What does negationism deny?

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Analysis of the “back to work” discourse, highlighting the pre-conscious mechanisms of scientific-sanitary denialism

By José Szwako*

Mr. Chagall: I am very sensitive to your torment… But unfortunately we are mere mortals. We are restricted by the laws of nature. [I am very touched by your torment… But unfortunately we are mere mortals. We are constrained by the laws of nature.]
Madeline: Well, what more could one expect? [Well, what else could you expect?]
Mr. Chagall: Mmm, that depends![Um, that depends!]

It's Monday or Tuesday, I'm not sure. It's still March, another day, a long day, of a quarantine that, as far as you can see, should still take up a lot of our time. Amidst the heated discussions about the need for, or the supposed exaggeration of, social distancing measures, I want to drift off a bit and watch death suits you, one of the few comedies from the now distant 1990s that have survived time.

In the scene above, the omnipotent and aggressive Madeline (Meryl Streep), plagued by aging, is given some consolation. She can circumvent the laws of nature and time through a potion of life. It only depends on her drinking and paying the price: if she drinks it every time she dies, she will be resurrected. a sorceress sexy (Isabela Rosselini) sees a salvation in drinking, offering “a touch of magic in a world obsessed with science”. an iconic always live! is the motto of the sensual potion, which Madeline adheres to.

After suffering her first death, she becomes not an undead but an undead, a corpse that does not age. She finally got what she wanted. And it is from the murder of Helen (Goldie Hawn), rival and victim of the assassin Madeline, that this light morbid comedy unfolds. Mad e Hell, as they are jokingly and affectionately called, were seduced and eternalized by the magic of the potion of the end of life. Dead, both make peace and live tormenting her husband and ex-boyfriend, the prudent Ernest (Bruce Willis), for whom eternal life is "a nightmare". They don't care. Death, as the name of the film says, suits them well.

Based on the metaphors, images and solutions to death evoked by the film, in this text I would like to read the current and dramatic flood of information and misinformation surrounding covid-19, in order to expand the analysis of fascist subjectivity already started at another time.[1] However, unlike the Frankfurtian tone of that critique of Brazilian fascism, I want to make use of the insights Freudians on the mechanisms of denial.

As before, I draw on the arsenal of jokes, memes, videos and posts produced and disseminated by people who claim today to be “very concerned about all this”, but consider “the exaggerated isolation”, a “hysteria”, as President Jair Bolsonaro said. They say they recognize “the gravity of the corona, however” — the opposition always returns — “one cannot forget the economy”. “I have read”, says the denialist, “I am informed”; he chose to know. And more: “it was not only in the zap family, I read real technical information that the media is not showing”, repeating the “elected” president once more.

They are and we are all, denialists or not, obsessed. “Today I did nothing but read about it” — a republic fake of experts. The numbers, incidentally, flood the zap: “more than 50% cured”; “7.432 saved in Italy”; “more than 100 healed, let's spread positivity”. All newcomers experts in numbers and graphs, in healings and deaths. Now on new and multiple screens, salvation (for whom? from what?) will not be a comic or sexy , will not come from magic, perhaps from a potion, the "work" potion.

Attentive to the sayings and prohibitions rationalized in current scientific-sanitary denialism, I want in this essay to try to access its libidinal economy and bring part of it to the fore. This sketch of criticism of the instinctual investments in circulation can also contribute to demonstrating the richness of the insights of psychoanalysis, and, above all, how its instruments and layers of observation can and should be added to the sociopolitical analyzes of current anti-intellectualism, itself a constitutive part of the drama globally experienced today.

To everything and everyone

The global health crisis triggered by the force of contagion of the coronavirus has reinforced and updated some of the leitmotive of current reactionaryism in Brazil: family, homeland and work. It is not by chance that the motorcades for the “end of isolation” had the same green and yellow hue as the 2016 pro-coup protests and the 2018 election victory. “production”, which “cannot stop”. One post reinforces the president’s statements and ironizes: “Calm down, people, Bolsonaro is not forcing anyone to work, no… This is only for those who like it and are used to it”. “What will happen if Brazil stops working?” - asks another post, whose imagery resembles that of the Brazilian soccer team, and goes on: “We want to work. Horn honk. 27/03. Vertical isolation”. Toil and a vertical type of clearance are thus your alternative sanitary measures. symptomatically one of posts remains unanswered: if Brazil were to stop, what would happen?

The real opponents and imaginary enemies of the supporters of “vertical isolation” are those who defend “staying at home” as the best alternative in the current situation. They are perceived as “simplistic” and “reductionist”. According to zap denialist, would do good for the debate “common sense, honesty and non-partisanship”. “We have to avoid the old fla x flu” is the appeal that arrives on the same day that a photo of the football shirt of the — so named — “Covid Sport” circulates, with the sponsorship stylized and stamped on psol symbols, from China , from Globo and from pt. No less mobilizing image, but equally reverberated by the axes of anti-media and anti-politics, was the photo of stilt houses piled up in front of the open sewer. Below the photo, enemies are listed: “Stay at home. Artists, politicians, mayors, governors, journalists, many others full of kindness spoke. (…) We recover the economy, they say”.

In the tangle of this first layer of denialist rationalization distinguished by the market ideal and the external setbacks it has to face, we will see that a concern with “families”, “the poor” and even “lives” is repeated. In the face of these figures, some economist or social scientist has already denounced on Facebook that the social, life in society, is missing there. Big mistake. Denialism not only has a model of society, but it knows and repeats that “one thing depends on the other”, “there is no life without economy, nor economy without life”. To the alternatives proposed by the left, denial replaces, with an inverted meaning, the same point — “the opposition between saving the economy and saving lives is false”, he retorts, “I didn't need to state the obvious”.

In the “pro-economy” discourse, figures of inequality and gender relations intersect to undertake a “defense” of “life”. At the post from the “unknown author”, it is read that “it is difficult to defend quarantine when the cupboard is already empty and that, if you don’t work, you don’t have a salary, you work in the morning to eat at night and your son is asking for yogurt”. In this context of familist metaphors, an anti-political speech asks that “don’t feed the division, the moment is for unity”, because “discussing politics during a pandemic is like discussing divorce during a fire”. Also denying the political dispute, the post of the television presenter warns that “hunger is coming before the disease. This is not the time for political warfare.” In response, the denialist base reaffirmed its conviction: “Soletra: Bolsonaro is right”. Not only does the denialist think he is “reasonable”, but it is also mentally impossible for him not to be “reasonable”.

Close to that gender imaginary that has an aversion to marital and social separation, part of the denialist public and the President of the Republic took advantage of the current crisis to update themselves and improvise an anti-feminism, for the time being, feminist: “And the women who are being raped at home ?” Better get back to work, they say. They were not the only familistas who saw the pandemic as a political-libidinal opportunity to profit. “I lived”, says the natalist, “to see a lot of people in favor of abortion saying that the most important thing is life”. Similar metaphors also send a message against the hegemonic media: “This is called corona hunger”, reads the photo with two abandoned children on the ground, “since it is not a business, the media does not show it”.

The far-right parliamentarian excites the networks by asking “why the media does not disclose that General Heleno, 73 years old, cured of the coronavirus (…). What press is this? Does it only report what leads to panic?”. Sources go beyond zap of the family, circulating also on Twitter and Facebook. However, even when using the traditional sources of the Brazilian press, the denier is his “critic” (“I don't believe in anything”) and reads as far as he pleases, that is, until the idealized defense of the market remains satisfied with its ideal. family's. If, as the headline claims, “who says that contagion of the new coronavirus is passing 'from the streets' to 'inside families'”, he performs a protopanic “to return to work” and stops there, refusing to take into account the reality that the who , in the same sentence in the newspaper, “reinforces the need for social isolation”.[2]

It is not just as an ideal that the family emerges in denialism. The family inherited through kinship is also its imaginary scapegoat, its ideal accomplice. The ego of negation, however, does not assert itself. The denialist is not a denialist for himself, because “those who don't know” are the aunt and uncle; “misinformation” is projected onto his parents and grandparents… Not him: the denialist is illustrated, illustrated convinced — needless to say —, says “already” to know because, unlike the “simplists”, he “prefers to be informed”. He actively chooses his B-side sources and nourishes himself and dreams with them. “Tired of shamelessness”, he prefers sbt to Globo; in more educated cases, enjoy Fox News or “Os pingos nos is”, on YouTube; and, when it goes through the hegemonic Brazilian media, he edits it.

The proposal for all this would be, then, to leave the house and drink from the labor market potion. The appeal given on video by a supermarket chain owner is a representation sui generis of the denialist fantasy.[3] It is not by chance that his speech begins with that distinctive adversative: “I am also in favor of staying at home, but…”. But it is not. He says, “Let's make the least of it worse for now. Let's worry about going through this phase fighting, not accommodating (...). I count on you. Monday back to normal. (…) Do not listen to those who want the destruction of the country”. This kind of appeal can be seen in countless jokes and posts which as a rule involve pairs such as bum-worker and responsible-irresponsible. Such jokes in textual and image versions must probably have been disseminated, consumed and celebrated by hundreds of thousands of media and families throughout Brazil.

It is interesting to note that the proposed solution, “hands on”, symptomatically reproduces a logic analogous to that of climate denialism. As Danowski showed,[4] in addition to accusing environmentalists of being “catastrophists”, climate denialism sees the solution to global warming in the release, not the restriction, of human activity on the world.

At first glance, it might seem that the “pro-economy” denialist is guided by a constructive erotic relationship with the world. His speech says he wants to “save lives”, protect “the children”, “the women”, “the poor”, “the family”, avoid “the destruction of the country”. All very beautiful and edifying, were it not for the metaphors and references to death that question and give meaning to this imagery. The world as represented in this speech is the world of the “least worst”, it is the sewer, the fire, the empty closet, the children out in the open… This is “the destructive truth” that non-denialists “do not see”.

The ambivalent contiguity between life and death drives, at the root of this imagination, can be noted in the war declared by the denialist. “Let's go ahead, we have determination, we are warriors. We have a Homeland to fight for, we have our mission to fulfill”. And he concludes: "Me with you, let's fight". The denialist, who is not alone, offers himself to the position of martyr, is willing to die saying that he may “not even be here” later, although he wants to drag the others, his “collaborators” and market consumers, “to the fight ”, to “Monday’s normal”.

Seeing himself as altruistic, the most seriously perverse denialist says he just wants to help; their “enemies” are not “full of goodness” as they are supposed to claim. As for him, working, he wants to save “lives” and “the poor”, he wants to contain and save everything and everyone. More than that, however, he has an interest in death itself. “I will not cower, I will fight until the end while I have the strength to help”. Not satisfied with representations of a decrepit world, his libido takes pleasure in flirting with catastrophe and death. Thus, the supposed altruist wants to survive “for others” and die too, in the struggle “until the end”.

This, however, does not exhaust the examination of what this libidinal economy can still tell us. If, on a deeper layer, we observe, as we will do next, the status of the delusion desired by the denialists, we will see that their death drive demands, on the contrary, that they do not die — not now.

About everything and about everyone

What if Brazil stopped? The symptomatic non-answer to this question represses something that speaks volumes about scientific-sanitary denialism. The description of what this paralysis would be like allows us to cross the denialist's preconscious and reach some of his most primal desires. According to the post by the “unknown author”, the defense of “staying at home” will lead the country to a “post-quarantine” scenario, in which “people will die due to lack of money for health in general, an increase in crime, starvation, depression and suicide”.

The various horizons of the future that are described by posts and videos leave any dystopia, from Mad Max a Bacurau, in the slipper. In testimony, a denialist exposes a long and detailed story of what “will happen”, each “day” and “groups” if “everything stops”. In his imagination, “the dead on the street, because they don't have anyone to pick up the bodies, are already starting to decompose. In the hospital, those who died two days ago are also in a very complicated state”.

This, however, is not only an imagined future, but also desired by the denialist discourse. Through these morbid descriptions, the denialist symbolically enacts what he unconsciously hopes will happen. It is, in this sense, not so much a dystopia, but, more properly, a dream come true, a utopian scenario that would finally give vent to the most intimate denialist drives and hallucinations.

The projected future is like a horror movie. “A few”, envisions that long story, “will manage to get home, contaminated by the virus and will be together with the family. Others, the vast majority, will not be able to get home, they will fall on the sidewalks and stay there”. On the ultraconservative YouTube channel, the praise for a denialist video says that “the most potent weapon of mass destruction is the psychological one”. Now for the group of zap, “it is sad to imagine that such truths” of denialism “will only be (or would be, God willing) understood if we had a shortage crisis”. It is not necessarily what will happen if Brazil stops, but it is what denialism not so unconsciously wants to happen if the country “stops”. Denialism denies, then, the fantasy of seeing their dreams of anomie and extermination come true. Fantasy that he would prefer, taking up Freud, to repress.

In an aggressive and threatening posture, the denialist says that the world will only have a (non-denial) future if we drink the marketing potion. “It's the right choice! The only choice!”, screams the sensual enchantress in the macabre film, “drink it!”. Far from comedy, but not so distant, denialism is also perceived as “the right choice” and “realistic”. It's almost like a symbolic larceny.

The sentence that ends a negative message about the coronavirus sounds threatening: “Either we reach consensus or we will equally succumb”. The blunder does not fail: are we going to succumb anyway? And even when the headline “86% of favela residents will starve” is posted, it is already known that the solution is to “go to work”. It does not even occur in some discussions of zap that the State, with or without alternative and civil forms of solidarity, can or should take responsibility and act in the crisis. Any coordinated action in this sense is, for the denialist, mockery.

The oral utopia of denialism is doubly eschatological. His desire for the end of the world is a cadaverous desire, full of the dying, putrefaction and garbage. In the fantasy enacted throughout that story in which “everything stopped”, spoiled food “stinks” and the narrator and his family want to throw the “garbage out”, but he says: “The garbage is full. And we don't have companies doing garbage collection. That's on the second day."

This speech gives access to what denialism rejects (that is, it wants to expel “outside”): the internal contrariety of its own morbid desire and of a morbid world. If, once this dream is realized, later on, the denialist may have a promise of pleasure in that (end of) desired world. He will be able to chant a lapidary “I told you so” (which is not to be confused with the discreet and immobilizing “I told you so” of the left today, since, melancholic, they are anticipatory criticisms of reality). Denial jouissance, on the contrary, is postponed; he may afterwards, perhaps, reign over all his real and imaginary adversaries. About rubble, corpses and the dying, about everything and everyone, he raves that he will be able to show the world that the only “rational” and “realistic” way out of this was to “go back to work”.

All this libido invested in tense descriptions of the desired end of the world, to assert “the market” and at the same time repress internal garbage, has political conditions and effects. Presidential denialism nourishes the base and is nourished by it. More than a calculation, this is a political gamble. Bolsonaro envisions that, at the end of the process (?), whatever the relationship between the number of dead, infected survivors and people who could be saved by coordinated action, he will be able to blame others, the virus or the governors, both for the “disaster in the economy” and the “catastrophe” “of lives lost”. Whatever the scenario, you see yourself winning. Thus, he bets on 2022 projecting himself to the forefront of the eschatological chorus of “I told you so”.

The president, however, today has to deal with a series of external setbacks, be it China, Donald Trump or the WHO, or the numbers and military around him. Such setbacks place a certain mismatch between him and his base: while the base remains upset and withdrawn with the exponential growth of cases, the president showed some submission to Ananké, outlining acceptance of the conditions imposed by saying that he incorporates the recommendations of the who, at the same time , however, who twisted them.[5]

The base and the president seem, in fact, to dispute who is more “realistic”, who is more capable of ignoring the daily denials of their opinions. if the fake news edited the WHO representative's speech and was subsequently disqualified by him,[6] the denialist refuses to acknowledge. Even when the IMF wizards contradict him,[7] he represses by repeating that “there is no dilemma between lives and jobs”. His “I” does more than edit reality (which could be said of any passion or healthy neurotic): in a perverse way, he chose to “inform himself”, and he falsifies his own falsification without being unaware of his double falsity.

A similar trait is evident in his readings of scientific and popular magazines. In a perverse logic of fixation on rectifications normal to the construction of science, all the more understandable in a context of acute crisis, denialism does not reject scientific discourse, but its controversial nature. For the denialist, such rectifications are horrendous — “scientists have already changed the conversation”, “now nobody knows anything anymore”, “I read it”. “Unbeliever, because there is always politics”, he falsifies the controversy both false and true and returns, impelled, to more childish and “safe” sources: a pediatrician “who showed all the truth that the media hides” on YouTube, the audio of a “doctor from Rio de Janeiro who assures that no one under 40 will die from it” and so many other a-versions of an “unknown author” in the zap.

About the limit of criticism

“Do not settle down” and “get to work” are versions of what is offered as an alternative by the scientific-sanitary denialist discourse. This is nothing new. The denialist sells himself as an altruist and, like anyone else, has a self-interest whose pulsating vein was, in the delusional zap of the condominium, explained by an opponent of denialism: “Do you want to kill yourself?”. Deeper, and before we reached the intimate mismatch between presidential politics and the perverse refusal of the essentially controversial reality of science, the analysis of the marketing potion/drive allowed us to de-repress moments of a macabre catastrophe symbolically staged and widely shared.

Thus, to answer the question in the title, the currently fervent “pro-market” defense does not deny the “seriousness” of the situation; Nor is it a question of denying the scientific discourse tout court. It is not all and any scientific discourse that is denied, as the denialist discourse is also illustrated in science. What denialism would rather have repressed is, rather, its eschatological utopia; denies, therefore, his dream of destruction on a large scale, made, by human and non-human action and inaction, perhaps at some point a reality, when the denialist will finally be able to enjoy.

This critical outline of the denial of science is, however, incomplete. Rephrasing the initial question with another tone, I recognize that the task did not come to an end. It was not possible to answer what or which discourses would be able to deny the denialist discourse. I hope I have partially answered the question “denialism denies what?”, but I have not dealt with the forces and reformulations, inside and outside the sciences, that could manage to contradict it in its own terrain and in its foundations. This is a not inconsiderable limit.

Despite this limitation, however, the path taken left useful evidence and clues for other diagnoses, especially those clues that the denialist is neither irrational nor uninformed. He drinks from his own sources. It is not, then, a problem with a cognitive-psychological root, nor, much less, a communicative one. It does not lack more qualified or more truthful information; truths, in effect, remain. The denialist is hostage to his truth and the truth of his perversion. He does not lack reason or reasonableness; he himself asks for “common sense” and, with characteristic omnipotence, refuses to take any path other than an imaginary “medium term”, “the most sustainable”.

To the most current diagnoses, our clues bring a discouraging outcome. Those who, for example, bet on a “common culture”[8] You will notice here that the paths to a common world project are largely blocked by the compulsion that wants and seems to lead denialists of all stripes, and all over the planet, to wish not for the end this world, but the end of any and every world.

On the other hand, there is no better news for those concerned about the fatal impacts of the avalanche of data and information on models of democracy. The various critics of the incarnated and fierce polarizations on social networks tend to ignore that the denialist does not criticize, on the contrary, he shares with them the same defense of the “end of this polarization”, “which ended Brazil”. Like most virtual audiences, denialism feeds on highly hemophilic networks that are, more on the right than on the left, nourished by the incessant falsification of groups and bots.

If there is a limit, however, that this criticism crossed and through which it may perhaps contribute to other diagnoses, it is to add preconscious and unconscious layers of analysis to observation. They are full of social and political implications, starting with the recognition that the denialist is not ignorant of reality; he, like the infant and the perverse, only pecks at the signs of reality when reality does not satisfy him — almost always, therefore. In any case, behind this non-ignorance, this denialist “I already know”, is the simple and sad truth that to the subjects of scientific denialism, as well as to those who today invest in the denial of the dictatorship, death in its images and monstrosities suits them very well.

*Jose Szwako is a professor at Iesp-Uerj and thanks Joaquim Toledo Jr. and Cristina Buarque de Hollanda for her criticism and support


[1] https://revistaescuta.wordpress.com/2016/05/18/escuta-especial-conjuntura-o-fascismo-contemporaneo-brasileiro-ou-o-mundo-segundo-o-conservadorismo/

[2] https://g1.globo.com/bemestar/coronavirus/noticia/2020/03/30/oms-reforca-necessidade-de-isolamento-social-e-testes-para-conter-velocidade-das-transmissoes-de-coronavirus.ghtml

[3] https://www.facebook.com/valdir.cruz/videos/3669791936427898/

[4] http://www.culturaebarbarie.org/sopro/outros/hiperrealismo.html#.XoY5KYhKjIU

[5] https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/bolsonaro-distorce-fala-da-oms-volta-pregar-retorno-ao-trabalho-24340661

[6] https://veja.abril.com.br/mundo/em-resposta-a-bolsonaro-diretor-geral-da-oms-insiste-no-isolamento-social/

[7] https://valor.globo.com/mundo/noticia/2020/04/03/oms-e-fmi-afirmam-que-ha-falso-dilema-entre-vidas-e-empregos.ghtml

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/magazine/bruno-latour-post-truth-philosopher-science.html

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