To paraphrase one of many recently TV-interviewed doctors, ‘Coronavirus does not want to kill the host; it just wants to replicate itself and it can only do that in the body’.
The imagery of desire and teleology remains despite the switch: it is difficult for us to know what the other really ‘wants’, precisely because it is a meaningless question to pose of an inert pathogen. A conception of coronavirus as an ‘agent of infection’ can hardly avoid an attribution of something like agency. Thus we can hardly avoid becoming hysterical in the psychoanalytic sense: demanding, because of our nakedness and exposure before it, answers of it; imputing to its horrific ‘itness’ a ‘whyness’: a lurking and inscrutable subjectivity of its own. This accounts for what I imagine could be called its Götterdämmerung–effekt; the sense that somehow it overshadows everything, simultaneously dwarfing the whole anthropogenic universe while silently dispersing itself throughout it. Indeed being everywhere and nowhere, it assumes the dimensions of the mystical as defined so long ago by Christian thinkers of the via negativa union with the divine.
At the same time as being so profoundly small as to need an electron microscope to reveal its crown-like structure, our current strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is also intricate in composition, bearing approximately 26,000 to 32,000 bases or RNA ‘letters’ in length. The metaphorical context of a sequence, chain or text composed of signifying (differentiated) marks drawn from a paradigmatic alphabet only adds to the sense of its cipher-like impenetrability. It is in effect a chemical code. Nonetheless, what the TV doctors have told us is effectively true. CoViD-19 is currently the biggest problem facing humans because it is our bodies which offer SARS-CoV-2 the affordance of an organic system that will see to that this chemical code will be replicated again and again, sometimes fatally, while also being oozed, secreted, coughed or sneezed out into the world. In a Feuerbachian way, all those powers of invisible omnipresence and inscrutable, codified subjectivity which we feel to be a menacing presence must be reclaimed for ourselves. It is our own activity, not that of the inert SARS-CoV-2; we who are everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously dwarfing the anthropogenic universe while silently dispersing our effects throughout it, and it is we ourselves — our peculiar subjectivity and our agency — which we must come to decode and understand properly if we are to win this fight on a sustainable level. ‘Sustainable’ because this is not the last time we will face a global pandemic; it is likely to become a regular or at least periodic feature of our world.
The human being nestles in a somewhat metastable evolutionary niche, metastable because it can by no means be taken for granted. What does this mean? Well, for one thing we are biologically exposed to novel pathogens whose mutation is the result of the historicity of human medicine and of other production processes. Production centres and supply chains for virtually everything are, in the late capitalist system, always kept out of view: out of the reach of public scrutiny and trusted to be self-regulating. Our ability to take a hand in our own collective fate through the many ways we fabricate, furnish and produce our human world plays a significant part in the environment of substances we are exposed to both at the everyday level and in exceptional circumstances, but it is a problematic and equivocal ‘we’. Those who are most exposed are not those who have very much say at all in how and in what condition human commodities arrive in the world. Similarly, nobody today can claim to be ignorant of anthropogenic climate changes, but those with the power to genuinely take responsibility at a systemic level are few because few have access to the kind of social depth of influence needed to participate in systemic change. We are perched in an awkward place in many other respects too: our neoteny, our exposure to and dependence on external social systems and practices, is fundamental to our condition.
SARS-CoV-2 is also currently our biggest problem because this agent of infection and contagion arrives now, precisely when we are at our most sensuously interconnected; now at our most preoccupied with contact and with keeping up with contacts; now at our most preoccupied with the technology and aesthetics of the tactile and the haptic and the touchable; now at the height of la passion du réel and the acquisitive injunction to hold in hand and manipulate; now at the end of thirty-odd years economic rule of the figure of the entrepreneur (from entre and prehendere, lit. the ‘taker-into-hand’). Now as never before in the history of our species we demand physical immediacy, for everything there is to brush against our skin as proof it is there at all. This is also the time when we are perhaps the most domesticated, the most servile, and the most likely to replicate the behaviour of other people simply because it is easier than causing a fuss and offending capital: when NHS managers are most likely to effectively gag staff for suggesting that they need more protection from the super-doses of coronavirus they are being exposed to; when employers are either maliciously indifferent to or blithely complicit in the contact-intensive commute of the workers they refuse to let operate safely from home. We currently combine the contradiction of a savage disbelief in every relationship with the world that is not one of acquisitive immediacy with a seemingly blind obeisance to the symbolic power of capital. From an alien eye it might appear as if we were fanatic cultists, resigned to a suicidal mission of ‘keeping up and carrying on’ as we march cheerfully over the precipice of our own extinction.
The virus’ process of replication occurs on more than one level because replication is always happening in human societies on more than one scale. At the microbiological level, it is due to processes we cannot yet counteract (until vaccines are ready for production), at the macrobiological and cultural level it is due to processes we can and should counteract (with extra hygienic measures, social distancing, and so on), and at the sociological and political-economic level it is due to processes we have long known we must counteract but can only do so as the result of social struggles (with changes in the dominant mode of production, a true and ecologically-responsive assessment of human needs, wholly transformed models of ownership and distribution of resources, social relations of labour). These are the modalities of our struggles today, being composed of contingencies and deontological possibilities alone. There are no impossibilities just as there are no necessities here, a fact which is as frightening as it is hopeful.