This pandemic should not have happened.

To say this is not to say that the Covid-19 virus should never have arisen. Accidents happen. In endosomatic evolution, that is, in biology, accidents are called mutations, and they lead mostly to unviable monsters, but occasionally they produce advantages, and so give rise to new organisms and species. It is this biodiverse proliferation of difference in the struggle to defer entropy that means we can also, following Gilbert Simondon and then Bernard Stiegler, conceive of this evolution as vital individuation or vital différance.

Even if we say that a virus is not an organism, it is still the case that it conforms to the laws of selection that make it possible for accidents to become fortuitous. The prevailing theory is that it was just such an accidental mutation, combined with another fortuitous accident (from the point of view of the virus), consisting in a ‘leap’ from one host species to another (humans), that the virus ‘exploited’, allowing it to proliferate into hundreds of millions of such hosts in under two years and across the whole planet. A counter-theory is that the ‘accident’ of its mutation was in fact artificially engineered by humans, and/or that the ‘accident’ of its finding a human host was the result of an artificial situation – a scientific laboratory.

Regardless of which of these theories may be true, however, the reality is that the accident that produced the existence of Covid-19 disease in humans had conditions that were not biological or endosomatic, but rather artificial or exosomatic: whether because of unregulated markets or imprudent scientists, whether due to a leap or a leak, it was the technological character of twenty-first century human organization and movement that set the scene for this event. ‘Accidentality’ is as fundamental to exosomatic différance as it is to vital différance, and exosomatic accidents, too, may often breed monsters but can also prove fortuitous – provided that we have the capacity to adopt them, to make selections, not biologically but economically and noetically, that is, rationally (in a very broad sense), and thereby to make these accidents into our necessity, our quasi-causal necessity, in Deleuze’s terms.

To say that the pandemic should not have happened, therefore, is not to say that the accident should have been prevented. Accidents happen, both endosomatically and exosomatically. The test given to us by accidents consists in finding ways to adopt them, failing which we are left to adapt to them. The Covid-19 accident created the conditions for, but did not determine the inevitability of, the Covid-19 pandemic. It is in the gap between conditioning and determining that the distinction between adaptation and adoption must be made. It is a question of making a difference by making a decision, on the basis of non-biological criteria of selection, through which an accident becomes our necessity, just as Joë Bousquet’s accidental wound became, and had to become, his necessity, the necessity of his becoming a poet.

When the possibility of such an adoption seems – or is – highly improbable, then statements of the probable may well seem like ‘realism’, especially when they are offered in retrospect. So if one were to say, ‘well sure, the pandemic could have been avoided, if political conditions, or social conditions, or economic conditions had been otherwise than they in fact were’, then this analysis can be counted on to garner approval as a trustworthy opinion proffered by a perspicacious observer. But whatever its perspicacity, if such an observation serves only to deflect from the question of how and why those conditions came about, and how and why they at least seemed to all but determine the inevitability of the pandemic, then such ‘realism’ falls short, if not in terms of analysis, then as a synthesis, on which basis alone decision and adoption are possible. Such ‘falling short’ amounts to either laziness, cowardice or cynicism.

In reality, the analytical elements necessary to prevent the accident from developing into a pandemic had been acquired early enough to achieve such prevention, but this prevention was prevented, so to speak, by a failure of imagination and will. On 25 March 2020, for example, the Director-General of the World Health Organization presented six points that he deemed necessary to suppress the outbreak,[1] which were promptly ignored – that is, outside of the country from which the virus originated (where it was already largely controlled by March 2020). The two plain facts that go most unremarked in commentary on this pandemic are these: that the place where it started, containing 1.3 billion people, was the first and almost the only jurisdiction to take effective measures, and that the necessary measures were clearly and publicly stated in a timely way by the highest international organization responsible for doing so.

Many argued at the time that such measures were simply not possible, or were not possible ‘here’, that is, in the West. The problem with such an argument is that all of the ‘impossible’ measures did end up being possible after all…but were not implemented until it was no longer possible for them to have the effect that initially justified them: preventing the pandemic. It is a question, then, of speed.

The other, ‘philosophical’ argument that has been made is that this pandemic has been the ‘biopolitical’ opportunity for governments to implement the permanent state of exception. In other words, rather than genuinely involving citizens in a genuine discussion of risks and strategies, and rather than bolstering health systems beleaguered by decades of neoliberal decimation based on the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ but to adapt to technological acceleration and economic war, instead, governments have preferred to institute a state of emergency that imposes an unjustifiably authoritarian curtailment of freedoms on the basis of statistical assertions about harms that are assessed and understood at the level of the population. Such an argument always really boils down to a familiar and entirely comprehensible defence of rights, democracy, participation and individuality against totalitarian encroachment.

Arguments of this kind undoubtedly cannot be dismissed, and many of the measures eventually implemented by governments, or that they were forced by circumstances to implement against their own will, reactively and adaptively (rather than adoptively), have undoubtedly caused avoidable harm. But whatever legitimacy can be attributed to such claims, before acknowledging the risks entailed by the state of exception, it must first be acknowledged that there is such a thing as an emergency, that an emergency entails catastrophic risks, and that what defines an emergency is an accident whose risks can be avoided only by combining rapid analysis with decisive action, where this frequently entails trusting in the authority of expertise, hierarchy and leadership. This trust need not be absolute, but it is performative: when we trust in the authority of fire fighters to fight fires, or medical personnel to treat life-threatening illness, it is not because we cannot believe that such trust may later turn out to be misplaced, but it is that we know that we must believe in the necessity of such trust right now.

This is, then, not just a question of speed, and not just a question of analysis, but a question of the speed and mechanisms of reason, especially in its collective forms. Analysis, which discerns a situation by taking it apart, understanding it via its constituent elements, can never in and of itself lead to decision. For that, what has been taken apart must be put back together – re-synthesized – through a process of the crystallization of thought that exceeds the formalizations and calculations of analysis, where this synthesis cannot occur without the imagination that makes possible the belief and the anticipation necessary to leap from understanding to reason – which is to say, to the motive of decision.

The failure to respond decisively or adequately to the possibility of the pandemic was clear from the outset, in all manner of imaginative failures, from the notion presented by authorities and experts that masks will only make things worse to the notion that restricting travel is no more than a form of racism to the notion that freedom-loving citizens of freedom-loving nations will never accept being locked down. Most of all: it is clear from the double failure that consists first in the belief that ‘it cannot happen here’ and then, paradoxically, in the belief that ‘it could not have been prevented here’. These failures of imagination and reason have been clear and constant for almost two years – that is, they have been clear and constant in the West, and at every level: governments, experts, journalists, commentators and populations.

In describing these failures in terms of analysis and synthesis, imagination and reason, it is obvious that a Kantian apparatus is being invoked. But this ‘reason’ can no longer be considered pure: reason is and has always been impure, which is to say that it, and imagination, belief, will and trust (which are all relationships to the future falling within what we must think of in terms of desire) have their own conditions, and these conditions are, as Stiegler teaches us, technical. The term developed by Stiegler to reflect on these technological conditions of knowledge, imagination and reason is ‘grammatization’, referring to any process by which temporal flows (such as speech, tool-equipped gestures, audiovisual perception) are rendered discrete, analysable and technically, mechanically, industrially or algorithmically reproducible (as writing, as programmable machines such as the Jacquard loom, and as radio, television, social networks and so on).

It is the history of grammatization that conditions the history of analysis and synthesis, and that alone makes possible the history of knowledge, imagination, trust and reason characteristic of the exosomatic and noetic beings that we hope to remain, but this very same history is what constantly closes off the openness that defines these functions, and today more than ever. To say that they are open is to say that their resilience and accidental inventiveness is nourished by noetic diversity, just as ecological resilience depends on the processes that maintain biodiversity. If we say that the pandemic has exposed the degree to which such open functions have become closed in the West, then it is not enough to denounce this fact: we must undertake a genealogy and critique of the loss of noetic diversity that produces this closure, in the belief that only such a critique contains the potential, however improbable, of reopening what has closed, and in necessarily new ways.

It may well be argued that what also defines an emergency, and what makes it an emergency, requiring rapid analysis and decisive action, is the compressed timescale on which it unfolds: an emergency lasting two years or more is no longer an emergency but the opportunism of the permanent state of exception. Besides the fact that the initial emergency is not the pandemic itself but the accident that makes the pandemic possible (and not yet actual), however, it is not at all obvious that a particular scale of time can be ascribed to emergency situations. Or, to say it more specifically: what counts as a compressed timescale depends upon the character of the processes within which the accidental event is situated.

Climate change, for example, is indeed an emergency, as long as we trust in the analytical faculties of the IPCC and science in general, but it is an emergency that unfolds across much longer spans of time than does a pandemic, yet these spans are nevertheless vastly shorter than geological and climatic processes absent anthropogenic forcing. What more than anything has been clarified by this pandemic that should not have happened is that the West – which has suffered for more than a century with the systemic application of grammatization to the destruction of the conditions of knowledge, will, belief, trust and reason – absolutely cannot deal with states of emergency. The war of ‘takes’ on Twitter and the proliferation of ‘alternative facts’ on Facebook have nothing whatsoever to do with any noetic diversity capable of cultivating reason through the fortuitous accidents of disputation and controversy, and have only exacerbated the irrationality of the Western response. The speed with which vaccines have been developed by pharmaceutical laboratories and distributed by governments does not diminish this failure, given that all of the ‘impossible’ or ‘intolerable’ steps that could have prevented the emergence of this necessity did all end up being deployed, but afterwards, and far too late, if not counter-productively. What hope, then, for dealing with the far graver crisis that consists not just in climate change, about which the IPCC informs us and Greta Thunberg reminds us, but in the simultaneous headlong rush beyond numerous systemic limits that characterizes what has come to be known as the Anthropocene?

And yet, what must also be added is that this pandemic has exposed another fact: that far more resources can in fact be mobilized than were imagined previously, and in surprising ways, by governments and authorities, and with the support of populations, when the imagination, trust and belief in the necessity of doing so does in fact take hold. In addition to scientific and health measures, incredibly vast sums were, during this pandemic, transferred in various ways to various parties with various levels of legitimacy or corruption, and varying degrees of effectiveness. What matters most, however, is not whether these economic programs have been beneficial or harmful (they are all ultimately large-scale changes undertaken to reassure markets that, from the perspective of financial capitalism, ‘nothing has changed’), but the fact that actions that had hitherto seemed inconceivable and impossible turned out to be utterly conceivable and possible, and at short order, once the belief took hold that there was no alternative.

Anthropogenic climate change and the systemic limits with which it is associated indeed define the fundamental emergency situation with which we are confronted today. The possibility of facing up to this emergency depends on recognizing that this accident must become our necessity, a necessity whose impure technological, but also social, economic and political conditions are alone what make possible the exercise of collective intelligence, belief, wisdom and decision. The temptation is always to say that freedom and democracy are the fundamental requirements for making good collective decisions, and yet the absolute failure of the West over the past two years means that these ideas must absolutely be subjected to critique, where the latter is never a denunciation, but an interrogation of their ‘pharmacological’ limits (in the sense of the duplicitous character of the pharmakon as described by Socrates, Derrida and Stiegler). Freedom and democracy have conditions, which are inherently technical, and they are the conditions of knowledge and desire – which means, they are a question of the relationship between grammatization and genuine noetic diversity. Only such a critique, which must be not just ‘theoretical’ but ‘practical’, contains the possibility, however improbable, of mobilizing and fostering concealed and diverse potentials in new ways. If freedom and democracy have a positive future, which is by no means assured, it is only through such a critique. No way out of the crisis of the twenty-first century will be possible without it.

 

[1] ‘WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19’ (25 March 2020), available at: https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---25-march-2020.

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