Chaos Orders Us: A Letter from Paris
(Originally published in The New Inquiry)
— D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse
From my narrow window, I observe the quarantine as the order of a reason that is hostile to me. The illness, the virus, the constraint and the fear, the isolation and the applause that pierces the darkness — I already witnessed these scenes in the nightmarish writing of Philip K. Dick, Richard Matheson, and Margaret Atwood. Though the time of insurrections gives way to the time of pandemic, what I see is only a perfect acceleration of this hostile reason — the same reason already suffocating its people. Streets filled only with the shadows of police, an absolute control of movement, a curfew, drones, rations, and a new economic measure designed to control the population through exorbitant fines — weren’t these responses already brewing in the reactions to our uprisings?
The viral videos from China, showing abandoned bodies in hospital halls, deserted streets and drones insisting that people stay home, residents comforting each other by way of shouts from their windows, paying tribute to medical workers — now this is our everyday life. Virality has become literal. The most ironic thing is the reaction of our government, which has basically been the same as that of China’s, bearing witness to a political isomorphism. We were told the pandemic would never cross borders, even after it had crossed two continents to infect northern Italy. The government was reckless up until the last minute. There were calls for people to vote in the first round of municipal elections, even after alarming messages had arrived from Italy warning us of the catastrophe to come.
During the week of March 9, an article in the press detailed the presidential couple’s trip to the theater. It encouraged each of us to go on with our lives without any concern, which is what most of us did. Then suddenly, around 8 p.m. on Saturday, after insisting we lead a normal life in the shadow of the disaster, the authorities announced that all businesses, cafés, bars, theaters, and cinemas would be closed at midnight for an undetermined amount of time. At the time, I was working in my usual bar. An hour after the announcement, the whole world rushed to have — as one customer put it — “one last pint before the end of the world.” Packed tightly together and pleading for a final drink, no one was aware of the scope of the health crisis, because the authorities charged with disseminating this information were also unaware. The next day, against the advice of the medical community, municipal elections were held, but with a historic rate of abstention. The city was filled with surrealist scenes: parks packed with people drunk on cheap supermarket alcohol, and lines of conscientious citizens voting in gloves and masks, following the government’s directive that “washing your hands and bringing your own pen are amply sufficient measures.”
Panic must have finally won in the higher circles of the state, because they announced that Emmanuel Macron was going to make some drastic decisions and share them in a speech on Monday, March 17, at 8 p.m. Once again, images of long lines at the post office, in front of banks, and at supermarkets materialized across France. In Paris, one could see thousands of people hurriedly piling their things into cars, or heading toward train stations to flee, bringing along new focal points of infection.1
On Monday night, we listened to the somber words of our President: “We are at war — to be sure, it is a medical war. We fight neither an army nor a nation, but the enemy is there, invisible, evasive, and advancing. And this requires our general mobilization.” These words were uttered during his address to the nation to justify the “quarantine” and the “state of medical emergency.” After the attacks that shook France in November 2015, François Hollande, the last President of France, also began his address with the phrase “France is at war,” to justify activating a state of exception. He went on to explain: “But this other type of war against a new adversary calls for a constitutional regime that makes it possible to manage the state of crisis.” We quickly saw the result of this new constitutional regime: arbitrary arrests, the programmed agony of the law benefiting from the political norm, and the development of formidable tools for taming discontent.
On Thursday, September 9, 1933, the German writer Thomas Mann noted in his diary:
The love of chaos is a double-edged sword. Amidst the void of my generation, a generation conceived in the final years of the 20th century, chaos was the only thing we could dream about with dignity. Raised on catastrophic scenarios, each one of us exalted the possibility of a brutal and implacable end to our world. Yes — my generation was begotten in the void. I grew up without certainties, nourished by an imagination darkened by twilight in which the earth, humanity, and love became an apocalypse more formidable than death. Nothing was left for me beyond the prospect of ruining the world through work as those who had come before me had done for decades, and without the hope of rest, because laborious activity had arrived to its empty end.
We hadn’t yet grasped the extent to which chaos already governed our lives, how it coincided with an ordered and hostile reason — the very definition of contemporary war. We run from total mobilization to total mobilization, and state of emergency after state of emergency, chaos orders us. It guides the world, and its existence sends people home, confines them behind their little windows, distilling fear and the love of order.
At the heart of this permanent war — or rather permanently declared, as each bit of our lives becomes a front — insurrections reverse this logic. Those who refuse the war “from within” act exactly like the virus and provoke the same “immuno-authoritarian” responses. They replace this chaotic order with one that is sensible — one that is unacceptable to the fascist party, which is the party of war. Uprisings, like the virus, reveal the pressing need to invent new relations, while immuno-authoritarian responses defend the pursuit of the void into which our generation was born.
Apocalypse simply means revelation. It seems straightforward enough, yet as D. H. Lawrence points out in his commentary on the Apocalypse, “men have puzzled their brains for nearly two thousand years to find out what, exactly, is revealed in all its orgy of mystification.” For our moment, the revelation is simple: war, and more war, always and again. If we didn’t understand this before, now it is clear. Our leaders have always been at war — it is enough to watch how they gloat over every crisis to witness their appetite for apocalypse. The exercise of power has always required an occult attraction to the apocalypse, because that is also where order gets its appeal. As for my generation, this has always been the default attraction, because nothing has come to comfort us, and because, as Lawrence notes, the apocalypse is the self-glorification of humanity’s destructive power. Mockingly, he writes, “If you have to suffer martyrdom, and if all the whole universe has to be destroyed in the process, still, still, still, O Christian, you shall reign as a king and set your foot on the necks of the old bosses!”
Our “rulers” are sheeplike beings flattened by the collective spirit. They only care about opinions and the money they bring. Those who accept the holy wars of these devils under saints’ halos are condemned to cling to an authority that will strip them of every power. In a strange commentary on the current situation, Giorgio Agamben notes that “the other no less disturbing factor is the state of fear that in recent years has evidently spread among individual consciences and that translates into an authentic need for situations of collective panic for which the epidemic provides once again the ideal pretext.” One simple point is being made here: “society” is mostly composed of frightened individuals who march along the warpath of our leaders. The uprisings of recent years are a clear attempt to break from this trend, and the response of governments remains resolute: more fear and more war, which is the same response they have given to our current health crisis.
There is indeed a force greater than the “thou shalt not” authority of our democracies. The apocalypse also reveals a possible exit from this extreme situation into which we’ve been cornered. We lost any sympathetic relationship to the cosmos (or the environment, as it is now called) a long time ago. This loss of sympathy for what surrounds us, for what gives us water, heat, warmth, and nerves — all the elements that comprise our being — has transformed our cosmos into a great dragon of destruction. The moon, the sun, the stars, the plants, but also the inner life of viral organisms, represent a lost environment that, when it returns, terrifies us. This is because we have built a world based on its rejection — on its reduction to mechanical forces, contingent upon our activities. It is clear that the virus is only so deadly because our world was built on thinking that humans were its only masters. “Whoever is not with me is against me” is the law of the cosmos, and each one of us who clung to the world as a guarantee now pays the price for this estrangement.
The end-times are far from being the end of wars. The outbursts of war continually mobilize those in the habit of treating each new front as an opportunity to turn things around. Alain Badiou is right when he says the pandemic is, basically, just a pandemic, and that the acts of solidarity we see in response are nothing new — there is no new threat to capitalism. Paradoxically, he speaks as a witness from another time, one in which mass and power had to combine to guarantee revolutionary action and the transformation of the world. Yet he leaves out the fact that, in an age in which humans are acted upon by forces and powers with which they have permanently merged (radioactivity, CO2, new viruses, waves, fires, insurrections, etc.), revolutionary action occurs above all through a subtle recomposition of the biochemical-political equilibrium that forms us and defines our attachment to worlds.
It is therefore true and just to point a vengeful finger at our leaders for waging this war against the cosmos, a war against life. But we must look within ourselves to ask whether we are with or against the cosmos. What does the virus tell us about our ills? Now is our chance to see that immuno-authoritarian responses are against the cosmos. They further confine us to solitude and to the logic of “thou shalt not.” We are caught in the blackmail of a war with just two sides: that of the virus and death, and that of life and the government of men. Fighting the spread of the virus is crucial. The question is whether we do it according to the arts of war or according to other relationships. These relationships are not necessarily to be invented but rather to be found, and escaping our (self-)destruction depends on it. As Lawrence says:
When I hear modern people complain of being lonely then I know what has happened. They have lost the cosmos. — It is nothing human and personal that we are short of. What we lack is cosmic life, the sun in us and the moon in us."
— Walter Benjamin
Lodged within Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” is a gap called the cosmos. Once the story of progress is shattered, pieces of its debris can still be found lingering on our retinas. If we have established our history of the oppressed and dug the graves of our ancestors who were lost long ago, the time of the oppressed is still not the time of organic life, which seems to follow a course independent of wars and revolutions. Who remembers the Spanish flu or the influenza epidemics of the 19th century as part of any tradition? Wars have always introduced epidemics, which often claim more lives than any battle. When Europeans arrived in the “New World,” the pathogens they brought — terrible allies the colonists only sometimes used consciously — killed more people than their cruelty. In return, one of humanity’s great diseases, syphilis, landed on European shores when Columbus came back from his first voyages, and proceeded to take millions of victims — its treatment by mercury would not be in vain. Prions, viruses, bacteria, and other agents accompany our history without ever being included in it. Absorbed by his own res gestae, man sees himself as emperor of the earth and master of his own history. Great politics is self-made, and the victor as much as the defeated has a human face — even if it is the face of the Angelus Novus.
Science has finally caught up with what D. H Lawrence wrote in the interwar period. Only now, time has carried on and every second that has passed between these two warnings has done so in vain. The time of globalized pandemics approaches irreversibly, not least because we have devastated so many natural ecosystems, extracting the many symbiotic relationships they contain from their environments. The bat, the pangolin, and other wild animals (more than 70 percent of zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases, come from wild animals) find their natural habitat in the forest. When these forests are cleared, these forgotten, despised, and hunted animals nest and mingle in our habitats, leading to cross-species transmission, or “spillover.”
Spillover is the scientific name given to the instance of a foreign virus successfully jumping from one species to another for the first time. When such events happen, it is only the result of our own activities. Zoonoses specifically result from pathogens leaping from nonhuman to human animals (examples include SARS, AIDS, Ebola, and the Spanish flu). This was also the case for certain plagues of the Middle Ages, but it seems the 20th century has seen more spillovers than ever before. As for this frightening 21st century, it opens with a cascade of spillovers in every sense of the term. The image of the spillover coincides rigorously with the image of the “present time.” It reflects the disintegration of our ecosystems and our ways of life, continually in the process of fragmenting and dissolving. Driven from their natural habitat, pathogens venture out into our markets and homes, with no choice but to perish or pounce on the only bodies not yet on the brink of extinction.
We need to awaken a sense of harmony within ourselves because we barely have the choice: waves, fires, viruses, and humans all spill over together. It is this unique period of spillover that brings about a uniquely homogenous response on behalf of power. Why is the world in quarantine? Why, all across the globe, does everything that serves to preserve the tradition of the oppressed also serve to oppress COVID-19? From insurrections to zoonoses, immuno-authoritarian responses do not weave a repressive continuum by chance. This virus arrives at a precise moment in human history, a time when each of us is summoned to choose between pursuing a life that leads to extinction and undertaking a radical rethinking of life, the very kind D. H. Lawrence already called for with all his heart.
In some ways, this long trial has already begun. We regularly speak of the Anthropocene, which places human activity at a geological level equivalent to the eternal activity of volcanoes, rivers, and tectonic plates. The concept of this new age has been misused, to the point that it has been downgraded to the “age of man,” in which everything that is of the world is in some way human. On the contrary, the Anthropocene celebrates the disappearance of the human, just as it celebrates the disappearance of nature, but in doing so, it reconnects with the eternal, vital correspondence between our life and the environment, or the “all-encompassing,” as the ancient Greeks would say. The all-encompassing is far from being inert, and its activities are no different from human activities. There is no finality or telos. It is, quite simply, the new state of the world and of all the powers of action that compose it. Our present problem is to avoid subsuming our relationship to the cosmos under a hierarchical order, according to which our vitality is subordinate to a superior and organizational dimension. Another spillover is in order, this time one related to how we humans situate ourselves in relation to the other powers of the world.
Vitality and the cosmos go together. If one is lacking because the other is crushed, if our disregard for everything moves us to devour the world (but also, if in the name of a Great Whole, we crush every impulse of life), the vitality that escapes us returns in the form of disaster. Disaster (désastre), after all, means “losing the influence of the stars” (les astres). This is the origin of the apocalypse and of human history’s assault on the world as an inert reservoir.
According to the official statistics, more than a million Parisians left the city between March 13 and March 20. ↩︎