Word Virus

The dog that didn’t bark: silence in the age of virulence

Yesterday afternoon I heard myself whisper to myself: “I wish I could just disappear.” It startled me, as if for a moment my voice belonged to someone else. I was all alone in my bedroom at the time, the most private and intimate of domestic spaces, sitting silently in front of a screen. Indeed, there was no way I could have physically appeared to anyone. “Bedrooms are the private space of silence par excellence,” wrote the historian Alain Corbin in A History of Silence: “It is necessary to them.” And yet I had never felt more awash with noise, the necessary privacy and silence of my domestic space infiltrated. We can quarantine ourselves from a virus, but isolation from information is no longer an alternative.

What is startling about coronavirus is not the virulence of the virus itself, but rather the compulsive proliferation of mediations about the virus — the hysterical whys and what-nows and what-ifs. Media scholar Richard Grusin calls this “premediation” — similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). Rather, premediation seeks to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11.

Premediation is not like a weather forecast, Grusin explains: “To premediate the weather would be to try to imagine all of the possible scenarios that might conceivably arise so that the weather could never come as a surprise.” Anecdotally, I have never seen media channels so singularly devoted to one topic: nearly every headline — from politics to the economy to arts, culture and sport — is dominated by COVID-19 and its premediation. “The real struggle,” a New York Times op-ed claims, “is how worried to be.” Another piece invites us to “play with a model” to chart just how much worse coronavirus could get. It’s almost as if the media were the virus.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”, first published in 1892, contains a potent and frequently cited passage. In the story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to Dartmoor to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a racehorse named Silver Blaze, and its trainer’s murder. In a conversation with a Scotland Yard detective regarding the facts surrounding the crime, Holmes mentions a “curious incident” involving the stable’s dog. The detective informs Holmes, “The dog did nothing in the night-time”; to which Holmes replies: “That was the curious incident.”

This absurd passage is most often trotted out as a metaphor with semiotic implications. The clue that illuminates the truth of the case for Holmes is that the stable dog did not bark. In a sense, the conspicuous absence of the sign is just as significant as the sign itself. We might even be tempted to say that the absence of the sign produces its corona — the residual halo surrounding its occlusion. We are already socially distanced technically, through social media, confined, self-isolated, in the bedroom. And yet the bedroom is no escape from internet virulence. The quarantined, silent refuge of the bedroom has been invaded by the virus of the word, rendering self-isolation both imperative in one sense, and impossible in another.

Since 9/11, we have effectively been in training — with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, SARS, Bird Flu, H1N1 — through increasingly interconnected, amplificatory, “viral” mediation to imagine and enact the spread of actual, viral virality — how a contagion could potentially play out and to what magnitude. We have not yet had a true global virus, I argue, because we have not yet had the technical infrastructure for global hyper-virulence. “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript for the Societies of Control, “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coupled with the premediative impulse, we are now experiencing the peak onslaught of mediations about a virus, mediations which are themselves contagions search-engine-optimized for maximum internet virality. The coronavirus is a technology oscillating against the transmission of its mediations.

“The word is now a virus,” William S. Burroughs wrote prophetically in his 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded: “Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” When the viral media event is a virus, we can’t say something, yet we mustn’t say nothing.

The dog that doesn’t bark is no less rabid.