Virus-ex-machina and Theory | Woosung Kang

by Critical Asia

by Woosung Kang, Dec. 2020】

The covid-19 pandemic came as an extraordinary shock, but we have been frequently warned of the inevitable arrival of the disaster. Why then are we greatly surprised when what has been warned to happen actually occurs? It might be because we didn’t really believe it would actually happen: what is now going on globally is “something we until now considered impossible” (Žižek 118). The shock of recognition does not come from the deadly fatality or the unprecedented speed of the virus itself but from the real occurrence of the unimaginable: the total disappearance of the normal. At first, the state of emergencies were considered a temporary nightmare from which we would soon be awaken, but now it becomes clearer that the normalcy will not return in the near future. Rather, we have to adjust ourselves to the normality of the emergency. Ironical as it is, human species stand helpless and vulnerable to the attack of invisible microbes.

The real irony of virus is, however, that it, as such, is neither alive nor dead in the biological sense of the term. Viruses thrive and reproduce themselves only within living cells. They are parasitical lump of protein entirely dependent upon the host organism. Virus looks as if it moves like a life form when it replicates, but its multiplication does not even aim to the evolution toward a more complicated organism. It eats out, as it were, what procures it a pseudo-life, thereby proliferates within the infected body. Unlike a cancer cell in a tumor or a bacteria, virus has no life of its own but is powerful enough to destroy the very host organism. Virus is a sort of war-machine for organic annihilation through its own destruction. We are not passively infected by the lively viruses; we actively transmit inert viruses into other living organisms.

Virus does not emerge ex nihilo. It is “a remainder of the lowest form of life that emerges as a product of malfunctioning of the higher mechanisms of multiplication and continues to haunt (infect) them, a remainder that cannot ever be re-integrated into the subordinate moment of a higher level of life” (Žižek 79). Virus is not a self-generative malignant stranger to the host’s body but the product of an organism’s malfunctioning. Virus appears to act like a violent intruder into the body, but we are the one who conveys the blind automatism into other organisms. There is nothing natural in the viral infection; it showcases the fatality of human intervention into the nonhuman world. The virus, with its rhizomic structures, reminds us of the violence and abnormality of arboreal system of human culture. It is indeed “a dress rehearsal” of the Anthropocene (Latour).

The mutation of Covid-19 into a pandemic has everything to do with the peculiarity, or abnormality, for that matter, of the normality of human culture. By cultural abnormality I do not mean merely the use of technology like global transportation networks, but the invention of capitalism as a system of viral vulnerability with its global standardized culture. Science and technology keep attempting to produce weapons to eliminate the viral enemies, but this time it’s unlikely that we will prevail. Virus dramatizes the return of the traumatic event: something has been seriously wrong in the human system and its relationship with the nonhuman planetary biosphere. In order to understand the fast, wide spread of the virus happening right now, we need to seriously reconsider the normality of human cultural itself: the way we live, eat, travel, trade, and feel under global capitalism has been far from normal. Vaccine may temporarily prevent the spread of infection, but nothing can easily cure us of the fear and panic inscribed in our traumatic body. Can the theory be the saving grace for human species in the post-viral world?

Indeed, the idea of the Anthropocene coincides with this reflection that the history of humanity has been in disruptive, destructive relationship with the planetary system. But let’s listen to a geo-engineer: “A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene. This will require appropriate human behavior at all scales, and may well involve internationally accepted, large-scale geo-engineering projects, for instance to ‘optimize’ climate” (Crutzen 23). The covid-19 disproves the hopeful scenario of human management: the idea of “sustainable management” paradoxically displays a crucial problématique of the idea of the Anthropocene. The sudden arrival of pandemic renders the optimism of human control obsolete, if not meaningless. The belief in the human—scientific, technical, and capitalist—centrality in the management of catastrophe proves shaky. The gist of the idea of the Anthropocene lies elsewhere: a deep skepticism about the normality of the human-led planetary system. In this respect, the term Anthropocene is a misnomer: it rather designates the necessity to supersede the anthropocentrism inherent in the human system of civilization and its catastrophic death drive.

As long as we think of the Anthropocene as a geo-engineering or a critique of the impact humans on the geo-biology of the planet, “we cannot escape the moral pull of world history” (Chakrabarty 18). For all the scientific rigors and systematic approaches, it seems inevitable that the critique of anthropocentrism in the Anthropocene always takes the tone of an ethical accusation, if not indictment, of human cultural system. And this moral, or political, critique often comes close to the exhortatory jeremiad, warning an impending apocalypse—“Humans become a parasite of the Earth,” “We are in a deep shit now,” “Human beings are the culprit of climate change,” “The clock is ticking!” and etc—and demanding immediate reform. The more it gets morally accusatory, however, the less it touches on us.

Undoubtedly, the ecological justice is intricately interwoven with the political justice and the virtue of the concept of the Anthropocene lies in its insistence on the necessary connection between the two. But how could we cope with the current pandemic in terms of the problématique of the Anthropocene and the turn to the nonhuman? Is it through the revolutionary change of the current political system that the ecological disaster like pandemic can be prevented? If contradictions of the Anthropocene are virtually identical with those of politico-economical system we have enjoyed, what’s the necessity of the concept itself as a geological marker? Conversely, if the Anthropocenic upheavals, the “slow violence” of epochal scale, exceed the historical conundrums of human species, what’s the use of all the political struggles we are now engaging? Differences or disparities in scale, speed, and duration between the human time and the nonhuman geological time, between the long-term geological impact and the necessity of immediate response, take the secondary importance here.

This discrepancy raises the similar dilemma with the viral outbreak. We all know that the pandemic catastrophe is fatal and planetary, but either we don’t really believe it to happen again and again despite all the statistics countering it or thinks that it does not “affect our quotidian sense of an innate assurance” that the Earth is, for all its geological implications, still the political battleground par excellence (Chakrabarty 31). What if the very concept of the Anthropocene turns out to be the attitude to reduce planetary catastrophe into the event of human apocalypse demanding the immediate, direct commitment? What if such an immanent anthropomorphism is what is actually responsible for this dilemma of helpless vulnerability toward, and the neurotic disavowal of, the planetary catastrophe? What then is the use of the notion of the Anthropocene if not for instigating the general misanthropy and thereby sustaining the systematic anthropocentrism itself?

In order not to formulate the idea of the Anthropocene either as a threshold concept linking the historical time and the geological time merely for descriptive and heuristic analysis or as a political notion for critiquing the anthropocentric tendencies of the recent capitalist civilization, we need to concretize, or aestheticize, the concept itself as more than a mere symptomatic metaphor. To say that human being’s coming to be the geological force through its cultural power is unethical and that now is the time for human responsibility seems not enough. The anthropocentrism of the Anthropocene in the post-viral planet requires a deeper understanding of the human dominance on Earth. To borrow the metaphor of virus, anthropocentrism rather refers to human desire to be the arboreal host-machine of planetary rhizomic assemblages: master, manager, mediator, and occupier. 

Firstly, human culture forms a master-machine. What Chakrabarty calls the transformation of natural force into cultural power was so sweeping and comprehensive as to affect the entire planet of things including other human beings and our psychic world. I think Martin Heidegger’s idea of enframing (Gestell) could be appropriated to describe the human self-emergence as the master of the Earth. And this hierarchical cultural power of enframing, like Deleuze and Guattari’s arboreal system or “abstract machine of faciality,” dominates the virtual world of subjectification and signification (Deleuze and Guattari 168). The nonhuman natural world has been turned into the vast layers of objects for humanity: presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit). Master-machine amounts to the ontological humanization of entire universe.

Secondly, human culture works as a manager-machine. Human species, with the power of culture and technology, claims the head of the planetary “household.” Human being—mostly, with the face of white European man—is able to hold the place of the owner of the planet and starts to manage everything in the world according to the rule of human economy. (Just remember the original meaning of oikos) All kinds of systems of classification and hierarchization of nonhuman things, i.e. the process of epistemological representation (Vorstellung), are imposed upon the nonhuman entities. The manager-machine rules with the system of knowledge and reasoning and it coincides with the birth of anthropomorphism.

Thirdly, human culture operates as a mediator-machine. Human being proclaims itself an artificial body or a central medium through which other heterogeneous things can link with each other. It creates a fantasy of materialism that everything in the planet constructs a certain kind of ontological chain of beings or a link of significations through human beings. Though it is, as Markus Gabriel argues, “simply false that everything is connected” (10), human beings begins to build a theory of everything that scientifically hypothesizes the innate system of vast arboreal system of correlations. Not only the singularity of every individual thing disappears but also the violent connection among heterogeneous entities causes unexpected side-effects. For instance, the coherence of heterogeneous parasites and pathogens in the human body can result in the novel epidemics like coronavirus. (Just imagine the sudden extermination of indigenous South Americans by the infection from the Europeans in the so-called “age of navigation.”).

And finally, human culture boasts its function as an occupier-machine. Human beings literally take hostage of the planet as the occupier of the unknown territories. Perhaps the epoch of the Anthropocene as a geological time comes much closer to mean that human being becomes, for the first time in the planetary history, the one who is willing to utilize everything around him or her as objects ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) for the benefit of humanity. This attitude also involves with the idea of technology as a means of extending human hostage of the planet. With this idea of hostage, human beings can do agriculture, navigation, industry, and the war of territorialization.  

These four facets of human host-machine represent the four characteristics of historical anthropocentrism: human supremacy, anthropomorphism, human priority, the discrimination of the nonhuman. (I would like to add the latest version of it: human nihilism in the face of AIs). The concept of the Anthropocene as a part and parcel of the nonhuman turn can be specified along the divergent fault lines of the man’s four-way of becoming a host-machine. But are we really the host of everything nonhuman around us? What guarantees the normality of human hosting of the Earth?

What is urgently needed is not to theorize “a new normal” but imagine a radically new “heterontology” of human becoming-guest on Earth. Here are possible tasks for the theorists.

1. How to solve the incompatibility of economy and quarantine. Pandemic reveals the futility of human system of economy in confronting epidemics. Virosphere becomes the rhizomic biosphere beyond human cognition and control. We have to learn the wisdom of the Anthropocene: stopping the domestication of animals, giving up the economy of oikos, and slowing down or suspending the speed and quantification of capitalist economic drive.

2. How to eliminate the inequality of viral infection and economic hardship. Pandemic affects our life in all fronts, but it’s not the situation of war against deadly microbes. It urges us to design the model of co-habitation with the non-human world. Rather than geo-engineering, there has to be a change of politics that can prevent mobilization of science and technic for the war against evil microbes. Like Bartleby’s preferring not to, we need the politics of recusal or subtraction from the human host-machine.

3. How to reverse the steady increase of epidemics and diseases under capitalism. Capitalism feeds on the immense pathologization of diseases. Overdependence on the vaccination should seriously be re-examined as well as the biopolitics of the market. A fight for universal health care and a fight against global sweat shop will be the first step toward the de-pathologization of capitalism.

4. How to rethink pandemic in terms of geo-ecological-cultural resilience. We need to go beyond the ethical appeal to ecology or ecological ethics. An idea of quarantine socialism or eco-communism in terms of collective cooperation has to be theorized in order to think beyond pleasure principle. It requires human resilience to suffer pains and inconveniences of communism and to design the de-urbanized way of life reducing the consumption of meat.

5. How to prevent state-driven biopolitics in the post-viral world. Against the idea of state-led “herd immunity” or “controlled quarantine,” it is required to devise a rhizomic chain of collective, small-scale, and regional quarantine system like a health network protecting the weakest part of population.

6. How to imagine a new “non-contacting” politics with the idea of postmedia. What we need as a theorist is to forge a rhizomic, disjunctive connection of knowledge without a physical contact while maintaining a virtual networking. The role of critical theory is to demolish, with the help of technology, the compartmentalization of knowledge and prevent what Stiegler calls “the proletarianization of knowledge.” I would like to call it “technics of unlearning,” including a new ontology of media.

Woosung Kang, Seoul National University, South Korea


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Anthropocene Time.” History and Theory. 57.1 (2018): 5-32.

Crutzen, Paul J. “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (2002): 23.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 2004.

Gabriel, Markus. Why the World Does Not Exist. Trans. Gregory Moss. London: Polity, 2017.

Latour, Bruno. “Is this a Dress Rehearsal?” Critical Inquiry. March 26, 2020. Web.

Stiegler, Bernard. The Neganthropocene, Trans. Daniel Ross. London: Open Humanities, 2018.

Žižek, Slavoj. Pandemic!: Covid 19 Shakes the World. New York: OR Books, 2020.

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