A note on the postcolonial implosion of the Anthropocene and the Virocene | Chun-Mei Chuang

by Critical Asia

by Chun-Mei Chuang, Dec. 2020】

1. Our trans-species rhizomes

Living in the Covid-19 crisis, we are invited to rethink the micropolitics of boundaries or the politics of microboundaries. Nowadays, it is almost a cliché to talk about becoming together with the other, becoming more than oneself with all kinds of life-forms and technical objects, becoming more than human except we have never been human. All the narratives of coexistence may be satisfactory for one’s moral consciousness, but it makes little use of helping us escape the pressing prospect of coextinction. Of course, it is just another pandemic in history, no more than the Anthropocene is just another buzzword symptomatic of our ecologically stressed mentality and our incapacity to live up to our theoretical expectations. Nevertheless, somehow we realize it is more than that. There is always something elusive and excessive that cannot be grasped by naming. What is in a name is a superposition of probable interpretations within a specific historical horizon. The historical difference of Covid-19 from other pandemics probably does not reside in the virus itself; it resides in our knowledge’s technoscientific infrastructure, which includes the planet itself as well as countless human-made artifacts and data. Ours is a molecular differentiation machine that constantly rewrites the boundaries of all.

In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari invoke the virus’s anti-genealogical image as a rhizome-making machine, comparing it to a book that forms a rhizome to the world. Indeed, at the molecular level, all living and nonliving systems are continually making a rhizome with their environment, meaning other systems. “We form a rhizome with our viruses, or rather our viruses cause us to form a rhizome with other animals.”[1] This statement suits well with the notion of zoonosis, as the virus tends to jump and mutate across species. Now it has been proved scientifically that more than forming a rhizome, our viruses are part of us, not only on the surfaces of and inside our bodies but also in the human genome as an indispensable component of our evolutional history tracing way back before we were even human.  For example, the endogenous retroviral sequences in humans and other placental animals appear to play a crucial role in the evolution, formation, and maintenance of the diverse forms of placentas.[2] Deleuzian philosophy’s strength in a sense came from its endeavor to form a rhizome with the modern technoscientific practice of worlding, to comprehend and translate its implication. It is time for us to form a trans-species rhizome with our deep history, which would unmistakably deconstruct us as humans even before we were human species when the posthuman encountered the prehuman.

The disciplinary boundaries between science and philosophy are simultaneously breaching and consolidating through endless practices of human observers of the world. Specialization and connection are the two fundamental processes of evolution. Nevertheless, humans are not the only observers in and of the world. No matter how simple or incomplete, even a quasi-living entity like a virus, every living thing is observing and participating in the becoming of its world. In our time of coexistence and coextinciton, we are implicated continuously in the complex dynamic system of shared energy and information, often through the molecular rhizomes we make unknowingly with other living and nonliving systems. Our viruses are molecular and potent agents in this process, especially in the recent ongoing implosion of the Anthropocene and the Virocene.

2. Life is an infection

The Anthropocene embodies our species’ ethical ambiguity in the age of technoscience. Ever since we can “see” more than our naked eyes in the late 17th century, the multiplication of visualizing technologies has made the molecular turn in science and philosophy possible, if not inevitable. The molecular turn in technology allows humans to observe the smallest and the largest, across myriad scalar boundaries, from the neural mechanisms of insect brains to the massive black hole 55 million light-years from Earth. Human beings in the Anthropocene are caught in the mesmerizing kaleidoscope of visual articulations at all scales (im)possibly imagined that they are lost in interpretation. At the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are bombarded with information  about novel coronavirus 2019 or Sars-Cov-2. We heard about the narrative of how the Sars-Cov-2 spike can bind with the receptor ACE2 on the human cell. We are under the impression that we know what happens when the virus enters the cell. The truth is often the opposite. There are still many mechanisms scientists do not fully understand in that particular tiny but significant event. Nevertheless, with our extended assemblage of sensors, scientists can rapidly freeze different binding stages of spike protein and ACE2 in 100% liquid ethane and examine the samples using cryo-electron microscopy, producing tens of thousands of high-resolution images.[3] Our ignorance is as massive as our knowledge when we go molecular.

The ubiquitous existence of microorganisms and their extraordinary ability to transfer material and information across cellular and organismic boundaries have transformed how we imagine the tree of life. Now we know the horizontal transfer of gene is by no means limited to bacteria and other microscopic life-forms; instead, it works through different scales of life, and bacteria and viruses often act as vectors or messengers.[4] The viruses were visualized to human eyes less than a century, while they continue to amaze humans by what they can do and how intimate they are with humans and all other life-forms. It was not until 1939 that naked human eyes really “saw” a virus’s image, Tobacco mosaic virus, with the then revolutionized microscopy.[5] Since then, we continue to see and “discover” novel viruses, including viruses that infect viruses. 

Life is an infection. Infection and immunity have become global keywords in science and our everyday life. As a postcolonial intellectual located in Taiwan, this set of keywords is full of epistemic and political significance. The discovery of life forms and mechanisms at the molecular level has rendered the traditional concept of biological individuality dubious, just like the hybridization of postcolonial discourse has made the dualism of the colonizer and the colonized challenging to maintain. However, the boundaries reconfigure and persist in other forms, and Eurocentrism is still a valid critique of mainstream modes of thought. How do we articulate Taiwan’s cultural and intellectual individuality? Can we spell out postcolonial infection and immunity in terms of ideas, words, values, concepts, projects, and theories? The postcolonial infrastructure of knowledge has been built into our academic upbringing and collective mentality, while Taiwan is an outsider/member of the global society. Our visualizing technologies and extended sensors are indeed part of us; we are postcolonial cyborgs just like humans are born cyborgs.

3. Politics of boundaries

All life-forms can establish extended existence, cognition, and memory in their habitat and transform their environment, as did cyanobacteria dated back to 3.7 billion years. A virus and its host organism (cells) tend to form a particular relationship through their long coevolution history. When an exogenous virus becomes endogenous, it lost some sequences and functions but continues to coevolve with its host. Boundaries reconstitute on and across various scales and continuously produce a different sense of the inside and the outside. Life forms, including those that were not regarded as living in the past or those that have lost independent existence, tend to compose complex systems of symbiotic, parasitic, and holobiotic feedback relationships through a series of events on different scales and organizational levels. Another issue of the Covid-19 global pandemic is about the “jumping” of viruses between host species, which is about zoonoses’ ecological significance. As an intermediary, viruses often transform the modes of connection between individuals, populations, species, and within ecosystems and affect the ecosystem’s overall health. The connecting and evolutionary functions of viruses are similar to the genetic code in a living body. Viruses are simple genetic sequences that resemble the symbol combinations found in groups of linguistic life-forms, including humans. The diversity of information patterns in different fields increases the viability of complex systems. However, when we return to the actual struggle of boundary micropolitics, we must consider the biological fact that the cells are the basic unit of operation, whether it is about infection or immunity. This is one of the main reasons we can not wholeheartedly accept Donna Haraway’s proposal to use “holoents” to replace units or beings, even though holoent is an excellent and useful concept. [6]

The micropolitics of cellular boundaries is almost already “postcolonial” when considering  the symbiogenetic evolution of the eukaryotic cell and the coevolution of viruses and their host species.[7] The biological individuality is heterogeneous and sympoietic, so is the cultural and intellectual individuality, but that does not mean it has no integrity or that the breaching of boundaries is without consequences. The molecular turn in technoscience and cultural theory does not render critique obsolete. Quite the contrary, the micropolitics of critique has never been more relevant.

Return to Taiwan’s experience with the pandemic. Ironically, Taiwan has successfully kept the covid-19 under control and become a model for the international society, from which this postcolonial island country is often excluded.[8] Meanwhile, human rights organizations have been concerned about the possible invasion of people’s privacy and the discrimination of migrant workers.[9] We are witnessing a constant negotiation of boundaries at all levels, from the cellular to the individual, societal, international, and planetary. The pandemic is not over, and the struggle of boundary-negotiation midst ecological entanglement, trans-species rhizomes, and multiscalar individuality, or rather codividuality, continues.

Chun-Mei Chuang, Soochow University, Taiwan


[1] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. B. Massumi. London: Athlone Press, 1987. P. 10-11.

[2] Stoye, Jonathan P. “Studies of endogenous retroviruses reveal a continuing evolutionary saga.” Nature reviews. Microbiology vol. 10,6 395-406. 8 May. 2012, doi:10.1038/nrmicro2783. Chuong, Edward B. “The placenta goes viral: Retroviruses control gene expression in pregnancy.” PLoS biology vol. 16,10 e3000028. 9 Oct. 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000028.

[3] Datlinger, Paul et al. “Pooled CRISPR screening with single-cell transcriptome readout.” Nature methods vol. 14,3 (2017): 297-301. doi:10.1038/nmeth.4177.

[4] Dunning Hotopp, Julie C. “Horizontal gene transfer between bacteria and animals.” Trends in genetics : TIG vol. 27,4 (2011): 157-63. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2011.01.005.

[5] Zimmer, Carl. A Planet of Viruses. Second Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.  P. 8.

[6] Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. P. 60.

[7] Margulis (Sagan), L. “On the origin of mitosing cells.” Journal of theoretical biology vol. 14,3 (1967): 255-74. doi:10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3. Kaján, Győző L et al. “Virus-Host Coevolution with a Focus on Animal and Human DNA Viruses.” Journal of molecular evolution vol. 88,1 (2020): 41-56. doi:10.1007/s00239-019-09913-4.

[8] Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Taiwan Model for Combating COVID-19.” https://www.mofa.gov.tw/en/theme.aspx?n=B13D460AE0B33449&s=9C13959F19F93B2F&sms=BCDE19B435833080.

[9] Aspinwall, Nick. “Taiwan Accused of Failing to Protect Medical Rights of Southeast Asian Workers.” The Diplomat, Taiwan, 14 November 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/taiwan-accused-of-failing-to-protect-medical-rights-of-southeast-asian-workers/.

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