What is to be Thought?: Philosophy after Covid-19
13 May 2022
The Pandemic; Image Credit: CEPS
The ‘thingliness’ of the pandemic is shown by pointing to the canonic story about Thales of Miletus: “When Thales of Miletus fell down the well while lost in thought, it was because he didn’t stop to contemplate the well’s agential ‘thingliness’ first.” This sentence is applied to our global dealings with the pandemic. In a critique of the pandemic philosophy the intricate relationship between capitalist realism and idealism is inspected, as exemplified in the dispute between Graham Harman and Alain Badiou. The theoretical fetishism that underlies object-oriented and other shallow ontologies are then addressed. In conclusion it is found that in order to think our practices and concepts anew, philosophy must be willing to get its hands dirty: it must be willing to think substance and subject together, refusing to gainsay the intractable contradiction between the two. Philosophy is the act of thinking through this contradiction, not the fetish of its overcoming.
There is no “beyond” of our current situation. Covid-19 is not something that, as Donatella Di Cesare puts it, “seizes up the whirring cogs of capitalism from the outside.” (1) For Slavoj Žižek, on the contrary, the virus “is not an exception or a disturbing intrusion,” but instead, “it is a particular version of a virus that was operative beneath the threshold of our perception for decades.” (2) Following Žižek, we should not consider Covid-19as an external shock to capitalism, but rather entangled directly within its root system. The notion of an “outside,” or a “beyond” of the Covid-19 is a flawed philosophical model which fails to grasp the totality of our current situation.
Neither is there an inevitable egalitarianism to come outside of history in the wake of the pandemic; there is no messiah-shaped silhouette poised on the horizon waiting for the proper time to descend and resuscitate the suffocated. The pandemic does not contain some, as Alain Badiou would call it, “speculative leftist” (3) potential energy coursing through the respiratory tracts of those afflicted, as though it were animated by some deep, meaningful vital force. Di Cesare suggests that, “perhaps it is no accident that the virus proliferates in the respiratory tracts, through which the breath of life passes. The body is torn away from a life running at an accelerated pace. It can no longer keep up. It gives in. It stops.” (4) The Covid-19 crisis is not, however, the necessary denouement of our frenetic activity, meting out the proper doses of asphyxia via its own negative will in order to slow down the momentum of the body in capitalism. (5) Given that Covid-19 is now the central organizing datum of political and epidemiological life, these narratives which posit an outside, a beyond, or suggest any kind of vitalist teleology obfuscate the entanglement between epidemiology, economy, and ecology defining the current crisis.
For Benjamin Bratton, any kind of “laissez-faire vitalism for which ‘life will find a way’,” in the pandemic, “is not an option; it is a fairy tale.” (6) Bratton is right. And yet vitalisms and mysticisms of different sorts stubbornly persist, abounding in all manner of specious political and philosophical variants: “anarcho-vitalism” (7), as Anna Kornbluh dubs them, objectal agencies, fluxes, arrays of affect, pre-modern mysticisms, thing-powers, volcanic cores, and alike, all convulsing through an autopoietic, “indeterminate throbbing whole” (8) – a cosmic dance of atoms and void for some, or “the open, spontaneous, hospitable community – of assembly, of play, of dance, of celebration” (9), for others. These illusions have become profoundly hegemonic in contemporary philosophical thinking, saturating our theoretical, philosophical and critical categories, while imbuing crises like Covid-19 with a surplus of social and symbolic – and even near-spiritual – meaning. But our current conjuncture yields no theosophical portent. The Covid-19 crisis is the culmination of compounding epidemiological, economic, and ecological crises, which when braided together inscribe a terminus into the here and now; into our day to day social metabolism, and, of course, our political and economic (infra)structures more generally.
Others have already critiqued the massive failure (and embarrassment) of Giorgio Agamben’s unhinged responses to the pandemic. The Dorian Gray-like image of Agamben withering away in the Italian countryside accompanies pandemic-era philosophy as its uncanny double, representing the objective correlative of the present state of our philosophy; a grotesque reminder of just how marooned and insular, solipsistic and conspiratorial, negative biopolitical critique has become. Contrary to Agamben’s state of emergency, Jacques Rancière claims that,
the situation of the pandemic actually proves the opposite of what some people [like Agamben] try to demonstrate, namely this omnipresence of a security power controlling minds and bodies. What the pandemic has produced is not so much a society of control as a society of dispersion. I think there is a great paranoia bound up with the very concept of biopolitics, which has been added to the older paranoia of Marxist logic, which always points to a great hidden power. All of this has led to this situation where most thinking that wants to be in opposition shares this great obsession with an irresistible power that takes hold of our minds and our bodies. Insofar as representations are not idle ideas but ways of organising our perceived world, to assume this power is to make it operative.” (10)
In a similar vein, Bratton reminds us to read our Foucault better (11), and that panopticism and the omniscience of state authority are not simple homologies to be applied at will to every institution, technology, or dispositif. Perhaps we should consider setting our Foucault aside for the time being.
So thorough have Jean-Luc Nancy, Divya Dwivedi, Shaj Mohan, Bratton, Matthew Flisfeder, Todd McGowan and others been in their criticisms of Agamben & co., that we need not rehearse their points at present. (12) However, there are some other points worth critiquing between the common precepts of another kind of philosophical illusion which has achieved popularity today: posthumanism, new materialism, vibrant matter, as well as “ooo” and other “object-turns” which have become influential in our philosophical thinking as of recent. As Žižek maintains apropos of the pandemic, “if we understand ‘philosophy’ as the name for our basic orientation in life, we will have to experience a true philosophical revolution.” (13) As we collectively confront the ever-accelerating confluence of overlapping and interlocking crises – an entanglement known otherwise as global capitalism – we should absolutely ask the Leninist question: “what is to be done?” But it is no less important to ask the psychoanalytic one, addressing it to philosophy after Covid-19: “what is to be thought?”. (14) Do these vitalisms, object-turns and other such illusions hold up in the era of Covid-19? Can they provide anything new toward intervening in the string of continuous catastrophes that we face in our contemporary moment?
We might say that these object-oriented variants have themselves gone viral in the leadup to the pandemic age, wherein the decentering or attempted foreclosure of human agency marks the basic party-line. (15) In these object-turns, Jacques Lacan’s notion of the subject-supposed-to-know (sujet-supposé-savoir) has perhaps mutated into something like an objects-supposed-to-know, as we see the turn to matter-ism and the reduction of contradiction and social antagonism into perfunctory categories like Graham Harman’s “immaterialism.” Objects and flat ontologies provide solace and knowledge bearing today where critical philosophy has been deemed epistemologically and ontologically unsatisfactory. But these object-oriented ontologies resemble less philosophical methodologies than reliquaries, overflowing like the Vatican archives with all manner of icons and talismans teeming with auratic energies – like a Balzacian storefront packed densely with oddities and curiosities, they provide an epistemological and spiritual refuge to shore up the ontological paradoxes of so-called “correlationism.”
The mantra defining this new party-line isn’t “always historicize!” but rather “always horizontalize!” – always reduce the contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity to objectivity alone. (16) Lists of objects, actors and networks, and heterogeneous assemblages are the preferred rhetorical mode of delivery for the object-turn: they speak of “brick walls, barbed wire, wedding rings, ranks, titles, coins, clothing, tattoos, medallions, and diplomas” (17) or “one large men’s black plastic rubber work glove, a matted mass of tree pollen pods, one dead rat who looked asleep, one white plastic bottle cap, [and] one smooth stick of wood.” (18) By circumscribing sets of objects, ooo tries to focalize the non-human relations and affective thing-powers of objects and assemblages as though they spontaneously manifested and self-organized on the page rather than having been conjured up by the theoretical and ideological act of “speculating once more about the nature of reality independent of thought.” (19) What might it mean to speculate without thought? Such an assertion is an almost comedic tautology, demonstrating how subjectivity is still the bone in the throats of these various object-turns, despite their best efforts. As the rapper Baby Keem recently put it, “tongue tied when the truth is an object,” so too these syntactical and rhetorical trends end up tongue tied around objects, stumbling over their own subjective points of enunciation. The subject is the stumbling block of object-oriented ontology.
The rhetorical trend of listing objects functions as though it were a magical incantation attempting to ward off subjectivity, replacing it instead with an ex-stasis, privileging the thing-itself without the burden of the transcendental frame. These incantations, however, aren’t without political consequence. Just as Prospero uses his staff to draw a circle in the sand around himself, this act of bracketing subjectivity in order to cordon off sets of objects also ends up cordoning off the Calibans of the world. Flat ontologies, as Kornbluh writes, “quarantine life from the political.” (20) Flat ontologies, vital fluxes, and alike: these tendencies are blind to the pervasive political problems of subjectivity, such as racism and class struggle. The act of de-subjectivizing also de-politicizes, and, today, when Covid-19 has thoroughly and disproportionately spread through communities along racialized and classed lines specifically, this de-politicization fetishistically disavows subjectivity, and is therefore to be considered deeply problematic.
Recall Jane Bennett’s concept of thing-power, and how it is meant to capture the intrinsic, agential hum of matter, organic and inorganic. Thing-power, however, also further marginalizes the already marginalized exploitative and extractive labors and production practices which any materialism worthy of the name ought to be able to account for. Bennett actually acknowledges this in a recent interview, though she does so in a way that attempts to lessen the blunt force of this disavowal of the political struggles of subjectivity. Bennett claims that her book Vibrant Matter, which has been quite influential in the humanities and social sciences, “cast shade” (21) on problems of subjectivity, on “those exposing structures of (gendered, racialized, capitalist) injustice.” Bennett’s open admission is precisely the sense in which Kornbluh speaks of quarantining life from the political: Bennett has actively, even if unconsciously, turned readers away from these political exigencies and injustices afflicting subjectivity.
The consequence of this eclipsing of subjectivity in the pandemic era threatens to occlude that human subjects are themselves the most pervasive contagion vectors extant, and that the epidemiological, economic, and ecological processes of capitalism that have compounded to produce the Covid-19 crisis are inextricable from human agency tout court. One can neither critique capitalism nor study a phenomenon like zoonotic spillover without understanding the subject’s (dis)placement within nature and the machinations of capital. We are facing an unprecedented, uneven epidemiological development of society rooted in political and cultural failures (libertarianism, individualism), federalism, and other structural and governmental failures all compounding. (22) As the late Michael Brooks described it in 2020, Covid-19 is “the Chernobyl of neoliberalism.” We can clearly see how various libertarian and individualistic political cultures, as Bratton discusses in The Revenge of the Real, have been fostered by the system of individual and state’s rights, by a fraught political situation part and parcel of federalism more generally, and by the legal scaffolding of liberalism and its internal contradictions, all of which have in turn exacerbated and even acted as a vehicle for the spread of Covid-19. Any philosophical maneuver attempting to bracket the subject in the pandemic era fails to understand the depth of this entanglement, and risks occluding not only the political ramifications of our human intervention, but the stratified social relations that account for the subjective substratum of this (and any) global crisis. (23)
For the purpose of juxtaposition, consider the following excerpt from Bennett’s recent interview:
Get outside, even around the block. Make good advantage of the official (coronavirus pandemic) directive to avoid people, to eschew anthropocentrism. Now you can notice the intensive swarms of otherwise insignificant things in your immediate vicinity. This practice of attention may slowly expand (even cosmic-ize!) your perspective. You too are, when all is said and done, a minuscule bundle of energies in a cosmic swirl. The news, social media, the internet, and your conventional frame of mind/body all focus relentlessly on the social, political, economic, human-historical dimensions of your existence. But your being is also elsewhere, in excess of those planes or dimensions. You are other-than-human and more than conventional too: you live via and are impressed by a virtual realm that is real even if not expressly overt. Inhabit that more fully.
When Bennett advises us to “get outside” and “eschew anthropocentrism,” the question ought to be how, in this stratified state of public health – in America, for instance, where the distribution of healthcare services, vaccination rates, and successful mask mandates have been so wildly disproportionate and volatile – can we to take such advice seriously? Bennett’s recourse to a formless “cosmic swirl” is a kind of weak opportunism that demonstrates the fragility of this conceptual and philosophical brand of vitalism; as Kornbluh writes, “[f]ormlessness as aesthetic value animates anarchy as ethico-political value – but the question of critique in the time of extinction requires that at least we hear how the vitalist mantra ‘burn it all down’ rhymes rather much with the institutional embers on our incinerating planet.” (24) Bennett’s formlessness permits an individualistic fleeing into a private domain of “viscous” spiritualism; a malevolent, cosmological neutrality which flirts too closely with the same kind of individualist ethos found in horoscopes, the Zodiac, as well as being fostered by liberalist doctrine of individual right more generally. By eschewing the “human-historical dimension,” Bennett eschews the collective, absorbing its potential into a flat cosmological monism, reducing political and epidemiological stratification to a generalized law of material flux. This is to be condemned.
Flisfeder is right when he poses the following question (challenge, even) to this kind of new materialist eschewing of anthropocentrism: “[W]hy even bother with polemics against Anthropocentrism in the first place if there is nothing exceptional about the human subject? Who is even the target of such polemics?” (25) We should ask if Bennett’s aversion to anthropocentrism was on the table for frontline workers during the pandemic? For the Movement 4 Black Lives (M4BL) protesters around the globe who rose up after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? (26) For essential workers, teachers, childcare providers, and grocers? Covid-19 infected the planet across classed and racialized lines during the pandemic, exacerbating and protracting the already uneven conditions of society, yet this kind of amorphous, cosmological vantage seems either unable or unwilling to grasp the gravity of this stratification. What vitalism of this sort can’t seem to understand is the way in which the “cosmic swirl” is itself shot through with class antagonisms. Class struggle is not something that can be thrown off with simple recourse to cosmic or atomic principles; it is neither simply a symbolic identity nor an epiphenomenon of subjectivity, but rather has ontological import. Bennett’s enchantments are indeed quite shocking in their rather overt and shameless “regression from modern rationality” (27), as Žižek claims marks the contemporary intellectual horizon. Let us not regress to medievalist concepts (28) of substance and pre-modern mystical fantasies to discuss our fully modern ontological entanglements: “Being is organization” as Kornbluh asserts, not an amorphous, cosmic swirl. (29)
Bennett’s cosmology espouses a more or less “go outside and touch grass” type of ethics, which is not to be taken seriously, and ought to be condemned as politically obscene in times like these. Archimedean points like Bennett’s “eccentric outside” (30) or Quentin Meillasoux’s “great outdoors” (31) are especially pernicious in times of deep epidemiological and environmental crisis: these metaphors for nature or reality beyond the human interface – for what was once simply called the noumena – have utterly failed us; they elevate the ‘thingliness’ of reality as an occlusion of reality itself and the subject’s (politically and socially fraught) place therein.
As the pandemic reveals, the subject, nature, and virology are entangled intimately with the global market system, which has wrapped the globe in a knot of trade and exchange routes, spreading commerce and Covid-19 through land, sea and sky, via “oil and aeroplanes,” as Andreas Malm (32) reminds us, and which in turn nourish capitalism and the pandemic’s viral load simultaneously. Fossil fuel consumption and distribution channels function as contagion reproduction and circulation sites, aiding and abetting the spread of the virus. This feedback between capital and coronavirus is also the feedback between subject and substance. A reduction to one over the other fails to understand the quantum entanglement there between.
This type of entanglement is depicted in the opening sequence of the film Uncut Gems from 2019. The film begins in an Eritrean mine where exploited workers labor in dangerous conditions. The camera zooms deep into a rare, glistening gemstone, twisting and turning through its striations until it morphs into the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of the film’s dyspeptic protagonist in the middle of receiving a colonoscopy. In this short sequence, the subject’s innermost, intimate “gut” self – his desire – is directly linked with the material processes of raw mineral extraction, labor exploitation, and fetishistic consumption: a circuit which emphasizes the inextricable bond of subject and substance. (33) The concept underlying the film’s “GI tract” tracking shot is also favored by another “GI” tract, namely, the most famous tract of German Idealism, Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit: “[B]ecause substance is in its own self subject, all content is its own reflective turn into itself.” (34) The reflexivity of substance as subject is a first principle of German Idealism.
Thus, through the “veins and arteries of the world’s trade system” (35), the confluence between economy, ecology, and epidemiology that shapes our contemporary political horizon is put on full display in this crisis, demonstrating also how production and extraction, desire and consumption, as well as human planning more generally, are neither tangential nor incidental features of capitalism and nature. We need philosophical models that can shoulder the weight of this kind of totality without recourse to the granular, the needlessly infinitesimal, the abyssal or infinitely complex; without conjuring ineffable and rhizomatic élans vitaux that eclipse the subject’s central role in capitalist reproduction while also accounting for the metabolic relationship between human society and nature. (36) The compounding crises of capitalism, Covid-19, and ecological catastrophe, thus, seem well beyond the carrying capacities of the assemblage theories and meso-theories of vitalism, ooo and alike.
These philosophies are in a way no different than the 19th-century pseudosciences critiqued by Hegel from his own time: what we are dealing with today are so many object-oriented phrenologies, attempting to interpret the bumps, contours, and morphologies of matter devoid of the distortions of subjectivity and class antagonism. In his recent critique of Badiou, Harman claims that “[t]he philosophical problem with militants is not their militancy, but their idealism.” (37) We assert to the contrary that the philosophical problems with speculative realists are both (their brand) of realism and their non-militancy. Harman never tires of charging others with the high crime of “idealism,” as has been his claim against both Žižek and Adrian Johnston recently. (38) But vitalism and ooo function as the kinds of magical narratives that Fredric Jameson critiques in The Political Unconscious, attempting to alleviate social deadlocks, and neutralize antagonisms by employing generic frames like “correlationism,” which serve as strategies of containment to mitigate or disavow problems of subjectivity and class antagonism. (39) In this way, vitalism, ooo, speculative realism and other such matter-isms (40) share more in common thus with the tradition of bourgeois literature than philosophy. They have mistaken “realism” and “reality,” and in foreclosing the subject, have acted ideologically, rather ironically participating in an overtly idealist act which bears the specific imprint of the subject’s negativity; a bracketing, a quarantining – acts within which only a subject can partake. Only a subject can de-subjectivize itself; only a human can bracket its anthropocentric point of view.
“What is to be thought?” is the dialectical question that attempts to shore up the loose ends of our frayed ideological, political and philosophical fantasy-scapes. What kinds of thinking permits acts conducive to our material conditions? If we want to instantiate an “ethics of being an object” (41), which, following Bratton, we should absolutely consider as being of utmost importance, we must accept the subjective capacity to view itself as an object, and not eschew this capacity under the quasi-ethical act of self-effacement. This shift in perspective from subject to object doesn’t require an eclipsing or foreclosing of subjectivity, but rather a conscious choice that only a subject can make. It is an act that commits to new forms of social organization, like mask mandates and social distancing; “positive biopolitics,” as Bratton proposes, and social measures which function as the preconditions for a new universality, as Flisfeder argues, which accept the ontological vantage of something like Jean-Luc Nancy’s “being-in-common.” The ethics of being an object means embracing both a biochemical and epidemiological understanding of the human as a contagion vector, a viral site, as a point of organizational necessity, and neither the vagaries and conjuring tricks of today’s object-mystics, nor a reduction to these and other pre-modern enchantments which attempt to downplay the choice and subjective agency needed to develop adequate social, political, and ecological collectivities in the face of universal crisis. The ethical act requires choice, and the capacity to choose and act with the collective in mind (inclusive of the nonhuman, the organic and inorganic), is a faculty belonging to subjectivity, and not anathema thereto.
Vitalism, ooo, anarchic fluxes, and so forth: these are methods and ways of thinking which might congeal, at best, into so many “isolated utopias” (42) as The Red Nation recently described, including not only theoretical models that fail to address the metabolism of our ecology, but anarchic fantasies as well. We can’t simply permit the influences of these private fantasies and utopian localisms to persist unchallenged. Instead, as Lele put it in 2020 apropos of the climate crisis, “[w]e need consistently to reframe the problem as an integrated, multi-dimensional environment-cum-development crisis” (43) – and the Covid-19 crisis is no different.
In order to soberly address Covid-19, climate and “capitalist catastrophism” (44), as Heron refers to it, we must adopt a developmentalist approach, and risk new forms of organizational thinking which centralize collective choices and actions: Kornbluh’s political formalism as a method of dialectical critique; Malm and Žižek’s resurrection of the idea of war communism, as well as Malm’s militant eco-Leninism; as already stated, Bratton’s proposal for a “positive biopower”; Flisfeder’s return to the project of dialectical humanism; utopian thought experiments such as Jameson’s proposal of refashioning the military as a dual-power organization; or Žižek’s plea for a return to theorizing the efficacy of the State, as he puts it, “to re-appropriate the ‘old Hegelian’ typos of a strong state grounded in a shared ethical substance.” (45) We should also return to these philosophies of collectivity and in the same breath Badiou’s emphasis on concepts like discipline and fidelity, which are addressed to the subject: subjects must maintain a sense of collective duty, which neither permits the vague recourse to the awesomeness of a vitalisitic thing-power, nor the mise-en-abyme of assemblage theory. We must abstain from the conversion or baptism into objects as the new “opiate of the masses,” which serve to actively and openly neglect the “sighs of the oppressed.” Vitalism and ooo functionally partake in this elision of Marx’s famous line from The Contribution to the Critique of the Philosophy of Right – cosmic swarms don’t sigh, objects aren’t oppressed.
Covid-19 does not present a noumenal refuge toward which we might retreat in order to glean some ecstatic truth beyond or behind the subjective frame. As Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda put it, “there is nothing beyond the curtain of appearances except for what we put there.” (46) These philosophical postures attempting to circumvent subjective mediation for immediacy, are in essence what Hegel calls the “dogmatism of self-certainty.” (47) The “immediate revelation of the divine” is no substitute for philosophy, Hegel argues, just as chicory is no surrogate for coffee. (48) Object-oriented ontologies and vitalisms are the chicory of contemporary thinking; philosophical gimmicks as ineffective as Hydroxychloroquine to address the Covid-19 crisis.
This is why for Alenka Zupančič, “the true materialism, which […] can only be a dialectical materialism, is not grounded in the primacy of matter nor in matter as first principle, but in the notion of conflict or contradiction, of split, and of the ‘parallax of the Real’ produced in it. In other words, the fundamental axiom of materialism is not ‘matter is all’ or ‘matter is primary,’ but relates rather to the primacy of a cut.” (49) This is also why, for Kamran Baradaran and Žižek, Richard Wagner’s “Die Wunde schließt, der Speer nur, der sie schlug” is elevated to such central importance: insisting that we turn to the wound itself, the cut, the split, and, in the context of the pandemic, to capitalism’s ruins; to the disused and abandoned commercial and urban spaces which have become depopulated and desolate during the pandemic. (50) As Žižek writes, “[t]he abandoned streets in a megalopolis – the usually bustling urban centers looking like ghost towns, stores with open doors and no customers, just a lone walker or a single car here and there, provide a glimpse of what a non-consumerist world might look like.” (51) As Bratton once put it, “architecture is (for better or worse) a highly privileged subgenre of science fiction.” (52) These urban wounds, in other words, contain latent utopian possibilities just as our science fiction literatures, and are not simply to be considered solely as dystopian wastelands. This kind of utopianism, and not the de-subjectivizing, fetishism of objects, “remains a strength of Marxian materialism,” writes Kornbluh, aiding in the “the normative pursuit of better collectivities.” (53) Rebuilding begins here with these various “intervals of suspense” (54), through which ought to maintain a developmentalist vantage, intellectually plotting the holes and cracks of our built environs, and our interfacial regimes, where collective practices and relations can be built anew.
This vantage of the possibility latent in the hole, the lack, or the gap is nothing novel to the philosophical tradition. When Thales of Miletus fell down the well while lost in thought, it was because he didn’t stop to contemplate the well’s agential “thingliness” first. The object-turn desires a cosmology and an object-world ritualistically cleansed of the fall. Whereas ooo and neo-vitalism want to privilege the well as an object over the comedy of the subject’s fall, the dialectical tradition understands that it is this fall itself which stands as the starting point of philosophy. This is what Bratton means when he observes that “entanglement is the baseline, not the exception.” (55) As it was once put by Lacan, “the subject is, as it were, internally excluded from its object.” (56) Or as Žižek, Agon Hamza, and Ruda recently commented, “the object can be understood not by way of clearing up the epistemological obstacles,” as Bennett, Levi Bryant, Harman and others claim, “but by seeing through them.” (57) Perhaps we can only see through the object by falling into it and accepting our entanglement. One falls into philosophy, one is castrated into it, and thereby wounded. In this way, we might consider Thales as our first dialectician, falling into the cut, diving headlong into the parallax of the real. In a similar sense, the old charge of philosophy as “omphaloskepsis,” as navel gazing, as mere “idealism,” ought to be reappropriated by the dialectical tradition: when we navel gaze, we are staring directly into the wound/castration of subjectivity, the point of severance from reality through which subjectivity redoubles reality back into itself as through a Möbius band: the reflexive movement of substance and subject.
If there is an “apocalypse” of Covid-19, it is to be thought of in its classical Greek definition as a kind of “revelation” (apokaluptein), but not of the theological variety. Covid-19 brings to the surface what have long been understood as the failed mechanisms of global capitalism: not only the monumental failures of political populism (both left and right), white supremacy, neoliberalism, and failed public health policies and practices, and the pervasive ideological struts that support these zombified machinations, but as well the overwhelming failures of our philosophy to address all of the above and more. This is not the “Book of Revelations” kind of apocalypse of St. John, but rather a revelation of books themselves: the pandemic reveals how our philosophical literatures, past and present, have failed to conceptually diagnose the confluence of, to borrow Andreas Malm’s recent title, Corona, Climate and Chronic Emergency. It is this confluence which stands for the wound of our contemporary crisis, and which we therefore must bring front and center: the economic, the epidemiological and the ecological, which also means the biochemical, the organic and the inorganic, as well as the ideological, the subjective, and the place of desire through which the organization of our reality is reified, hardened into a cluster of practices and concepts. In order to think our practices and concepts anew, philosophy must be willing to get its hands dirty: it must be willing to think substance and subject together, refusing to gainsay the intractable contradiction there between. Philosophy is the act of thinking through this contradiction, not the fetish of its overcoming.
1. Donatella Di Cesare, Immunodemocracy: Capitalist Asphyxia. Trans. David Broder. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2020, 15.
2. Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020,115.
3. Alain Badiou, Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Bloomsbury, 2015, 210.
4. Di Cesare, Immunodemocracy 10.
5. Badiou, Being and Event 210.
6. Bratton, Benjamin. The Revenge of the Real. New York, NY: Verso, 2021, 5.
7. Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2019, 2.
8. Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 347–372, here 227.
9. Di Cesare, Immunodemocracy 77.
10. Rancière, Jacques. “The Issue is to Manage to Maintain Dissensus.” Interview by Mathieu Dejean and Jean-Marc Lalanne. Verso Blog, 10 August 2021, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5132-jacques-ranciere-the-issue-is-to-manage-to-maintain-dissensus. Accessed 12 October 2021.
11. Bratton, The Revenge of the Real 146.
12. See ibid.; Matthew Flisfeder, “Renewing Universality: COVID-19 and Social Distancing Against the Biopolitical Critique.” Contours: E-Journal of the SFU Humanities Institute 10 (2020), http://www.sfu.ca/content/dam/sfu/humanities-institute/Images/contours/issue10/10.10.pdf. Accessed 12 October 2021; Jean-Luc Nancy, “Viral Exception.” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27 February 2020, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/on-pandemics-nancy-esposito-nancy/. Accessed 12 October 2021; Todd McGowan, “State of Emergency? Bring it On!” The Philosophical Salon (Los Angeles Review of Books), 30 April 2020, http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/state-of-emergency-bring-it-on/. Accessed 12 October 2021; Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, “The Community of the Forsaken: A Response to Agamben and Nancy.” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27 February 2020, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/on-pandemics-nancy-esposito-nancy/. Accessed 12 October 2021.
13. Žižek, Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World 78.
14. Alain Badiou, Lacan: Anti-Philosophy 3. Trans. Kenneth Reinhard and Susan Spitzer. New York: Columbia UP, 2018, 189.
15. I am here quite consciously and rather shamelessly generalizing every object-oriented variant together. It is ironic that these positions, which in general espouse a flat ontology, should argue so voraciously for their vast differences from one another.
16. Or, as Kornbluh puts it, the “[s]acred cow of horizontalist mushrooming interpenetration, poetic forsaking of instrumentality.” Anna Kornbluh, “Extinct Critique.” South Atlantic Quarterly 119.4 (October 2020): 767–777, here 774.
17. Graham Harman, Immaterialism. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016, 6.
18. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. Durham: Duke UP, 2010, 4.
19. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds., The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press, 2011, 3.
20. Kornbluh, Order of Forms 28.
21. All following references to Bennett are from the interview “Q&A With Jane Bennett.” Duke University Press Blog, Spring 2020, https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2020/06/03/qa-with-jane-bennett/. Accessed 12 October 2021.
22. We should examine this crisis of federalism together with the collapse of the USSR, following Jameson’s observation, “that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the result of a failure of socialism but rather a failure of federalism.” What we have witnessed during the years of the Trump administration, and its culmination in the events of January 6th, as well as the haphazard handling of the pandemic validates Jameson’s assertion that “we must anticipate that federalism will remain a fundamental theoretical issue for any utopian projection today.” Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. New York: Verso, 2016, 14–15.
23. Sharachchandra Lele writes about how “at root the desire to preserve beautiful biota seems to stem from a spiritual or aesthetic concern (biodiversity campaigners typically do not fight for the preservation of rare pathogens or endangered viruses.” (Sharachchandra Lele, “Environment and Well-Being: A Perspective from the Global South.” NLR 123 [May/June 2020]: 41–63, here 51–52) Posthumanist vitalism may have changed what we consider typical in this regard: recall the embarrassing and, of course, deeply troubling moment in a panel between Donna Haraway, Noboru Ishikawa, and Anna L. Tsing, “[Noboru] ‘To me, plantations are just the slavery of plants.’ [Anna] ‘I agree.’ [Donna]: ‘And microbes’.” (Donna Haraway et al., “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene.” Ethnos 81.3 : 535–564) As Davis put it, for these thinkers, “the slave garden becomes part of a narration of networked kinship that transforms the reproduction of racial oppression and resistance into a flattened multispecies ontology – where difference among and between forms of life is obscured. (Janae Davis et al., “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, ... Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises.” Geography Compass 13.5 , 6)
24. Kornbluh, “Extinct Critique” 771.
25. Matthew Flisfeder, “Are We Human? Or, Posthumanism and the Subject of Modernity.” Understanding Žižek, Understanding Modernism. Eds. Zahi Zalloua and Jeffrey Di Leo. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, forthcoming.
26. Toscano’s nuanced analysis of COVID-19, public health, and anti-racist struggle can be read as a great counterpoint to the kind of “cosmic” rhetoric employed by Bennett: “Public (or popular or communal) health has not just been the vector for the state’s recurrent power-grab, it has also served as the fulcrum from which to think the dismantling of capitalist social forms and relations without relying on the premise of a political break in the operations of power, without waiting for the revolutionary day after. The brutally repressed experiments of the Black Panthers with breakfast programmes, sickle-cell anaemia screening, and an alternative health service are just one of many anti-systemic instances of this kind of grassroots initiative. The great challenge for the present is to think not just how such political experiments can be replicated in a variety of social and epidemiological conditions, but how they can be scaled up and coordinated – while not giving up the state itself as an arena of struggle and demands, especially over the meaning and the materiality of ‘welfare’ and of the social wage more broadly. As Sandro Mezzadra and Francesco Raparelli have suggested, a tenable ‘living with’ the virus that keeps spaces of freedom open, involves consolidating and expanding ‘social networks, cooperation around institutions like schools and hospitals, forms of organisation and care in workplaces’ – especially in those sites of living labour at the ‘frontlines’ of social reproduction, in the ‘anthropogenic sectors’ of the economy. A vital precondition for advancing emancipatory projects in our pandemic conjuncture is the one advanced by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) under the motto ‘Healthcare not Warfare’, namely to demilitarise epidemiological emergency. In the wake of the George Floyd Rebellion and in the context of the disproportionate lethality of COVID-19 among African-Americans as well as other racialised groups, the abolitionist imperative to break the continuity between the pandemic state and the racial state can also echo beyond US borders. Across these various contexts, the slogan that the Panthers adopted for their programmes is perhaps a fitting counter and replacement for the Hobbesian link between health, law and the state: Survival Pending Revolution. (Alberto Toscano, “The State of the Pandemic.” Historical Materialism 28.4 , https://brill.com/view/journals/hima/28/4/article-p3_1.xml?language=en&ebody=pdf-48744. Accessed 12 October 2021)
27. Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic! 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021,152.
28. Another of Bennett’s privileged concepts, the “deodand” – a juridical concept from the medieval era which affords legal guilt upon objects used in high crimes – is worth mentioning here. Imagine resurrecting this concept after the widespread recognition (in America and worldwide) of state violence perpetrated against black Americans. Should the murder weapons of police officers be given this kind of magical agency in these murders? Should we also make oil barrels swear in before standing trial for environmental crimes? (Bennett, Vibrant Matter 9)
29. Kornbluh, Order of Forms 19 (emphasis in the original). And as Kornbluh writes elsewhere, “[p]ostcritical horizontalizations – euphoric affective connections, deliquescent anarchic agencies, and dislocated capitalist causality – correlate with the ruling ideas of our time: climate nihilism and the demolition of the university” (Kornbluh, “Extinct Critique” 771).
30. Bennett, Vibrant Matter 5.
31. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2009, 9.
32. Andreas Malm, Climate, Corona and Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Verso, 2020, 75.
33. Bratton has also commented on this kind of interconnection between raw materials and planetary computation, writing about the “vast immolation and involution of the Earth’s mineral cavities,” and how “The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its element juices and spitting up mobile phones” (Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015, 83, italics B. B.).
34. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. by Terry Pinkard. Oxford UP, 2018, 34.
35. Grace Blakeley, The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism. New York, NY: Verso, 2020, ix.
36. For Kornbluh, “of course ecology is a vastly complicated interrelation of manifold agencies, but as the Marxist theorist Raymond Williams points out long before Latourian horizontality, the networked assemblage, object oriented ontology, and postcritical affects became ruling ideas, ‘complexity’ must not obscure the general ‘intentions’ of capitalism, for only if we grasp those tendencies in their distinction can we imagine and implement genuine alternative modes of production, including now, when it is too late” (Kornbluh, “Extinct Critique” 768).
37. Graham Harman, “Concerning the COVID-19 Event.” Philosophy Today 64.4 (2020): 845–849, here 848.
38. See Adrian Johnston, “The Fear of Science.” Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism. Eds. Russell Sbriglia and Slavoj Žižek. Evantson: Northwestern UP, 2020. 125–141.
39. Fredric Jameson, “Magical Narratives: On the Dialectical Use of Genre Criticism.” The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. 103–150.
40. Torrent makes the charge of “bourgeois theory” against Bennett, claiming that vitalism “displaces ‘materialism’ (which is a relation to mode of production) with a ‘self-vital’ matter-ist substance existing outside the social relations of production (Bennett). Matter-ism is an evasion of materialism.” (Julie Torrent, “The Hunger of Vibrant Matter: Materialism and Food in the Pandemic.” New Politics, 13 October 2020, https://newpol.org/the-hunger-of-vibrant-matter-materialism-and-food-in-the-pandemic/. Accessed 12 October 2021)
41. Bratton, The Revenge of the Real 103–108.
42. The Red Nation, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth. Common Notions, 2021, 39.
43. Lele, “Environment and Well-Being” 54.
44. Kai Heron, “Capitalist Catastrophism.” Roar Magazine 10 (Summer 2020), https://roarmag.org/magazine/capitalist-catastrophism/. Accessed 12 October 2021.
45. Qtd. in Frank Ruda, “Imprinting Negativity.” Reading Marx. Eds. Slavoj Žižek, Agon Hamza, and Frank Ruda. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 127. See also Todd McGowan, “Emancipation Without Solutions.” Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. New York, NY: Columbia UP. 196–216, in particular the section of this chapter entitled “Moi, c’est l’Etat.”
46. Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, The Dash – The Other Side of Absolute Knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018, 50.
47. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit 34.
48. Ibid., 42.
49. Alenka Zupančič, What IS Sex? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017, 78.
50. See Kamran Baradaran, “The Ruins of Our Lives: A Plea for Fatalist Sleeplessness.” The Philosophical Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, 8 August 2021, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-ruins-of-our-lives-a-plea-for-a-fatalist-sleeplessness/. Accessed 12 October 2021.
51. Žižek, Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World 56.
52. Benjamin Bratton, Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution. e-flux: Sternberg Press, 2015, 74.
53. Kornbluh, Order of Forms 5.
54. Badiou, Being and Event 207.
55. Bratton, The Revenge of the Real 2.
56. Jacques Lacan, “Science and Truth.” Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006, 731.
57. Slavoj Žižek, Agon Hamza, and Frank Ruda, Reading Marx. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018, 142.