak
And I am much misunderstood

I practice social distance
Even got an oversize mask
Feel like the Lone Ranger
Just before he got the clap

The covid going to find me
If not today, in time
The covid after me
Find exactly where I am

Call it social distance
I call it pain in the soul
You say I can handle it
But it’s too heavy a load

The covid ’round the corner
’ll thrash me till I blue
But that’s not my worry
Terrified for you

You’ve always been distant
But not from me
Now I feel you drifting
Like you’re far out at sea

The covid gonna get me
If not now any day
The covid got my number
Knows just where I stay

You say I’ll manage social distance
That I can make it work
But if I’m distant from you
I’m sunk before I swum

The covid gonna get me
If not now, soon
The covid has me up all night
Fighting ’gainst all this gloom

Too much death surrounding
I darn near given up
Keep calling on the telephone
But you’re hung up on Skype

The covid coming
Sure to get us good
Our lungs are weak
And we are much misunderstood

24 April 2020

Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

The Demon of Distraction

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith


When we first heard talk of a quarantine, we thought about open spaces closing down: travel bans and militarized border enforcement on an international scale, isolation orders that would restrain movement closer to home. The collective endeavor to flatten the curve seemed to entail drawing smaller and smaller circles around ourselves.

Now, as we inhabit our narrower circuits, the partitioning of space plays out for us in time. Closures disrupt the ordinary rhythms of business and pleasure, work and play. Some days seem to last forever; others flit by. What day is it, anyway? Lately the clock and the calendar seem obsolete. They still count the time, but they are measuring it for the people of some bygone civilization, the modern but outmoded Empire of Business as Usual. Just when we have time to ourselves, time becomes a problem for us.


What gives us the feeling of losing touch with the old time, we know, is not only the reorganization of space but also, especially, the interruption of work. Even for those among us who are still healthy and being paid, the drift feels nervous, scattering. In other words, the phenomenology of being off the clock, of slipping out of what E. P. Thompson calls industrial modernity’s “time discipline,” is something other than a feeling of freedom. We are not so anxious about losing time anymore, but we begin to worry that we are getting lost in it.

We have been trying to get a handle on our time, to give our days some structure. Heightened distraction provokes a revival of old-fashioned devotional exercises. Cloistered away like so many monks, we seek solace in regularity, rituals of community, and working with our hands. We set up daily schedules of activities, plan happy hours in virtual chat rooms, and plant seasonal gardens. We craft. The global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, hypermodern in so many ways, brings with it swift regression to ancient metrics of ceremonial time and reversion to preindustrial styles of labor.

In the fifth century, John Cassian wrote a systematic description of Egyptian monastic life. Cassian knew how difficult it was for the monks to endure their solitude, to remain steadfast through the monotony. One of the greatest dangers was restlessness: the mind wandered, the eye roved, soon enough the monk abandoned his cell and his vow. The term Cassian used, acedia, is often translated as “sloth,” but in the monastic tradition it meant something more complex and more severe than simple laziness. Borrowed from the Greek ἀκηδία, lack of care, acedia was a roving, lonely, agitated sensation, a feeling of being unhappy in one’s place that could spiral into downright depression.

Evagrius Pontius, the fourth-century theologian, analyzed the “noonday demon” in his catalogue of sinful thoughts. “When he reads,” wrote Evagrius, “the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings.”

Acedia in the tradition of the monks began with a lack of care. But the Greek κῆδος (kedos) underlying it had specialized meanings too. It referred to the attachments that bound people to each other. Κῆδος also described burial rites and honors, just as we still speak of attending a funeral or tending to the dead. Acedia is a special kind of distraction that comes on when ties to other people, and then to God, are severed: a lonely wandering of the mind.

Cassian, who had read Evagrius, highlighted the importance of manual labor in mitigating distraction: “On the heart’s slippery movements and thought’s unstable undulations” the monks “fasten the weight of toil as a kind of steadying and immovable anchor.” Much of the Egyptian monks’ labor was practical, aiding subsistence in a tough environment. There was a special place for fruitless toil too, however, as an opportunity to exercise obedience and cultivate devotion. Cassian tells of Abba John, a monk who carried himself so humbly that his mentor began to doubt his sincerity. Was John really virtuous, or only acting the part? To test him, the teacher stuck an old, rotted branch in the ground and ordered him to water it twice a day until it came alive again. For a year John watered that stick, walking four miles to get the water. Neither winter, nor holidays, nor illness broke his fruitless routine. He never questioned or complained. Finally, the elder pulled the stick out of the ground and tossed it aside.

Is our elective labor, often as ritualized and empty as Abba John’s, a way of seeking solace in our powerlessness? To be sure, much of what we are doing now is the poorly remunerated but essential work that really is necessary to the world. We teach our children and cook our meals, or we perform similar acts of care for others. We clean, over and over again. We carry out the labor we knew was fundamental–if often despised or ignored, largely by way of its gendering–all along.

But what of all the other tasks that the idle invent for themselves? No family will be saved from hunger by four baby lettuces growing in a hydroponic garden. We will not wear our hand-knitted clothes after the apocalypse. Even the homemade facemasks so lovingly crocheted or sewn out of colorful cloth scraps are only a symbol of protection–may, indeed, render anyone venturing outside in them less safe. By one measure, making these things is unproductive, a waste of time–and yet there is a difference between this evidently useless work and the soul-killing “bullshit jobs” David Graeber has taxonomized, those paper-pushing positions “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify [their] existence.” The work we turn to now is unproductive, but it finds another use as a steadying anchor. It serves a therapeutics of attention.

Modern political philosophy has regarded attention with a deep ambivalence. In Capital, Marx describes attention as the force that binds the worker to the task. “The less he is attracted by the nature of the work and the way in which it has to be accomplished, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as the free play of his own physical and mental powers, the closer his attention is forced to be.” Here, paying attention does not mean freely exercising a natural human capacity. Instead, attention becomes an instrument of exploitation.

Following Marx, E. P. Thompson argues that religion gives early industrial discipline moral legitimacy; attention is little more than supervision, internalized as an overseer God. Bringing this analysis into a more thoroughly secularized modernity, Jonathan Crary shows how the menace of distraction on the factory floor leads capitalists into an alliance with academic psychology, seeking to maximize workers’ focus and efficiency at their machines.

All along, though, critical theory has also taken on the culture industry and the society of the spectacle, uncovering the pernicious ways mass entertainment holds multitudes in thrall. The spectacle, as Guy Debord imagines it, “concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” If attention can be instrumentalized in labor discipline, then distraction can be cultivated for the purposes of political pacification, a consolation for the acquiescent.

After the rise of digital media and the internet, such an analysis seems almost inescapable. We are in the attention economy now; attention deficit is our mass predicament. It is not E. P. Thompson but the Simone Weil of Gravity and Grace who seems most lucidly to see into our souls: “We have to try to cure our faults by attention.”

In the current feeling of disorder — with its swarms of buzzing news updates, its time flowing recklessly out of form — we sense that while the pandemonium is intense, it is not exactly new. The stream of public chatter had already surged into a flood before the pandemic. The hours for play and rest and work shaded into each other long ago. The demons of distraction have been with us for a long time, though we hear them more clearly in the present quiet.

The monks of late antiquity practiced manual labor and focused meditation to protect themselves against their invisible adversaries: evil spirits, like the noonday demon of acedia, who whispered temptation in their ears. Is our turn to the same ancient practices a way to defend ourselves against our own unseen enemies? We are bombarded with commands, asked to hark to unfathomable calculations of danger. In response, we take up small daily tasks, and we find, in this temporary, half-willing submission, some chance to repair ourselves.

For now, at least, our disciplines of attention are decoupled from our jobs. What will be the consequences of this untethering? We can’t help viewing the situation with some suspicion. It is easy to anticipate what the acolytes of Max Weber might say: Our voluntary makework betrays our deep internalization of capitalism’s compulsions; when no one else will require us to work, we’ll require it of ourselves. It might be suggested, too, that our exercises in attention are really distractions of their own, detaching us from the real world of economic and political conflict.

But when we recognize that our distraction partakes of ancient afflictions and that our disciplines of attention are older than machines, these are not the only prospects that come into view. There is no reason why the care of the self should have to end in isolated withdrawal. If we work with our hands and focus our minds in the face of a modern incarnation of acedia, it may be that we seek something deeper and more connected than self-discipline. We might not just be biding our time and keeping ourselves fit for a return to a more familiar time. We might also be learning how to live in another kind of time altogether, learning to tend to the living and the dead.

22 April 2020

Irina Dumitrescu is a writer and Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (2018) and editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (2016), a collection of essays about the arts and humanities in times of crisis. Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Coronavirus: A Contingency that Eliminates Contingency

Emmanuel Alloa

The mechanism is sadly familiar: each crisis has its designated culprits. For the sovereigntists, this pandemic is to be blamed on deregulated border crossings; for the anticommunists, it is the negligence of a Chinese government that would rather see its citizens die than assume its hazardous initial response; for conspiracy theorists still, it is an American chemical weapon over which secret services have lost control. While collapsology is rejoicing, after having warned us for years of an impending implosion of the planet, others still see it as a sign, profane or divine, of all the recent errors of humanity, from hypermobility to overconsumption. In the twenty-first century, a viral pandemic is replacing the ten scourges of Egypt, a kind of general castigation aimed at producing a collective backlash, and we can already hear all these self-proclaimed omens explaining to us what will have to change, in the famous “after” of our collective resurrection.


What is remarkable in this range of reactions is the tone of certainty that comes with their verdict. This is even more striking when one reads the explanations put forward by some leading intellectuals. Many of them seem to be little shaken by what is happening to us, so eager are they to explain to us that everything they have been saying for years has thus proved to be right. We find ourselves envying their confidence. Indeed, everything would be simpler if we could blame the coronavirus on either financial capitalism or biopolitical states of exception. One would almost catch oneself, in moments of shame for belonging to the human race, dreaming of a masochistic revenge on planet Earth, as if Gaia were finally making Homo sapiens pay for all that it has inflicted on it for centuries. In fact, doesn’t the world strangely resemble those postapocalyptic scenarios that Hollywood has fed us with in its catastrophe movies, with spectral-looking metropolises and depopulated urban arteries? In a reverse movement, as if in Disney’s old documentary The Living Nature on how life regains the upper hand even in the most hostile environments, today, it looks as if nature was recolonizing the territories left unoccupied because of the lockdown. In Greece, it is fin whales that are once again venturing into the harbours, in Chile, pumas come down from the Cordillera to feed in the city centers, while in Venice, the lagoon waters unperturbed by cruise ships end up becoming crystal-clear again. The true meaning of the coronavirus crisis would therefore be this one, its urgent ecological message, an uppercut jabbed by Mother Nature, to all those who did not want to listen to the alarm bells repeatedly sounded, from André Gorz to Greta Thunberg.

How simple it would be if we were able to provide an easy explanation to this crisis that would win our immediate support, if only so that we could then do repentance, alone or on a planetary scale. No wonder, then, that the etiological machine is running at full throttle; great crises are above all ordeals of sense, and in the absence of visibility, it is easier to take refuge in comforting stories–even when these have done absolutely nothing to reassure.

What if, faced with this explanatory runaway, barely patched up for the occasion, we were to admit that this event is severely undermining our certainties and that it forbids us, at the risk of not recognizing how incisive an event it is on our lives, to resort to our usual crutches? What if we were to consider, even if only for a moment,  the truly senseless nature of what is happening to us? The global coronavirus pandemic is, in and of itself, intrinsically senseless and it has no inherent meaning. Its outbreak was neither necessary nor linear. A virus has no more intentionality than a tectonic plate, when the latter causes the waves of a tsunami as it moves.

Why didn’t we see this coming? It costs us to accept it, especially since it took so many lives in its wake, but the coronavirus is and remains a contingency. Sure, its outbreak was possible, and some may even start calculating the probability of its event. But a possibility is not a logical conclusion. As Aristotle put this a long time ago, a contingency is when several things incidentally happen to be next to each other and therefore look like a continuous sequence, although there is no necessity for it. Cross-species wet markets, the probable hotbed of the Covid epidemic, where pangolin, bat, and snake cages stand side by side, are the best illustration of this senseless contiguity, organized according to the same absurd taxonomy as the famous Chinese encyclopaedia imagined by Jorge Luis Borges.

One of the greatest risks we face today is that a new discourse of necessity will take hold over the long term. One that focuses on the meaning and root causes of the virus but also on the simplistic responses that it allegedly requires (the famous refrain “we just have to . . .”). This is indeed where the most pernicious liberticidal effects lie, for they permanently establish the feeling that the path is all mapped out, in one direction or another. Remedies and prescriptions that, necessary and unavoidable, would admit no contradiction.

It may make sense, for a while, to collectively adopt certain attitudes, because there is no other way. Day after day, though, we are already experiencing the profound changes that this contingency–the coronavirus–is imprinting on our lives. To the physical distance imposed, we are responding with telepresence technologies; to suspended sociality, we are responding with virtual collaborative devices. These devices do open up a considerable field of new possibilities. But by entrusting algorithms with the management of lives altogether, major risks are looming.

In professions with a strong human component, the transfer to dematerialized forms maintains the illusion of permanent availability and increased attention, whereas the opposite is often the case. Some healthcare institutions are currently considering the possibility of making therapeutic appointments by videoconference, in order to reduce costs. In the name of decongesting the institutions –and thus supposedly in the interest of the patients– we are moving towards a treatment more and more distant and abstract. In the field of education, similar arrangements are currently under consideration. Some universities in the United Kingdom are already asking their staff to record all of their recurrent teaching in video format so that they can broadcast it the event of illness or absence. Such a measure would of course deprive researchers of their right to strike, for when a classroom course can be replaced at any time by its downloadable equivalent, what is the point of disrupting work? We might easily imagine, then, that the human part involved in activities such as student receptions will then be transferred to a kind of falsely individualized remote attendance, on the model of an outsourced commercial hotline.

The experience of containment during the coronavirus allows us to draw several lessons. It is not true that a physical distance is necessarily tantamount to a human distance (which is why the term social distancing is totally inappropriate); we have seen many cases where the crisis tightened the bonds of solidarity between close relations, between relatives or neighbors. But by asking citizens to suspend all “unnecessary” activities, the authorities have brought to light everything that intrinsically defines social relationships: chance encounters, unforeseen exchanges, exposure to the unexpected. By enjoining individuals to concentrate on “the essential,” we are basically returning to what we are most familiar with, warding ourselves off from that part of contingency that is the leaven of all human relationships. The disappearance of shared public space also corresponds to a disappearance of surprise. In times of confinement, the algorithms of on-demand television become the suppliers of our favorite films or series, while culinary orders are delivered to the door, without even seeing the face of the delivery person who has already turned on his or her heels.


The discourse of necessity reigns supreme, wherever you look, and the outsourcing of uncertainty ends up by turning it into a simple math variable. It is true that social life has not disappeared in the age of general confinement. With the help of calendars to coordinate virtual aperitifs and dinners, links are being reestablished. But here again, these “others” that we find are others that we were already familiar with. While perfecting the planning of our upcoming encounters, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to make real ones. By dint of meeting only those we already know (or those promised by dating sites, whose profiles are supposed to “match” ours), one wonders what room is left for something radically different–for what Stéphane Mallarmé calls the “immediate freshness of the encounter.”

Let us be careful not to sacrifice to this pandemic a fundamental value of all democratic life: its share of randomness, its contingency. It is because a democratic commons is not fixed once and for all, but fundamentally lacks any kind of necessity, that its members are able to step together and decide the shape they want to give to it. Let us therefore take care, in our generalized immunological responses, not to entomb ourselves even more in our certainties, but to accept that this contingency can also act as a powerful breach in our imaginaries.

20 April 2020

Emmanuel Alloa is Ordinary Professor in Philosophy at the University of Fribourg. Among his recent publications: Partages de la perspective (2020).




Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus

N. Katherine Hayles


The novel coronavirus is posthuman in at least two senses. First, and most obviously, because it is oblivious to human intentions, desires, and motives. In the US, this has led to the spectacle, refreshing despite the virus’s appalling toll on human lives, of politicians unable to spin “alternative facts” beyond a certain point—the point marked by bodies piling up in morgues. As many have observed, the virus does not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews, Evangelicals and Muslims. In a country as deeply partisan as the US, this has opened new possibilities for dialogue. Canny governors, for example Gavin Newsom of California, are realizing the advantages of putting policies ahead of politics, abstaining from criticism of Donald Trump even when deserved. The US Congress has come together with remarkable speed to pass stimulus legislation, and even Trump has had to tone down his early claims of the virus as a “Democratic hoax” into a more fact-based approach (although never without some propaganda).

The second sense is more technical, although not difficult to grasp. In evolutionary terms, humans and viruses have adopted diametrically opposed strategies. Humans have achieved dominance within their evolutionary niche by evolving toward increased cognitive complexity, developing language with associated changes in brain and body, evolving elaborate social structures, and in very recent human history, augmenting their capacities with advanced technical devices, including artificial intelligence. Viruses, by contrast, have evolved toward increased simplicity. Viruses replicate by hijacking a cell’s machinery and using it to proliferate, which allows them to have a much smaller genome than the cell itself, a characteristic favoring rapid replication.


In broad scope, then, these two strategies appear completely opposed. However, recent research is painting a more complex picture. As Annu Dahiya argues, the idea that viruses cannot replicate without cells (because they use the cell’s machinery to turn out copies of themselves) is now being questioned.[1] She recounts a series of experiments by Sol Spiegelman’s lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in the early 1970s that show this with elegant simplicity. After demonstrating that viral RNA could indeed self-replicate, albeit in vitro rather than in vivo, Spiegelman combined in a test tube viral Qß phage RNA, the enzyme RNA replicase and salts. After viral replication, he then diluted the solution multiple times by discarding most of the test medium and adding more medium enriched with RNA replicase and nutrients. This was equivalent to creating an environment in which, to use a human analogy, 90 percent of the population dies and the remainder spreads out over the previously crowded terrain, then 90 percent of them die, and so on. This creates an intense selective pressure favoring those entities that can replicate the fastest. As Dahiya summarizes, “the most successful replicating viral RNAs successively shortened their sequences through each serial transfer. This resulted in them losing almost all genetic information that did not relate to the binding of RNA replicase. While the initial Qß phage had 3600 nucleotides, the RNA phage at the end of the experiment possessed only 218.”[2]

Similar results were obtained by Thomas Ray in his Tierra experiment, designed to create similar competitive conditions in a simulated environment within the computer, where artificial species competed for CPU time in which to replicate. Ray found that within twenty-four hours, an entire complex ecology had evolved, including species that (like viruses) had lost the portion of their genome coding for replication and instead were using the code of other species to carry out the task. The shortened genome allowed them to replicate at an increased speed, giving them a selective advantage over species with longer codes. Moreover, these were then parasited in turn by other species that had lost even more of their code and used that of the viral-like replicators to carry out their replication (which in turn relied on the longer codes of the species they had parasited), a strategy that Ray called hyper-parasitism.

These results encourage us to understand the present situation as a pitched battle between different evolutionary strategies. On the human side are the advantages of advanced cognition, including ventilators, PPE, and of course, the race to find a vaccine. On the novel coronavirus side are the advantages of rapid replication enabled by a very short genome, and extreme contagion through its ability to disperse through the air and to live for many hours on a variety of surfaces. Recent research has indicated that people may be most contagious before they show symptoms, which has been led to novel corona being labeled a stealth virus. (Perhaps the stealth strategy evolved to ensure maximum spread through a population before individuals became too sick to move about.) In evolutionary terms, the novel coronavirus has hit the jackpot, having successfully made the leap from bats in the planet’s most populous large mammal, humans. Comparing the two strategies so far, the score is staggeringly one-sided: coronavirus, 140,000 and counting; humans, 0.

Amidst all the pain, suffering, and grief that this virus has caused humans, are there any lessons we might learn, any scrap of silver lining that we can snatch from the global chaos and wreckage? In addition to imposing reality-based constraints on political discourse, the virus is like being hit across the head by a 2X4; it reminds us with horrific force that although humans are dominant within our ecological niche, many other niches exist that may overlap with ours and that operate by entirely different rules. It screams at jet-engine volume that we are interdependent not only with each other but also with the entire ecology of the earth. And finally, it makes devastatingly clear how unprepared we are: unprepared to cope with the virus’s effects, of course, but equally important, unprepared to meet the philosophical challenges of reconceptualizing our situation in terms that does justice both to the unique abilities of humans and to the limitations and interdependencies upon which those abilities depend.

This interdependence is illustrated through the new kinds of origin stories being written about the emergence of life on earth. The recent discoveries of ancient giant viruses, with genomes almost as large as bacteria, suggest that they may have played a crucial role. These giants contain genes that encode for translation machinery, something previously believed to exist only in cellular organisms. Moreover, they include multiple genes that encode for enzymes catalyzing specific amino acids, another task that cells perform. Investigating these complexities, recent research is accumulating evidence that virus-like elements may have catalyzed some of life’s critical stages, including the evolution of DNA, the formation of the first cells, and the evolutionary split into the three domains of Archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes. Modern viruses may have evolved from the ancient giants through stripping-down processes similar to those described above, jettisoning parts of their genome to facilitate faster replication.

In addition to the participation of viruses in life’s beginnings, another kind of interdependence has been the discovery of ancient virus DNA within human stem cells. Stem cells are crucial to human reproduction because they are pluripotent, having the ability to transform into all the different kinds of cells in the body as the fetus grows. Recent studies have found that one class of endogenous retroviruses, known as H. HERV-H, has DNA that is active in human embryonic stem cells but not in other types of human cells. Moreover, researchers have discovered that if this activity is suppressed by adding bits of RNA, the treated cells cease to act like stem cells and instead begin to act like fibroblasts, cells common in animal connective tissues. Without the pluripotency provided by stem cells, human reproduction could not work. Ironically then, the viral contamination that is posing a deadly threat to contemporary humans is also, in another guise, critical for human reproduction.

These complexities suggest that a simple binary of us-versus-them, humans versus viruses, is far too simple to be an adequate formulation for understanding our relation to each other and to the larger ecologies within which we are immersed. If the novel coronavirus is posthuman, other viruses, such as those in stem cells, are human at their/our core. We need a thorough reconceptualization of the concepts and vocabularies with which to describe and analyze these complex interdependencies, as well as the ways in which humans, as a species, are interdependent with one another as well. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink the ways in which we can identify with each other and with life forms radically different from us.

As a start, I would like to suggest three terms for consideration.[3] The first is humans as species-in-common, an idea emphasizing the commonalities that all humans share with one another, notwithstanding all the ethnic, racial, geopolitical, and other differences that exist between us. We can see flashes of this idea throughout history, including in the present pandemic, a situation that overruns all borders and geopolitical differences to strike at humans everywhere. The second term is species-in-biosymbiosis, an idea recognizing the ways in which different species interpenetrate, for example in the human biome. The third is species-in-cybersymbiosis, emphasizing the ways in which artificial agents, especially artificial intelligences, are actively collaborating with humans to shape our shared world. I offer these brief sketches as a first pass at what a more adequate framework might look like. Notwithstanding its devastating effects, the pandemic invites us to think new thoughts, try out novel ideas, and suggest formulations that can lead to better futures for us and for the more-than-human organisms with which we share the planet.

17 April 2020

N. Katherine Hayles, the James B. Duke Professor of Literature Emerita at Duke University and Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angles, teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science, and technology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has published ten books and over one hundred peer-reviewed articles, and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (2017). She is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.

[1] Annu Dahiya, “The Conditions of Emergence: Toward a Feminist Philosophy of the Origins of Life” (PhD. diss., Duke University, in-progress).

[2] Ibid. p. 166.

[3] I am developing these terms in more depth in a forthcoming book.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Viral Times

Peter Szendy

Despite the warning signs, despite the news from China, it was as if we had woken up overnight in a completely different world. Wholly different but exactly the same.

The Emergency of Being at a Standstill

For some, including me, everything stopped. Immobilization has visible effects, at least through the eyes of the machines that continue to fly while humans are nailed to the ground: satellites show the sky cleansed of polluting emissions over China, Milan, or Paris.

For others, there has been an acceleration without measure. Faced with the increasing rapidity of contagions and the multiplication of serious or fatal cases, health care staff are overwhelmed, exhausted. Amazon is hiring hard to try to honor an exploding volume of orders, while workers at the firm’s US warehouses are starting to strike to protest the lack of protection at their workplace. And an intense human or machine activity is necessary for the mass monitoring of mobile phone geolocation data in order to control compliance with confinement: our immobility prompts a large mobilization.

Hypervelocity and standstill are like two extremes that belong together. Speaking of the “jet-man” who flies jet planes, Roland Barthes wrote that his “vocation” consists in “overtaking motion, in going faster than speed.”[1] The jet-world is today stopped at the very tip of a precipitation that continues behind the scenes, in a shadow economy.

This freezing in acceleration has come as a result of another temporal paradox: nothing has changed, nothing has happened, but everything that seemed unthinkable, incredible, or impossible has now become obvious, madly obvious and yet so banal.

Years, decades of neoliberal dismantling of health and research infrastructures, as we knew, could only lead to a foreseeable catastrophe. And the inexorable destruction of animal habitats has for a long time increased the risk of zoonoses, those passages of a virus from one species to another. Nothing new, therefore, befell us. Rather, a process we knew well without wanting to recognize it suddenly crystallizes before our eyes.

The event has precisely the form of an internal polyphony made of superimposed temporalities and layers of velocities. It appeared as the unlikely and startling novelty of something that, after all, had already happened a long time ago. I suddenly woke up in another world, the same world. A world at a standstill because it goes faster than itself.


Epidemics or Endemics

These simultaneous but asynchronous times constitute the mediality of the event today, its way of happening, of occurring through the milieus and media that carry it. What the current pandemic reveals is the speed differentials that shape the coming of the event, that carve and distend it from the inside.

At a microscopic level, the lifespan of the virus, according to the studies conducted so far, varies considerably depending on the element in which it evolves: from a few hours in the air (in aerosol form) to several days over steel or plastic. On a planetary scale, one cannot fail to be struck also by the complex spread of contagion: far from the immediacy that a certain imaginary of globalized interconnection would lead us to expect, what we see is a virulence that explodes in the United States two months after it did in China; while China, where restaurants are filling up again, is preparing for a second viral wave. Here, the virus is arriving in force; there it comes back in a loop. And the temporality of the unconfinement to come promises to be even more entangled, with likely relapses and resumptions.

How are we to understand the contemporaneity of this event which unfurls like a wave while winding around itself? I mean: how are we to understand not only its temporal regimes—its evolutions, its peaks and its course, its ebb—but also its way of being concurrent (or not) with major changes in our societies?

In the last of his lectures delivered at the Collège de France in 1976 (“Society Must Be Defended”), Michel Foucault introduced a distinction between epidemics and “what might broadly be called endemics.”[2] Foucault did so while identifying and relating to each other “two technologies of power which were established at different times and which were superimposed”: on the one hand “a disciplinary technology” for which “the body is individualized”; on the other, “an insurancial [assuranciel] or regulatory technology” relating to “the biological or bio-sociological processes characteristic of human masses” – that is,  what he proposes to call “a ‘biopolitics’ of the human race” (“S,pp. 243, 249-50; trans. mod.).

Now, to this complex paradigm shift corresponds, for Foucault, a nosological mutation which seems more clearly marked or punctuated:

At the end of the eighteenth century, it was not epidemics that were the issue, but something else—what might broadly be called endemics. . . . Death was no longer something that suddenly swooped down on life—as in an epidemic. Death was now something permanent, something that slips into life, perpetually gnaws at it, diminishes it and weakens it. [“S,pp. 243-44]

Forms of disease and technologies of power are interrelated, coimplicated, Foucault says. And the question that seems to be on everyone’s lips today, even in silent or unheard ways, is this one: What is the coronavirus contemporary with? Or, rather, what is it the metonymy or synecdoche of? That is to say, to what regime or to what technology of power does it attach itself with the spikes of its crown? What is the organism or organization of power—sovereign, disciplined, or biopolitical—that hosts it and is systemically related to it?

To give this question its full scope, we also have to consider, on the one hand, that among the “domains” or “fields of intervention” that “appeared in the late eighteenth century” with the birth of biopolitics, there is what Foucault calls the “control over the relations between . . . human beings insofar as they are a species, insofar as they are living beings, and their environment” (“S,p. 245); ecology, in sum, is also contemporary with biopower.

We must then consider, on the other hand, the extension of the Foucauldian analyses that Gilles Deleuze proposed in 1990 in his “Postscript on Control Societies,” where he suggests setting up “a correspondence between any society and some kind of machine.”[3] What he calls “control societies”—a generalization of disciplines and biopower outside their institutional walls and even into the micropores of the social fabric—is for him the era of “viral contamination” par excellence.[4]

What about the coronavirus, then? What kind of society hosts it? And what nosologico-political paradigm would it belong to?

While epidemiologists expect Covid-19 to become a new seasonal disease, one may wonder, according to the Foucauldian distinction, whether we are dealing with epidemics or endemics. Unless we are rather facing the resurgence of an epidemic temporality from the very heart of the endemic “homeostasis” regulated by biopolitics (“S,p. 246). What we should therefore reflect upon is a contamination that can no longer be contained within the distinction between epidemics and endemics—a contamination that contaminates these categories themselves, the one by the other. What we could well witness, then, is a panendemic that would be contemporary neither with past societies of sovereignty, of course, nor with disciplinary societies and their biopolitical developments, nor even with the Deleuzian “forms of control” (contrôlats) that prolong them.

After becoming pandemic, the epidemic could end up endemic, though still punctuated by epidemic peaks; but the reverse is also true: the endemic plague of healthcare systems under capitalism has exploded into a pandemic crisis. The latter is the subject of permanent statistical monitoring, of course, but it seems to thwart insurancial preparation and regulatory controls. In short, what arises with this nosological formation which is both new and familiar is perhaps the very time differential between these paradigms to which it belongs while exceeding them in every way.

A Crisis of Crisis?

I would be inclined to say that these paradigms are put in crisis, if the event called coronavirus did not overflow even the category of crisis itself. In their Communist Manifesto, speaking of the “periodical return” of the “commercial crises” that shake capitalist society, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described them as a “social epidemic” (gesellschaftliche Epidemie). But the regularity of these crises ended up consecrating the phrase “endemic crisis.”[5]

The very notion of crisis is still part of what it puts in crisis: by determining the threat as a crisis, “one tames it, domesticates it, neutralizes it,” Jacques Derrida wrote when questioned in 1983 about “the idea that the current world is in crisis.”[6] The crisis, especially when it is endemic, is already the horizon for a way out of the crisis. This is why Derrida could add: “In its turn in crisis, the concept of crisis would be the signature of a last symptom, the convulsive effort to save a ‘world’ that we no longer inhabit.”[7]

Promises have been made in recent weeks that would have been unthinkable a few months ago, for example that of resuscitating a dying public health system. It remains to be seen whether these promises will be kept (the signs are not encouraging).[8] More or less tacit commitments are also made regularly, for example about the temporary and exceptional nature of the mass surveillance measures deployed or currently experimented with. Here too, everything is ready, and everything remains to come.

Whether the coronavirus will end up being just one more crisis, perhaps more memorable than others, remains to be seen. And above all to be decided. A decision which must be taken now but that will have to be taken again, again and again, later.

What the coronavirus will have been, we will have to remember without erasing its time differentials. We will have to keep alive the experience of the heterochronies that wove the medial texture of the event.

It will decidedly have taken it several times to happen to us.

15 April 2020

Peter Szendy is David Herlihy Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Brown University.

[1] Roland Barthes, “The Jet-man,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York, 1972), p. 71

[2] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, trans. David Macey (New York, 2003), p. 243.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York, 1995), p. 180.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. Samuel Moore (London, 2002), 225.

[6] Jacques Derrida, “Economies of the Crisis,” in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, Calif., 2002), pp. 70-1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Laurent Mauduit and Martine Orange, “Hôpital public: la note explosive de la Caisse des dépôts,”, 1 Apr. 2020.

Watch Timothy Bewes interview Peter Szendy about his CI blog post for the Cogut Institute for the Humanities.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

The Universal Right to Breathe

Achille Mbembe

Translated by Carolyn Shread


Already some people are talking about “post-Covid-19.” And why should they not? Even if, for most of us, especially those in parts of the world where health care systems have been devastated by years of organized neglect, the worst is yet to come. With no hospital beds, no respirators, no mass testing, no masks nor disinfectants nor arrangements for placing those who are infected in quarantine, unfortunately, many will not pass through the eye of the needle.


It is one thing to worry about the death of others in a distant land and quite another to suddenly become aware of one’s own putrescence, to be forced to live intimately with one’s own death, contemplating it as a real possibility. Such is, for many, the terror triggered by confinement: having to finally answer for one’s own life, to one’s own name.

We must answer here and now for our life on Earth with others (including viruses) and our shared fate. Such is the injunction this pathogenic period addresses to humankind. It is pathogenic, but also the catabolic period par excellence, with the decomposition of bodies, the sorting and expulsion of all sorts of human waste – the “great separation” and great confinement caused by the stunning spread of the virus – and along with it, the widespread digitization of the world.

Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body. We tried to graft it onto other media, to turn it into an object body, a machine body, a digital body, an ontophanic body. It returns to us now as a horrifying, giant mandible, a vehicle for contamination, a vector for pollen, spores, and mold.

Knowing that we do not face this ordeal alone, that many will not escape it, is vain comfort. For we have never learned to live with all living species, have never really worried about the damage we as humans wreak on the lungs of the earth and on its body. Thus, we have never learned how to die. With the advent of the New World and, several centuries later, the appearance of the “industrialized races,” we essentially chose to delegate our death to others, to make a great sacrificial repast of existence itself via a kind of ontological vicariate.

Soon, it will no longer be possible to delegate one’s death to others. It will no longer be possible for that person to die in our place. Not only will we be condemned to assume our own demise, unmediated, but farewells will be few and far between. The hour of autophagy is upon us and, with it, the death of community, as there is no community worthy of its name in which saying one’s last farewell, that is, remembering the living at the moment of death, becomes impossible.

Community – or rather the in-common – is not based solely on the possibility of saying goodbye, that is, of having a unique encounter with others and honoring this meeting time and again. The in-common is based also on the possibility of sharing unconditionally, each time drawing from it something absolutely intrinsic, a thing uncountable, incalculable, priceless.


There is no doubt that the skies are closing in. Caught in the stranglehold of injustice and inequality, much of humanity is threatened by a great chokehold as the sense that our world is in a state of reprieve spreads far and wide.

If, in these circumstances, a day after comes, it cannot come at the expense of some, always the same ones, as in the Ancienne Économie – the economy that preceded this revolution. It must necessarily be a day for all the inhabitants of Earth, without distinction as to species, race, sex, citizenship, religion, or other differentiating marker. In other words, a day after will come but only with a giant rupture, the result of radical imagination.

Papering over the cracks simply won’t do. Deep in the heart of this crater, literally everything must be reinvented, starting with the social. Once working, shopping, keeping up with the news and keeping in touch, nurturing and preserving connections, talking to one another and sharing, drinking together, worshipping and organizing funerals begins to take place solely across the interface of screens, it is time to acknowledge that on all sides we are surrounded by rings of fire. To a great extent, the digital is the new gaping hole exploding Earth. Simultaneously a trench, a tunnel, a moonscape, it is the bunker where men and women are all invited to hide away, in isolation.

They say that through the digital, the body of flesh and bones, the physical and mortal body, will be freed of its weight and inertia. At the end of this transfiguration, it will eventually be able to move through the looking glass, cut away from biological corruption and restituted to a synthetic universe of flux. But this is an illusion, for just as there is no humanity without bodies, likewise, humanity will never know freedom alone, outside of society and community, and never can freedom come at the expense of the biosphere.


We must start afresh. To survive, we must return to all living things – including the biosphere – the space and energy they need. In its dank underbelly, modernity has been an interminable war on life. And it is far from over. One of the primary modes of this war, leading straight to the impoverishment of the world and to the desiccation of entire swathes of the planet, is the subjection to the digital.

In the aftermath of this calamity there is a danger that rather than offering sanctuary to all living species, sadly the world will enter a new period of tension and brutality.[1] In terms of geopolitics, the logic of power and might will continue to dominate. For lack of a common infrastructure, a vicious partitioning of the globe will intensify, and the dividing lines will become even more entrenched. Many states will seek to fortify their borders in the hope of protecting themselves from the outside. They will also seek to conceal the constitutive violence that they continue to habitually direct at the most vulnerable. Life behind screens and in gated communities will become the norm.

In Africa especially, but in many places in the Global South, energy-intensive extraction, agricultural expansion, predatory sales of land and destruction of forests will continue unabated. The powering and cooling of computer chips and supercomputers depends on it. The purveying and supplying of the resources and energy necessary for the global computing infrastructure will require further restrictions on human mobility. Keeping the world at a distance will become the norm so as to keep risks of all kinds on the outside. But because it does not address our ecological precariousness, this catabolic vision of the world, inspired by theories of immunization and contagion, does little to break out of the planetary impasse in which we find ourselves.


All these wars on life begin by taking away breath. Likewise, as it impedes breathing and blocks the resuscitation of human bodies and tissues, Covid-19 shares this same tendency. After all, what is the purpose of breathing if not the absorption of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide in a dynamic exchange between blood and tissues? But at the rate that life on Earth is going, and given what remains of the wealth of the planet, how far away are we really from the time when there will be more carbon dioxide than oxygen to breathe?


Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Last Breath”, 2012. Shown here: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Obra Sonora, Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, London, United Kingdom, 2014. Photo by: Grace Storey, Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

Before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation. If war there must be, it cannot so much be against a specific virus as against everything that condemns the majority of humankind to a premature cessation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression. To come through this constriction would mean that we conceive of breathing beyond its purely biological aspect, and instead as that which we hold in-common, that which, by definition, eludes all calculation. By which I mean, the universal right to breath.

As that which is both ungrounded and our common ground, the universal right to breath is unquantifiable and cannot be appropriated. From a universal perspective, not only is it the right of every member of humankind, but of all life. It must therefore be understood as a fundamental right to existence. Consequently, it cannot be confiscated and thereby eludes all sovereignty, symbolizing the sovereign principle par excellence. Moreover, it is an originary right to living on Earth, a right that belongs to the universal community of earthly inhabitants, human and other.[2]


The case has been pressed already a thousand times. We recite the charges eyes shut. Whether it is the destruction of the biosphere, the take-over of minds by technoscience, the criminalizing of resistance, repeated attacks on reason, generalized cretinization or the rise of determinisms (genetic, neuronal, biological, environmental), the dangers faced by humanity are increasingly existential.

Of all these dangers, the greatest is that all forms of life will be rendered impossible. Between those who dream of uploading our conscience to machines and those who are sure that the next mutation of our species lies in freeing ourselves from our biological husk, there’s little difference. The eugenicist temptation has not dissipated. Far from it, in fact, since it is at the root of recent advances in science and technology.

At this juncture, this sudden arrest arrives, an interruption not of history but of something that still eludes our grasp. Since it was imposed upon us, this cessation derives not from our will. In many respects, it is simultaneously unforeseen and unpredictable. Yet what we need is a voluntary cessation, a conscious and fully consensual interruption. Without which there will be no tomorrow. Without which nothing will exist but an endless series of unforeseen events.

If, indeed, Covid-19 is the spectacular expression of the planetary impasse in which humanity finds itself today, then it is a matter of no less than reconstructing a habitable Earth to give all of us the breath of life. We must reclaim the lungs of our world with a view to forging new ground. Humankind and biosphere are one. Alone, humanity has no future. Are we capable of rediscovering that each of us belongs to the same species, that we have an indivisible bond with all life? Perhaps that is the question – the very last – before we draw our last dying breath.

13 April 2020

[A version of this post appears in French at AOC]

Achille Mbembe is the author of Brutalisme (Paris, 2020). He is the cofounder with Felwine Sarr of Ateliers de la pensée in Dakar.

[Is translation still permissible in Covid-19? We know that its reach is across borders, that it comingles in a way that is rapidly disappearing into a seemingly distant past, that it transfers and transforms. Now, under the regime of social distancing, where I show my care for you by stepping away, what is it to translate? For there’s no reading more intimate than a translation – a bodily intimacy that adopts the rhythm of the lungs, the pulse of the heart, the coursing of the blood through the text to the point that we ask, whose breath is it anyway?

I know that this text kept me alive – merci, Achille Mbembe. That it came out of the blue, bringing a breath of fresh air – thank you, Hank Scotch. And that I’ll pass it on to you, readers of Critical Inquiry, hoping that it frees up the atmosphere. Because we need to breathe together. And there is no solitary breath—Carolyn Shread, translator]

[1] Building on the terms origins as a mid-twentieth century architectural movement, I have defined brutalism as a contemporary process whereby “power is henceforth constituted, expressed, reconfigured, acts and reproduces itself as a geomorphic force.” How so? Through processes that include “fracturing and fissuring,”,\ “emptying vessels,” “drilling,” and “expelling organic matter,” in a word, by what I term “depletion” (Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme [Paris, 2020], pp. 9, 10, 11).

[2] See Sarah Vanuxem, La propriété de la Terre (Paris, 2018), and Marin Schaffner, Un sol commun. Lutter, habiter, penser (Paris, 2019).



Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Ground-Zero Empiricism

Lorraine Daston

I am used to waking up in the seventeenth century. As a historian of early modern science, that’s where I spend a lot of time. But it is strange that everyone else is suddenly keeping me company there.

No, I don’t mean the plague. Fortunately for us, Covid-19 is nowhere near as deadly as the diseases caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. From its arrival in Pisa in 1348 to the last great outbreak in Marseilles in 1720, the bacterium killed at least 30 percent of Europe’s population and probably a comparable number along its path from South Asia to the Middle East. That would translate to ninety-nine million deaths in the US alone. No one, not even the gloomiest epidemiologists, think Covid-19 will carry off almost a third of the world’s population.


Yet, beyond that tepid reassurance, there’s not much consensus as to just how deadly the virus is; observed case-fatality rates in places where the disease has spread so far range from 12.7 percent (30.25 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, this latter a better gauge when testing is still spotty) in Italy to 2.2 percent (3.14) in Germany, although the two countries have comparable (and comparably good) health systems. For the US, the current observed rate is 3.6 percent (5.04); in China, 4 percent (0.24). (All figures from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.) There is always variability in how the same bug affects different individuals: age, sex, income, medical care, genetic dispositions, nutrition, and many other factors all play a role. But within large samples of hundreds of thousands of patients, stable averages ought to emerge and converge, at least in roughly similar populations. Why are these numbers all over the map?

That’s what I meant when I said that we’ve suddenly been catapulted back to the seventeenth century: we are living in a moment of ground-zero empiricism, in which almost everything is up for grabs, just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies – and everyone else — circa 1660. For them, just figuring out what a phenomenon was (Was heat or luminescence or for that matter, the plague, all one kind of thing?), how best to study it (Collect comprehensive natural histories? Count instances? Perform experiments – if so, what kind? Systematically observe – if so, what exactly, and how long?), why it happened when and where it did, and, above all, what to do with it or about it — none of these basic questions had an agreed-upon answer. It wasn’t just a question of lacking knowledge. We will always lack knowledge, which is why research is never-ending. There was no settled script for how to go about knowing.

Of course, I exaggerate the analogy between then and now. Thanks in no small part to the ingenuity, sagacity, and sheer persistence of thousands and thousands of researchers since the seventeenth century, we are the heirs not only to knowledge (what a virus is, what it does, and how to thwart it) but also to a diverse repertoire of ways of knowing, from well-designed experiments and systematic observations, already being refined and yoked together in the seventeenth century, to chemical assays and statistical analysis to computer simulations. And by researchers, I mean not only natural philosophers in their curled periwigs or professors in their white lab coats but legions of lynx-eyed investigators everywhere, at sea and in fields, in cities and in kitchens, noting events and correlations: the bark that lowers fever; the cloud formation that portends a storm; the lackluster stone that shines in the dark with a cool light.  They all helped draft our script for how to go about knowing – a lengthy, intricate, and well-rehearsed script that guides our efforts to understand, among many other things, Covid-19 and its perplexingly various manifestations.

Yet, in moments of radical novelty and the radical uncertainty novelty emits, like a squid obscuring itself in ink, we are temporarily thrown back into a state of ground-zero empiricism. Chance observations, apparent correlations, and anecdotes that would ordinarily barely merit mention, much less publication in peer-reviewed journals, have the internet buzzing with speculations among physicians, virologists, epidemiologists, microbiologists, and the interested lay public. Is it true that more men are dying than women, and if so, in which age groups? Are the differences between observed case-fatality rates real or an artifact of how much various countries test for the number of infected persons (the denominator of the fraction) and/or how causes of death are registered? For example, some countries count the death of anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 as a death due to the virus, no matter what other factors (such as diabetes, for example) might have played a role; other countries use dominant or proximate causes in their classifications; both systems have their pros and cons.

Quite aside from the fog of statistics, there are basic facts yet to be ascertained. Is the disease airborne (and if so, how long it can linger in the air)? Do some antiviral drugs help alleviate symptoms in acute cases – and for whom? How much do ventilators, even when available, prolong the life of patients sick enough to warrant their use? Does Covid-19 cause heart attacks? Medical staff from Wuhan and Hackensack, Seoul and London, Bergamot and New York City are frantically exchanging observations on Twitter about therapies and “curious cases” (a very seventeenth-century term).

At moments of extreme scientific uncertainty, observation, usually treated as the poor relation of experiment and statistics in science, comes into its own. Suggestive single cases, striking anomalies, partial patterns, correlations as yet too faint to withstand statistical scrutiny, what works and what doesn’t: every clinical sense, not just sight, sharpens in the search for clues. Eventually, some of those clues will guide experiment and statistics: what to test, what to count. The numbers will converge; causes will be revealed; uncertainty will sink to tolerable levels. But for now, we are back in the seventeenth century, the age of ground-zero empiricism, and observing as if our lives depended on it.

10 April 2020

Lorraine Daston is director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, permanent fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is Against Nature (2019). She is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry and a member of the editorial board.

Daston’s CI blog post was recently featured in Clifford Marks and Trevor Pour’s New Yorker article “What We Don’t Know About the Coronavirus.”




Filed under 2020 Pandemic

A Letter to Oliver Vogel

Alexander Garcia Düttmann

Translated by James Fontini

Dear Oliver,

Many years ago, the press you work for published a book of mine with the subtitle Thinking and Talking About a Virus. If I were to write about a virus again today, about this virus called corona, I would conceivably choose a similar subtitle, only slightly altered. The subtitle would read: “That a Virus Is Thought about and Spoken Of”. The first subtitle should indicate that the discourses emerging from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were indeed of different sorts, but nonetheless developed into specific discursive patterns, which in turn minimized the disparity. On the other hand, the second subtitle would indicate the presupposition of such a development, which is to say the power of the virus to generate discourses. To my eyes, the present is less characterized by the question of “How to think and talk about a virus?” than by the fact that a virus is thought about and spoken of so much, so incessantly, and so tirelessly.


For nothing has struck me more in the past few weeks or so than the endless procession and parade of scientists, experts, researchers, doctors, of academics, artists and politicians, of sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, historians, cultural workers, who – one behind the other, one after the other, one before the next – constantly express their thoughts on the new pandemic to the public in print, on TV, and on the internet. Everyone knows something about the meaning of this pandemic and its repercussions, whether or not it announces the end of capitalism, allows for the emergence of new social solidarity, or ratifies the general state of exception that reduces life to bare life. It is as if this march of the minds – or ghost train? – was already in motion before one could even speak of an epidemic, let alone a pandemic.

While virologists work to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible – a medicine that will stop the pandemic – in overcrowded hospitals and clinics it is not merely a matter of life and death but of decisions of life and death that must be made quickly, as the next decision already imposes itself. Personnel are pushed to the limits of what is doable and what is reasonable. Protective masks, ventilators, even beds, are lacking. When this unpredictable, almost implausible, and immensely accelerated activity doubles in the superstructure, a communication explosion occurs.

Yet does not this doubling, the hectic drive and meddling of those who reflect on the crisis, also contain a comic dimension? It is as if it were also a crowning of the coronavirus,[1] mirroring or forestalling its virulence and unstoppability, prostrating respectfully before it while simultaneously warding it off, covering over the traces it has not yet left behind. If self-reflection was once tied to the end, if it was once an attempt to understand an experience or a challenge one had experimented, it now comes before the start, before one has actually experienced something.

When a total mobilization of spirit takes place, one that is acknowledgement and ostracism in one, a being-caught-up-in and a not-letting-near, when all minds are ready and willing to fulfill a task, it is hardly surprising that people reach for ways of thinking and speaking that are easily recognizable and provide something of a quick, calming platitude. It does not matter how apocalyptic they may sound or how much they may call for pause and mindfulness. Some seek new guidelines and directives for business to carry on as smoothly as possible, without getting too bogged down or delayed. Others invoke creativity, which, in order to justify its returns, must prove itself, especially in critical times.

It seems to me, then, that the only ones who can respond to the pandemic are those for whom the comic aspect I mentioned triggers an astonished laughter. Without such laughter, I fear, there is a lurking danger of the pandemic contributing only to the consolidation of social tendencies whose momentum it brings to a standstill, at least on the face of it. Let me ask you this: What sort of social distancing, if any, does astonished laughter practice?



Bad Nauheim, 25 March 2020

[This was originally published in the magazine Hundertvierzehn]

Alexander García Düttmann teaches philosophy and aesthetics at University of the Arts in Berlin. He is the author of numerous books, including At Odds with AIDS. Talking and Thinking about a Virus (1996), Philosophy of Exaggeration (2004), Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood (2008), and, most recently, Love Machine. The Origin of the Work of Art (2018). He is also the editor of Jacques Derrida’s lecture course Théorie et pratique (2017) and appears as an actor in Albert Serra’s new film Liberté (2019).

James Fontini is working on a PhD about Heidegger and topology at University of the Arts in Berlin.

[1] Düttmann writes “dem Coronavirus noch einmal die Krone aufsezten”, a reference in part to the morphology that gives coronaviruses their name. The phrase “etwas die Krone aufsetzen” can also refer to “crowning” or “capping something off” in the sense of concluding or bringing to its end–Tranlator’s note.


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COVID-19 Metaphors

Norman MacLeod

In her 1978 essay on Disease as Political Metaphor, Susan Sontag demonstrated that the trope of the infectious malady has been used through human history as a metaphor to represent, describe, and critique failures of the polis by critics of culture and politics. The present COVID-19 crisis is ripe — some might say “rife” — with further examples that embody the complete spectrum from profound to ridiculous. The fact that many of the metaphors being used have been expropriated from my own fields of evolutionary biology and earth science simply serves to underscore the difficulties, and the opportunities (some unrealized to date), that the metaphoric mode of communication entails.


First, let’s get some facts straight about viruses. They get a bad rap from the press. Ask just about anyone about them and all you hear are complaints. It’s “disease this” and “infection that.” No one seems to have anything nice to say about viruses, which is a shame because you wouldn’t be here reading this without them.

Viruses are the most ubiquitous life forms on the planet with 1031 individuals cited as one recent estimate of their number. They are also one of the least understood. They live everywhere in nature and everywhere both on and inside of you. Less than one percent are known to be pathogenic, but many more are known to be symbiotic (which means they assist the host), mutualistic (which means both host and virus benefit from the association), or benign (which means we don’t know what they do). In addition, viruses’ modus operandi of targeting specific cell types and interrupting these cells’ genetic functioning means they can be used to destroy certain cell types selectively (e.g., cancer, HIV) and repair genetic damage in others. So, next time someone asks you about viruses, show a little respect.

These days when people say something has “gone viral,” they almost always are using the term as a metaphor for an event that touches a great number of people and news of which is passed from individual to individual, usually via social media. As metaphors go, it’s not too bad. Of course, there’s nothing especially virus like about microbial infection. A wide variety of small beasties spread disease among individuals via close proximity and/or physical contact (e.g., bacteria, prions). But the term virus sounds much closer to vita (Latin for “the life force”) and so is obviously the better choice for representing any event, idea or philosophy that touches large numbers of people.

More interesting is the, somewhat neglected, aspect of the viral disease metaphor’s cultural extrapolation. Viruses are not designed to damage or kill their hosts. The point of a virus is life, not death. Because viruses need living cells to reproduce over time, they have developed transmission strategies that make the finding of living hosts quick and efficient. Ideally, a pathogenic virus will enter a living system and have sufficient time to make many copies of itself before it is eliminated by the host’s immunological defenses. The virus survives and the host survives. That’s the model. The problem with pathogenic viruses — especially those hosts have not encountered before — is that, in the system’s efforts to find, and develop a means of neutralizing the virus, the state of the body is changed, sometimes beyond the point at which the body (especially weakened bodies) can remain alive. Consequently, it’s not the virus that kills, it’s the body’s reaction to the virus that kills.

The COVID-19 virus is special but not for the reason that most people think. Its infection of our bodies is nothing noteworthy as viruses go. But COVID-19 has also infected our cultures, our economics, and our politics, worldwide. It’s a virus and it’s a meme. In order to reduce the inferred levels of mortality in at-risk individuals our societies have reacted in unprecedented ways, by mandating the shut down of economic and cultural activities, curtailing the individual (and increasingly legal) rights of citizens, and by forcing both individuals and family groups into physical isolation for an, as yet, unspecified time interval. It remains to be seen whether these societal reactions will be sufficient to mitigate the damage the virus will inflict on human populations. In a moral sense, we have no choice but to endure them in the hope they will. But just as a body’s reaction to a pathogenic virus can leave it in a weakened state, and so susceptible to other infections that would not prove problematic had the virus not come along, the economic social and cultural reactions the COVID-19 meme has caused will leave our societal bodies in much weakened states. It will take a substantial interval and sustained efforts for our societies to recover from their reaction to this infection. In thinking about the legacy COVID-19 will leave, especially in light of the knowledge that similar microbe/meme pandemics have happened in the past and will happen in the future, it will be important to remember that, unlike our body’s immunological reactions, we are in control of how our societies react to this and future infections. It is in our power to learn from this infection and so establish structures that will recognize the danger and take steps to mitigate harmful societal responses both to future pandemics and to other events of a holistically environmental nature, as they arrive.

Of course, this process is nothing more, or less, than an example of cultural adaptation and, as with all forms of adaptation, the key to success is diversity. But herein also lies danger. Drawing, once again metaphorically on natural systems in the immediate wake of a supervolcano eruption, asteroid impact, or ice age, the strategies that lead to successful postevent diversification are unknown. Some lineages remain more-or-less unchanged and continue to pursue old established ways. Others undergo rapid and profound alteration in their approaches to life. Success always belongs to whichever strategies work best for whatever reason. Moreover, adaptations that confer an advantage, whatever their origin and however slight, can eventually displace those that don’t, irrespective of the success the latter may have enjoyed previously. Prior incumbency is no guarantor of success in the aftermath of a profound dislocation.

As it is with nature, so it is with the social factors of culture, economics, and politics. Humans can do many things that are highly unusual, even unique. But, by definition, humans can never do anything that’s unnatural. Owing to the manner in which human cultures have responded to the COVID-19 infection, many of their most cherished mores, traditions, and institutions have, to all intents and purposes, been suspended. It’s far too early to tell which will survive after the crisis has passed and in what state. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty, however, is that aspects of the world of tomorrow may be very different from the world of yesterday and that the challenges we’ll face in coping with that world won’t end with our society’s survival; they’ll only have begun.

6 April 2020

Norman McLeod teaches at the School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, Nanjing University, China


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Anticipatory Care

Carol J. Adams

I’ve been talking to my dogs more frequently these days because, as I tell them, they have no idea about the coronavirus pandemic or at least aren’t communicating their thoughts about the issue to me.

Today, Inky the rescued Minpin lay on the penultimate step to the second floor as I leaned over to address him on this subject; “You don’t know anything about this, do you?” He was barely committed to the conversation. As I rubbed his back, I thought about a recent call from my sister.


She had called to urge me to set up a sick room in our house, now. Now, she directed, before either my partner or I fell ill with the virus. She listed items to put in the room (extra sheets and towels, cleaning supplies), the tasks of preparation we should do now. I dutifully wrote the list down but found that when she said “and clear off all surfaces, now,” I stopped. Perhaps we have more tchotchkes than most, but the idea of clearing off all the surfaces of the designated sickroom seemed going too far.

The fault line between the real and imagined threat of coronavirus could be found right there—will I do something about those surfaces populated with items? The idea is that if you remove them now there would be less surfaces that might contain the virus to wipe down if someone were ill with the disease. I should have been thinking of the real possibilities of the needs of an ill person. As someone who provided care to others, shouldn’t I have traversed the space between the real and the possible more easily? A quick read of Jessica Lustig’s “What I learned when my husband got sick with coronavirus” could have jumpstarted my priorities.

All the years of caregiving for our parents that my sisters and I shared, following what I called “the rule of the good daughter,” and here was the first test of what a post-parental caregiving situation might require. I was balking.

My sister continued, “Don’t shake out the dirty clothes before washing them.” Who, I wondered, shakes out clothes before washing them anyway? But such a specific image, the sick person’s clothes, the need to wash them, the need to wash your own clothes after tending the sick person, the person standing in front of the washing machine, seemed to bridge the real and the possible with urgency.

She said, “You need a Plan B, you get sick, and Plan C the person you live with gets sick.” She was urging what we might call anticipatory care. Of professional caregiving, in crisis because of federal inaction, an eviscerated health care system, and the absence of needed equipment, there is not much we individually can do—unless we are sewing masks, a nineteenth century answer in a twent-first century world. For collective caregiving, our responsibility is clear—flatten the curve.  Personal caregiving such as Jessica Lustig describes (Advil in a plastic dish, doing laundry, trying to get her husband to eat something, wiping down the shower, switches, faucets, well . . . everywhere) is learned in the work of it. The reports, such as Lustig’s may awaken us to anticipatory care—this practical work of thinking about “what if the virus strikes home?”


It is said about a creative venture that you have to imagine something before it can come into existence. But, in general, this is not how personal caregiving evolves. A need comes into existence and caregiving is the necessary and immediate response—a broken leg, Alzheimer’s progressing—so often we figure it out on the go.

Anticipatory care, as my sister urged, and as Lustig implies, recognizes that we or someone we love may be next. It might begin with ensuring all capable members of a household—if we live in a household—know where the sheets and cleaning agents are, know how to use the dishwasher and the washing machine, if we are lucky enough to have access to those appliances. The Centers for Disease Control help us if we struggle with imagining what is required.

What if we acknowledged that a part of life is thinking ourselves toward our own deaths, thinking ourselves toward a possible role of caregiver or care receiver?

I ended my essay in Critical Inquiry with a question:“It’s a quandary and an epistemological concern: can the noncaregiving world comprehend or encompass the world of caregiving?” Lustig has seen no sign of it:

It’s as if we [her family] are in a time warp, in which we have accelerated at 1½ time speed, while everyone around us remains in the present — already the past to us — and they, blissfully, unconsciously, go about their ordinary lives, experiencing the growing news, the more urgent advisories and directives, as a vast communal experience, sharing posts and memes about cabin fever, about home-schooling, about social distancing, about how hard it all is, while we’re living in our makeshift sick ward, living in what will soon be the present for more and more of them.

If the pandemic situates us so much closer to caregiving than many have ever been, still anticipatory care on its own won’t transform a noncaregiver into a caregiver. Lustig talks about the people walking past the door of a clinic through which she and her very ill husband must exit, the passing pedestrians oblivious to the illness on the other side of the door. Think of the crowds who showed up to watch the USNS Comfort arrive in the New York harbor—arriving, they hoped, for them.

Those who have been through hell have told us what we need to do, tchotchkes be damned.

5 April 2020

Carol J. Adams is a feminist scholar and activist whose written work explores the cultural construction of overlapping and interconnected oppressions, as well as the ethics of care. Adams’s first book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, is now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. She is also the author of Burger and coauthor with Virginia Messina of Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet, and Fuel Your Resistance One Meal at a Time, and of many other books. A new and updated The Pornography of Meat (2004) will appear in the fall of 2020. The visual accompaniment to The Sexual Politics of Meat will include 340 images sent from around the world by Adams’s readers, whom she calls “grassroots sociologists.” She is working on a memoir of her mother based on her essay from the New York Times, “Finding Myself in My Mother’s Calendars.”


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus

Daniele Lorenzini


In a recent blog post, Joshua Clover rightly notices the swift emergence of a new panoply of “genres of the quarantine.” It should not come as a surprise that one of them centers on Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, asking whether or not it is still appropriate to describe the situation that we are currently experiencing. Neither should it come as a surprise that, in virtually all of the contributions that make use of the concept of biopolitics to address the current coronavirus pandemic, the same bunch of rather vague ideas are mentioned over and over again, while other—no doubt more interesting—Foucauldian insights tend to be ignored. In what follows, I discuss two of these insights, and I conclude with some methodological remarks on the issue of what it may mean to “respond” to the current “crisis.”


The “Blackmail” of Biopolitics

The first point that I would like to make is that Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, as he developed it in 1976,[1] was not meant to show us just how evil this “modern” form of power is. Of course, it was not meant to praise it either. It seems to me that, in coining the notion of biopolitics, Foucault wants first and foremost to make us aware of the historical crossing of a threshold and more specifically of what he calls a society’s “seuil de modernité biologique” (“threshold of biological modernity”).[2] Our society crossed such a threshold when the biological processes characterizing the life of human beings as a species became a crucial issue for political decision-making, a new “problem” to be addressed by governments—and this, not only in “exceptional” circumstances (such that of an epidemic), but in “normal” circumstances as well.[3] A permanent concern which defines what Foucault also calls the “étatisation du biologique” (the “nationalization of the biological”).[4] To remain faithful to Foucault’s idea that power is not good or bad in itself, but that it is always dangerous (if accepted blindly, that is, without ever questioning it), one could say that this “paradigm shift” in the way in which we are governed, with both its positive and its horrible outcomes, no doubt corresponds to a dangerous extension of the domain of intervention of power mechanisms. We are no longer governed only, nor even primarily, as political subjects of law, but also as living beings who, collectively, form a global mass—a “population”—with a natality rate, a mortality rate, a morbidity rate, an average life expectancy, etc.

In “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault claims that he wants to refuse the “‘blackmail’ of Enlightenment”—that is, the idea that we have to be either “for” or “against” it—and address it instead as a historical event that still characterizes, at least to a certain extent, what we are today.[5] I would like to suggest, in an analogous way, that it would be wise for us to refuse the “blackmail” of biopolitics: we do not have to be “for” or “against” it (what would that even mean?), but address it as a historical event that still defines, at least in part, the way in which we are governed, the way in which we think about politics and about ourselves. When, on the newspapers or the social media, I see people complaining about others not respecting the quarantine rules, I always think about how astonishing it is for me, on the contrary, that so many of us are, even when the risk of sanctions, in most situations, is quite low. I also noticed the panoply of quotes from Discipline and Punish, in particular from the beginning of the chapter “Panopticism,”[6] which of course perfectly resonates with our current experience of the quarantine, as it describes the disciplinarization of a city and its inhabitants during a plague epidemic. However, if we just insist on coercive measures, on being confined, controlled, and “trapped” at home during these extraordinary times, we risk overlooking the fact that disciplinary and biopolitical power mainly functions in an automatic, invisible, and perfectly ordinary way—and that it is most dangerous precisely when we do not notice it.

Instead of worrying about the increase of surveillance mechanisms and indiscriminate control under a new “state of exception,” I therefore tend to worry about the fact that we already are docile, obedient biopolitical subjects. Biopolitical power is not (only) exercised on our lives from the “outside,” as it were, but has been a part of what we are, of our historical form of subjectivity, for at least the past two centuries. This is why I doubt that any effective strategy of resistance to its most dangerous aspects should take the form of a global refusal, following the logic of the “blackmail” of biopolitics. Foucault’s remarks about a “critical ontology of ourselves”[7] may turn out to be surprisingly helpful here, since it is the very fabric of our being that we should be ready to question.

The (Bio)Politics of Differential Vulnerability

The second point that I would like to discuss—a crucial one, but alas one that I rarely find mentioned in the contributions mobilizing the notion of biopolitics to address the current coronavirus pandemic—is the inextricable link that Foucault establishes between biopower and racism. In a recent piece, Judith Butler rightly remarks “the rapidity with which radical inequality, nationalism, and capitalist exploitation find ways to reproduce and strengthen themselves within the pandemic zones.” This comes as a much-needed reminder in a moment in which other thinkers, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, argue on the contrary that the coronavirus “puts us on a basis of equality, bringing us together in the need to make a common stand.” Of course, the equality Nancy is talking about is just the equality of the wealthy and the privileged—those who are lucky enough to have a house or an apartment to spend their quarantine in, and who do not need to work or can work from home, as Bruno Latour already observed. What about those who are still forced to go to work every day because they cannot work from home nor afford to lose their paycheck? What about those who do not have a roof over their head?

In the last lecture of “Society Must Be Defended,” Foucault argues that racism is “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life taken over by power: the break between what must live and what must die.”[8] In other words, with the emergence of biopolitics, racism becomes a way of fragmenting the biological continuum—we all are living beings with more or less the same biological needs—in order to create hierarchies between different human groups, and thus (radical) differences in the way in which the latter are exposed to the risk of death. The differential exposure of human beings to health and social risks is, according to Foucault, a salient feature of biopolitical governmentality. Racism, in all of its forms, is the “condition of acceptability” of such a differential exposure of lives in a society in which power is mainly exercised to protect the biological life of the population and enhance its productive capacity.[9] We should therefore carefully avoid reducing biopolitics to the famous Foucauldian formula “making live and letting die.”[10] Biopolitics does not really consist in a clear-cut opposition of life and death, but is better understood as an effort to differentially organize the gray area between them. The current government of migration is an excellent example of this, as Martina Tazzioli convincingly shows when talking of “biopolitics through mobility.”[11] Indeed, as we are constantly, sometimes painfully reminded these days, biopolitics is also, and crucially, a matter of governing mobility—and immobility. Maybe this experience, which is new for most of us, will help us realize that the ordinary way in which “borders” are more or less porous for people of different colors, nationalities, and social extractions deserves to be considered as one of the main forms in which power is exercised in our contemporary world.

In short, biopolitics is always a politics of differential vulnerability. Far from being a politics that erases social and racial inequalities by reminding us of our common belonging to the same biological species, it is a politics that structurally relies on the establishment of hierarchies in the value of lives, producing and multiplying vulnerability as a means of governing people. We might want to think about this next time that we collectively applaud the “medical heroes” and “care workers” who are “fighting the coronavirus.” They deserve it, for sure. But are they really the only ones who are “taking care” of us? What about the delivery people who make sure that I receive what I buy while safely remaining in my quarantined apartment? What about the supermarket and pharmacy cashiers, the public-transportation drivers, the factory workers, the police officers, and all of the other people working (mostly low-income) jobs that are deemed necessary for the functioning of society? Don’t they also deserve—and not exclusively under these “exceptional” circumstances—to be considered “care workers”? The virus does not put us on a basis of equality. On the contrary, it blatantly reveals that our society structurally relies on the incessant production of differential vulnerability and social inequalities.

The Political Grammar of the Crisis

Foucault’s work on biopolitics is more complex, rich, and compelling for us today than what it appears to be under the pen of those who too quickly reduce it to a series of anathemas against disciplinary confinement and mass surveillance or who misleadingly utilize it to talk about the state of exception and bare life.[12] I do not want to suggest, however, that the notion of biopolitics should be taken as the ultimate explanatory principle capable of telling us what is happening and what the “solution” to all of our problems is—and this, not only because of the “historically differentiated character of biopolitical phenomena” correctly emphasized by Roberto Esposito, but also for a deeper methodological reason. Our political thought is a prisoner to the “grammar of the crisis” and its constrained temporality, to the extent that critical responses to the current situation (or, for that matters, to virtually all of the recent economic, social, and humanitarian “crises”) do not seem able to look beyond the most immediate future.[13] Thus, if I agree with Latour that the current “health crisis” should “incite us to prepare for climate change,” I am far less optimistic than he is: this will not happen unless we replace the crisis-narrative with a long-term critical and creative effort to find multiple, evolving responses to the structural causes of our “crises.” To elaborate responses, instead of looking for solutions, would mean to avoid short-term problem-solving strategies aiming at changing as little as possible of our current way of living, producing, traveling, eating, etc. It would mean to explore alternative social and political paths in the hope that these experiments will last longer than the time between the present “crisis” and the next one, while acknowledging that these transformations are necessarily slow, since we cannot just get rid of our historical form of being in the blink of an eye. In a word, it would mean having faith in our capacity to build a future, not only for ourselves, but for countless generations yet to come. And to actually start doing it.


New York City

2 April 2020

Daniele Lorenzini is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, where he is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Post-Kantian European Philosophy. A coeditor of Foucault Studies, his most recent books include La force du vrai: De Foucault à Austin (2017) and Éthique et politique de soi: Foucault, Hadot, Cavell et les techniques de l’ordinaire (2015).

[1] See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 135-145; Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (New York: Picador, 2003), 239-263.

[2] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 143 (translation modified).

[3] Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, 244.

[4] Ibid., 240 (translation modified).

[5] Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 42-43.

[6] See, e.g., this dossier on “Coronavirus and Philosophers”. To read Foucault’s analysis in full, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 195-200.

[7] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 47.

[8] Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, 254 (translation modified).

[9] Ibid., 255-256 (translation modified).

[10] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 138-141; Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, 241-243.

[11] Martina Tazzioli, The Making of Migration: Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe’s Borders (London: Sage, 2019), 106. Although this has passed virtually unnoticed, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Foucault mentions migrations as one of the main areas in which biopolitical mechanisms of power function. See Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 140.

[12] See, e.g., Giorgio Agamben’s texts on coronavirus, as well as Gordon Hull’s critical response.

[13] See Daniele Lorenzini and Martina Tazzioli, “Critique without Ontology: Genealogy, Collective Subjects, and the Deadlocks of Evidence”, Radical Philosophy, forthcoming.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Hanging in the Air

Andrea Brady


Being less than an activity

we empty out the life that hangs

like code in the air, but for how long

does it survive there if the air is white and lush,

more benevolent to the city than ever, whose leaves are out

of a season we are missing. It hangs

on the window like a recrimination,

a rainbow trail, the wolf’s chalky invite

to the last kid hiding in the clock.

And like a call; and is filled with calls

of the chattering species

whose voices are carried from house to house

parties and face times, many heard, the more silent.


And like nothing but indifference

growing warmer in the tangled biome to its human

carriers. We pick our way prudently down the street.

The person who passes is like us

a matrix of infection. We turn around at the head

of the aisle that has someone in it, and wash our hands

and shrink. Our hands are very dry now. Our mean gestures have all changed.



When in this poem I say we I mean a nuclear family in London

who are lucky. Having outside space.

The ball keeps getting kicked over the fence, and there is someone

there to return it.



A friend, who is Chinese, has been repeatedly abused in the street.

Mean gestures, filthy speech. The street is also the space

where our neighbours are clapping. Where we perform distance

to contain the bad humours that may be hidden

in another body. Hidden inside a room that can’t be left

because of the news, the violent man, the guard, the border. It is now

very easy to get sectioned. We consider ourselves indefinitely

separated from our friends and lovers and nothing will be the same

until it is, and the amazonification

of the planet will be complete, and we’ll be released

from our incommensurate lockdown to party and write poems

upon poems about the virus and the discourse of war.

And some will still not be able to go out into

the streets still full of the performance of abuse.



For now we pick apart the hem looking for silver linings

inside the garment of bad surprises.



My kids have been teaching me about black holes, clock time

and dentistry in ancient Egypt.

I thought the singularity was a site of infinitely dense matter

but it’s the profound energy that distorts space and time.

They’re overjoyed to learn that if they tried to pass

through its horizon they’d be spaghettified,

their whole body a stream of plasma

one atom wide. If your being was not then empty

it would be still, watching the universe shift

and quicken before it.



Right now I’m writing this standing up because I’m teaching

and working and printing and feeding and remembering

and in pain. When you’re sick or in pain it’s hard to remember

what it was like not to be, the self that streamed

painlessly through another world is not yourself, the light

stuttering on her face was not your light or your face.

How could I have been so stupid not to notice

how easy it has always been for me to move down the street?

Right now I am trying to read and not read the accounts

of the anaesthetists. I misread the inhalation

of toxic gas as toxic glass. I don’t want to think of all the people alone



I tell the kids to write about their experiences

of this big historical singularity

and hide its data from them. I could say it’s like the way

the black hole can’t be seen but shifts everything around it

but that’s a comparison in a poem and the kids just laugh.

They know that the collapse of everything clears

the air at least. How cool the sky would always be

without the scratching of motors. We could lag together,

smooth in our suspension.


We stay in the yard.


In its green and yellow is an image

of the lungs we will be given

if we cross the horizon and abandon

the nuclear family, private property, obedient domains.


1 April 2020


Andrea Brady’s books of poetry include The Strong Room (Crater, 2016), Dompteuse (Book Thug, 2014), Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013), Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (Seagull, 2012), and Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010). She is Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London, where she founded the Centre for Poetry and the Archive of the Now.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Would a Shaman Help?

Michael Taussig


A friend in the Midwest asks if a shaman could help in the present crisis?

Given presidential grandstanding and the run on toilet paper and guns, it seems like a reasonable question. But it all depends on what kind of shamanism and what kind of help.

Shamanism is no substitute for science as regards virology, but as performance art sparking the imagination, it could dampen panic, ease social isolation, and promote cohesion. As a Happening it may not have raised the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, but it emboldened the imagination that brought that war to an end. During Occupy Wall Street downtown NYC, you could smell burning sage learnt from Native American shamanism. Attempting to resist the white man from the Rockies to the Plains, the Ghost Dancers were massacred, but now the white man needs to form the magic circle, compose the songs, and start dancing too. And for sure it will be a magical circle seeing as we are now in strict isolation.

Giorgio de Chirico’s melancholy paintings of Roman arcades and streets without people are no less shamanic, capturing the aura Walter Benjamin found in Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris streets likewise without people. Being alone in cities with empty streets and piazzas is more shamanic than the “real thing.”


With his prescient focus on viral epidemics and on words as mutating viruses, William S. Burroughs would certainly be asking my friend’s question, especially as regards his notion of the “composite city” as a mosaic of fabulous forms. For him it all began in 1953 with his eye-opening encounter taking the hallucinogen yagé (ayahuasca) with shamans in the Putumayo region of southwest Colombia, which I visited annually from 1972 to 1999.

The phantasmatic properties of viral pandemics in the fiction that followed paralleled his yagé experience with shamans. His curiosity was writerly, becoming a few years later a conscious method of cutting up images and, with that practice, confronting “Control,” spiritual no less than political.

As with yagé, the cut ups were intended to connect language with the body in galvanic upheavals of subject-object relations for which the all-night wordless song is essential.


Shamanism is primarily a means for buffering rumor and paranoia. Yet it depends on that too. Who is bewitching (read infecting) who? Fox News and Trump are pretty good at this shamanic warfare. Hence our need for an alternative. It is not a choice but a necessity.

The yagé séance is a small-group unscripted theatrical exorcism of the malevolence the sorcerer projected into oneself. Relief depends on visions flowing into one like a blue substance, storytelling, and the fiercely visceral sensations that recur in wave-like rhythms with the divine hum of the shaman, the hum of the waking world.

But could anything like this be achieved in a situation of social distancing and lock-down? Can you on your lonesome cook up image and music repertoires, say like Alice Coltrane, so as to engage inner fear with global meltdown? Here’s the thing: due to the pandemic the gates of creativity swing wide open. We have to become our own shaman.

An important yagé trope for me and I think for my Putumayo friends was to see the shamanic experience as journeying through the “space of death.” Dante presented a version, but his is famously symmetrical and ordered. The yagè space of death is not.

Shamanic magic today owes much to colonial projections of magical power to the primitive. That, combined with the at times terrifying sensation of dying under the influence of yagé, made me think of the Iberian conquest of Latin America as bringing together the magical underworlds of Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and indigenous America. In my estimation, akin to the historiographic practices of Benjamin and Aby Warburg, this is alive as occult force today yet easily abused by people looking for the shamanic fix, including dime-a-dozen shamans themselves.

My friend’s question begs the big picture. How have we been looking at climate change?

One opinion is that we in the West long ago disenchanted nature.

But what the question opens up is the thought that with global meltdown we now live in a reenchanted universe for which the aesthetic of a dark surrealism is relevant. It is a mutating reality of metamorphic sublimity that never lets you know what is real and what is not. Born from WWI, there is a lot of Dada here too, with its shock effects and montage. We were told the bourgeoisie had gotten bored with that. But now, has not Dada and surrealism returned with a vengeance? Before it was avant-garde subsiding into history. But now with the reenchantment of nature, history is subsiding into Dada, and it’s not so boring, not with swans and dolphins being sighted (so it is said) in the now clear canal water of Venice where people are dying in quantities and “Death in Venice” recurs as if an Eternal Return while tourists flee in their pestilential cruise ships in a replay of Michel Foucault’s Great Confinement.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all are the masks of the medico della peste, the doctor of the plague, for sale until lockdown in the ubiquitous tourist curio shops in Venice. It is an unsettling mask with a long beak that I could never make sense of. Now I get it. The beak was the fifteenth-century equivalent to the surgical mask of today (and people think the germ theory of disease is modern!). It was filled with sweet smelling flowers. A drawing by Paul Hirst in 1721 is spooky in the extreme. It shows a beak-masked plague doctor with huge goggles and an overflowingly large gown so large it could encompass the universe. He is the epitome of the black plague and the Corona virus. That would be the sympathetic magic of like affects like as the fourteenth century meets today.


Of course they were a superstitious lot back then, not like today as people scurry for toilet paper and guns.

As people die the pope just announced that you can confess directly to God. Opera singers belt out arias from their balconies. It seems like the shamanism I was describing; lavish images in the space of death, as the divine hum like a candle in the night steadies the soul in our reenchanting world.

Shamanism coexists with allopathic medicine, with penicillin and dialysis machines, for example. It’s not one or the other. What the latter lacks, however, along with political economy, is the divine hum of the reenchanted universe that opens the doors of perception just as the virus does. That’s what I’ll tell my friend.

High Falls, NY

30 March 2020

Michael Taussig teaches anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980); Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987); The Nervous System (1992); Mimesis and Alterity (1993); Law in a Lawless Land (1993); and My Cocaine Museum (2004).



Filed under 2020 Pandemic

The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour

Joshua Clover

How swiftly do genres of the quarantine emerge! Notable among them is the discovery of the relation between the present pandemic and onrushing climate collapse. The driving force of this genre is not holy shit two ways for a lot of people to die but the realization, or hope, that the great mobilizations of state resources currently being unspooled to address COVID-19 prove the possibility of a comparable or greater mobilization against ecological catastrophe, an even greater threat if somewhat less immediate. There is to be sure a certain mixing of analogies: in the United States, confronting climate change is conventionally likened to the New Deal or Marshall Plan, schemes to hedge against the charisma of communism, while addressing the pandemic decisively takes the language of war itself, a “war footing,” “wartime president,” and so on. This is an interesting slippage, no doubt, though both analogies rely on a vision of preserving global hegemony. Insert rueful laugh.

Bruno Latour provides a recent example of this genre; it appeared dually in Le Monde and Critical Inquiry on 25 March, here under the title “Is This a Dress Rehearsal,” and in French under the more prosaic but imperative “Health Crisis Demands We Prepare for Climate Change.”[1] The short piece is filled with the author’s habits of mind such as the inevitable “Latour Litany,” a list of all the various actors human and inhuman in an “entire network,” enumerated with an insistent leveling of its contents where what matters is that all these actors stand in ratio with each other, mute equivalents. It is as if exchange value had taken up a side hustle as a theorist. The goal is to demonstrate yet again the indistinction of nature and society toward discovering the obvious truth that “The pandemic is no more a ‘natural’ phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis.”

But here problems arise for the comparison, as the author himself admits. Writing from France, he notes that Emmanuel Macron’s capacity to confront the pandemic is not of a kind with even his least gesture toward (purported) climate abatement, recalling how his gas tax was met not with relief and a thirst for more but with the riots of the Gilets Jaunes movement. Per Latour, this is because Macron — and ostensibly other leaders — have not forged the kind of new state that climate collapse will require. Instead, “we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture.”

He means Foucault’s final lecture on the theme Society Must Be Defended, describing a new kind of power. Whereas once “Sovereignty took life and let live,” he writes, we discover toward the end of the eighteenth century “the emergence of a power that . . . in contrast, consists in making live and letting die.” This is the famous formula of biopolitics: the sovereign power to make live and let die.

Latour notes that this power’s deployment in the present moment includes “the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes.” Rightly so — this is a peculiarly awful time to be a delivery worker, from the warehouse or restaurant to the driver anxiously tossing a box on your porch. Recent days have presented an even more devastating turn: recent pronouncements by various governmental figures who, noting the economic devastation of COVID-19, proclaimed that people would have to abandon quarantine procedures after a fortnight at the very most and return to work so as to avoid cratering the economy. This despite the medical certainty that this would lead to more transmissions and more deaths. Forty-four years and five days after Foucault’s lecture, Donald Trump tweeted, WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO! If this was in any way opaque, two days later Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speculated, “are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren? And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”

But this course of action is not speculative at all: rather it seems to be the express plan of the state, coming soon. Look, to save the economy, we’re gonna have to kill some folks. Like, a lot. Horrified humans immediately noted this was a blood sacrifice to capitalism and who could disagree? This is the most dramatic political development since the early hours of millennium if not very much longer. It must seem like the apotheosis of biopolitics: a crackpot sovereign deciding at national scale who will be made to live, who let die.

Except for the way in which this was, in the clearest manner, the reverse. By 22 March, Goldman Sachs was already predicting an unparalleled 2.5 million new jobless claims; this would prove optimistic.


Meanwhile the Senate tinkered with its relief bill. The massive transfers to corporations were a given, for which 2008 now appears as a dress rehearsal. The haggling endeavored to dial in the exact size of the direct payment to citizens. It would need to restore enough aggregate demand to keep the economy breathing (a ventilator of sorts) while taking care not to give a single prole the incentive to be, in the face of a global and terrifying pandemic poised to kill millions absent assiduous measures taken by all, lazy. And it is to this delicate measure that presidents must also dance, not the measure decided on by the legislature, but the measure of that abstraction “the economy.” Nothing could have thrown Foucault’s formulations about sovereignty and regimes of power, and especially the limits of these ideas, into clearer relief than this week’s pronouncements, provisions, and data.

This is not to say there is no such thing as biopolitics nor any power to make live and let die. Clearly there is; clearly it is this that is wielded by all the Trumps great and small. Nonetheless it is apparent that the sovereign is not sovereign. Rather he is subordinated entirely to the dictates of political economy, that real unity of the political and economic forged by capital and its compulsions. Make live and let die is simply a tool among others in this social order whose true logic, from Trump’s tweet to Dan Patrick to the Senate bill, is the power employed always as a ratio of make work and let buy.

Here we must take a final turn toward where we began and reenter the genre named at the outset. The link between coronavirus and climate is more direct than mere analogy, two threats that challenge our senses of scale and temporality and so seem to demand something like a state to address them. Rather it turns out that one shows us the character of the other with horrific lucidity. We should not be surprised to discover that, like the 2008 economic collapse, the pandemic has significantly reduced emissions globally. The reductions have been particularly marked in China and Italy, the two most devastated nations. We might expect, glancing at the rate of spread and those unemployment numbers, that we will see similar results from the United States. Maybe we will get right with the Paris Accords after all.

This is not to say that we should imagine the virus as a redeemer; that is a particularly grotesque fantasy. Its role in a temporary retreat of planetarily fatal emissions is nonetheless informative. Ecological despoliation is a consequence not of humans, as the name “Anthropocene” and Latour’s essay suggest, but of industrial production and its handmaidens, and only forces which can bring that to heel allow us to prepare for climate change. Capital, with is inescapable drive to reproduce itself, is not some actor in a network, equivalent to other actors, but an actual cause. The compulsion to produce, and to produce at a lower cost than competitors, in turn compels the burning of cheap and dirty fuels to drive the factories, to move the container ships, even to draw forth from the ground the material components of “green energy” sources. The Gilets Jaunes did not riot because they object to ecological policies but because the economy dictates that they find jobs in places they cannot afford to live, and to which they must therefore commute. As long as the compulsions of production for profit and of laboring to live persist, climate survival will be beyond the reach of any state.


We must take this fact with the utmost seriousness: that Foucault’s new regime of power appears in the late eighteenth century, which is to say, alongside the steam engine and the industrial revolution, which is also to say, alongside the liftoff of anthropogenic climate change. We need to stop fucking around with theory and say, without hesitation, that capitalism, with its industrial body and crown of finance, is sovereign; that carbon emissions are the sovereign breathing; that make work and let buy must be annihilated; that there is no survival while the sovereign lives.

29 March 2020

Joshua Clover is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis.  He is also a faculty member in the Department of Comparative Literature and affiliated faculty in the French and Italian departments, Film Studies Program, and the Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. He is affiliated with the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism. His most recent book is Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016).

[1] This translation mine; the remainder come from the English text.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Is This a Dress Rehearsal?

Bruno Latour

The unforeseen coincidence between a general confinement and the period of Lent is still quite welcome for those who have been asked, out of solidarity, to do nothing and to remain at a distance from the battle front. This obligatory fast, this secular and republican Ramadan can be a good opportunity for them to reflect on what is important and what is derisory. . . . It is as though the intervention of the virus could serve as a dress rehearsal for the next crisis, the one in which the reorientation of living conditions is going to be posed as a challenge to all of us, as will all the details of daily existence that we will have to learn to sort out carefully. I am advancing the hypothesis, as have many others, that the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change. This hypothesis still needs to be tested.


What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms. This is true of microbes – as we have known since Pasteur – but also of the internet, the law, the organization of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate. And of course, in spite of the noise surrounding a “state of war” against the virus, it is only one link in a chain where the management of stocks of masks or tests, the regulation of property rights, civic habits, gestures of solidarity, count exactly as much in defining the degree of virulence of the infectious agent. Once the entire network of which it is only one link is taken into account, the same virus does not act in the same way in Taiwan, Singapore, New York, or Paris. The pandemic is no more a “natural” phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis. Society has long since moved beyond the narrow confines of the social sphere.

Having said that, it is not clear to me that the parallel goes much further. After all, health crises are not new, and rapid and radical state intervention does not seem to be very innovative so far. One need only look at President Macron’s enthusiasm to take on the figure of head of state that he has so pathetically lacked until now. Much better than terrorist attacks – which are, after all, only police business – pandemics awaken in leaders and those in power a kind of self-evident sense of  “protection” – “we have to protect you” “you have to protect us” – that recharges the authority of the state and allows it to demand what would otherwise be met with riots.

But this state is not the state of the twenty-first century and ecological change; it is the state of the nineteenth century and so-called biopower. In the words of the late Alain Desrosières, it is the state of what is rightly called statistics: population management on a territorial grid seen from above and led by the power of experts.[1] This is exactly what we see resurrected today – with the only difference that it is replicated from one nation to the next, to the point of having become world-wide. The originality of the present situation, it seems to me, is that by remaining trapped at home while outside there is only the extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture. Including the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes – not to mention the migrants who, by definition, cannot be secluded in any home of their own. But this caricature is precisely the caricature of a time that is no longer ours.

There is a huge gulf between the state that is able to say “I protect you from life and death,” that is to say from infection by a virus whose trace is known only to scientists and whose effects can only be understood by collecting statistics, and the state that would dare to say “I protect you from life and death, because I maintain the conditions of habitability of all the living people on whom you depend.”

Think about it. Imagine that President Macron came to announce, in a Churchillian tone, a package of measures to leave gas and oil reserves in the ground, to stop the marketing of pesticides, to abolish deep ploughing, and, with supreme audacity, to ban outdoor heaters on bar terraces. If the gas tax triggered the yellow-vests revolt, then imagine the riots that would follow such an announcement, setting the country ablaze. And yet, the demand to protect the French people for their own good and from death is infinitely more justified in the case of the ecological crisis than in the case of the health crisis, because it affects literally everyone, not a few thousand people – and not for a time but forever.

It is clear that such a state does not exist — and maybe fortunately so. What is more worrying is that we do not see how that state would prepare the move from the one crisis to the next. In the health crisis, the administration has the very classic educational role and its authority coincides perfectly with the old national borders – the archaism of the sudden return to European borders is painful proof of this. In the case of ecological change, the relationship is reversed: it is the administration that must learn from a multiform people, on multiple scales, what will be the territories upon which people are trying to survive in many new ways as they seek to escape from globalized production. The present state would be completely incapable of dictating measures from above. If in the health crisis, it is the brave people who must relearn to wash their hands and cough into their elbows as they did in primary school, in the case of the ecological mutation, it is the state that finds itself in a learning situation.

But there is another reason why the figure of the “war against the virus” is so unjustified: in the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity! But this does not apply to all humans, just those who make war on us without declaring war on us. For this war, the national state is as ill-prepared, as badly calibrated, as badly designed as possible because the battle fronts are multiple and cross each one of us. It is in this sense that the “general mobilization” against the virus does not prove in any way that we will be ready for the next one. It is not only the military that is always one war behind.

But finally, you never know; a time of Lent, whether secular or republican, can lead to spectacular conversions. For the first time in years, a billion people, stuck at home, find this forgotten luxury: time to reflect and thereby discern that which usually and unnecessarily agitates them in all directions. Let’s respect this long, painful, and unexpected fast.

26 March 2020

[The post was originally published in French with La Monde]

Bruno Latour is an emeritus professor associated with Sciences Po médialab.

[1] Alain Desrosières, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning,  trans. Camille Naish (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).



Filed under 2020 Pandemic

When Movies Get Sick

Kyle Stevens


Space is never just space. Sometimes we think of it as the air around us. Sometimes we think of it as a thing in which to find a WiFi signal. Sometimes it’s what we need when we’ve had an argument with someone we love. Perhaps most often potentiality is the value assigned to it: What can be put here? Who can live there? Which plant can grow everywhere? Rarely is space treated as inherently dangerous, villainous (that is in part what makes the films of Fritz Lang or Kira Muratova exceptional), yet that is precisely one of the tectonic shifts wrought by living in the era of Covid-19. It has suddenly unfastened the values that traditionally attach to proximity, particularly regarding human bodies, as vocabulary focusing on the distance between them—social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine—become part of our quotidian language. Questions of what is close, what is far, and what is far too close have become matters of life, death, and illness. The space between bodies is a measure of harm, even violence. The embrace is no longer the signifier of core social values. Standing six feet apart is. Distance has become the sign of intimacy—of respect, care, concern, shared understand of a shared world, a sense of belonging to a form of life.

Within discussions of film aesthetics, cinephiles tout the value of cinema for inviting audiences to attend to bodies in space, referring to the composition recorded by the camera and whose projection is offered up for our pleasure. Adrian Martin provides an account of the traditional view of a film’s “mise en scène as the movement of bodies in space—a space constantly defined and redefined by the camera.”[i] This idea motivates a critical recommendation to see, at least to some degree, beyond characters situated within a narrative to the pleasures of graphic compositions and, perhaps from there, to aesthetic questions of scale, shape, line, and so forth.

But as the perception of space is reconditioned in life under Covid, our encounters with fictional spaces, and with what and how they express, alters. Even when we know stories are not set in the present, the new regimes of bodily organization affect how we might see onscreen space. When watching movies, I have lately found myself wincing ever so slightly at people dancing in clubs or of a friend running up to another in the street for a hug. So-called negative space between characters, traditionally construed as an aesthetic choice, now takes on a biopolitical urgency, a politicized and medical meaning. Space comes to the foreground as negative space, but is it properly called negative if we worry that it is full of contagions? Space remains unsubstantial but no longer quite so inert when the invisible has become urgently visible.

We might of course think about how we receive narratives overall during this new era. (When we are confined to our homes, will we be more sympathetic to Jeff in Rear Window [dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954], who is concerned with the well-being of his infirmed neighbor?) But I suspect that our perception of bodies in space will more subtly restructure, and that the situation of onscreen figures will strike us, not necessarily consciously, but affectively, differently. Consider a few examples.


The opening of The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise, 1965) has been a classic image of freedom, of joy. Away from, as we soon learn, the confines of a sexually and vocally repressive convent, the wide open space affords Maria sovereignty of expression. Now, however, that sense of release is bolstered by the perception that she is safe, away from the threat that other bodies bring. Perhaps this was always part of why the image registered as freeing, perhaps others are always a threat to one’s sovereignty. Yet what was once an affordance of nature begins to fade into an affordance structured by the lack of others.


Similarly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the very openness of the field seemed to anticipate the possibility of threat coming from all sides. Hitchcock even shows us that there is nothing around our protagonist in shots that cover a full 360-degree range. However, now that field is also reassuringly devoid of people. Openness becomes safety.


But when another character shows up, but does not approach, do we now register this as a sign of tension, of awkwardness, or of propriety, caution, even care? Or the film may become even more Hitchcockian as the Cary Grant character is forced to confront the fact that there is no visible difference between a friend and foe. Is the man the savior he needs or enemy infector? The risk he takes in walking towards the other man is now more suspenseful as he may be thrusting himself upon the knife.


In Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Alain Resnais employed social distancing to solicit contemplation of social alienation, but now this configuration also transforms into an image of social responsibility. Not alienation, but care for others, of self-care and social care. It is an image in which love and duty meet, not a vision of postwar alienation, but a foreshadowing of future forms of being.


In How to Marry a Millionaire (dir. Jean Negulesco, 1958), a framing that emphasized the interval between two people previously suggested remoteness, that they were not destined for coupledom (if not to demonstrate CinemaScope). Now it seems more like a respectable span for two people getting to know one another.


How much more romantic has become a touch, especially a touch of the face? In Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019) the borders of bodies are blurred such that a hand may belong to either lover, now overlaying our affective swoon with a frisson of anxiety. Perhaps it will no longer seem coincidental that we use falling to name the entry into both love and illness.


In Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999), the regimented, equidistant bodies—configurations often seen in musicals, too—suggested rigid conformity, fascism. Now it appears mass ornamental, an ideal arrangement.


For this reason, solitude registers anew. Baxter, in The Apartment (dir. Billy Wilder, 1960), working alone in the office, seems lucky to have gotten out of the house. Loneliness is less available to visual signification as it once was.


As is friendship. In Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker, 2015), the distance with which two friends walk signals a latent hostility in their relationship. Alexandra is frustrated with Sin-Dee’s anger and impulsive behavior. But now it may not read that way. This may simply look like how two friends walk together.



Cultural minorities never needed Immanuel Kant to tell them that space is subjective and “not something objective and real, nor a substance, nor an accident, nor a relation.” The registration of proximity as aggressiveness, menace, is well known to queer subjects who fear detection. It is in fact the default queer mode of inhabiting public spaces. Tea and Sympathy (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956) understood this. Contrast the proximity of the cishet macho fellows on the beach with the world of women, in which a young, burgeoning homosexual tries to hide himself in plain sight. The women are social distancing, which allows him to, as well. Here, nearness means danger and distance means security. In this context, proximity has not only been a historical marker of intimacy but of privilege, of a confidence in one’s belonging with and around others.

I am reminded, too, of the 1938 jazz standard “The Nearness of You,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington: “It’s not the pale moon that excites me, that thrills and delights me, oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Once tender, were this sung to an unrequited love today, these are the words of a psychopath.

Kyle Stevens is a visiting assistant professor of film studies at MIT. He is the author of Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (2015), coeditor of the two-volume collection Close-Up: Great Screen Performances (2018), and editor of the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory. His essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Cinema Journal,Critical Quarterly, Film Criticism, and World Picture, as well as in several edited collections.

My thanks to Daniel Morgan for helpful feedback on this topic.

[i] Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (New York, 2014), p. 45.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and “I”

Catherine Malabou

In May of 1743, a vessel from Corfu carrying bodies of dead crew members who had died of a mysterious disease arrived in Messina.  The ship and cargo were burned, but cases of a strange new disease were soon thereafter observed in the hospital and in the poorest parts of the town; and in the summer, a frightening plague epidemic developed, killing forty to fifty thousand people, and then disappeared before spreading to other parts of Sicily. Rousseau was traveling from Paris to Venice and was forced to halt in Genoa because of the epidemic. He narrates his quarantine in the Confessions (1782):

It was at the time of the plague at Messina, and the English fleet had anchored there, and visited the Felucca, on board of which I was, and this circumstance subjected us, on our arrival, after a long and difficult voyage, to a quarantine of one-and-twenty days.

The passengers had the choice of performing it on board or in the Lazaretto, which we were told was not yet furnished. They all chose the Felucca. The insupportable heat, the closeness of the vessel, the impossibility of walking in it, and the vermin with which it swarmed, made me at all risks prefer the Lazaretto. I was therefore conducted to a large building of two stories, quite empty, in which I found neither window, bed, table, nor chair, not so much as even a joint-stool or bundle of straw. My night sack and my two trunks being brought me, I was shut in by great doors with huge locks, and remained at full liberty to walk at my ease from chamber to chamber and story to story, everywhere finding the same solitude and nakedness.

This, however, did not induce me to repent that I had preferred the Lazaretto to the Felucca; and, like another Robinson Crusoe, I began to arrange myself for my one-and twenty days, just as I should have done for my whole life. In the first place, I had the amusement of destroying the vermin I had caught in the Felucca. As soon as I had got clear of these, by means of changing my clothes and linen, I proceeded to furnish the chamber I had chosen. I made a good mattress with my waistcoats and shirts; my napkins I converted, by sewing them together, into sheets; my robe de chambre into a counterpane; and my cloak into a pillow. I made myself a seat with one of my trunks laid flat, and a table with the other. I took out some writing paper and an inkstand, and distributed, in the manner of a library, a dozen books which I had with me. In a word, I so well arranged my few movables, that except curtains and windows, I was almost as commodiously lodged in this Lazeretto, absolutely empty as it was, as I had been at the Tennis Court in the Rue Verdelet. My dinners were served with no small degree of pomp; they were escorted by two grenadiers with bayonets fixed; the staircase was my dining-room, the landing-place my table, and the steps served me for a seat; and as soon as my dinner was served up a little bell was rung to inform me I might sit down to table.

Between my repasts, when I did not either read or write or work at the furnishing of my apartment, I went to walk in the burying-ground of the Protestants, which served me as a courtyard. From this place I ascended to a lanthorn which looked into the harbor, and from which I could see the ships come in and go out. In this manner I passed fourteen days. [1]

Being told like the rest of humanity to “stay at home” because of the pandemic, I immediately remembered this passage from the Confessions. While all of his companions of misfortune chose to stay confined together on a boat, Rousseau decided to be locked up in the lazaretto instead. A lazaretto is a hospital for those affected with contagious diseases. A felucca, or Mediterranean sailing ship, could also be set apart for quarantine purposes. Obviously, the two possibilities were offered to travelers in Genoa, and Rousseau thought he had better leave the boat and stay on his own in the building.


One can read this episode by solely focusing on the idea of choice: What is best in a time of confinement? Be quarantined with other people? Or be quarantined alone ? I must say that I spent some time wondering about such an alternative. If I had had the choice between the two options, what would have I done? (I am on my own, by the way, sheltered in quasi total isolation in Irvine, California.)

There is something else perhaps more profound in this passage, which is that quarantine is only tolerable if you quarantine from it—if you quarantine within the quarantine and from it at the same time, so to speak. The lazaretto represents this redoubled quarantine that expresses Rousseau’s need to isolate from collective isolation, to create an island (insula) within isolation. Such is perhaps the most difficult challenge in a lockdown situation: to clear a space where to be on one’s own while already separated from the community. Being cooped up on a boat with a few others of course generates a feeling of estrangement, but estrangement is not solitude, and solitude is, in reality, what makes confinement bearable. And this is true even if one is already on one’s own. I noticed that what made my isolation extremely distressing was in fact my incapacity to withdraw into myself. To find this insular point where I could be my self (in two words). I am not talking here of authenticity, simply of this radical nakedness of the soul that allows to build a dwelling in one’s house, to make the house habitable by locating the psychic space where it is possible to do something, that is, in my case, write. I noticed that writing only became possible when I reached such a confinement within confinement, a place in the place where nobody could enter and that at the same time was the condition for my exchanges with others. When I was able to get immersed in writing, conversations through Skype, for example, became something else. They were dialogues, not veiled monologues. Writing became possible when solitude started to protect me from isolation. One has to undress from all the coverings, clothes, curtains, masks, and meaningless chattering that still stick to one’s being when one is severed from others. Social distance is never powerful enough to strip one from what remains of the social in the distance. Sheltered-in-place has to be a radical Robinson Crusoe experience, an experience that allows one to construct a home out of nothing. To start anew. Or to remember.


I wonder if Foucault, at the end of his life, did not turn to the ethics of the self—care of the self, technologies of the self, government of the self—out of the same necessity. The urge to carve out a space for himself within the social isolation that AIDS insidiously was threatening him with. Perhaps Foucault was looking for his island, his absolute (ab-solutus) land where he would have found the courage of speaking and writing before he died. Those who have seen in his late seminars a nihilistic individualist withdrawal from politics have totally missed the point.

We know that Karl Marx made fun of eighteenth-century robinsonades like Rousseau’s. Marx said that the origin of the social can by no means be a state of nature where isolated men finally come to meet and form a community. Solitude cannot be the origin of society.

This may be true, but I think it is necessary to know how to find society within oneself in order to understand what politics means. I admire those who are able to analyze the current crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic in terms of global politics, capitalism, the state of exception, ecological crisis, China-Us-Russia strategic relationships, etc. Personally, at the moment, I am on the contrary trying to be an “individual.” This, once again, is not out of any individualism but because I think on the contrary that an epochè, a suspension, a bracketing of sociality, is sometimes the only access to alterity, a way to feel close to all the isolated people on Earth. Such is the reason why I am trying to be as solitary as possible in my loneliness. Such is the reason why I would also have chosen the lazaretto.

23 March 2020

Catherine Malabou is a professor in the philosophy department at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University and of European languages and literatures and comparative literature at University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012) and Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2016), and most recently, Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains (2019).

[1] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. pub., 2 vols. (London, 1903), 1:273-74.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

The Climatic Virus in an Age of Paralysis

Nikolaj Schultz  

The collective reaction following CoVid19 seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the state of exception continues to generate fear, panic, anxiety, in all of their respective differences. On the other hand, to more than a few people, the fear strangely enough seems to go hand in hand with a feeling of relief. If I am not wrong on this point, and even if the feeling of relief will pass as the crisis gets worse, then what are the origins of this dramatic, emotional division?

My hypothesis is that one can only explain this two-sided collective psychology if we understand the social reactions to the new coronavirus as related to the helplessness societies are experiencing in the face of another civilizational tragedy: climate change.


As already noted by many commentators, the enormous panic and action readiness that the virus has installed in both the public and the state make the political and social reactions to climate change look rather vague. Obviously, the paradox here is that despite the great tragedy that the virus is, the enormous consequences of climatic mutations will, in all probability, by far surpass those of the virus.

The actions taken against the virus are without a doubt necessary, but we are still experiencing a huge, paradoxical distance between consequences and action. Citizens and social scientists would perhaps explain this gap with an analysis underlining the relation between affect and abstraction. Here, the argument would be that climate change does not accumulate affect and action because it is abstract, while the danger of the virus is concrete, and thus affects people and provoke action. In other words, two different phenomena of different abstractions, and two different reactions, where only one of them creates the necessary affect and agency.

However, this alone cannot explain the panic, the action readiness, and the civil mobilization that the virus has accumulated. If we wish to understand the magnitude of this reaction, it is perhaps more plausible to imagine that the public and the state are indeed affected by the enormous, abstract climatic risk but that its affects, because of sheer helplessness, now is projected onto the concrete virus risk, which certainly is easier to grasp: “Finally – a tangible apocalypse.”

My point is not that the draconian interventions in the infrastructure of society are unreasonable or exaggerated. My point is simply that we do not understand the sudden panic, action readiness, or civil sacrifice in a hitherto paralyzed society if we do not – at least partly – see this reaction as result of a collective, psychic milieu that climate change has made neurotic. Two different phenomena but perhaps one and same reaction in the end.

At first glance, this analysis seems unrealistic; it is too speculative, too psychoanalytic, too hypothetical. However, what is really unrealistic is imagining that there are not mass psychological consequences when a civilization for fifty years consciously ignores the proof of the catastrophic consequences of their actions and moves forward unabatedly in the same direction.

How could it not create a collective-panic psychic environment, which can now finally be compensated for in facing the virus, when a civilization walks blindfolded beyond four out of nine planetary boundaries and continues directly into a sixth mass-extinction event?

Now, this is exactly why the panic goes hand in hand with the relief. Am I wrong to suspect that the virus has not only accumulated fear but also a certain peace of mind in at least some people? Does my intuition lead me astray, if I detect next to peoples’ anxiety almost a sense of balance? When we are not short of breath, these days, are we then not breathing even better than before?

As noted above, this doubleness seems difficult to explain. However, if we understand these affects as partly deriving from the climatic changes, then we find at least two reasons for it being a logical outcome: on the one hand, because the pandemic now allows for a concrete drain of the collective anxiety that the climate’s abstract risks accumulate; on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, because we are right now exactly seeing how all the social systems that we thought made the ecological transition impossible – production, consumption, mobility, etc. – are not chiseled in stone but that they are in fact changeable.

If we today are relieved about the world taking a break for a while, then it is not just due to the vulgar banality that “people do not want to go to work.” If we feel a certain balance in the pandemic’s dramatic reorganization and short circuit of society’s social and economic systems, then it is due to sensing that the “acceleration society”[i] can be stopped and that its unimaginable consequences after all might not be inevitable.

Thus, the point is not only, as Slavoj Žižek has argued, that the virus is a strike at the heart of capitalism. He is probably right that it is, but if this heart flicker leads to a collective feeling of relief, then it is because the lurking climatic catastrophe no longer appears as an absolute necessity. The relief emerges because the concrete crisis has shown us that the abstract crisis might not be unavoidable.

So, as Karl Polanyi would say, society can still defend itself[ii]. And not only are we watching social systems change, we are even discovering how social values are changing accordingly. Sure, some people are reinventing themselves as Ayn Randian, sovereign individuals by hoarding toilet paper, and a few of the ultra-rich escapists that Bruno Latour and I have previously discussed as a geosocial elite have fled to New Zealand where they are hiding from the virus in their climate secured bunkers[iii]. However, as Rune Lykkeberg notes, in general, the panic seem to have generated practices of solidarity that were impossible to even imagine a few weeks ago.

This only makes the relief even bigger. Both our material and social destiny are still negotiable. And if this is an important realization, it is of course because of the hope that we – when the time is right – will be able to take advantage of the current, collectivist momentum and its political energy to create a realistic connection between the direction of civilization and its earthly, material conditions of existence. However, the possibility of this is much greateer if we understand that it might already be the absence of such a connection that we are reacting to, in panic as well as with relief.

This relief might very well disappear from the horizon within a few days or weeks, when the virus crisis reaches its ultimate point. Fear will be all we have left and we will unequivocally wish ourselves back to the days where everything was as it used to be. However, this does not necessarily make its insights any less important or valid – perhaps even the contrary.

It will be a strange spring and perhaps even a strange summer. However, maybe the concrete threat has given us a number of cognitive and practical strategies to counter the more abstract crisis that we are facing with climatic mutations. Despite its tragedies, the virus might end up as an emancipatory tool in an age of paralysis.

21 March 2020

Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes.

[i] Hartmut Rosa 2013: Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

[ii] Karl Polanyi 1944: The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. See especially Part II, “Self-Protection of Society”, pp. 136-228.

[iii] See Rupert Neate 2020: : “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak”, The Guardian, 11th March, Available at: and Edward Helmore 2020: ”Coronavirus lifestyles of the rich and famous: how the 1% are coping”, The Guardian, 13th March, Available at:



Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?

Slavoj Žižek

These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus – in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over. . . A clear sign of how my anxiety is growing is how I relate to sleep. Till around a week ago I was eagerly awaiting the evening: finally, I can escape into sleep and forget about the fears of my daily life. . . Now it’s almost the opposite: I am afraid to fall asleep since nightmares haunt me in my dreams and awaken me in panic – nightmares about the reality that awaits me.


What reality? These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we really want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemics (I myself am among those spreading this mantra) – but radical changes are already taking place. The coronavirus epidemics confronts us with something that we considered impossible; we couldn’t imagine something like this really happening in our daily lives – the world we knew has stopped turning around, whole countries are in a lockdown, many of us are confined to one’s apartment (but what about those who cannot afford even this minimal safety precaution?), facing an uncertain future in which, even if most of us will survive, an economic mega-crisis lies ahead. . . What this means is that our reaction to it should also be to do the impossible – what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing world order. The impossible happened, our world has stopped, AND impossible is what we have to do to avoid the worst, which is – what? (I owe this line of thought to Alenka Zupančič.)

I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc. (although, with the possible collapse of health care and some other public services, this is also quite possible). More than open barbarism, I fear barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy but legitimized by expert opinions. A careful observer easily noticed the change in tone in how those in power address us: they are not just trying to project calm and confidence, they also regularly utter dire predictions – the pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course, and the virus will eventually infect 60-70 percent of the global population, with millions of dead. . . In short, their true message is that we’ll have to curtail the basic premise of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak. (Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about life and death will have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.) One should note how the acceptance of such a logic of the “survival of the fittest” violates even the basic principle of the military ethics that tells us that, after the battle, one should first take care of the heavily wounded even if the chance of saving them is minimal. (However, upon a closer look, this shouldn’t surprise us: hospitals are already doing the same thing with cancer patients.) To avoid a misunderstanding, I am an utter realist here – one should even plan  to enable a painless death of the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our priority should be, nonetheless, not to economize but to help unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.

So I respectfully disagree with Giorgio Agamben, who sees in the ongoing crisis a sign that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Things are much more ambiguous: it DOES also unite them – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to the other because I also may be a virus bearer. My sons avoid me now because they are afraid that they will contaminate me (what is to them a passing illness can be deadly for me).

In the last days, we hear again and again that each of us is personally responsible and has to follow the new rules. The media is full of stories about people who misbehave and put themselves and others in danger (a guy entered a store and started to cough, etc.) – the problem is here the same as with ecology where media again and again emphasize our personal responsibility (did you recycle all used newspapers, etc.). Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system. The struggle against the coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. As Kate Jones put it, the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “’a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.’”

So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included too – viruses also attack plants, which are the main sources of our food, like potato, wheat, and olives. We always have to bear in mind the global picture of the world we live in, with all the paradoxes this implies. For example, it is good to know that the lockdown in China saved more lives than the number of those killed by the virus (if one trusts official statistics of the dead):

Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air. “With this in mind,” he said, “a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.” “Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.” At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.

We are caught in a triple crisis: medical (the epidemic itself), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic), plus (not to underestimate) the mental health – the basic coordinates of the life-world of millions and millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything, from flying during holidays to everyday bodily contacts. We have to learn to think outside the coordinates of stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate the necessary resources. Say, when the authorities learn that a company is keeping millions of masks, waiting for the right moment to sell them, there should be no negotiations with the company – masks should be simply requisitioned.

The media has reported that Trump offered one billion dollars to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.” The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”; CureVac would only develop vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.” Here we have an exemplary case of the struggle between barbarism and civilization. But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies:

Trump announces proposal to take over private sector. The US president said he would invoke a federal provision allowing the government to marshal the private sector in response to the pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Trump said he would sign an act giving himself the authority to direct domestic industrial production “in case we need it.”

When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline “Trump announces proposal to take over private sector” – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago? And this is just the beginning – many more measures like this should follow, plus local self-organization of communities will be necessary if the state-run health system is under too much stress. It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food, and medical supplies. . . (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work.) It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”

As the saying goes, in a crisis we are all socialists – even Trump is considering a form of UBI – a check for a thousand dollars to every adult citizen. Trillions will be spent violating all the market rules – but how, where, for whom? Will this enforced socialism be the socialism for the rich (remember the bailing out of the bank in 2008 while millions of ordinary people lost their small savings)? Will the epidemics be reduced to another chapter in the long sad story of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism,” or will a new (more modest, maybe, but also more balanced) world order emerge out of it?

18 March 2020

[CORRECTION. For clarification, the author has asked us to modify the following: “Italy already announced that, if things get worse, those over eighty or with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die” The sentence now reads: “Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about who gets to live may have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.” Furthermore, President Trump did not “invoke the Defense Production Act.” The sentence now reads: “But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies.”-Ed.]

Slavoj Žižek, dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector at the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.He is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Recoding Relations: Dispatches from the Symposium for Indigenous New Media

David Gaertner and Melissa Haberl

In June 2018, scholars, developers, artists, and community members from over twenty institutions and three continents gathered on the ancestral and unceded territory of the WSÁNEĆ, Lkwungen, and Wyomilth peoples to participate in the inaugural Symposium for Indigenous New Media (SINM). As part of the University of Victoria’s annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), #SINM2018 sought to highlight Indigenous innovation with digital technology and new media and to create a space for relationshipbuilding between the digital humanities (DH) and Indigenous studies. Scholars from across the social sciences and the humanities presented research on topics ranging from Indigenous video games and virtual reality, to communications technology, language revitalization, and new media, to digital texts, social media analytics, and archival digitization. Our specific intent was to interrogate the critical relationship between DH and Indigenous studies, namely generating more robust ways to consider how key concepts in Indigenous studies—namely, land, language, sovereignty, and self-determination—translated (or failed to translate) into digital spaces and practices.


There is an urgent need to decolonize DH theory and practice. Many Indigenous scholars and community members resist the digital humanities because of concerns raised by their communities about the expropriation of data. These concerns are not unfounded. Indeed, just after our symposium ended, the translation company Lionbridge was accused of mining Facebook for access to Te reo Māori (the Māori language), which, in turn, they were mobilizing for profit: “Data sovereignty has become a real issue,” Peter-Lucas Jones (Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Kahu) told interviewers about this incident, “now we have a situation where there is economic gain for our reo and if there is economic gain, it should be for our own Māori people, not an American company.”[1] The Lionbridge incident illustrates how digital technologies reproduce and amplify ongoing histories of settler colonialism, which exploit Indigenous resources and knowledges for non-Indigenous cultural and financial gain. We argue that digital extraction is not simply symptomatic of settler colonialism, it is a constitutive piece of terra nullius: the erasure of Indigenous peoples as peoples, with inherent rights and millennia-long histories of research, science, and knowledge mobilization. If DH cannot, or will not recognize Indigenous data sovereignty—that is Indigenous peoples inherent right to steward and mobilize their own knowledges without interference—it will remain, even when mobilized with the best of intentions, part of the problem. If it is able to grapple with the legacies of colonialism embedded in technology and knowledge mobilization schematics, however, we argue that DH has the potential to meaningfully contribute to decolonization. This is the balance on which the symposium operated.

“Recoding Relations,” the title of this blog post and the podcast series that preceded it, means shifting our perspective on the objectives of DH: from data extraction to relationship building; from settler state-based perspectives to anticolonial methodologies; from saviour narratives to reciprocal knowledge exchanges. In other words, “recoding relations” is a call to be attentive to the “how” of DH or, more specifically, the relationality of DH as a practice. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes that “ultimately we access knowledge through the quality of our relationships and the personalized context we collectively create—the meaning comes from the context and the process, not the content.”[2] In this sense, “recoding relations,” as informed by Simpson, means being attentive to the relationships we cultivate in DH—not just those that are amplified through our projects and publications but also those that go unheard or are rendered unheard (intentionally or not) through our work. It means assessing the contexts through which we inherit DH (academia, settler colonialism, Western technology) and using those contexts to interpret the processes through which we enact digital research (data scraping, visualization, textual encoding, and others). It means putting people before platforms and consent before code.

SINM was informed by Indigenous interventions into technology. Our goal was to build technical and cultural capacity through the symposium and to articulate our conclusions via open access knowledge mobilization, in the form of blog posts, newspaper articles, and podcasts.[3] Our findings were broad in scope but address a number of key intersecting takeaways: (1) emphasize relationships over tools: that is, rather than  engaging DH as a means to collect, analyze, and visualize data, we argue for imagining it as a site of activation for community building and knowledge sharing. We look towards a DH that is willing to build meaningful relationships with community and individuals in ways that exceed the boundaries of what is typically understood as  the digital Emphasizing relationships also means overcoming the deficit model, which has historically framed Indigenous peoples as inherently lacking and therefore in need of (Euro-Christian) support. Building reciprocal relationships based in equality means reaching out to communities before, during, and after a project and lending support and resources, as well as providing training, so that they can continue to build digital projects without the P. I. or the initial research team; it means shifting the critical gaze away from Indigenous communities and towards the colonial systems that produce deficit (2) affirmed, ongoing consent: settler colonialism (colonialism, as seen in settler states such as Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, that is premised on the displacement and erasure of Indigenous people) is already built out of a nonconsensual relationship. We argue that DH can help to make nonconsent visible via big data and immersive, geospecific visualizations. We also argue that we must hold the DH community accountable to the highest standards of informed, ongoing, relational, and reciprocal consensual research. This includes, but is not limited to data sovereignty and the OCAP® principles.[4] (3) Include Indigenous thinkers, programmers in your syllabi: The settler colonial project functions, historically and presently, by simplifying Indigeneity and relegating it to the past. Foregrounding Western models of “progress” and technology fundamentally contributes to the erasure of Indigenous innovation. As such, we argue for DH research and pedagogy that holds up Indigenous technologies in the past, present, and future. A huge part of this means training the next generation of DH scholars, from all backgrounds, to read with Indigenous technologies and towards decolonial methodologies, as developed by Indigenous scholars and activists.

In what follows, we summarize the major themes of SINM as they arose out of presentations, workshops, and discussion groups as a means to build on the above three points. We’ve organized those themes into five categories: (1) (re)worlding through new media; (2) the digital divide and Indigenous technological tradition; (3) historicizing Indigenous new media; (4) challenges, relationships and suggested practices; and (5) decolonizing the digital humanities. Overall, we argue that Indigenous new media is not tangential to DH but that it is in fact foundational to how we understand digital scholarship as a community-oriented practice and relationship. It is our hope that the details shared in this blog post contribute to a deeper relational engagement with Indigenous studies in DH and leads to further work between and across the two fields. Working together, we are hopeful that DH and Indigenous studies can produce significant decolonial digital interventions at a moment when more of this work is desperately needed.[5]

(Re)Worlding through New Media

While barriers to Indigenous participation in DH persist, SINM participants spoke to the powerful ways in which Indigenous peoples are harnessing and repurposing digital technology as a means of self-representation and storytelling, decolonial education, and relationship building. They also attested to the power of digital technologies as potential tools for political mobilization and expressions of sovereignty. During a panel on gaming and animation, Mohawk Communications Studies MA candidate Maize Longboat shared his work on Indigenous video-game development. Longboat argued that video games offer “a narrative medium for Indigenous peoples to tell their stories in ways that other media simply can’t.”[6] His presentation focused on his experience developing his own video game (Terra Nova) as part of a research-creation project for his MA. He posed the question, “What makes Indigenous video games?” and noted that he is still exploring how his game will be informed by his experience as a Mohawk person.[7] Longboat explained that Indigenous video games have a unique narrative quality and are grounded in direct cultural connections to a territory’s original inhabitants. Yet at the same time, the development process and mechanics of the medium are traditionally Western. “How do we contend with that tension?” he asked, and, most importantly, “How do experiential forms of media expand our ways of knowing?” He positioned video games as a means to express long-standing Indigenous knowledges, identities, and cultures but also indicated that gaming offers a way to build on intellectual and cultural traditions by creating new stories and storytelling platforms for and by Indigenous peoples. “Ongoing systems of colonization,” explained Longboat, “seek to relegate Indigenous peoples and identity to a past time that is separate from our contemporary era of digital technology.” Longboat pushes back against that narrative by recognizing Indigenous peoples as “present and active participants in the technological world” and his work contributes to a growing movement of Indigenous developers who are world-making and decolonizing through video games.[8] Terra Nova, a two-player, cooperative puzzle platformer, illustrates how Indigenous epistemologies translate into game play and mechanics while holding up videogame development as an extension of Indigenous storytelling.

Virtual and augmented reality developers Caroline and Michael Running Wolf had a similar message about the power of Indigenous new media and its capacity to connect people across distance, language, and culture. Caroline, of the Crow Nation, and Michael, of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, hail from what is currently known as Montana. In 2016 they travelled to neighbouring North Dakota to join thousands of Indigenous and allied people gathered at Oceti Sakowin, commonly known as the Standing Rock water protector camp. The Running Wolfs created a virtual reality (VR) platform based on their experiences at the gathering and later brought it to a conference on language conservation in Hawai’i. There, they showed it to a Siberian grandmother who chose to watch the victory song that erupted after then President Obama announced that the US government would halt the North Dakota Access pipeline efforts for a time. As Michael explained,

she didn’t speak a lick of English, she didn’t speak any native language outside her home country, and yet she got it. She understood the power of this event that we had captured through technology and transported. So I think that’s the power of this technology — that we can take video from this alien place, North Dakota, and show it to someone from Siberia, in Hawai’i. And it transported her, and she just got it emotionally, what was going on [at] this event of joy.

This story elucidates the power of Indigenous VR to create spaces for understanding and decolonial education all rooted in an ethic of relationship building. The capacity of the app to connect someone from the other side of the world, with no knowledge of the language being spoken, to the people, struggles, and triumphs at Standing Rock is particularly significant in a colonial system designed to segregate and disassociate Indigenous peoples from settler society while alienating individual struggles as a means of control. The Standing Rock VR app, along with other VR and augmented reality (AR) projects developed by the Running Wolfs, works to not only hold up Indigenous experiences and resistance but to forge new social realities and decolonial futures by facilitating learning and building empathy and community through virtual worlds.[9]

Gaming and social media are two spaces in which we are witnessing Indigenous resurgence. According to Métis scholar Aubrey Hanson, “resurgence is an Indigenizing impulse; it acknowledges colonialism and domination through resistance but it does not focus solely on colonialism as the most important concern. Instead, resurgence insistently focuses on Indigenous communities as sites of power and regeneration.”[10] Social media, and in particular #NativeTwitter, represents a critical space where Indigenous resurgence is taking place. Understanding the labour that Indigenous peoples put into making Twitter an effective platform for anti-racist and anti-white supremacist work is key to unpacking and reconfiguring the DH/Indigenous studies relationship.[11]  During the SINM panel on digital ecologies, Nehiyaw (Cree) Applied Psychology scholar Jeffrey Ansloos presented on his current research with Twitter, where he uses social media analytics as a means of analyzing social and political dimensions of Indigenous mental health as they’re expressed online. In particular, his research aims to strengthen a qualitative understanding of decolonial efforts on Twitter and to “explicate the polity of cultural revitalization activities” happening on the site. He spoke about how #NativeTwitter is repurposing the platform to not only revitalize Indigenous cultures, but to mobilize politically and to assert sovereignty. His research into language revitalization on the site found that “the [Twitter] ecology is producing an opportunity where there is language learning, but not in the way we have understood it — not merely to indigenize, but also to speak politically . . . and to strategically engage systems of the settler state.” Ansloos argued that while cultural revitalization online can indeed support Indigenous mental health, this cannot be achieved through “a neoliberal framing of indigenization or cherry-picking culture.” Rather, he explained that the Indigenous community’s relationship with these social media projects is fundamentally “renegotiating Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty with the settler state.” Ansloos’s findings and political orientation push us to think beyond the sometimes-limited framework of cultural revitalization. Instead of “indigenizing,” his work highlights the necessity of decolonizing, and of productively engaging with the ways in which the Indigenous Twitter community is already doing this work. That is to say, in order to decolonize DH, it is not enough to simply invite more Indigenous peoples into the field. Rather, allied scholars must first work to make the field safe and viable for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledges. Ansloos’s research speaks to the richness of data in online environments like #NativeTwitter and how analyzing these ecologies can in turn inform and encourage resurgence in social policy and practice.

The Digital Divide and Indigenous Technological Tradition

More than presenting on the ways in which Indigenous communities are taking up technology, SINM participants also explained that Indigenous new media engagement is not novel but a continuation of a long history of Indigenous technological innovation. At the same time, the symposium grappled with how that history exists in tension with current realities of ongoing colonization, material inequality, and systemic barriers to information and communication technologies (ICTs). The historical and ongoing exclusion of Indigenous communities and reserves from these rapidly evolving industries and technologies presents a major problem, and as Jasmin Winters put it, “challenging the digital divide is no small feat.” Winters presented on her involvement with the First Nations Technology Council — an Indigenous-led organization in BC working to ensure that Indigenous peoples have “equal access to the tools, training, and support required to maximize the opportunities presented by technology and innovation.”[12] She explained that the council aims to address practical issues “like the actual building of digital infrastructure such as fibre optics, increasing supplies of hardware and software in communities, and creating more opportunities for careers in existing tech industries.” The council also does advocacy work around “the potential of digital tools for the pursuit of Indigenous rights to self-determination and sovereignty.” In this way, the Council fills a much-needed gap in respect to offering services and support that practically address the material impacts and injustices of the digital divide while providing infrastructural support that can be levied towards the proliferation of Indigenous resurgence.

Systems of oppression and digital inequality, however, must not belie the ways in which Indigenous peoples have technologically innovated since time immemorial. Winters noted that the Technology Council “first and foremost recognizes Indigenous peoples as always having been innovators in science and technology.” She stressed that we “need to position Indigenous peoples as the original innovators on these territories” and cited Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who writes “that to be truly free and self-governing, [Indigenous peoples] must also acknowledge and be aware of [their] pre-contact ingenuity as inventors and technologists — experts in new media and avatars of innovation.”[13] Sara Humphreys furthered this argument during her talk on the Cogewea Project.[14] According to Humphreys, “Indigenous ontology and epistemology expressed ideals of cyberspace before cyberspace was thought of as technology.” As evidence to this claim, she cited the centrality of interconnectedness within Indigenous worldviews, the storing of data via sign systems, and uses of multilayered, multimedia communication systems. In turn, Ashley Caranto Morford presented on one such example of precolonial Indigenous digital technology. Morford’s presentation built out of the foundational work of Cherokee scholar Angela Haas, who writes that the wampum belts made by Woodlands Indigenous peoples “extend human memory . . . via interconnected, nonlinear designs and associative message storage and retrieval methods” and have thereby functioned as hypertextual digital technology for over a thousand years — long before the invention of Western hypertext in the 20th century.[15] According to Morford, Haas “calls on us to rethink the digital” as not only that which involves computers and computer technology, but as that “which relies on the intricate work of the fingers, or digits, to create complex code.” Morford then turned to her own research on pre-colonial and ongoing Philippine tattooing practices: “These practices rely on the fingers to code significant aspects of our cultures through an intimate hand tapping technique that requires a bamboo stick and lemon tree thorn, water and soot,” and as such, are also “forms of decolonial digital technology.” In sum, Winters, Humphreys and Morford all demonstrated the long-standing genealogies of Indigenous technology while illustrating how those technologies translate into contemporary platforms and practices. At stake for all of these scholars were expressions of Indigenous technologies that informed and expanded contemporary definitions of the digital, namely through advanced cataloguing and representational techniques.

Considering these perspectives and traditions, we need to reject deficit- and damage-based approaches when moving towards the creation of a more just and equitable digital future. Deficit- and damage-based narratives look towards documenting exploitation and colonial oppression to elucidate the contemporary issues faced by Indigenous peoples and leverage redress. As Eve Tuck puts it, “common sense tells us this is a good thing, but the danger . . . is that it is a pathologizing approach in which the oppression singularly defines the community.”[16] Winters argues that “decolonizing the technology sector means first challenging deficit-based notions of the digital divide and understanding the impact and legacy of colonization on Indigenous knowledge,” as well as “challenging linear worldviews of development and innovation.” This is to say that beginning from the idea that DH or technology can “save” Indigenous peoples reproduces deficit-based narratives while eliding Indigenous innovation. In the Q&A for their panel, Mark Turin added that while Indigenous peoples have always engaged technology in deep and insightful ways, this does not mean that state structures have been supporting or facilitating that work. The DH and tech communities must hold up both of these realities by first recognizing the Indigenous histories at play, while also working to end digital inequality through strengths-based approaches, for instance supporting the work already being done by organizations like the First Nations Technology Council.

Historicizing Indigenous New Media

While histories of Indigenous creation with technology go back millennia, the now constantly evolving field of Indigenous new media developed more recently and specifically through the leadership of Indigenous women. During his symposium keynote, David Gaertner traced the emergence of the field to 1996 and to two key interventions: Loretta Todd’s essay critiquing the colonial underpinnings of the internet, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” and Skawennati CyberPowWow, which Gaertner argues was “the first Indigenous territory in cyberspace.”[17] Gaertner explained that “it was no small feat” that these women made these interventions at a time and in an environment that was (and often still is) openly hostile towards women and Indigenous peoples. Since their emergence, online spaces have been, and continue to be, disproportionately violent toward black and Indigenous peoples, other people of color, as well as women, queer, trans and Two-Spirit individuals and communities. This is particularly true in respect to Indigenous women, who frequently face a combined force of racist, sexist, and colonial harassment and abuse online. Despite this, Gaertner noted, it also continues to be Indigenous women, like Anishinaabe video-game developer Elizabeth LaPensée, who “do the heavy lifting” in respect to confronting this behaviour and calling out violence, such as when LaPensée “intervened to stop the 2014 rerelease of the Atari platformer Custer’s Revenge — a game in which the objective is the rape of Pocahontas.” Indigenous women have in this way led the charge in building safer, more just and more equitable digital worlds, and their intellectual and creative contributions form the backbone of Indigenous new media and, in some ways new media itself. Indeed, some of the most cited new media and digital technology scholars at SINM were Todd, Skawennati, Angela Haas, and Marisa Duarte — all Indigenous women whose digital innovations and critical interventions have helped shape the field from the onset. Scholars and developers currently working in DH and new media need to hold up this labour and do far better in respect to supporting Indigenous women and addressing colonial and patriarchal violence when it occurs both online and offline.

Challenges, Relationships and Suggested Practices

Closing his talk during the SINM Indigitization workshop, Cultural Coordinator of Cowichan Tribes Chuck Seymour remarked that: “[Indigenous peoples] are the most studied people, but the least understood.” “Why are we not understood?” he asked. “You don’t speak our language.” Seymour was presenting on his work with the Cowichan Tribes Cultural Education Department and their process of digitizing cultural heritage materials so that their history and language can be kept alive and accessible for future generations. His words threw into sharp relief a larger truth that was discussed by other presenters at the symposium: that while non-Indigenous scholars continue to pursue research and projects in Indigenous contexts, there remains a significant gap in understanding and lived experience between these academics and the Indigenous communities they seek to work with. The material challenges and demands communities face as a result of ongoing settler colonial occupation are often missed or ignored by academics working in the digital humanities and the academy more broadly and thus the colonial dynamic to research goes largely unchanged. Addressing these gaps through ongoing relationship building, community-led research, and cultural sensitivity training, while not traditionally thought off as “digital” are thus key innovating ethical and meaningful relationships between DH and Indigenous studies.

Sarah Dupont, program manager at Indigitization — a collaborative initiative that works to support Indigenous communities and organizations with the conservation, digitization and management of community knowledge — dedicated most of her time at SINM to discussing issues of capacity for Indigenous digital initiatives. In particular, she outlined how Canadian government and industry demands on Indigenous nations, handed down in the form of thousands of annual referrals, often make doing archival digitization or other digital projects a difficult trade-off for communities.[18] Committing time and resources to this work is a substantial challenge in a colonial context where nations are constantly faced with proposals for natural resource development on their territories, or other threats to land, sovereignty, and culture. Dupont explained that nations are also often working with extremely limited resources, small staff numbers, and technical constraints, especially in more remote First Nations that may not have access to IT departments or up-to-date communications technology. Cultural heritage work, for instance, often operates on contingent funding, she explained, which leads to difficult cycles of “startup and collapse” for many communities. These are some of the challenges communities are facing, and Dupont argues that when academics make a commitment to work with a nation, they need to understand the resources and demands that community is dealing with and adjust their practice and objectives accordingly.

Settler students and scholars interested in or already working in Indigenous contexts also need to appreciate the living history of academic appropriation, misrepresentation, and exploitation. Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes that, “from the vantage point of the colonized, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism,” and the ways that academic research has been used to subjugate and dehumanize Indigenous peoples remains a “powerful remembered history for many of the worlds colonized peoples.”[19] Dupont explains that “colonial organizations have historically worked against Indigenous control of Indigenous information,” while Gaertner noted that universities have been complicit in the theft of Indigenous land and knowledge since the onset of colonization. These histories and their ongoing effects on Indigenous communities extend critical responsibilities. DH and new media scholars, and academics in general, need to recognize that they are working out of a space that is deeply implicated in colonial violence and in turn make visible and resist that legacy in the ways they carry out their work. As Gaertner argued in his keynote, “settler colonialism is already premised off a non-consensual relationship” and thus “we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard as DH researchers working in Indigenous studies.”

Bearing in mind the historical connection between research and colonization, several SINM participants also offered helpful guidelines for engaging Indigenous communities. The Running Wolfs suggested “6Rs” for nonexploitative data collection and research: respect, relevance, responsibility, reciprocity, relationality, and representation. They emphasized that research must be done with communities, which involves researchers building respectful and reciprocal relationships. Caroline explained that scholars need to ask themselves what and how they can give back to the communities they work with and that they also need to be aware of the forms of representation they create through their work. Drawing on the words of Deanna Reder, Gaertner offered similar suggestions and argued that researchers need to be better relations to Indigenous peoples. “Being a good relation,” he explained, involves forming “meaningful relationships with communities and individuals, which requires time and emotional labour.” Gaertner stressed the importance of free, prior, informed, and ongoing consent, and insisted that Indigenous buy-in cannot be an afterthought but must be secured before and throughout a project. “A yes at the beginning,” he said, “is not a yes at the middle, nor is it a yes at the end.” Citing the First Nations Principles of OCAP®, Gaertner also noted that scholars and developers in the digital humanities need to “take data sovereignty seriously” and that while it may be legal to use data in a certain way, Indigenous communities may have different rules for data stewardship that must be respected and followed.[20]

Decolonizing the Digital Humanities  

More than being good relations and ethical researchers, the digital humanities need to carve space for Indigenous knowledge, worldviews, and ways of being, and better attend to colonial legacies in the field. DH scholars need to recognize how mainstream ways of engaging with digital spaces, for instance with trends regarding open access and open education, often work against the values, concerns, and rights of Indigenous peoples. As Kimberly Christen explains, for the past two decades, demands for increased information freedom by the free and open source software community have combined with debates about open access, digital rights management, and intellectual property rights. Yet, those pushing to resist private control over digital spaces often do not consider—or actively deny—Indigenous rights to managing their information and knowledge online.[21] “The celebration of openness, something that began as a reaction to corporate greed and the legal straightjacketing of creative works,” writes Christen, “has resulted in a limited vocabulary with which to discuss the ethical and cultural parameters of information circulation and access in the digital realm.”[22] The open access and Creative Commons movements in this way fail to recognize or respond to culturally-specific contexts and social realities, such as the rights of Indigenous communities to uphold protocols for who, how, and when their digital heritage materials can be accessed, used, and disseminated. Morford in turn argued at SINM that “Creative Commons licensing and the public domain are not necessarily ethical, and often are a means of benefiting and protecting the colonialist and the colonial system.” She gave an example of historical photos of Philippine Indigenous peoples taken by early colonial zoologists and asked: “Did the ancestors whose photos were taken by white researchers with malicious colonial intents, and whose photos are now in the public domain, consent to have their images taken and used in such a way?” The DH community, and indeed all people involved in the broad scope of the open access movement, have a responsibility to address these concerns and to build space for discussing issues like Indigenous consent, protocol, and sovereignty within larger debates regarding open access.

The digital humanities and technology sectors also need to acknowledge the ways in which whiteness, colonialism, and harmful Western ideologies have shaped the internet. “Since its beginning,” explain Jason Lewis and Skawennati, “cyberspace has been imagined as a free and open space, much like the New World was imagined by the Europeans.”[23] Indeed, as Loretta Todd wrote in 1996, the internet was built as an extension of millenia of Western and colonial philosophy and “has in fact been under construction for at least the past two thousand years.”[24] Todd argues that “a fear of the body, aversion to nature, a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane created a need for cyberspace,” and that the “tension [in Western culture] between the need to know all . . . and the limitations of the body and the senses, of the physical world, [extended] a need for a new site for the ‘heart and mind’ of man.”[25] During her presentation in the symposium, Humphreys argued that “there are limits to knowledge” and that, despite its depiction in literature, “cyberspace is not limitless and utopic” and cannot be treated as such. We remain accountable to people and place when we contribute to and engage in the digital world, and Humphreys stressed that we must be responsible to the communities we represent when we use these spaces. Deciphering what this looks like is thus a key component of what decolonial DH is and should be.

Power is an essential consideration in a DH/Indigenous studies relationship. According to Treena Chambers, “too often we see the politics of the powerful as the norm” in the digital humanities. That is to say that technology, as a tool of power, carries with it particular sets of ideologies that are often elided via its application. Chambers notes that, in this sense, technology itself is political, speaking to the need to apply critical analysis to the tools we use, not just the results they produce. Other presenters stressed similar points and offered different perspectives on how to improve and decolonize DH. Symposium co-organizer and Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel further argued during his SINM keynote that “DH needs to be a space . . . with generative, porous borders” — that it needs to be an “interdisciplinary and intersectional” community that encourages work that can in turn “engender understanding across forms of difference.” Finally, more than address the realities of ongoing colonization and invite critical scholarship, Ansloos argued that the digital humanities must not simply seek to “indigenize” or treat Indigenous peoples as “sprinkles on the academic cupcake” but that the DH community needs to support decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty in practical, material ways, be that through funding opportunities, training, resourcing, reciprocal research, and/or MOUs.


Throughout the many presentations at SINM 2018 there lingered a constant notion that digital technologies themselves cannot achieve the goals of Indigenous communities or dismantle colonization. Participants noted that it is not technology alone but people and relationships that have the power to support Indigenous and decolonial futures, and while SINM was itself an important space for people to connect, share ideas, and discuss common challenges, there remains much work to be done in terms of community building and supporting the relationships necessary for decolonial digital innovation in DH. It is our hope that this blog post furthers those conversations and leads to continued capacity-building across DH and Indigenous studies.

For more on SINM, including audio excerpts from the above described presentations, please download our four-part podcast miniseries Recoding Relations, which you can find here:  

David Gaertner is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. He has published broadly on Indigenous literature, Indigenous new media, and the digital humanities. His articles have appeared in Canadian Literature, American Indian Cultural and Research Journal, and Bioethical Inquiry, amongst others. He is the editor of Sôhkêyihta: The Poetry of Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe and the co-editor of Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island. His monograph, The Theatre of Regret: Objecting to Reconciliation with Indigenous Arts and Literatures is forthcoming from UBC Press.

Melissa Haberl  is a BA graduate of History and First Nations and Indienous Studies at the University of British Columbia and a creator of the 2018 Symposium for Indigenous New Media’s Recoding Relations podcast series. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

[1] “Indigenous Data Theft,” te hiku media, 10 Aug. 2018,

[2] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Bubbling Like a Beating Heart: Reflections on Nishnaabeg Poetic and Narrative Consciousness,” in Indigenous Poetics in Canada,  ed. Neal McLeod  (Ontario, 2014), p. 112.

[3] Aside from our four-part podcast miniseries, Symposium RA, Autumn Schnell, also produced the essay “It’s Time to Queer the Digital Humanities,” The Talon, 29 Jan. 2019,

[4] See Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda (2016), p. xxii. See also OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, Permission),

[5] Miriam Posner writes that, “DH needs scholarly expertise in critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and other interrogations of structures of power in order to develop models of the world that have any relevance to people’s lived experience. Truly, it is the most complicated, challenging computing problem I can imagine, and DH hasn’t even begun yet to take it on” (Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner’s Blog, 27 July 2015, While this claim is five years old now, we believe that issues race, gender, and indigeneity are just as pressing now in 2020 as they were in 2015. DH still has an enormous amount of work to do.

[6] Maize Longboat, presentation, Symposium for Indigenous New Media, Victoria B.C., June 2018. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent references to content from presentations, keynotes and related discussions are from the Symposium for Indigenous New Media held as part of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria on 10–11 June 2018.

[7] You can download and play Terra Nova at

[8] For other key projects, see the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTec) research-creation network,; Achimostawinan Games,; Skins 5.0,; and work by Skawennati, and Elizabeth LaPensée,

[9] For more virtual and augmented reality projects developed by the Running Wolfs, see Buffalo Tongue Inc.,, and Madison Buffalo Jump and others at

[10] Aubrey Hanson, “Reading for Reconciliation? Indigenous Literatures in a Post-TRC Canada,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 43, nos. 2-3 (2017): 74.

[11] Here, we bear in mind Lisa Nakamara’s work on social media labour; see Lisa Nakamara, “The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call out Culture As Venture Community Management.” new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics 86 (2016): 106–12.

[12] For more information on their objectives, projects, and current opportunities, see the First Nations Technology Council website,

[13] Cheryl L’Hirondelle,”Codetalkers Recounting Signals of Survival,” in Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, ed. Steven Loft and Kerry Swanson (Calgary, 2014), p. 147.

[14] To learn about the Cogewea Project, see

[15] Angela M. Haas, “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19, no. 4 (2008): 80–81.

[16] Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (2009): 413.

[17] Cyberpowwow was an Indigenous online gallery, live chat space and mixed-reality event active between 1997–2004. To learn more about the space, see CyberPowWow,

[18] Dupont explained during her presentation that “referral” is a generic term used by the Crown, First Nations, or both when referencing a potential statutory or policy decision that may adversely affect or impact the Aboriginal or treaty rights of a nation. Referrals typically relate to the land, water, and natural resources of a nation and typically include consultation requests from industries such as oil and gas, wind energy, hydro, forestry, and mining.

[19] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, 2012), p. 1

[20] The First Nations Principles of OCAP® stand for ownership, control, access, and possession. To learn more about OCAP®, see the First Nations Information Governance Centre,

[21] Kimberly Christen, “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 2870.

[22] Ibid., p. 2874.

[23] Jason Lewis and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2005).

[24] Loretta Todd, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, ed. Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), p. 155.

[25] Ibid


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Cosmology and Class: An Interview with Bruno Latour by Nikolaj Schultz

In this conversation with the sociologist Nikolaj Schultz, Bruno Latour elaborates his analysis of our new climatic regime and presents new ideas on its consequences for political and social theory. With the earth reacting to our actions, we face a cosmological shift that leaves us all divided and lost in space. The quintessential political question of our times is finding a place to land. Globalists continue to believe in the project of modernization, populists flee back to the land of the old while a few escapists simply try to take off to other planets. How to respond? According to Latour, the task becomes reinventing the old socialist tradition beyond the system of production, something we can only do if we retheorize the concept of social class to include a wider array of material conditions of existences than Marx’ definition of class alluded to.      



Cosmology and Division

Nikolaj Schultz (NS): In Facing Gaia you try to historically situate our present encounter with an earth suddenly reacting to our actions by comparing two different scientific discoveries.[1] In the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei raises his telescope to the moon and shortly after concludes that our earth is similar to all the other planets of the universe. Some 350 years later, James Lovelock instead concludes that our earth is dissimilar to all the other planets. What are the symmetries and asymmetries of these two discoveries and what do they tell us about where we are in history?

Bruno Latour (BL): Galileo and Lovelock both try to cope with moving earths but two different kinds. Galileo discovered that the earth was moving around the sun and disturbed everybody by saying so. First, there was the quarrel with the church and, secondly, there were the major consequences his discoveries had on social order. This is well-known from the history of science and because of Bertolt Brecht’s extraordinary play The Life of Galileo. People believed they were in one cosmos before suddenly learning that the earth was moving. They did not know where they were in space and they felt lost—even if the practical consequences of Galileo’s discovery for daily life was close to zero. So, at hand we have a famous discovery with major impacts for physics and astronomy that simultaneously disturbs the whole establishment of the church and the social world.

Now, I contrast this with Lovelock’s similar but different discovery of another kind of moving earth. What Lovelock and Lynn Margulis discover is not simply that the earth is moving but that earth is being moved, to use Michel Serres’s expression.[2] The earth is reacting to the actions of humans. This new sort of movement of the earth is immensely more important, not least in terms of consequences for the social order and thus also more disputed. So, with a gap of three hundred years, we have two discoveries of moving earths and what interests me is that they both bring along extraordinary changes in cosmology and in understanding of space. It is another powerful example of a question which has interested me for forty years, namely the link between science and society, between cosmology and social order. While Galileo’s discovery marked the beginning of modern cosmology, I see Lovelock’s and Margulis’s discoveries as marking the end of modern cosmology. Right now, when we here about their discovery that the earth is being moved, we find ourselves in the same shoes as the people who in 1610 were worried about Galileo messing up their cosmology by proving that the earth was moving. We are as lost as they were.

NS: So, to talk with Alexandre Koyré, if Galileo took us from the “Closed Cosmos to the Infinite Universe,” then Lovelock is bringing us back from the infinite universe to a closed cosmos on earth.[3] Why has the figure of this return to earth, Gaia, been so misunderstood?

BL: Most importantly because it was understood trough a wrong idea of space. Gaia was immediately associated with the idea of the globe and with the idea of the earth as an organism. This meant it was quickly used by biologists and New Age people to return to the old, Greek idea of earth considered as one big animal. But this was not what Lovelock was interested in. Instead, he was interested in how life forms—including bacteria, vegetation, insects, and others—had provided so many changes in the chemical circulation of the atmosphere that it became impossible to understand air, water, mountains, or plate tectonics without taking into consideration the dynamic agencies of these life forms. With the help of his instruments, Lovelock was studying pollution and had realized that pollutants were able to spread everywhere on Earth. This made him intuit that what modern industry was doing perhaps had been done for billions of years by all life forms on Earth. He meets Margulis who studied the consequences bacteria had on the atmosphere, climate, rivers, mountains, and together they arrive at this extraordinary entity called Gaia. An entity with nothing in common with the idea of the earth being alive as an organism. Instead, it is an argument about the ways life forms continue to transform their own conditions of existence to the point where they engineer the whole surface of the earth.

NS: So, the fundamental consequence of Gaia is that entities make up their own environments. This not only means that climate is the historical result of agencies, it also means that space itself is the offspring of time. With Gaia, space is not in the background, space is continuously constructed by dynamic life forms. Why is this difficult to understand cosmologically?

BL: Not least because of the cartographic tradition, invented at the time of Galileo. Cartography gave us a sort of taken-for-granted definition of space as a frame inside which objects and people reside. With this definition of space, you cannot see how space itself is constructed by the agencies of life forms. With this gaze, you miss how life forms are not in space but that they make space. One example is how bacteria produce the oxygen of the atmosphere that all life forms breathe. Bacteria are not in the frame, they make the frame. This you cannot see if you approach space cartographically. If you approach space from the view of the globe, or as a map, you remain stuck inside a frame, with difficulties understanding what life is. These difficulties have burdened biology and ecology since the seventeenth century.

With Gaia the situation is reversed. The trick of Lovelock and Margulis is to say, “If there is an earth, soil, and sea, it is because life forms are producing their own environment.” Life forms are not sitting in the environment, they produce the environment. In biology, Margulis’s ideas and her notion of holobionts are becoming mainstream now. Today, everybody knows that our bodies are made of microbes, for example. So, the idea that we are seized and maintained by the agencies of life forms is beginning to become common sense. The amusing thing is that this idea of space as the product of agencies is an old actor-network theory argument that we developed completely separately in sociology.

NS: What are the political consequences of this concept of space? Previously, you have conceptualized this spatial or cosmological shift with the notion of a new climatic regime.

BL: Like Galileo, Lovelock is not interesting for his politics. What I am nonetheless interested in is the political consequences of being lost in space after the discovery of Gaia. This is somehow what I try to map very grossly in Down to Earth.[4] My argument is that what we all have in common is no longer moving forward trough progress but that we are lost in space. What we all have in common is no longer having an exact idea of where we are in space or on what soil or land we reside. And I think this shows clearly in the political disputes of today.

First, by what is normally referred to as populist movements and their questions of “What are our borders and what are the people inside our borders?” Questions posed all over Europe and, of course, most vividly with Brexit. Secondly, it shows with those who say “Let’s go on,” “Business as usual,” “Let’s maintain the modernist tradition of progress.” The ideal of globalization, if you want. Both these positions are simply affects asking where we are, on what soil or land we reside. Now, the problem is that both these positions are too abstract in terms of material existence. The land the populists wants to go back to—The England of Johnson, The Italy of Salvini, The France of Front National—are not real countries. They are imaginary versions of what would have been the land years ago. But the land of the globalists is just as imaginary, as they imagine that the earth will accept infinite modernization. So, we are lost in space.

NS: So, politics is now ordered by the question of land, but we are all lost in space because none of the political territories that modernity offers us have any ecological or economical fundament.

BL: Exactly. Look at the example of Brexit, for me a great experimentation of territorial redescription. It started with an imaginary space based on ideas of identity and borders. Three years later it is a complete mess. The English learned day by day, bit by bit, what they were actually depending on as a territory—dependencies always transcending the nation state. If you leave the EU, you will be in trouble getting medicine, fresh food, then your labor force will have bad protection of rights and so on. So, one talks about identity and about walls, but slowly you realize that you do not only depend on identity but more importantly on a long list of other conditions of existences. Our ignorance about what makes our countries thrive is immense. This is what I try to allude to when I say that we are spatially lost.

NS: Yesterday in Paris, you attended the defense of French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier’s habilitation.[5] One of his arguments is that there is a disconnect between where the moderns think they live and the territory they actually live off. How is this connected to the current spatial confusion? Why the difficulty of understanding that to have politics you need to have a land and a people corresponding?

BL: Yes, there is a disconnect between the two sorts of land that we inhabit. On the one hand, there is the land from where we have our rights—the nation state—which is territory that we understand ourselves as living in. On the other hand, there is the land we live from, which is the territory where we get our resources. We sort of know these two territories are connected, but because of the material history of the Moderns—first the colonies, then the discovery of coal and later oil—they have divorced. So, if people have lost their sense of space, it is because of this divorce that has made it difficult for people to describe the world out of which they get their prosperity and the entities that allow them to subsist. And what Charbonnier investigates is simply how this disconnect becomes bigger and bigger ever since the “discovery” of America.

In one chapter, there is an interesting simile to understand the argument and its relevance for political ecology. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote a book answering to the English project of liberalism, arguing that in inventing the global world the English were completely hypocritical.[6] They pretended to be civilized and tolerant while simultaneously exploiting the whole planet. If Germany wanted to be tolerant, Fichte said, they would need to close down their borders, forbid commerce, and instead juxtapose the land out of which they lived with the land that gives rights to their citizens. Fichte probably did not imagine this to be possible even in the nineteenth century, but it is a fine description of a sort of utopia, where the legal country is reconciled with the material country.

I think this is a good way of grasping our current situation. Because, in fact, political ecology has nothing to do with green stuff or nature. It is about how the new, moving earth forces everybody to ask again the question of what to subsist on. This question of subsistence is a main feature of what I call the new climatic regime. Everyone is simply trying to find out which land to live off and live in. This is also why the Trumpists are climate deniers. You study that yourself, namely the question on how some are saying: “We don’t share the same earth as you.”[7] Something impossible to reconcile with modernism because modernism was supposed to be the progress of all—even if it really wasn’t.

NS: Yes. It is difficult to believe in modernism when you see a picture of Elon Musk’s Tesla sports car floating around in outer space. This did not look like the progress for all—this was progress or emancipation for the wealthy few. And when you look at how other Silicon Valley tech billionaires are trying colonize Mars, then it certainly does not look like modernism either, as the classic question “Is there life on Mars?” is rephrased from a civilizational question into a question for the one percent who try to escape Earth. This is the ideological essence of what you have previously called offshore politics or planet exit: the escapism of the earthly, material limits by the few.

BL: With a lot of money put into it . . .

NS: Lots of money and lots of technology. For these elites it is a case of deus ex machina, and as techsters they are God’s chosen few. It is definitely not a coincidence that the wildfires in California never reached Silicon Valley—and with the prospect of ecological, civilizational collapse they take off and go to Mars. The problem is that you rather quickly find out that Mars is uninhabitable. It is not a very nice up there. So, the tech billionaires shift from planet B to plan B and invest in luxury climate-secured escape bunkers in places like New Zealand, so they can escape civilizational collapse. It sounds anecdotal, but it has been studied in detail by investigative journalists.[8]

BL: So, they hedge their bets, one on Mars and one in New Zealand. How many people are we talking about?

NS: Exactly. Crushed under the weight of the new moving earth, they choose to escape and leave the rest of us behind. They do not live in the Anthropocene they live in the Misanthropocene. Steve Hoffman, the billionaire founder of Reddit, estimates that around fifty percent of the Silicon Valley tech elites have bought escape property around the world. Escape bunker property for the ultrarich has become a billion dollar business.[9] The interesting thing is that it is not even secret, even if it sounds like a neo-Balzacian conspiracy theory when one says that the rich are escaping the planet during nighttime. They actually say so themselves. Yet, it is not an unproblematic move for the rich. A lot of things could go wrong: How do you make sure that your security guards do not turn their weapons against you? Are you supposed to bring the family of the pilot of your private jet when you escape? A lot of questions arise, but it is still better than “staying with the trouble,” as your friend Donna Haraway would say.[10]

BL: But they are not climate skeptics; they are deniers, right? They recognize that there is a planetary danger?

NS: Yes, that is exactly why they take off. Again, climate denial arises not despite the fact that the climatic mutations are real, it arises because the climatic mutations are real and because the price of solidarity is too high to pay. It is the same with Trumpism. These are just the people that take the extreme consequences and choose to leave.

BL: But how do they cope with the fact of being alone and not following the old logic of modernism? How do they cope morally with leaving behind the rest of us? They must sort of reinvent themselves as atomized agents.

NS: That is what should to be studied now. If we could describe the material conditions of existence and the moral economies of these exiters and compare them with those who are stuck behind deprived of habitable territory, we would probably have a better grasp on tomorrow’s class struggle, a struggle over territory and not over the means of production.

BL: When Musk sent his Tesla into space, he said that it was “silly but fun.” The space adventures of the twentieth century were certainly not silly and fun, they were  part of a progressive modernity. Seeing space adventure becoming a caricature for just a few people is very shocking. So, at this moment, I think we are exactly at a place where we are literally living on different planets. One of these is the modernist, globalist planet; the other one is the identity, localist planet; and the third is the escapist or exit planet that you study. We are completely divided about which planet or which land on which we live. This is what I try to show in Down to Earth.

NS: Yes, when Musk said that it was “silly but fun” it was good proof that modernity was dead. But we only capture the dividedness you speak about if we remember that these people are very serious about escaping. They put billions of dollars into it. And, somehow, this move of escapist ideology was not a big surprise. Only a few months before, Donald Trump took America out of the COP21 Agreement. What did he do just after? He announced that he was going to “Make America Great again . . . on Mars.”

Class and Description

BL: The question is how to respond to this division of space. Here, I want to go back to what we spoke about before. As Charbonnier shows, the question is now about how to restart the socialist tradition. A tradition that was in fact always interested in the question of the divide between the land, the industry, and the legal framework in which people live. One can even say that socialism was about this disconnect. Yet, it is also true that socialism never succeeded in connecting with ecology. For this reason, Charbonnier’s hero is the same as mine. Karl Polanyi was one of the few in the socialist tradition who articulated the the idea that both the labor force and the land resists production. In The Great Transformation he maintains that it is not a question of production but of what I call a processes of engendering, the ways in which things are brought to the world.[11]

This is the connection I am interested in. Can we, within the socialist tradition, rearticulate the questions concerning ecology as questions of existence, of survival, of generation, of reproducing, of giving birth and of losing territory? As a philosopher, I see the first contours of what we have been calling geosocial classes, a notion that would perhaps allow us to redo for the present situation what the socialist did fairly well until the 1950s and the beginning of The Great Acceleration. This would allow us to reconnect the land that we live in and the land we live from, as well as to connect ecology with socialism within the framework of politics as usual. But I gave you the task of finding these classes. How would you approach the question? What would be a good definition of geosocial classes?

NS: I think your intuition in Down to Earth is correct. These are not classes defined by their position in the production system; they are classes defined by their territorial conditions of survival, their material conditions of existence or reproduction. Defining geosocial classes means taking the cosmology of our new moving earth serious when approaching the social question and use it to redescribe social classes in a way that extends their Marxist definition. While social classes were defined by their ownership over the means of production, geosocial classes are defined by their dependence on a wider array of material conditions of existence that allows social groups to survive or thrive. If we had such a definition of classes, we could delineate a people corresponding to the new climatic question of the twenty-first century, and to geohistory, in the same way Marx made a people correspond to the social question of the nineteenth century and to social history.[12]

The terribly difficult question is how to map this empirically. First, it would be necessary to define the territory on which different collectives live, by describing what entities or actors different social collectives depend on to reproduce. If we did this, we would first see that the networks of existences that allow different social groups to survive and reproduce would look very heterogeneous. But what would also be clear is how some social groups would share means of reproduction with some more than others—similarities and dissimilarities that would allow us to reclassify social groups on the basis of material conditions of existence. Perhaps this would even allow us to redefine exploitation as the surplus of existence that some social groups profit from, by describing how the livelihoods of some collectives prevents the access to a habitable territory for others. I think that the Yellow Vests in France perhaps showed us the urgency of the geosocial question. Would you agree?

BL: I think the Yellow Vest affairs started with an interesting moment of geosocial inquiry, as it was a matter of salary, taxation, gas, landscape, and social justice. So you are right; initially, the connection was made. But you cannot have a political position if you cannot describe your own territory. So nothing came out of it precisely because they did not have the vocabulary, tools, or political movement to help them articulate this link. We are extraordinarily bad at describing what allows people to subsist. We talk a lot about identity, we have a lot of discussions about values, but please describe to me the territory in which you survive, in which you invest, and might want to defend. I think the lack of such descriptions is what renders the political scene so interesting but also so violent today. We begin to realize that this is the real question, but we do not know how to answer it. This is also why I am interested in the episode of the Cahiers de Doleances, because it was exactly an initiative directed towards territorial descriptions and questions of social justice in one and same breath. The Yellow Vests did not manage to maintain this link.

So if the question of geosocial classes is difficult to answer, it is because we all have very little idea about where we get our subsistence from. We have simply lost the habit of describing what we are attached to, what we are connected to, and what allows us to survive. In a way, Marxism used to be a vocabulary that allowed such descriptions of our conditions of subsistence, which we could use to locate ourselves inside the system of production. Can we do the same thing today with what I call the processes of engendering? From Proudhon to Marx, socialism described the practical and material realities of industrial society. They described where people within this society got their subsistence from, which allowed people to position themselves in the system of production. But today, we live in a different world. Today, if one would have to describe the practical, material world in which one lives it would not only be about industry, we would furthermore have to add entities like the climate, carbon dioxide, water, bugs, earth worms, soil, and others—the wider array of material conditions of existences that you spoke about before. And this is what ecologists never managed to bring to the attention of socialists. It is still the question of inequality, of justice, and of the material world out of which we get our subsistence; it is simply that the world has changed form.

NS: Yes. The interesting thing is that in the first period of the Yellow Vests, when there was a moment of geosocial description, they actually enjoyed support and were able to mobilize affects internally and externally. When they lost their territorial descriptions, it turned violent. It seems that in some situations, violence does not occur when indignation reaches a certain level; it occurs when you are no longer able to describe who you are, what you are attached to, and with whom you fight.

BL: Yes, they lost completely their territorial descriptions, and instead went on to ask for the head of the president. . . . Macron then offered them a grand debate, but we learned nothing from it because people simply gave their opinions. But the opinions of people who have no land nor a world to describe is useless. A million and a half answers to the debate and not one single description of where we reside and with whom. Values? Yes. Identity? Yes. But no territories. If you have lost the ability of describing the land or the territory on which you reside—understood in the etiological sense as the lists of entities you rely on to subsists—then you simply cannot do politics. If you have no territory, you have no politics.

NS: So to restart politics, we need to redescribe our territories, our lands, and our people. How come we lost the ability of doing so? Were we atomized by neoliberalism, which is  fundamentally an ideology and politics of disattachments?

BL: Of course, this is one of the reasons. But you can simply also just loose the habit and culture of doing politics, if it is not constantly maintained. Redescription is a general rule of the social sciences, but today I would say that this is the political question. Let us not forget that ecological mutations are unprecedented. We have never before had a moment where we had to reengineer the whole system of reproduction piece by piece, house by house, mobility by mobility, food by food. We have the experience of production and modernization, but we do not have any experience of reproduction and remodernization. Eight billion people and every single material entity that binds their societies together and make them live are controversial. Meat is controversial, clothes are controversial, transport is controversial. In this situation, we cannot skip the phase of description of territory, unless you want to end up in an abstract world of identity or values. This is what happened in England. If we do not do the work of description, we cannot go forward.

NS: This leads me to my next question. Forty years ago, you started your career by following natural scientists in the laboratory. Now, you are interested in a new sort of science and a new sort of scientist. In Down to Earth you dedicate a chapter to critical zone’ and critical-zone scientists, and you are currently doing an exhibition on the topic. Why are you interested in these topics and how are they related to the task of description?

BL: First, critical zones and critical-zone scientists are words used in geoscience, hydrology, geomorphology, geochemistry, and in soil sciences to denote the thin crust or skin of the Earth and the scientists that are studying it. And, yes, when I have been following and studying these scientists for five years now, it is exactly because I think they help with the redescription of territories in a very practical way. First, because they are not global. They are not working with the Earth as the globe. Rather, it is the Earth as a thin skin. Everything on which life forms live exists only here, on a few kilometers thick pellicule of the earth, reaching from the atmosphere and a few kilometers down in the rocks. So, what they study is comparable to Lovelock’s discoveries. It is another tool to get away from the idea of nature, which is simply too big, abstract, and imprecise. When you study critical zones, you study a series of things or connections on the crust of the Earth, so it has a modest reach. It is about very limited entities; it is not the whole cosmos. The second interesting thing about these sciences is that they explicitly study the differences between what they see in the laboratory and what they see in the field. Again, there is this modesty, it is a boots-on-the-ground type of science—a bit like natural history or like Alexander von Humboldt’s natural science.

NS: It is another epistemology.

BL: Yes. Epistemologically, they are far from the other sciences that I have been following for many years. And since they underline the discrepancies between their observations and the chemical reactions, it means that they are redescribing and rematerializing the question of territory, which we simultaneously try to redescribe and rematerialize in political and social theory. This is also where there is a link between Lovelock’s discovery, the political question of geosocial classes and critical zones. This is why I am interested in them and why I am also doing an exhibition on the topic.

NS: Why an exhibition? What are the role of the artists in it?

BL: Exhibitions allow you to do a thought experiment in a limited space that cannot be done in any other way. Every time I have done an exhibition, the question at hand was completely impossible to raise in a book but possible to raise in a space. Why? Because you are able to submit people to an experiment. This is what I mean by thought exhibitions. It is a way to use limited space, art, and artists to bombard visitors with expressions and then see what happens with them. The last one I did in 2016 Reset Modernity,[13] bombarded visitors with objects, asking if they could reset their vision of modernity.[14] The current exhibition—simply called Critical Zones: Landing on Earth—is somehow easier. It basically offers a lot of scientific facts and arts from which the visitors can learn to redescribe and revisualize the Earth’s surface in which they live but which they are not conscious about, in large part because of the cartographic imaginary we spoke about before. The problem remains the same. We always think of the Earth, seen from the outside. If you say “Earth,” what typicaly comes to peoples’ mind is the globe. But despite all the talk  about the Blue Planet, only the people who are out of space, out in space, experience the Earth like that. We are not out in space; we are inside critical zones. And this is what we need to visualize. Here, the importance of artists is that they help us multiply the visions of the Earth, viewed from the inside and not from the outside. It sounds simple, but it is absolutely crucial not to imagine the planet as the globe if we want to land on Earth. The globe is too big and too abstract. So, what we simply try to do is to invent with scientists and artists a vocabulary for this landing. In a way, it is surprising that we even have to do so. Why should we have to land? Are we not on Earth? In a way no, because Moderns took off on an interesting and somehow beautiful journey, as visualized by Musk and his Tesla, but now we realize that we have to land again without crashing. As I say in Facing Gaia (2017), we are exactly in the same position as when we “discovered” the New World and when the cartographers had to redraw their maps. Four centuries later, we discover a new, moving earth. Not in extensity but in intensity, an earth which is reacting to our actions. For that you need new descriptions, and you need new visualizations.



This conversation between Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz took place at The Queens Hall, Royal Danish Library on 29 May 2019. It has since been edited and substantially revised. Selections of the conversation were first published as an audio file by the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information for their podcast series “European Ideas.”


Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes. Bruno Latour, sociologist and philosopher, is Professor Emeritus at Sciences Po, Paris. He is currently preparing the Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics exhibition, cocurated with Martin Guinard, Peter Weibel, and Bettina Korintenberg, set to open 8 May 2020 at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.                                                                

[1] See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (London, 2017).

[2] See Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1995), p. 86.

[3] See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed Cosmos to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore, 1957).

[4] See Latour, Down To Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (London, 2017).

[5] See Pierre Charbonnier,. Abondance et liberté. De la revolution industrielle au changement climatique (Habilitation thesis, L’École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 2019).

[6] See Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Closed Commercial State, trans. Anthony Curtis Adler (New York, 2012).

[7] See Nikolaj Schultz, “Life as Exodus,” in Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics, ed. Latour (forthcoming).

[8] See Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2017,

[9] See Julie Turkewitz, “A Boom Time for the Bunker Business and Doomsday Capitalists,” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2019,

[10] See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C., 2016).

[11] See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, 2001).

[12] See Schultz, “Geo-Social Classes: Stratifications in the System of Engendering,” in Critical Zones.

[13] See Latour, Reset Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[14] See Latour,  Reset Modernity.


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Tales of the 1940s: A Conversation between Werner Sollors and Françoise Meltzer

Coeditor Françoise Meltzer and Werner Sollors discuss Sollors’s The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s (2014). Read Sollors’s “‘Better to Die by Them than for Them'”: Carl Schmitt Reads ‘Benito Cereno'” in the Winter 2020 issue of Critical Inquiry.

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ON OKWUI ENWEZOR (1963-2019)


Terry Smith

I first met Okwui Enwezor in 1997, at Bard College in upstate New York, when the curatorial team for the Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s was assembled by the project organizers: the artist Luis Camnitzer, the scholar Rachel Weiss, and the curator Jane Farver. The exhibition opened at the Queens Museum, New York, in April 1999, and traveled elsewhere in the US. The aim was to show New Yorkers and other Americans that conceptualist practices from elsewhere were not pale imitations of European and US models. Instead, they had originated throughout the world in response to local conditions; and were usually more political in intention and effect. At the Bard workshop, each curator was challenged to prove that “our” artists—the artists from the region we represented—met these criteria. Okwui and I were provoked by this: me to show that, in Australia and New Zealand, there were both imitators and originators, but more importantly to demonstrate that conceptualism was more an “art in transit” than an art locked into local settings. Okwui’s answer was better. Fresh from curating the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial, he boomed “Of course, there are some artists who are clearly international conceptualists, yet work in unique ways.” He showed South African Willem Boshoff’s braille text pieces. “But,” he continued, “the point is that, as Yoruba knowledge tells us, in Africa, artists emerge from a long tradition of ideas, language, and performance.” Thus, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. African art, he was saying, has always been conceptual and political—on a broader scale, and in deeper, more embedded ways than anything you can imagine.


Global Conceptualism was reviled at the time; it is now regarded as a landmark exhibition, a harbinger of the “global exhibitions” to come, that are now almost a norm for exhibitions that aim to be seriously consequential. Okwui was not only a pioneer of this form, he quickly became its leading exponent. What drove him to take on such ambitious projects? What enabled him to succeed, so often, over more than two decades?

His personal qualities were evident to all who knew him. A love of life. A large laugh. A generosity of spirit. High intelligence. A constant quest for more knowledge; an incessant self-education. A gift for friendship. He was a demanding companion and a challenging colleague. Of course, he had unlimited ambition—for himself and for his projects. His natural inclination to leadership was tempered by an instinct towards collective action. True grit. Unbending integrity. Impatience with stupidity; hatred of cupidity. An instinctive educator; a great teacher (he was much loved at the University of Pittsburgh, where I brought him to teach, straight after Documenta 11). He was an inspiring, indefatigable collaborator, as I found out when he and Nancy Condee and I worked together in Pittsburgh to stage the conference that led to Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Duke, 2008). Above all, he was a visionary, a dreamer.

He possessed a love of art that encompassed continents and centuries, thus making a random stroll through the Metropolitan Museum, New York, his greatest happiness as a private visitor to an art gallery. It is one of the world’s losses that we never got to see Okwui in the role as director of that museum, or an equivalent institution. While the United States, to its great credit, was able to elect, and reelect, a black president (for whom we both voted), black directors of major museums are few and far between. The situation in Europe is no better. We talked about this structural exclusion, which he felt keenly. The world’s geopolitical turning would, we dared to hope, eventually lead to change, despite the current reactionary regressions. It is a matter of deep regret that his life cut short—he died in Munich on 15 March 2019—means that we will never see him break through that wall, as he did so many others.

But Okwui Enwezor amounted to much more than the sum of his personal qualities, and a lot more than the list of his formal identities. This became truly clear when I visited Documenta 11, the fifth platform of which was at Kassel in June 2002. For me, a defining moment occurred in the Documenta Halle, in the installation From/To by Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharawi. Armaly, an artist of Lebanese-Palestinian descent, born in the US and resident in Stuttgart, designed a floor grid of orientations based on territories claimed by Palestine. Masharawi, a Palestinian filmmaker, born in the Shati refugee camp and resident of Ramallah, presented an engrossing program of Palestinian film. The projection space included an illuminated wall map showing the actual locations of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It became obvious at a glance that Israel was establishing “facts on the ground” that would make the two-state solution supposedly desired by all parties a practical impossibility.

An informed, free press would have made this known to all, but these were the months after 9/11. The War on Terror had been declared by the oligarchs who were then, as now, in command of nations. Information inimical to their interests was systematically eclipsed, even in “free” societies. In the United States, where we were living, opposition was rare, and when exceptional intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag raised their voices against the tide of misinformation, mindless patriotism, and fearful retreat from critique, they were pilloried. Okwui and his team, and the artists in the exhibition, did not fear such criticism. They had a larger duty: to show the world to us as it was, and to imagine the world as it might be, after the legacies of colonialism are finally overcome.

Okwui called this: opening “The Black Box.” Not just creating spaces for photography, video, and documentary, but also exposing the world’s unconscious, its centuries of repression. Under his guidance, the exhibition became a space of liberation.

A certain trajectory emerges in the series of his exhibitions that began at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1996, with In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, and continued with Trade Routes: History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1977); Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (2001-2002); Documenta 11 (2002); and then through several others, up to and including his recent major achievements. It was no accident that he located the continuous reading of undervalued yet essential texts at the core of most of his exhibitions. Nor that, at Venice in 2015, it was Karl Marx’s Capital. Thomas Pikkety’s globalized version, Capital for the Twenty-first Century, had been published the year before. Okwui wanted us to remember the real thing, to help us imagine All the World’s Futures more clearly.

No curator working today matches the scope of Okwui’s vision. I see him as the Karl Marx of contemporary curating. I say this with full awareness that each of us is a clutch of contradictions, as was Marx himself. Okwui’s deep understanding of the kinds of work that art does in the world parallels Marx’s grasp of the importance of modes of production, and how when they change, the world changes. These are not abstractions. They are insights into how things are, and how they might get worse, or better, or both. Compare any of his exhibitions, with their world-historical sweep, to the mainstream surveys of contemporary art, vaguely shaped according to a generalizing, pluralistic theme—for example, most editions of the Venice Biennale. In contrast, Okwui became the master of what we might call the contemporary, historical, and critical exhibition. Magnificent Scale was a great title for the El Anatsui exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich: it describes Okwui’s achievements equally well.

In a conversation that we had in Munich in 2013, that was published two years later in my book Talking Contemporary Curating, he said this:

To me the fundamental challenges that a curator faces today are how to provoke an engaged confrontation with works of art, how to make that experience legible, and how to use it to open up forms of engagement with the world. Exhibitions, in this sense, open up the surplus value of art. They create value of many kinds, simply because each time artworks are exhibited they accrue new meaning, new force, and open out new possibilities, while not necessarily changing their shape. In turn, art changes the perceptions of those it engages—so, to make an exhibition is to theorize the place of art not only in institutions, but also in public spaces, and, if you will, in the world.

To truly value the surplus value of art, and to never use it for its exchange value—that was what Okwui believed that contemporary curating should do.

In the week before he died, on 15 March 12019, I spent many hours each day by his hospital bed in Munich, as the vast complexities of his life converged upon us. It was a privilege to be there with him then, as it had been, so often but never often enough, since 1997.


TERRY SMITH is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. In 2010, he became Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate and the received the Franklin Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association (USA). Books include What is Contemporary Art? (2009), Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011), Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012), Talking Contemporary Curating (2015), The Contemporary Composition (2016), One and Five Ideas: On Conceptual Art and Conceptualism (2107), and Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art (2019). See

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Talking about the Rule of Law with Robert Mueller and E. P. Thompson

Aziz Z. Huq


“What is remarkable (we are reminded) is not that the laws were bent but the fact that there was, anywhere in the eighteenth century, a Rule of Law at all.”[1]


Predictably and painfully, the public exorcism of the Mueller investigation came to an ashen close this week. Its climax—or perhaps more accurately, bathetic anticlimax?—took the form of a pair of congressional hearings where the Special Counsel along with an assistant testified. These were a peculiar blend of ghostly whispers conjuring evasions and circumlocutions, a surfeit of the usual theatrical bluster and malarkey—thank you, Jim Jordan—and the occasional huffs of exasperation by Mueller himself. The latter were not, though, evinced by any pained splinter of concern at the documented fact of presidential criminality. Rather, the special counsel showed the most energy when his rock-ribbed prosecutorial reputation seemed under interrogation. In contrast, the sedulous documentation in volume 2 of the Mueller report, which persuasively adumbrates almost a dozen discrete instances of presidential obstruction of justice, has vanished into little or nothing. At the hearing, their echo yielded nothing but “euphoria” from the White House.[2] The reason is easy enough to see: no reality-show producer is rushing to book Mueller on the strength of his ethereal performance.[3] But absent of some histrionic moment, like something out of A Few Good Men (1992), it is hard to see how the hearing could have made much impact in the first instance.

These events would be no surprise to readers of E. P. Thompson’s masterful history Whigs and Hunters. Its first 250-odd pages, after all, are a powerful, even unforgettable testimonial to the potency of “bad law, drawn by bad legislators, and enlarged by the interpretations of bad judges” (WH, p. 267). Those pages sketch indelibly the Black Act of 1723, a cruel enclosure of land and customary rights as an incident of class war, one that extended the death penalty to deer stealing, tree cutting, and burning. In the body of Thompson’s account, law is a tyranny, as red in tooth and claw as the rapacious English land-owning class that wielded it without compunction or hesitation.

Yet, in a passage that has puzzled many of his admirers and ideological fellow travelers, Thompson ends his account with a paean to the rule of law. Despite everything in Whigs and Hunters, he nonetheless praises the “remarkable” virtue of law. This adheres in its “principles of equity and universality which, perforce, has to be extended to all sorts and degrees of men” (WH, p. 259). This quality of generality is common to many leading definitions of the otherwise protean rule of law, from Joseph Raz’s to Lon Fuller’s.[4] Hardly a panacea—remember Anatole France’s pungent line about the law’s “majestic equality”—law still seemed to hold for Thompson the promise of some vestigial constraint on the wielding of state power against the vulnerable.[5]

One hears something of an echo of Thompson’s sentiment, I think, in calls from the left for the machinery of criminal justice—responsible for the evil of mass African-American incarcerations, the horrors of the war on drugs, and far more—to crank into action against Trump. There has been an idea on the left that prosecutors will come swinging to the rescue, ending the moral catastrophes of the Trump presidency, without reckoning with its structural causes or institutional continuities.

The hope was always an unlikely one, quite apart from its selective and culpable omissions about American criminal justice’s longer historical record. At the Mueller hearings, the hope plainly flared and died. The documented instances of serious criminality—witness tampering of the sort that gives drug dealers a bad name—are simply ignored, drowned out with cries of “no collusion.”

I think this is an opportune moment for thinking about the role that law plays in constraining power, and state power in particular, in a putatively liberal and democratic context. In particular, this is an opportunity to think about the circumstances in which that constraining role can be anticipated, and when it is likely to fail. When, that is, should we anticipate the cooperation of law with “tyranny,” and when should we anticipate the vindication of “principles of equity and universality”?

Something of an answer to this question germinates within the text of Whigs and Hunters itself. For Thompson, the “essential precondition for the effectiveness of law, in its function as ideology, is that it shall display an independence from gross manipulation and shall seem to be just” (WH, p. 263). That is, to function effectively as ideology, the law cannot be wholly supervened by the naked policy preferences of a hegemonic class. It can’t be too ruthless or zealous in its pursuit of dominion. The civilizing force of the law’s touch thus depends on the political implausibility of (too much) hypocrisy. Appearances, or the compulsion to keep them up, turns out to matter. This sort of mechanism contrasts with the notion, associated most recently with Frederick Schauer, that law constrains only when it can credibly threaten coercion or force.[6]

Once one focuses on the legitimacy of law as a normative system independent of “gross manipulation” as the effective vector of law’s constraint, the failure of the Mueller report to generate consequences commensurate with its accusatory force becomes clearer. For three related structural reasons, the current occupant of the White House has no need even to gesture or perform fealty to the rule of law in terms of his personal conduct. Both for him and for members of his political coalition—both legislators who ignore his criminality and judges who ignore his nakedly unconstitutional animus—the civilizing bent of law’s generality no longer has a gravitational pull. These reasons, to be clear, aren’t general in scope. They are local to a particular historical moment. They may be, therefore, exemplary rather than exhaustive of the conditions in which Thompson’s aspiration founders.

To begin with: there is simply no partisan political logic to law’s restraint, even where what is at issue are serious violations of the criminal law. In a separation-of-powers system, just as in a parliamentary system, a president in large measure stays afloat through his or her ability to influence legislators. Republican legislators in safe seats—whether because of the “big sort”[7] or just gerrymandering[8]—have to worry not about the general election but the primary. Unless Republican primary voters are motivated to care about legality, Republican legislators are not likely to be moved by allegations of law violation. That is, they have to worry about the slice of the population that is probably most likely to approve of Trump, and perhaps most likely to be enraptured by his venal and venial sins. But Trump commands an approval ratingconsistently greater than 80 percent among Republican voters.[9] That approval may be correlated with a distaste for certain elements of liberal constitutionalism.[10] Tellingly, it peaked after his recent racist attacks in four women legislators of color.[11] This means that Trump has nothing to fear from copartisan legislators; they, in contrast, have everything to fear from his ability to provoke a primary challenge.

Second, the American public sphere is organized around media that are structurally oriented toward the dilution and distortion of information harmful to Trump, and the elevation of information (true or not) that helps him. This is not the internet, but the pro-Trump cable news shows that populate much of the public imaginary. In a brilliant dissection of political misinformation during the 2016 election, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts have shown that misinformation’s diffusion is not the result of Putin’s troll farms or Cambridge Analytica, but rather the decision of cable news hosts, acting as trusted intermediaries, to push out Pizzagate or deep state conspiracies.[12] Benkler et al.’s compelling empirical analysis decisively undermines the canard that social media or Facebook alone has critically undermined the possibility of a shared public sphere by enabling the spread of disinformation.[13] Given the structural alignment between the Trump presidency and Fox News in particular, it was never likely that any wrongdoing (barring perhaps the infamous possibility of murder in cold daylight) would move the needle.

Finally, there is the content of the law itself. To an extent that nonlawyers perhaps do not appreciate, the law’s substance is not predetermined by the text of, say, a criminal statute or the Constitution. The questions whether the president can obstruct justice, or whether he or she can be indicted as a result, are not resolved by Article II of the Constitution or the obstruction statute directly. Rather, they are interpretations of the law. Interpretations depend on the institutional context in which they are manufactured. Law’s penumbra, as Thompson appreciated, is a function therefore of its institutional conditions.

The law of criminal penalties is in the first instance the work of prosecutors, who must interpret vague or general statutes before applying them. The only formal legal authority on whether a president can be indicted is, therefore, controlledby the Department of Justice, a body that reports to the president.[14] Even before one gets to the stacking of the federal bench with former prosecutors and White House lawyers, or starts to dabble in the airy suppositions of “unitary executive” theory, there was a (yet again structural) bias against the kind of generality that Thompson savored—at least when it comes to the president. The point here is absolutely not that the president is “above” or “beyond” the law: the relationship between law and the presidency is far too complex,[15] far too mutually constitutive, to support that sort of broad and inchoate a claim.[16] Rather, the specific forms of legality that the president can invoke, or that can be invoked against him or her, are a function of institutional context, and in the context of the criminal law there is a profound inconsistency between the aspiration of “principles of equity and universality” and the brute fact of institutional motivation.

On the same day as the Mueller hearing, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. upheld a Trump rule that would bar almost all asylum claimants because they had moved through a third country without first seeking asylum there, a rule that even the neoliberal Economist decried.[17]  Law, in at least one of the forms that Thompson recognized and documented in Whigs and Hunters, remains alive and well in America. Where and how it grips is a function, though, and should be the focus of careful and situated analysis—and not a matter of aspiration or hope alone.

[1] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (London, 1975), p. 259; hereafter abbreviated WH.

[2] Eliana Johnson and Melanie Zanona, “’Euphoria’: White House, GOP exult after a flat Mueller performance,” Politico, 24 July 2019,

[3] Peter Baker, “The Blockbuster That Wasn’t: Mueller Disappoints the Democrats,” New York Times, 24 July 2019,

[4] See Joseph Raz, “The Law’s Own Virtue,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies39, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 1-15; and Lon L. Fuller, The Morality of Law (New Haven, Conn., 1969).

[5] Anatole France, Le Lys Rouge(Paris, 1960).

[6] See Frederick Schauer, The Force of Law (Cambridge, Mass., 2015).

[7] Richard Florida, “America’s ‘Big Sort’ Is Only Getting Bigger,” CityLab, 25 Oct. 2016,

[8] See Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” American Journal of Political Science53, no. 3 (July 2009): 666-680.

[9] “Trump approval ratings,” FiveThirtyEight, 30 July 2019,

[10] Aziz Z. Huq, “The People Against the Constitution” University of Michigan Law Review116, no. 6 (2018): 1123.

[11] “Republican Support for Trump Rises After Racially Charged Tweets,”, 17 July 2019,

[12] Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York, 2018).

[13] The post-2016 criticism of social media, in any case, was always at odds with the known demography of the Trump coalition. More recent studiesshowing widespread distrust of social media on the right and left only undermine it further; see Katerina Eva Matsa and Elisa Shearer, “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018,”, 10 Sep. 2018,

[14] See “A Sitting President’s Amenability to Indictment and Criminal Prosecution,” The United States Department of Justice, 10 Dec. 2018,’s-amenability-indictment-and-criminal-prosecution

[15] Aziz Z. Huq, “Binding the Executive (by Law or by Politics),” University of Chicago Law Review 79 (May 2012): 777.

[16] “While You Were Tweeting,” The Economist, Jul. 20, 2019,

[17] See Spencer S. Hsu, “Federal judge allows Trump administration rule restricting asylum access to continue,” Washington Post, 24 July 2019,; and “The White House ditches half a century of immigration law,” The Economist, 20 July 2019,

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The Palestinian Shoah?

The Palestinian Shoah?

David Simpson

First, note the italics. I mean the film, not the event. We have all been well schooled in the moral orthodoxy whereby nothing can or should be compared to the Shoah, which was indeed a genocide of staggering and exceptional proportions, one whose millions of dead indeed deserve not to be jumbled together as simply one set of victims among many in modern history. Speaking about the Shoah has generated a unique level of attentiveness and deference; some feel that nothing can be said by way of explanation, or that no restorative gesture can be adequately imagined, or that any comparison with anything else is an outrage. Some say that it is best remembered as an instance of absolute evil, one that will forever stand as the limit case of human cruelty and depravity. All explanations soon seem to come to the point where something irrational must be confronted. The disturbances generated by any attempt at explanation are not likely to disappear. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) has a good deal to do with this situation.

Lanzmann’s film generated an uncommonly intense set of responses, all now part of the record. Whether out of choice or necessity, Lanzmann barely interviewed the Nazi perpetrators: figures like the Polish train driver at Treblinka had to do most of the work of accounting for the agents. Lanzmann was a Zionist, and historical complexity is no part of his film. But the testimony of the victim survivors is unforgettable. Above all it is suffused by the melancholic passage of time; these are among the last who will speak from personal experience, who saw and felt the culture of the death camps. The Palestinian survivors of the Nakba (catastrophe) are also reaching old age; they too have little time left to be recognized and recorded.

Shoah had worldwide distribution and massive publicity. It has become an unignorable centerpiece of film history, both for its topic and its methods, and at over nine hours in length it demands a serious commitment from its audiences, one commensurate, no doubt, with the gravity of its subject. It is unlikely that Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb’s 1948: Catastrophe and Creation, produced largely by community funding (it was twice refused NEH support), released in late 2017 and running for not much more than an hour, will get anywhere near this level of attention.[1] Indeed at least one city council in the US actively sought to prevent its being shown. The current weaponization of anti-Semitism, which seeks to identify any critique (or even historical analysis) of Israel or Zionism as an ethno-racial attack on all Jews, will ensure that many of us who see this film will see it in the way I saw it, at a one-off showing in a Unitarian church attended by persons already sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian rights. Alternatively, we can resort to Amazon Prime. It is worth doing so.


These limits on public circulation are to be regretted, for the film deserves the widest distribution. It is the outcome of much research and some ninety interviews with those who lived through 1948 in Palestine as it was becoming Israel, interspersed with the comments of modern historians of the Middle East. It offers more or less equal time to members of the Jewish militias and to their victims, and in this sense it records both sides; but equal time does not imply moral equivalence, nor does it pretend that there is no agreement about the harsh facts of what occurred.  As I am writing, things are going rapidly from bad to worse for the Palestinians, and it is unlikely that we have reached bottom. 1948 does not claim that what happened was a Shoah equivalent; the film is modest in its documentation of actual deaths (on both sides) and is scrupulously sensitive to the anguish of those who felt or now feel terrible about their role in the “cleansing” of Arab villages and neighborhoods. Even when we are told the story of a baker and his son who were thrown alive into an oven by Jewish soldiers, there is a remarkable lack of melodrama or coercive emotionalism. On the contrary, we are made to see how absolutely normal such events are among those who feel that being at war justifies the rapes, tortures, and murders committed. The Deir Yassin massacre figures in, of course, but only as one among many other stories of violent expulsions all over Palestine.

Absent here is any reference to the obfuscating question as to whether Israel has a “right to exist,” as if any state anywhere has ever had such a right, or has been innocent of founding violence. The old canard about the two-state solution that was supposedly on offer only to be refused by the Palestinians is shown for what it was: a massively uneven division of the land that gave more than half of the land, and the best land, to what was then a Jewish minority. Muhtaseb and Trimlett have done for film what Thomas Suárez’s State of Terror (2016)—also probably destined to remain a hard-to-find book—did for the print record: they bring to life the exhaustive evidence from the archive (or what the author has been allowed to see of it) that carefully planned terrorism and violence were the foundations of Israel both before and after it achieved statehood.[2]

If the film is not “even-handed” in the habitual American sense whereby one position is set against the opposite position, whatever the issue, and no one raises awkward questions about facts, it is because the history being remembered is itself not even-handed. One side had the weapons, the training and the violent ethno-nationalist motivation, and the other did not. In the present day, the winners are taking more and more of the land, and look as if they might take it all. In so doing they are bound to confirm and compound by more and more violence their own status as unwelcome occupiers, and enact more and more punitive legislation, all the while trying to persuade the world that they are an inclusive, nonracial democracy. Many of the old Irgun and Palmach fighters report what they did and what they saw without excessive sentiment and without explicit apology, but their discomfort and occasional distress are palpable, and they share with their victims, however reluctantly, a dignified commitment to establishing the record, to witnessing. They are neither vindicated nor excused, but there are no denials. The concluding voiceover in 1948 does not ask what degree of right and wrong exists here, but whether it has been worth it; and if it has not been worth it, then what happens next? In the face of the militant triumphalism and historical misrepresentation enacted by the current Israeli government and its apologists, this new way of asking an all-too old question should be welcomed and circulated as widely as possible.

David Simpson is Distinguished Professor and G. B. Needham Chair Emeritus at the University of California–Davis. His most recent book is States of Terror: History, Theory, Literature (2019).


[1] Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb, dir. 1948: Catastrophe and Creation (Portland, OR: Collective Eye, 2017), 85 min.

[2] See Thomas Suárez, State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel (Bloxham, 2016).

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All That Heaven Allows: Robert Pippin and Tom Gunning Discuss the Work of Douglas Sirk

Robert Pippin and Tom Gunning discuss Douglass Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows (1955).  Pippin’s “Love and Class in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows” was published in the Summer 2019 issue of Critical Inquiry. 

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