Category Archives: 2020 Pandemic

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.

*

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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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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The Incalculable: Thoughts on the Collapse of the Biosecurity Regime

 

Lydia H. Liu

It makes a world of difference where the novel coronavirus travels.

For the first time, I feel as vulnerable as my eighty-eight-year old mother who is locked down in another part of the world. Neither she nor anyone I know has ever, in living memory, been through a moment like this. Has the world woken up to a new catastrophe, or are we pretending that we do not know what we have always known?

This is a terrible thought, and it haunts me as my city, New York, succumbs to the COVID-19 outbreak. Sirens wail day and night on the streets as doctors and nurses struggle to keep critically ill patients alive while exposing themselves to the deadly pathogen. To the astonishment of the world, American society has not prepared itself for a disaster of this magnitude; and worse, many in Europe and America had initially been led to believe that the novel coronavirus might be one of those isolated, regional affairs, not unlike SARS (2003), MERS (2012), and Ebola (2014) or what gets reported from those remote, disease-prone countries of Asia and Africa.[1] Therefore, US travel restrictions on flights from China on 2 February and from Iran on 29 February should have taken care of the matter, but they didn’t. Recent genomic analyses suggest that the vast majority of coronavirus cases in New York came from Europe, not from Asia.[2] Blindsided by its own racism, the political calculus of the US biosecurity regime has misfired. It forgets to reckon with the incalculable.

Donald Trump’s remarks during a press conference on 19 March 2020 where “corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.” Source: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The moral balance sheet of the ruling caste in America is bankrupt. How would you weigh the losses and gains of human lives on the scale of a global pandemic? You simply can’t. People are dying, and tens of millions are suffering and faced with economic hardships. There are so many questions bearing upon the incalculable—and the possibility of a second or third wave of the pandemic in the coming months or years—that we must heed W.J.T. Mitchell’s call to reflect on the moment itself.

When I say that the incalculable escapes the political calculus, I do not mean to suggest that it falls outside of the calculating machine but rather, it penetrates the core of that machine by virtue of being excluded from its terms of reckoning. The incalculable contaminates the political calculus with its own shadow—in the manner of the return of the repressed—which is why we must be careful with our facile metaphors and comparisons. The analogies with the Spanish flu and with other plagues from the past may help us talk about the tragic consequences of a major public health fallout, but they are misleading if we let them guide our thought on the fallout itself. For such analogies often dissimulate what they simulate and, therefore, can do more to obscure the truth of the moment than clarify it. To return to the question I have raised: Are we pretending that we do not know what we have always known?

Take the most recent U.S. biosecurity exercises—code named Crimson Contagion— organized by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This is a series of simulation exercises that ran from January to August 2019, involving Washington and 12 states including Illinois and New York.[3] During those exercises, the HHS asked its federal and local partners to imagine a fictional scenario where a global pandemic breaks out in China. What should we do to prevent the deadly respiratory virus from spreading to the U.S.? How would the federal government, state governments, hospitals and private stakeholders coordinate effective operations? Here is the HHS script as summarized by New York Times reporters:

The outbreak of the respiratory virus began in China and was quickly spread around the world by air travelers, who ran high fevers. In the United States, it was first detected in Chicago, and 47 days later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By then it was too late: 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading to 7.7 million hospitalized and 586,000 dead.[4]

Call it prescience or extraordinary coincidence. Sometimes, fiction provides the kind of insights that intelligence or the facts on the ground cannot. But in this case, the fictional scenario bears uncanny resemblance to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that would actually happen in Wuhan within three months of the conclusion of Crimson Contagion. Chicago, for instance, participated in the simulation exercises in the summer of 2019 and, according to Allison Arwady, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, “We actually did a preparedness exercise here in Chicago that, believe it or not, was actually written as an exercise for a new virus emerging from China with the first cases seen here in Chicago.”[5]

By contrast, the government officials in Wuhan, a city regarded as China’s Chicago for its central geographic location and its function as the nation’s transportation hub, wasted the summer of 2019 doing absolutely nothing to prepare its eleven million residents for the possibility of a SARS-like respiratory disease. Rumors abound as to how the virus—be it crimson or red contagion—got there in the first place; while we await the pending independent WHO investigation, all we can say at this point is that people of Wuhan became the first casualty of the pandemic. But here is the rub: Had the officials there adopted the same biosecurity regime as did those in Chicago or other American cities, would Wuhan have had a better chance of averting the initial catastrophe?[6] Sadly, the answer is “no,” if we look to New York for inspiration.

Not only was New York involved in the Crimson Contagion exercises last year but it was also the location of a high-level pandemic exercise code-named Event 201 that took place in October 2019, just four weeks before the actual novel coronavirus outbreak. Led by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, this tabletop exercise partnered with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to simulate the outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus modeled on SARS. The fictional pathogen, originating from Brazil, is transmittable from bats to pigs to people and then becomes highly transmissible from person to person. One poignant detail predicted by Event 201 is that the coronavirus spreads more efficiently in the low-income, densely packed neighborhoods, and this is exactly borne out by New York, Detroit, and other American cities where African American and Latinx working-class communities have suffered the highest death rates. The close parallel with Event 201’s fictional scenario is so unnerving that it has prompted the Johns Hopkins Center to issue a statement to disavow its uncanny prediction of nCov-2019.

This is a shocking revelation. The political calculus of the world’s most advanced biosecurity regime has failed miserably. Bear in mind that the US is ranked at the top of the 2019 Global Health Security Index, with the United Kingdom running a close second, in the most recent worldwide survey of 195 countries conducted by the same Johns Hopkins Center and Nuclear Threat Initiative and published four weeks before the actual coronavirus outbreak in China.

FIG1

With our best-funded research, farsighted preparations, carefully designed simulation exercises, and timely warnings, we are supposed to outperform all other nations in coping with a pandemic. Instead, we are currently ranked highest in the number of deaths and COVID-19 cases as of late May, when I last checked. It is not as if there had been no political will or that the biosecurity regime had not seen action until 2019, leaving the federal and state governments little time to fix the vulnerable links they identified, such as the stockpile of masks and ventilators.

Has knowledge failed to translate into action? This seems unlikely. We will have learned nothing from this fiasco if we think that COVID-19 is just another worldwide public health disaster like the Spanish flu, pretending that we do not know what we have always known since the HIV/AIDS pandemic.[7] The US imperial biosecurity regime, both before and since Trump, has been unusually active in leading the world in preparations, mobilizations, and simulation exercises like Dark Winter (2001), Atlantic Storm (2005), Clade X (2018), Crimson Contagion,  and Event 201, to name just a few. And then, how do we end up in a state of unpreparedness in the midst of advanced preparedness? The biosecurity regime is the key to understanding this, not the pandemic nor the virus itself. Driven by its imperial fantasy of world control, the regime has allowed itself to operate on a logic of racism in its conceptualization and implementation of the political calculus; yet it forgets to reckon with the unintended consequences of its own logic.

It is my hope that a safe and effective vaccine for SARS-Cov-2 (the virus responsible for the disease COVID-19) will become available and get us out of the mess in a year or so. Even so, will the scientists be able to put us back in control of our destiny by bringing uncertainty to tolerable levels as suggested by Lorraine Daston? I confess that I feel some trepidation: Is there the likelihood of SARS-Cov-3 or SARS-Cov-4 coming in the wake of SARS-Cov2? What if the incalculable—be it the infinitely small or the infinitely gigantic[8]—escapes the political calculus of the imperial biosecurity machine time and again?

26 May 2020


Lydia H. Liu is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She is the author of The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (2010); The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004); Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (1995)    


[1] On 3 February 2020 just as the ICUs in Wuhan hospitals were being overwhelmed by dying patients, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece under the headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The uproar on social media over the paper’s callous display of racist disregard for the suffering of nonwhites led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expel three WSJ journalists from China. Instead of taking urgent action to protect the lives of the American people when time was running out, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.”

[2] Carl Simmer, “Most New York Coronavirus Cases Came From Europe, Genomes Show,” New York Times, April 8, 2020.

[3]Crimson Contagion 2019 Exercise Draft After-Action Report,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, October, 2019.

[4]Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded,” New York Times, 19 March 2020 and updated March 22, 2020.

[5]Chicago Officials Held Exercise Last Summer Preparing for New Virus Emerging From China,” 4 March 2020, NBC Chicago.

[6] Under unprecedented lockdown measures, Wuhan’s pandemic was actually contained by the central government who swiftly moved in and implemented its military style campaign. According to South China Morning Post dated 17 March, the campaign was literally led by the PLA army, navy, and air force medical personnel who swooped down in full protective gear as if they engaged in a large-scale defense exercise against some bioterrorist attack.

[7] There are many academic studies on how this biosecurity regime came into being. See Andrew T. Price-Smith’s Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology, and National Security in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 2008).

[8] “The gigantic” is an allusion to one of Martin Heidegger’s observations in “The Age of the World Picture.” See The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, Garland Publishing, 1977), p.135.

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Net-munity, or The Space between Us … Will Open the Future

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

I write this during a time when we feel acutely the stakes and consequences of connection, polarization, infrastructures, models, and habits.  To many, it seems a world turned upside-down, in which the unimaginable has become possible: “socialism” and extensive surveillance within the US; the retraction of the Chinese economy and the negative price of oil; the invocation of Cold War shelter-in-place ordinances; and KKK masks worn as protective masks in California. This crisis has highlighted and augmented already existing divides: from white collar employees who seek the “perfect” gadget for working from home; to the mainly non-white and poor essential personnel who have had to balance daily financial and medical risks; from French dentists without proper protective equipment who posted naked pictures to protest back-to-work orders to Donald Trump supporters—compared to a “modern-day Rosa Parks”–who publicly demonstrate against orders by Democratic governors to stay at home.

It is a time of uncertainty and therefore responsibility—and something like community.  Scientific, economic, and political knowledge and models are constantly evolving.  Many of the first guidelines presumed similarities between SARS Cov-2 and SARS Cov-1, which were later proven to be untrue, such as the period during which a person is most infectious: in SARS Cov-1 it is when one is most symptomatic; for SARS Cov-2 it is just beforehand. Our current knowledge of Covid-19 is mainly correlational, with mechanistic-genetic explanations, as always, lagging behind observation and comparison. For example, SARS Cov-2 is widely assumed not to be airborne because it is far less contagious than airborne diseases such as measles. In desperation turned pharmaceutical opportunity, drugs are being approved, such as remdesivir, which were discontinued in early clinical trials due to debilitating side effects.  Most significantly, because of the lack and poor quality of existing tests and testing materials, the scope of the pandemic—necessary for modelling the basic reproduction number (R0)—is poorly known.  It is even unclear if “recovereds” are immune or for how long.

This uncertainty, however, does not undermine science or politics; it drives research and makes political decisions difficult and necessary. Intersecting this cloud of uncertainty are correlations and probabilities, which can guide our decisions, even if they cannot guarantee them, for the pandemic and its “cures” confront us with responsibility in the strongest sense of the word.  As Thomas Keenan has argued, we face responsibility not when we make decisions by following guidelines and rules but when we desperately want to but cannot: “when we do not know exactly what we should do, when the effects and conditions of our actions can no longer be calculated, and when we have nowhere else to turn, not even back onto our ‘self.’”[1] Not even back onto our self—because at these moments we realize that the individual is, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s evocative phrase, “the residue of the dissolution of community.”[2]

Tellingly, although ostensibly about the human death toll, calls for communal responsibility are mainly framed in terms of infrastructure: things that ground and touch us, even as we strive not to touch too many others. The April UK motto of “staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives” encapsulates this perfectly (fig. 1).  By caring for infrastructure, we care for ourselves and others. In countries with national health services, the fear is becoming another Italy. In other countries, such as the US, the motto would seem to be “work, save businesses, and save your grandchildren’s livelihoods (and your pension, if you have one) (fig. 2). Or, more positively, “stay home/distant, flatten the curve, and save lives and the city.”

Picture1

FIGURE 1

Picture2

FIGURE 2

The “cures” proposed, emergency powers granted, and sacrifices demanded reflect and reveal profoundly different national, regional, and local perceptions of which curve matters—the number of “infecteds,” the stock market, national employment figures, GDP, the mortality rate—and which ties bind most strongly—capital, public health, taxes, national deficits, public transportation, and others.  These cures acknowledge that exit is impossible, even for the most nonessential wealthy, whose New Zealand bunkers and seasteading dreams still rely on the value of capital and the lives of “essential workers.”

The proposed cures and sacrifices reveal different diagrams of the social.  If the nation is mainly viewed as a network , the goal is to produce “safe” exceptional neighborhoods: to create/augment clusters so that the “infected” are separated from the “recovereds” and “susceptibles” (fig. 3).

Picture3

FIGURE 3

Surveillance to track and manage contagion and contacts becomes the key to amplifying social distance.  In this worldview, community cases become mysteries to be solved via stalking and recording undocumented cases and silent spreaders.  Tracking “patient zero” becomes a national pastime, as does blaming other countries for viral spread.  Safety—resting as it does on inequality and dreams of emptying space—is precarious.  Think of everything that must be erased for an edge to represent a friendship: institutions, such as schools and bars; interactions with “nodding strangers” (which during pandemics turn out to be essential); social media prompts to say “happy birthday”; regular meetings and events. In order for there to be networks, there must be gaps. Networks hollow clouds of uncertainty—that is, infrastructure and in/difference—in order to foreground clean connections across empty space.[3]

Perversely, the logic of networks spreads the word neighbor everywhere, in order to impoverish it conceptually. Machine learning is filled with “neighborhood” methods used for pattern recognition and collaborative filtering, which create segregated clusters of agitated sameness. Networks presume and prescribe homophily—that birds of a feather flock together, that similarity breeds connection.  A banal and therefore dangerous notion of friend becomes a synonym for neighbor: segregation becomes naturalized and hatred becomes love.[4] How do you show you love the same? By fleeing when others show up. Hatred attracts and repels at the same time, creating angry clusters that need to hate:

if homophily == true

neighbor := self

self.love := other.hate

neighbor.love := self.love

ethics := narcissism

society := nul

endif

If the nation is mainly viewed as a community—what I’m calling “net-munity”—the onset of nontrackable cases demands treating everyone as “infected,” in order to suppress the disease (we have to remember that viruses, such as SARS Cov-1, have been eradicated without vaccines). The Vancouver Parks motto “the space between us will hold us together” encapsulates vision, for rather than treating the population as a series of nodes and edges, it attends to the spaces that enable community to emerge.  Community presumes community transmission—community is communication and space.  Once a virus is endemic to a community, neatly drawn graphs become impossible and the goal becomes widespread habitual changes to save others and public infrastructures: physical distancing, wearing facemasks, washing hands, avoiding mass gatherings, cleaning public spaces. Even as the disease and these changes affect “vulnerable” populations differently, there are no exceptions to the call for—if not the act of—sacrifice.  Friends and mobility become dangerous, and addressing the needs of those “at risk” populations becomes key.

At its best, net-munity follows the call made by the Combahee River Collective to treat everyone as “levelly human,” by engaging—rather than ignoring—identity politics and individual experience.[5] In British Columbia and elsewhere, houseless populations finally are being moved into safer shelters, such as hotel rooms and empty apartment buildings, after individual consultations.  Appallingly, Vancouver’s long-standing housing and drug crises are finally being addressed, not because of the dangerous living conditions of the houseless or the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women or the Overdose Crisis public health emergency declared in 2016, but because of the need to contain Covid-19 (tellingly, 113 people in BC died due to illicit drug toxicity in March 2020 ; in comparison, a total of 141 people have died of Covid-19 as of 15 May). This sheltering, however, can also destroy. The construction of spiked fencing to prevent tents from re-merging in Oppenheimer Park evokes other clearances: Japanese Canadians were removed from this area into Interior internment camps during World War II; Vancouver lies on the still unceded lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

We must engage neighbors and relations in all their rich ambivalence. Neighbors are not innocuous—the term neighbor literally recalls “boors.” They are nosy and noisy. They can provoke hostility, resentment and ambivalence. They intrude, even—and especially—when they are inert. They offer, however, a way to reside in/difference and to engage interactions that go beyond homophily: not just heterophily (heterosexuality, electromagnetism and other opposites that attract), but also ambivalence, compassion, and neutrality.

Neighbors space.[6] At their best they un-settle, for their spacing resonates with what Ariella Azoulay has called “potential history.”[7] Diverse worlds and lands persist despite being crossed out in official maps and graphs.[8] The task before us, as Kara Keeling has put it, is to “listen, with others, for the poetry, the refrains, and the noise a world is making.”[9]

So, let us shelter in space; let us care for the infrastructures that touch us, so that “we” might surface and endure, in/difference.

20 May 2020


Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University and leads the Digital Democracies Group. Dr. Chun is the author of Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (2016), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011), and Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2006), as well as numerous articles and edited collections.  She has received fellowships from< various foundations and institutes, including the Guggenheim Foundation, ACLS, American Academy of Berlin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She was Professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she worked for almost two decades. Currently, Dr. Chun works with the Digital Democracies Group to undertake the proliferation of misinformation, abusive language and discriminatory algorithms. Through the investigation of natural language processing (NLP), political theory and critical data studies, the group aims to develop methods for creating effective online counterspeech and alternative models for connection. Her work has appeared in Critical Inquiry.


I would like to thank Lynn Festa and Paul Moorcroft for their comments, suggestions, and conversations, and Hannah Holtzclaw for her editorial help. They have been invaluable.

[1] Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford, Calif., 1997).

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor et al., ed. Connor (Minneapolis, 1991).

[3] Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh, 2014)

[5] Combahee River Collective, How We Get Free (Chicago, 2017).

[6] Kenneth Reinhard, “Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor,” in Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner and Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago, 2005).

[7] Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Brooklyn, N.Y., 2019).

[8] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.

[9] Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York, 2019).

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Arguments for a New Aesthetic of Presence

Chiara Cappelletto

Translated by Samuel Fleck

The dominant narrative of the COVID-19 illness plays into the most conservative iconic order. On the one hand, there is a widely circulated, glossy image of SARS-CoV-2 that makes use of the realist rhetoric of photography: the virus is this. It hardly matters that such an image is not a depiction of the pathogen but an illustration designed “to grab the public’s attention.”[1] On the other hand, the virus is “invisible” above all else, and its symptoms largely “mimic” those of the seasonal flu, which they resemble. It is therefore said to be unknowable. The lay observer is once again caught in a double bind between optical efficacy and the phantasmal quality of the image.

Apart from its well-known paradoxes, the logic of the sign—still applicable to AIDS, which has in fact been termed an “epidemic of signification”[2]—is completely inadequate for understanding the current pandemic. The “pestiferous bodies,” the carriers of contagion, cannot be detected because they are largely asymptomatic. The virus strikes without marking the sick person, as confirmed by the frantic search for a tracking system that will compensate for the dearth of symptoms, using geolocation data to make up for the lack of stigmata.

MAG

Indeed, since anyone could be sick without knowing it, we are all asked to maintain distance from one another. This policy might have been called “physical distancing,” so as to grant relevance to all the forms of attachment, care, and aid that we have mobilized during this time. The fact that it has been called “social distancing” clearly underscores the aesthetic-political implications of this extraordinary type of negative performance. Social distance is the suppression of gestures of contact. It entails not shaking hands with, hugging, or leaning in toward—much less slapping, hitting, or attacking—one another. It abolishes the affordances of the world, thus working like an anesthetic. If, as Adam Phillips writes, “attention seeking . . . is a form of sociability, an appeal to others to help us with our wanting,”[3] then social distancing inhibits our desire to give and receive attention.

We talk about the pandemic using surface codes, but we live it as bodies embedded in our homes, as though in a cultural version of locked-in syndrome. Are we a new kind of freak in a new kind of circus? It will be interesting to see to what extent future reflections about the transformation of public space into media space, the virtualization of private space through the systematic use of online platforms, and new codes of social representation where only the upper half of the body is displayed remain reliant on our culture’s privileging of the iconic, and to what extent they acknowledge that vision itself is situated. We are currently living a critical stalemate and paying for it in the flesh.

Suffering due to suspended sociality alone does not account for the profound sense of disorientation that we are experiencing. Are we not asked to stay in what is, by definition, the most welcoming space for us: our homes? Why then does this space appear so inhospitable to us? Coming from decades where being mobile was everything, home confinement suddenly becomes the cutoff point where our experience of near and far, neighbor and stranger, collapses. After living so freely, after having the very notion of open space shape our understanding of what living space is in itself, we all find ourselves confinable.

A different understanding is needed to account for the current state of human affairs. The latter calls for a new aesthetic of presence.

We know that our bodies are coextensive with the physical, social, and cultural environments in which goods, medicine, laws, and artifacts play a part; that emotions, thoughts, practices, and tools modify the neurobiological processes of individuals and of our species as a whole. Cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy use the term embodiment for the interconnectedness of man, nature, and technology: our bodies cut the world into a continuous reciprocal dynamic of action and reaction. We are all cyborgs. We have supposedly known this for decades, though we resist the idea and continue to observe this embodiment from the outside, as a notion to be put in perspective; we thus have a paradoxically disembodied understanding of it.

This critical inertia occurs at a time when COVID-19 has raised the question of embodiment to a higher level: an institutional level. The problem has been clear from the outset: by all getting sick at the same time we would have made it impossible for doctors and hospitals to care for us. Sick people make the system sick. We have thus acknowledged a link between the vulnerability of the individual and the vulnerability of the government infrastructure responsible for medical care. The moral imperative has been to “flatten the curve.”

The ongoing pandemic shows us governments as institutional actors whose power to lead lies unexpectedly in their capacity for care and protection. I am in favor of rethinking political action as an exercise in care because it would entail an ecological, feminist, and intergenerational agenda and would acknowledge that citizens are an aggregate of women and men, children and older people, with different potentialities, who make up networks of knowledge, affections, desires, and abilities. Nevertheless, while care as an active and mutual practice is a positive and productive engagement, being taken into care suggests an attitude of submissiveness that weakens personal initiative, the freedom to try and fail. If responsibility is the ability to respond, as Karen Barad has put it, then the political perspective of being cared for can weaken us to the point of making us nonresponsible.

We are at a crossroads. We have the opportunity to implement an ecological agenda and finally recognize that a butterfly flapping its wings can indeed cause a hurricane; to increase individual responsibility and inventiveness as a result; to overcome the ill-conceived alternative between social justice and freedom; and to build a fair and inclusive system of power. At the same time, we run the risk of turning our vulnerability into passivity; of assimilating individuals into two broad categories—reliable healthy people and socially dangerous sick people, each tagged with its own health code; of substituting the medical specialist for the political leader and the military, driven by a magical faith in science, which we are asked to believe in as we might a patron saint and whose praxis and verification system are unfortunately largely unknown to citizens.[4]

This choice, which calls into question the ultimate meaning of democratic citizenship, arises at a time of increased implementation of the prosthetic nature of the human body. Since sealing ourselves in our homes, we have never been so unbounded: with all of us connected 24/7, using privately owned platforms, whether for birthday parties, dissertation defenses, homeschooling, or work meetings, we are redefining the experience of our self and of the outside with a blind faith in the openness of the web and its democratic accessibility, both of whose shortfalls we prefer to ignore.

To pursue the best way forward we need to queer the dominant narrative and finally abandon the regime of “natural iconicity,” with its divide between presence and absence, which has unfortunately withstood decades of academic studies; we need to think about how embodied and gendered minds perform freely in spaces where the affective values of near and far have taken on enormous political relevance. We need to be able to be in touch and respond.

13 May 2020


Chiara Cappelletto is Associate Professor of Aesthetics at the Philosophy Department, University of Milan, where she teaches Poetics & Rhetoric and Contemporary Aesthetics, and heads the Performing Identities Seminar (PIS).Her work focusses on the fabrication of personal identity through public discourse and theatrical performance. Her books include Neuroaesthetics: Art, Braincentrism, and the Embodied Mind, forthcoming Columbia University Press.

Samuel Fleck earned his PhD from Columbia University with a dissertation on Antonio Fogazzaro and late nineteenth-century Italian literature. His experience as a translator of French and Italian texts into English spans more than twelve years. Among his recent works are translations of the poetry collection Valsolda by Fogazzaro, with selected poems set to appear in the Italian Poetry Review, and the book Neuroaesthetics: Art, Braincentrism, and the Embodied Mind by Chiara Cappelletto, forthcoming Columbia University Press


[1] Cara Giaimo, “The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World: How C.D.C. Medical Illustrators Created the Coronavirus Pandemic’s Most Iconic Image,” New York Times, April 1, 2020,  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/health/coronavirus-illustration-cdc.html.

[2] Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification,” Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (1987): 263–305.

[3] Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 7.

[4] To complexify the question at hand, consider the notion of “therapeutic citizenship” coined by Vinh-Kim Nguyen. See Vinh-Kim Nguyen, “Antiretroviral Globalism, Biopolitics, and Therapeutic Citizenship,” in Global Assemblages, ed. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), pp. 124–44.

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Groundhog Day and the Epoché

W. J. T. Mitchell

I thought that, by seventy-eight, I had seen everything.  Every epidemic from polio to AIDS to SARS. Every war from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and the endless, stupid “War on Terror.” Every terrible president from Nixon to Reagan to Bush. Around the fall of 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, I was reminded of the old proverb, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Now, in the spring of 2020, we see how deep nothingness can be, a black hole in time that has sucked the entire world into its gravitational field. And so I began thinking about time, the present moment, and asking why and how it might provide a unique moment of insight.

Of course, since we are in a state of emergency, crisis, and exception, who has time to think about time? Nurses, orderlies, doctors are overwhelmed with sixteen-hour days of nonstop work; grocery clerks, immigrant fruit pickers, and meat processors are essential workers, while  the poor and people of color line up with millions of unemployed at food banks. Politicians scurry about covering their asses, or making up for the incompetence at the helm of the national government, and we watch as the richest, most technologically advanced country on the planet, with 2 percent of the world’s population, catches one-third of the cases of coronavirus at the latest count and boasts the worst record in the first world for mismanagement of the crisis.

Unknown

Antony Gormley’s Clearing No. 1

So who has time to think about time?  The answer is stunningly clear.  We do.  I mean those of us who are paid to think, and write, and teach and who may be lucky enough to still be on the payroll of some academic institution.  Or those of us who are retired, drawing a pension, lucky to be sequestered at home rather than condemned to the petri dish of a nursing home.  As someone who is on the verge of retirement, in the process of stepping down from the helm of Critical Inquiry, a journal I have edited for the last forty-two years—the time of “theory”—I had already been thinking about time, numbering my days, and reflecting on the question of time itself.  Inspired by the maddest American political epoch in my lifetime, launched by the election of 2016, I had already plunged into the vast philosophical, historical, and scientific literature on time, trying to make sense of what makes this moment both unprecedented and utterly predictable, unique and yet exemplary, terrifying and yet filled with potential.[1] Above all I wanted to ask what makes this a teachable moment, one from which we could learn something together. And so I have found myself writing in the present tense about an extraordinarily tense present.

I have not been doing this alone.  On every side, pundits, essayists, poets, artists, intellectuals, novelists, historians, political theorists, and philosophers have been weighing in.  The present “Posts from the Pandemic” on the Critical Inquiry blog, “In the Moment,” have been pouring in from all over the world, crossing the screens of our editorial collective for debate and evaluation, and then reaching out to a readership much more numerous and far-reaching than the usual audience of a scholarly journal devoted to criticism and theory.

The result has been an enormous outpouring of thoughtful reflection gathered up in these posts.  They range from the personal and confessional (Slavoj Žižek noting that he finds himself hoping he will catch the virus) to the apocalyptic and prophetic (Bruno Latour and Achille Mbembe linking the pandemic to climate change, and Joshua Clover bringing it all back to capitalism).  Science (Norman Macleod urging us to “show some respect” for viruses and viral metaphors) and the history of science (Catherine Malabou and Lorraine Daston reflecting on how intellectuals have responded to plague).  Practical wisdom (Carol J. Adams on “anticipatory care-giving” and why we shouldn’t shake out clothes before washing them; Bill Ayers on the trials and dangers of Zoom teaching).   Virus-inspired reflections on biopower and biopolitics are everywhere as Michel Foucault’s prophetic writings continue to resonate (according to Daniele Lorenzini), and Jacques Derrida’s metaphorics of autoimmunity looms on the horizon. Katherine Hayles’s posthumanism relocates our bodies as the battleground between simplicity and complexity, viruses and the counter-virus of human intelligence. Affect theory and collective emotion go global in new forms of wonder and anxiety; the poetry of domestic immersion (Andrea Brady’s “Hanging in the Air”), ferocious tirade (Charles Bernstein’s “Covidity”), and John Wilkinson’s meditation on a time that has lost its legs to love. Mick Taussig’s shamanism finds a vocation, amid the “comic dimension” of self-isolating critical theorists, scholars, and poets laboring at their laptops, promoting their pet theories, predicting both u- and dys-topia, a new world of Green Socialism or a suicidal species hell-bent on authoritarian populism, nationalism, and racism.

Unknown-1

Antony Gormley’s Clearing No. 2

Are these “end times”?  Trump’s favorite Evangelical minister, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church, recently conjured with the possibility that the coronavirus is an apocalyptic judgment from God. Although he asserted with total confidence that “all natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin,” he reassured his flock that this is not the Biblical plague that signals the apocalyptic end times. The reason: the Antichrist has not appeared yet.  Please excuse the uncontrollable laughter that follows this remark as I watch the Dear Leader pontificate on the medicinal virtues of Lysol. Just kidding, wasn’t he?

So, are we experiencing the onset of a New World Order? Peter Szendy’s “Viral Times” explores the temporal paradoxes of “hypervelocity and standstill,” the onset of a surprise that was unthinkable a few short months ago and utterly predictable after “decades of neoliberal dismantling of health and research infrastructures.” Emmanuel Alloa, on the other hand, finds himself “envying the confidence” of those who are “eager to explain to us that everything they have been saying for years has thus proved to be right.”  Meanwhile, Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith comfort us with reminders of monastic life as a precedent for temporal stress and chances for the “care of self” produced by “social isolation.”  If Hans Blumenberg were still among us, he would no doubt remind us that the trope of “Shipwreck with Spectator” is a “metaphor for existence,” especially that of the philosopher who withdraws from the world to observe it from the solid ground of reason.  But he would then go on to note that Nietzsche launched an epoch in the history of philosophy by declaring (with Pascal) that “we have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”[2]

Let us agree, then, that we are “all at sea,” and even “all in the same boat,” Spaceship Earth drifting like a modern Titanic whose fate is still unknown, with first-class cabins protecting some of us from the chaos in the engine room and steerage, while the band plays on in the cyber salons.  We live in what historians call an “epoch,” a crazy, possibly revolutionary turning point in history in which old certainties collapse and science reveals its true nature as a discourse of contingency, uncertainty, and the incalculable.  At the same time, it feels like we socially isolated hermit scholars are trapped in the film Groundhog Day (1993), caught in a time loop in which every day feels like the last, but we are given one more chance for an imaginary do-over.  One prediction seems secure:  the dates of B.C. and A.D. will now designate the “before” and “after” of COVID-19 as a caesura in the time of our species on this planet.  A global pandemic coupled with a financial crisis on the scale of the Great Depression looms before us.  In the scale of cosmic time, this is a mere moment that will pass in the “blink of an eye,” what Germans call an Augenblick. In human history it promises to be a game changer.

The concept of epoch, the revolutionary turning point or “momentous moment,” is not the sole property of history.  Philosophy, especially skepticism and phenomenology are also grounded in the concept of the epoché, Edmund Husserl’s method of “bracketing” or “suspending” judgment in order to ponder our percepts and concepts for just a moment before getting back to work.  We lucky scholars thrive in “down times,”  “time-outs,” moments of suspension or bracketing of judgment, when we are compelled to meditate on both our objective perceptions and the “objectless representations” of collective hallucinations, dreams, fantasies, and ideologies.  The distinct scales of immediate, urgent, and microscopic “viral times” and the macroscopic planetary scale of climate change converge, as Achille Mbembe argues, and so with every breath you take, every move you make, CI will be watching you.

11 May 2020


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


[1] See also “American Psychosis:  Trump and the Nightmare of History,” Lecture at the University of Geneva, January 17, 2017.

[2] Shipwreck with Spectator:  Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 19.   

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On Cooperationism: An End to the Economic Plague

Bernard E. Harcourt

Over thirty million Americans just filed first-time unemployment claims as a result of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, pushing unemployment to its highest levels since the Great Depression. Despite that, the US stock markets recorded in April their best month since 1987; after an initial shock, the markets rallied steadily, rising over 30 percent since their lows in late March. Most economists sounded puzzled and offered fanciful daily explanations. Even Paul Krugman had little to say, suggesting that “Investors are buying stocks in part because they have nowhere else to go.”

But it’s no wonder the markets defied the economic crash. For the markets, there is nothing like a good crisis when the right people are in power. Philip Mirowski wrote tellingly about this during the last debacle—the financial meltdown of 2008—under the moniker “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Now too, the Faustian logic as to why institutional investors just put their bets on the market should not escape us.

AMERICA_MASK

First, Donald Trump and the Republican Senators have made it crystal clear that they have the backs of the large-cap corporations no matter how bad things get. By strengthening the largest corporations now, the bailouts will help them weed out their smaller competitors and facilitate monopolistic practices later. After the pandemic, the large-cap corporations will be poised to reap extractive profits, while most small businesses and mom-and-pop stores will be out of business.

Second, the sunset provisions on the bailout restrictions will allow shareholders and managers to enrich themselves when an economic recovery eventually happens, again without ever needing to build reserves because they know they’ll be bailed out next time as well. As Tim Wu details, these recurring bailouts have allowed wealthy managers to pillage in good times—through stock buy-backs and exorbitant executive pay—and get rescued in bad. This too enhances market value while extracting capital for the wealthy.

Third, Trump has sapped any momentum toward universal health care by promising financial exceptions for coronavirus-related health care costs. These COVID-19 carve outs will protect the Republicans from backlash in the November 2020 elections. After it’s all over, the less fortunate will continue to be ravaged by ordinary cancers and poverty-related diseases without any coverage, to the financial benefit of private insurance and corporate and wealthier taxpayers.

Fourth, the pandemic is disproportionately decimating the most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the poor, the uninsured, the incarcerated, and persons of color. The racial imbalance is unconscionable: the coronavirus mortality rate for African Americans is almost three times higher than the mortality rate for whites. The rates of infection in prison and jails are also horrifying. The populations at risk are disproportionately older and poorer, so on Medicare and Medicaid. Some refer to this as “culling the herd.” Market investors can expect that social security will be less of a drag on the economy in the future.

Fifth, the Republicans have been able to secret into the bailouts tax bonanzas for millionaires. One such provision temporarily suspends a limitation on the amount of deductions to nonbusiness income that owners of businesses established as pass-through entities can claim as a way to reduce their taxes owed. The nonpartisan congressional body, the Joint Committee on Taxation, estimates this will disproportionately benefit about 43,000 taxpayers in the highest tax bracket (over one million dollars in income) who will receive an average windfall of 1.63 million dollars per filer.

The markets have become the mirror of an ugly truth. Michel Foucault presciently observed, back in 1979, that markets are the touchstone of truth in neoliberal times. And the ugly truth that they reveal today is that the pandemic is a goldmine for large-cap corporations, institutional investors, and the wealthiest. I once overheard a New York real estate tycoon talking about the land grab in the Adirondacks in the 1930s and commenting “Wasn’t the Great Depression grand!” Institutional investors must feel the same way about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sadly, one can hardly expect that much difference in a Democratic administration, especially one that is equally beholden to Wall Street and wealthy donors. The last two—those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—avidly embraced neoliberal policies such as workfare for the unemployed and welfare for the corporate elite. The Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner bailouts of 2008 were the model for today’s.

Mia Ruyter Hank Paulson 2008 v1

Mia Ruyter, Hank Paulson (oil on fake leather, 2008)

The only way forward—beyond a next Democratic administration—is a genuine legal transformation that replaces our existing corporate regime with cooperative, mutualist, and nonprofit enterprises. The many of us who create, invent, produce, work, and serve others need to displace the few who extract and hoard capital and put in place a new cooperationism that favors the equitable and sustainable distribution of economic growth and wealth creation.

The legal structure that enables the corporate form—what Katharina Pistor accurately calls the code of capital—has to be repealed and replaced with a new economic framework that circulates the wealth generated from production and consumption. These alternative legal forms, which have existed for centuries and surround us today, include cooperatives for producing and manufacturing, credit unions for banking, housing coops for living, mutualities for insuring, and nonprofit organizations for good works and learning.

This is also the only way to address head-on the global climate crisis. The logic, principles, and values of cooperative arrangements can serve to slow down our consumption-at-all-cost society. The goal of the cooperative enterprise is not to maximize the extraction of capital but to support and maintain all of the participants in the enterprise and to distribute well-being, which includes and depends on a healthy environment. By replacing the logic of capital extraction—the extractive logic as Saskia Sassen calls it—with an ethos of equitable distribution, we can prepare to address the climate crisis after the pandemic is over.

In hindsight, the term capitalism was always a misnomer, coined paradoxically by its critics in the nineteenth century. The term misleadingly suggests that capital inherently functions in certain ways, has a certain DNA, and is governed by economic laws. That’s an illusion though. Capital is just an artifact shaped by law and politics. Its code is entirely man-made. And as Thomas Piketty and others demonstrate, the current concentration of capital and increasing wealth inequalities today are nothing more than a political choice, not the product of any laws of capital.

In truth, we do not live today in a system in which capital dictates our economic circumstances. Instead, we live under the tyranny of what I would call “tournament dirigisme”: a type of state-directed gladiator sport where our political leaders bestow spoils on the wealthy in order to get reelected (and increasingly, to self-fund their own political campaigns).

We need to displace this tournament dirigisme with a legal and political framework that favors cooperation and collaboration between those who create, invent, produce, work, labor, and serve others. Rather than corporations that extract capital for the few shareholders and managers, we need cooperatives, mutuals, and nonprofits that distribute the wealth they create widely to everyone in the shared enterprise; and continually guard against the gross disparities in pay that now characterize our gladiator dirigisme. It will be the only way to tame our obscene and destructive consumerism.

It is not enough to increase progressive wealth taxes on the billionaires and invest more in public hospitals and public schools, as Piketty recently suggested. That won’t fundamentally change the Faustian logic and temptations. Instead, and urgently, it’s time to replace our system of tournament dirigisme with a new cooperationism.

Too many of us in this country are still entranced by the myth of American individualism—the idea that we can go it alone and invent and create and build things by ourselves and reap all the benefits. It is so ingrained in the public imagination, tied to the image of the pioneer gold digger and the shiny rewards of solitary hard work. The ideology undergirds the corporate form and the logic of capital extraction. But for the most part, we succeed in inventing, creating, and producing through mutual support, working together, and collaboration. It is these forms of cooperation that must ground a postpandemic economy.

This pandemic and economic crash must not prevent us from working together to place ourselves in a better position to deal with the other crisis—climate change—still looming on the horizon. On the contrary, these times call for a legal, political, and economic revolution to ring in a new epoch of cooperationism. This will demand political will. It will not come from our political leaders, so beholden now to corporate contributions. It will have to come from us all united.

5 May 2020

[A version of this post appears in French at AOC]


Bernard E. Harcourt is a professor of law and political science at Columbia University in New York City and directeur d’études at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.  He is the author of The Illusion of Free Markets (2011) and The Counterrevolution (2018), and of the forthcoming book Critique & Praxis (2020).

 

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After Lucretius

LUCRETIUS

John Wilkinson

The lights have fallen dumb and refuse to travel,
preserving their angles is all that concerns them;
clothes hang in their creases, while in seed-banks
weevils curl up at the futility of spoiling green further.

This time had been expected to have legs, to move
formations across the plain. This time believes love
a moving force, but takes delight and bandages it,
runs closed captioning behind closed doors. What if

an elevator loses purpose, flashlights fail to search,
if empty buses void the timetable – did you survive
Rome’s marauding gangs, did you survive plague?
Lovers take turns round apartments, seek to bring

stars to earth, starring the recesses of bodies plainly
felt, might that stop the fever? – Courses deviate,
the very bricks lift off to touch skin, skin will float
song that pulmonary rises, falls and rises in the street.

 

29 April 2020


John Wilkinson is professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago and director of the program in Creative Writing and the program in Poetry and Poetics. His first collection of poetry, Useful Reforms, was published in 1976. More recent publications include Reckitt’s Blue (2013), Ghost Nets (2016), and My Reef My Manifest Array (2019). A selected poems, Schedule of Unrest, was published in 2014.


This video is an excerpt from a longer reading featured in “Writers in Residence,” the University of Chicago Program in Creative Writing’s virtual reading series. For the full reading and more videos in the series, visit the Creative Writing YouTube channel.

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Posts from the Pandemic

Since early March, Critical Inquiry has been publishing a series of short pieces about the global outbreak of the coronavirus. “Posts from the Pandemic” features critical writing by Lorraine Daston, Bruno Latour, Catherine Malabou, Slavoj Žižek, Achille Mbembe, N. Katherine Hayles and others, many of whom are frequent contributors to the journal. Sometimes speaking alone, but often in conversation with each other, these blog posts have touched on the environmental, political, and economic consequences of the spread of Covid-19. The online response to the series has been overwhelming. With over 200,000 views so far, the blog is being read and commented on by readers all across the world. We’ve never seen anything like this. And we hope to keep posting as contributions to the series continue. Thank you for reading and writing!

COVID_IMAGE

 

W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Groundhog Day and the Epoché”

Slavoj Žižek’s “Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?” (3/18/20)

Nikolaj Schultz’s “The Climatic Virus in an Age of Paralysis” (3/21/20)

Catherine Malabou’s “To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and ‘I’” (3/23/20)

Kyle Stevens’s “When Movies Get Sick” (3/25/20)

Bruno Latour’s “Is This a Dress Rehearsal” (3/26/20)

Joshua Clover’s “The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour” (3/29/20)

Michael Taussig’s “Would a Shaman Help” (3/30/20)

Andrea Brady’s “Hanging in the Air” (4/1/20)

Daniele Lorenzini’s “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus” (4/2/20)

Carol J. Adams’s “Anticipatory Care” (4/5/20)

Norman MacLeod’s “COVID-19 Metaphors” (4/6/20)

Alexander Garcia Düttmann’s “A Letter to Oliver Vogel,” translated by James Fontini (4/8/20)

Lorraine Daston’s “Ground-Zero Empiricism” (4/10/20)

Achille Mbembe’s “The Universal Right to Breathe,” translated by Carolyn Shread (4/13/20)

Peter Szendy’s “Viral Times” (4/15/20)

N. Katherine Hayles‘s “Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus” (4/17/20)

Emmanuel Alloa’s “Coronavirus: A Contingency that Eliminates Contingency” (4/20/20)

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith’s “The Demon of Distraction” (4/22/20)

Charles Bernstein’s “Covidity” (4/24/20)

Bill Ayers’s “OK, Zoomer” (4/27/20)

John Wilkinson’s “After Lucretius” (4/29/20)

Bernard E. Harcourt’s “On Cooperationism: An End to the Economic Plague” (5/5/20)

Chiara Cappelletto’s “Arguments for a New Aesthetic of Presence,” translated by Samuel Fleck (5/13/20)

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Net-munity, or The Space between Us . . . Will Open the Future”(5/20/20)

Lydia H. Liu’s “The Incalculable: Thoughts on the Collapse of the Biosecurity Regime” (5/26/20)

Leela Gandhi’s “Skeptical Conditions” (6/1/20)

Romi Crawford’s “Connecting Breaths” (6/3/20)

Jenny Holzer’s “COVID-19 / EXPOSE” (6/8/20)

Ewan Jones’s “How to Learn Together, Apart” (6/12/20)

Hannah B Higgins’s “Sonic Images of the Coronavirus” (6/17/20)

Robert Gooding-Williams’s “Revisiting the Ferguson Report: Antiblack Concepts and the Practice of Policing” (6/19/20)

Lennard Davis’s “In the Time of Pandemic, the Deep Structure of Biopower Is Laid Bare”(6/26/20)

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OK, Zoomer!

Bill Ayers

Yes, yes, I’m teaching my classes on Zoom (☹️).

It’s weird for me, but I’ve got it (I think) and, against my will and better judgment, I feel a little thrill and a burst of relief each time class ends without the internet exploding. I  push all the right buttons, issue all the appropriate commands. Oh, joy! (😀).

ayers_final

Image by Beyza Ozer

So here we are, suddenly, all of us: distance learning, e-learning, online teaching, virtual classrooms—the whole bewildering turmoil. I soldier on, necessarily but not happily, all the while with an irritating chorus of cheerleaders in the background pushing me forward: “online learning is an excellent way to increase student engagement and differentiate instruction;” “digital tools save time and do the heavy lifting by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional materials, and assessments;” “distance learning can continue delivering instruction without disruption even in events like snow days or the COVID-19 pandemic.” Every line offends what I know to be true about teaching, and my sense of what it can achieve, but, wow! snow days or COVID-19—that pretty much covers the waterfront; wait! better add floods and fires and extreme weather.

I was particularly annoyed when I saw my neighbor Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, on TV finding, as always, a silver lining in the catastrophe (after Katrina, you may remember, he famously declared that New Orleans was now liberated to create a whole new school system from  scratch!), this time ushering in the pandemic as dress rehearsal for the “classrooms of the future.”

Come on, Arne— Zoom is not the future of classroom life or teaching. In fact, that response betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of each. When I saw Arne jogging while on my walk the other day, I suppressed the desire to strangle him, and, fortunately, remembered that  I couldn’t get closer than six feet.

Of course distance learning is nothing new—I took a correspondence course on figure drawing in the 1950s (a bust in my case, although I liked the colored pencils) and was tempted to take another on body building offered by Charles Atlas (the advertisement in the back of my comic books promised I could transform myself from a “97-pound weakling” into a tough guy who would never again allow a bully to kick sand in my face at the beach—of course I didn’t have a beach, but whatever). Correspondence courses and distance learning stretch in all directions—back to 1873 and the founding of the US Society to Encourage Studies at Home, onward to 2008 when salvation was offered in the form of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. A colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Chicago told me in 1995 that e-learning represented the end of educational inequity: “In the remotest village in the Third World, or the most segregated poor neighborhood in this city, a student will be able to access the best professors and hear the best lecture ever given on Romeo and Juliet!” OMG!

charles-atlas-comic

The “Great Books Program” has been around for decades, and the “Great Courses,” a series of video classes produced and distributed by the for-profit Teaching Company based in Chantilly, Virginia, claims to have developed over seven hundred courses and sold over fourteen million copies—once again “the greatest scholars and their classic lectures.” So with these and other entrepreneurs already up and running, along with the millions and millions of books out there, why are we even bothering with Zoom? Or classes. Or bricks and mortar. Or professors.

A colleague with experience in distance learning told me that online classes are to actual classrooms what frozen pizza is to home-made pizza: similar ingredients but a vastly different experience. Staying with the metaphor, pizza delivered is straightforward and concrete, as well as often delicious; real classrooms can be delicious as well, but not because the teacher/pizza person “delivered instruction.” Teachers might write books and record lectures—I’ve done both—and those can be more-or-less delivered into the waiting hands (pizza-style) and upturned heads of hungry consumers.

Classroom teaching is quite different—it’s a relationship, a transformative journey for everyone involved. That’s why good teachers come to class ready to teach, but also primed to see, to hear, and to know their students as three-dimensional creatures, much like themselves, each the one-of-one, each a member of the group—an intimate encounter that cannot adequately take place at a distance. The teacher comes as a student-of-the-students, prepared to change lives, and simultaneously prepared to be changed by the propulsive, life-altering energy that’s released whenever a human being’s mind expands or rearranges itself.

Caution: Class Underway—May Be Explosive!

Social distancing is such an awkward, ugly term as well as an unfamiliar but necessary practice we’re all learning to implement together. As we move through these dire and unpredictable times, we might change that language and call it what it is: social solidarity—among the zillion things we can do to help one another out as part of a shared community is to break the chain of contagion and allow some sensible space between us—it’s an act of cooperation, really, not distance or isolation, and an expression of human harmony and not dissonance. Let’s call it by its truer name: social solidarity!

I have two seminars this term, one on Writing Creative Nonfiction, and one on Ethics and Education. I have students zooming in to class from western Canada, Eastern Europe, the Bronx, South Asia, Texas, and places in between. Their circumstances are dramatically different, of course, and yet they are uniformly flexible and forgiving, kind and generous with me and with one another, comrades facing the world arm-in-arm. Each seminar is scheduled for three hours a week, but I’ve kept  to about an hour and a half, supplementing with extensive office hours, and regularly correspondence with my students.

Both courses invite us to peer into the pandemic and shine a bright light on the many, many  contradictions that the virus illuminates. The ruling class—the powerful, the wealthy, the 1 percent and their enablers in the political class—has an agenda that’s aggressively promoted in good times and in bad, an agenda pulled quickly from the bottom drawer in any crisis and rushed relentlessly toward center stage. So here we are: the privatization of public goods and services, massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private, the destruction of participatory democracy and the erasure of the public, the suppression of voting, the reduction of education and health care and public safety to products, the intensification of white supremacy, and more. And so we wrestle in class with the outlines of an alternative agenda—what are we willing to fight for?

The perennial contradiction between “we” and “me”—a basic human tension with vast social, cultural, and political differences and dimensions—lurched violently toward an exclusive “ME” in our country in 1980 with the “Reagan Revolution” and its racist dog whistles, its opposition to any concept of collectivity or the public, its weaponized individualism, and its anemic, libertarian definition of freedom. Public safety became “own a gun;” “public education” became a product to be bought at the market place; public health was reduced to “take care of yourself.” The word itself—public—in some contexts was racially coded: public welfare, public housing, public aid, public transportation. Saint Ronald Reagan, godhead of the Right and the icon to whom every Republican leader bends a knee and genuflects piously to this day, famously said this at his inauguration: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” That’s the dogma we’re now suffering together now, and that’s the orthodoxy under examination in seminar.

In the opening scene of the Cohen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Johnny struggles to explain to the big crime boss, Leo, how he’s been wronged by an associate mobster, Bernie.  “I’m talkin’ about friendship,” Johnny says, and the camera lingers on the saliva forming in the creases of his thin, menacing smile.  “I’m talkin’ about character,” he continues structuring his case. “I’m talkin’ about—Hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word—I’m talkin’ about ethics” (pronounced e-tics).

“When I fix a fight,” Johnny proceeds indignantly, “Say I play a three to one favorite to throw a goddam fight. I got a right to expect the fight to go off at three to one.”  Then Bernie, the lying cheat, hears of the deal, manipulates the situation, and the “odds go straight to hell.”

“Now, if you can’t trust a fix,” Johnny whines, “what can you trust?”  Without ethics, he concludes, “we’re back into anarchy, right back in the jungle. . . . That’s why ethics are important.  It’s what separates us from the animals, from beasts of burden, beasts of prey.  Ethics!”

“Do you want to kill him?” asks Leo, cooly.

“For starters,” Johnny replies earnestly.

Johnny, Leo, Bernie—and the Trump mafia—are all talkin’ about ethics.

And the crisis rages on.

27 April 2020


William Ayers, formerly Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has written extensively about social justice, democracy, and education, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. His books include A Kind and Just Parent; Teaching toward Freedom; Fugitive Days: A Memoir; Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident; To Teach: The Journey, in Comics; Race Course: Against White Supremacy; and Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto.

 

 

 

 

 

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Covidity

 

Question Mark

Susan Bee, Question Mark (2017, 30” x 24”, oil on linen) used by permission of Susan Bee.

 

Charles Bernstein

The covid gonna get me
If not now, it will
The covid gonna kill me
Find me where I live

Buried under covers
Sheltered in the hall
Trading goodbyes to all my friends
Through goddamn15-foot walls

The covid’ll get me
Get me bad
My lungs are weak
And I am much misunderstood

I practice social distance
Even got an oversize mask
Feel like the Lone Ranger
Just before he got the clap

The covid going to find me
If not today, in time
The covid after me
Find exactly where I am

Call it social distance
I call it pain in the soul
You say I can handle it
But it’s too heavy a load

The covid ’round the corner
’ll thrash me till I blue
But that’s not my worry
Terrified for you

You’ve always been distant
But not from me
Now I feel you drifting
Like you’re far out at sea

The covid gonna get me
If not now any day
The covid got my number
Knows just where I stay

You say I’ll manage social distance
That I can make it work
But if I’m distant from you
I’m sunk before I swum

The covid gonna get me
If not now, soon
The covid has me up all night
Fighting ’gainst all this gloom

Too much death surrounding
I darn near given up
Keep calling on the telephone
But you’re hung up on Skype

The covid coming
Sure to get us good
Our lungs are weak
And we are much misunderstood

24 April 2020


Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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The Demon of Distraction

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith

 

When we first heard talk of a quarantine, we thought about open spaces closing down: travel bans and militarized border enforcement on an international scale, isolation orders that would restrain movement closer to home. The collective endeavor to flatten the curve seemed to entail drawing smaller and smaller circles around ourselves.

Now, as we inhabit our narrower circuits, the partitioning of space plays out for us in time. Closures disrupt the ordinary rhythms of business and pleasure, work and play. Some days seem to last forever; others flit by. What day is it, anyway? Lately the clock and the calendar seem obsolete. They still count the time, but they are measuring it for the people of some bygone civilization, the modern but outmoded Empire of Business as Usual. Just when we have time to ourselves, time becomes a problem for us.

clock-11

What gives us the feeling of losing touch with the old time, we know, is not only the reorganization of space but also, especially, the interruption of work. Even for those among us who are still healthy and being paid, the drift feels nervous, scattering. In other words, the phenomenology of being off the clock, of slipping out of what E. P. Thompson calls industrial modernity’s “time discipline,” is something other than a feeling of freedom. We are not so anxious about losing time anymore, but we begin to worry that we are getting lost in it.

We have been trying to get a handle on our time, to give our days some structure. Heightened distraction provokes a revival of old-fashioned devotional exercises. Cloistered away like so many monks, we seek solace in regularity, rituals of community, and working with our hands. We set up daily schedules of activities, plan happy hours in virtual chat rooms, and plant seasonal gardens. We craft. The global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, hypermodern in so many ways, brings with it swift regression to ancient metrics of ceremonial time and reversion to preindustrial styles of labor.

In the fifth century, John Cassian wrote a systematic description of Egyptian monastic life. Cassian knew how difficult it was for the monks to endure their solitude, to remain steadfast through the monotony. One of the greatest dangers was restlessness: the mind wandered, the eye roved, soon enough the monk abandoned his cell and his vow. The term Cassian used, acedia, is often translated as “sloth,” but in the monastic tradition it meant something more complex and more severe than simple laziness. Borrowed from the Greek ἀκηδία, lack of care, acedia was a roving, lonely, agitated sensation, a feeling of being unhappy in one’s place that could spiral into downright depression.

Evagrius Pontius, the fourth-century theologian, analyzed the “noonday demon” in his catalogue of sinful thoughts. “When he reads,” wrote Evagrius, “the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings.”

Acedia in the tradition of the monks began with a lack of care. But the Greek κῆδος (kedos) underlying it had specialized meanings too. It referred to the attachments that bound people to each other. Κῆδος also described burial rites and honors, just as we still speak of attending a funeral or tending to the dead. Acedia is a special kind of distraction that comes on when ties to other people, and then to God, are severed: a lonely wandering of the mind.

Cassian, who had read Evagrius, highlighted the importance of manual labor in mitigating distraction: “On the heart’s slippery movements and thought’s unstable undulations” the monks “fasten the weight of toil as a kind of steadying and immovable anchor.” Much of the Egyptian monks’ labor was practical, aiding subsistence in a tough environment. There was a special place for fruitless toil too, however, as an opportunity to exercise obedience and cultivate devotion. Cassian tells of Abba John, a monk who carried himself so humbly that his mentor began to doubt his sincerity. Was John really virtuous, or only acting the part? To test him, the teacher stuck an old, rotted branch in the ground and ordered him to water it twice a day until it came alive again. For a year John watered that stick, walking four miles to get the water. Neither winter, nor holidays, nor illness broke his fruitless routine. He never questioned or complained. Finally, the elder pulled the stick out of the ground and tossed it aside.

Is our elective labor, often as ritualized and empty as Abba John’s, a way of seeking solace in our powerlessness? To be sure, much of what we are doing now is the poorly remunerated but essential work that really is necessary to the world. We teach our children and cook our meals, or we perform similar acts of care for others. We clean, over and over again. We carry out the labor we knew was fundamental–if often despised or ignored, largely by way of its gendering–all along.

But what of all the other tasks that the idle invent for themselves? No family will be saved from hunger by four baby lettuces growing in a hydroponic garden. We will not wear our hand-knitted clothes after the apocalypse. Even the homemade facemasks so lovingly crocheted or sewn out of colorful cloth scraps are only a symbol of protection–may, indeed, render anyone venturing outside in them less safe. By one measure, making these things is unproductive, a waste of time–and yet there is a difference between this evidently useless work and the soul-killing “bullshit jobs” David Graeber has taxonomized, those paper-pushing positions “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify [their] existence.” The work we turn to now is unproductive, but it finds another use as a steadying anchor. It serves a therapeutics of attention.

Modern political philosophy has regarded attention with a deep ambivalence. In Capital, Marx describes attention as the force that binds the worker to the task. “The less he is attracted by the nature of the work and the way in which it has to be accomplished, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as the free play of his own physical and mental powers, the closer his attention is forced to be.” Here, paying attention does not mean freely exercising a natural human capacity. Instead, attention becomes an instrument of exploitation.

Following Marx, E. P. Thompson argues that religion gives early industrial discipline moral legitimacy; attention is little more than supervision, internalized as an overseer God. Bringing this analysis into a more thoroughly secularized modernity, Jonathan Crary shows how the menace of distraction on the factory floor leads capitalists into an alliance with academic psychology, seeking to maximize workers’ focus and efficiency at their machines.

All along, though, critical theory has also taken on the culture industry and the society of the spectacle, uncovering the pernicious ways mass entertainment holds multitudes in thrall. The spectacle, as Guy Debord imagines it, “concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” If attention can be instrumentalized in labor discipline, then distraction can be cultivated for the purposes of political pacification, a consolation for the acquiescent.

After the rise of digital media and the internet, such an analysis seems almost inescapable. We are in the attention economy now; attention deficit is our mass predicament. It is not E. P. Thompson but the Simone Weil of Gravity and Grace who seems most lucidly to see into our souls: “We have to try to cure our faults by attention.”

In the current feeling of disorder — with its swarms of buzzing news updates, its time flowing recklessly out of form — we sense that while the pandemonium is intense, it is not exactly new. The stream of public chatter had already surged into a flood before the pandemic. The hours for play and rest and work shaded into each other long ago. The demons of distraction have been with us for a long time, though we hear them more clearly in the present quiet.

The monks of late antiquity practiced manual labor and focused meditation to protect themselves against their invisible adversaries: evil spirits, like the noonday demon of acedia, who whispered temptation in their ears. Is our turn to the same ancient practices a way to defend ourselves against our own unseen enemies? We are bombarded with commands, asked to hark to unfathomable calculations of danger. In response, we take up small daily tasks, and we find, in this temporary, half-willing submission, some chance to repair ourselves.

For now, at least, our disciplines of attention are decoupled from our jobs. What will be the consequences of this untethering? We can’t help viewing the situation with some suspicion. It is easy to anticipate what the acolytes of Max Weber might say: Our voluntary makework betrays our deep internalization of capitalism’s compulsions; when no one else will require us to work, we’ll require it of ourselves. It might be suggested, too, that our exercises in attention are really distractions of their own, detaching us from the real world of economic and political conflict.

But when we recognize that our distraction partakes of ancient afflictions and that our disciplines of attention are older than machines, these are not the only prospects that come into view. There is no reason why the care of the self should have to end in isolated withdrawal. If we work with our hands and focus our minds in the face of a modern incarnation of acedia, it may be that we seek something deeper and more connected than self-discipline. We might not just be biding our time and keeping ourselves fit for a return to a more familiar time. We might also be learning how to live in another kind of time altogether, learning to tend to the living and the dead.

22 April 2020


Irina Dumitrescu is a writer and Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (2018) and editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (2016), a collection of essays about the arts and humanities in times of crisis. Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.

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Coronavirus: A Contingency that Eliminates Contingency

Emmanuel Alloa

The mechanism is sadly familiar: each crisis has its designated culprits. For the sovereigntists, this pandemic is to be blamed on deregulated border crossings; for the anticommunists, it is the negligence of a Chinese government that would rather see its citizens die than assume its hazardous initial response; for conspiracy theorists still, it is an American chemical weapon over which secret services have lost control. While collapsology is rejoicing, after having warned us for years of an impending implosion of the planet, others still see it as a sign, profane or divine, of all the recent errors of humanity, from hypermobility to overconsumption. In the twenty-first century, a viral pandemic is replacing the ten scourges of Egypt, a kind of general castigation aimed at producing a collective backlash, and we can already hear all these self-proclaimed omens explaining to us what will have to change, in the famous “after” of our collective resurrection.

egypt

What is remarkable in this range of reactions is the tone of certainty that comes with their verdict. This is even more striking when one reads the explanations put forward by some leading intellectuals. Many of them seem to be little shaken by what is happening to us, so eager are they to explain to us that everything they have been saying for years has thus proved to be right. We find ourselves envying their confidence. Indeed, everything would be simpler if we could blame the coronavirus on either financial capitalism or biopolitical states of exception. One would almost catch oneself, in moments of shame for belonging to the human race, dreaming of a masochistic revenge on planet Earth, as if Gaia were finally making Homo sapiens pay for all that it has inflicted on it for centuries. In fact, doesn’t the world strangely resemble those postapocalyptic scenarios that Hollywood has fed us with in its catastrophe movies, with spectral-looking metropolises and depopulated urban arteries? In a reverse movement, as if in Disney’s old documentary The Living Nature on how life regains the upper hand even in the most hostile environments, today, it looks as if nature was recolonizing the territories left unoccupied because of the lockdown. In Greece, it is fin whales that are once again venturing into the harbours, in Chile, pumas come down from the Cordillera to feed in the city centers, while in Venice, the lagoon waters unperturbed by cruise ships end up becoming crystal-clear again. The true meaning of the coronavirus crisis would therefore be this one, its urgent ecological message, an uppercut jabbed by Mother Nature, to all those who did not want to listen to the alarm bells repeatedly sounded, from André Gorz to Greta Thunberg.

How simple it would be if we were able to provide an easy explanation to this crisis that would win our immediate support, if only so that we could then do repentance, alone or on a planetary scale. No wonder, then, that the etiological machine is running at full throttle; great crises are above all ordeals of sense, and in the absence of visibility, it is easier to take refuge in comforting stories–even when these have done absolutely nothing to reassure.

What if, faced with this explanatory runaway, barely patched up for the occasion, we were to admit that this event is severely undermining our certainties and that it forbids us, at the risk of not recognizing how incisive an event it is on our lives, to resort to our usual crutches? What if we were to consider, even if only for a moment,  the truly senseless nature of what is happening to us? The global coronavirus pandemic is, in and of itself, intrinsically senseless and it has no inherent meaning. Its outbreak was neither necessary nor linear. A virus has no more intentionality than a tectonic plate, when the latter causes the waves of a tsunami as it moves.

Why didn’t we see this coming? It costs us to accept it, especially since it took so many lives in its wake, but the coronavirus is and remains a contingency. Sure, its outbreak was possible, and some may even start calculating the probability of its event. But a possibility is not a logical conclusion. As Aristotle put this a long time ago, a contingency is when several things incidentally happen to be next to each other and therefore look like a continuous sequence, although there is no necessity for it. Cross-species wet markets, the probable hotbed of the Covid epidemic, where pangolin, bat, and snake cages stand side by side, are the best illustration of this senseless contiguity, organized according to the same absurd taxonomy as the famous Chinese encyclopaedia imagined by Jorge Luis Borges.

One of the greatest risks we face today is that a new discourse of necessity will take hold over the long term. One that focuses on the meaning and root causes of the virus but also on the simplistic responses that it allegedly requires (the famous refrain “we just have to . . .”). This is indeed where the most pernicious liberticidal effects lie, for they permanently establish the feeling that the path is all mapped out, in one direction or another. Remedies and prescriptions that, necessary and unavoidable, would admit no contradiction.

It may make sense, for a while, to collectively adopt certain attitudes, because there is no other way. Day after day, though, we are already experiencing the profound changes that this contingency–the coronavirus–is imprinting on our lives. To the physical distance imposed, we are responding with telepresence technologies; to suspended sociality, we are responding with virtual collaborative devices. These devices do open up a considerable field of new possibilities. But by entrusting algorithms with the management of lives altogether, major risks are looming.

In professions with a strong human component, the transfer to dematerialized forms maintains the illusion of permanent availability and increased attention, whereas the opposite is often the case. Some healthcare institutions are currently considering the possibility of making therapeutic appointments by videoconference, in order to reduce costs. In the name of decongesting the institutions –and thus supposedly in the interest of the patients– we are moving towards a treatment more and more distant and abstract. In the field of education, similar arrangements are currently under consideration. Some universities in the United Kingdom are already asking their staff to record all of their recurrent teaching in video format so that they can broadcast it the event of illness or absence. Such a measure would of course deprive researchers of their right to strike, for when a classroom course can be replaced at any time by its downloadable equivalent, what is the point of disrupting work? We might easily imagine, then, that the human part involved in activities such as student receptions will then be transferred to a kind of falsely individualized remote attendance, on the model of an outsourced commercial hotline.

The experience of containment during the coronavirus allows us to draw several lessons. It is not true that a physical distance is necessarily tantamount to a human distance (which is why the term social distancing is totally inappropriate); we have seen many cases where the crisis tightened the bonds of solidarity between close relations, between relatives or neighbors. But by asking citizens to suspend all “unnecessary” activities, the authorities have brought to light everything that intrinsically defines social relationships: chance encounters, unforeseen exchanges, exposure to the unexpected. By enjoining individuals to concentrate on “the essential,” we are basically returning to what we are most familiar with, warding ourselves off from that part of contingency that is the leaven of all human relationships. The disappearance of shared public space also corresponds to a disappearance of surprise. In times of confinement, the algorithms of on-demand television become the suppliers of our favorite films or series, while culinary orders are delivered to the door, without even seeing the face of the delivery person who has already turned on his or her heels.

photo_2020-04-16-15.27.32

The discourse of necessity reigns supreme, wherever you look, and the outsourcing of uncertainty ends up by turning it into a simple math variable. It is true that social life has not disappeared in the age of general confinement. With the help of calendars to coordinate virtual aperitifs and dinners, links are being reestablished. But here again, these “others” that we find are others that we were already familiar with. While perfecting the planning of our upcoming encounters, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to make real ones. By dint of meeting only those we already know (or those promised by dating sites, whose profiles are supposed to “match” ours), one wonders what room is left for something radically different–for what Stéphane Mallarmé calls the “immediate freshness of the encounter.”

Let us be careful not to sacrifice to this pandemic a fundamental value of all democratic life: its share of randomness, its contingency. It is because a democratic commons is not fixed once and for all, but fundamentally lacks any kind of necessity, that its members are able to step together and decide the shape they want to give to it. Let us therefore take care, in our generalized immunological responses, not to entomb ourselves even more in our certainties, but to accept that this contingency can also act as a powerful breach in our imaginaries.

20 April 2020


Emmanuel Alloa is Ordinary Professor in Philosophy at the University of Fribourg. Among his recent publications: Partages de la perspective (2020).

 

 

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Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus

N. Katherine Hayles

 

The novel coronavirus is posthuman in at least two senses. First, and most obviously, because it is oblivious to human intentions, desires, and motives. In the US, this has led to the spectacle, refreshing despite the virus’s appalling toll on human lives, of politicians unable to spin “alternative facts” beyond a certain point—the point marked by bodies piling up in morgues. As many have observed, the virus does not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews, Evangelicals and Muslims. In a country as deeply partisan as the US, this has opened new possibilities for dialogue. Canny governors, for example Gavin Newsom of California, are realizing the advantages of putting policies ahead of politics, abstaining from criticism of Donald Trump even when deserved. The US Congress has come together with remarkable speed to pass stimulus legislation, and even Trump has had to tone down his early claims of the virus as a “Democratic hoax” into a more fact-based approach (although never without some propaganda).

The second sense is more technical, although not difficult to grasp. In evolutionary terms, humans and viruses have adopted diametrically opposed strategies. Humans have achieved dominance within their evolutionary niche by evolving toward increased cognitive complexity, developing language with associated changes in brain and body, evolving elaborate social structures, and in very recent human history, augmenting their capacities with advanced technical devices, including artificial intelligence. Viruses, by contrast, have evolved toward increased simplicity. Viruses replicate by hijacking a cell’s machinery and using it to proliferate, which allows them to have a much smaller genome than the cell itself, a characteristic favoring rapid replication.

DNA

In broad scope, then, these two strategies appear completely opposed. However, recent research is painting a more complex picture. As Annu Dahiya argues, the idea that viruses cannot replicate without cells (because they use the cell’s machinery to turn out copies of themselves) is now being questioned.[1] She recounts a series of experiments by Sol Spiegelman’s lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in the early 1970s that show this with elegant simplicity. After demonstrating that viral RNA could indeed self-replicate, albeit in vitro rather than in vivo, Spiegelman combined in a test tube viral Qß phage RNA, the enzyme RNA replicase and salts. After viral replication, he then diluted the solution multiple times by discarding most of the test medium and adding more medium enriched with RNA replicase and nutrients. This was equivalent to creating an environment in which, to use a human analogy, 90 percent of the population dies and the remainder spreads out over the previously crowded terrain, then 90 percent of them die, and so on. This creates an intense selective pressure favoring those entities that can replicate the fastest. As Dahiya summarizes, “the most successful replicating viral RNAs successively shortened their sequences through each serial transfer. This resulted in them losing almost all genetic information that did not relate to the binding of RNA replicase. While the initial Qß phage had 3600 nucleotides, the RNA phage at the end of the experiment possessed only 218.”[2]

Similar results were obtained by Thomas Ray in his Tierra experiment, designed to create similar competitive conditions in a simulated environment within the computer, where artificial species competed for CPU time in which to replicate. Ray found that within twenty-four hours, an entire complex ecology had evolved, including species that (like viruses) had lost the portion of their genome coding for replication and instead were using the code of other species to carry out the task. The shortened genome allowed them to replicate at an increased speed, giving them a selective advantage over species with longer codes. Moreover, these were then parasited in turn by other species that had lost even more of their code and used that of the viral-like replicators to carry out their replication (which in turn relied on the longer codes of the species they had parasited), a strategy that Ray called hyper-parasitism.

These results encourage us to understand the present situation as a pitched battle between different evolutionary strategies. On the human side are the advantages of advanced cognition, including ventilators, PPE, and of course, the race to find a vaccine. On the novel coronavirus side are the advantages of rapid replication enabled by a very short genome, and extreme contagion through its ability to disperse through the air and to live for many hours on a variety of surfaces. Recent research has indicated that people may be most contagious before they show symptoms, which has been led to novel corona being labeled a stealth virus. (Perhaps the stealth strategy evolved to ensure maximum spread through a population before individuals became too sick to move about.) In evolutionary terms, the novel coronavirus has hit the jackpot, having successfully made the leap from bats in the planet’s most populous large mammal, humans. Comparing the two strategies so far, the score is staggeringly one-sided: coronavirus, 140,000 and counting; humans, 0.

Amidst all the pain, suffering, and grief that this virus has caused humans, are there any lessons we might learn, any scrap of silver lining that we can snatch from the global chaos and wreckage? In addition to imposing reality-based constraints on political discourse, the virus is like being hit across the head by a 2X4; it reminds us with horrific force that although humans are dominant within our ecological niche, many other niches exist that may overlap with ours and that operate by entirely different rules. It screams at jet-engine volume that we are interdependent not only with each other but also with the entire ecology of the earth. And finally, it makes devastatingly clear how unprepared we are: unprepared to cope with the virus’s effects, of course, but equally important, unprepared to meet the philosophical challenges of reconceptualizing our situation in terms that does justice both to the unique abilities of humans and to the limitations and interdependencies upon which those abilities depend.

This interdependence is illustrated through the new kinds of origin stories being written about the emergence of life on earth. The recent discoveries of ancient giant viruses, with genomes almost as large as bacteria, suggest that they may have played a crucial role. These giants contain genes that encode for translation machinery, something previously believed to exist only in cellular organisms. Moreover, they include multiple genes that encode for enzymes catalyzing specific amino acids, another task that cells perform. Investigating these complexities, recent research is accumulating evidence that virus-like elements may have catalyzed some of life’s critical stages, including the evolution of DNA, the formation of the first cells, and the evolutionary split into the three domains of Archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes. Modern viruses may have evolved from the ancient giants through stripping-down processes similar to those described above, jettisoning parts of their genome to facilitate faster replication.

In addition to the participation of viruses in life’s beginnings, another kind of interdependence has been the discovery of ancient virus DNA within human stem cells. Stem cells are crucial to human reproduction because they are pluripotent, having the ability to transform into all the different kinds of cells in the body as the fetus grows. Recent studies have found that one class of endogenous retroviruses, known as H. HERV-H, has DNA that is active in human embryonic stem cells but not in other types of human cells. Moreover, researchers have discovered that if this activity is suppressed by adding bits of RNA, the treated cells cease to act like stem cells and instead begin to act like fibroblasts, cells common in animal connective tissues. Without the pluripotency provided by stem cells, human reproduction could not work. Ironically then, the viral contamination that is posing a deadly threat to contemporary humans is also, in another guise, critical for human reproduction.

These complexities suggest that a simple binary of us-versus-them, humans versus viruses, is far too simple to be an adequate formulation for understanding our relation to each other and to the larger ecologies within which we are immersed. If the novel coronavirus is posthuman, other viruses, such as those in stem cells, are human at their/our core. We need a thorough reconceptualization of the concepts and vocabularies with which to describe and analyze these complex interdependencies, as well as the ways in which humans, as a species, are interdependent with one another as well. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink the ways in which we can identify with each other and with life forms radically different from us.

As a start, I would like to suggest three terms for consideration.[3] The first is humans as species-in-common, an idea emphasizing the commonalities that all humans share with one another, notwithstanding all the ethnic, racial, geopolitical, and other differences that exist between us. We can see flashes of this idea throughout history, including in the present pandemic, a situation that overruns all borders and geopolitical differences to strike at humans everywhere. The second term is species-in-biosymbiosis, an idea recognizing the ways in which different species interpenetrate, for example in the human biome. The third is species-in-cybersymbiosis, emphasizing the ways in which artificial agents, especially artificial intelligences, are actively collaborating with humans to shape our shared world. I offer these brief sketches as a first pass at what a more adequate framework might look like. Notwithstanding its devastating effects, the pandemic invites us to think new thoughts, try out novel ideas, and suggest formulations that can lead to better futures for us and for the more-than-human organisms with which we share the planet.

17 April 2020


N. Katherine Hayles, the James B. Duke Professor of Literature Emerita at Duke University and Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angles, teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science, and technology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has published ten books and over one hundred peer-reviewed articles, and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (2017). She is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.


[1] Annu Dahiya, “The Conditions of Emergence: Toward a Feminist Philosophy of the Origins of Life” (PhD. diss., Duke University, in-progress).

[2] Ibid. p. 166.

[3] I am developing these terms in more depth in a forthcoming book.

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Viral Times

Peter Szendy

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

The Emergency of Being at a Standstill

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

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

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

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

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

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

KOY

Epidemics or Endemics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Crisis of Crisis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 April 2020


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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Ibid.

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


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

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The Universal Right to Breathe

Achille Mbembe

Translated by Carolyn Shread

 

Already some people are talking about “post-Covid-19.” And why should they not? Even if, for most of us, especially those in parts of the world where health care systems have been devastated by years of organized neglect, the worst is yet to come. With no hospital beds, no respirators, no mass testing, no masks nor disinfectants nor arrangements for placing those who are infected in quarantine, unfortunately, many will not pass through the eye of the needle.

1.

It is one thing to worry about the death of others in a distant land and quite another to suddenly become aware of one’s own putrescence, to be forced to live intimately with one’s own death, contemplating it as a real possibility. Such is, for many, the terror triggered by confinement: having to finally answer for one’s own life, to one’s own name.

We must answer here and now for our life on Earth with others (including viruses) and our shared fate. Such is the injunction this pathogenic period addresses to humankind. It is pathogenic, but also the catabolic period par excellence, with the decomposition of bodies, the sorting and expulsion of all sorts of human waste – the “great separation” and great confinement caused by the stunning spread of the virus – and along with it, the widespread digitization of the world.

Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body. We tried to graft it onto other media, to turn it into an object body, a machine body, a digital body, an ontophanic body. It returns to us now as a horrifying, giant mandible, a vehicle for contamination, a vector for pollen, spores, and mold.

Knowing that we do not face this ordeal alone, that many will not escape it, is vain comfort. For we have never learned to live with all living species, have never really worried about the damage we as humans wreak on the lungs of the earth and on its body. Thus, we have never learned how to die. With the advent of the New World and, several centuries later, the appearance of the “industrialized races,” we essentially chose to delegate our death to others, to make a great sacrificial repast of existence itself via a kind of ontological vicariate.

Soon, it will no longer be possible to delegate one’s death to others. It will no longer be possible for that person to die in our place. Not only will we be condemned to assume our own demise, unmediated, but farewells will be few and far between. The hour of autophagy is upon us and, with it, the death of community, as there is no community worthy of its name in which saying one’s last farewell, that is, remembering the living at the moment of death, becomes impossible.

Community – or rather the in-common – is not based solely on the possibility of saying goodbye, that is, of having a unique encounter with others and honoring this meeting time and again. The in-common is based also on the possibility of sharing unconditionally, each time drawing from it something absolutely intrinsic, a thing uncountable, incalculable, priceless.

2.

There is no doubt that the skies are closing in. Caught in the stranglehold of injustice and inequality, much of humanity is threatened by a great chokehold as the sense that our world is in a state of reprieve spreads far and wide.

If, in these circumstances, a day after comes, it cannot come at the expense of some, always the same ones, as in the Ancienne Économie – the economy that preceded this revolution. It must necessarily be a day for all the inhabitants of Earth, without distinction as to species, race, sex, citizenship, religion, or other differentiating marker. In other words, a day after will come but only with a giant rupture, the result of radical imagination.

Papering over the cracks simply won’t do. Deep in the heart of this crater, literally everything must be reinvented, starting with the social. Once working, shopping, keeping up with the news and keeping in touch, nurturing and preserving connections, talking to one another and sharing, drinking together, worshipping and organizing funerals begins to take place solely across the interface of screens, it is time to acknowledge that on all sides we are surrounded by rings of fire. To a great extent, the digital is the new gaping hole exploding Earth. Simultaneously a trench, a tunnel, a moonscape, it is the bunker where men and women are all invited to hide away, in isolation.

They say that through the digital, the body of flesh and bones, the physical and mortal body, will be freed of its weight and inertia. At the end of this transfiguration, it will eventually be able to move through the looking glass, cut away from biological corruption and restituted to a synthetic universe of flux. But this is an illusion, for just as there is no humanity without bodies, likewise, humanity will never know freedom alone, outside of society and community, and never can freedom come at the expense of the biosphere.

3.

We must start afresh. To survive, we must return to all living things – including the biosphere – the space and energy they need. In its dank underbelly, modernity has been an interminable war on life. And it is far from over. One of the primary modes of this war, leading straight to the impoverishment of the world and to the desiccation of entire swathes of the planet, is the subjection to the digital.

In the aftermath of this calamity there is a danger that rather than offering sanctuary to all living species, sadly the world will enter a new period of tension and brutality.[1] In terms of geopolitics, the logic of power and might will continue to dominate. For lack of a common infrastructure, a vicious partitioning of the globe will intensify, and the dividing lines will become even more entrenched. Many states will seek to fortify their borders in the hope of protecting themselves from the outside. They will also seek to conceal the constitutive violence that they continue to habitually direct at the most vulnerable. Life behind screens and in gated communities will become the norm.

In Africa especially, but in many places in the Global South, energy-intensive extraction, agricultural expansion, predatory sales of land and destruction of forests will continue unabated. The powering and cooling of computer chips and supercomputers depends on it. The purveying and supplying of the resources and energy necessary for the global computing infrastructure will require further restrictions on human mobility. Keeping the world at a distance will become the norm so as to keep risks of all kinds on the outside. But because it does not address our ecological precariousness, this catabolic vision of the world, inspired by theories of immunization and contagion, does little to break out of the planetary impasse in which we find ourselves.

4.

All these wars on life begin by taking away breath. Likewise, as it impedes breathing and blocks the resuscitation of human bodies and tissues, Covid-19 shares this same tendency. After all, what is the purpose of breathing if not the absorption of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide in a dynamic exchange between blood and tissues? But at the rate that life on Earth is going, and given what remains of the wealth of the planet, how far away are we really from the time when there will be more carbon dioxide than oxygen to breathe?

breath


Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Last Breath”, 2012. Shown here: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Obra Sonora, Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, London, United Kingdom, 2014. Photo by: Grace Storey, Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

Before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation. If war there must be, it cannot so much be against a specific virus as against everything that condemns the majority of humankind to a premature cessation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression. To come through this constriction would mean that we conceive of breathing beyond its purely biological aspect, and instead as that which we hold in-common, that which, by definition, eludes all calculation. By which I mean, the universal right to breath.

As that which is both ungrounded and our common ground, the universal right to breath is unquantifiable and cannot be appropriated. From a universal perspective, not only is it the right of every member of humankind, but of all life. It must therefore be understood as a fundamental right to existence. Consequently, it cannot be confiscated and thereby eludes all sovereignty, symbolizing the sovereign principle par excellence. Moreover, it is an originary right to living on Earth, a right that belongs to the universal community of earthly inhabitants, human and other.[2]

Coda

The case has been pressed already a thousand times. We recite the charges eyes shut. Whether it is the destruction of the biosphere, the take-over of minds by technoscience, the criminalizing of resistance, repeated attacks on reason, generalized cretinization or the rise of determinisms (genetic, neuronal, biological, environmental), the dangers faced by humanity are increasingly existential.

Of all these dangers, the greatest is that all forms of life will be rendered impossible. Between those who dream of uploading our conscience to machines and those who are sure that the next mutation of our species lies in freeing ourselves from our biological husk, there’s little difference. The eugenicist temptation has not dissipated. Far from it, in fact, since it is at the root of recent advances in science and technology.

At this juncture, this sudden arrest arrives, an interruption not of history but of something that still eludes our grasp. Since it was imposed upon us, this cessation derives not from our will. In many respects, it is simultaneously unforeseen and unpredictable. Yet what we need is a voluntary cessation, a conscious and fully consensual interruption. Without which there will be no tomorrow. Without which nothing will exist but an endless series of unforeseen events.

If, indeed, Covid-19 is the spectacular expression of the planetary impasse in which humanity finds itself today, then it is a matter of no less than reconstructing a habitable Earth to give all of us the breath of life. We must reclaim the lungs of our world with a view to forging new ground. Humankind and biosphere are one. Alone, humanity has no future. Are we capable of rediscovering that each of us belongs to the same species, that we have an indivisible bond with all life? Perhaps that is the question – the very last – before we draw our last dying breath.

13 April 2020

[A version of this post appears in French at AOC]


Achille Mbembe is the author of Brutalisme (Paris, 2020). He is the cofounder with Felwine Sarr of Ateliers de la pensée in Dakar.


[Is translation still permissible in Covid-19? We know that its reach is across borders, that it comingles in a way that is rapidly disappearing into a seemingly distant past, that it transfers and transforms. Now, under the regime of social distancing, where I show my care for you by stepping away, what is it to translate? For there’s no reading more intimate than a translation – a bodily intimacy that adopts the rhythm of the lungs, the pulse of the heart, the coursing of the blood through the text to the point that we ask, whose breath is it anyway?

I know that this text kept me alive – merci, Achille Mbembe. That it came out of the blue, bringing a breath of fresh air – thank you, Hank Scotch. And that I’ll pass it on to you, readers of Critical Inquiry, hoping that it frees up the atmosphere. Because we need to breathe together. And there is no solitary breath—Carolyn Shread, translator]

[1] Building on the terms origins as a mid-twentieth century architectural movement, I have defined brutalism as a contemporary process whereby “power is henceforth constituted, expressed, reconfigured, acts and reproduces itself as a geomorphic force.” How so? Through processes that include “fracturing and fissuring,”,\ “emptying vessels,” “drilling,” and “expelling organic matter,” in a word, by what I term “depletion” (Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme [Paris, 2020], pp. 9, 10, 11).

[2] See Sarah Vanuxem, La propriété de la Terre (Paris, 2018), and Marin Schaffner, Un sol commun. Lutter, habiter, penser (Paris, 2019).

 

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Ground-Zero Empiricism

Lorraine Daston

I am used to waking up in the seventeenth century. As a historian of early modern science, that’s where I spend a lot of time. But it is strange that everyone else is suddenly keeping me company there.

No, I don’t mean the plague. Fortunately for us, Covid-19 is nowhere near as deadly as the diseases caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. From its arrival in Pisa in 1348 to the last great outbreak in Marseilles in 1720, the bacterium killed at least 30 percent of Europe’s population and probably a comparable number along its path from South Asia to the Middle East. That would translate to ninety-nine million deaths in the US alone. No one, not even the gloomiest epidemiologists, think Covid-19 will carry off almost a third of the world’s population.

MARSEILLE

Yet, beyond that tepid reassurance, there’s not much consensus as to just how deadly the virus is; observed case-fatality rates in places where the disease has spread so far range from 12.7 percent (30.25 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, this latter a better gauge when testing is still spotty) in Italy to 2.2 percent (3.14) in Germany, although the two countries have comparable (and comparably good) health systems. For the US, the current observed rate is 3.6 percent (5.04); in China, 4 percent (0.24). (All figures from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.) There is always variability in how the same bug affects different individuals: age, sex, income, medical care, genetic dispositions, nutrition, and many other factors all play a role. But within large samples of hundreds of thousands of patients, stable averages ought to emerge and converge, at least in roughly similar populations. Why are these numbers all over the map?

That’s what I meant when I said that we’ve suddenly been catapulted back to the seventeenth century: we are living in a moment of ground-zero empiricism, in which almost everything is up for grabs, just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies – and everyone else — circa 1660. For them, just figuring out what a phenomenon was (Was heat or luminescence or for that matter, the plague, all one kind of thing?), how best to study it (Collect comprehensive natural histories? Count instances? Perform experiments – if so, what kind? Systematically observe – if so, what exactly, and how long?), why it happened when and where it did, and, above all, what to do with it or about it — none of these basic questions had an agreed-upon answer. It wasn’t just a question of lacking knowledge. We will always lack knowledge, which is why research is never-ending. There was no settled script for how to go about knowing.

Of course, I exaggerate the analogy between then and now. Thanks in no small part to the ingenuity, sagacity, and sheer persistence of thousands and thousands of researchers since the seventeenth century, we are the heirs not only to knowledge (what a virus is, what it does, and how to thwart it) but also to a diverse repertoire of ways of knowing, from well-designed experiments and systematic observations, already being refined and yoked together in the seventeenth century, to chemical assays and statistical analysis to computer simulations. And by researchers, I mean not only natural philosophers in their curled periwigs or professors in their white lab coats but legions of lynx-eyed investigators everywhere, at sea and in fields, in cities and in kitchens, noting events and correlations: the bark that lowers fever; the cloud formation that portends a storm; the lackluster stone that shines in the dark with a cool light.  They all helped draft our script for how to go about knowing – a lengthy, intricate, and well-rehearsed script that guides our efforts to understand, among many other things, Covid-19 and its perplexingly various manifestations.

Yet, in moments of radical novelty and the radical uncertainty novelty emits, like a squid obscuring itself in ink, we are temporarily thrown back into a state of ground-zero empiricism. Chance observations, apparent correlations, and anecdotes that would ordinarily barely merit mention, much less publication in peer-reviewed journals, have the internet buzzing with speculations among physicians, virologists, epidemiologists, microbiologists, and the interested lay public. Is it true that more men are dying than women, and if so, in which age groups? Are the differences between observed case-fatality rates real or an artifact of how much various countries test for the number of infected persons (the denominator of the fraction) and/or how causes of death are registered? For example, some countries count the death of anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 as a death due to the virus, no matter what other factors (such as diabetes, for example) might have played a role; other countries use dominant or proximate causes in their classifications; both systems have their pros and cons.

Quite aside from the fog of statistics, there are basic facts yet to be ascertained. Is the disease airborne (and if so, how long it can linger in the air)? Do some antiviral drugs help alleviate symptoms in acute cases – and for whom? How much do ventilators, even when available, prolong the life of patients sick enough to warrant their use? Does Covid-19 cause heart attacks? Medical staff from Wuhan and Hackensack, Seoul and London, Bergamot and New York City are frantically exchanging observations on Twitter about therapies and “curious cases” (a very seventeenth-century term).

At moments of extreme scientific uncertainty, observation, usually treated as the poor relation of experiment and statistics in science, comes into its own. Suggestive single cases, striking anomalies, partial patterns, correlations as yet too faint to withstand statistical scrutiny, what works and what doesn’t: every clinical sense, not just sight, sharpens in the search for clues. Eventually, some of those clues will guide experiment and statistics: what to test, what to count. The numbers will converge; causes will be revealed; uncertainty will sink to tolerable levels. But for now, we are back in the seventeenth century, the age of ground-zero empiricism, and observing as if our lives depended on it.

10 April 2020


Lorraine Daston is director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, permanent fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is Against Nature (2019). She is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry and a member of the editorial board.


Daston’s CI blog post was recently featured in Clifford Marks and Trevor Pour’s New Yorker article “What We Don’t Know About the Coronavirus.”

 

 

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A Letter to Oliver Vogel

Alexander Garcia Düttmann

Translated by James Fontini

Dear Oliver,

Many years ago, the press you work for published a book of mine with the subtitle Thinking and Talking About a Virus. If I were to write about a virus again today, about this virus called corona, I would conceivably choose a similar subtitle, only slightly altered. The subtitle would read: “That a Virus Is Thought about and Spoken Of”. The first subtitle should indicate that the discourses emerging from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were indeed of different sorts, but nonetheless developed into specific discursive patterns, which in turn minimized the disparity. On the other hand, the second subtitle would indicate the presupposition of such a development, which is to say the power of the virus to generate discourses. To my eyes, the present is less characterized by the question of “How to think and talk about a virus?” than by the fact that a virus is thought about and spoken of so much, so incessantly, and so tirelessly.

DUTTMANN

For nothing has struck me more in the past few weeks or so than the endless procession and parade of scientists, experts, researchers, doctors, of academics, artists and politicians, of sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, historians, cultural workers, who – one behind the other, one after the other, one before the next – constantly express their thoughts on the new pandemic to the public in print, on TV, and on the internet. Everyone knows something about the meaning of this pandemic and its repercussions, whether or not it announces the end of capitalism, allows for the emergence of new social solidarity, or ratifies the general state of exception that reduces life to bare life. It is as if this march of the minds – or ghost train? – was already in motion before one could even speak of an epidemic, let alone a pandemic.

While virologists work to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible – a medicine that will stop the pandemic – in overcrowded hospitals and clinics it is not merely a matter of life and death but of decisions of life and death that must be made quickly, as the next decision already imposes itself. Personnel are pushed to the limits of what is doable and what is reasonable. Protective masks, ventilators, even beds, are lacking. When this unpredictable, almost implausible, and immensely accelerated activity doubles in the superstructure, a communication explosion occurs.

Yet does not this doubling, the hectic drive and meddling of those who reflect on the crisis, also contain a comic dimension? It is as if it were also a crowning of the coronavirus,[1] mirroring or forestalling its virulence and unstoppability, prostrating respectfully before it while simultaneously warding it off, covering over the traces it has not yet left behind. If self-reflection was once tied to the end, if it was once an attempt to understand an experience or a challenge one had experimented, it now comes before the start, before one has actually experienced something.

When a total mobilization of spirit takes place, one that is acknowledgement and ostracism in one, a being-caught-up-in and a not-letting-near, when all minds are ready and willing to fulfill a task, it is hardly surprising that people reach for ways of thinking and speaking that are easily recognizable and provide something of a quick, calming platitude. It does not matter how apocalyptic they may sound or how much they may call for pause and mindfulness. Some seek new guidelines and directives for business to carry on as smoothly as possible, without getting too bogged down or delayed. Others invoke creativity, which, in order to justify its returns, must prove itself, especially in critical times.

It seems to me, then, that the only ones who can respond to the pandemic are those for whom the comic aspect I mentioned triggers an astonished laughter. Without such laughter, I fear, there is a lurking danger of the pandemic contributing only to the consolidation of social tendencies whose momentum it brings to a standstill, at least on the face of it. Let me ask you this: What sort of social distancing, if any, does astonished laughter practice?

Yours,

Alex

Bad Nauheim, 25 March 2020

[This was originally published in the magazine Hundertvierzehn]


Alexander García Düttmann teaches philosophy and aesthetics at University of the Arts in Berlin. He is the author of numerous books, including At Odds with AIDS. Talking and Thinking about a Virus (1996), Philosophy of Exaggeration (2004), Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood (2008), and, most recently, Love Machine. The Origin of the Work of Art (2018). He is also the editor of Jacques Derrida’s lecture course Théorie et pratique (2017) and appears as an actor in Albert Serra’s new film Liberté (2019).

James Fontini is working on a PhD about Heidegger and topology at University of the Arts in Berlin.


[1] Düttmann writes “dem Coronavirus noch einmal die Krone aufsezten”, a reference in part to the morphology that gives coronaviruses their name. The phrase “etwas die Krone aufsetzen” can also refer to “crowning” or “capping something off” in the sense of concluding or bringing to its end–Tranlator’s note.


 

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COVID-19 Metaphors

Norman MacLeod

In her 1978 essay on Disease as Political Metaphor, Susan Sontag demonstrated that the trope of the infectious malady has been used through human history as a metaphor to represent, describe, and critique failures of the polis by critics of culture and politics. The present COVID-19 crisis is ripe — some might say “rife” — with further examples that embody the complete spectrum from profound to ridiculous. The fact that many of the metaphors being used have been expropriated from my own fields of evolutionary biology and earth science simply serves to underscore the difficulties, and the opportunities (some unrealized to date), that the metaphoric mode of communication entails.

virus

First, let’s get some facts straight about viruses. They get a bad rap from the press. Ask just about anyone about them and all you hear are complaints. It’s “disease this” and “infection that.” No one seems to have anything nice to say about viruses, which is a shame because you wouldn’t be here reading this without them.

Viruses are the most ubiquitous life forms on the planet with 1031 individuals cited as one recent estimate of their number. They are also one of the least understood. They live everywhere in nature and everywhere both on and inside of you. Less than one percent are known to be pathogenic, but many more are known to be symbiotic (which means they assist the host), mutualistic (which means both host and virus benefit from the association), or benign (which means we don’t know what they do). In addition, viruses’ modus operandi of targeting specific cell types and interrupting these cells’ genetic functioning means they can be used to destroy certain cell types selectively (e.g., cancer, HIV) and repair genetic damage in others. So, next time someone asks you about viruses, show a little respect.

These days when people say something has “gone viral,” they almost always are using the term as a metaphor for an event that touches a great number of people and news of which is passed from individual to individual, usually via social media. As metaphors go, it’s not too bad. Of course, there’s nothing especially virus like about microbial infection. A wide variety of small beasties spread disease among individuals via close proximity and/or physical contact (e.g., bacteria, prions). But the term virus sounds much closer to vita (Latin for “the life force”) and so is obviously the better choice for representing any event, idea or philosophy that touches large numbers of people.

More interesting is the, somewhat neglected, aspect of the viral disease metaphor’s cultural extrapolation. Viruses are not designed to damage or kill their hosts. The point of a virus is life, not death. Because viruses need living cells to reproduce over time, they have developed transmission strategies that make the finding of living hosts quick and efficient. Ideally, a pathogenic virus will enter a living system and have sufficient time to make many copies of itself before it is eliminated by the host’s immunological defenses. The virus survives and the host survives. That’s the model. The problem with pathogenic viruses — especially those hosts have not encountered before — is that, in the system’s efforts to find, and develop a means of neutralizing the virus, the state of the body is changed, sometimes beyond the point at which the body (especially weakened bodies) can remain alive. Consequently, it’s not the virus that kills, it’s the body’s reaction to the virus that kills.

The COVID-19 virus is special but not for the reason that most people think. Its infection of our bodies is nothing noteworthy as viruses go. But COVID-19 has also infected our cultures, our economics, and our politics, worldwide. It’s a virus and it’s a meme. In order to reduce the inferred levels of mortality in at-risk individuals our societies have reacted in unprecedented ways, by mandating the shut down of economic and cultural activities, curtailing the individual (and increasingly legal) rights of citizens, and by forcing both individuals and family groups into physical isolation for an, as yet, unspecified time interval. It remains to be seen whether these societal reactions will be sufficient to mitigate the damage the virus will inflict on human populations. In a moral sense, we have no choice but to endure them in the hope they will. But just as a body’s reaction to a pathogenic virus can leave it in a weakened state, and so susceptible to other infections that would not prove problematic had the virus not come along, the economic social and cultural reactions the COVID-19 meme has caused will leave our societal bodies in much weakened states. It will take a substantial interval and sustained efforts for our societies to recover from their reaction to this infection. In thinking about the legacy COVID-19 will leave, especially in light of the knowledge that similar microbe/meme pandemics have happened in the past and will happen in the future, it will be important to remember that, unlike our body’s immunological reactions, we are in control of how our societies react to this and future infections. It is in our power to learn from this infection and so establish structures that will recognize the danger and take steps to mitigate harmful societal responses both to future pandemics and to other events of a holistically environmental nature, as they arrive.

Of course, this process is nothing more, or less, than an example of cultural adaptation and, as with all forms of adaptation, the key to success is diversity. But herein also lies danger. Drawing, once again metaphorically on natural systems in the immediate wake of a supervolcano eruption, asteroid impact, or ice age, the strategies that lead to successful postevent diversification are unknown. Some lineages remain more-or-less unchanged and continue to pursue old established ways. Others undergo rapid and profound alteration in their approaches to life. Success always belongs to whichever strategies work best for whatever reason. Moreover, adaptations that confer an advantage, whatever their origin and however slight, can eventually displace those that don’t, irrespective of the success the latter may have enjoyed previously. Prior incumbency is no guarantor of success in the aftermath of a profound dislocation.

As it is with nature, so it is with the social factors of culture, economics, and politics. Humans can do many things that are highly unusual, even unique. But, by definition, humans can never do anything that’s unnatural. Owing to the manner in which human cultures have responded to the COVID-19 infection, many of their most cherished mores, traditions, and institutions have, to all intents and purposes, been suspended. It’s far too early to tell which will survive after the crisis has passed and in what state. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty, however, is that aspects of the world of tomorrow may be very different from the world of yesterday and that the challenges we’ll face in coping with that world won’t end with our society’s survival; they’ll only have begun.

6 April 2020


Norman McLeod teaches at the School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, Nanjing University, China NMacLeod@nju.edu.cn

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Anticipatory Care

Carol J. Adams

I’ve been talking to my dogs more frequently these days because, as I tell them, they have no idea about the coronavirus pandemic or at least aren’t communicating their thoughts about the issue to me.

Today, Inky the rescued Minpin lay on the penultimate step to the second floor as I leaned over to address him on this subject; “You don’t know anything about this, do you?” He was barely committed to the conversation. As I rubbed his back, I thought about a recent call from my sister.

flu

She had called to urge me to set up a sick room in our house, now. Now, she directed, before either my partner or I fell ill with the virus. She listed items to put in the room (extra sheets and towels, cleaning supplies), the tasks of preparation we should do now. I dutifully wrote the list down but found that when she said “and clear off all surfaces, now,” I stopped. Perhaps we have more tchotchkes than most, but the idea of clearing off all the surfaces of the designated sickroom seemed going too far.

The fault line between the real and imagined threat of coronavirus could be found right there—will I do something about those surfaces populated with items? The idea is that if you remove them now there would be less surfaces that might contain the virus to wipe down if someone were ill with the disease. I should have been thinking of the real possibilities of the needs of an ill person. As someone who provided care to others, shouldn’t I have traversed the space between the real and the possible more easily? A quick read of Jessica Lustig’s “What I learned when my husband got sick with coronavirus” could have jumpstarted my priorities.

All the years of caregiving for our parents that my sisters and I shared, following what I called “the rule of the good daughter,” and here was the first test of what a post-parental caregiving situation might require. I was balking.

My sister continued, “Don’t shake out the dirty clothes before washing them.” Who, I wondered, shakes out clothes before washing them anyway? But such a specific image, the sick person’s clothes, the need to wash them, the need to wash your own clothes after tending the sick person, the person standing in front of the washing machine, seemed to bridge the real and the possible with urgency.

She said, “You need a Plan B, you get sick, and Plan C the person you live with gets sick.” She was urging what we might call anticipatory care. Of professional caregiving, in crisis because of federal inaction, an eviscerated health care system, and the absence of needed equipment, there is not much we individually can do—unless we are sewing masks, a nineteenth century answer in a twent-first century world. For collective caregiving, our responsibility is clear—flatten the curve.  Personal caregiving such as Jessica Lustig describes (Advil in a plastic dish, doing laundry, trying to get her husband to eat something, wiping down the shower, switches, faucets, well . . . everywhere) is learned in the work of it. The reports, such as Lustig’s may awaken us to anticipatory care—this practical work of thinking about “what if the virus strikes home?”

mask

It is said about a creative venture that you have to imagine something before it can come into existence. But, in general, this is not how personal caregiving evolves. A need comes into existence and caregiving is the necessary and immediate response—a broken leg, Alzheimer’s progressing—so often we figure it out on the go.

Anticipatory care, as my sister urged, and as Lustig implies, recognizes that we or someone we love may be next. It might begin with ensuring all capable members of a household—if we live in a household—know where the sheets and cleaning agents are, know how to use the dishwasher and the washing machine, if we are lucky enough to have access to those appliances. The Centers for Disease Control help us if we struggle with imagining what is required.

What if we acknowledged that a part of life is thinking ourselves toward our own deaths, thinking ourselves toward a possible role of caregiver or care receiver?

I ended my essay in Critical Inquiry with a question:“It’s a quandary and an epistemological concern: can the noncaregiving world comprehend or encompass the world of caregiving?” Lustig has seen no sign of it:

It’s as if we [her family] are in a time warp, in which we have accelerated at 1½ time speed, while everyone around us remains in the present — already the past to us — and they, blissfully, unconsciously, go about their ordinary lives, experiencing the growing news, the more urgent advisories and directives, as a vast communal experience, sharing posts and memes about cabin fever, about home-schooling, about social distancing, about how hard it all is, while we’re living in our makeshift sick ward, living in what will soon be the present for more and more of them.

If the pandemic situates us so much closer to caregiving than many have ever been, still anticipatory care on its own won’t transform a noncaregiver into a caregiver. Lustig talks about the people walking past the door of a clinic through which she and her very ill husband must exit, the passing pedestrians oblivious to the illness on the other side of the door. Think of the crowds who showed up to watch the USNS Comfort arrive in the New York harbor—arriving, they hoped, for them.

Those who have been through hell have told us what we need to do, tchotchkes be damned.

5 April 2020


Carol J. Adams is a feminist scholar and activist whose written work explores the cultural construction of overlapping and interconnected oppressions, as well as the ethics of care. Adams’s first book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, is now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. She is also the author of Burger and coauthor with Virginia Messina of Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet, and Fuel Your Resistance One Meal at a Time, and of many other books. A new and updated The Pornography of Meat (2004) will appear in the fall of 2020. The visual accompaniment to The Sexual Politics of Meat will include 340 images sent from around the world by Adams’s readers, whom she calls “grassroots sociologists.” She is working on a memoir of her mother based on her essay from the New York Times, “Finding Myself in My Mother’s Calendars.”

www.caroljadams.com

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Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus

Daniele Lorenzini

 

In a recent blog post, Joshua Clover rightly notices the swift emergence of a new panoply of “genres of the quarantine.” It should not come as a surprise that one of them centers on Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, asking whether or not it is still appropriate to describe the situation that we are currently experiencing. Neither should it come as a surprise that, in virtually all of the contributions that make use of the concept of biopolitics to address the current coronavirus pandemic, the same bunch of rather vague ideas are mentioned over and over again, while other—no doubt more interesting—Foucauldian insights tend to be ignored. In what follows, I discuss two of these insights, and I conclude with some methodological remarks on the issue of what it may mean to “respond” to the current “crisis.”

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The “Blackmail” of Biopolitics

The first point that I would like to make is that Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, as he developed it in 1976,[1] was not meant to show us just how evil this “modern” form of power is. Of course, it was not meant to praise it either. It seems to me that, in coining the notion of biopolitics, Foucault wants first and foremost to make us aware of the historical crossing of a threshold and more specifically of what he calls a society’s “seuil de modernité biologique” (“threshold of biological modernity”).[2] Our society crossed such a threshold when the biological processes characterizing the life of human beings as a species became a crucial issue for political decision-making, a new “problem” to be addressed by governments—and this, not only in “exceptional” circumstances (such that of an epidemic), but in “normal” circumstances as well.[3] A permanent concern which defines what Foucault also calls the “étatisation du biologique” (the “nationalization of the biological”).[4] To remain faithful to Foucault’s idea that power is not good or bad in itself, but that it is always dangerous (if accepted blindly, that is, without ever questioning it), one could say that this “paradigm shift” in the way in which we are governed, with both its positive and its horrible outcomes, no doubt corresponds to a dangerous extension of the domain of intervention of power mechanisms. We are no longer governed only, nor even primarily, as political subjects of law, but also as living beings who, collectively, form a global mass—a “population”—with a natality rate, a mortality rate, a morbidity rate, an average life expectancy, etc.

In “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault claims that he wants to refuse the “‘blackmail’ of Enlightenment”—that is, the idea that we have to be either “for” or “against” it—and address it instead as a historical event that still characterizes, at least to a certain extent, what we are today.[5] I would like to suggest, in an analogous way, that it would be wise for us to refuse the “blackmail” of biopolitics: we do not have to be “for” or “against” it (what would that even mean?), but address it as a historical event that still defines, at least in part, the way in which we are governed, the way in which we think about politics and about ourselves. When, on the newspapers or the social media, I see people complaining about others not respecting the quarantine rules, I always think about how astonishing it is for me, on the contrary, that so many of us are, even when the risk of sanctions, in most situations, is quite low. I also noticed the panoply of quotes from Discipline and Punish, in particular from the beginning of the chapter “Panopticism,”[6] which of course perfectly resonates with our current experience of the quarantine, as it describes the disciplinarization of a city and its inhabitants during a plague epidemic. However, if we just insist on coercive measures, on being confined, controlled, and “trapped” at home during these extraordinary times, we risk overlooking the fact that disciplinary and biopolitical power mainly functions in an automatic, invisible, and perfectly ordinary way—and that it is most dangerous precisely when we do not notice it.

Instead of worrying about the increase of surveillance mechanisms and indiscriminate control under a new “state of exception,” I therefore tend to worry about the fact that we already are docile, obedient biopolitical subjects. Biopolitical power is not (only) exercised on our lives from the “outside,” as it were, but has been a part of what we are, of our historical form of subjectivity, for at least the past two centuries. This is why I doubt that any effective strategy of resistance to its most dangerous aspects should take the form of a global refusal, following the logic of the “blackmail” of biopolitics. Foucault’s remarks about a “critical ontology of ourselves”[7] may turn out to be surprisingly helpful here, since it is the very fabric of our being that we should be ready to question.

The (Bio)Politics of Differential Vulnerability

The second point that I would like to discuss—a crucial one, but alas one that I rarely find mentioned in the contributions mobilizing the notion of biopolitics to address the current coronavirus pandemic—is the inextricable link that Foucault establishes between biopower and racism. In a recent piece, Judith Butler rightly remarks “the rapidity with which radical inequality, nationalism, and capitalist exploitation find ways to reproduce and strengthen themselves within the pandemic zones.” This comes as a much-needed reminder in a moment in which other thinkers, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, argue on the contrary that the coronavirus “puts us on a basis of equality, bringing us together in the need to make a common stand.” Of course, the equality Nancy is talking about is just the equality of the wealthy and the privileged—those who are lucky enough to have a house or an apartment to spend their quarantine in, and who do not need to work or can work from home, as Bruno Latour already observed. What about those who are still forced to go to work every day because they cannot work from home nor afford to lose their paycheck? What about those who do not have a roof over their head?

In the last lecture of “Society Must Be Defended,” Foucault argues that racism is “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life taken over by power: the break between what must live and what must die.”[8] In other words, with the emergence of biopolitics, racism becomes a way of fragmenting the biological continuum—we all are living beings with more or less the same biological needs—in order to create hierarchies between different human groups, and thus (radical) differences in the way in which the latter are exposed to the risk of death. The differential exposure of human beings to health and social risks is, according to Foucault, a salient feature of biopolitical governmentality. Racism, in all of its forms, is the “condition of acceptability” of such a differential exposure of lives in a society in which power is mainly exercised to protect the biological life of the population and enhance its productive capacity.[9] We should therefore carefully avoid reducing biopolitics to the famous Foucauldian formula “making live and letting die.”[10] Biopolitics does not really consist in a clear-cut opposition of life and death, but is better understood as an effort to differentially organize the gray area between them. The current government of migration is an excellent example of this, as Martina Tazzioli convincingly shows when talking of “biopolitics through mobility.”[11] Indeed, as we are constantly, sometimes painfully reminded these days, biopolitics is also, and crucially, a matter of governing mobility—and immobility. Maybe this experience, which is new for most of us, will help us realize that the ordinary way in which “borders” are more or less porous for people of different colors, nationalities, and social extractions deserves to be considered as one of the main forms in which power is exercised in our contemporary world.

In short, biopolitics is always a politics of differential vulnerability. Far from being a politics that erases social and racial inequalities by reminding us of our common belonging to the same biological species, it is a politics that structurally relies on the establishment of hierarchies in the value of lives, producing and multiplying vulnerability as a means of governing people. We might want to think about this next time that we collectively applaud the “medical heroes” and “care workers” who are “fighting the coronavirus.” They deserve it, for sure. But are they really the only ones who are “taking care” of us? What about the delivery people who make sure that I receive what I buy while safely remaining in my quarantined apartment? What about the supermarket and pharmacy cashiers, the public-transportation drivers, the factory workers, the police officers, and all of the other people working (mostly low-income) jobs that are deemed necessary for the functioning of society? Don’t they also deserve—and not exclusively under these “exceptional” circumstances—to be considered “care workers”? The virus does not put us on a basis of equality. On the contrary, it blatantly reveals that our society structurally relies on the incessant production of differential vulnerability and social inequalities.

The Political Grammar of the Crisis

Foucault’s work on biopolitics is more complex, rich, and compelling for us today than what it appears to be under the pen of those who too quickly reduce it to a series of anathemas against disciplinary confinement and mass surveillance or who misleadingly utilize it to talk about the state of exception and bare life.[12] I do not want to suggest, however, that the notion of biopolitics should be taken as the ultimate explanatory principle capable of telling us what is happening and what the “solution” to all of our problems is—and this, not only because of the “historically differentiated character of biopolitical phenomena” correctly emphasized by Roberto Esposito, but also for a deeper methodological reason. Our political thought is a prisoner to the “grammar of the crisis” and its constrained temporality, to the extent that critical responses to the current situation (or, for that matters, to virtually all of the recent economic, social, and humanitarian “crises”) do not seem able to look beyond the most immediate future.[13] Thus, if I agree with Latour that the current “health crisis” should “incite us to prepare for climate change,” I am far less optimistic than he is: this will not happen unless we replace the crisis-narrative with a long-term critical and creative effort to find multiple, evolving responses to the structural causes of our “crises.” To elaborate responses, instead of looking for solutions, would mean to avoid short-term problem-solving strategies aiming at changing as little as possible of our current way of living, producing, traveling, eating, etc. It would mean to explore alternative social and political paths in the hope that these experiments will last longer than the time between the present “crisis” and the next one, while acknowledging that these transformations are necessarily slow, since we cannot just get rid of our historical form of being in the blink of an eye. In a word, it would mean having faith in our capacity to build a future, not only for ourselves, but for countless generations yet to come. And to actually start doing it.

 

New York City

2 April 2020


Daniele Lorenzini is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, where he is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Post-Kantian European Philosophy. A coeditor of Foucault Studies, his most recent books include La force du vrai: De Foucault à Austin (2017) and Éthique et politique de soi: Foucault, Hadot, Cavell et les techniques de l’ordinaire (2015).


[1] See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 135-145; Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (New York: Picador, 2003), 239-263.

[2] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 143 (translation modified).

[3] Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, 244.

[4] Ibid., 240 (translation modified).

[5] Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 42-43.

[6] See, e.g., this dossier on “Coronavirus and Philosophers”. To read Foucault’s analysis in full, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 195-200.

[7] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 47.

[8] Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, 254 (translation modified).

[9] Ibid., 255-256 (translation modified).

[10] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 138-141; Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, 241-243.

[11] Martina Tazzioli, The Making of Migration: Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe’s Borders (London: Sage, 2019), 106. Although this has passed virtually unnoticed, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Foucault mentions migrations as one of the main areas in which biopolitical mechanisms of power function. See Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 140.

[12] See, e.g., Giorgio Agamben’s texts on coronavirus, as well as Gordon Hull’s critical response.

[13] See Daniele Lorenzini and Martina Tazzioli, “Critique without Ontology: Genealogy, Collective Subjects, and the Deadlocks of Evidence”, Radical Philosophy, forthcoming.

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Hanging in the Air

Andrea Brady

 

Being less than an activity

we empty out the life that hangs

like code in the air, but for how long

does it survive there if the air is white and lush,

more benevolent to the city than ever, whose leaves are out

of a season we are missing. It hangs

on the window like a recrimination,

a rainbow trail, the wolf’s chalky invite

to the last kid hiding in the clock.

And like a call; and is filled with calls

of the chattering species

whose voices are carried from house to house

parties and face times, many heard, the more silent.

 

And like nothing but indifference

growing warmer in the tangled biome to its human

carriers. We pick our way prudently down the street.

The person who passes is like us

a matrix of infection. We turn around at the head

of the aisle that has someone in it, and wash our hands

and shrink. Our hands are very dry now. Our mean gestures have all changed.

 

 

When in this poem I say we I mean a nuclear family in London

who are lucky. Having outside space.

The ball keeps getting kicked over the fence, and there is someone

there to return it.

 

 

A friend, who is Chinese, has been repeatedly abused in the street.

Mean gestures, filthy speech. The street is also the space

where our neighbours are clapping. Where we perform distance

to contain the bad humours that may be hidden

in another body. Hidden inside a room that can’t be left

because of the news, the violent man, the guard, the border. It is now

very easy to get sectioned. We consider ourselves indefinitely

separated from our friends and lovers and nothing will be the same

until it is, and the amazonification

of the planet will be complete, and we’ll be released

from our incommensurate lockdown to party and write poems

upon poems about the virus and the discourse of war.

And some will still not be able to go out into

the streets still full of the performance of abuse.

 

 

For now we pick apart the hem looking for silver linings

inside the garment of bad surprises.

 

 

My kids have been teaching me about black holes, clock time

and dentistry in ancient Egypt.

I thought the singularity was a site of infinitely dense matter

but it’s the profound energy that distorts space and time.

They’re overjoyed to learn that if they tried to pass

through its horizon they’d be spaghettified,

their whole body a stream of plasma

one atom wide. If your being was not then empty

it would be still, watching the universe shift

and quicken before it.

 

 

Right now I’m writing this standing up because I’m teaching

and working and printing and feeding and remembering

and in pain. When you’re sick or in pain it’s hard to remember

what it was like not to be, the self that streamed

painlessly through another world is not yourself, the light

stuttering on her face was not your light or your face.

How could I have been so stupid not to notice

how easy it has always been for me to move down the street?

Right now I am trying to read and not read the accounts

of the anaesthetists. I misread the inhalation

of toxic gas as toxic glass. I don’t want to think of all the people alone

 

 

I tell the kids to write about their experiences

of this big historical singularity

and hide its data from them. I could say it’s like the way

the black hole can’t be seen but shifts everything around it

but that’s a comparison in a poem and the kids just laugh.

They know that the collapse of everything clears

the air at least. How cool the sky would always be

without the scratching of motors. We could lag together,

smooth in our suspension.

 

We stay in the yard.

 

In its green and yellow is an image

of the lungs we will be given

if we cross the horizon and abandon

the nuclear family, private property, obedient domains.

 

1 April 2020

 


Andrea Brady’s books of poetry include The Strong Room (Crater, 2016), Dompteuse (Book Thug, 2014), Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013), Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (Seagull, 2012), and Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010). She is Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London, where she founded the Centre for Poetry and the Archive of the Now.

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Would a Shaman Help?

Michael Taussig

 

A friend in the Midwest asks if a shaman could help in the present crisis?

Given presidential grandstanding and the run on toilet paper and guns, it seems like a reasonable question. But it all depends on what kind of shamanism and what kind of help.

Shamanism is no substitute for science as regards virology, but as performance art sparking the imagination, it could dampen panic, ease social isolation, and promote cohesion. As a Happening it may not have raised the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, but it emboldened the imagination that brought that war to an end. During Occupy Wall Street downtown NYC, you could smell burning sage learnt from Native American shamanism. Attempting to resist the white man from the Rockies to the Plains, the Ghost Dancers were massacred, but now the white man needs to form the magic circle, compose the songs, and start dancing too. And for sure it will be a magical circle seeing as we are now in strict isolation.

Giorgio de Chirico’s melancholy paintings of Roman arcades and streets without people are no less shamanic, capturing the aura Walter Benjamin found in Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris streets likewise without people. Being alone in cities with empty streets and piazzas is more shamanic than the “real thing.”

DE_CHIRICO

With his prescient focus on viral epidemics and on words as mutating viruses, William S. Burroughs would certainly be asking my friend’s question, especially as regards his notion of the “composite city” as a mosaic of fabulous forms. For him it all began in 1953 with his eye-opening encounter taking the hallucinogen yagé (ayahuasca) with shamans in the Putumayo region of southwest Colombia, which I visited annually from 1972 to 1999.

The phantasmatic properties of viral pandemics in the fiction that followed paralleled his yagé experience with shamans. His curiosity was writerly, becoming a few years later a conscious method of cutting up images and, with that practice, confronting “Control,” spiritual no less than political.

As with yagé, the cut ups were intended to connect language with the body in galvanic upheavals of subject-object relations for which the all-night wordless song is essential.

CitiesRedNight

Shamanism is primarily a means for buffering rumor and paranoia. Yet it depends on that too. Who is bewitching (read infecting) who? Fox News and Trump are pretty good at this shamanic warfare. Hence our need for an alternative. It is not a choice but a necessity.

The yagé séance is a small-group unscripted theatrical exorcism of the malevolence the sorcerer projected into oneself. Relief depends on visions flowing into one like a blue substance, storytelling, and the fiercely visceral sensations that recur in wave-like rhythms with the divine hum of the shaman, the hum of the waking world.

But could anything like this be achieved in a situation of social distancing and lock-down? Can you on your lonesome cook up image and music repertoires, say like Alice Coltrane, so as to engage inner fear with global meltdown? Here’s the thing: due to the pandemic the gates of creativity swing wide open. We have to become our own shaman.

An important yagé trope for me and I think for my Putumayo friends was to see the shamanic experience as journeying through the “space of death.” Dante presented a version, but his is famously symmetrical and ordered. The yagè space of death is not.

Shamanic magic today owes much to colonial projections of magical power to the primitive. That, combined with the at times terrifying sensation of dying under the influence of yagé, made me think of the Iberian conquest of Latin America as bringing together the magical underworlds of Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and indigenous America. In my estimation, akin to the historiographic practices of Benjamin and Aby Warburg, this is alive as occult force today yet easily abused by people looking for the shamanic fix, including dime-a-dozen shamans themselves.

My friend’s question begs the big picture. How have we been looking at climate change?

One opinion is that we in the West long ago disenchanted nature.

But what the question opens up is the thought that with global meltdown we now live in a reenchanted universe for which the aesthetic of a dark surrealism is relevant. It is a mutating reality of metamorphic sublimity that never lets you know what is real and what is not. Born from WWI, there is a lot of Dada here too, with its shock effects and montage. We were told the bourgeoisie had gotten bored with that. But now, has not Dada and surrealism returned with a vengeance? Before it was avant-garde subsiding into history. But now with the reenchantment of nature, history is subsiding into Dada, and it’s not so boring, not with swans and dolphins being sighted (so it is said) in the now clear canal water of Venice where people are dying in quantities and “Death in Venice” recurs as if an Eternal Return while tourists flee in their pestilential cruise ships in a replay of Michel Foucault’s Great Confinement.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all are the masks of the medico della peste, the doctor of the plague, for sale until lockdown in the ubiquitous tourist curio shops in Venice. It is an unsettling mask with a long beak that I could never make sense of. Now I get it. The beak was the fifteenth-century equivalent to the surgical mask of today (and people think the germ theory of disease is modern!). It was filled with sweet smelling flowers. A drawing by Paul Hirst in 1721 is spooky in the extreme. It shows a beak-masked plague doctor with huge goggles and an overflowingly large gown so large it could encompass the universe. He is the epitome of the black plague and the Corona virus. That would be the sympathetic magic of like affects like as the fourteenth century meets today.

plaguemask

Of course they were a superstitious lot back then, not like today as people scurry for toilet paper and guns.

As people die the pope just announced that you can confess directly to God. Opera singers belt out arias from their balconies. It seems like the shamanism I was describing; lavish images in the space of death, as the divine hum like a candle in the night steadies the soul in our reenchanting world.

Shamanism coexists with allopathic medicine, with penicillin and dialysis machines, for example. It’s not one or the other. What the latter lacks, however, along with political economy, is the divine hum of the reenchanted universe that opens the doors of perception just as the virus does. That’s what I’ll tell my friend.

High Falls, NY

30 March 2020


Michael Taussig teaches anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980); Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987); The Nervous System (1992); Mimesis and Alterity (1993); Law in a Lawless Land (1993); and My Cocaine Museum (2004).

 

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The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour

Joshua Clover

How swiftly do genres of the quarantine emerge! Notable among them is the discovery of the relation between the present pandemic and onrushing climate collapse. The driving force of this genre is not holy shit two ways for a lot of people to die but the realization, or hope, that the great mobilizations of state resources currently being unspooled to address COVID-19 prove the possibility of a comparable or greater mobilization against ecological catastrophe, an even greater threat if somewhat less immediate. There is to be sure a certain mixing of analogies: in the United States, confronting climate change is conventionally likened to the New Deal or Marshall Plan, schemes to hedge against the charisma of communism, while addressing the pandemic decisively takes the language of war itself, a “war footing,” “wartime president,” and so on. This is an interesting slippage, no doubt, though both analogies rely on a vision of preserving global hegemony. Insert rueful laugh.

Bruno Latour provides a recent example of this genre; it appeared dually in Le Monde and Critical Inquiry on 25 March, here under the title “Is This a Dress Rehearsal,” and in French under the more prosaic but imperative “Health Crisis Demands We Prepare for Climate Change.”[1] The short piece is filled with the author’s habits of mind such as the inevitable “Latour Litany,” a list of all the various actors human and inhuman in an “entire network,” enumerated with an insistent leveling of its contents where what matters is that all these actors stand in ratio with each other, mute equivalents. It is as if exchange value had taken up a side hustle as a theorist. The goal is to demonstrate yet again the indistinction of nature and society toward discovering the obvious truth that “The pandemic is no more a ‘natural’ phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis.”

But here problems arise for the comparison, as the author himself admits. Writing from France, he notes that Emmanuel Macron’s capacity to confront the pandemic is not of a kind with even his least gesture toward (purported) climate abatement, recalling how his gas tax was met not with relief and a thirst for more but with the riots of the Gilets Jaunes movement. Per Latour, this is because Macron — and ostensibly other leaders — have not forged the kind of new state that climate collapse will require. Instead, “we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture.”

He means Foucault’s final lecture on the theme Society Must Be Defended, describing a new kind of power. Whereas once “Sovereignty took life and let live,” he writes, we discover toward the end of the eighteenth century “the emergence of a power that . . . in contrast, consists in making live and letting die.” This is the famous formula of biopolitics: the sovereign power to make live and let die.

Latour notes that this power’s deployment in the present moment includes “the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes.” Rightly so — this is a peculiarly awful time to be a delivery worker, from the warehouse or restaurant to the driver anxiously tossing a box on your porch. Recent days have presented an even more devastating turn: recent pronouncements by various governmental figures who, noting the economic devastation of COVID-19, proclaimed that people would have to abandon quarantine procedures after a fortnight at the very most and return to work so as to avoid cratering the economy. This despite the medical certainty that this would lead to more transmissions and more deaths. Forty-four years and five days after Foucault’s lecture, Donald Trump tweeted, WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO! If this was in any way opaque, two days later Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speculated, “are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren? And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”

But this course of action is not speculative at all: rather it seems to be the express plan of the state, coming soon. Look, to save the economy, we’re gonna have to kill some folks. Like, a lot. Horrified humans immediately noted this was a blood sacrifice to capitalism and who could disagree? This is the most dramatic political development since the early hours of millennium if not very much longer. It must seem like the apotheosis of biopolitics: a crackpot sovereign deciding at national scale who will be made to live, who let die.

Except for the way in which this was, in the clearest manner, the reverse. By 22 March, Goldman Sachs was already predicting an unparalleled 2.5 million new jobless claims; this would prove optimistic.

CLOVER

Meanwhile the Senate tinkered with its relief bill. The massive transfers to corporations were a given, for which 2008 now appears as a dress rehearsal. The haggling endeavored to dial in the exact size of the direct payment to citizens. It would need to restore enough aggregate demand to keep the economy breathing (a ventilator of sorts) while taking care not to give a single prole the incentive to be, in the face of a global and terrifying pandemic poised to kill millions absent assiduous measures taken by all, lazy. And it is to this delicate measure that presidents must also dance, not the measure decided on by the legislature, but the measure of that abstraction “the economy.” Nothing could have thrown Foucault’s formulations about sovereignty and regimes of power, and especially the limits of these ideas, into clearer relief than this week’s pronouncements, provisions, and data.

This is not to say there is no such thing as biopolitics nor any power to make live and let die. Clearly there is; clearly it is this that is wielded by all the Trumps great and small. Nonetheless it is apparent that the sovereign is not sovereign. Rather he is subordinated entirely to the dictates of political economy, that real unity of the political and economic forged by capital and its compulsions. Make live and let die is simply a tool among others in this social order whose true logic, from Trump’s tweet to Dan Patrick to the Senate bill, is the power employed always as a ratio of make work and let buy.

Here we must take a final turn toward where we began and reenter the genre named at the outset. The link between coronavirus and climate is more direct than mere analogy, two threats that challenge our senses of scale and temporality and so seem to demand something like a state to address them. Rather it turns out that one shows us the character of the other with horrific lucidity. We should not be surprised to discover that, like the 2008 economic collapse, the pandemic has significantly reduced emissions globally. The reductions have been particularly marked in China and Italy, the two most devastated nations. We might expect, glancing at the rate of spread and those unemployment numbers, that we will see similar results from the United States. Maybe we will get right with the Paris Accords after all.

This is not to say that we should imagine the virus as a redeemer; that is a particularly grotesque fantasy. Its role in a temporary retreat of planetarily fatal emissions is nonetheless informative. Ecological despoliation is a consequence not of humans, as the name “Anthropocene” and Latour’s essay suggest, but of industrial production and its handmaidens, and only forces which can bring that to heel allow us to prepare for climate change. Capital, with is inescapable drive to reproduce itself, is not some actor in a network, equivalent to other actors, but an actual cause. The compulsion to produce, and to produce at a lower cost than competitors, in turn compels the burning of cheap and dirty fuels to drive the factories, to move the container ships, even to draw forth from the ground the material components of “green energy” sources. The Gilets Jaunes did not riot because they object to ecological policies but because the economy dictates that they find jobs in places they cannot afford to live, and to which they must therefore commute. As long as the compulsions of production for profit and of laboring to live persist, climate survival will be beyond the reach of any state.

yellow_vests

We must take this fact with the utmost seriousness: that Foucault’s new regime of power appears in the late eighteenth century, which is to say, alongside the steam engine and the industrial revolution, which is also to say, alongside the liftoff of anthropogenic climate change. We need to stop fucking around with theory and say, without hesitation, that capitalism, with its industrial body and crown of finance, is sovereign; that carbon emissions are the sovereign breathing; that make work and let buy must be annihilated; that there is no survival while the sovereign lives.

29 March 2020


Joshua Clover is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis.  He is also a faculty member in the Department of Comparative Literature and affiliated faculty in the French and Italian departments, Film Studies Program, and the Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. He is affiliated with the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism. His most recent book is Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016).


[1] This translation mine; the remainder come from the English text.

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Is This a Dress Rehearsal?

Bruno Latour

The unforeseen coincidence between a general confinement and the period of Lent is still quite welcome for those who have been asked, out of solidarity, to do nothing and to remain at a distance from the battle front. This obligatory fast, this secular and republican Ramadan can be a good opportunity for them to reflect on what is important and what is derisory. . . . It is as though the intervention of the virus could serve as a dress rehearsal for the next crisis, the one in which the reorientation of living conditions is going to be posed as a challenge to all of us, as will all the details of daily existence that we will have to learn to sort out carefully. I am advancing the hypothesis, as have many others, that the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change. This hypothesis still needs to be tested.

LENT

What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms. This is true of microbes – as we have known since Pasteur – but also of the internet, the law, the organization of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate. And of course, in spite of the noise surrounding a “state of war” against the virus, it is only one link in a chain where the management of stocks of masks or tests, the regulation of property rights, civic habits, gestures of solidarity, count exactly as much in defining the degree of virulence of the infectious agent. Once the entire network of which it is only one link is taken into account, the same virus does not act in the same way in Taiwan, Singapore, New York, or Paris. The pandemic is no more a “natural” phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis. Society has long since moved beyond the narrow confines of the social sphere.

Having said that, it is not clear to me that the parallel goes much further. After all, health crises are not new, and rapid and radical state intervention does not seem to be very innovative so far. One need only look at President Macron’s enthusiasm to take on the figure of head of state that he has so pathetically lacked until now. Much better than terrorist attacks – which are, after all, only police business – pandemics awaken in leaders and those in power a kind of self-evident sense of  “protection” – “we have to protect you” “you have to protect us” – that recharges the authority of the state and allows it to demand what would otherwise be met with riots.

But this state is not the state of the twenty-first century and ecological change; it is the state of the nineteenth century and so-called biopower. In the words of the late Alain Desrosières, it is the state of what is rightly called statistics: population management on a territorial grid seen from above and led by the power of experts.[1] This is exactly what we see resurrected today – with the only difference that it is replicated from one nation to the next, to the point of having become world-wide. The originality of the present situation, it seems to me, is that by remaining trapped at home while outside there is only the extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture. Including the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes – not to mention the migrants who, by definition, cannot be secluded in any home of their own. But this caricature is precisely the caricature of a time that is no longer ours.

There is a huge gulf between the state that is able to say “I protect you from life and death,” that is to say from infection by a virus whose trace is known only to scientists and whose effects can only be understood by collecting statistics, and the state that would dare to say “I protect you from life and death, because I maintain the conditions of habitability of all the living people on whom you depend.”

Think about it. Imagine that President Macron came to announce, in a Churchillian tone, a package of measures to leave gas and oil reserves in the ground, to stop the marketing of pesticides, to abolish deep ploughing, and, with supreme audacity, to ban outdoor heaters on bar terraces. If the gas tax triggered the yellow-vests revolt, then imagine the riots that would follow such an announcement, setting the country ablaze. And yet, the demand to protect the French people for their own good and from death is infinitely more justified in the case of the ecological crisis than in the case of the health crisis, because it affects literally everyone, not a few thousand people – and not for a time but forever.

It is clear that such a state does not exist — and maybe fortunately so. What is more worrying is that we do not see how that state would prepare the move from the one crisis to the next. In the health crisis, the administration has the very classic educational role and its authority coincides perfectly with the old national borders – the archaism of the sudden return to European borders is painful proof of this. In the case of ecological change, the relationship is reversed: it is the administration that must learn from a multiform people, on multiple scales, what will be the territories upon which people are trying to survive in many new ways as they seek to escape from globalized production. The present state would be completely incapable of dictating measures from above. If in the health crisis, it is the brave people who must relearn to wash their hands and cough into their elbows as they did in primary school, in the case of the ecological mutation, it is the state that finds itself in a learning situation.

But there is another reason why the figure of the “war against the virus” is so unjustified: in the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity! But this does not apply to all humans, just those who make war on us without declaring war on us. For this war, the national state is as ill-prepared, as badly calibrated, as badly designed as possible because the battle fronts are multiple and cross each one of us. It is in this sense that the “general mobilization” against the virus does not prove in any way that we will be ready for the next one. It is not only the military that is always one war behind.

But finally, you never know; a time of Lent, whether secular or republican, can lead to spectacular conversions. For the first time in years, a billion people, stuck at home, find this forgotten luxury: time to reflect and thereby discern that which usually and unnecessarily agitates them in all directions. Let’s respect this long, painful, and unexpected fast.

26 March 2020

[The post was originally published in French with La Monde]


Bruno Latour is an emeritus professor associated with Sciences Po médialab.


[1] Alain Desrosières, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning,  trans. Camille Naish (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).

 

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When Movies Get Sick

Kyle Stevens

 

Space is never just space. Sometimes we think of it as the air around us. Sometimes we think of it as a thing in which to find a WiFi signal. Sometimes it’s what we need when we’ve had an argument with someone we love. Perhaps most often potentiality is the value assigned to it: What can be put here? Who can live there? Which plant can grow everywhere? Rarely is space treated as inherently dangerous, villainous (that is in part what makes the films of Fritz Lang or Kira Muratova exceptional), yet that is precisely one of the tectonic shifts wrought by living in the era of Covid-19. It has suddenly unfastened the values that traditionally attach to proximity, particularly regarding human bodies, as vocabulary focusing on the distance between them—social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine—become part of our quotidian language. Questions of what is close, what is far, and what is far too close have become matters of life, death, and illness. The space between bodies is a measure of harm, even violence. The embrace is no longer the signifier of core social values. Standing six feet apart is. Distance has become the sign of intimacy—of respect, care, concern, shared understand of a shared world, a sense of belonging to a form of life.

Within discussions of film aesthetics, cinephiles tout the value of cinema for inviting audiences to attend to bodies in space, referring to the composition recorded by the camera and whose projection is offered up for our pleasure. Adrian Martin provides an account of the traditional view of a film’s “mise en scène as the movement of bodies in space—a space constantly defined and redefined by the camera.”[i] This idea motivates a critical recommendation to see, at least to some degree, beyond characters situated within a narrative to the pleasures of graphic compositions and, perhaps from there, to aesthetic questions of scale, shape, line, and so forth.

But as the perception of space is reconditioned in life under Covid, our encounters with fictional spaces, and with what and how they express, alters. Even when we know stories are not set in the present, the new regimes of bodily organization affect how we might see onscreen space. When watching movies, I have lately found myself wincing ever so slightly at people dancing in clubs or of a friend running up to another in the street for a hug. So-called negative space between characters, traditionally construed as an aesthetic choice, now takes on a biopolitical urgency, a politicized and medical meaning. Space comes to the foreground as negative space, but is it properly called negative if we worry that it is full of contagions? Space remains unsubstantial but no longer quite so inert when the invisible has become urgently visible.

We might of course think about how we receive narratives overall during this new era. (When we are confined to our homes, will we be more sympathetic to Jeff in Rear Window [dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954], who is concerned with the well-being of his infirmed neighbor?) But I suspect that our perception of bodies in space will more subtly restructure, and that the situation of onscreen figures will strike us, not necessarily consciously, but affectively, differently. Consider a few examples.

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The opening of The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise, 1965) has been a classic image of freedom, of joy. Away from, as we soon learn, the confines of a sexually and vocally repressive convent, the wide open space affords Maria sovereignty of expression. Now, however, that sense of release is bolstered by the perception that she is safe, away from the threat that other bodies bring. Perhaps this was always part of why the image registered as freeing, perhaps others are always a threat to one’s sovereignty. Yet what was once an affordance of nature begins to fade into an affordance structured by the lack of others.

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Similarly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the very openness of the field seemed to anticipate the possibility of threat coming from all sides. Hitchcock even shows us that there is nothing around our protagonist in shots that cover a full 360-degree range. However, now that field is also reassuringly devoid of people. Openness becomes safety.

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But when another character shows up, but does not approach, do we now register this as a sign of tension, of awkwardness, or of propriety, caution, even care? Or the film may become even more Hitchcockian as the Cary Grant character is forced to confront the fact that there is no visible difference between a friend and foe. Is the man the savior he needs or enemy infector? The risk he takes in walking towards the other man is now more suspenseful as he may be thrusting himself upon the knife.

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In Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Alain Resnais employed social distancing to solicit contemplation of social alienation, but now this configuration also transforms into an image of social responsibility. Not alienation, but care for others, of self-care and social care. It is an image in which love and duty meet, not a vision of postwar alienation, but a foreshadowing of future forms of being.

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In How to Marry a Millionaire (dir. Jean Negulesco, 1958), a framing that emphasized the interval between two people previously suggested remoteness, that they were not destined for coupledom (if not to demonstrate CinemaScope). Now it seems more like a respectable span for two people getting to know one another.

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How much more romantic has become a touch, especially a touch of the face? In Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019) the borders of bodies are blurred such that a hand may belong to either lover, now overlaying our affective swoon with a frisson of anxiety. Perhaps it will no longer seem coincidental that we use falling to name the entry into both love and illness.

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In Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999), the regimented, equidistant bodies—configurations often seen in musicals, too—suggested rigid conformity, fascism. Now it appears mass ornamental, an ideal arrangement.

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For this reason, solitude registers anew. Baxter, in The Apartment (dir. Billy Wilder, 1960), working alone in the office, seems lucky to have gotten out of the house. Loneliness is less available to visual signification as it once was.

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As is friendship. In Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker, 2015), the distance with which two friends walk signals a latent hostility in their relationship. Alexandra is frustrated with Sin-Dee’s anger and impulsive behavior. But now it may not read that way. This may simply look like how two friends walk together.

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Cultural minorities never needed Immanuel Kant to tell them that space is subjective and “not something objective and real, nor a substance, nor an accident, nor a relation.” The registration of proximity as aggressiveness, menace, is well known to queer subjects who fear detection. It is in fact the default queer mode of inhabiting public spaces. Tea and Sympathy (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956) understood this. Contrast the proximity of the cishet macho fellows on the beach with the world of women, in which a young, burgeoning homosexual tries to hide himself in plain sight. The women are social distancing, which allows him to, as well. Here, nearness means danger and distance means security. In this context, proximity has not only been a historical marker of intimacy but of privilege, of a confidence in one’s belonging with and around others.

I am reminded, too, of the 1938 jazz standard “The Nearness of You,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington: “It’s not the pale moon that excites me, that thrills and delights me, oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Once tender, were this sung to an unrequited love today, these are the words of a psychopath.


Kyle Stevens is a visiting assistant professor of film studies at MIT. He is the author of Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (2015), coeditor of the two-volume collection Close-Up: Great Screen Performances (2018), and editor of the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory. His essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Cinema Journal,Critical Quarterly, Film Criticism, and World Picture, as well as in several edited collections.


My thanks to Daniel Morgan for helpful feedback on this topic.

[i] Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (New York, 2014), p. 45.

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To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and “I”

Catherine Malabou

In May of 1743, a vessel from Corfu carrying bodies of dead crew members who had died of a mysterious disease arrived in Messina.  The ship and cargo were burned, but cases of a strange new disease were soon thereafter observed in the hospital and in the poorest parts of the town; and in the summer, a frightening plague epidemic developed, killing forty to fifty thousand people, and then disappeared before spreading to other parts of Sicily. Rousseau was traveling from Paris to Venice and was forced to halt in Genoa because of the epidemic. He narrates his quarantine in the Confessions (1782):

It was at the time of the plague at Messina, and the English fleet had anchored there, and visited the Felucca, on board of which I was, and this circumstance subjected us, on our arrival, after a long and difficult voyage, to a quarantine of one-and-twenty days.

The passengers had the choice of performing it on board or in the Lazaretto, which we were told was not yet furnished. They all chose the Felucca. The insupportable heat, the closeness of the vessel, the impossibility of walking in it, and the vermin with which it swarmed, made me at all risks prefer the Lazaretto. I was therefore conducted to a large building of two stories, quite empty, in which I found neither window, bed, table, nor chair, not so much as even a joint-stool or bundle of straw. My night sack and my two trunks being brought me, I was shut in by great doors with huge locks, and remained at full liberty to walk at my ease from chamber to chamber and story to story, everywhere finding the same solitude and nakedness.

This, however, did not induce me to repent that I had preferred the Lazaretto to the Felucca; and, like another Robinson Crusoe, I began to arrange myself for my one-and twenty days, just as I should have done for my whole life. In the first place, I had the amusement of destroying the vermin I had caught in the Felucca. As soon as I had got clear of these, by means of changing my clothes and linen, I proceeded to furnish the chamber I had chosen. I made a good mattress with my waistcoats and shirts; my napkins I converted, by sewing them together, into sheets; my robe de chambre into a counterpane; and my cloak into a pillow. I made myself a seat with one of my trunks laid flat, and a table with the other. I took out some writing paper and an inkstand, and distributed, in the manner of a library, a dozen books which I had with me. In a word, I so well arranged my few movables, that except curtains and windows, I was almost as commodiously lodged in this Lazeretto, absolutely empty as it was, as I had been at the Tennis Court in the Rue Verdelet. My dinners were served with no small degree of pomp; they were escorted by two grenadiers with bayonets fixed; the staircase was my dining-room, the landing-place my table, and the steps served me for a seat; and as soon as my dinner was served up a little bell was rung to inform me I might sit down to table.

Between my repasts, when I did not either read or write or work at the furnishing of my apartment, I went to walk in the burying-ground of the Protestants, which served me as a courtyard. From this place I ascended to a lanthorn which looked into the harbor, and from which I could see the ships come in and go out. In this manner I passed fourteen days. [1]

Being told like the rest of humanity to “stay at home” because of the pandemic, I immediately remembered this passage from the Confessions. While all of his companions of misfortune chose to stay confined together on a boat, Rousseau decided to be locked up in the lazaretto instead. A lazaretto is a hospital for those affected with contagious diseases. A felucca, or Mediterranean sailing ship, could also be set apart for quarantine purposes. Obviously, the two possibilities were offered to travelers in Genoa, and Rousseau thought he had better leave the boat and stay on his own in the building.

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One can read this episode by solely focusing on the idea of choice: What is best in a time of confinement? Be quarantined with other people? Or be quarantined alone ? I must say that I spent some time wondering about such an alternative. If I had had the choice between the two options, what would have I done? (I am on my own, by the way, sheltered in quasi total isolation in Irvine, California.)

There is something else perhaps more profound in this passage, which is that quarantine is only tolerable if you quarantine from it—if you quarantine within the quarantine and from it at the same time, so to speak. The lazaretto represents this redoubled quarantine that expresses Rousseau’s need to isolate from collective isolation, to create an island (insula) within isolation. Such is perhaps the most difficult challenge in a lockdown situation: to clear a space where to be on one’s own while already separated from the community. Being cooped up on a boat with a few others of course generates a feeling of estrangement, but estrangement is not solitude, and solitude is, in reality, what makes confinement bearable. And this is true even if one is already on one’s own. I noticed that what made my isolation extremely distressing was in fact my incapacity to withdraw into myself. To find this insular point where I could be my self (in two words). I am not talking here of authenticity, simply of this radical nakedness of the soul that allows to build a dwelling in one’s house, to make the house habitable by locating the psychic space where it is possible to do something, that is, in my case, write. I noticed that writing only became possible when I reached such a confinement within confinement, a place in the place where nobody could enter and that at the same time was the condition for my exchanges with others. When I was able to get immersed in writing, conversations through Skype, for example, became something else. They were dialogues, not veiled monologues. Writing became possible when solitude started to protect me from isolation. One has to undress from all the coverings, clothes, curtains, masks, and meaningless chattering that still stick to one’s being when one is severed from others. Social distance is never powerful enough to strip one from what remains of the social in the distance. Sheltered-in-place has to be a radical Robinson Crusoe experience, an experience that allows one to construct a home out of nothing. To start anew. Or to remember.

CRUSOE

I wonder if Foucault, at the end of his life, did not turn to the ethics of the self—care of the self, technologies of the self, government of the self—out of the same necessity. The urge to carve out a space for himself within the social isolation that AIDS insidiously was threatening him with. Perhaps Foucault was looking for his island, his absolute (ab-solutus) land where he would have found the courage of speaking and writing before he died. Those who have seen in his late seminars a nihilistic individualist withdrawal from politics have totally missed the point.

We know that Karl Marx made fun of eighteenth-century robinsonades like Rousseau’s. Marx said that the origin of the social can by no means be a state of nature where isolated men finally come to meet and form a community. Solitude cannot be the origin of society.

This may be true, but I think it is necessary to know how to find society within oneself in order to understand what politics means. I admire those who are able to analyze the current crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic in terms of global politics, capitalism, the state of exception, ecological crisis, China-Us-Russia strategic relationships, etc. Personally, at the moment, I am on the contrary trying to be an “individual.” This, once again, is not out of any individualism but because I think on the contrary that an epochè, a suspension, a bracketing of sociality, is sometimes the only access to alterity, a way to feel close to all the isolated people on Earth. Such is the reason why I am trying to be as solitary as possible in my loneliness. Such is the reason why I would also have chosen the lazaretto.

23 March 2020


Catherine Malabou is a professor in the philosophy department at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University and of European languages and literatures and comparative literature at University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012) and Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2016), and most recently, Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains (2019).


[1] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. pub., 2 vols. (London, 1903), 1:273-74.

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The Climatic Virus in an Age of Paralysis


Nikolaj Schultz  

The collective reaction following CoVid19 seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the state of exception continues to generate fear, panic, anxiety, in all of their respective differences. On the other hand, to more than a few people, the fear strangely enough seems to go hand in hand with a feeling of relief. If I am not wrong on this point, and even if the feeling of relief will pass as the crisis gets worse, then what are the origins of this dramatic, emotional division?

My hypothesis is that one can only explain this two-sided collective psychology if we understand the social reactions to the new coronavirus as related to the helplessness societies are experiencing in the face of another civilizational tragedy: climate change.

The_Triumph_of_Death_by_Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder

As already noted by many commentators, the enormous panic and action readiness that the virus has installed in both the public and the state make the political and social reactions to climate change look rather vague. Obviously, the paradox here is that despite the great tragedy that the virus is, the enormous consequences of climatic mutations will, in all probability, by far surpass those of the virus.

The actions taken against the virus are without a doubt necessary, but we are still experiencing a huge, paradoxical distance between consequences and action. Citizens and social scientists would perhaps explain this gap with an analysis underlining the relation between affect and abstraction. Here, the argument would be that climate change does not accumulate affect and action because it is abstract, while the danger of the virus is concrete, and thus affects people and provoke action. In other words, two different phenomena of different abstractions, and two different reactions, where only one of them creates the necessary affect and agency.

However, this alone cannot explain the panic, the action readiness, and the civil mobilization that the virus has accumulated. If we wish to understand the magnitude of this reaction, it is perhaps more plausible to imagine that the public and the state are indeed affected by the enormous, abstract climatic risk but that its affects, because of sheer helplessness, now is projected onto the concrete virus risk, which certainly is easier to grasp: “Finally – a tangible apocalypse.”

My point is not that the draconian interventions in the infrastructure of society are unreasonable or exaggerated. My point is simply that we do not understand the sudden panic, action readiness, or civil sacrifice in a hitherto paralyzed society if we do not – at least partly – see this reaction as result of a collective, psychic milieu that climate change has made neurotic. Two different phenomena but perhaps one and same reaction in the end.

At first glance, this analysis seems unrealistic; it is too speculative, too psychoanalytic, too hypothetical. However, what is really unrealistic is imagining that there are not mass psychological consequences when a civilization for fifty years consciously ignores the proof of the catastrophic consequences of their actions and moves forward unabatedly in the same direction.

How could it not create a collective-panic psychic environment, which can now finally be compensated for in facing the virus, when a civilization walks blindfolded beyond four out of nine planetary boundaries and continues directly into a sixth mass-extinction event?

Now, this is exactly why the panic goes hand in hand with the relief. Am I wrong to suspect that the virus has not only accumulated fear but also a certain peace of mind in at least some people? Does my intuition lead me astray, if I detect next to peoples’ anxiety almost a sense of balance? When we are not short of breath, these days, are we then not breathing even better than before?

As noted above, this doubleness seems difficult to explain. However, if we understand these affects as partly deriving from the climatic changes, then we find at least two reasons for it being a logical outcome: on the one hand, because the pandemic now allows for a concrete drain of the collective anxiety that the climate’s abstract risks accumulate; on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, because we are right now exactly seeing how all the social systems that we thought made the ecological transition impossible – production, consumption, mobility, etc. – are not chiseled in stone but that they are in fact changeable.

If we today are relieved about the world taking a break for a while, then it is not just due to the vulgar banality that “people do not want to go to work.” If we feel a certain balance in the pandemic’s dramatic reorganization and short circuit of society’s social and economic systems, then it is due to sensing that the “acceleration society”[i] can be stopped and that its unimaginable consequences after all might not be inevitable.

Thus, the point is not only, as Slavoj Žižek has argued, that the virus is a strike at the heart of capitalism. He is probably right that it is, but if this heart flicker leads to a collective feeling of relief, then it is because the lurking climatic catastrophe no longer appears as an absolute necessity. The relief emerges because the concrete crisis has shown us that the abstract crisis might not be unavoidable.

So, as Karl Polanyi would say, society can still defend itself[ii]. And not only are we watching social systems change, we are even discovering how social values are changing accordingly. Sure, some people are reinventing themselves as Ayn Randian, sovereign individuals by hoarding toilet paper, and a few of the ultra-rich escapists that Bruno Latour and I have previously discussed as a geosocial elite have fled to New Zealand where they are hiding from the virus in their climate secured bunkers[iii]. However, as Rune Lykkeberg notes, in general, the panic seem to have generated practices of solidarity that were impossible to even imagine a few weeks ago.

This only makes the relief even bigger. Both our material and social destiny are still negotiable. And if this is an important realization, it is of course because of the hope that we – when the time is right – will be able to take advantage of the current, collectivist momentum and its political energy to create a realistic connection between the direction of civilization and its earthly, material conditions of existence. However, the possibility of this is much greateer if we understand that it might already be the absence of such a connection that we are reacting to, in panic as well as with relief.

This relief might very well disappear from the horizon within a few days or weeks, when the virus crisis reaches its ultimate point. Fear will be all we have left and we will unequivocally wish ourselves back to the days where everything was as it used to be. However, this does not necessarily make its insights any less important or valid – perhaps even the contrary.

It will be a strange spring and perhaps even a strange summer. However, maybe the concrete threat has given us a number of cognitive and practical strategies to counter the more abstract crisis that we are facing with climatic mutations. Despite its tragedies, the virus might end up as an emancipatory tool in an age of paralysis.

21 March 2020


Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes.


[i] Hartmut Rosa 2013: Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

[ii] Karl Polanyi 1944: The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. See especially Part II, “Self-Protection of Society”, pp. 136-228.

[iii] See Rupert Neate 2020: : “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak”, The Guardian, 11th March, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/disease-dodging-worried-wealthy-jet-off-to-disaster-bunkers and Edward Helmore 2020: ”Coronavirus lifestyles of the rich and famous: how the 1% are coping”, The Guardian, 13th March, Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/coronavirus-lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous-how-the-1-are-coping

 

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Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?

Slavoj Žižek

These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus – in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over. . . A clear sign of how my anxiety is growing is how I relate to sleep. Till around a week ago I was eagerly awaiting the evening: finally, I can escape into sleep and forget about the fears of my daily life. . . Now it’s almost the opposite: I am afraid to fall asleep since nightmares haunt me in my dreams and awaken me in panic – nightmares about the reality that awaits me.

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What reality? These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we really want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemics (I myself am among those spreading this mantra) – but radical changes are already taking place. The coronavirus epidemics confronts us with something that we considered impossible; we couldn’t imagine something like this really happening in our daily lives – the world we knew has stopped turning around, whole countries are in a lockdown, many of us are confined to one’s apartment (but what about those who cannot afford even this minimal safety precaution?), facing an uncertain future in which, even if most of us will survive, an economic mega-crisis lies ahead. . . What this means is that our reaction to it should also be to do the impossible – what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing world order. The impossible happened, our world has stopped, AND impossible is what we have to do to avoid the worst, which is – what? (I owe this line of thought to Alenka Zupančič.)

I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc. (although, with the possible collapse of health care and some other public services, this is also quite possible). More than open barbarism, I fear barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy but legitimized by expert opinions. A careful observer easily noticed the change in tone in how those in power address us: they are not just trying to project calm and confidence, they also regularly utter dire predictions – the pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course, and the virus will eventually infect 60-70 percent of the global population, with millions of dead. . . In short, their true message is that we’ll have to curtail the basic premise of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak. (Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about life and death will have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.) One should note how the acceptance of such a logic of the “survival of the fittest” violates even the basic principle of the military ethics that tells us that, after the battle, one should first take care of the heavily wounded even if the chance of saving them is minimal. (However, upon a closer look, this shouldn’t surprise us: hospitals are already doing the same thing with cancer patients.) To avoid a misunderstanding, I am an utter realist here – one should even plan  to enable a painless death of the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our priority should be, nonetheless, not to economize but to help unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.

So I respectfully disagree with Giorgio Agamben, who sees in the ongoing crisis a sign that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Things are much more ambiguous: it DOES also unite them – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to the other because I also may be a virus bearer. My sons avoid me now because they are afraid that they will contaminate me (what is to them a passing illness can be deadly for me).

In the last days, we hear again and again that each of us is personally responsible and has to follow the new rules. The media is full of stories about people who misbehave and put themselves and others in danger (a guy entered a store and started to cough, etc.) – the problem is here the same as with ecology where media again and again emphasize our personal responsibility (did you recycle all used newspapers, etc.). Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system. The struggle against the coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. As Kate Jones put it, the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “’a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.’”

So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included too – viruses also attack plants, which are the main sources of our food, like potato, wheat, and olives. We always have to bear in mind the global picture of the world we live in, with all the paradoxes this implies. For example, it is good to know that the lockdown in China saved more lives than the number of those killed by the virus (if one trusts official statistics of the dead):

Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air. “With this in mind,” he said, “a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.” “Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.” At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.

We are caught in a triple crisis: medical (the epidemic itself), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic), plus (not to underestimate) the mental health – the basic coordinates of the life-world of millions and millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything, from flying during holidays to everyday bodily contacts. We have to learn to think outside the coordinates of stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate the necessary resources. Say, when the authorities learn that a company is keeping millions of masks, waiting for the right moment to sell them, there should be no negotiations with the company – masks should be simply requisitioned.

The media has reported that Trump offered one billion dollars to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.” The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”; CureVac would only develop vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.” Here we have an exemplary case of the struggle between barbarism and civilization. But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies:

Trump announces proposal to take over private sector. The US president said he would invoke a federal provision allowing the government to marshal the private sector in response to the pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Trump said he would sign an act giving himself the authority to direct domestic industrial production “in case we need it.”

When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline “Trump announces proposal to take over private sector” – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago? And this is just the beginning – many more measures like this should follow, plus local self-organization of communities will be necessary if the state-run health system is under too much stress. It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food, and medical supplies. . . (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work.) It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”

As the saying goes, in a crisis we are all socialists – even Trump is considering a form of UBI – a check for a thousand dollars to every adult citizen. Trillions will be spent violating all the market rules – but how, where, for whom? Will this enforced socialism be the socialism for the rich (remember the bailing out of the bank in 2008 while millions of ordinary people lost their small savings)? Will the epidemics be reduced to another chapter in the long sad story of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism,” or will a new (more modest, maybe, but also more balanced) world order emerge out of it?

18 March 2020

[CORRECTION. For clarification, the author has asked us to modify the following: “Italy already announced that, if things get worse, those over eighty or with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die” The sentence now reads: “Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about who gets to live may have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.” Furthermore, President Trump did not “invoke the Defense Production Act.” The sentence now reads: “But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies.”-Ed.]


Slavoj Žižek, dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector at the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.He is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.

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