“Every border implies the violence of its maintenance” Ayesha A. Siddiqi
σῶμα • (sôma) n (genitive σώματος); third declension
- body (both that of people and animals)
- (Epic and often in other early works) dead body
- One’s life in the physical world
- That which is material (as opposed to spiritual)
- An entire thing
- (mathematics) three-dimensional object
1. body (both that of people and animals)
The word sôma [or σώμα] in Greek refers as much to the singular, to soma mou [my body] as it does to a group, as in the body of a state or community; σώμα, often used to refer to the Greek police force, i.e. το σώμα του στρατού, or “The Force” as we’d say in English. The Force, a momentum of the singular body as it conflates itself with a larger body in times of war and love and pandemics. Crisis moments teach us we are independent in so far as we acknowledge our interdependence, the self a map made mutable by what contests and reshapes it. When I wrote “The Wig & The Scream, a forensics” (s[r] issue #24)) I was interested in the fallibilities of how we construct borders, how the law and emotions are mapped out — who do we let into our hearts and why, at what borders do we accept or reject individuals?
The COVID-19 virus has no regard for class, race, gender, or nationality; it is particularly Darwinian, as the strong and young are its best carriers who can unbeknownst to them lethally infect the elderly and weak. As with any plague, the virus has overwhelmed borders. “My heart is a country that is dying,” says a doctor on television from Bergamo, the Lombard town at the heart of the pandemic in Italy where military trucks are carrying off the coffins of its victims. “The new virus certainly seems to be effective at infecting humans, despite its animal origins,” notes Ed Yong in The Atlantic. Meanwhile animals are not carriers. Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” or Οιδίπους τύραννος (Oedipus of Tirannous) begins with an epidemic in Thebes, the body of the city vulnerable and equal to what infects it, including that of its king. “The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts, over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians” (Yong).
2. One’s life in the physical world
When the Greek government’s first measures closed cafeterias, restaurants, and hairdressers, it was a weekend. My neighborhood transformed from its evident café life with people out shopping in local shops to a community that spread itself into the groves of the Ymittos hill behind my apartment. People strolled the green embankments with their kids and pets and partners, or like me were alone enjoying the air and wild chamomile. It was a weekend of spring showing her gorgeousness in the sprays of wildflowers and newly sprouting greens. The virus, we were being told, all around us in the air, a contagion of breath that settles in the lungs and makes it hard to breathe; if we get too close to each other we will inhale these droplets if one is infected and coughs or sneezes; the pollen was plentiful so people were sometimes coughing and sneezing as the hill gathered us, and the sun, coating us in its embrace, promised that the virus, partial as it is to the cold, like any vampire, would die in that sunlight.
3. That which is material (as opposed to spiritual)
In an online March 19 piece in Verso Judith Butler asks how the pandemic is making us think of “our obligations toward one another” emphasizing that the politics of health care in the US “all testify to the rapidity with which radical inequality” allows for “capitalist exploitation … to reproduce and strengthen their powers.” Wealthy businessmen were tipped off to sell their stock before the pandemic started to affect the market that subsequently started to crash. Trump wanted to “buy (with cash) exclusive US rights to a vaccine from a German company… funded by the German government” (my emphasis). A German politician, Karl Lauterbach, responded with, “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the USA must be prevented by all means. Capitalism has its limits” (my emphasis). I wrote “The Wig & The Scream” in a series of vignettes in imitation of the 44 episodes of the crime series The Killing, a sequencing aimed to suggest the limitations of our assumptions; in “#13 There is a poverty to desire that insists on its object & only that” I was not thinking of Trump, or Midas, or the self-interest of big business, but the context of this pandemic and Trump’s poverty of vision (if we can use that noun for someone so blind), makes Butler’s question urgent: “Is it even thinkable within his world to insist upon a world health concern that should transcend market rationality at this time?” A statement by a doctor in Bergamo might be one answer, “At this point you realize you are not enough.” Another is that unlike Oedipus, Trump does not recognize his role in the plague.
We have gathered in our homes under the Greek hashtag #μένουμεσπίτι or #menoumespiti [#westayathome], we’ve adjusted our individual routines, kids home schooled online, teaching through computer screens. The materiality of space has taken on a new significance. In moments of danger we are viscerally aware of our threatened selves too often viewed as singular, our borders close, our doors shut, on what we view as “home”; it’s been interesting to see how countries are telling their citizens to “return home,” as I write airports such as Heathrow are overrun with people whose canceled flights have left them in limbo. But without a coordinated [συντονισμένη] effort, a shared base, we lose battles and borders are useless. A base might be the assumption that the good of the group begins with the good of the individual, i.e. “#9 The instinct to protect our selves begins with the body’s bone & flesh vulnerabilities as much as its heart” or “# 36 Our assumptions can cost lives, as in The Killing, as in the rejection of those seeking refuge” (“The Wig & The Scream”). Reuters reports that Fiat Chrysler, the Italian automobile giant, is now making badly needed masks and respirators. Panagiotis Sotiris in a March 14 article answers the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s critique of the Italian government’s lockdown measures, suggesting that state power used for the larger good can go “From power as a right of life and death that the sovereign holds … to power as an attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations.”
Biopolitics, a term coined by Michel Foucault, considers ways power has capitalized on (and made capital of) our persons. Sotiris writes, “Agamben has used it in a constructive way, in this attempt to theorise the modern forms of a ‘state of exception’, namely spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice, with the concentration camp the main example,” but here Sotiris detours to suggest an analogy to the HIV pandemic. This is “not [just] the disease of ‘high risk groups’” and our practice of social-distancing, and the state’s mandate to stay at home might be a possibility for viewing our biopolitical moment as one “of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions,” i.e. your person becomes a geography of others.
5. An entire thing
Two nights ago in Athens, neighborhoods of apartments stood on their balconies and clapped, keeping lights on through the night in a gesture of gratitude and solidarity with doctors and health care workers putting in around-the-clock hours to help save lives as they put their own at risk. Italy’s towns and neighborhoods are singing from their balconies. Some venues are projecting films on walls so Italians can watch them from their balconies. In China, a totalitarian state, the body is one with the State’s, and as my daughter reminds me, there were robots placed outside homes to insure that no one left them during the lockdown. In this case the State managed to flatten the pandemic’s curve. In Italy this has not happened yet where the death toll continues to rise, as in Spain, the UK, the US, and elsewhere. “We are all Greece,” said the PM on television Sunday night, as the Greek state went into further lockdown. Can we hope that “during such a crisis, in contrast to individualized ‘survivalist’ panics … state power (and coercion) [is] being used to channel resources from the private sector to socially necessary directions”? (Sotiris), i.e. “#22 The law requires obedience for the promise that it is there in good faith, to protect our flesh & bone vulnerabilities” i.e. “So many refugees assume the free world will welcome them, & so many have found death” (s[r] #24).
i.e. “Films for Action” (Facebook)
“A letter from the virus to humans”
“Stop. Just stop.
It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.
Our obligation is to each other,
As it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten.
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us; all of us are suffering.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth
did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan.
Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India.
You have not been listening.”
6. (mathematics) three-dimensional object
A system, whether a camp, institution, city, country, is constructed to function. Our biological and social eco-systems are meant to provide us with the privilege to get on with our lives. “In sickness and in health” goes the adage of the marriage vow partners take in a promise to look after each another; our marriage with the planet is in trouble. My friend’s marriage in “The Wig & The Scream” failed in a large part because of a partner’s refusal to admit to what endangered it. Our planet is telling us something with this novel Corona, or Crown of viruses, hitting us in the lungs: we will gradually stop breathing for lack oxygen if the mucus hardens and blocks our passageways. My daughter, now at home with me, joins in for an almost daily yoga practice with Victoria who has moved her onsite lessons online. She reminds us to concentrate on our breathing, and at the end of the practice tells us, “Let your breathing connect with the larger pulse of what is outside of yourself.”
References & further readings:
Ed Yong, “Why the Coronavirus Has Been So Successful” The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/03/biography-new-coronavirus/608338/
Felipe Demetri, “Biopolitics and Coronavirus, or don’t forget Foucault” Naked Punch http://www.nakedpunch.com/articles/306
Judith Butler, “Capitalism Has Its Limits” Verso https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits
Panayiotis Sotiris, “Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?” Critical Legal Thinking https://criticallegalthinking.com/2020/03/14/against-agamben-is-a-democratic-biopolitics-possible/
Yuval Noah Harari: the world after corona virus, The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75?fbclid
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