Covid-19: Agent of Change

Peering through a lens at the fluid, substratum scale Covid-19 moves through, I can’t help note their physical body’s semblance to World War 2 naval mines, drifting in swells of ocean current. But Covid-19 doesn’t drift, it has agency. It isn’t conscious, doesn’t think, but it does have agency to perform one function: propagate. In our ship of skin we collide with them as much as they collide with us. At the scale of the pathogen there is a whole geography traipsed. They move through valleys of matter, alongside other agents regulating that landscape. The inhabited landscape of both these microscopic agents, is our body. We are their ecology. Their world is the corporeal bulk of muscle & fluids our personality inhabits, which we sense the world with. The same corporeal bulk we kiss, hug, interact, encounter & share being-in-the-world with., to borrow Heidegger’s terminology.

As Tim Morton explains, ‘the problem is not that things are truly distant, but that they are in our face—they are our face.’ (Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 28) Because I am their world, they become my world. This is what a symbiotic relationship is. Symbiosis is not only between us & the bacteria regulating their ecology (our body) so we can love, watch TV, learn, & profit exponentially from apperception (our awareness we are aware). As discomfiting as it is, we are in a symbiotic relationship with Covid-19: our actions caused it to build an ecology. We get the word ‘ecology’ from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘home’, & logos, which means ‘study’. Ecology at different magnitudes are being altered & created. The emergence of Covid-19 is radically altering our ecology as we enabled Covid-19 the pluck & courage to sow seeds & plow on the fertile valleys of our pulmonary apparatus.

Since the virus stopped us being productive in our world, in our constructed societies, the world of biotic variety reemerges. Pollution clears, making way for cleaner skies, which birds return to. Waterways clarify & marine life returns. The world, which in tandem with our constructed world, actually props up our wellbeing, convalesces. I am avoiding using the word ‘natural’ because I don’t agree with it. I prefer the idea of worlding, borrowed from Heidegger & more profitable I find when talking about ecological assemblages. You cannot work in tandem with organic agents such as plants, trees, animals, & the technological innovations required to cultivate them responsibly, if you decide to think of a return to nature as the better option than cooperation with all things. When I say this I mean it literally. You have to cooperate with a tool, animal, person, tomato.

The transformations, while small are noticeable. This is because we are currently witnessing what a less harmfully productive world does for the world of nonhumans: flora & fauna, skies, bodies of water. ‘Ecological awareness is coexisting, in thought and practice, with the ghostly host of nonhumans.’ (Morton, Humankind, p. 63) Business-as-usual, taking objects for granted & failing to acknowledge the precipitation of calamity because we want cheap holidays, cheap clothing & lots of meat—because we can’t help ourselves commodifying everything—seriously needs addressing in the context of this pandemic.

The compensation for this knowledge is unfortunate. Our habits of proximity have been radically & very quickly challenged. We pause before embracing each other, pecking each other on the cheek, shaking hands, receiving an object. We are accustomed to doing this without a second thought, even on love’s worst ugly day. But for now we have become the same poles of a magnet. But feeling repelled isn’t, broadly speaking, our reaction. We may be quarantined in isolation, but we aren’t lonely, only viscerally starved. We are pining for one another’s physical presence. We cannot live without each other. This is why people in Italy came out onto their balconies. This is why the decision to close bars & restaurants is such a difficult one. We are glad in these unique times, for digital space, where we can connect. Covid-19 cannot breed in the Wi-Fi; in cabling & code the biological cannot propagate.

The errors of our neoliberal economic system could be radically altered because of this habitual change to the circumstances with which we encounter each other. We are realizing the world we have made, encounter & interact with, relies entirely on our capacity to be in close proximity to one another. It furthermore, requires us to be in safe proximity to animals. Animals we use for nutrition. We know the habit of eating animal based products is problematic. It produces an industry that staunches any appetite by nonhumans to diversify outside of the worlds we create: things die off because we choose something else to exist in their place, for our use. The cattle we farm-to-fork are detrimental to diversity. Eutrophication, caused by defecating/micturating cows, starves rivers of oxygen, kills off fish & plant life, making these bodies of water no better than sewage. Irresponsible actions connect directly, through degrees of separation, to something that is happening, somewhere. We have to steer away from any belief that there is an ‘away’. When we begin to see & realize how disparate phenomena interlock, we also begin to see & realize the necessity of eradicating methods & behaviour that cause harmful repercussions.

Reality is perforated at various scales by different agents. Covid-19 perforates our microbiome, as does food, which must be farmed, which effects ecology, not only local ecology, but global ecology, which effects temperature, cleanliness, & diversity.  The scale at which the thing exists physically, doesn’t let it off the hook from being effected. Assemblages of various sizes exist within other assemblages. We have to see reality as a rhizome. This is how Deleuze & Guattari perceive reality:

An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines. (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 7)

We all know this… Don’t we? Action/reaction, that’s a thing. Between us & the doing of anything is a thing made of other things, or process being proceeded upon by some thing else. It’s matter-of-fact, but we don’t have the habit of seeing something where we usually put a gap. Now throw poverty in the mix & action/reaction is very different. Throw poverty in the mix: informal settlements, informal markets, there you have breeding grounds for trouble, or what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’. A problem that has always been there, but materializes after fomenting for decades, exacerbated by uncommon, unanticipated pressures. This is what we are seeing happen after 4 decades of Neoliberalism. What I mean by ‘informal’ is the existence of slums or poor districts & their markets, DIY, fringe economies produced out of desperation (this is what Mike Davis talks about at length in his book Planet of Slums). You may say informal economies/ecologies have always been around. Yes, but not in a world where there are multiple people with multiple billions of dollars/pounds to easily fix this problem. This is not a holier-than-thou situation. It is a taking-responsibility situation. The west cannot point the blame to an ambivalent, ever changing there; to China or wherever the next pandemic materializes. By its own admission the west must realize its avarice is a contributing factor to poverty, to the struggle to make ends meet, which is what the existence of informal settlements & markets means. We created capitalism & neoliberalism, they did not emerge from nature. They are ideologies of the west, which persuaded other countries to adopt them. The teleology of history isn’t neoliberalism. It shouldn’t be ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, 2009)

Action/reaction is a feature & function of connection into the mycorrhizal structure of reality at every intersection of encounter. What is interesting is that, for Deleuze & Guattari,

A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determination, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows). (A Thousand Plateaus, p.7)

It is important to note that the stratification or superimposition of multiplicities in multiplicities, breaks down the dichotomy of subjects looking out on objects to manipulate them irresponsibly. The relationship isn’t dependent on who has hegemony, but rather on the process of multiplication itself. Process is the name of the game. When it is we must have, to borrow Donna J. Haraway’s term ‘response-ability’ (Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, p. 16) It is precisely this structure, which rigidly materializes in us as habit, that makes the ‘changing in nature’ so jarring. Habits are very difficult to break. But I attribute this to us being unfamiliar with factors that are now becoming more pressing: how do we exist in such close proximity to invisible things?

Reading Svetlana Alexievitch’s book Chernobyl Prayer, the parallels, while certainly differing in many respects, do share similarities: contagion & with it a new habit of proximity, an invisible enemy, a feeling of being at war in peacetime, a workforce that must struggle on regardless. The undetected enemy makes the switch to a new habit of proximity, difficult. We know why, but we can’t see the why that is presenting us with the challenge to our habits. It becomes an ontological problem, a problem of what is being. We can only take precautions, we cannot stand fast in the face of a fearsome but ultimately, approaching & thus revealed enemy. The people with coronavirus are faced with ostracism, as those from Chernobyl remain, referred to as ‘Chernobyl-people’. This defines them, rather than a cultural or national identity. Contagion quickly eradicates the common boundaries we accept & redraws boundaries around those who are contagious, & those who can be made contagious. To think there is anything inter se is erroneous. There just isn’t. When the proximity of that which affects you with contagion is either in another body or so close to your body it is your body, then how can there be anything but the fact of being a receptacle to contagion? If your neighbour is infected, so are you. The ‘between’ is a vector, another agent. It must be understood if only so we can see what it is & think about it.

I have been thinking about being human for over a decade, & with it all the interdisciplinary subjects that have assembled over that time, in order to think more accurately about everything. I have much to learn still & it will never end. But in all this time, after all these insights & books, I have never thought there’d be a moment in lived history, where things might radically change after an event. This pandemic must open our eyes to the interlocking vectors of events & systems in our ecology, which lead to problems such as the one we face. We have no reason to assume this is the last large scale problem we will face globally.

These problems, rely on us being fully invested in a capitalist system, which is cruel & vulnerable, because it relies on us being well enough to prop it up. If we’re unwell it crumbles. No social role in the assemblage of capitalism, as we are witnessing, is worthless or less than any other. Society is the rhizome & failures mean compensations; compensations which we are not in the habit of doing. Wouldn’t it be better if we lived the compensations? Foresaw them in full prophetic mode, which really means, not assuming they can’t happen, & taking greater precaution beforehand. Basically, if we stop wanting futile, useless stuff & are finally bright with each other, we’ll evade what Theodore Roethke states as ‘the immense immeasurable emptiness of things’ (Theodore Roethke, They Sing, They Sing). That ‘emptiness’ must be filled by an imperative, indelible requirement to be in close proximity to each other. Ultimately, only our affection & love for one another makes life worth living.

7 Replies to “Covid-19: Agent of Change”

    1. The piece is looking to a changed future. That’s why I don’t mention places as it seemed likely they were fake. But I think the idea of this virus cleaning up other nonhuman’s environments is what I wanted to get across.

  1. “That ‘emptiness’ must be filled by an imperative, indelible requirement to be in close proximity to each other. Ultimately, only our affection & love for one another makes life worth living.”

    “only our affection and love for one another…”? I dunno. I can live without affection and love pretty easily if I have my drum set and a copy of The Who’s “Who’s Next?” handy. “Bargain” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are contenders for Best Rock Song Ever as far as I am concerned. I used to sub in on drums for a Beatles cover band years ago and they did “Bargain” as part of their final, non-Beatles set. I have NEVER enjoyed live drumming as much as on that song…

      1. Thank god or science you are not like me. I am so insanely in love with music, I almost lack empathy for anyone/anything that is not a drumstick, drum kit, saxophone, jazz LP, The Who album, jazz musician, bass guitar, bass guitarist, The Who fan, or British rock musician from the mid 60s to the late 80s (beautiful Japanese and Lebanese women being the great exception of course…).

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