Corona is not just a virus! Why? The following will discuss bodied vulnerabilities, inter- and intra-actions, the meaning of “Krisis”, and our lives in the mesh of nature-and-culture and the role of “Co-immunism” for offering some answers.
The virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic is one in series of those affecting crisis that is going viral all over the world, turning our lives upside down and inside out and upended every aspect of life all over the world.
Globally interconnected societies and economies are affected generating various national and regional health policies and practices, not only the biggest large-scale quarantine of the modern era not only in China. Rather, in order to cope with this emerging crisis, severe limitations on movement have been imposed and we experience the suspension of daily life and work activities for entire regions and countries, etc.
What does this spreading crisis tells us about our physical and social bodies, about embodied politics and politics of embodiment and how these are all interdependently connected?
We realize again what we seem to have forgotten or neglected: To be a human body is to be physically susceptible and in relation to ourselves and others vulnerable. As bodied being, we are exposed to the unpredictable, the unchosen, and the unforeseen. In « The Visible and the Invisible » Merleau-Ponty (1995, 2003), argued that it is only because we are sensible beings who are radical of the world, rather than separate and disembodied, that we can be sentient of things in the world.
As he showed this is because we share a kinship with the ‘flesh’ of things that we can perceive and move among and as we sense, perceive and move through them. It is because we are open to the touch of the world —because we are not invulnerable subjectivities with a view from nowhere but in our perceptual involvements are affected by things— that we are necessarily vulnerable in the face of the world. But vulnerability is a universal condition with uneven distribution, and we see how vulnerable bodies are a site of politics.
Vulnerability in times of Corona
is a set of relations between sensate beings and the force field of objects, organizations, life processes, and institutions that constitute the very possibility of a liveable life. Being vulnerable to a virus today is part of a relationship that belongs to that “ambiguous region in which receptivity and responsiveness are not clearly separable from one another, and not distinguished as separate moments in a sequence…. vulnerability is neither fully passive nor fully active, but operating in a middle region, a constituent feature of a human-animal both affected and acting” (Butler 2016, p. 16-17). Moreover, vulnerability and invulnerability in relation to the virus have to be understood as politically produced, unequally distributed through and by differential operation of power (Butler et al.2016, p. 5).
What understandings of purity and contagion are processed in relation to whom, what and how? How are material and symbolic borders reinforced, rebuild to reassure and providing a supposed sense of security? It is and it will be telling and revealing to see how bio- and geopolitics of disease and epi- or pandemics are emerging, states of exceptions are declared and emergency measures are taken.
What is partly understandable but nevertheless disquietingly is that justified by reasons of hygiene and public safety municipalities and areas in which there is at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of the infection is unknown, or case connected to a person, who recently traveled from an area affected by the contagion is enough for limitations of freedom imposed by the executive decree. These restrictions do or may include suspension of educational services and travel, closure of museums and other cultural institutions or activities of public offices, enforcement of quarantine and active surveillance. [i] Furthermore, those who feel being attacked start hoarding food and medical supplies and more, constructing a survivalist fiction that masks a deeper sense of insecurity.
Intra-action & the Virus
In the following, the concept of “intra-action” (by Karen Barad, 2007) describes how entanglement precedes thingness is used to interpret the phenomena that emerge in relation to the coronavirus.
Intra-action is a term that is used to replace or supplement ‘inter-action’ which necessitates pre-established bodies that then participate in action with each other. Intra-action understands the ability to act, thus agency, as not an inherent property of an individual or human or non-human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces (Barad, 2007, p. 141).
As part of this dynamic nexus, all elements or ‘things’ are constantly exchanging and diffracting, mutually influencing and are processed inseparably.
Intra-action provides a specific way of thinking about the relationships concerning the virus as part of the entwining of nature and culture as well as its dynamics.
From an interactional perspective, the corona phenomenon is not merely the virus itself but is an interplay of the actual virus with human and non-human actors, including animal, and human bodies, but also discourses on pandemics, the role of politics (of fear and angst), policies and policing political pundits and media.
Corona is not just a virus,
but a phenomenon that is made and unmade through intra-actions between nature & culture, processed by technologies, mobilities, and interdependencies. Through intra-action we are all brought together in the Corona phenomenon and yet this intra-action separates us into new co-constitutive “subject” positions. Through intra-actional processes all involved become, at least temporarily or depending on their placedness, the afflicted and non-afflicted, the at-risked and the non-at-risked, and the exposed and the unexposed, the contagious and non-contagious, etc.
In terms of surveillance (French & Monathan 2020) bodies and pathogens are and will be even more tracked, measured, predicted, and regulated. Moreover, furthers threats will be projected, assigned or racialized and social media might be fuelling social divisions.
Looking more closely at these intra-actional re-positioning reveals how relations and differences are produced and altered. Even if one is not directly interacting with the biological virus, one intra-acts with the Corona phenomenon!
As the material and discursive interplay intra-actional agencies, their responsiveness and responsibilities are distributed among all the constitutive entities. There are not simple causal relationships of separate causes and effects at play by individual players and isolated objects. Rather, there is a mesh of inner-outer relational processes that affect the impact of the virus that is neither outside nor inside, but in-between. The virus is and will be(come) even more inter-between.
The developments make us wonder about:
What new entangled modes of coexistence will take place when viral beings – bio-material and socio-cultural ones – capture an-other in an em-brace and where symbiosis involves the co-opting of strangers, and infolding of other trans-species or ‘trans-speciated beings, a mesh of nature and culture thus ‘nat~cult-ural’ (Küpers, 2016).
The intra-actional virus raises the question about how do we deal with what we do not have a defense against. Can we cope with the unknown? The intra-acting viruses are also manifestations and their context inter-configurations of the contemporary “bugged” unsustainable realities of socio-cultural and eco-political worlds of an Anthropocene which we have coproduced and are living in [ii].
Can we hear this all as a warning wake up call to us to the pitfalls of unsustainable ways of living and destructive global capitalism that may facilitate a reframing of economy, society, and government?
Krisis & Ambivalences
As we see, this is a local and global thus ‘glocal’ crisis that is a kind of turning, perhaps even world-making event allowing for the new individual, social, societal, political and economic, beginnings. As a “krisis”, it is a critical time of suspense, choices decision, and judgment that leads to or can conclude well or badly, with uncertain outcomes.
Probably we all will experience physical, emotional and material-financial suffering and pain in the immediate future, including the deep global recession, a breakdown of labor markets and evaporation of consumer spending, etc.
At present government policymakers will ultimately be judged in terms of how they deal with matters of life and death, how many thousands of people will die while facing health professionals and services that are overwhelmed and saveable lives go unsaved.
Ambivalently, the threat of viral infection can mediate both a tremendous boost to new forms of local and global solidarities (perhaps even some traces of compassion for vulnerable) as well as feeding into the dooms of old ways of retro-regressive authorities, totalitarianism and scapegoating, or international coordination and collaboration as much as nationalistic isolationism, protectionism, and chauvinistic elaborations. There might be either an enhanced with-other orientation with a constructive and creative attitude or a strengthened anti-other attitude the latter one ostracising as an attempt of defense that can turn into self-destruction. Instead of solidarity and compassion, the poor, the powerless or weak and the dispossessed may increasingly meet with fear and disdain, or out-casted as parasites that arouse various destructive desires to somehow or other get rid of them.
Feeded by politicians and media the expectation is that, after the peak which should arrive fast, things would return to normal. But even when life eventually returns to normal, it will not be the same normal we were used to before the outbreak: things we were used to as part of our daily life will no longer be taken for granted; we’ll have to learn to live a much more fragile life with constant threats lurking just behind the corner.
What does the immunisation paradigm or discourse and various immunization responses to viral threats mean politically (Mutsaers, 2016)?
How can we become a world society where the immunity of the one is no longer achieved at the expense of the other, hence where the relation between self and other needs to be reconfigured and a co-immunity developed (Sloterdijk 2009)?
How can this be done when the existing political institutions and arrangements still have a familial, tribal, regional and national character?
The prevailing (auto-immuning) systems – boosted by neoliberalist economic imperatives – are in competition and the immunity gains of one are still seen as negative to other, thus in danger of being self-destructive and not yet moving towards an integral solidary immune system as a kind of “Gaian” organism as a geohistorical hybrid and assemblage of coevolving lifeforms.
The open task and challenge will develop a concrete, respectful and operational planetary co-immunization structure as a macro- or mundo-structure of global immunization a global architecture of “co-immunism” (Sloterdijk 2009, p. 713).
The virus reminds and calls us with an unprecedented and unsurpassable ethical and political urgency to realize how much we human beings as all Earthlings are part of and depend on bio?, psycho- and socio –immunological sources and collaborating networks and interplaying modes in relation to the virosphere the vast world of virus diversity.
Will there be a global immunological turn, i.e., a geopolitical revolutionary (anthropo)technological transformation [iii] in the way humans construct and organize their immuno-spheric residence on the planet as world-forming spheropoietic project, ‘global immune-design and strategies towards co-immunization, pursuing a “protectionism of the whole” (Sloterdijk 2009, 712)?
All in all,
and facing the anthropocenic challenge moves towards eco-scene (Küpers 2020) become even more important. Such Ecoscenic orientation and practice means leaving behind unsustainable productivism while cultivating an ethos of releasement that allows human and more-than-human worlds to peacefully coevolve. Such an embodied mindful ethos of letting go or engaged Gelassenheit [iv] may offer opportunities and possibilities to reconfigure and inter-relate anew with ourselves, others and the world. Such orientation opens up for moments of musing, dwelling, pauses, slowness, and stillness, waiting and ‘active non-doing’.
We may learn by all this to cultivate more released intra-actional modes of being and becoming that co-create a more fulfilling way of living and flourishing.
And at the same time as an engaged attitude and practice this orientation can relate anew and responsible to those embodied vulnerable, who are and will be exposed to homelessness, uncertain immigration status, precarious unemployment, and discrimination as a minority, inadequate health care or challenging care-work. At the same, we need demand and work for rearranged forms of budgeting, organizing, and institutions that genuinely take care and allow self-caring. This implies prudently providing what is needed at present and in near futures of caring to come while recognizing dignity, intrinsic values and justice in a radically transformed world.
Enacting such a well-understood, engaged Gelassenheit may then mediate the incarnation and unfoldment of a lived ‘alter-native,’ that is, ‘other-birthly’ individual and collective that is an economic, political, societal and ethical, more sustainable and wiser world to be-come.
Article by Prof. Dr. Wendelin Küpers, Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies and Head of Degree Program of the new master course Leadership – Politics, Philosophy & Economics (M.A.)
Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Butler, Judith (2016). Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance. In Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambit and Leticia Sabsay (eds). Vulnerability in Resistance. (pp. 12-27). Durham, Duke University Press
French, Martin, and Torin Monahan. (2020). Editorial: Dis-ease Surveillance: How Might Surveillance Studies Address COVID-19?. Surveillance & Society 18(1): 1-11.
Küpers, Wendelin (2015). Phenomenology of the Embodied Organization; Palgrave Macmillan: London Küpers, Wendelin (2016). Embodied, Relational Practices of Human and Non-Human in a Material, Social, and Cultural Nexus of Organizations.” ‘On_Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture’ 2 Issue 2, geb/volltexte/2016/12352/pdf/On_Culture_2_Kuepers.pdf
Küpers, Wendelin (2020). From Anthropocene to Ecocene?! Eco-Phenomenological Perspectives on Embodied, Anthro-decentric Transformations towards Enlivening Practices of Organizing Sustainably, Sustainability (forthcoming)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1995). The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2003). Nature Course Notes from the College de. FranceEvanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Mutsaers, Inge (2016). Immunological Discourse in Political Philosophy: Immunisation and Its Discontents, New York: Routledge
Sloterdijk, Peter (2009). Du musst dein Leben ändern, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp.
Walsh, Z. Peter (2018). Contemplating the More-than-Human Commons, The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics, 5, no. 1: 5-18.
Yuval Noah Harari: The world after coronavirus (Financial Times)
“We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public.”
[ii] Considering that we us humans have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a materio-geo-bio-socio-psychological force many question arise:
– What would it mean to be civilized in a non-modern, humble, or ecological and just way?
– What does it mean and imply that cultivating sustainable convivialities and civilizations requires conscious participation in the creative power of ideas (that purpose us and in which we participate as co-creators) and mindful practices?
– How can we reimagine and re-think freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered? What does reimagining and re-enact political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms, practices, rituals, and stories imply (that value more-than-human), can they be inspired by respectfully recovering “old” ways updated and translated to our time and futures to come?
[iii] Importantly, this anthropotechnological revolution is not to be understood as a technological fix but as a world-wide technocultural and techno-social mutation. It implies a reversion from are contra-natural allo-technologies, towards a co-natural, non-dominating non-exploitative relations to nature and Earth-caring home technological paradigm (Sloterdijk 2017, 144-6)
[iv] This letting-go of Gelassenheit, translated as serenity, composure or detachment, refers to a non-objectifying ethos of active and ongoing ‘passivity’. This ethos entails an attitude of acceptance through a careful ‘letting-be’ that is an abandonment of habitual, representational and appropriating orientations as well as corresponding actions. This bearing appears to be very challenging in contemporary organizations with its performance-driven ‘practicalism’ and corresponding constraints. However, it is exactly because of this increasingly unviable form that Gelassenheit is and will become even more urgently needed for a more sustainable present and future.
In this letting-be, humans do not attempt to manipulate, master or compel. Instead, in a post-heroic mode, they allow possibilities of embodied eco-scenic be(com)ing appear and process in their own revealing and vital ways. Importantly, this process is not one of indifference or lack of interest but rather an ‘engaged letting go’ without appropriating projection and totalizing closures of enframings.
Entering a modus of letting-be in and through embodied eco-scening is realized through a receptive waiting and listening, thus more an ‘active non-doing’ in relation to what ‘matters’ rather than a willing and controlling business as usual. Specifically, letting-be moves from a representational and calculative mode towards more poetic relations, intermediated via a presencing, atmospheric sensitivity and dwelling in a proto-meditative tuning as a mindful practice.
Through the cultivation of Gelassenheit, we silence habitual and calculative modes of thinking and open ourselves to the prompting that comes from the ontological depth of the becoming of other beings. By cultivating Gelassenheit, it may be possible to suspend or at least become aware and redirect instrumental modes and routinized unsustainable behaviour. Thereby it becomes possible to openly receive promptings that come from the uplifting depth of other beings in their otherness. This receptive openness clears a space and time for the be(com)ing of another to emerge.
By stepping away from or out of customary and habitual representations of beings within the horizon of objectivity, with its limited, quick-fixing and hasty operations, Gelassenheit allows such representations to enter into a mode of letting-be that is not in a hurry to impose its ordering and grasp on things. Thus, such orientation is not on a mission to pursue the modernist anthropocentric project of putting questions to phenomena and forcing them to answer or being exploited or ill-treated.
While viewing things and others not in a biased or appropriating way, cultivating releasement towards them enables one to care-fully say ‘yes’ and/or ‘no’ to what happens in organizational practices. This practice discourages mindless organizing or the exploitive misuse of unsustainable practices that manifest, for example, in the dark sides of bad leadership, that is among others, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular or violent modes. The practical side of Gelassenheit denotes an incarnated and collective attitude and attunement that express a mode of comportment towards a reality that does not reify the world into a containable totality. Rather, as a creative nexus of a ‘form-media’, it engenders a poetic sense of (be-)longing together based on heterogeneity rather than symmetry and of the disclosive nature of the self-showing dynamisms and sensuous particularities in all its appearances. Embodied and critically engaged letting go (Gelassenheit), that is, not the types of depoliticized mindfulness practices that (re-)produce docile neoliberal subjects as part of biopower(ful) governmentality regime that, among other issues, hypostatizes the tension and dynamism of neoliberal capitalism and fails to cultivate a critical awareness of social, political, and ecological factors and enacts a ‘Commoning’ and togetherness of “more-than-human commons.
Like mindfulness, engaged Gelassenheit considers the mutually constitutive inner- and outer dimensions of one’s becoming-in-relation to a complex social and political ecology of other subjects, allowing one “to become-with the world-in-becoming by dissolving the false private/public and personal/political distinctions that neoliberal governmentality has so successfully exploited” (Walsh, 2018, p.18).