We are living in exceptional times: nations are on lockdown, hospitals are overwhelmed, economies have ground to a halt, and schools, businesses, places of worship, entertainment venues, and more are closed. The previously normal practices of human solidarity—a handshake, relative proximity, shared space and shared table, physical gestures of care—now are behaviors that put loved ones, neighbors, and strangers unknown at risk of deadly infection. If this is not an exception, I’m not sure what is.
Exceptional politics—the verdant soil of political theology from Weimar Germany to post 9/11 United States—invites the suspension of democratic deliberation. The closest analogy, one that politicians have been glad to draw on, is conditions of war. Such scenarios overwhelm our normal modes of judgment and care. Therefore, we hope for exceptional leaders (whether technocratic or tyrannical, or both) who can decide for us in the midst of overwhelming indecision. In such times, the divisions of class, race, and gender, and the normal monumental challenges of endemic racism, persistent poverty, lack of health care, mass incarceration, and social fragmentation are at once sidelined and intensified. Under the exception, our attention constricts to the threat that we must face together.
COVID-19 presses us into the exception by exceeding our capacities. The illness exceeds the capacity of frail bodies by filling lungs with fluid, reducing the vital intake of oxygen, and suffocating its victims. But this is only the beginning. By aggregating such individual bodies, the virus has forced us to confront the finite number of hospital beds, stockpiles of masks and protective wear for health workers, and ventilators. The virus has knocked the wind out of our economic system. As workers practice social distancing, the global economy has come to a standstill. Layoffs have ensued and the movement of goods and services have all but ceased. The virus has also choked our systems of governance at every level. Even as representatives and leaders scramble to respond to this novel crisis, they themselves have become vectors of infectious spread. The practice of voting, the sacrosanct democratic liturgy of sovereignty, has come under threat as officials postpone elections. The virus has also brought into question our patterns of social cooperation. New forms of surveillance and screening have emerged and even seemed a breath of fresh air, as ways to sort the sick from the well, the pure from the impure. Demagogues and bigots large and small conspire to reproduce old tropes of racism and xenophobia in order to justify scapegoating the other among us.
Yet, two of the most fundamental capacities that COVID-19 stifles are our capacities of judgment and care. The scientific uncertainty about the spread of novel coronavirus renders us uncertain in evaluating what constitutes risk for ourselves and our neighbors. Should I go out or stay in? Should we pick up the mail or not? Is this cough seasonal allergies or COVID-19? And the means of pro-social solidarity that we normally turn to in times of crisis now become vectors of disease spread. Should I share a meal with a friend? Should I care for this neighbor through physical presence or social distance?
In all of these ways, the virus seems to have decided on our exception. But, how should we respond? A number of strategies gather under the banner of resistance as we breathlessly struggle to re-assert our capacities of judgment and care. Each strategy relies on a set of assumptions and hopes about who we are and who can save us.
One strategy is denial. Populists of the right and left have aided this approach in their suspicion of experts, sowing doubts about COVID-19’s severity. Even as most public places of prayer and worship shut down, some call for them to remain open. Neighborhood discussion boards across the world share complaints about the young who continue to play in public parks. Each of these responses, right, left, and below, gather around a certainty that we can overcome the virus, that in the face of all the evidence we can resist its suffocating control by continuing to go about our daily lives.
A strange cousin to denial involves pointing up the silver lining: home confinement offers a chance to slow down, breath, and focus on what really matters, the birds are singing in Wuhan again, stopping global capitalism in its tracks has relieved the spewing of air pollutants for a season. Surely it is true that the virus has interrupted normally pathological societal patterns, and we might find that there are good things that come in spite of this terror. The silver lining strategy, however, is the functional equivalent of denial as it suggests that it is really not as bad as it seems.
Endurance offers an alternative to denial. If we can wait out the virus, we may be saved. Google serves up guides on how to prep your pantry, clean your house, survive your neighbors, sew a cloth face mask, and more. Preppers, once a radical fringe, suddenly seem surprisingly reasonable. Societal endurance is enabled by careful governmental planning, drawing on strategic stockpiles, and redeploying personnel and infrastructural resources to face the crisis at hand. The hope is to hold our breath and emerge on the other side mostly unscathed or at least as close as possible to the status quo ante.
Another strategy is prediction. Suddenly, statisticians abound on online platforms calling for us to #FlattenTheCurve. Prediction can enable endurance or denial, depending on whether we imagine ourselves as exceptions to the statistical norm or not. But, gaining some capacity to predict viral spread offers us a semblance of control over our lives.
Yet another strategy invests its hope in a medical-technical savior: more sophisticated testing, algorithms for prediction, repurposed existing pharmaceuticals and, the moonshot, a new vaccine. With these weapons we can defeat COVID-19 by rendering it impotent. Resisting the virus, we hope in this medico-scientific counter-sovereign.
Each of these strategies have their attraction. I, for one, have spent time entertaining all of them. (And I do sincerely hope that scientists will discover adequate treatment regimes and, ultimately, a vaccine.) What these strategies share, however, is an attempt to reassert human sovereignty in the face of COVID-19. Each of them, understandable though they may be, represent attempts to avoid a more fundamental exploration of what this viral sovereignty, this revelatory apocalypsis, unveils.
COVID-19 reveals our lack of sovereignty: personal, national, and human. It suffocates our capacities for judgment and care. It confronts us with our frailty and our vulnerability, especially our vulnerability to one another. To be human, according to Jewish and Christian scriptures, is to be dirt with breath. The virus reveals how our breath is shared. Yet, the virus’s spread also reveals the abiding divisions of class, race, and gender that fundamentally shape the violence of our relationships with one another. All are susceptible to the virus, but all are not susceptible in the same way. The constricting focus of exceptional politics ought not allow us to sideline these enduring concerns.
Nevertheless, the one who seems to have decided on this exceptional moment is not a he, but an it. It is not an agent; it has no interests. It is not a rational actor, calculating costs and benefits. Neither is it a philosopher king, guiding with a love of wisdom and simplicity. It merely spreads: replicating its RNA through fusion with host cell cytoplasm, commandeering the cell’s normal processes for producing more disease. Novel coronavirus, the cause of COVID-19, is not a sovereign. Sovereignty indicates not merely a plenary power, but a capacity to set the conditions for specific forms of political action. Rather than acting as a sovereign, COVID-19 is a garroting terror that unveils the limits of our pretentions of sovereignty.
The virus cannot exercise sovereignty, but neither can we. COVID-19 holds up the mirror to our idolatrous aspirations of control. Like a brutal parable, the novel coronavirus follows the well-worn pathways of the worldmaking projects of late capitalism: explore, replicate, and asphyxiate. It reveals that before either disease, we are not the sovereign. Just as the virus strangles the human body, so also it constricts the political body. In the face of COVID-19, we do not have the capacity to breathe, much less decide.
The long-term impact of this pandemic is impossible to foresee. While we are certainly living through an ending, it is not the end. For those of us attempting to survive in the meantime, this deadly exception invites us to imagine forms of agency that do not pretend at sovereignty. Such action could include political resistance to idolatrous sovereignty, but our imaginations need not be limited to such resistance. Thinking beyond sovereignty, we might wonder about the meaning of medical concepts applied to the social body like health, immunity, and contagion. We might consider the political theological significance of practices like lament, harm reduction, and even repentance. At the end of sovereignty, the end of our breathless assertions of agency, we might learn new modes of active waiting as we hope to conspire—to breathe with—one another again.