Image: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787). Via Wikipedia.
FIVE INEXPLICABILITIES OF THE PANDEMIC
1. The Politics of Eschatology
A few days ago the students of Shaninka (the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences) asked me to join an online discussion with Judith Butler, Alexander Bikbov, and Greg Yudin. It was meant to be a meeting to replace a conference, which was postponed because of the pandemic. The question we discussed was: How will the physical and social distancing during the pandemic affect collective and political action in the long term?
In another situation I would go into the dialectics between remote, network-based politics and bodily represented politics. But amid the pandemic, this question seemed unanswerable, as now the issue is no longer a choice between the two, nor is it the complexities of social resistance under conditions of social distancing. There is a vague feeling that the political measures needed amid a humanitarian crisis of such scale could not be duly effective in the genre of the agonistic politics of representative democracy—whether bodily or not. For example, in Vladikavkaz (Northern Ossetia) people who were told to isolate but didn’t get any allowances while their jobs were suspended simply rushed out into the streets ready to attack the police. For them it makes no difference whether they suffer from hunger or from the disease. The outcome was that several protesters were detained for attacking the police; the regional government simply issued a small symbolic sum to people and declared that social assistance from the government had been distributed.
Philanthropy and volunteering at such moments is extremely important, yet it can hardly transform the healthcare system—which was never meant to be general and free—or living conditions that make isolation impossible. In London, for example, the rent is so high that most housing is organized as shared living between multiple tenants; often, not even landlords are able to afford isolation.
This is to say that the politics for which it sufficed to draw attention to moderate daily problems remains in the past. We seem to have shifted to a special kind of time: the Time of Time, an eschatological time in which the mundane dissolves. Consequently, democratic representation, which agonistic politics was supposed to exert, becomes redundant. From this point of view, one can see that the majority of social movements of the past (from the Occupy movement to later protests against authoritarian governments), even if they achieved certain results, not only did not but could not endeavor to transform the basic conditions of inequality. They could not because they regarded the prerequisites of full-fledged emancipation—the abolition of private property, free healthcare and education, social continuity and desegregation, the criminalization of surplus profit and luxury, the development of a use-value economy—as either repressive, or impossible to be implemented by democratic, peaceful means.
But what is the Time of Time, or empty time ? Deleuze talks about it in his Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, calling such time an “Aeon.” It is the time in which nothing happens but time itself. Such is the time of radical eventality, or the time of a work of art—it exceeds the general chronic temporality. But if in the event, or in a work of art, such a form of temporality is short-termed, in the conditions of the eschatological turn all time becomes “empty” time—a time full of itself in the expectation of a yet unknown outcome.
2. The Basic Need Economy
Even in the most critical Marxist and post-Marxist thought—the works of Cornelius Castoriadis, Jean-François Lyotard, Slavoj Žižek, Antonio Negri, Samo Tomšič— it has so far been assumed that the elimination of the libidinal surplus from the economy, and the de-alienation of social alienation, can only be achieved by coercive and destructive means. This is because such an elimination—together with surplus value and excesses enjoyment—would also castrate our creative potentialities. Moreover, it has also been thought that enjoyment and its phantasmatic reveries, as well as the inevitability of alienation, are too deeply rooted in our Unconscious to be removed by a mere change of political economy.
What we are now witnessing is the yet unknown suspension of major forms of consumption and of libidinally grounded desires and habits. And although certain kinds of consumption will move to the virtual economy—even monetizing hitherto free online space—it is clear that the basic correlation of supply and demand will change in the post-pandemic economy, sequestering the excesses of consumption.
It is therefore not surprising that we now hear more and more voices calling for an economy of basic need and frugality, which has always been the core of the political-economic systems of historical socialism. Yet, interestingly, the economy of basic need used to be labelled authoritarian precisely by those authors who now call for it.
As Franco Berardi argues:
Use value, long expelled from the field of the economics, is back, and the useful is now king. Money cannot buy the vaccine that we don’t have, cannot buy the intensive care departments that have been destroyed by the neoliberal reform of Europe’s healthcare system … We face two political alternatives: either a techno-totalitarian system that will relaunch the capitalist economy by means of violence, or the liberation of human activity from capitalist abstraction and the creation of a molecular society based on usefulness.1
Žižek, in his text “Why Are We Tired All the Time?,” also acknowledges the necessity of non-alienation, calling for a world “with flat basics”—a stance that would previously have been difficult to imagine him taking.2
3. The Post-human Condition: Was It a utopia or Dystopia?
In the past fifteen or twenty years, post-structuralist ideas that got translated into the fields science, the humanities, art, and culture have been marked by a belief that bio-molecular and techno-cybernetic agencies will overtake political ones; that to achieve proper democracy, politics must be replaced by the laboratory (Latour); that the human condition hampers real emancipation, and human beings are nothing but agents of a vicious hegemony, leading to our present epoch: the Anthropocene. This broadly implies a focus on the emancipatory potential of nonhuman agencies and subjectivities. Here structure and genealogy are replaced by rhizomatic modes of proliferation; abstract viral sexuality supersedes intercourse-based sex, becoming a true feminist potentiality (Luciana Parisi); the commons are found in the concatenation of interspecies beings (Donna Haraway) and body-and-thing connections (Elizabeth Povinelli), rather than in the ontology of the common good. Within this logic, identifying with nonhuman agents is the only thing that can lead to a true revolutionary reconstitution of our obsolete human sociality.
These imaginaries of future utopias teem with the desire to dissociate, to dissolve, often advocating the transformative emancipatory potentiality of viruses and other biomorphic substances; or they insist on the need to re-biologize gender, art, culture, and sexuality. In short, human subjectivity is defined as an authoritarian agent that has suppressed diverse forms of life and underestimated their existence.
Now with the pandemic, we see a nonhuman agent truly overtake human subjectivity, sociality, and agency; it replicates rhizomatically, invading human bodies and suspending habitual modes of collectivity and reciprocal empathy. Yet the way that viral propagation functions is hardly favorable to the commons.
This situation reveals that such post-humanist fantasies, such natural-philosophic and techno-utopian imaginaries—when put into practice—seem to be closer to entropy than to new forms of emancipation. Fantasies about molecular and viral dissociation sound attractive in sci-fi fiction, science art, or at a rave. But post-human imaginaries hardly ever confront the question of death when imagining the dissolution of the human entity into hybridized biotechnological assemblages. If we were viruses, molecular clusters, or bio-cyber assemblages, would we be endangered and terrified by death, complying with all the present quarantine regulations? It is the death of a human entity that becomes the limit of the fantasies about post-human transubstantiation.
4. The Impossibility of Sacrifice
Due to compulsory security restrictions, we have found ourselves not only in social lockdown, but at an ethical and logical impasse too. Agamben raises this question in a recent article, arguing that “we cannot renounce the good to save the good”: we should not leave the dead without funerals, deny the wretched consolation in churches, or let people die without dignity in complete solitariness for the sake of properly exerted social isolation.3 Indeed, during turbulent periods—wars, hardships, disease—there have always been the few who stand up and make sacrifices despite the risk of death, thus proving the possibility of dignity amidst disastrous conditions. Such courageous and exceptional behavior has even been upheld as models of ethical and heroic deeds.
What is new in our present situation is the ethical prohibition against voluntarily subjecting oneself to risk or sacrifice: this is because each of us is first and foremost a potential source of contagion, a possible threat to the rest of us. Indeed, how can a priest accept confession from a sick person? How can one visit a desolate patient at the expense of one’s health if you can asymptomatically transmit the disease and endanger others—a condition that has not been true of other contagious diseases?
Even if the right to voluntarily sacrifice oneself and commit a courageous act has not been entirely cancelled, it would still be senseless to do so if this act might kill others. (This is something that Agamben fails to mention.)
Some religious communities have found a logical exit from this ethical impasse, in a sort of collective kamikaze consensus: a considerable part of the Georgian Orthodox Church and its congregation have defied the lockdown rules, asserting solidarity in their collective responsibility for a mutual contagion that might prove fatal.
It is hard to ignore that the huge death toll of the pandemic has so far not provoked any collective acts of grieving, even ones from below. Moreover, the pandemic has even increased the demand for virtual entertainment, which hitherto, at times of national mourning, was traditionally suspended. Indeed, instead of humility and modesty in the face of such a catastrophe, we witness the emergence of more new forms of alternative entertainment than ever before; lifehacks and apps that help you pass the time are circulated so feverishly that it seems like “empty” time—time without distractions—is equivalent to disappearing. In short, despite many examples of courageous volunteering,4 there is no broad awareness that in conditions of global misfortune, certain habits, normal before, should be temporarily suspended or “circumcised.” For the capitalist subject, the loss of consumption and distraction causes panic rather than leading to eschatological sobriety and self-resignation. “Circumcision” was the term used by Jacques Derrida to describe the symbolic necessity of сutting off the realm of the worldly and its overproduction, suspending it in order to see into the meaning of things. It is important that, unlike castration, which brings about a lack and a deficiency (and which is an unconscious act), circumcision takes place voluntarily and marks the necessity of maintaining an eschatological retention of the world.
One of the questions that the students asked during our Zoom meeting was why, during the pandemic, grieving is either postponed or ignored. Indeed, not only the ruling institutions but civil society itself has avoided commemorating the dead, even the medical workers whose deaths have been heroic. We have not witnessed a global epidemic of such scale before, but I will venture two reasons for this lack of collective mourning:
a) Grieving becomes possible only from a relatively secure position that places itself beyond the clinic. Those who remain within the clinic cannot allow themselves to mourn, as they are potential patients and continue to face the risk of death themselves. When an entire planet has turned into a clinic, life and death become the domain of quantification and statistics. Death is then treated as a lowered level of life indicators and not a threshold that could acquire the evental significance to be mourned as an irretrievable loss.
b) Outside the conditions of a global pandemic, roughly 150,000 people die daily on the planet. This death rate is usually not specified as a motivation for any national or global grieving. It is part of daily statistics. In many countries, the initial approach to the Covid-19 death rate among governmental institutions was to normalize it and add it to the annual death rate from various viruses and epidemics. It was initially looked upon as part of the overall healthcare statistics rather than the sign of anything disastrous. Despite the exponential growth in the death rate and the quarantine measures, this approach continues by and large; we act as if we are dealing with an unfortunate temporary condition rather than a devastating accidentality. This approach is also maintained because grieving, by emphasizing the scale of the devastation, could reveal the failures of the healthcare system and the collapse of social welfare.
In his Theatre and the Plague, Antonin Artaud develops the metaphor of an actor whose conduct is reminiscent of the agony of a patient infected with the plague. Artaud calls such conduct frenetic “gratuitousness”:
It is here, in its very gratuitousness, that the action and effect of a feeling in the theater appears infinitely more valid than that of a feeling fulfilled in life. It is useless to give precise reasons for this contagious delirium. It would be like trying to find reasons why our nervous system after a certain period responds to the vibrations of the subtlest music and is eventually somehow modified by them in a lasting way.5
Deleuze too, similarly to Artaud, shows how, despite the agony of dying, one is able to generate outbursts of performative and poetic delirium.6 The question here is not about the similarity of the patient’s delirium and the actor’s (artist’s) performance. Rather, it is about a syndrome that art has demonstrated for centuries: a regular human being, when subject to the extreme conditions of dying, might fall into performative fits. Deleuze insists that such excessive artistic conduct can uplift one from mortifying circumstances; even if it cannot save one’s body, it can at least lift one’s spirit. Death’s solemnity is preserved. Often in the history of humankind and the history of art, impending death has triggered performative behavior in the face of an irreversible and uncanny end; such performative actions, in their excessive effort, are paradoxically life-affirming. Composer Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet on the End of Time (1941) in a Nazi concentration camp for war prisoners, without knowing whether he would survive. He was able to write down the composition thanks to a miracle: a German guard who was a music fan provided him with pencil and paper. Messiaen’s quartet was conceived as a sort of preemptive mourning, as a performance of the end before the end.
To repeat, the point is not at all about producing art in turbulent conditions, but about the potential space given to any human being for the performative excess that death might instigate. This excess is performed as if in front of “the eyes of God,” but also for imaginary or real viewers who might bid farewell to the dying person. Such is the scene when Socrates, already enveloped by deathbed delirium, preaches the necessity of learning to die, compelling his disciples to mourn him even before he passes away.
Under the regime of sanitizing regulations, this kind of mis-en-scène is unimaginable. There is no deathbed, no space, no audience for such an excessive act that might dramatize death and make it deplorable. I would even say that in such conditions, there is no mourning, and maybe even no death at all. We cannot but face an inexplicable paradox: Where human communication and social habits, including mourning, have been preserved—as in Italy and Spain—the death rate has been higher. But where severe quarantine measures and total and dehumanizing digitization have been imposed—as in China and South Korea—the curve was flattened and many lives were saved.
1 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, ““Beyond the Breakdown: Three Meditations on a Possible Aftermath,” e-flux conversations , March 31, 2020 →.
2 Slavoj Žižek, “Why Are We Tired All the Time?,” The Philosophical Salon, April 2, 2020 →.
3 Giorgio Agamben, “A Questions,” trans. Adam Kotsko, itself.blog, April 15, 2020 →.
4 For example, ambulance personnel in Moscow, who badly lacked protective gear, were supplied with proper uniforms and equipment thanks to volunteer efforts.
5 Antonin Artaud, “Theatre and the Plague,” in Theatre and Its Double (Grove Press, 1958), 26–27.
6 See Keti Chukhrov, “Repetition as the Performative Syndrome of Dying,” Performance Philosophy 4, no. 2 (2019) →.