There is a scene in the 1988 anime film Akira depicting a billboard counting down 147 days until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with “just cancel it!” graffitied over the top. On 28 February 2020, this dystopian science fiction became a reality when the hashtag #justcancelit started trending on Twitter, precisely 147 days before the Tokyo Olympics was set to commence before being postponed because of the coronavirus.1 As everyone knows by now, coronavirus or COVID-19 is a severe acute respiratory syndrome that came to widespread attention when cave dwelling bats passed it on to humans at a Wuhan wet market in December 2019 before spreading across the globe, triggering the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic with over 40,000 deaths and 850,000 infections worldwide at the time of writing (April Fools’ Day). The virus spreads by close contact when people cough and sneeze or touch infected surfaces, acts now akin to screaming some vile ethnic slur in public. Every sniffle and slight symptom are capable of crippling us with the fear that our body is no longer our own. Globalisation notwithstanding, one tactic by which the virus is able to spread so rapidly is its deceptive two-week incubation period before symptoms even begin to appear. While in some cases the virus can begin and end as a mild flu, there are not infrequent instances where it can cause pneumonia and even death, both of which are intensified by public healthcare systems’ insufficient medical resources to handle infections en masse.
In the absence of a vaccine, preventive measures to stop the flow of the infected among the general populace include the closure of borders, severe travel restrictions, the cancellation of all public events and social gatherings, the shutdown of nonessential businesses, and the self-isolation of individuals in their homes. As the paramedic in the film Annihilation prescribes, “you’re saying that we get out by going deeper in?” Every sharehouse is presently staging a low-budget remake of another science fiction horror movie The Thing with no one knowing for sure if the virus is already hiding behind the mask of their housemates’ familiar faces. The prevention may even prove worse than the virus as mass socio-economic disruption from closed borders and lockdowns leave once bustling bars, restaurants, sports stadiums, and cultural sites looking like the desolate set of a post-apocalyptic movie. The constant fear of getting infected is enough to weaken one’s immune system, paradoxically making one more susceptible to the virus in an epidemiological turn of the screw on the old self-fulfilling prophecy.
In an age where the often-repeated mantra “strange times” rots into a platitude, it seems as if every big daddy philosopher vying to be immortalized in the cannon has come out with their own hot take. In each case, the personified anime version of the virus known as Coronachan has exposed them to be lost, ignorant and dogmatic in the precise sense that they seek to uncomfortably fit the planetary pandemonium into their stale paradigms and pre-existing frameworks. Take the most notorious case of Italian philosopher and state of exception theorist Giorgio Agamben. In a short piece published on 26 February,
Agamben argued that the Italian state was using the virus as an excuse for the biopolitical enforcement of a completely superfluous state of emergency that would suspend our democratic rights:
“The disproportionate reaction to what according to the CNR is something not too different from the normal flus that affect us every year is quite blatant. It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.”2
It is fortunate that people seldom pay little more attention to philosophers than Jean-Luc Nancy did when Agamben advised him against receiving a heart transplant that ultimately saved his life.3 Agamben’s qualifications on 17 March after a practically unanimous backlash only saw him double down on his original take:
“We effectively live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “security reasons” and as a consequence has condemned itself to living in a permanent state of fear and insecurity. It’s not surprising that we talk about the virus in terms of a war. The emergency provisions effectively force us to live under a curfew. But a war against an invisible enemy that can nestle in any other human being is the most absurd of wars.”4
Absurd indeed. For all its horrors, it was hard to hide the schadenfreude behind my p2 mask as the actual state of exception cancelled anything the preeminent state of exception theorist had to say about it.
To give another example, Slavoj Žižek’s editorial on the coronavirus saw him once again rehearsing his classic formula: insert x (in this case the virus) and argue that the only way to solve x is global communist revolution: “Maybe another—and much more beneficial ideological virus will spread and hopefully infect us: the virus of thinking about an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualises itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation.”5 Thus Žižek tells us that “the coronavirus will also compel us to re-invent communism based on trust in the people and in science”, though surely not the same people who continued flocking to beaches and bars and panichoarded toilet paper, leaving supermarkets looking like apocalyptic art installations.6 Thus he tells us that “the first vague model of such a global coordination is the World Health Organization”, though surely not the same WHO that advised against travel restrictions and the closure of borders until the virus had already rampaged across Europe.7 If viruses just love universalism, is it not because universalism is just a virus? A similar absorption of the new into the old could be seen in preeminent philosopher of novel events Alain Badiou who rather stubbornly and self-satisfyingly declared that “from the start, I thought that the current situation, characterized by a viral pandemic, was not particularly exceptional”, that “the current epidemic is by no means the emergence of something radically new or unprecedented”.8 Didn’t those in overcrowded intensive care units get the memo that, “sometimes, we are eternal”? Do you even Anthropocene?
On the contrary, it is my wager that the virus is no less world-historic than the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that decimated the city in tsunamis of fire, triggering Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire to ridicule the long-standing belief till then that we live in the best of all possible worlds. It was above all Kant’s youthful studies of earthquakes, likely triggered by the incident at Lisbon, which would see him eventually concoct his seismic Critique of Pure Reason, subverting all our pretentions that our concepts and values have any purchase on the reality of the things themselves. Like Kant’s, our age is hardly one in which we may bask under the warmth of the Platonic sun; it is an age in which we are plunged back into the shadows of the cave—in this case, the bat cave. Perhaps never before has the usually self-assured political elite, media pundits and even respectable leading scientists acknowledged so incessantly what they did not know about the virus, how and where it is spreading, what its effects are, and how it can be stopped. Like Lisbon’s tectonic plates before her, Coronahcan is swiftly becoming the most ruthlessly critical philosopher of our time. Who would have thought that the cave would critique the sun?
To put it in metaphorical—though perhaps not purely metaphorical—terms, the key question of the day is what future does Coronachan want? What Paul B. Preciado has called “the great mutation” has all the hallmarks of a selection process or critique of judgment that judges in favor of certain regimes, certain cultures, social relations, technical systems, and psychological types based on their ability to survive, while selecting against the existence or at least the dominance of others.9 There is really little difference between a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and a Special Quarantine Zone (SQZ and pronounced squeeze), both of which amount to an experiment in new socioeconomic modes of production and the cultures, technologies, and subjectivities that come packaged with them. On the one hand, it certainly seems as if Coronachan is swiftly selecting out of existence Hassan Rouhani’s theocratic Iran and quite possibly Jair Bolsonaro’s quasi-fascist Brazil with those regimes’ anti-scientific impulses and complete lack of concern to curb the circulation of the virus in their midst. On the other hand, it also seems to place on the operating table Western liberal democracies like Italy, and quite possibly Spain, France, the UK, and the US to follow, amputating the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of assembly that inhibit the state’s ability to flatten the exponential curve of infections.
As they always do, both the far right and the radical left are resting content that they’ve been vindicated. For those on the left, the virus exposes the failure of capitalism and its ideologues’ delusions of unlimited growth when confronted with the free market’s incapacity to provide basic healthcare to all those falling ill. So it goes that the Italian communist Bifo can say that “the semiotic virus, and the psycho reset that it is bringing about, is helping us in the transition towards immobility”.10 For those on the right, the closure of national borders and the localization of manufacturing and supply chains evinces the demand for a renewed nationalism, not to mention the capacity for more authoritarian state capitalist regimes like China to curb the rate of infection quicker than liberal democracies. So it goes that Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić was seen kissing the Chinese flag after announcing the breakdown of the EU:
“There is no great international solidarity. European solidarity is a fairy tale on paper. We have the highest hopes in the only people who can help us, namely China. I sent a letter and I asked our friend and brother, President Xi Jinping, asking China for everything, even to send us doctors.”11
Even in the liberal pandemocracies, a subterranean eugenics surreptitiously at work all along has come to the forefront as those in Italy over a certain age and with enough comorbidities for whom the virus is more likely to be fatal are denied treatment altogether. Medical procedures for abortion and gender transitioning fall by the wayside as the hospital beds reach full capacity. All the while the rich, the powerful and the famous are tested and immaculately treated no matter their health or age. When the dust finally settles, the prevailing conspiracy theory is surely going to be that it was a bioweapon in one big eugenics project. In light of this, we could very well interpret the video of Hollywood celebrity elites like Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman singing the lines “imagine there’s no countries / it isn’t hard to do” from John Lennon’s “Imagine” as a threat.
Coronachan is not only a revolutionary but a technophile. As remote work from home becomes the norm, our entire work, social, and even sex lives are now taking place solely online. With people barred from wandering freely outdoors, the automation of production and distribution receives another massive push. Why risk going to the movies when you can Netflix, chill, and quarantine in the comfort of your own disinfected home? Why eat out when a drone can deliver it to your door anyway? Those who dare to venture out in the streets in any case find themselves surveilled like never before by cameras, drones, and even their own smartphones’ location data, while their temperatures are checked by Predator-esque police helmets with built-in thermal scanners. Just about the only entity with a strong enough immune system to roam the streets with impunity are evermore autonomous robots, or at least half-human, half-machine cyborgs.
As we barricade our homes into makeshift panic rooms, the virus has shaken up everyday life so that all of us are obsessively thinking about death as we sit on the brink of apocalypse at all times. The time of quarantine is the time of boredom; which is to say the time of nihilism, of the subversion of all our plans, goals, purposes, and ideals as we find ourselves without anything to do or pursue. In a culture where death by flirting is a real possibility, the standard two-week self-isolation period could be the new heroic gesture of courtly love—provided one’s whole country has not already been locked down into a state of mandatory inceldom. Even as it assassinates monarchs like Prince Charles, the virus enforces a new aristocratic sensibility, a noble’s critique of judgment: choose your friends and lovers wisely, for they must be few and far between. Who, in the end, is non-essential? Are not friends just comrades for grown-ups? Such is how aesthetic taste becomes an objective criterion for the propagation of certain cultures and social relations that are as impossible to refuse as they are difficult to affirm. The 1967 Chinese Cultural Revolution is no longer the most radical “incident at Wuhan”. We are all critical philosophers now.
Of course, the virus has also intensified old xenophobias among other vulgar anthropomorphisms (most notably Sinophobia, even if one wonders why China wouldn’t want to take credit for the decline of the West), as well as a whole new wave of herd mentalities, from panic-buying to panic-virtue signaling. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, “all that is profound loves a p2 mask”, and all this, too, is a mask. The world has at last become a vast, planetary-wide laboratory. We are finally finding out what geopolitical world order, what social regimes, cultures, libidinal relations, technical apparatuses, and psychological types have the will to mutate and survive. It is not, of course, for me or any human for that matter to decide what Coronachan wants. As one of the lead members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and science-geek-in-a-movie-warning-weneed-to-act-now! Dr. Fauci put it, “you don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline”.12 Whatever Coronachan wants, she gets, and whatever Coronachan isn’t, isn’t. As we come to unknow everything we did know, all that we can say for sure is that something, some future horizon, some unknown land, is about to go viral …
“‘Just Cancel it!’ trending hard as coronavirus gets Olympic push from ’88 anime ‘Akira’,” The Japan Times, 28 February, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/02/28/national/just-cancel-trending-hard-coronavirus-gets-olympic-push-88-anime-akira/#.Xnv0s4gzZPZ. ↩
Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an Epidemic,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 26 February, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/. ↩
Jean-Luc Nancy, “Viral Exception,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27 February, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/. ↩
Giorgio Agamben, “Clarifications,” An und für sich, 17 March, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://itself.blog/2020/03/17/giorgio-agamben-clarifications/. ↩
Slavoj Žižek, “Coronavirus is ‘Kill Bill’-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism,” RT, 27 February, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/481831-coronavirus-kill-bill-capitalism-communism/. ↩
Žižek, “Coronavirus.” ↩
Žižek, “Coronavirus.” ↩
Alain Badiou, “On the Epidemic Situation,” Verso, 22 March, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation. ↩
Paul B. Preciado, “The Losers Conspiracy,” Artforum, 26 March, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.artforum.com/slant/the-losers-conspiracy-82586. ↩
Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Diary of the Psycho-deflation,” Verso, 18 March, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4600-bifo-diary-of-the-psycho-deflation. ↩
Quoted in “Vucic: State of emergency throughout Serbia takes effect immediately,” Bizlife, 16 March, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.bizlife.rs/en/in-focus/news-of-the-day/vucic-state-of-emergency-throughout-serbia-takes-effect-immediately/. ↩
Quoted in Caitlin O’Kane, “‘You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline’: Dr. Fauci delivers frank message on coronavirus,” CBS News, 26 March, 2020, accessed 29 March, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-dr-fauci-cnn-chris-cuomo-interview-you-dont-make-the-timeline-virus-makes-how-long-will-it-last/. ↩