VIRAL TIME

1. EMERGENCY EXIT

From my window, I see a vast garden belonging to a monastery which was partially renovated into a hotel decades ago. Just a few monks are still living in the massive XVIII century building, and the hotel rooms remain empty since the travel ban was implemented. Monastic communities were supposed to be self-sufficient, so the garden used to be a fully-functioning urban farmland once, with cattle, sheep and swine, rows of fruit-trees, vegetables and cereal plants. Now it looks like a little golf course surrounded by a stone wall, crisscrossed by sand paths and decorated with a few peach and cherry trees blossoming under the dim light of the last winter days. Sometimes, in amongst this minor and almost secret Sakura celebration, a few chickens run across the field. It’s maintenance is the responsibility of a single gardener who walks the field almost every day, a minuscule figure of what from the distance appears to be a mature man. The lawn has been invaded by patches of white wildflower that are blown into dust at the touch of the mower. The scent of pulverized grass is carried by the wind up to my living room. All that space and the whole day are now the realm of the gardener alone. I don’t know him, I don’t know if he’s enjoying his job or he would rather be at home like almost everybody else — yet, from my window, he looks to me like the last person in town who’s still allowed to live in human time. The rest of us are simulations. Today is Sunday and he’s not even there, and the garden seen from above feels like a haunted graveyard nostalgic of a real apocalypse. Time has gone viral and it moves so fast that, to our senses, everything but the wind stands still.

A few days ago I was planning to write about “punkxperimentalism” in contemporary literature and it started to feel like a subject that, while it might be taken again later in more detail, could also help us to think about the current chronological disturbance induced by our anxiety of influenza. Punkxperimental would be, after all, an environment characterized by an urgency of non-standard creation no matter the existential conditions, by the drive to do the unlikely and to do it now because the poetics of time has become definitely entangled with the aesthetics of space. Punkxperimental is a kind of aesthetic survivalism hiding under the landslide of conventional forms — not necessarily underground per se, but always ready to withstand undergroundation — ; it flourishes in a permanent but nuanced quarantine against applicability, and it’s been opening emergency exits into the unknown, allowing the aesthetic investigation of provisional human-inhuman alliances and disencounters. As Mark Hansen writes, human experience cannot be considered to be an achievement solely due to the human, but, on the contrary, must be seen to encompass a plethora of agencies, both human” and nonhuman,” and to exist first and foremost as a dimension of a larger production of a complex environmental process, where such distinctions (e.g., human-nonhuman) can only hold provisional status, in the sense that they correlate with concrete, higher-order developments of more generic processes.[1] If aesthetic risk and multiplicity was an objective of punkxperimental art, it might now be acknowledged that existential risk is multiple and aesthetic. Punkxperimental is DIY opening of spaces of possibilities — therefore, dystopian enough to single out the weirdest and more unexpected features of the contemporary world, whilst utopian enough to inspire us the most unlikely ways to go ahead. So I won’t be writing about specific literary works this time, but in a very broad sense about an attitude that, in my view, might allow to develop a more complex criticism of political illusionism and technical solutionism in the foreseeable future. Things are, however, developing at such pace that I’m convinced that anything I might write today will become material for the archaeologist tomorrow, so I will neither try to anticipate what’s coming nor attempt to describe in detail a present which, more evidently than ever, is already gone as it’s observed.

Although technopolitans — and, as such, familiar to the immanence, immediacy, and ubiquity of new media — we might have been thinking — or at least behaving — as if we have been living in a two-speed reality: a fast electro-digital one, and a slow, “traditional” meatspace. This imaginary dualism just became suddenly unsustainable — even within the context of a “folk” account of reality — since our physical bodies have been collectively and synchronously moved to the crash-time of the global fast lane. In a matter of days, all of us became aware of being elements transitioning in a vast internet of out-of-control things, and some learned a practical lesson on unconditional bio-accelerationism: theres no such thing as being an accelerationist” — Matt Colquhoun explains — because theres nothing I can do to impact the process of acceleration. It is something that is happening to us already (and has been for centuries) rather than something I can do. [2] Of course, sooner or later we will be able to stop this disease from expanding, and, like it happened with most pathogens through the ages, the majority of  the population will become immune and the virus will become another part of us. Oddly enough, we had grown accustomed to the plausibility of an extinction-level event, yet with the romantic horizon of disappearance substituted by the more prosaic horizon of technical expertise and biological resilience, there seems to be only boredom and inaction left: the contemplation of a theatre of survival from our windows and screens while the virus panic is being slowly replaced by the panic of financial collapse. But what’s happening now — the sequestering of human time into viral crash-time, the spontaneous and uncontrolled entanglement of human and inhuman technologies — seems to go well beyond this particular infection and our immunological and technical capabilities to deal with it. It’s not the virus itself or our immune response to it — we’ve learned how to fight many, and more dangerous ones — but the tone of our cultural response that will shape our societies long beyond the pandemic pandemonium.

 

2. ONLY TECHNOCRACIES LEFT ALIVE?

The incapability of Western societies to think in viral time — instead of human time — and to take advantage of technological time — of its tendency to operate at microtemporal scales without any necessary connection to human sense perception and conscious awareness (Hansen) — has been uncovered at all levels. We might well forget or forgive the indignity of the so-called leaders from different political orientations and many countries during this crisis (professional politics has been reduced to fear management at least since the onset of the Cold War), but the evident inadequacy of the current structures of socialization/governance, and the difficulty of establishing active protocols of citizenship during an emergency, will have to be addressed at some point. Don’t get me wrong: epidemiological measures of contention with sound scientific and experiential background are starting to function. Staying at home and avoiding contact is, of course, the most reasonable recommendation. Healthcare workers at all levels are doing an extraordinary labour, sometimes not in the optimal material conditions. Compliance helps a lot in these situations — but it might be not enough, we might also need to put collective imagination to the work. The discourse of “just stay at home and get entertained while we take care of everything” deserves to be questioned. Maybe we were already just staying at home getting entertainment even when we were at work, or travelling, or living what was supposed to be a “normal life?” Until now, the most remarkable feature of this crisis’ onset was the tragicomic development of a situation which feels, at the same time, more serious and more banal than anything we could have ever predicted: the complete absence of a shock reaction and its replacement by ubiquitous passive-panicking; crowds partying not to the end of the world but as if nothing was happening, masses gathering in street demonstrations not for a revolt but like petty bureaucrats obsessed with keeping their fast-fading status quo, people staying at home, since instructed to do so, cheering each other from the balconies like improvised Julieta  —  O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon.

Social distancing has evolved into a world-wide passive form of extreme non-isolation and anxious uniformization: a collective endeavour to desperately keep living in the more recent version of human-cantered time. We can no longer conceive of ourselves as separate and quasi-autonomous subjects — writes Mark Hansen — facing off against distinct media objects; rather, we are ourselves composed as subjects through the operation of a host of multi-scalar processes, some of which seem more embodied” (like neural processing), and others more enworlded” (like rhythmic synchronization with material events). (Hansen) We had forgotten that the term “virus” is widespreadly used in IT because of the way viruses actually work on living beings. Viruses “enworld” us, they’re machine-like entities and also a significant part of our body-machines — like the gonna-hack-your-protein-printer meme humorously depicts. I am a medical researcher, and I’m confident in the results of medical research. We never had so many resources to speed research as we have now, but it still requires a certain amount of human time. In the short run, I trust that bunch of talented people who are already self-organizing to respond to the crisis by breaking some rules and experimentally tinkering with machines, molecules and communities. In the not-so-long run we will need to be tinkering with ideas, stories, representations and forms. Both the virus and this passive-panic spread faster than research, so there will be an uncertainty gap. We’re not used to uncertainty gaps, at least not to global and sustained ones, so we might think of it as an experimental situation and start performing some research on it. Today (3/21), it seems clear that the “hard” use of communication technologies to control populations has been more successful in aborting the outbreak than their “soft” use to entertain people while other, slower technologies (pharma, biotech, biomedical engineering), work to solve the problem in a more definitive way for this particular menace. In a few weeks, if we’re lucky, we might be admitting that we were overreacting — and/or, in a more perverse interpretation, overhyping. Whatever the final outcome is, we will be (officially) congratulating each other on how many lives were saved. But there will be other threats, and what seems even more evident today is that politics as usual have become not just useless but disgraceful. This is not a single event for humankind, but it’s the first truly global synchronous sensation of non-delayable response: we thus find ourselves faced with the imperative to respond — to take deliberate action and to make conscious decisions — in situations where deliberation is no longer the relevant mode of response and where consciousness is no longer the relevant level of experience. (4). As during and after every crisis, we will have to find a new consensus for a future equilibrium between safety and freedom. This is, of course, nothing new, but we’ve been postponing the need to re-define both “safety” and “freedom” in contemporary societies, to become responsible for the eventual risks we will be willing to take, to question human-centred and nature-centred bioethics, to jump over regulations and legal limitations that appear to be clearly obsolete. We might be willing, for instance, to allow a fast transitory centralization of selected data in some technical institutions during an emergency, in exchange for ensured transparency. Or we may prefer to renounce the promised security of provisional centralization and further experiment with other non-hierarchical modes. But at the end of the day, any decision we might take will also require to be collectively more aware and involved in knowledge management and deep criticism instead of leaving every minor detail to “experts.” We already knew we couldn’t be borrowing meaning from the past anymore. This is a shared task that appears to be more urgent now.

Meanwhile, in this room, surrounded by my books, I dream of millions of kids growing more and more bored with their enforced quotidianity, starting to explore their parents’ bookshelves, ignoring the repetitive news and leaving aside their social media groups to re-discover the internet as navigation tool, arriving to the most unexpected and dangerous places, learning to love the weirdest worlds, beyond their homes, their schools, their canned entertainment, their everyday life. May your life be long. May the quarantine be long.

GERMÁN SIERRA

*Published in ALIENIST 8: Covidology (May/June 2020)

[1] Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media ( University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[2] Matt Colquhoun, “You Are Not an Accelerationist”: xenogothic.com/2020/03/19/you-are-not-an-accelerationist/

! ! Alienist8 front cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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