Dining Out with COVID-19:
(Biopolitical) Control and Lock-down Aesthetics, or Why Media Studies Neglect to Face the Crisis of Representation
My mum got COVID-19. She met it but does not know where or how. Working in a hospital (even though in a low-incidence region), or having travelled in Europe in the weeks before the first peaks of contagion might, at least speculatively, explain this encounter. However, this encounter has been very brief: a short and ultimately fortuitous meeting that did not produce serious consequences, only an immune response signalled by the detection of residual antibodies. My mother’s encounter with COVID-19 was not then an either/or situation and as such does not differ from many other encounters, meetings, or dinners we might have. Rather, it seems these encounters are defined by questions of forces, their intensity and, especially, the degrees of their composition. As Gilles Deleuze suggested in his Spinozian reading of the capacities of affective bodies, it is a combination of relations that characterise these encounters amongst forces:
When I am poisoned, the body of arsenic has induced the parts of my body to enter into a relation other than the one that characterizes me. At that moment, the parts of my body enter into a new relation induced by the arsenic, which is perfectly combined with the arsenic; the arsenic is happy since it feeds on me. The arsenic undergoes a joyful passion. … Thus the arsenic is joyful, but me, evidently I’m not. (Deleuze 2013: 144; transl. mine)
The encounter with COVID-19 can thus produce a multitude of outcomes – an immune response, stress, fear, anxiety, or even such a deterioration of the body that can lead to death. Subjects are differently constructed by this encounter, whether mediated or not, and as such a micropolitical question is at stake. This is a problem of subjective formation, of the production of individual and collective subjectivation on a microphysical, micro-perceptive level. Whilst it would be foolish to think that a mediated encounter with the virus – via the talk of the immunologist of the day, the news about overcrowded hospitals, the imposition of novel security measures, or the conspiratorial meme about Bill Gates’ involvement in its spread – can cause an antibody response, nonetheless, these have all provoked emotional, individual and collective subjective states. Only some will have the chance to know through a blood test if they actually met COVID-19, yet, one way or another, we have all encountered it. On a psychophysical level, the consequences of a direct and/or digitally mediated encounter might be similar: angst, nervousness, tension, or – albeit more rarely – confidence and optimism.
Conspiratorial memes about Bill Gates’ involvement in COVID-19 spread
This piece arises from three main and connected impulses, and is the temporary and sketched result of a series of questions and the subsequent research that I undertook during the most intense phase of the pandemic.
Initially, during the early stages of the pandemic, several texts came to my attention. Amongst these, the first was a report on the security measures that were adopted in Italy to counter the spread of COVID-19. The piece, written by Osservatorio Repressione (‘Observatory on Repression‘, an Italian association that investigates political repression in the country), maps the authoritarian responses of the national military and securitarian apparatuses to the emergency. The report’s authors suggest that the intensification of repression is not something new or exceptional, but rather a norm that highlights the dissociation and disproportion between the aim (in this case, public health) and the solutions that might lead to its achievement (in this case, the intensification of security measures). However, what struck me was a specific point of the analysis that suggested: “Not all measures of control are measures of security, and not all the measures of security are measures of control.” Indeed, the logics underpinning the control/security dyad are often considered to be fundamentally different, whilst they seem to me to always be each a function of the other. Throughout my research on digital media and network dissent, I have been studying contemporary power operationality, however, the relationship between security and control raises significant issues that demand further clarification – especially in the light of the responses given by many governments to the spread of COVID-19, as well as in the broader biopolitical context.
Second, connected with the first point, I read with great interest a piece by Paul B. Preciado on the lessons we might learn from the virus and its biopolitical management. Preciado employs Michel Foucault’s work on biopolitics and the development on immunology brought forth by Roberto Esposito to shed light on the deployment of the contemporary technologies of power in the face of the pandemic (see also Esposito 2004). As in the earlier report mentioned above, Preciado shows how the spread of the COVID-19 virus reproduces and intensifies a political management of the body that is already in action. The exception is only an intensification of the norm – of a standard condition. As it happened in the past (for instance in the case of the syphilis epidemic), measures to contain the spread of viruses have a more dramatic impact on the most vulnerable communities. The management of COVID-19 returns biopolitical immunity to the level of the individual body, transforming it into a laboratory for novel forms of power: an interpretation posited within the broader proposal – already formulated by Preciado in Testo Junkie (2013) – of a pharmacopornographic era into which the management of the body is articulated through subtle and mass-distributed societal technologies of bodily surveillance. Moreover, by taking into consideration the different choices made by world governments, Preciado shows how the techniques used to contain the contagion, even though manifold, take advantage of digital surveillance, leading to a subjectivity that is strongly conditioned by such digital tracking. Challenging the push towards the digital-led individualism on which biopolitical management depends, the call is to the invention of new strategies of emancipation, antagonism, and resistance on a communitarian/collective ground (which must involve the entirety of life on Earth).
However, a problem might arise when Foucauldian biopolitics is not addressed in the light of the recent transcriptions of his late lectures, in which he markedly distinguishes disciplinary from security mechanisms, highlighting the different operationalities of such technologies of power, as well as reading as decisive the affirmation of the neoliberal project within the politics over the management of life (Foucault 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014). The body that is at stake in the bio-management of life is not solely the human-animal one and cannot be circumscribed to its organicistic comprehension. Instead, continuing the Spinozian and Deleuzian affective reading, bodies are also the result of the intensive merging of forces that induce their actual constitution (Deleuze 2001, 2013; Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Building upon this, the neo-materialist orientation of philosophical posthumanism continues and extends vitalist and neo-vitalist readings, embracing once more the inorganic dimension of life. In the work of scholars such as Karen Barad (2007), Jane Bennett (2010), Rosi Braidotti (2013), and Elizabeth Grosz (2008, 2017), the understanding of life as a generative, materialist, and non-human ‘power-to’, extends our understanding of contemporary power relations to the control of such zoe-productive capabilities. By postulating the open and non-solipsistic character of the co-constitution of the real, this approach aims to recover the zoetic dimension of life, overcoming bio-centric reductionism and offering an ethical and political vision that goes beyond the living as biologically individuated.
Finally, during the early phase of the pandemic, I undertook a digital ethnography on the content that circulated on three social media networking platforms: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This qualitative data collection was led by a will to better understand the production of networked, collective, and individual subjectivities that emerge via encounters with COVID-19 as part of the micropolitical problem that I introduced above. More specifically, I want to understand the ways in which such subjective formations – pushed by security apparatuses towards the abandonment of social interaction, and managed by the protocols that regulate their relationships within broader networks – have been unable (except in rare instances) to originate new lines of flight – the strategies of resistance and antagonism that Preciado hopes for. Why is the collective imaginary so incapable of emancipatory figurations?
As I argue, this problem involves, connects, and expands upon the other two. Indeed, if the security/control dyad is the dominant diagram in contemporary economies of power, and the biopolitical regime implies a power microphysics that is capable of addressing the intensive a/biotic capabilities of life, this means that it is also the key to casting light on digital media and networks, and their position in the production of human subjectivities beyond the representationalist impasse that still besets media and cultural studies. As such, the aesthetic field in which the collective imagination finds expression is a privileged standpoint from which to grasp the spread of affective intensities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accidental encounters with the virus – within a perspective of semiotic pluralism that challenges the meaning-matter schism of representationalism – are led by patterns of contagion. I suggest that these patterns cosmologically constitute the subjectivities of the world via interfering, diffractive, and hybridative – specifically not mirroring – patterns.
In the following, I first analyse the relationship between security and control within a broader understanding of biopolitics that distances it from disciplinary mechanisms. Proceeding, I offer a brief map of the social imaginary that emerged in Italy during the early phase of the pandemic, signalling the problem of enabling emancipatory visions. Finally, I discuss the patterns of contagious imitation that enable psychic individuation from Tardean micro-sociology, suggesting their hybridative disposition to address affective forces.
[T]he law prohibits and discipline prescribes, and the essential function of security, without prohibiting or prescribing, but possibly making use of some instruments of prescription and prohibition, is to respond to a reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds – nullifies it, or limits, checks, or regulates it. I think this regulation within the element of reality is fundamental in apparatuses of security.
Foucault 2009: 69
The worldwide spread of COVID-19 has led to an intensification of security measures. Mandatory quarantines and movement restrictions have become the routine for many. In Italy, the first lockdown following the discovery of sixteen people infected with COVID-19 occurred on the 21st of February 2020. During that week, by chance, in my “Surveillance, Privacy, and Social Identities” class, we were covering Michel Foucault’s (1995) core chapter of Discipline and Punishment, in which he introduces the concept of panopticism. In that very well-known chapter (a foundational chapter for surveillance studies), Foucault (1995: 195-228) examines the public health actions that were implemented in France at the end of the seventeenth century in order to counter the plague. My students easily drew the connection between the measures adopted in both cases, proposing a parallel between the plague pandemic and COVID-19. The adopted regulations and deployment of political force in the first and second instances became a recurring analogy only few weeks later.
The Italian government, in accordance with local councils, adopted the initial security measures in eleven towns across the north-eastern regions of Lombardy and Veneto. These actions were focused on the delimitation of specific sites, which were defined ‘top risk areas’ or, more conventionally, ‘red zones’ – areas that were tentatively isolated from the rest of the country with the use of the military. In the subsequent two weeks, these security measures of restriction and containment were strengthened and extended, first to the whole of Lombardy and a few more cities in the north and centre, and then to the whole peninsula. These measures include the closure of schools, courts, and museums; the push towards remote working; and the suspension of public events. Eventually, they broadened to the suspension of many commercial activities and food services, as well as a ban on public gatherings.
According to Foucault (1995), the regulations implemented to treat the spread of the plague provide a pivotal example through which disciplinary mechanisms can be genealogically traced back through history. Indeed, during the plague, isolation and quarantine became the restrictive norm. The spread of the disease was mitigated by a meticulous and detailed individualisation of subjects. Individual distribution within well-delimited spaces, rigorous identification, and an intensification of surveillance within a longer chain of command signalled the individualising measures that were developed and applied. Such techniques focus on the individual and are directed towards the isolation and recovery of the infected subject.
Hence, in the first instance, public health actions to contain COVID-19 seemed to confirm my students’ arguments recalling modern mechanisms of discipline, centring on the individual identification of potential infectors and active surveillance, and on the actualisation of specific spatial organisations. However, under more detailed examination, the measures – and in particular their distribution, fragmentation, and escalation – instead confirm the ruling centrality, within overdeveloped western societies, of another of the main diagrams that have been at the heart of Foucault’s studies on the economy of power. This is the diagram of power exercise that, following Deleuze (1995), has been studied and investigated as one of control. However, in the late scholarship of Foucault (2009, 2010), this diagram is questioned and studied more as a problem connected to mechanisms of security, and in particular their position within a broader biopolitical problem that involves the government of life. To first set the stage, a clarification concerning Foucault’s biopolitics is necessary. In particular, the relationship between biopolitics and the security/control dyad seems to me a relevant and not yet fully addressed problem in contemporary literature on the subject – one that needs further investigation in order to grasp its application to the current pandemic, as well as in the context of the more recent transcriptions of Foucault’s (2009; 2010; 2011; 2014) lectures of the late seventies’.
Regarding the biopolitical context, Gilbert and Goffey (2014-15) have unpacked the periodisation problem that involves a possible transition to a phase of control. This is directly suggested by Deleuze’s (1988, 1995, 2018) readings of Foucault. They underline that, in the literature on the subject, the question remains open, despite the evident technological changes that underpin the re-articulation of power relations within contemporary societies. Indeed, throughout his work, Foucault explicitly remarks that, whilst power apparatuses might emerge and become established in different historical periods, they always overlap, co-exist, and build upon each other (and this appears particularly evident when the non-linearity of his genealogical method is taken into account; Foucault 1984). Nonetheless, the prominent stage reached by data-intensive technologies and networked machine learning techniques – comprising the datafication and forecast of social behaviours that inform and shape political decision-making and contemporary business-led surveillance practices – cannot be neglected, even by assuming a post-deterministic and co-emergent perspective on societal-technological relationships. Moreover, Gilbert and Goffey (2014-15) equally suggest the close tie between Gramscian cultural hegemony and the logic of control, as well as an epistemic turn that, implied by the data-driven motion of contemporary surveillance, might characterise this periodisation of control. As such, they anticipate Seb Franklin’s (2015) proposal to identify the logic of control as an episteme that extends digitality beyond the specific functioning of computing technologies towards the whole spectrum of social interactions. The politics over the biology of life seems then to find application through epistemology: the production of an information theory-led knowledge that shapes and informs the logic of power and the apparatuses of control. Instead, I contend, a radical materialist critique is needed to account for contemporary biopolitics, seriously considering the limits of representationalism and the problematic separations between matter and meaning, biotic and abiotic ‘entities’, and ontology and epistemology, as well as contrasting an instrumental, semiotically representational-biased, anthropocentric understanding of media and mediation. Digital media and networking technologies, as well as the knowledge they imply and produce, are not some separate technical system with which to represent human culture – to acknowledge the emergent complexity of life. Rather, these (and the related media practices) materially reduce, entangle, and devastate this same ontological complexity.
Foucault’s studies on ‘biopolitics’ stemmed from his interest in disciplinary mechanisms, firstly discovering the political attention paid towards life in the overlapping of the rule of law and the emergence of the institutions that signalled the rise of modern capitalism (Foucault 1995). He distinguishes bio- from sovereign power, but equally discerns the disciplinary mechanisms – those that are the first to seriously take charge of the biology of life – from another economy of power, which instead aims towards a less individualising, non-binary normalisation. Specifically, the deepening of security mechanisms and the genealogy of governmentality (Foucault 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014) cast light on the peak of the biopolitical exercise, which occurs with the paradigmatic affirmation of the neoliberal project. Novel modes of the economisation of life, the new liberalisation of the human enterprise, together with a more serious taking charge of the population, only occur in late modernity.
Indeed, in his analysis of power, Foucault (1995, 2009) examines the treatment of three epidemics that evidence three different economies of power. These provide three distinct (and surely non-exhaustive) modes via which to treat contagion – or, following Deleuze’s (1988, 2018) diagrammatic or abstract machinic reading of Foucauldian microphysics of power (and particularly the fifth postulate on the functionality of power against its essentialism and attribution), three different ‘diagrams’ of power operationality. The transition from the public health measures adopted to treat leprosy to those implemented to combat plague signals the overlapping of sovereign and disciplinary mechanisms, whereas the handling of smallpox exemplifies the affirmation of security apparatuses, which can be ascribed to the control diagram. Against historical continuity, three accidents (the measures developed to contrast the contagion of three different epidemics) indicate the juncture of three diagrams, of three diverse “political dreams”, “different projects, … but not incompatible ones” (Foucault 1995: 198-99). The sovereign exercise of treating contagion marks, excludes, and rejects the lepers. Instead, disciplinary mechanisms – as already introduced – study, analyse, and vigilantly distribute plague carriers. So, how does this economy of power change with the management of the Variola virus and, especially, how does its treatment offer indications on the relationships between security and control that might help shed light on the operationality of biopower in the treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The overlapping of three diagrams for the treatment of three epidemics
“[F]reedom is nothing else but the correlative of the implementation of apparatuses of security. An apparatus of security … cannot operate well except on condition that it is given freedom” (Foucault 2009: 71; transl. mod 2004: 50). Indeed, as Foucault (2009) suggests, security is the political technology of liberalism, since it approaches the idea of freedom ‘naturally’, letting it emerge in a ‘laissez-faire’ manner – letting ‘things’ naturally happen, allowing them to occur, run, and unfold. Thus, rather than an ideological way of operating, it more constitutes a political technology; it does not work via the separation of representation, via dominant meanings and a ruling hegemonic knowledge, as its way of normalising bodies equally reveals. Within disciplines, normalisation acts on the body in order to take advantage of it and modern capitalism needed docile yet healthy bodies. What can be called the ‘power through the body’ that emerged in modernity works via the internalisation of the disciplinary mechanism. It conforms life via what is considered to be the norm, thus operating via the normal/abnormal dichotomy. However, with security mechanisms this is not the case, and Foucault (2009) studies the instance of smallpox as clear evidence of this different treatment of the productivity of life forces – of a possible passage to what might be called the ‘power of the body’ and, I would suggest, the productivity of zoesis.
Amongst the main characteristics of security apparatuses, as in the case exemplified by smallpox, the (almost) surety of success and the broad application of treatments allow statistical probability to become a dominant factor – one that, with current algorithmically driven, big data extrapolation, manipulation, and interpolation, reaches its zenith. However, I do not want to concentrate here on this aspect, focusing instead on another central point, namely the fact that “variolisation … did not try to prevent smallpox so much as provoke it in inoculated individuals” and, as such, “one could prevent other possible attacks of smallpox” (Foucault 2009: 87-8). In treating contagion, the security measure of variolisation does not operate as disciplines do: separating to normalise, the infected from the healthy ones, in order to prevent contagion. Rather, it functions by taking into consideration the whole population without ruptures or discontinuities. Security attempts to manage and address statistical deviations; it does not exclude, but leads and governs towards a desired outcome, attempting to nullify phenomena, and striving towards their ‘natural’ self-disappearance. Therefore, the power mechanisms of the securitisation apparatus do not work externally, but rather attempt to orient the becoming of life (Foucault describes this as being ‘centrifugal’ for its mode of treating forces; ibid). These mechanisms are thus functions within a broader control diagram – the biopolitical government of the existent. This controlling logic of security works with a key element of intensity that equally surfaces in many recent studies of contemporary apparatuses of power.
Launching a call for a post-hegemonic movement in the cultural study of power, in 2007, Scott Lash had already offered a precious indication. He sketched the path to acknowledge the transition towards a power analytics that is not epistemological – which does not rule via the production of dominant hegemonic views – in particular highlighting the way in which “extensive power or … extensive politics is being progressively displaced by a politics of intensity” (Lash 2007: 56). This is the Nietzschean, vitalist trajectory (which extends to Foucault and Deleuze) according to which power is always a relation of forces and not an attribute. In this formulation, power is a relation that involves both those who are subjugated, and those that rule: a microphysics of power that, standing against the molar representations of a power domination from above, takes into consideration its constitutive, molecular dimension. Such an intensive domain allows micropolitical analyses to examine the affective realm, the management and addressing of pre-subjective intensities, as a central point within biopolitical control, and more specifically the focus on COVID-19 encounters and the processes of subjectivation that they trigger. This political treatment of intensity finds its implicit or explicit discussion in many of the recent understandings of the operationality of contemporary power, even though it might be expounded via different conceptualisations thereof.
Without entering into detail, for instance, Tiziana Terranova (2004) calls ‘soft control’ the biopolitical plane that immanently organises and directs the emergent productivity of life. Similarly, Greg Elmer and Andy Opel (2008) talk in terms of ‘pre-emption’ – the Minority Report-like capacity to address immanence towards pre-determined outcomes. Antoinette Rouvroy and Thomas Berns’ (2013) ‘algorithmic governmentality’ equally stresses the action of a power normalisation that does not operate in the actual, but on the propensities of what will happen. Likewise, ‘premediation’ is, for Richard Grusin (2010), a logic that attempts to maintain the present and prevent the future by the proliferation of multiple remediations. Drawing from the corporate/military strategy of inception, this intensive character is also present in Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood’s (2012) investigation of the securitisation strategies of the capitalist ‘Cloud’ ecology. Further, the broadening of Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic enslavement occupies Maurizio Lazzarato’s (2014) analysis of the expansion of capitalism towards pre and inter-subjective dimensions. Finally, such an inductive mode of operating and deployment of the power relation finds probably its most explicit and detailed account in Brian Massumi’s (2015a, 2015b) ‘ontopower’, particularly in the reading of priming as a positive induction that operates on a micro level by prompting emergent results via situational cues.
All of the above scholars share a recognition of an intensive domain, as a core element via which to address the dominant biopolitical diagram and its leading mechanisms of securitisation, which – as stated previously – normalise by triggering responses and taking advantage of a (legally) predisposed (in)dividual freedom. The main movement is here towards a power that is fully ontological and attempts to break from the representational dichotomy with a possible control episteme, reaching its full conceptualisation in Massumi’s (2015a, 2015b) analysis of pre-emption, priming, and then affective politics. Similarly, my radical materialist proposal hopes both to overcome the dualism between a power that is informed by, and operates via, the application of a dominant form of knowledge (in our case, the computational/control/informational), and to recognise the consequences of a power microphysics that immanently acts by instigating and leading the same emergence of such knowledge. Further, it remarks that culture is not a separate domain of human-animal representations, and the media technologies that participate in the cultural sphere are not merely prosthetic tools that represent such a separate sphere of anthropocentric production. In the words of Karen Barad (2007), “[i]mages or representations are not snapshots or depictions of what awaits us but rather condensations or traces of multiple practices of engagement” (53). A microphysics of biopower takes into account the micro-political, pre-, and infra-sensorial dimensions of the relations of force, and the intensive domain is key for an anti-anthropocentric ethics that does not privilege biocentrism, understating how practices of domination (beyond the onto-episteme binary) exceed societal relationships, and function instead in the production of subjectivation and the addressing of individuation via flows of contagion and molecular propagation – the government of the infra-subjective and pre-personal affective domain.
As in the Italian case, this power diagram and the chosen measures of security were deployed in full, maintaining the overriding interest in the freedom of economic domination over bare life and care. Data from the beginning of April confirmed that almost 71,000 businesses across the whole country continued to run as usual. Many of these activities were included in ministerial decrees, such as those that were relevant and strategic for the national economy. In such instances, labour unions had to negotiate the protection of workers’ health in the context of these economic interests. Other businesses took advantage of the tacit consent of local governmental agencies (in Italian, ‘prefetture’), which were unable to manage the large number of self-certifications that were requested by entrepreneurs, and hence allowed them to be included within the frame of the necessary and/or nationally strategic activities. In the meantime, digital platforms boosted their revenues by extracting value from the ‘new’ online work routines, as well as fully occupying the empty spaces left by social gathering. This paradox was revealed in Mark Zuckerberg’s lament of the boom of internet traffic on Facebook servers, which could have led to the collapse of its networking infrastructure, bringing to the fore the entangled and exploitative relations existing between digital materiality and the dominant dataveillance business model.
The deployment of the diagram of control, actualised through the security measures that attempted to limit contagion by taking charge of the health of the population, was aimed towards maintaining the paradigmatic status quo. As such, the containment of infections had to limit the risk of loosing too much terrain on the capitalist production side, and securitisation worked against the possibility of a destabilisation of such a grip over existence that would have eventually activated new modes of living, new processes of emancipative subjectivation – novel lines of flight (to employ the Deleuzo-Guattarian vocabulary). Security mechanisms approached the population as a whole, governing it via a protocol-managed framework that could maintain self-interested freedom. Moreover, security measures were not directly enacted upon individuals, but on a micro, dividual, and shared level, also involving the disciplinary-excluded: the totality of those who could continue to work and were active in the generation of economic income, having as well the civil and political rights on that specific territory. Elderly people, children, migrants, cows, and/or the unemployed were addressed as peripheral deviations to be included as part of a system-based necessity of non-strict confinement and containment. The result was a heterogeneous alliance whose constituting forces were not binarily excluded, but controlled: managed and directed as much as possible within the productive relations of power via the security mechanisms put in place.
Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.
Haraway 2016: 31
This radical materialist proposal might be expanded via multinatural perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro 2014), or a speculative non-human centric multiversalism (Ferrando 2019), in order to imply the ecological vision of the virus itself. The contagion perspective of the virus surely does not have any telos, but its emergence is dictated by a Monodian chance and necessity – an accidentally that is historical and not metaphysical. Despite David Quammen’s (2012) quest for origins, spillovers occur at the intersection of human-animal, non-human-animal, and non-human agencies, with the former that frees the spread of the pathogen actant, impacting on existing systemic relations, activating new ones, as well as inducing new ones via contagion – intensities that might actualise via processes of imitative transmission. Whilst viruses do not have teleological purposes, they are in-human processes of subjectivation; carriers of general, collective interests rather than particular, individual ones. In this sense, subjectivation is taken as the possibility to produce new encounters that can materially activate psychogenetic individuations. Virality is then a process of subjectivation that is capable of enabling different actualisations: from the weakening of human-animal bodies to their strengthening; from psychic crises to the triggering of novel post-detrimental social imaginaries.
The platformisation of COVID-19
Within the introduced bio-, or zoe-political context, the social imaginary has also become schizophrenically overcharged. The platformisation of COVID-19 has occurred on multiple levels: immunologists work on vaccines via the platform paradigm, developing data-driven biotechnologies to face the pandemic; teachers lecture, video-chat, and run exams on the platform of the day; local and national governments develop their own platforms of bio-surveillance to track the individual data of the subject at risk and map the spread of contagion; delivery riders engage in highly precarious and unsafe labour to fulfil the eating desires of a legally safeguarded, mostly white population suddenly locked in its urban flats; whilst the circulation of content fills the databases and fuels the revenues of social networking platforms, which capture and monetise the leftovers of interpersonal relationships. Indeed, zooming in on this latter point, circulation lies at the heart of security: it is its supporting ground, a key constituent via which to understand the functioning of its mechanism, involving the presupposed liberal freedom that crucially must be intensively kept and unleashed. This is only partially the circulation at the core of Jodi Dean’s (2009) ‘communicative capitalism’: it is surely lucrative and exploitative. However, it is not a talk without response, instead being – from the materialist, semiotic-pluralist perspective assumed here – the same conditions to let that talk and that response occur. Circulation is the centrifugal motion of the forces that populate the platforms and must occur in order to let them speak, in spite of any qualitative attribute. During the most intense days of the pandemic, at least across Italian-speaking fibre-optic cables, circulation polarised on two competing and complementary imaginaries.
At one extreme, circulation converged around a catastrophic imaginary, pushing to the limit the calamitous consequences of the pandemic: overcrowded hospitals, speeding ambulances, grocery assaults, and empty public spaces, populated user-generated and top-down posts on social media platforms. Understandably, a strong emotional value charges these visions, aligning with a broader process of collective subjectivation that defensively attempted to distance itself from the spread of the virus. In Italy, especially during the first month of the restrictive security measures, the hash-tag #iorestoacasa (I stay at home) became popular, accompanying many of the posts that conveyed such a tragic imaginary as well as playing on the fear of an incumbent horizon where the bios of human-animal life seems the only possible unit of measure to grasp the extent of the pandemic context. The images, as well as the comments and the surgical mask selfies, disseminated a different range of feelings, but also contributed to the formation of a social anxiety that was amplified by the top-down, broadcast-like content production of news media and their dedication to spectacularisation and agenda setting. The encounter with the virus via such a catastrophic circulation charged and intensified a state of collective anxiety that informed and shaped the social imaginary. It was a collective process of subjectivation intensely characterised by the fear of the end of biological humanism – of the capitalocenic or chthulucenic project.
On the other extreme, circulation polarised on a hopeful, rich collective imagination; a vision that would allow a quick and painless overcoming of the negative impact that security measures were causing on individual and collective psychic formation. Pictures and videos of child-drawn rainbows, solidarity choruses from balconies, and non-human animals repopulating coastal, countryside and peripheral urban areas led such a reassuring imagery. In this case, in order to face the drastic reduction of social interaction and the changes to daily routines, the attempt to hold on to an imminent return to a supposed ‘normality’ has been the answer. The hash tag #andratuttobene (everything will be alright) came along with the spread of the media content and was first popularised by a mother in the South of Italy (precisely to accompany her children through a positive psychological path to deal with the restrictive security apparatuses). Even though such a polarisation is – on a figurative plane – the opposite of the first, nefarious one, both show elements of continuity and contiguity. Indeed, also in this instance, a viral circulation of media content triggers a process of collective psychogenesis. Moreover, the processes of subjectivation that are activated avoid tackling the non-linear causes of the encounters with the virus that triggered that same response. In both cases, attempts to normalise or push to the extreme collective figurations show the intimate interlocking nature of security and circulation within the biopolitical diagram of control – the implicit and recurring attempt to drive collective imagination to homeostasis via the freedom of individual contribution, to re-find a condition of equilibrium of and for the system, a maintenance that is, as said, one of the already-dominant relations of force.
Through the security measures imposed, contagion has not only been managed and limited, but also instigated and fuelled. Encounters with the virus have been manifold and, almost without exception, individuals have, in some way or another – via their newsfeeds, the sound of the sirens or, in contrast, the unusual silence broken only by birdsong – come across COVID-19. Whilst, in our meetings with the virus, difference is the rule – since the degrees of such encounters have been diverse – the plane of such encounters is material in its transversality. In 1991, Félix Guattari (2000) described with an eloquent metaphor such a plane of transversal relationality into which media and mediation are not mere carriers of representational semiotics: “Just as monstrous and mutant algae invade the lagoon of Venice, so our television screens are populated, saturated, by ‘degenerate’ images and statements” (43). Throughout the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, our high definition, networked, digital screens have been populated and saturated with the aforementioned circulation, continuously activating novel processes of subjectivation. Universal contagion can thus be proposed as a material encounter of subjective production, a point upon which I will build only after briefly examining why the productive relationship with the imagination of the aesthetic field might offer a privileged locale from which to mount this micro-political analysis.
Within Guattarian ecosophical thought (Guattari 2000), the molecular and the cosmic are intertwined, and media are differentials of subjectivation that are capable of causing archaic regressions, yet are equally able to activate new and unforeseen possibilities to challenge the existent. As such, the emphasis for Guattari (1995, 2000) is on the aesthetic field, which is a privileged one in terms of the relations that can be prompted, particularly for the production of novel individual and collective forms of imagination. Indeed, before the affirmation of individual subjectivity within modern Western societies, the aesthetic field was not a separate sphere of individual psychic formation or social valorisation. Being a field of (not strictly human) perception capable of activating contingent transformations on the same productivity of the self, aesthetics holds an infra-subjective dimension that affords us a unique vantage point on the individual and collective imaginary during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as offering further insights on contagion.
Mark Fisher’s (2009) recollection of Frederic Jameson’s and Slavoj Žižek’s claim that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’ offers a further clue via which to address the problem regarding the social imagination during the pandemic, and the related production of collective subjectivation. As such, the introduced polarisation of circulation seems to suggest that it is easier to glimpse the end of the pandemic – via a catastrophic or ‘everything-is-going-to-be-alright’ vision – than it is to imagine the end of the capitalist system of domination and exploitation that led to it. However, Fisher still reads the figurative elements of this imaginary through a representationalist lens. Fisher’s materialist entanglements are the historical ones that in postmodernity have subsumed the cultural sphere under the capitalist guise (which is still presupposed as a separated human affair). Yet, notwithstanding the above, Fisher’s proposal remains key to the underlying malaise – the sense of anxiety and exhaustion that sustains the recognition of such a neoliberal realism (as well as equally implying an intensive reading of its way of functioning via the idea of ‘precorporation’). Hence, the radical materialist perspective I follow here, by implying a semiotic pluralism, recognises the way in which collective figurations – and the aesthetic field more broadly – despite their full postmodern subsumption (and following a first modern autonomisation of value attribution), are part of the plane of subjective production. These visions actively participate in the production of individual and collective subjectivations and are onto-epistemologically intertwined with collective psychogenesis on an existential level, on the plane of consistency – that is, on the immanent production of social individuation. The material-semiotic continuum tells us that media do not represent human culture; rather, they actively contribute to its production because, on the level of practice, they are entangled with the same individuation of psychic processes. The aesthetic field, with the imaginaries that have populated social networking media circulation during the pandemic, is then a privileged site of encounter with the virus, since it involves perception on a shared infra-subjective level via which subjects enter into relations and might encounter a contingent transformation.
Two interlocked problems then arise. The first one concerns this possible transformation and involves contagion as a layout for the mobilisation of the affective, infra- and pre-subjective forces that are at stake in the production of subjectivity. The question thus concerns the modes through which intensities are mobilised towards the encounters that might produce subjective states. Again, the perspective here is a radical materialist one that problematises the disentanglement between the spread of the virus via coughing or fake news by equally recognising their clear difference. A second related problem concerns two key points on security/control and the collective imagination, and implies the impossibility of producing emancipatory, collective visions that might endure and offer a way out from the destructive capitalist impasse. Indeed, community-based, non-market, and solidarity-driven attempts to address the eco-systemic crisis, of which the pandemic is only but a fragment, surely blossomed during the past months. For example, in my neighbourhood, it is worth mentioning buy and share stalls in front of shops (give from your possibilities, take from your needs); book sharing to help facing the isolation of the lockdown; as well as local help lines to support the elderly with shopping. These practices suggest the production of collective forms of subjectivation that imply emancipatory visions. However, these were sporadic and non-systemic, and vanished with the end of the more restrictive security measures, giving the floor once again to the dominant logic of individualism and self-care. To me, these two problems seem interlocked and my core argument is that the control diagram, and particularly the security apparatuses that have been deployed within it to manage the spread of COVID-19 – precisely because contagion is a key layout via which material forces encounter and produce subjectivations – functions by intensively addressing the social imagination. In other words: the biopolitical paradigm addresses collective individuations by attempting to nullify subjective productions that, via contagion, might foster radical collective and emancipative imaginaries.
Heterogeneity and not homogeneity is at the heart of things. Could anything be more improbable or more absurd than the co-existence of an endless number of elements created to be co-eternally alike? Things are not born alike, they become alike. And, besides, is not the inborn diversity of elements the sole possible justification of their alterity?
Tarde 1903: 71; transl. mod.
The claim by immunologists that COVID-19 is a recent appearance on planet Earth, and thus demands the acquisition of more and more data to help the non-excluded portions of human societies to fight the monstrous enemy, ironically calls to mind the centrality of correlationism and technophilic solutionism within the positivist strands of medical thought. Conversely, it is the destruction of ecosystems and the annihilation of biodiversity that triggers such viral spillovers. For this reason, the virus is an ecological contagion: it tends to rebalance the state of the forces at play across eco-systemic relations.
These points are already foremost in some of the most influential media and cultural studies on contagion. Against the remunerative, securitarian advantages of the binary separation of the virus as the destructive other, Digital Contagion (Parikka 2007) provides an inspiring proposal via which to understand how immunological discourses on virality have been shaping network cultures. Similarly, Virality (Sampson 2012) challenges the metaphorical reading of contagion, resuscitating Tardean epidemiology to grasp the affective forces that populate digital networks and produce networked subjectivation. This ‘viral’ trajectory sets the stage for the conceptualisation of the universality of contagion as an eventful and accidental logic that, amongst others, materially traverses social, cultural, biological and technical systems. Therefore, my modest aim is to mobilise this trajectory, expanding Gabriel Tarde’s affective sociology to suggest contagion as a cosmologic process of subjective production, before expanding on the interference of its pattern of action. Obviously, to re-emphasise the point, I do not reduce subjectivity to either the human-animal or non-human animal, rather regarding it as a distinctive yet contiguous degree within individuation; the caosmotic heterogeneity of psychogenetic processes on a plane that, as Guattari (2006) suggests, is the one of consistency – a material, immanent plane on which relations amongst multiplicities occur and intensities individuate. Tackling the nature/culture split by implementing an eco-cosmology, the affective monism of Tardean micro-sociology posits contagion as a flowing imitative mediation – a vital materialist force that is capable of differentially activating subjective formations (Tarde 1884, 1899, 1903, 2012).
“[E]verything is a society, every phenomenon is a social fact” (Tarde 2012: 28; transl. mod. emphasis in the original). This conceptualisation made by Tarde does not imply an ‘inclusive’ capture of the sociological thought of its possible ‘outsides’. Rather, it constitutes a sort of liberating effort, a proposal that challenges the reductionism of societal happenings to variables and statistical functions. Pushing towards a widening of the sociological whole is a collapse of boundaries that opens the study of social, collective, and individual relations beyond the anthropocentrism that curses human sciences to the point of a “social cosmology” (Bertrand 1904 cit. in Domenicali 2012). Everything is a constituent part of a society, since everything is a society: the distances between human-animal societies and non-human-animal ones, nature and culture, biotic and abiotic ‘materialities’, collapse under the repetitive differencing of heterogeneous multiplication.
In this radical eco-cosmology, individuation on the existential plane – the ‘existentialisation’ of (un)stable relations – depends upon a psychomorphism that, in turn, is built upon monads. According to Lazzarato’s (2013) reading of Tardean political vitalism, these monads are affective forces par excellence. Indeed, the ‘psychism’ (as his critics mockingly referred to it) of the Tardean sociological vision must be linked to his way of envisioning the social as a field of affective forces from which – in a further moment – psychological phenomena and the world unfold. Affects – these ‘originary’ (in the sense of intensive) totalities or impulses of transformation – allow what Éric Alliez (1999), introducing Tarde’s monadologie, has defined as a social constituent power. Following Lazzarato (2013), then, the neo-monadology of Tarde is ethically ‘composed’ as a vital material force, and this force is affect. These affective pre-constituents, in their infinitesimal, micrological character, spread as agents that intensively act beyond the boundaries of any pre-supposed essence, being instead composed of impulses of activity or “an irradiating force” (Lazzarato 2013: 119). Where does such an affective, molecular, and material vitalism lead? Not only to the assertion that “everything is a society”, but also to the question: “what is a society?” Tarde (1884: 499) very simply answers: “imitation”.
The answer might be found precisely in processes of imitation, which is a mesmerising medium of affect. Imitation is, in fact, advanced by Tarde as an action at a distance between minds: a process that operates via a “cascade of consecutive and assembled mesmerisations” (Tarde 1884: 506). This action at a distance is the specific modality of spreading affective intensities as a ‘power-to’ (Lazzarato 2004, 2013). It is a “memory and habit not individual but collective” (Tarde, 1884: 500; transl. mine), an affective flow that constitutes collective and individual subjective formations in their multiplicities. Imitation accidentally follows transversal contagious patterns: “Imitation is essentially a phenomenon of contagion …, a phenomenon of non logical and non teleological transmission” (Tarde 1884: 509; transl. mine; emphasis in the original).
The encounter with COVID-19 then occurs via a contagion that – pushing Tarde to the extreme – might be conceived as cosmological. The action of affective forces lies at the core of imitation and – since this process is defined as a non-logical transmission, communication, and the related circulation of specific forms of collective imagination that amplify the imitative contagion – does not merely act via symbolic representations. Rather, it operates through contagious, intensive patterns and their entangled and constituent flows. In the words of Guattari (1990: 67): “a polyvocality of the components of semiotisation”. Transversality is then a rhizomatic plane of encounters, and contagion involves the same dimension of the encounter, of our ‘dinner out with COVID-19’. Following this approach, transversality should not be understood in psycho-reductionist terms, but rather in radical materialist ways that show how imitation lies at the foundations of the relations that lead to the production of individual and collective subjectivation.
Recent developments on the study of subjectivity and embodied cognition (particularly the growing interest in mirror neurons) highlight an understanding of intra-subjectivity as a relational and shared sub-personal level that supports individual psychogenesis (Ammaniti and Gallese 2014). Mirror neurons seem to be the key to explain the mammalian ability to empathise with, and apprehend the actions of the alterities that surround them – the intentions, emotions, as well as the feelings that lie beyond logical and deductive processes. Further, the assumptions sustaining the discovery of such imitative cognitive and developmental processes have also been broadened to approach the perceptive relationality of the aesthetic experience (Gallese 2010), as well as the more specific cinematic ones (Gallese and Guerra 2020). As such, this line of scholarly investigation on subjectivity strongly refutes the reductionism of linguistic and representationalist approaches, in clear consonance with the strands of social and cultural theory recently signalled by the re-mobilisation of Tardean micro-sociology. However, mirror mechanisms posit the intra-subjective repetition of a performed action as a re-proposition of a neurophysiological function in the connection between different subjects. Imitation is then constrained in a reflective miming that mitigates the hybrid contamination with otherness in the same moment of its recognition, reinforcing sameness and pushing the self once more into the stable boundaries that have defined identitarian freedom from the Enlightenment to neoliberal realism. Instead, I maintain, imitation does not follow resembling patterns, whilst the intensive formation of subjects and unconscious triggering of social responses are activated via the diffractive repetitions of contagion.
Donna Haraway (1992) and later Karen Barad (2007) have confronted the problem of taking care of alterities via a reflection that reproduces the sameness of stable identity. According to their propositions, diffraction – and not reflection – is the optical phenomenon that is capable of challenging the analytical impasse encountered when approaching the relation with alterities of subjective production. As a phenomenon concerning wave propagation, diffraction accounts for encounters through patterns of interference, instead of mechanisms of mirroring and reflective miming of similar functions. Haraway (1992) contrasts Western identity politics via a deconstructive relationality that fundamentally contaminates, positing diffraction as a geometry that operates via interferences. Similarly, Barad expands on the interfering patters of diffraction, focusing on their quantum comprehension as well as questioning reflexive (scholarly) practice and its representational distancing. Indeed, according to Barad (2007), reflection relies on the fallacious presumptions of representation, fostering a view of the world at a distance: a position that disentangles action and presumes that this representationalist gap does not occasion consequences. Reflective mirroring enables the separateness of representation, whilst the hybridative and interfering geometry of diffraction is itself at stake in the performativity of socio-natural practices. Contagious mechanisms, in their materially transversal and cosmological mesmerisation, are co-constitutional, reciprocal, and do not repeat or replicate sameness, diffractively producing the subjective level.
Forces always come from the outside, from an outside that is farther away than any form of exteriority. So there are not only particular features taken up by the relations between forces, but particular features of resistance that are apt to modify and overturn these relations and to change the unstable diagram.
Deleuze 1988: 122
Contagious encounters with COVID-19 concern a field of aesthetics upon which individual and collective figurations are perceived, and transformations on a subjective level are triggered. However, they must also entail an ethics of the practices that are entangled and lead to such encounters – of our ‘dinners-out with COVID-19’, of the mediation and circulation of the vectors of infectious propagation. Contemporary biopolitical control affectively operates by employing security apparatuses in which the economy of power is very different from that of disciplines. Security operates on a broader set of elements – a population, straining to maintain freedoms that feed capitalist exploitation and devastation. This it does by intensively addressing the pre-personal capacities of individuation. The imaginary that emerges from the circulation that populates this power diagram shows the incapability of facing the eco-systemic, capitalocene-centric nature of our viral dinner dates with COVID-19. Contagious imitation is the main layout that is followed by the affective intensities that will ultimately enable the relations constructing the subjectivations of the cosmos. This is a diffractive, interfering process, rather than an imitative mirroring. Within the (biopolitical) control regime, the relation of forces deployed operates by nullifying the possible production of novel emancipatory individual, as well as (and especially) collective imaginaries.
Deleuze (1988: 120)
In his reading of Foucault’s oeuvre, Deleuze (1988, 2020) proposes the need to add a third axis to the dialectic knowledge/power. This axis is the one at stake in micropolitics – the politics of the production of subjectivity, which I attempted to study in this piece by investigating our encounters with COVID-19. According to Deleuze (2020), contrary to the Foucauldian impossibility of facing a power that, by involving the same productivity of life, becomes totalising, Foucault disposes this third axis. The genealogy of governmentality – the emergence of pastoral power, the investigation of the mechanisms of security, and the neo-liberalisation of the freedom of the individual, which form the control diagram – permits Foucault to establish this third axis of resistance: an axis of the ‘outside’ that, by a process of multiple folding, allows subjectivation. Working as a function within the control diagram, security plays a double deal: the stabilisation of the elements that compose it – the population of these elements – is itself part of a broader set of elements – that is, of a broader population. Foucault (1985; 1986) explores this twofold functionality particularly in his later writings on the history of sexuality, in which the government of the self and the government of the population relate each other, opening as well to the folds of subjective production and their emancipative potential.
The [surgical] mask selfie has populated networked circulation during the pandemic, shaping the collective imaginary. Indeed, the [surgical] mask is the apparatus that best demonstrates the open, almost paradoxical, double functionality of security within the (biopolitical) control diagram. It is an individual apparatus of security, meaning it has to be used individually by a subject and as such works by protecting the individual from possible infection – that is, by avoiding entering into relation with the virus. However, it also works on a dividual level, since the individual is always part of a population: the stability of each part works towards the emergent management of the whole. The [surgical] mask must be worn as dictated by a protocol (or a series of protocols) that organises the relation between the dividual and individual levels: if the protocol is not followed, the risk is for the individual as well as for the whole population, which can, as a result, suffer from the propagation of contagion. The patterns of contagion will impact diffractively on the individual, but also on the ‘other’, albeit by producing different consequences. However, the mask also foregrounds the flaws of its securitarian function within a larger controlling diagram: it covers the face by obfuscating some leading technologies of control, such as those of facial recognition, which need the hidden facial traits in order to reconstitute the face within the norm of their ruling databases. As such, the mask can activate a resistance on the axis of subjectivation, since micropolitically it permits the wearer(s) – the selfie taker(s) – to sidle, to obliquely re-fold the relations of power that are canalising their individualising, pre-subjective forces. It can trigger a subjectivation resistant to the capture of dominant traits of faciality, prompting new lines of flight, being equally an apparatus of security that, within a broader diagram, nullifies this possible emancipation. Long live the [surgical] mask selfie.
Protocols to wear the mask