Contagious Philosophy: A Review of Viral Critique

by | 16 Mar 2022

Viral Critique is the title of the short and intense book by Andityas Soares de Moura Costa Matos & Francis García Collado, published in English in February 2022 by Counterpress. This is one of those books whose strength is inverse to its size. It stabs and wounds us, as books worth reading do. Franz Kafka wrote in a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak that “we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves (…) A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”[1]. Viral Critique is like that axe that cuts through the apathy of a political philosophy and critical theory addicted to the repetition of the same interpretative schemes of the world. It summons us to amazement in the face of the new. It is not about thinking about philosophy, but about living it in our bodies and with intensity. As the authors attest, this book was not only written but lived.[2]

Speaking a little of its context, it is worth remembering that the duo Matos & Collado have dedicated themselves to a collective work in terms of political philosophy and critical theory that goes beyond the current book. This is reflected in works such as Más allá de la biopolítica: Biopotencia, bioarztquia, bioemergencia[3], published in Spain by Documenta Universitaria in 2020 and its Brazilian version Para além da biopolítica[4], published in Brazil by Sobinfluencia Edições in 2022. 

The present English version of Viral Critique – a translation of The virus as philosophy/The philosophy as virus, previously published in Spain (Bellaterra, 2020) and in Brazil (GLAC, 2020) – is divided into an introduction, six short chapters and a conclusion. In the introduction, the authors take up the dream of Thanos, popularized recently by the Avengers series, whose mere snap of his fingers would generate the elimination of half of the planet’s population without any distinction of who would die or not. A dream that has similarities with the thesis of those who believe that the coronavirus would be an immunological agent in the service of Gaia’s revenge. Although, for Matos & Collado, far from an egalitarian and poetic justice of the snap of Thanos’s fingers, the coronavirus makes even more evident a whole unequal distribution of precariousness, which directs death to specific groups and accentuates the mechanisms of “bioarztchy”. This term was created by the authors, it refers to the German word “Arzt” (doctor), an speaks of a “double process, in which politics becomes medicalised and medicine becomes politicised” [5].

Bioarztchy is a kind of medical/political power over life capable of establishing ways of life aligned with neoliberal interests that reduces life to its mere dimension of zoé (the biological fact of life). Thus, “both doctors/scientists and politicians affirm the need to defeat the pandemic so that the economy can be normalised” [6]. Unlike bioarchy, bioarztchy would not only eliminate autonomy over life, but also prefer to exploit it to exhaustion in order to extract as much profit as possible. This is a power “rooted in the pharmacological reason that astutely weaves the new governmentality’s networks, using big data, algorithms, georeferenced mobile apps, health insurance plans, and communications” [7]. Our concrete lives are discarded in order to affirm an abstract ideal of Life, with a capital “L”, according to bioartzchy’s dictates of a good Life. So we come to desire this way of reducing our lives as if it were their salvation.

It is against this logic of power that the book is written. Affirming that philosophy, so despised in the face of the size of the concrete problems we encounter, can be a powerful weapon in confronting bioarztchy. A philosophy as an art of living, which can take us from a virus as a philosophy (“a totalising and pandemic discourse that dominates all aspects of our existences”[8]) to a philosophy as a virus (“the understanding of philosophy as a foreign body that invades us and leads us to mutate if we want to live. This, perhaps, will be the lesson of the virus”[9]).

It seems to me that here Matos & Collado rise to one of the biggest challenges of the book: questioning the violence of bioarztchy without conflating with negationists who, by supposedly rejecting a medical/political power over life, end up intensifying an unequal politics of death. [10]  This problem was generated, according to the authors, by reducing the public debate on COVID-19 to only two possible positions: negationists or believers, thus removing any space for actual criticism.

Betting, against the grain, on creating a space for criticism to survive without being imprisoned in the above dichotomy, the authors open the first chapter by proposing a dialogue with important authors of political philosophy and critical theory such as Agamben, Nancy, Esposito, Žižek, Butler, Han, Preciado, Bifo, Badiou, Coccia, and Mbembe. The book’s main criticism of their reading of the pandemic is that they were trapped in their own interpretive schemes of the world, many created decades ago, not actually being able to open up to the new, “as if COVID-19 was just another fact easily insertable in pre-existing models” [11]. When, in fact, it is about analysing the lines of forces of the present, opening up to the new, in a “complex philosophical chess between past and future, but centred on the urgency of the COVID-19” [12].

In the second chapter, the authors present the debate on what the virus is: between the human and the non-human. Triggering transdisciplinary knowledge and highlighting the existence of a virosphere and the ability of viruses to adapt and mutate, which tend to attenuate their destructive characteristics through contagion, so that they can continue to perpetuate themselves.[13] In this chapter, the authors also point to the connections between the production system and the emergence of pandemics such as COVID-19, highlighting its political character made invisible by the bioarztchy discourse through specialized medical/scientific knowledge. This connection is even more evident if we think about the inequalities in the distribution of the effects of the pandemic, always crossed by a racialised logic – in a broad sense – of the distribution of death. The problem is that the discourse of ascepcia (methods of preventing infection or achieving a virus-free condition), introduced by bioarztchy and allied to neoliberal logic, is taken as absolute truth, and in the end we all believe that “the other, far from being a world, is just hell. And we will conclude that our hands, rather than representing the potentialities of touch and care, are actually tools to protect us from the other, seen as a contaminating enemy”[14].

Engaging with authors such as Isabelle Stengers, Matos & Collado discuss in the third chapter the continuum between nature-culture and the fusion “between, on one hand, philosophy and human/social sciences and, on the other hand, natural and exact sciences” [15]. So if it is up to the natural sciences to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it would be up to the social sciences to demonstrate the consequences of the monopolisation of the vaccine by few countries or by those that could pay high prices. The tangle of life and its interdependence crosses the different disciplinary fields. So, we “must put an end to the Anthropocene as a negative mark of human intrusion on the planet, thus preparing our reconciliation with Gaia. That is also a reconciliation with ourselves” [16].

This opens the way for the authors to discuss the different models of political/social/biological control of the pandemic in chapter four. Drawing on Byung-Chul Han, Matos & Collado critically assume the “West versus East” hypothesis to properly address two pandemic management models: the European sovereign model and the Asian algorithmic model. I say critically, because reality is much more complex than these two great monolithic categories (“West” and “East”) can grasp. In Han’s view, the European sovereign strategy would not be effective to contain the pandemic, especially compared to the Asian model, where people would have “a more authoritarian mindset and the ideas of ‘individual subject,’ ‘public liberties’ and ‘privacy’ would not occupy much space in habits, social customs, and public debates”[17] and it would be possible to use heavily “of digital surveillance and the continuous harvesting of big data to guarantee that citizens do not become infected”[18]. The problem with this vision, which finds the Asian model more successful in controlling the pandemic, is that, in addition to generalisations, it bets on a “purist” dimension of non-contagion as a solution. 

In the fifth chapter, the heart of the book, the authors go deeper in the notion of bioarztchy through their thanatopolitical and necropolitical responses. While thanatopolitics “educates our imagination with ideas related to death to intensify the security apparatuses that are guided by fear” [19], necropolitics “puts the unproductive of the system under siege” [20]  – like the politics of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The media also plays a central role in the production of fear by supporting a whole discursive apparatus of bioarztchy. It is no longer a simple control/self-control of the autonomy of bodies, as advocated by biopolitics, but the institution of what the authors call an autognomy. A term “more accurate to characterize this bioarztchical dimension, that is, the internalization and uncritical acceptance of a (self)diagnosis created to merge life management with the optimization of subjects for the benefit of the neoliberal productivist model” [21]. In this sense all subjectivity is captured/produced by this logic to meet the rationality of the bioarztchical mechanisms.

Against this logic of bioarztchy, Matos & Collado introduce us in the sixth chapter to two new philosophical dimensions: biopotency and bioemergence. Biopotency would be “the immanent potency of life that continually arises from itself” [22], a notion that we must embrace if “we do not want to head towards an unprecedented (thanato)(necro)(bio)political catastrophe”[23]. As they say, “the biopotency is opposed to the biopolitical notion according to which all politics of life are translatable into thanatopolitics. In this wrong idea, life is outside of itself” [24]. In other words, biopotency is an opening to the dimension of life that is not reduced to the Life of bioarztchy but speaks of a power that is singularised at each moment in multiple forms of humans and non-humans. And bioemergence, this neologism resulting from the junction of bios and emergence, concerns a “potency that is autonomous emergence in relation to the act, which is openness and continuous of itself and in itself: World” [25]. It speaks, therefore, of a relationship between potency and act that is not a mere causal relationship, but marked by an index of indeterminacy. “We are because there is flow and chance” [26]

Returning to Nietzsche, for whom “great health” is not “the normalizations or homologations required by the neoliberal bioarztchy, but in the errors that continually emerge and (de)constitute us”[27], Matos & Collado suggest that we call these errors contagion and affirm the power of mutating ourselves through these contagions. After all, as the conclusion of the book points out, like a hammer that cuts the icy sea in us[28], the philosophy as a virus is capable of infect bodies in order to affirm the potency of life.

*I would like to thank my friend Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos for the careful reading and feedback on this text.

———

[1]  Franz Kafka, Letters to friends, family, and editors, (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1997, p.42).

[2] Andityas Soares de Moura Costa Matos and Francis García Collado, Viral critique: bioarztchy against biopotency in the covid-19 age, (Oxford: Counterpress, 2022, p. 69).

[3] Francis García Collado and Andityas Soares de Moura Costa Matos, Más Allá de la Biopolítica: Biopotencia, Bioarztquía, Bioemergencia, (Girona: Documenta Universitaria, 2020). 

[4] Andityas Soares de Moura Costa Matos and Francis García Collado, Para além da biopolítica, (São Paulo: Sobinfluencia Edições, 2022).

[5] Andityas Soares de Moura Costa Matos and Francis García Collado, Viral critique: bioarztchy against biopotency in the covid-19 age, (Oxford: Counterpress, 2022, p. 2).

[6] Ibid., p.3

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] As we can see in this passage: “Regarding the pandemic situation, the issue is not limited to the algorithmic or sovereign forms of control mentioned in the previous chapter. It involves aspects that go beyond simple biopolitics. Indeed, biopolitics is not centrally concerned with the individual’s self-control through processes of autognomy. Such processes are developed today centred on the dimension of a blind faith in science (or in pseudoscience, whatever) and in specialists. Thus, instead of being subjectivated by discipline or by biopower, the bioarztchical subject ends up being desubjectived by the machinic servitudes in which he is inserted to work, to study, and to live. This is why, by the way, the public debate about COVID-19 has been so poor, given that positions must be classified in advance as negationists or believers (in relation to science, vaccines, etc.). There is no room, therefore, for a truly critical view, given that criticism fundamentally involves the possibility of marking the limits and possibilities of thought”. Andityas Soares de Moura Costa Matos and Francis García Collado, Viral critique: bioarztchy against biopotency in the covid-19 age, (Oxford: Counterpress, 2022, p. 49). 

[11]Ibid., p. 7.

[12] Ibid., p. 16. 

[13] Ibid., pp. 18-19. 

[14] Ibid., p. 24.

[15] Ibid., p. 30.

[16] Ibid., p. 31. 

[17] Ibid., p. 34.

[18] Ibidem.

[19] Ibid., p. 47.

[20] Ibidem.

[21] Ibidem.

[22] Ibid., p. 60.

[23] Ibidem.

[24] Ibid., p. 61.

[25] Ibid., p. 65. 

[26] Ibid., p. 60.

[27] Ibid., p. 66.

[28] Franz Kafka, Letters to friends, family, and editors, (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1997, p.42).

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