Slavoj Zizek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London. A documentary film about his life describes him as the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory.’ In a review, the Vice website dubbed him ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West.’ Slavoj has written for The Guardian, New Statesman, and The Independent, among others.
Some of us, including myself, would secretly love to be in China’s Wuhan right now, experiencing a real-life, post-apocalyptic movie set. The city’s empty streets provide the image of a non-consumerist world at ease with itself.
Coronavirus is all over the news, and I don’t pretend to be a medical specialist, but there is a question I’d like to raise: Where do facts end and where does ideology begin?
The first obvious enigma: There are far worse epidemics taking place, so why is there such an obsession with this one when thousands die daily from other infectious diseases?
Of course, an extreme case was the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, known as Spanish flu, when the death toll is estimated to have been at least 50 million. Around this time, influenza has infected 15 million Americans: at least 140,000 people have been hospitalized and more than 8,200 people killed this season alone.
It seems racist paranoia is obviously at work here – remember all the fantasies about the Chinese women in Wuhan skinning live snakes and slurping bat soup. Whereas, in reality, a big Chinese city is probably one of the safest places in the world.
But there is a deeper paradox at work: The more our world is connected, the more a local disaster can trigger global fear and eventually a catastrophe.
In the spring of 2010, a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland brought to a standstill air traffic over most of Europe – a reminder of how, regardless of all its ability to transform nature, humankind remains just another living species on the planet Earth.
The catastrophic socio-economic impact of such a minor event is due to our technological development (air travel). A century ago, such an eruption would have passed unnoticed.
Technological development makes us more independent from nature and at the same time, at a different level, more dependent on nature’s whims. And the same holds for the spread of coronavirus – if it happened before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, we probably wouldn’t have even heard about it.
Taking up cudgels
So how are we to fight the virus when it just multiplies as a weird invisible form of parasitic life and its precise mechanism remains basically unknown? It is this lack of knowledge which causes panic. What if the virus mutates in an unpredictable way and triggers a true global catastrophe?
This is my private paranoia: Is the reason why the authorities are displaying panic because they know (or suspect, at least) something about possible mutations that they don’t want to render public in order to avoid public confusion and unrest? Because the actual effects, up to now, have been now relatively modest. One thing is sure: Isolation, and further quarantines, will not do the job.
Full unconditional solidarity and a globally coordinated response is needed, a new form of what was once called communism. If we don’t orient our efforts in this direction, then Wuhan today is maybe the image of the city of our future.
Many dystopias already imagined a similar fate. We mostly stay at home, work on our computers, communicate through videoconferences, work out on a machine in the corner of our home office, occasionally masturbate in front of a screen displaying hardcore sex, and get food by delivery.
Holiday in Wuhan
There is, however, an unexpected emancipatory prospect hidden in this nightmarish vision. I must admit that during the last few days, I have found myself dreaming of visiting Wuhan.
Do half-abandoned streets in a megalopolis – the usually bustling urban centers looking like a ghost town, stores with open doors and no customers, just a lone walker or car here and there, individuals with white masks – not provide the image of a non-consumerist world at ease with itself?
The melancholic beauty of the empty avenues of Shanghai or Hong Kong remind me of some old post-apocalyptic movies like ‘On the Beach,’ which show a city with most of the population wiped out – no big spectacular destruction, just the world out there no longer ready-at-hand, awaiting us, looking at us and for us.
Even the white masks worn by the few people walking around provide a welcome anonymity and liberation from social pressure for recognition.
Many of us remember the famous conclusion of the students’ situationist manifesto from 1966: “Vivre sans temps mort, jouir sans entraves” – to live without dead time, to enjoy without obstacles.
If Freud and Lacan taught us anything, it is that this formula – the supreme case of a superego injunction since, as Lacan aptly demonstrated, superego is at its most basic a positive injunction to enjoy, not a negative act of prohibiting something – is a recipe for disaster. The urge to fill in every moment of the time allotted to us with intense engagement unavoidably ends up in a suffocating monotony.
Dead time – moments of withdrawal, of what old mystics called Gelassenheit, releasement – are crucial for the revitalization of our life experience. And, perhaps, one can hope that an unintended consequence of the coronavirus quarantines in Chinese cities will be that some people at least will use their dead time to be released from hectic activity and think about the (non)sense of their predicament.
I am fully aware of the danger I am courting in making public these thoughts of mine – am I not engaging in a new version of attributing to the suffering of victims some deeper authentic insight from my safe external position and thus cynically legitimizing their suffering?
When a masked citizen of Wuhan walks around searching for medicine or food, there are definitely no anti-consumerist thoughts on his or her mind – just panic, anger and fear. My plea is just that even horrible events can have unpredictable positive consequences.
Carlo Ginzburg proposed the notion that being ashamed of one’s country, not love of it, may be the true mark of belonging to it.
Maybe some Israelis will gather the courage to feel shame apropos Netanyahu and Trump politics done on their behalf – not, of course, in the sense of shame of being Jewish. On the contrary, feeling shame for what actions in the West Bank are doing to the most precious legacy of Judaism itself.
Perhaps some Brits should also be honest enough to feel shame about the ideological dream that brought them Brexit. But for the people of Wuhan, it’s not the time to feel ashamed and stigmatized but the time to gather courage and patiently persist in their struggle.
If there were people in China who attempted to downplay epidemics, they should be ashamed just as those Soviet functionaries around Chernobyl who publicly claimed there was no danger while immediately evacuating their own families should. Or as those top managers who publicly deny global warming but are already buying houses in New Zealand or building survival bunkers in the Rocky Mountains should.
Maybe the public outrage against such alleged double behavior (which is already compelling the authorities to promise transparency) will give birth to another unintended positive political development in China.
But those who should be truly ashamed are all of us around the world thinking just about how to quarantine the Chinese.