The future of the pandemic

Marina Gusmao, Sweet Cobra
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By JUDITH BUTLER*

Despite the assertion of interdependence, it becomes clear that the shared world is not equally shared.

Regardless of how we assimilate this pandemic, we understand it as global; it makes clear the fact that we are implicated in a shared world. The ability of living human creatures to affect one another is sometimes a matter of life and death. As many resources are unevenly shared, and many are also those who own only a small or extinct fraction of the world, we cannot recognize the pandemic as global without facing such inequalities.

Some people work for the ordinary world, they make it go round, but they are part of it for that reason. They may lack property or documents. They can be marginalized by racism or even be dismissed as trash - those who are poor, black, with unpayable debts that block the feeling of an open future.

The shared world is not equally shared. French philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to the “part of the without part” – those whose participation in the common is not possible, never was, or will no longer be. After all, one cannot just own shares of companies and resources, but also a sense of commonality, a sense of equal belonging to the world, a confidence that it is organized to ensure the flourishing of all.

The pandemic has illuminated and intensified racial and economic inequalities while sharpening our global sense of our obligations to others and the planet. There is a movement with worldwide direction, based on a new notion of mortality and interdependence. The experience of finitude is associated with a keen perception of inequalities: who dies prematurely and why? And for whom are the infrastructure or the social promise of continuity of life absent?

This perception of the interdependence of the world, strengthened by a common immunological crisis, challenges the conception of ourselves as isolated individuals encapsulated in discrete bodies, subject to established boundaries. Who would deny, at this point, that being a body means being bound to other living creatures, to surfaces and elements, including the air that belongs to no one and everyone?

In these pandemic times, air, water, shelter, clothing and access to health are the focus of collective anguish. However, all of them were already threatened by climate change. Whether or not one lives a livable life is not a mere private existential question, but an urgent economic question, spurred on by the life-or-death consequences of social inequality: Are there enough health services, shelter, and clean water for all those entitled to an equal share of this world? The issue is made all the more urgent given the precarious economic conditions made worse by the pandemic – which also exposes the ongoing climate catastrophe as the threat to livable life that it is.

Pandemic is, etymologically, pandemos: all people or, more precisely, people everywhere, or something that spreads over or through people. The “demos” are everyone, despite the legal barriers that try to separate them. A pandemic, then, binds all people together through the potentials of infection and recovery, suffering and hope, immunity and fatality. No barrier stops the virus from circulating as long as humans circulate; no social category guarantees absolute immunity for all those it includes.

“The politician, in our time, must start from the imperative of rebuilding the world in common”, argues the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. If we regard the plundering of planetary resources for corporate profit, privatization and colonization itself as a planetary project or enterprise, then it makes sense to conceive of a movement that does not send us back to our selves and identities, our isolated lives.

Such a movement will be, for Mbembe, “a decolonization [which] is, by definition, a planetary undertaking, a radical opening of and to the world, a deep breathing of the world in opposition to isolation”. Planetary opposition to extraction and systemic racism must therefore bring us back to the planet, or let it become, as if for the first time, a place for “deep breathing” – a desire we all know today.

However, a livable world for humans depends on a thriving planet where humans are not at the center. Opposing environmental toxins is not only so that we can live and breathe without fear of poisoning ourselves, but also because water and air must have lives that are not centered on our own.

As we dismantle the rigid forms of individuality in these interconnected times, we can imagine the smaller role human worlds must play on this planet Earth whose regeneration we so depend on – and which, in turn, depends on our smaller, more conscious role.

*Judith Butler is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She authored, among other books by Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence (Authentic).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in the magazine TEAM.

 

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