The pandemic paradox

Image: Jesse K


We have to accept being a species among others on Earth and, at the same time, think and act as universal beings.

The fatigue generated by the pandemic now extends to theory: at the beginning of this year, I got tired of writing about the subject – the same situation kept repeating itself and, in the end, we could no longer bear to establish the same findings for the umpteenth time. There is a paradox here: at a time when submission to repetitive habits and customs is accused of making life boring, what plunges us into the typical fatigue of these times is precisely the absence of such habits and customs. We are tired of living in a permanent state of exception, of waiting for new state directives – unable, as we are, to find moments of rest in our daily lives.

In September 2020, German sociologist Rainer Paris published a short essay entitled “The Destruction of Everyday Life” in which he laments – and he is not the only one to do so – the ongoing destruction of everyday life. For him, the pandemic threatened the habits and customs that contributed to ensuring the cohesion of the entire society. This reminded me of an excellent joke about Samuel Goldwyn (there are many): upon being informed that critics deplored the excess of old clichés in the films he produced, Sam Goldwyn wrote the following note to his screenwriters: “We need more new ones. cliches". He was right, and that is our very delicate task today: to create “new clichés” for normal everyday life. The way in which this tiredness manifests itself in everyday life obviously differs according to each culture.

Philosopher Byung-Chul Han is right to remember that the fatigue caused by the pandemic it is felt more intensely in developed Western societies, since the subjects who live in them are more submissive to the pressure of the performance obligation than in others: “The compulsion to perform to which we subject ourselves extends beyond that. It accompanies us during leisure time, torments us even in our sleep, and often leads to sleepless nights. It is not possible to recover from the performance compulsion. It is specifically this internal pressure that makes us tired. (...) The advance of selfishness, atomization and narcissism in society is a global phenomenon. Social media turns us into producers, entrepreneurs, who are, in themselves, companies. They globalize the culture of the ego that destroys communities, destroys everything social. We produce ourselves and put ourselves on permanent display. This self-production, this “being exposed” of the ego, makes us tired and depressed. (...) The fundamental weariness is ultimately a kind of ego weariness. The other people, who could distract us from our ego, are absent. (…) An absence of ritual is another reason for fatigue induced by the home office. In the name of flexibility, we are losing the fixed temporal structures and architectures that stabilize and invigorate life” (“The Fatigue Virus”On the earth is round).

The paradox of our Zoom exhibition

As depressive fatigue is caused by our permanent self-exposure, required by late capitalism, we could have imagined that confining oneself would rhyme with relieving oneself, that social isolation would allow an escape from the pressure caused by the demand for results. Now, the effect of confinement was practically the opposite: our professional and social relationships were, to a large extent, transferred to Zoom and other social networks, where we continued to play at self-exposure with even greater zeal, paying close attention to the figure that we present – ​​as the space reserved for socialization, this space that allowed some rest, a way out of the imperative of exhibition, was largely eliminated. Paradoxically, the logic of continuous self-enactment was reinforced by confinement and home office: we strive to “shine” on Zoom, and end up exhausted, alone, at home…

We can, then, clearly notice how even an elementary sensation, such as tiredness, is, after all, caused by ideology, by the game of self-exposure – which has become an integral part of the ideology that accompanies our daily lives. The Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar – in a personal conversation – designated our very delicate current situation by resorting to a notion by Walter Benjamin: Dialektik im Stillstand, “paralyzed dialectic” – which is also, in this case, a dialectic in suspense, anxiously waiting for the situation to begin to evolve, for the new to finally emerge. However, the growing sense of paralysis, numbness and insensitivity, which increasingly force people to ignore information and stop worrying about the future, are extremely misleading: they prevent one from seeing that we are currently experiencing social change. unprecedented. Since the health crisis began, the world capitalist order has changed immensely; the great and anxiously awaited rupture is already under way.

The imperative of personal reinvention

The usual reaction to such a rupture, the dominant way of thinking about the present situation, combines completely expected ideas: the pandemic would not only have released the social and economic tensions operating in our societies, but it would also remind us that we are an integral part of nature. , and not its center, and that a change in our ways of life would be necessary – putting an end to our individualism, developing new solidarities and accepting the modest place we occupy on this planet.

Quoting Judith Butler: “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 are so dependent on – and which, in turn, depends on our smaller, more conscious role” (“The future of the pandemic”On the earth is round).

At least two points seem problematic to me along these lines. Firstly, why dismantle the “forms rigid of individuality”? Wouldn't today's problem be the opposite? It would not consist in the predominance of hyperflexible forms of individuality, allowing an immediate adaptation to ever new situations, in an era in which people live under the permanent pressure of the imperative of personal reinvention, an era in which every stable form is considered “oppressive”. ? Furthermore, wouldn't the pandemic be experienced in such a traumatic way precisely because it deprives us of fixed daily rituals on which we could rely with complete confidence? Wasn't Butler simply following his usual inclination? Wouldn't she be attached here to her idea of ​​a subject dedicated to undermining any fixed and oppressive identity through a game of permanent reconstruction?

False human modesty leads to catastrophe

Second point: would it not be too simple to state that “water and air must have lives that are not centered on ours”, that we must accept a more modest role on this planet Earth? Global warming and the other ecological threats that afflict us would not require, on our part, the opposite: collective and more than massive interventions in the environment – ​​interventions that, precisely because of their scale, would certainly have an impact on the fragile balance of life forms ? When we say that it is absolutely necessary to keep global warming within the limit of two extra degrees Celsius, we express ourselves (and try to act) as general directors of life on earth and not as representatives of a species looking for modesty.

Everything indicates that the recovery of planet Earth does not depend on “our smaller and more conscious role”: it depends, on the contrary, on initiatives that require a truly gigantic scope. Here is the truth that is hidden under the discourses that are devoted to our finiteness and mortality. Here we find the gap that already operates in modern science and subjectivity: there needs to be a dialectical relationship between modern science and subjectivity – both aiming at a domination of nature and completely codependent – ​​and a vision of humanity as a simple species among the others.

If we should be so concerned about the life of water and air, it is precisely because we are, as Marx wrote, “universal beings”. Beings, so to speak, capable of “taking a step beyond” themselves, of precisely measuring their own strengths and betting on them. Beings capable, finally, of perceiving themselves as a minor element of the natural totality. In pre-modern times, humanity saw itself as the apex of creation, its crowning, and such a view of itself paradoxically implied a much more modest posture.

This is the paradox we must sustain in these difficult days: accept being a species among others on Earth and, at the same time, think and act like universal beings. Escape, through the comfortable modesty of our finiteness and our mortality, is not an option, it is a route to catastrophe.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in Supplement LIBRARIES of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur



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