Viral Times

Peter Szendy

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

The Emergency of Being at a Standstill

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

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

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

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

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

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


Epidemics or Endemics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Crisis of Crisis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 April 2020

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

2 responses to “Viral Times

  1. Pingback: Posts from the Pandemic | In the Moment

  2. Pingback: Groundhog Day and the Epoché | In the Moment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.