The Quarantine Files: Thinkers in Self-Isolation
By Brad Evans, Kehinde Andrews, Lauren Berlant, Wendy Brown, Russell Brand, Jake Chapman, Simon Critchley, Camille Dungy, Cynthia Enloe, Roberto Esposito, Simona Forti, Henry A. Giroux, David Theo Goldberg, Jack Halberstam, Saidiya Hartman, Todd May, Brian Massumi, Chantal Meza, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Adrian Parr, Julian Reid, Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark, Eyal Weizman, George YancyApril 14, 2020
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Introduction by Brad Evans
THREE WEEKS AGO, I was sitting in front of my computer at home trying to finish an essay on educating children. But I was unable to concentrate. A broadcaster with a notably concerned expression was reporting on the spread of the coronavirus, which was now advancing across mainland Europe. It was no longer a “Chinese problem,” which many had hoped to keep at a “safe distance.” Its effects were becoming a global issue. As the days passed, any concept of time I had was replaced by the rising tide of casualty statistics. I watched as the anxiety and concern spread almost as quickly as the virus itself.
I kept thinking about “domino” and “butterfly” “effects” and how radically interconnected we truly were. Admittedly ignorant to the science, I needed to find out more, but the “news” was no comfort. As nations started falling victim one by one to the virus, we all started coming to terms with the vocabulary of “lockdown,” “isolation,” and “quarantine.” Some undoubtedly responded in a more humane way than others.
Like many authors, I wanted to say something, partly I now see for my own sanity, but didn’t know where to begin. I just knew that I was becoming increasingly concerned, not only for the welfare of others, but of my loved ones, family, friends, and companions alike. Writing has always been my therapy to the horrors of the world. And I still maintain there is no better reason to write or express — in any medium — than to feel the world’s beauty and pain. But was it all simply too close or too reactionary?
There certainly was no shortage of reflections being offered. Everyone is now an expert, it seems, and yet never have we felt more in the dark about outcomes — even the most basic, questioning whether there will be enough food to go around. But I couldn’t find the words to do justice to this unfolding tragedy, except to repeat the warnings from history and the need to be vigilant to its political effects. I now see my inertia was revealing of a deeper fear and a sense of foreboding: that of being alone, writing alone.
When proposing this edition to the editorial team at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I therefore had the simple intuition there were probably others who wanted to respond, but also not simply in isolation. What I have also discovered is that they too had doubts. Some initially committed and then withdrew for reasons all too understandable. What was the point of saying anything right now? Should we not spend more time reflecting on the significance? Might we not simply reaffirm our own privileged positions? Worse still, might our interventions come across as parasitic to the virus?
Following supportive discussions with my loving wife and the editorial team, I set about to bring together a small group of critical thinkers, artists, and poets who could all in their own way share their thoughts and concerns. My intention was not to create some unified voice, resilience style help-guide, or mini-manual for political survival. It was to invite responses from authors who might reveal their own unique tensions, fears, and even doubts about the types of interventions the world needs right now.
Despite the reservations, I don’t think I’ve ever been more humbled by the responses and the trust the contributors to this curated volume have shown in these desperate times.
I do hope these contributions help spark conversations on how we move forward, which will no doubt continue in the years to come.
- Kehinde Andrews: “The Other Pandemic”
- Lauren Berlant: “In the morning I yell”
- Russell Brand: “All I need is the air that I breathe (And to love you)”
- Wendy Brown: “From Exposure to Manifestation”
- Jake Chapman: “Four Weddings and a Mass Grave”
- Simon Critchley: “Sorry to Disappoint (I knew I should have been a hairdresser)”
- Camille Dungy: “Winter: Past is Prelude”
- Cynthia Enloe: “Pulling my COVID-19 language out of the trenches”
- Roberto Esposito: “Instituting Life”
- Brad Evans: “The Love Leviathan”
- Simona Forti: “Pan-demic: All people-in-one or pandemonium?”
- Henry A. Giroux: “The Plague of Neoliberalism and the Politics of Pandemics”
- David Theo Goldberg: “Tracking Capitalism and COVID-19”
- Jack Halberstam: “Frantic”
- Saidiya Hartman: “The Death Toll”
- Brian Massumi: “The American Virus”
- Todd May: “This is Not the Time for Theory”
- Chantal Meza: “Viral Ecologies: A Litany for Our Times”
- Nicholas Mirzoeff: “Notes from the Necropolis”
- Adrian Parr: “Crisis”
- Julian Reid: “Our Big War”
- Eugene Thacker: “Pathological Life”
- McKenzie Wark: “She’s Not There”
- Eyal Weizman: “Surveilling the Virus”
- George Yancy: “Bodies Without Edges: Rethinking Borders of Invulnerability”
Kehinde Andrews: “The Other Pandemic”
COVID-19 is demonstrating the fragility of the world to defend against pandemics, which are one of the main threats to our continued existence. The only defense has been large-scale lockdowns, effectively shutting down the global economy in order to avoid more widespread infection. The lengths to which governments have gone shows just how far politicians will go when there is the will do so. Watching one of the most right-wing governments in British history enact policies to the left of Corbyn really is a sight to see. The, dare I say, radical measures being imposed are all desperate attempts to reduce the rapidly rising death toll. At time of writing there were over 36,000 global fatalities, with over 1,000 so far in the United Kingdom and estimates the number could reach 200,000 in the United States. The scale of the potential causalities of the virus have rightly shocked the world into action.
The reaction to the virus, however, also demonstrates whose lives are valued in the current political order. In the same period that COVID-19 has hit, it is estimated that almost two million children have died from poverty across the globe. Around nine million people die from hunger each year, there is even a clock that adds to the figure by the second, which currently stands at over two million causalities. The archbishop of Canterbury compared the virus outbreak to a nuclear explosion, and that is how the world has reacted. But the reality is that poverty causes these kinds of fatalities annually: multiple nuclear explosions every year without any notable response from governments or the public. Commitments to foreign aid that mostly benefit the West and donations to charities that can only begin to scratch the surface cannot even be discussed in the same paragraph as the measures in place to stop the spread of the virus. This is the uncomfortable truth: we have become accustomed to poverty robbing the lives of those in Global South on a scale that would be unimaginable in the West.
In order to grasp the scale to which we have normalized the fatality of poverty, we can compare deaths in South Africa to the United Kingdom. Both have similar population numbers, and South Africa is supposedly one of the more prosperous countries in the underdeveloped world. The “best-case scenario” for the COVID-19 death toll in the UK is apparently 20,000 if the measures put in place work. This is roughly the same number of murders annually in South Africa and almost the number of children under the age of five who die each year (both figures are over 20 times higher than in the UK). Overall, in 2015, there were almost 170,000 more deaths in South Africa than in the UK. Whilst in the UK the majority of people who died were over 60, the opposite was true in South Africa where more people died in the 30–34 age bracket (28,740) than in the 80–84 range (25,122). On the other hand, in the UK there were 36 times as many deaths in the in the older age range (50,790), than the younger (1,392). Preventable illnesses, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, murder — there are all linked to poverty, which causes tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in one of the more economically stable countries in the underdeveloped world. Yet there is no global mobilization or outcry, just the continuation of policies that perpetuate poverty in places like South Africa.
The extraordinary lengths governments have gone to protect life during the COVID-19 crisis are urgent and necessary, but they should stand as a reminder to the scale of the task at hand if we are serious about addressing global inequality. Poverty is a pandemic claiming millions of lives each year, and the only way to address this is to take truly radical action. The global economy is built on the same principles of white supremacy that originally brought it into being through genocide, slavery, and colonialism. Africa has been rendered the poorest place on earth, with the West the richest and a hierarchy in between. Accepting the suffering and death of those at the bottom of this ladder has always been a necessary part of maintaining the racial system of exploitation. In the West we have become far too accustomed to both the benefits we reap from capitalism and the death toll it exacts on the mostly Black and Brown Global South. Revolution is not only possible, it is essential.
Lauren Berlant: “In the morning I yell”
In the morning I yell “Smells!” in a stage whisper because my partner is sleeping, and the cats come running to the open window. Together we look at the lake until they dart ears to attention at the migrating bird-sounds, our still-life interrupted by life. During my recent travels my partner tried not to eat emotionally and so one cat gained two pounds, which is a lot if you picture a pound as one of those stacked blocks of four sticks of butter that no one buys anymore except to make pies. That cat is slinky except for her square butter belly. I have my own morning ritual of a cup of coffee and a cup of hot water as though a daily detox will cleanse what’s eating me. Conversations flow in then. They flow into the clouds beyond the screen without anxiety about how the episodes will pull a genre in. A peaceful scenario flow turns out to be better than imagining revenge or counting out on which month dying is likely.
As I wait for my doctor’s telemedicine call, I leap into a dreamscape of the hospital rooms my friend Harris describes where cyborg technologies like breathing machines are lifelines in case the body jolts back. Back then the family could gather there. Everyone took in the situation through their own mode of documentation: the chart, the field notes, the swing of family gossip, the pad onto which the intubated patient writes to impact the nextness that will shape their story. Play and jokes moved through the hall into the room like music while everyone remained attuned to the slo-mo pulling out of the rug from what life was, and the genres of that continuously diverted attention crowded into treatment time producing flutter, marked by prayer, snipes, snacks, and eruptions of salvific “remember whens?”
Nextness is so powerful an attention suck that prognosis is barely there until swiftly it’s in front of the nose. The doctors can only do so much whether or not they even achieve the so much given the scarce resources and competing pulls. That is, until occasionally some exceptional clarity arrives that might lead to the version of healing that everyone hopes for to pull this episode into the past as a cause with no effects except for the memory of expense, panic, exhaustion, relief, solidarity, and a few comic shrugs. The fantasy of the emergency is messianic in that sense, wishing into being a fulfillment that produces a shift with no loss but a surprising better. I feel better. What I’d give for it. What looked like a dirty sun tan was actually a flush in nature. What sounded like coughing was really a story trying to get out. In the end, the police and the docs write incident reports about what mattered and was lost.
Now my body, under torn tents of suffering, unleashes grief from every time I’ve lived and imagined, perpetually delaying new versions of having my shit together amid ever-reversing lashes of collective time. Back in the day, “emergency” sped up time. Now it’s a fact that produces frustration, flailing, and bursts of thinking about alternate scenarios, not just of singular life and biographical death but of systems and worlds that reroute paranoia and rage into a positive build. Now for all of us attending to the streaming crawl it’s all background programs tripping across calendrical metronomes, while it is also a doctor drawing forks in the road to show what we might encounter in some future that will feel just like this one until, turned sharply, it doesn’t.
Russell Brand: “All I need is the air that I breathe (And to love you)”
Usually, a global event, a disaster, is accompanied by a secondary phenomenon. Like those birds that eat ticks off hippos, there are the clamoring grief bandits tryin’ to get their mitts on a bit of “mournography.” You know; “I was meant to be on that flight, but I missed it” or “I was friends with Diana’s driver.” The enormity of the event is magnetic.
But COVID-19 has assured that we are all affected, if not infected. No need for point scoring, we are all “umbrellaed” by this carousing crisis. In living memory has there ever been anything so big and so small? As big as falling walls and towers, as small as running out of Weetabix. At the time of writing, we in the UK are still in the somewhat spirited but baffled early phase of isolation. We are applauding our NHS on doorsteps and balconies while Prince Charles and Boris Johnson clap along, hours before succumbing to the invisible flood.
Previous current affairs blockbusters that seemed like they would go on forever have been relegated to the back pages and the back pages are vacant, of course, because football is not coming home. Occasionally in the online rags I read, someone will try to defibrillate Brexit “it’ll stop us gettin’ masks/vaccines/whatever” but mostly we know that not only is Brexit a “mind made manacle” but that even the “Br,” Britain, is a concept that requires our faith and investment to be sustained. This virus has provided us with evidence that our most zealously revered symbols and systems are temporary, and it has granted many of us the time to reflect on that revelation.
As a hippie and a bit of a progressive, I’m always up for a bit of alternative medicine — cupping, holistic therapy, reiki — but let me tell you if something serious happens I fling myself at the feet of the medical establishment quicker than you can say “Harley Street.” We easily submit to authority in times like this: leaders’ approval ratings soar and dismissive nicknames all but disappear, a lot less “Bo Jo” and a lot more “Prime Minister.” Fear is the midwife of compliance.
If this continues for six months, as some suggest, it will be interesting to see how sustainable this muted obedience is. The idea that this is a “war” and that “we are all in it together” may not endure when it becomes clear that (as usual) some are without bread whilst others are adrift on pristine yachts. If, like me, you think about revolution a lot, you have probably often considered that radical change is unlikely without cataclysm. As the systems of dominance pump themselves full of quantitative steroids — in doses that exceed even the 2008 zombification of capitalism — we get a glimpse of where the lines might be drawn.
I believe that we cannot meaningfully reorganize the world, or at least civilization, without undergoing a personal and collective awakening. Until we are able to alter our personal priorities, willing to let go of our need for comfort and familiarity, we will remain malleable. If we can use this time to journey within, to discover who we are and who we are not; that we are awareness experiencing temporary form, that we are not the static crackle of egoic, individual consciousness, then freedom is possible. As long as my perspectives and behavior are based on my individual needs I am deactivated. If I can overcome my fear and selfishness I can experience the deep truth of love, not as an individualized, pleasurable sentiment but as a lived certainty that we are connected. Indeed, more than connected, we are one, from the same source, heading to the same place. Love is the awareness of absolute union, the ulterior reality beneath apparent separation.
We breathe the same air and we live on the same rock. Coronavirus has shown us that with rapid clarity. What does this truth suggest to us about how we should organize our systems and our resources? My intuition, my experience, is that the existing machines of dominance will go to great lengths to prevent that truth spreading across the globe.
Wendy Brown: “From Exposure to Manifestation”
Powers engaged and subverted
Coronavirus simultaneously engages, intensifies, and subverts existing political and economic arrangements. It engages gross inequalities of every kind, including access to shelter, health care, knowledge, assistance, and a livable existence when the virus recedes. It intensifies existing vulnerabilities in a world ordered by the crude, careless powers of nation-states and capitalism. Yet it also temporarily subverts the quotidian drive of these powers to prioritize wealth over life; that drive suddenly and radically fails its own aim. Not an eruption of virtue but a novel microbe threw it off the tracks.
The virus also undoes some (though hardly all) of the usual protections secured by wealth and power, that of individuals and nations alike. All are vulnerable, however unequally provisioned and treated, as the microbe rages across elaborately barricaded and policed borders, seeking new hosts from every human exhale and extended hand. Everyone needs everyone to stop the spread, to stop moving, to stop being governed by illusion and delusion, to stop social indulgence and denial. Stillness and containment are not individual self-protection but a worldwide mutual social pact. Wealth cannot buy a place outside of this pact. In motion, those at the top of hierarchies are as dangerous to each other as they are endangered by those at the bottom, whose cheap labor they require. Everywhere, the servant might poison the master.
The virus is inextricable from society, economy, knowledge, and politics. This is not only because it is crashing markets, shuttering businesses, and destroying jobs and incomes. It is not only because perverse chains of survival — health secured by insurance tied to employment and nuclear families; working parents bound to schools for childcare and child nutrition; shelter tethered to rent paid by jobs in a wasteful consumption economy — were suddenly snapped by the microbe. Coronavirus is more than biological or medical because everything human is experienced and shaped through powers humanly made but not humanly controlled, powers that simultaneously sustain and destroy us, relate and break us apart, connect and stratify us. The course of the virus is material and discursive, a matter of immense social cooperation and extraordinary political inventiveness, skill, or folly; a scene of reason and feeling, of science, sense, and sorrow. The virus and its damages cannot be contained apart from the complexity and convergence of these planes of world-making and meaning-making. It cannot be managed by knowledge emanating from any walled-off discipline. The public health field has known this forever, but now even the economists cannot stay inside their tidy rooms, conjuring a perfect model or market to right the ship. The “financial” and “real” economy daily expose their entwining, along with their dependence on the very states they constrain, manipulate, and imperil. The danger of a “reverse infection” of the real economy from the steady slide of the financial one threatens to tilt the slide from recession to depression. Political management of the virus is simultaneously political management of finance and production, human and economic health, and the psyche and soma of each.
Many regard coronavirus as bringing about a profound withdrawal into a bounded nation, home, family, or self. In fact it has turned us inside out, fostering unprecedented global cooperation among medical researchers, inspiring thousands of small mutual aid networks, forcing banks to suspend debt collections and punitive credit ratings, forcing neoliberalized states to provide income floors, forcing an incarceration system to release prisoners, and revealing everywhere the necessity of sharing over hoarding, provisioning over contracting, sheltering over abandoning populations. Above all, coronavirus has surfaced the care economy, broadly construed, as indispensable, and the perfidy and plunder of most other capitalist extraction and production as largely superfluous. It has elevated the value of the underpaid, undervalued, and disproportionately nonwhite and female medical workers, farm workers, food workers, pharmacists, sanitation workers, grocery store employees, truck drivers, plumbers and electricians, home health-care workers, janitors, infrastructure maintenance workers, mass transit operators, social service workers, teachers, and caregivers of every kind. As exhausted health workers keep bodies alive, the creatives — musicians, artists, poets, and storytellers — lift and soothe spirits. Science writers translate the discoveries, trajectories, and unknowns; journalists worthy of the name keep rumors and conspiracies at bay, explain new policies, count and name the dead. Of course we miss baristas and bartenders, crossing guards and athletes, but what the pandemic-stricken-world is not missing is the work of investment bankers, corporate event planners, day traders, marketing and advertising specialists, insurance managers, real estate developers, actuaries, lawyers, or that sorry breed known as influencers. It is also not missing most capitalist commodity production. We need ventilators for the sick, PPE for active workers, and food and shelter for the rest. We need what comes from the bottom of the economic system, not the top.
All of this and more the virus reveals. But there is no political revelation without interpretation, contestable and rivaled by others. What is revealed must be made manifest, crafted in language, image, and politics as critique and limned possibility. Revelation drawn into manifestos that counter and transform ubiquitous eagerness to “return to normal” — the normal of clogged highways, filthy air, meaningless work, disorganized health provision, mindless consumption, bulging prisons, abandoned homeless populations, siloed knowledge practices, growth-based economies wrecking the planet, stratification and abjection across race, class, gender and hemisphere, and overpaid masters of the universe returned to their thrones.
Jake Chapman: “Four Weddings and a Mass Grave”
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism…”
Before coronavirus, this statement (attributed to both Žižek and Jameson), was elevated to a popular truism, since it perfectly described the prevailing political impasse in which humans contested their future but seemed incapable of action. The future portended environmental catastrophe, but it was nonetheless distant enough for compensatory scenarios to be played out by the Hollywood disinformation machine — with every new franchise disaster movie acting out our conscience for us, each time the end of the world averted by the neoliberal champions of Capitalism.
Before coronavirus, we Europeans yearned for chaos whilst enduring tranquility, and made do with images of the end of the world — as if to conceive uncertainty was to keep it at bay. Fate was presented to us before it actually happened, so the future could be prevented from occurring spontaneously. What better than a future infinitely deferred, with dissenting ideologies contested in the present, without hope of ever being realized?
When Carl Sagan’s Voyager time capsule was cast into the void in 1977, he wished to communicate “something very hopeful about life on this planet.” Currently it is 1,372.32 light years away in the constellation of Camelopardalis, beaming its fossils of human endeavor across space and time as unadultered ideology, aimed toward some imaginary host; with the accomplishments of J. S. Bach and Isaac Newton as better cosmic adverts for humanity than plague, pestilence, or Auschwitz.
How humans might account for their time on Earth to imaginary aliens and to cinema audiences (alike) says something about how we reclaim the animistic mythology of progress from the void of time (and space). Whilst The Day After Tomorrow (2004) indulged new passions for environmental atonement, watching Contagion (2011) evidently provided no such ideological immunity to the infection that was to come. And what is coronavirus other than a brutal collapse of time and space?
Suddenly the unimaginable is upon us as fate decomposes the optimistic buffer that separates the present from the abyss of the future. With images of catastrophe, our masochistic culture has played out the potential for collapse as a nightmare from which we can always wake up and make amends. But with the emergence of a virulent pandemic contagion, the reaction is one of sheer disbelief, as if the many years of acclimatizing us to disaster did nothing to prepare us for the microscopic reality that has now penetrated our permeable social organs, bringing the end to bear upon us, putting our faith in the safe theology of CGI to shame. Otherwise it would seem that the world might prefer to present itself as a rom-com; but it is a scant shroud to cover what is immanent to life.
Love in the Time of Cholera is no rom-com, but Four Weddings and a Funeral might best be remembered because it offers the perfect ideological ratio between love/death, whilst viruses seethe and mutate in the intimate recesses of human mire. And what is more virulent than humanity? Samuel Butler, writing in 1872 noted: “Man is such a hive and swarm of parasites that it is doubtful whether his body is not more theirs than his, and whether he is anything but another kind of ant-heap after all.”
What we are experiencing then with coronavirus is the revenge of the inhuman, coming to reclaim us from our dogmatic slumber. Thus, coronavirus reveals “the horror teeming under the stone of culture” as Adorno might say. Coronavirus collapses the future into the present, visiting upon us an anticipation of cosmic insignificance, but felt as a terrifying affirmation of the sublime — a vision of the impossible breadth of that which has come for all of us, perhaps en masse, the intangible reality that envelops us in a horror that we are incapable of fully conceiving of any more than we are capable of escaping; since our thought, to echo Bersani our thinking is merely the “excrement of being,” we have no greater claim to the immortal stars than the Sisyphean dung beetle, manipulating fodder toward some unknowable, unidentifiable horizon, with only the implicit confidence that such movement in time is merely a Heideggerian “being-towards-death.”
Coronavirus collapses the human back into the species, the gift of an impersonal death that transects the contradiction between the neoliberal singular monad and the hive of contagion that is humanity. Contagion entreats us to reconsider our separate ontological designation, to succumb to the adjacency of being, to submit to the trans-taxonomic drift of biomass, thus to life (and love) as vectors of infection; that identity is a metaphysics that coronavirus so effortlessly cures. Perhaps it is now possible to imagine the end of the world and the end of Capitalism, but do we have an appetite to act?
Simon Critchley: “Sorry to Disappoint (I knew I should have been a hairdresser)”
Look, I’m chuffed to bits to Brad for the invitation to write something in such esteemed company. And, yes, I understand the implicit contract or assumption in contributing to a forum like this, where various more or less well-known “public intellectuals” (God, I hate those words. They bring me out in a nasty, speckled rash down the side of my right leg) make some sort “critical intervention,” which shows the spectacular relevance of their theoretical perspectives in illuminating our current, rather ghastly, situation and perhaps allows them to simulate some sort of sympathy with others through overly dramatic and self-aggrandizing prose.
But can I just say that the whole thing irritates me a bit?
I was thinking of calling this little poop of prose “Capitalizing on coronavirus in order to confirm the massive relevance of all my previous work”; but that struck me as going a little far. Poor taste and all that. This might just be me, and if it is, then that’s fine (if you’re offended, just stop reading right now and go back to your moronic primers on the importance of Stoicism and your guided meditations that connect you that big, gloopy amorphous thing that allegedly ties everything together); but I have found the various texts that I’ve read by philosophers on coronavirus either drearily predictable, emptily empathetic, scandalously opportunistic or simply ludicrous (yes, I do mean you, Giorgio Agamben. And also, you, Jean-Luc Nancy, although I am really glad you didn’t take Agamben’s advice and had the heart transplant all those years ago). We are barely a couple of weeks into this bloody, bleeding disaster, and people who shall remain nameless (okay, I do mean you, Slavoj) are announcing books, all sorts of publishers are in touch with me with stupid ideas for a little series of ebooks or whatever. In other words, the virus might look really bad for the world, but — hey — there’s a market opportunity for philosophers here. Let’s sell some books!
Aren’t you Mr. Disappointment, they say? Haven’t you been claiming for decades that philosophy begins in learning how to die, mortality, suicidal ideation, and the rest? Of course, I am not averse to flattery. Far from it. That, of course, is why I’m writing this. But maybe we should just shut the fuck up for a while and talk to our plants. I’ve always found plants a receptive audience for new material. A little quiet maybe. A bit like giving a talk in Los Angeles; or watching carp in a pond outside an English stately home opening and closing their mouths. On the subject of carp, somebody actually asked me to write a book on Stoicism the other day, to which I screamed back that I hate Stoicism more than life itself. Seneca is a rubbish thinker. Stoicism is the pseudo-philosophy of airline pilots and imperial administrators. He hasn’t got back to me.
Philosophy has always been about self-isolation. I get it. After being a soldier in the extended horror of the Thirty Years’ War, Descartes withdrew to his oven in the Netherlands and began to ponder the nature of certainty, which began with a rigorous destruction of all his former opinions. And Boethius was in solitary confinement in prison when the goddess of philosophy appeared to him offering Alain-de-Botton-esque consolation (although he [Boethius, not Alain. Not Alain!] was still bludgeoned to death some time later by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric). I could accumulate and append numerous other examples to display my immense erudition, but you get the point.
But this is my other point, the important one: after a week or two of self-isolation with only Dutch dairy products for company, Descartes didn’t announce on social media that he was going to publish the Meditations with a shocking pink cover and edgy typography, did he? He didn’t contact his agent and publicist and discuss the possibility of celebrity endorsements and maybe a live-streaming event.
So maybe a moment’s pause would be advisable. Maybe even a few years or a decade or two. Or just expire on your bed like Pascal with all your fragments scattered around you for someone else to pick up … or not. It’s just a thought, not a recommendation. Maybe we philosophers should have tried another line of work, something actually important, like being a nurse, or a caretaker in an old people’s home or a doctor in an ER ward? Or even a hairdresser. My mother and sister were hairdressers and I really need someone to attend to my beard.
Of course, the keen readers out there who have got this far and not given up, might have noticed the performative self-contradiction between the message of this prose (shut the fuck up) and the fact that I am publishing it. Lord, a performative contradiction! It’s like being in a Habermas seminar on French philosophy from 1989. You might accuse me of biting the hand that feeds me. To which I would like to say, yes, but I’d rather see that hand severed and crawling along the road in some Netflix version of a Maupassant story with B-list British actors. These allusions are admittedly becoming a little obscure.
Long story short, I am a hypocrite. But that can’t be much of a surprise, can it?
Brad told me that Russell Brand was going to write something in this forum. Let me just say that Russell Brand is perhaps the most good-looking man I have ever met. Very clever with a mouth as sharp as a Fisherman’s Friend. Nonetheless, I was going to end by teasing Russell Brand by saying that the only book that I have been able to read since my powers of concentration completely collapsed has been Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Mr. Lee is the 41st most famous stand-up comedian in the UK), which repeatedly employs Brand as the butt for a whole series of winkle jokes. But that also seemed in bad taste. Aside from the relentless attacks on the comedic ability of Russell Brand (which are done, it seems to me, in a spirit of profound personal jealousy and no little affection), a point that Lee makes, which I rather like, is that the obligation of comedy is to pile up obscenity upon obscenity as the only path to achieving pure aesthetic form. It’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? Imagine Adorno and Larry David fused into one hybrid creature driving a Prius. And obscenity is also something to pass the time before we all go back to the counterfeit immortality of our normal lives. So, here’s the upside in what I’m saying, the upswing where sweet, swelling, symphonic music brings things to a coda and ties them into a pretty bow.
Things are awful, right? Things are deeply upsetting. Locally, in what Borat Sagdiyev used to call the US&A, the incompetence of the federal government and the shameless narcissism of “he-who-shall-not-be-named” is criminal. I want him to just go away, disappear, preferably dying alone in pain after being poisoned by Melania. I want him simply to not be in my mind anymore. In none of our minds. Gone forever. Imagine!
But the only thing that is helping me with the tedium of my own company at the moment is the grimmest, dirtiest, most obscene forms of humor. My suggestion to you, dear readers, is that you get off your social media hamster wheel, stop torturing or Cuomo-ing yourselves with the news, and think of the most inappropriate joke that you know, and just keep saying it, developing, riffing on it, extending it in the wildest possible ways. You can even do this with your friends and lovers, if you still have them. Try it for five minutes, or 15 minutes. After some days of practice, see if you can get to 25 minutes. Eventually, the obscenity will lose all meaning and become something like an experience of the transcendental, a pure light-winged vapor, like a dwarf Greek sparrow or a miniature shrimp. All I am saying is that this might help a lot more than the self-promoting whinging and dubious consolation of philosophers.
And if that doesn’t work, might I suggest a nice glass of Nebbiolo. Unless you’re an alcoholic of course.
Camille Dungy: “Winter: Past is Prelude”
In the face of this global pandemic and the crises it presents, my worries of the past three winters seem almost insignificant. Though they were not — are not — insignificant.
Last winter, I hardly left the house because it was dangerously cold outside. Sheets of thin ice covered walkways. People — worried about landing in the hospital — hardly socialized for months. There was the winter I fretted about friends and family suffering from conditions over which they and their medical teams had little control. That was the same winter my concerns flared for friends who were foreign nationals. Would my country — whose leadership had proven hostile on countless occasions — directly or indirectly take actions that might cause my friends harm? There was the winter I mourned the direction my nation had taken the past fall. The policies of the new government — and those backing the new government — no longer seemed to have the best interest of the majority of people in mind.
“The past is prelude.” Last week, I saw this Shakespeare quote etched in stone in front of the National Archives. I thought it fitting then — as a statement of the importance of a national archive — and I think it fitting now — as a way to help me absorb where we stand today.
Last week, I took my mother to Washington, DC. We did not take the trip without careful assessment. We followed the news. Information available at the time suggested that if we took reasonable precautions we should come to no harm. We wore masks. We wore gloves. I had a bottle of rubbing alcohol and sprayed our seat areas. My mother treated the sprayed zones with disinfecting wipes. After this cleaning, we replaced our gloves with new gloves. These we wore for the duration of the trip. We shook no one’s hands. We took no snacks from flight attendants. In the hotel, we applied the same precautions. With gloved hands, we cleaned hard surfaces: desks, nightstands, lamps, light switches, doorknobs, sink handles, curtain pulls. We turned down maid service. We were careful about what we ate. We were extra vigilant. Official advice at the time just told us to wash our hands and not to touch our eyes, nose, mouth or face.
Maybe you remember the second week of March — this was as recently as the second week of March! General precautions shared with the US public did not yet include keeping six feet away from other people. Social distancing was a phrase just beginning to gain traction. We were only away from home for 60 hours, door to door. While we were in DC, the nation’s stance on COVID-19 shifted. The NBA cancelled its season the night we arrived, forgoing billions of dollars of revenue and signaling a shift in public health policy. On Wednesday, the one full day of our visit, my mother and I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the evening, I participated in a public reading at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. That day, the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 outbreak could be characterized as a pandemic. The next morning, as we prepared to fly home, the Episcopal Dioceses of Washington, DC, announced they were cancelling church services and meetings for the remainder of March. Such a decision had not been made by the church since the influenza epidemic of 1918. Flights from select overseas airports were suspended that day. My mother and I were relieved to make it — we hope safely — home.
On Friday, the White House declared a State of Emergency. The Smithsonian Museums, where my mother and I spent many hours just two days earlier, announced they were closing to the public. We are only now midway through the third week of March. Here in Colorado, restaurants, bars, gyms, ski resorts, and all public, private, and charter schools have been closed for a month by the governor’s decree. Many more healthy young people are being hospitalized with COVID-19 complications than previously reported.
Since my mother and I returned from DC, the nation has learned the many ways in which we have been left unprepared for a crisis of this proportion. But, as I was reminded outside the National Archives, the past is prelude. We have discovered that the leadership that concerned me in the winter of 2017 may have neglected to acquire functional COVID-19 tests produced by the World Health Organization months ago. While I fretted about sick friends and family in 2018, this same government disbanded the team of experts whose job it was to prepare the US for pandemics. The current rhetoric out of the historically-racially-intolerant White House — this time calling COVID-19 a “foreign virus” and a “Chinese virus”— has led to increased hostilities against people of Asian descent. And, last winter, when people around me pulled away, protecting themselves from dangerous cold conditions? I want to hope that the past will teach us how to survive the significant situations that worry us today, but I worry that my reasons for concern are only just beginning.
Cynthia Enloe: “Pulling my COVID-19 language out of the trenches”
It has sounded so normal: “We’re in a war zone.” “We’re all soldiers now.” “We’ll defeat this enemy.” None of us seems to be immune to drawing on the language of war to describe this current state of affairs and this odd new way of living. It’s as if wartime were the only remembered (even if vicariously) time that can provide us with the metaphors and similes we need to address the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. The virus is new. The scale of our collective effort to address it is new. But the linguistic repository we’re drawing upon to describe both is ancient — and unhelpful at best, risky at worst.
Over just the last two weeks, I’ve been listening to speakers — official and unofficial — talking about myriad experiences dealing with the coronavirus. I’ve been compiling a list of the militarized terms and phrases used by diverse commentators as they try to get a grip on this new and (thus far) gun-less, bomb-less human experience:
“on the front lines”
“on a war-footing”
“rallying the troops”
“taking on the enemy”
“mounting an assault”
Readers looking at this incomplete list will immediately start adding their own phrases:
“in the trenches”
“weapons at our disposal”
“fog of war”
To imagine that addressing a highly infectious, potentially fatal, globalizing disease and its economic consequences is equivalent to defending ourselves against a weapons-wielding enemy may be tempting. Giving in to that linguistic temptation, however, is not useful.
First, as feminists around the world have taught us, waging wars privileges masculinities, even when the wagers of war mobilize women for their cause. The militarized privileging of certain masculinities and of male fighters is always dangerous, but especially so in a public health crisis at a time when two thirds of the world’s health-care workers are women.
Second, wars require enemies, human enemies. Framing a collective effort to enhance public health as a “war” lures too many people into seeking out human adversaries. It is no coincidence that many Americans have focused their militarized anger on their Asian-American fellow citizens, especially when the current US president chooses to erroneously label the disease the “Chinese virus.”
Third, wars are too often waged at the sacrifice of democratic processes: legitimizing state secrecy, suspending civil rights, discouraging messy public debates, shrinking the meaning of genuine national security. Right now, this shrinkage is allowing the Republicans and the Trump administration to further cut back environmental safety regulations and to extend restrictions of abortion services, both in the name of freeing up public resources to “fight the virus.”
None of those militarized practices and democracy-subverting sacrifices will strengthen the required multi-pronged effort that is demanded to effectively protect the uninfected, to cure the infected, and to provide sustainable security for the economically displaced.
Among the steps we can each take to successfully address the challenges posed by the coronavirus is opening up our imaginations so that galvanizing peacetime solidarity is as exciting as the Normandy Landing. We can expand our metaphors so that a woman in a N95 mask is as appealing an image as a man in camouflage, so an anesthesiologist hooking a gasping patient up to ventilator is imagined to be as heroic as an infantryman aiming his rifle, and a harried paramedic rushing into a home to pick up a coughing, sweating woman is thought to be as courageous as a pilot taking off in a fighter plane.
What might be some linguistic substitutes be that could further this demilitarization of our imaginations?
“making immediate contact”
“putting our bodies on the line”
“resources at our disposal”
You can add your own de-militarized appropriate substitutes.
De-militarizing how we describe and address this historic challenge will take more than shouting back at our television or laptop screens. It will take each of us actively demilitarizing our own linguistic repositories. Militarized language is nurtured in a militarized seedbed of images, narratives, and symbols. But repeatedly drawing on militarized terms to describe our current anxieties and hopes, in turn, fertilizes that seedbed.
Feminist activists and thinkers in societies as disparate as the Congo, Syria, Japan, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Sweden have been warning us not to assume naïvely that militarization is fueled solely by defense expenditures, arms manufacture, and military deployments. They have been urging us to pay attention to our everyday militarized practices, practices which normalize those distorted budgets, wasteful productions, and provocative deployments. The words we choose, the symbols we favor, the images we find alluring — they matter. In the midst of a globalized health crisis, they matter more than ever.
With special thanks to my friend and wordsmith, Laura Zimmerman.
Roberto Esposito: “Instituting Life”
If I had to name the task coronavirus calls us to, I would go back to the ancient Latin expression vitam instituere (institute life). This expression is found in a work by Demostene, quoted by the Roman jurist Marciano in Digesto, but its meaning has a strong contemporary significance. At the moment when human life appears threatened, and even dominated by death, our common effort can only be to institute it again anew. What else is life, after all, if not an ongoing institution, the ability to always create new significances? In this sense, it has been said by Hannah Arendt, and even before by Agostino, that we, humans, are a beginning because our first act is to come into the world, starting something that did not exist before. This first beginning was followed by another, a further institutional act, constituted by language, which the French psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre defined as a “second birth.” It is from this that the city originated, a political life that pushed the biological one into an historical horizon. Not in contrast with nature, but by crossing it in all its extension. However autonomous in the richness of its configurations, the space of logos, and then of the nomos, has never been able to separate itself from that of the bios. Rather their relationship ha become ever closer, to the point that it has become impossible to speak of politics by removing it from the sphere from which life is generated.
The first birth announces, just like the second finds itself rooted in the first. For this reason, it is impossible for humans to stop instituting life. Because it is life that institute them by placing them in a common world. In this sense, human life cannot be reduced to mere survival — to “bare life,” to use Benjamin’s expression. Being instituted from the outset, our life has never coincided completely with mere biological matter — even when it is violently smashed against a wall. Even in that case — perhaps never as in it — as long as it is, such life reveals its own way of being which, however deformed, violated, trampled, remains such a form of life. This formal character — other than simple biology — gives it its belonging to a historical context made up of social, political and symbolic relationships. What has instituted us from the beginning, and which we continuously institute ourselves, is this symbolic net within which what we do acquires meaning and depth for us and others.
It is precisely this network of common relationships that the coronavirus threatens to break. Not only the primary life, but also the secondary one — the sociability of our relationship with others. Of course, as is evident, in order to express oneself, the latter requires in the meantime to be alive. There is no reductive accent in the term “survival.” Rather, the issue of conservatio vitae lies at the heart of the great classical and modern culture. It resounds in the Christian call to the sacredness of life as in the great political philosophy inaugurated by Hobbes. Keeping us alive is the first task this virus calls us into a deadly challenge.
But, after the first life, together with it, we must also defend the second, the instituted life and thus able, in turn, to institute to create new significance. Therefore, the moment we do everything, as it is all too understandable, to stay alive, we cannot give up the other life — life with others, for others, through others. This, at the moment, is not allowed and indeed is prohibited, as it is of course right and logical. To consider this sacrifice unsustainable, compared to those who fight for their lives in hospitals to defend ours, is not only offensive, but even ridiculous. However, this does not take away anything from the importance of instituted life. And therefore, to the need to continue, in spite of everything and even more so when social relationships are wounded, to live in common. Even alone. Giving common meaning to such loneliness. After all, it is precisely what binds us to others today. To all the others — now half of humanity, maybe in a month the whole of humanity. After all, distance is also a deeply human dimension — like the proximity from which it makes sense. Not just by contrast — the individual has never meant the simple opposite of the social, it is in turn a social form. Today this symbolic connection between distance and proximity — the symbol is precisely the figure that articulates them — acquires an even greater importance. In the time of the pandemic, human beings are united by a common distance. And this is also a way — now the necessary way — of instituting life, defending it from the blind force that risks swallowing it.
Brad Evans: “The Love Leviathan”
Fear. The invisible killer. We are on a war footing — or so, they say. From an enemy that’s nowhere and everywhere. And so, the State returns out of the ashes of its failures. This is a crisis that reveals what’s already broken. What good are all your armies now? What good all those missiles and tanks? Like thought itself traveling on the wind, you cannot bomb this out of existence. Out of us.
Like many, I turned once again to the vision of Abraham Bosse. What lessons now from the Leviathan? Your body always political, the political always embodied. And there in front of your Cathedrals of crises, standing firm the doctors of the plague. We were never born of a savage enlightenment and its delusionary triumph of reason. We were always contagious. And yet some, it was claimed, more infectious than others. The Valentine fires still burn beneath whitened skies.
And so, we have learned: death recognizes no borders. He never really played chess and conformed to its rigid lines. And what of security? So foundational yet seemingly so abstract. Sovereignty seems like a metaphor swallowed and spat out like the child who devoured Saturn. What a tragedy. It seems that the children will inherit the earth through an inherent immunity, which turns our political exceptionalism into their immortality complex, making a ruinous carnival of time.
But where are my safe spaces when my breath has been weaponized? Keep your distance. Don’t let the corpses fall visibly in the streets. Atmospherically tortured by the invisible. Hide behind the digital walls. They can’t promise to keep you safe, but self-isolation is the only way. And be sure to log in and let us know if you are about to die so we can post about your passing into the void.
Invisibility: the sum of all known fears in a world that sought to make everything visible. Now so terrifyingly normal, it has been shown as always being there, waiting for the right moment to appear. The shadow of the virus is us. That is our hesitancy. How those abstract systems we depended upon for the sustenance of life appear just as fragile as anything else. Invisibly meets invisibility in a countenance of forces, whose casualties are now all too present. And yet we are haunted by the suspicion that we somehow knew this day, in the end, was coming.
Back to the war. A narrative that is already normalized. Conscripted. Enlisted. Deployed. I see no enemy. But I recognize the suspicion. Populations wounded by a volley of hidden arrows that rains down without a perpetrator in sight. No emperor has ever matched this speed and intensity in conquering all the capital cities of the world. But if we are to insist upon war let’s also rewrite the history. 1519. Cortés. Another conquest. Another time. Another plague. Another narrative.
All questions about the future seem particularly stupid in these times. Who truly knows what is to come? Then again, the history we give to ourselves has a tendency of repeating itself. And often, following crisis, we witness the triumph of reactionary forces. There is another invisible force seeping into the body of the present. A new species of authoritarianism on the horizon, the dream of total rule that even fascists never imagined. Thou shall not touch. Thou shall not gather. Thou shall not dance. Thou shall not bleed. Our future present. The exception as the rule, social animals reduced to bio-metric conformities. Though we will add confusion in, time to time, for the schizophrenia keeps us afraid of our own reflections.
Survival, nothing but survival, so help us God. Might you learn to become more terrifying still. What sacrifices and sacred games will you ask of us going forward? Who will be protected, and who will be shown again to be the disposable of history? There is always discrimination, even within the indiscriminate.
Humanity, then, at a crossroads. And what will happen once we are free to breathe and learn to touch again? What will be left and what images of the world will be swept away? Politics as survival? Friends and enemies? What meaning for security if it has no bearings or humanity? Killing so that we might keep on living, business as usual? Or might we see what’s really at stake? That security itself means nothing, truly for nothing, without a prior conception of love.
Simona Forti: “Pan-demic: All people-in-one or pandemonium?”
I am writing from Turin, a city gravely wounded by the spread of COVID-19; a city located in the Po Valley, which until yesterday was the economic motor of Italy, but today has become the theater of a pandemic. A pandemic staging that is risking becoming a true pandemonium. As in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pandemonium is the imaginary capital of hell, “The High Capital, of Satan and his Peers,” where the devils meet in a sort of grotesque parliament: a place of discord rather than the resolution of conflicts. Because of Milton’s original use, the term came to express a place full of disorder, confusion, and chaos.
Even though the only noises we hear these days are the sirens of ambulances and death bells, we can imagine the noise of a possible pandemonium. And it is precisely the contrast between the deserted streets and the clamor of being that we know broods under the enforced silence that makes us fear, even when we try to resist panic. Our fear is new, because the threat is new, and it takes the shape of a surreal and dystopic imagination, more now perhaps than it ever did before.
Fear and isolation amplify the emotions and, with them, impatience. Even those of us, like me, who love and practice political philosophy, and believe in the validity of the interpretive paradigm that deploys Foucault’s analysis of biopower, feel ill at ease with hasty interpretations made without allowing for the time necessary for reflection. Even we are wary of the rush to interpret the contemporary moment through concepts devised for other circumstances in the recent past.
The analyses by Agamben and his followers, who see the recent measures taken by the Italian government — and then other European countries — as the realization of a dangerous government of conduct, to use a Foucauldian expression, as an extreme biopolitical regime or a Deleuzian “society of control” appear annoyingly theoretical, “too theoretical.”
There is no doubt that we are living in a glaring example of the exercise of biopower. It is also clear that we are following the rules imposed by the health emergency that has legitimized the state of exception. And unfortunately, it is true that some small-time dictators, such as Orbán in Hungary, will exploit the situation. But the historical and political differences must also echo and stand out in philosophical reflections! If we cannot yet read the novelty in front of us, we must proceed carefully, not hold on blindly to a hermeneutic apriori!
Let’s remember that Michel Foucault, at the end of the 1970s, theorized the emergence of a new form of modern political power, in which sovereign power, the life sciences, medical knowledge, and disciplinary practices all join forces, in the name of a defense of society and the protection of life, for total and diffuse control of the population. We know, however, the specter that haunted Foucault: a power, masquerading as a guardian of health and the people, acted in ways that are both discriminating — decreeing which lives were unworthy of protection — and “normalizing” — governing the spaces of freedom of the lives deemed worthy of that protection. In other words, the ghost of totalitarianism still troubles Foucault when he thematizes biopower. Indeed, he sees biopower becoming the pivot around which every form of state racism, from Nazism to Stalinism, revolves.
Is this what we are experiencing today? Agamben and his followers believe it is, although they do not admit it explicitly. To simplify a more nuanced reasoning, their thesis goes something like this: the Italian government, with the support of the so-called experts in viruses and contagion, declare a pandemic, and this state of affairs legitimizes, intensifies, and makes permanent the state of exception that allows state power to discriminate and to enforce conformity at the same time. In this reading, we could argue, Pandemia would realize what its etymology implies, (pan/all – dēmos/ people) “to make the people One”!
There is no doubt that the lockdown restricts our spaces of freedom; there is no doubt that each emergency situation might become an occasion for the arbitrary exertion of power, whose end time is unpredictable; there is no doubt that introducing new devices that track people’s movements is dangerous; there is also no doubt that “strong powers,” financial capital especially, are taking advantage of the situation and maneuvering markets, prices, and the distribution of necessary goods. But “today” these Foucauldian/Deleuzian readings draw the new back to the old, so to speak. They shield the novelty of what is happening. Indeed, they are guided by the idea that the real danger is still only the possibility of totalitarianism.
What we see from the Po Valley, even those who read and love Foucault, and read and love some works of Agamben, is instead an unprecedented pandemic that threatens to unleash literally a pandemonium. That is to say, a struggle among devils, to stay within Milton’s literary universe, who are far from settling on a total system. Instead, they keep on fighting dangerously with one another.
We can already see this taking shape. Europe is in chaos, proceeding in a scattered, blind, and selfish way. The central government is arguing with local, regional, or federal powers. Heads of state stand corrected and accused by medical experts, on the one side, and are pressured by financial powers, on the other side. Big corporations and industries are fighting against unions, rejecting the predictions of epidemiologists about the swift spread of the virus. Hospitals are struggling with the power of regions, of bureaucracy, of corporations, and of the state, to receive in reasonable time indispensable devices and materials. And then there is us, scared by the realization, after denial and rage, that this is no normal flu.
It is true that most of us are asking all these powers to protect our health and our lives. Most of us, however, are not following the rules just because we cherish the voluntary servitude of the obedience/protection exchange; not just because we let ourselves be governed and disciplined; but because we think that social distancing and isolation are today the only possible version of solidarity and recognition of our interdependence. They are the only possible way not so much to save ourselves, but avoid bringing harm to others.
Henry A. Giroux: “The Plague of Neoliberalism and the Politics of Pandemics”
The current coronavirus pandemic is more than a medical crisis, it is also a political and moral crisis. One that is deeply rooted in years of neglect by neoliberal governments that denied the importance of public health and the public good while defunding the institutions that made them possible. Americans live at a time when neoliberalism wages war on the public, inequality is recast as a virtue, and extreme definitions of individual responsibility tear up social solidarities, all the while bordering on being pathological. This form of predatory capitalism speaks in the market-based language of profits, privatization, and commercial exchange. It also legitimates the language of isolation, deprivation, human suffering, and death. Neoliberal capitalism is the underlying pandemic feeding the current crisis in the United States with its shortage of hospitals, medical supplies, beds, and robust social welfare provisions, and increasingly presents itself as a shocking indifference to human life.
With its merging of savage austerity policies, the financialization of the economy, the concentration of power in few hands, and the language of racial and social cleansing, neoliberalism has morphed into a form of fascist politics. All of which points to a mix of disdain and cruel indifference toward the common good, including the crucial sphere of public health. Not only has funding for public health declined over the years, but nationwide, going back to 2008, over 50,000 positions have been eliminated from public health departments. Such contempt represents an attack on the broader notion of what Michael Sandel calls living together in a community in which matters of solidarity and the sacrifices we make function to treat people with compassion, humanity, and dignity.
The brutality of the pandemic of neoliberalism is evident in Trump’s call to “reopen the economy” (recently extended to April 30), end cautious measures such as social distancing, and let the virus run its course by restating a right-wing argument that “the cure is worse than the disease.” Of course, the majority of people who will die as a result of this reckless policy will be the elderly, the destitute, poor people of color, undocumented immigrants, and the disabled — not to mention the heroic frontline medical workers who lack the equipment they need to be both safe and treat with care the sick and dangerously ill with dignity.
There is more at work here than the hardened depravity of an ill-informed, self-indulgent politician. Trump always had a penchant for thoughtlessness, self-absorption, the joy of domination, and taking delight in humiliating others. His stupidity, disregard for science, and arbitrary rule has blinded him to previous warnings from experts about the possibility of a looming pandemic. This willful form of ignorance was on display in his earlier refusal and colossal failure to mobilize the power of the federal government to provide widespread testing and ensure that hospitals and medical staff had enough beds, masks, ventilators, and other PPE for treating people infected with the virus.
Americans live at a time of plagues, which in turn, are fueling the coronavirus epidemic currently engulfing the globe, inflicting economic misery, suffering, and death as it moves through societies with the speed of a deadly tornado. For years, the plague of neoliberalism has waged a full-scale attack on the welfare state, and in doing so, underfunded and weakened those institutions like education and the public health sector. This has left all but the rich incapable of accessing quality health care, and has decimated the institutions which otherwise would be capable of dealing intelligently with natural disasters, pandemics, and a slew of planetary crises that cannot be addressed by the market.
Under these circumstances, the language of bad faith operates in multiple conservative spheres in the service of denial, lies, violence, and, in the current crisis, promotes spaces of terminal exclusion and social death. This is a plague of willful ignorance and state-sanctioned civic illiteracy, evident in the rise of right-wing cultural apparatuses such as Fox News and Breitbart Media, which treat truth with scorn, view science as a hindrance, and malign critical thought as fake news. These media platforms relentlessly push conspiracy theories, claiming that the pandemic is a product of the deep state designed to prevent Trump from being reelected, a hoax created by the Democratic Party, or a virus that is no less dangerous than the common flu. They have also relentlessly insisted that all social problems are a matter of individual responsibility so as to depoliticize the public, rendering them indifferent to the politically and morally irresponsible claim that the government has no obligations to care for its citizens or that society should not be organized around mutual respect, social rights, and economic equality.
The current crisis is part of an age defined by a catastrophe of indifference and a flight from any viable sense of moral responsibility. We inhabit a historical moment marked by a contempt for weakness, rampant racism, the elevation of emotion over reason, the collapse of civic culture, and an obsession with wealth and self-interest. Under such circumstances, matters of power, governance, knowledge, and a disdain for evidence have wreaked havoc on the truth and endangered both millions of people and the planet itself.
For the plague to end, it is crucial to address the savage ideologies of neoliberalism that prevent people from translating private troubles into broader systemic issues, to renew a faith in reason, evidence, and qualified expertise. Moreover, it is crucial to fight with the necessary pedagogical tools in order to convince the public to move beyond the culture of privatization and atomization that propels a consumer society. In addition, the current political crisis can only be grasped as a crisis of the social totality. At the same time, it is crucial to acknowledge that the crisis presents itself as a moment of possibility and offers the space for a resurgence of the social imagination. This suggests that the crisis can have multiple outcomes resulting either in a surge of authoritarianism and repression, on the one hand, or on the other, in a resurgence of resistance movements willing to fight for a more just and equitable society.
We are currently witnessing the passing of one period and the beginning of a new age in which the possibility exists to set in motion more radical forms of collective resistance and a global movement for radical democracy. Crucial to such a struggle is the necessity to produce a language and a narrative that offers both a sustained critique of neoliberalism — with its discourses of exclusion, exploitation, and Social Darwinism — as well as a discourse that acts upon the underlying ideological and structural causes of poverty, class domination, environmental destruction, and a resurgent racism. At best, what is needed is not a movement for reform, but a project of radical reconstruction aimed at the creation of a new political and economic social order.
David Theo Goldberg: “Tracking Capitalism and COVID-19”
COVID-19 is set to seal tracking-capitalism further in place.
Tracking-capitalism is a capitalism that tracks. It tracks people in spiraling volume and range, activity, movement, and networking interaction. COVID-19 is prompting the shift from tracing viral flows to normalizing the tracking of everyone’s vital measurements: heart rate, body temperature, location, and engagements with others. Tracking has moved from the commercial venture to the reach for biopolitical control, as we are repeatedly reminded that the ecoforming we fashion between the biocentric and humancentric spins from time to time out of control. Microbes penetrate unguarded gaps as these ecoformations settle structurally into place, taking up residence where least expected because they are least visible and so available to control. Techno-tracking, already embedded in the process of economic development and deployment, ramps up as bio-economic response because the technology is available, has traction, gives medical hope, advances profitability, and secures eco-political regulation and order.
Surveillance is the generic term adopted for attending closely to a person, monitoring their movements and thoughts. Technologically enhanced surveillance is about a century old. Wire-tapping, for instance, took hold in the 1930s, targeting suspected criminals and labor and political activists. More recently, tracking has provided the precise technologies needed to enable this micro-monitoring. The entanglement of data, managed if not manipulated consumption, embroidered if not crafted political commitments and choices, brings together immense economic and political power. The rapid advancement of AI and machine learning technologies has centered tracking technologies in the contemporary political economy. At the outset of digital proliferation, users turned to search engines like Google, using them as a means to discovery. With the ramped-up transition to the pervasiveness of tracking-capitalism, Google and other search engines increasingly became the tracker, users the tracked. Search results became the means. The resultant profiles have since advanced the enormous profitability generated from individual consumptive practices and the accompanying technologies of social control.
Following the agreement between China and Italy on the New Silk Road project, for example, Chinese entrepreneurs invested heavily in Northern Italy’s fashion industry. They brought with their capital a high number of Chinese migrant workers. In Prato, a manufacturing center outside Florence, for instance, there are 60,000. Their comings and goings perhaps partly explain the ease with which the virus took hold in Lombardy, from November when the earliest cases are thought to have taken hold in Wuhan, undetected, to late February when the first Italian cases were registered. Some tracking is visible, other more discrete.
Yuval Noah Harari concedes that a regime able to mandate, store, and analyze the genetic data of all its citizens will be better positioned to address medical challenges efficiently. Or, for that matter, the health impacts of global warming. In 2017, a new medication came to market that included a “digital ingestion tracking system” enabling medical practitioners to determine if and when a patient properly imbibed their medicine. But, as Harari quickly recognizes, these sorts of developments will likewise position the current medical regime to dominate in an increasingly unchallengeable way. The state will more likely be able to mandate who under its jurisdiction flourishes and languishes, cementing its unbridled power over life and death. We are already witnessing a calculation of coronavirus survivability, and by extension livability, from Italy to Texas. Harari calls this “digital dictatorship.” The digital can wax dictatorial in two related ways. Digital profiling could soon inform dictation of life-forming decisions: not just what to study and profession to pursue, or whom to marry, but who gets to live in a pandemic and who doesn’t. It can also provide the awesome technological apparatuses for rulers to tighten authoritarian domination and control.
Tracking-capitalism thus enables tracing global movements of human capital, just-in-time delivery of labor and product, threats and disruptions. Tracking drives micro-targeting — of genes and proteins that have a causative role in the disease, of people with the disease and those with whom they interact, of this condition and when, if at all, to intervene with treatment. Foucault famously distinguished between expulsion as the political technology governing response to leprosy and containment as that responding to the plague. Tracking-capitalism fine-tunes an insidious dynamic: keeping those who belong locked down, while determining who should be locked out. It is fine-tuning in real time the governmentality of securitization as the emerging logics of domination programming our times.
Jack Halberstam: “Frantic”
- wild or distraught with fear, anxiety, or other emotion.
- “she was frantic with worry”
late Middle English frentik, “insane, violently mad,” from Old French frenetique
Day One: A friend tells me early on in the explosion of the pandemic that the frantic movements of people across the globe trying to get home reminds her of accounts given by Jews and others at the start of World War II in Europe. At that time, Jews were regularly compared to vermin and infection, and their movements were tracked by antisemites as if they were viral particles spreading disease and ruination across the landscapes they traversed. We are all viral now, all complicit in a system of infection and isolation that situates us as either carriers or bystanders. Throughout, a brave red line of care givers stands between the two.
Day Two: At first, I try to find a bright side to being inside: finish overdue tasks, repair the broken things in the house, write. But soon the weight of so much that cannot be fixed makes its presence known. The frantic motion toward repair reveals itself as futile. In Black and Blur, Fred Moten writes: “What if we could detach repair not only from restoration but also from the very idea of the original — not so that repair comes first but that it comes before. Then making and repair are inseparable, devoted to one another, suspended between and beside themselves.” The queerness of this gesture is obvious and moving — Moten, as always, refuses the idea of reparation as a closing up of a wound, as a return to the normal or the original. For him, repair is ongoing, a restless force of making, remaking, unmaking, breaking, in the break.
Day Three: I am a hypochondriac at the best of times and now I am checking my head for a fever, trying to interpret various body aches and pains. What is a consequence of being locked into airless apartments, and what might be a sign of illness? Is illness everything that simply makes itself known to you through the somatic language of pain? Lauren Berlant once told me that when you are ill, everything is a symptom. But when you don’t know if you are ill, every symptom is a question mark, a winnowing down of health, an inexorable slide toward collapse.
One Week: After a week, I am bored with my own existential crisis. I am horrified by what is happening out of sight of many quarantined communities — we read daily reports about a lack of ventilators, overwhelmed health-care workers, poorly paid care givers. Many of us hear sirens in the distance but are far from those front lines. Others are on the front lines of domestic battles — frayed nerves, frustrated children, crowded spaces, sick relatives and friends. The family, as Sophie Lewis reminds us, is a poor unit in a crisis, prone to self-destruct, oriented to patriarchal violence, motored by damage and anger. Lewis proposes: “A quarantine is, in effect, an abuser’s dream…” Surely the family is just one of the many institutions that will be newly under scrutiny on the other side of this?
10 days: As so many people affirm, we must never go back to normal. Our topsy-turvy world that pays CEO’s massive amounts of money to sit around in meetings while independent care givers, nurses’ aides, the people low down the chain in the health-care industry who will wipe asses and make the sick and the elderly comfortable when their families have abandoned them, make $10 to $20 an hour. If we think we want normal to return, we deserve all the injustice upon which it relies. And while a poet once described a scary future as a rough beast, we should now embrace the roughness, love the beast, fear the human.
Week Two: We have told ourselves and each other that, within late capitalism, the possibility of revolution does not exist — that revolution in a security age will be more of a series of adjustments than a cataclysmic explosion of action and refusals. But now I wonder. We are all in lockdown. We are all painfully aware of the inequities that divide the healthy from the sick, the cared for from the abandoned, the attentive from the indifferent, the undeserving rich from the industrious poor, the arrogant from the desperate, those who are sacrificing all from those who are watching their stocks from afar. After the long days spent studying the drama loosed by a virus, won’t we all have to insist that another world is not only possible but necessary? Won’t we all, or at least many of us want to depose corrupt leaders, redistribute resources, rethink our values?
Nighttime: The nightmare of this virus, its inexorable movement across bodies, reminds me of an understated but memorable horror film from 2014: It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell. Did you see it? A group of teenagers are infected with, and then infect each other with, a sexually transmitted condition in which, after having sexual contact with a carrier, the afflicted are relentlessly followed by a zombie. The zombie looks enough like everyone else to blend in but just different enough to send a spasm of fear through the hunted teenager. In fact, the viewer also learns, along with the victims, to pick the zombies out from the crowd: they move slightly more slowly or slightly more quickly than everyone else. This asynchronous motion makes them simultaneously hard to spot and super obvious. We all have followers now, silent and unwanted companion species of viral particles, some attached to human hosts, others freely floating. Now, it follows, it follows us, in the language of the film, as the original carrier says to his unsuspecting victim — “This thing, it’s gonna follow you, someone gave it to me and I passed it to you … Its’s out there, following you … All you can do is pass it to somebody else … It can look like someone you know or it can be a stranger in a crowd, whatever helps it get close to you.” Whatever helps, also kills. The film’s slogan is: “It doesn’t think! It doesn’t feel! It doesn’t give up! It Follows!” We frantically try to put distance, social distance between us and our zombie viral others, but it moves faster, and slower, always there.
Now: Crisis or life lived frantically but separately forces new temporalities upon us — there is the time of illness — incubation, infection, quarantine; there is the time of treatment — frantic calls, sirens, emergency trips; there is the time of confrontation — dying, breathing, panting, rasping. We will not simply have to revolt on behalf of those who died, we will have to take to the streets to protect the living — not from the virus but from the pathetic leaders who might use the crisis to settle further into their autocratic rule.
Soon: We should be frantic! We should be wild or distraught with fear and anxiety, ready to channel our frantic energy toward the undoing of the worlds of finance, the unmaking of real estate capitalism, the un-electing of our wealthy patriarchal leaders, the unlocking of prisons, the elevation of care giving to a first principle which will be rewarded as such, the reversal of value between educating and profiteering, the dissolution of the institutions that get rich from our distress. Time to be frantic. Time for frenzy. It is frenzy.
noun: frenzy; plural noun: frenzies
a state or period of uncontrolled excitement or wild behavior.
intense usually wild and often disorderly compulsive or agitated activity
from Greek phren or mind.
Saidiya Hartman: “The Death Toll”
I sit at my desk pretending to prepare for class, complying begrudgingly with the university’s demand to proceed with business as usual. My students are struggling as well. This week, two of them have lost parents and loved ones to the virus. I am reading The Black Shoals for a graduate seminar on the history of enclosure. A sentence lodges in my gut: “Everyday life is marked by grotesque interludes with Black and Indigenous death in the streets or in the plains.” I try to move from that sentence about the everyday character of catastrophe, the uneventfulness of black and indigenous death, to the COVID-19 pandemic. How does one navigate across the scales of death? Reckon with the distinctions between the hundreds of thousands of children who died in Iraq as the result of the US embargo and the hundreds of thousands who will die from the coronavirus? Many of us live the uneventful catastrophe, the everyday state of emergency, the social distribution of death that targets the ones deemed fungible, disposable, remaindered, and surplus. For those usually privileged and protected, the terror of COVID-19 is its violation of and indifference to the usual distributions of death. Yet, even in this case the apportionment of risk and the burden of exposure maintains a fidelity to the given distributions of value. It appears that even a pathogen discriminates and the vulnerable are more vulnerable. The health and service workers, the home aides, delivery guys, porters and janitors, construction and factory workers, nannies, warehouse clerks, cashiers — the essential low-wage workers bear the weight of social reproduction, of tending to and meeting our needs and wants. There are the risks of living while poor, while abandoned and corralled in the large blocks of public housing, while trapped in the slums, while confined in prisons and detention centers. Now the world is locked down too. The damned of the earth try to survive, even as sheltering in place is impossible or provides no protection, since huddling together, rather than isolation, is how we usually live and survive. The domestic can also be a site of violence.
The language of war has defined the pandemic. The New York Times notes: “More to Die than in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined,” although the implication is that only the deaths of American soldiers count, not the death toll of three million Vietnamese. It is an exclusive tally of loss. Then there are the wars hidden by the normalizing character of social description, by the forms of violence masked by seemingly neutral categories or the conflation of identity and condemnation. By the “prevailing conditions” that announce everyday existence on the verge of catastrophe and expected disaster. The wars conducted by the state against the governed fall from view.
I read an article in The New England Journal of Medicine about the pandemic in Italy, specifically the challenge of treating respiratory failure given the shortage of ventilators. The question the article tries to answer is: How do the doctors decide who lives and who dies? What determines who will be cared for and who will be consigned to death? What are the protocols? The doctors skirt the question because it makes them uncomfortable; it is one that they prefer not to discuss because it will only frighten the public. What scheme of value determines the rationing of life and the apportioning of death? The calculus involved in the social distribution of death and the making and policing of the divide between valued and disposable lives defines the very meaning of racial capitalism; premature death and gratuitous violence make life an aspiration and impossibility.
As I read in search of an answer not to be found in the article, I hear my partner and my daughter cheering and high-fiving downstairs because she has solved a very difficult math problem about parabolas and equations for lines of symmetry. The dining room is now a homeschool classroom. A parabola is not the same as a curve predicting the rates of accelerating infection and deaths. A parabola reaching toward infinity sounds like a poem, unlike the curve and its peril.
The question that the doctors prefer to avoid in the article in The New England Journal of Medicine terrifies me more than the virus. Triage is the response to the crisis, a crisis exacerbated in the United States by the “no state” state and capitalism, by racism and white nationalism, by lies and more lies, by mismanagement, by opting for death, by the lack of universal health care. In the vertical hierarchy of life, I occupy the bottom rung. Medicine has a pernicious history of racism and ableism. Even when hospitals are not overtaxed and equipment is not in short supply, I am not a priority. As empirical studies document again and again, the health-care system is routinely indifferent to black suffering, doubting the shared sentience of bodies in pain, uncertain if the human is an expansive category or an exclusive one, if indeed a human is perceived at all. Who lives and who dies? I fear the answer to such a question. I think I know what it is.
Brian Massumi: “The American Virus”
Putting a Face on Threat. Following 9/11, the language used around the threat of terrorism had a viral ring to it. Direct comparisons between the terrorist and the virus were not infrequent. Both had a way of hitting unexpectedly, suddenly irrupting from below the threshold of perception, attacking with inhuman implacability and scattershot lethality, if not killer precision. The threshold of perception was often taken to coincide with the national border. The terrorist was the “faceless” enemy, as “other” as a rogue strand of RNA hiding in a swine, waiting to detonate in human flesh.
In the midst of this, a domestic terrorist swung into action. In May 2002, mail boxes began exploding around the Midwest: 18 improvised explosive devices, from central Texas to northern Illinois. The attacks seemed to be filling in a pattern, dot by incendiary dot. Was this a message from the enemies of the nation? A prelude to a larger attack? Panic, and a multi-state manhunt, ensued. When the perpetrator was apprehended before the plan was completed he explained that he had intended 24 explosions. He reckoned he needed six more to draw a smiley face pattern across the American heartland.
The Smiley Face Bomber’s shrapnel smile was like a piecemeal jack-in-box grimacing: surprise! You have met the enemy, and it is you.
On Several Regimes of Fear. The Smiley Face Bomber had pipe-bombs. Today we have emoticons. We still have literally viral RNA bombs, but also zero-and-one viralities in the form of contagious trolling, conspiracy-theory mongering, and presidential tweets — IEDs for blowing up the social through its virtual mailboxes. The reflex to put a face on the “faceless enemy” is still there, but without the irony. The frowny face is the emblem of the day.
Frowny-face in chief, human emoticon Donald Trump, has made intermittent attempts to put a face on the crisis, preferably nonwhite. He vaunted the imaginary role of his xenophobic Southern border wall in slowing the spread. He insisted on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” even as the United States was becoming the epicenter of the pandemic (suggesting a different geographical appellation). He proposed quarantining the rest of the country from the diseased coastal elites of New York. He even floated the idea of dispatching the military to the Northern border to secure the nation against the single-payer Canadian hordes. We are at “war” again, he said, and what is a war without troops? The kind of “troops” who wield test-swabs rather than military-issue weapons apparently lack the necessary drama.
Trump’s most consistent response, however, has not been to dramatize but to downplay. Cheered on by Fox News, he transferred the template of climate denialism to the coronavirus. Hoax! they cried. This is a different way of putting a face on it — a “liberal” face. The real threat is the terrorist bomb of stealth socialism. The nation is being scared sick so it will run back crying to “big government.” And even if the virus is a killer, “we can’t make the cure worse than the disease.” The free-market economy must be saved at all costs. We just have to push through. The most vulnerable should be good troopers and prepare to self-sacrifice to save the country from this threat worse than death: a sick economy. The old, the immuno-compromised, the homeless, and all those who tend in the best of times to fall to the bottom of the triage list (the disabled, those with autism, people with Downs, people with dementia, the poor) will be the nation’s unsung heroes. Never mind the resemblance to eugenics …
This dual strategy, despite its self-contradiction of simultaneously dramatizing and downplaying, carried Trump to record high (for him) approval ratings. This implies that it was not a self-contradiction, but an operational coupling between two different ways of projecting threat onto a face in order to displace the perception of danger. The projective personification of danger and the subsumption of life itself to the economy go hand in hand. Around 9/11, the assimilation of the terrorist to the virus othered, dehumanized. The “unspecified,” “asymmetric” enemy was dominant, and we needed an explosive joker to remind us that fear can have a face. Now, the dominant is the identified enemy, locked in the all-too-human mirror symmetry of the face-to-face, polarized by hate. Othering is not left behind. It strobes with personification figuring the danger as one’s own other half. Trump’s approval rating skirted 50 percent. We have met the enemy — and it’s the other half of us. Asymmetric warfare, strobing with something like the moral equivalent of civil war?
And what of that other half? Not necessarily personifying or economizing, they (extrapolating from my own experience) feel buffeted and besieged. Obsessively checking the news feeds in an endless attempt to take the temperature of a crisis that spits out the thermometer. Acutely aware of the unhumanness of the virus and its indifference to its own event. Folded in on one’s own unrequited need to get a grip. Although not personifying, this is intensely individualizing — as is the immunitary social distancing punctuated by internet searches for the latest numbers. Doesn’t individualization underlie that same neoliberal economy to which we are asked to sacrifice our lives?
Two regimes of fear: projective-aggressive and immunitary-defensive. Joined at the cursor in neoliberal agony. Is this the American virus?
Care for the Event. It is something of a commonplace to say that, ethically and politically, the event is a call for us to become equal to it. Personifying and individualizing are not equal to an event that so forcefully demonstrates our interdependence. There is nothing like shutting down an economy to drive home how finely our lives are suspended in a net of mutuality. Never before has the neighborhood grocer or the delivery person felt so integral to social existence. The very origin of the virus is tied up in an ecological web: a multispecies route of transmission whose conditions were prepared by habitat destruction and global warming. It doesn’t just take a village — it takes a planet. It takes care for each other, in consonance with care for the planet. It takes an embrace of our imbrication with each other in a more-than-human world.
Instead of transferring denialism from climate to COVID-19, there is the option of transferring the collective momentum that had been building in the climate movement to mutual aid and celebrations of life in this crisis, looking already beyond it to continuing the fight against that larger crisis to which it is tributary. This includes taking steps now toward the kind of economy that would never ask us — our neighbors, our planet — to lie down and die. This is what must be sung from the balconies: postcapitalism, out loud. I don’t mean the “democratic socialist” impersonation of it, which is more an attempt at capitalism with a human face. It’s better than the alternatives — but we’ve seen where faces get us.
Mutual imbrication with each other: let’s try something transindividual this time. More-than-human world: make it multispecies.
This is for you, Trump and Co.: it would give you one thing you could say you were right about. Except for the stealth part.
Todd May: “This is Not the Time for Theory”
In social theory, as in politics and humor, timing is everything. Come at it too late and you’ve missed the moment. Come at it too early and at best nobody understands you. At worst, it’s just crass. At the moment I write this (March 30, 2020), social theory about the coronavirus would be crass. We don’t need an original view of what is happening to us; not now. Now we need solidarity with one another.
Here’s a very partial list of things we might need at some point but don’t need right now:
- An innovative analysis of how capitalism or Donald Trump or globalization has led us to this crisis.
- A clever and ironic contrarian take on #1.
- An argument as to why none of this is really happening because we’re all in hyperreality or a post-truth period.
- Any form of “I told you so” based on previous analyses.
- An insistent story about how we have arrived at the End Times.
There will likely come a time when some of these projects become relevant (although I have my doubts particularly about #2 and #3). Then we will need to look back at what has happened and ask within a larger frame why it has happened and what lessons there are for the future. But now is not that time.
Now is the time for solidarity. Solidarity can be original, particularly political solidarity. Finding new ways of struggling against egregious exercises of power or structural injustice both in theory and in practice is often an important task in political work. However, the conditions each of us is currently in — or supposed to be in — don’t lend themselves to much of that.
We are, most of us, supposed to be indoors (or, if outdoors, not with others). We are not supposed to be gathered on the street, sitting in at the offices of public officials, or coming into corporeal communication of any kind with our fellows. We are supposed to be out of unmediated social contact. That is one of the most basic ways in which we can help those who have to be collecting our garbage or serving in our hospitals or keeping our electricity on or delivering our food. Everything we do should be rooted in this: keeping social distance. Stay home. Don’t spread the coronavirus around.
This does not mean that there is nothing else we can do. There is plenty to do. Some things may be original. A fitness instructor in Spain led people in exercises from their balconies. In Italy, there are group songs from balconies. But for the most part our solidarity will consist in assisting those people (most of whom will not get a chance to read this piece) in pedestrian ways.
So, what can we do? Here’s a partial list, very different from the first partial list. I would encourage others in the comments section to add their own ideas. That can be another form of solidarity.
- Many of us will be getting money from the government, maybe $1,000 or more. Where can you spend it that will help struggling people or businesses? Buy gift certificates from restaurants or order in delivery from places that don’t require face-to-face interaction or donate it to an organization that will assist those who lose their jobs.
- Contact an elderly isolated neighbor to see whether they need any assistance.
- Keep in touch with friends through phone or Skype or Facetime. Even people who are not living alone are anxious and could use the outreach.
- Sympathize with others but don’t bring them down. The fact that we’re in a difficult situation is not news.
- Contact your elected representatives and demand that they do more, especially for those who are currently vulnerable.
There you have it. Nothing very original, but originality is, for the most part, not very important at this moment (unless maybe you’re a fitness instructor with a flair for the dramatic). Intellectuals are often driven by a need to resist, an urge to stand against the drift of the times. And that’s a crucial task in a world as wayward as ours. Just not now.
Chantal Meza: “Viral Ecologies: A Litany for Our Times”
Nicholas Mirzoeff: “Notes from the Necropolis”
As of March 30, there were 1,218 deaths in New York State, 253 of which came on the previous day. Almost 200 of those deaths were in New York City. The shock of these numbers finally made it emotionally real to me: the predicted catastrophe was now underway. Across the city there is a new soundscape, composed of ambulance sirens and distancing instructions broadcast by the NYPD into the unaccustomed urban quiet.
New York City, capital of the 20th century, is now terminal. Its passing will be the memorial to the spectacular incompetence and denial of the Trump regime. What remains will be the new necropolis, the city of the dead. That’s not to say that New York collapses. A new spatial, visual, and imaginative relation to the dead is in formation, part of a new distribution of the sensible. Density is destiny.
Though the virus is invisible, it is visibly redistributing the necropolis, one metonym at a time, from the 85 FEMA refrigerated trucks for bodies; to universities like Stony Brook and CUNY Staten Island now converted to emergency hospitals; or the navy hospital ship Comfort in the Hudson River — docked just yards from the still-busy river path, it’s hard to imagine Comfort can be kept virus-free. As they have long done, prisoners dig graves on an island in the Long Island Sound but now in PPE for $6 an hour.
These scenes play out against the sedimented layers of the necropolis. The settler-colonial city utterly erased the deaths of the indigenous Lenape. The forced labor of enslaved Africans did not cease even in death, as their bodies became physically part of the infrastructure of Wall Street. No less than 15,000 bodies extend around the African Burial Ground on Broadway. Other such burial grounds of the enslaved have been located in a Bronx park and underneath a Harlem railyard. Those ghosts will have walked the streets of the necropolis and, at long last, it is time to talk with them.
The settler dead were kept closer though not too close. Trinity Church Wall Street buried the dead in and around the church until 1826. Nineteenth-century Gotham, capital of Manifest Destiny, pushed the dead out to remote cemeteries. Unlike Paris, where people visit Oscar Wilde or Marcel Proust in Père Lachaise, perhaps pausing at the Mur des Fédérés where the last Communards were shot in 1871, New Yorkers do not visit Woodlawn or Green-Wood. There is no Cenotaph, as in London, or Washington’s Arlington Cemetery. New York was the city of the modern, always about imagined futures, never taking the time to see who had lost out in the past and was excluded in the present. That New York state of mind will not be mourned.
That state of mind produced New York as a so-called world city, one of those cities more connected to each other than to their nation-states. New York has always been ranked first in the United States, most connected, leading inexorably to its present status as most infected. New York is literally dying of globalization. As a world city, it ignored human infrastructure, from sewers to cemeteries and affordable housing, in favor of networked communications, like ever quicker connections to the Stock Exchange servers. To take just one symbol of how this networked world city has collapsed, the Four Seasons hotel, favored haunt of power-brokers, now offers free rooms to health-care workers concerned that they might infect their households if they went home.
The signature creations of the world-city were the blue-glassed supertall buildings that have sprouted in the past decade, as if someone scattered giant building seeds. Almost no one lives in these shiny middle-finger-to-the-world follies, owned by anonymous and untraceable shell companies. Their advertising saturates the glossy magazines, promoting the supertall tower as a self-contained sanctuary, with security, restaurants, gyms, and cinemas in house. The super wealthy were already self-isolating as a lifestyle.
Outside the blue glass, half of the world’s population now lives in urban regions for the first time in human history. About a quarter of those live in so-called “informal housing.” When it became clear that New York City schools would have to close, authorities fatally hesitated. They knew that 750,000 of the city’s 1.1 million children in school live in poverty, including 114,000 homeless children. For this New York majority, school is the source of food, shelter, and even laundry, not to mention daycare. Even now, the street outside is being dug up to install fiberoptic cable, while crowded soup kitchens run out of supplies and call for $50 million to feed the newly unemployed.
The epidemic has spread fastest in the structures built to warehouse people, above all places for older people and prisons. Activists have been calling for the closure of Rikers Island, where at least 200 prisoners are infected, and “no new jails.” But there were no sit-ins or occupations to protest the senior living facilities or nursing homes, where 1.5 million people live in the United States. The virus is in the actual warehouses, too. Amazon fired an organizer in its Staten Island warehouse for their suggestion that people who were ill should not work. Really do disinfect those boxes.
For many of those still working, the office is now the computer screen, as we stare into a streaming video window filled with single figures in their boxes. Television news anchors report on jerky video feeds from their basements, with sound like an ATT phone call. Capital has recolonized what the artist Hito Steyerl called “the poor image,” the low-res video of bootlegs, livestream, and video chat. In perverse acknowledgment, hackers are “bombing” these virtual workplaces, even subjecting an academic Jane Austen conference to America’s favorite — incest porn, via Pornhub.
The point is not to escape the necropolis, because there is no exit. The point is to change it. Perhaps the empty glass towers can become shelters for the unhoused. Perhaps the Lenape can reclaim Central Park and plant native species there. Perhaps Washington Square Park can become James Baldwin and Audre Lorde Park. Perhaps the stock market could just be closed. Perhaps the city is reimagined as a network of care. Perhaps we go on, even as we can’t go on.
Adrian Parr: “Crisis”
A singular moment heavy with delay,
timeless memories snapped shut
amidst the tomfoolery of child’s play.
Drawing the most resourceful into its grasp,
to destitute bodies of the dark.
Her rosary falls to the cold stone floor;
his prayer mat hardens in the heat;
their Torah scroll unravels out the door
and onto the street.
All, immaculate before;
now, suspended in anxiety.
quietens the whirring traffic;
empties the playground of giggles and laughter;
freezes the scent of fresh gunpowder
as the trigger is pulled;
rendering freeways and malls
barren of the usual fools.
She wakes in frugality
to the scent of booze and blood
erasing the never-ending promise of “you and me.”
Fired from minimum wage
to his raging fist, and more.
That is her endpoint, right here, right now
outside the dollar store.
It balks at the vulnerable and volatile
all hot tempered and formidable.
Turning its back on the frail and fragile
it grips your breath
firm and fast,
plunging it into the shadowy depths
of a conditional past.
inhabits her pulse,
with intoxicated panic;
millions of senseless surprises
hidden behind failing firewalls
and the nonfictional brutality
of a sociopath’s mating call.
knows better than sounding the alarm.
The joke’s on faith and freedom
for the fiction they are.
Willfully and viciously
gambling clear thinking
to a never-ending selfie.
When there is no backup,
no alternative for the taking,
just an urgent situation
vacated by reckless intent,
anti-science terminates the imminent
with uncontrolled arrogance.
When they all pledge everlasting loyalty
to a faceless authority;
rejoicing in an idea,
minus the reality
that you and me
because of all who came before
who exist on the other side of us
and who ultimately
Julian Reid: “Our Big War”
Soon after the turn of this century, we grew accustomed to the idea that the liberal order was at war with a new kind of enemy; one which like a parasite, breeds in the most vulnerable areas of liberal societies, waiting for the moment to release a pathological violence upon its otherwise oblivious prey. This would be a war, we were told, that would require the development of unprecedented techniques to monitor and control the movements and dispositions of the life of liberal societies themselves. That is where the enemy festers and where it will emerge to such devastating effect.
This was going to be not only a war against a new kind of enemy, but a new kind of war — a war without temporal, political, or spatial limits. A war without end and without boundaries, encompassing the world in its entirety, and yet, only serving to strengthen the capacities of liberal regimes to govern people and every other life form through newly invasive methods of surveillance and control. Given that historically, the liberal project has depended on foundational claims to peace and security, this was an altogether stunning paradox, though not an especially difficult one to pick apart, once the martial underpinnings of liberalism become clear.
There is no hidden irony in the fact that the same liberal order has now declared war not on a human enemy which, like the Terror of the early 21st century seemed to resemble, in its tactics and organization, viral threats to species virility, but a virus itself.
“We’re at war,” as French president Emmanuel Macron has repeated multiple times, and as the director-general of the World Health Organization has also insisted. “Our big war” the president of the United States declared. All of this was entirely foreseeable for anyone familiar with the biopolitical logics of the liberal way of war. The power, potential, and threat of viruses have always been a source of fascination and fear for military strategists and the regimes they exist to defend. The natural history of viruses has been, from its outset, a history of the invisible enemy, fearsome for its capacity to invade, spread, multiply, mutate, and evolve, potentially carrying a foreign chemical message. “Fight. Fight hard. Fight like hell … fight like your lives depend on it — because they do,” as the director-general of the WHO tells us.
Now that we are no longer mobilizing for war against human groups that mimic the tactics and strategies of viruses, but an actual virus itself, we can expect the liberal regimes waging the war to more fully realize their deep-seated ambitions and potentials for the subjugation of the life of the human to their own particular Terror. We must understand this outside of the terms in which it is presented to us — as a war in defense of human health against a subhuman enemy, requiring this and that governmental prohibition and intervention (a sad number of leftist intellectuals seem to be gullible enough to accept this). Instead, we ought to understand this “war” as the inevitable next stage in the struggle to defend the human from the liberal-logistical schema.
Ashamedly, there is more defiance in viruses today than there is in the humans, who anxiously fret over their herd immunity, cowering in their homes, afraid to venture out, washing their hands, awaiting the next governmental directive, in “our big war.”
Eugene Thacker: “Pathological Life”
Theory is superfluous. Description suffices. In its simplest form, a virus is genetic material (often a short single-strand RNA molecule) inside a shell (usually a protein coat and outer layer of lipids). Viruses can only replicate themselves inside the cells of another “host” organism. The complex structures of these host organisms are redirected by the virus toward the reproduction of more viruses. And so on. The range of host organisms for viruses is wide and varied, from ancient plant species to not-so-ancient millennials, from complex microorganisms to not-so-complex political leaders. But viruses do not have the capacity to carry out even the most basic processes that routinely occur in microorganisms, let alone plants, animals, and humans. And yet they impact life at both the genotypic and phenotypic levels. Millions of viruses can be found in any environment; some 5,000 types have been identified. Once disregarded, viruses are now considered a significant factor in evolution. All this has led scientists to wonder what kind of a thing a virus is. Is it alive? Or is it a nonliving pathogen? If viruses are not alive, then how do we account for their extremely precise, constantly mutating, biological efficiency? More questions. Where did viruses come from? Are they evolutionary descendants of benign genetic structures like plasmids? Or are they off-shoots of primordial bacterial evolution? Or do their origins lie somewhere else? (And yes, why not, maybe “outer space.”) And, most importantly, what do they want? With me?
This last question is the most absurd, but also the most telling. A sub-microscopic strand of RNA plus protein shell is intimately connected to a global state of emergency declarations, travel bans, and quarantine recommendations that fluctuate on a daily basis. It is also connected to the overloading of many medical facilities, the disruption of production and service industries, the destabilizing of major social institutions, the sight of barren grocery store shelves once towering cathedrals of bulk toilet paper, the panic-stricken adoration of telepresence in all its carnivalesque forms, and the free-fall of financial markets, themselves largely managed by automated trading algorithms whose aims are as opaque to us — we lumbering, flesh-laden, mind-numbingly solipsistic bipeds — as that of the viruses.
While we cannot help but to be concerned with how something that infects our life also affects our lives (…including the furtive question of when our lives will get “back to normal,” as I’m getting tired of pretending that a Zoom class actually involves learning, or noting to myself for the nth time the “ascetic ideal” of social distancing … but it’s already there in Romero or Fulci or Train to Busan, but then why not go back to Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year? … Contagion is a documentary … Clay’s Ark is definitely Octavia Butler’s darkest book … I wonder if Amazon sells those beak-shaped masks they wore during the Black Death … has no one come up with a theory about humans as the perfect medium for microbes? … a new media theory … human culture: a growth medium … the neighbor upstairs is running the coffee grinder again and it’s 3:00 a.m. — actually a coffee sounds good about now…), it is also more and more difficult to ignore the ways in which the scale of human concerns has been largely eclipsed by other, more unhuman levels of activity.
“Above” us, the light-speed of algorithmic networks. “Below” us, the recombinant speed of viral contagion. A biological network that is inseparable from an informatic network. In this world, on this planet, across these bodies. My sister-in-law is a nurse who is working with COVID-19 patients in a NYC hospital. She tells us they’ve been training for triage. Last night she had her first “slow code” patient.
It is the granularity of the situation that most gives me pause. At what point does something called the human begin to dissipate, leaving in its wake an impersonal texture of pattern without purpose? At what point does the human fade out of focus, allowing something unhuman to come into focus? At what point does the fear of death turn into the dread of life?
“The will-to-live, generally feasts on itself, and is in different forms its own nourishment, until finally the human race, because it subdues all the others, regards nature as manufactured for its own use.” Instead of finishing this article I decide to go for a short walk. A neighborhood cat is relaxing on the cool blacktop of an empty street. The cherry blossoms are in season.
Over 100 trillion microbes in the human body. Which makes us 90 percent microbe (I’m somehow disappointed it’s only 90 percent).
McKenzie Wark: “She’s Not There”
I have quite a talent for dissociation. Sometimes the world becomes a video game. Sometimes I’m somebody else, a minor character in a novel. Sometimes I forget small chunks of time. I look around and find I’m sitting at my laptop. The coffee, cold. There’s a text on the screen I don’t remember writing. Sometimes it’s a bit of a worry; sometimes it’s useful. This may be one of those times.
There are six of us, four humans and two cats, together alone in a New York apartment. The cats never leave the apartment. I joke about how the world beyond the windows that fascinates them is a simulation. I’m starting to feel like it is too. None of the humans have left this place for a while either. I’ve lost track of how long. I’m the calmest here. I feel like a lab-rat in an experiment who somehow imagines he is not the one being experimented on.
Perhaps dissociation is not really a talent as I can’t do it at will. It’s just how this body adapted to the wrongness of itself and the world. And while my “symptoms” are mild, I refuse to think of it through pathologizing categories. It took a long time to figure out that this dissociation stems from the experience of a body and a world that are all intolerable.
A lot of transsexuals dissociate. A lot of bad things have happened to us and some say it’s bad things that spark you into it. Even those who’ve had few bad things happen, like me, still do it because the persistent bad thing is this body. It’s a way of not being that body.
I made a body I feel like I can be more present in, but it has its limitations. Not all of its surfaces correspond to the body-image that seems to be some sort of ground tone that’s been there since before I was even aware. Even with its modified form, it’s taken some effort to find ways back into flesh, and world.
One of the best is dancing. I always liked dancing, but sometimes it seems like its rhythms aren’t made for this body at all. The music that worked is techno. It’s hard, fast, and unsentimental. It’s made for aliens. It’s not so much that it includes my body as that it excludes all human form. I feel like when I’m moving to it, in it, I’m at no disadvantage. Maybe the opposite. At least I know my transsexual body is alienated from this sonic world and so can be present in it.
This morning I put on a favorite Juliana Huxtable mix and danced by myself in the kitchen. I have to imagine the other bodies in motion, around me. I made a video and sent it to the Tactical Rave Knitting Circle, a small groupchat of likeminded friends, cis and trans. Likeminded and like-bodied, in that, for whatever reason, we all need the stimulant of bounding beats to become flesh.
There’s a dissociation that’s not just of the body, it’s something broader but also more intimate: world-historical dissociation. History itself becomes so intolerable in its impositions on the embodied self that nobody can bear to be in it. Everyone is checked out. Everyone becomes some weird other self, a twittering cartoon avatar.
This is where experience counts. If you find yourself dissociating, learn from those who do it best: those whose bodies never fit anyway. Those history punished and exploited. Those who checked out from history’s demand that we believe its reasons. Black bodies, brown bodies, queer bodies, crip bodies, trans bodies, old bodies, poor bodies: the ones shat on and spat on and left to fabulate on their own.
We didn’t just dissociate on our own. We did it together. Speaking just of the trans people with whom I make worlds: dissociation-out became association-in. Into pools on the edge of the torrent of raging history.
Power in that world, that history, belongs to a ruling class that owns a technic of control. It has the unintended side effect of giving its dissociates tools for doing things like sharing videos to each other, dancing. We make out covens of care through its vectors. And plotting. We’ll get by.
Eyal Weizman: “Surveilling the Virus”
The coronavirus pandemic makes a visual diagram of our social interaction — the physical contact and relations we have to one another, our proximities, our movement, our use of facilities and infrastructure.
In order to map and model the spread of the virus, we first needed to establish an understanding of a patterns of life on the level of the individual and of the population. This is why, besides signal intelligence — the surveillance of personal devices — one of the most useful tools now is “pattern recognition” algorithms.
This form of computation is oriented both backward and forward in time. The control apparatus thus merges surveillance — of actions we have done and places we have visited —with modelling — a mathematical description of possible futures. It is a cartography of not only where we have been and who we have been near, but where we might go in the future and who with, expanding at every juncture.
The computation of our past habits, combined with predictions of our response to the evolving situation constitutes our collective and personal risk landscape. This form of surveillance aims at understanding and preempting the event of contagion that will have happened in the future.
The modelling that is being applied in the spread of the virus, is not based only on the behavior of viral life forms (in relation to climatic conditions and certain chemical drugs for example) but also on human behavior — the circulation of populations in space and their response to instructions, restrictions, prompts, nudges, as well as how behavior is modulated through these interventions. The virus makes visible a viral-human-algorithmic environment. Or we can say that the pandemic is, to a certain extent, an information system that is both physical and algorithmic.
Such modes of pattern analysis were pioneered within the context of military targeting, notably in “signature” drone strikes. These were based upon predictive pattern recognition of people suspected by the CIA of posing “imminent risk” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders, or by the Israeli air force in Gaza. Analysis was dependent on patterns of associations, between some people and others, and between people and sites — virtual or physical — or roads. So that if somebody drove along a particular road in a particular direction with another particular person after having visited a particular madrasa, say, they could be computed as an imminent threat and targeted. These people were not executed (extrajudicially) for what they had done but for what they might or will have done in the future. It is not surprising to see some of these security and military surveillance companies capitalizing on the current viral crisis. An anxious public is lending these tools legitimacy, allowing them to enter our daily lives in ways seemingly unimaginable only a few months ago.
So, what was already experimented upon on the frontiers of the war on terror, in these “exceptional zones,” is now emerging in the context of the exception brought on by the pandemic. The frontier-lands have thus arrived home, though in a very roundabout way. This process is reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt called “colonial boomerang,” in which frontier-land conditions and experiments are brought home.
To a great extent, historical systems of policing and control were a task left to the architects and other designers and builders of space, houses, roads, city states. They oversaw the development of site-lines, the promotion (or blockage) of circulation, the construction of nodes and walls, whether on individual streets or in vast cityscapes. In the history of urbanism, plagues, pandemics, and epidemics almost always led to a phase-transition in the development of urban forms, from the invention of the Ghetto in early 16th-century Venice employed as a way to contain the imaginary spread of the black death by Jews, to the onset of the modern State itself and the idea of a totalizing regime of partition and segregation in the fabric of human life. The racist imagination always tended to associate viral contagion with migration control. Concerns around tropical infections in 19th and 20th centuries almost pushed this association further, leading to the advent of modernism and the production of increasingly isolated buildings within landscapes.
To a great extent the history of architecture is an attempt to control contamination and its more or less subtle racial codings. Whenever a new epidemic took hold, the spatial tools developed to contain it tended to remain, to linger on, conditioning the state control that would follow. When an emergency subsides, it is the specter or the fear of its return that governs transformation in space-time formations and systems of control. There has never been a full return back to “previous normality” and its normative benchmarks. Let’s also remember that the long history of urban policing, comes not from of crime, but from the control of epidemics and its associations with social interactions. What we see now however are new forms of governing in space which have been taken over via a relation between algorithms and bordering devices, which now exist on the scale of states, streets, and homes.
Our task as critical cartographers is to understand the ways by which this diagram is mapped, to understand what is at work in this changing spatial logic, and confront the protocols being enacted now with little or no resistance or scrutiny. Our task is to expose their lines of segmentation and propose what free movement might look like after the virus.
This text is based on a transcript of a telephone interview with Weizman conducted on March 30, 2020.
George Yancy: “Bodies Without Edges: Rethinking Borders of Invulnerability”
In our deeply surreal moment, death, dying, and sickness abound. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and terror are palpable as we suffer from the global impact of COVID-19. In its existential threatening wake, we have lost parents, grandparents, children, spouses, and friends. And there are thousands whom we don’t know, and perhaps would have never fretted about not knowing. Yet, here we are, collectively, on a 24-hour news cycle, bearing witness to the piling up of corpses, bearing witness to the creation of makeshift morgues, and bearing witness to a virus that mocks our efforts at political, racial, national, and religious “purity.”
COVID-19 is indeed a pandemic. “Pan,” according to Greek mythology, is said to have been a god that struck fear and anxiety into people. And afraid and terrified we are. After all, COVID-19 doesn’t give a damn about our race, sex, class, and geopolitical divisions, economic inequities, the recent emergence of narcissistic right-wing populist figures, xenophobic communities and countries, including Germany, France, Hungary, Brazil, Denmark, and the United States. The virus also belies our illusions of sovereignty, absolute self-control, unconditional autopoiesis, and pretensions of invulnerability.
The neoliberal fantasy of the self as atomic and self-sufficient is just that — a fantasy. As Trent H. Hamann writes:
Neoliberal Homo economicus is a free and autonomous “atom” of self-interest who is fully responsible for navigating the social realm using rational choice and cost-benefit calculation to the express exclusion of all other values and interests. Those who fail to thrive under such social conditions have no one and nothing to blame but themselves.
So, while COVID-19 doesn’t give a damn about such divisive realities, it is because of what we do (or have failed to do) that so many will be adversely impacted. This sense of fanatical entrepreneurial self-aggrandizement, the failure to be moved by the existential weight of the “other,” will have disproportionate devastating consequences. Nela Porobić Isaković writes:
In the midst of the pandemic, the full scope of the effects of neoliberalism is being revealed. Not all countries and regions will be affected the same. Not all people will be affected the same. The ability to isolate, work from home, homeschool your children, stockpile your shelves, access healthcare, and financially (and psychologically) put your life back together after the pandemic is class, gender, race, age, and geography dependent.
It is we who have failed and must blame ourselves; we have failed each other during this crisis, especially as we are now struggling to play catch-up. This is evidenced in our global unpreparedness to think outside of ourselves — individually and nationally about an existential threat of dire magnitude.
Philosophically, we have failed to think beyond false narratives of ourselves discrete, atomic, hermetically sealed and “safe.” We have failed, as Judith Butler might say, to face “the way in which we are constituted in relationality: implicated, beholden, derived, sustained by a social world that is beyond us and before us.” Similarly, James Baldwin reminds us that any real change implies the loss of safety. In short, Baldwin is critical of forms of “safety” that are really manifestations of self-preservation at the expense of the lives of others. He is critical of our failure to recognize and take responsibility for the fact that we are fundamentally relational beings, corporally intertwined bodies without edges and thereby fundamentally precarious or dependent, and sustained by others.
An edge implies the outside limit of something. However, as human beings, or so I would argue, we are inextricably linked by a social integument, a global social skin that is always haptic, that is always touching despite our politically and ethically narrow imaginations that tell us otherwise, that our “leaders” dictate otherwise through a rhetoric of myopic self-mastery, and private self-interest.
In this moment of catastrophe, we are now being forced to radically rethink our interconnectedness, our porosity. Perhaps this is one silver lining in what feels so incredibly apocalyptic. I use this term in its etymological sense, which means to “uncover” as in to reveal, to make plain. Our interconnectedness is not an idea that is old, but one that has been covered over, thrown, metaphorically, in the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Hades.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu didn’t forget: “My humanity is bound up in yours for we can only be human together.”
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t forget: “In a real sense, all life is interrelated.” He also wrote that all of us “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel didn’t forget: “Some are guilty; all are responsible.” Heschel’s emphasis upon responsibility speaks to how my life is entangled with your life, your pain, your suffering, your joy, your growth, your diminution, your death, your virus-related vulnerability.
Judith Butler didn’t forget: she speaks of “a sociality that exceeds” each one of us.
John Mbiti didn’t forget: “I am because we are; and since we are therefore I am.” These thinkers have not forgotten. They spoke the truth as aletheia, which means to disclose, unveil.
This short plea and critique are designed to mark the limits of an unethical social ontology, a neoliberal frame that has failed us in this time of global fear and necro-proliferation. Victor Hugo wrote, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” That idea is that we are beings who have already been touching. Our objective now is to understand how an ontology of no edges ushers in an ethics of no edges, one that is imbued and sustained by a vision of unimpeded mutual care.
As I end, imagine if COVID-19 was a virus of radical expressive love. That would be a different kind of panic. That would be a different kind of fear and uncertainty, one which would be fueled by a different kind of urgency — a felt sense of not having enough time in a day to show just how much we, as human beings, are mutually implicated in each other’s lives, just how much we are responsible for each other. Perhaps even just how much we love each other. We would need a new body language to express our relationship to each other, especially as “my body” would be touching some homeless person living in New York City struggling with COVID-19, touching someone who is desperately trying to understand why her parent or grandparent just died from a virus for which we were and are grossly unprepared to handle, touching a monk in prayer, touching a dying tree, touching a falling snowflake, and touching and impacting our (now momentarily decreasing) carbon footprint.
During this terrifyingly unprecedented moment within the 21st century, an ontology of no edges, an understanding of our global embodied connectivity, and a global sense of shared and implicative responsibility, is an idea whose time has come.
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Kehinde Andrews is professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. He is author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century and Resisting Racism. He is currently working on a book titled Empire 2.0.
McKenzie Wark is the author of The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso), Telesthesia (Polity), A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso, 2015), and various other things. She teaches in the liberal studies MA program at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
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