The Virus and the Cessation of the Incessant

David S. Goodsell, “Coronavirus Painting”.

Viruses are, on average, one hundred times smaller than bacteria. The period at the end of this sentence could hold about one hundred million of them. With the exception of a few remarkably large ones, viruses cannot be seen under an optical microscope. They don’t eat, breathe, or move on their own. They don’t perceive or process any information whatsoever. They don’t even have a metabolism or a cellular structure. They consist of a few strands of DNA or RNA encased in a protein capsule and, in some cases, covered by a lipid layer. They are little more than a raw piece of genetic information.

They could hardly be considered life were it not for two basic capacities: they evolve, and they reproduce — though they can’t do the latter on their own, but only by seizing on the resources of a host cell. That is why viruses are called “organisms on the edge of life.”

They can only be “malignant,” then, in a metaphorical sense. They have neither intentions nor instincts nor conducts. Saying “the virus infected me” is like saying “the table hit me.” Language forces on us a certain animism, which confers agency to beings that have none.

A single neuron is a structure of enormous size and complexity next to a virus — the stupidest creature we could possibly imagine. And yet, human intelligence in its entirety is, at least for the time being, powerless before this largely inert particle of matter.

We too are bits of information that reproduce. But, of course, we are much more than that as well (much more than a virus!). We breathe, sense, eat, move… And, furthermore, we have the odd ability to garner information from the environment, to process it and act in consequence. We remember what happened, we detect patterns and, we notice differences, and we anticipate what will happen next. That is what we call “intelligence.” But, from a certain standpoint, and falling into a sort of animism ourselves, it could be said that all of those actions are just part of our genes’ complex strategy to reproduce.

Intelligence is our special trick, the adaptive edge that allowed us to move beyond the steppes of Africa and conquer the world, turning all earthly landscapes into terrains fertile for our life and reproduction, that is, into human incubators. Each ecosystem is like a problem we work out with different combinations of technologies and organizational strategies. Intelligence has proven, without a doubt, to be an excellent resource. The ability to manipulate information of any sort gives us the sense we can take on anything. It gives us, in other words, a certain feeling of omnipotence. But, as the present circumstances make clear, that sensation is an illusion: sometimes intelligence falters before the simplest things.

For the coronavirus (for all human viruses), we are the fertile terrain. Through our bodies (and our inclination to travel), it is conquering the world. Our many activities and functions are, at present, overshadowed by one we rarely bear in mind: we are virus incubators, whether or not those viruses are biological. As we come to a standstill, it appears that simple entities that reproduce through us are the ones playing an active role. Some of them are biological, imperiling a public space that, no longer ours, we have to abandon. Others are virtual, proliferating more than ever in that other, more aseptic public space that is the collective mind of the internet. Before them, reduced to foodstuff or breeding ground, we succumb to a tempting passivity. We cease to be apex predators and return to a humbler place on the chain of life.

This virus has unquestionably pushed us further down the road we were on, taking us closer to the world a number of thinkers and works of science fiction had anticipated: a society of bodies separated and minds joined, a paradoxical state of hyper-connected loneliness. The current scenario would have been impossible before the Internet, and it is the perfect way to get rid of our outdated resistances to it. We are getting used to being by ourselves and physically inactive, as we learn at top speed to work, educate, and socialize from a distance, in the delocalized space of the web. This change of habits will undoubtedly outlive the emergency.

The word “stupid” has been heard a great deal of late, at least in Argentina. It is an accusation leveled, in the social networks and the mass media, against those who violate restrictions, ignore quarantines, or otherwise insist on going on with their normal lives as if nothing were happening. The ones who, out of ignorance, inertia, or selfishness, fail to understand that in just a few days everything has changed, that normalcy is on hold, are stupid. There are also those who understood immediately the need for collective action to stop or, at least, to delay the spread of the virus. Before an external enemy, they reason, we humans must respond like a single body. In Argentina at least, we have seen a sudden and astonishing harmony take hold across the political spectrum. Issues that used to divide us have been bracketed. We have witnessed, then, the quick formation of a paradoxical community of isolates: the common cause of putting distance between bodies has suddenly unified us as humans. Except, that is, for the stupid ones, the normalcy junkies.

As a consequence of the need to keep distance from one another, we have observed an unsettlingly beautiful spectacle: the cessation of the incessant. The virus is the finest grain of sand that has managed to bring the giant engine of capitalism to a halt. We are experiencing something that, until not long ago, was inconceivable: the interruption of that which, it seemed, could never stop. Suddenly, everything is suspended: trips, engagements, deadlines, careers, projects. Perhaps this forced break will finally give us the time we need to think about what was happening, or even to dream up something different.

Capitalism is a narrative based on contradictory faith that everything will grow uninterruptedly and remain the same. In normal times, optimal use of the resources available gives capitalism an edge over other forms of organization. The secret to its success is investing everything there is in the production of what is to come. Credit, for instance, entails generating a present lack (a debt) for the sake of a (supposed) future abundance. But in capitalism’s strength lies its fragility. A stumble in the continuity of development throws everything awry. A culture of risk leaves only the slimmest safety margins. Nation states are now called on to act because in the present circumstances so-called market intelligence has proven utterly useless. All markets do is panic. The never-confessed secret of the system is that it rests on a spurious premise: the stability of the world.

There is no question that this system produces levels of inequality with no historical precedent, and that responsibility for its most harmful consequences lies in the hands of relatively few. That is easy to condemn. But in these unsettling times where the future is so uncertain, it becomes clear that we are all shareholders in the system. Like it or not, our lives depend on it. Our salaries, sales, pensions, and subsidies depend on its continued functioning. If something puts it at risk, we are all at risk. As things stand now, a catastrophe for capitalism is a personal catastrophe for each and every one of us. That’s why it is so hard to imagine the end of capitalism, or even its gradual transformation.

From our macroscopic heights, we will, eventually, find the way to win the tiny battle between the virus and our cells. After a distressing interval, intelligence will prevail. The external enemy will have been defeated and, with reparations and adjustments, the machine will resume operations.

Much more troubling in the long term is the problem of how intelligence will be able to combat its inherent stupidity. What solution can intelligence find when intelligence itself is the problem? In the end, intelligence is an adaptive mechanism specialized in solving problems, harnessing resources, and overcoming obstacles. It is specialized in external enemies. It is not geared to preserving the environment from which it gets its resources. It rarely dwells on the sustainability of its strategies. It resists recognizing that there is a problem born of how it operates.

For decades, we have been warned by many that the perpetual-growth model is unsustainable. But environmental decay and climate emergency are slow-motion disasters, their contours blurred in both time and space. Even more than the tiny scale of the virus, the planetary scale of climate change provides effective camouflage. Despite the more and more overwhelming evidence, some still deny it — and they will likely continue to do so until it’s too late. Thanks to the pandemic, we can harbor the perhaps fanciful hope that our instrumental intelligence will be put on hold and questioned for long enough for us to learn that the capitalist machinery can and must be stopped before the final catastrophe. We are experiencing a dress rehearsal for the end of the world — or for its transformation.

The perpetual-growth machine works thanks to the movements of our bodies. If we stay still, the machine stops. If we choose to move differently, the machine changes, it does something else. It’s true that we are often passive incubators of ideas, projects, and wishes that originate elsewhere and that we reproduce as our own. The production of needs is as essential to the system as the production of goods. It is through the combination of those two production processes that capitalism “creates value.” Humanity is the humus of capitalism. But that is no excuse for passively settling into the place of victim: we — unlike the virus — are active agents. Each one of our choices, no matter how small it may seem, has an impact on the system’s dynamic. The machine is not a distant entity outside of us, like the mothership of an alien invasion. On the contrary, it operates for and in us.

We are all refugees in a sudden world war against a non-human enemy. Life has come to a standstill, but we are not dead. We linger, ghost-like, our habits and routines suspended while we wait for someone to do something, for something to happen, for the virus to pass and allow us to pick things up where we left off. But this suspended animation could, if we want, be a gateway to something new.

On the far side of anxiety, uncertainty, and claustrophobia there might lie the chance to turn confinement into a laboratory to observe everything that begins to stir within us when we keep still, to consider what life might mean beyond the race for success, to reexamine our relationships with other humans, to learn new skills, to venture constructive assemblages with digital technologies, and to indulge in pleasures with little economic, energetic, or environmental cost.

This is the time to conceive the inconceivable, to understand that everything that seemed inevitable and necessary can come to a halt, and that perpetual growth is not a natural law. This is the time to test out what degrowing might be like. That means different things on different levels, but on an individual scale — the one that concerns us here — degrowing means, for instance, placing quality above quantity: doing fewer things, but doing them better. It means thinking less about owning and consuming, and more about creating and nurturing, engaging in practices that connect us to one another and enrich our lives. It means focusing, dwelling on the things we like to do, enjoying them and sharing them with others. It means giving up the exhausting struggle to have everything, to try everything, to experience everything. This might not make much sense to those whose possibilities are already reduced to a minimum by exclusion or material want. But, sometimes unknowingly, many of us waste in many different ways and on many different scales. We waste money, time, effort, worry, and emotional energy, often for the sake of imposed images of what we should be like, for the sake of things that are not worth it, that do not augment happiness. Against the mandates of the great productive machine, we can work to make everything smaller and slower, but also more mindful, beautiful, and honest.

This text was written between March 23 and 25, 2020, during the first days of the mandatory social isolation in Argentina.

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.

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Leonardo Solaas

Especialista en generalidades, turista de teorías, creyente de la duda. Extraviado en algún lugar entre la programación, el arte y la filosofía.