by Eric J. Weiner
As an “intellectual in emigration,” Theodor Adorno wrote Mimima Moralia, his book of philosophical, sociological, cultural, and psychological reflections “from the standpoint of subjective experience, [which] means that the pieces do not entirely measure up to the philosophy, of which they are nevertheless a part.” I have always been fascinated by this book. As form follows function, he uses common aphorisms as a springboard for this particular advance of critical theory; each section is a short but deep dive into the very essence of the experience about which he ruminates. As an intellectual in quarantine away from my home, I felt some loose kinship to Adorno’s condition of displacement and found the form compelling as well as comforting. My mind and spirit are restless and conflicted; protected yet partially blinded by my shelter, I nevertheless try to see, understand and find a kind of educated hope in the fact that through critical reflection there are pedagogical moments in the present and past from which to learn and grow.
Nothing is harmless anymore–Theodor Adorno
Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee–Often referenced as the shortest poem ever written, Muhammad Ali’s poem “Me, We!” captures in the most succinct way the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic presents to a species not quite ready for primetime. According to George Plimpton in the film When We Were Kings, after Ali completed his commencement address to Harvard’s graduating class of ‘75, a student yelled out from the audience, “Give us a poem!” I imagine “The Greatest” looking out from the podium over the congregation of overwhelmingly white faces—punctuated like an exclamation point by the occasional brown one—and spreading his famously long arms as if getting ready to accept the love of a neglected child. A grin widens across that beautifully regal face as he recites, “Me, We!”; a stinging jab, followed by a powerful overhand right.
You never forget how to ride a bike—Reuters, April 4, 2020, journalist Gabriella Borter writes, “Hospitals and morgues in [New York City] are struggling to treat the desperately ill and bury the dead. Crematories have extended their hours and burned bodies into the night, with corpses piling up so quickly that city officials were looking elsewhere in the state for temporary interment sites.” My nine-year-old daughter, on this same day, in a town about eighty-five miles from the crematories and refrigerated temporary morgues, learns to ride her bike. A northwest wind rips open several days of raw rain, ushering in chilly spring air, cerulean sky, and bursts of Goldenrod along the harbor’s edge. It takes just a short jog and gentle push from me to send her off into that magical moment in which velocity, gravity and centrifugal force mix with our human capacity, need and desire for balance; her triumphant laughter and hoots of delight are stolen by the wind as she pedals her bike farther and farther away from me.
History is circular yet non-repeating–It should come as no surprise that authoritarian-minded leaders throughout the world see the pandemic as an excuse to undermine democratic systems and institutions, thereby consolidating their grip on power. Uniquely 21st century fascistic regimes are growing roots throughout the world. Ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, exploitative to labor, and hostile to women, Jews, and gay people, these newly emerging authoritarian systems are using the current emergency situation to rationalize what the oppressed have always known; instability and fear seed the authoritarian imagination while the promise of comfort and salvation quells dissent.”The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve” (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History). The authoritarian imagination sees public troubles as opportunities for the consolidation of private power. This is the real state of emergency of which Benjamin cogently warns; hidden behind the rush to save lives–lives that were considered, just weeks ago–not worth saving, is the rush to power. But the tradition of the oppressed also teaches us that a return to normal is a return to a time of oppression; a time in which the majority of the planet’s population lived in or close to the line of poverty, struggled to feed themselves and their families, fought over clean water, and had sub-standard healthcare, education, and housing. Let’s be diligent when writing the history of yet another “emergency situation;” our conception of history must align with the insight that the real emergency in our time of the viral pandemic is neoliberal fascism, a rise in authoritarian-minded leadership, a collapse of democracy, and the delegitimization of truth.
Rise and Shine—In the children’s animated film Up, the three-minute chronological montage of Ellie and Carl’s loving life together up until her death is poignant, beautiful and sad because it is everything we can hope for and two and half-minutes more than most of us will ever get.
Eyes wide shut—Masking the face has a long history as a theatrical device, a medical wonder, religious garb, an accoutrement of all kinds of criminal activity, protection against blowing sand and debris, a shield against smog and bugs, a costume, a sign of sexual deviance, and a symbol of terror. Not unlike the hood, the meaning of a face-mask changes not only with its application, but who is wearing it. Whose eyes peer out from above the mask? What race, ethnicity, sex, religion, and/or nationality do we recognize behind the mask? By the color of skin and roundness of eyes, we guess at the shape of the mouth, the fullness of lips, the length and broadness of the nose. We search for other signs that might help us learn if the masked person is a friend or an enemy. When our face is masked, our identities become a blank slate upon which others write their fantasies, pleasures, terrors, fears, and hopes. When you want to know if someone is lying, look at their mouth rather than their eyes. It is true that pupils dilate under certain circumstances, saying yes when everything else indicates a no or vice versus. Yet, more often than not, eyes easily hide what’s lurking in the heart and mind; the mouth gives it away almost every time. Cover it up and we are uncertain about a person’s intentions; our intuition is short-circuited. In an effort to get our footing, we revert back to tribal knowledges, biases bread in the bone of memory and mother tongues; driven by fear or lust, we create flight or fight stories in which we live in a blink a lifetime with the masked protagonist. It is why some African-Americans refuse to wear face-masks during the pandemic. Those who demand that everyone should wear a mask on the street, without acknowledging the risks of doing so for African-American males in particular, are tone-deaf to the serious threat and privileges of living within a white supremacist culture. Young black men are criminalized for wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up; police and others have justified killing black men for no more than wearing a hood at the wrong time and in the wrong place. What of the threat of violence or incarceration to black men who wear a mask in the wrong place at the wrong time (which of course is every place at all times)? The savage inequities that African-American’s experience during their lives contributes to the inequality we are seeing in death. There is simply no way to separate white supremacy and the inequitable impact the disease is having on African-American communities. Whether it’s the danger of wearing a mask or the over-representation of African-American people in “essential” jobs, the question remains the same: Who is to protect them from those of us who will exploit their labor, criminalize their bodies, and/or pathologize their cultures, communities, languages, and histories while we demand that they help save us from ourselves?
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
Audre Lorde, “Power” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (1978)
Goo Goo G’joob—Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, found my way downstairs and drank a cup, and looking up I noticed I wasn’t late because I had nowhere to go. I didn’t need my coat or my hat, and it no longer mattered if I made the bus, subway, or train in seconds flat, so I made my way upstairs and had a smoke, turned on my computer just in time to make my first Zoom meeting of the day, and everybody starting speaking at once from inside their little Hollywood Squares; in the age of COVID-19, someone’s kid screamed, and I went into a dream. Chaos and uncertainty reign. Temporary refrigerated morgues line the streets as states outbid each other in the free-market for medicine and PPE. But did you actual see the bodies, the conspiracist asks? Some of us eat eggs, yogurt, fresh fruit, vegetables, steak, drink copious amounts of coffee in the morning and sip tequila or wine in the evening; others seethe from hunger and shelter in cramped places. Same as it ever was. We are all in this together, they say. Same as it ever was. But we are only together as much as any difference is defined against what it is not; the savage inequalities that Jonathan Kozol referenced almost three decades ago have only gotten more pronounced, amplified against the backdrop of disease and ideology. Under the reign and racket of neoliberalism—a pandemic of a different sort—”together” signifies with no irony a radical separation of experience. Tolerance for these differences is a proscribed salve for the blisters of discontentment that will assuredly arise from the chaffing of dissonance. We have always been together and apart. I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together; see how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly; I’m crying. This is not a new condition brought on by the pandemic. The pandemic simply demands a novel degree of tolerance for savage inequalities.
There are no Ideologues in a Foxhole–Bernie Sanders is right about the failure of our healthcare system even before the pandemic to responsibly and effectively care for a large swath of the American public. But he is also painfully short-sighted, in the way all ideologues are, by not making a clearer distinction between the immediate demands of, in this case, the Coronavirus pandemic and the need to challenge more generally the ideological rational irrationality of US healthcare policy and practice. There is a tone-deafness in these ideological critiques; they are theoretically right, but politically wrong.
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind—If aliens invaded the planet, then we should all immediately become Earthlings instead of an abstract conglomeration of “nation states” and oligarchies competing for power and resources. A common enemy of the alien-sort that might arrive from a distant galaxy intent on destroying life as we know it requires a coordinated and coherent global response if it is to be defeated. Instead, we are atomized and fractured. Set against one another in a neoliberal blood-sport of Darwinian proportions, the people are the chorus in this global tragedy; we are a jumble of disconnected words staring out from our screens looking for syntactical connection, a knowable grammar that can help us make sense of what is occurring in, around and to us. From the Grand Wazoo himself, who said, “You are what you is,” I say, we is fucked. In this context, fucked is to be herded, like so much livestock into various systems and formations, coherently irrational, fueled by the masters of universal disaster who dream of consuming subjects and competing nation states; a television reality show turned into a real-life lottery of disease and death.
Where there is no vision, the people perish—Dead bodies are stacked and stored in refrigerated semi-trucks parked off of Park Avenue in Manhattan (average price for a one bedroom in the neighborhood, $1.5 million), the same trucks that used to be parked across from the “projects” during Thanksgiving to give out free frozen turkeys to the working poor, the oppressed, the invisible men and woman who use the school for a source of food, security and childcare; to those who use the emergency room for their healthcare; to those whose value is only now deemed essential. It is a brutal irony that those workers we now applaud from the windows and balconies of our apartments were, before the pandemic, the under-appreciated, invisible workforce. So many of them were looked down upon, sneered at, the butt of jokes, poorly paid, constantly refused gratuities even after delivering whatever it was we were too lazy to go out and get ourselves; the loaders, packers, deliverers, and shoppers–those that allowed the few and the proud to do “real” work and earn “real” money. Those who were “disposable” are now “essential.” There was a time when being labeled essential was a good thing; it meant you mattered more than those labeled as non-essential. To be essential now means you are expected–in some instances, unofficially required–to expose yourself and your family to a deadly virus. For healthcare and other emergency workers, this is what they signed up for–not, of course, to work in unsafe conditions–but to care for the sick and contagious, help cure the ailing, protect and serve, and counsel and give comfort to the anxious and depressed. The essential nature of their work might have been taken for granted but it wasn’t typically denied. Yet for the others, putting oneself in harms way so others can shelter in place was not in the official job description. Once there is a vaccine or enough people develop antibodies, we know that those essential workers will become, once again, disposable.
The New Normal—Each day, every day: You may find yourself, living in a shotgun shack, and you may find yourself in another part of the world, and you may find yourself, behind the wheel of a large automobile, and you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, well, How did I get here? And you may ask yourself, How do I work this? And you may ask yourself, Where is that large automobile? And you may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful house! And you may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful wife! You may ask yourself, What is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself, Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself, Am I right? Am I wrong? And you may say yourself, ‘My God! What have I done? (Talking Heads).
The art of the weak—Michel de Certeau makes an important distinction between tactics and strategies. For De Certeau, strategy is the architecture by which official power organizes its ideas. Tactics, by contrast, are the disruptive practices of the marginalized, of those that work and live within the architecture of power, yet are not served in part or in full by that architecture. Eve Haque writes:
For De Certeau, strategies are the ‘calculus of force-relationships which … assume a place that can be circumscribed as proper and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it’. Hence, strategies ‘conceal beneath objective calculations their connection with the power that sustains them from within the stronghold of its own ‘proper’ place or institution’. Tactics on the other hand: Are a calculus which cannot count on a proper … localization … thus, the place of tactics belongs to the other and insinuates itself into the other’s place fragmentarily without taking over in its entirety. Since it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized on the wing. Whatever it wins—it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities’. Therefore, tactics are an action in hostile territory and opportunistic action taken when you do not set the terms of engagement, or in De Certeau’s words, tactics are the ‘art of the weak’ often used as a ‘last resort.’”
I am thinking about Ani Defranco’s lyric “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right,” in comparison to Audre Lorde, who argues: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The key word in Lorde’s idea is “genuine;” it suggests ideological purity, essentially a value judgement veiled behind ideology. Defranco’s insight, by contrast, is non-ideological and suffers on the one hand from a lack of structural vision, yet, on the other, understands that the oppressed don’t have the privilege and power to ever demand purity or be constrained by a commitment to it; they must use whatever is on hand to fight against the oppressor regardless of whether ultimately their fight results in “genuine” change or not. I always think of a pencil or pen when I hear DeFranco sing this line. I can see Jason Bourne or John Wick turning a pencil into a deadly weapon, laying waste to people utterly surprised by their ability to turn a writing utensil into an effective tool of pain and destruction. But I also think about Paul Willis’s rebellious working-class lads, fighting against a system whose reach turns rebellion, like so many Hegelians, on its head; when we fight against an oppressive force, absent a notion of what we are also fighting for, our actions might not only not dismantle the master’s house, but they might inadvertently buttress it against future rebellion.
For Henry Giroux—A white working class kid, I imagine all gangly arms and legs, flailing about the basketball court, better than he should have been, tenacious, joyful when in the game, ruthless and compassionate at the same time and without contradiction. His commitment to social justice uninterrupted by defeat, family, or friends; remarkable for how directly he is able to speak truth to power, to clarify the distortions and calculations of dominating power; people who are not supposed to know any better can hear their world being put back together with the glue of his ideas and language. I’ve seen it and heard it. They listen and watch, slack-jawed, at his courage and utter disdain for privilege and unjustifiable authority. It’s me, they say. He’s talking about me and my life; they excitedly chatter to each other online and in class. Others, of course, think he’s nonsensical, jargon-riddled, a neo-Marxist, economically illiterate, a radical, a traitor to liberal and even some progressive ideals. He rewrites our story to include the invisible men and women, boys and girls, who, if they do appear in the official discourse, are often monsters, deformed imbeciles, cultural derelicts, disposable like so much garbage; he does not romanticize, calling a spade a spade. The stories he tells are the ones we need to hear, however painful they might be to some of us, however difficult they are to believe.
We sit in our sixth-grade desks with the blinds
closed against the tree-lined streets
as the letters of the world rise up
and, forming a single word,
eclipse our world and fill our mouths with shadows.
Rita Mae Reese, from “The Alphabet Conspiracy”
Hat in hand—September 11, 2001. Sitting in gridlock on route 3 in NJ, trying to get back to my apartment in Hoboken, I look over to see a Sikh slowly, carefully unwrapping his dastār. The twin towers in downtown Manhattan collapsed hours before and we listened to the news reports on the radio, a cacophony of frightened, sad, and angry commentators constructing history from the incinerated bodies, melted steel, and gray ash on the southern tip of Manhattan. There was surely going to be hell to pay, but the fear circulating through the stalled traffic was generated from the realization that hell is what we were just paid, with many not understanding the debt. The Sikh looked straight ahead, fear and knowing in his eyes, trying to remove any mark that could be misinterpreted as a sign of complicity with whomever might have orchestrated such violence. The hair bristled on the back of my neck. I was terrified that people around me, scared, stuck and looking for revenge would pull the man from his car and rip his arms from his body, smash his face into the asphalt. I was afraid I would be compelled to intervene and suffer a similar fate. I was afraid I would do nothing and stand-by and witness the violence done to an innocent man. With the unwrapping of his dastār complete, and his invisibility relatively, yet contingently secured, I relaxed the grip on the wheel and got out of my car to wonder with the other stuck motorists, what next? We all now know what happened next. Endless wars, government incursions that lay bare the contingent fragility of human rights, state sponsored terrorism, demonization and criminalization of Muslims, white nationalistic fervor, and a return to a kind of pre-modern mind-set that resurrects the imagined dichotomy of good and evil to statecraft. When the man unwrapped his dastār in fear of being associated with the people who flew the planes into the buildings, he unveiled many of the real threats to democracy; irrational violence, ignorance, nationalism, atomization, bigotry, and suspicion of the “other” to name but a few. The terrorism of 9-11 did not undermine our democracy and ideological commitment to “rights.” But maybe our response did.
The grass is always greener—Hiking up a mountain in Banff, we came across a small meadow of moss lining the trail. We took our boots and socks off and squished our toes into its soft cushion of dayglo green fuzz. We laid in it feeling it wrap around our shoulders and backs. We smoked some weed, ate a cap or two, laughed at our good fortune, and breathed deep the musky scents of wood, herb and wild mushrooms that clung to the base of nearby old-growth trees. A lovely bed of new moss is ravishing the path up the hill in my backyard to a place my daughter calls her secret hideout. The path is now magically carpeted with deep squishy moss. It blankets the tree stumps we half buried in the ground to form steps up the hill. I imagine it covering my deck, house, cars, motorcycle, driveway, mailbox, slowing making its way onto my feet, up my legs, over my shoulders, around my neck, over my eyes, and finally over my mouth and down my throat; my world, and everything I am and will ever be, covered in moss. We become moss people. We are the moss people. My neighbor hates moss. He kills it as soon as he sees it growing anywhere on his property. We share a property line delineated by a neat line of several large oak trees. One side of the largest oaks has started to grow a substantial beard of moss; he asked me if he could kill it. Being that it is on my side of the property line, I said no.
I. Those who can do, teach—Beth Lewis from ThoughtCo explains that a “teachable moment is an unplanned opportunity that arises…where a teacher has a chance to offer insight to his or her students. A teachable moment is not something that you can plan for; rather, it is a fleeting opportunity that must be sensed and seized by the teacher.” While some teachers I know think about teachable moments as positive and important because they arise out of a learner’s intrinsic need to know and understand, others are not as enthusiastic. Because teachable moments oftentimes require educators to digress from their planned lessons and standardized curriculum, these teachers “refuse” to sense and seize on them when they arise in their classrooms. The reasons for their “refusal” are many and understandable. Standardized testing forces teachers to teach to the test. Scripted pedagogies force teachers to follow a “scientifically proven” program that is guaranteed to work. Narrowly conceived state curriculum standards deemphasize local knowledge and experience in the classroom. “Value-added” assessments of teachers link student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluations which makes teaching to the test a rational irrationality. Panoptic surveillance of students and teachers in the classrooms control student and teacher behavior by creating a “chilling” pedagogical atmosphere in which everyone is afraid to say or do anything that could be classified as controversial or inappropriate. More generally, the damaged nature of the socio-political-cultural climate outside of school creates an environment within the school in which teachers and students are afraid to take-up important issues because they want to avoid conflict and/or fear being marked as politically biased. I think it is understandable, given these current realities, that a teacher may “choose” to ignore a teachable moment because it just doesn’t make good sense for them to do otherwise.
II. In the final analysis (sic)—All of these forces are helping to habituate a pedagogical workforce that can’t sense and seize upon a teachable moment because they don’t have the tools to do so. Within this context, their refusal isn’t conscious or driven by the structural issues highlighted above, but instead operates at an ideological level; that is, teachers don’t see teachable moments as teachable moments but instead sense and respond to them as disruptions and/or superfluous digressions. For these teachers, a question posed by a student that is not directly related to the plan or forces the teacher off-script is understood as beside the point or “off-topic.” If an event should occur during the course of the day that is significant but does not easily fit into the plan, these teachers can easily ignore the event by rationalizing it as outside of what the students need to be learning. They simply are not able to read the world. Students might even be disciplined for asking questions or making observations that don’t follow the plan or script. The “softest” disciplinary move is to simply ignore the student’s question and redirect her back to the planned lesson. A “harder” response might be to use sarcasm in response to the student’s question and/or observation in an effort to embarrass the student into not taking the teacher off-topic. The “hardest” response is typically to forcefully shut down the student by announcing to the class that her questions and/or observations are unimportant because they are not part of the lesson plan. In all of these scenarios, the teachable moment is seen as a threat to the teacher’s power. The teacher then reasserts her authority to reestablish curricular and pedagogical order. Like the teacher in Paulo Freire’s “banking model of education,” her job as she understands it is to deposit knowledge, values, and information into her students’ empty heads. The student’s job is to graciously accept her deposits, follow her plan, and not interrupt.
III. The Homeless Erasure—As a class of third grade students sketched the architectural details on a church across the street from their school as part of a general lesson plan about religion and sacred spaces, a few of the students asked about the homeless man who was sleeping on the steps of the church. The teacher, a fifty-year veteran teacher, told them to not include the man in their drawing and to pay attention to the stained glass, spires, ornate doorway, curving stairway (upon which the man lay), and the stone archways. What makes this “refusal” even more spectacular is the fact that the school is a “progressive” Quaker institution with a mission to educate students about social injustice. They even run a shelter in the school in the evenings and the students regularly work with food pantries to assist in helping people who can’t afford to buy enough food to eat. Even within this context, the teacher couldn’t/wouldn’t sense and seize upon this teachable moment. Whether she sensed it and then refused to address it or whether she didn’t see it as a teachable moment and therefore couldn’t seize it, I do not know. The end result is the same. By ignoring this teachable moment, the students learned that the homeless man and the conditions of homelessness more generally were less important to their education than the architecture of the church. By ignoring this teachable moment, the teacher missed the opportunity to address the issue of homelessness and the role of religion and education in both serving the needs of the poor as well as normalizing the experience of homelessness. This could have led to a critical investigation into any number of related issues or it could have ended at the conclusion of the lesson on architecture and religion. But neither occurred as her soft disciplinary response redirected the kids back to the architectural details of the church. When the children showed me their renderings of the church, they mentioned the erased presence of the homeless man asleep on the stairs of the church.
There’s a sucker born everyday–If it wasn’t understood before, it is irrefutable now; Trump and his band of merry fools and gangsters are not just mismanaging the viral pandemic, passing the buck on thousands of deaths that might have been prevented or at the least mitigated had he acted on the hard science and real journalism available to him in late January, he and his brand are the real viral pandemic; shedding around the world, infecting tens of millions of people at an alarming rate, and highly resistant to any of the drugs used to combat viruses such as this in the past. Aside from the language of war, contagions like this are historically resistant to less radical interventions. As spectacle, Trumpism consumes all attempts to distinguish representation from reality, making the act of discrimination just another representation no more real than the representation it was trying to make visible. Guy Debord (1967) writes, “The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.” As part of the spectacle of Trumpism, Trump is simply and dangerously a darkening representation of power that shifts and pivots fluidly because reality is negated within the spectacle. “The spectacle is ideology par excellence, because it exposes and manifests in its fullness the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, servitude and negation of real life” (Guy Debord, 1967).
The terror of the unforeseen–In an earlier essay for 3 Quarks Daily, I reviewed Henry Giroux’s book The Terror of the Unforeseen. Riffing off of Philip Roth’s apt phrase that he uses in the Plot Against America to describe how “the science of history turns disaster into an epic,” Giroux uses it as a point of departure for a cogent critical analysis of Trump specifically and what he calls the evolution of neoliberal fascism in the United States more generally. But as the Coronavirus pandemic lays waste to tens of thousands of people across the globe (and counting); as we shelter ourselves in small tribes against the viral winds; as poor children and families, already living on the edge of safety and security, try to survive with minimal school support coupled with community networks weakened by enforced social distancing; as neighbors, silhouetted against the shadow of sickness and death, morph into strangers, the phrase the terror of the unforeseen takes on a new meaning. Not quite a manifestation of political, cultural or social power, viruses hide beneath our flesh, in our blood, hide in our saliva; the widely circulated images of the novel Covid-19 virus are the stuff of alien nightmares, invaders infiltrating the human ecosystem, attaching to major organs, killing some, causing relatively mild symptoms in others, while using some of us like so many Trojan horses. For these asymptomatic “hosts,” their systems are colonized and being used without their knowledge. They are the viral equivalent of the “useful idiot,” shedding viral germs, helping their agent “reproduce.” The terror of the unforeseen, under the regime of Covid-19 is threefold. First, it is the invisibility of the virus as it enters our system undetected; we are terrorized by what we can’t see but can harm us. Second, as we help it spread, “live,” and thrive, we become strangers to each other; never knowing who might be a viral host, no “tell” in the form of a cough or sneeze to give them away. The invisible and silent alien within makes everyone alien, a nation of suspects, predators, and victims. Community becomes a dangerous crowd; atomization and militarization is our only retreat. Lastly, in a world left economically ravaged by Covid-19, the groundwork for the official dismantling of neoliberal democracy is laid. One person will step up and declare that the crisis demands the suspension of elections, a consolidation of governmental power over the people, and a “temporary” nationalization of the economy. Enough people in congress will acquiesce. At this time, neoliberalism will have officially transitioned to what Thomas Picketty calls “postcommunism,” a system similar to what we see in China or Russia.
The end is near—Adorno writes, “The more passionately thought seals itself off from its conditional being for the sake of what is unconditional, the more unconsciously, and thereby catastrophically, it falls into the world. It must comprehend even its own impossibility for the sake of possibility.” We enable thoughts and knowledge itself by considering the possibility that both are impossible. By doing so we can reclaim a degree of sanity in times that are, by most standards of measurement, insane. Whether there is redemption at the end of the tunnel, as Adorno says, is “inconsequential.” But I hope there is because I am pretty sure there will be hell to pay.