The mechanism is sadly familiar: each crisis has its designated culprits. For the sovereigntists, this pandemic is to be blamed on deregulated border crossings; for the anticommunists, it is the negligence of a Chinese government that would rather see its citizens die than assume its hazardous initial response; for conspiracy theorists still, it is an American chemical weapon over which secret services have lost control. While collapsology is rejoicing, after having warned us for years of an impending implosion of the planet, others still see it as a sign, profane or divine, of all the recent errors of humanity, from hypermobility to overconsumption. In the twenty-first century, a viral pandemic is replacing the ten scourges of Egypt, a kind of general castigation aimed at producing a collective backlash, and we can already hear all these self-proclaimed omens explaining to us what will have to change, in the famous “after” of our collective resurrection.
What is remarkable in this range of reactions is the tone of certainty that comes with their verdict. This is even more striking when one reads the explanations put forward by some leading intellectuals. Many of them seem to be little shaken by what is happening to us, so eager are they to explain to us that everything they have been saying for years has thus proved to be right. We find ourselves envying their confidence. Indeed, everything would be simpler if we could blame the coronavirus on either financial capitalism or biopolitical states of exception. One would almost catch oneself, in moments of shame for belonging to the human race, dreaming of a masochistic revenge on planet Earth, as if Gaia were finally making Homo sapiens pay for all that it has inflicted on it for centuries. In fact, doesn’t the world strangely resemble those postapocalyptic scenarios that Hollywood has fed us with in its catastrophe movies, with spectral-looking metropolises and depopulated urban arteries? In a reverse movement, as if in Disney’s old documentary The Living Nature on how life regains the upper hand even in the most hostile environments, today, it looks as if nature was recolonizing the territories left unoccupied because of the lockdown. In Greece, it is fin whales that are once again venturing into the harbours, in Chile, pumas come down from the Cordillera to feed in the city centers, while in Venice, the lagoon waters unperturbed by cruise ships end up becoming crystal-clear again. The true meaning of the coronavirus crisis would therefore be this one, its urgent ecological message, an uppercut jabbed by Mother Nature, to all those who did not want to listen to the alarm bells repeatedly sounded, from André Gorz to Greta Thunberg.
How simple it would be if we were able to provide an easy explanation to this crisis that would win our immediate support, if only so that we could then do repentance, alone or on a planetary scale. No wonder, then, that the etiological machine is running at full throttle; great crises are above all ordeals of sense, and in the absence of visibility, it is easier to take refuge in comforting stories–even when these have done absolutely nothing to reassure.
What if, faced with this explanatory runaway, barely patched up for the occasion, we were to admit that this event is severely undermining our certainties and that it forbids us, at the risk of not recognizing how incisive an event it is on our lives, to resort to our usual crutches? What if we were to consider, even if only for a moment, the truly senseless nature of what is happening to us? The global coronavirus pandemic is, in and of itself, intrinsically senseless and it has no inherent meaning. Its outbreak was neither necessary nor linear. A virus has no more intentionality than a tectonic plate, when the latter causes the waves of a tsunami as it moves.
Why didn’t we see this coming? It costs us to accept it, especially since it took so many lives in its wake, but the coronavirus is and remains a contingency. Sure, its outbreak was possible, and some may even start calculating the probability of its event. But a possibility is not a logical conclusion. As Aristotle put this a long time ago, a contingency is when several things incidentally happen to be next to each other and therefore look like a continuous sequence, although there is no necessity for it. Cross-species wet markets, the probable hotbed of the Covid epidemic, where pangolin, bat, and snake cages stand side by side, are the best illustration of this senseless contiguity, organized according to the same absurd taxonomy as the famous Chinese encyclopaedia imagined by Jorge Luis Borges.
One of the greatest risks we face today is that a new discourse of necessity will take hold over the long term. One that focuses on the meaning and root causes of the virus but also on the simplistic responses that it allegedly requires (the famous refrain “we just have to . . .”). This is indeed where the most pernicious liberticidal effects lie, for they permanently establish the feeling that the path is all mapped out, in one direction or another. Remedies and prescriptions that, necessary and unavoidable, would admit no contradiction.
It may make sense, for a while, to collectively adopt certain attitudes, because there is no other way. Day after day, though, we are already experiencing the profound changes that this contingency–the coronavirus–is imprinting on our lives. To the physical distance imposed, we are responding with telepresence technologies; to suspended sociality, we are responding with virtual collaborative devices. These devices do open up a considerable field of new possibilities. But by entrusting algorithms with the management of lives altogether, major risks are looming.
In professions with a strong human component, the transfer to dematerialized forms maintains the illusion of permanent availability and increased attention, whereas the opposite is often the case. Some healthcare institutions are currently considering the possibility of making therapeutic appointments by videoconference, in order to reduce costs. In the name of decongesting the institutions –and thus supposedly in the interest of the patients– we are moving towards a treatment more and more distant and abstract. In the field of education, similar arrangements are currently under consideration. Some universities in the United Kingdom are already asking their staff to record all of their recurrent teaching in video format so that they can broadcast it the event of illness or absence. Such a measure would of course deprive researchers of their right to strike, for when a classroom course can be replaced at any time by its downloadable equivalent, what is the point of disrupting work? We might easily imagine, then, that the human part involved in activities such as student receptions will then be transferred to a kind of falsely individualized remote attendance, on the model of an outsourced commercial hotline.
The experience of containment during the coronavirus allows us to draw several lessons. It is not true that a physical distance is necessarily tantamount to a human distance (which is why the term social distancing is totally inappropriate); we have seen many cases where the crisis tightened the bonds of solidarity between close relations, between relatives or neighbors. But by asking citizens to suspend all “unnecessary” activities, the authorities have brought to light everything that intrinsically defines social relationships: chance encounters, unforeseen exchanges, exposure to the unexpected. By enjoining individuals to concentrate on “the essential,” we are basically returning to what we are most familiar with, warding ourselves off from that part of contingency that is the leaven of all human relationships. The disappearance of shared public space also corresponds to a disappearance of surprise. In times of confinement, the algorithms of on-demand television become the suppliers of our favorite films or series, while culinary orders are delivered to the door, without even seeing the face of the delivery person who has already turned on his or her heels.
The discourse of necessity reigns supreme, wherever you look, and the outsourcing of uncertainty ends up by turning it into a simple math variable. It is true that social life has not disappeared in the age of general confinement. With the help of calendars to coordinate virtual aperitifs and dinners, links are being reestablished. But here again, these “others” that we find are others that we were already familiar with. While perfecting the planning of our upcoming encounters, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to make real ones. By dint of meeting only those we already know (or those promised by dating sites, whose profiles are supposed to “match” ours), one wonders what room is left for something radically different–for what Stéphane Mallarmé calls the “immediate freshness of the encounter.”
Let us be careful not to sacrifice to this pandemic a fundamental value of all democratic life: its share of randomness, its contingency. It is because a democratic commons is not fixed once and for all, but fundamentally lacks any kind of necessity, that its members are able to step together and decide the shape they want to give to it. Let us therefore take care, in our generalized immunological responses, not to entomb ourselves even more in our certainties, but to accept that this contingency can also act as a powerful breach in our imaginaries.
20 April 2020
Emmanuel Alloa is Ordinary Professor in Philosophy at the University of Fribourg. Among his recent publications: Partages de la perspective (2020).