Author: Jaime Del Val
Fields: Health, Ethics, Philosophy
Style: This is a paper in progress. For latest updates: https://metabody.eu/covid-19-as-metabody/
COVID-19, the coronavirus disease emerging in late 2019 in China and becoming global pandemic in early 2020, has exposed, perhaps more than any other event in (recent) history, our entanglement between each other and the world, both at molecular and global scales, expressing both our fragilities and our alignments. Since WWII and the rise of information society it is the first pandemic that has such systemic effects of suspension of activity and economy, quarantine of entire countries and impact in almost every country a few months after its emergence, literally a WWIII. The virus and its disease don’t merely unleash a complex situation, but create an entire global ecology and process, a becoming of which we are part.
In words of Dorion Sagan we are meta-metazoa because on the one hand we are offspring of a symbiogenetic evolution where microorganisms inhabit each other in increasingly complex ways, we are a chimeric hybrid of bacteria and viruses evolving into cells of multicellular organisms, while still largely made of bacterial and viral assemblages; and on the other hand we have a planetary impact and have the capacity and obligation to reflect upon and take responsibility for that impact, as we create a sort of planetary technological hyper-organism or which we (so called humans, hegemonic or not) are part, a hypercyborg.
I will propose to think the coronavirus disease and the situation it has unleashed, its exposure of molecular and global entanglements, through the concept of metabody, where meta- means both in-between, moving across, mutating and underlying. A metabody is a field of movement relations that emerges, varies and transforms, in the balance of consistency and openness, as the universe unfolds from fluctuations. The world is made of endless metabodies/fields, relating and reciprocally transforming in multiple ways, each body is itself a complex metabody, a convergence of many fields, so is each society, or technical system or phenomenon. Every field is made of different kinds fof movements, of swarm-like rhythms, orientations and contacts in its energy-density fluctuations, some more aligned than others. Linear perspective enacted a planetary-scale metabody of relations based on fixed points of vision. Big Data systems enact a planetary scale metabody of autonomous algorithms, code and gridded infrastructures of microchips and data centres. Selfies bring together in a new way both linear perspective and Big Data profiling in social networks conforming a selfie metabody, whose economy is crucial for current algorithmic governance. Likewise a pandemia, such as the one unleashed by the virus COVID-19 can be understood as a complex and multifaceted metabody. Let’s consider some of its complexities.
First of all let’s consider viruses and how they have been source of genetic diversity as primordial means of Horizontal Genetic Transfer (perhaps the primordial source of genetic diversity) throughout evolution. Viruses are a crucial means of evolution as diversification. Viruses are quasi-life forms that need to he hosted by cells to proliferate and activate themselves, they are an in-between the living and the non-living, a meta-life form, and a means for movement of molecules and genes in excess of bacterial sex or sexual reproduction. They are complex molecular affordances and movements. Over billions of years viruses have been part of the fluctuating movement of molecular assemblages, or molecular metabodies, slowly bringing up diversity on the planet, long before plagues and pandemics started to threat human populations.
The first recorded plagues are those of Athens, when it was epicenter of trade in the Aegean and thus of unprecedented and quick movements of people, connecting, exchanging and moving across bacterial and viral ecosystems. Since then plagues and pandemics have been recurring, perhaps associated to the quick movements of people in trade and colonial societies, where immune systems and viral ecologies which had emerged over billions of years of dynamic equilibrium, have been upset by the continuous abstract-but-very-real movements of people following economic and political factors at odds with the dynamics of ecosystems, and an increasingly disruptive impact on ecosystems through seamless appropriation and invasion of territories, impact on species and their habitats, delocalization of wild species, and so forth.
COVID-19 exposes on the one hand our molecular nature and fragility in a time when the hegemonic human keeps expanding its dream to become God through technological domination and absolute control. On the other it exposes our global entanglement, related partly to the extreme amount of physical displacements in late capitalism (which run along our internet entanglement which has its own viruses and ongoing but mostly invisible cyberwar). The speed of dissemination of this physical virus – whose lethality is compared only to the “Spanish flue” of 1918-1919 killing over 50 million people- is what has created this unprecedented situation. The virus exposes the fluctuating nature of the world and the problem of trying to ignore or fix that fluctuation.
Furthermore, COVID-19 exposes our molecular fragility and our global superalignments as being radically interrelated, so that alignments allow the virus’ movement to take on a devastating effect as the molecular, biological virus connects to the viral society of speeded up media, of contagious gestures (ie.e the gestures that replicate themselves in homogenous manner, like selfies or clicking) and displacements.
The virus also exposes the systemic and economic dependencies that come to the foreground when activity is suspended in a new global war scenario where the enemy is within and across bodies, where absolutely everyone is suspect, much more than in global terrorist threats, as the virus is the one responsible, though people or States not taking measures to avoid contagion will in turn be held responsible. Responsibility becomes strangely distributed as decisions radically change, like when a country that had taken no measures suddenly imposes quarantine to its entire population and everyone is obliged to follow precautionary measures that were not at all considered one day before. First the virus is responsible, then a state, then people in the state.
The situation fluctuates radically with the propagation of the virus, whose effects are only seen with 14 days delay. It’s an invisible enemy whose potential presence and threat is expressed in the quarantine as new social condition. Meanwhile fake news spread, attention is more massively than ever in social media, markets and entire industries like tourism collapse, while online work is strengthened, fluctuations enter exponential spirals. Borders, including within European Schengen territory, are closed and new borders can appear inside countries, anywhere, as well as new monitoring of behaviours. Paternalistic and patriotic messages acquire strange associations with astonished concern and at times solidarity.
In the process one can see taken onto a new level and mode the ecologies of fear and threat that came up after 9/11 with the “war on terror”, as exposed by Brian Massumi’s concept of Ontopower, a power that tries to preempt an unknowable future reorienting movements as they emerge while disseminating an ubiquitous sense of threat where everyone is suspect. For the first time since WWII the entire planet is in a palpable state of war (besides the ongoing and mostly invisible cyberwar and the distributed wars of late capitalist exploitation) not exempt of apocalyptic undertones, with an increasing amount of countries in quarantine, against a virus which is similar to the flue, but propagates much more quickly.
Closing down borders is never enough as any person could have it inside already, we will only start to know two weeks later. The so called “missing half-second” of preconscious activity where control information systems try to redirect our attention has suddenly become a 14 days interval suspending entire populations as span of radical uncertainty where every decision will fluctuate according to the many factors being measured, including the economic impact of any decision.
The metabody of COVID-19 is in the molecular movements of the virus, and also, largely, in the state of exception, the fear and threat, the quarantine of populations, or in economic collapse. But also in new gestures of solidarity or complicitness between people (a strange one implying distance and suspicion at the same time, including for oneself as no one know if one has the virus till 14 days later), of uncertainty, and of awe and wonder at the unprecedented situation: a sense of shock, which is deep and existential, not only relative to confinement measures but to this feeling of it all being a planetary situation, a new feeling of molecular and global connectedness, of the fragility in ourselves and our systems, that pretended to be so robust.
It also exposes the intimacy of our daily gestures, implicit in every act, no particular (sexual) intimacy is needed like in HIV transmission, no suspicious gestures or behaviours. It exposes the intimacy of our molecular entanglement, much more than did HIV. Our molecular, viral intimacy is there all the time, unavoidable and evolutively necessary, echoing with McMennamin’s idea in Hypersea theory of body fluids as commons in evolution. That intimacy is indeed the source of evolution and life. Though our perspectival culture of articulate distances had made us forget that entanglement. The most usual daily movements (modes of contact and proximity) can transmit it.
A new economy of movement will thus ensue, perhaps of further distancing. Indeed some studies are already ponting to a period of 12-18 months of social distancing till the virus gets under control through a vaccine. But effects of this new scenario will probably last much longer. A Pandemics was expected, but the lethality of this one -much greater than the ones in 2008 and before, only comparable to the “Spanish flue” over a century ago (named like that because Spain was the only country which did not hide it but spoke up), is likely to alter global economies of movement much more than did 9/11 or even smartphones.
We are slow at understanding this molecular ecology and its movements, since old ontologies had ignored our molecular swarming for too long, we have difficulty in understanding the ways of minimizing contagion while avoiding paranoia, as we don’t understand how our viral entanglement operates, its unavoidability and indeed necessity, but also its major channels of dissemination, which are not always obvious. In consequence many people (at least in less disciplined Mediterranean countries like Spain) tend to ignore the invisible enemy till hard measures are imposed from above. Or paranoia abounds.
This invisible enemy within, across and in constant mutation and dissemination (meta-), relates to endless other factors like heat or sun radiation, human concentrations in winter, humidity and moist in the body and the concentration of globules in our immune system, and so forth.
“In this strange and irregular war that where we have had to live or fight, we are all soldiers” said the Chief of State of Defense in Spain, a soldier whose discipline is in avoiding social contact. Meanwhile the search for vaccines, antivirals and immune system aids is the triple molecular battlefield in the laboratory war. A new sense of care appears as health systems are overflown and one needs to avoid social contact in order to avoid potential contagion to oneself and to others, as one might be positive without having symptoms, whereby the virus kills more the elderly and vulnerable, but not only, anyone could fall, but not everyone can be taken care of by the overwhelmed health system.
Attempts to understand the molecular movement of COVID-19 and generate a vaccine are still unfruitful several months after it’s appearance, and it may still take a year for it to arrive. Meanwhile the entire global economy is suspended and entering a potentially severe recession whose future is utterly uncertain as the virus could still disseminate in unpredictable ways. First the production machine of China was paralyzed, now the consumption machine of Europe and perhaps the US are suspended. China is leaving its state of exception and quarantine while Italy and Spain, and gradually all Europe (as of March 17th) is entering it, and also the US, many countries in the Americas, Africa and Middle east, or Russia, after going more strongly through Korea and Iran. All major events cancelled, only Japan, who apparently stabilized the virus soon, still doesn’t cancel the Olympic games. It is the rich countries that seem to be attacked now, perhaps due precisely to the connection of the virus with globalized displacements. But molecular movements have no logic, they swarm and fluctuate in always unpredictable ways.
Along the way we could develop immunity, and the virus could mutate or it could become seasonal like the flue, while vaccinations could start to appear, and new dependencies on pharmaceuticals, also part of this new metabody that will also involve new, even more articulate distancies between bodies.
The radical fluctuation of the virus’s movements seem to accelerate exponentially as they relate to the superalignments of our Age of Algorithms, or Algoricene, where bodies quickly displace along planetary-scale trajectories, and impose on ecosystems endless disruptive interventions which upset their dynamic equilibrium. These interventions may have triggered the appearance of the virus on stage in the first place. “A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19” says The Guardian. “Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout 2 and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today?”And David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Maybe we need to slow down? Is Nature taking revenge for our accelerated destruction? Is this a restoration of the balance, a return to the indeterminate, fluctuating source?
It’s time, not only to slow down our accelerated displacements, but to take radical care for ecosystems as the dynamic matrix of life, ours included, and thus also the source for any economy and future. The greedy exploitation of the Earth on behalf of Earth destroyers is likely to enter a spiral of increasing selfdestruction. But what should be matter of concern is how the perception itself of the Earth as matter for exploitation was created, over centuries of colonialism, of perspectival perceptions that place an observer outside of the world, which becomes reducible to seamless quantification, appropriation and devastation.
Slowing down is just a start along the way to regain a richer embodied experience after millennia of atrophy imposed by multiple alignments with technologies of domination of which the smartphones in our pockets are a recent expression. These have impoverished experience to the point where only accumulation, domination and destruction matters. Earth destroyers are the deeply disabled people whose experience is impoverished to the point where they lost all sense of body, all proprioception, and thus all sense of deep connection to a world.
One century ago the Spanish flue killed around 50 million people, but humans kill around 5 trillion animals per year (100.000 times more), and do so in ways that -quite opposed to how animals kill each other- completely disrupt the dynamics of ecosystems.
Our health and the planet’s health are entangled. May the pandemic unleash a change in sensitivity?
Some may say that we are all Earth destroyers, as soon as we catch a plane, drive a car, or are engaged in any kind of consumption, that slowing down is not an option, that no activity could be done that doesn’t contribute to the impact, that there is no way out. Or that online activities (or even social control) are the welcome solution to work and social interaction in the new world scenario of the pandemic. One could say that this very article participates in those economies, of digital control and of unsustainable planetary impacts. Let’s remember that data centers and digital infrastructures are also posing a heavy ecological problem due to the amount of energy consumed and also the materials used, such as coltan, linked to wars exploitation but also waste and obsolescence of equipment. But unsustainable is also the social ecology of Facebook likes as implicit social credit, of selfie smiles and emoticons, of massive homogenization of affects, desires and sexes.
But it’s always a question of thresholds. One of the thresholds lies in the little care that Nation States of democratic countries have for the respect of global ecosystems. Will COVID-19 unleash a new era concern, if it is shown that unleashing of virus is linked to anthropocenic activity? Will this affect the taking of more radical measures for having the equilibrium of ecosystems as primordial criteria for economic decisions? Maybe even in less democratic countries like China? Can this also reverse the expected tendency of increased social distance and control, towards a return to the body, to analogue embodied experiences that afford means for sustainability no only in terms of ecology and economy, but of social life and its richness? Only a rich, diverse and varying experience is sustainable. Can slowing down and going back to the body become new mottos for global policies, and a gradual systemic change?
In excess of the economic crisis that may ensue, this situation entails an unprecedented change in our becoming and awareness as metabodies, of our molecular and global entanglement, our fragility (and the consistency of responses, at times hard, coercive), and our being part of fluctuation movements and systemic dependencies.
Maybe the virus, in exposing all of this, can teach us about the problematic systemic aspects of current society, though it’s unlikely that this will entail positive systemic change. The change is more likely to be in the sense of new unprecedented means of social control, of fear and threat ecologies, increase of online work (more vulnerable to digital viruses or the threats of cyberwar, of surveillance and algorithmic governance), increase of distance between bodies and dependency on the chemical choreographies of pharmaceuticals and surveillance, and meanwhile increased precarity of the already precarious who are losing their jobs in the process.
At the same time the stage for the (no longer science-fiction) scenarios of potential and more severe bacteriological and viral war is set. This is just the mild beginning, the introduction, which however exposes that reality is always already more advanced and complex than any sci-fi movie (no matter how much the latter format our expectations and prepare the stage). Reality is always re-ontologizing itself, plastic as it is, moving beyond the existing ontologies, concepts, established ways of thinking and understanding (which one often sees reflected in Science-fiction narratives). The realities (movements) of the autonomous algorithms in our smartphone apps, or now COVID-19, are challenging radically our concepts, practices, systems, economies and life styles. We need to invent new ones.
After the cold war, AIDS, the “war on terror”, the ongoing and mostly invisible cyberwar, and the visibility over past years of digital surveillance and control (from Snowden to Cambridge Analytica), coronavirus crosses a new threshold in scenarios of war and domination, but also of collective mutation. This mutation is (and always was) not only genetic, but mostly epigenetic: relative to our habits, affects, media, our movements in general (which have epigenetic effects but also wider mutations in ourselves and our ecosystems, our affects, neurons, metabolism, hormones and other chemical bodily fields).
Meanwhile new situations keep unfolding creatively. These days in Madrid the city sounds at times more lively than ever from my roof house terrace when people play music or play across windows, confined in the houses, though many of these occurrences are soon appropriated, if not a priori preempted by the viral behaviours of social media. The applauses to the health system personnel resonate in the empty streets at 8pm every day. And a strange complicity appears between dogkeepers as we go out into the street, dogs being perhaps the only remainder of liveliness in the empty city, the exception within the state of exception.
The virus exposes, more radically than cyborgs or even companion species, a posthuman condition where both our evolutive molecular nature and our all-too-human and more-than-human technological alignments enter a radical spiral of reciprocal transformation. The virus threatens the open consistency of our bodies as it expands with unprecedented speed due to global displacements along daily gestures. But the response should not be in trying to retain a holy human nature that perhaps never existed, rather it’s about understanding much better the ways in which life and evolution (and with them “human nature”) emerge always in relation and need a balance of consistency and openness to sustain their movement of variation. Evolution is a business of slow molecular, bacterial, viral swarms.
A society that over millennia increasingly imposes on the planet extreme alignments and abstract dynamics that detach themselves from the biosphere’s dynamics and impose themselves on it disruptively (while forgetting its molecular-bacterial heritage and substrate), needs to learn that the human is always meta-human, always relational and emerging from and with fields of molecular movements that will return whenever they are neglected.
This (hyper)human, all-too-human (transhumanistic) society has favoured planetary-scale alignments of rationalization and quantification by imposing atrophy on bodies and proprioceptions: the body’s sense of internal motion as tissue fluctuation. Bodies aligned with fixed points of vision expand their rationalising power on the globe, while becoming appendixes of dynamic networks of algorithms, at the expense of reducing their proprioceptions. But its through proprioception that we also sense the world, and ourselves as entangled with it. I have no doubt that it is this millennia old proprioceptive atrophy that underlies the radical insensitivity in turn underlying planetary destruction, which is also self-destruction.
Domination is always reduction, imposing movements on others, and paradoxically this implies self-destruction. Evolution is mutation and radical cooperation, plasticity, reciprocal transformation. The virus, an ancient evolutionary mechanism, suddenly irrupts into these networks of domination and delocalization disrupting them in turn.
In states of confinement and of distance or isolation with others as we are experiencing today, I invite people to explore their proprioception: a human body is a swarm of 360 joints whose combinatory is infinite, and what one feels is more the blurry fluctuation of tissue tensions and torsions in between, which go down to swarms of billions of proteins folding in our cells’ cytoskeletons (and their atoms decaying down to quantum fluctuations) every time a muscle contracts. Proprioception is also integrating every multisensory input in the body’s capacity to move and unfold an endless variation of its proprioceptive field. Through the variations of our tissues we also know the world. I touch the bread to feel its consistency and it has already become part of my proprioception. The proprioceptive field emerges over billions of years of molecular, bacterial and viral movements and ongoing mutation and is the source of our Body Intelligence or BI, a self-organising and plastic capacity to move and sense, an expression of our self-organising molecular complexity, of which viruses are also part.
Regaining a sense of the richness and complexity of our proprioceptive fields should be part of a process of slowing down and displacing less, of caring more about ourselves and our surroundings. Let the body sense its movement, and sense the world though it, unfolding like an ameba or swarm, let its complexity unfold in different improvisation practices (dancing, drawing, playing an instrument, in conversation…).
In this year (of the 10th anniversary of the Metahumanist Manifesto), let’s unfold a meta-humanistic debate, and along with it metabodily practices.
In times of confinement and separation, I propose that instead of becoming increasingly subject to perspectival nodes of atrophy and control in a society of screens, smartphones, porn, TV, Facebook, fake news and ecologies of fear, let instead our proprioceptions, and our dog-friends, be source for reinventing and enriching our experience.