We had planned to organize the Speculative Ecologies II symposium with our current artist-in-residence, Borbála Soós, for early April. Unfortunately, Soós only managed to spend a few days in Prague before she was forced to return to the UK amid the turbulent atmosphere of the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming threat of travel restrictions. A “little demon” imposed itself upon the best laid plans and brought forth a state of exception, and so we picked up where the symposium planning left off and tried to work through three of the questions pertaining to the genealogy of the virus, its present political implications, and to speculate on the latent potentialities which might inform our post-pandemic world.
1. In what way does the current COVID-19 epidemic restructure the relationship between domesticity and wilderness?
Borbála Soós: A virus is not strictly speaking alive, however it cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. In recent years we have been living through a paradigm shift regarding how we understand our relationship with other critters, with nature and the world around us. This shift can be characterised as one of sympoiesis (Donna Haraway), making one-another in mutually reliant symbiotic relationships. According to this, we are not only a part of nature but a site of nature. I wonder how COVID-19 will again create a paradigm shift and how these ideas will play into it.
Vít Bohal: When Donna Haraway speaks of sympoiesis, she uses the term as framed in the thesis of M. Beth Dempster who defines sympoietic systems as “collectively- producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries” and in which “information and control are distributed among components.” She contrasts them with autopoietic systems which are “self-producing” units “with defined spatial or temporal boundaries that tend to be centrally controlled, homeostatic, and predictable.”1 Within the axiomatic of industrial capitalism, the sympoietic nature of the wider Earth systems has been more effectively circumscribed by the autopoietic circuits of the social and economic metabolism: production, consumption, reproduction. The latent tension between the second-nature organs of the economy and the chthonic organs of the Earth systems currently sees politicians and legislators the world-over juggling the mandate of health and safety against the imperatives of a growing economy and the possible relaxations on labor restrictions. This is of course most obviously the arena of the wider struggle of ‘the economy vs. the climate,’ but such a framing has largely become ideologized as a dialectic relationship. Read through the prism of Bernard Stiegler’s ‘general organology,’ the sympoiesis among organs also translates to other spheres of the cultural milieu in a more nuanced and less ideologized form and, although the tendencies to make the virus a political actant are increasing by the day, COVID-19 is still a good example of a ‘free-floating’ signifier whose future impact on the metabolism of capital is still largely unknown. Although quarantine scenarios have been with us before in the past, they did not unfold within the context of a digital economy.
It is fascinating to see just how an invisible, xenotic force, a strange visitor from the wild, shut down production and consumption like no previous social movement fighting under the banner of left-wing social politics or climate sustainability ever could. State structures have been thrown into crisis management and have struggled to reaffirm their role as mediators and vectoralists of social relations, both within and towards their outside neighbors, while the private sector and its economy is scrambling to give more granularity, robustness and personalization to their services (marketing, updated brand identity, home delivery …). This visit from the wild has had an effect whose fallout will be with humanity long after the immediate impact has passed.
Dustin Breitling: Terms such as ‘Sympoesis’ or ‘Symbiogenesis’ thread together the revelations that even Homo sapiens are a byproduct of an evolutionary viral machinic processes or we are an interactive host of a network of bacterial and viral species (holobionts). Moreover, viruses are critical agents driving evolution, believed to be catalysts for the origins of sexual reproduction, as it pressured large organisms to shuffle their genes quickly enough in an attempt to keep pace with pathogenic or viral mutation rates.2 We can also highlight their vital role as key agents behind the emergence of us as a species, with the recent findings that link endogenous retroviruses to the emergence of the placenta in mammalian reproduction3 and also giving us the ability to have memory formation, retention, and nerve communication.4
It is quite remarkable that something so threadbare in composition and genetic makeup rips through and has the possibility of transforming our understanding of the evolutionary landscape. It certainly challenges our basic assumptions that the possession of a more diverse or complex genetic makeup necessarily suggests an ability to wield mastery over the planet, as we now understand that viruses are continuously shedding their genetic machinery to a bare minimum in order to finesse their replication abilities.
As much as we refer to the fact we inhabit the biosphere, I think that we neglect to realize that viruses are the most abundant entity on the planet, vastly outnumbering all other types of life, also enveloping us all the way from the pedosphere to the troposphere, making us live in the ‘virosphere.’ It is projected that 800 million viruses are deposited per square meter above the planetary boundary layer — effectively meaning that for one estimate there are 25 viruses per person in Canada. These xeno-agents traverse our globe by being transported by air currents and particles of soil or vapor from sea spray some 2,500–3,000m above us, and re-enter the biosphere through rain and dust current, finding themselves constantly deposited onto new territories.5
Borbála Soós: The way Dustin writes about viruses is in many ways similar to how Lynn Margulis considers bacteria. The biologist and evolutionary theorist Margulis completely changed how I think about self and non-self, namely how every “I” is also a “we”. In her work, she fundamentally reframed the evolution of cells with nuclei by proposing that they were the result of symbiotic mergers of bacteria. She believes that these microscopic entities and their various symbiotic relations are the building blocks of all life and cells. Furthermore, it is exciting to consider horizontal gene transfer more commonly between the unicellular organism of the microbial world, but also in multicellular organisms. This process complicates the well-known story of evolution, highlights the importance of relationships and blurs divisions between categories of vegetal, animal or fungal. In this sense life is more of a web of relations than a tree. For further reading on this I recommend the book Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel (2012) written by her son and collaborator Dorion Sagan, as well as John Feldman’s documentary Symbiotic Earth (2017).
Dustin Breitling: There is certainly a reality that ‘Nature’ is dramatizing its own immanence, indifferent to anything that appears to hold its supposed industrialized or civilized grip over the planet. Also, I think we can point to Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s work in relation to our Post-Pandemic imaginary. Basically, we are increasingly shifting into the mode of ‘us without a world’, where ‘us’ as a species, further come to grapple with the fact that yes, a world surrounds us, yet the ability to exert it towards our ends evaporates.
Yet, I don’t think we just unwittingly found ourselves finally feeling the claw behind nature’s trap. We can map out how anthropogenic factors, such as the encroachment into wild areas involving intensive deforestation and mining, are uprooting native species and equally making us more susceptible to the estimated 10,000 to 600,000 species of ‘distinctly’ mammalian viruses that have the potential to spill over into human populations.6 The impact of Climate Change and our transformation of land has the possibility to eliminate the boundaries between previously isolated species and in effect create novel ‘assemblages’ that circulate the virus between human and non-human entities.
We have already identified how a whole spate of zoonotic diseases became tangled up with the import or trade of wild animals also contributing to the spread of zoonotic diseases like rabies, anthrax, tuberculosis, leptospirosis, Marburg and Ebola viruses. When you are also capturing and caging these wild animals, it induces higher tension and stress, where the only way to cope for them becomes to excrete into their surrounding environment, which in effect >‘sheds’?> traces of the virus. Moreover, deforestation uproots species such as bats and forces them to roost in trees or in backyards and farms. This increases the likelihood that a human might take a bite of fruit drenched in bat saliva, or by slaughtering a bat, exposes us to the microbes lodged in its tissues.
But what is perhaps also particular about this nano-insurrection, is how it has shifted us into a vertiginous time dimension, where its “ever-changing and ever-evolving” nature generates an ontological and temporal exceptionality: a yet-to-be, and yet already ahead of us.7
Therefore, as Anthony Fauci has emphasized, we are subordinate to the virus’s time, hostage to its game of visibility, invisibility, detection, incubation, and symptoms that still escape our ability to entirely trace its transmission. Moreover, at some level the transmission and detection of the virus has to some degree the cadence of a ‘slow violence’, or at some level is on par with the occulted effects of grasping climate change, where we are not immediately observing or feeling the impact of the accumulated buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (time spans of up to 100 years remaining in our atmosphere, especially CO2, that affect the present, inducing a time-spiral effect). Rather, we have to resort to a whole constellation of satellites, simulations, supercomputers, multiple measuring instruments to render to us what simply seems on a local day-to-day scale as imperceptible, yet importantly can arguably shape our knowledge and response to the time gaps of our inaction (climate modeling also has its own can of worms).
Bogna Konior: I do not think that COVID-19 introduces a new relationship between humanity and ‘the environment.’ As blessed as we are to have books and other media that transmit knowledge and stretch temporality for us, we are still trapped within the span of an individual lifetime, and a limited perception of history. Even if pandemics happen throughout history, what appears to us in perception appears as a novelty, as a problem for thought, and it indeed has new variables each time. But even the name SARS-CoV-2 signals a repetition. SARS in the early 2000s attacked the lungs quickly, it was easy to spot and quarantine. SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, has learnt from that mistake and made itself harder to spot. It is not strictly alive, but nevertheless intelligent. Paleontologist Peter Ward takes a long perspective in The Medea Hypothesis, arguing that life on Earth is suicidal, and most extinctions on the planet were caused by microbes that desire to return to a microbial planetarity. In this hypothesis, animal desire to keep life going and reproduce is counterbalanced by microbial intelligence, which is synthetic and more technical than biological. This might be an ongoing process, even though we experience it as a novelty.
Regarding the wild and the domestic, there’s a great essay called ‘Robot Evolution’ by Emily Monosson that compares viruses to robots and highlights human anxiety around nonhuman replication. Viruses make a fitting template for robot design because they don’t have to be alive to self-replicate. While we perceive automation or ‘technologization’ as an increase in control, the more we automate, the more we do not know what’s going to come out of it:
But perhaps it is not the creation of new life that we fear, so much as the potential for unpredictable emergent behaviour.8
In both ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’ environments we cohabitate with various intelligences, and this cohabitation periodically threatens to invalidate our sense of control, and even our chances of survival. Before the advent of agriculture, humans routinely personalised ‘natural’ (wild) beings, now we tend to personalise ‘technical’ beings. With the advent of farming, animals stopped being gods and became things. With the advent of personalised computing, computers became persons, and in the future, perhaps they will have become gods. These ways of relating to the world disappear and then reappear. The virus is killing us rapidly, bringing us closer to the things we are most intimate with these days, our computers. Survival might be temporarily easier to find in ‘technological’ rather than ‘wild’ environments, pushing the evolution of humanity towards automation, remote work, isolation …. We need to become more ‘inhuman’ to assure human survival.
Another thing that I notice is that not only the virus does not introduce a new relationship between humans and the environment, but by fixing us to our computers and imprisoning us in our heads, it only accelerates the workings of cognitive, communicative, cultural capitalism: everything can always be turned into a cultural commodity, the virus becomes another reason to continue with the type of reflection that we’ve already been doing. To me, this shows an incredible resilience of commodification and communication. Perhaps only if our internet was cut off, if our cultural industries were totally shut down, we would be able to make some kind of a decisive break here and produce something ‘new’ in thought, rather than transpose our existing frameworks onto the pandemic.
2. How does the new regime reconceptualize the notion of borders?
Borbála Soós: Borders have become one of the most discussed issues in recent weeks both on a micro and macro scale. They are important both as smart semi-porous membranes of our bodies that connect and divide us to and from the world. Borders remain porous as per definition, without this function they are ill, useless and even harmful.
Borders are both productive and protective, but can, of course, be a site that is highly contested and even weaponised. “We live in an interconnected world, where borders are porous, more like living membranes than physical walls,” says Michael Marder in his recent New York Times article. “The border closures, obstacles to travel and quarantines now being imposed in response to the viruses are on the surface medical measures, but they are also symbolic, resonating with the same basic logic as the construction of physical walls for political reasons.” 9
I have been paying attention to the language used in relation to borders, which is strikingly similar to that of ecofascism.
At this point, I am reminded of Hanna Rullmann and Faiza Khan’s video ‘Habitat 21904’, investigating the weaponisation of nature for border control through the creation of a nature reserve in Calais at the site of the former refugee camp. The work charts complex discussions around the protection of rare species within EU legislation and pits this against the lack of care for humans seeking sanctuary through migration, who find themselves outside of the protection and regard of society. The site is now returned to “nature” in the name of protecting a specific species, the rare fan orchid Liparis loeselii, last spotted on the site decades ago. Through this, the French government in collaboration with the UK are cynically taking advantage of the public’s instinct that nature protection is always undoubtedly a positive thing. While at first glance the priorities outlined in this work seem to be completely opposite to those during the pandemic, the video certainly highlights a cynical attitude towards borders as well as both human life and nature, only serving political agendas. And this last idea is very much in line with the current issues.
The current emergency situation causing the closing of borders has created the perfect opportunity for increased control, governments to introduce new measures and laws serving their own and corporate interests (or as Naomi Klein has put it, an opportunity to push through pre-existing wish-lists at the rise of disaster capitalism), and power grabs. These measures highlight how authoritarian states violently enforce various borders and consider biopolitics and the protection of some at the expense of others. For example in Hungary, the recent power grab was partially built on initially linking COVID-19 to migration issues; Poland and some US states using this opportunity extend control to female bodies through anti-abortion laws and the closure of health clinics; and the Canadian province of Ontario suspending environmental oversight rules citing COVID-19 as reason.10
Vít Bohal: These issues relating to co-habitation and the impacts of the new regime on our sense of community, family and society is very interesting and certainly needs to be addressed alongside reflections on macro-scale phenomena and geopolitics. In his “18 Lesson of Quarantine Urbanism,”11 Benjamin Bratton works with an “epidemiological view of society” which spins customary social processes and implicit frameworks of communication and exchange towards new forms of normative operations. The social and psychological effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic will resonate within society for the years and decades to come, and it is important to understand that there is no going back also due to the various power plays and investments which are simultaneously happening at various levels of the social body. If technology is essentially the sedimented automation of social processes, certain technologies (Bratton for example speaks of the spike in thermometric and phone tracking technologies) will remain with us into the future, and will again engender certain choreographies within the social body which will have long-lasting effects. This state of the wider economy in turn has direct impact on the micro level of human habitation and introduces new constellations within the domestic sphere. A new type of ‘domestic realism’12 has been setting in for everyone under the protracted state of lockdown or quarantine, and such a development has had numerous pathological effects, such as the rise in domestic violence and sexual abuse,13 usually ascribed to the often-times strained economic situation and territorial confinement within the domestic unit.
The effects of a state of protracted lockdown on mental health, family ties, and pre-existing pathologies will oftentimes remain under the radar due to their particular private and domestic nature, but we can expect that these symptoms will only worsen and will eventually perhaps generate applications, technologies and monitoring institutions which might establish better connection to the domicile. The borders of the domicile and the polis are being re-navigated, from delivery-person politesse to the means and methods of preventing domestic violence.
Bogna Konior: That borders and limits need to be transcended is an economic imperative today. Globalisation is an unprecedented experiment in the history of humanity. On the other hand, there is no use to ‘the border’ as a generic concept. Delineating community borders is a basic human activity, to which there won’t be an end anytime soon. What we see even in small groups is abuse based on exclusion, but also the violence of intrusion. I wrote a whole essay exploring this from the perspective of physics: every isolated system necessarily produces entropy.14 This is the (I think, inescapable) predicament of life and complexity.
Reality outlines its own borders in opposition to the borders we draw. Even so, reality does not simply invalidate ideology. We see that in the words of French or Italian intellectuals like Agamben or Nancy who seem to think that a pandemic is a social construct designed to enforce authoritarianism, and that being confined within domestic borders is in principle as bad as being in jail. It is difficult to see beyond the borders of the philosophical decisions that we’ve made about the world, even if the world is asserting its own reality before us.
I would like to see less analogy-based thinking in the future: ‘this reminds me of this, therefore…’. It’s a circular kind of logic that precludes the real, and remains blind to human suffering in the name of symbolic gestures of ‘resistance.’
Dustin Breitling: I think in our current moment, the discernible boundary between inside and outside concerning territories, cities, or zones of access will constantly adjust and take on new meaning under a morphing form of ‘securitization’ in the wake of COVID-19. Our bodies will serve as security proxies, whether we are striped in Green, Yellow or Red,15 that determines whether or not we can leave the house or whether we will produce antibodies that serve as passports to indicate a ‘certifiable recovery’ that enables one to enter into the tattered remains of something recognizable (such as work) before we enter into this unraveling epoch.
Thus, the concept of an immunitarian indicator to sort populations echoes the works of Robert Esposito’s work on identifying the relationship between immunity and the emergence of political formations, where the ‘body politic’ or Nation-States we are part of, are an emergent property through incorporating negative threats in tolerable degrees.
The body-politic must always resort to gradually assimilating the outside to the inside, discovering how to make what were once “threats” internal to itself a part of itself. Overall, it brings to light how the need to have a self-defensive capacity for survival, dependent on the incorporation of an external threat into oneself. As Esposito contends, life is prolonged “only by continuously giving it a taste of death”.16 Yet, it is a matter of how much dosage a Global System and its elements (States, Polities) can ingest before it yields an ‘autoimmune’ response that becomes contemptuous of the feats of globalization, and its tenets of easy circulation of credit, traveling bodies, commodities entering and exiting borders. We can also see how a pandemic can further drive an obsession for the survival of identity which in turn could thrust us, especially in the West, into stickily defining what legitimates, perhaps for many, more invasive forms of security apparatuses under the pretext of protecting against future calamities and against those ‘invasive’ persons that potentially can infect the ‘host’ community.
Nonetheless, I also think questions related to security or the ‘apparatuses’ need to be rethought differently when it comes to the discussion regarding their deployment or the increasing integration of National States and Transnational Corporations. I don't think we should merely lump every measure, instrument, apparatus, application, tracking device, or action either used or undertaken by National States as necessarily a means to merely ramp up ‘surveillance’ measures and quash opposition. Even though I think we should remain absolutely vigilant and attuned to what is unfolding from the nexus of National Governments and their increasing reliance upon the Leviathans of the tech-industry in their efforts to help combat and alleviate the fallout, I think it requires in equal measure a more nuanced approach, given that we are phase-shifting into something entirely novel in scope.
Furthermore, countries like South Korea, and especially Taiwan, arguably fashioned the best response by any country to the new Coronavirus. It stemmed from a constructive symbiosis that involved civil and transparent engagement especially through information-sharing, hackathons, data collaboratives, citizen-led initiatives that were pivotal in coordinating and deterring practices such as hoarding and misinformation. Also, through bottom-up initiatives and community-created apps, individuals could update and report their symptoms, and the history of their locations to warn other citizens about them as possible nodes of transmissions. Ultimately, it is still a narrow view that is molding the discussion regarding the employment of technology. Discussions are largely reduced to framing our moment as enabling a more monstrous permutation of a 'biopolitical' regime to emerge, especially through massive testing, contact tracing, and location data collected from individuals by companies or governments. When in fact, conversations still neglect to think about the possibilities of these very technologies opening up different channels for use, which in the long run can be refunctioned as opposed to simply being 'tools' that will be assimilated towards totalitarian ends.
Borbála Soós: Around week 3 of my lockdown I started to find some wonderful news and, in some cases, videos about how various animals such as goats, deer, monkeys and some predators are taking advantage of opportunities that cities and towns can offer in terms of food and shelters since there are considerably fewer humans on the streets. It is quite touching to imagine how quickly rewilding could indeed happen once humans retreat / disappear, even though I am aware that some of this news is fake, and rather created by the imagination romanticising “wild” nature. It brings it closer to us, as under lockdown it indeed feels very far away ….
COVID-19 has in many ways become a symbol/symptom of the crisis of sovereignty. The virus is a figure of disruption, disobedience and shaking up the status quo, in an age when power is more and more concentrated in the hands of the few.
Vít Bohal: COVID-19 has indeed become a force in world biopolitics. The original framing of biopolitics as “making live and letting die”17 has become relevant in some locations during the crisis, and this can be seen on the micro-level, for example in the difficult decisions which the so-called triages must make in regions such a northern Italy or Madrid, to the meso- and macro-political level, such as in the case of Portugal granting citizen rights and access to healthcare to foreigners and asylum-seekers, or the decision of the German government to grant a 50 billion euro aid package to art professionals for them to subsist.
The state of exception has, on the one hand, strengthened the dialectic of the inside ╳ outside, Us ╳ Other logic which underpins authoritarian ideology, but at the same time has served to redraw boundaries within the re-framed body politic, promoting the subsistence of some while disregarding the plight of others, in various incremental ways. This sets up a gradient in terms of economic sustainability and redraws the relevance, productivity and resilience of certain particular sectors of the economy. It is interesting then to see the mesh of pre-pandemic, globalized capitalism to a certain degree unraveled and being rewoven anew.
This dynamic makes it very easy to see just how the economy (as oikos - ‘family, house management’) feeds into the everyday drive to subsistence which is, on the level of the state, determined and circumscribed by the category of citizenship. It is a question whether the category of ‘citizen’ stands in tension to the category of ‘user’ who, rather than being inscribed into the mesh of state governmentality, opts to be serviced by the apparatuses of private capital whose potential extreme can be seen in what Anton Jager calls the regime of “quarantine corporatism.”18 In reality, the citizen and the user are of course not dialectically opposed, but rather feed each other in their various modalities and create a particular mesh which is suspiciously decentralized from the perspective of the state, but socialized from the perspective of the corporation. The adaptive capacity of such logistical networks becomes a fundamental characteristic as we move forward towards the post-pandemic era.
Dustin Breitling: The Global-Regional-Local responses are branching out in multiple ways and so I think it is vital to maintain a multi-scalar approach and perspective on what will unfold. The uneasy narrative orbiting around COVID-19 and the nature of a permanent State-of-Emergency or a contrived plot to further cement the role and grip of the ‘Globalists,’ sows the seeds of a paranoid-denialist complex already running rampant concerning the National States’ responses and their justifications for implementing their measures in the first place. Yet the exception itself pries open a silver lining along the axis of recognizing socio-economic struggles with those on the Left regarding this as an opportunity to see the lineaments of certain programs coming to realization. Here, the promise and quasi-implementation of Universal Basic Income or centralized planning fuels the possibility of reimagining the State while continuing to blur the boundaries between executive and judicial separation of power.
Yet, it also urges us to re-evaluate how emergencies will further test how long the current operating system of National States will remain intact and to what effect. This is where that time window will have a sobering reality check concerning how, and to what degree Nation-States can weather and confront the corrosive effects of climate change and of the already fragile health systems, potential supply chain shortages, and the increase of displaced populations.
For the time being, I take seriously the point of Vincent Garton also expressed by many, contending that we will further plunge into an era where “a general cartel of magnates” that will “coordinate the entire productive process” as National-State legitimacy and possible capacities to govern will recede and decline.19 Moreover, we can easily point to Amazon and Wal-Mart in the United States as logistical Leviathans capable of taking over transport and supply-chain duties in the wake of governmental vacuums. At this point as well, we can speculate that our geopolitical map contains the ingredients that will further drive fragmentation and factionalization playing out especially along with states or Local, Municipal against Federal, National lines. It reminds us there is still a vibrant possibility to see whether the focus on constructing shorter-supply chains, mutual aid networks, the decoupling from mono-industrialized agriculture, harnessing open or crowd-sourced initiatives, will further spring up.
Even though it is still quite premature to project whether it will mount a significant challenge to the brute globalization order, I do believe it will be one of many factors catalyzing us into a new global system transition. There will certainly be the makeover of National or Sub-regional States, what will be the further involvement and role of large commercial enterprises that are steadily ghosting in and leveraging their positions as alternatives to existing governing structures. We can again point to Amazon’s just-in-time logistical and supply chain delivery, but also scores of domestic and international companies (Tencent, Huaweii, Tesla) are taking the reins to either donate or increase the manufacturing of PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, testing kits, or security-sensing surveillance systems in anticipation of our world pushing towards an industrialization that preempts the next wave of lockdowns.
Moreover, I am curious how automation will now accelerate and become amplified, whether, in manufacturing, call centers, delivery or courier services, schooling and thus will generate more debate about the future of labor. Also, I would agree with the contention that Bogna puts forth regarding the ‘resilience of commodification’, and what ultimately will happen will be at some form a restructuring of Capitalism, which only reaffirms its elastic nature, its constant search to mutate itself, and thus its need to reformat the current global order. I also anticipate there will be a ratcheting up of a more tailored algo-neuro-cognitive labor economy serviced and delivered by couriers, drones, and forms of automation that will be even more keen on tailoring ever more to our personal preferences. It will further increase the competition among platforms to try to cater to our tastes, desires, and fetishistic imaginations that will propel us further into the virtual ‘real’ frontiers.
I am curious whether we will see regional and sub-national coalitions or Interstate Compact Agreements, or arrangements possibly composed of a consortium of States in response to California and New York’s active effort in managing the current calamity in response to the minimal response orchestrated by the Federal Government. Perhaps we can observe how far these discordant seeds will grow concerning the triangulation of the State of Emergentism, Corporate Magnets filling in governmental vacuums, and growing fragmentation. Perhaps we will see a push for new inter-state trading blocs, regional supply chains, and carve out potentially different strains of political formations that will be the next territories governing the quarantined tomorrow.
Bogna Konior: The opposition of authoritarianism and democracy is a leftover from the Cold War. For me, this is not a useful distinction in thinking about governance now. We could extend this dynamic to the present day and map it onto different governance practices in China and the ‘West’ but that’s a hopeless exercise because we end up replaying the Cold War, which American pop culture, academia, art, political ideology have won …. I am interested in what is happening in China when framed as an extension of the experiments with cybernetics in the USSR or in Chile, but with more sophisticated technology.
What COVID reveals is that there is little belief in governance. Governance is by definition a restriction of freedom and the promotion of some behaviors over others. We all do that on a smaller scale in our communities by agreeing on certain rules and banishing people for breaking them. Total opposition to governance makes sense in view of American libertarianism but it is interesting to see how deeply this attitude runs in other places.
To group all sensing, tracking and data collection under the term ‘surveillance’ is lazy — surveillance used to be a specific term that referred to the state tracking its enemies. Now, we describe all kinds of observation as surveillance, from advertising to animal tracking, from satellites to climate models, which does not make sense to me. To oppose the oppressive elements of these technologies is different than opposing them on blanket terms. The latter is a species chauvinism, where humans in principle don’t agree that they can be understood as data points or as parts of a complex system. There has to be a far more sophisticated approach to these practices than reciting Foucault and 1984 ad infinitum, especially since both of these works only adequately describe an outdated model of surveillance. By the way, there is supposed to be this huge surveillance system in the West that journalists and artists and activists are complaining about but where is it now? It seems to be only optimised for advertising, and not operationalised for life preservation or anything useful.
It is a mistake to imagine that an increase in governance means an automatic creation of the perfect repressive state. Kevin Kelly: “As much as we are control freaks when it comes to engineering, where this is going toward is loss of control. The more we automate, the more we don’t know what’s going to come out of it.” 20 New vulnerabilities appear with each design, emergent behavior lives within our technological prototypes. It is not even a necessary risk but a process that is now uninterruptible so we would be wise to devise strategies for submergence in this accelerating system, rather than celebrate whatever nostalgia we seek comfort in. On the other hand, I am sure that traditionalism will grow, sometimes carrying with it something novel. The demarcation lines that we have erected in the popular imagination over the last few decades between regressive and progressive politics will become increasingly blurry. As Amy Ireland has noticed, COVID-19 makes reactionaries of all of us — it is more cosmopolitan, more open, more free than we can ever afford to be. The consequences that we will see in the West seem to me more substantial: Pandemic management in China is the extension of existing governance, while in the West, a lot of things had to be turned on its head. We might see two opposite, post-global trends: the emergence of libertarian micro-states, and the ascension of cybernetic socialist-authoritarian states. But these are predictions based on our current knowledge and the future is never what we expect it to be.
What we see right now is a preview for when it’s hot, and there is no clean water, or air quality is not good enough to go outside. Given the nature of climate modelling and the climate change discourse, I would be surprised to see a political or public consensus on the matter of species preservation. Current governmentality practices in the West – what we call liberal democracy – are structured in intervals of four to eight years, in a back and forth loop that keeps undoing itself, so they will very possibly encounter problems related to long-term planning or strategising. These political systems are not capable of long-term thought and I struggle to see how they can survive in times of deep-time politics that we call the ‘anthropocene.’ So what next?
3. How would you relate issues around zoonotic transfer, metabolism and monoculture plantations?
Dustin Breitling: I suppose I could elaborate a bit more of what I alluded to above concerning the increasing contact between humans and wildlife species and the intensified erasure of wildlife habitats as one of many contributing factors for the outbreak. We can certainly see how zoonotic transfer and metabolism are intertwined, especially if ‘metabolism’ is framed in the register of evolving ‘human settlement’ patterns or more precisely the ‘multispecies resettlement camp’ term that captures our organizational growth and complexification in relation to other species throughout the millennia.
We can point to the distinct patterns of human organization and consumption bound up with foraging and certain forms of domestication that sustained small bands of hunters and gatherers before our entrance into the Neolithic era, the recipe and convergence of domesticated livestock, multiple species, grains, legumes, concentrated settlements, religious sites and housing arrangements into areas conducive for epidemics to arise. I was reminded again the other day that scholars such as James C. Scott’s work Against the Grain has a chapter devoted to such and I think it is good to quote him here:
The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated. It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in the strong sense, a “civilizational effect.” These historically novel diseases — cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chickenpox, and perhaps malaria — arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture. Until very recently they collectively represented the major overall cause of human mortality.21
Largely, the history of human civilization is us becoming host to specialized respiratory viruses (in contrast to our primate cousins who don’t have the pool or reservoir of viral diversity that we have come to inherit). This is attributable to the effects of smaller groups and a nomadic lifestyle that reduces the possibility of viruses to specialize to such a degree as we see with humans, where you can find something such as measles, or to be more precise its closest relative Rinderpest, arising in tandem with cities passing critical thresholds of community size.
Ultimately, those terms associated with pathogens such as transfer, jump, expel, or drop evoke the dynamic and amoebic nature of their transmission, that always outmaneuvers us and ensures we are reminded again of the rules of the game issued by The Red Queen.22
Bogna Konior: In an article about animal biopolitics, Richie Nimmo23 argues that there is a causality between human industrial farming practices and the ‘revenge’ of life in the form of illnesses. Given that we do not have a ‘control Earth’ in a laboratory somewhere on which to study alternative scenarios — would different diseases happen if we cohabitated separately from other animals? — to me, these explanations are a form of emotional comfort. If we know what we are doing wrong, we can stop doing it, and get nature and contingency under control … so it’s really about a belief in agency, and where we should direct it. We prefer to take the blame rather than accept contingency — this is how I understand ‘the anthropocene,’ which I take as a turn in discourse rather than a new ontological condition. It is a powerful reinstatement of European Romanticism, with the idea of ‘nature’ as a site of both transcendence and responsibility, and humanity as messianic. To ‘rescue the Earth’ is both a fall from grace and a romantic, Promethean task.
Designing alongside entropy and contingency is a challenge — our best bet is to direct it towards something other than us. That’s a species-patriotism. But large-scale projects that deal with complexity require a type of power that most people are uncomfortable with (currently). Designwise, I would be excited to see large-scale planning and systems-thinking that takes up the question of geoengineering, which would require a total redesign of political principles. As you describe, Dustin, we are already geoengineering the planet — that’s what any large-scale human activity is, from agriculture to urbanism. Unless we go the way of ‘reducing the number of human beings on the planet and going back to small tribal groups,’ which I have no idea how to achieve short of population control or restriction of sexual reproduction, we should start geoengineering consciously in the interest of biodiversity and intelligence, rather than in a random manner of financial accumulation.
If we oppose any large-scale design on principles of individual freedom, there’s also the option of post-globalised, micro, emancipated city-states. By living in social segregation or social distancing mode, we could enforce species isolation and maybe prevent some of the threats you describe. Writer Kim Stanley Robinson and scientist Edward Wilson propose the ‘half-Earth’ strategy, where humans cohabitate separately from other animals, leaving half of the planet to them and building our species structures on another half. As a sociological extension of this idea, enforcing social isolation between diverse human groups is something that Neoreactionary thinkers propose. Then again, if we create multiple human micro-states in separation from other species to reduce the possibility of pathogen transmission, there can be a possibility of new diseases appearing within such restricted groups. And other problems arise when we ask ourselves how exactly are we to form small independent human groups? We have so far used the weird model of a ‘nation’ to group ourselves, will that continue? Will it be ethic-based, or voluntary, or…? This is all very difficult because life tends towards complexity, and complexity tends towards entropy, so we are caught in this loop where destruction has to happen one way or another.