Anthropocenic Pandemic: Laws of Exposure & Encounter

by | 4 Jan 2021

CDC/ Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin (2020)

A human body, at any given moment, might be inhabited by over 380 trillion viruses, traversing internal and external bodily surfaces. This community, known as the human virome, forms part of a holobiont – a term used to describe the obligatory symbiosis of an organism.[1] The human body is one such organism, which does not form a privileged and discrete part of this community but is functionally continuous with its other members. Our increasing awareness of this bodily continuum is made violently explicit in the viral contagion of a global pandemic. While the language of battle, conquest and defeat dominates political and scientific narrativisation of COVID-19, human and inhuman entanglement is exemplified in an evolved human virome, as well as in the viral zoonosis and microbial agency of a pandemic. As we sanitise away our symbionts, our understandable zeal may cause us to overlook our coincident reliance upon protective members of this microscopic community. This simultaneity provokes a recalibration for our contemporary moment. We are challenged to relinquish conquest narratives, and to reframe the laws of exposure and encounter between the human and the inhuman.

The pandemic exemplifies the epistemic and material disorientations of the Anthropocene, in which the pursuit of human mastery is frustrated and an extant and devastating relationality is foregrounded.  The revelation of humanity as a geological force, as controversially proposed by the Anthropocene thesis, is both ontologically novel and banal. The originary impetus for this force is contested, yet its material manifestations are unequivocal. The excesses of modern human habitation and consumption are evident in ecological and atmospheric degradation at an unprecedented scale. Exponential population expansion and planetary exploitation are endemic to human populations, concentrated in the impacts of one quarter of the global population.[2] The confluence of ecocide and colonisation are apparent in the appropriative impulses of empire, which establish and entrench an ontological distinction between the human and the inhuman.[3] The relationship between modern law and matter is historically grounded in the presumption of human dominium,[4] which defines the hierarchical relationship between the proprietorial (human) subject and its (inhuman) material other. If the inhuman is prefigured, as an object of modern law, how might the experience of human vulnerability and the simultaneous revelation of dependence on the inhuman facilitate its reconfiguration? In our present condition, a presumptive static and stable ‘nature’ is fractured, and the evident inescapability of interspecies dependencies and vulnerabilities begin to transform political and juridical norms.

The notion of the Anthropocene, and the pandemic, as disorienting presumes a normative or proper orientation. If the Anthropocene is imagined not as an affirmation of human mastery but as disruptive and generative, our modern (human) sense of disorientation might be welcomed as a reorientation toward (inhuman) community—a reorientation that demands an apprehension of exposure alongside an ethics of encounter. Drawing on and extending critical engagement with minor jurisprudences, recent discussion has turned to the notion of a ‘minor Anthropocene’, capable of transformative agitation at the generative periphery of normative articulation and action.[5] The scientific categorisation and naming of SARS-CoV-2 and military marshalling of human populations in pursuit of its suppression and elimination explicitly objectifies the virus and its devastating effects, while implicitly acknowledging its symbiotic continuity with our human virome. This vertiginous experience is symptomatic of the Anthropocene: while the disproportionate effects of the virus, as of climatic change, reflect and exacerbate the historical violence of colonisation, our grasp of the imbrication of the human and the inhuman prompts us to acknowledge multispecies and microbial entanglements.

The pandemic is global, yet its differential and hierarchised experience is made explicit in the stratification of viral exposure, now consolidated in vaccine nationalism. In the quest for ‘normalcy’, the modern actor of the Anthropocene – the eponymous anthropos – approaches its viral enemy with the physical and discursive armour of mastery. Resonant with Judith Butler’s ‘frames of war’,[6] the trope of the ‘invisible enemy’ engaged in pandemic discourse rehearses familiar narratives of combat: lives and livelihoods are measured, as the normative distinction between the (gendered, racialised) human and inhuman is affirmed and the machinery of capital accumulation marches on. While industrial encroachment on inhuman habitats spawns the deadly zoonosis of a pandemic, states and corporate actors paradoxically pursue the acceleration of extractive and consumptive assault.

The anthropos is nonetheless tethered to the -cene or kainos, which signifies both newness and inheritance.[7] The pandemic might not merely mark a violent virulent moment, in which the demarcations and hierarchisations of modernity are rehearsed, but galvanise new imaginaries. In the words of Arundhati Roy, it might act as a portal – ‘a gateway between one world and the next’. Fracturing political and legal imagaries of mastery, zoonotic exposure and microbal agency reveal the tensions of the Anthropocene. We are challenged to abandon modernist hubris and embrace our responsibility for mutual flourishing.

How might modern law acknowledge the multiple temporalities and experiential worlds of shared human and inhuman spaces and bodies, made explicit in the morbid impacts of a viral pandemic and the scalar recalibrations of the Anthropocene? Métis scholar Zoe Todd speaks to this in her reading of the fleshy encounters between fish and humans at the centre of Paulatuuq and Amiskwaciwâskahikan legal orders, detailing how the agency of the fish—‘the fish stories’—contour a ‘dynamic-but-rooted’[8] law centred on ‘reciprocity, care, tenderness and trust’.[9] Fish and governance are not disparate, but entwined in a legal order in which human responsibilities and territorial claims are defined by duties and obligations owed to fish, as expressed in ancestral stories. Todd foregrounds this relational governance as a refractive ‘micro-site’ of decolonial resistance, which unsettles colonial legal orders that otherwise mediate fish-human encounters with a discourse of mastery.

For the privileged few, who are pressed to embrace the mundane in the midst of a pandemic, its deprivations might elicit a yearning for human and inhuman community that is appreciative rather than appropriative. Following Michele Tedeschini, the deprivations of the pandemic might ‘reshape [modern] desires’ otherwise precluded by the proprietorial claims of capitalism, including for those whose hardship has intensified, and allow a reimagining of the commons. Yet further, it might prompt an acknowledgement of epistemic positionality and consideration of a point of departure that ‘begins in the middle’, rather than the presumptive ‘centre’.[10] Our attention is drawn to the ways in which we co-author the stories that ‘world’ our shared human and inhuman spaces and bodies, provoking a reimagining of governance frameworks, practices of cohabitation and assumptions of responsibility. This responsibility extends beyond the notion of environmental stewardship toward a new attentiveness, even tenderness:[11] a movement beyond mere notice, toward an ethic – even law – of encounter and care.


[1] Scott F Gilbert, ‘Holobiont by Birth: Multilineage Individuals as the Concretion of Cooperative Processes’ in Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt (eds), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (2017) 73-89.

[2] Paul J Crutzen, ‘Geology of Mankind’ Nature 415, no.1 (January 2002) 23.

[3] Elizabeth A Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016).

[4] Manuel Jimenez Fonseca, ‘Jus Gentium and the Transformation of Latin American Nature: One More Reading of Vitoria?’ in Martii Koskenniemi (ed), International Law and Empire: Historical Explorations (Oxford University Press, 2017) 123-148, 129.

[5] Paolo Vignola, ‘Notes for a Minor Anthropocene’ (2017) 8 Azimuth: Philosophical Coordinates in Modern and Contemporary Age 81-96 (Special Issue: ‘The Battlefield of the Anthropocene: Limits, Responsibilities and the Duty of Flight’, Sara Baranzoni and Paolo Vignola eds).

[6] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London, New York: Verso 2016).

[7] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, North Carolina; London: Duke University Press, 2016) 2.

[8] John Borrows, ‘Physical Philosophies: Freedom and Indigenous Peoples’ Public Talk, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Summer Institute, Osoyoos, Canada, cited in Zoe Todd, ‘Refracting the State Through Human-Fish Relations: Fishing, Indigenous Legal Orders and Colonialism in North/Western Canada’ (2018) 7(1) Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 60-75.

[9] Zoe Todd, ‘Refracting the State Through Human-Fish Relations: Fishing, Indigenous Legal Orders and Colonialism in North/Western Canada’ (2018) 7(1) Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 60-75, 65, 60.

[10] Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, ‘Towards a Critical Environmental Law’ in Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (ed), Law and Ecology: New Environmental Foundations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011); Anna Grear, ‘Anthropocene “Time”’? A Reflection on Temporalities in the ‘New Age of the Human’ in Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (ed), Routledge Handbook of Law and Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).

[11] Thom van Doreen, Eben Kirksey and Ursula Münster, ‘Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness’ (2016) 8(1) Environmental Humanities 1-23; Zoe Todd, ‘Refracting the State Through Human-Fish Relations: Fishing, Indigenous Legal Orders and Colonialism in North/Western Canada’ (2018) 7(1) Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 60-75.

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