Lacanian Review Online: Borders

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When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
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(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)

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LRO – COVID-19 2020 #28
30th March 2020

 




The Host of the Virus
Marina Frangiadaki

 

Confined, reading articles about the virus, I notice a signifier relating to the origin of the virus appearing repeatedly. Its strangeness surprises me. The host of the virus; in Greek: xenistis.

“A virus is an infectious agent requiring a host whose metabolism and constituents it uses to replicate.”

“In biology, a host is an organism that hosts a parasite, a mutual partner or a commensal partner, necessary for its life cycle.”

I had never imagined that a virus needed a host to circulate! In addition, is the virus a partner of the host? If we think that the host of our dear, horrible virus is probably, according to scientists, a cute little animal with the exotic name of pangolin, it all becomes more intriguing.

Host, what a funny signifier!

Let’s continue the etymological research into the word, trying to catch this real in the way that psychoanalysis of the Lacanian orientation teaches us, which is to say, trying to define it by language, by the signifier cut off from its signified, by the ambiguity which makes meaning empty, by the deployment of the signifying chain, which brings out new significations …

The host is “the one, the one who receives and treats someone without payment, who gives him hospitality, by humanity, by friendship, by benevolence.”[1] But also “the one that we receive and that we treat well.” The host is then the one who welcomes but also the one who is welcomed.

The word comes from the Latin hospitem, accusative of hospes (guest, foreigner, visitor) which originally means the one who welcomes the foreigner.  Later, it means also the one who receives hospitality.

By its Latin root, host is related to the hotel, the hospitality but also the hospital and the hostage.[2] This is what makes this research a little funny at a moment when, because of our being the host of the virus, we feel ourselves to be hostages, confined in our home so as not to end up in hospital …

The Greek word is even more revealing. The host of the virus in Greek is called xenistis. It has its root in the ancient word xenios which meant one who welcomes the stranger; hence the widespread adjective relating to Zeus, the Xenios Zeus, who protected the reception of foreigners, which was considered sacred. From the same root, xenos has taken on the meaning of foreigner and strange in Greek.

The richness of the language brings the stranger closer to his host.

Back to the virus, an object that is threatening and strange. We live in a new situation where it is difficult to recognise this kakon, as it is invisible, and it is difficult to give it a representation. Less than two months ago, in racist speech, the kakon could be attributed to the one with Asian features. A month ago, it was to the one with an Italian accent. A fortnight ago it was one who was coughing in the seat next to us at the cinema. And today, the kakon can be found in our own dirty hand that moves with a spontaneous gesture towards our own face.

If it were not so dramatic, it could be a comic way to illustrate the Lacanian thesis, namely that what comes to embody the bad object, the waste, the kakon in a relationship of extimity, is originally very intimate, a part of ourselves.

This does not prevent racist discourse from persisting and using an absurd amalgamation between the stranger, the refugee and the virus to make hate exist.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, closes the border and announces “a war on two fronts … that of migration and that of the coronavirus, which are linked because they both spread with displacement,” he said. He affirmed this by accusing Iranian students of having introduced the coronavirus into Hungary, not hesitating to call the virus a “foreigners’ disease.”[3] Since the appearance of Covid-19 on Hungarian territory, the government has suspended the registration of asylum applications, arguing that migrants are likely to be carrying the virus.

A month ago, when the situation was dramatic at the Greek-Turkish border, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister of a right-wing government, who often adopts an extreme right-wing language, declared that the problem of “immigration rises to a different level, since in the migratory flow there are many people from Iran – where there are many cases of coronavirus – and many others from Afghanistan.” We must not forget that when taking office last summer, one of the first measures of the new government was to remove all foreigners and refugees without documents, as well as their children from the list of those who had access to care! The refugees were left without access to basic healthcare, their children were no longer vaccinated and as a result no longer educated; a vaccination card is compulsory in order for children to be able to attend school. They have become, by political choice, harmful to themselves and to others.

This barbaric measure could not be imposed with great success thanks to the activity of NGOs and the civil disobedience of certain caregivers and school principals.

Today, in the Moria refugee camp, in and around Lesbos, known as the Moria “jungle,” the number of refugees has exceeded 20,000 in extremely poor living and hygienic conditions. We can imagine what will happen when the first case of coronavirus appears.

How ironic! At a time in history when Europe shamelessly[4] closes its borders and behaves barbarically and locks up foreigners who seek refuge from horror, a virus, which knows no borders, is seeking to find refuge in our own body, which we try to protect by locking it up.

 


[1] https://www.littre.org/definition/hôte
[2]
O. Bloch et W. von Wartburg, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française, ed PUF, Paris, 1975, p. 324, p. 451.
3] https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2020/03/21/en-hongrie-les-etrangers-coupables-tout-trouves-de-l-epidemie_1782526
[4] Reference to the breathtaking book by Jean Ziegler which has just been published, Lesbos, la honte de l’Europe, [Lesbos, the Shame of Europe], Seuil, Paris, 2020.

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