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, Salvoj 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 Olvider 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)

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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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