Life and Language in the Virocene

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The Virocene

Sorry, this seat is taken. Move out Anthropocene, enter the Virocene. Actually, the seat was never really for Anthropos. It was meant for a parasite that could take over this planet. Oh, wait.

The Virocene is the age of the parasitical, the viral, the airborne. The Virocene is the epoch in which the conative force of the nonhuman (in this case, the viral) vies with that of the human on an unprecedented scale of contingency and uncertainty, as a consequence of a multitude of unintended entanglements between the human and the nonhuman. At the core of the Virocene is a simple acknowledgement inspired by Spinoza: all bodies, human and nonhuman, material and immaterial, animate and inanimate, are driven by conatus, the force behind a body’s desire to continue being and becoming, to carry on existing. There is no body, no assemblage, no organism or organisation devoid of conatus. Rather clearly, Spinoza did not think highly of suicide.

But I wonder, what happens when my conatus is bigger than yours?

So, as I implied in a previous post here, the Virocene dethrones the human from being the main geophysical planetary force and replaces it with another parasite: the virus.1I am deliberately putting aside the debate on whether a virus, as opposed to a parasite, is considered alive or not since for my purposes here it makes no difference. OK, let me come clean: there is a lot of irony in this idea, not least the practice of jumping on the Anthropocene neologist wagon in order to get more likes and shares. But the Virocene does not compete with any of the already magnificently described and even prescribed -cenes out there. Nothing of the sort. In fact, like a true parasite, it thrives on a peculiar symbiotic stranglehold with any available body around. So, since linguistic bodies are also material, and neologisms are no exception, the Virocene finds itself in cosy terms with Capitalocene2Jason Moore (ed.). 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. California: PM Press. since it simply helps capital become sturdier; it also finds itself happily frolicking with Haraway’s Chthulucene, where “staying in” is the new “staying with the trouble.”3Dona Haraway, 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Am I being facetious? I blame lockdown.

But what this means is simply that the human has never been what we imagined the human to be. We are all a bunch of nonhuman materialities, viruses included, at any point mutable, leaking, unwhole, allied in multitudes,4Christine Eriksen and Susan Ballard, 2020. Alliances in the Anthropocene, London: Palgrave, for some seriously unexpected alliances. isolated in evolution. The Anthropocene has always already included the Virocene.

There is another, even more fascinating layer of irony in the Virocene: the virus is holding the mirror up to the human, forcing us perhaps to reconsider the Spinozan denial of suicide. The virus uses any available body as a host: this is the only requirement for the conative force of the virus, its need to carry on being and becoming. It needs abundant, connected and mobile bodies, and what better than human bodies and the nonhuman ones associated with them? In other words, even in ontological terms, the Virocene rides on the Anthropocene — at least to start with. The virus nestles in the Anthropos, careful not to kill off the host, offering little in return but receiving sustenance, high mobility, increasing connectivity. And the usual inequalities are being exacerbated: as we have seen in the way the pandemic affects the poor who often lives in polluted areas, the uneven density of the conative virological force mirrors the vulnerability differential of human societies. Perhaps the Virocene’s greatest trick will be a vanishing act: off with the old human parasite, in with the new, enriched and multiple viral nonhuman human. Is this suicide? In some ways yes: the zoonotic breeds in spaces where the human is already committing a planetary suicide. Agriculture, deforestation, urbanisation, population pressures, illegal wildlife trading, extreme weather phenomena, all contribute to what is called landscape fragmentation: when more than 40% of an area’s biomass distribution is altered, the species flee in search of food and habitat.5Leslie Hook, “The next pandemic: where is it coming from and how do we stop it?”, Financial Times Magazine, 29 October, 2020, 16-22.

Conatus is a nonhuman right too, indeed a distinctly posthuman right: the virological conatus needs to be accepted as a reflection of our own human avarice to extend spatially and temporally, and to take over all available dimensions. Environmental ethics have ready answers to this of course. But these no longer are our decisions. There are approximately 1.6 million viruses around, 700,000 of which are zoonotic, namely can move from animals to humans.6ibid What is more, viruses do not work alone. They often collaborate, creating even altruistic alliances that manage to hook more efficiently onto their hosts, human or otherwise.7Graham Lawton, “The Great Viral Team-up”, New Scientist, 24 October 2020, 34-38. The Virocene is here to stay.

Human Exceptionalism: Kill the Mink!

Despite everything, humans still feel in command of these alliances. And the truth is that most of these remain squarely anthropocentric, mediated through economy, politics, law, the media, religion, and other spheres ready to offer convincing interpretations why things are the way they are. So when Denmark decided to kill 17 million mink animals because of the zoonotic fear of Covid-19, the reasons offered were loyal to our anthropocentric ideals. I have failed to find any mainstream reporting that engaged in any detail with the sheer folly of the endeavour — not the culling but the breeding in the first place. The mink killing machine is of course something that has been going strong for a while now in Denmark, the world’s leader in mink fur production. But this, now, is a kind of killing that is distinctly histrionic, despairingly anthropocentric, absolutely Virocenic. The mink are being killed because of fear. It’s not even killing. It is “culling”. Hear the scream of the drowning sovereign!

And the mink were gassed in their millions, despite the fact that the “humane” nature of gassing is not beyond dispute: mink are semi-aquatic animals and can hold their breath for longer than the 30 secs of gassing. Many stay conscious. And so the barely-alive and the pointlessly dead lie in piled-up anticipation, stuffed in huge sacks ready to be incinerated in facilities already running at full capacity. But this kind of things cannot always be done neatly, even in Denmark. The monetary incentive (DKr20 — approximately £2.40) given to all mink farmers for every animal killed swiftly, meant that the rolling Danish countryside was strewn with mink corpses falling off trucks transferring them to their final destinations.8Richard Milne, “Mink Farmers count cost of botched cull”, Financial Times, 14 November, 2020, 4

Human exceptionalism means, I can solve this. Human exceptionalism means, every sacrifice is proportionate if humans are at risk. Human exceptionalism means, we are not connected to anything but ourselves; we are apart; we are always the great exception of the creation. Human exceptionalism means, we are the creator.

Nothing shouts exceptionalism more loudly than U-turns. Only a few days later, the cull was rescinded. There has never been a legal basis for ordering it in the first place. The parliament never gave its approval. Even emergency legislation requires some checks. Two-thirds of the mink population has been killed. The remaining might survive to go on and become fur coats. It is the hope that in Denmark, just as in The Netherlands, the mink industry will finally be shut down. This, despite the fact that 50% of Danes are still not in favour of abolishing it.

In Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent short story She Unnames Them,9Ursula Le Guin, “She Unnames Them”, The New Yorker, 21 January, 1985, 27-31. Eve frees every single animal from their given species names. “Their names dispersed from them in silence throughout the oceans like faint, dark blurs of cuttlefish ink.” She even gives her own name back to Adam and his dad, “it’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit very well lately. But thanks very much!” because she knows that “I could not now, in all conscience, make an exception for myself.”

If ever our exception is flattened and our names finally disperse like viral loads in the breaths of this planet, we might find, just as Eve did, that every single mink, every animal, every body animate or inanimate, every particle of the assemblage whose guests we remain, will seem “far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier: so close that my fear of them and their far of me became one same fear.” Our fear will no longer be of the doomed sovereign who goes to pieces over any conceded inch of his imaginary territory; rather it will be a co-emergent fear that unites rather than separates. And we will then feel the materiality of our language closer to our bodies, and we will pick our words carefully in the absence of names, make our words “as slow, as new, as single, as tentative” as the steps that Eve took when she left the garden.

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos is Professor of Law & Theory and Director of the Westminster International Law & Theory Centre at the University of Westminster

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