Why the Virus Spooks Us: A Theory

The Convivial Society: Dispatch, No. 3

[I should clarify at the outset that I have no desire to downplay the potentially devastating scale of the virus’s impacts and nothing below should be taken in that spirit. The virus is serious, it is deadly and I advocate maximal and even radical precautionary measures.]

This is not, I promise, turning into a coronavirus newsletter. Indulge me, though, just one more time as I attempt to turn some inchoate thoughts into slightly more more coherent words. I suspect at least some of you will grant that there is something unusually unsettling about this virus, and it feels, to me, difficult to pin down just what that might be. The obvious answer, of course, is that the virus could kill you, and, as Hannah Arendt argued, in the modern world we know no higher value than biological life. But, of course, there’s much else in our world that could kill us and may be more likely to do so, depending on one’s circumstances. It would seem that we need a little bit more by way of explanation.

Somewhere on CNN’s website over the last couple of days there’s been a link to a video clip featuring an analyst explaining “why we’re panicked about coronavirus.” The answer, in her view, is that we don’t trust our current government, and especially not the president, to see us through whatever lies ahead. I think there’s some merit to this. There is very little in the administration’s response to inspire confidence and much to instill doubt and insecurity.

Cass Sunstein, as Cass Sunstein is wont to do, blames our “panic” on a cognitive fallacy, “probability neglect” in this case. This seems wrongheaded as well. Whatever else we might say, there is a real risk that we are on the cusp of a great catastrophe, and, frankly, getting people to panic just a bit more might be the thing that mitigates the worst possible outcomes.

I suspect we’re closer to the mark if we focused on the adjective in the designation “novel coronavirus.” Its novelty, its newness, has done a great deal to heighten our anxiety, and may to some degree explain why some are bent on comparing the virus to a known, and thus less threatening entity: the flu. What the comparison to the flu—which, let the record show, is in my view deeply misguided—offers to those who make it is the option of mapping the new phenomenon unto a reliable cognitive schema, something that already has a place in our mental map. Someone who observes that the flu is likely to be much more deadly is no more likely because of this to take the flu seriously. It is simply a technique to cope with the unnerving uncertainty of the coronavirus.

The uncertainty, however, is just a clue. Uncertainty is just another way of talking about the absence of knowledge, and knowledge, in the modern world, has rarely been pursued for its own sake. Knowledge, as Bacon famously observed, is power. Scientific knowledge, especially, is a means toward prediction and, ultimately, control. We’ve staked a great deal on our ability to conquer nature, as it used to be fashionable to claim. But there’s been a cost, of course. First, we are learning that nature is not so easily subdued; our efforts to master her with what Albert Borgmann aptly termed “regardless power” have imperiled our future. Second, the very apparatus we’ve erected in our project to master nature, the whole of the modern techno-scientific project, also threatens to escape our control and become itself a threat to our well-being and the health of our society.

When the novel coronavirus appears on the horizon, looming in its potential like some ancient plague ready to devastate society, we may be experiencing more than simply a risk to our physical well-being. We are also experiencing an existential rather than intellectual challenge to the assumptions that have ordered the experience of reality in the modern world for generations.

It is telling, in this light, that so many have taken refuge in the belief that the virus was engineered in a lab and released into the world, either intentionally or inadvertently. It may seem odd for me to say that they’ve taken refuge in this belief, so let me explain.

Our first indication is that the claim is most frequently propounded with a certain air of confidence and superiority; the form hardly matches the content. To claim that this virus was engineered, I’d argue, is to take refuge again in the world of our making in which our greatest threats are either the accident or the act of malice. For these we have a category, and neither challenges our hope in the possibility of mastering nature. Accidents and malice can be addressed without tearing up the structural and ideological foundations of the modern world. In fact, we address them precisely by doubling down on knowledge, expertise, more and better technology, etc. They reinforce the need for more of the same.

The idea of the accident is especially telling. “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck,” the late Paul Virilio explained, “when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” Virilio, who died in 2018, extended this analysis to the realm of information.

In a line of thought that appears ever more prescient with each passing year, Virilio claimed, “The first deterrence, nuclear deterrence, is presently being superseded by the second deterrence: a type of deterrence based on what I call 'the information bomb' associated with the new weaponry of information and communications technologies. Thus, in the very near future, and I stress this important point, it will no longer be war that is the continuation of politics by other means, it will be what I have dubbed ‘the integral accident’ that is the continuation of politics by other means.”

“The atomic bomb provoked a specific accident,” Virilio added, “But the information bomb gives rise to the integral and globally constituted accident.”

With this in mind, it becomes apparent that every crisis we face in the digitally connected world has two distinct but intertwining aspects: an analog and a digital. So, the coronavirus, for example, exists out there in the world without regard to digital technology. At the same time, however, the human experience of the virus is mediated by digital media resulting in an overlapping and reinforcing set of threats and dangers.

This is all true and helpful, but I want to add a further dimension to the relationship between the accident and the modern picture of reality. It is not just that every technology calls forth the potential accident. To call something an accident is also to presuppose a background of prediction and control. This is all the more apparent when one considers that the concept of the accident has replaced certain older notions: fate, providence, and fortuna. What each of these concepts shared was the quality of illegibility and inscrutability. What fate, providence, or fortuna determined was necessarily beyond our ken. Each concept gave human beings a way of reckoning with the uncertainties and vagaries of human experience. It is true that they may have sanctioned an unfortunate degree of fatalism and inaction, but they also implied that there were limits to what we could know and what we could control. The modern world rejected each of these categories, and also their implication. We instead deploy the language of the accident wherever possible. Fate, providence, and fortuna operate in world experienced chiefly as a reality that is not primarily a human construct. The more our world can be characterized as human-built, the more likely it is that we resort to the language of the accident.

To understand the coronavirus as an accident, then, is to save appearance for modernity. Hence my suggestion that conspiracy theories locating the origins of the virus in a Chinese lab provide a measure of cognitive refuge for those who advance them. It is not that the modern project can never be completed, it is simply that we screwed up somewhere and need to do better.

Indeed, it is curious to note again the recent proliferation of conspiracy theorizing, something I’ve previously attributed to the failure of authoritative public institutions and narratives, or, to put it another way, to the collapse of common sense in Arendt’s use of the phrase, as an experience of the world held in common. But now I want to suggest as well that conspiracy theorizing is something like a mannerist manifestation of the detective story. The detective story genre is often characterized as a characteristically modern production in its insistence that even the most heinous and mysterious aspects of human experience can be neatly and adequately addressed by the persistent application of empirical reasoning. Conspiracy theories are simply detective stories that are quite obviously trying too hard, or, to keep with the literary theme, protesting too much, in the face of the increasing implausibility of their foundational premises.

So, where does this leave us. I began by asking why this virus had taken on such an eery, disconcerting quality, why it had unnerved us so profoundly. Curiously, as many have observed, one of the recurring features coronavirus discourse is emergence of two camps: those who are accused of panic and those who are accused of reckless nonchalance. The more some appear to “panic,” the more others double down on their cavalier indifference. These reactions, however, are not necessarily opposites as much as they are two very common modes of coping with the same distressing realization: the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete. The unpredictable, the unknown, the incalculable, the capricious aspects of our experience will always be with us. The conquest upon which we have staked our hope will never be complete. And each phenomenon that makes it impossible for us to ignore this fact will mess with our heads and trouble our hearts.

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