Chronicles of the psycho-deflation #5
“Would you have ever thought the apocalypse to be so boring?” my friend Andrea asks me—his life is usually very adventurous and now he is stuck on an old dilapidated couch nearby the Aventino, while the Roman spring silently blooms around him and he can’t even see it.
Good question, nice point of view—finally, we got bored!
You can also see the matter from another perspective, just to dissipate the fog of boredom. You can see the apocalypse as an event happening in slow motion, a precipitation we can foresee the upcoming collapse of, a landslide to come we can barely govern.
Before the unfolding of macro events (such as climate change) and micro events (such as the spread of viruses), this blatant revelation of the conscious will’s powerlessness is a lesson we should assimilate and elaborate. If will is unable to govern process, what else could?
To escape boredom, I read an article by Francesco Sisci, a very intelligent Italian sinologist who is a member of the Beijing Academy of Sciences, meaning he knows what he’s saying when he speaks about Chinese stuff.
Sisci starts from the news that the Americans want to seek compensation from China for millions of trillions of trillion. According to them, China is the one to blame for this mess: the virus escaped from their damned Wuhan laboratory, then they have hidden and continue to hide information… then they passed the virus to us and we passed it to Americans, their Chinese virus—Trump says, Pompeo repeats—our economy is falling apart and they have to pay for it—say those who promised to make America great again, furious.
It’s China’s fault. Let’s sue them! Let’s cancel America’s debt to the Chinese bank!
As usual, Americans play with fire.
Perhaps they think that if China gets pissed, they will have to face just a few hundred Boxers armed with swords, shields and spears coming from behind the corner to punch them.
Nein. It’d be good not to forget last October 1st parade, with all those beautiful shiny warheads and those rounded ogives on display. Beside coronavirus, with all those ogives the death toll could multiply over a hundred times.
Sisci, who knows what he’s talking about, warns against the warmongering madness that the social catastrophe triggered by the virus could provoke.
The congenital idiocy of the American people is nonetheless out in the open, in Michigan and Virginia cities, where groups of armed gangs demand their governors to withdraw their preventive measures. They are ready to shoot Indians, between a beer and another. But the problem is, that now there are no more Indians on horseback, but a disciplined totalitarian techno-military power.
In the past few weeks I was writing with ease and a certain (irresponsible) cheerfulness, as words slipped out of me and followed each other with no resistance.
Now, something has changed. Maybe because a friend accused me of using the word “irresponsible” with a positive sign, while the moment demands maximum responsibility.
Here, I never liked the word responsibility that much. But I’ve started to feel a little embarrassed about hovering in mid-air, while things are getting dramatic.
In the past few days I have been re-reading William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.
I used to read them in the 80s. In 1982 I had the chance to meet Burroughs in person, I went to see him in his bunker on the Bowery to interview him. I hardly understood anything of his Texan accent, and the result was a rambling interview that came out on Frigidaire.
I’ve read Exterminator, Ah Pook is Here, The Job, The Electronic Revolution and some of his dizzying novels, which today can be reread as premonitions.
With icy hallucinated lucidity Burroughs said that human language is nothing more than a virus that has stabilized in the body, changing it, pervading it, transforming it.
“The word itself may be a virus that has achieved a permanent status with the host.” Therefore, “Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. In the beginning was the word.”
But if language is a virus imposing itself on the organism leading it to the predominance of abstraction over the concreteness of the useful, and thus to produce the historical conditions for its self-destruction, can’t we assume that it will precisely be a virus to rejoin language, concreteness, sensuality and suffering?
But on what level does the virus act? I would say on the aesthetic level. So, it’s through perception and sensitivity that we can recompose language and concreteness.
Since the confinement began, I have never stopped painting. Actually I can’t really call what I do painting: I make collages with fragments of images, photocopies, pieces of newspaper which I then superimpose on enamel colors, nail polishes, transfers, nets…
The apartment is full of these canvas, thirty-five by fifty or seventy by fifty, stacked over the bench, resting on the library shelves, piled up on the ground.
Some are recurrent motifs, obsessions-like. A white dove attacked by a black crow returns as a leitmotif. Remember that scene?
I paint doves and crows chasing each other ahead of Bergoglio’s amazed eyes, as he certainly has tried to interpret the signal that came from the heights of Heaven.
It was on January 26, 2014, shortly after Francis ascended the throne of Peter, after another Pope had bowed his head before the ungovernable powers of inner chaos. In his Habemus Papam, Nanni Moretti’s genius told the drama of human depression before chaos prevailed.
The Pope and two children are looking out a St. Peter’s window. The Pope caresses the children’s heads while they throw two white doves in the air. A black crow comes from the left, chasing the poor dove which tries to escape for a few moments, then grabs it, drags it and devours it.
The symbolism is outrageously clear: evil comes suddenly from the depths of chaos and stains the sky of Rome with innocent blood.
Shall I continue? Better not. I don’t want to interpret the signs as if there was someone’s will behind them. My atheism doesn’t allow me to. But sometimes it’s hard to resist the idea of an omni-poetic and malignant emanation that offers enigmatic but suggestive signs to a stunned audience of human spectators.
From Francis himself comes the political lesson of a man who is fighting the battle of Christ not in the name of truth, but in the name of charity, of the joyful and painful sharing of human experience. But also, another philosophical lesson comes from his words and deeds: the powers of evil are chaos emanations, when chaos surpasses our own power for meaning, affection, and reason. It is not God’s will that manifests itself in evil. In his nocturnal homily in March, Francis said it “papale papale” (an Italian expression meaning “openly, straight forward”)—God does not punish his children, and the virus is not a divine punishment.
So? So, the virus is the complexity of chaos that overcomes our ability to understand, govern, and cure.
But the history of culture is precisely the history of this chaosmosis, of this relation between the chaos of experience and consciousness’ provisional order.
A photo in the newspaper—we are in America, there is a row of cars trumpeting and waving flags and stripes. Armed citizens demonstrate against the lockdown, demanding their freedom back. A lady pulls out a sign from the car with FREE LAND written on it.
What are they talking about? They are white citizens of a nation that wrote the word freedom in its founding documents, but that since the beginning has failed to mention the slavery of millions of people, in order to enhance this very same “freedom”.
When Jefferson and co. wrote their famous Declaration of Independence, there were 600,000 Africans within the confederation of thirteen states who worked for free, under conditions of total subordination. During the drafting of the sacred text, someone brought this issue forward.
In the first version, there was actually a sentence that condemned England for establishing the slavery regime in its colonies. Then it was decided to delete that sentence because mentioning slavery meant revealing the hypocrisy and the absolute falsity of the whole shitty sacred text on which the whole American political civilization is based on.
Whose freedom and what kind of? Freedom to do what exactly?
The rhetoric of freedom crumbles under the blows of viral indeterminism. This is perhaps the essential weak point of Giorgio Agamben’s otherwise fully acceptable positions, which seems to reestablish a metaphysics of freedom, which is not that materialistic after all.
In the meantime, the oil demand drops to the point that its value on global markets has fallen to zero and below. If you buy a few barrels now, they’d pay you for the trouble. Oil-laden ships are stationed around the oceans because the Iranian/Texan/Arab deposits are full. The American shale industry, the gas extracted by destroying the subsoil with underground pneumatic hammers, is wrecked. We can hope for it to be as such for good. Still, there is a pipe that crosses the continent from the Canadian to the Mexican border—the Keystone Oil Pipeline. They wanted to build it at all costs, beating the Native communities who tried to defend their territories to death—well, even that pipe must be full of black grease now.
What are we going to do with all this oily stuff?
A disturbing question—if we return to normality, that normality that used to be normal before the virus, what will we do with all this cheap oil? If market laws, those of maximum profit and competitiveness, continue to exist, will there still be any ecological hope? With oil at very low prices, how unlikely will the conversion to less polluting technologies become? What will remain of all the good intentions related to climate change?
The Guardian focuses on an issue, recently overlooked by the press: what will sex life become like? In fact, what happened to sex in these weeks of confinement, and in what sense could the sexual behavior, especially for the younger generation, of the so-called generation Z (as for Zoom) change?
Interviewed by the newspaper, Dr. Julia Marcus says the following: “The recommendation right now is that we try to stay home as much as we can and really only interact with people for things that are essential, like groceries. And even when we do that, try to keep some physical distance of about 6ft from other people. That would definitely make sex a challenge.”
But Dr. Carlos Rodríguez-Díaz comes immediately to the rescue for all those who might get worried: “Sexual intercourse may decrease during the next few weeks, but other forms of expressing eroticism, such as sexting, video-calls, reading erotica and masturbation will continue to be options.”
Wow. The presented scenario is reduced to an ascetic lifestyle with the option to jerk off in a video conference. I apologize for my vulgarity, it didn’t mean it.
Ciara Gaffney writes an interesting article on the subject of the cyber-sexual revolution. “It’s with an almost nascent nostalgia that I recall the coining of the Gen Z ‘sexual recession’: a patronizing concern that our youngest generation would be rendered psychosexually stunted, unable or unwilling to fornicate due to over-exposure to smartphones, social media and porn. To an extent, the stats affirmed this; between 1991 and 2017, the number of high school students having sex dropped from 54% to 40%. But in the nick of time, a worldwide pandemic arrived, and a budding sexual renaissance emerged in its wake.”
The bizarre thesis of Ciara Gaffney’s article is that the pandemic is creating the conditions for a new sexual revolution, the core of which would be the development of a contactless sensitivity. “…the rose-colored epoch before the coronavirus bitterly shamed the sending of nudes. They were perceived as gauche, even pathetic. In the lockdown era, however, thirst traps and nudes are not only making a glorious, unrepentant comeback, but are now a form of emboldened agency in Gen Z’s blossoming sexual liberation. (…) Stratified by distance, Gen Z is similarly tasked with reinventing what sex looks like, in a quarantined world where physical sex is frequently impossible. As free love shattered the conventions of its time, Gen Z’s sexual renaissance is doing the same for organic sexual connection.”
I am reminded of the cyber-sex talks circulating around between the 80s and 90s. It is not unlikely that a field of development of electronic technology in the near future is precisely the grafting of virtual reality and tele-stimulable sensors. It happened already in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).
She continues, “Quarantine not only encourages, but forces, the prosperity of sexual exploration; of experimenting with nudes, thirst traps, camming and sexting for debauchery, mostly without IRL repercussions.”
Thirst trap means traps that make you thirsty, alright, but what if there is no water?
The transmission of sensual stimuli received in a virtual reality would have a useful function from the demographic point of view, as it would finally prevent procreation, at least for the next two or three hundred years. But I don’t think there is a possible universe of pleasure with no epidermis-to-epidermis contact, with no ironic wink at a very close distance, with no sense of smell. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.
Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Julie Halpert writes about the spread of panic attacks among young Americans, who are locked up at home and exposed to a non-stop information flow.
I read a message by Rolando on FB, and as far as I understand he is getting a little pissed at me too.
Other than imagination—says Rolando—we need concrete programs to face the next few years, which will be devastating and decisive. Rolando is not even thirty years old, so he thinks about the near future with a concreteness that perhaps is lacking in this seventy years old of mine. I am inclined to tell him he’s right.
“I pray with all my heart for the progressive forces to learn Machiavelli’s lesson once and for all: ‘And as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people. But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen…’ Enough, please, with these future republics of the imagination. Whoever wants to do charity with gestures and promises from the kingdom to come, shall reconcile to the idea and follow Francis. All the others please go straight to the actual reality and for once stop telling fairy tales to themselves and to others. The next few years will be decisive and devastating.” writes Rolando heartily, quoting Machiavelli. And who am I to question Machiavelli’s words? But when I think about the spread of this panic crisis among young Americans I wonder what the “actual reality” of Machiavelli and my friend Rolando is about.
Today in the United States the threshold of fifty thousand deaths has been crossed. These are the official figures. The death toll of the Vietnam war was thus exceeded. The unemployed are now more than twenty-six million.
The President appears every day on television: today he advised to inject disinfectant and sunbathe because you can get rid of the virus with the heat. Every day his show gets more and more witty. A few days ago he tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN! LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA and save your great 2nd Amendment.”
Whenever Trump names the second amendment, it is an explicit threat of civil war.
While the Democrats’ scandal reaches almost comic heights. But the emerging scenario is not that comical: on the one hand the people of the second amendment, the Trump people who claim the right to carry weapons and exhibit them. On the other hand, the power of the coast states, the richest, most productive and globalized ones: California and Oregon on one side, and New York on the other. Metropolitan areas against rural areas, cosmopolitanism against white nationalism. The Democrats have decided to bet their cards on a gentleman named Biden who has a hundred times less followers on the Internet than the Trombone.
Yesterday we learned that the newspaper Repubblica is changing director because the Agnelli family, who owns the newspaper decided to have someone more aligned. The dismissed director is called Carlo Verdelli, I don’t know him, I don’t have much to say about him, but I am impressed that they fired him despite the fact that just a few days ago he received mafia or fascist death threats. What did poor Verdelli do wrong to be chased away by his master John Elkan, despite the fact that the Repubblica readers are collecting signatures in his defense?
I don’t know exactly, but it occurs to me that a few days ago an article about the Dutch tax haven came out in that newspaper. Perhaps Verdelli had forgotten that the Agnelli company, despite having been financed by Italian taxpayers for decades when it was called FIAT today called FCA, has now its headquarters registered in the Netherlands and pays taxes (meaning they pay nothing at all) over there. It is natural that the Agnellis might have got resentful.
In Milan, a dozen young people who had brought flowers to a partisan’s tombstone were attacked by a squad of policemen: they beat them up, clubbed them down, dragged them to the ground. The images show that the demonstrators were completely harmless, wore masks and had no provocative intent. Why then assaulting them in such an angry way?
Aren’t we witnessing a new trend of a police power integrated with inexorable control technologies? This trend is legitimized by the terror of contagion. But those guys surely weren’t a threat to anyone’s health.
Instead, every day millions of workers “indispensable” for the profit of the industrialists are forced to live in conditions of much greater risk, than twelve kids walking down the street in the Milanese suburbs.
I am doubtful and I do not dare any prediction, but one thing seems clear to me: that the viral pandemic of 2020 marks a passage, or rather reveals it. The passage from the horizon of expansion that delimited the gaze of modern humanity, to the horizon of extinction which in one way or another is destined to delimit the gaze of humanity to come.
Now the new cry is: “Reopen! Return to normality!”
That’s clear, nobody likes to live locked in a cubicle, and it is legitimate for humans to want to resume all the activities that animate and feed social life. But a return to normal entails the return of those expectations, and of those automatisms that have made the earth furious and the living organism exposed to this viral storm.
I read in Frederic Neyrat’s Virus Monologue:
“You’d do well, dear humans, to stop your ridiculous calls for war. Lower the vengeful looks you’re aiming at me. Extinguish the halo of terror in which you’ve enveloped my name. Since the bacterial genesis of the world, we viruses are the true continuum of life on Earth. Without us, you would never have seen the light of day, any more than the first cell would have come to exist.
We are your ancestors, just like the rocks and the seaweed, and much more than the apes. We are wherever you are and also where you aren’t. Too bad for you if you only see in the universe what is to your liking ! But above all, quit saying that it is I who am killing you. You will not die from my action upon your tissues but from the lack of care of your fellow humans. If you had not been just as rapacious amongst yourselves as you were with all that lives on this planet, you would still have enough beds, nurses, and respirators to survive the damage I do in your lungs (…)
You ought to thank me, rather. Without me, for how much longer would those unquestionable things that are suddenly suspended have gone on being presented as necessary ? Globalization, competitive exams, air traffic, budgetary limits, elections, sports spectacles, (…)
Thank me : I place you in front of the bifurcation that was tacitly structuring your existences : the economy or life. (…)
The disaster ends when the economy ends. The economy is the devastation. That was a theory before last month. Now it is a fact. No one can fail to sense what it will take in the way of police, propaganda, surveillance, logistics, and remote working to keep that fact under control. (…)
Take care of your friends and those you love. Rethink along with them, decisively, what a just form of life would be. Organize clusters of right living, expand them, and I won’t be able to do anything against you. I am calling for a massive return, not of discipline, but of attention. Not for the end of insouciance, but the end of all carelessness. What other way remained for me to remind you that salvation is in each gesture ? That everything is in the tiniest thing.”
And Bruno Latour, in an article entitled “Imagine barrier gestures against the return to pre-crisis production” (translated from Italian): “The first lesson of the coronavirus is also the most surprising: it has proven that, it is possible to shut everything down within a few weeks time, simultaneously in any part of the world, the same economic system everyone used to say it’s impossible to either slow down or redirect. All the environmentalists’ arguments about changing our lifestyles were always answered with the argument of the irreversible force of the ‘train of progress’ that nothing could derail ‘because—they said—of globalization.’ However, it is precisely its global nature that makes this development so fragile, and indeed able to suddenly brake and stop.”
But it would be naive to hope that this new, hallucinated but lucid awareness could become common sense by tomorrow, or within next month. The anxiety to return to normality is currently the main force, almost greater than the—albeit still present—fear of a contagion fallout.
So we will return back to normal, but it will be even worse than what we have suffered so far. Because distancing, the permanent tension of the relationship with the other, will be added to exploitation, precariousness and daily economic humiliation.
But the problem is that this return to normal will get quite frustrating. Not necessarily because of the return of the virus, let’s be clear. Like everyone I hope and I expect that we will manage to have the corona under control, or that we will find a vaccine or whatever…
That’s not the point. The point is that the automatism machine has entered a chaotic condition of no return. There’s no remedy for the collapse of the global economic system: hundreds of millions of jobs lost, the price of oil falling below zero, the bankruptcy of countless businesses and manufacturing companies…
Then the explosion of the right’s political revenge that although it has been cornered, does not want to give up. And the competition among national interests, the yellow danger that haunts the West, the improvement of techno-totalitarian control techniques China implemented at a very advanced level, which will now spread as an example to follow…
The material concreteness of the virus, of this mutagenic proliferating concretion, has touched something profound in the human body, but above all has stopped the machine of abstraction. Getting it back on track will be an impossible undertaking. And at that point we will put the lesson to good use. We learned that the military system does not protect us from extinction, but rather accelerates it. The military system will therefore have to be dismantled, reconverted. And how will the millions of people who work in the factories that produce armaments survive? The lesson we have learned is that there is no need to work to be entitled to an income. Basic income has been a reality and must continue to be so. But the millions of people who today are forced to produce armaments and extract oil will not necessarily be forced into inaction. There will be many things to do to replace the energy system that destroyed the conditions of life on the planet, for us to move, warm up, and illuminate the night.
We have learned to distinguish the production of profit from the production of the monetary abstraction. We have learned that wealth does not consist in the accumulation of value, but in the enjoyment of time that flows and of the things we can produce without being exploited.
During the storm to come, this lesson will come back, inescapable.