Quarantine Letter #3: in Spring, an Interruption


In This Third Letter in Our Quarantine Series, Kora Responds to Orion’s “Interruption, suspended.

I am grateful that Orion wrote— because when August and I spoke of destitution and revolt, I was frustrated that we used old concepts to describe a novel situation. I had hoped the crisis signaled our world had really broken with its past. If that were true, we should have been able to leave our old models of thinking behind. As both our own theoretical impulses and the projections of the Imperial College make clear, we have not. The question is still the extent to which we can.

Orion is correct to say that there is nothing “analogous” between the virus and a revolt. The idea is obviously silly. Nevertheless, the crisis and revolt have in common something imaginary— which is not at all to say unreal— namely, the dream we have shared for centuries of a world entirely out of control. That dream has in a limited and terrible sense been fulfilled. The vertigo of the first days, in which the evictions were suspended and the economy upended and the offices and universities closed, had me terrified and then relieved. The virus has taught us well that the future is decidedly beyond human control.

Yet we continue to talk of power in the terms of “us” versus “them.” “Destitution, Interrupted” worried that while revolt returns power to people on earth, the suspension that accompanied the coronavirus has rendered us without power. “Interruption, Suspended” worried that the virus demonstrates the same limit that we named two years ago— that we will not manage to make a break from the democratic party. It proposed that in this suspension, we institute our own ban. Are these not outdated concerns? The coronavirus demonstrates the futility of any one power asserting and maintaining social control. Again, the virus put everyone, rulers and ruled alike, into a position of reaction. Questions of power remain partially worthwhile, but the concern with “our autonomy” is a concern of the past.

Further, some of the institutions that have previously worried us no longer deserve our concern. The power that shapes our lives today lies not with national political parties but with science, or in, for instance, the ubiquity of computer screens and Amazon, and only secondarily with human actors. We must not take lightly the fact that some of the institutions we previously took to be fundamental to this world— like eviction, the economy, employment, and imprisonment for misdemeanors— are those that have been suspended.

On a different but related note: If we must go on chattering about destitution— and the concept is just common enough now for me to use it— Orion is correct to name an ambiguity in understandings of the term. But the tension is not precisely, as he frames it, between destitution understood as a dynamic intrinsic to constituted power and destitution understood as a political strategy to be accomplished. Rather, the conceptual tension lies between destitution understood as the exhibition of the arbitrariness of power and the somehow related and subsequent question of whether that exhibition restores a capacity to act. If  “to destitute” means to undermine an apparatus that previously shaped us, then every “destitution” restores an ideal (real but not actual) and subjectless capacity to act. The question that follows is how such a restored capacity to act will be used or deployed— that is, the question of what is to be done, or more precisely, the question of what will be done.

I propose that we abandon the outdated desire for autonomy. I propose that we grapple with the blurring of any neat distinction between rulers and ruled. We should not assume the battle lines of our past remain the same in our present: the world is darker and different, and we will find new friends just as we see the emergence of more determined enemies. And if these proposals seem to flirt with nihilism, let me be clear: I write none of this to eliminate the possibility of meaningful action. We live in an unprecedented mass demobilization. The fundamental arbitrariness of this world has been revealed. (Some rightly call this arbitrariness the an-archē of power. If destitution means the exhibition of the anarchic void at the heart of systems of control, then it has been done.) Politically, the way forward is simple. We should aim to forget the way things once were: organize and act to forget. In April, we cannot pay rent. In May or next year, we cannot resume work.

We live a dark battle between possible futures and irreconcilable pasts. The world is changing decisively, in painful demobilization and confusing slowness rather than a grand and joyous event. In the meantime, I hope the reigning uncertainty does not stop us from inhabiting our present— in what I can only hope will be an unprecedented and terrible bliss. If that sounds cold, it is only because our world is.

— Kora Atlanta, April 4, 2020