The Covid metaphors


By Fernão Pessoa Ramos*

The brutality of the proto-fascist right enunciates the elegy of death and affirms figures of horror in death for work or in the crude assertion of torture.


Among contemporary thinkers who dedicated themselves to thinking about the disease, Susan Sontag developed an interesting concept: that of metaphor. In his books written on the subject in the last quarter of the twentieth century (Ilness as Metaphor/ 1978 e Aids and Its Metaphors/1989), Sontag thought about the disease that hit him directly (and ended up costing him his life, cancer), and others that were contemporary with him (AIDS), or preceded him in social care (tuberculosis).

The metaphor designates the name with which the disease is digested, so to speak, by those who suffer from it and by those who, in the social context, want to exorcise or stigmatize it. The idea of ​​illness is thus a figure, elements of personality and temperament that designate it as external to itself, an object from which the speaker seeks to exclude himself: “illness is the night-side of life (…) everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick” [“illness is the nocturnal face of life (…)Ilness as Metaphor).

 Sontag's argument is that the metaphors of the disease are necessary fantasies for the exercise of this double citizenship: when we face the absolute side of the disease ('the night-side'), a point of concentration that becomes absolute in the soul when in force; and its natural dispersion in health, when the navel of weakness seems remote before it looms large and dominates again.

The metaphors for dealing with the abyss of illness are, in reality, names that signify our understanding of it and recognize in its strength the images of our body. Socially, they can correspond to punitive or stereotyped images of alterity, imprinting on the patient what we want to separate ourselves from. They can also be sentimental figures in which we seek to promote, or harbor, identity and compassion, in a direct way of asserting our ego.

They also cover “stereotypes of national character”, a way of designating the enemy as the one we are not as a collective. Sontag, in her book, says she does not want to describe “what it is like to migrate to the realm of the sick person and live there”, but to talk about the fantasies that are linked to the situation – those that figure, on this side, the experience through metaphor. But the metaphor must be abandoned if we are to see raw otherness, illness as it is in itself, weakness, consummation, withering away, death.

Before AIDS, Sontag worked on the two diseases that were absorbed into the network of metaphors that named them: cancer and tuberculosis. For cancer, he identifies metaphors of warlike, aggressive figures with a 'military flavor': cancer 'colonizes' cells; the tumor 'invades'; treatment 'kills' invaders, cancer cells; radiotherapy 'bombs', etc. For tuberculosis, citations cluster, ranging from Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, passing through Stendhal (Armance), Kafka (correspondence), Dumas (The Lady of the Camellias), Dickens (nicholas nickleby), gide (The Immoralist), Stowe (The Hut of Father Tomas) and others.

It is the plethora of 'dreadful disease', but which, according to Dickens, 'refines death'. The metaphors of tuberculosis exposed by Sontag are the figures of a 'liquid disease', of phlegm and mucus, of sputum. The disease of disintegration, progressive consummation, low and continuous fever, wasting, thinness. A sudden vitality, however, a euphoria (including sexual) arises, but does not take hold, it may appear, but it is, in reality, a sign of recurrent withering away and death. Tuberculosis is the disease of 'consummation', cancer is the disease of 'invasion'.

In 1988, with the explosion of AIDS, Sontag resumes reflection and launches Aids and its Metaphors, exploring, in the same direction as his first book, the ideological context of the late 1960th century. The metaphors, however, are different now. Against the libertarian ideological explosion of the 1970s and XNUMXs, the flash of the counterculture and the new behavioral patterns that marked western societies – developed and, as they were called, 'underdeveloped' – the aids metaphors served to establish the reaction and the setback.

The notion of 'plague', targeted suffering, a kind of deserved punishment, causes the disease to inflict purification on well-determined groups through the martyrdom of the body. Homosexuals and intravenous drug users deserve the punishment that justifies the guilt they purge in the weakness of thinness and wasting away. The disease is a figure of divine punishment and the plague serves as a metaphor for the expiation of the experience with the uncontrolled drive.

In the times we live in, the disease has once again come to the center, now in the form of a 'Great Pandemic' that must mark our generation. It also brings with it Sontag's figures and 'metaphors' that make her take off in the imaginary. As a 'night-side' of us, the double face of citizenship, the disease Covid is sudden, it hits like a wave that spreads in progressive waves, uncontained. A little over two months ago we lived a daily life that today seems irremediably lost or distant. The horror of death and suffocation becomes too close to the senses, within reach of a measly touch.

The Great Pandemic already has its image that impresses with its cruelty: that of dry drowning, on land, in the private environment of the house or in the personal bedroom; or else intubated in an infinity of respiratory devices that do nothing against the underwater abyss that Covid opens on dry land. The main commodity that nations struggle to possess is the mechanical ventilator, the machinery that feeds the tubes that penetrate the lungs to inject air.

A new form of social coexistence was established in the space that the disease created (such as sanatoriums in tuberculosis, or specifically sexual abstinence in AIDS): the modality of what is called 'social distancing', a form of coexistence that civilizing reason seeks to make prevail as counseling among peoples. Home confinement (something we were still unaware of), two meters of distance between bodies, masks covering faces, obsessive hand washing, borrowing personal objects, touching one's own body (on the face) and other tactile experiences (sensual or not) are prohibited.

At the genesis of this speech is the methodology that is designated as scientific to support public initiatives that point to the rational way to fight the disease. He carries with him knowledge in the good Enlightenment tradition that defends life against magical obscurantism and irrationality. He fights against the evil side of the force that has suddenly become more present, as in the archaic mythologies of current pop culture.

It protects us from the shadows that threaten our preservation and the politics of death, the 'necropolitics' that, cradled in the subterranean forces of Thanatos, suddenly gained strength and comes to the surface in a rush, with all teeth bared. The politics of death impresses not because we consider it extinct, but because it is so contemporary, in line with the most advanced modes of new technologies that have definitely reduced the planet and the forces of nature to the size of the human.

The politics of death is the great metaphor for Covid. It runs parallel to the demand for physical distancing and is coupled with the intense sociability promoted by digital technology formatted in social media. It is from this conflict that the disease takes the figure of death as a life force for the fittest, the one who, by chance or by force, resists Covid. Necropolitics, as a counterpart, serves on a platter the emotions of exaltation through religious or messianic ecstasy, transferred to the great leader.

The culture of death is carried forward in the absence of empathy, a fashionable word at the moment. A contemporary trope is the idea of ​​the messianic affirmation of the social mass, through sacrifice in immunizing the herd. Long live death, the horror of crowded hospitals, the corpses piled up in corridors and refrigerated chambers, the intubated bodies dying alone, the sick lying in the street waiting in the hospital queue, the mass graves, as long as, of course, it doesn't affect my faction, my family, my person. And if it does, the negation of the evidence may take place by the ecstasy, savored in the divine name exerting its power - and thus serves as a plaster to the soul. The militia logic makes its values ​​prevail in a broader context than that of pure bloodthirsty power.

Necropolitics also has its suicidal side, as the force of death, in the great plagues, often escapes control, just as it escaped in the logic of the 'total war' that led the Nazis to their own extermination. The ever-ascending spiral ends up reaching those who, to the extent of their own ego, make the will to dominate in death prevail. Death as an experience in the negation of the other is an affection that seeks affirmation, through the ecstasy of being enraptured in the sacrifice of life.

In the projection of identity, he lets himself be carried away by the intonation of messianic speech that follows non-deductive reasoning, leading to islands of collective catharsis. To them correspond the naming of collective opponents designated as particular concrete alterity and who occupy the symbolic field in the spectrum of evil. The result in itself matters little for those who enjoy the experience of death as aesthetics, even if, from the outside, we can distinguish the Pied Piper of Hamelin leading, to the sound of his instrument, hypnotized rats to death in drowning.


There is an astonishing coincidence in the metaphors of Covid: the interaction between the intense form of sociability that digital media demands and establishes, in the 'social network' format, and the possibility, which has become historical, of social isolation and physical distancing, without tactile contact and face-to-face experience. The figure of death enters not like grain or oil, but certainly with an impact on the machine of digital ultra-sociability. In the sky of digital ideology horror fits, as has been clear for some time.

In Pierre Lévy's lectures, who dazzled many in his passages through Brazilian universities in the 1990s, and later in a good part of his books, there is a utopian pre-vision of digital sociality, as 'universality without totality' which, in the last century, seemed to be coming. It was called 'cyberculture'. If he was right in envisioning social networks as an idea, he was wrong in the rosy vision that the technological potential would open up, in itself. It was an evolutionist social vision and the technique would bring the 'in itself' of the new society as uniqueness.

Historically there has been no convergence of media or spirits. Old media such as cinema, television, radio, the main old printed newspapers, are strong and firm in their unity, with evident monopolistic concentration, crossed by the new digital technology which they end up digesting and adapting without major traumas in form. The new media that has effectively asserted itself in this century, the internet being its core, has the diversity of articulated applications in what is called 'social networks'. They penetrate everything like a big octopus.

There are certainly loopholes and creative alternative spaces, but large monopolies quickly dominated and flexed this universe, in contradiction with the utopian vision of the first moment of networks, marked by the aforementioned evolutionary perspective. In it, the fascination with digital machinery and technology was expressed in the form of the old idea of ​​the 'new', coupled with the concept of 'technology'.

The “universality without totality” and Lévy's recycled enlightenment revealed itself as a reified particularity, with an articulated synthesis in a surveillance system, aimed at collecting personal data with the function of exponentiating the consumption and reproduction of merchandise. This in an integration scheme quantitatively multiplied in series, which would envy the most creative panoptic devices raised by Foucault in his writings from the 1960s that based his thought of denouncing authoritarian humanism.

The linear universality of the network proved to be a fetish that hides large conglomerates, mainly of North American origin, which sustain its expansion. They are basically: 'Amazon', with empirical distribution of objects/things and audiovisual production; 'Facebook', with social networks formatted for sharing (Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook itself and derivatives); 'Apple', exploring hardware/software and production/distribution of audiovisual content; 'Microsoft', software and some audiovisual content distribution; 'Google', message and video sharing (Gmail, Youtube) and content distribution linked to a powerful search engine with data collection function; 'Netflix', basically focused on the production of audiovisual content.

Its real value lies in the immense global control network that the data collection system establishes, embedded in formally free services, although the form of value and its reproduction can also be linked to the monthly payment, in the form of subscriptions that are enforced by the wide horizontality (the case of Netflix, Amazon, Apple, 'newspaper' media in digital mode, Spotify, etc). The large conglomerates that evolved from audiovisual/cinematographic production (Disney, Universal, Fox, Globo, etc) also evolve without problems in this range, increasingly present.

Contemporary global sociability, shaped along these lines, has, therefore, its main engine in the large-scale storage of data, aimed at enhancing the rational planning of the consumption of goods and which, certainly, can be expanded to Foucauldian functions of surveillance and control. It makes up, nowadays, the core of the system in the realization of value and appropriation of work in basically capitalist societies around the world, whether in its liberal form or in those centrally administered by the state.

It is in this social universe that the metaphors of the disease in contemporary times are inserted and interacted with, by the new figure of Covid. Its mode of appearance was that of a sudden, global-scale explosion. The experience of object density as virtuality, expanded in a network, composes its structural matter. Virtual not as that which, in potentiality, could point to the future in an affirmative movement that is always renewed, escaping through memory to the engine of negation, but as a present reality that destroys the empiricism of the body, to delegate to virtuality an anchor of affections that is hidden in the matter dilution.

It is otherness that dissolves into an 'other' who is always the same as himself. The gap between body and senses, as an experience in the presence of the homogeneous and continuous space of duration, had already been noted as a contradiction between poles: intersubjectivity hypertrophied by demand on one side; and, on the other hand, the physical isolation of the being in the phenomenal expression of his body, the being-there cut out of the circumstance and who experiences the elapsed time in a virtual sensorial amplitude, with renewed stimuli in simulacrum mode.

Social isolation as a figure of Covid is constituted by digital technology by giving power to the 'being' displaced in a 'there-for-others', emptied of the present space. The distancing between bodies in the figure of Covid is mediated by technique and forms an interacting duality: the denial of touch and skin as an intersubjective experience (no more sensation of things in phenomenon), and a hyperdimensioning of vision and hearing that comes to dominate perception and detonate affections.

The prohibition of the proximity of the body of another in the space of the present circumstance, is also configured in the prohibition of the extension in sociability, from sporting or music events, commercial and food spaces (bars, restaurants), public transport, even the very urban nature (parks, beaches). The denial of the body and its transfiguration into the virtual also falls back on what is most proper to it, the denial of the interaction in its carnal matter as a non-objectified, object-like corporeity of the other, in the sexual act.


The sensations and senses of the body in the isolated 'I', the Covid experience, therefore find their determination mediated by the digital machinery, the technical means that determines them. The face-to-face intersubjectivity, displaced, starts to inhabit a ghostly universe of absence that, contradictorily, is expressed in feelings with an intense affective charge. Although of a different quality (close to the affects that mimesis triggers?) it provokes, on a quantitative scale, commotions close to those that occur in the space of shared presence.

The affects of hatred, of narcissistic satisfactions, the dilemmas of guilt, shame, the satisfactions of compassion and pity, the already mentioned exaltation in messianic or mythical identification – all human feelings, all too human – are configured in an intensity similar to that of face-to-face circumstance. Waves of feelings synthesized in images, phrases or in the new analogical symbology (emojis), pass with their own causality and determination in an accelerated sequence that has been called 'viralizing', as it propagates in waves over large portions of the population, in a short period of time .

It has been written about the domain of sad passions as defined by Baruch Spinoza, present in the new modalities of intersubjectivity inaugurated in social networks. We try to recover the philosopher's fine theory of affections to think about affections that, at digital speed, reach contemporary mass society in horizontal rays. These sad passions, according to the interpretation, are the result, in the first place, of the mastery of sadness itself and are linked together, deriving themselves in the homogeneity of affection, in which they pervert life itself in its potency towards an opening in action (or dance) .

The sad passions wither their power and action through hatred, guilt, envy, jealousy, mockery, anguish, fear, pity, despair, shame. What perverts life as will is mainly hatred, but 'self-hatred', in the twisted form of guilt. Guilt and expiation make up the nuclear engine that nourishes Western civilization in its Christian/Jewish strand.

Sin and forgiveness, good and evil, hope itself, hand in hand in security, make up the universe of sad affections with which tyrants of souls manage to bind us. It is the vision of certain contemporary, post-structuralist thought, inspired by the Nietzschean claim. In their dominion over network devices, sad passions show the predominance of submission structures, now overlapping and interacting oiled to necropolitics.

Thus, they contextualize actions, or their incapacity, in contemporary sociability. The intense replication of network affections, in contemporary times, is still overdetermined by the mentioned recurrent structure that takes advantage of its retroactivity to collect information and personal data that serve to move the structures of realization of value in goods, having a clear finalist objectivity in the system, in its way of reproducing itself in its entirety. The metaphors of Covid, as a disease, are intrinsically incorporated by this figuration of affection. They modulate our daily life and are modulated by it.

The figures of the politics of death that spread out on social networks pre-existed, but they interact with the imagery of the disease. The contemporary representation of the exaltation of death is sustained by sad passion, in particular hatred and anger which, by submitting to the negation and self-retroaction of feeling, wither the affirmative power, prisoner of bad conscience. They prevent emotion from being carried away by understanding and reason, in which Spinoza's thought is involved in passion.

Emotion is passion purified by understanding without being praised as a force in action. The tendency of a certain contemporary reflection, in the second half of the XNUMXth century, was to deny the vein of method and discourse and emphasize the power of happy passions – among them affirmative and foul-mouthed, Dionysian humor – that neither pervert life nor illustrate it in reality. conformity of the subjection of the slave to the tyrant. The sad passions, thus seen, are affections of the slave who submits and tastes them in the initiation of his imprisonment process.

The contemporary sensibility that, in our modern era, dedicated itself to exploring death as 'aesthetic' (in the literal sense of the term, designating the experience of sensations and perception) was fascism. In its various forms, including a certain futurism, it inaugurated monumentalism as an ornament for the masses, aestheticizing the exalted vibration in the common project of purification (including ethnic) by collective death.

In the contemporaneity of the new millennium, in its first two decades, the fascist sensibility acquired density to resurface and recycled its original power, now adapted to the new historical colors opened in virtual sociability.

Proto-fascism makes its colors charged by the face-to-face distancing of the universe of social networks. It involves the intense affections, which we call retroactive, of digital virtuality, opening space for the establishment of modalities of egoic identification in the exaltation of the messianic identification and in the ecstatic affirmation in the extermination of others.

This is how the universal sharing of the collective commotion purified in hatred is effected, which turns against outstanding singularities, whether ethnic or gender. The mass reproduction of affects by 'going viral', in the mode of virtual absence (the 'herd' effect), thus serves, when anchored in the category of 'sad' affects, the affection sustained by the purification of guilt in hatred, in repressed envy , in scorn and terror.

The Covid metaphors, therefore, couple digital virtuality with the new modalities of social distancing that the disease has implemented. An old Marxist saying states that men are asked, in denial, questions that they know how to solve. Synthesis is at the core of the dialectical materialist view of history in which the conditions of production determine the ideological formations that correspond to social forces that move, like tectonic plates, on the surface of history.

If the great metaphor of Covid, for us in Brazil, is the figure of death as politics, the raw optimization of the workforce turns out to be its basis. Behind the idea of ​​'herd immunity' there is, at its core, the understanding of death as the inevitability of productivity, derived under the cover of magical thinking that reifies it. It leaves the contingent causality to the less capable in a kind of 'Russian roulette' of the species (directed to an estate) in which some are sacrificed so that the herd (supposed to bovinely accept the principle of logic) survives. The construction of the idea was expounded in every letter by leaders of the international extreme right (particularly in Great Britain) and quickly incorporated, without restraint, into the discourse of the Brazilian authoritarian right.

The lack of care in enunciating the elegy of death is particularly shocking. It shows the brutality of the proto-fascist right in the affirmation of figures of horror – whether in death for work, or in the crude affirmation of torture. Regardless of a more closed historical characterization of fascism, linking its ideology to the particular social and ideological context of the configuration of productive forces in the interwar period, the parallels are clear.

The exaltation of the 'frisson' in the commotion of violence, as an aesthetic of torture and the murderer, is followed by the vestments that symbolize it, such as firearms. There are other ornaments of their own, such as clothing in the colors of mourning (the “camicia nere” of Italian fascism) here portrayed in the arrogant impact of the yellow green glow. The militia's logic turns to the pursuit of the weakest who are targets, such as the persecuted prey with which they are entertained before death.

Harassment has an optimized space on the social network. In our case, the mix of proto-fascist ideology is packaged in a kind of late authoritarian tenentism, or recurrent, in what has always had a salvationist facet, soaked in administrative rationalism that wanted to be progressive, laden with the cult of personality and with difficulties in dealing with the flatter, more prosaic realities of periodic democratic alternation.

It should not be forgotten, after all, that it is a lieutenant (promoted to captain after his exclusion) who manages the nation's destinies in this breath and wants to dictate, to the whole of republican civil society, the manners and principles of the barracks. A lieutenant who, certainly without responding to the vague historical designation, in his confessed admiration for the metaphors of death and torture, added to them a borderline persecutory personality. Personality that proved to be uncontrollable even among his peers, who ended up preferring to see him outside the community rather than having to deal with the consequences introduced by his presence imbalance.


Among the metaphors of the death of Covid there is the 'cure' side of the 'disease' coin, which escapes the empire of understanding by reason in science, expressed in the social distancing of bodies. The figure of weapons and the metaphors of death need a complement to be able to serve, as the philosopher (Badiou) says, thinking about our moment, the 'dissipation of the activity of reason that leads to mysticism, fabulation, prophecies and curses'.

The fervor of exaltation, necessary for the purification of affections at the boiling point of an 'aesthesis' of death, also feels the need to promote, in the same state, the 'healing' point of the curve, running outside the 'activity of reason' and of knowledge, paralleling it in magical-prophetic fables. Healing must be configured on the opposite side of knowledge by method and in congruent totality. Anchored in magical thinking, it compensates, through exaltation in belief, for the dark side of the death metaphor.

So the magic word is the power of the 'name'. It creates being in the Adamic way, by designation, by being uttered. The cure has the power of the name that redeems and that inaugurates when pronounced. It is the reality of the life in which he lives, a projection of what is no longer his own in his vital force. The word wants the power of divine speech naming the world with its potency, being the equivalence of what is incorporated in the myth as the truth of creation, or the cure established by it. Truth that is the self of the designation, dispensing with mediation or knowledge. Thus, it becomes objective, without the symbolic duality of a semiotic subjectivity, and can be installed as a word of cure that denies the disease in itself.

The synthesis of this idea is the metaphor of 'chloroquine', which works as a therapeutic name for the myth when stated in the certainty of its designation. It redeems, through its healing authority, in the one who embodies it. The authority of the myth is that of the saint who administers the dressing. Chloroquine, synthesizing the metaphor of healing in the figure of Covid, becomes the field of fabulation and messianic prophecy in shock with the cold logic of knowledge and method, learning from experience in science.

In a recent image (5/5/2020), participating in a pastor's ecstatic prayer circle, Bolsonaro kneels in the street in front of the religious who, in a state close to trance, decrees the power of magical thinking by naming the cure by enunciating his 'declaration': “I want now, in the name of Jesus, to declare that, in Brazil, there will be no more deaths, there will be no more deaths from the corona virus”. The idea of ​​social 'removal', crude and prosaic in its empiricism, obstructs the exaltations of magical thinking. The name of chloroquine is the word of cure, synthesizing the expression for those who need a crutch to enter the belief in irrational affections.

On the other hand, what remains in this kind of integration of history and tragedy to the extent of brute force? Or who created her in the size of her understanding? Covid brings us one of those moments dear to the Benjaminian angel in which the head of the celestial being turns back and from there he cannot, and cannot, look away – until a wind from the depths (the wind of History) comes to blow him away forward, covering it in this movement with the ruins of a past that accumulates and collapses upon itself, as it is forcefully pushed forward.

The distance in the void of extension as space is one side of the double sided coin that figures death in the Cofid metaphors. Its 'distancing' face reminds us of Eugène Atget's photographs, showing the streets and squares of a deserted and ghostly Paris in the XNUMXth century, in similarity with contemporary photos of our empty metropolises, engulfed by the virus.

Benjamin said of the Atget photos that, in their emptying of the aura, seemed to depict the banality of a crime scene and that this crime was an example of a 'future decoding' of guilt, in which the illiterate person does not know how to read the image of the disaster in the scene you made. We also, apparently, do not see the other side of the deserted scene, composed of the misery and hunger that burst the grains of the empty image of humanity – and that now seem to grow in a gigantic wave that approaches. It would be necessary, in reading the crime photo, to decipher it, a certain Brechtian didacticism that Benjamin, when writing his essay on photography (1931, “Little History of Photography”), had just discovered (both the man Brecht, as the work) and which he still runs through as a recipe, with a certain dazzle in anticipation of its effects.

But, if on the even side, the grain of the face is this 'distancing', revelation of an 'aisthésis' of death and misery; he is also on the odd side, in the magical experience of the exaltation of the drives, in his way of promoting catharsis in the drive towards reconciliation in the Messiah who incarnates the experience of death. We can then sadly conclude that both sides coincide, occupying the horizon of contemporaneity as a great metaphor for Covid.

For those who don't know how to read, there remains the experience of the drive that crosses the representation and ends up in this rock that surrounds it like an island, besieged on the sides and immune to understanding. It's the spirit of the times that seems to be waiting on the other side of the door. A spirit that, until now, we only glimpsed – but that already leaves its shadows in the half-open space.

*Fernao Pessoa Ramos, a sociologist, is a professor at the Institute of Arts at UNICAMP. Author of But after all… what exactly is a documentary? (Senac).

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