Only a virus can save us?

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis




by Michael Marder (Vitoria-Gasteiz)

Many have been quick to point to the economic shutdown, which has happened as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a model of rapid changes needed to put the brakes on, if not reverse, global warming. With air quality considerably improving in metropolises on lockdown around the world, rivers and canals clearing, and wildlife returning, it seems that–despite (or, maybe, thanks to) all the pain and suffering it has brought–the new coronavirus has flashed before our eyes a snapshot of a utopian future.

But behind the rosy façade, there is a much darker underlying reality. At its advanced stage, capitalism does not need human producers and consumers. Roboticization, in which Marx saw the apex and the demise of this mode of production, renders huge sectors of the working class under- or un-employed, yet stock markets recover independently of labor markets. The actual consumption of natural gas or oil might have come to a grinding halt (say, in the aviation industry), but the volumes of their extraction are undiminished. When it is no longer possible to store these fossil fuels, they go up in flames in the practice of flaring, burning off excess supplies and releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere regardless. And that is not to mention huge increases in environmental pollution from the torrents of toxic disinfectants, non-biodegradable masks, gloves, and other articles of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) used but once and discarded all over the world.

An easy way out has turned out to be a dead-end: the virus has become a deus ex machina of environmentalism. In this respect, it is actually in line with the contemporary condition of a crypto-messianic hope wildly alternating with utter despair. Only a god will save us. Or a teenage activist. Either that or a virus. Still, isn’t it highly problematic to let a virus decide for us what will happen with the environment? And isn’t this letting-decide of a piece with bestowing the decision-making capacity on the market? (The subtext here is that, eventually, “green” sources of energy will become more profitable than non-renewables, and so economy itself will take care of ecology.)

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 is an effect of definite (objective) causal chains. Nonetheless, the way it is called upon to serve as the blueprint for a transition to an ecologically sensitive life is spurious, purely accidental. Accidents may, of course, be of at least two types: random events that do not presuppose an actor at all and unforeseen effects of an action that is deliberate. How does SARS-CoV-2 fit within this scheme?

In addition to incessant self-replication, the virus replicates the Aristotelian automaton, that is to say, a random event that is not an act. Characterizing both animals and inanimate (apsuchōn) entities, automaton is “any cause that incidentally produces a significant result outside its aim” (Physics II, vi: 197b, 20-21). Aristotle is careful to distinguish these accidents from the subset of luck or fortune (good or bad), namely tuchē “where such a result springs from deliberate action (though not aimed at it) on the part of a being capable of choice” (Physics II, vi: 197b, 22-4). The main difference between the two Aristotelian kinds of accident, then, is the one we have already espied: the former is a fluke occurrence, whereas the latter is an unintended consequence of an act. By saddling the virus with utopian environmental hopes, we are trying to convert a dubious automaton into tuchē, and, hence, into an act.

We could say, perhaps, that the very notion of the Anthropocene hinges on an unarticulated, subterranean, largely concealed transition from automaton to tuchē. In part, the transition is justified: the remnants of anthropogenic activity in the crusts of the earth, in the oceans and the atmosphere, are not on par with the behavior of wild animals or inanimate objects. The material traces that give the Anthropocene its identity also contain the ideal traces of human intentions, refracted and perverted. The unintended repercussions of industrial activity are just that–the cumulative consequences of human acts deposited into the earth, dissolved into the water, or diffused into its atmosphere. Yet, insofar as they are absorbed by the soil, by the bodies of water, and by the air they dramatically remold, these consequences follow the opposite trajectory back to the automaton through the changes they trigger. Their passage through and mutual influence on the elemental media imbues them with surplus unpredictability at a further remove from their origin in human activity. What we are facing is an amalgam of different types of incidental causality that cannot be separated from one another.

With regard to the virus, the implicit translation of automaton into tuchē is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it promises a drastic turnaround in the ecological situation; on the other hand, it breathes meaning into the idea of a revenge of nature, now ensouled and imbued with the deliberateness of acting. The idea is that only nature’s revenge will prompt notable changes in our relation to the environment: only the zigzag of natural history surprising us from behind our backs will force us to alter in a radical manner our way of life.

The usual framing of revenge in the case of the new coronavirus is the following: humans have made an incursion into the territories of wild animals, whom they have exploited, killed, and, indeed, nearly exterminated; now, as the virus makes its jump across species lines and infects humans, we are paying dearly for all the violence we have unleashed against other living beings. Such reasoning is not particularly relevant to the Anthropocene. Insofar as the situation involves direct engagement with animals–however instrumentalizing that engagement has been–it rotates within the universe of tuchē on the side of humans and of an automaton on the side of animals and of the virus.

More interesting, to my mind, is the research hypothesis made by Russian scientists Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya in the journal Global Health Action nearly ten years prior to the current pandemic. The title of their article is the following: “Thawing of permafrost may disturb historical cattle burial grounds in East Siberia”. The reason why the events they predict are significant is that between 1897 and 1925 millions of deer, cattle, and people in the Russian North died of anthrax. The bacteria remain viably preserved in frozen ground, and, in the authors’ words, “as a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.” Here we have the real nexus of the Anthropocene and infectious disease: the earth in its interaction with the atmosphere, transformed by the unintended effects of industrial activity, begins to orchestrate disease vectors separated from us in time and space. The mutual imbrication of the two Aristotelian kinds of accident is much more pronounced in this case than in the transgression of species boundaries by coronaviruses.

To return to my point: references to revenge by nonhuman actors are only meaningful (in a non-metaphoric or non-allegorical sense) if the accidental offshoots of their acts have a minimum of tuchē in them. But this does not yet explain the dynamics of revenge itself.

I cannot think of a philosopher more attuned to these dynamics than Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, revenge (Rache) participates in the inversion of values and represents the reactive power of the powerless. On the subject of Judeo-Christianity, he writes in The Genealogy of Morality: “out of the trunk of that tree of revenge and hate …–the deepest and most sublime hate, namely an ideal-creating, value-reshaping hate whose like has never before existed on earth–grew forth something just as incomparable, a new love, the deepest and most sublime of all kinds of love.” In messianic, love-bearing revenge Nietzsche outlines, the world is saved by a resentful powerlessness that empowers itself through a metaphysical inversion, which he calls “the slave revolt in morality.” Hoping this will come from rightly outraged teenagers is abdicating responsibility. No matter how strong an individual stand of conscience may be, it remains like expecting action from god – despite previous failures. And it is the same for thinking a virus can produce the desired miracle. Pinning environmental hopes on the latter is trying to renew life through what, neither alive nor dead, militates against life, very much in keeping with the logic Nietzsche detects in “the revenge of the powerless,” die Rache des Ohnmächtigen.

The impasse of the Anthropocene is that of the revenge of the powerless. The guilt that becomes a formative wound of the human in our day and age–the human as a festering guilt-wound–makes us welcome perceived punishments (floods and droughts, suffocating smog and pandemics) as repayments for past sins and as possible signs of redemption. From such a revenge creative of ideals, love is professed for the world, for future generations, for climate and all other refugees … In other words, the relation Anthropocentrism-Anthropocene replays the relation between Judaism and Christianity as Nietzsche envisioned it: apparently dissolving its predecessor and adversary, the second term in each dyad practices “the secret black art of a truly great politics of revenge [wahrhaft grossen Politik der Rache], of a far-seeing, subterranean, slow-working and pre-calculating revenge…” The true revenge is that of the freshly discovered love for the non-human, not of nature that strikes back.

And this brings us back to the typology of accidents in Aristotle. An automaton cannot be associated with deep, unconsciously harbored revenge and the love it mutates into; only tuchē can. While, as I have already indicated, these types may frequently become mixed, it is not the entity itself (say, a virus) that belongs more to one type than to the other, but the framing and specific situation, in which an entity interacts with itself, with its environment and with the warped intentions deposited there.

One significant difference between Judeo-Christianity and Anthropocentro-Anthropocene has to do not with who is crucified in the name of love that issues from a tree of revenge and why, but with how. First, who is the crucified one? The Son of Man, God who has become humanized, and anthropos, man who has become deified. Second, why? To expiate the sins of humanity, beginning with the original sin; to expiate the hubris of having placed the human at the center and the apex of existence. Third, how? Even in response to this question, there is partial overlap: by assuming a certain powerlessness wielded as a new strength. But then, again, how is that powerlessness assumed? This is where responses diverge. Christ offers himself up in a self-conscious sacrifice; the anthropos of the Anthropocene becomes an unwilling host for bacteria and viruses that control us, all the while just dissipating into the air, the earth, and the sea through the cumulative byproducts of industrial activity. In its mode of relating to itself under the heading of the Anthropocene, the human produces and reproduces itself as an automaton, while assigning to viruses and the like the accidental effects of tuchē. In this strange predicament, revenge and love belong on the side of the non-human, even as the human continues tacitly to allot roles and functions from its recently avowed lowly position.

The image of a virus on a (nano-)cross is not so absurd, considering that humanity itself has rendered itself viral: an automaton in its self-replication, in its seemingly ever-present, yet largely unintended insinuation into every domain of the earth. And considering, also, that the virus has been humanized as an agent of revenge or the forerunner of a bright ecological future. What is absurd is not this image, but everything that has made it plausible. We should not underestimate the depths of nihilistic despair, which pins its hopes on a more or less lethal virus as a savior. Rather than an indicator of the path to be followed, it is a symptom of not knowing just how dire our situation is.

Biography

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz. His latest book is Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts (Columbia UP, 2019). For more information, see www.michaelmarder.org. Email: michael.marder@gmail.com

Feature image for this post: William Morris ‘Strawberry Thief Pattern Printed Fabric (no. 23598)’ (1883)

References

Nietzsche, F. (1998[1887]), On the genealogy of morality: a polemic. Indianapolis, Hackett Pub. Co.

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