Paul Preciado – Learning from the Virus – March 28th, 2020

If Michel Foucault had survived the scourge of AIDS and had resisted until the invention of tritherapy he would be 93 years old today: would he have willingly accepted to have locked himself up in his apartment on rue Vaugirard? The first philosopher in history to die from the complications generated by the acquired immunodeficiency virus has bequeathed us some of the most effective notions to think about the political management of the epidemic that, amid panic and misinformation, become as useful as a good cognitive mask.  

The most important thing we learned from Foucault is that the living (and therefore mortal) body is the central object of all politics. Il n’y a pas de politique qui ne soit pas une politique des corps (there is no politics that is not a politics of the bodies). But the body is not for Foucault a given biological organism on which power then acts. The very task of political action is to manufacture a body, put it to work, define its modes of reproduction, prefigure the modes of discourse through which that body is fictionalized until it is capable of saying “I”. All of Foucault’s work could be understood as a historical analysis of the different techniques through which power manages the life and death of populations. Between 1975 and 1976, the years in which he published   Discipline and Punish and the first volume of the History of Sexuality , Foucault used the notion of “biopolitics” to speak of a relationship that power established with the social body in modernity. He described the transition from what he called a “sovereign society” to a “disciplinary society” as the passage from a society that defines sovereignty in terms of decision and ritualization of death to a society that manages and maximizes the lives of populations in terms of national interest. For Foucault, biopolitical governmental techniques extended as a network of power that went beyond the legal sphere or the punitive sphere, becoming a “somato-political” force, a form of spatialized power that extended throughout the entire territory until it penetrated the individual body.  

During and after the AIDS crisis, numerous authors expanded and radicalized Foucault’s hypotheses and their relationship to immune policies. The Italian philosopher Roberto Espósito analyzed the relationships between the political notion of “community” and the biomedical and epidemiological notion of “immunity.” Community and immunity share the same root, munus, in Latin the munus was the tribute that someone had to pay to live or be part of the community. The community is cum (con) munus (duty, law, obligation, but also offering): a human group linked by a common law and obligation, but also by a gift, by an offering. The noun immunitas is a proprietary word that derives from denying the munus. In Roman law, the immunitas was a dispensation or a privilege that exonerated someone from the corporate duties that are common to all. The one who had been exonerated was immune, while the one who was unfavored [desmunido]  was the one from whom all the privileges of community life had been withdrawn.    

Roberto Espósito teaches us that all biopolitics is immunological: it supposes a definition of the community and the establishment of a hierarchy between those bodies that are exempt from taxes (those that are considered immune) and those that the community perceives as potentially dangerous (the demuni) and therfore will be excluded in an act of immunological protection. That is the paradox of biopolitics: every act of protection implies an immune definition of the community according to which it will give itself the authority to sacrifice other lives, for the benefit of an idea of ​​its own sovereignty. The state of exception is the normalization of this unbearable paradox.  

The virus acts in our image and likeness, it does nothing more than replicate and extend to the entire population, the dominant forms of biopolitical and necropolitical management that were already working on the national territory

Starting in the 19th century, with the discovery of the first smallpox vaccine and the experiments of Pasteur and Koch, the notion of immunity migrated from the field of law and acquired a medical significance. The European liberal and patriarchal-colonial democracies of the 19th century construct the ideal of the modern individual not only as a free economic (male, white, heterosexual) agent, but also as a radically separate, immune body that owes nothing to the community. For Espósito, the way in which Nazi Germany characterized a part of its own population (Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities) as bodies that threatened the sovereignty of the Aryan community is a paradigmatic example of the dangers of immune management. This immunological understanding of society did not end Nazism, but, on the contrary, has survived in Europe, legitimizing the neoliberal policies of management of its racialized minorities and migrant populations. It is this immunological understanding that has shaped the European economic community, the Shengen myth, and Frontex techniques in recent years.

In 1994, in Flexible Bodies, Princeton University anthropologist Emily Martin analyzed the relationship between immunity and politics in American culture during the polio and AIDS crises. Martin reached some conclusions that are relevant to analyze the current crisis. Body immunity, Martin argues, is not just a mere biological fact independent of cultural and political variables. Quite the contrary, what we understand by immunity is collectively constructed through social and political criteria that alternately produce sovereignty or exclusion, protection or stigma, life or death. 

If we rethink the history of some of the global epidemics of the last five centuries through the prism offered by Michel Foucault, Roberto Espósito and Emily Martin, it is possible to elaborate a hypothesis that could take the form of an equation: tell me how your community builds your political sovereignty and I will tell you what forms your epidemics will take and how you will deal with them.

The different epidemics materialize, in the sphere of the individual body, the obsessions that dominate the political management of life and death of populations in a given period. To put it in Foucault’s terms, an epidemic radicalizes and displaces the biopolitical techniques that are applied to the national territory down to the level of political anatomy, inscribing them in the individual body. At the same time, an epidemic makes it possible to extend to the entire population the political “immunization” measures that had been applied until now in a violent manner against those who had been considered as “foreigners” both within and within the limits of the national territory.

The political management of epidemics enacts the utopia of community and the immune fantasies of a society, externalizing its dreams of omnipotence (and the resounding failures) of its political sovereignty. The hypothesis of Michel Foucault, Roberto Espósito, and Emily Martin has nothing to do with a conspiracy theory. This is not the ridiculous idea that the virus is a laboratory invention or a Machiavellian plan to extend even more authoritarian policies. On the contrary, the virus acts in our image and likeness, it does nothing more than replicate, materialize, intensify and extend to the entire population, the dominant forms of biopolitical and necropolitical management that were already working on the national territory and its limits. Hence, each society can be defined by the epidemic that threatens it and by the way of organizing itself against it.

Take, for example, syphilis. The epidemic first struck the city of Naples in 1494. The European colonial enterprise had just started. Syphilis was like the starting gun for colonial destruction and the racial policies that would come with it. The English called it “the French disease”, the French said it was “the Neapolitan evil” and the Neapolitans that it had come from America: it was said that it had been brought by the colonizers who had been infected by the natives… The virus, as Derrida taught us, is, by definition, the stranger, the other, the alien. A sexually transmitted infection, syphilis materialized in the bodies of the 16th to the 19th centuries the forms of repression and social exclusion that dominated patriarco-colonial modernity: the obsession with racial purity, the prohibition of so-called “mixed marriages” between people of different class and “race” and the multiple restrictions that weighed on sexual and extramarital relations.

What will be at the center of the debate during and after this crisis is which will be the lives that we will be willing to save and which will be sacrificed.

The community utopia and the syphilis immunity model is that of the white bourgeois body sexually confined in married life as the nucleus of the reproduction of the national body. Hence, the prostitute became the living body that condensed all the abject political signifiers during the epidemic: a working woman and often racialized, a body external to domestic and marriage regulations, who made her sexuality her means of production, the worker sexual activity was made visible, controlled and stigmatized as the main vector for the spread of the virus. But it was not the crackdown on prostitution or the confinement of prostitutes in national brothels (as Restif de la Bretonne envisioned) that cured syphilis. Quite the contrary. The imprisonment of prostitutes only made them more vulnerable to the disease. What cured syphilis was the discovery of antibiotics and especially penicillin in 1928, precisely a moment of profound transformations in sexual politics in Europe with the first decolonization movements, the access of white women to the vote, the first decriminalizations of homosexuality and a relative liberalization of heterosexual marriage ethics.

Half a century later, AIDS was to the neoliberal heteronormative society of the twentieth century what syphilis had been to industrial and colonial society. The first cases appeared in 1981, precisely at the time when homosexuality was no longer considered a psychiatric illness, after it had been the object of persecution and social discrimination for decades. The first phase of the epidemic primarily affected what was then called the 4 H’s: homosexuals, hookers – sex workers – , hemophiliacs and heroin users – heroin addicts – . AIDS remastered and updated the network of control over the body and sexuality that syphilis had woven and that penicillin and the decolonization, feminist and homosexual movements had dismantled and transformed in the 1960s and 1970s. As in the case of prostitutes in the syphilis crisis, the repression of homosexuality only caused more deaths. What is progressively transforming AIDS into a chronic disease has been the depathologization of homosexuality, the pharmacological autonomization of the South, the sexual emancipation of women, their right to say no to practices without a condom, and the access of the affected population, regardless of their social class or their degree of racialization, to tritherapies. The AIDS community / immunity model has to do with the fantasy of male sexual sovereignty understood as a non-negotiable right of penetration, while every sexually penetrated body (homosexual, female, every form of anality) is perceived as lacking sovereignty.   

Let us now return to our current situation. Long before Covid-19 appeared, we had already started a process of planetary mutation. We were already undergoing, before the virus, a social and political change as profound as the one that affected the societies that developed syphilis. In the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press and the expansion of colonial capitalism, there was a shift from an oral society to a written society, from a feudal form of production to a slave-industrial form of production and from a theocratic society to a society governed by scientific agreements in which the notions of sex, race and sexuality would become devices of necro-biopolitical control of the population.

Today we are moving from a written society to a cyber-moral society, from an organic society to a digital society, from an industrial economy to an immaterial economy, from a form of disciplinary and architectural control, to forms of microprosthetic and media-cybernetic control. In other texts, I have called pharmacopornographic the type of management and production of the body and of sexual subjectivity within this new political configuration. The contemporary body and subjectivity are no longer regulated solely through their passage through disciplinary institutions (school, factory, caserna, hospital, etc.) but, above all, through a set of biomolecular, microprosthetic, digital and transmission technologies and information. In the field of sexuality, the pharmacological modification of consciousness and behavior, the globalization of the contraceptive pill for all “women”, as well as the production of triple therapies, AIDS preventive therapies or Viagra are some of the the indices of biotechnological management. The planetary spread of the Internet, the generalization of the use of mobile computing technologies, the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms in the analysis of big data, the exchange of information at high speed and the development of global devices for computer surveillance through satellite are indices of this new digital semi-technical management. If I have called them pornographic, it is, in the first place, because these bio-surveillance techniques are introduced into the body, they go through the skin, they penetrate us; and secondly, because biocontrol devices no longer work through the repression of sexuality (masturbatory or not), but through the incitement to consumption and the constant production of a regulated and quantifiable pleasure. The more we consume and the healthier we are, the better we are controlled.

The mutation that is taking place could also be the passage of a patriarchal-colonial and extractive regime, of an anthropocentric society and of a politics where a very small part of the planetary human community authorizes itself to carry out predatory practices. universal, to a society capable of redistributing energy and sovereignty. From a fossil energy society to a renewable energy one. Also in question is the transition from a binary model of sexual difference to a more open paradigm in which the morphology of the genital organs and the reproductive capacity of a body do not define its social position from the moment of birth; and from a heteropatriarchal model to non-hierarchical forms of reproduction of life. What will be at the center of the debate during and after this crisis is which will be the lives that we will be willing to save and which will be sacrificed. It is in the context of this mutation, of the transformation of the ways of understanding the community (a community that today is the entire planet) and immunity that the virus operates and becomes a political strategy.

Immunity and Border Policy

What has characterized the government policies of the last 20 years, since at least the fall of the Twin Towers, in the face of the apparent ideas of freedom of movement that dominated the neoliberalism of the Thatcher era, has been the redefinition of the nation-states. in neocolonial and identity terms and the return to the idea of ​​the physical border as a condition for the reestablishment of national identity and political sovereignty. Israel, the United States, Russia, Turkey and the European Economic Community have led the design of new borders that, for the first time in decades, have not only been policed ​​or guarded, but re-inscribed through the decision to raise walls and build levees, and defended with non-biopolitical measures, but necropolitical ones, with techniques of death.

Covid-19 has legitimized and extended those state practices of bio-surveillance and digital control, normalizing them and making them “necessary” to maintain a certain idea of ​​immunity

As a European society, we decided to collectively build ourselves as a totally immune community, closed to the East and the South, while the East and the South, from the point of view of energy resources and the production of consumer goods, are our warehouse. We closed the border in Greece, we built the largest open-air detention centers in history on the islands bordering Turkey and the Mediterranean, and we fantasized that this would give us a form of immunity. The destruction of Europe began paradoxically with this construction of an immune European community, open within and totally closed to foreigners and migrants.

What is being tested on a planetary scale through the management of the virus is a new way of understanding sovereignty in a context in which sexual and racial identity (axes of the political segmentation of the patriarchal-colonial world until now) are being disjointed. Covid-19 has displaced the border policies that were taking place in the national territory or in the European super-territory to the level of the individual body. The body, your individual body, as a living space and as a framework of power, as a center for the production and consumption of energy, has become the new territory in which the aggressive border policies that we have been designing and testing for years are expressed. now in the form of a barrier and war against the virus. The new necropolitical frontier has moved from the shores of Greece to the door of the private home. Lesbos starts now at your doorstep. And the border does not stop closing in on you, it pushes until it gets closer and closer to your body. Calais now explodes in your face. The new frontier is the mask. The air you breathe must be yours alone. The new frontier is your epidermis. The new Lampedusa is your skin.

The policies of the border and the strict confinement and immobilization measures that as a community we have applied in recent years to migrants and refugees are now being reproduced on individual bodies – until we have left them outside any community. For years we had them in the limbo of the holding centers. Now we are the ones living in the limbo of the retention center of our own homes.

Biopolitics in the ‘pharmacopornographic’ era

Epidemics, due to their call for a state of exception and the inflexible imposition of extreme measures, are also great laboratories of social innovation, the occasion for a large-scale reconfiguration of the techniques of the body and the technologies of power. Foucault analyzed the passage from leprosy management to plague management as the process through which the disciplinary techniques of spatializing the power of modernity were deployed. If leprosy had been confronted through strictly necropolitical measures that excluded the leper, condemning him if not to death at least to life outside the community, the reaction to the plague epidemic invents disciplinary management and its forms of inclusion exclusive: strict segmentation of the city, confinement of each body in each house.

Our health will not come from the imposition of borders or separation, but from a new balance with other living beings on the planet

The different strategies that different countries have taken in the face of the spread of Covid-19 show two totally different types of biopolitical technologies. The first, in operation mainly in Italy, Spain and France, applies strictly disciplinary measures that are not, in many ways, very different from those used against the plague. It is about the home confinement of the entire population. It is worth rereading the chapter on Plague Management in Europe in Watch and Punish to realize that French policies for managing Covid-19 have not changed much since then. Here the logic of the architectural frontier works and the treatment of infection cases within classical hospital enclaves. This technique has not yet shown evidence of full efficacy.  

The second strategy, implemented by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong-Kong, Japan, and Israel, involves the transition from modern architectural control and disciplinary techniques to pharmacopornographic bio-surveillance techniques : here the emphasis is on individual detection of the viruses through the multiplication of tests and constant and strict digital surveillance of patients through their mobile computing devices. Mobile phones and credit cards here become surveillance instruments that allow tracing the movements of the individual body. We do not need biometric bracelets: the mobile has become the best bracelet, nobody leaves it even to sleep. A GPS application informs the police of the movements of any suspicious body. The temperature and movement of an individual body are monitored through mobile technologies and observed in real time by the digital eye of a cyber-authoritarian state for which the community is a community of cyber users and sovereignty is above all digital transparency and management of big data.  

But these political immunization policies are not new, and they have not only been deployed before to search for and capture so-called terrorists: since the early 2010s, for example, Taiwan had legalized access to all phone contacts. mobiles in sexual encounter applications with the aim of “preventing” the spread of AIDS and prostitution on the Internet. Covid-19 has legitimized and extended these state practices of bio-surveillance and digital control, normalizing them and making them “necessary” to maintain a certain idea of ​​immunity. However, the same States that implement extreme digital surveillance measures are not yet considering prohibiting the trafficking and consumption of wild animals, the industrial production of birds and mammals, or the reduction of CO emissions. What has increased is not the immunity of the social body, but citizen tolerance in the face of state and corporate cybernetic control.

The political management of Covid-19 as a form of administration of life and death draws the contours of a new subjectivity. What will have been invented after the crisis is a new utopia for the immune community and a new way of controlling the body. The subject of  the neoliberal technopatriarchy that Covid-19 manufactures has no skin, is untouchable, and has no hands. She does not exchange physical goods, nor does she touch coins, she pays with a credit card. It has no lips, it has no tongue. She does not speak live, she leaves a voice message. It does not meet or collectivize. It is radically individual. It has no face, it has a mask. His organic body is hidden in order to exist after an indefinite series of semi-technical mediations, a series of cybernetic prostheses that serve as a mask: the mask of the email address, the mask of the Facebook account, the Instagram mask. It is not a physical agent, but a digital consumer, a teleproducer, it is a code, a pixel, a bank account, a door with a name, an address to which Amazon can send its orders.  

The soft prison: welcome to your home telerepublic

One of the central displacements of the pharmacopornographic biopolitical techniques that characterize the Covid-19 crisis is that the personal home – and not the traditional confinement and normalization institutions (hospital, factory, prison, school) – now appears as the new center of production, consumption and biopolitical control. It is no longer just that the house is the place of confinement of the body, as was the case in the management of the plague. The personal home has now become the center of the teleconsumption and teleproduction economy. The domestic space now exists as a point in a cyber-guarded space, an identifiable place on a google map, a box recognizable by a drone.  

If I was interested in the Playboy Mansion at the time, it is because it functioned in the middle of the cold war as a laboratory in which new devices for pharmacopornographic control of the body and sexuality were being invented, which were to be extended to it from the beginning. of the 21st century and that are now being extended to the entire world population with the Covid-19 crisis. When I did my research on Playboy, I was struck by the fact that Hugh Hefner, one of the richest men in the world, had spent almost 40 years without leaving the Mansion, dressed only in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers, drinking Coca-Cola and eating Butterfingers and that he could have directed and produced the most important magazine in the United States without leaving his house or even his bed. Supplemented with a video camera, a direct telephone line, radio and piped music, Hefner’s bed was a veritable multimedia production platform for the life of its inhabitant.    

His biographer Steven Watts called Hefner “a voluntary recluse in his own paradise.” As an adept of audiovisual archive devices of all kinds, Hefner, long before the mobile phone Facebook or WhatsApp existed, sent more than twenty audio and video tapes with instructions and messages, ranging from live interviews to publication guidelines. Hefner had a closed-circuit camera installed in the mansion, where a dozen Playmates also livedand could access all the rooms in real time from his control center. Covered with wood panels and with thick curtains, but penetrated by thousands of cables and packed with what at that time was perceived as the highest telecommunication technologies (and which today would seem as archaic as a tam-tam), it was at at the same time totally opaque, and totally transparent. The materials filmed by the surveillance cameras also ended up in the pages of the magazine.  

The silent biopolitical revolution that Playboy led involved, beyond the transformation of heterosexual pornography into mass culture, the questioning of the division that had founded the industrial society of the nineteenth century: the separation of the spheres of production and of the reproduction, the difference between the factory and the home and with it the patriarchal distinction between masculinity and femininity. Playboy complied with this difference by proposing the creation of a new enclave of life: the bachelor’s apartment fully connected to the new communication technologies from which the new semiotic producer does not need to leave either to work or to have sex – activities that, moreover, had been become indistinguishable. His revolving bed was at the same time his work table, a management office, a photographic set and a place for sexual encounters, as well as a television set from where the famous Playboy after dark program was filmed. Playboy anticipated contemporary discourses on telecommuting, and the immaterial production that the management of the Covid-19 crisis has transformed into a citizen duty. Hefner called this new social producer the “horizontal worker.” The vector of social innovation that Playboy launched was the erosion (not to say the destruction) of the distance between work and leisure, between production and sex. The life of the playboy, constantly filmed and broadcast through the magazine and television media, was totally public, even if the playboy did not leave his house or even his bed. In this sense, Playboy also questioned the difference between the masculine and feminine spheres, making the new multimedia operator, what seemed an oxymoron at the time, a domestic man. Hefner’s biographer reminds us that this productive isolation needed chemical support: Hefner was a heavy user of Dexedrine, an amphetamine that eliminated tiredness and sleep. So paradoxically, the man who did not get out of his bed never slept. The bed as a new multimedia operations center was a pharmacopornographic cell: it could only function with the contraceptive pill, drugs that kept the productive level on the rise and a constant flow of semiotic codes that had become the only true food that nourished the playboy .            

Does this all sound familiar to you now? Does this all sound too strangely like your own confined lives? Let us now recall the slogans of French President Emmanuel Macron: we are at war, do not leave home and telecommute. The biopolitical contagion management measures imposed against the coronavirus have made each of us become a horizontal worker more or less Playboyesque. The domestic space of any of us is today ten thousand times more technical than Hefner’s rotating bed was in 1968. Teleworking and remote control devices are now in the palm of our hand.  

Mutation or submission

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault analyzed the religious cells of unipersonal confinement as authentic vectors that served to model the passage from the sovereign and bloody techniques of control of the body and subjectivity prior to the 18th century towards disciplinary architectures and confinement devices. as new management techniques for the entire population. Disciplinary architectures were secularized versions of monastic cells in which the modern individual was born for the first time as a soul enclosed in a body, a reading spirit capable of reading the slogans of the State. When writer Tom Wolfe visited Hefner, he said that he lived in a prison as soft as the heart of an artichoke. We could say that the Playboy mansion and Hefner’s revolving bed, turned into an object of pop consumption, functioned during the cold war as transitional spaces in which the new prosthetic, ultra-connected subject is invented and the new forms of pharmacopornographic consumption and control and biovigilance that dominate contemporary society. This mutation has become more widespread and amplified during the management of the Covid-19 crisis: our portable telecommunication machines are our new jailers and our domestic interiors have become the soft, ultra-connected prison of the future.    

But all this can be bad news or a great opportunity. It is precisely because our bodies are the new enclaves of biopower and our apartments the new biovigilance cells that it becomes more urgent than ever to invent new strategies for cognitive emancipation and resistance and to set in motion new antagonistic processes.

Contrary to what one might imagine, our health will not come from the imposition of borders or separation, but from a new understanding of the community with all living beings, from a new balance with other living beings on the planet. We need a parliament of planetary bodies, a parliament not defined in terms of identity politics or nationalities, a parliament of living (vulnerable) bodies that live on planet Earth. The Covid-19 event and its consequences call us to free ourselves once and for all from the violence with which we have defined our social immunity. Healing and recovery cannot be a simple negative immunological gesture of withdrawal from the social, of closure of the community. Healing and caring can only emerge from a process of political transformation. Healing ourselves as a society would mean inventing a new community beyond the identity and border politics with which we have so far produced sovereignty, but also beyond the reduction of life to its cybernetic biovigilance. Staying alive, staying alive as a planet, in the face of the virus, but also in the face of what may happen, means putting in place structural forms of planetary cooperation. As the virus mutates, if we want to resist submission, we too must mutate.

It is necessary to go from a forced mutation to a deliberate mutation. We must critically reappropriate biopolitical techniques and their pharmacopornographic devices. First of all, it is imperative to change our bodies’ relationship with bio-surveillance and bio-control machines: these are not simply communication devices. We have to collectively learn to alter them. But it is also necessary to misalign ourselves. Governments call for confinement and telework. We know that they call for decollectivization and remote control. Let us use the time and force of the confinement to study the minority traditions of struggle and resistance that have helped us survive up to this point. Let’s turn off mobile phones, disconnect the Internet. Let’s do the great blackout before the eyes of the satellites that watch us and imagine together in the coming revolution.   

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5 comments on “Paul Preciado – Learning from the Virus – March 28th, 2020

  1. […] a lot of likes and therefore I should “create more content”. Mutarse a propósito dice Preciado, pero a través de la vida cotidiana, y del dialogar y estrategizar como cuerpos vivos tendría que […]

  2. […] constantly? The Foucauldian Paul Preciado has come to declare that we must partake in an ‘intentional mutation’ and […]

  3. […] sedimented and words become obstacles which weigh down our spirits -the pastiche of simulacra pharma-pornographically mines our feelings for views and clicks; in short, the last man’s ‘discovery’ of […]

  4. […] movements of resistance’ can exist in what Paul Preciado has called the ‘pharmacopornographic‘ technologies of tardo-modernity. Other possible lines of thought might be: what type of […]

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