Monthly Archives: April 2020

After Lucretius

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.

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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!

COVID_IMAGE

 

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)

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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! (😀).

ayers_final

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!

charles-atlas-comic

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Covidity

 

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.

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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.

clock-11

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.

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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.

egypt

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.

photo_2020-04-16-15.27.32

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).

 

 

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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.

DNA

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.

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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.

KOY

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,” mediapart.fr, 1 Apr. 2020.


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

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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.

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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?

breath


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]

Coda

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).

 

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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.

MARSEILLE

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.”

 

 

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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.

DUTTMANN

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?

Yours,

Alex

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.

virus

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 NMacLeod@nju.edu.cn

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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.

flu

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?”

mask

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.”

www.caroljadams.com

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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