Who is the enemy? The Thing

A reflection on the coronavirus, the enemy within, by Amador Fernández-Savater.

(lobo suelto! 19/03/2020)

My friend Jun Fujita, passing through Madrid on his return to Japan from Argentina, has been trapped by the quarantine at my house. For me, a blessing: we cook, chat and at night we put together a cinema-forum.

Yesterday, it was The Thing, by John Carpenter (1982), a science-fiction and horror movie that has not lost one bit of its impact capacity. The entire post-movie conversation revolves around the question, so present today with the coronavirus, of the enemy.

– Who is the enemy? The terrifying being found in Antarctica is simply called The Thing by the expedition of scientists.

“We are at war,” said Macron. And he orders the army to patrol the streets. The same thing was said by the Chilean President Sebastián Piñera when the insurrection began in his country: “We are at war against a powerful, implacable enemy that does not respect anyone or anything.” An “alien” power added his wife. Mobilisation and total war against … The Thing.

The Thing has no name. It is an Unidentified Flying Object, escaping radar detection. It does not fit in any of the classification tables, in any of the previous categorisation systems. What is more: The Thing ruins and destroys them. It is the monster, the being come from another planet, the illegal combatant, the power from outside, a point of exteriority with respect to civilization.

War on The Thing! Of course you have to care and take care of yourself, protect and protect yourself. But isn’t The Thing also an occasion for thought? It is only possible to think in the interruption: the interruption of automatisms, of stereotypes, of what is evident. The Thing is a hole in the system of established evidences. It invites us to rethink everything again: health and sanitation, cities and food, bonds and care.

Instead of covering the hole, look through it. It is the difference between managing and transforming. But who wants to keep open a hole?

– Indiscernibility. Who is The Thing?

We are seeing it today: the enemy can be anyone. Those who come to the village from the city, that guy who still walks down the street, the homeless and the migrant boys without a home.

The horizontal social tension is palpable these days. Who has the virus? We don’t known. Anyone can pass it on. You have to be suspicious of everyone. You can unknowingly carry The Thing inside: you are the asymptomatic.

The communists were a recognizable enemy. AIDS was associated with “risk groups or practices”. But now anyone can get infected, anyone can spread it, anyone is the enemy.

The pilot MacReady (Kurt Rusell) goes case by case, it is the safest, but the situation changes, it evolves. The healthy one of yesterday can be the infected one of today. A hellish short circuit of the actual and the virtual. Mistrust and paranoia are widespread.

– The enemy comes from outside

How to protect yourself? In the movie, each character locks himself up in his own individual plan, avoiding meeting the others in an overall, combined plan (the shots-reverse shots become social distancing). We must close borders. A border around each of us, the quarantined house. The country’s border, the border of the European Union. It does not matter that Europe is more a source of contagion than the other way around, it is still thought that the enemy comes from outside and that protecting oneself consists in leaving it outside.

And yet The Thing arrived before the research expedition. The Thing had been there long before, embedded in the Earth.

If The Thing was there before, how are we going to leave it outside?

A remarkable text circulating these days, Monologue of the virus, reminds us that viruses were there from the beginning of everything, that they represent the continuity of what is alive, that without them there would have been no life.

Like the “barravento” that blows in Glauber Rocha’s film of the same name (1962), the coronavirus moves, identifying itself with the movements of absolute deterritorialisation of the Earth. The virus is the earth. We are the extra-terrestrials, those that we have severed from the continuity of the living, separating subject (Man) and object to dominate (the world). It is the logic of dominance that cuts the relational field of life, putting us all in danger. It is that extraterrestrial life that threatens us.

– Protect ourselves from The Thing. But how?

There is no way out in the Carpenter movie; a radical film, without concessions, without illusions, without a happy ending.

To put an end to The Thing, MacReady sets fire to all of the facilities, to all the homes, to the entire scientific base. He sets fire to everything that (supposedly) protects. Because he suspects that The Thing may be hidden in any corner.

He sets fire to everything and is left out in the open, in the desert of ice. Fire consumes cold, but threatens to take everything with it.

It is the most radical way out: burning everything that supposedly protects us from evil but actually reproduces it. To be left out in the open, where a new beginning is possible. Exposed, with life uncovered.

Is this radical gesture within our reach? Do we want it or are we too afraid? Is it the only possible gesture?

We would surely prefer a sensible response that would protect the vulnerable without exposing anyone else in return (the poor, the scapegoats), that would take us back to normality without too much cost. But here, in the reformist exit, The Thing will surely find corners and nooks within which to shelter itself and we will not take advantage of the hole to think radically.

And then?

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