Monthly Archives: June 2020

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

Lennard Davis

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

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

MIT-Low-Cost-Ventilator

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

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

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

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

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

beds

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

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

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

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

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

26 June 2020


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

 

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

Robert Gooding-Williams

 

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

REPORT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOONLIGHT

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

19 June 2020


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


[1] United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, 4 Mar. 2015, www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf; hereafter abbreviated I.

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sonic Images of the Coronavirus

Hannah B Higgins

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

US-HEALTH-VIRUS

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

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

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

Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 June 2020


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

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How to Learn Together, Apart

Ewan Jones

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

BARTHES

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

12 June 2020


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


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

[2] Ibid., p. xxv.

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., 130–31.

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COVID-19 / EXPOSE

Jenny Holzer

8 June 2020


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

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June 8, 2020 · 12:58 pm

Present Tense, Part 3:  The Two Plagues Converge

W.J.T. Mitchell

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

BERGMAN

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

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

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

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

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

BLAKE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

[3] https://www.npr.org/2017/10/23/559498678/i-can-t-breathe-explores-life-and-death-at-the-hands-of-police

[4] On Racial Capitalism:  https://contexts.org/blog/covid-19-and-the-future-of-society/#pirtle

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

[6] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-03/south-l-a-is-largely-untouched-by-unrest-that-is-by-design.  Unfortunately, South Side Chicago has not been spared, and looting has made life difficult for already underserved neighborhoods. 

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

 

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Connecting Breaths

Romi Crawford

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

SIGN

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

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

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

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

Unknown-1

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

3 June 2020


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

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Skeptical Conditions

Leela Gandhi

 

But He’s Much Bluer than When I Went Away

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

MATTA_CLARK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wear a Mask

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

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

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

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

Coda: Companion Species

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

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

1 June 2020


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


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

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