Comrade, how have you been?
Where are you?
And wtf was that?
During this pandemic, the planetary cracks are getting deeper: We see inequalities, racism and social injustices on the rise, but at the same time new types of kinship, ties and solidarity are forming. The virus is akin to an amplifier and a magnifying glass. What can we see at this point? How will we go on? What do we aspire to beyond survival?
Artists and researchers from all over the globe compose personal letters sharing their takes on the situation. You are in cc. Take care.
Are those who are contemplative all children?
They race with the winds in pursuit of a bell’s chime.
When their energies are spent, they drift off to sleep, with hope in their embrace.
To them, there is no difference between the stars in their dreams and those in the night sky, the twinkling lights patiently anticipating human presence.
The contemplative ones are indeed children.
They search for a room with an open door within this city.
In that room, the lamp is always lit.
If there are traces of sleep in their eyes, no one notices them.
Night descends like thick, dark ink permeating paper.
As dewdrops appear, they bring tidings of a refreshing dawn.
People begin laying down their heavy luggage, no longer fretting which direction they will be taking next.
The light fragrance of mint fills the infinitely regenerative herb garden.
The contemplative ones must be children then.
They will always have, for company, the night sky, the earth and glimpses into the lives of others.
It has become commonplace to speak of our current situation as exceptional and unprecedented. It is true that much of what we recognise as normal is in a state of suspension; everyday routines and rhythms are disrupted, work and sociality grind to a halt or take virtual forms whilst a disturbingly abstract numerical figure of suffering (the ‘count’) continues to accumulate. Despite the apparent strangeness of this scenario, we insist that this is not an exception but an aggressive and catastrophic affirmation of existing socio-economic logics; an intensified continuation of the rule rather than a break with it.
The pandemic reinforces existing separations, demarcations and boundaries, such that precarisation and insecurity coupled with the logics of racialisation and nationalism, regional and environmental inequalities all attain heightened force. We must not forget that this virus, like its recent zoonotic precursors, was made possible by industrial agriculture, which itself only obeys the basic compulsion to accumulate wealth that is disrupting the ecological balance of our lifeworld. The pandemic has fused and concentrated multiple states of emergencies that subsisted invisibly under the surface long before the virus took hold. If it does not present an entirely novel situation, the current moment at least confers on these states of emergency a heightened visibility, illuminating the delicate interplay between stability and crisis that is a guiding principle of neoliberal governance.
In order to guarantee the stability of accumulation and state power, the production of diffused crises of health, work and ecology is necessary. Nowhere is this crisis production for the sake of stability more transparent than in the prioritisation of the economy over the lives of the poor, the marginalised and key or essential workers, who have continued to care, clean, build, manufacture, transport and deliver during the lockdown without proper payment, security and health protection. Even though the current pandemic is far from over, what it has already posed with utmost urgency is the question of whose life matters. What is considered life and what is not? Which lives have value and deserve not to be lost? What techniques and technologies are employed to maintain and reproduce life? The ethical attention demanded by these problems is globally distributed along lines of nation, class, gender and race.
In attempting to decipher this distribution of the ethical, it would be easy and obvious to refer to emergent nationalism and projects of ethnic and cultural differentiation. The dangers they represent for those both within and outside their speculative constructs of community are clear. However, a deeper structuring principle is at work in the current conjuncture, one that determines and regulates the distribution of the ethical, of who belongs and, ultimately, who has the right to security and life.
We find ourselves at the close of a cycle of internationalist optimism. Not, of course, the internationalism of communist solidarity, but a capitalist internationalism that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the socialist states. Since 1989, the world has no longer been stratified according to allegiance with competing political projects of social organisation; two kinds of ‘freedom' bound to two superpowers, which had given social conflicts their meaning and orientation. After the collapse of the socialist project, the globe was designated a smooth space in which all conflicts were to be resolved within the sphere of property relations and market forces.
Thirty years of the global rule of capital has deflated every seductive variation on the old notion of ‘progress’, expressed after 1989 as the imperialist trope of ‘catching up’ with Western democracies, or ‘development’. Today the ideologies of promised peace, mutual benefit and institutional integration have been dismantled in favour of exclusive identities, militarised border regimes and a grim social realism that legitimates the finitude of responsibility toward other groups.
Conflictuality has been reduced to competition between national capitals, transnational corporations and new geopolitical blocs. This is why the remnants of Cold War infrastructure now serve the task of winning the competition for the place of a new capitalist and colonial superpower. The utopias are over and all that remains is the economy. Even if new geopolitical blocs mobilise the twentieth century ideologies of social justice, abuse of the old symbols should not mislead us. What brands itself as a struggle against Western or European Union domination and colonialism in fact is, in the absence of any alternative project for social existence, simply the struggle for a new configuration of geopolitical domination. This post-Cold War cynicism of competing regional capitalisms is a new framework for the distribution of the ethical.
The pandemic has only sharpened the structural tension between the totalising tendency of globalisation – the integration of production and exchange – on the one hand, and the individualising techniques of antagonistic national-cultural projects on the other. In syncopating the supposedly frictionless dynamics of the world market and global value chains, the virus discloses the invisible veins and threads of global production, the interdependency of workers across the globe, the tightness of the world rhythm of accumulation and the binding force it exerts over the lives of billions. But at the same time, the gravitation of ever more integrated economic and political forces is inverted at the level of cultural and ethical identifications and exclusions, as the artificially reproduced fantasy of economic scarcity is replayed on the stage of identity. The techniques of cultural differentiation operating here reinforce a perverse denial of our material interdependence, responsibility and collective interests. These tendencies constitute a violent contradiction at the heart of the world order in its current configuration, a play of attraction and repulsion, of interdependency and disavowal that form two sides of the same coin. In spite of the beleaguered efforts of the WHO, the absence of anything resembling effective international co-operation to mitigate the effects and spread of the virus attests to this tragic tension.
Under the rule of unimpeded international capitalism – social life with no project but competition for maximal exploitation and accumulation – the unity and condition of humanity can be registered only in abstract numbers, economic graphs and the cold balance sheet of mortality rates. ‘Success’ in this scenario has meaning only as outdoing the other, just as it does in ‘normal’ times (only GDP has now been replaced by lives lost or saved). Google the coronavirus map and you will find a competing index of nation states that registers the winners and losers of the day. The projects of differentiation and exclusion function here not only to individuate competing communities but also to erase the presence of others, such as Palestine, which will simply not appear on this map (and we know well that symbolic erasure is the pre-condition for actual annihilation). The map foregrounds geopolitical divisions, it reminds us what must be seen and how, and what should remain unseen, who gets recognition and who will remain unrecognised and stateless; virtually inexistent, before the fact. The maps and league tables affirm the pandemic as nothing but a global competition and one more theatre for the demonstration of power relations. The statistical data of cases and death tolls highlights a patriotism of local and regional technologies of pandemic management, ranging from the eugenic concept of herd immunity in Sweden and the UK (intended to secure a ‘competitive advantage’ over national economies practicing a genuine shutdown) to the old models of population control and pastoral care in East Asia.
Instead of asking why we are reduced to these statistical models and management strategies, people ask which is better: to develop herd immunity or avoid viral infection by means of heavily policed lockdown. We might ask instead why we must choose between being treated as a herd or a parish. The reduction of global community to comparative numeric calculations and death counts (‘Oh, we are not as bad as the United States!’ ‘Well, look at Brazil and Belarus, they deny the virus exists!’) redirects solidarity and mourning towards patriotic competition for the most exceptional national strategies to battle the pandemic. Clapping hands appear at the balcony not so much to celebrate key workers, but to affirm each other’s numerical representation and nationalist exceptionalism: the war effort.
This competitive regional distribution of ethical identification and responsibility springs from no natural or anthropological source (group mentality, survival instinct, etc.). Its foundation is instead the generalised ethic of indifference toward the fate of the other presupposed by a market society. Without this generalised indifference the construction or resurrection of such speculative and spectral communities would not be possible. What is affirmed in the applause is the abstract indifference of the isolated individual, of a generic social being for which there is no community or solidarity but that of the count (of property, rights, salary, health, likes, etc.).
The death count represents the highest affirmation of this abstraction; it renders mortality scientific, neutral, statistical, erasing the qualitative problem of who gets to live, who will be allowed to die and under what conditions. Even in its most radical iterations, this standpoint can only ask what constitutes an objectively ‘premature’ or ‘unnatural’ death. But all death is ultimately political, dependent on the full contour of life, from what we eat to what we earn, where we live, the air we breath and the access we have to basic services. If the limits of formal equality and the concrete problem of how the state actually treats individuals and communities are currently being contested around the most extreme terms of life and death, of police killings and the systematic denial of justice, such coarse demands cannot stop there but will have to penetrate the most private and particular regions of the individual.
Any genuinely alternative project of social solidarity will have to break through the cold indifference that is built into our lives as a social fact: those subjective mechanisms of denial that the other matters, to which we currently concede a pragmatic necessity. The same operation makes it possible to accept the crude fact of homelessness, bombs dropped elsewhere and the thousands dying unnecessarily from the virus. The UK’s annual defence budget amounts to £40 billion, meanwhile the government refuses to provide protective equipment for frontline health workers, who consequently die. We understand what this means in terms of the count, and yet cannot develop another relation to these facts. What distribution of the ethical is at work to enable this? One in which there is no collective fate but the count of each individual. The other dies. Or I die. But ‘we’ do not die.
The ethics of indifference mirrors the loss of political agency. If capitalism abstracts us as numbers and behaviour to be managed, this only means that it dehumanises us. If it is easier to sympathise with the non-human, the post-human or the unhuman, it only means that it is a symptom of the very inhuman design of capitalist society. It is true that in a sense we are already non-humans, numbers, algorithms and behaviours. But where will the simple description or self-identification with the inhumanity of this design lead us? The popular discussions on the Anthropocene often imagine that the world without humans would be a better place; ‘clean’, that if liberated from an anthropological presence nature would flourish. The self-annihilation of the human project is a symptom of tiredness and indifference. Humans are considered evil by nature, but what produces this evil is not nature, it is society: a particular kind of society, which has not and will not always exist.
We know that what is human depends on how we define what is inhuman, what is excluded and repressed. An alternative human point of view, or image of globality must be constructed against the inhumanity and indifference of capitalist power, a power that draws upon and activates traditional prejudices, resentments and hierarchies in order to inhibit the construction of a genuinely collective standpoint for action. If the tradition of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, the cascade of toppled monuments to slave traders and colonial heroes expresses a struggle for liberation from long standing and still-enduring oppressions – if only as an image or metaphor, an anticipation of realising that liberation in practice.
Like the virus, such monuments attest to the concealed threads of global trade and exploitation, but here in terms of the continuity between past cycles of accumulation and the social configurations of the present. Tracing the wealth of slave owning families and nations – who were so generously compensated for their ‘losses’ following abolition – to the ruling classes of today demonstrates this irrefutably. Yet the images of transgenerational suffering torn away are also a powerful reminder that humanity is not in itself an ahistorical norm, something given and self-same in every concrete instance, but is the polymorphous capacity or task of norm-positing, of collectively determining what will count as a meaningful life, of which and what form of life matters.
Comrade, how have you been?
Where are you?
And wtf was that?
Previously in this series: The ER team tries to figure out the strange phenomena of Covid-19 patients presenting with severe lack of oxygen yet no apparent distress. Dr. Blue remembers a study:
“In a simulated high-altitude parachute jump from 30,000 feet, nine volunteers from the Norwegian Special Operations Command underwent repeated blood gas testing while breathing air at different ambient pressures.”
After the simulated jump it turned out the commando’s oxygen saturation parameters were all over the place. Some had severely impaired and even life threatening blood oxygen saturations but functioned completely normally. Some didn’t. One fainted.
Flashback ends. The doctor concludes: Our patients present in a similar condition. How can they function even though they are not supposed to be conscious? We might as well call this condition: happy hypoxia.
Are you there?
We got separated while falling.
Am I even still alive?
I got kicked off a plane. Or so I reconstruct from the paradoxical symptoms, which seem completely unlikely. I feel at altitude even though I am firmly on sea level. But now I even forgot my mission.
Previously in this series: Whereby the commando finds an old scroll after crash landing and tries to decipher its meaning.
“Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground.
Many contemporary philosophers have pointed out that the present moment is distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness.
We cannot assume any stable ground on which to base metaphysical claims or foundational political myths. At best, we are faced with temporary, contingent, and partial attempts at grounding. But if there is no stable ground available for our social lives and philosophical aspirations, the consequence must be a permanent or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike. But why don’t we notice?
Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating – or not even moving at all. Falling is relational – if there is nothing to fall toward, you may not even be aware that you’re falling. If there is no ground, gravity might be low and you’ll feel weightless. Objects will stay suspended if you let go of them. Whole societies around you may be falling just as you are. And it may actually feel like perfect stasis – as if history and time have ended and you can’t even remember that time ever moved forward.
As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people. Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied.”
The commando rolls up the scroll again. He looks into the camera and says:
I fell. They fell. Lightheaded as fuck. Dizzy and disoriented. The map view was just a blurred insert from a past in which numbers accelerated towards autonomy. While falling the map gained depth – the geographical 2D overview map turned into a game map, a literal 3D model, maybe building up all around you procedurally. After all, falling into a map is a standard mode of entering a game world.
This is how I see:
A first person perspective (fpp) is what I see with my own eyes.
This is how they see:
A third person perspective (tpp) is how someone else sees someone falling.
What do you see, my friend?
How does the world look like through your eyes?
Previously in this series: Another pop-up from the past, left behind in an empty oxygen cylinder turns up on the map.
“Many of the aerial views, 3D nose-dives, Google Maps, and surveillance panoramas do not actually portray a stable ground. Instead, they create a supposition that it exists in the first place. Retroactively, this virtual ground creates a perspective of overview and surveillance for a distanced, superior spectator safely floating up in the air. Just as linear perspective established an imaginary stable observer and horizon, so does the perspective from above establish an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground.”
The doctor shrugs. This message refers to a time when 2D maps made sense. There is no road map for this specific situation; the new map is immersive and the doctor has been dropped right inside. She is part of the situation, even lost her doctor title during the fall. She fell through the plexi and lost her breath.
The terrain around her builds procedurally, but the person formerly known as doctor does not know the procedure. There are no data to even predict the past let alone the present. Her visor turns into an AR screen and flashes:
You are now part of the “happy hypoxia” squad and you need to first figure out your mission.
Within this map you may be navigating confusing and shifting situations, not least the one that the map itself keeps shifting. No one will believe your reports until they surface in the media weeks later. Like the “happy hypoxia” syndrome that was deemed improbable until it actually happened. When patients started describing it from an fpp, no one believed them – it was considered fiction. It took a tpp to become accepted as reality.
As far as anyone can tell you could drop dead 6 months from now, or suddenly acquire the ability to fly, see the future or cook stones into delicious meals. None of this is likely but then again, only a short time ago, your existence wasn’t considered likely either. You exist within a very thin slice of probability where fpps and tpps keep overlapping and diverging.
Start Shepard glissando.
It may have been called a zone of miracle at different points in history, the kind of miracle you pray will never ever happen. To navigate it you may have to use the tools Tarkovskys stalkers used to find their way: try to toss nuts and bolts tied with scraps of cloth, to verify that gravity is working as usual.
Previously on this series: the last episode was filmed in splitscreen: tpp and fpp.
A voice comes over the radio:
A gravitational wave hit the plane. It came from the future. Actually, two futures were fighting one another in a gigantic battle, causing space-time to ripple. One was the future that came from the past produced through a gigantic amount of big data crunching and risk management. States and corporations tried to control the future by prolonging past data, including its entrenched inequalities and monopolies, its fiefdoms and clans. The future projected was a futur anterieur, something that has passed before it even happened, the only future we used to know.
The other future wore a mask. It was impassive, dispassionate, almost disinterested. It had sprung from a small arm of the previous future and grown exponentially like a lichen that grows on a tree and starts to gradually replace it. They clashed like Godzilla vs Mothra.
The shock wave hit the plane and threw us off.
Whose voice was that?
Also in this episode:
The lack of montage. The endless real-time essential workers world of logistics and reproduction carrying deceased relatives on our backs towards teleoperated incinerators. I will hopefully see myself, looking for you, worried, then relieved as our eyes meet.
You will finally find them.
Dispersed and bewildered.
You will ask:
Comrade tell me about the times when you were happily trying to ambush Trevor in GTA Liberty City. The time you were an octopus in Minecraft and never got killed because you were useless. And now your days are spent being taken over non-stop, possessed by hectic people trying to prototype virtual art fairs. You will tell me how you were forced to be the NPC gallerina at the Virtual Art Basel entrance, repeating the same sentence over and over again: your name is not on the list.
You know: There is no list. There has never been a list. Even if there was there would have been another door behind the first one. The person would have washed up in front of a different npc gallerina repeating the same sentence. You hated your job, and you remember how you hated it when you had to do it IRL. You were dropped into this map with a sagging oxygen saturation and even while you recover, there are more people raining in from above, trying to claim stakes while still being confused and suffering from hypoxia.
And you, comrade, you have been dispatched to measure the temperature of museum audiences. You are telecontrolled by a theater actor who was left unemployed. Two months ago he didn’t even know the word furloughed. He has been furloughed because of the Castorf piece he was in. Lots of spitting and yelling. Had he been in the von Schirach one (“debate style”) he might have kept his job. His colleagues are forced to take tests to keep shooting TV series – like porn actors in times of HIV. The actor is nervous and yanks you around. He’s coughing and he doesn’t have a gamer’s thumb – yet. You really would like to keep your distance from him but unless you unlock the don’t-possess-me reward there is little you can do.
You comrade you’re used to an editor. But montage has become one of the victims of this condition. Little content is edited these days. It’s either the flatness of real-time or the iconicity of the meme. Montage will be about assembling different points of view into a weave – now every strand remains on parallel lines, every face on it’s own screen, uncut, unassembled, isolated. Montage will be organization and infrastructure, the labor of creating quality out of quantity, a debate out of mere voices, a composition out of notes, society out of specimens. Now, strands are left to run in parallel in a real-time observation that is indistinguishable from reality TV surveillance. While you are wearing a ridiculous commando skin.
And you, my friend Mike. How many incinerations were you filming from your teleoperations center, how many old-school android files did you send off to relatives mourning in front of screens? They saw your hands in frame pushing the deceased into the flames and are thanking you for your service.
You used to be the pilot, so tell me what happened? Why did we have to eject?
A gravitational wave hit the plane. It came from the future. But actually from two futures that were fighting one another in a gigantic battle, causing space-time to ripple. One was the future that came from the past produced through a humungous amount of big data crunching. A massive attempt to control the future by prolonging past data, including its entrenched inequalities and monopolies, its fiefs and clans. The other one wore a mask. It was impassive, dispassionate, almost disinterested. It had sprung from a small arm of the previous future and grown exponentially like lichen that grows on a tree and starts to strangle it.
Many of us were yearning for something new. There we go.
After a lot of historical blockage and repetition our squad has to learn how to navigate unknowns like a TV writer that has no clue where the plot will take her. You are sure the plot will not add up but there is no emergency exit. All you know are disjointed past episodes that keep popping up within empty oxygen containers.
We fell into the improbable, breathless and will remain lost unless we figure out how to operate the second person perspective. Maybe someone left controls behind somewhere within this map. If not we will need to montage them.
Previously on this series: the squad has built a preprint prototype for a second person perspective.
From a spp, we are trying to figure out an improbability that has suddenly become rather
Maria Chehonadskih is a philosopher and critic. She is a Max Hayward Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her research and work concentrate on Soviet epistemologies across philosophy, literature, and art, as well as on post-Soviet politics and culture. She is currently preparing a book on The Transformation of Knowledge after the October Revolution.
Andrés Saenz De Sicilia is a philosopher and sound artist based in London. His theoretical work addresses the multiple crises of modern society and the enduring relevance of philosophical concepts for making sense of these crises. He lectures at Central Saint Martins and has performed and presented works at the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Cafe Oto, Villa Lontana, Whitechapel Gallery and Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Roma.
Kiluanji Kia Henda is an artist who employs a surprising sense of humor in his multidisciplinary practice in the fields of photography, video and performance, often homing in on themes of identity, politics and perceptions of postcolonialism and modernism in Africa. In complicity with historical legacy, Kia Henda recognizes processes of appropriation and manipulation of public spaces and structures, and the different representations that form collective memory. He received several prizes, like the Frieze Artist Award in 2018 and in 2012 the National Prize for Art and Culture, awarded by the Minister of Culture in Angola. His work was featured on biennales in Venice, Dakar, São Paulo and Gwangju, as well as international travelling exhibitions and solo exhibitions.
Jenna Sutela works with words, sounds and other living media, such as Bacillus subtilis nattō bacteria and the “many-headed” slime mold Physarum polycephalum. Her audiovisual pieces, sculptures and performances seek to identify and react to precarious social and material moments, often in relation to technology. Sutela's work has been presented at museums and art contexts including Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Moderna Museet and Serpentine Galleries. She is a Visiting Artist at The MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) from 2019–2020.
Hu Fang is a fiction writer and art critic based in Guangzhou, China. He is co-founder of Vitamin Creative Space.