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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