A colloquium on panic, alarm, protest & social plague-pathologies in the resurrection of the myth of the benevolent corporate-state & the theoretic manufacture of a “new communist” species-solidarity as the subject of renascent post-history. Yet the ongoing “health crisis,” like a mirror held up to the Anthropocene, has not only put the architectures of social power under an epochal strain: it has suspended the very idea of the last instance, the very logic of appeal, & the romance of the social contract. Humanity’s self-proclaimed right to exist has had its last shreds of mystique reduced to a procurement problem. Political theatre has become a theatre of the plague: inertia, perversity, irrationalism, grotesque displays of hope & apocalyptic abandon, all laid side-by-side on the same metaphorical pyre. A controlled hysteria has given way to the hysteria of control. If the virus threatens to enact a revolution, it’s because every revolution is already an inside job. The plague is not an alien force that arrived from elsewhere: it was always already here. If the tremor of its mutations has delivered a shock to social response-mechanisms, this is because they themselves were the convulsive product of a viral corporate-state apparatus: their paroxysms have merely provided an affective arena for an ever-enlarging spectacle of enforced austerity, precarisation & enclosure. This alien-within, having infected the tissues of the social body, now instantiates a quarantine-politics of temporal dislocation – the virus that must be “lived with” in the open-ended present so as to be permitted the promise of a future “cure.” How does pandemic time interrelate within the current xenocapitalist imaginary & how will it extrapolate in the future war over the New Normal? What are the modes of negentropic mutation that will turn the present eco-cultural malaise into the next ideological commodity growth concept? And what means can be evolved to sabotage it?
VÍT BOHAL: First I would like to very much thank everybody who has been involved with the Mayday! M’aidez! project. Today’s panel will focus on the type of cultural knowledge, the type of pathology which we have been encountering these past months. And perhaps the unfolding COVID pandemic will serve as the background for most of what we will be talking about here today, but it will not be exclusively limited to that. I would like to pick up on the idea that “A controlled hysteria has given way to the hysteria of control.” I talked very briefly with Robin Mackay a moment ago & it seems that, Robin, if I understood you correctly, you take issue with this notion of hysteria as it is presented there, & you sort of mention a type of lethargy rather than hysteria setting in. I’m wondering, & I know that during the “Plaguepod” podcast which had been going on for a few months awhile back, you definitely broached very similar topics. This lethargy came up time & time again. Could you elaborate on it? What do you exactly mean & where do you take issue with this notion of hysteria?
ROBIN MACKAY: I think my uppermost feeling about this is to wonder why we’re forcing ourselves to do it? Why are we trying so hard to have something to say? And that’s where it goes to with the podcast is, after hours & hours of trying to draw some kind of theoretical significance or some kind of philosophical position out of it, eventually everyone just got bored. There’s certainly a regional aspect to this, you know. It depends where you are in the world, what kind of experience you’re having. And that’s something that’s interesting about the temporality of COVID, that we’re all on the same timeline in some sense, but we’re at different places. But certainly, from my point of view, I don’t see hysteria, & I’m not sure who’s hysteria is it? Is it supposed to be hysteria of authority in trying to control the population? Is it the hysteria of those who don’t know what’s going on & are living through something that’s this kind of pure contingency where no one knows what’s going to be happening next week or next month. Or is it hysteria produced by a kind of pressure or a certain configuration of theory? And that’s where I feel the hysteria is coming from. It is coming from this pressure to be able to say something, to be able to produce some kind of theoretical material out of what’s happening to us. And it’s coming from the fact that we’re going through a collective problem, the cause for the collective imposition of social constraints. And there’s a certain kind of political, theoretical position that’s finding it very hard to align itself with that. And it’s getting kind of forced back on the need for control at the individual level & kind of naïve liberalism or naïve notion of freedom which is to do with, you know, just being allowed to do whatever I want & anything that the government imposes on us is just seen as an infringement of freedom. So, I think it’s a kind of theoretical positions which seemed easy & which were developed during a period of relative political & economic ease & is now getting pushed into a very difficult position by having to face the situation where we actually need collective social action to deal with a totally contingent problem. So, “Who’s hysteria is it?” is the first question, I suppose.
BOHAL: One thing which you mention, Robin, is this sort of temporality of how the pandemic is unfolding in the world. I think here this acceleration is connection with the notion of technology & the way technology actually engenders our temporality. Really kind of comes to its fore because now we see a kind of technical apparatus of the state, of various different states, to sort of stray from conspiratorial fetishization of the state apparatus. We see each region & each state or government or governing entity kind of dealing with its own problems differently through technological means. If I can ask, Bogna is joining us from Shanghai, & I’m wondering what is the situation there now in Shanghai?
BOGNA KONIOR: Yes, it seems to me that we have very different not only technological but psychological logistics here. For me, even being here, thinking about COVID again, is kind of a flashback. Shanghai has not had an outbreak for months. It’s kind of astounding to me that people don’t talk about how East Asia is in a post-COVID situation really. Whatever kind of outbreak is happening now, it’s very minor, so there hasn’t really been a parallel outpouring of academic & artistic interest in COVID as we see in the Western world & the Western arts scene where there’s kind of a panicked rush to make it into a culturally relevant event, versus here where there has been a rush to just handle the event on the level of governmentality & management. So, it seems the psychological effect, not only temporality, is completely disjointed. Being here on this panel is not at all corresponding to my experience of going through this pandemic in Hong Kong & Shanghai where it feels very much like a past thing, or at least a part of it is concluded (there might be another unexpected wave, of course.
BOHAL: That’s very interesting. Of course, here in the Czech Republic, we are sort of on the cusp of what’s being called a second wave, & the numbers are sort of tapering off. So hopefully, we have better days ahead. But absolutely, it has been in the forefront of a type of national consciousness all over Europe. I’m wondering, Louis, could you maybe talk about this kind of decoupling or this distinction between a cultural aspect to what we’re seeing & perhaps a more business as usual classic biopolitical approach in terms of how the state interprets such a situation.
LOUIS ARMAND: Just coming back to the question you posed to Robin, I think the issue of hysteria perhaps comes back to the idea of reification, of a certain kind of ideological symptom, the way in which the various quarantine regimes have been mapped onto the status of the so-called objective reality of COVID, while popular consciousness, including critical consciousness, has become fixated in reaction to these regimes rather than upon the concrete situation of a virus itself. This is a very interesting phenomenon. We’ve seen, for example, an intellectual preoccupation with defining the virus as an agent of social critique, even as an agent of revolution, while at the same time eliding this critique with a kind of ipso facto post-COVIDology: a new Communism in Žižek’s case, a new humanism in Agamben’s case, a whole world consciousness in the case of Latour. What is notable is that these are not simply utopian projects repurposed to the situation brought about in response to COVID, but acquire that status of a pre-condition or prerequisite for effectively addressing COVID. And this is quite fascinating. It’s as if there were a theoretical attempt to reconstruct a whole global apparatus as the necessary prelude to any real critique of the virus, while at the same time affect COVID itself as an automatic critique of global capital.
MACKAY: In that respect, isn’t it that this idea of trying to make it culturally relevant, what’s happening is that it’s just a convenient event that can be used to fill a space. It’s a kind of place holder that can be put into a structural position that was there kind of waiting for it; for these thinkers. You know, some kind of demon in order to get your theoretical machine working.
KONIOR: Sorry. Just wanted to follow up on what Armand was saying. If you want to look for cultural relevance, it wouldn’t be [in] reading the actions that people are consciously taking to reframe this theoretically, but what is becoming visible in the panicked responses that we are seeing. For example, over the last few months, the way we see a convergence of technophobia and of China-phobia almost perfectly aligning. It’s quite curious. Anna Greenspan and Nick Land have been working on this for some time now, but this convergence is very visible during the pandemic. I’ve read numerous articles of people associating the European COVID response with humanity and being together, with Agamben leading this kind of ‘reactionary humanist’ discourse, and at the same time, portraying the controlling, robotic, futuristic China as radically inhuman. So, this convergence of the fear of Asia and the fear of technology and the fear of governmentality that is emerging will be something to study more than the hot takes that the academic and art industry is trying to produce.
MACKAY: Isn’t there kind of a backwards logic at work there where, you know, the reason why the European states & the US have failed so miserably to deal with this problem can’t simply be because they’re incompetent or they’re part of a kind of decaying political structure. It must be because there’s something evil & inhuman about China. There’s something about the efficiency of dealing with a problem like this that has to be seen as problematic, otherwise we’d have to look at our own social & political structure & see what’s failing in it.
BOHAL: This is most certainly a very interesting sort of angle in terms of the criticality. I know recently in a book entitled Perhaps It Is High Time for a Xeno-Architecture to Match, Benjamin Bratton speaks about Criticality with a capital C versus criticality with a lower-case c. And I think it’s very important perhaps to productively critique the apparatuses as they are set up now. Now, this goes back to sort of an earlier discussion of how did Western Europe deal with COVID crisis versus let’s say Eastern Europe or the Czech Republic particularly because of the national health system as it is set up, &, of course, the US posing as sort an alternate case study in that. It seems that there is an element of productive criticality in the way we see the fissures which COVID has opened in our governmental systems. Would anybody agree with me there? That there’s no need to posit this fundamental Critique – with a capital C – which we perhaps see with Agamben & his call of a permanent state of exception, but rather that we would focus quite politically & in quite an engaged manner with the particularities of the systems as they are set up & how they deal with the strain & the stress which COVID has undoubtedly exposed.
MÁRK HORVÁTH: I think I can speak in Adams’s name also in this question. In the last couple of months we are dealing with how a kind of post-human entropy of ontology can be described about the COVID 19 crisis. So, we are always trying to theorize not just the presences but the absences, so the unknowns & the strange factors about this disease. We try to focus more or transgress the kind of critique of people of biopower. We wrote an article about it criticizing also Žižek & Agamben’s response. And we went back to Foucault’s lecture about partisan biopower & how a kind of opening up towards the inorganic cradle of death can mean something like an escape from these authoritarian melancholy recurrent situations, but also finding new ways to concentrate in a theoretical level onto COVID & posthuman as facts.
ADAM LOVASZ: I think the fundamental irony of our current situation is that basically, a non-human entity has done more for social change than human agents. The introduction of COVID into the human immune system has resulted in far more fundamental changes in a far shorter period of time. It’s basically resulted in a kind of paradoxical social acceleration. Even though we’ve had lockdowns & the economic crash, it still resulted in fundamental changes in the way society operates. And I think, from a posthumanist perspective, we can see this change in political agency.
MACKAY: Do you think that any of the effects have moved culturally to the tendencies that were in place before COVID appeared? Because for me, yes I agree with what you’re saying, but I think mostly it’s accelerated trends that were there already.
LOVASZ: Yes, it felt like that in many respects. Look at the digitalization of the economy, for example.
HORVÁTH: The university system & also the education system.
LOVASZ: Yes, these were basically present before, but I think this is done by a focus of what these social policies are doing even though it’s not taking us beyond capitalism, but rather it has still sort of liquified society in many respects.
HORVÁTH: And I think that it opens up new perspectives. For example, I’m now working on a Hungarian book about the Anthropocene. It will be the first Hungarian book about this whole kind of theory, & it uses a term that the Anthropocene itself is a kind of a metacrisis that causes many local collapses & breakdowns. And I would consider COVID 19 as not a part, not as a metanarrative, but as a kind of localized breakdown of the system. And I think where posthumanist philosophy or philosophy & speculative philosophy in general, comes into place is kind of connected to this kind of local breakdown with the meta crisis. It’s also a big question of how we could name this kind of metacrisis whether Anthropocene or Capitalocene or we should point out many different aspects.
LOVASZ: Many different things.
HORVÁTH: Yes. So, I would use COVID 19 as a local kind of breakdown that points towards the more structural & systematic problem which is the collapse of the functioning of the earth system itself. And this clearly shows how environmental damage accelerated the spread of diseases & viruses, for example.
DUSTIN BREITLING: Yes. So, I of course think that there’s quite a salient idea in the sense that the disease itself is a purveyor, that it is what designs & redesigns us especially along the lines of infrastructure, especially along the lines of logistics. We look modern-day England. London also structured around something like cholera & even extending, if you look at Shanghai. Bogna, you can probably testify to this when you’re probably witnessing this kind of contact, type of servicing, & automation that has really sprung up as well. And, I think there’s actually quite another kind of interesting aspect to it, particularly if you look right now at how infrastructure/logistics is going to have to change & conform accordingly to even what vaccine is going to be rolled out. I’m sure you’re more or less you’re acquainted with Moderna vaccine, & how this vaccine, it’s a messenger RNA or a new type of vaccine. This messenger RNA is quite important because, as opposed to looking at how other types of vaccines have to produce the viral proteins or grow the viruses. Rather here, they’re just getting these kind of naked strands of messenger RNA cells. And they have to encase these messenger RNA cells into these lipid nanoparticles. And the problem being there is that the messenger RNA is inherently an unstable molecule. It’s very sensitive to heat. So, there’s the huge issue of how are they going to be able to, especially in the United States, ship all these frozen, refrigerators & try to maintain these kinds of vaccines in close to minus seventy degrees Celsius temperatures? Just by virtue of this, you’re going to have this whole economy spring up where it’s just going to be about dry ice & thermal shippers. And the dry ice has to replenished within twenty-four hours & every five days & so forth. And this is also going to constrain how much there can be a distribution of the COVID vaccine out there because you can, apparently, only do about a thousand doses per shipment. So, I think that does tie in absolutely how logistics & infrastructure have from kind of the cyborg angle, with how vaccines &/or viruses have been quite instrumental in reconfiguring our cities in that case.
HORVÁTH: So, that in this context, COVID is a technological collapsifying agent in this way, & it’s how our postmodern, posthuman society works in its natural goings, only accelerated or, I would say, a quicker reaction towards this kind of problem. So, it’s a technological accelerated aspect that is also present everywhere.
MACKAY: This is an interesting point isn’t it, but capitalism doesn’t have an inherent problem with COVID. The question is at what point can capitalism absorb it & produce some kind of value out of the process? Like, when we’re talking about the end of COVID, that’s a kind of a different point of view from economically what it might be.
KONIOR: And also, what is not a technological accelerator at this point? And it’s not just a technological accelerator in the sense of it’s accelerating anything that’s within the system. It’s also accelerating different philosophies. It would be much more interesting to point out whether there is any decelerator in any shape or form within the current system rather than just saying COVID and everything else is accelerating.
MACKAY: COVID is an economic decelerator surely. And it’s a drastic break on the economies which is still prevalent. And, presumably, China is now drawing a massive advantage from coming out the other side & being able to reconstruct itself economically.
ARMAND: COVID is a decelerator for certain areas of industry & certain centres of capital, & acts as an accelerator in other areas, where it responds in an inherently problematic way for capitalism. While there has been an attempt at ideological capture, to define COVID in certain advantageous terms for capitalism, yet just as capitalism is internally riven with competing forces, so too COVID is a competitor. Everything that COVID does is what capitalism as a whole would like to be doing.
MACKAY: How’s that?
ARMAND: In terms of its entire orientation, its proliferation & acceleration, consumption of resources, circulation. It is an economic system that is also a semantic model, & in this it corresponds almost entirely with the logic of the capitalist machinery, expropriating its resources. The question is, can it in turn be commodified, so these actions upon the economy can be themselves be turned into resources to be exploited? In other words, is it possible & is it in capital’s interests to negate the virus, or to exploit it in a subordinated relation?
BOHAL: A sort of interesting angle on this was opened with the mention of acceleration. Acceleration is a must as it has been talked about now, & I think with accelerationism there is a reading into it which might be fundamentally teleological & would constitute a type of alien temporality in a classical sense of Nick Land. I think perhaps what we’re encountering now &, again Robin you & I sort of broached the topic just before the panel, is that what’s accelerating is actually a type of domestic processes & processes of health, care &,of course, family & kinship as well. I think this is a fundamental aspect, this quarantine into Helen Hester’s term “Domestic Realism.” There’s a new normal which is what’s setting in the domestic sphere. I’m wondering if whether we could maybe take the discussion in this direction in exactly how this COVID crisis is being experienced on the level of personal habitance in terms of domestic violence, addiction, etc. All these sort of very malign accelerations which we have been seeing nowadays.
MACKAY: There’s been a kind of generalized autocrazation, right, in that we’re all more or less at home ordering pizza to be delivered, doing everything through our screens, etc., so it’s certainly accelerated that. But I think at certain points there’s also been, in the UK at any rate, this kind of ambient fear on the part of the government that people will learn not to work. People will learn that they can just not go to work. People are also learning that they don’t have to go out of the house & commute for two hours a day, & they won’t want to be going back to that. Yeah, there’s been this kind of “get back to work, be productive again.” And at certain points, certainly at the beginning, I felt like there was the kind of opening for some other kind of life, maybe. And I think that a lot of people had this feeling right at the beginning like ‘This gives some kind of space’ because in the beginning, it felt actually apocalyptic just for a few weeks, you know. It felt like something really singular was happening. But I think the state & people’s social instincts themselves have done a very good job of closing down that possibility.
ARMAND: You know, Robin, I think this is a very important point you’re touching on here. And this process is being recycled, the constant talk in the summer about reopening economies & about keeping the economies alive, while there’s been very little discussion about the psychosocial element: the apocalyptic character of the so-called first-wave lockdowns that could have itself given rise to radical social dislocations, had it been permitted to continue without amelioration.
MACKAY: Right. Yes. So, what seems like incompetence in the sense that the UK government, for instance, was at a certain point paying people to go out to restaurants, basically giving meals half price to everyone who wanted to go out. And now we’re in this second wave where we’re considering going into full lockdown again. That seems like incompetence, but in fact, there’s a kind of strategy there of not letting things drift out too far from normality even if it means risking people’s lives. I think that’s actually the case. The fear is really to do with allowing things to become too bizarre & too kind of dislocated from social norms. I think there’s something like that in play definitely. But I grew up during the era of kind of the tail end of the Cold War, & my parents we’re anti-nuclear protesters, so I was always really attuned to this idea of the apocalypse. And, as a child, I was always really secretly excited about it. Like, I thought it would be great when it’s announced that the nuclear bomb is coming & you can & do whatever you want. Like, the streets are empty or you can go & steal guns & shoot the school windows out, you know. All this stuff was kind of excitement about the apocalyptic scenario. And I kind of got a bit of that at the beginning as well. Obviously, when we started the podcast, I started off thinking that we have to be serious & get people talking about it seriously. In fact, people weren’t that reticent to admit that there’s a holiday vibe to it as well. And, you know, people were being kind of let off social obligations in a certain way. So, I think there was something very liberating which was quickly shut down.
BOHAL: Bogna, could you maybe respond to sort of this slightly European take on things, the second wave being what it is here now. Could you maybe offer commentary?
KONIOR: I’m European and so I feel dislocated seeing Europe from China. But as a counter-narrative to “not letting things drift too far away,” I would say in my native Poland, there’s quite a different tendency, where we see the government encouraging people currently to go out to the streets, to “defend the churches” from perceived attacks, where the churches are supposedly attacked by their own citizens. Right? So, maybe there is some kind of counter vector of absolute insanity that actually will come from the post-USSR. We just don’t see it yet. But I haven’t had the time yet to conceptualize what is happening right now in Eastern Europe from the perspective of China and Hong Kong. It’s interesting to realize that, in East Asia, the local scenarios have been handled very differently. In China, it has been engineered from the top. In Hong Kong, it’s been a very grassroots kind of response where the people perceive that the government was not in charge enough, so we were all arranging our own masks and kind of forcing each other to stay home and so on, but, even given the differences in the responses, both of those scenarios succeeded. So, I’m very curious as to why, with the variety of scenarios in East Asia, from Japan to Korea to Taiwan, that were actually technologically and socially different responses in all those places, but the situation has been handled and why with the variety of the responses in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, it hasn’t been handled. And this is still a riddle for me. So, if anyone wants to clarify that, I’d be very curious.
BOHAL: Well, it’s a tough question of course. Could maybe Adam & Mark chip in on how the Orbán government has been dealing with this?
HORVÁTH: I think the reaction for the first wave of the COVID crisis in Hungary was interpreted as kind of a success story for our nationalistic, rightwing, populist government, but now in the second wave it’s very totally different. The numbers are going higher & higher & people are more, I think, apocalyptic right now. So the feelings certainly changed, I think, around the end of August, somewhere between the end of August & early September. Because, in early Summer, there was really few cases in Hungary, but now I think the scene, & also how people are affected by it, has clearly changed in the last couple of months.
LOVASZ: I think one of the key political takeaways from this whole situation is not the impossibility but the implausibility of maintaining an ecologically closed human system. I think we need to get sort of acclimatized to this. They always say there’s going to be newer & newer viruses, so this is not the last one. Many scientists are saying that, with the global climate change, there’s going to be new waves of different kinds of infections. I think politics has to become more realistic about this approach of excluding viruses from the political community. I don’t think this is really sustainable. Viruses have always been a part of our evolution. I think what’s fascinating in the kind of herd immunity approach, even though it’s very controversial, is that it’s a more realistic approach to this whole virus issue. We believe that you can’t really exclude the outside world forever from the human system.
HORVÁTH: Yes, but right now in Hungary we are getting closer & closer to total lockdown. We have to wear masks in the restaurants, & the restaurants are closing everywhere in Budapest. So, we are getting closer to a total lockdown & kind of this chaotic situation.
MACKAY: This idea that we have to get used to or expect that this kind of thing is going to happen again comes up against political paranoia & hysteria, right, because it essentially means that you need to have a constant management of the population. So, this is where this whole question of this creeping in of the totalitarian state comes in, & people having these apps on their phones where their location is constantly tracked & so on. These kinds of things which are making people in the West extremely uncomfortable, I think. But there’s also a sense in which you can’t really plan for it. Before this happened, you could certainly have built some kind of probabilistic model, but it wouldn’t have been any use. And after it’s happened, the probability is one & we just have to deal with it. And at every stage of dealing with it, the problem is changing. So, it doesn’t help you at all. So, I don’t know what kind of management of this risk do you think is possible after the immediate crisis.
BREITLING: Well there’s been a proposal on the table. I guess they’ve done a few studies, some university in Australia, where they are proposing vaccinating nature. So, what they would do is whip up a paste vaccine. They would collect it from bats.
MACKAY: Immunize the whole world?
BREITLING: Yeah, yeah. So, that would be a measure that’s been proposed. There’s also been a couple of cases back in 2016, near the Yamal Peninsula, where a young boy got infected by anthrax. So, there’s this kind of inherent danger of all these viruses, especially up north, aged thousands to millions of years old. We don’t have the immune system built in for that. So, how do you factor that in is as an existential risk? I think it’s something that’s going be gaining more momentum & gaining more traction in the coming years.
ARMAND: A futures market for dinosaur viruses.
MACKAY: Yeah, how will risk management deal with that?
ARMAND: There’s been quite a bit of discussion about this sort of speculative risk management. Dustin was talking about the logistics of dealing with vaccines, & Adam & Mark talked about herd immunity, both of which remain thought experiments in some sense. Clearly there are practical questions attached to them, so I mean that they are thought experiments in the sense that they’re projective. And on the basis of these projections, many additional assumptions have been made in regard to “management,” quote-unquote, of the various responses governments have undertaken around the world in a largely uncoordinated fashion. Of course the real elephant in the room, which threatens all of these speculative regimes, is the question of reinfections & to what extent any concrete parameters can be laid down with respect to how this pandemic is going to evolve once vaccines become available, or if the delivery of anything like a global vaccination plan is even going to work, given the prevailing laissez-fairism. That is the actual horizon of constant vulnerability. It’s a little bit like the economic stimulus issue. Within no time at all, individual governments & the European Union were injecting vast amounts of cash into the economy, in some kind of expectation that this would produce an automatic solution to the pandemic problem, a solution that has been stuck on repeat. This repetition compulsion infuses all aspects of the attempt, as Robin was saying, to reconstruct normality, that is to say the status quo, to which a certain kind of crisis is endemic, while preventing any externalised mode of crisis from taking over the system, one that might prove fatal to it. And at the same time this repetition compulsion is orientated in such a way as to test the limits of this external threat, to determine if it be capitalized upon. “Can reinfection be capitalized upon?” It’s important to understand that this repetition compulsion isn’t an actual failure within the system, but its mode of operations, by which it seeks to incorporate the emergent character of the virus into a future model economy – not just pharmacological management, but an entire genetic regime.
MACKAY: I’m waiting for tips. I’ve already written “invest in cryonics.”
KONIOR: I want to ask Adam a question. If you could follow up on something that you said. When you said that we have to be more open to letting the inhuman element into the system, can you explain what you mean here? Do you mean open yourself up to bodily invasion by the virus, or in what way? How radical are you with this statement?
LOVASZ: I guess on the level of governmentality, what governments have to accept is the idea that we can’t exclude viruses forever from humans so there’s always gonna be newer & newer influxes of viruses. And we can slow it down but we can’t stop it. I think it’s inevitable. It’s an inevitable reality of living on this planet & we have to think in terms of a more ecologically open system of society. We can’t maintain this. We can’t live in plastic bubbles all of our lives. You have an example where someone doesn’t have an immune system & they have to live in like a plastic bubble. I think we have to pierce this bubble. We have to think of new kinds of governmentality which don’t maintain this kind of closedness at all costs because this isn’t going to work in the long term. I’m really sceptical as to this.
HORVÁTH: But I think in our paper it was more theoretical or speculative. First aspects of how we can theorize with contemporary thinkers of death as a kind of positive aspect & a positive future before us that is kind of an escape from the ongoing & strengthening biopower everywhere in Europe. So when we look at, for example, negative queer theory &, for example, the ethics of extinction from Claire Colebrook. In our paper, there are several thought experiments about how we can get used to the finality of human life & how death can be looked upon not as an ending, as a closing down, but as something like an opening up for a kind of new horizon. So, I think the ending of our paper is quite radical, but there are five or six different approaches towards death in our paper.
LOVASZ: Just to sort of, in brief, explain what we’re talking about is that, basically, the more governments try to defend life, the more they have to restrict life. There’s this basic paradox at work in biopower & we somehow have to think outside of this, I think. We can’t continue closing ourselves from the environment forever. There’s going to be a point of no return, I think.
ARMAND: Can I just quickly ask you, Adam? When you talk about restrictions – because this is not an objective horizon & things have changed historically & culturally: which restrictions amount to “too many”?
LOVASZ: I think it’s on a case by case basis. You have to always look at that. I think it’s very ridiculous kinds of things. People don’t want to wear a mask or something. That’s a very, very mild kind of thing, but, on the whole, it’s something which can’t be maintained for very long. We had the one hundred eleven days lock down in Australia for example, but that’s like a very extreme case & it really demands a very rule-following, obedient population. And you don’t have that in all societies. There’s cultural differences. And it’s not really sustainable. You can’t ask six billion people to not go outside. It’s not very realistic.
HORVÁTH: And I think it’s also a question of how other sides & other aspects of everyday life is managed under this kind of biopower, & how, for example, strange & dangerous or bad rules are. So, it’s question of how the other side of life can be managed under this kind of lockdown.
LOVASZ: And you get this kind of paranoia on the part of power & also on the part of the political subjects as well. You have this mutually enforcing paranoia, & it leads to bad political results on the long term in many respects.
KONIOR: I’m hearing that maybe we should consider these different philosophies of governmentality and the use of technologies by governments in relation to how we conceptualize the individual, or the self, or the subject. I talked to Robin about this just two days ago, about this anthropologist, Shuang Frost. She writes about the difference between Western and Chinese philosophies of technology and she says that in the Western concept of ethics of technology, technology is perceived as good when it contributes to individual liberation, individual rights, and the protection of the subject and the individual. Versus in Confucian philosophy, there’s no real counterpoint to this understanding of ethics. We can talk instead about the morality of technology, which is much more aspirational and is about engineering towards an aspirational form of society, and this aspiration towards an ideal form can be orchestrated by a dispersed agency. So, ethics if prohibitive – you can do this, you cannot do that – and morality is aspirational: what is the ideal social form? So, I don’t know how can we say that it wouldn’t work to keep seven million people indoors when that’s exactly what Hong Kong has done for almost a month in the beginning of lockdown, and it has worked. So, it’s not really a speculative scenario for me. It is doable. The question is why is it doable in some places and not in others. I think it would be a stretch to say ‘Oh it’s because it’s Confucian and there’s a difference of philosophy of technology’ but maybe. I don’t know, but it’s a thought to explore.
BOHAL: I think perhaps a sort of metaphor which we can move into here is a type of zoning, & I’d be very interested in perhaps exactly what you mentioned, Bogna, with a type of zoning of, let’s say, Hong Kong, a metropolitan area of seven million people. And same, I think, this ties with Adam’s point about this ecology & this openness which is to be retained. I think it’s interesting just how the discussion in Europe has, or rather just how Eastern Europe has, in a way, closed itself off, closed national borders at the beginning of the first wave very quickly, which had a fundamentally positive aspect. Again, there is quite an effective element to this drop-down, pop-up zone, which can be activated & deactivated at given times. And I’m wondering whether this might be sort of a part of sort of a new politics or, you know, new normal which we might be seeing appearing. I assume that perhaps in other places, various places, this might be more natural or rather that the infrastructure is already built up. We, of course, know about the social credit system which is a type of zoning I would say that is sort of focalized on the individual, but aspect of the zone as a type of concept holds there as well, & I’m wondering whether anybody might have anything to say about that?
ARMAND: It’s strange that we’re still talking about Asia & Europe in this way, as opposing paradigms of lockdown. But in terms of state-centred regimes of isolation, we need to consider the relation of globalism to literal island societies, for whom isolation defines the entire power nexus. In response to COVID, countries like Vanuatu had no viable alternative to strict border closure, unlike in Europe or Asia where, even under the more reactionary governments, closure always has its economic exceptions. A question that also needs to be asked is about the relationship between authoritarianism & survivalism, & how this operates, or how it’s distributed, under the reign of global capital. There’s a very real question of privilege centring what is an opportunistic, if not outright cynical, routine of lockdown & reopening, whose framework is entirely political & barely at all immunological.
MACKAY: I think if we’re just trying to link this question about zoning & in the UK, of course, we’ve got tears now rather than zones. But I want to link this back to what Bogna was saying before. And if we are entering into a situation where this is the new normal, where we’re going to have to expect that this kind of thing is going to happen & we have to have management systems in place in advance in order to make sure that it’s not a huge crisis like this. Then it seems like obviously, on a geopolitical level, what that means is advantage is going to accrue to certain nations & certain cultures. And this seems to be one of these things where there’s just a complete fracturing of the lines of making sense of the world politically. It’s just kind of falling apart because you have, basically, the thing that was meant to characterize the enemy of capitalism (i.e. massive populations which are heavily invested in collectivity, compliant populations that are happy to take social control measures from above. All those things are now what’s going to drive the new winners of capitalism for the next however many hundred years. So, that’s a complete kind of blowing apart of all the distinctions that we used in politics in the twentieth century. But then also on the other side, one thing that’s interesting in the UK is that, in the absence of any ability of the population to accept any kind of control from above, any kind of collective identification, any suggestion that you are a generic citizen who must do the same as all the other citizens. There’s just no conditioning to be able to accept that, & people just get angry about it immediately. So, what’s actually happened is a great fragmentation. So, now there’s this kind of as an avatar of the individualization of it. You have a breaking up into smaller & smaller areas. So, you know, I’m in Tier 2. Manchester’s in Tier 3. And then Manchester is almost declaring civil war on the rest of the UK. So, it’s actually accelerating a kind of patchwork process, which is kind of interesting in itself. And you can see how that could, with the help of technology, penetrate down to smaller & smaller areas.
KONIOR: Perhaps, there’s some kind of species-level defence in us about accepting that humanity can be understood as a collective population.
MACKAY: Population, yes.
KONIOR: We don’t really have a problem with monitoring bats, putting satellites in the sky to monitor forests, and everything else. But on the other hand we believe that there is something irreducible about humanity that could never be captured in those technical systems. So, maybe there’s a species chauvinism about this.
MACKAY: There is a kind of failure to apply the principles of ecology to our own species, I think.
BREITLING: Kind of leaping back to Louis’s point concerning kind of the fine granularity of how far we can think of datafication & technology kind of inner penetrating even inside the body that will be particularly something, which, from the future, given the fact that we’re understanding that viruses do evolve to kind of manipulate the host’s circadian clock. In that case, that clock, these clocks in your body are responsible for a whole raft of intracellular systems that’s changing the whole activity of your translation, transcription, metabolism. And that’s where it kind of effectively reprograms your whole cell officially in this case. And there’s this idea that’s being sprung forth as to this idea about infection & immunity. There are these kinds of time-sensitive dynamics that need to be taken into consideration. You know the idea too is, as I was reading the other day, that, for example, it’s better to give people vaccines in the night because they’re kind of at their rest period in this case. So I would just imagine collecting this kind of data, getting down again to these very small kinds of minuscule points about ourselves that could be what needs to be advantaged in the future, if you are more or less able to kind of capture all this information concerning the most kind of basic metabolic mechanisms.
MACKAY: Shaping the whole of the social structure around the nature of the virus. So, society becomes a kind of virus puppet.
ARMAND: Well that’s a nice change from the idea that the “state” is disciplining society, in some kind of hyper-rationalist way, since the agent of discipline here is the virus itself.
BOHAL: I think perhaps the concept which we can bring in, & I know I read it in a piece by Anton Jäger, is “Quarantine Corporatism.” And it’s sort of interesting to see just which businesses & enterprises are accelerating. And this is home delivery as we’ve been seeing: Amazon, Walmart. It sort of transcribes itself or can also be seen as a kind of, as Bogna mentioned, new logistics, as Dustinsort of alluded to as well, new logistics for the new normal where you know supermarkets become a type of distribution centre, etc. I think there’s a very interesting phenomenon which we’ve been seeing now. I know of two places. Definitively this has happening in Czech Republic but also Quebec has been actually moving towards questioning self-sustainability, elementary & nutritional self-sustainability. The Czech government has a proposal for a bill which would, basically, require shopping centres to firstly fifteen percent of Czech produce & then thirty percent of this may actually increase too. Now, this is not official legislation, but this is, as far as I know, the first time these questions are being broached. And again it goes to this question of how resilient can a zone be in a way & for how long into almost kind of a garrison mentality which might go against again what Adam was saying, a kind of openness, a sort of trans-boundary openness in favour of something kind of different.
ARMAND: These boundaries that you’re talking about, defined by quotas for local production & things like that, produce social relations defined by procurement. The social contract, as this romantic idea of universal rights guaranteed by a benevolent state, has been substituted for by a politics of procurement, where the contemporary states, particularly within Europe, offer the idea, a certain metaphysical notion, of providing for the care of their citizens, but in the form of a deferred procurement problem, one on which they cannot deliver. In fact it is impossible to deliver, & one of the things that COVID has done is make this very tangible & very clear, that the promise of being able to provide for the care for a populace is unserviceable. And so, these efforts at bringing in all sorts of quarantine measures, of a regionalist & protectionist character, are attempts to mitigate against a horizontal problem that is endemic to the global neoliberal economy: the idea that everything can be outsourced. But it cannot, it seems.
BOHAL: This horizontalism feeds in very well in general in our discussion of zoning with the first question from the audience. We have Paul Chaney asking: Thinking about the survival the pacific islands & general fragmentation… couldn’t patchwork society be the ultimate defence to future outbreaks of yet unknown viruses?
MACKAY: Well, the concept of patchwork is essentially to do with firebreaks, right? It’s to do with the possibility of experimenting & trying different kind of social formations in this kind of controlled way. So, potentially, this leads into the question of the rural, doesn’t it? And one of the interesting things, when you’re talking about food procurement & so on, is what kind of effect these kinds of events are going to have between the urban & the rural because it’s really the concentrated, densely populated areas & the kind of, you know, the centres of communicative capitalism where this kind of outbreak is happening. And there’s a possibility that there’s a kind of schism between the rural & the urban where the barriers will go up. And every city in the world is absolutely dependent on massive rural zones. So, there’s not only this kind of dependency of one nation on another nation but the dependency of cities upon rural production.
ARMAND: The question about the Pacific Islands, just to come back to that. Adam & Mark refer to the Anthropocene, & one of the features of this discourse is how, by evoking a shift in the geological register, it appealed to the notion of an objective, & in a sense alien, force that could still be treated as somehow separable from the human sphere, as something that exists in the physical, material world. And there’s a tendency in certain arguments to see COVID in this way. In other words, it’s a virus: there’s a biological character to all this which is independent of ideology, leading to some notion that can be expressed in the idea that “We’re all in this together,” that the objective reality of the virus applies equally across the board & has the equal capacity to affect people wherever they are in the world. But clearly it has the capacity to impact not only on different economies or different cultural formations, but different geographies, which is one of the reasons that with small island communities in the South Pacific the virus has exacerbated certain geopolitical singularities, which are likewise characteristic of the effects of global warming in the region. The impact of certain aspects of capitalism, the import of vast quantities of plastic, for example, into areas that have no means of recycling or disposing of it, where the threat of rising sea levels is imminent, where resource finitude is palpable, etc. And we see in all of these cases there’s a certain virulence that needs to be taken into account. But this virulence is not universal. It accelerates or increases or decreases in relation to different social-political-physical geographies. And then the question is, How do we deal with this virulence which itself is not subject to rhetorical persuasion, let’s say, or ideological persuasion?
BOHAL: Bogna perhaps is interested in questioning this notion of patchwork with or considering, in consideration of what you said previously about the differences between the way things were addressed in Shanghai & the way things were done in Hong Kong. I’m wondering, considering that the system in China is a much more top-heavy entity, do you see at all patchwork & the notion of horizontality which you sort of alluded to with Hong Kong bearing any real traction?
KONIOR: Yes, I think, first of all, it’s kind of a myth that China is as centralized as people imagine it to be. For example, with the social credit system, it is imagined as a really centralized system, while in fact it’s a bunch of patches exchanging information, we could say. Ok, patchwork. Something to say here. I guess two things. One: How the patches are formed is probably one of the most crucial questions. Would the nation-state model be transposed into, in any way, into what the patches would be? Obviously, some of the new reactionary proposals are to have micro ethnic-based patches, right? So, the question of how you form the patches is crucial to what kind of modes of governance will be happening in the patches. And two, we have to notice that we entertain the idea of the patchwork for the reason that we implicitly believe that increasing governance ability of the state is an increase in control, right? And it’s something that we want to avoid. However, when you look at how people who work in automation talk about control, it’s not so clear that increase in organization is an increase in control. I think it was Kevin Kelly who said that the more we automate the more we actually don’t know what’s going to come out of it. And we don’t spend enough time on questions of technological contingency and the fact that you might want something to happen and the consequences of that might be very different. So, I look at the patchwork as an interesting alternative, but I think what it’s trying to counter is a bit of a scarecrow of this top-down controlled government that’s never as top-down or controlled as people are imagining because there’s so much accident and contingency, you know. As Paul Virilio said, the invention of any kind of technology is an invention of a corresponding accident, right? So, we don’t really know how to chart the complexities of technology that come from responses to viruses.
BREITLING: I would also be interested concerning issues related to the patchwork & I suppose a kind of an immunitarian more or less modelling/politics emerging This has been actually advocated by some members of the Silicon Valley that a patchwork would be unfolding & would be more or less working & corresponding according to the model of antibodies. You would have an antibody test. Therefore, this antibody test would in a certain sense of course enable you to go this zone, that zone, that zone, etc. And I would also be kind of curious to know if we do kind of imagine post immunitarian/maybe not post but immunitarian antibody world. And would we necessarily see even just a kind of different spatial & a kind of ethnic or population demographics in that case. And how would that necessarily/could that possibly change & challenge the idea that is linked up with patchwork where you have this homogeneity nativism if it’s not according to the kind of techno-commercialistic kind of impulse that someone like Land would have where you do see that it is quite resonates, especially in the certain circles you really want for ethno-nationalist types of states.
KONIOR: And also, isn’t it more dangerous, from purely immunological perspective, to be in small homogenous groups because then you’re more vulnerable to something like a biological threat because it cannot be dispersed within the genetically varied population anymore?
ARMAND: These communities are never genetically homogenous, they’re just cultural constructs. Adam & Mark talked about the issue of species solidarity, which inevitably resolves into a universalized idea of eugenics. It comes back to this question, too, of whether we map eugenics onto, as Bogna was saying, an ethnicity or whether we map it onto, as Dustin is suggesting, a privileged access to the territory. I should just clarify that, because the idea that there is going to be some sort of antibody test that’s going to determine their freedom of movement is again an appeal to a “objective measure” that would somehow be non-ideological. But we know that access to treatment & even access to testing is not equally distributed. It is in no way clear how any kind of egalitarianism can be underwritten, or how this would then lead to social patchworks being self-evident & not already ideologically conditioned.
LOVASZ: Just in relation to the issue of territoriality, I read a really interesting book on this topic. It’s called The Political Economy of Non-Territorial Exit. It was published last year, & I think it’s a very good response to this idea of the patchwork society. Just, in brief, the author says, basically, we could imagine a kind of exit as kind of thing which can be separated from territories. He says that crypto technologies could potentially make possible a kind of exit from existing social structures, not as a real possibility but as a constant threat. Individuals would have that sort of power to basically blackmail states, to opt out of certain aspects of governmentality which they wouldn’t want to participate in, like in taxation for example. And I think this would be a really constructive idea. We could separate exit from territory. You don’t have to secede from a country in order to maybe not participate in everything. So, I think it’s maybe kind of a good alternative to this idea of fragmentation. It sort of takes fragmentation to a whole new level in cyber reality. I think it’s just an interesting option. I don’t know how much, how plausible it is, but it’s a very interesting Utopia.
ARMAND: How would you be a non-participant in a pandemic, for example?
HORVÁTH: I think, it’s question whether you want to be part of the lockdown or not, so there would be a state where lockdown would open up, like the plague in the Middle Ages, where the death drive would open up. And, of course, something like this is possible. But there is or there should be a territory for it.
LOVASZ: Well, it involves introducing a higher level of selectivity into participation in state services & government services. So, it’s very Utopian in the sense that I don’t think it’s possible right now, but it has potential. I think technology could go in this certain direction which makes possible this kind of idea that you don’t have to fight a war or do a referendum to get out of it. You can pick & choose which parts of a government you want to participate in.
HORVÁTH: In connection with the pandemic, it would means that you could choose between, for example, several kinds of vaccines.
LOVASZ: Like packages.
HORVÁTH: Packages, yes.
LOVASZ: Well, I don’t say that this is a solution to the question of patchwork, but I think it’s a good point of departure for thinking in a different way about these kinds of things. And it’s a very libertarian way of thinking. We don’t really agree with all of that, but it’s very provocative & constructive in many ways, out of the box when thinking about territory, population, governmentality. I just want to bring that in.
MACKAY: The thing about patchwork is that, like any kind of political theory, it is just totally moronic if you think about it on the level of “Shall we do this or not?” “Should we do patchwork?” This goes back to what Bogna was saying about technology as well. What’s more interesting is to that COVID is acting as a kind of a social iodine, like it’s dropped into this petri dish & it’s making evident all of these fracture lines & these existing tendencies & there’s definitely a sense in which you’re seeing this virtual potential for patchwork rising to the surface. And it makes it clear that the patchwork is a kind of interference pattern between global homogenization & libertarianism: the more interference, the more homogenous, connected, & inextricable the world becomes. As Louis was saying, you know, we’re all in this in one way or another. The more you reach these crunch points where people think “Well, hang on, we didn’t do this” & that’s what I’m saying about the possibility of a kind of rural secession: ‘We didn’t do this, We were growing your food for you, We weren’t the ones going on seven easy jet flights a week,” you know, “We weren’t the ones in the coffee shops spreading virus.” So, I think there’s a definite possibility to kind of drive those processes, but also through this kind of tearing of society & the fact that it kind of introduces an element of competition almost into the scenario. And especially in the UK where cities are capped into the highest tier without any clear idea of how they can get out of it. It’s producing a lot of tension. I think it’s really interesting, just to see how COVID is acting as an accelerator for these processes.
KONIOR: I would say that the question ‘what should we do?’ is the least interesting question at any point. Simply because, if we look at the history of the technological and social paradigm shifts, they very rarely happen because a group of humans sat in one place and decided to do something. Actually, it’s quite a complex evolution of social and ecological factors that leads to some kind of paradigm shift. With the agricultural revolution, it didn’t happen because humans set down and invented agriculture. It happened, for example, because of the Milankovich phenomenon, an orbital tilt between the earth and the sun that allowed for a really long summer to happen, that allowed the agricultural revolution to happen. There are so many factors that would influence something like a switch to patchwork model, and individual or collective will might be part of that, but it would not be a deciding factor of such big shifts in governance.
ARMAND: It’s interesting how so many of these kinds of discussions always seem to resurrect the idea of rational social relations. The idea that there is something about a society or system of governance that is inherently rational as opposed to being driven by say broadly irrational impulses or whatnot. And one of the themes for this colloquium is “Mayday!” & it’s striking that, simultaneous with the phenomenon of COVID, we’ve witnessed a period of widespread political unrest or instability or protest &, in light of the very existential character of the present crisis, the question presents itself as to why, when people take to the streets, if they not involved in the business of seizing power, what are they doing? What is this spectacle of protest? Who is it directed at? Who is the addressee? And this broadcast of the signal “Mayday! Mayday!” as if to say, “We’re crashing! Something’s wrong! Help!” Who is being called upon to help? Is it the idea of the benevolent state – the state with a conscience, which is going to reform itself & act for the greater good of the populace? Is it a call to arms? “Help us against this monstrous thing!” This also implies the idea that there is an entity somewhere, a state, a god, a father who is going to heed this call & attend to reason, that will tell us what we should do, or – since it is the corporate-state that is itself this monstrous thing – enact swift justice upon itself. Is this the rationality of the panopticon, responding to assist the masses, who have dutifully enacted a rational critique of “it,” & so on? Are these the kinds of impulses & responses that we’re dealing with? Yet a positivism of this kind keeps creeping back into the discourse no matter what sort of apocalyptic tone seems to be its vehicle.
MACKAY: Back to the question of where we began, which was looking at the introductory text to the talk & kind of asking where is this hysteria coming from? Where is the question ‘What should we do’ coming from? And the claim I think in that text is that this isn’t a contingency. It’s something that’s been there all along as if COVID has come to fill the place of some expected event, which is basically a form of what Reza Negarestani called an affordance, right? It’s like seeing COVID as something that you can fit inside your already existing cognitive framework. And that just bespeaks the fact that we’re quite incapable of dealing with something that is pure contingency, that we weren’t prepared for, & that we don’t have any idea how it’s going to play out. So, we kind of invent these myths to deal with it.
BREITLING: It’s not pure contingency though because this has been anticipated for a long time. It might not be Disease X but the mechanism that we’ve resorted to has just been denial, which in itself enables the reduction of those type of uncertainties. It seems like a good point to ask, how much do we also envision this kind of economy of scale? Amazon. Of course, it’s not as pronounced in Europe per se, but looking at the United States & looking at this kind of neo-cartelism that’s kind of emerging, you are going to see a lot of these major companies. You’re already seeing these major companies. You’re already seeing Tesla, now the biggest carmaker & the amount of capitalization is just exponential, etc. How much can we envision or say? They are fulfilling a very patchwork type of model in a certain sense through a kind of subscribership & customership type of basis. And they are already having the kind of whole logistical supply chain fulfilled. I’m really kind of interested is how much do we anticipate or envision them kind of taking over the governance functions & taking on the functions as well where they get concerned or interested in the customers’ & subscribers’ health because they have all the ability to collect all these types of data on them. What’s going to be the long-term interest for them? To try to preserve populations or preserve their customer base? I’d be interested in that. We see Amazon & Google, maybe, even though it’s kind of intentionally breaking up, become more & more interested biopolitical/slash health questions for citizens because that would be a way they could garner the kind of exit voice loyalty model.
BOHAL: There’s a question from the audience, before we conclude. I like the way it ties things back to the primal scene of this whole discussion, which is ultimately a type of death. Bertalan Eged asks: I understand the openness Adam talked about, but what about the people who opened themselves up & died from the virus? What about the relations between openness & death?
LOVASZ: I guess this sort of comes back to the issue of denial. We modern, secular people are in denial about the fact that we’re going to die & what happens afterwards. This wasn’t evident in previous social forms. You knew what was going to happen after death. And now we don’t really know what’s going to happen to us. Heaven or Hell is not really plausible anymore. You could cultivate an of epicurean acceptance of death. I think that’s a sort of a good starting point, but it’s very hard for modern people to think about finitude, & I think that’s where we’re in desperate need of thinking about finitude & about reducing our expectations, exponentially, about what we want from society & from life. This crisis is a good opportunity to cut back our expectations about what we want, what we expect in the developed world at least.
30 OCTOBER 20xx
Transcribed by Jeff Howe