By May 2020, all Western nations, and some others, joined in a chorus demanding the WHO conduct an investigation of how and where the coronavirus originated. By now, China has also formally supported the demand since all theories of the virus’s genesis, dominating popular imagination, seem to implicate China. Two of these theories have gained currency over time: one is that the virus originated in the wet markets of Wuhan where wild animals were sold and bought; and the other is that it was human-made, born in the scientific laboratories of Wuhan, and either intentionally or unintentionally let out to devastate the world.
There is no doubt that the two theories stand on remarkably different grounds. Consequently, they have very specific implications for the status of human immunity. If the virus originated in the animal markets of Wuhan, this commercial and civic context actually makes possible a fascinating line of historical research: the markets become a site, a threshold through which an obscure and long process passes, a slow and inexorable duration of inter-species encounters.
Corresponding to this hypothesis of the virus being transmitted through ‘wild’ species, is the discussion pertaining to different immune systems of different species. The enigma of immunity provokes and tantalizes this line of research with the question of why certain animals (such as bats), while infected by the virus, don’t develop any pathology, unlike the humans. While the enigma of immunity is only reinforced, a systematic domain of the study of comparative immunities among species is also opened up.
The second theory, however, has a much more abrupt impact. If the virus is human-made and crafted in laboratory conditions, then this very artificial, rarefied circumstance makes the question of human immunity that much denser. Something that arises out of what we can call a project of scientific consciousness, a consciousness presumed to be the peculiar attribute of human species-being, ends up challenging and destabilizing the immune capacity of that very species. Of course, this self-directed disruption, this self-inflicted damage could be the typical distressing story not of the evolution of the species, but of history into which the species diverts its activities, with all its discrepancies and impasses. In this complicated hypothesis on history, we are met with a significant interruption of the self-contained scientific comparison of specific immune systems of ‘animals’, including the human animal, exposed to the virus. Nothing confronts us as starkly and irreducibly at this threshold of history than the biological fragility of human immunity. The circle closes in on itself exactly now, when we look to science for a desperate elucidation of the enigma of immunity.
Despite the differences produced by the ‘wet market’ and the ‘experimental leak’ hypotheses, there exists a shared, if unconscious, tendency of these theories. I will call this their orientalizing tendency. If the virus is said to originate in the wet markets of Wuhan and transmitted from ‘wild’ animals to human beings, then a sort of cultural spectre arises from the Chinese association of these markets—a spectre that induces shudders at the thought of a people, a civilization, deemed to be in direct and continuous contact with a pre-human and ‘wild’ state of being. This is a spectre disturbing the consistency and contemporaneity of a ‘world’ hypothesized to be threatened by a common viral enemy. If there exists an inconsistent cultural part of this world—a part with ‘Chinese characteristics’—too contaminated by a generalized animal contagion, then the specific virus almost becomes generically ‘Chinese’. This is the first variant of the orientalizing tendency of the theories circulating in our global imagination.
The second theory has the appearance of a perverse and cynical modernity. If China is capable of producing a deadly virus in artificial laboratory conditions—and of releasing it, deliberately or otherwise—, then surely this action is authorized by all the corrosive legitimacy of modern science, not cultural archaism. At the same time, several nations that subscribe to the theory of a China-made virus also paint the worst-case scenario of a Chinese political conspiracy in the image of a plot hatched by an oriental despot. This despot could be the head of the Chinese government or the Communist party itself. The imputation of a logic of oriental despotism, then, invests the political power of a modern state with the obscure ‘pleasure’ of an archaic and arbitrary figure.
It is equally interesting that the figure most tirelessly speaking of a ‘Chinese virus’ and promoting the theory of a manufactured epidemic is someone whose own whims and pleasures remain obscure to much of the contemporary world. If there is a lucid example of an ‘oriental despot’ today, even if democratically elected, it is Donald Trump. It is Trump who has no difficulty in subjectivizing the virus as ‘Chinese’ and fashioning his own persona as a pure subjective will.
The question of Oriental despotism has been posed in several contexts. Edward Said’s diagnosis of this orientalist construction of the East is well known. But we will adopt a modest psychoanalytical method to decipher these orientalist constructions. There are two fundamental steps to this method: the first is to analyse the ‘economy of enjoyment’ of the so-called oriental despot. The second step can be framed as a question: if the oriental despot is a creature of pure pleasure and not of any kind of political or administrative knowledge, then how does this essentially imbecilic form of rule secure sovereign power over its subjects?
French writer Alain Grosrichard proposes that the fantasy of Oriental despotism is actually sustained by those very subjects who fantasize the existence of a pure, empty space of power suffused with pleasure and entirely void of knowledge. This fantasy creates a supplementary structure of delegation for every oriental despot in the figure of the vizier (vicar, minister), who exercises specialized, professional knowledge that makes power sustainable. This orientalist structure was created historically in enlightenment Europe with its clear but spectral (non)relationship with the Other—Islamic and involving other Orients.
In our times, with a globalized capitalist world, all orientalizing views take place on the same plane. So, we can observe, with some irony and a lot of distaste, Donald Trump’s self-insertion into the inherited Western structures of Oriental despotism and his peculiar ‘libidinal’ reaction to the specialized professional opinions of Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading representative of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. It almost seems like Trump accepts or rejects his medical vizier’s views as he pleases.[i] In other words, someone on the centre-stage of world politics appeals to the fantasy of an ‘oriental despotism’ engineering the pandemic, while himself displaying the traits of such a fantasized despot. To this extent, the paradigm of a Western scientific consciousness that is consistent with democratic politics has already been irreversibly scrambled by the Trumpist intervention and its orientalist, obscure motivations.
This brings us to an alternative response to the question of the origin and destination of the virus: the threshold of a Europeanist response. To begin with, one must recognize that, after China, the first collective viral blow was felt in Europe. The word ‘collective’ here doesn’t simply designate the illness’s cumulative physical assault, but also a public consciousness. This consciousness not only grasps the material condition of living a ‘normal’ biological life, but also the inseparable entwinement of such a life with historical modes of collective public existence. The transcendental horizon subtending such a history is presumed to be universally valid for all existence irrespective of the flickering exigencies gripping its biological infrastructure. In fact, things are the other way around: the material conditions of the physical health of populations within Europe are sought to be secure enough such that all ‘life’ can be rendered capable of a universal social, political and cultural existence, anchored in principles and values that instantiate autonomous and shared ‘forms of life’. A Europeanist consciousness is a paradigmatic self-reflection of the universal or cosmopolitan possibility of a life, whose form is not simply reducible to the force of biology.
Without a doubt, Immanuel Kant is the inaugural philosopher of this transcendental Europeanist horizon.[ii] In several short texts on the specific historical and universal evaluation of European enlightenment, Kant forged Europe as a sign. ‘Europe’ was a sign that history was progressing towards a universal horizon that promised a rational form of collective existence for all humans. At the same time, as a historical sign of this universal horizon, the name ‘Europe’ produced a hierarchical distance between itself and the rest of the world, precisely at the time that someone like Kant was theorizing its capacity. This also made Kant a paradigmatically equivocal philosopher oscillating between a Europeanist sign and a Eurocentric substance. Such an equivocation reaches up to the beginnings of the twentieth century, and expresses itself in a new, complicated and intriguing way, when with the Russian revolution and the culmination of the two world wars, Europe was divided between the sign of a capitalist world and a communist internationalism. This division within Europeanist time was, in turned, signified by two opposed mystical substances: a rationalist ideology of individualist market society embodied by the Western world and a despotic and totalitarian Party society embodied by the impenetrable East.
The viral blow shatters even this neatly divided Europeanist consciousness that translated itself historically between the two symmetrical, if mystical, blocs during the cold war. In doing this, it performs several tasks, with their attendant teaching moments. First of all, the biological blow shows us that the paradigm of a Europeanist consciousness is an ideological construction grown on a historical soil. That is to say, it is not actually transcendental. Secondly—and conversely—it teaches us that the nature of this blow is not merely material and physical; it is a traumatic blow to the intellectual constitution of any Europeanism.
This trauma was vividly reflected in Giorgio Agamben’s singular, courageous and bewildering response to the Italian government’s earliest steps of locking down the country in February 2020.[iii] Agamben strongly criticized the government’s declaration of a state of exception in the name of the coronavirus. This position was singularly courageous because it was uncompromising and Europeanist in valuing life in terms of a ‘form’ and not subject to mere ‘force’. By then, all mainstream public consciousness had fled such a position in the face of the grim situation, particularly in Italy. But Agamben’s was also a bewildering response because he seemed to be basing his forthright rejection of the state of exception on a measurable scale of the very force, which he refused to let determine his judgement in principle. He considered, at that point, that the government was instrumentalizing a crisis to normalize the ‘exception’ by granting itself exceptional political power, while the crisis was, measurably, not so serious.
It is obvious that any such evaluation could be proven wrong by the way things would have turned out in the future, which was the case by March 2020, when the death rate in Italy had grown so rapidly that no one could ignore or discount it. Apart from this, Agamben’s near-positivist critique of the government left it exposed to a structural objection: was it ever possible to conceive of an exercise of sovereign power that was not exceptional and excessive, irrespective of the objective magnitude of circumstances? It seems to me, a certain Europeanist idealism—or ideological consciousness—was lurking within the exemplary integrity of Agamben’s reaction to governmental politics sweeping over and partly dissolving the cosmopolitan transcendental horizon of ‘Europeanism’. In this respect, Agamben seemed to hold on to the imaginary of a zero-degree Europeanism, or a kind of neutral immortality of Europe-as-society.
The governmental imposition of curbs on public movement and disciplining populations according to norms of ‘social distance’, however, was met with a paradoxical impasse. The very ground of ‘discipline’, as historically formed within model societies, was freedom. Only a structural premise, within which a free individual exists, could make possible the specific activation of this freedom into discipline, of constitutive autonomy into constituted community. Such a mobilisation would be calibrated to the rigorous demands made by the exigencies of a crisis, an emergency. But the premise of freedom is intrinsically haunted by errancy. It is within the logic of human freedom that, in its social practice, it will not follow the rigours of either nature or community, insofar as both are spatialized manifestations. Freedom is lived out in temporalized actions, that, in their unfolding, necessarily breach pre-given spatial codes. The possibility of transgressing natural and communitarian boundaries is intrinsic to the historical unfolding of freedom. The paradox is that in a situation of biological crisis, governmental activation of freedom asks it to prohibit itself from committing an errant act, while errancy is the very mode of being free. In other words, European governments today demand from freedom something like a conformity to ritual rigour.
It did not come as a surprise, then, that a doctor (from the US, not Europe incidentally) suggested on CNN that we ‘look East’ for a model of rigorous obedience to the dictates of lockdown and social distancing. The invocation of an Eastern model of collective conduct in this case reaches the other pole of the orientalist continuum: if Trumpist ‘orientalism’ at one pole consists in an obscure (and catastrophic) enjoyment of the despot—and in the middle lies Europe, still trying to retain its transcendental and cosmopolitan self-estimation while empirically falling in line with the Trumpist objectification of a ‘Chinese virus’—, then the other pole of the continuum seems to be occupied by a desire to synthesize the Western premise of freedom with an Eastern culture of rigour. On this orientalist terrain, the political critique of the totalitarian structure of party dictatorship in China, has been transmuted into a cultural admiration of discipline without the errancy of freedom. It is not difficult to see this admiring gaze collapse back into the initial civilizational revulsion at an indiscriminate cultural disposition bereft of proper human qualities, of which freedom is primary. Without arguing the point, my conclusion is that this orientalization of the virus on a global scale is the manifest sign of the orientalization of the whole world. And, since there is only one world today, a mystical, orientalized and capitalist one, any prognosis of a new cold war can only be sustained not on the grounds of a confrontation between two ‘worlds’ but as the scene of a new cold civil war (or, alternatively, a civil cold war).
[i] Alain Grosrichard, The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, trans. Liz Heron (London, Verso, 1998).
[ii] Immanuel Kant, “The Contest of Faculties”, Kant: Political Writings (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 176–190.
[iii] Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an Epidemic”, European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 26 February 2020, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/.