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Vexed and Vaxxed: What Now?

17 May 2022

Vexed and Vaxxed: What Now?
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Still from “Sans toit ni Loi” by Agnès Varda; Image Credit: Vogue

Avital Ronell draws on Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Luc Nancy to contemplate about philosophy’s ways to master that which is radically intangible. She elaborates that Kant likened philosophizing to “having a concept,” being able conceptually to contain an elusive phenomenon or silent runner. In her opinion, we have no fully stabilized concept of the effects of this drama of contagion, yet we’re oversaturated with claims of cognition. She derives that on the rise, suicide, anguish, poverty, comorbidities and epidemics make up part of a history of runaway greed and perilously overlooked multifactorial analyses, marking up a breathless record of deluded conquests.

Exhausted and puzzled by Jean-Luc Nancy’s departure as part of our pandemonic experience, I must leave off where I start, wanting to pick up the remembrance on another occasion, asking for a time when I command the peace of mind required to travel the historical edges to which Nancy for the most part belongs and from which his work hails. I lack the strength to enumerate the effects of vital analysis that Jean-Luc opens on a number of registers, our shared brand yet different routing assignments, the revolutionary temptations that he represents for readers of several generations.

Let me grow small, content myself with a mote, understanding that an acute problem of generational breakage was disclosed by the pandemic along with other tears in the tensional quality of a binding social fabric. No one testified more arduously to the disjunctive breach of Mitsein than Nancy, all the while interrogating the possible of being-in-common.

I say my Andenken.


The videogram series starring Jean-Luc Nancy, along with other philosophical investigators of malignancy, was organized by Jérôme Lebre. Posted on YouTube at the height of the first wave, it addressed the experience of confinement and implications of conceptual disruptions attached to COVID-19. Under the heading of “Philosopher en temps d’épidémie,” philosophers from various outposts were recruited to present analyses of a world in lockdown, seized in panic, pinned to their living rooms – or should we say, framed by the broadcast stations of those frozen in place, the undead and Zoombies still on the beat, sitting at their desks, bringing language to bear on a contagion of fright, reporting from their not-so-“living” rooms. At the end of the broadcast run, Jérôme asked us to produce yet another self-directed video intervention, this time reflecting on what comes after the pandemic, its unique stranglehold and feeble rhetoric of prediction.

Nancy’s contribution inadvertently stalled the production, since technical adjustments had to be made to include a film clip meant to accompany his segment. He apologized for the delay, but we weren’t going anywhere, so we waited out the duration of a tech adaptation. There was the minor agony of a standstill for a few days. Sullen anticipation provided the Stimmung of the day; it was nice to have a discernible object to wait around for, and to know what it was that was holding us up. Our knowledge could not cover the severity of the pandemic ravage, but that didn’t prevent language-bearers from developing a collective case of archive fever, casing institutions and letters for histories of the plague, setting up speculative reception centers, and preventing the Vaccine from becoming a vexed object of a new salvation. We were trained for this, ready to serve with emergency supplies of meaning and the help of archival warning systems.

We were tensed and taut, ready to spring, aporetically timed: There was no rush, yet we were frenetic, basically held only to an alternating rhythm of ducking and idling, sitting around, waiting for the pandemic to be “over.” Like Kafka’s Diener, we were servants without a job, waiting around. In the parlance of the day, we were the inessential workers, socially sidelined, yet, in France at least, not entirely demeaned. There was still a call put out for explanation, urging on a redescription of a predicament that was mired in extreme forms of unreadability. Faced with the threat of viral overload, we were all more or less up close and personal with the imminence of dying or in the unattractive throes of finitude, primed by the Freudian jaunt beyond the pleasure principle, hugging to a destructive junket that could no longer be denied. Freud’s thinking of the death-drive, first featured in his work as Aggressionstrieb, was neither a pleasure nor a principle, nor since Derrida part of a “beyond.” That critical break down, in any case, its origin in aggression and failure to launch beyond, didn’t resume the key concern under the constraints of a gun pointed to our collectively exploded heads. The fine print of our predicament had us entangled in the death-drive, now showing up to seal doors and diminish the fiction of public spaces. We were part of a world-cast timeout, for which the halt in production signaled a slim allegorical blip.

The tear in our technological gridwork proved to be part of the problem we were facing, through the lens of our little video crew, ever since predictions made in Die Frage nach der Technik, and now, again, undeniably, posing as one of the multifactorial disclosures with which we can credit our pandemic. The technical difficulties troubling our schedule, such as it was, were soon overcome and our lead singer was cued up after a respectable delay. J-LN ironized our paralysis, having his voiceover illustrated by a film depicting a wild cowboy ride through a sector of the fabled American desert. The film segment chosen by Nancy supported the sense that we were being made to retrieve myths of rescue and manly vanquishment, opening frontiers, and featuring themes directly out of what I’ll call “the Gestell from hell” – American tropologies batted back and forth by the language masters of European vintage who turned in evaluations that viewed the USA as a petri dish of perilous experimental proportions. For many, the New World had revealed, from the start, a scientific insurgency backed by the prompts of “manifest destiny,” still following the lexicon of destinal calling, a self-legitimacy that was to haunt the murderous impulses of 20th century Europe. I apologize for fast-tracking these observations: Speaking in secretarial shorthand, these remarks aim to situate co-responsibility regarding forms of emergence in matters of disease control.

Sometimes laughter belongs to the idiom of traumatic irreconciliations. It is a Geschenk according to Freud sense of the present, or an existential drop-box, according to Bataille and Nancy, a crucial disruption if you go with Baudelaire, bringing up the rire, our rear.

The MVPs among modern European poets and philosophers routinely concurred with Rilke’s assessment of “America” as an “absolute void.” (1) Still, before them, Nietzsche approved the way the very idea of America accelerated changeovers, crashing and burning substantial concepts in their deserts, posing problems of widespread toxicity and another version of the death of God. The implications of this void to which “America” attached cannot be dispelled, and the relation in our day to l’Amérique, and its offshoot in Amerika, of so many thinkers, composers, filmmakers, poets and creative troublemakers need to be interrogated as we evaluate the rhetoric of Comeback or the dream of psychotic recuperation “after” the pandemic and its ongoing effects. The highspeed program underlying a “return to normalcy” is truly American, borrowed from German prompts of überwindung, a metaphysical temptation of overcoming that Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe critically took to task. Meanwhile, back at the ranch: The disjunctive feature of frontier violence in Nancy’s filmic intervention underscored the comic if sinister overreach of western triumphalism, so sure of its aims and claims, goaded on by the brutal requisites for self-assertion in the Nietzschean desert, a wasteland relocated to the Wild West: “die Wüste wächst!” T.S. Eliot ran with the wasteland in another way, but also raised the Nietzschean question of when and how the wasteland will be transvaluated, made habitable and hospitable, without seeking to diminish its threat as an unavoidable death-trap.

Cleared for speculative disbandment, our assignment in the midst of the first wave was to formulate what happens after the pandemic. Some of us were getting giddy. The pandemic fog of listless apprehension was rolling in. It may be the case that, when following two seriously pitched lectures, it was hard to hold a steady tone. At least two of us considered some form of wry distortion, in the untested mode of ironic exuberance, to serve the purposes of futural projection or its inherent overdrive. Reporting for duty, we were fully engaged in the folly of pinning an end to the pandemic’s unpredictable expansion. Sandwiched between earnest philosophical navigators of the new unreadability, I myself repeated the phrase, “Il faut manger des algues” – an exhortation to eat seaweed, meant to indicate the kinds of incorporation and refusal we, as condemned earthlings, must henceforth manage. Jean-Luc Nancy had often made fun of my forays in appreciation of seaweed, a double need for which I agitated in terms of regime change and a change in regimen. That did not go down too well in France, though Derrida addressed the vegetarian option in his work on phallocarnologocentrism. Nancy’s sequence featured a different angle of ironic depiction for repurposing our claims in the throes of another experience of dispossession and the fissuring of world. Despite our giddy contributions, I think we were dead serious. Giddy-up. Sometimes laughter belongs to the idiom of traumatic irreconciliations. It is a Geschenk according to Freud sense of the present, or an existential drop-box, according to Bataille and Nancy, a crucial disruption if you go with Baudelaire, bringing up the rire, our rear.


Traumatically set upon, we brush up against a wall of unintelligibility, an opacity that impacts and awakens us. Surprisingly, the alternation of numbing and startled awakening is capable of delivering the punch of a kind of knowledge. (2) “Father, can’t you see that I am burning?” cries the chapter in Traumdeutung, a moment of Trauma-deutung, delivering a preview of traumatic arousal and emergency reset. The impossible filial plea may be, in one form or another, what we are all registering, trying to decipher a call, and its impossible provenance, as we set loose from a corpse in our custody.

It is difficult not to hesitate at this point, for one does not want to fall into the aporetic trap of prophesying or even reviewing the genealogical impulse behind the pandemic spread, its subterranean travel plans. I don’t want to ruin anything as we set out to establish a vocabulary for what is to come. This is a fragile enterprise. A spoiler typecast by Melanie Klein, I am fearful of polluting the good breast of nurturance, blocking the thought of life-giving forces, however feeble, projected on the future. Yet, maybe this time the hesitation is rigorous, as Lacoue-Labarthe used to say (or prescribe). One day, in Strasbourg just a few years ago, this phrase gave Nancy pause as he deciphered the logic behind “rigorous hesitation,” an ethical stance taken by the prized friend during their para-Jena collaborations. We were in the huge bookstore, responding to questions from the public. Werner Hamacher was there, having presented his thought on event in Jean Luc’s appropriations, boldly knocking down some arguments. So, I admit, finally, to having had trouble adjusting to the assignment, its implicit parameters and chalked off security zones. For instance, something seems off, that is, comforting in the sense we have given ourselves of figuring a time out--a temporal span of suspension and Freudian latency period--as we await the next turn. The traumatic timer is ticking down, rendering the poignancy of the way Freud understood delayed reaction or time elapsed, marking a standstill time before a second wounding strikes, that lets us hear the first infliction of horror – a horror so intense that the original experience of impact was lifted, leaving one numbed and dumbed. For his part, Freud analogizes the latency inherent to trauma with the incubation period of infectious disease – ready to pounce, it formulates an event disturbed in its way of happening, deprived of a proper Darstellung, reference, or emergence. Still, it’s been prepped, in so many ways announced, accounted for, anticipated, though the tipping point of an arrival can occur as some sort of accident, a toxic spill or uncontrolled mutation provoked in a lab, or sprung loose in a market place. Disjunctively set, it suddenly becomes too late and we’re done for, left stupid, protesting the unprotestable, slipping into primitive forms of rage and drawing on paleonymic stores of political description. We have accumulated phrases that attach to the pandemic, such as, Everyone’s a fascist (they are, but that may prove beside the point); flashing a vax pass is like wearing a yellow star (it’s not, and that’s beside the point); it all comes down to schemes of domination, excesses of capital: a nihilistic disclosure (yes, so what else is new?)

Detail from Francis Bacon, 1973; Image Credit: The Guardian


Kant likened philosophizing to “having a concept,” being able conceptually to contain an elusive phenomenon or silent runner. We have no fully stabilized concept of the effects of this drama of contagion, yet we’re oversaturated with claims of cognition. This particular turn of geo-political inundation pits us close to the abysses that in the past led to Kleist’s famous Kant-Krise, executing the limits of knowledge. Stranded by quasi-solutions calibrated on an unruly timer, one wonders, how long will this last? ’til when must we be on alert? And then what? Did this fatality come around the bend like Rousseau’s Great Dane, causing a bad fall and difficult recuperation? The unanticipated collision of descending factors in Rousseau’s Rêveries – winter approaches, he’s walking down an incline, death was in the air – has dashed his sense of address, injured his face, breaking his legacy. Or was the pounce of the pandemic “meant to be” at this time, forwarding a destinal call prepared in the open, Purloined Letter-style, always in the center of our domestic-political spheres of action and articulation? As if the multifactorial in-your-face dilemmas hadn’t been shivering in plain view.

You probably don’t need a philosopher to press the panic button or sort things out, read back to you where we took a wrong turn. You slipped up, which is another way of saying that you’ve fulfilled a destiny, called out and carefully plotted by a team of world-class downsizers, a crew including Nietzsche Marx Arendt, et. al. Well, according to some estimations, anyway, we’re where we should be, hiking up the stakes on the edge of extinction in a prolonged fit of manic Selbstbehauptung. Long overdue, this was bound to be. In New York City Street scenes alternate between brandishing the mania of ripped revival and scenes from Mutter Courage, hunger-bitten with homeless street dwellers.


Our pandemic, if not an emergence but the effect of rebound, yields returns from all sorts of self-poisoning exploits, murderous binges and embarrassing frivolities – a word that Hölderlin recruits to name a failure in custodianship or a misstep with regard to Bändigung, a thought of boundedness that can extend all the way to Hannah Arendt’s weltbildende actions – a syntax of comportments that are world-binding, indicating the fragility of holding it all together. Fragility may be inbuilt, as we know from tech vocabularies, and not an aleatory feature of our constructs and construction sites. We should not ignore the material proliferation of infrastructural supports built to falter and its translation into the dispensability of “human resources.” On the unconscious level we have been exploring, certain types of calamity have been called up, bound to happen. Supplemented by Freud’s death drive, his analysis of weather disasters should not be overlooked--their ghostly origins in “primitive” practices of payback – the way we’ve been dealing in overkill and second deaths, doubling down on destruction, counting up addictive habits, clenching the conviction that one can get by unscathed. Maybe we’ve gone too far.

The horror of witnessing fragile children on the edge of existence began only later in the pandemic’s phasing, when children, too, succumbed to the dangers of COVID-19. Some of the original anxiety concerning the status of the infans in the pandemic was soon enough displaced onto infantile mask quarrels that flare up to this day with puzzling ardor and archaic acts of defiance.

…So far, in fact, that historical time schedules no longer work in recognizable ways but serve only to interrupt their own framing powers. We were always supervised by a stopwatch and thrilled to the dark dream of spontaneous extinction, following the beat of the knowledge that lets you understand, We are timing out. The species, with some exceptions, has chosen not to deactivate an inherently destructive mechanism that propels it forward as it pushes for a spectacular curtain call, the choke out of its existence.


#A nearly sociological Sidebar. There are a number of comorbidities and fight cages associated with the repetitive countdowns specific to the pandemic, many of which have been enumerated and discussed by a wide range of commentators. Among the casualties or consequences of the current round of social injury and a notable uptick in some sectors of mortality rates, a heightened intergenerational hostility will be tagged as a lasting effect of the pandemic. In the early stages of its spread, though quickly repressed for all kinds of overdetermined reasons, there was a reversal of generational logic to contend with. On the one hand, a shield of immunocompetence protected the children of the first waves. Attached to the strangely robust efficiency of these “biohazards,” as the unvaxed little ones were called, an aggression emerged, inverting the values associate with the responsibility of care. During this phase of heightened vulnerability, something could not be settled about asking younger generations to sacrifice for their elders. This inversion of a politics of care didn’t sit well with anyone: Though it might have revealed the rumblings of a Grundstruktur that we shall want to analyze in depth, the question remains of the order, Who is to take care of whom? Who is to crush the other’s core of vulnerability? Who can come bounding at you, invisibly armed with viral potential and killer insouciance? The horror of witnessing fragile children on the edge of existence began only later in the pandemic’s phasing, when children, too, succumbed to the dangers of COVID-19. Some of the original anxiety concerning the status of the infans in the pandemic was soon enough displaced onto infantile mask quarrels that flare up to this day with puzzling ardor and archaic acts of defiance. There are more metonymic themes to pursue in terms of generational split offs and adherences, problems addressing how positions of responsibility were apportioned or interpreted, rendered suspect. Mimetically aroused, the young ones in many instances actually wanted to wear masks, to make like grownups. The conflict of generations takes sharp turns and twists that I cannot analyze adequately here, hoping only to put the thematic cluster up for interpretive grabs. In a broader, more unconsciously contoured picture, the early immunity pass for children not only pitted them against grownups in ways still to be determined and acted out, superegoically fitting them to take down bully-based elders, but also provided a counternarrative to the brutal internment of children by the Trump Administration, an attack on minors and minorities that counted on their civic-somatic defenselessness. Thousands of “alien” children were lost in the trafficked shuffle. Unlike the peste children in Camus, this plague did not at first inspire the organization of a sustained army of protection or reveal a combat-readiness meant to boost child immunity. A contested rhetoric of warfare in some nations started out a political response to its ravages, but was not rooted in the figure of the child. Something was different this time around, diverting the traditional scope of fear, in the first waves, of scenes of defenselessness associated with children. In the first waves children received a pass, seeming for the most part to bypass the encroaching grip of the viral hunt down. One of the scores left to be settled “after” the pandemic resolves into a containable threat will surely involve the outbreak of intergenerational strife on newer levels of strained sociality, stoking the hostility, refashioned, of those who inherit an unbreathable atmosphere of intolerable greed and spoilage. Parricidal wrath cannot surprise us, but one should be aware that its triggers have been remastered, updated with poignant desperation. Nor can one leave out considerations of identification where children target their own unconscious complicity with destructive runs at the good breast. Resentment politics takes different forms, including the one emergent directly before the pandemic hit in terms of advancing a manic assertion that consists in voiding aspects of the past. The child parts of many growing personhoods may have cheered on, if tentatively, as cancellation became the rage. The pre-Hegelian urge to cancel without sublation, erasing other forms of residue or historical crypt-formation, must be given a closer look, analyzed with care and concern for regressive outbreak. In terms of unconscious blowback and implementation, the pandemic attaches to a number of infectious media-technological rampages, traversing random social corridors with little critical debate or off switch to temper its spread. #End of nearly sociological Sidebar.


A lot of us have been saddled with depressive states, stalls of stuporous proportions since March, 2020. Still, we making the motions, casting for the resumption of “normalcy.” Some waver between Freudian modalities of Furcht and Angst, fear and anxiety, sitting in the shadow of consistent phase-outs.

Nancy questioned whether Angst was truly objectless.

In Anglo-American districts, one is often encouraged to “let go,” “move on,” “get over it,” even to “get a life,” locutions that indicate a national intolerance for prolonged states of mourning, discouraging mourners from sitting with loss for extended periods. Yet the quickened pace of letting go, and its rollover into life’s conjured resumption, may well mean that we have not let go, that we are haunted and hounded by unmetabolized aspects of loss while hitting the accelerator. In Freud’s work, and many works of literature, the timer is set for two years of appropriate mourning. When Hamlet tries to extend that deadline, the whole house threatens to fall apart, and he is admonished by Claudius to get over himself, to man up. The inability to mourn or let go is sometimes called melancholy. By now, many of us have slipped into states of melancholic depression for one reason or another, for one unreason or another – despite the odds and many attributable causes, one cannot always nail the object that has been lost or causes pain, though the pandemic slam, weather, and other shutdowns supply plenty of materials for melancholic brooding or its crash and burn counterpart in maniacal overcharge.

News paper advertisement for “Civilization”, Thomas H. Ince, 1916; Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For Derrida, melancholy hosts an ethical stance, a relation to loss inviting vigilance and constant re-attunement. One does not have to know or understand the meaning of a loss and the full range of its disruptive consequences, but one somehow dwells with it, leaning into a depleting emptiness, resisting the urge to invite fantasies of reportable resumption. It takes courage to resist the temptation to bail or distract oneself from unhinging loss. (In the most recent U.S. election, one chose between a candidate who deplored and one who embraced mourning: Joe Biden’s first act was to hold a ceremony to mark the casualties of the aggressively disavowed virus. His public demeanor has been built on the loss of his son, offering a political portraiture of a leader in mourning. The other candidate, Trump, has mourned no one; he may be too shallow even to house a crypt-formation or relocate suppressed sites of loss. Countries and epochs can be profiled according to the way they mourn or refuse to mourn, measuring their capacity to acknowledge loss.) One is commonly dissuaded by institutions from surrendering to the exigencies of mourning. Entire industries stand ready to distract the inconsolable mourner, without exception, including during the times of COVID-19. I see no off-switch to the effects of the pandemic, which in any case has drilled deep into our existential choices, such as they are. The failure to mourn, constitutive of a necessary ethical setback, at once keeps us nailed to the spot of uncontainable loss and makes us vulnerable to blindness when propelled forward, asked to assess the damages, imagine a future. In some respects the resolve to stay attentive to multifactorial inducements, the scope of widespread endangerment, puts us back on the path of Freud’s near-slogan, “Wo es war soll Ich werden”--a becoming-conscious braked nowadays by Benjaminian chokes of self-dispersal and distracted being. Something like a Freudian Ich, despite metaphysical breakoffs, phenomenological traversals and stipulations to Ego-positing, still sets a regulatory ideal. For a philosophy suffused with Freudian discovery and its pessimistic undercurrent, mutating conditions tied to the pandemic prompt a new set of focused responses in neighboring areas of thought and artistic practice, taking cues from Montaigne to Artaud and other seers of contamination.

Let me move in for a close-up, allowing the insertion of an autobiographeme – more like an allothanatographeme from Derrida’s precincts, indicating a death trace through the other, superseding the presumption of a self in command of its adherence to bios – if only to allegorize the more personal stakes that each of us brings to the table. As Benjamin says, allegory walks off the stage empty-handed, so it is not out of some kind of fullness or slice of triumphalism that one succumbs to the callout of an allegorical retreat. I have lost so many friends and essential interlocutors in the recent past, each one standing in defiance of enumeration or substitution as they fall, each one irreplaceable, a rebuke of my own capacity for survival, yet part of the promise of a survival kit. My first attempt to put together such a thing, a survival kit – as a dubious but, to my mind, an unavoidable project – involved a close friend with whom a book version, our survival guide, was planned. Anne Dufourmantelle and I went far into the question of what an exhausted philosophical corpus could still do for us in impossibly dark times. I abandoned the project immediately after her tragic disappearance, even though in some ways the particulars of the work prefigured her death. A part of our intention returned in fragments, shading into podcasts I delivered for Philomonaco’s Rencontres philosophiques during the first year of confinement. They were broadcast alternately from Monaco and Paris, in 2020 - 2021. Some facets of my planned work with Anne morphed into a series labeled “Survival Kit for the Anguished,” emerging from various theories of angoisse, Angst, Furcht, and psychic effects of viral aggression. Despite discontinuities and unbridgeable caesurae, the idea of a kit, together with other emergency supplies packed into philosophical and poetic Saying, offered a flickering viability, we’d hoped, for thinking the aporias of überleben. Poetry has known shipwreck from the starting block. If it lives by celebrating the departed, poetry is trained on loss, focusing itself on inventing new names and addresses of mourning. Philosophy, for her part, has a long history of handling – or bracketing – the experience of distressed states. Poetry signals from its solitary base, pulsing with anticipatory bereavement. Poetic utterance retrieves loss in the very turn to the stutter of language, tossing practice shots in a kind of staccato rhythm of a steady stutterance. Philosophy has a history of calming that stutter until the moment Nietzsche picks it up again by way of philosophizing with a stammer. But philosophy sticks close to pain, too, and knows cruelty, flags mortal injury. Yet both modalities of Saying have stayed close to the edges of non-recuperable suffering, maintaining suffering without returns or rewards in a mystified Elsewhere – without, in some cases, a Christian savings or rollover account. In earlier times, and still going strong in some displays of argument and articulation, they covered up what they knew by calling on cognitive non-starters and dogmatic truth. Still, there was plenty of room for the fissuring and rhetorical indication of the prevalence of another philosophical urge throughout its history that could not simply be blinkered. On the whole, philosophy is built to handle downgrades linked to the unreliability of language’s positing stints, the steady humbling of Being. But we--or some facet of what remains of finitude that I provisionally name “we”--are not built to last or to push back incessantly on programmed slap downs.

“We’re done,” says John Donne, tendering a poetic word for the fantasy of ending it all, once and for all. There is always the possibility that we’ve exceeded all boundaries and dreams of epochal restarts – that we’re done here.

Thus one may no longer have a finger on the pulse of Hegel’s Weltgeist, guiding world-spirit, nor is one cleared to make claims for the subsistence of a “world.” Any depropriating advent of distress extends beyond the particulars of a single history or civic identity, expanding beyond any singularized pose or assumption of subjectivity. Pandemic restrictions, like severe weather, appear to stoke aggression and ride the death drive. The posited stakes reach far into institutional stresses and social shakedowns, often exposing a terrific store of resentment, attaching to philosophical questioning and responsive to the psychoanalytic prod. The atmospherics linked to civic pressures permeate current expressions of ground-level strife. Suffused by the remnants of pneuma, the so-called Anthropos, distorting and exceeding itself, stifling and strained, resounds in the cry of “I can’t breathe” that wheezes from Black Lives Matter back to poetic margins signed by Sylvia Plath’s gasps, indenting the cadence of so many other poetic expirations, and stirred by Paul Celan’s Atemwende (Breathturn), before returning to philosophical origins of breathless furor.


Closure, Freud has asserted, is what we want. Our narcissism calls out for closure, organizing a dream of collective demise, part of a significant phantasm dispatched by Ego. Narcissism, preening for its curtain call, wants to call it a wrap – and, pressed on by repetition compulsion, who would not, at times, perhaps at this time, who would not want to bring it to a final curtain? Following Nancy’s admonition, we want to be careful not to confuse closure with the end or telos. Freud’s reflections on the desire for termination may serve as a warning signal for epochs that find satisfaction in executing a closural cut wherever they find and fear, disavow and repel the specter of accelerated extinction. Don’t forget that part of the good news delivered by Christianity states that the end is near. The warning of imminent fulfillment does not mean that we are not squeezed with regard to indisputable facets of the pandemic and its comorbidities, but that we must proceed with caution when narratives and tropologies convene to name an ending while sneaking in the add-on dream of a comeback, equipped with a redemptive rhetoric of possible recuperation, a willed Ueberwindung. As Nancy has pointed out repeatedly in his thought, Western logos likes to see an endpoint, compel boundaries and close gates. It likes to blow up bridges. “We’re done,” says John Donne, tendering a poetic word for the fantasy of ending it all, once and for all. There is always the possibility that we’ve exceeded all boundaries and dreams of epochal restarts – that we’re done here.

At the same time, the very thought of being “finished with,” being-done or Donne as a wish-fulfillment bequeathed by the Western logos, risks putting us in another cycle of slumber, collective and “interested,” encouraged only by evasive strategies of denial and a hankering for the finality of an ending. Thinking we’re done, over and out, keeps us out of the ring where the fight must drag on for another set of rounds with the extinctive impulse – our style of staying alive.

Given these constraints, where does one locate the call for climate justice or schedule a return to normalcy – a psychotic bailout as Žižek has argued? Whether or not we are tuned by impending or past viral outbreak or storm systems, geological rupture and other quakes of alternation, spoilage, knockout punches, deforestation, drought, unbreathable air, and bad water, all of us are to a certain degree affected, afflicted, drawn in and upon by these disturbances. The viral slam as a hostile advent can hit you anywhere, whether you are idling at home, recovering after surgery, jogging your memory, or when we wake up and find we are hosting sore throats as part of our daily false-positive body checks, premonitory and allergic marks on our skin-a huge reception area of a troubled forecast whose intrusive effects can provoke somatic flare-up and psychic lesions.


In the end, it is difficult to get an assessment of what we are up against without taking into account Freudian discoveries of the death-drive or what happens when tropics of anthropomorphism are used recklessly, without critical discernment or concern for the programmed relapses and overall regressive humanism. A number of troubling ideologies and substitutive claims continue to be made on behalf of earth-dweller, “Man.” Leaning on Paul de Man’s critique of anthropomorphisms and Derrida’s warning with regard to blind recuperations of the Anthropos, Tom Cohen advances such an argument in his work on the growing theory of climate and its attendant repressions. (3) His studies invite us to widen the scope of interrogation, admonishing that we stay on guard for stealth recuperations of assumptions that rule patriarchal structures. Following this lead I would like to add that literary insight and poetic invention are essential if we are to claim our unWhere, the crucial Unwo (Celan) of our dwelling, the sojourn with an inhospitable earth.

The Hay Wain, John Constable,1821; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Following these threads I would summon a thinking of our originary unbelonging. The appropriations of the earth, the preoccupation with locating man's custodial rights, continues to entrench us in a conceptual snag, an archaic dilemma whose logic of polarity still involves dominion, if presented in the mode of care. Is the earth ours to desecrate--or redeem? Having isolated many of us, and decimated others, revealed the plight or plunder of all, the pandemic dispenses its lessons, a flash of plausible futurity. What would constitute an affirmative alienation on the other side of exploitative dominion, a definitive unhousing that opens and exposes being to another logic of justice, a kind of ethical use of expropriation? Are we not the aliens we fear?

Calls for sanitation actions, cleanup, however righteous and uncontestable, ethically pitched – and however indisputably needed for basic sustainability – must remain aware at least of flipside desecrations and histories of cleansing, or make allowances for the earth’s capacity for mutation with or without the figure of man at the controls, with and without the aggressions and hyperbolic overdose of destruction that human forms of being have wrought, beginning with money and its fecal origins, the peculiar form of donation associated with the “filthy rich” and excremental euphoria. Can man be entrusted to clean up without cleaning up?

This reactivity may well be part of the return and a displacement of other forms of malignant shutdown and aggressive encroachment: It is as though the planet itself had contracted the AIDS virus, carried and transmitted by the Anthropos.

What or who counts as “dirty” – afflicted, stained, sickly – in the lingering lexicon of the Anthropocene? How does cleanliness get apportioned? One cannot set apart the question of environmental racism when sizing the panic that overwhelms protesting earthlings – Flint, Michigan is an acknowledged sign of the way entire regions, neighborhoods of color, bowed by poverty, are susceptible to previously unprotested attacks of pollution. For a long time now we could take measure of how the poor fail, for the most part, to excite the so-called universal clamor for planetary climate justice linked to health concerns. Who or what is seen as compatible with cleanliness and notions of wholesomesness? Who or what is isolated as dirty, submitted to highly symbolized standards of hygiene? These questions can help us detect what has escaped even the most indignant among us, those who gauge the responsible leveraging of environmental justice. Who is dirty, dirt poor, savage, unclean, in the count-up of a smoldered human stain? One might consider Bataille’s pornographic inscription when naming his leading lady “Dirty,” and the way he lays waste to the highest values associated with propriety. Without fully managing this swerve, I will just point out that in his novels and reflections on sacrifice, on Nietzsche, on torture and depravity, Bataille links sovereignty with waste, much the way Benjamin refers love to squandering in his essay on Haschich. There is something about wasteful indulgence – wasting time, energy resources, or just wasting away – that excites the lead figures of the Anthropocene, powering up acts of extreme expenditure, the giveaway of potlatch and other sacrificial economies.

The drama of extinction, led in recent years by the pandemic and its tropics, seizes on the figure of man, referring back to humanity in a way that sets (and assumes) a stage for the mutation of particular life-forms. Associated with climate change, the current relation to the thought of imminent extinction has derived its epistemic authority from an understanding of the Anthropocene, a term that stubbornly recovers the figure of man, seeing man as responsible for the degradation of the planet. To the extent that the planet itself suffers under the blindly pushed intrusiveness of man, a figure that persists as greedy, oblivious, routing a narcissistic excess, addicted to power, payrolling the return of forms of enslavement, exacerbating uncontained bloodlust, there is still something on the level of a nihilistic disclosure that we must attend to, something that has put an autoimmune disorder into play. In some regards climate change has been met by a stupidly recurring cycle of disavowal shading into panic awareness. This reactivity may well be part of the return and a displacement of other forms of malignant shutdown and aggressive encroachment: It is as though the planet itself had contracted the AIDS virus, carried and transmitted by the Anthropos. The way we have dealt with AIDS or refused it the theoretical oxygen to yield its logic and virological run calls out to think it together with all forms of immunological snapping points. AIDS was one of the principal forerunners of the current pandemic.

It behooves us to remember that AIDS has never been a matter merely of virology but was from the start multifactorial, an effect of technology and predatory raids on earth’s resources. Still, the reluctance to read AIDS is bequeathed to us by all sorts of robust traditions that won’t let up. Perhaps the thought of autoimmunity brings us close to comprehending the stakes of today’s dilemma in which climate is indissociably clenched with the eruption of a global pandemic. The appearance of AIDS has constituted a crucial figure in the technological disclosure, while it also disarticulated any claim to subjective recuperation. An effect of technology, AIDS, like climate change, remains part of the radical destructuring of social bonds that will have been the legacy of the recent centuries. Climate change, like the pandemic and the AIDS prototype, whether lodged in the violence of weather or in the strife of embodiment, is a peculiarly human symptom, functioning as the locus of a suicidal impulse that increasingly determines our species. It is the affair of man, or the Gestell that contains him, figuring an aspect of man’s self-annihilating toxic drive. Along with other pandemics to come, AIDS should not be viewed as sudden, epochal appearance but as a culmination in the history of debilitating forces, the effects of which underscore the turning of a humanity rigorously set against itself. Let us be relentless about asking, What are the multifactorial conditions for maintaining the stressors of this predicament? What kind of rhetoric holds it in place, keeps us bound to paleonymy and regressive positing, pathological protocols, and combative encounters with the rhetoric of humanism? Dr. Michel Bounan, in the pathbreaking work, Le temps du sida, remarks apropos of the appearance and naming of the shattering enigma, AIDS:

A disease appears when an ensemble of ‘homologous’ aggressions, simultaneously physical and climatic, alimentary and toxic, microbial and emotional, self-induce a defensive mechanism, reaching a lesional threshold. (4)

On the rise, suicide, anguish, poverty, comorbidities and epidemics make up part of a history of runaway greed and perilously overlooked multifactorial analyses, marking up a breathless record of deluded conquests.



1. ‘MVP’ means, in the American athletic field, ‘Most Valuable Player’ usually marked by an award. I have discussed the adversity to ‘America’ in specific poetic and philosophical texts in “The Gestell from Hell: Philosophy Sets Up ‘America’.” The Oxford Review of Literature 43.1 (2021): 107–131. Eds. Geoffrey Bennington and Rodrigo Therezo. Edinburgh and London: Edinburgh UP.

2. The effect of knowledge within trauma’s imposition of not-knowing is explored in Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996, 2016.

3. Among his many crucial texts on the subject, see Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols. Eds. Tom Cohen, Claire Holbrook, and J. Hillis Miller. New York: Open Humanities Press, 2016.

4. Michel Bounan, Le temps du sida. Paris: Editions Allia, 2004. In keeping with our thought on le temps, let us translate this title both as ‘The Times and Climate of AIDS.’

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