A sentence is protean: It can describe, question, or cry out. A sentence is critical: In passing judgment, it names wrongs, makes decisions, and declares publicly. In a spirit of both open inquiry and political advocacy, and inspired by the response of readers to our own “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis,” the past several weeks we have convened an ongoing conversation of critical voices reflecting on the history of the present and the possibilities of the future. To start, we asked some of today’s most pressing thinkers to offer a “thesis,” raise a question or reconsider a word. Our open invitation brought in new voices. The over-thirty texts collected below have come in response to this prompt:
In light of Marx’s 1843 conception of critical thought, how does your perspective contribute to “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age”? In a time of social breakdown and uncertainty, we find that critique comes almost too easily. Hence we also take inspiration from the historian E. P. Thompson, who wrote in his 1959 call for the New Left, “It is always the business of the Left to foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality — and then some more beyond.”
Our contributors answered our call with concepts to think with and visions, however small, to mobilize us. In this final compilation, we have gathered sentences published in five parts between May 7 and June 4 to create a textual constellation with new adjacencies. Reflections from early weeks of coronavirus uncertainty rub shoulders with more politically determinate considerations from the final week, which followed the police murder of George Floyd and the uprisings that ensued. Several insightful conversations developed between contributors over the course of the weeks. Under the category “Value & Revaluing,” authors debate the meaning of the term crisis and its value as a theoretical frame. The final category, “Humanity,” set contributors in dialogue about how the pandemic reshaped conceptions of the human, human rights, and the humanities.
Next week we will publish an essay on what we learned in the course of this project. For now, we offer an archive of thinking in, with, and through the pandemic — or more precisely, of thinking in, with, and through a “pandemic within a pandemic,” as California Representative Barbara Lee put it in calling for the creation of a truth, racial healing, and transformation commission. In this spirit of this re-framing, we encourage our readers who are able to participate in local demonstrations supporting defunding and demilitarizing police forces — to affirm and work toward abolitionist horizons.
Publics & Practices
This morning, waking into sirens, I thought the city was under attack. I blinked and wondered what would happen if it were — if, on top of the ravages of the virus, the job losses, the hunger, the fear, uncertainty, and rage — the city was actually under military attack. In this pandemic, the United States has continued bombing Iraq. It maintains sanctions on Covid-19-stricken Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela over the protests of the UN. Recently, it launched naval ships into the Caribbean, one of the largest military deployments in the region since the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. There is a poignancy in having a large fleet of destroyers, combat ships, and cutters sailing towards war while, until the end of April, the USNS Comfort, a 45-year-old converted oil tanker, was docked in NYC’s harbor. While the morgues stand full and corpses are packed in container trucks, the Comfort offered 1,000 mostly unused hospital beds. Before New York, the Comfort was docked in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (2017), in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (2005), and in the Persian Gulf after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2002). In each place, the services of this death ship were too little, too late. The Comfort illustrates this broken country’s priorities: endless new technologies for death, and for life, in bitter afterthought, the leftover disposable parts. Every evening, people lean out windows to clap, to bang pots and pans, to whistle and howl for life, and to acknowledge the people risking their own lives to keep us all alive. The noise rises to the sky. I join them with this plea: End the sanctions, stop the wars, cancel the rents, nationalize healthcare, and let us all survive this curse of a pandemic.
— Christina Heatherton, New York City (May 22, 2020)
Forty: 2020, an election year, marks 40 years since Reagan was first elected, 40 years of mistrust in government, cynicism about collectivity, and disparagement of democracy. That is a long time, but the number 40 comes with hope. In the Bible, 40 is the number of years it took for the slave generation of Israelites to die out in the desert and for their children to be raised up for freedom. The tents that dot New York’s Central Park call to my mind the Bible’s desert dwellings, the manna that fell, and the violence the people witnessed and suffered during these long 40 years. The tents also remind us that in quarantine we mourn for the dead in isolation, though the dead cannot be mourned in isolation; they can only be missed. The word “quarantine” dates back to seventeenth-century Venice and refers to the 40 days of isolation imposed upon ships at ports to minimize the threat of contagion before landing. Quarantine structures temporally what the Exodus story figures spatially: a desert of deprivation with promise awaiting us at the end. That promise is not just a return to normal. The animals now taking to our emptied city streets are showing the way. They are turning up in places where the prior partition of the sensible said they did not belong. They do not encounter the expected resistance; so they keep coming. There is a lesson there for us. In the fast time of neoliberalism’s everyday, we are not all “essential workers,” but we have all been told daily, for decades, it is essential that we work. Must it be so? Once we exit quarantine, let’s turn the tents in Central Park into a multipurpose memorial: a monument of the 40 years lost, a place of mourning for the dead, a community meeting place to dream, and to idle, a polling station to vote ourselves out of this mess. A public thing.
— Bonnie Honig, Warren, VT (May 4, 2020)
The outbreak of the Covid-19 disease seems to be changing everything, but it also confirms what we already knew: We live in a global world in which a pandemic immediately affects all dimensions of life. It intensifies the enormous inequalities of our societies, bearing down on the most vulnerable, and, at the same time, it reinforces the biopolitical dimension of our states. This means the Left will have to invent new practices able to replace — at least transitionally — traditional forms of mass mobilization, starting with the rehabilitation of underpaid essential work. This is the meaning of the spontaneous manifestations of people who clap from their windows for ambulance and bus drivers. Until now, we have experienced an amazing and heartening wave of solidarity and collective mutual aid. A country like Italy, whose political stage was dominated by a racist and xenophobic leader until just a few months ago, is currently welcoming Chinese, Cuban, and Albanian doctors and nurses like heroes. People seem to have understood that we need a global and solidary response. But I am not sure that this feeling will still prevail after a year of economic depression. Despite the risk of sounding irremediably archaic, I would say that we have to be prepared for a durable change, and this might update the old alternative: socialism or barbarism, either a New Deal for the twenty-first century or neoliberal governance with even more inegalitarian and authoritarian features. A politics for the future should find a convergence between the struggle for saving the planet and the struggle for a “universal right to respiration” — as Achille Mbembe pertinently calls it — a right to exist for every living being, regardless of economic status or state sovereignty.
— Enzo Traverso, Ithaca, NY (May 4, 2020)
I’m not sure I agree with E. P. Thompson that it should be the job of the Left to “foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality.” All too often, aspiration gets the better of reality, and left-wing platforms are brought to their knees by an idealism unmoored from the social and political realities of winning elections and governing. But in the spirit of Thompson’s challenge, I’ll fill the glass half full. It’s unthinkable that we cannot do better than we have done. And in that sense, the coronavirus offers us a chance. So much of what we see as wrong around us — vast inequality, political corruption, racism and other forms of prejudice, lack of accountability, environmental destruction, immiseration — attests to the failures of the New Left of the nineteen-sixties and the third way in the nineteen-nineties. Yet suddenly the immutable is questioned. Getting back to business as usual confronts a swelling sense that we no longer know what normal is. Is institutional racism normal? Are vast disparities in life expectancy (before and during Covid-19) normal? Are stagnant wages normal? Is having no health care normal? Most of all, perhaps, and with the United Kingdom very much in mind, why would we carry on believing the various tribunes of the government when they have flunked Social Contract 101: Give us your taxes and your obedience and we’ll protect you. Who could possibly think that now?
— Stephen Hopgood, Oxford, UK (May 15, 2020)
The ______ Virus: The week we stop seeing anyone, the baby, who has never cried much, starts wailing whenever I leave her sight. The internet says it is object permanence. When I am not there, now, she knows I am in the next room, and if she cries long enough (not long) I will come back. You’re telling me, I want to say, but instead, I stand there in the dark and sway like a mountain with wind sighing through it because the world that left last week is in fact gone. We never said goodbye. Everything I read about the pandemic feels like a conspiracy theory: shocking but not surprising. This includes the actual conspiracy theories spreading on social media, some of which happen to be true. (That footage they said came from New York did come from Italy! Those Stanford-affiliated researchers were spreading lies!) I realize this jadedness is just my trying to protect us, if only from having to keep up. We are so lucky. I am so tired. Conspiracy theories raise questions not only of epistemology — how do we know what we know — but also of narratology. Fredric Jameson described them as instances of failed “cognitive mapping,” but if they were really about knowing, the villains could not merge so easily. It would have to be the People’s Liberation Army or Bill Gates, 5G or the Deep State, Homer or another poet of that name. Absence of evidence would not be proof of the enemy’s power to cover his tracks. In the end, what the conspiracist wants to believe in is agency — anyone’s. If someone, somewhere did this, then justice remains possible. In the face of systems failure, the genre preserves the hope stated as law in Hollywood screenwriting manuals: Character x Action = Change. Social media companies are right to start checking the disinformation they help spread, but it would be wrong to imagine that better facts alone will fix this. The internet can connect anything with anything, and a virus capable of halting the world is an ideal projection screen. Trump insists on “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus” to blame a hated “other” and to preserve the illusion that this crisis is a war he can win. By his twisted logic, the surge in attacks on Asian Americans that his words cause constitutes proof of his courage in the face of the experts demanding that he call it “Covid-19.” In his new book, the historian Federico Finchelstein points out that fascists use state power to make their lies come true. Cram hated populations into camps and prisons and they do in fact become dirty and diseased. As those who cannot afford to avoid exposure get sick at work, I fear some will see this not as a crime, but as a confirmation. In response, we need to create new kinds of agents, not just new stories.
— Moira Weigel, Cambridge, MA (May 29, 2020)
One of the most significant ironies of 2020 was the tragicomic timing of the DNC’s coalescing behind Joe Biden, the candidate least likely to present a viable and inclusive response to the Covid-19 crisis, and against Bernie Sanders, whose policies and ideological positions feel more pressing and necessary, as this crisis has indeed heightened the inhumane contradictions and inequalities of our time. One hundred thousand casualties. Thirty million Americans out of work. In the form of “reopen our state” protests, we see how the failures to implement a minimalist social democratic response to post-2008 economic growth has created the space for reactionary backlashes from the right. As someone who studies economic and social rights, as a political activist, and as a resident of Jackson Heights, Queens — called the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the epidemic — I see how political elites have succeeded in limiting what people imagine is possible in this time of great suffering and uncertainty. Andrew Cuomo, our now fantastically popular “progressive neoliberal” governor, skyrockets to celebrity, passing austerity budgets and financially starving our hospitals and schools while one in four people in New York City goes hungry. We celebrate the voluntary efforts of mutual aid networks who deliver groceries and medicines without unifying under a demand that such precarity should never exist. Our biggest task — as scholars, as activists, as citizens — is not to convince the political elites that they should be generous but to transform radically what our neighbors, community members, families, and loved ones think we deserve — and imagine as possible. We should demand nothing less than the very basic, fundamental understanding of our economic and social rights, guaranteed by every level of governance, with radical wealth redistribution as a norm, not a pipe dream.
— Susan Kang, Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC (May 29, 2020)
So much is changing. People are still clinging to hierarchies that may no longer actually exist. Systems of deference, adherence, and dominance may just be based on habit, and no longer on real power or impact. This is true at work, in cliques, in every groupthink we live within. Every time a media outlet cuts away from the presidential non-event, we move closer to a recognition of real value. Every time we stand up to someone we used to defer to because they controlled some aspect of our lives, or had power they never deserved or lived up to, we move towards a new collective. Standing up for the person with no currency defies the void. Sometimes real fears free us from shallow ones.
— Sarah Schulman, New York City (May 4, 2020)
Protest (in translation): “The pandemic will change the way we relate to our bodies,” says Achille Mbembe in an interview about the Covid-19 crisis. “Now we all have the power to kill.” Isolation and distancing are ways to “regulate” this power. How to understand a protest in this context? 2019 and the beginning of 2020 were combative in Puerto Rico and in the region. Protests in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico — as well as in Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, among other countries — indicate a great crack in the hegemony, at least ideological, of neoliberalism. Abandoning party lines, the protests were organic, multiple focused on the differential impact of neoliberalism, and on its intensification of the racial and gender violence distinctive of capitalism in all its iterations. The body as a weapon complicates and pauses — if not completely dismantles — resistance. On April 17, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a collective rooted in a black feminist, decolonial praxis, did a “Compra Combativa” (Combative Grocery Shopping). Addressing citizens standing in line at two supermarkets in the San Juan area, La Colectiva discussed the lack of coronavirus tests, the lack of resources in the homes, and government corruption. Complying with the rules of physical distancing, the Compra Combativa focused on the body. Six feet apart, wearing gloves, wearing masks — bodies in resistance, bodies denouncing, bodies in solidarity. Recalling the Black Feminist Friday of 2016, the 2018 Plantón, and the 2019 Feminist Embargo, La Colectiva has inverted the power of the state and capital. They generate power by subverting capital’s technologies of subjection as well as the temporality, desires, and forms of perception that those technologies institute. Consistent with this tactic, the Compra Combativa subverts the body as a weapon, making it a site of solidarity. “If the body is precisely the danger and the threat,” Shariana Ferrer-Núñez of La Colectiva notes, “if it is going to become a weapon, then we are going to use the body precisely in a confrontation to generate a social bond that allows us not only to survive a pandemic but also to directly challenge power and with it, to trace other futures where solidarity is the compass of change.” To protest in times of a pandemic is to build power by nurturing solidarity around life. Poner el cuerpo, staking one’s own body, in this context, is to expose oneself both to the virus and to being a weapon, to yielding one’s power to kill. To protest in times of Covid-19 requires turning the being-weapon that undermines the social bond, that isolates, that feeds fear, into a weapon that attacks hunger, loneliness, repression, dispossession, violence. To protest in times of pandemic is to capture life itself, to generate bonds in relation to it. Since May, people in Chile, Haiti, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico are back in the streets, protesting escalating hunger, precarity, violence. We also saw anti-lockdown protests in the United States — claiming the right to freedom, the need for services such as hair salons, rejecting government intervention. Since May 26, however, thousands are protesting the killing of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis. The organizations that compose the Black Lives Matter movement demand justice for Floyd, condemn the ongoing police killing of black men and women, propose defunding the police. These remarkable protests index the anti-blackness at the root of modernity/coloniality, one that manifests itself in the “premature death” of black people, as Ferrer-Núñez often reminds us, quoting Saidiya Hartman. Hartman writes:
If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery — skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”
The Black Lives Matter protests turn the being-weapon that undermines social bonds into a being-weapon that attacks racism, apathy, sheer violence, and the priority of property and capital over life. To affirm that Black Lives Matter in times of a pandemic that has disproportionately killed black people is likewise to capture life itself, to generate bonds dismantling racism, the racial state, its modalities of violence, its production of this world.
— Rocío Zambrana, Bogotá (June 4, 2020)
Covid-19 revolution: During the first two months of the U.S. shutdown to prevent the overloading of its weakened and ill-prepared hospital system by coronavirus patients, activists struggled to adapt to the new conditions of organizing: Zoom sessions, webinars, live streams, car caravans, carefully orchestrated physically distanced actions. The solution to the problem came from the streets in the last week of May. Outrage over the ceaseless murder of black people led tens of thousands of people across the country to pour into the streets demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. These uprisings were not the first demonstrations of the Covid-19 era. Right-wing protesters had already staged multiple gatherings calling for reopening in the name of liberty. Everyone saw through the ruse: The demonstrations in Michigan were organized by a group funded by the billionaire DeVos family. The demand for a return to work was a demand made from the position of bosses. It wasn’t liberty or death, it was liberty and death, the truth of freedom in the United States: The liberty of some depends on the death of others. The May uprising breaking out in Minnesota and quickly spreading throughout the country ruptured the confining expectations of shutdown life. The tens of thousands of people marching, assembling, and rioting, taking highways and bridges, and burning police cars and stations, demanded more than life. They demanded justice. The demand for justice superseded fear of infection. To say Black Lives Matter was not to conclude that everyone should remain isolated. It was to come together to fight for a new society. In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin says that “for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes.” Revolution only occurs when the people “do not want to live in the old way,” that is when they are prepared to die for it. The last few days of May 2020 showed that thousands of people were willing to risk their lives in the struggle against the racist capitalist system. Between the virus and the economy, there was nothing left to lose. And there is a world to win.
— Jodi Dean, Geneva, NY (June 4, 2020)
Value & Revaluing
The global pathology of our time is one in which corporations function as systematic resource-grabbing and killing machines. Investment banks (debt-creators), weapons manufacturers, biotech firms, big agriculture, oil, gas, and mining companies, water bottlers (like Nestlé), for-profit health systems, prisons, and detention centers — the list goes on: Mechanisms of immense unbridled power actually decide questions of ultimate value, though they are incapable of making value judgments. They are mechanically programmed to sacrifice every value — life, liberty, happiness, health — in draconian pursuit of short-term financial returns as an absolute good. Extractive profiteering is enforcing the absurdist logic of King Midas in a brutal and mindless planetary endgame. Unless corporations as legal-political entities are overmastered by countervailing legal-political constraints, these life-assaulting forces are on course to obliterate the livable biosphere.
— Lissa McCullough, Los Angeles (May 15, 2020)
Essential labor: Every crisis has its metaphysics, including our current one involving Covid-19. Suddenly we’re talking about what’s “essential,” as if the term now means something deeper than “important.” The conversation is mostly about work. Whose labor is essential? Answering this question even on the best of days, you’ll eventually get to Marx, who — while criticizing Hegel for describing “labor as the essence of man” — spoke of “abstract labor” as the “essence” or value of a commodity destined to circulate. Marx named this essential circulation “the starting-point of capital.” These aren’t specialized questions for a history of theory; they bear on reading the present moment, which theory may elucidate. Check any gubernatorial executive order, and you’ll find that what’s “essential” about labor is merely a list of job descriptions. Never is there an “is,” a definition of essentiality. It’s as if our governments are worried that if they go there, they’ll say too much. At stake in essentiality is the disclosure of a fundamental dynamic that could end this phase of capitalism: Essential workers are ordered to imperil their health in public for unlivable wages with few if any protections (rights, insurance, PPE), and everyone else goes unnamed, unseen, as inessential workers who must risk their lives by receiving no wage and no social protections whatsoever. Our version of capitalism cannot possibly tolerate this dynamic much longer: mandated work leading to walkouts or bodily collapse unto sickness (in either case, cascading breakdowns); and spiraling unemployment far in excess of what capitalists call labor “reserves.” Every metaphysics in a time of crisis has its politics, too, not all of them pursuant to the status quo. We’ve come to a break, a brake… An opportunity with survival at stake.
— Andrew Cole, Athens, GA (May 4, 2020)
Security: Progressive politics has always drawn on a series of aspirational values — justice, freedom, equality, recognition, emancipation, welfare, human rights, and solidarity, to name the most prominent — and struggled to combine them into a unified and mutually reinforcing program. One term often left aside is security, which is derived from the Latin securitas, composed of “se” and “cura” meaning without care or concern. Ever since Hobbes, security has often been invoked by conservative or authoritarian regimes to justify their resolve to protect the populace with any means necessary against civil war, anarchy, crime, and foreign threats. The idea of a “national security state,” first introduced during Truman’s presidency, meant amplifying the power of the military and investigative arms of the government. Although not as inimical to democracy as the “state security” apparatuses of communist countries, America’s national security apparatus also prioritized the survival of the prevailing system over its transformation in a more progressive direction. However, the current crisis has revealed with brutal suddenness that without security none of the other goals that have motivated leftist politics can be achieved. Lacking universal health coverage, security of employment, secure supply chains, the prospect of secure retirement, secure access to reliable information, and secure voting rights, we are all threatened with being reduced to vulnerable members of what has justly been called “the precariat.” There is perhaps no more urgent task for the left today than to reclaim the value of “security” — call it the expansion of “social security” — to insure against many other kinds of risks besides penury in old age. And concomitantly, we must make clear to his victims that Trump, caring only for himself, is the callous source of much of the pandemic of insecurity that is the hallmark of our time of troubles.
— Martin Jay, Berkeley, CA (May 15, 2020)
Crisis and non-crisis: This pandemic underscores the relationships between episodic hard times and the ongoing and quotidian hard times that structure the lives of marginalized groups. Covid-19 has revived Rahm Emanuel’s admonition to never let “a serious crisis… go to waste” and the idea that past crises have been generative of progressive change. But while it may “take a crisis” to expand rights and resources for marginalized groups, crises also privilege normative constructions of value, deservingness, and citizenship. Attaching redistributive and liberatory agendas to crises can therefore constrain which issues are addressed, delimiting who gets helped, and reconstituting racial, gender, and economic orders along modified but familiar inegalitarian lines. Whether or not something is a “crisis” is at least partly endogenous to politics and structured by conventions about what is normal and whose pain is tolerable. So while Covid-19 has been labelled and treated as a crisis — a critical juncture deemed worthy of and remediable through government intervention — the structural inequalities it has thrown into relief have more typically been normalized as non-crises — treated as unfortunate but nonetheless natural and inevitable results of unremarkable conditions that are regarded as immune to, and therefore as not warranting, state intervention. For example, Anthony Fauci has framed the racialized health and economic disparities that have translated into disproportionate rates of infection and death among African Americans as external to the crisis and beyond the power of the federal government to remedy. We should disrupt the line between crisis and non-crisis and use policy windows opened by the pandemic to address the ongoing and deeply entrenched inequalities that have been revealed and fueled by it, so that returning to “normal” does not mean, as it so often does, returning to pre-crisis conditions of normalized injustice.
— Dara Z. Strolovitch, Princeton, NJ (May 4, 2020)
For critical theory to remain “critical,” extant concepts and frameworks need to be revised, reconfigured, and re-engaged. Dara Strolovitch shows how the notion of “crisis” presupposes the “non-crisis” of quotidian, structural violence against racialized and gendered populations. To avoid Strolovitch’s crisis/non-crisis problematic, we need analytical lenses that focus on the histories and structures undergirding the foundation upon which the pandemic plays out. While neoliberalism, or “disaster capitalism,” is fast becoming the interpretive lens for our moment, critical theory has much to gain by (re-)engaging with frameworks such as “racial capitalism,” “(settler) colonial capitalism,” “capitalist-patriarchy,” and “intersectional Marxism.” These frameworks emphasize the racial, colonial, and patriarchal logics of domination that condition and are conditioned by capitalist accumulation. Our present order differentially conscripts and affects human populations and non-human nature. We need to foreground, and not conceal, the historical, ongoing, uneven, and unrelenting obscenity of the modern world-system for the vast majority.
— Siddhant Issar, St. Louis (May 15, 2020)
Crisis: Used by Hippocrates and Galen, the original Greek “crisis” (krisis) referred to a turning point during the course of a disease, wherein a patient would make a recovery or would die. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that “when we count up the millions of those who died in the [Soviet] camps, we forget to multiply the numbers by two or three.” Any statistic leaves out the individual stories of suffering, which demand an acknowledgment that can never be discharged in the aggregate. Outside of medicine, crisis was used in cases of judgment or decision, as in Thucydides (in reference to an unfinished war) or in Plato (as in the choice between which life to lead). Such uses highlight that the very category of crisis is “structured by conventions about what is normal and whose pain is tolerable,” as Dara Strolovich notes. Not all recoveries nor all deaths are the same (not to mention wars or lives or bedside manners). Crises are not natural kinds. If anything, they oftentimes reveal just how contingent their (worst) outcomes actually are, especially with our technological capabilities, even if their origins are “natural.” Thus, the aptness of the metaphor of the present crisis as an x-ray. In crisis, judgment can follow fixed categories, or such categories may make it practically or theoretically impossible to go on. It may become impossible to judge — to krino — by means of available resources, whether conceptual, imaginative or otherwise. A crisis may demand we invent new categories. A moment of crisis — like a disease, like a war, like a life — may thereby stretch out over months or years. Because Covid-19 is implicated with how we have organized ourselves — with our very form of life — the pandemic reveals that the moment of crisis has already been here, lingering beneath the surface, suggesting a sort of virus within a virus. A wide range of treatments is thereby needed, and the Covid-19 vaccine is not the only cure to be developed. And still, we have the kernel of how to move forward, not the least of which must be a path that acknowledges the ethical standing of every individual, no matter how systemic the outcomes of our intervention must be.
— Martin Shuster, Baltimore, MD (May 29, 2020)
Good science and bad faith: Commentators are still debating what kind of untruth we’re dealing with here. Is he earnestly clueless or science-illiterate? Is he a wily genius or a compulsive liar? Does he simply not care? To lie, in politics or elsewhere, one at least considers the truth first. “Democracy insists on the idea that truth both matters,” historian Sophia Rosenfeld has observed, “and that nobody gets to say definitively what it is.” But not everyone agrees that truth matters in the first place. I’m speaking of those who act in bad faith. Consider Trump’s praise of hydroxychloroquine, in which he implied, without stating outright, its efficacy as a prophylactic and treatment against the coronavirus. When challenged as to why he promoted an unproven drug, he retorted: “I’m not. I’m not.” By positioning himself in the shadowy chasm between his propositions and their performative implications, he exploited the reasonable doubt that any good expert would maintain, construing the margin of error as a failure of expertise. Epistemology is secondary, even irrelevant, in this “coded speech and innuendo.” When left unchallenged, bad-faith actors accrue power. Critique must shine floodlights into that chasm. The gas-lighter may brush off accusations of abuse, but feminist philosophy and political memoir can expose the rhetorical sequences leading to cruel subordination. The troll, when owning the libs, betrays himself with a smirk; a critical typology of trolling differentiates levels of disingenuousness. Yet such diagnoses gather dust on the shelf of righteous moralizing unless they can be leveraged in politics. Since the troll requires an opponent to frustrate and an audience to cheer along, correctives may lie in mutual recognition. Four years ago, Trump invoked “Second Amendment people” without much censure. This time, Twitter flagged his dog whistle, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” for “glorifying violence.” Backed by state power, this threat ought to have seemed more, not less, legitimate. Why not? What changed? As a social movement affirming black lives against police violence gained traction, the life-or-death implications of disingenuous speech have become more shame-inducing to overlook. Yes, perhaps bad faith can never be fully isolated because even earnest people harbor contradictions. While that may be true for particular individuals, it is no foundation for a polity in crisis.
— Benjamin Bernard, Princeton, NJ (June 4, 2020)
The current crisis triggered by the pandemic is only the latest installment in a long series. By adopting perennial crisis and fear as a modus vivendi, we have abdicated our responsibility in shaping our destinies, an imperative inherited from the Enlightenment, in favor of a mostly self-imposed existential anguish. We have tacitly conceded that we no longer make history, we merely endure it. There is much talk of the world “after” the current crisis. Some doubt whether there will be one at all. Yet as Mark Lilla has recently observed, “The post-Covid future doesn’t exist. It will exist only after we have made it.” The ceaseless, complacent, and empty proclamations that “nothing will ever be the same” are a measure of our own sense — and acceptance — that fundamentally, nothing will change. Our futile obsession with the mastery of the conditions of human existence, with our graphs and predictive models at hand, coexists with the inability to assert control over them. All the ethical posturing and political gesticulation in the current performance of responding to the crisis ultimately fail to make up for our collective failure to reclaim responsibility for carving out a new one. We wrongly regard contingency as an aberration, an embarrassing ellipsis, rather than as an opportunity to free ourselves from the catastrophic trajectories we believe we are intent on. Walter Benjamin would have seen this as a potentially revolutionary opening in history to be seized upon. The current state of contingency and impotence may, paradoxically, have reawakened the potential for human action. Indeed, this is another way of understanding the radical uncertainty of the future: as an opportunity to rethink and change our outlooks and conduct towards each other and the planet we inhabit. The Adornoesque tragedy of the present is not that the current world may be gone forever, but that we are disinclined to let it go.
— Audrey Borowski, Oxford, UK (May 29, 2020)
Emotional intelligence, a constituent of critical theory, expands capacity to confront predatory capitalism, slavery, and consumption. Racism, gender violence, and imprisonment determine survival rates, during and between pandemics as we live and die amid climate devastation, increasing poverty, and repression. Fear and fury are rational responses to abandonment and exploitation by authoritarians as well as to ineffective coalitions with concerned benefactors. As a “super power,” trauma has a role in analysis, leading to resurgent political engagement.
— Joy James, Manhattan, New York City (May 4, 2020)
The basic question of all human societies has been who will live and who will die. We in the developed world have been living in a resource-rich fantasyland of apparent prosperity and taken-for-granted comfort. It is and always has been a house of cards. Justice does not mean a return to normal. It starts, at least, with a recognition that the normal was deeply and inherently unjust. There were already population firebreaks before the pandemic, brutal mechanisms of immunity constructed of barbed wire fencing and birthright exclusion. New firebreaks of the reckless and stupid are not defensible in current discourse, which is a victory for decency but maybe a defeat for global equity. The conversation about viral counter-measures and the timeline for “liberating” the economy is muddy because we are not simply brutal, even as we also feel long-term pressures that are scary. We are talking about people and not trees. We lurch on into our near future, caught between the dilemmatic horns of mass death and economic collapse. Is there any resolution here? We must hope so, but whatever it is will not, and should not, mean a return to what went before.
— Mark Kingwell, Toronto (May 4, 2020)
All theory is anchored in a social reality, though not all theory acknowledges it. Critical theory works toward liberation from the oppressive demands of power. It is a Marxian inheritance to view religion as one of those lulling discourses of power that shuts down both logical thought and consciousness, two modes that allow us to identify class struggle and overcome social inequalities. Religious people — so some Marxists argue — are more resigned to injustices such as income disparities, class inequalities, gender bias, racial supremacy, and institutional racism as part of their fate or as God’s test of humanity. This resignation abandons fighting back or changing the world. Marx has a point: What could be “practical” or “self-clarifying” in mooring ourselves to a metaphysical anchor, if that is not oxymoronic enough, from which humanity is being tested? The immaterial, a materialist is quick to say, is (politically) immaterial. Yet so far there has not been a functional alternative to religion in the world, nor have the “secular” visions of the present inspired much of a horizon for liberation. A question which seems to invite itself more urgently now that a pandemic is threatening to put “an end to history” is: How well does critical theory fare in theorizing our struggle with a global virus of this magnitude? To what extent does it differ, say, from religion in addressing the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of our plagued world today? Isn’t it also ironically “critical” to remember that principles of freedom, social justice, equality, and solidarity still carry the DNA of those distant “opium” gods?
— Mohammad Salama, San Francisco (May 15, 2020)
Theory has done better addressing life — flourishing, vulnerable, haunted, distended — than addressing death. Theology has done better addressing death — the fears and hopes it conjures — than addressing life, which it habitually instrumentalizes. Theory that is secularized theology risks ignoring death and instrumentalizing life. Our time of pandemic offers an opportunity for theory to grapple seriously with death, and this may mean grappling with death theologically, with fear and trembling and the hope of liberation.
— Vincent Lloyd, Philadelphia (May 4, 2020)
States are beginning to “reopen,” and those that remain “closed” exempt workers officially “essential” (80 percent, in my city). Restaurants, hair salons, and beaches are becoming the altars of a mass sacrifice, a bloodletting of the poor meant to resurrect the economy. Vincent Lloyd rightfully calls on theory to grapple with death theologically. What would that look like? In the depths of war, Simone Weil wrote that the crucifixion of God is eternal. A theological grappling with death might include a refusal of the logic of resurrection, an insistence that some losses can never be returned, that some things cannot be righted because they were never right to begin with.
— Mac Loftin, Chelsea, MA (May 22, 2020)
Critique, or critical theory, is preferable to theory. Critique, Kant said, reflects on the conditions of possibility of any given phenomenon. One starts, Marx went on, with the apparently self-evident, “trivial thing” to ask under what conditions it has come to be a possible thing. Critical theory’s value is that it reminds that the historical process conditions things, meaning the given is contingent. Critical theory’s danger is that it may mistake the historical process for the given and the given for all that is the case. To avoid that danger, it must remain alert to the possibilities that the given has occluded. The possible is not the given. It is what lives on out of kilter with what is. Living on, it gives hope that the means to living otherwise survive in everything the given has not managed to exhaust. In this way, without the slide into theology, a secular critique honors the dead. It finds their afterlife in the unredeemed possibilities that their passing, natural or catastrophic, suspended but did not annihilate. They live on in their unfinished desires and affections for which our own make way.
— David Lloyd, Los Angeles (May 22, 2020)
Theorizing often forgets its place and so falls out of time. When it issues commands, addressees become foot soldiers. Taking on more than its concepts can bear, it effaces the world it hoped would prove otherwise. Not that one can change the world without interpretation. But as Ofelia Shutte has suggested, deepening thesis eleven, interpretation modifies the world in order to fathom it, and in changing the world prompts the need for further interpretation. The world won’t stand still, becoming, differentiating. Words proliferate, things turn and twist, speakers and addressees change minds and places. So much is being born, so much passing away. Transforming agents must play changes, and with an inventiveness akin to improvisation. But this proves difficult when the catastrophe again cannot be ignored. In the roar of rediscovered suffering, the grand enclosures beckon — America, barbarism, capitalism, civilization, communism, Europe, freedom, patriarchy, socialism, white supremacy, and from several sides – “the West.” Strike those chords, listen and look, but push past too, conversing with all that moves, including movements. The cartoon will always be televised.
— John Lysaker, Atlanta, GA (May 22, 2020)
How does an active ethnographer deal with immobility? Not very well. Sheltering in place seems like prison. Why is it so difficult to concentrate and write during what some would see as an experiment in semi-quarantine? I think of Nelson Mandela, who managed to define a model for the coming democratic South Africa while he was in prison. Or Anne Frank, who wrote her diary in an attic hiding from Nazi police. Never have I felt more totally useless. Eventually, we accept our stripped-down selves. The epidemic is us. Yet we know that we are the privileged ones. Our complaints are pitiful. We miss our favorite restaurants and cafes in the “gourmet ghetto” of North Berkeley. “I got a large can of pinto beans and a box of oatmeal,” my husband said of his morning hunt at the local grocery store. “I had two cans of pinto beans, but I gave one to the woman behind me with three little children.” Later I snuck out to the same grocery store, mask in place and six-foot space behind the handmade chalked lines. But truth be told, I joined the waiting line without looking for anything except to be next to people. The shops still hang signs that announce “Closed Until April 7” — although it is May 28 and no one is there. While sitting in Berkeley’s former junkyard, now the restored and beautiful César Chávez Park, the rain had stopped and the sky opened to a brilliant blue sky amidst a few fluffy white clouds so close one could almost touch them. The air was so clean I could taste its sweetness. With most cars and trucks off the road, the lungs of the air are recovering and the earth is sleeping.
— Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Berkeley, CA (June 4, 2020)
Feminist theory and praxis urges us to resist the impulse to make universalizing statements, with intersectionality in particular calling attention to the costs of homogenizing tendencies when identity is mobilized to make political demands. Drawing on intersectionality, I proceed by juxtaposition to highlight and hold identity and legibility in productive tension: the universalizing narrative of the novel coronavirus, which states that viruses don’t see race or class; the brutal reality that Covid-19 deaths disproportionately affect black people, with one in 2000 dying from the disease. Uprisings in Minneapolis and the spectacle of a burning police station on loop; images of white militias armed and on the steps of the governor’s mansion in St. Paul while heeding calls to “liberate Minnesota” from a shutdown instituted in the name of public health. The NYPD distributing masks to white park goers in the East Village; an NYPD plainclothes officer crouching with his knee in the neck of a black man in the East Village who was allegedly violating social distancing orders. The 7 p.m. clapping to thank essential workers performed by those who are presumably non-essential and home-bound; the absence of communal mourning and rituals for the 100,000 people who have died. Alarm over growing unemployment; the realization that people collecting unemployment insurance and pandemic relief are finally able to afford their daily living expenses. Parents taking to social media to lament the lack of childcare and underscore the ways the pandemic affects their careers and daily lives; families packed into crowded apartments in the Bronx due to exorbitant rents and the rapid spread of Covid-19 in those communities as a result. The use of tear gas against people taking to the streets in anger and grief for yet another black person choked to death by police. A dog walker on camera, leveraging her identity as a white woman and raising her tone to a frenzied pitch to incite a police response; the circulation of a nine-minute long video documenting the murder of George Floyd by police. This list of observations suggests that the utopian project for left-wing politics to take with respect to identity might be the simple recognition of an insight Audre Lorde offered in 1982: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.”
— Zein Murib, New York City (June 4, 2020)
To be a human being is to be a porous receptivity, a site of exposure. It is to be formed prior to any awareness that one has been formed — when it is too late to do much to change the conditions of one’s formation — and it is to be exposed to a magnificent wealth of meaning circulating locally and at a distance. It is to be a part of a world, where one’s status as part is key to who one is; where the world, always already existing, is also being reshaped by the shared and overlapping pursuits of the parts; where one can be intimately affected by the slightest things happening at the greatest distance. To be human, in other words, is to be entrusted and exposed to the world, prior to one’s choice. To protect and support that human being, then, is not simply to assert her autonomy as an individual and her capacity to choose, but to build, work on, and cultivate her capacity for receptivity to the goods already circulating in that shared world, and to build, work on, and cultivate the shared world to which she is exposed. It is to support all that empowers and facilitates interaction between part and world, between parts and other parts, and to condemn and oppose the violence, such as that so dramatically on display in the institutionalized violence against black Americans, that renders inevitable exposure to others and the world deadly for some, rather than sustaining. The individualizing political discourse of modernity has impoverished our capacity to see our fundamental receptivity and interdependence, and it has produced a global culture where the fertile connections between us have become occasions for exploitation rather than cooperation. It is up to all of us, individually and collectively, to fight to change that.
— Shannon Hoff, Toronto (June 4, 2020)
The pandemic has made clear the social and political inequalities on which our societies have been built. Those who temporally live in limbo, those who are left place-less but have a few square feet to live together without the proper agency to lead their lives as they determine — that is, refugees — are able to protect themselves neither from the virus nor from the xenophobic/nationalistic discourse and implementation of border closures. Echoing Robin Celikates’s recent description, governments’ decisions to close borders draw parallels between the threat of the virus and the “‘threat’ of ‘uncontrolled’ migration.” The fear of persecution and displacement makes the position of the refugee unique: at best, in a refugee camp, in indefinite limbo; at worst, on the move trying to arrive somewhere/anywhere. While the question of “what we owe refugees” can be broached from multiple perspectives, I will address the one that is currently broadcasted on multiple media: the humanitarian approach. On May 21, 2020, the WHO and the UNHCR announced that they are to join forces under the “COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund” to “improve health services for refugees, displaced, and stateless people.” The heightened risk of refugees living in the camps is well documented. Moreover, in one of their recent publications, the UN provided an animation to draw attention to “the need for moral support” of the refugees, underscoring the moral wrongness of discrimination and profiling. Such important and powerful rhetoric aims not only at increasing the amount of donation for relief, but also at raising consciousness — at building solidarity. While necessary, I believe that the humanitarian approach is not sufficient for the latter. The recognition of the humanity — thus, the dignity — of the refugee is paramount to the recognition of the refugee’s agency. In turn, such agency is crucial in building solidarity and addressing the refugee’s claim to what Arendt called a “right to have rights.” Concretely speaking, the focus on the “need” of medical care should shift to the “right” to such care, so that those who are left without a polity can recover their sense of self that is intimately tied to the possibility of having a future.
— Yasemin Sari, Cedar Falls, IA (June 9, 2020)
The challenge of internationalism: How can we begin to think about what international solidarity requires in the context of the coronavirus pandemic when all around the world, people are advised to practice “social distancing” from each other and encouraged to perceive in strangers and loved ones alike potential sources of disease and ruin? When energy, resources, and care are primarily devoted, albeit differentially, to the health of the national body politic — understood as a limited “population” with discernible borders to be defended? In this context, can the question of international solidarity even begin to resonate? One thing is clear: Although this pandemic has exposed the interconnected vulnerability of “humanity” as a species, the predominant response, governmental and otherwise, has been the attempt to practice care and solidarity nationally. From the perspective of internationalism, another response to this situation could be to underscore how, to the extent that viruses affect the human body — moving from one to the other without respect to nationality — efforts to ensure national immunities are in vain. There can be no American, Turkish, British, or Indian immunity to this virus or the next one, as the claim to quarantine, vaccinate, or forever ban transnational encounters is belied by human and non-human travel alike. In this sense, the health of any human body and the environment in which that body lives are concerns of everyone, such that the lack of decent public health care in one place jeopardizes the wellbeing of the entire species. However, “humanity” is not equally exposed to the social, economic, and political risks pandemics create and exasperate — bodies are cared for or abandoned to die differentially in gendered and racialized ways across class lines. This is one reason why in imagining what international solidarity requires in practice today, we may need to act not only against the grain of the nation, but also think against humanity as a concept that erases from view crucial political divides and unbearable inequalities within and among species.
— Ayça Çubukçu, Istanbul/London (May 15, 2020)
Recognizing that the virus spills indifferently across national borders but prejudicially harms the marginalized — for social, not biological, reasons — Ayça Çubukçu calls for internationalism but not humanism, insofar as “humanity” is “a concept that erases from view crucial political divides and unbearable inequalities within and among species.” But as a scholar in the humanities, I wonder whether in this global pandemic we can do without the idea of “humanity” to guide current responses and future plans. The pandemic threatens more than human bodies; it is befalling and transforming the whole human world, and humanity isn’t just a conglomeration of subgroups — nations, ethnicities, races, classes, genders — whose only ultimate commonality is biological species. We are the species with an idea of itself — an idea not fixed or given, but both revealed and constituted by how we represent and understand ourselves in and through art and literature and philosophy. I believe we can only fully grasp what is happening and imagine and prepare for “the After” (as a friend put it) if we read the world against the deep background of “the human” that comes into view through our cultural traditions. The humanities present the human to us as image, not just concept, “containing multitudes” but still referring to something shared and precious for which we collectively bear responsibility. In her essay “Human Personality,” Simone Weil writes, “there are words which possess, in themselves, when properly used, a virtue which illumines and lifts up toward the good.” She includes truth and justice; I would add human — but the meanings of these terms are not determined, not owned by any class or race, and only come into view through our stories and groping theories. Might one essential condition for imagining and sustaining a better — more human — “After” be humanistic education in the long and tangled tapestry of reflections, theoretical and artistic, on our aspirations and our limits?
— Lindsay Atnip, Chicago (May 22, 2020)
To be “human, and nothing but human,” according to Hannah Arendt, is to be in a state of the “greatest danger.” Humanity is a source of vulnerability rather than a place of protection. Humans are what stateless persons and refugees are reduced to after they have lost the all-important right of membership within a nation-state. For Arendt, it is better to be a citizen than a human: Citizens can claim belonging and protection from a state. Humans are disposable. With the global spread of Covid-19, the distinction between the human and the citizen has disintegrated well beyond Arendt’s stark framework. In the coronavirus accounting, superfluousness has become the norm for citizens and non-citizens alike. Hundreds of thousands of dead and dying citizens have become daily data points, contested or ignored by other citizens rallying for their liberty and freedom to move. Black and Latino people, for whom the virus has been twice as deadly, have been anonymized and cast aside by their own governments. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, left to navigate crashed unemployment websites, and long lines for food. Global supply chains with crates of PPE favor powerful elites — or just individuals online with credit cards — over the dire needs of specific nations. In a world in which citizens can be expended without actually being expelled, it is difficult to think of the citizen and human as antipodes, or of citizenship and nationalism as a great buffer against economic and social deprivation. Citizenship may provide political rights, but a right to membership in a national community does not provide bedrock against economic inequity. Perhaps it is here, in a focus on the shared states of economic and social deprivation, that we might restore something like unity across peoples and nations. We should, therefore, put aside Arendt’s pragmatic division in exchange for a campaign that focuses on economic equality and on the institutions — national and international — that might foster it.
— Stephanie DeGooyer, Cambridge, MA (May 29, 2020)
Quarantine time: For the last several years, I have been working on an oral history project about the migration of Central American children to the United States, and also finishing a novel on a similar subject. During these two months of quarantine, which made live interviews impossible but also allowed for more time at home to read, inquire, and reflect more deeply, I have been thinking about underlying — often unseen — larger migrations, connections, and hybridities. I’ve been contemplating the familiar but unknown (to me at least) Latin alphabet I use every day to write and read in English. I’ve been inquiring in this manner because I am curious how this set of signs, and the very idea of an alphabet, came about through a long and complex migration. I suppose I always sensed, perhaps based on my own mixed ancestry, that the migration of human beings and the resultant exchange of knowledge, information, technology, DNA, and stories — for old and newer myths also traveled across the ancient world to appear in various guises and retellings in slightly altered versions — enhanced one another, influenced each other, built on and metamorphosed what had come before, across space and differences of language and religion and states, and across time. The stories of our species are in many ways a long history of migration, narration, adaptation, and syncretism. I write this very paragraph in the old signs first adapted for a West Semitic language and altered for another thousand-plus years in one and then another Indo-European language, evolving over time and in space, all of it taking place thousands of miles from the country I hold citizenship in, signs I employ for this and other purposes, not least of which is thinking about how the alphabet made possible, via its comparative ease of instruction and dissemination, an increased and widespread literacy and all that entails (a much longer story than this paragraph), because of something still magical, strange, and striking: using black marks in the Baskerville serif typeface (my favorite, designed in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century) to record the sounds of language, shareable in silence, inside individual minds, as the marks are read and make meanings.
— Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Sausalito, CA (June 4, 2020)
Benjamin P. Davis is a PhD candidate in the department of philosophy at Emory University. He will be the 2020-21 Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. His writing can be found on his website.