13 March 2020

It is incredible that something so small, so insignificant, and aggressively stupid as COVID-19 could be upending the world right now. But it is doing so. As tiny as it is, the virus has the power to inflict significant human harm. It reproduces, it kills, and those it does not kill it may nonetheless leave with lasting injuries. But the virus has another power, a power that makes it uniquely dangerous to Western society: it is utterly stupid. Scientists and philosophers debate whether viruses are even properly counted among the living. But whether it is alive or dead does not matter.

It exists, and the only thing it wants is targets.

It does not think, it does not feel, and it lies totally outside the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation, and discourse. And this, above all else, makes it a lethal adversary for the West. It has exposed how much of Western society – but American society in particular – is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images, and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself.

They implicitly or explicitly assume that by attaching labels and names to things, they can control them. They implicitly or explicitly behave as if control over narrative is control over the things narrative is attached to. The virus therefore was a problem of psychology before it was a problem of microbiology, because people did not have the “right” attitudes and words for something that in and of itself was incapable of having attitudes or making words. And from the President on down, politicians behaved (and are still behaving) as if it was something that could be spun or narrativized away.

The “reality gap” is often blamed on postmodernism, but this is unfair. Postmodernists were among some of the first to predict the descent into fantasy. One of the core lessons of Theory is that the appearance of reality glitching out is actually reality imposing itself on fantasy. In the 1979 version of Westworld, the guests enjoy a fake world full of robots that pretend to be vicious killers. When the robots actually become capable of lethal violence the guests devolve into raw panic. This wasn’t supposed to happen!

More to the point, it is a pity that Jean Baudrillard did not live to see Gavin Newsom exempt Disney theme parks from a ban on public gatherings, as the cultural utility of places like Disneyland featured very heavily in his theories. As he said “it is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere.” So what is the problem, then?

There is no one “problem” because watching so many things fail in real time makes it obvious that the failure is diverse and cumulative. We could talk about the primacy of advertising or something closely related to it in shaping our political and media environment. We could go on to examine how decaying legacy institutions projected their own sickness and incompetence onto their rivals rather than living up to their responsibilities. And we could debate the various dueling theories of social and institutional decay that have been bandied about since 2015-2016.

But I would like to return to the obsession with using words to control reality. There were endless attempts early on to compare it to a less-threatening entity, the flu or even the common cold. In doing so, institutional actors tried to take something new and uncertain and fit it into a tame pre-existing mental model that they preferred. Acknowledging the virus as a creature of fate – of fortuna – would be to admit that it could collapse the elaborate machinery for making narrative and reveal the narrative-makers as utterly impotent.

Managing public health and disease was one of the core tasks that helped build the legitimacy of industrial era government in the 19th and 20th centuries. When civil servants are too burdened by bureaucratic red tape and the need to perform political face-work to properly pursue this endeavor, it is a sign that Western society has traded the substance of political competence for its appearance. And more generally, a society that cares more about declining trust in institutions than what institutions have substantively done to deserve trust – and which devotes far more effort towards managing the behavioral psychology of risk than actually reducing risk – is engaged in narrative-making as a singular pursuit above all else.

Which is where our virus comes in. It is a very simple creature, unburdened by all of this discursive weight. To the extent it can be said to have desires and needs, they are very humble. It only wants targets. We lack a working vaccine and estimates vary about how fast we can get one, but it was born with a natural immunity to our capacity to distract ourselves with our silly little language-games. As this seems to be the most powerful weapon our society had up to this point, we will have to go to Plan B: actually doing something to alter the situation instead of hoping that things will change if we come up with nicer-sounding words to describe it.