Going Viral – a much needed critical reflection

Thanks to Hans Skott-Myhre for drawing our attention to this elegant and thought-provoking reflection on the coronavirus [COVID-19] outbreak penned by Michael Marder, a professor of philosophy at the University of the Basque Country. It appeared in the New York Times.

The Coronavirus Is Us

Thanks to the New York Times

We live in an interconnected world, where borders are porous, more like living membranes than physical walls.

Here are a couple of extracts to entice you into reading the whole.

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, now threatening to snowball into a full-fledged pandemic, has already begun to wreak a sort of global havoc, causing alarm and even panic in several countries, spasms in financial markets and, most painfully, loss of life. There has been very little time so far for reflection, and few of us have stopped to wonder what this crisis might tell us about ourselves — about our bodies, our communities, our political systems and the nature of our growing interconnectedness across borders. But I believe it has something crucial to tell.

Well before the current outbreak, a global tendency to build walls and seal off national borders — between the United States and Mexico, Israel and Palestine, Hungary and Serbia and Croatia and elsewhere — had taken hold. The resurgent nationalism instigating this tendency nourishes itself on the fear of migrants and social contagion, while cherishing the impossible ideal of purity within the walled polity.

The border closures, obstacles to travel and quarantines now being imposed in response the viruses are on the surface medical measures, but they are also symbolic, resonating with the same basic logic as the construction of physical walls for political reasons. Both acts are meant to reassure citizens and give them a false sense of security. At the same time, they ignore the main problem — the poor state of transnational governance and decision-making that are vitally important for tackling climate and migrant crises, pandemics and economic crimes like tax evasion.

Survivalism has always followed a trajectory parallel to that of virulent nationalism. At its core is the fiction of a self-reliant, totally independent and autonomous, Crusoesque individual, the one who is smart and strong enough to be able to save himself (the gendered pronoun is not accidental here) and, perhaps, his family. Following the trail of the theological doctrine of salvation reserved for the select few, this attitude abstracts human beings from the environmental, communal, economic and other contexts of their lives.

One aspect of viral activity is to infiltrate and to transcribe the texts of host cells and computer programs. Another is to replicate itself as widely as possible. In the social media universe, both aspects are actually coveted: When a photograph, a video, a joke or a story is shared, quickly spreading among internet or cellphone users, it is said to go viral. A high rate of viral content’s replication is not sufficient, as it needs to make an impact, transcribing, as it were, the social text it has infiltrated. The ultimate goal is to assert one’s influence through a widely disseminated image or story and wield that power. Going viral introduces a fair degree of complexity into our affective relation to viruses: feared, when we become their targets and possible hosts; desired, when they are our instruments for reaching a sizable audience.

The comparison of going viral on the Internet and a coronavirus pandemic is not far-fetched. The global dimension of recent epidemics is a result of the increasing mobility and physical interconnectedness of large segments of world population engaged in mass tourism, educational and professional exchanges, long-distance relations, international cultural and sports events, and so on. It was on board cruise ships, such as the Diamond Princess, on planes, in trains and hotels that the virus traveled beyond the hot spot of its initial outbreak — in other words, in those cases when one sent oneself, not just one’s image or message, elsewhere.

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