Symbiosmosis; or, the Real Inescapability of COVID-19

Walking through Brighton today, along the main road adjacent to Old Steine, a bus passed by which had the words ‘HIV Isn’t Scary Anymore’ printed in big white letters atop a flowery purple background. While this kind of thing is par for the course for Brighton, a town which wears its LGBT bona-fides with upfront visibility, such a frank statement was startling, containing the not-so implicit declaration that HIV was scary. The admittance of this was unusually candid; HIV was scary, but largely for reasons engendered and worsened by the same kind of people who usually pay to have their messages on the sides of buses. But mainly, seeing the message also seemed grimly ironic, grimly apropos, given everything that is currently happening in the world.

If there is a sense in which coronavirus is able to be theorised, and I believe there is, then it is in the way that coronavirus operates at the intersection of, and departure from, all of our fears, socially, medically, and otherwise. It will one day ‘not be scary anymore’, meaning, of course, that it is now.

We live in a world in which monophobia runs rampant, and the virus keeps us inside and alone; if you permit me an indulgence and allow me to posit the post-truth world as one in which we fear the unknown, or ‘big Other’, then the virus, which is silent, unseeable, and unknowable, represents the apotheosis of that fear of the unknown.

In the same way that the AIDS crisis only became ‘the AIDS crisis’ because of its specificities and localities (in that New York, gay culture, protests, and government funding failures are all truer signifiers of AIDS than the facts of the disease itself), coronavirus is likely to be remembered, and is perhaps currently being experienced, by as the factors surrounding it, by our response to it, by how we talk about it, much more than the facts of the virus itself.

It also says a lot that the AIDs crisis had the various factions of ACT UP opposing it, to raise awareness, protest, and disturb the peace of complacent governments, but there is no ACT UP for coronavirus; there couldn’t be. Coronavirus has not discriminated (and if it did, we would be much slower to stop it). It is a blanket applied to the entirety of the fire, not just the single-pronged attack; a swordsman can deflect a blow, but a flame can’t fight back against the finger extinguishing it.

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The virus itself has become secondary. As Neil Postman wrote, ‘all culture is a conversation, or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes’. In this sense alone coronavirus has become a culture, or perhaps a meta-culture, one which lies atop media and has become that media. Whether you think the virus is overblown, or are terrified, whether you follow handwashing guidelines to the second, or have not altered your behaviour one bit, all actions point towards the virus and reflect it. It recalls Zizek’s postulation that we are most inside ideology when we assume ourselves to be above it, such is its nefarious mechanism.

It is inescapable. How we react to it shapes it, and how it is shaped dictates how we react to it; in a word, symbiosis. And yet the way it feeds into and out of our fears, our concerns, has become those fears, is almost osmotic. One cannot overtake the other, both the virus or our reaction to it, for they end up in equilibrium, balanced, equalized. We rise to meet it, it rises to meet us. A rhizomatic organism, which we write about, think about, and respond to in countless minute ways each day.

The infamous dictum about it being easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism has met its stalemate with the crisis. In many ways, the virus is the end of the world. It is certainly the end of life as we know it. The streets are empty, and hum with that ‘absence’ which categorises the eerie. We are not allowed to leave the house, the (false) threat of food shortages looms large, rules dictate how we can leave the house, when, and why. Dire missives are addressed by world leaders every day about how to prevent deaths which are imminent and inevitable, inevitability as dictated by those same leaders.

And yet, our entire infrastructure operating around work, capitalism, profit, has only doubled-down. It has taken this (probably era-defining) crisis, to articulate just how much is going to stay the same. The Conservative government’s response is so arch, so Conservative; no provisions for those in society, only those who are working (and only then, 80% of people’s already pitiful wages, and only then, the self-employed were allowed a bite of the cherry a week afterwards, an afterthought, and that’s for those who are lucky enough to not be able to work from home).

Any genuinely progressive or helpful responses to this crisis (such as the recent pledge by councils to house the homeless) will be unmasked, like a Scooby-Doo villain, once this spectre has come to pass; a basic human right reduced to a desperate time and a desperate measure. Despite their reprehensibility, Dominic Cumming’s [alleged] comments to ‘let the old people die’ is perhaps the most honest, and certainly the most pragmatic, response we have had from a person in a position of power.

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If capitalism’s most prominent feature is its ability to absorb that which opposes it, repurpose it, and then re-present it as a symptom of capitalism (profiting off protests, for example, or co-opting activist imagery), then the virus is capitalism par excellence, turning notions of universal basic income, increased benefits, and a world in which we do not have to slave away our lives, into little more than a brief reprieve, before things return to normal. Though the powers that be act concerned (and, I believe, are genuinely concerned), they could not have wished for a better agent to do their bidding.

This can be seen clearly in the notion of ‘working from home’, which has taken on a newly heightened timbre. Manuel Castell’s assertion that ‘different locations can be reunited in their functioning and interaction by means of the new technological system’ has taken on a much more immediate meaning in the wake of the crisis; ‘back offices can decentralize into the suburbs, in newly developed metropolitan areas, or in some other country, and be part of the same system’. Or even, as Mark Fisher puts it, ‘work and life become inseparable’, and ‘antagonism is not now located externally[…] but internally, in the psychology of the worker’. Those who have to work from home have found the bleeding into, or spilling over, of those spaces which had already succumbed to the ‘space of flows’. Inasmuch as the space of flows has reset, it has also intensified.

The coronavirus also inverts Foucault’s topography of the power imbalance between the doctor and patient (which states that illnesses are born because doctors are; it is the doctor that creates patients, as opposed to doctors supplying a need for the pre-existing patients). Because coronavirus, like capitalism, is so indiscriminate, there cannot be any particular patient; we are sublimated to the point that power being exerted over us is not a choice, or a notable event, but instead a state, a landscape, a reality.

If, as Deleuze and Guatarri wrote, ‘the notion of unity appears only when there is a power takeover in the multiplicity by the signifier’, the coronavirus has been the greatest bringer of unity we have seen this century. Its silent power grab, rendering previous modes of operation useless and yet also indicating how entrenched they are that they can be ‘turned off’ like a computer rebooting, has brought us together in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of previously. We applaud the NHS, and read the news, and follow the instructions, or we choose to not applaud the NHS, we delete the news apps, and we go and sit on benches and get moved on by the police, and it does nothing.

This is, of course, a serious disease. We are likely faced with no other choice, and I posit this theory ‘above’ the coronavirus whilst also grimly aware of the realities. A lot of people will die, and that is a tragedy. Nevertheless, the coronavirus will have impacts that reach farther and wider than can be seen just be reading infection statistics. In assembling old fears of the past (such as the AIDS crisis), and reshuffling the deck of capitalist realist tendencies, in forcing us to confront how the space of flows has become a porous membrane in which labour, disattached, can be extracted from inside the home, it will probably reset a great number of commonly held thoughts about how ‘things’ in society are done.

The thousands of deaths are a justified terror which should be taken seriously. That does not mean that we shouldn’t raise an eyebrow for the reasons above, too.

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(note: as I push towards ‘publish’, I note that Boris Johnson has been moved to intensive care, and although morbid speculations are at this point useless, unhelpful, and likely to be incorrect, they are also inevitable. All I can say is; I hope not one more person perishes from this disease. I don’t doubt that there would be a significant amount of unrest if the worst were to happen. I also don’t doubt that within six to twelve months, we would re-attain status quo). 

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