Susan Sontag once wrote, “One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else… there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness.” There are countless examples of this phenomenon, from the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 to the Trump administration’s recent rhetoric describing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus,” after the city where the outbreak first occurred. Recognizing such historical patterns and precedents is the first step to avoiding their blind repetition. It is with the conviction that the language we use to describe events matter for how we address them that the editors of the JHI Blog have compiled critical and historical sources, past and present, to help our readers contextualize and navigate the present crisis. – Jonathon Catlin, Contributing Editor
Several weeks into the plague that had descended on London in 1665, the sidewalks began to empty and the streets began to fill with foot traffic. The chronicler of that plague, Daniel Defoe, recounted through the fictional narrator of his Journal of the Plague Year how Londoners grew to fear walking too close to their neighbors’ doors and the accompanying watchmen who sometimes enforced their quarantine inside. Apart from the guards, I recognized this dynamic in my walks, which I divert into the street to avoid close contact with neighbors. This could have been a troubling development for Defoe, his narrator and his contemporaries, who elevated the values of “civility” and “sociability” to new heights. But notably absent from the Journal’s account, from what I can tell, is a sense that all those social interactions make up some abstract society that could be disturbed by their disruptions.
We often read now that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed previously obscured social ties that link classes, nations and races. It has been described as a “leveller” which has proved just how imbricated we are in unknown connections. It poses a worthwhile contrast, then, to read an account nearly three centuries old that has no place for these assertions, and reports the experience of the plague almost strictly as an experience for certain people, particularly the poor and laboring classes. The rich leave for the country before the city deteriorates, and the Journal focuses on the experience of those who could not. “It must be confest, that tho’ the Plague was chiefly among the Poor; yet, were the Poor the most Venturous and Fearless of it, and went about their Employment, with a sort of brutal Courage.” That “brutal courage,” driven by desperation, forced the working poor to endanger themselves as watchmen and undertakers. We have seen in our current crisis how the need to keep working has pushed millions to the front lines of the virus. Defoe’s narrator, witnessing his own crisis as a crisis for the laboring class, saw it too.
That is a condition that can be obscured, however, precisely by a particular view of “society” as a dense network of unknown connections. Will Davies, in a recent essay for the London Review of Books, traces a contemporary history of this equation of society to a “network, made up of billions of interconnected nodes.” This view ascended in the 1990s and flourished in the 2000s within the pages of bestselling social-theory-cum-advice-books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge. It influenced policy in David Cameron’s Conservative government, justifying measures that encouraged, but did not enforce, individual choices whose positive effects would ripple through one’s social networks. Millennials like me likely consumed these insights like the air we breath, through Ted Talks and Gladwell paraphrases, in the 2000s. Now, with their allergy to collective action and class-perspective, they could not look any less equipped to the conditions of the crisis we face.
In a multi-interspecies planet where we know so much about certain “things,” the coronavirus family remains poorly studied. Unfortunately right now, that means human populations are the test subjects around the globe to understand the (un)natural history of this submicroscopic infectious agent that requires a living cell to replicate. Describing the virus as an agent—-as a force producing specific results—highlights the distance created between humans and their environment. The virus will replicate once inside a cell with the increase of itself the main outcome. For humans, the outcome is varied, asymptomatic, sympotamic, or death. Unfortunately (with all due respect to the outcomes on humans from this pandemic) viruses remain fascinating from a biological point of view.
Edging between inert and alive, viruses force us to rethink the divide between biotic and abiotic. Viruses not only resist our assumptions about how life happens and is expected to perform, but they also overturn our desire to delimit and pin down definitions of organic life. Suspended on surfaces, evolutionarily streamlined into strands of ultramicroscopic threads of genetic material (DNA, RNA) wrapped in a protein jacket, viruses just seem to hang out doing nothing all day, every day, seemingly the least animated and biotic “things”. A quick hike on a taxonomic trail ticks a bunch of boxes–genes, serological markers, spikes, envelope, membrane, proteins, RNA– that enable scientists to say, “Yes! That is a Virus.” That, in itself, is an incredible feat as they are ridiculously tiny. All of these physical characteristics place the coronavirus in the Coronaviridae family, subfamily Orthocoronavirinae. And yet we know so little about how viruses, animals and humans interact over evolutionary and historical time.
The selection of recommendations focus on opinion pieces and articles from scientists and nonscientists as they grapple not only with the science but with the wider implications for society that these pared-down viral entities create as they cross inter-species and national barriers, all the while disrupting our scientific theories of life.
In “A Primer on Biodefense Data Science for Pandemic Preparedness” (Cell) biomedical informaticist Eric Perakslis offers a brief overview of the field of biodefense policy in the United States and the role of data science. He focuses on the concepts of resilience, risk assessment, response, and recovery to understand how natural disasters and unexpected crisis impact operations. This opinion piece is useful as a starting point to understand how earlier models of biological weapons threats are not useful during peacetime crises.
Virologists Shan-Lu Liu and Linda Saif’s brief opinion piece, “Emerging Viruses without Borders: The Wuhan Coronavirus” (Viruses) focuses on the desire for transparency on disease reporting and international collaboration. The following links highlight the need to revisit older models on pandemic predictions, the role of climate change, and socioeconomic inequality in creating novel spaces where humans and animals interact: Quincey Justman, “Keeping the wheels of the scientific endeavor turning during the COVID-19 pandemic,” (Cell Systems), Mackenzie, J.S., Jeggo, M., Daszak, P., Richt, and J.A. (Eds.), “One Health: the human-animal-environment interfaces in emerging infectious diseases” (Springer), The Cell Editorial Team, “COVID-19: Navigating Uncertainties Together,” (Cell), Sarah Callaghan, “COVID-19 is a Data Science Issue,” (Patterns), Jeff Green, “Covid-19 Is Becoming the Disease That Divides Us: By Race, Class and Age” (Bloomberg News), and Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses (University of Chicago Press).
“Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis,” a series of provocations I recently co-authored with the philosopher Benjamin P. Davis, for the New School’s Public Seminar. Our first thesis: “Catastrophe is not ‘to come,’ but here and now. Before the current pandemic, our way of life was already killing life on earth. State selections of who shall live and who shall die already produced medical shortages. ‘That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what is in each case given’ (Walter Benjamin).”
Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978), “The Way We Live Now” (1986), and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). Sontag—then a recent cancer survivor—states her influential argument on the first page of Illness as Metaphor: “The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”
Charles E. Rosenberg, “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (1989). This classic article in the history of science, written in the heat of the AIDS crisis in America, interrogates the meaning of “epidemic” in a time when the concept seems stretched thin by “metaphorical” usage ranging from tuberculosis to alcoholism and car accidents. Rosenberg argues: “These clichéd usages are disembodied yet at the same time tied to specific rhetorical and policy goals. The intent is clear enough: to clothe certain undesirable yet blandly tolerated social phenomena in the emotional urgency associated with a ‘real’ epidemic.” Epidemics, he contends, are social “events” that elicit “immediate and widespread response” rather than slow “trends” to be retroactively excavated by historians. Drawing upon his reading of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, Rosenberg writes, “a social phenomenon, an epidemic has a dramaturgic form.” Epidemics “follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character” that mobilizes “communities to act out proprietory rituals that incorporate and reaffirm fundamental social values and modes of understanding.”
Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague is currently witnessing a new wave of readership by social distancers. It is set in 1940 but loosely based on the cholera epidemic of 1849 that followed the French colonisation of Algeria. The novel can also be read as an allegory of the French resistance to the pestilence of Nazism and the German occupation during World War Two. Camus’s daughter, who is also the manager of his literary estate, recently told the Guardian that in her view La Peste contains a message for us today: “We are not responsible for coronavirus but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.”
The European Journal of Psychoanalysis has published an extensive conversation among contemporary European thinkers entitled “Coronavirus and philosophers.” The journal compiles historical and philosophical texts addressing medieval plague, modern techniques of quarantine, and the contemporary coronavirus pandemic from thinkers including Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Roberto Esposito. Particularly notable is the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s now-embarrassing skepticism about the threat the “alleged epidemic” poses. He suggests that the “disproportionate reaction” of the Italian state declaring a “state of emergency,” lockdown, and general quarantine validates his broader theory that modern states tend to exploit disasters like acts of terrorism to entrench their biopolitical power over their citizenries. Agamben wrote in a clarificatory note: “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society.” In a rejoinder in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anastasia Berg criticized Agamben’s reflections on “bare life” as “bare theory” that rehashes his old maxims in a way utterly out of touch with the current reality of the pandemic. Agamben’s old friend Jean-Luc Nancy quipped that Agamben has given poor medical advice before, advising Nancy against an essential heart operation, but that at least he remains a truly “exceptional” character.
The American philosopher Judith Butler, on the Verso blog, views the pandemic through the lens of “equality, global interdependence and our obligations toward one another,” given that “The virus does not discriminate. We could say that it treats us equally, puts us equally at risk of falling ill, losing someone close, living in a world of imminent threat. By the way it moves and strikes, the virus demonstrates that the human community is equally precarious.” This perspective leads Butler to stress the potential benefits of universal access to healthcare, which she sees less as a “human right” than as “a social obligation, one that follows from living in society with one another.” She reminds us that in recent progressive movements, “the idea that we might become a people who wishes to see a world in which health policy is equally committed to all lives, to dismantling the market’s hold on health care that distinguishes among the worthy and those who can be easily abandoned to illness and death, was briefly alive.”
Henning Trüper (in German) uses the lens of “humanitarianism” to reflect on the “remarkable historical stability” of the category of “epidemic.” He argues that if we entertain Carl Schmitt’s idea that the sovereign is the one who declares a “the state of emergency,” then today it is the coronavirus itself that is sovereign; emergency is not “decided” in the sense of a cognitive act, but state decrees do not change the fundamental exceptional situation that has already occurred. Trüper explains why the pandemic has so far only been addressed on national levels and not seen as a crisis suited to “humanitarian” framing or intervention: “Humanitarianism” takes place in a specific temporal order rooted in moral meanings that shape our selective attention to certain types of suffering amenable to intervention and control.
Philipp Sarasin’s essay (in German) “Understanding the Pandemic with Foucault?” develops Agamben’s provocations on the Foucauldian notion of “biopolitics” along more differentiated and conceptually precise avenues: the leprosy model (expulsions of the sick Foucault observed in medieval cities), the plague model (practices of confinement and quarantine begun in the early modern period), the smallpox model (more liberal and information-based responses to modern outbreak, most recently seen in South Korea’s response to coronavirus), and the model of the “care of the self” connected to the late Foucault’s work on ancient techniques of self-fashioning (optional and norm-based practices, like the social distancing recommended today).
Gordon A. Craig, “Politics of a Plague,” New York Review of Books (June 30, 1988), a review of Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830–1910 (Oxford, 1987). Evans shows that the ruling class of Hamburg ignored scientists and delayed their response to the 1892 cholera outbreak for weeks out of concern for the city’s economy. Their decision led to economic ruin and devastated the city’s working class.
Pankaj Mishra compares the pandemic to the First World War I and the Great Depression in their suddenness, demand for mass mobilization, and transformation of the international order: “The First World War not only brought the period of friction-free globalization to a gruesome end. It also cruelly exposed an intelligentsia which had believed in irreversible progress and now was forced to acknowledge that, as an embittered Henry James wrote to a friend in August 1914, ‘the tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this grand Niagara.’”
John M. Barry, an expert on the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918, writes that the early strategy of “containment” has already failed. This means that we should all brace for a prolonged global struggle with the virus, for it can reinfect places that have initially controlled it; we are currently seeing this China, which seems to have contained its own initial outbreak only to face new outbreaks brought by infected people coming into the country from abroad. The 1918 pandemic also contains another important lesson. The approaches of two American cities in that crisis lay bare the necessity of social distancing today: Philadelphia stayed open, allowing business and gatherings that spread the sickness, while St. Louis canceled all large events and restricted public life. The outcomes, predictably, look like the two curves we are now seeing in “flatten the curve” announcements: the death rate in St. Louis was ultimately less than half of the rate in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s sudden spike of flu exposures proved catastrophic.
The political theorist Ian Zuckerman argues in Public Seminar that the appropriate framing for the current pandemic is crisis rather than emergency, because “the framework of an “emergency” is a serious distortion of what we are facing: the total failure to plan for a pandemic that had been widely predicted by experts.” He emphasizes two important characteristics of crisis: “First, drawing on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century social scientific understanding, an emergency is unexpected, unanticipated, and arises suddenly, whereas a crisis is often predictable long in advance. The second distinction of crisis derives from its dramaturgical usage in classical aesthetics from Aristotle to Hegel. According to Jürgen Habermas’s summary of this tradition, a crisis occurs ‘in the revelation of conflicting norms against which the identities of the participants shatter, unless they are able to summon up the strength to win back their freedom by shattering the mythical power of fate through the formation of new identities.’ A crisis, in this sense, is a condition in which the dramatic hero is either fundamentally transformed or destroyed. Whereas the goal of emergency powers is to restore the status quo ante, overcoming a crisis often implies fundamental and permanent transformation.”
The Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek, writing in Critical Inquiry, notes how thoroughly the pandemic has scrambled the contemporary political landscape: “When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline ‘Trump announces proposal to take over private sector’ – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago?” Like many thinkers on the Left, Zizek argues, to borrow the memorable expression of Rahm Emanuel, that we should “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Zizek warns that “a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system.” Another piece Zizek wrote for the Philosophical Salon of the LA Review of Books credits Tolstoy with the notion that works of art and ideas—like his own Christian faith—are like “infections,” the effects of which jump from one person to the other. Zizek connects this prescient description to the pervasiveness of “meme” culture today and the much later writings of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Zizek thus suggests that even the language we use to represent and manage the pandemic is, like all other languages, a matter of mimesis, contagious in its own right.
Paula A. Treichler, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (Duke University Press, 1999).
“In Time of Plague,” a special issue of the New School-based journal Social Research on defining disease and confronting the AIDS crisis in 1988.
“Download Classic Works of Plague Fiction: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shelley, to Edgar Allan Poe,” Open Culture.
The Pandemic Journal, updated daily, from the New York Review of Books.