This contribution belongs to a series of student blogs written as part of a seminar offered by EHC staff as part of our Research Master’s Environmental Humanities specialization. This year, this seminar was devoted to the Corona pandemic.
Gulin Akduygu, RMA Philosophy (VU)
“Infection takes place in the urinary tract, the blood, the lung, and the computer.” writes Lowe in her article Infection. In the past few weeks, I heard many comparisons of COVID-19 to a computer virus… Most of these comparisons were hopefully implying that; Yes, there is a virus causing havoc and yes, the whole system failed, the economy crashed etc. Yet if we wait long enough, someone will find a solution, the system will restore to its proper, previous state.
This association is stretched so far that I have found a cybersecurity company that tries to use the media hype to boost their anti-malware sells with an article that boldly claims: “The fact is that a computer virus is very similar to influenza, coronavirus and other viral infections.”
Although this comparison seems to work at a surface level (both types of viruses can be very dangerous, highly infectious and the subject may be infected without showing any symptoms), it fails when we try to look at the big picture. Furthermore, I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with this association from an environmental humanities perspective. This view may be an attempt to refuse viruses their rightful place as a part of our environment.
We tend to detach ourselves from the virus as much as possible. The desirable degree of separation is not only physical, the need also leads us to label the virus as ‘the other’ as much as possible. We take them to be an anomaly, something that disrupts the normal function of things; like a computer virus…
A computer virus is something both external to the computer and hostile. More importantly, as all the anti-malware sellers will guarantee, they can be resolved with human intervention. On the other hand, viruses, like COVID-19, are part of our environment and everyday life. They are not introduced with hostile intent like a computer virus; they were already here. As Villarreal concludes his article “Are Viruses Alive?”, they are a part of the web of life, chain of evolution and our environment.
This dissimilarity is important to accept the banality of our situation; this is not the first time a virus displayed their destructive capabilities and this will not be the last. Accepting this may help us understand the web of life and our place in it. We are not the masters, we are a part of the system with many others. So a healthy dose of acceptance and respect may help us go a long way.
Lowe, Celia, ‘Infection.’ In Environmental Humanities 5 (2014), pp. 301-305.
Luis P. Villarreal, “Are Viruses Alive?”, Scientific American (2004/2008).
Why is it called a computer virus?; https://www.pandasecurity.com/mediacenter/mobile-news/why-is-it-called-a-computer-virus/
Once The Coat is Shed
Vineeta Divgi, RMA Literature & Contested Spaces (VU)
Thousands of Indian migrant workers in urban cities are defying the Covid-19 measures of social distancing in order to return home. While the privileged classes seek the safety of their homes, these workers face the dilemma of catching the virus or starving for days. This issue of privilege is not exclusive to humans. How can a nonhuman perspective affect an analysis of privilege? In “Vibrant Matter”, Jane Bennett draws upon John Dewey’s work on human political action to argue for nonhuman actants as part of a public (103). Considering the public formed due to the coronavirus outbreak, I analyse how a virus as part of this public reveals the human systems of oppression.
A virus sheds its protein coat when it enters a host cell to expose the genetic material needed for reproduction of viral cells. Extending this viral form of reproduction to the case of migrant workers, I think of infection as a site of privilege. The metaphor of virus helps to view the privileged rhetoric of social distancing as a protein coat. However, this measure takes religion, class and caste issues for granted. The protein coat of religion acts when Hindu nationalism tags Muslim communities as hyper visible ‘diseased others’ in order to hide the inherent systems of oppression. The infected host cell draws parallels with the public. In other words, this public is a virus-human assemblage. Once the protein coat is shed, it exposes the viral genes that relate to less visible systems of oppression, namely class and caste. Casteism gets exposed for these migrant workers have been oppressed by intersecting systems of oppression. As grave as the negative effects of the coronavirus are on individuals, its involvement in the current public has been beneficial to reveal the inadequacy and harsh realities of human-centred politics. The proof lies in the Delhi street march and Bandra railway station crowd.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
Barnabás Zemlényi-Kovács, RMA Critical Studies Art & Culture (VU)
Vincent Racaniello, a leading virologist from the Columbia University, warns us in his lecture ’What is a Virus?’ about the danger of anthropomorphizing viruses. He refers to the fact that in the popular press and in our everyday discussions, viruses are often portrayed as if they were active agents with intentions, goals or plans. While anthropomorphization undeniably makes it easier to represent and talk about them, he claims, it can lead to serious misinterpretations about how viruses behave, spread and infect us.
When a pandemic, such as our current Coronavirus, is observed not only as a strictly biological but also social, economical and cultural issue, however, anthropomorphization can offer not only problems but also possibilities. As Jane Bennett claims, „a touch of anthropomorphity can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings but with variously composed materialities that form confederations.” (Bennett 2010, 99). The anthropomorphization of the virus is often seen in Environmental Humanities as a tool for reframing it as a kaleidoscopic network of heterogeneous human and non-human actors (or actants) in the spirit of the Actor-Network-Theory. In this sense, anthropomorphizing viruses is less about providing them more agency than about decentralizing ours. We should understand anthropomorphism, especially in the Anthropocene, not in the old sense in which it would project human values onto an inert world of mute objects but, on the contrary, as Bruno Latour suggests in Facing Gaia, “to morph humans into a more realistic image.” (Latour, 109-110). As viruses could spread (and be alive) only by entering and connecting to a living cell (Cf. Villareal 2004), claiming that a pandemic can be properly understood if we regard viruses not as separate and passive agents but as active, interdependent parts of our social, political, economical networks can be seen as an extension of their essentially relational nature.
Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010.
Latour, Bruno, Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Polity, 2017 .
Villarreal, Luis P., “Are Viruses Alive? ”, Scientific American, 2004/2008: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/