Coronavirus & Critical Theory; or, How to Come Together in a Pandemic

For better or worse, the coronavirus has brought the world together. People are scared and worried and many no longer feel confident navigating social spaces they previously took for granted. Questions regarding the hygiene of the Other are now at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Governments and other public institutions are advocating for “social distancing” – a phenomenon which most likely was already an organic response to the heightened anxiety situation of an epidemic, but which is now being codified in the very social channels we once trusted would give us an endless stream of self-interested consumerism. Instead, we are being told that the question of values is at stake at even the level of engagement of the grocery store run, of eating practices, and questions like whether the Other knows how to cover their mouth, wash their hands, and maintain a safe public environment for the consideration of other Others.

In this sense, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan may suggest that coronavirus has taken the place of das Ding or, “the thing,” which organizes social life – whereas previously, life was organized around the “thing” of the commodity, or enjoyment – now, the thing on everybody’s mind is public safety and security. This concern cannot be directly mentioned as it would be socially devastating and insulting – instead, it can only be insinuated at by asking the Other questions like, “Man, have you been watching the news? How long do you think the pandemic will last?” meaning, do you pay attention to reality outside of your life and how long will we have to keep up the charade that we trust one another when really we don’t even trust ourselves, let alone you?

In these dark times, perhaps it may be useful to consider Michel Foucault’s argument in Security, Territory and Population, where he elaborates on the rise of the security state through the practices of the body, including codifications of hygiene in ancient legal systems. He goes on to discuss  the subsequent Christian pastoral effort to control the conduct of men towards the good, and identifies both of these factors as preconditions for a system which would identify health as the supreme value; health, in the sense of what Foucault calls “life in its most natural form.” Such a system, Foucault argues, has to locate the locus of political life in maintaining the sovereignty of the Other (namely, the sovereignty of the individual insofar as he is perceived by other individuals as a rights-bearing subject) to dispose of their life as they see fit. Since the horizon of life under liberal governmentality is one without transcendence and hence without any orientation towards what is good, then the aesthetic cultivation of pleasure, itself, becomes a work of art, and the legal imperative underlying such a society becomes to promote security through the development of sovereignty at the individual, national, and international levels — what Carl Schmitt would call a new “nomos of the earth.”

But when one considers the causes of the coronavirus, one should give pause as to whether the development of the nation state-form actually comprises the sort of values we identify with, or whether the security state is instead a paranoiac structure designed to keep us from feeling exploited by people we consider different. Much of the racist discourse towards Chinese individuals indicates that we may be in such a situation. 

While the origin of the virus has many factors, we can demarcate at least two vectors of analysis: the biological and the governmental response. Both, however, are related to the underlying imperative of “biopolitics” to produce a population to be governed. Whereas in the Christian medieval era, the notion of pastoral care was central in the project of forming particular kinds of subjects, Foucault believes that this pastoral project was superseded by biological accounts of the human as the basis of state governance. Hence, Foucault’s argument leaves us with a troubling conclusion: that economics, itself, is not a discourse tracing a truth which pre-exists it as a discourse (a discovery model of truth) but rather what he calls “the market as a site of verediction of truth” or the market as the site of the production of truth.

This has meant that the imperatives for population growth are internal to the international system itself. In order to produce themselves as modern subjects, third world alterity has had to articulate itself in the form of the nation-state. This imperative to produce oneself in a modern way, however, has led to a deepening divide between the rural and industrial populations in China. Furthermore, since the legitimacy of liberal governmentality stems from its ability to produce “bare life,” this leads to a situation where the body itself becomes politicized. Racial and gendered alterity start to organize the state not because of the interests of a particular class, but rather because of how truth itself is conceived in modernity. This is not to say that class interest does not exist, but rather, Foucault would insist that it is not the primary value which organizes the topology of the state. Europe’s ability to declare its supremacy through the invention of human rights required real concrete materials from the third world; and now the construction of third world alterity, in attempting to find justice in its situation and cultivate its own form of the nation-state, has produced a situation which threatens the entire world in common.

Like Simone Weil identified in The Need for Roots, there is a deep need for roots in the human soul. Nevertheless, this deep need for roots, when expressed through force, leads to a never-ending battle of paranoia and blame, and an inability to see how the totality of relations condition each particular perspective to act in their own interest and to justify it through the history of their violence which brought them to that point. The future cannot be built on resentment. Only a common human horizon, one which sees the mutual implication of different cultures in a single technical, economic, and problematic complex – liberal governmentality – a horizon based on the equal dignity of each individual and the unique recognition that each individual should be free to pursue justice in their own way, can shape up to reforming the concept of sovereignty in a way that does not succumb to racism but instead becomes about the inviolability of the human spirit, and the common solidarity that the species has for its ultimate ends in a peaceable world.

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Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory