On the Threshold of Digital (Post) Modernity?

by Critical Asia

by Oscar V. Campomanes, Dec. 2020】

The point for us is that every successful vaccine begins with a close understanding of the enemy disease. We tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes. I am thinking of the twentieth century’s totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic predations of Gilded Age capitalism. But the vaccines we’ve developed to fight those earlier threats are not sufficient or even appropriate for the novel challenges we face. It’s like we’re hurling snowballs at a smooth marble wall only to watch them slide down its façade, leaving nothing but a wet smear: a fine paid here, an operational detour there.

—Shoshana Zuboff (2016, 3)

The digital marks an immense transformation—if by immense we mean having no measure. The impact of this transformation is still difficult to comprehend. Apart from the fact that we lack sufficient distance to take its measure, this profoundly disruptive moment explodes all frames of thought. These frames must be rebuilt, but such an effort demands a great deal of time when we are facing an event characterized by its very speed….

[W]e believe that the digital is precisely a pharmakon, a poison and a remedy. Our era is starting to see more and more clearly the emergence of toxicity.

—Bernard Steigler (2016, 157-59; emphases supplied)

Composing (and completing) this short essay, which has been way past due, took forever (or felt very much like it). There’s a paradox to the performance of work and the experience of time under the pandemic that has been observed and much-remarked upon in our part of Southeast Asia (particularly in the Philippines). Many colleagues have noted how work-from-home arrangements and fully online/digital teaching/learning over the past months seemed to provide them all the time in the world to resume or develop long-deferred research and publication projects; and yet, predominantly, many felt paralyzed by a number of unexpected constraints to be so productive (chiefly, a kind of generalized psychic debilitation whose causes have yet to be pinpointed). While presumably enabled by this “new normal,” they find themselves actually disabled by it. While now apparently freed from the usual rigors of the workplace, they otherwise feel enslaved by the unlikely laxity of the new work-space of home and hearth.

As elsewhere, the notion of a new normal has strangely taken deep roots in the Philippines and in public discourses here about the state of emergency, if not exception, that the term purports to describe and otherwise purposely fosters. Where the Duterte regime’s response to the pandemic and its local spread has not been medical but militaristic in the most pronounced of ways, with army generals and coast guard admirals (rather than health professionals) primarily in charge, for example, of implementing the “enhanced, modified, or general community quarantines” (the presidential spokesman’s overdetermined and Orwellian typology for the ensuing draconian lockdowns), resulting conditions only seemed to have led to a neo-fascist order for the populace, and not to the effective containment of Covid-19 infection outbreaks. The critical middling and professional classes here accuse Duterte, with good reason, of using the pandemic as deceptive cover to institute de facto authoritarian rule, especially on the heels of his bloody anti-drug war campaigns with their summary executions of lumpen-proletariat elements (not of the big drug lords!) and their lengthening casualty lists.

With none of the mass testing and systematized contact-tracing measures aggressively adopted in South Korea and Taiwan at the pandemic’s onset, the general lockdowns imposed by the government since March 15, reputedly the longest-running in the world, selectively modified mid-year, and recently re-imposed over new hotspots (like Baguio City in the north, and Duterte’s own home city of Davao in the south), have also only led to precipitous downturns in various economic sectors; mass immiseration among the urban poor and the country’s largely contractual laborers suddenly and protractedly deprived of what, before “the new normal,” were already scarce opportunities to fend for themselves; and recurrent breakdowns of the nation’s technological and telecommunicative apparati, previously determined as inadequate and not liberalized enough anyway for a presumably emerging high-growth economy, and now tremendously stressed by the necessary shift to digital and online operations of everything, from business to education, and from governance to various services.

We see no possible return, on the horizon, to the old normal anytime soon (not that many here think it desirable to do so, in the first place). As of the latest available figures for Southeast Asia, the Philippines, with its over 440,000 active cases and nearly 9,000 deaths so far (not including unreported numbers, and one can expect them to be substantial, given the government’s patchwork monitoring mechanisms) is next only to top-ranked Indonesia in the gravity and extent of its public health crisis (Indonesia’s count: close to 600,000 cases and over 18,000 deaths). The alarming scale of the problem in both archipelagoes stands out in bold relief when their pandemic infection and mortality rates are compared to Timor-Leste’s 31 cases and 0 deaths, or Vietnam’s 1,381 cases and 35 deaths (in East Asia: Hong Kong’s 7,180 cases and 113 deaths, or Taiwan’s 720 cases and 7 deaths). How can the Philippines, realistically, look to a “post-pandemic moment” under these circumstances? How must it, as a Society, “go on?” Life in these islands is not only “on pause” mode; it feels instead (for most of us) like it is poised on the very edge of precipice, the yonder side of which is not “rock-solid” ground but the proverbially bottomless abyss.

In all, does the pandemic really mark a threshold moment, the radical juncture of rupturality, that it ostensibly represents for Global North countries (judging from the various theoretical speculations toward these ends emerging from these parts of the planet)? New normal? New Normal? Crises of any kind (the pandemic and its fatal conditions/consequences included) are not — never — novel for Filipinos. In the Philippines, often in self-ironic jest, we like to wisecrack that crisis is an everyday condition and has been so through the succession of corrupt and graft-ridden governments, the unevenly and unequally developed socio-economic orders, since 1946, our moment of political independence (arguably it has been the case under successive colonial regimes in the longue durée: Spanish, American, Japanese). So if construed as a matter of governmentality, a return to the old normal as a post-pandemic moment does not — cannot — constitute a radical rupturality, a threshold moment, an optimistic postality for us. Political crises, counting the resultant one under Duterte’s watch, are and have been the norm for Filipinos, old hat: old normal indeed. So the keywords (new, old, normal) have to be allowed a semantic suppleness when considering the case of the Philippines and other Global South nations or localities sharing similar politico-historical characteristics and circumstances.

But leaving the particular conditions of the Philippines and other Global South polities for the moment, and thinking about crises (following the pandemic itself) on the scale of the planetary, I believe that the language and categories in which to conceptualize and conduct our reflections at this level are key. The temptation to return to Michel Foucault (and his long-serviceable language of thresholds, normalization, sovereignty and governmentality, biological modernity and biopower/biopolitics, etc.) to make sense of our current predicaments is very strong, especially since its descriptive and explanatory power admittedly remains undiminished, even prescient.

For instance, what he emplotted as the shift to biopower as the governmental mode of the modern state in 17th-century Europe onwards (effectively superseding sovereign power), alongside the larger movement toward normalization in modern society itself, establishing norms and ideals by which the populace was expected to abide, and conduct their lives, has (until recently) retained its currency and aptitude for describing the regulatory and disciplinary mechanisms or techniques (based on rationalized and systematized administrative knowledges) developed and operationalized in Western Europe from that point on, especially with the consequent regress of the juridical or legal, as governmental mode, in the face of the inexorable advance of the normal.

This coincidence of normalization in modern societies or their states with the advent of biopolitics, in which, for the latter, the power of the ruling sovereign over the populace (that used to be enforced with the specter of death) now endeavored to take over and regulate their very lives has, in fact, some striking pertinence to the pandemic, the global health crisis it has unleashed, and all this talk of a new normal. The state’s biopolitical mandate, we might say, is now extended from controlling to saving the lives of its subjects, in the face of a more generalized or social death itself. (The controlling remains in a more fatal sense: through the necessary social distancing or self-enclosures, the lockdowns or quarantines, exacted on present-day subject populations). But, in the end, Foucault’s theoretical language and categories are predicated on a periodizing argument and a paradigmatic charge that are, I would argue, upended by as-yet undeterminable variables and barely-limned late-contemporary developments (precisely because they continue to be live ones) specific to the current planetary catastrophe and its untold ravages.

In Shoshana Zuboff’s analogical language from the first epigram with which I commence my commentary here, “We tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes…. the vaccines we’ve developed to fight those earlier threats are not sufficient or even appropriate for the novel challenges we face.”  In my own search for a theoretical pharmakon (in its other sense of a remedy or cure intended by Bernard Stiegler in my second epigram and his essay on digitality) — a supple, if not novel, language — with which to address the problematics posed by Critical Asia Archives for this inaugural number, and what, with the raging pandemic, is ailing us, I was led to this unlikely pair of texts on a “wholly new genus of capitalism” (by Zuboff, p. 1), and on digitality and the dream for “a new Republic of the Digital, and not of Letters” (by Steigler, p. 162). Remarkably, both texts appeared in the same year, 2016: four years before the pandemic’s onset and onslaught.

But what they have in common, almost anticipating the pandemic crises to which Asias and Asians (like the Philippines and Filipinos) are now differentially vulnerable and subjected in various forms, is their recourse to a language of medical pathology and etiology to describe and analyze related but different phenomena: the new political economy of “surveillance capitalism” practiced and now patented by the IT giant Google for Zuboff; and the monopoly over the digital form established and claimed by the “Big Four” (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) which, for Steigler, ought to be actively contested by the emergent citizens of his envisioned Republic of the Digital with their own “intellectual technology,” fighting for their survival with “the life of the mind.” Like Foucault (and perhaps implicitly building on his theoretical rhetoric), these thinkers also speak the language of thresholds, radical rupture, and postality but do so in highly qualified ways, not in the often breath-takingly sweeping manner that Foucault often fell prey to, when marking and characterizing pertinent epistemic and ontic shifts in Western European modernity.

For now, I wish only to observe that with such a commonly analogical approach (i.e. analogical to, and in uncanny anticipation of, global epidemics as pharmakon), they open up truly novel pathways for rethinking our very mental models, vocabularies, and tools in grappling with the pandemic as historical moment, as the possible new operator of a mutational political economy like surveillance capitalism, and in terms of technology (the digital, “big data”) as itself therapy (remedy or antidote) for our poisoned and toxic times.

Oscar V. Campomanes, Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines


Foucault, Michel. 2008 [2004]. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979, ed. M. Senellart and transl. G. Burchell. New York: Picador, Palgrave Macmillan.

Steigler, Bernard. 2016. “The Digital, Education, and Cosmopolitanism.” Representations 134, 157-164.

Zuboff, Shoshana. 2016. “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism.”


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