SARS-CoV-2 or the Encounter With Ourselves.
Photo: Armin Linke, 2015
SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) is penetrating our world. It creates a planetary present, the faults and inequalities of which are all the more pronounced due to the catalytic action of the virus. While images of a brutal struggle for existence reach us from the global south, this time it also affects European societies, which have not experienced such a fundamental crisis for more than half a century. It profoundly changes everyday lives, routines, life here in Central Europe. We no longer touch door handles, avoid contact with the banister, avoid other passers-by on the street, and cringe when a friend approaches us with open arms. In short, we are alienating ourselves somewhat from our environment by restricting sensory encounters. This alienation is exacerbated by the shift of most social contacts – whether work contacts or friendships – to the digital world.
A World in Limbo
The world as we know it is suddenly put on hold. Since we have not yet internalized the logic of this world, and our senses and reactions have not yet developed routines in the form of everyday behavior, we often react with hesitation, with irritation. This creates a world “in limbo.” It is created by a virus with a lethal effect. This virus is getting closer to us day by day without us seeing it. The impacts are piling up, restrictions are increasing, and yet the sun is still shining, people are moving on the street, some shops are open. We are in an eerie world that Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t have described better.
It is a situation that we’ve never experienced before, for which we haven’t developed a language relating to our way of life. Attempting to make sense of it, many of us fall back on tropes from history. Memories of the plague, for example, are evoked in our cultural memory. It, too, supposedly came from the outside and hit societies that were in no way prepared for it. One-third of Europe’s population was eradicated by plague epidemics in the late Middle Ages. A dismal atmosphere spread, which contemporary voices referred to as “The Black Death.” Death was so pervasive – the dead could no longer be buried as usual, corpses lay in the streets – that people no longer regarded the disease as a “natural” event, but only as an intervention by God. The result was a dispute over guilt and punishment. The search began for a scapegoat, which was found, not for the first time, among those of the Jewish faith. This example demonstrates that the images invoked are not innocent. They develop their own logic and a societal power that goes far beyond natural processes.
But the virus not only intervenes in the microcosms of our everyday world. Rather, it has a tremendous impact that is bringing entire economies to the brink of collapse, overriding global supply chains, and subjecting democracies to an enormous stress test. Ultimately, it is not the virus that creates these faults, but people – for fear of the virus.
This is why different societies experience different processes. The arrival of the virus reveals the logics and structures of these societies and states, whether Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán eliminates the parliament, China extends the surveillance state, or Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meets the virus with anti-terrorism instruments. Centralist governments like that in France in which the president in Paris imposes rules for the whole country react differently than federalist societies like Germany in which there are constant coordination processes between the federal and state governments. While the German governments at the state and federal levels put the lives of individuals at the center of all decision-making processes from the outset, the British government, in a utilitarian strategy, first attempted to weigh the values of the lives of individuals and the overall well-being of society by relying on the immunization of society through infections, even if the death of individuals was foreseeable.
Not only do authoritarian political figures see SARS-CoV-2 as an enemy to wage war against. But martial language allows them to stage themselves as generals in an existential battle to bring dissenting voices in the population into line. But who is actually the enemy this war is to be waged against? Who or what are viruses? What is the relationship between viruses as a natural phenomenon and their role as carriers of cultural meaning?
Viruses Abide by the Program: Divide, Multiply, Mutate
Scientists debate whether viruses are living beings at all. The fact that they can reproduce does indicate this. But they are dependent on a host. The host provides the milieu in which they proliferate, but also in which they mutate. All the virus has is the program that controls its proliferation and thus reproduction, but not its own metabolic processes. With regard to this program, viruses can be compared to the algorithms of the digital world, which is why the virus is used as a metaphor when describing digital processes. Viruses are not independently acting units and should not be regarded as living beings. We cannot kill them as in a war, but only stop them by preventing them from entering the cells and thus from multiplying.
In the current pandemic, human cells became hosts to the coronavirus, which likely was transmitted to humans from bats via other animals. The virus began to multiply in human cells; humans became the carrier of the virus. Over this course, human lifestyles, economic exchange processes, and political structures became the actual media for transmitting the virus. The virus itself, as a biological entity, has only minor importance, which according to its program consists in multiplying and mutating. It gets its real meaning from its host, without which it cannot exist. In this, too, it is similar to the binary code of the algorithm, the meaning of which is only the difference between two characters – either + and -, or 1 and 0 – but which becomes effective through programming and thus through human action.
The Deficiencies of an Anthropocene World
In light of its biological function, the actual role of the coronavirus is now clear – and thus its importance for our time beyond references to existing tropes or attempts to functionalize political power. It nests in a carrier, namely the humans who have been reshaping the planet for some time. This transformation of the planet by humans is called the anthropocene. The coronavirus is now intervening in the logic of the anthropocene world. Or more precisely, it is the people who, thanks to their guest, the virus, put the anthropocene world they created to a stress test. This is not a process intended by humans. In it, humans first appear as natural species, as carriers and transmitters of viruses. These attack the human-made world. The rapid proliferation of the SARS-CoV-2 and its transmission illuminate this world’s structures and deficiencies and put it to the test as if under a burning glass. Humans are both actors and those affected by the processes taking place, cultural as well as natural beings.
The idea of man as an actor in front of a more or less constant natural backdrop gives way to dynamic processes in which human action, technological operations, and natural processes, intertwining, unfold.
The key attribute of the anthropocene is that through technologies and infrastructures it creates, humankind intervenes so profoundly in the earth system that it not only transforms the planet as a whole, but also upsets the previous balance. This is illustrated by the fact that essential earth parameters – from the increase in CO2 to acidification of the oceans, from water consumption to the production of plastic – are increasing exponentially in a phenomenon that science calls the Great Acceleration. Climate change, which has increasingly affected us in recent years, is one consequence of this development. It reveals how human action combines with natural processes so that the dividing line between culture and nature, shaped by western modernity, dissolves. Not only is climate change fundamentally promoted by human action; it also triggers migration processes that fundamentally change all societies. Human action also jeopardizes the survival of other species on Earth, so that mass extinction threatens. The idea of man as an actor in front of a more or less constant natural backdrop gives way to dynamic processes in which human action, technological operations, and natural processes, intertwining, unfold.
One fundamental problem of many of these anthropocene processes is that we cannot experience them directly and therefore have not developed any strategies to deal with them. This has a lot to do with scaling effects. We experience drought and rain, but not climate changes over long periods. We take long-distance trips, but we cannot grasp what it means for the planet when more than two hundred thousand planes transport millions of people around the world every day. The virus is now demonstrating to us the consequences of exponentially increased mobility as part of the Great Acceleration, in which flights over the Atlantic or trips to the Far East are part of the accelerated economic exchange processes. These very mobility structures are the virus’s means of transport. The invisibility of the virus and the up to two-week incubation period of the disease caused by it means that potentially every friend, every neighbor, indeed every person we meet can be contagious or infected by us. So we are forced to navigate a world that potentially threatens our existence, but whose specific risks we cannot determine. This same logic underlies climate change, a process that takes far more time. The spreading of the virus, however, can be experienced in time and space because it does not develop over years or decades and in the abstract, but, thanks to its exponential growth, approaches us in a kind of time-lapse. Hence for the first time a broad public debate is showing us what exponential growth actually means. In the early stages of an exponential development, the growth curve appears to be comparable to linear growth forms that are easy to control. The increase from 2 to 4 or 16 cases of illness appears small and insignificant, but if there is an increase in cases from a three-digit to a six-digit number in a few days, we see that quantitative changes result in qualitative transformations.
Navigating instead of Ruling
The phenomena of the anthropocene transcend our experience, temporally and spatially. We need cultural techniques that allow us to move on different scaling levels. This applies not only to rational methods, but also to developing the sensitivity to the fact that our actions in Europe have effects in other parts of the world as well as on future generations. Therefore, national isolationism cannot be the answer to the pandemic’s challenge. That is why we need global strategies for the health system.
The anthropocene world is a world in which there is no longer an exterior. Since human knowledge and technology transform the planet as a whole, humans, as actors, are always part of the action. We permanently create the world to which we are then exposed. The coronavirus spreads to the entire planet thanks to the mobility of its human host. Therefore, there is no place to retreat, from where we can look at the earth, protected from the virus. We have to understand our actions and thinking as inherent parts of these processes.
That is also why we have to learn to navigate in this world. The idea that we could rule the world with this knowledge turns out to be an illusion. Navigating means understanding oneself as part of material and intelligent exchange processes and not as part of a stable world for whose problems there are clear answers. Not least because of this, authoritarian leadership models prove to be pseudo-solutions.
The Great Acceleration or the Reversal of Time
Due to the anthropocene ways of life, the virus and thus the pandemic is spreading with unprecedented speed. The latest knowledge models and technological structures are not prepared for this. Local medical infrastructures are collapsing. We therefore are now buying billions of dollars worth of time that will allow us to develop adequate solutions to the existential threat. In order to compensate for the problem that we humans ourselves have caused, sums of money exceeding the human imagination are required. This is closely linked to the logic of the Great Acceleration in which the knowledge processes of past decades were developed primarily for the sake of their technological applicability and profitability, but not of their social benefit and purpose. Scaling logic is a driver of the Great Acceleration – it is about producing the largest possible number of pieces. This has planetary consequences. In the past, we humans created structures that obstruct our future. The time vector has been reversed: The future is behind us and the past is ahead of us. Part of the dialectic of anthropocene processes is that they were started with the promise of a better future.
It is therefore now important to again prioritize the social importance of technological and economic developments. As crucial as experts may be for solving our current problems, it is also clear that the question of what society we want and what developments can contribute to it needs to be discussed with the general public. Once the meaning of the pursuit of development is debated politically in a larger civil society context it will most likely result in a deceleration of these processes. In the long term, however, this could prove to be more cost-effective than the dearly bought hard stops of recent years.
The Anthropocene is not just
The anthropocene world is based on gigantic technological infrastructures that span the entire planet – from dams to refineries, airports, road and rail networks, to oil pipelines, supply chains between different production sites, and digital infrastructures with their global cable networks and server systems. These infrastructures are increasingly being digitally networked with each other and are developing into their own sphere, the technosphere. The technosphere is extremely capital-intensive and leads to the accumulation of economic power.
Instead of looking for new forms of solidarity with those most affected by the virus in the global or even in the European south, the north is systematically sealing itself off.
This has two consequences that are revealed by the coronavirus crisis: The creation of the infrastructures responsible for the anthropocene’s acceleration phenomena has withdrawn funds from areas that were not productive for this particular development. This applies in particular to the healthcare system and, within that, to the care professions. The rapid spread of the virus affects desolate health systems in many countries, which are in no way prepared for a pandemic accelerated by anthropocene processes. In addition, the original spreaders of the pandemic are actors in the globalized world, people who cross borders and continents for economic or tourist reasons. But the pandemic also affects many people in the global south who do not benefit from these processes, but are exposed to them. They have almost no means to resist the spread of the virus. Many lose their jobs due to the economic crisis, day laborers can no longer move around freely, and they lose their wages. Anyone who does not get sick despite poor care is faced with an existential threat due to the collapsing economies.
Politics are regaining primacy over the economy, but without accepting their global responsibility.
Instead of looking for new forms of solidarity with those most affected by the virus in the global or even in the European south, the north is systematically sealing itself off. And the new nationalists are reversing the true causes in order to exploit fears of the loss of prosperity by reviving the old metaphors of infectious diseases. Talk of an invasion by the virus from the outside is equated with the threat of migration from poor countries. Old racisms fuel a martial rhetoric that urges the closing of borders. This again reveals the gap in justice that plays a fundamental role in other anthropocene phenomena such as climate change. Those hardest hit are not the cause of the processes. Nationally as well as globally, political strategies are needed to close this gap in justice. Within states, for example in Germany, the pandemic is prompting this political reassessment, but only for its own population. Politics are regaining primacy over the economy, but without accepting their global responsibility. Sums in the billions are used domestically to protect the most vulnerable, older and sick people. As correct as this is, it does not solve the global justice problem. This leads to the question of whether the political recalibration of the system should only serve to bridge a state of emergency and then return to the old logic.
While resolute state intervention appears to be the order of the day in the midst of the crisis, at the same time lurks the danger of the surveillance state, which not only protects but also controls its citizens.
What if the State of Emergency Becomes the Norm?
The infrastructures of the technosphere have now reached such a degree of complexity that they are out of control and obstructing our freedom and thus our future. The fight against the pandemic in China, which at first only makes the spearhead of this development clear, starkly demonstrates the enormous challenges posed for all societies: Mobility and the technological permeation of all spheres of life are increasingly creating phenomena that appear to make total surveillance and control of all social processes necessary.
While resolute state intervention appears to be the order of the day in the midst of the crisis, at the same time lurks the danger of the surveillance state, which not only protects but also controls its citizens. Using the structures of the anthropocene world, the pandemic has created a state of emergency that puts democratic societies to the test, not least because the state of emergency could become the norm. These challenges compel us to fundamentally reflect on the categories that form the foundations of the anthropocene world and have their roots in the developmental history of Western modernism.
The Capitalist Attack on Life and the Planet
For a long time, Western modernism promised to guarantee everyone’s freedom and autonomy. However, this promise of autonomy was historically paid for by declaring nature an exploitable resource. This was made possible to an unprecedented degree in recent centuries thanks to technological developments and capitalist economics. For centuries, the prerequisite for this was excluding many non-western societies from this accumulation of wealth by not attributing them to civilization but to the nature being exploited.
In the second half of the twentieth century, driven by capitalist economies, consumerist societies developed in which the original modernist promise of freedom was increasingly interpreted as a right to unlimited consumption: the ability of everyone to buy every conceivable product at all seasons and to travel everywhere became a fundamental driving force behind the Great Acceleration and thus the anthropocene. The logic of consumer society looted the planet’s resources and brought it to the brink of collapse.
The digital revolution at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century then promised the ability to be connected to the entire globe around the clock, thus further increasing the degree of freedom in terms of communication and information. The promise of freedom of subjective development and the democratization of knowledge was, however, increasingly functionalized through business models that use the orientation of citizens on the internet to collect data and sell them as goods for digital capitalism. After the devastation of the planet, life itself became an exploitable resource. Colonialism in the early phase of capitalism is now being replaced by an economic model whose actors consist of a few platforms and corporations. The business model is no longer based on the exclusion and oppression of large parts of the world population, but operates by asking each user to employ their freedom to constantly perfect their lives. As apparent actors in the digital world, they are transformed into the resources of data capitalist economy.
Viruses are also part of the human living environment; in fact they accompany life from the beginning.
The autonomy project of modernity developed more and more into an economic project and thus into an attack on both the planet and life itself. While the original promise of enlightenment, politically or philosophically, was also about protecting the autonomy of the individual, for instance from the power of the state and the church, capitalism has required that unlimited resources be made available to every individual. A protection project thus became a capitalist-driven expansion project.
Technology Makes Nature Individually Consumable to a Seemingly Unlimited Degree
At the center of this expansion project was the individual, who over time is removed from social and natural relationships. These relationships originally always had a passive or receptive and an active or agency aspect. Farmers had to take weather conditions such as seasonal cycles into account when planting the soil. They literally are considerate of nature and see themselves not only as actors but also as parts of the whole. They can therefore not produce without restrictions. Today, tomato factories in southern Spain use technology to create natural conditions that can be exploited all year round. Thus technology makes nature available to a seemingly unlimited degree. This anthropocene “nature” enables Spanish tomatoes to be consumed all year round. The true cost of this consumptive expansion – exploiting poorly paid workers from Africa and depleting groundwater – normally does not appear in the calculations. A viable holistic model of society and nature must, however, take account of all actors and nature.
The story of life is a story of viruses. There is no sensorium for this world, which is constitutive of our own.
Viruses are also part of the human living environment; in fact they accompany life from the beginning. Over half of our genome consists of mutilated viruses. The story of life is a story of viruses. Although science has knowledge of this long-term role of viruses in our world, many of us dismiss them from our understanding of this world. A consumer-based world model pushes them to the margins; they don’t fit into its logic. There is no sensorium for this world, which is constitutive of our own. That is why the spread of the coronavirus is perceived and described as an alien invasion. Since we have not developed a way of dealing with the so-called constraints of our individualized, consumptive way of life, we are forced to use whatever it takes in money. This “whatever it takes” compensates for a model of unchecked, individualized growth that removes individuals from their environmental references as consumable units. The consequences of climate change, also unintended side effects of the dominant world model, the depletion of basic resources such as water, could trigger the next crises. But we may also be faced with questions of justice in the distribution of the planet’s resources if state and social structures are overwhelmed by the pandemic in the countries of the global south.
Relation Logic must Replace the Logic of Scale
Since this “whatever it takes” crisis management cannot be used indefinitely, the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic is to develop new life models. We must develop practices and ways of thinking, indeed a new alphabet of living and living together, which does not understand individuals as isolated monads, but as embedded in a complex world of relationships. In order to maintain these exchange relationships with the material and social world in a dynamic balance, we cannot only assert our own interests; but must also develop a sensorium for others and the world. This must consist of giving and taking, in making an impact on, but also being concerned about the world, of personal development, but which also includes solidarity with others.
We also need a new geographical policy to develop these practices. We need small, decentralized local and regional units that represent a common area of experience for all actors. On this basis, micro-economies and policies can be devised. Using structures of digital communication, these areas of experience could be networked with each other worldwide; but not networked through platforms, but through structures that bring users into direct contact in order to maintain the decentralized nature of communication. These economic and political structures would then be based on a logic of relations and not on a logic of scale, which is only about producing the largest possible number of pieces, ever greater profits – with planetary consequences. In relation logic, equivalent units, each pursuing local strategies, enter into an exchange with one another. This ties human actions back to manageable contexts.
What World Do We Want?
In the face of the coronavirus, a small window has opened in our societies to gain scope for action. It is important to keep this window open a bit. Over the past few days, satellites have sent us pictures from industrial regions where the air was once completely polluted. Now the atmosphere is becoming clearer. The earth seems to be taking deep breaths in some places. We should follow its example and use this time to answer the question of what world we want.
In his photographic works, Armin Linke examines the human-made structures and technologies that have brought planet Earth to the threshold of climate change and the anthropocene. The works used here were part of the installation Carceri d’Invenzione presented by HKW at the XXII Triennale di Milano and the exhibition Blind Sensorium. Il paradosso dell'Antropocene in Matera.
A shorter version of the text was published in the science supplement of FAZ on April 29, 2020.