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Contagion

The global pandemic has sent many of us into self-imposed captivity to protect ourselves from others and to protect others from ourselves. Anyone could be the sickness and anyone could be the cure, depending on who you come into contact with and who you don't. If the challenge of biopolitics has always been to understand the sublime administration of productive and vital forces—life and death, economic flows, health, freedom of movement, populations as statistics, etc.—then what on earth are we meant to learn from Covid-19, and from the new world order and disorder that it has imposed on all of us?

These following essays from the past issues of e-flux journal might speak to this question.

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9 Essays
X. In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger devised an insidious thought experiment. He imagined a box with a cat inside, which could be killed at any moment by a deadly mixture of radiation and poison. Or it might not be killed at all. Both outcomes were equally probable. But the consequence of thinking through this situation was much more shocking than the initial setup. According to quantum theory, there wasn’t just one cat inside the box, dead or alive. There were actually two cats: one...
Traditionally, the main occupation of art was to resist the flow of time. Public art museums and big private art collections were created to select certain objects—the artworks—take them out of private and public use, and therefore immunize them against the destructive force of time. Thus, our art museums became huge garbage cans of history in which things were kept and exhibited that had no use anymore in real life: sacral images of past religions or status objects of past lifestyles....
We are the voluntary prisoners of the cloud; we are being watched over by governments we did not elect. Wael Ghonim, Google's Egyptian executive, said: “If you want to liberate a society just give them the internet.” 1 But how does one liberate a society that already has the internet? In a society permanently connected through pervasive broadband networks, the shared internet is, bit by bit and piece by piece, overshadowed by the “cloud.” The Coming of the Cloud The cloud,...
The preemptive logic of the “lesser evil” is often invoked to justify the use of a lesser violence to prevent a supposedly greater, projected one. The argument conjures a cold calculus of differentials, one in which good and evil are seen as commodities that are exchanged, transferred, speculated upon and in constant circulation. But, as in our contemporary financial economy, the Leibnitzian theodicy of “the best of all possible worlds” is in crisis, and out of its ruins emerges its...
A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status—all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing). —J.G. Ballard, interview in Penthouse (September 1970) The already-dead term “accelerationism” is productive as a way of thinking and negotiating the register of stupidity—or...
In 1796, upon observing a vast array of elephant fossils, paleontologist George Cuvier noticed a puzzling fact: the fossilized mammoths of Europe and Siberia were different from living elephant species. None of the specimens in his collection corresponded to present-day African or Indian exemplars; they were all remains of fauna now extinct. At length, it dawned on him that another world might have preceded our own, a world whose existence had suddenly come to a halt, possibly “destroyed by...

But are the concepts of biopolitics, positive or negative, or necropolitics, colonial or postcolonial, the formation of power in which late liberalism now operates—or has been operating? If concepts open understanding to what is all around us but not in our field of vision, does biopolitics any longer gather together under its conceptual wings what needs to be thought if we are to understand contemporary late liberalism? Have we been so entranced by the image of power working through life that we haven’t noticed the new problems, figures, strategies, and concepts emerging all around us, suggesting the revelation of a formation that is fundamental to but hidden by the concept of biopower? Have we been so focused on exploring each and every wrinkle in the biopolitical fold—biosecurity, biospectrality, thanatopoliticality—that we forgot to notice that the figures of biopower seem to be inflected by or giving way to new figures: the Desert, the Animist, the Virus? And is a return to sovereignty our only option for understanding contemporary late liberal power?

The Desert does not refer in any literal way to the ecosystem that, for lack of water, is hostile to life. The Desert is the affect that motivates the search for other instances of life in the universe and technologies for seeding planets with life; it colors the contemporary imaginary of North African oil fields; and it drives the fear that all places will soon be nothing more than the setting within a Mad Max movie. The Desert is also glimpsed in both the geological category of the fossil insofar as we consider fossils to have once been charged with life, to have lost that life, but as a form of fuel can provide the conditions for a specific form of life—contemporary, hypermodern, informationalized capital—and a new form of mass death and utter extinction; and in the calls for a capital or technological fix to anthropogenic climate change.

We live in a moment of profound cultural deceleration. The first two decades of the current century have so far been marked by an extraordinary sense of inertia, repetition, and retrospection, uncannily in keeping with the prophetic analyses of postmodern culture that Fredric Jameson began to develop in the 1980s. Tune the radio to the station playing the most contemporary music, and you will not encounter anything that you couldn’t have heard in the 1990s. Jameson’s claim that postmodernism...
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