There was a sickness out there. And it struck us down with silence. Even when people were in close proximity, their voices were notably quieter. It was like the world had become a solemn cathedral for a while, collectivised in mourning, where we all whispered and seemingly had greater respect yet fear for the very air we breathed. That’s perhaps what Dante didn’t fully appreciate. Purgatory was not always full of howling screams; it could be deadly silent. And yet, many noted how the beauty remained. Nature had never looked so majestic, it’s delicate sounds so audible, its innocence more pronounced. It’s felt like the animal world had found a new freedom, which forced us to take note in our more humbled and truly vulnerable state. We were all thrown into a humanitarian crisis, borderland conditions of anxiety now thriving within every single metropolis, while the ecological conditions of life managed to replenish themselves. But there was a sickness out there, that much couldn’t be denied. And the lock-down only added to the silence, the alienation, the remoteness. Yet maybe the sickness was already within us, coursing through the veins of our systems, haunted by the other pandemics we had chosen to ignore, plagued by our own inhumanity and failure to take seriously the bio-spherical conditions that constitute planetary life.
What we have now seen more fully is how humanity has been sacrificed at the altar of its own failed realisation. As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the world, there was a glimmer of hope that something called humanity might just emerge from the isolated shadows. That dream ended as quickly as the virus appeared. Instead, the true accelerationists were already prepared to take advantage of the emerging post-liberal disorder. The logics were already in the making and the technologies for control already in production. Tracking apps developed by a technological army, faceless and nameless, with no national allegiance to speak of or doctrine to advance. For quite some time, they had been operating in the atmospheric shadows, watching over us like some science fiction fantasy waiting to strike, by they were as real as the virus that sought to also inhabit every organ we possessed. What they needed was a crisis devastating enough to provide the necessary conditions of possibility. The sacred order of liberalism had passed. And the victim, as we have painfully seen, defined only by its physical and literal absences. They too have become as invisible as that which killed them.
Giorgio Agamben has been disagreeable on so many points. But his autopsy of the present has led us to one distinguishable truth. As the providential machine of liberalism gasps its final cold breath, the new age, the new normal that has already arrived is a global techno-theodicy. An age where humanity itself has now become the sacrificial object, where the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials, where we all come face to face with the terrifying void, where the transcendental is purely virtual, where the future is already present, where technology is presented as the only thing that might save us and where the poetic is only of use if it can be already appropriated. Such a condition is necessarily bound up with a post-political imagination, micro-managing every breath taken, turning the intimate into a dangerous reckoning, augmenting a simulated reality in which the forces of militarism will truly thrive, while enforcing the most micro-specific segregations and prejudicial assumptions that venture deep into the souls of all planetary life in the name of sheer survival.
Technology no doubt breaks down barriers. It also enables. And it connects humans in the simulacrum of its infinite vortexes, which truly collapse space and time. But when technology becomes the rule, governing all aspects of life, presenting itself as the new mythical force that reaching down from the untouchable and ephemeral clouds promises to be the only salvation, so it too learns to enslave as much as it masters the killing of intimacy. This is not just a lockdown. Nor is it some conspiracy. It is a catastrophe. It is an opportunity. And it is the first truly global experiment to see what humans are truly willing to tolerate.
In his astute reading, the artist Jake Chapman observed how the human has now collapsed fully back into the species. That we are a singular organism is no longer in question. But if this collective species has a body, it’s not one that can reach out and touch. We are connected in our veritable contagion. Every movement therefore needs to be controlled, every choice anticipated, every droplet and secretion monitored, every congregation denied, every alternative medicated.
The parallels with 9/11 are striking. We had already come to terms with the idea of some invisible enemy, who could indiscriminately strike at our exposed bodies in the most terrifying ways. Such violence was also ecological, inducing its own climates of fear. Whilst the inability to identify with certainty who those invisible enemies were, the net was cast wide on potential endangerment. But this position was always questionable. That is no longer the case. The enemy is an “invisible killer”, but the enemy is also within us. The species is therefore truly at war with itself. Summoning an isolated retreat as we learn to fear those, we love the most.
Perhaps too much has now already been said about the birth of bio-politics and what it means to the history of modern government. Yet it is worth reminding that despite the formidable bio-power of states, amongst the most guarded of all our rights have been the records of our political allegiances, along with the unwritten confidentiality agreements concerning our physical and psychological states. Whilst the former has long since been abandoned, the final frontier in battle for privacy is health. And it is already being sold to the highest technological bidder.
But who speaks of rights any longer anyway except the right, who have turned the discourse on its head? The brilliance of Trump is to make us believe there is still something called politics, something to be debated, contested, fought over. Trump has created a dialectic he knows he can win. He pitches an illusionary battle – as outrageous as it is false – against a liberal enemy which is already dead. As outrage spreads across the echo chambers of social media, where else now (?), so the masses disbelievingly type about not drinking the bleach, trying to saying something, which also revealing of the desperation of globally distributed subjects subjected to their own machinic alienation, hope that what will be said can at least become as viral as the virus.
Trump has placed nostalgia at the heart of every political claim. Everyone is looking back, over their shoulders to the ghosts of politics past, lamenting over the time that was lost, while the techno-theodicy drives onwards at ever greater speeds and intensities. They say that reality is stranger than fiction. But we are now in the age of science fact – where the debate is completely about the truth of the modelling, the medicated demands, the battle of the competing algorithms, the tensions of the technocrats, all the while the writers, critics, artists and poets slowly fade into the virtual ether, merely tasked like a medicated ointment with pathological soothing.
There is no more tragic vision for art in the art of this techno-theodicy than a geriatric Rolling Stone, sat stationary in an isolated mansion beating a non-existent drum to “you can’t always get what you want”. And while we are on the subject of music, how tragically ironic that it was a band called “The Police” who had us signing about every breath, while not standing so close to them. But while the drones are already flying, the real policing is internal.
Guilt and shame have already re-entered with their familiar potency. Deployed by shameless leaders who absolved themselves of any guilt while knowing we would be less forgiving when it came to ourselves, especially to our own behaviours and past complicities, the question of shame proved inseparable to our forced witnessing to this tragedy from our own relatively safe distances. And who didn’t feel ashamed about the conditions of life on earth? Ashamed that we didn’t do more to help? That we could not do more to help, apart from isolate. Ashamed as we continued to watch in a horrified submission the continued number counts of daily fatalities? And who wasn’t slightly relieved it wasn’t them being reported upon, thankful to have survived another day? Ashamed that we weren’t the ones being silently killed by an invisible enemy? Might we have even been the contagious? Unwitting carriers in the premature death of others?
And what of our role in society, which appeared so under-prepared and ill-equipped? Should we have been ashamed that our societies are so incapable of slowing things down? That our lives were so caught up in the frenzy of existence, its only in the face of death we learn about the elderly neighbour who was already slowly dying a lonely death? Were we not ashamed of supporting governments whose worthless investments in guns and bombs and other fancy weaponry for destruction proved so irrelevant in this onslaught upon life? Or even ashamed for buying a plant that was apparently an “unnecessary purchase” or walking just a little too far from home? And what of our leaders, who have been shown to be shamefully compromised, dancing with death in their primary insistence upon business as usual, neglectful in their actions, while woefully out of their depth when it came to show the humanity required?
But let us not forget the world was already engaging in forms of lock-down long before this crisis. From building the walls to Brexit, the conscious policy to enclose life was underway and it was perfectly in keeping with the needs of global capitalism and its strategies for controlling human life by getting the masses to desire their own containment. The virus has provided the conditions to accelerate this. So, it’s no coincidence the real winners are the disaster capitalists, the global-tech giants now tasked with administering all aspects of life, and invariably the pharmaceutical industries. As our life was reduced to a motionless existence, slowed down to the point of a horrified inertia, the mechanisms for power have sped up exponentially.
And what now of radical politics? Were many of us not calling for such a disruption to the system – albeit without the widespread infectious death count? How many called for us to slow things down, to be far more considered in our consumption patterns, for those with taken-for-granted entitlements to have better appreciation of the food and health insecurity, to have the luxury of time so we might properly reflect upon the fallen conditions of our shared demise, to demand (impossible they said) a major shift in our lifestyles to save the planets ecology, to learn to respect the boundaries of touch and safe spaces, to consider the idea of a universal wage through unprecedented state intervention for all, and to harness the power of technology, which meant nearly all working practices could be delivered with remote precision? So, here we are, then. Yet something doesn’t quite sound right, look right, feel right. This certainly isn’t the vision of a post-liberal emancipatory politics so many radicals had been dreaming about in the solitude of their cortical nights. Its design in reality now appearing far more suffocating and debilitating then we ever possibly imagined. But this is not news to us. Nietzsche understood long ago that if you had something important to say you wouldn’t be dismissed. Truly radical thought is always appropriated and turned back upon itself.
Utopia may be dead, rotting in the violent and barbarous ruins of 20th century thought. But we are entering into a new Atopian age. The idea of Atopia once referred to an inhospitable location without borders and dwelling. We now inhabit the inhospitable – keep out all strangers, as every home becomes a sanctuary, prison, medical quarantine, and asylum. But the Atopic also refers us to the medical dictionary – where Atopy concerns a heightened response to the common allergen. What we have in common is the contagion. And the Atopian vision truly terrifying.
How far are we truly away from the normalisation of the Atopian dream, where social distancing is the norm, where technology is the default solution, where the office and the home are truly indistinguishable, and where the only way to experience the world will be through augmented travel, while the elite are the luxury of walking around the cleared streets of Venice, gazing upon the dolphins in its now crystal clear waters, before heading over to Paris and walking into the largely empty Louvre to look upon the Mona Lisa with a perfectly uninterrupted view?
Love therefore truly has become the most revolutionary idea. Not love in some nostalgic 1960s hedonistic sense. Not a love that is promiscuous – as infectious as that idea may appear. Though, certainly, there is an infidelity to truth, if truth is a sacred claim. Not then a love which demands its sacrifice to be shown to be true. But a love which has the capacity to touch. A love that reaches into the intimate depths of what makes us human, which no machine could ever understand.
This is not a call for the appearance of some flash mob orgy movement, which reclaims every public space in a way that looks like some liberating recreation of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Though its appearance would certainly be more inspiring than all the tedious restaging’s of classical works of art, which have been aesthetically arousing the spirits of the self-indulgent bourgeoise. It is to find love in the dark light of the tragedy of our inhospitable times.
By coincidence, a few months before the outbreak a pair of black ravens nested in the woodland opposite my apartment. I have watched them continuously ever since, circulating above the skies, attacking any rivals in their now less polluted airspace, while occasionally swooping down for the kill. Not only have these particular birds been associated with prophecy and insight they have also been recognised as the forbearers of death and the messenger of lost souls. Its prominent black beak eerily reminiscent of the Medieval doctor’s plague mask, which can be faintly made out on the barren and desolate streets of the Leviathan. Two days after Agamben finished typing his third controversial intervention that sought to address this new sacred order, I stood on my balcony and noticed a strange dark object in the garden below. Upon investigation, it was a largely devoured carcass of a very young fox cub. I proceeded to bury the dead animal in the nearby undergrowth. That evening the raven appeared in the garden, observing and looking for something it has evidently lost. The following morning the corpse had returned, just a little rottener and more consumed. The following day and night, exactly the same process of burial and subsequent reappearance repeated itself. One of the birds keeps returning, keeping watch, in silence. So, I have decided to leave it in the open for a while. Humans are fond of projecting meaning into symbols of death. What this returning corpse represents, however, is open to interpretation.