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Mutating Consciousness in the Time of Pandemic

By James Depew, Algoma University & David Burty, Western University

For capitalism to work at full speed it needs bodies entering into interaction with clock-like regularity. Now that the virus has transformed space through the requirement of social distancing, the space of commodities circulating at high speed is disrupted, offering access to a slower time where the space of things is open to reorganization. Not only things, but ideas are now open to redeployment and restructuring. Contexts which were usually connected smoothly but taken for granted are now brought into view by the very compression of space imposed through confinement and quarantine. Although cultural categories are public matters, and not easily subject to revision, cultures cannot ignore the anomalies which their schemes produce, except at risk of forfeiting trust. As a result, the various ways in which the virus renders context visible must be accommodated, or people will lose faith in the very categories that make their societies regular.

Previously, depending on where one stood, one could be an employee, a husband, a wife, a child, a student, a member of the horseshoe club, a shopper, a customer, etc. Lately, however, the citizen has been called upon by the state, seemingly prioritizing a structural position. But the citizen is being called upon in their own home where all positions are delimited only and strictly by the oikos. No longer able to differentiate themselves in various contexts, and across functional spaces, this new citizen is reduced to one (and probably has been since the advent of modernity). Perhaps the essential question raised by the pandemic is: what is this singular space?

As Mary Douglas has argued, “uncleanness is matter out of place [and] we must approach it through order. Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained.”[1] Defilement is never an isolated event, and pollution only makes sense in reference to a total structure of thought whose boundaries and margins are stabilized by rituals of separation. Yet this ‘total structure’ is for Douglas never absolute – as she puts it, “there is no such thing as ‘absolute dirt’.”[2] Rather, as ‘matter out of place’, dirt only exists within a socio-cultural frame of reference. The requirement that citizens withdraw into their homes, however, suggests that the pressures exerted by the pandemic, and the resulting ideas about the separating and distancing of bodies, deploy themselves in a field in which those bodies are no longer necessarily embodied. The symbolic and ritualized practice in which corporeal dilemmas and cultural contradictions are played out, the embodied praxis that incorporates the regulatory norms and ideals in which health is realized, are not localized by frames of reference. The pandemic is global, and in a very real sense directs us toward the common.

The virus certainly does seem to function as a kind of absolute pollution, or even what Carl Schmitt calls “absolute enmity.”[3] Though Schmitt was writing about the dissolution of the old nomos of the earth due to the way rapid technological development was massively increasing the human capacity for destruction though warfare, there are obvious ways in which the pandemic fits into this perspective. The spacelessness of global contagion does seem to point to forces of ‘englobement’ that aim towards appropriation of the planet itself—a Weltraumnahme—a world without exterior. Pandemic, both as idea and as reality, does seem to indicate a new anomie, an emerging cosmic struggle between order and disorder, despite various particular national responses to the virus.

There is an image conjured by quantum physics that is widely shared. When we look at a particle at a quantum level, the particle exists in many different states at once, but when one takes the perspective of an observer, all states collapse into one. What’s happening to us during this pandemic mirrors this image in the sense that all the qualities of human variations appear to have collapsed in a state of fear, confinement, and time dilatation. Life as we know it seems to have shrunk into the bubble of our homes, into which we’ve withdrawn; life (for the middle class at least) looks like a digital trance where one can work from home but in which all contexts interact and interfere with one another in a single locus. However, there is also the sense that the coercion at the centre of consumption has been laid bare, and the risk we are ready to take for some comfortable self-preservation is now exposed for the toad that it is. No longer are we prepared to conceive of health as commodity. The management of money, as general equivalent, has increasingly been the universal mode of resolving pressures on the boundaries and margins of every system of thought—it has become the indeterminate site where cultural and corporeal contradictions are played out. After the pandemic, perhaps this indeterminacy will translate into different terms. Perhaps the pandemic forces us to comprehend the common differently. Assuming that that the new spatialization of human activity that accompanies the pandemic is not a reactionary withdrawal from politics (a huge assumption, to be sure), what if capital can no longer be conceived as the indeterminate source of possibility? What if by forcing people to withdraw from their normal lives, and especially their engagement with work and money, the virus-state complex opens up the question of the confines between survival on capital’s terms and a life worth living? What if a return to what is essential is a return to the body, and a return to living labour, with an accompanying return to the welfare state? What if the oikos offers a renewed site of resistance, despite much of political anthropology’s insistence that the state is a natural development of the family?


[1] Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger, Routledge, 2002, p.50

[2] Ibid, p.2

[3] Schmitt, Carl, Theory of the Partisan, Telos Press, 2007, p.51-52

Featured image: From The Continuous Monument (1969-1970), Superstudio

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