Walking away from an epidemic

Detail of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1892 artwork showing the samuari Minamoto no Tametomo resisting smallpox gods

Apocalypse (n.): late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal,” from apo “off, away from” + kalyptein “to cover, conceal,” from PIE root *kel- “to cover, conceal, save.” The Christian end-of-the-world story is part of the revelation in John of Patmos’ book “Apokalypsis” (a title rendered into English as pocalipsis c. 1050, “Apocalypse” c. 1230, and “Revelation”  by Wyclif c. 1380). Its general sense in Middle English was “insight, vision; hallucination.” The meaning “a cataclysmic event” is modern (not in OED 2nd ed., 1989).

(Online Etymology Dictionary)

It is said by some that we live in apocalyptic times. Yet if this is so, it is not clear who is thereby able to see and what is being seen.

A british prime-minister declares the end of pandemic sanitary restrictions in public to be “Freedom Day”. (The Guardian) And not to be outdone, another european prime-minister, this time portugal’s, promises that “by the end of the summer, we may reach the moment of the total liberation of society”.  (Público)

“Freedom” is thus celebrated as the ability to consume without a mask, while the meaning of words like “freedom” is swept away by the slavery to what can be consumed.

Simultaneously, numerous governments on the continent increasingly restrict the movement of people outside their residence, with the obligation that they possess a “health pass” (a proof of vaccination), an extension of the european union’s digital covid certificate, to be able to frequent certain of spaces. (The Guardian)

A hierarchical bio-politics of the “healthy” body gains public visibility, paralleling and complementing older divisions of sexed, racialised and poor bodies, and auguring more violent forms of political and social exclusion. (Giorgio Agamben) The great majority of those who have died of the covid-19 virus are the poor, the non-white, the invisible “essential workers” of care and hygiene, food production and distribution, and this regardless of the country (e.g., whether it be brazil, the uk or the u.s.a., it matters little).  Those who were poor before the pandemic, only become more so. (The Guardian)

And the “cure”, in the form of vaccines, goes first to those governed by the wealthiest states. While those in the “first world” revel in “freedom”, the pandemic continues to run amok in the unvaccinated “third world”. (Wall Street Journal)

James C. Scott, in his essay Against the Grain, offers a sweeping and illuminating narrative of early State formation. Simplifying the overall story, what Scott endeavours to demonstrate is that contrary to “accepted opinion”, State-centred societies were far from being the advances of civilisation that they have so often been presented as.

The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization. (Against the Grain, p. xii)

These early sedentary and urbanised States (the cities of which Scott aptly calls, “late Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps”), given their concentration of animal (human and non-human) life, were fertile grounds for disease and epidemics. And more nomadic societies knew better then to approach cities, and those in the cities, given the chance, often fled into the countryside.

The association of infection with crowding was known and utilized long before the actual vectors of disease transmission were understood. Hunters and gatherers knew enough to stay clear of large settlements, and dispersal was long seen as a way to avoid contracting an epidemic disease. Late medieval Oxford and Cambridge maintained plague houses in the countryside to which students were dispatched with the first sign of the plague. Concentration could be lethal. Thus the trenches, demobilization camps, and troop ships at the conclusion of World War I provided the ideal conditions for the massive and lethal influenza pandemic of 1918. Social sites of crowding —fairs, military encampments, schools, prisons, slums, religious pilgrimages, such as the hajj to Mecca—have historically been locations where infectious diseases have been contracted and from which they have subsequently been dispersed. (Against the Grain, p. 101)

Among the revelations of the covid-19 pandemic, and unlike the story that Scott tells, is that where States have been more or less able to “manage” the spread and consequences of the disease, the great majority of their populations have rallied about the flag, so to speak. In other words, it is “we” who have asked for the State, for more State, so that our fears may be kept at bay and so that our lives, if only that, may be secured. And as “we” rush to “our” guardians, the degree of dependence on the State shows itself as ever more complete, and this without any scent of so called “totalitarianism”. What reason is there to fear an authority whose proclaimed task and whose actions are directed towards the care for our physical well-being, our productive and re-productive survival?

This picture is of course one-sided. Far too many States have neither the means nor the desire to “care” for all of their “citizens”. And even amidst the richest States, dysfunctions and fissures appear in the multiple apparatuses of control. It is there, in these shifting spaces of rupture and collapse, where other possibilities of life can appear, do appear, beyond the epi-demos (among the people, as created by a State), echoing in some way those who in the past walked away (and who sometimes still do so) from “civilised” life.


This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.