"make your life an experiment"
"you and I are going to live forever."
In the family chat, my father sends an image of a report-card on Covid-19 mortalities in Australia, produced by La Trobe Financial (A Blackstone Portfolio Company). It says: “the current chance of U70s NOT dying is 99.9997%”. I begin to notice advertising for La Trobe Financial on the fences at AFL football games. Replying to the effect that I think it is irresponsible to be disseminating financial advice implying an alternative response to a global public health crisis, it is the question of alternatives that suggests the crux of the issue. Perhaps Dad was right, we need alternatives. Yet the manufacture of consensus has been a priority since it became clear that the response to the pandemic was going to be biopolitical. That is, a response ultimately reducible to the question of “life or death”.
I thought about the semantics of the report card only much later. In response to the perpetual, “undead” character of finance, there appears to have been a lot of hope invested in promoting the possibility of infinite human life. This is a significant shift in modern subjectivity, one brought into sharper focus by the global phenomenon of a health crisis, and it is one that must be linked somehow to the idea of eternity (following our mass deification—sovereign citizens, anyone?). We are now (mistakenly) gods, and surely, we are therefore among the first to fully believe that there is a chance that we—everyday people, “the masses”, especially when understood as Whitman’s “multitudes” (ie. within the very idea of selfhood)—are going to live forever. Not in heaven—after death—but in this current life: the time that remains (Dante would call this hell). The global health crisis has dealt a massive blow to this collective fantasy, of course.
Amidst this SARS-CoV-2 pandemic I became a father. Now it was my turn to calculate risk. Not the risk to myself. But now I had responsibilities to my family, and a child in my care. There seemed only an experimental approach available to me. Earlier in the pandemic I had asked Twitter: is demand the same as desire? And I was mercilessly put in my place by other outraged users. Nevertheless, risk is tied to a form of life that can only be called “accounting” and so it becomes of significant concern for the economics of the home that calculations be made. Especially, it seems, during the so-called “lockdowns”. As risk is related to a certain contingency, an unknowability, it is a vector of trust. If we trusted in the numbers (as finance), my dad had suggested, we (under 70) would only have 0.0003% of (certain?) death during the pandemic. This was still not enough certainty, however. It seemed that all that was provided was proof that we could not live forever in this newly normalised infection-world.
Another fact made perfectly clear by the pandemic was that large swathes of the population no longer believe in the institutions used to govern liberal democracies. This got so advanced that any questioning of the government response (at least in Victoria, where I am), was perceived as an unacceptable threat. For example, the sense that the experience of booking vaccination appointments is indistinguishable from bidding for a time slot in a market-place has only exacerbated the problem of orderly programmes for inoculations provisioned by the state. In Alex Gibney’s documentary about the pandemic response by the White House in 2020 a young Kennedy scion, seconded to “volunteer” in the Covid-response team run by Jared Kushner—under the title Project Airbridge—describes using his personal Gmail account to bid for PPE on behalf of the US Government. The systems used to provision medical equipment between States and the Fed. resembled an Ebay marketplace.
Clearly the perpetuity of market ontology was rubbing up with the finitude of human life in a way that had become untenable. Designed to break up monopolies, colluding, and price-setting, it appears the notion of anti-trust in our economically rationed relations has had some unintended (or perhaps better, additional) effects. Competition and opinion in the spheres of public health and governance mean that the task of manufacturing consent has fallen to those—Chief Health Officers being only the most obvious example—who should be simply pointing to the facts or contingent data of the present conditions faced in a particular locality.
As such, I have been giving a lot of thought to Theodor Adorno’s use of the epigraph to Minimal Moralia (1951) to make a seemingly prescient point: life does not live. It is a quotation from Ferdinand Kürnberger’s 19th century roman a clef, Der Amerikamüde. Understood literally, “life” as defined for the era of bourgeois individualism, is reduced to algorithmic data which in turn is only recognisable as potential use-value. We are all tired of America, even America is tired of America. Yet of Americans, it seems we can’t get enough.
I have started listening to recorded music by basing my selections upon which pop star or musician-genius had recently died. Today it is Lee Scratch Perry, yesterday Charlie Watts. I suppose this mode of thinking had begun with the death of Scott Walker, prior to the pandemic. Now, this is the only way I can effectively navigate Spotify, to decide what mood I am in for listening, based on recent death. But it extends to “pop” as an index of our epoch: ABBA’s new single, "Don’t Shut Me Down," released this year, contains the refrain:
And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down (don’t shut me down)
I’m like a dream within a dream, that’s been decoded
I’m fired up, I’m hot, don’t shut me down.
Like an appropriation of 90s “alternative” pop music—including a line I remember by the band called (curiously enough) Live: “death ain’t right”, or like Oasis’ Noel Gallagher writing an anthemic rock ballad called “Live Forever” as a reaction to Kurt Cobain’s suicide—the possibility of endless life has been wagered here, by the Eurovision extraordinaires from Sweden, on the ability to be scanned and uploaded to a computer database that will allow the performers to be “reloaded” at any point in the foreseeable future, especially if one of them dies (from Covid, presumably). The video-clip for the song dutifully documents this process for posterity too.
Lately a large proportion of Australians have received a text message to their mobile phones from ex-Liberal MP for the constitutional division of Hughes in NSW. Now campaigning as the leader of the United Australia Party, Craig Kelly’s appeal is an experiment in taking the anti-trust laws of the market to mainstream politics ahead of a federal election:
You can never trust the Liberals, Labor or Greens again. Authorised by Craig Kelly, United Australia Party. Click on this link…
Anti-trust, it’s all a big competition for the idea of perpetual presence. My mum messages me for my birthday, I joke and tell her I’m halfway to 72. She responds “I’m halfway to 128!” The experiment is to never die, and this is what lies at the basis of our state response to the pandemic that (despite what Daniel Ross has said in this same space) could never have happened in any other way. We don’t want anyone to die, this is true. We don’t want to die—we want to live forever. The experimental reaches its apotheosis in the vaccine, a hastily developed set of inoculations for a novel virus. Yet given that no-one can be certain that it will work (after all, the response is unfolding in real time), we are left to require that we aim for the negation of the one thing that is certain: death.