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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

In a lockdown, we live on old stocks of food and other provisions, so now the difficult task is to break out of confinement and invent a new life under viral conditions

in comedy Duck Soup of the Marx Brothers, Groucho (playing a lawyer defending his client in court) says: “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

Our reaction to those who demonstrate their basic distrust of state orders and see the lockdowns how a conspiracy of state power that uses the epidemic as a pretext to deprive us of our most basic freedoms should go along these same lines: “The State is imposing lockdowns that deprive us of our freedoms and expects us to control each other as we obey this order; but that shouldn't fool us, we must really follow the confinement orders.”

It should be noted how demands for the abolition of lockdowns come from opposite ends of the traditional political spectrum. In the US, they are driven by libertarian Rightists, while in Germany, small Leftist groups advocate in their defence. In both cases, medical knowledge is criticized as a disciplinary tool, treating people as helpless victims who must be isolated for their own good. What is not difficult to discover underneath this critical positioning is the position of the not-wanting-to-know: if we ignore the threat, it won't be so serious, we'll find a way to get through it.

The American libertarian right claims that the lockdowns must be relaxed so that freedom of choice is given back to people. But which choice is this?

As Robert Reich wrote[I]: “Trump's labor department ruled that furloughed workers 'must accept' an employer's offer to return to work and then lose unemployment benefits, regardless of Covid-19… Forcing people to choose between getting Covid-19 or losing your livelihood is inhuman.” So yes, it is about a freedom of choice: between starvation or risking your life… We are in a situation similar to that which occurred in the English mines of the 18th century (to name just one) in which carrying out your own work involved considerable risk to lose life.

But there is a different kind of ignorance assumption that underpins the severe imposition of the lockdowns. It's no longer about state power exploiting the epidemic to impose total control - I think more and more that there is a more or less superstitious symbolic act at work here: if we make a really painful grand gesture of sacrifice that completely paralyzes our social life we ​​can , perhaps, wait for pity.

The startling fact is how little we (including scientists) seem to know about how the epidemic works. We often receive conflicting advice from the authorities. We are given strict instructions to self-isolate to avoid viral contamination, but when infection numbers plummet, the fear arises that doing so will only make us more vulnerable to the expected second wave of viral onslaught. Or are we counting on hoping that a vaccine will be ready before the next wave? But there are already several variations of the virus, will a vaccine be able to cover them all? All hopes of a quick exit (the summer heat, the rapid establishment of herd immunity, vaccine…) are fading.

It is often heard that the epidemic will force us in the West to change the way we relate to death, to really accept our mortality and the fragility of our existence — out of nowhere, a virus comes and our life is over.

This is why, we are told, people in the East are coping better with the epidemic—as just a part of life, of the way things are. We in the West accept death less and less as a part of life, we see it as the intrusion of something foreign that we can postpone indefinitely if we maintain a healthy life, exercise, follow a diet, avoid trauma...

I never trusted that story. In a way, death is not a part of life, it is something unimaginable, something that shouldn't happen to me. I am never ready to die except to escape intolerable suffering. That's why these days many of us focus on the same magic numbers on a daily basis: how many new infections, how many full recoveries, how many new deaths... greater number of people who are now dying of cancer, or a painful heart attack? Beyond the virus, there is not only life, but also dying and death. How about a comparative list of numbers: today, so many people have been affected by the virus and cancer; so many died from the virus and from cancer; so many others have recovered from the virus and cancer?

One should change our imagination here and stop waiting for a big clear spike after which things will gradually return to normal. What makes an epidemic unbearable is that even if the entire catastrophe fails to happen, things will still drag on, we are told we have plateaued, and then things get a little better, but the crisis just continues.

As Alenka Zupancic said, the problem of the end of the world is the same as that of the end of history in Fukuyama: the end itself does not end, we just remain trapped in a bizarre immobility. The secret wish of all of us, what we think about all the time, is just one thing: when will this end? But it will not end: it is reasonable to see the ongoing epidemic as the announcement of a new period of ecological trouble — in 2017, the BBC presented[ii] what must be waiting for us because of the way in which we intervene in nature: “Climate Change is melting the permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years and, with the melting of the soil, ancient viruses and bacteria that were even then sleepers are released back to life.”

The special irony of this no-end-in-sight is that the epidemic happened at a time when the popular scientific media was obsessed with two aspects of the digitization of our lives. On the one hand, much was being written about the new phase of capitalism called “surveillance capitalism”: total digital control over our lives exercised by state agencies and private corporations. On the other hand, the media are fascinated by the theme of the direct brain-machine interface ('brain connected').

First, when our brains are connected to digital machines, we can make things happen in reality just by thinking about them. Then my brain is directly connected to another brain so that another individual can directly share my experience. Extrapolating to the extreme, the connected brain opens up the prospect of what Ray Kurzweil has called the Singularity, the divine-appearing global space of shared global consciousness. Regardless of the (dubious, for now) scientific status of this idea, it is clear that its realization will affect the basic elements of humans as thinking/speaking beings. the eventual[iii] The emergence of the Singularity will be apocalyptic in the complex sense of the term — it will imply the encounter with a hidden truth of our ordinary human existence, ie the entry into a new post-human dimension.

It is interesting to note that the extensive use of surveillance has been quietly accepted: drones have been used not only in China, but also in Italy and Spain. As for the spiritual vision of the Singularity, the new direct unity of the human and the divine, a bliss in which we leave behind the confines of our corporeal experience, may well become a new unimaginable nightmare. From a critical point of view, it's hard to decide which is worse (a worse threat to humanity), the viral devastation of our lives or the loss of our individuality in the Singularity. Epidemics remind us that we remain firmly rooted in corporeal existence, with all the dangers that entails.

Does this all mean that our situation is lost? Absolutely not. There are huge, almost unimaginable, problems ahead, there will be millions of new unemployed, etc. A new way of life will have to be invented. One thing is clear: in a lockdown, we live on old stocks of food and other provisions, so now the difficult task is to break out of confinement and invent a new life under viral conditions.

Just think about how what is fiction and what is reality will change. Movies and TV series that take place in our ordinary reality, with people freely walking the streets, shaking hands and hugging each other, will become nostalgic images of a lost former world, while our real life will seem like a variation of the play (play) by Samuel Beckett called Play, in which we see on the stage, touching each other, three identical gray urns; from each one, a head sticks out, the neck being held in the mouth of the urn...

However, if one assumes a naive look at things from a distance (which is quite difficult), it is clear that our global society has enough resources to coordinate our survival and organize a more modest way of life, with the hardships local food shortages offset by global cooperation, with a global health system better equipped for the coming attacks.

Will we be able to do this? Or will we enter a barbaric new age in which our attention to the health crisis will only reactivate old (hot and cold) conflicts that will play out under and beyond the global public's view? Note the reignited cold war between the US and China, not to mention the real wars hot in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, which work like the virus: they just drag on for years and years… (Note how Macron's call for a world truce was largely ignored). This decision about which path we will take concerns neither science nor medicine; it is properly a political decision.

*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 (Boitermpo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on the portal RT question more [https://www.rt.com/op-ed/487713-slavoj-zizek-epidemics-covid/]

 

Notes:

[I] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/03/donald-trump-reopen-us-economy-lethal-robert-reich

[ii] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up

[iii] https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/forthcoming/

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