Wrestling with a virus

From the journal Inhabit

Crisis and Control: Resisting the end of the world by proliferating new worlds

COVID-19 is the culmination of a decade of contagion movies, the beginning of the worst. Every little anxiety baked into the liberal order is now being expressed with PSAs reminding us we are all vectors responsible for the spread of the economy’s epochal pandemic. Governments the world over scramble to impose restrictive measures, some ham-fisted, some half-baked, others just horrifying.

What was left of public spaces and social life has been forcefully retracted. Appeals to embrace “social distancing” replicate the deadly isolation we were already living. Brute repression now seems to carry its own justification. Millions on lockdown, public assembly banned, borders closed and flights grounded. 14 days of hell for anyone who might have come into contact with the virus.

No less frightening than the carabinieri guarding the highways are the new measures of technological governance being openly deployed. Facial recognition to identify anyone breaking quarantine. Dronestalking villagers with the nerve to leave their homes. Private communications monitored, locations tracked, access to public spaces determined by mysterious algorithms. Such are the ambitions of all those who rule and the inescapable logic of these technologies.

If planetary quarantine has been normalized in the span of two months, what horrors might we expect of the coming years? We take no pleasure in predicting, as others have, that the novel coronavirus is a preview of pandemics ushered in by a new climatic regime. A slew of strange illnesses unleashed by thawing permafrost and the displacements of humans and non-humans alike, forced out of drowned cities and fragmented habitats. When activists demand a “climate state of emergency” or wartime mobilization, what’s happening now should be taken as the likely shape of their hopeful futures.

More than sudden illness, what has been shocking is the speed with which power sheds the polite fictions of a stable democratic order. The logic of crisis always serves to excuse the deepening of control. The terrible irony is that a virus – a scientific quandary, questionably neither dead nor alive – has become the occasion for managing life itself.

But life cannot be contained or managed so easily. For each new technological ploy, there are the kids who defeat it. For each new zone of abandonment, there are those in revolt. For each measure of distance imposed, there are new forms of conviviality. Not to mention all those everyday acts of courage and compassion, as communities around the world care for themselves amid failing healthcare systems. Ensuring that the elderly are checked up on, that people have enough to eat, that there is still a communal fabric even as governments seek to tear it further – these are the small triumphs of decaying circumstances.

Power’s hold over us is equally demonstrated by emergent forms of social control and by the utter disregard with which they cast aside our lives. Our inability to survive outside their broken system is rapidly being confronted by our dwindling chances of surviving within it. To resist their control has become inseparable from the urgent need to care for one another. How to treat illness, how to care for the vulnerable, how to overcome isolation, how to reinvent presence, how to live with dignity and perhaps how to die with it. These are among the revolutionary questions of our times.

A Coronavirus Reading List

To Our Friends All Over the World From the Eye of the Covid-19 Storm


March 14, 2020

The Monster is Finally at the Door

Mike Davis

March 12, 2020

Against the Coronavirus and the Opportunism of the State


March 12, 2020

The Threat of Contagion

Massimo de Carolis

March 11, 2020

(Original in Italian)

This Virus

Anne Boyer

March 10, 2020

Viruses and Separation

Frédéric Neyrat

March 5, 2020

(Original in French)

The Word from Wuhan

Wang Xiuying

March 5, 2020

Coronavirus Lockdown Is A Living Hell


March 3, 2020

Coronavirus, Synchronous Failure, and the Global Phase-Shift

Nafeez Ahmed

March 2, 2020

Against Quarantine

Angela Mitropoulos

February 13, 2020

Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China


February 26, 2020

Resisting Coronavirus

Andy Climacus

February 26, 2020

The Coronavirus and the State of Exception

Giorgio Agamben

February 26, 2020

(Original in Italian)

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