Word Virus

Fight Virus with Virus, or: Fear & Loathing in a Time of Pandemic

A Problem With Fear, or Laurie’s Anxiety Confronting the Escalator is a quirky 2003 sci-fi-rom-com by Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns — and useful for thinking through this moment. The movie revolves around protagonist, Laurie, a young man crippled by his multiple fears. When he is alone, he is incapable of using elevators, escalators, of crossing the street, taking public transportation, without succumbing to paralyzing panic attacks. Laurie’s sister, Michelle, an executive at a tech company called Global Safety Inc., chaperones him through these necessary quotidian travails. Laurie’s girlfriend, Dot, a fashion-conscious and sympathetic sociology student, worries that Laurie’s phobias will prove too much to bear and put an end to their relationship.

Global Safety Inc. manufactures a kind of predictive wristband that warns its wearers, including Laurie, of impending danger. But a computer virus has infected Global Safety’s software. Suddenly, all of Laurie’s anxieties, each more gruesome than the last, begin to manifest before his very eyes: a man’s backpack gets caught in the subway doors; a woman’s scarf becomes entangled in the mall’s escalator. Soon, everyone’s fears are coming true. The film’s fictional TV media, covering the string of events, refer to it as the “fear storm” gripping the city.

One of Global Safety’s engineers, an unlikable grunt called Erin, is the first to discover the virus. But Michelle and her team deliberately suppress Erin’s evidence. Knowing that Laurie’s fears are causing the storm, and crazed by his company’s efforts to silence him, Erin confronts Laurie and commands him to commit suicide. Faced with this shock, Laurie surmises that he needs to overcome his fears — the final fear being his commitment to Dot — to stop the chaos.

I cannot be the only one right now feeling like Laurie, watching in horror as my worst fears come true: there is now the terror of totalitarian control, on top of the terror of the virus itself.

Social measures that only weeks ago seemed unthinkable are becoming realities that we cannot ignore, nor oppose. Italy and France have decreed its citizens indoors, while the US considers similar policies. For me in Canada, our borders are effectively closed to anyone who is not a Canadian citizen. Social distancing practices in effect in Montreal mean that mass congregations are cancelled; the province has banned gatherings of more than two people, the strictest restrictions on Quebec’s cherished civil liberties since the 1970 October Crisis.

In 2012 during what has come to be known as the “Maple Spring” student uprising across Quebec, which took place in context of the global Occupy Movement, the provincial government implemented a temporary measure (called “La Loi Speciale”, the special law) outlawing groups larger than 50. This was an attempt to stifle demonstrations that at the time were attracting participants in the tens of thousands. Protestors saw the law as an egregious breach of the right to protest and disregarded it, chanting: “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Under any other circumstances, Quebec would be the first place to mobilize resistance to the limitation of freedoms we have come to think of as fundamental. In 2020, though, in the face of a global pandemic, no such protests are taking place; Canadians are largely accepting with grim resignation that a dark cloud has set in over our sunny ways. It is a living nightmare, though, to which, I argue, we have been acclimating culturally since 9/11, through mediations — in popular music, and in disaster films like A Problem With Fear.

Commentators have noted Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, as a prognostic Hollywood script for Covid-19: “it is not surprising that Contagion has been one of the top trending movies on both Amazon and iTunes since January” say the behavioural researchers A.T. Kingsmith and Patrick Ciaschi in a recent CBC op-ed. Another article published in The New York Post calls the movie “basically a blueprint for 2020.” But fear of disaster has more broadly underpinned the fantastic imagination in the 21st century. Think of Justin Timberlake’s 2018 single “Supplies”, in which he croons to a prospective lover: “Some shit’s about to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head, the world can end now baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead.” Or Grimes’ current album Miss Anthropocene, in which the singer aims to make ecological destruction “fun”, casting herself as the “Goddess of climate change.” The Swedish musician Leif Elggren in 2003 released an album entitled Virulent Images/Virulent Sound, which claimed to contain “micro-recordings of eight different samples of highly potent viruses.” Why even imagine such things?

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin articulates this anticipatory turn of 21st century mediation. In a book of the same name, he calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of disastrous events. Premediation is similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). The goal of premediation is not to accurately predict the future, however, but rather 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. The newsreader’s favourite 21st century expression — “…in the coming days…” — exemplifies premediation.

Grusin explains: “What premediation strives for is not to prevent future catastrophes but to prevent those catastrophes from having been unanticipated to protect us from being caught unawares and shocked by future catastrophes.” Grusin stops short of suggesting that premediations might have some effect on the outcome of real events. But what is implicit in Grusin’s claims is that one of those premediations will come true. The filmmaker Adam Curtis advanced this notion through a montage scene of disaster movies in his 2016 BBC documentary, HyperNormalisation. Is it possible that, somehow, we are inviting disaster simply by imagining it?

In a recent article for Philosophical Salon, Slavoj Žižek, citing Tolstoy, likened Coronavirus to a meme — a viral mediation: “The basic category of Tolstoy’s anthropology is infection: a human subject is a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements that, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another.” Žižek notes Coronavirus’s “stupidly repetitive” nature as a neither-living-nor-dead organism: if Covid-19 were a meme, it might be “CTRL C + CTRL V = HOMEWORK FINISHED!”

Still, I find that turning to William S. Burroughs’ notion of media virality is more useful right now, against the backdrop of the kinds of social controls of which even the Nazis never dared to dream. Across several texts, Burroughs traces the history of the Mayan calendar as the ultimate control mechanism, with which the priests exercised an almost absolute authority over the peasants’ everyday lives. “The Calendar was predicated on the illiteracy of the workers,” Burroughs explained in an essay called “The Limits of Control”: “Modern control systems are predicated on universal literacy since they operate through the mass media.”

The current-day controllers are not priests but rather the benefactors of global capitalism: the world’s trillion-dollar companies stand to benefit the most from this disaster, as we teleconference from self-isolation through Microsoft Teams, search Google to see if we’re experiencing symptoms, and panic-buy toilet paper on Amazon directly from our Apple devices. Credit card companies are profiting as essential businesses increasingly refuse cash; amidst cataclysmic layoffs for small businesses, Wal-Mart and Domino’s Pizza are hiring. Because we are now conversant in the language of “viral” mediation — viral premediation — we are also primed to automatically understand and react in fear to a real virus’s virulence.

Gilles Deleuze took Burroughs further still: “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”: “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coronavirus is a technology oscillating in time against the transmission of its mediations. This has confounding implications for the natural, subjective suspicion of Empire flexing its control, and the leftist impulse to resist it: “not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity,” Žižek argues.

What I read in all of these disaster narratives is the ultimate premediative text. I want to be like “Clippy”, Microsoft Word’s paperclip assistant character, and say: “It looks like you’re writing a suicide note.” Just after 9/11, Jean Baudrillard already identified a kind of subconscious, self-destructive premediation in The Spirit of Terrorism: “The countless disaster movies bear witness to this [suicidal] fantasy, which they clearly attempt to exorcize with images, drowning out the whole thing with special effects.” But it is not our own suicide, the suicide of the leftist cultural project, but rather the suicidal recognition by capital that it cannot possibly continue in its controlling capacity. Even before Coronavirus, the world was already under imminent threat from ecological catastrophes — catastrophes compounded through extreme consumption and equally extreme disparity. If the stupid self-reproductivity of capital is not itself the virus, it has produced the current conditions which complicate the mitigation of this tragedy. Furthermore, resisting control at its most suicidal could spell mutual destruction.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher offers us a viable strategy. In an essay titled “Remember Who The Enemy Is,” Fisher writes: “As the two most acute analysts of Control society, Burroughs and Foucault both recognised resistance is not a challenge to power; it is, on the contrary, that which power needs. No power without something to resist it. No power without a living being as its subject. When they kill us, they can no longer see us subjugated. A being reduced to whimpering — this is the limits of power. Beyond that lies death. So only if you act as if you are dead can you be free.” It is eerie reading this advice from beyond Fisher’s grave, but it may offer not only survival but also the opportunity for what Žižek calls “reinvented Communism”: “The present crisis,” Žižek urges, “demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rationally egotistic thing to do.”

During this time of imposed self-isolation, we might consider ourselves “playing dead” to control. This enforced downtime might even be characterized by Deleuze’s metaphysical concept of Immanence: “What is immanence?” Deleuze asks: “A life … This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness.” The space of immanence is where the virtual becomes actual, thoughts become actions, ideas become words, and words build the world in which we live.

A Problem With Fear does not end with the clichéd idea of Laurie simply choosing love by overcoming his fear of commitment to Dot. This would be the easy answer: loving those that love you. The film’s pivotal scene is one in which the whistleblower, Erin, and Laurie are trapped together in a freefalling elevator, with Erin again commanding Laurie to kill himself. Instead, Laurie hugs his aggressor, and the elevator correspondingly slows its descent. As the doors open and Erin exits, he looks back on Laurie with wonder, saying, “you just saved the world.”

What I am calling for is not some notion of “the power of positive thinking”, or McMindfulness, the sort of disimagination displayed by celebrities like Gal Godot singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” from the comfort and safety of their reinforced cocoons. No. We must overcome our problem with fear, and, like Laurie, truly commit to moving forward together.

I am advocating, for instance, the kind of creative solidarity displayed by the musicians’ platform Bandcamp, which last Friday, March 23rd, waived its sales cut, thus transferring to artists — many of whom are especially hard hit through touring cancellations — 100% of their earnings. I am advocating The Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association collecting 1,300 respirators to protect front-line healthcare workers. I am advocating crawling up inside this in-between time, this immanent space, and playing dead to capital. This means a moratorium on dystopian premediation, imagining instead what utopias might look like through acts of genuine solidarity, not just during times of crisis but every day, from now on. At the end of the world, the limits of control, it is easier than ever to imagine an end to capitalism.