Exploring “Viral Culture”

Today’s guest post is authored by Mark Featherstone and John Armitage, editors of the new Cultural Politics issue “Viral Culture.” Learn more about “Viral Culture” or purchase the issue here.

In this blog post we want to explain the originality and relevance of the idea of ‘viral culture’, which we explore in the special issue of Cultural Politics devoted to the idea. However, before we talk about originality, it is important to note that it is possible to find precursors to what we are calling ‘viral culture’ in the work of a number of writers who understood what was happening with processes of globalisation and informationalisation from the 1960s onwards. It is important to acknowledge their influence upon our theory of ‘viral culture’ because in a sense what we have done is picked up the debates they started and explored them in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In looking for these influences we might track back as far as the 1960s and think about Jacques Derrida’s early work. In his early works, such as Of Grammatology, Derrida was interested in the informationalisation of biology through the discovery of DNA and communication processes filtered through computers that translated meaningful language into mathematical symbols. In his view this transformed everything, what he spoke about in terms of ‘the living’, into a kind of text that was endlessly on the move and fundamentally unfinished and unfinishable. In much the same way that one never finishes writing, Derrida saw that reproduction is endless and really represents the transmission or communication of DNA code to a new generation through sexual contact. This final point about sexual contact and the combination of DNA in the formation of a new person or animal was very important for Derrida because it represented communication and the emergence of new life, new meaning, and new possibilities. As the new is born, so the old must die out. This is why in his later works he writes about auto-immunity, which really means maintaining openness to the other through opposition to processes immunity that seek to shut down communication.

Now, of course, the problem we are facing today in the world of Covid-19 is that auto-immunity has become a serious problem. We need immunity and cannot afford the immune system to attack itself or become confused, which is precisely what happens in the case of the ‘cytokline storm’ that seems to be a major cause of death in cases of Covid-19. In straightforward terms what this means is that a lack of immunity and an excess of openness to otherness has now become a serious threat. The virus itself is clear evidence of this problem. Unlike complex organisms that reproduce through sexual contact, the virus simply replicates, and in this respect represents the strange form of life Freud wrote about in his famous essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which was coincidentally written in the teeth of the Spanish flu epidemic that killed his daughter Sophie one hundred years ago in 1920. While complex organisms, humans and animals, live, reproduce, and die, the virus represents endless life that simply repeats itself and therefore never dies. It does not need otherness. Having said that, the catch is that the virus needs a host to replicate, which is precisely why we need immunity to save ourselves from infection.

If this concern for immunity is what is missing from Derrida’s work, precisely because he is always looking to defend the principle of difference and communication, another French writer Jean Baudrillard clearly understood the problem of virulence in his book, The Transparency of Evil, translated into English in 1993. For Baudrillard, the Derridean universe of difference and communication, a universe of intertextuality, is a universe of virulence and contagion. In other words, Baudrillard saw that we cannot live in a world of globalised communication and information exchange without tipping over into excess and the production of what he calls evil and we might talk about in terms of diseases such as Covid-19 that represent the dark side of what happens when processes of globalisation enter a kind of terminal phase. What we mean by this idea of ‘a terminal phase’ is that everything that once represented communication and freedom, such as long-distance travel and meeting people from distant places, now threatens our very existence and causes us to look for ways to immunise ourselves from the outside. We know all about the forms this tendency to immunisation takes today—vaccine nationalism, the closure of borders, endless testing, masks, and interminable lockdowns—and we can learn more about the long-range impacts of this shift to suspicion of the other when we read Michel Foucault’s works, such as Madness and Civilization, which contains a discussion of ‘the great confinement’ and the emergence of disciplinary attitudes towards difference.

This is the tradition of thought that our concept of ‘viral culture’ draws upon in the context of the current global pandemic. ‘Viral culture’ represents the situation we find ourselves in somewhere between Derrida’s concern to recognise difference and accept the other and Baudrillard’s understanding of virulence and the emergence of a globalisation of evil symptoms that infect every aspect of life, which is precisely what we seek to address in our collection.

While the biological impact of the pandemic is clear because we are all susceptible to disease, Covid-19 has also transformed the political sphere that is now caught between a defence of liberal values and harsh authoritarian measures designed to protect us from the other. The same problem impacts economy and economics. The choice is between liberalisation and a model of state centralisation that now looks increasingly realistic. Similarly, the social world is torn between sociability and a need to maintain distance and sever the connection between self and other with the result that many fall into loneliness and suffer related mental health issues. Finally, the cultural sphere, the place where meaning itself is negotiated, is, we think, the privileged space where these decisions are thought through, worked out, and negotiated. Now we must recognise that every one of these decisions is political, and it is a mistake, as Bernard-Henri Levy notes, to simply let techno-science tell us that they are only about biological health, because we cannot remain immune, immunised, from the other for ever more. This is why this issue of Cultural Politics is not simply about Covid-19 in a narrow sense, but rather ‘viral culture’ and the range of problems that living under Covid has forced us to have to confront. In this respect the originality of our collection resides in the way we explore the cultural politics, and the politics of meaning, around the Covid pandemic from a range of perspectives making use of a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives. What, then, is the wider relevance of the concept of ‘viral culture’ for understanding the contemporary moment?

Essentially, the central provocation of the idea of ‘viral culture’ is that we will need to come to terms with the problem of virulence, contagion, and the problem of the communication of what Baudrillard calls evil. In this sense, we will no longer be able to assume that processes of globalisation are fundamentally good, but rather will need to balance this with an assessment of the negative impacts of every form of communication. Although complete immunity, and the end of communication with the outside, is unlikely to ever come to pass, we need to weigh the risks more carefully than we have done in the period of capitalist expansion since the end of World War II and think clearly about the problem of contagion. We know that this period of history has led to the emergence of what we now call the Anthropocene, or the complete humanisation of the planet, and that this situation is responsible for the problem of zoonotic disease, simply because it is only when humans expand their influence into the wilds that they come into contact with novel viruses and pathogens able to make the leap from one species to another.

In much the same way that Jacques Derrida writes about intertextuality, and ways in which information travels between species and different biological and cultural systems, Donna Haraway considers the companion species and troubles the idea that the human is somehow separate from the natural world. In Haraway’s thinking, immunity can never be complete. We are always, to some extent, open onto the environment. We now know that it is precisely this situation that represents the gateway to ‘viral culture’ and contagion, which means that we will need to understand and rethink the way the virus impacts:

Biology (bio-politics): If we are to remain open to otherness, which is a necessity if humanity is to survive, we need to think about issues of mortality and death. As Foucault and others have taught us, western culture celebrates life, but seeks to make itself immune to death. Although death has become an inescapable fact under conditions of the pandemic, even in this situation we have sought to insulate ourselves from loss, lack, and mortality through so many statistics, charts, and graphs that seek to somehow submerge the finality of death in quantity that counts up into infinity. Despite this drive to escape death into a kind of mathematical immortality project, however, it may be the case that in the future western cultures need to return to the age-old philosophical problem of death, and the Heideggerian issue of being towards death, because we think this is an inescapable fact of what we are calling ‘viral culture’. We cannot escape our vulnerability and we need to come to terms with this fact.

Politics: Recalling Foucault’s work on madness, we recall that ‘the great confinement’ led to the rise of a disciplinary culture that sought to immunise itself against abnormal others considered insane, criminal, and deviant. We know that the rest of Foucault’s career was about exploring the problems of discipline, control, and the erosion of freedom. These issues remain central in the age of ‘viral culture’ where the other is always a potential threat and we must constantly consider how much freedom we are willing to give up in the name of (bio)security. In the sphere of politics, then, the most serious issue raised by ‘viral culture’ concerns the debate between liberalism and authoritarianism, which was already a major concern in the wake of the global financial crash that challenged the neoliberal idea that individual freedom is the foundation of a good society. The key question here, then, concerns how we respond to biological vulnerability. How far should we trade freedom for security in the age of ‘viral culture’?

Economics: Expanding upon the political choice between liberalism and authoritarianism, in the economic sphere the problem of ‘viral culture’ similarly takes the form of the tension between individual freedom and state intervention and a kind of socialistic model. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that the coordinates of the political simply map on to the economic choice, since it is possible to argue that the choice of individual freedom involves exposure to the new viral economic state of nature (as we have seen in the American case), which is no kind of freedom, while the cost of state support may involve years of public sector cuts and austerity measure (threatened in the British case).

Society: Underpinning each of these tensions, we can identify the basic problem of sociability and how we choose to live with others. In this respect, it may be that ‘viral culture’ causes us to return to the fundamental problem of sociology set out by Georg Simmel in the early 20th century. Unlike the other founders of the subject, Simmel sought to ground the study of society on the interaction between individuals (what he called sociation) and centrally the issue of proximity and distance, understood in both a physical and psychological / emotional sense. In the teeth of the pandemic the individual has become lonely in a sense that not even Simmel imagined and the question for future researchers in viral culture will be how far this situation endures or should endure. Perhaps widespread vaccination and the end of lockdowns around the world will lead to a new culture of intimacy, where people will seek out others on the basis a renewed understanding of the importance of human contact, or the opposite might happen. It may be the case that we will enter a kind of Sartrean universe where we are condemned to live with others, but cannot do enough to escape their suffocating proximity and potentially contagious touch.

Culture: Given that meanings and understandings within each of the above spheres (biology, politics, economics, society) require negotiation, we take the view that culture, and specifically cultural politics, represents the key field for the exploration of the fallout from the pandemic. This is why we centre our issue on the exploration of ‘viral culture’ and suggest that post-pandemic students and researchers should be concerned with seeking to understand the ways in which Covid-19 plays out across the spheres of biology, politics, economics, and society in terms of what we think are the key issues of immunity, communication, contagion, and thinking about our relationship to otherness. This is, in our view, the central problem of ‘viral culture’.

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