Three Thoughts on the Pandemic
28 June 2022
Untitled, Zdzislaw Beksinsk, 1978; Image credit: Wikiart
Michael Marder maintains that with the coronavirus pandemic, the sense of touch has come under attack. Actually, in this dimension the effects of the pandemic comply with the dream of globalization, namely to create touch-less reality, a virtual togetherness without bodily involvement. Hence, the Covid-19 pandemic signals a return of what has been suppressed or repressed by the entwined drives to globalize and virtualize the world, namely the body. In conclusion, Marder argues in favor of rebuilding the sense of the common good amidst the pandemic. He advocates that terrifying and tragic as it is, the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity – an opportunity to rebuild a sense of common good, and breathe new meaning into it, grounded on experience.
I. The Coronavirus and Us
Before the current outbreak, a global tendency to build walls and seal off national borders – between the United States and Mexico, Israel and Palestine, Hungary and Serbia and Croatia and elsewhere – had taken hold. The resurgent nationalism instigating this tendency nourishes itself on the fear of migrants and social contagion, while cherishing the impossible ideal of purity within the walled polity. On the surface, the quarantines, travel obstacles and border closures imposed in response to the viruses were medical measures; however, they were also symbolic, resonating with the same basic logic as the construction of physical walls for political reasons. Both acts were meant to reassure citizens and give them a false sense of security. At the same time, they ignored the main problem – the poor state of transnational governance and decision-making that are vitally important for tackling climate and migrant crises, pandemics and economic crimes like tax evasion.
Survivalism has always followed a trajectory parallel to that of virulent nationalism. At its core is the fiction of a self-reliant, totally independent and autonomous, Crusoesque individual, the one who is smart and strong enough to be able to save himself (the gendered pronoun is not accidental here) and, perhaps, his family. Following the trail of the theological doctrine of salvation reserved for the select few, this attitude abstracts human beings from the environmental, communal, economic and other contexts of their lives.
What the novel coronavirus demonstrated, in contrast to normal survivalist fictions (food and medical supplies are hoarded, while the wealthiest few prepare their luxury doomsday bunkers), is that borders are porous by definition; no matter how fortified, they are more like living membranes than inorganic walls. An individual or a state that effectively manages to cut itself off from the outside will be as good as dead.
Viruses are more than occasional threatening eruptions on the seemingly calm global horizons; they are also figurations of the contemporary social and political world. (We might say, tongue in cheek: The bug is not a bug but a feature.) And in this case, a symbol subtler than the wall emerges – that of a crown.
Covid-19 belongs to a group of RNA viruses transmissible between animals and people. As this feature indicates, it does not obey natural systems of classification and species boundaries, either. The club-shaped spikes on the virus’s spherical surface have earned it the name coronavirus, derived from the Latin word for “crown,” corona, which harkens back to the Greek korōnē, meaning “wreath” or “garland.” The attribute of sovereignty par excellence, a crown is bestowed on a microscopic entity that defies distinctions between various classes of beings, as well as between the domains of life and death. Transgressing old borders, the virus becomes a figure of sovereignty in the age of the dispersion of power. To understand its workings is to get a glimpse of the way power operates today.
One aspect of viral activity is to infiltrate and to transcribe the texts of host cells and computer programs. Another is to replicate itself as widely as possible. In the social media universe, both aspects are actually coveted: When a photograph, a video, a joke or a story is shared, quickly spreading among internet or cell phone users, it is said to go viral. A high rate of viral content’s replication is not sufficient, as it needs to make an impact, transcribing, as it were, the social text it has infiltrated. The ultimate goal is to assert one’s influence through a widely disseminated image or story and wield that power. Going viral introduces a fair degree of complexity into our affective relation to viruses: feared, when we become their targets and possible hosts; desired, when they are our instruments for reaching a sizable audience.
The comparison of going viral on the Internet and a coronavirus pandemic is not far-fetched. The global dimension of recent epidemics is a result of the increasing mobility and physical interconnectedness of large segments of world population engaged in mass tourism, educational and professional exchanges, long-distance relations, international cultural and sports events, and so on. It was on board cruise ships, such as the Diamond Princess, on planes, in trains and hotels that the virus traveled beyond the hot spot of its initial outbreak – in other words, in those cases when one sent oneself, not just one’s image or message, elsewhere.
Whether we like it or not, we are all hosts for elements that are alien to us at every level of existence. Moreover, there is always a risk that hosts would be harmed by those they host. This risk is ineliminable. Rather than conjure up the specters of sovereign nation-states and autonomous individuals, we need to learn to live in a world that is interconnected not only ethereally or ideally, through communication technologies, but also materially, via direct embodied contact. In short, we must learn to live in a reality that may, at any moment, go viral.
II. Contagion: Before and Beyond Covid-19
With the new coronavirus pandemic, the sense of touch has come under attack. Throughout the past two years, medical authorities have repeatedly told us not to touch our faces, not to touch doorknobs with our hands, and definitely not to touch others (no kisses on the cheek, handshakes, or other bodily greetings). It is easy to understand the reason behind such guidance. The virus is highly contagious and can survive not only on the skin but also on inorganic surfaces for a relatively long period of time. But the cultural frame of what is going on is at least as important as the biological or epidemiological explanation.
The acceleration of processes that went under a broad heading of globalization involved a growing virtualization of the world. To become a globe (which is, itself, a geometrical abstraction, rather than concrete reality), the world had to be reimagined as an ideal unity. Cultural homogenization, often opposed and criticized for impoverishing and razing local customs and ways of life, was but a side-effect of that idealizing movement.
A lion’s share of the work of virtualization was accomplished by the Internet, along with a whole slew of technologies for obviating or digitalizing touch: voice-controlled devices, touch-less water taps, soap dispensers and flushes, not to mention contactless payment methods. Touch became obsessively linked to the touch screens of smart phones and tablets that, as we have now learnt, could be perfect sites for spreading the coronavirus infection.
It was a dream of globalization to create touch-less reality, a virtual togetherness without bodily involvement. Tourists and politicians, UN workers and expatriate professionals, business consultants and (yes) academics could move throughout the globe as though they were disembodied spirits, present in the flesh as if they were not really present, not really exposed to sudden dangers and contingencies.
In the age of the coronavirus, that dream has been shattered. It turns out that our means of transport carry more than their human passengers and that locations, which could be just about anywhere, like airports or big hotel chains, also host other forms of life or nonlife – viruses. This uninvited and invisible excess reminds us of the fact that, far from disembodied spirits, we exist thanks to our fragile bodies that may, in a matter of days, find themselves on the verge of serious illness or death.
The Covid-19 pandemic signals a return of what has been suppressed or repressed by the entwined drives to globalize and virtualize the world, namely the body. And the body as a whole is represented by the sense of touch, its corresponding organ being not the hand, as we automatically assume, but skin. Just as jetlag testifies to discrepancies between our technological and physiological possibilities, so the current pandemic highlights the incongruities between the dream of virtualization-globalization, on the one hand, and living “in one’s skin,” rather than purely “in one’s head,” on the other.
Here, a seemingly negligible difference between infection and contagion comes to the fore. Infection literally means being tainted within, receiving something impure inside oneself. Contagion, as a Latinate rendition of “with-touch” or “touching-with,” entails not the infiltration of a foreign and potentially damaging substance into an organism, but communicability, the ability of pathological agents to jump from host to host. Like the touch it names, contagion happens on the surface, at the interface of surfaces in contact with one another. It leaves the fiction of contamination-as-infiltration behind and, instead of fixating on the distinction between the inside and the outside (as well as on the boundaries, borders or membranes separating the two), focuses on the territory of contact, the space in-between that makes every body but a transit station for viral self-replication.
The other peculiarity of contagion is that it disrespects divisions between areas we typically treat as totally independent: biology and economics, psychology and informatics. Viruses replicate themselves in living tissues and computer programs, through memes that “go viral” or through the DNA or RNA encoding of proteins, by which they act. Contagion spreads among members of a population, from one species to another (as in the case of coronavirus), in financial markets, through rumors and fear, in the dissemination of ideologies, even as it produces feedback loops between these different areas.
Why do contagions have a significantly broader range and reach than infections? Is it not because contagion requires no more than the brushing of surfaces: of skin and skin, skin and a doorknob, fear-laced gossip and an ear receptive to it, an insolvent bank and similar institutions that lose investor confidence, financial markets and direct economies, “America First” and another nationalist “Me first”? Contagion, then, is all about touch, not incorporation – a factor that lends it its speed and the capacity to spread far and wide.
To return to the coronavirus pandemic: although the dynamics of touch call us back to our bodies, they do so under the sign of more severe repression still. If, before the current crisis, we simply forgot the body, failing to notice it as it seamlessly moved through and interacted with other bodies and surfaces of a globalized world, now we recall (indeed, are recalled to) its existence in an atmosphere of conscious negation, distilled in the injunction “do not touch” – not even yourself. (Does this injunction not parody the words Jesus addresses, according to John 20:17, to Mary Magdalene who recognizes him after his resurrection: Noli me tangere, “touch me not”?)
Strangely enough, the moment masses of people around the world are faced with the fragility of their bodies and lives – the moment we are called back to our corporeal existence – we must take measures to reduce direct contact with others, to retreat to the private cocoons of our homes. No sooner does the flesh-and-blood body make its comeback on a global scale than the virtualization of existence intensifies, with social life passing almost entirely to the Internet. In a pandemic, the dynamics of touch retrieve the body both as dramatically threatened and as a source of threat, reinstating the strictest version of its virtualization.
A period of respite from the fast-paced routine of our lives afforded to many by the Covid-19 pandemic should be an occasion for reflecting on what was going on before this viral outbreak and what the world, our relations to each other and to our own bodies might look like after it subsides. How does the virus intervene into the history of touch, shaped by social conventions, political and medical regimes, technological inventions? What are the senses of contagion spanning the increasingly “touch-less” virtual reality and its suppressed actual underside? How to live and to think on the surface, with the overlapping (potentially contagious) surfaces we have mistaken for discrete things: bodies, economies, information systems and systems of beliefs?
III. The Pandemic and Rebuilding a Sense of the Common Good
Just as previous wars on poverty, drugs & terrorism, a new ‘war on Covid-19’ is doomed to failure if a similar militaristic approach is used. When speaking about the current coronavirus pandemic and a concerted response to it, we should say unequivocally: “This is not a war.” It’s true that this will directly contradict the stance of many world leaders, who have declared a war on the virus. But by denying the necessity of a militaristic framing, we don’t turn a blind eye to how critical the situation is. On the contrary, this will help to search for an alternative way of grappling with the coronavirus crisis, of inspiring people for collective and individual action, and – ultimately – of bringing about a better world after the current pandemic winds down.
Modern western medicine is prone to indulge in militaristically inflected discourses and actions. We say that someone “fights an illness,” that the deceased has “lost a battle” with a lethal affliction, that tumors may be “aggressive” and that, therefore, they should be “aggressively attacked” with chemotherapy. This way of conceptualizing and practicing medicine lends itself easily to a “war on the virus.”
Since the 1960s, governments around the world (beginning with the United States) have been extending the discourse of war beyond the context of military hostilities traditionally understood. In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson announced the start of a “war on poverty” as he attempted to lay the foundations for a welfare state. In 1971, President Richard Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and declared a “war on drugs.” In 2001, President George W. Bush sounded his call for a global “war on terror” in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The 2020 ‘war’ on the coronavirus should be seen in the context of these declarations.
With each new declaration, the presumed enemy became more and more invisible, lacking recognizable outlines. It – rather than she or he – could be just about anywhere. With the enemy not easily localizable and potentially ever-present, war became total, engulfing all reality.
The invisible enemy that figures in a war on the coronavirus totalizes war by erasing a clear front line. While the line is erased, the front does not disappear: it is drawn between each of us and even within each of us, given the uncertainty of whether or not one is infected with the coronavirus.
Another element of war that becomes distorted under present circumstances is the real possibility of killing and being killed. Neither the virus itself, nor those it infects, have the intention of killing anyone. So, in a war paradigm, the role of the virus is ambiguous: Is it an enemy or a weapon? Is a potentially infected human body the virus’s weapon, or itself an enemy? Leaders who fall back on militaristic metaphors have the responsibility of thinking through their logic and consequences.
In wars extended beyond the sphere of armed conflicts between human communities, victory is unattainable. So is defeat. Not only do wars on drugs, terror, and now a virus become all-encompassing; not only do they erase the front line and a discernible enemy figure, but they also have no end in sight, no definite cessation of hostilities. An inflated concept of war runs the risk of becoming a fight for a cause lost from the get-go.
After decades of neoliberal policies that have resulted in the privatization of utility companies and pension funds, erosion of workers’ rights, divestment from public healthcare and other vital sectors and services, the experience and the notion of the common good have been rendered hollow. As a result, appeals to a population to act for the common good will fall on deaf ears and will not produce the same desired, emotionally charged effects as a declaration of war, implying the need to mobilize, to combine individual efforts and to make sacrifices.
Terrifying and tragic as it is, the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity – to rebuild a sense of common good, and breathe new meaning into it, grounded on experience.
We would need to concentrate on the small acts of kindness and solidarity all around us. That includes people offering older neighbors help with buying food, provisions or medicines, caring about the most vulnerable. That is not to mention the enormous risks that medical personnel take in treating people who have contracted the virus. Combined with some government actions, such as abolishing the difference between public and private healthcare systems, these experiences may reinvigorate the notion of the common good.
If an appeal to the common good were to make sense again, if it were to guide our behavior in a state of crisis, then it would be significantly more effective in overcoming an emergency situation than the frames of war that are again being thrust upon us.