[thingist] The Virus Is Our Idea of Ourselves

sebastian at rolux.org sebastian at rolux.org
Thu Jul 30 14:00:36 UTC 2020

The Virus Is Our Idea of Ourselves

by Claire Fontaine

"Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his
privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, 'I would prefer
not to.'" [1]

"In The Undercommons if we beginc anywhere, we begin with the right to refuse
what has been refused to you." [2]

In the midst of a global crisis with no solution in sight, the strategy of
total refusal appears irresponsible. No matter how explicitly corrupt and
dangerous for itself and the planet the current political organization of
everything is: according to most voices in the media we need constructive
proposals, seemingly impossible reforms, demented trust, and a good dose of
fear and submission. For many of the subjectivities who rebelled in this
climate for the past forty years, organization has proven increasingly
complicated and claims have become less and less federating; precariousness and
fragmentation have been blamed for creating dis-homogeneous experiences. This
has allowed repression to hit harder and working conditions to worsen. The
dismantlement of the welfare state and workers' rights has gone ahead whilst
subjectivities were inexplicably adjusting to the disaster. Struggle has come
to define the psychological trouble brought by this new condition in which
fighting for one's rights is an almost ungraspable possibility. Internalized
violence doesn't only come from one's vulnerable socioeconomic condition, but
from the burden of the political defeat that causes it. The return of fascism
under so many forms wouldn't be understandable without taking into account the
lack of society's anti-bodies against it, brought along by the depression and
self-hatred of all the generations of rebels that have seen their physical and
emotional world crumbling down under gentrification and mass unemployment. Debt
is one of the tools of this oppression; another is widespread poverty (even
amongst the employed population). Though being rather common strategies for
governance, what is new is that nowadays they are experienced as deeply
individual, depending on personal failures, shameful and non-federating. People
of all classes sense that they have personal responsibility for an order of
things that is destroying them as human beings. They resent what is ruining
them but also fear the internal crisis of the power structure that is harming
them, fearful that worst conditions can arise; whenever racism kills, poverty
strikes, or climate change proves the impossibility of capitalism, they feel
guilty and complicit rather than angry.

This phase of capitalism has managed to render integration to the productive
chain as far more desirable and urgent than anything else, including health,
mental balance, human relationships, and a meaningful life. The mass of the
constantly excluded pressing outside the gates of whatever we ourselves are
included in, the anxiety of losing one's place is more intense and real than
any solidarity toward the people in need can be. The deep awareness of being
disposable is poisonous. This has allowed work to become more and more invasive
in everybody's lives and the general perception of professional experiences to
be toxic, dissocializing, competitive, and selfish. Having a job is now a
lonely and scary business.

And yet in the past few months work has been presented as massively
unessential: the COVID-19 measures made it clear that key workers are a tiny
overexploited percentage of the population; all the others can just sit back
and relax or do their chatter on zoom, and the world will keep turning. In this
deep financial crisis, jobs have also become increasingly hard to find and
badly paid, but the superstition still stands that working is the only way to
provide for one's individual needs and only means to exist as a person; any
other condition is considered a befallen one. Because the dream has become
precisely what makes the dream impossible, and here capitalism shows its
devilish genius: by longing for vast depopulated spaces, powerful cars,
expensive lives or just having enough to live in unaffordable cities without
having to work several jobs, people run the rat race and don't fight.

The objective failure of the economy at keeping society together and preserving
class solidarity simply to reproduce the species isn't experienced as a scandal
but internalized on a subjective level as the anxiety of being stuck with
others that we don't understand. The separating effect of neoliberalism and the
psychological weakening of the isolated individuals is not an accident or a
side effect: it's vital for this stage of the productive process, where our
mental balance needs to be cannibalized in order to secure adhesion to the
unacceptable status quo. Limiting social interactions to the chosen ones isn't
seen as impoverishing but as hygienic. Self-isolation during the pandemic had
something familiar, both for the social classes who have been practicing it for
a long time and for many others who can't do so: not only viruses go through
the body but also power relationships. The social Darwinism of Boris Johnson's
herd immunity theory is in reality the secret murmur of all the liberalist
policies, it's the muteness of the stock market's graphs, it's the bureaucracy
of any office, the biopower and the necropolitics that we have normalized,
although they are bankrupting our lives.

Survival cannot and should not be the horizon of any politics. And yet very
violent explosions of conflicts have taken place in the past years amongst the
populations that cannot participate in the dream of a life made of material
comfort, human separation, and electronic interactions. They weren't
professionally characterized or homogeneous in terms of class, they were
disorderly, transversal, intersectional, critical of the social pact that
excluded them. They were human strikes.

Women have, through the women's strikes and the #MeToo movement, highlighted
the paradoxes of integrating themselves within the professional world which is
ecologically unsustainable, economically and emotionally criminal, and informed
by toxic ethics. (Rape as a culture goes further than the violence against
women: it's the way we, as a civilization, relate to every living source of
energy and nourishment.) Indigenous and nomadic populations, who have seen for
centuries their way of life definitively and unmistakably rendered impossible,
now witness the achievement of a long cycle of colonization as both extraction
and genocide. War, the construction of pipelines and walls, the deforestation
and the depletion of any form of subsistence outside of waged work, generates
profits and kills the unexploitable. Their environment being their livelihood,
for some people it only takes intensive agriculture to be wiped out.

And then there are black lives: a site of extraordinary manifestation of
systemic violence in all its forms. In the United States the black workforce
has been kept, since desegregation, in a state of informal slavery, through
exclusion, daily racism, and all sorts of institutionalized abuse, including
mass incarceration and killings. Black Lives Matter has been possibly the most
educational movement of the century for white people of all classes because,
even more than the Black Panthers, it has taught everyone that whiteness cannot
be reformed. Demanding that one's life matters for others is beyond a political
claim. Life isn't naked before being stripped of its value by society and
produced as repugnant and excludable. The looting that took place after George
Floyd's death was deemed as politically unacceptable by many, but the truth is
that a certain level of outrage cannot be translated into orderly words – it's
beyond political because it points to what politics doesn't cover: the naked
life deprived of any protection. Only smashing the surroundings can echo the
infinite damage done to broken people and broke households by a broken system.
The lack of integration is blamed on patriarchy, racism, colonialism, but one
is still left with the fact that wanting to change the (unchangeable) condition
of being a woman, a Native American or black comes down to self-hatred when the
reason for one's discrimination is one's physiological and human condition.

The deepest impoverishment comes from the lack of alternatives when faced with
this blackmail: the only reformist path available for these people would be to
become their own enemies, pretending that it's possible and acceptable to enter
the very system that has exterminated and rejected most of them. And the system
cannot be reformed because it thrives on this rejection, on the unpaid
housework, the slave labor, the pillage of natural resources. For capitalism,
refusing a (symbolic, cultural, and economic) value to things is the only way
of making profit from them. Because we cannot ask to mend the disaster, what is
'radical' now isn't the perspective that refuses reformism, our present
condition of communal but not communized humiliation, our lack of political
dignity orchestrated by a system of government that has found in our
self-respect a new land to colonize and destroy.

To trace lines of flight we don't need to become invisible, to cultivate
opacity, to dive into conspiracy theory, we just need to stay illegible and
unaffiliated and learn how to collude with each other's disaffiliation. Carla
Lonzi wrote in 1975: "What I am is pathetically invisible and inaudible and I
can't use it. Now I am sure that I am not making a drama of it, because it is
in fact a drama, my decision of not falling into the trap anymore is taken
[...]. I, who don't exist socially, can recognize another woman who doesn't
exist socially and so on. But my consciousness isn't recognized by culture so
this chain of recognition between non-existing is valid only between us. I
don't see the possibility of a different man because it is unthinkable to give
up the social identity that he has for one that doesn't exist." [3] If the
man/woman relationship offers the most tragic example of the impossibility of
being recognized as a political subject even inside intimate interactions, it's
because the occultation of the economic aspect of it is done through the
ideology of love. In fact, not only is exploitation possible, authorized, even
foundational of the social structure of our society, but it provides the model
for heterosexual love. The love of the advertisements, the pop songs, the
Hollywood movies is informed by the paradigms of conquest, enclosure, and
private property. The mental balance of subjects resting on their relational
life, the fact that entire parts of the population are simply dehumanized and
represented as naked life threatens our own self-esteem: human fabric is what
makes worlds because worlds happen when we can say "we." The nonsense of
patriarchy, the darkest mystery that supports its economic metabolism, is its
sexual desire and supposed affection for women, who are in fact objectified,
despised, and constantly discriminated against in every single social class.

From our houses where we have performed remote work we have experienced again
the different intensities of gendered multitasking. We saw Deborah Haynes on
July 1st being shut down by Sky News because her son barged into her home
office, where she was broadcasting live, asking for two biscuits; from the
studio her male colleague commented laconically "We'll leave Deborah Haynes in
full flow there with some family duties." In 2017 Robert Kelly was subject to a
similar incident on the BBC: his two toddlers bolted into the room while he was
on air but his wife promptly grabbed them and the interview went on. Last March
he was consulted as an authority in the matter of smart working on the Today
show. The profile, titled "'BBC Dad' reflects on viral work-from-home moment:
'Mostly fun, sometimes weird'" reads: "Robert Kelly, who inadvertently became a
viral star in 2017 when his two children barged into a live interview he was
giving, reflected on his family's internet fame in an essay published by an
Australian think tank." [4] If a husband, a friend, someone had come to prevent
Deborah Haynes's son from insisting on-camera for his biscuits, she wouldn't
have felt the humiliation and neither would we. But she was alone, that's why
her child needed her, and that's why she could be shut down.

The virus has helped us understand why self-abolition has become an appealing
and more realistic perspective than either the feminism of equality or the one
of difference. Maya Gonzalez and Marina Vishmidt have explored the idea of
self-abolition in the specific case of gender and the eccentric position that
women hold within the productive/reproductive system of society. Sharing the
work of care will never be an option under patriarchy, no matter the policies:
the simple fact that the conversation is taking place at a personal and at a
political level, that the care of children should be and isn't a task for men
and women alike, is the sign that we are living under a regime that doesn't
value human life whenever it isn't immediately productive, and as such is
self-hating therefore unreformable. The only processes to revalue life are
revolutionary, because only in the struggle, as Silvia Federici states, do we
belong to ourselves.

Our expropriation runs deep and the refugees' condition is a mirror and an
allegory of it. Human masses excluded from all service and benefits of
contemporary civilization are growing. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in
2020 at least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee
their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are
under the age of 18. The time has come for the hypocrisy of the humanitarian
ideology, through which capitalism preserves its progressive and civilizing
image, to be unmasked: human rights are not being protected because there have
never been any rights outside of workers' rights, the ones that had been fought
for in productive places, where strikes could actually cause quantifiable
economic losses. All other struggles have been of a revolutionary nature and
they have demanded a change of civilization, a change of paradigm of perception
and understanding reality, the revolution of the current system of value.

As long as private property, with all its psychological and physiological
ravages will be interpreted as a "reasonable" or "necessary" distribution of
the sensible, we won't be able to think. This means that for now millions of
subjectivities cannot exist; they are in the limbo of naked life and can't
access any symbolic status, any political revolt. There is no rationality on
the side of the world governance that can bind us to any loyalty in front of
this. There is no identity based on institutional recognition that will allow
us to transform the current state of things. We need to struggle as whatever
singularities. We need to go on strike from our production and reproduction of
subjectivity, we call the strike that will modify both the political situation
and ourselves in the process, the human strike. It can be quiet, imperceptible
and deeply transformative, irreversible. We can abolish the meaning of being
black or being a woman as we abolished the one of being a slave. We won't be
complicit in our oppression. An Italian feminist slogan says "We don't believe
what they say about us," we must negotiate the terms of how we are perceived
and valued. The same must be done with every form of identity, the ones that
burden us because they carry a stigma and the ones that separate us from others
because they are privileged: they both need to be dismantled, they are both
forms of submission.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the lack of value that human life has under
our current political regime, the toxicity of our daily living conditions, and
how easily our solitude and surveillance can be enforced by different
governments. Fred Moten writes in The Undercommons that "the coalition emerges
out of your recognition that it's fucked up for you, in the same way that we've
already recognized that it's fucked up for us. I don't need your help. I just
need you to recognize that this shit is killing you too, however much more
softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?" [5]

Now these findings are in our hands and we no longer need to respect what
doesn't respect us. We need lines of flight that help us to become complicit in
our dispossession rather than our submission, to transform it into a communal
force, shape a reality that is never represented and never will be: that
reality is illegible because it's yet to be written.

[1] Herman Melville, Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, 1856.

[2] Jack Halberstam, "The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,"
introduction to The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, by Stefano
Harvey and Fred Moten (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 8.

[3] Carla Lonzi, Taci, anzi parla. Diario di una femminista (Milan: Scritti di
Rivolta Femminile, 1978), pp. 1172–1173. [Translation by the authors.]

[4] Scott Stump, "'BBC Dad' reflects on viral work-from-home moment: 'Mostly
fun, sometimes weird,'" Today, NBC, March 17, 2020 [March 13, 2018],

[5] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and
Black Study, pp. 140–141.

// via https://www.textezurkunst.de/articles/claire-fontaine-idea-ourselves/

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