Bio-austerity and Solidarity in the Covid-19 Space of Emergency – Part 2

All pictures by Michele Lancione. Published first in: Society + Space Magazine (www.societyandspace.org), republished here with the authors’ permission.

On circulation and solidarity

Twenty-four, twenty-four hours to go, we want to be instructed

While it may appear that we have paid insufficient attention to the real dangers of the crisis underway thus far, we want to be clear that it seems severity measures might work to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, and that calls for herd immunity, as in the case of the UK, are no more than attempts at continuing the flow of profits before public health. At the moment of writing, very encouraging signs emerge from Wuhan province and other parts of China.

Indeed, especially when one is a “senior citizen” residing in the UK wary of contamination, one wants masks delivered to one’s doorstep (Singapore), one wants the imposition of mandated social distancing (Hong Kong), one wants the movements of populations precisely tracked as a way of monitoring and controlling disease vectors (Taiwan). If such wanting appears to buttress the imaginary of an all-knowing surveillant state, or to offer up essential individual and collective responsibilities to technological apparatuses outside of common design or control, it does reflect a distrust in the capacities of a general public to act in its best interest. For is such a public a simple collation of existences long encouraged to curate themselves as exaggerations of a purported human autonomy, or does it reflect some critical mass of mutual recognition, of complementary alignment among divergent experiences and assessments? In public, whose interests do we really have in mind? What is happening to our experiences of social solidarity, our ways of being in public, and our capacities to circulate through each others’ lives?

These questions allow us to further unpack the groundings of the emerging bio-led austerity regime. The want for surveillance, for restrictions from possible contaminating contact, for a statistical representation of the intersection of lives, partly stems from a downward spiral of the capacity of individuals to remain attuned to their surrounds. In this sense, bioterity is not found only in the intimate biology of the self, and in one’s own essential incapacity to deal with these dynamics of genetics and infection, but also in the circulatory regimes between those intimacies and other wider ecologies.

These are circulatory regimes from which individuals are largely and strategically removed, therefore leaving the operationalization of these spaces up for grabs. From intoxicated women careening through the aisles of Tesco coughing indiscriminately, to cashiers wiping their noses before delivering the change, to projectiles of spit on crowded sidewalks, it sometimes appears as if individuals in public are oblivious to the current viral conditions, completely unaware of the implications of their demeanor. Relieving immediate experiences of personal discomfort or anxiety seems to take precedence over any concern for a ‘public’. The hyper-attentiveness to phone screens and advertisements captivate attention away from the sensuousness of street life. In the time of viral transmissions, passers by easily become a generalized threat, no matter who they are or where they come from. No one in their particularity is singled out in a kind of perverse inversion of solidarity. The question of how such ‘a public’ is constituted and inhabited is one key to access the politics, and the related counter-politics, of the emergent regime of governance creeping through it. It is a key reason that national leaders may seem inclined to function now as pedagogues-in-chief.

The sensuous street

What has happened to our capacity to be in public, and from where might it be possible to draw important ideas of living through new austerity regimes? In a section off the Noailles market in Marseille a cat and mouse game between police and street sellers has intensified since the onset of the virus. Without stalls, or sometimes even useful or discernible products to sell, a panoply of men and women emerge from seemingly all corners of the city to assume a spot from which to issue rumours, impressions, and propositions under the auspices of having something concrete to offer—chargers for phones that have long become dinosaurs, expired lottery tickets—as well as a motley supply of things having “fallen off trucks” or tossed out of windows during domestic disputes. Everyone gathered seems to recognize and respect the need for a predictable and stable spot, even though there is a great deal of bodies running back and forth to witness an unusual sale, and repeated exchanges of trades, where those selling bootleg cigarettes today will hawk stolen shoes tomorrow.

Without explicable notice, the crowd will often quickly disappear before the cops show up, only to return a short-time later and resume previously-interrupted transactions without missing a beat. Everyone seems to know what each other is doing; each knows that everyone pretends to be something they are not, but without any deep secrets being covered up. There is  attunement to the surrounds, a sense that these bodies are an integral part of their environment without being fixed in place, capable of incessant calibrations, small and invisible though they may appear. What is solidarity here but the capacity of participants to play off each other, to pay attention to the smallest details of how personal actions ramify across the landscape? There are no deliberated rules and enforcements, no meta-governors to issue dictates or guarantee consensus. There are no general principles about common welfare, even if each seller tacitly knows that their only opportunity rests with ensuring an opportunity for all, together. Each must also remain detached, for there is no recourse to justice; even if brokers and enforcers abound, even if a certain violence hovers over the scene, things must not get out of (one’s) hand.

While life in the time of the virus will exhibit many instances of inordinate generosity and mutual concern, the extent to which this indicates a sense of solidarity may be questionable. Whatever the motivation—from the attenuation of guilt to a sense of moral responsibility—the demonstration of care remains important, yet it transforms into solidarity only when room is accorded to all of the ways people in urban life ‘work around’ each other. A ‘public’ is constituted only if maintained as such. What this means concretely is that individuals are sufficiently attuned to the ways in which buildings, roads, stairs, sidewalks, aisles, and rooms not only posit an infrastructure of everyday performance but possibilities of figuring new modes of witnessing and transacting, of call and response, deliberating, of saying something to each other. For the question is what can we do together—something determined by those infrastructures—and then to turn the question around, what can we do to those infrastructures, right now, to permit an enhanced sensitivity to the conditions “we” face? Yes, retreat into interiors may be required, but an attunement to the surroundings may allow us to “space out” in ways that can contribute to a renewed sense of intimacy with and through the extended world we inhabit.

The question therefore seems to be how one can re-appropriate the uninhabitable space of one own’s biological intimacy as well as re-inhabit its extended circulations in their criss-crossing with those of anybody else. Relegating the former to science and the latter to the dictates of governmentality has allowed for their grounds to become terrains of extraction, where our individual responses can only be null, de-potentiated. Bioterity will only expand this process. So, if there is something to be cared for in this renewed space of emergency, that thing is not just at the level of individual practice, inclinations, or willingness to ‘do more’ and help the ‘collective’. Austerity subsumes these efforts into the cogs of the ‘new normal’ anyway. What is needed is an imagination of an undisciplined politics of inhabitation, that is, a politics that finds in limited control and circulations ways to undo austere fixtures.

Gathering the surrounds: an undisciplined politics

What might such an undisciplined politics look like? Years ago, one of us – AbdouMaliq – was living in Yopougon, a dense quarter of Abidjan, being continuously bewildered by the efficacy of peculiar practice his partner pursued with a close friend of hers. This was a district  of a uniform layout of tiny pavilions surrounded by a walled courtyard. The two women lived close by, but some four streets away, a distance of over one hundred yards. Yet both would place ladders against their back walls, climb up and have long conversations with each other even though it would have seemed physically impossible for them to hear anything each other said. For the projected words would have to cross the cacophony of so many other neighbours—their conversations and nocturnal activities. But this was seemingly the point, i.e. to speak with each other in the midst of and crossing of this other life; to speak to each other as the very surrounds they were a part of, for these surrounds to be their very voices, and to constitute the modality of whatever solidarity they shared.

In the everyday life of inhabitation, there is often a thin line between care and affliction. The other of us – Michele – has on numerous occasions been brought into the space between the two, in the everyday living of Roma people on the street of Bucharest, Romania. The seemingly inordinate life of communities violently evicted from their homes, resisting racialized state violence within self-made shacks, was about extending individual concerns beyond the self in order to arrange for a renewed ‘public’ to emerge and endure. Circulations—of buckets of water, wood beams, and food cooked in pots passed from one shack to another— were interwoven with travelling miles by foot to file documents at the City’s offices, hospital visits, public rallies and other forms of collective politicization. That condensation was untenable and because of that it was able to generate a collective/affective orientation to effective political action. Insisting on  circulating across an inordinate cacophony, and cutting through the normalizing closures of neoliberal Bucharest, solidarity emerged as a form of care beyond-the-self (Stevenson, 2014), frightening a city that did not know how to deal with that.

These stories show that in order for care to take place, persons must extend themselves to one another beyond the positions and sensibilities they occupy. Care must entail the capacity of persons to be implicated in a world beyond where it is that they can exert reasonable control, and thus to be present in ways that are diffuse, partially-formed and undisciplined. For discipline is that which reins in the multiplicities of what a person is into the appearance of something cohesive and responsible. So, care cannot control the terms of its offering, even if motivated by a spirit of generosity and empathy. The person that extends herself literally loses the ability to remain in charge of the story, for the extension entails the transgression of limits that regulate the performance of the self.

Likewise, each person is surrounded by a circulation of fragmented extensions. One’s surrounds do not constitute a cohesive atmosphere, its ecology is not a unitary thing, but a swirl of fragments, extensions from many elsewheres. These extensions seek implication and traction in the person’s life. They counter the agendas and self-interests that might characterize the extension of a fully intact subject into its surrounds. Rather, a dispersal of fragments and potentials seeks some kind of landing in a recipient—and so the well-known field of “affecting and being affected.” Just as a person seeks to secure themselves, not in defensive manoeuvres, but by being implicated in a world larger than their direct apprehension, that same person is the recipient of forces coming from both known and unknown destinations—forces that are potentially afflictive as much as sustaining—and sometimes the demarcation is not clear. So the solidarity we know of might not be enough to protect us. There will be no huddled masses yearning to be free (of the virus).

Rather, we might turn to Isabelle Stengers’ call for a “cosmopolitical” approach to slowly trying to find common ground, one based on process of distinct standpoints seeking to enfold each other’s heterogeneity rather than on consensual agreement to a specific vocabulary of analysis or action (2010). Vulnerabilities to unanticipated forms of affliction must be risked as an inevitable byproduct of coming to grips with the potentialities of disaster and not treated as a definitive impediment. Or: the same grounds that bioterity now eagerly appropriates can be colonized from below, from which a politics of uninhabitable and liberatory circulations can be experimented with, inhabited within, and cared through. For there is no closing oneself off from the inexplicable forces of the world if a person, household or community is going to extend themselves into that world. There are no fresh starts, though many incipient beginnings.

Virulent circulation as solidarity

Our concern has been the afterlife of austerity measures founded on biological circulation, and in the power they can gain working from that vantage point. Emergency/Emergent responses might start with containment, but in grounding themselves at the intimate biological level and its circulation they become harder to detect, attack, and dismantle. Their seemingly objective truth is to be continuously questioned. A bioterity regime is in the making, even more so considering the unprecedented spread of the current space of emergency globally. The Western African Ebola virus epidemic, which posed a greater risk to human life, could perhaps be seen as an antecedent of the current processes, revealing austerity measures grounded in biology but extending beyond it notably in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But the level of intensities of the covid-19 space of emergency is unparallelled, which of course amplifies the potential reverberating effects of its governance.

So how to respond, how to organize? The antibodies against this renewed form of biologically structured austerity are to be found within the seemingly uninhabitable times we are plunged in. We need to get closer to the bare material bioterity seems to work with – the sacredness of intimate life, in its relational affects. We have focused particularly on the latter, because in there we have witnessed, in our ethnographic errands, the emergency of non-normative modes of inhabitations and struggle structured around working through unfinished business, navigating without seeking full control and being attuned to unapparent movements. Pointing to these is not about romanticizing lives unfolding at the intersection of violent histories and makings, but to take their unfinished (yet fully lived) propositions seriously (Hartman, 2018). In this sense, the virus poses an opportunity. The virulent circulations that unite us beyond our individual control can become the groundings from which to reimagine autonomous modes of inhabitation and becoming, which are about deterritorializing violent closures and controlling formations (not dissimilarly to what Wade has proposed around blackness, 2017). It is about resisting incarceration as a generalized form of life.

In academia – a space the two of us happen to frequently inhabit – that means roaming around and stealing more than ever before (Harney & Moten, 2013). If the response to the pandemic is individualized, pushing us to intimately interiorize austerity measures from our desks (or beds), we need to break through. The neoliberal (re)structuring of our work and material conditions have already produced an enormous hiatus of solidarity-based organizing (Coin, 2017). But in writing, debating, questioning—more than in the isolation of tweeting—we shall do better. Our invitation is to offer comfort to your colleagues in need – through WhatsApp groups, Zoom meetings and the likes – but not stop there. We need to fight the colonization operated by austerity measures beyond the immanent threat, which will be rolled out through online teaching, remote working, and diagrams of ‘student satisfaction’. The struggle can be carried working within the uncertainty of the current times—breaking in and opening-up spaces of encounter and circulation beyond the institution, beyond the self.

Michele Lancione is an ethnographer interested in radical dwelling praxis. He is member of the Frontul Comun Pentru Drept la Locuire (FCDL, Bucharest) and one of the editors and founders of the Radical Housing Journal (www.radicalhousingjournal.org)

AbdouMaliq Simone is Senior Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield and Visiting Professor, African Center for Cities, University of Cape Town.

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