Quarantine Letter #4: Everything Is True, Nothing Is Permitted
Other languages: Italiano
They’ve already destroyed everything, all the structures we believed in, trusted. Maybe we’re in a transitional phase, you know? There’s some sort of substitution going on. Meanwhile, we’re navigating in a tremendous vacuum, vaguely oriented by the stars but with no true reference point. Our compasses have gone wild, spinning madly, attracted by thousands of magnetic poles. We might as well throw them out the window, they’re obsolete. It’s just us and the night sky, like it was for the early explorers, while we wait for new, more advanced navigational devices to be invented. My only fear is that the stars have somehow gotten out of place and will be no help as references either. —Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, “And Still the Earth”
It can be strange to intervene in someone else’s debate, but I don’t believe you’ll hold it against me if I do. Over the past weeks, I’ve rather enjoyed the commentary and exchange of letters between my friends, August, Kora, and Orion. Something about the reflections of my friends is missing for me still, so I’ll chime in without wasting too much time, I hope.
What we think is happening is only somewhat accurate.
Today, millions of people are working. In warehouses, in offices, in fields, kitchens and storerooms; from the computer, the sorting room and at construction sites, millions of Americans are sharing the coronavirus with each other and with their neighbors. Many of them are asymptomatic, a portion are not sick yet, and certainly some of them are still hiding their symptoms from their families, employers, and coworkers. No zombie apocalypse is complete without the inconsiderate hot-head who insists, deceptively, that his injury is “nothing, it’s fine, let’s keep moving”. Orion wrote that the virus imposes “its own temporality, which immobilizes everything.” If only.
Logistics, shipping, freight, warehousing: these are some of the largest sectors of the 21st century workforce, and they are all on overtime. From Whole Foods to Old Dominion, these disposable workers are simultaneously killable – insofar as the market facilitates their endangerment via assured contact with the virus – and indispensable, insofar as they must not be allowed to strike, unionize, or cease working that this society may minimally function. In these industries, overwhelmingly, black men and immigrants are crammed into job sites without any protective equipment. In other words, they are proletarians in the classical sense, and they are still at work. A true quarantine, a dignified exodus from the commodity society and its extensive productive apparatus, would halt all forms of labor and toil, a circumstance as yet unrealized. If we can say we are living in a quarantine, we must say that it is still incomplete.
Autonomy or Automata?
The pandemic affects all of humanity — which no longer exists as such.
What we once called “society” (an entity which now insists it can survive unity and distance simultaneously, even distance for the sake of unity), has been replaced by billions of apparatuses. These apparatuses constitute a vast ACEPHALOGRAM – a system of machines designed to trace and retrace the consciousness of a world that has definitively lost its head.
The period of real domination opened by the aggressive economic and political restructuring in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – “globalization” – has pushed a vast quantity of workers out of manufacturing and into service related industries. Services being overall less profitable then commodity manufacturing and heavy industry, other technological implements such as we see emerge from Silicon Valley have filled the gap, so to speak, of lost profits for the economy by allowing large advertising and analysis firms to mine directly the collective human ambitions in art, sex, politics, culture, and society. To open up this mine, which has produced an existential ruin comparable to the environmental ruin associated with mineral mining, the internet has developed as a global network of pseudo participatory information systems. The data thirst of these industries cannot be sated by the administration of facts from the center or top, they must be produced by the masses directly. But technology does not simply catch data falling naturally from the sky or running off the gutters of consciousness. It produces data by arranging relations such that they produce content that can be bought and sold. Under such conditions, the medical, political, technological and ontological crisis of a pandemic cannot help but be experienced as a video, a collection of tweets, graphs, memes, as background noise, as a conspiracy theory, as a genre in the endless relay of notifications.
The Middle of the Beginning of the End
What makes individual interpretation possible, makes common understanding impossible.
The truth is that social media has allowed billions of people to coordinate themselves into large and small containers of meaning and virtual energy. These containers, ecosystems of signs and signifiers, by dint of their polycentralized arrangement, function as an epistemological subversion of established truth-making infrastructures that require a certain amount of hegemony or global purchase: the scientific method, fact-checking, and debate. Occasionally, the understanding produced in these containers, theory-fictions more than anything else, incidentally conform to an intensity with physical correlatives capable of overpowering police infrastructures and seizing public space, as we saw across the world in 2019. More often, the echo chambers, as they are often called, curtail feelings of common dialogue and the perception of shared futurity that would be seemingly embedded in such a “global” sharing of information. This curtailing allows people of all “types” to be bundled together as data sets, insulated from the experience of true diversity of thought, of experience, of analysis. The polycentralized arrangement of the internet today may be even less participatory than previous eras of information sharing, even though it doesn’t feel that way.
Commentators and critics have used the ongoing crisis to delay the moment of our collective education with unwavering ideological entrenchment. At work, it is not uncommon for me to hear small business owners and day traders talk about the failures of socialized medicine in Italy, implicitly endorsing greater privatization in the US. Among activists, liberals, and leftists, it is impossible to imagine a greater indictment on the privatized, decentralized, healthcare system than what is taking place. Apocalyptic Christian sects believe the government is going to repress churches for gathering, and social justice advocates believe the coronavirus crisis will be “the same, but worse” on every oppressive axis. It’s hard to imagine another reflex.
While they recognize that the internet has plunged billions of people into a pulverized simulacrum, some of my comrades would have us devote ourselves to the dissemination of real news, of verified and sober analysis, of scientific rigor, in order to combat the prevailing disarray. This warms my heart just as it saddens my intellect. We have always been machine-breakers, in a way, revolting against the forward and crushing movement of industry to preserve a less alienated experience of reality, labor, and community. We aren’t wrong for that. We should be reliable sources of information, but not because we will convince people with our reports — which may no longer be so possible online — rather because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because we can at least proceed on a clear and shared basis with each other. But what other strategies could we utilize for analyzing the world that would allow us to act within the protracted vertigo, without trapping ourselves or others in ideological camps, and without losing revolutionary aspirations in a world where global verification of facts seems impossible, but where universal need for a transformation, fascistic or revolutionary, feels like common sense?
Everything Is True, Nothing Is Permitted
The system reduces itself to a pure flux of dynamics
We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming A poor lonely cowboy that comes back home, what a wonder —Roberto Bolano, “Leave Everything, Again”
For millennia, the administration of public facts was the cornerstone of political power, and stamping out alternative readings the chief objective of the repressive machinery. The ruling bureaucracy has organized itself to prevent any global loss of control. They’ve always done that. What is surprising is how readily, since 9/11 at least, perhaps much earlier, they have abandoned many important methods for doing so. As the possibility of imagining its own future became increasingly stamped-out, the reigning order abandoned any pretense of pursuing the ideals it propped itself up on, its sole promise being to ward-off unforeseen eventualities. Without embarrassing myself with long-winded arguments about things I am ill-equipped to discuss – certainly less knowledgeable than my dear friends are on such matters as philosophy and critical works – I’d prefer to refer to an argument advanced by Brian Massumi in his essay “National Emergency Enterprise”. In this piece, he argues that a primary strategy of governance is to identify all possible causes of a scenario. The market refashions environments that submit the living tissue of relations one and all to technological “dataveillance”, information which, in principle, allows the administrators of such a system to model its every possible outcome, translating every action into a trans-action, while ensuring that every aberration meets a form of control. He utilizes the example of a forest fire, but we can just look at the pandemic and it’s consequences.
The ruling class everywhere, has argued and governed as if the coronavirus is “merely the flu,” justifying late responses and insufficient care, while also closing borders and taking emergency measures as if we are living in a veritable plague. There are strategies attached to every discourse, interests silently advanced with each interpretation, and powers produced and mobilized by every kind of theory and operation. Anyway, we have been living in the fall out of multiple convergent strategies for controlling and responding to this situation. The governors of the world, at least of the democratic countries, are basically throwing things against a wall and seeing what sticks. We can imagine that modeling and predictions are conducted endlessly based on analytics produced through data mining and network analysis purchased from Google, Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. As technocratic governments subordinate welfare states to the “science” of neoliberalism, the nihilism of the powerful today subordinates everything to the “science” of control.
Anyway, who organizes oblivion today acts with no principles and can only speak in lies. What does this mean for the rest of us?
Nothing Is Everything, True Is Permitted
Truth does not require a subject, only lies do. Let’s keep it real, whatever that is.
We can and are responding to this situation. The most important thing, from my perspective, is that we develop a vibrant enough ecosystem of strategies, corresponding to the largest possible interpretation of facts, without dividing our sympathies and concerns into rival fiefdoms and ideological sects. There are benefits to arguing that nothing of the situation is unique, that in fact the worst off before are the worst off now, that today simply represents an opportunity for us, etc. I am not among the comrades advancing this position, but I want to see the results of that framework as soon as possible, if it does not in fact raise the threshold for meaningful interventions. There are benefits to arguing that the quarantine is not deep enough, that the politics of mobilization have failed utterly to devastate the economy, but that a true lock down of the world could resemble the worlds first ever international wildcat general strike. I want to hear advocates of this position contend with the possibility of carceral interpretations of this argument. For those planting survival gardens, for those running autonomous rent strike hotlines, for those training in firearms, I want us to develop a shared enough perspective to see that there is a simple unity in our strategies, which is what is precisely, and incorrectly, attacked in Kora’s most recent letter to Orion: our autonomy. Beyond any individualistic misinterpretations, it is my perspective that the ability of human beings to self-authorize our activity, to determine our shared destinies, to control supply chains, vital infrastructures, and means of subsistence without the mediating factors of the market, are necessary prerequisites for a dignified life on earth. This is not to say, as Kora has intelligently argued, that anyone could come to control the unfolding course of history – a delusion that preppers, governors, and revolutionaries have all held – but precisely that autonomous, self-organized, structures are the only structures capable of responding quickly enough to the destabilizing, frightening, and uncertain futures lying in wait regardless of what we or anyone else do. We must utilize the current situation to repolarize the circumstances to the best of our ability around foundational concerns of power: on the one hand, there are all of the people of the world, some of them bastards we would not live with, and our shared need for dignified healthcare, housing, sustenance, and livelihood; and on the other hand there are all of the bastards waiting this out on yachts, manipulating public data for the sake of a geopolitical PR battle, utilizing the pandemic to pursue totalitarian power fantasies and clampdowns. We don’t need to steer the ship forward, we need to be able to swim in the wreckage.
Sorry, I wrote too much. Thanks for reading and I look forward to reading what others think soon.
04.11.2020 STATE OF EMERGENCY, DAY 40 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA