POST/PANDEMIC TIMES CHARACTERISED BY FRAGILITY
Essay by Yener Bayramoğlu & María do Mar Castro Varela
A tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, has managed to turn our lives upside down. Many of us have faltered, some have kept a level head, many have lost themselves in fear, others have been touched and moved. People have died, many of them alone and under cruel conditions, in the streets of Delhi or the intensive care units of Milan.
Our social life is a fragile fabric, our bodies are delicate, our spirit and moral judgment at times incredibly weak. The pandemic, which has all of a sudden determined our life, has acted as a catalyst of fragility. We have been able to see things we would normally ignore and what our (social) insensitivity normally impedes us from seeing. Our social and ethical reflexes have been equally put to the test. Is life just about my own well-being, my mobility? What do we deem to be important in times of catastrophe? How bad am I doing really? Am I capable of thinking globally or is local solidarity enough? What can I do about the violence unfolding at Europe’s borders?
In post/pandemic times, we will have to reassess the policy of the fittest and of ignorance, which refuses to accept its own fragility and therefore argues and acts in ostracising, violent ways. A post/ pandemic life will show us the necessity of not only analysing murderous assemblages but also of intervention. How do pandemics relate to a ravenous capitalism, the Capitalocene? Just as the virus relates to our way of life?
One of the painful aspects of the pandemic has been the realisation that European governments have taken so little care of a sector which, considering our fragility, is important to us. The health workforce has been treated downright disrespectfully with underpaid caregivers and understaffed intensive care units. We now understand what we have known before but did not want to discuss, namely the situation of those exploited people who maintain our social infrastructures. During the pandemic, it has been they who have risked their health every day in order to tend to all of us: nurses, supermarket staff, garbage collectors, delivery personnel, the grey mass keeping the cities alive. Home office has not been an alternative to those people. Quite the contrary, it is they who have enabled the middle and upper classes to work from home and catered for all of us.
Not even the process of dying is fair. The threat of falling seriously ill with the virus and dying from it, is very unequally distributed. In the US, considerably more Black people have died. In Brazil, the Black population has been equally hard hit as well as the communities of the Amazon. In India, millions of people who were no longer of use in the cities have been forced to return to their villages. Many of them died on their long marches. The trains and busses were overcrowded, the heat unbearable. Also in Europe we detect that the fragility of the democratic system has left behind those who are especially vulnerable. In Switzerland and Germany, mostly people with a low income or from migrant communities ended up in intensive care. Intensive care units all together: This achievement of modern societies has become a horrific image even for those who have had no previous experience. During the pandemic, the ICU symbolised the fight for survival without the touch or the soothing words of friends or family. Thrown into isolation and at the mercy of modern, cold, high-tech medicine.
Before the pandemic, there was no happiness, no justice and no harmony. The Capitalocene has been showing the effects of its malice for some time, for example in climate change, destruction of life, expansion of subaltern spaces, increase of poverty. Necro-capitalism hits, above all, neglected life, considered not worthy of protection. In Europe’s chic and shiny capitals live those who can afford it. The lives of the discarded take place at the peripheries, both locally and globally. Post/pandemic times compel us to associate the protection of our lives with the demise of others. Consider the unequal distribution of vaccines between global north and south: It has been stated time and again that the pandemic can only be defeated when even the poorest of the poor have access to vaccine. In an uncontrolled pandemic situation, no life is safe unless we try to save all lives. In this regard, we have failed miserably. While Europe considers vaccinating young people, in some African countries not even those working in healthcare are vaccinated. In India there are not enough resources to produce vaccines.
Again we see that pandemics always pass the buck to others. When the French prime minister Emmanuel Macron declared war on the virus, it transformed from an «invisible enemy» to a «visible» one, represented by the bodies considered «non-appertaining». It is those «others» who embody the virus and its threatening presence. At the beginning of the pandemic, the entire Asian community was held responsible for the outbreak. At first, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants suffered the consequences, and we were reminded of old racist images talking of the «yellow peril». This initial suspicion was quickly extended to migrants in general, the Sinti*zze and Rom*nja and Jews in particular. In the media and on digital platforms, Arab and Turkish wedding celebrations and migrant seasonal workers were blamed for the uncontrolled spread of the virus. The well-off minority managed again to externalise the danger and the evil.
Post/pandemic times must face the monsters and the monstrous. Why are some bodies considered vulnerable and/or demonic and others normal, strong and not in need of protection and care? The hegemonic dealing with what is perceived as monstrous and therefore abnormal points to the unwillingness of confronting one’s own fragility. Ultimately, this leads to an exclusion of bodies and lives which are considered fragile and monstrous. Yet the monstrous is not located on the outside, as much as we would like it to be. Our bodies are monstrous and porous and the evil is not somewhere out there, but inside ourselves.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has also shown us that the increasing dominance of digital technology makes our lives easier, safer but also more fragile. Technology, which gives us the feeling of physical human closeness even when the physical distance is enormous, can save us from loneliness. But the digital devices we use round the clock also collect an endless amount of information on our lives. Our habits, our views, our physical activities, our feelings are turned into data. Data, which can be used to influence us. Data, which expose us to manipulation and control. We are headed for a world and a life free from secrets and full of rumours.
The fact that we spent a lot of time at home and on the internet during the lockdowns has opened new possibilities for the rapid spread of disinformation, hate speeches and conspiracy theories. The pandemic has led to a downright celebration by rightist groups on the net. For them, the crisis shows that globalisation, its concomitant «multi-culturalism» and liberal society are no longer to be supported. Digitalisation is pharmaceutical: medicine as well as poison: poison, which becomes medicine and poisonous medicine. It is this undecidability which coats life, politics, bodies and collectives in fragility. That what protects us can kill us. Anti-virus programmes can infect computers and every attempt to go beyond any doubt can be a deathblow.
A post/pandemic life will show that every dazzling, colourful fantasy of the future is a fake. Uncertainties and questions predominate. Will we survive this pandemic? Will the vaccines protect us from new mutations? Will the vaccine eventually kill us? If there is no turning back, what will follow? The boundary between knowledge and ignorance is invisible and unstable. The uncertainty about the future, in view of technological and ecological transformations does not make us more complacent. Rather, it terrifies us because our life seems as fragile as it really is. Organic or technological viruses could turn the human order upside down at any moment. Accidents and death are inherent parts of our lives and impossible to overcome. If anything, we must find ways to live with this fragility. We will have to face the fragility of social, ecological and technological connections between human and non-human entities. Viruses know no boundaries, they skip effortlessly from one species to another and cross oceans and continents with the help of hosts. Our knowledge and the statistics we produce offer only superficial comfort. Knowledge and more data are always contestable.
The situation is serious. Without contrasting perspectives, which allow different voices to be heard, we will not survive as a species. We are not all in the same boat: The virus threatens us in very different ways. A policy of power has created a necropolicy, which cynically accepts the dying of others. It is time to acknowledge our fragility and dependency on each other and to aim for a policy of fragility which demands social as well as cognitive justice. Perhaps art can help us to hear the soft notes and voices in between, to withstand contradictions, ambivalence and also the silence. Perhaps.
Fragility, boundaries, the mutual dependence of individuals of communities are themes which run through this year’s international festival programme. Learn more about it here.
The lecture series «Talking on Water» has been an integral part of the festival programme since 2018. In view of the social experiences we have all made in the past one and a half years, it is more important than ever to take the time to listen and reflect on the type of future we are heading for as a planetary community. Two outstanding thinkers on politics in post-colonial times share their perspectives. On 21 August, Françoise Vergès talks about de-colonial feminism in the context of the pandemic and the global ecological crisis. On 29 August, Shalini Randeria focuses on the global inequalities the pandemic has accentuated. Both lectures take place on the Landiwiese as well as via live stream.
Yener Bayramoğlu was born in Istanbul in 1984, where he studied media and communication. He did his doctorate at the Freie Universität Berlin; his research findings were published by transcript under the title «Queere (Un-)Sichtbarkeiten» in 2018. Currently, he is working on his post-doc at Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin.
The Spanish political scientist María do Mar Castro Varela is a professor of educa- tion and social work at Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin. Her book «Postkoloniale Theorie – Eine kritische Einführung», co-written with the Indian scientist Nikita Dhawan, was also published by transcript in 2015 and is considered a standard work.
Bayramoğlu and Castro Varelas share common research interests, such as queer studies, postcolonial theory, critical migration research and conspiracy theories. The ideas formulated in the essay printed in this programme are further elaborated by Bayramoğlu and Castro Varela in their co-authored book «Post/pandemisches Leben – Eine neue Theorie der Fragilität», which is expected to be published by transcript on 27 October 2021.