Dubuque, IA. Edited volumes are boring. I suppose there is at least one exception, but Holy Scripture has the advantage of divine inspiration, and most editors are not God, though some aspire to the office. In general it is no fun to read books like this from cover to cover. They lack unity and purpose. I have certainly never read any of the several edited volumes to which I have contributed. And one of them is about zombies.
I have, however, read Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters: Reflections of Political Theory from Antiquity to the Age of COVID in its entirety, and while it suffers from all the necessary defects of the genre (along with some unnecessary ones), I have profited by doing so. While not all of them are political theorists, all the contributors to this volume do just what political theorists should: they connect the urgent questions to the perennial ones. They approach the pandemic via Hume and Madison, Locke and Bacon, Rousseau and Las Casas and Augustine, Sophocles and Thucydides. Novelists appear too. There is Camus, of course (how many essays about The Plague were written during those first two-weeks-to-slow-the-spread?) but also DeLillo and Saramago and Jhumpa Lahiri.
All this is to the good. If there is a single idea that rules our time, it is not progressivism or populism or anything like that. It is an unremitting presentism, the standardized form that all our ideologies have taken. “Hell is where nothing connects with nothing,” wrote George W. S. Trow. But he was talking about television in the eighties, and could hardly have imagined the social media feed, where it is all present, all the time: one tweet gives way to the next, facts stare blankly at facts, and context reduces immediately to text, as the medium consumes every message. And so it is good first of all to put down the screen and take up a book. A book has a beginning and a middle and an end, and even an edited volume has some semblance of unity and purpose. And it is doubly good to read a book that connects the reader’s present to the human past, and to the reflections of humans past on their own times. One way out of Trow’s hell is to remember the hellish events of yesteryear. This book recalls our attention to the Black Death, the Sack of Rome, the Boxing Day Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, among other disasters, both real and imagined.
In their chapter on Augustine and “the flood,”—a kind of master metaphor for disaster as such—Richard Avramenko and Alicia Rolsma write that “[t]he confinement of the soul to the present is the very definition of amour sui.” Disasters can induce this confinement, this flattening of the soul wrapped up in itself. They can narrow our horizons. But because there is also a history (and a future) of disaster, and because we can situate ourselves in this story, disasters are likewise an opportunity to widen our view. “For Augustine, the extension of the soul happens through a participation in disasters of past, present, and future.” This is the unifying purpose of the book: to provoke us to participate, to turn the urgency of our feelings about the pandemic into an urge to enlarge our souls, to connect to others and to God by inhabiting more fully the human condition.
But I am dancing around a problem. There is an assumption at the heart of this and every similar project, and if the assumption is flawed, the flaw is fatal. The assumption is that “the pandemic” is or was in fact a disaster of a kind with the famous disasters these contributors mention. And that is precisely the assumption that half the planet finds risible. Here it is taken almost completely for granted and taken very seriously indeed: seriously enough to inspire what might otherwise be insightful work. It is odd to offer a book of “reflections of political theory from antiquity to the age of COVID” that includes very little reflection on the actual politics of COVID.
There is some reflection, however, and this makes the book better than most of what academics have written about COVID. In fact, the first chapter takes aim directly at that crucial assumption on which the other chapters rest. I might go so far as to say that if the first chapter is right, the rest of the book (with some scattered exceptions) is wrong. It would be one thing if the book set up a debate between these positions, but we get no such thing. Most of the contributors simply ignore the urgent question—which is the question about just how “urgent” COVID really was—and proceed to explore the perennial questions that really concern them. That would be fine, except that we are supposed to find their answers to those ancient questions applicable to current events. But this applicability depends on the assumption that current events are meaningfully similar to the past events they discuss. What if instead these theorists have been “cajoled into believing that COVID represents an unprecedented and objective medical threat” by interest groups who benefited financially and politically (but is there any difference) from the ensuing overreaction? So suggests Arpad Szakolczai in that opening chapter, on “The Permanization of Emergencies.”
But if that is the case—if COVID is less like an echo of the Black Death and more like a prelude to dystopia (Szakolczai mentions Brave New World)—what then becomes of the often moving reflections in the rest of the book? What becomes of the fourth chapter’s analysis of the Catholic concept of “solidarity,” which “requires us to approach others, ‘not just as some kind of instrument … to be exploited, but as our neighbor’”? What do we owe our neighbor when the appeal to solidarity itself becomes an instrument of exploitation, a situation surely just as historically common and as morally instructive as genuine disaster? What becomes of the seventeenth chapter’s call for “radical empathy” for those who are “traumatized” by disaster, whether it is a tsunami or a pandemic? If Szakolczai is right, we should indeed feel empathy, but the traumatized would not appreciate it. There is a woman in my church who to this day wears gloves, two masks, and a scarf around her face, which I have never actually seen. What is her trauma? What am I empathizing with?
Most of this book is about how to respond, morally and politically, individually and collectively, to disaster. It is about right and wrong. But the dispute about “the pandemic” is not fundamentally about what is right and wrong; it is about what is going on.
Slavoj Zizek has compared the situation to a husband (the government) who regularly abuses his wife (the citizens), but who in this one exceptional situation just happens to be performing the heimlich maneuver and saving her life. Stumbling onto the scene, and knowing the husband’s history, we might naturally assume that he is just doing what he always does. But we would be wrong: it’s not what it looks like. My point is not that Zizek is correct (or incorrect) about what is really happening. My point is that what-is-right-and-wrong—the moral question of how we ought to respond to what we see the husband doing—depends entirely on what-is-going-on. Was the response to the pandemic, bungled or not, a well-intentioned effort to save lives? Or was it a concatenation of cynical efforts to make money, grab power, and advance ideas that will justify similar efforts when the next crisis/opportunity arises? If the former, solidarity and empathy are in order, and we have much to learn from this book. If the latter, solidarity and empathy are still in order, but most of the book has little to teach us about what these postures look like in our situation.
It is probably clear which half of the planet I live on. I think the first chapter is basically right and the rest of the book is mostly wrong, with some worthy exceptions. I think Jordan Barkalow’s argument in chapter three that what the pandemic shows is nothing more complicated than the power of political “factions” to introduce “doctrines that undermine the potential benefits stemming from science” (and that the worst of these factions is Trump-loving “Christian nationalism”) is especially and egregiously wrong, though it quite nicely captures the common sense of the other side. But I also think it is useful to emphasize what both these sides have in common. The garden-variety machinations of schemers and profiteers and ideologues may explain a great deal of what has happened (with no need for anything so exciting as a “conspiracy theory”). Yet there have always been schemers (who have occasionally been known to form conspiracies), just as there have always been disasters, and both sides might be able to agree that there is also something unprecedented about this pandemic. Of course it is obvious what the difference is: the Internet. It is always the Internet.
While it is good and right to connect the urgent questions to the perennial ones, it is also good and right to distinguish the questions we have always faced from the context in which we now face them. And both sides are often tempted to press their case by ignoring this difference. If one side errs by assuming that the pandemic can only be compared to the natural disasters of the past, the other goes astray by comparing it exclusively to the unnatural, man-made disasters that have always plagued us: the unnecessary wars and depressions and famines, which are always pushed by arguments about “necessity” by identifiable human beings who stand to benefit. But the Internet introduces something that I want to say is new under the sun, though I know from scripture that there is no such thing.
Committed skeptics and true believers alike often talk about the pandemic as if the Internet does not exist. Of course they do their talking on the Internet. Or, to be more precise, they talk (on the Internet) as if the Internet only has its notoriously bad effects on their opponents, while for themselves it is just a conveniently neutral medium for discovering and communicating The Facts about what-is-going-on. I do this too. How could I not? It is how any medium works. Eventually, using the medium to criticize the medium gets tedious, and we just have to accept it if we want to talk about anything else. But the medium’s effects are not thereby diminished; they are strengthened. The medium remains the message, no matter what the message is. None of us is immune to this illusion of immunity, and so none of us is immune to the bad effects of the Internet. Among the worst of these is the temptation to believe that only our opponents have been badly affected, and that their views can be dismissed accordingly as the fruit of “disinformation” spread by “bad actors,” or else of “propaganda” spread by those more respectable bad actors called “corporations” and “governments.”
Yet the very worst effect appears not in our social relations but in our souls. It appears not in our political disunity, but our personal purposelessness. I think the Internet, or the form it has taken (since it could take other, better forms), has “confined our souls to the present” more effectively than anything humans have ever created. The chapter on Augustine mentioned above emphasizes how disaster can lead us into this “presentism,” but that disaster can also take us out of it, out of ourselves. “Flood” as the generic form of all disaster can be destructive or redemptive; water is how we drown, but water is also the medium of baptism. What if we modified this metaphor? The flood of information, of opinion, of insight, of facts and fictions and truths and lies, the flood of the infinite newsfeed that drowns us in a perpetual present—what if that flood is precisely what generated this supremely strange event that we call “the pandemic”? What if that event was not a natural disaster that could either diminish or elevate our souls, but was rather the result of a diminishment already accomplished? What if the pandemic was not the flood, but the world that comes after it?
An easier way to say all this is that “the pandemic” simply could not have occurred ten years ago. That is my view, at least. I cannot prove it, and I have not identified the mechanisms by which the Internet could have conjured such a thing. But that is work which a book like this could have done. Political theorists will have to consider what the great answers to the old questions can mean in this very brave and very new world—a virtualized world with no beginning and no end, a world that is bad above all because it is so hellishly boring. What disasters, what conspiracies, what excitements will we not invent in our desperation to escape the endless scroll? Or, as Michael Buhler puts it in his very strong chapter on Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man:
‘[w]hen you fill rooms with innocent victims, you begin to empty the world of meaning,’ which leads to ‘replacing real things with plots and fictions.’ This all grows more sinister when images produced by terrorism lead us toward something ‘larger and darker,’ where an ‘unremitting mood of catastrophe’ provides us with ‘emotional experiences not available elsewhere.’
If this is right, then perhaps the most useful chapter in the book is Lorraine McCrary’s essay on Hull House. While Hull House is often cited as an model for what public health should be, McCrary’s chapter suggests that it also stands as a rebuke to what public health has so obviously become in the years since Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the famous settlement house. Instead of a technocratic solutionism which for the convenience of bureaucrats and advertisers imagines “public” as the opposite of “local,” Hull House offered “a place where problems are studied not theoretically but with firsthand, intimate observation,” where “instead of waiting for scientific proof of the cause, they set to work to create change,” and where it is understood that “even science can be used to coerce.” Hull House was also home to instructive disagreements. Unlike Addams herself, who emphasized government action on behalf of a collective, the doctor Alice Hamilton “highlight[e]d the need for an individual approach to the poor, the elderly, and the sick, [and] emphasis[ed] participatory local government as the form of government best positioned to provide this care.” In this Hamilton echoes Augustine, whose insistence that compassion is the work of persons rather than states comes to the fore in Paul Krause’s chapter on “The Politics of Sovereign Charity.” For the Bishop of Hippo, “[o]ur response as individuals to the suffering of others ultimately shows the nature of the political society we inhabit.”
Indeed it does. But everything depends on what the others are really suffering from, and on this we profoundly disagree. One reason to keep things local is that it is easier to know others’ suffering when the others are known to us. When our knowledge of others’ suffering is mediated by screens, when it is not really knowledge but “information,” when it is an abstraction manufactured by an expert, it quickly becomes little more than a weapon. And what is the right response to this weapon? We counter the threat by closing ourselves off; the calls for sympathy harden our hearts. Is this not the political society we now inhabit?
On my side of the planet, we prefer information about the sufferings caused not by the virus but by the policies. There is plenty of it, an ocean of facts at our disposal. On the other side they have other facts, another ocean: a million deaths, as they say. But some days I wish I could just drop out of that all-too-public fight and go AWOL in the real world, the local world where the people who are suffering are the people I know, not the people I am told to know about, the people who are like so many zombies shuffling across my screen. People like my friend’s sister, facing death from a cancer that recurred because she missed her screening, “because COVID.” But also people like my brother-in-law’s father, who nearly died, from COVID.
This is not a retreat from politics. I still have a dog in this fight. In fact, what keeps me on one side rather than the other is my belief that if we had been living more fully in that real world, a lot of what we call “the pandemic” simply would not have occurred (perhaps including the virus itself, if we accept the increasingly compelling theory that it was man-made).
And dropping out does not mean taking what we get. If our entanglement in the Internet made this happen, disentangling ourselves can make something else happen. I don’t know what it will look like, but I think it will have to be less boring than what is happening now. For it is boredom that got us here and keeps us here; the profound boredom of the virtual, the boredom on which the empire runs.
Après nous, l’amusement. Hopefully.