Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has lived among us, as its nickname, Covid-19, tells us for just on two years now. A further nickname tells us it is a novel virus, a claim that needs to be clarified since as it is SARS-CoV number 2, it is in fact a first iteration of SARS-CoV. It’s as an iteration that it is ‘novel’. The first, SARS-CoV-1 – 1 as we must now retroactively designate it; 2 being the first number – was tracked from 2002-4 and despite warning as to its zoonotic origins went generally and comparatively, blissfully unnoticed. Not of course by the concerned scientists of various types, those 8000 who contracted it nor by the families of the 774 who died, but in the political, mediatic and thereby public imaginaries of the West and its satellites.
Perhaps what is novel in SARS-CoV-2 (apart from it’s specific zoonotics) or what makes it novel as such is not merely the virulence on display, the sickness it causes or the deaths attributed to it as cause but in the social, political, cultural disruption its being-here everywhere has caused to be brought into the lives of almost everyone on the planet and at the same time. And even if the majority of people will never contract or experience the virus at first hand, they will, precisely, experience the disease. But again this then makes SARS-CoV-2 another form of an iteration. Not of SARS-CoV as necessarily but of that altogether more metaphysical concept, Plague.
It’s a cliché of course but thereby it is necessary to repeat it that humanity has been beset by plague since time immemorial. And we use the word immemorial precisely because it designates the metaphysical sense of it as an experience of (in this case) an affliction beyond just the mere, well, empirical experience of it and thus as that experienced beyond or beside the physical vectors of its transmission, which, as now, were almost always set by those of commerce. Plague designates both a time and an outside of time – a being in time, a being of time, if you like, and as such a place in and a place out of time also. It also marks time and place.
The plague is embedded in and inscribes for us our history as suffering animals, as valiant resistance, as inventive destroyers, as victims of a pure and interminable endurance, as creatures and creators and perhaps even, within all this, immortals. It flavours our narratives, affirmative and negative, is a morality play, a scientific site, a numbers game, a metaphor, a cause and an effect, a legitimacy, an excuse, a brute fact. The plague offers humanity all its proportions.
SARS-CoV-2 is then not one but two iterations: Mechanistically, say, of SARS-Cov, and thereby, due to the novelty of this iteration, metaphysically as well, as Plague.
Here we want to explore the instances of the contemporary plague, from its specificity as SARS-CoV-2 through its iteration as ‘plague’, taking up thereby all the salient points which attach to such a double reading. If we had to put this in the form of a question, a question which serves to orient all the responses we hope to publish here, it would be something like: what is the Plague for the place of our time and the time of our place? Or perhaps quite simply: What are the Plague Proportions?
AJ Bartlett & Bryan Cooke