We live in an age of infection, where “going viral” becomes the model and metaphor of a successful life and good society.
In the age of infection, the goal of human existence is to become a virus — to have a Tweet or TikTok infect the cells of the cultural body, cutting through the cacophony, so that others might finally see me, and acknowledge that my existence matters (even if that “existence” only lasts for 15-seconds of fame).
In the age of the infection, our faces do not wholly belong to us. We offer our face to social media, so it can be socially mediated, cataloged, bought, and sold. When we don a mask, it is to ward off surveillance, or toxins in the air we breathe, filtering the very thing that allows survival.
We live in the age of the quarantine, where a primary function of government becomes to set groups apart from each other, not bring them together. In the age of the quarantine, each quarantined person potentially sees another as a lethal threat to be avoided. There is no health, only dis-ease. “Going viral” has become a mortal danger.
We live in an age of hysteria, where critical thinking and autonomy, both individual and social, dissolve into a primordial soup of shouting, group-think, and the many modes of madness that render communication and community impossible. The state of civilization, then, becomes the state of war. In the age of hysteria, the nuances of dialogue and persuasion that require trust, patience, and humility are drowned out by those voices that are loudest, crudest, most violent.
Whether biological, technological, or informational, a virus only exists if it infects. It must spread its information (its misinformation, its conspiracies, its fake news), but it cannot do this on its own, as the virus does not have the machinery within itself to reproduce this information. Thus, it needs a host to replicate. It must be disseminated and made contagious, passed along in and through the structures that make life, both individual and social, possible.
In the age of infection, life turns against itself. That which expels the virus is the very mechanism by which it spreads (Achoo!). The cells that are meant to attack the virus become the means by which it replicates. The highways that make health possible become freeways for sickness – at least until the contradiction, or the limit, is reached, for the virus cannot wholly eradicate its host, nor completely destroy the contact that allows it to spread, as this would ensure its own death.
The irony of nature: the infector and the infected locked in a relationship that might be described as homeostatic or pathological–the virus needs the being that it tries to destroy. The age of infection requires a kind of negative symbiosis.
But what happens when everything becomes “infected”? When the dream of becoming virus is finally achieved? Do both the host and the virus annihilate each other? Is there an evolution of a new species, Homo Viralis—the human that is virus and the virus that is human?
Might the Covid-19 virus remind us that sickness is not overcome simply by an individual act of will, but by the collective activity and health of the tiniest parts that make up the entire organism? Might this disease of the body show us that the “body politic” too is not overdetermined by some “head” of state or overbearing ego that has complete dominion over the parts that give it freedom, will, and life? Might the virus be a gadfly to the cells, stirring them to affirm that they are the origin, the sustainer, and means through which life itself is allowed to flourish?
Such are some of the questions raised by this age of infection in which we live…and die.
Eric Anthamatten is a professor of philosophy and humanities at The New School and Pratt Institute. He has been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic. You can tweet with him @eanthamatten.