An unconscious 76-year old man is breathing through a ventilator in the ICU. The atmosphere in the room is poised, but calm. The sonic rhythms of the ICU focus the attention of those who work there, without them noticing. The steady beeps of the heart monitors, the synthetic inhalation and exhalation of the air in the plastic lungs. The regular padding back and forth of the nurses and doctors, with the flip-flopping sound of their scrubs on the linoleum floor. These momentary rhythms are gathered-up into more sweeping movements, the recurring rounds of the staff tending to their patients at regular intervals, one after another. They observe the data sheets and flickering numbers on the gadgetry; check, tighten, and occasionally replace wires and tubes. The soundtrack is punctuated periodically by comments exchanged between the staff about the biochemical minutiae of the bodies they’re trying to keep alive.
The man’s consciousness has departed. He was already disoriented and confused before he was intubated, then sedatives were administered to ensure easy passage of the breathing tube down the throat. Sedation removed his self-awareness, his reason. He is now tended to as a mass of microscopic processes, as pure nature. These processes work away within the body without any conscious input. The body has its own energy, its own force. We do not choose much of what our bodies do. We never really consent to breathe, for example, our body consents for us. Similarly, we do not consent to take-up nutrients from food, or to marshal white blood cells against infection.
The unpalatable reality is that the body has its own will operating at levels more fundamental than the will of our choosing. Part of the skill of the ICU medic is to temper this unpalatable truth by using phrases which pretend what’s happening at the base level of pure nature is not disconnected from the person to whom the body belongs. In normal circumstances, this happens when the staff interact with their patients’ nearest and dearest. Then the biochemical actions and reactions are described in ways which assume a person’s will – the will of our choosing — is somehow involved in what is happening. They use phrases like ‘he is responding well to treatment’, and the relatives exchange reassuring glances, and say ‘he is a fighter’. But many medics would admit, out of earshot, that ‘he’ isn’t responding as such, his natural body is. The man himself has departed.
When the time comes to switch off the ventilator, decisions would usually be made via ‘proxy consent’ with next-of-kin. The man himself can no longer consent. His body is not consenting on his behalf. His most proximate kin then consent by proxy. These, however, are not normal circumstances. For all the seeming calm of the ICU, no relatives can enter the cordon sanitaire where the Covid 19 patients are cared for. The staff are far too busy to try and navigate the delicacies of proxy consent with Zoom or Skype. If the man’s body is not responding, the bed must be quickly vacated for someone else who is — right now, this minute — asphyxiating in an adjacent corridor. The proxy consent stage is always skipped now. The message goes out to the staff in the makeshift mortuary outside: ‘bring out the body’.
The mortuary is a white tent constructed in the hospital gardens. These were gardens where next-of-kin would have got some fresh air while deliberating over how to exercise their proxy consent on behalf of a loved one. There was a little climbing frame here, where young kids could be distracted and shielded from the hushed and tearful conversations of their parents. The frame was removed so this outdoor space could house a large rectangular marquee, with generators alongside ensuring the bodies are preserved by the atmosphere within. On each side of the gardens are high brick walls, high enough to ensure no-one on the other side sees the bodies brought out.
On the other side of the wall furthest from the entrance to the hospital is a large park. There the locals are taking their lockdown ration of one trip outside the house per day. The green expanses and the little woodlands have single people dotted about, or occasionally pairs or threes, walking their dogs, jogging, or just ambling about. Signs on the park gates notify visitors that the coffee kiosks are all closed, like the public restrooms and the playgrounds, and that ‘aggregating’ in groups is not allowed because everyone must keep a minimum of two meters away from each other at all times. Above the park, a police helicopter whirs around in a circular pattern. Were the visitors to the park not so desperate for a moment of fresh air, the helicopter’s din would be infuriating. From their aerial viewpoint, the city’s police monitor the number of visitors to the park.
One might think the police would be radioing for squad cars if groups were seen to be gathering, or sending colleagues to remonstrate with anyone climbing the fences blocking access to the closed areas. But they’re not responding to what individuals are doing on the ground at all. No, they have cameras with heat monitors that register the level of activity, and the mean aggregate proximity of those below, and then feed the data into a central computer which produces various graphs detailing the effectiveness of the social distancing measures in place. If optimum levels of reduced mobility are attained, the current restrictions of the lockdown will be deemed a success. If those levels are exceeded, the regulations will be tightened further, and even the once-daily trip outside will be disallowed.
Crises like the current pandemic could once be met by marshalling a population’s consent directly. Hence ‘Your Country Needs You’ or ‘What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?’ posters. But in the fragmented pluralism of the contemporary city, such tactics are limited. They only work on particular demographics, on those who engage with the country’s mainstream media, and have some loyalty to a collective identity. Now consent cannot be won in this way, for it only works on the individual choosing of a fraction of people. The collective could once be directed by a shared culture, but now the collective is directed by technology. The skill of effective government comms around this, mirrors the skill of the ICU medic. The medic apportions language of individual choice to someone breathing on a ventilator; the government pretends their data is an aggregate of individual choices.
Again, human instincts baulk at the idea that something decides for us, something seemingly disconnected from the making of reasoned decisions. So people cajole or criticise or judge or defend those whose individual choices might contribute to an unfavorable outcome for the population at large. But the technology itself draws conclusions according to numerous peculiarities of the software and the hardware in use, making the results always at least partially arbitrary, from a human perspective. And this arbitrariness is multiplied by the fact the data is then mediated through pandemic modelling applications, which have their own specifications too. Technology thus holds a power which far exceeds an aggregate of individual consents. Technology now has proxy consent. The computer says no, it’s not working: ‘They’re bringing out the bodies’.
On the ground in the ICU, the challenge is to integrate consensual choice with an isolated mass of bodily matter. From what is monitored in the helicopter above, the challenge is to align consensual choices with people now viewed as a ‘herd’. The same dualism confronts us in both examples. Philosophies of modernity interpret the dualism differently. On the one hand, some take personal choice as being as important as it seems to us. Reasoned, deliberative consent is sacrosanct, and what happens without our consent must therefore be minimised and resisted. On the other hand, some accept that personal choice is deeply limited, even illusory. They say we are endlessly carried this way and that by arbitrary circumstances. These two options are the yin and the yang of modernity, the light of meaning and the darkness of nihilism. They need each other, create each other, feed off each other. While more recent philosophies claim postmodernity can homogenise the underlying dualism and integrate things once again, those philosophies all too often slip back into one or the other approach: either making meaning on the basis of consent, or surrendering to the void of meaninglessness by accepting how much there is to which we cannot consent.
An alternative is not to take the dualism itself in black and white terms, but to think instead of shades of grey, of a spectrum of consent. It is then not a matter of choosing between ‘consent’ or ‘no consent’, but of actually broadening the notion of consent itself so it can better capture the full gamut of human life. This already happens in very specific circumstances, when people speak of proxy consent, which means ‘the nearest we have’ to personal consent. If reasoned consent already has ethically pertinent situations adjacent to it, this suggests consent can be extended in different directions to where it functions in different ways outside of the choices made in personal self-awareness.
The coronavirus pandemic heralds the end of the long 20th Century. For it was then that modernity climaxed and began the descent toward today. Just as the year 1913 can never be assessed in its own terms away from what happened the year after, so it is for 2019. The Covid 19 disease itself scornfully taunts us with this fact, being the only disease with the year of its origin enclosed within its common name. The virus lives on the interstices between then and now, between what we call the 20th and the 21st Centuries. It was the last day of 2019 when China contacted the WHO to admit of ‘cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology’ in Wuhan. The early spread of the disease exploded with the Chinese New Year on 21st January. Before the 21st year of the 21st Century in 2021, the last remnants of the 20th are being stamped out in 2020. An unthinking malevolence against this past is displayed by the way Covid 19 works. It targets people who were born in the 20th Century. The further back into that century you come from, the more at risk you are. The more you belong to that century, the more Covid 19 will target you.
It was the 20th Century that saw the spread and eventual dominance of liberal democracy. This is the ideology which gave rise to a supposedly golden era of governance by consent. The virus’s war with the 20th Century also involves national and local reactions which revise liberal notions of consent through more authoritarian governance. The pandemic reconfigures the political landscape, changing and altering the way power will now function. There are plentiful examples of things at play which are truly novel, to most. Novel words, phrases, and concepts now dominate the discourse: ‘social distancing’, the ‘peak’, ‘herd immunity’, ‘zoonosis’, and so on. But there is also a retrieving of older, premodern concepts, particularly those related to the exercise of power. These factors are well-captured by the ancient term for political power, the polar opposite to dispersed power, the power of each region focused in one place, mon-arche: crown, or corona. nCov is thus an indicative term for the dynamics at play, on both fronts.
The supposed coming of age of the Age of Reason set the tone for dispersed models of political power which are mediated through the willing consent of reasonable citizens. We don’t need to work too hard to highlight the exposure of the weaknesses of liberalism in recent years. The term ‘populism’ exposes the ideology’s weakest point, insofar as it is used by the supposed proponents of democracy to disparage movements which are more democratically popular then their own. The ‘free market’ is widely dismissed as something closer to a newly complex form of enslavement by which the global consolidation of wealth has long since overtaken the checks and limits of local and national sovereignty. The ‘free world’ of liberalism itself actually functions with hitherto unimagined capacities for monitoring and censoring its citizens. As put by Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, the “limited government” liberalism of today ‘would provoke jealousy and amazement from tyrants of old, who would only dream of such extensive capacities for surveillance and control of movement, finances and even deeds and thoughts’.
Postliberal ways of thinking seem to differ on one central point: whether they should salvage or sweep away the liberalism they counter. Adrian Pabst’s Demons of Liberal Democracy, for example, points out that the very term ‘postliberalism’ accords ‘too much importance’ to what it ‘aims at overcoming’. Yet Pabst seeks to salvage what are considered goods of liberalism (e.g. democracy, or a more restrained capitalism) by revising the destructive forces at work in liberalism per se. John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is clear that the manifold problems of today’s liberalism are not the product of a wrong turn, but rather an intensification of the ideology itself into ‘hyper-liberalism’. Even those who most convincingly set out an alternative, like Patrick Deneen, maintain that ‘the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to “return” to a preliberal age must be eschewed’. There ‘can be no going back’ he says. A thinker who most extensively uncovered the theological and philosophical depth of liberalism’s inadequacies, John Milbank, states in his ‘Critique of the Theology of Right’, that ‘there can be no relapse towards pre-modernity’ for ‘any retrieval must assume a post-modern, metacritical guise’.
Postliberals agree that turning the clock back is simply not an option. This means the difference between wanting to salvage the goods of the liberalism of the past, or wanting to sweep it away to make way for the future, is much closer than it seems at first glance. If ‘there can be no relapse’, the only choice is to hone-in on what might be deemed positive and try to build alternatives from those points of contact between liberal and the Postliberal. The future of liberalism is the future after liberalism. Entombed, pre-modern bodies, and the bodies emerging from the funeral pyres of the future, must both be brought through the mortuary of modernity. The result will be something genuinely novel while also genuinely ancient. Some sort of futuristic retrieval of tradition, a novel expression of political power, of corona, seemingly catalysed by the nCov itself.
The bodies of the future and the bodies of the past battle seem to be locked in battle, while they’re actually on exactly the same side. Some see the world’s reaction as an intensification of liberalism, of liberalism’s own tendencies to lapse into a subtle form of authoritarianism. This was noted as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville, who foresaw a ‘danger of voluntary servitude’ in a liberal hegemony. These people see liberalism climaxing to a point where there are precious little differences between lockdowns in Wuhan on the one hand, and Lombardy, Madrid or London on the other. The bodies of the past, of a tyrannical overreaching of corona, are being brought out, they claim. On the other side, people say liberalism is collapsing before our eyes, and rights like ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘freedom of association’ are disappearing with it. We’re entering a new era, and now a Western Europe under martial law adopts the tactics of Beijing’s armed police. The bodies of the future are being brought out, they claim, insofar as the inadequate mores of the old system are being discarded under pressure.
These debates are often played out with footage or pictures of people in the street wearing surgical masks. It is as if the populations of the West, so used to exercising their sovereign consent through ‘freedom of expression’, are suddenly gagged and yet pretending everything could carry on as it did before. Such images are frequently shown in newsrooms and in thinkpieces against a visual background in which the nCov virus itself is represented in pictorial form. This form is now completely familiar to us. Never before has a disease had a visual representation of itself, of its infinitesimal microscopic appearance, enlarged and endlessly replicated so it seems to loom constantly over daily life itself. Viruses exist to replicate. The effectiveness of nCov is shown in that it replicates itself not just through cellular processes in the human body, but all over the informational streams of human communication as well. The BBC Newsroom is lavishly decorated with screens showing images of the novel coronavirus, of different sizes, sometimes gliding across the background as if replaying a moment of deadly, airborne intent on the way to someone’s eye membrane or lips. The image explains the name, for its protrusions, ‘spike proteins’, were taken by early virologists to be reminiscent of the spikes on a monarch’s crown.
The image of these spike proteins resonates with the human instinct to present the pandemic as an act of external aggression by an ‘invisible enemy’. Yes, a coronavirus’s spike proteins do indeed seem the weapons by which the virus gains entry to the cells in the body. The media are missing the point here, however. Many thousands of viruses have spike proteins or some equivalent point of contact, but only a few of them can ‘bind’ or ‘dock’ with the surface of the cells in the human body. Those that can are those that can then enter in, and take that cell’s RNA or DNA to replicate themselves and wreak havoc with the body’s functions. The microscopic image we should be seeing is our own cell receptor which willingly binds with the virus’s spike proteins, ACE2. The unthinkable truth is that our own ACE2 tries to function as an agent of bodily consent, working directly against our own will.
Of course other elements of the body then spring into action. The ultimate defenders of the will of our choosing are called anti-bodies, as if they’re forces working against elements of our own body. Anti-ACE 2 antibodies subvert the binding of the virus with the body’s cells, either generated by the body’s self-defence, or hosted by the body courtesy of a vaccine. We are assured that the full strength of human ingenuity is working round the clock, to bring out the (anti)bodies. The spike proteins are the focus of the visual representations of the virus because any dismissal of the body itself as somehow negative is unacceptable. To see the body as malevolent is the ancient heresy of gnosticism. The coronavirus presents itself to us as an envoy of the demiurge of old, obedience to which was understood to reduce human beings to the level of mere beasts: hence, zoonosis as the gateway to zoognosticism.
Bodies of an ancient past are also brought out through a well-known mythological image of nocturnal darkness, the bat. This is an age-old cipher of vampiric forces repelled by a powerful antiviral, garlic. The connection of pangolins here bespeaks an ancient, traditional practice, Chinese medicine. Accounts of the appearance of nCov which focus on Wuhan’s wet-food market thus resonate with those that fear the resurgence of some ancient, authoritarian force is afoot. Yet the bodies of an unseen future are also felt too, through those accounts which focus on a lab leak from Wuhan’s Level 4 Institute of Virology. Novel technology is at play here, in the alleged tinkering with the spike proteins of SARS1 to create a more infectious and more subtly deadly variant. Again, the answer might not be an either/or between the two accounts – but something that captures the interplay of both, both the novel and the ancient, the pure nature of the batcave with the highly sophisticated technology of the biosafety lab.
nCov dwells in the interstices, and comes forth by highlighting the junctures fracturing civilization’s tectonic plates. There is the past meeting the future, the premodern coming forth in the postmodern. There is raw and ancient bodily functioning interplaying with the latest human technology now manipulating our collective behavior. There is an ‘invisible’ enemy that attacks from inside, but via the outside of our body’s cells. The very reality of a virus itself occupies the interstice between life and death. Most scientists say that viruses are not living, because they cannot reproduce, and they do not metabolize. But these same scientists will then describe the work of a virus in anthropomorphic ways, saying they ‘attack’ or ‘hijack’ the body’s cells on ‘their deadly mission’. The best way to describe the complexity here is E. Rybiki’s phrase, that viruses stand ‘at the edge of life’. Although this surely means they also stand at the edge of death. NCov is catalyzing of the appearance of different governmental norms in the West, it stands at the edge of the life and death of liberalism. A broadening of the notion of consent could mean that authority will be newly exercised, taking heed of the many ways in which people participate in things above and beyond the function of individual choice. Liberalism ever focuses on the formal, on establishing the forms by and under which it is acceptable to wield power. Then the content of that power is only what is permitted by the form. As put by Pabst, ‘nothing is allowed’ to make any substantive contribution ‘to public political discussion that could undermine the primacy of formal, procedural reason’. Extending the notion of consent to the workings of the body, or the collective captured by the machine, means the focus can move from how consent is functioning to the vastly more important question, of what it is that is being consented to. The ultimate interstice at play can then be revealed as a very ancient one indeed: between a malevolent demiurge, or a substantive and highest Good.
Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos.