Lacanian Review Online: Going Viral

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When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do

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LRO – COVID-19 2020 #81
3rd May

 




Viral Times
Lieve Billiet

 

As I recently stated, surely all too naïvely and ill-considered, was that “what we are living is really new and unknown and this whole Corona/Covid-19 situation would have been unthinkable before the age of globalization.”  A colleague replied: “Nonsense, pandemics are of all times. Not only are they as old as human movements around the globe, they were the first manifestation of globalization.” His answer left me a bit dazed. Indeed, had I not learned at school, how in the fifth century B.C. a third of Athens’ population succumbed to ‘the plague’ that reached the City via the port? How during the Middle Ages, the Black Death decimated the European population after the disease had reached the European continent via Sicily? How flu viruses and other ‘European’ diseases killing 95 percent of the pre-Columbian population helped the conquistadores in their campaign of conquest? Had my father not told me, again and again, how the Spanish flu which killed approximately 50 – 60 million people had made many more victims than the hardly finished first World War, the war playing nevertheless an indirect role. Not only did the virus have free play under the weakened population, the movement of troops facilitated the spread of the virus. Pandemics of all times indeed. Since time immemorial, mass migrations, campaigns of conquest, wars and trade routes facilitated the spread of parasites, bacteria and viruses.  There is nothing new under the sun. Really? Is there nothing that distinguishes a 21st century pandemic from earlier ones?

In his contribution Covid-19 et capitalisme génétique, Thierry Bardini underlines the viral character of our times.[1] We have known the word virus for several centuries. In Latin the word means ‘sticky liquid, phlegm, poison.’  Biological viruses are known since the beginning of the 20th century, computer viruses since its’ last quarter and tweets or posts going viral  only since the 21st century. It is surely not just by chance, nor a matter of language deficiency that the same word is used in the three cases. A biological virus, a computer virus and a tweet have in common, that they are merely scraps of information, copying themselves endlessly.  According to Bardini, it is striking that an originally negatively connotated term – agent of contamination, pathogenic organism – acquired an opposite signification in only a few decades – ‘going viral’ is the wet dream of every facebooker or twitterer. The ultimate sign of success.

For Bardini, ‘virality’ – whether it is biological, informatical of informational – is the distinguishing characteristic of the era of genetic capitalism, as he calls it. At the very core of it, is the reduction of the living to a database of genetical information – a collection of decoded scraps DNA or RNA that can be copied – the genetic patrimonial having become the trade fund of a new Eldorado. The different forms of virality are linked to each other. Not until the globe was enclosed in a completely blown up global network of personal computers, could the living be reduced to a genetic database. For Bardini, this heralds an era of different subjectivity and social bond.

If pandemics are of all times, the society they affect has changed in the most radical way. It has become viral itself. The virus is enemy and friend, it is not inside nor is it outside, it is not living nor is it dead. It is just a fragment DNA or RNA, a scrap genetic information. It can merely survive by the grace of a host, while eventually becoming part of the genetic patrimonial of this host.  ‘It’ never comes alone, ‘they’ come in swarms. Viruses have no bad intentions, so experts tell us these days, they have no intentions. They do not have the intention to kill or destroy their host, risking coming to their end themselves in that case. Viruses can only ‘survive’ if it becomes possible to coexist, ‘live together’ with them. That is what should happen with the coronavirus, as there is no chance it will go away again. But the whole situation is new – men and coronavirus must get used to each other.

In the 21st century, pandemics are no revenge of the Olympic gods, no punishment of a sinful society, not a matter or ‘immanent justice’ as something said one day. They are the work of a virus with which it is difficult to live with. Awaiting a kind of ‘arrangement’ to come, old-fashioned – let’s say ‘phallic’ – war language is spoken these days by politicians, experts, virologists, while at the same time a scrap of genetic information is personified. “The virus has to be taken by the scruff of the neck or tired out,” the statement goes. It seems merely a matter of drawing boundaries between the inside and the outside, of differentiating between friends and enemies. Of restoring borders and barriers in a globalized – i.e. a pas-tout [2] – society.

But what if the virus was, after all, just a part of our self?

 

 


[1] T. Bardini, Covid-19 and Genetic Capitalism: https://aoc.media/analyse/2020/04/05/covid-19-et-capitalisme-genetique/
[2]
J.-A. Miller, “Milanese Intuitions” in Psychoanalytical Notebooks Issue 34, ‘Paradigms of Jouissance,’ London Society of the New Lacanian School, London, December 2019, pp.120-123.

Translation reviewed by Caroline Heanue

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