The pandemic is presented as “an event without precedent,” even though it is no such thing. It is also presented as the “defining moment” of a generation, as the global moment of significance for our lifetimes. But, didn’t we have at least a few of those already?
That is not to say, of course, that those kinds of claims are necessarily spurious or hyperbolic – the pandemic may indeed become understood as the defining moment of the 21st Century. Rather, it is to suggest that we have seen this very same rhetoric many times around other events claiming the same historical weight.
We had weighty defining moments in the United States as recently as September 11, 2001, and as recently as July 20, 1969 before that, and then on November 23, 1963 before that. For much of the world, the “defining event” was perseverance through the long years between 1939-1945, but only after that title had been claimed previously by the years of 1914-1921 (a stretch that included a pandemic, notably).
There is nothing novel in pointing this out, of course, but I think it is worth looking to critical insight on prior “defining moments” – especially when produced in the time shortly after the moment in question – as a way to map what to expect in critical inquiry going forward from our present crisis.
That is all this short essay attempts to accomplish: place our present “defining” predicament against analysis derived from a recent prior “defining” moment and see what sticks. I have found this to be a constructive way of thinking about events during the pandemic as they unfold, and perhaps in this presentation you might as well:
Zizek: “And the same "derealization" of the horror went on after the WTC collapse: while the number of victims – 3000 – is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see, no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of dying people... in clear contrast to reporting on Third World catastrophes where the whole point is to produce a scoop of some gruesome detail: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women, men with their throats cut. These shots are always accompanied by an advance-warning that "some of the images you will see are extremely graphic and may upset children" - a warning which we never heard in the reports on the WTC collapse. Is this not yet another proof of how, even in this tragic moment, the distance which separates Us from Them, from their reality, is maintained: the real horror happens there, not here?"
The televised, social-mediated, and memed versions of the pandemic, while each having distinct rhetorical strengths and weaknesses in presenting the pandemic, nonetheless generally all fall into the same pattern of representation that Zizek speaks of here. The pandemic is typically not shown in these contexts as the bloody, mucusy experience it can be, replete with painful intubations, overflowing morgues and weeping loved ones. The pandemic certainly offers the same visual rhetoric of body horror that Americans associate with violent crises and health catastrophes in other(ed) cultures, but as we saw in the coverage of 9/11 (and of Vietnam before), much of the gruesome suffering is narratively implied, visually obscured, or legally hidden. This could not, of course, result in anything other than the general public not taking the pandemic as seriously as it should. If there was ever a time for journalism to respond to Zizek’s criticism of how we produce/consume tragedy, the pandemic, an event heavy with physicality, should have been that time. Instead of focusing on the immediacy of bodily suffering, we’ve focused on the scale of human tragedy; instead of focusing on the devastation of the community, we have focused on the scale’s bureaucratic roots. Comparative, data-driven, competitive marketing runs amok by choosing “How do we compare to Sweden?” rather than “What does intubation entail?”; Isn’t Trump a fool?!” rather than “What does your neighbor’s suffering look like?”. Framing matters.
Critical Art Ensemble, [About the 2003 SARS outbreak]: “No panic ensued, nor did any rushes on hospitals occur. The reason everything went smoothly was that a global generalized health plan was in place for containing infectious disease. Had militarism and nationalism accompanied it, the likelihood of serious outbreak would only have increased: information and treatments would have been classified, for example, precluding international research cooperation and a networked containment strategy... The military is only concerned with the best strategy within a given theater of war, rather than with what will save the most people. Often, these two frames of reference are incompatible.”
Russia claimed to have a working vaccine in August (and another again in October). Several European/American companies produced working vaccines within a few weeks of one another in late November.
There has been some degree of difference in global opinion about which countries’ vaccines can be trusted and many different global policies have implemented to adapt to the virus. The COVID-19 virus has not been contained as the SARS virus was in 2003. Comparative data about transmission rates and severity of the two viruses suggest that it is reasonable to consider that the differences in the geopolitical landscape from 2003 to 2020 may be significantly contributing to the scale of the present pandemic. Does nationalism imperil public health? The last decade’s rise of populist and nationalistic autocratic leaders, especially in the Western world, seem to have given prescience to the warning in the Critical Art Ensemble’s 2006 essay about coordinated public health and the state.
Baudrillard: “Now, in fact, we already live largely in a negationist society. No event is “real” any longer. Terror attacks, trails, wars, corruption, opinion polls – there’s nothing there that isn’t rigged or undecidable. Government, the authorities and institutions are the first victims of this fall from grace of the principles of truth and reality. Incredulity rages. The conspiracy theory merely adds a somewhat burlesque episode to this situation of mental destabilization. Hence the urgent need to combat this creeping negationism and, at all costs, safeguard a reality that is now kept alive on a drip. For though we can range a great machinery of repression and deterrence against physical insecurity and terrorism, nothing will protect us from this mental insecurity.”
If Zizek’s critique above offers an analysis of media framing during the pandemic and the Critical Art Ensemble offers a similar critique of geopolitical public health in their essay, then Baudrillard’s target is the breakdown in those “principles of truth and reality” themselves.
In the United States, the spread of the pandemic was fueled in no small part by mass gatherings of protestors who did not trust that the policy advice coming from public health experts (e.g. the CDC) was trustworthy and actionable. Fueled by conspiracy groups like Q-Anon, these kinds of rallies often drew angry citizens to state capitols and national landmarks to demand that they not be forced to wear a mask, to seat their customers outside, or to kowtow to any of the demands that were crafted by the “deep state” operatives who rig election results.
Baudrillard’s point isn’t that conspiracies and conspiracy groups are uncharacteristically misled, but rather that they are a sort of “theatrical performance” of the same shared ills that plague society at large. The same “mental destabilization” or “mental insecurity” that we might associate with conspiracy theorists is present, if at a reduced scale, in all of us. This is because of the fragmentary, hyperreal nature of the way that we interact with the world more broadly – we feel incredulity grow the more we experience our departure from “principles of truth and reality.”
This one is still in progress…more to come…
(I’d imagine that this process might be worth implementing across a longer historical survey of how theory adapts to crisis, which is a fascinating idea for a (quite onerous) project…)
Baudrillard, J. (2003). The Spirit of Terrorism. Verso.
Critical Art Ensemble (2006). Marching Plague. Autonomedia.
Zizek, S. (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso.