Facing ourselves at a Time of Coronavirus – I

The crisis that is afflicting us in Indians today is more than an economic and political crisis. It is a crisis of subjectivity. Even at a time of great human distress, we cannot forget the communal virus.  The semio-capitalism has pushed us into dark eons of semio-politics.  Semio-capitalism and semio-politics are inter-related and have seized us from inside. It has converted us into subjects that enjoy our subsumption. This entanglement of humanity to semio-consumption has come about because of the revolution in information communication.  We have become Subjects who are consuming semio-commodities. The media is also feeding us semio-commodities and their polyvocal semiologies. It seems that our addiction to semio-commodities has reached full circle with coronavirus pandemics.  Besides, giving us a lethal infection, coronavirus has become a semio-commodity that we are consuming with the aim of saving our self from it.  It has subsumed the subject and we are consuming semiological reality. 

 Coronavirus has become a semiotic object that is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. It has almost acquired a symbolic or mythic value. Semio-capitalism depends on the manipulation of signs-in-formation that produces info-commodity.  The fear and pain that signs-in-formation circulate have transformed coronavirus into an info-commodity among other semio-commodities.  The sign-in-formation has cast a grind on coronavirus and it has began to produce several responses that range from fear, frustration, anger, hate, compassion and violence.  We have already heard that the coronavirus warriors like the doctors and the police are attacked by mobs as well victims are ostracised, and even doctors who succumbed it to being denied honourable and dignified burial.  In Goa, we saw the delay in making the all important decision to get the seafarers to Goa. This is why we have to understand what is semio-capitalism and what it is doing to us.  Perhaps, we have to enter the work of Felix Guattari to understand the condition of late capitalism that he describes as semio-capitalism.  

We are brought up on the bread of Aristotelian matter and form.  Guattari bridges this binary and interprets form as a function. Mater for him has a semiotic function.  This activates the not-yet dimension of reality and keeps it in dynamic mode. Today we are interested in the function of coronavirus in a not yet sense in the danger that it possesses to us and humanity.   The dynamism of semio-capitalism activates the futuristic actualization of all semio-commodities, thus relying on what they do to us and what they are per se.  This is why Guattari is not interested in the semantic hermeneutics but in a pragmatic or productive hermeneutics that concerns us with the question what it does more than what the thing is.  We do not feel the need of understanding what coronavirus is. We are concern with what it does to us. Based on these functional assessments each of us has assigned meaning to it. This does not mean that the coronavirus is devoid of semantic content. It certainly has. But it somehow functions as an open sign or part sign to which we attach meaning that we construct on the basis of what we deem it does to us.   This means somehow the coronavirus has acquired a plurality of semantic content and produces semiosis that triggers responses of fear, compassion, hate, and violence. 

The semiotic substantializations of the lethal virus have produced a play of signs that work along  the line of master signifier of  Jacques Lacan.  Lacan teaches that a master signifier is empty of a core but attracts it content from outside. This is exactly how semio-commodities work. A car, for instance, is not just a means of transportation. It can mean several things to several persons. It can become a symbolic status for the self that has become a consuming self that   is subsuming things on the basis of the meaning that they offer to build an aesthetic-semiotically fed self.  This self is always in a play of aesthetico-semiotic process with semio-commodities of the semio-capitalist world.  

The coronavirus is also in the aesthetico-semiotic process that is at play with the self.  It has become a hyper stimulus hat transduces it into our subjective aesthetical dispositions and we experience it as a semio-commodity. The logic of semio-capitalism is not apriori nor it is a posteriori but is one that we may call called aforteriori. It comes from the fulfilment that is anticipated in the aesthetic-semiotic process.  Like the Cartesian self that returns from the act of thinking to itself in his Cogito Sum. The self of semio-capitalism returns to itself only through its aesthetic-semiotic processes of consumption. In several ways. Our semio-politics is also linked to the manner in which the self of semio-capitalism  returns to itself ( that is deemed as nationalist) through the consumption of aesthetico-semiotic object of hate/ fear  of the minoritized other. 

Without meaning no human can live. This is why capitalism that has metamorphosed into a  semio-capitalism has immersed us into its semio-commodities.  It is  very difficult to resist the semiotic-web of semio-capitalism. Whatever slips through the cracks of its semiotic nets gets reabsorbed into new semio-commodity that is traded to make room for those that can identify with it. We can see this in the growth of merchandizes associated with iconic activists and freedom fighters.  Thus, for instance, a radical Marxist revolutionary like Che Guevara has been absorbed like several others by the logic of semio-capitalism. Everything is semioticized and transformed into a semio-commodity.  This is why semio-capitalism and its child semio-politics can sell us dreams in an  forteriori sense.  They use the fear that leads us to secure our future that is yet to come by buying insurance or hating/destroying those that are identified as our enemies.  

The same logic is at work in the way we deal with each other  at a time of distress spilled into our life by the pandemic of coronavirus.  Under the grip of fear of its infectious nature, we are doing several things that we would not do each other maybe otherwise.  Here maybe it is opportune to remind us of one important thing.  We have forgotten something important. The lockdown can only slow down the infection. As long as we have no vaccination, we can only delay the inevitable. We can only really defeat the virus by testing more and more people. There is one view that opines that if we test more and more  people , our medical infrastructure will not  be enough and  it will pain us to see our people dying of what we fear the  most. Thus, like the Nazis who numbed their guilt by playing loud music to drown the cries of the Jews as they die in the gas chambers , we  seem to have left some of our people to die of covid-19 without being counted as case of covid-19.  This time it is not the loud music but our fear and silence that numbs our conscience.   

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Facing our Self at a time of Coronavirus  – II

We are facing a moral pathology. We no longer have the right choice.  The thing of the choice or das thing  is gone missing.  We are left with several choices. But in the context of  a condition created by a coronavirus,  all our choices have entered into a realm of precarity as well as vulnerability.   Our choices make us vulnerable. This does not mean that we shall fall prey to our vulnerabilities. Falling prey to our vulnerabilities is precarious. It is not certain and cannot be predicted.  This condition has punctured the egoistic calculus of ethics.  There is no certainty of saving ourselves. As long as we do not have any medicine or vaccine for the lethal virus, we are always in danger of being its victims and vectors. We can get out of this chain only when we are hit by it and have been healed from it. Even this luxury it seems is taken away from us as we have heard of the return of the virus in patients who were declared healed of it. 

 The loss of the thing or das thing of choice haunts all our choices.  We cannot make the right choice. From the psychoanalytic point of view, we have come to the death of the Big Other.  We cannot enjoy our choice because an exercise of it may not save us as well as the other.  We seem to be facing theft of enjoyment of our choice.  All enjoyment requires the possibility of breaking the law of the Big Other. We can only enjoy behind the back of the law. With the death of the big Other, although we have an imperative to enjoy, we cannot enjoy it.  The same is true of choice. With the right choice being denied, we cannot really enjoy our choices. We have lost all alternative choices and hit an empty singularity.  We are walking the road to unfreedom. Actually, we are facing the real of our choice in Lacanian sense.  This is why the choice that we are left with has an excess. It has become an unbearable stain as the choice of the right thing has escaped   our choice.  We are not able to enjoy our decaffeinated choice. 

With the death of the Big other, we have an imperative to enjoy our choice. All enjoyment has to occur at the back of the Big other.  Since there is no Big other, we turn to interpassivity  that allows us to delegate our enjoyment to a substitute/ other.  This is like watching a comedy show that also does the laughing for us.  Maybe because we cannot enjoy our choice under the lockdown and the pandemic we still enjoy a projection of war on it.  This is why we may enjoy communalizing the coronavirus.  We still deal with the coronavirus but  the fight is now delegated to those who are using it for communal propaganda. Just like we do get relieved after watching the comedy show that does the laughing for us, we also get relieved with our dose of communalism in the fight against coronavirus.  It is a mode of enjoyment through the other. We seem to enjoy our choice through the choice of hate that the other makes. Since enjoyment belongs to the real, it can never really be satisfied.  The interpassivity is a mode of enjoying our castrated enjoyment. It does not satisfy.  We have only one way.  We have to make a choice of our death.  

It is exactly the missing the thing/das thing of the choice that we cannot renounce.  It is the desire of the death drive.  By making that choice one puts one neck on the line of death and recovers the thing of choice. It is only by passing through this zero point of having a choice without the possibility of making the right choice that we may align with Hegelian negation to arrive at a point of synthesis.  Thus by including into one’s choice the possibility of one’s death, we are able to recover the das thing of the choice. It can put us into a totally new zone of possibility.  This means every choice that we make henceforth has to include a choice of the possibility of our death.  It is by putting our life on the line of death that we can recover das thing of our choice. Therefore, when one puts ones death in the calculus of choice that one wishes to make one may recover the right thing that is missing in the choice in the face of coronavirus.  

When every choice includes the possibility of one’s death, even a person who has become a potential victim and vector   will be enabled to make the right choice.  The choice to save oneself and save one’s other.  By including the possibility of our own death in every choice that we make, we have possibility of   putting  all our choices in the ethical choice of the good or the right thing.   This choice of the good/ the right  is open to the victims who are both symptomatic and asymptomatic.  Hence, the eruption of the corona pandemic has brought about an expansion of  the ethical realm. It has enabled us to put the precarity and vulnerability   and possibility of transmission of the lethal infection into the moral calculus.

 The inclusion of the possibility of one’s death or grave harm to oneself may also enable us to make reasonable choices and not mindless ones when one receives triggering persuasions that are calculated and targeted to specific persons by Big Data Analytics.   Fear of one’s death in the context of coronavirus may be  justified for the inclusion of the moral calculus  of one’s choice. But when it comes to the deception of the Big Data analytics it is a weak moral compass. We still need  discerning  light to do the right choices when it comes to influences of the big data analytics that is both weakening our will  and preying on it. Since it is working on reflexive dispositions, we will need to develop phronesis  or practical wisdom that  will enable us to see the deception  at the right time. A weak will or akratic will may be enabled to choose the right / the good by including the possibility  of one’s death in the moral calculus in the context of coronavirus. 

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Facing our Self at a Time of Coronavirus – III

The issue of transmission of  Covid-19  manifests a weakening of our agency.  We are into a condition of precarity and vulnerability that makes us both victims and vectors of   the coronavirus.  This is why it seems to have reached a point that has dislocated our reining ethical theories.  The changed condition is disclosing that our ethical principles and theories are inadequate and we need  fresh thinking to account for it.  Levinasian ethics of passivity and relational responsibility grounded  in the imperative of the other appears to still hold the fort for us.  But since it is based on his ethics as first philosophy by which he effectively blurs the boundaries between ethics, metaphysics and anthropology, it may not have many adherents.  To Emanuel Levinas’s  ethics is not a virtue that we exercise but it is prior to any individual sense of self. By being ethical,  I individuate myself.  He seems to say that ,’ I am ethical therefore, I am’.  This means I am already bound to the other to be myself in ways that I cannot fully predicate or control.  To him my injurability is also bound to  the answerablity of my ethical response.  Thus, risking oneself while one is serving the sick covid-19 patients is profoundly ethical and not suicidal.  In Levinasian ethics, the  ethical obligation is an answer to an ethical obligation that does not exclude one’s death.   

Something has changed as a result of  corona-virus.  How can one calculate the moral culpability of the vector of coronavirus  when he /she is not aware of  being a victim of the same virus.  To Levisas, we are never dispossessed of our ethical relationality and responsibility to the other.  Being ethical by our very being, we cannot be divested of our ethical call. But in a situation where my responsiveness to an ethical call can injure the other even without my knowledge as we see in the case of  the asymptomatic  vector of Covid-19, we are facing an ethical paradox.  

The other calls on me so I answer, I answer because I am already answerable. But in my responsive obligation to you what if  I being an asymptomatic vector of Covid-19? Am I ethically responsible  for  the act of communication of infection that I am not even aware of?  This means my agency is weakened or does not exist.  Hence, Levinasian ethics appears to have reached a dead end as we face the pandemic of cornoavirus.  Maybe Hannah Arendt ‘s  thought  helps us to get out of this ethical quandary. 

Hannah Arendt  has given us an ethics of cohabitation.  In her argument against Adolf Eichmann who thought that law had given him the duty to oversee which populations could live and which populations  could  die under Nazism, she teaches that no one has the prerogative to choose with whom to cohabit the earth.  We are thrown into the world and we are to live with whom we find ourselves cohabiting the earth.  She says that the unchosen character of our earthly cohabitation is the fundamental condition of our very being ethical as well as political.  

We cannot choose that which is not chosen for us. Unfortunately, we are violating  the ethics of cohabitation in several ways today in our country and several other places in the world.  Most theologies of Promised Land, as well as chosen people, may engender genocidal practices. Our life is bound to even with those that we may destroy.   Arendt clearly wants to belong to the unchosen people. This is why morality of an inadvertent action of asymptomatic patients of covid-19 becomes an ethical issue.  Although Arendt’s position remains within anthropocentrism and pleads for  ethics of cohabitation for humanity, we may add an ecological dimension to her ethics of co-habitation.  Judith Butler does exactly this. 

Judith Butler  thinks that ethics is intimately bound with our bodily life.  All ethical claims presuppose bodily life understood as injurable and not restricted to humans alone.  After all, a life that is worth safeguarding, and has to be protected from murder ( Levinas) or genocide ( Arendt) is based on non-human life in  an essential way. Maybe it is relevant here to remind us that Derrida has taught us that we humans cannot forget that we are human animals. This is why we have an imperative to make life livable. It is on this condition that Butler builds her ethics of cohabitation that transcends anthropocentric limitations of Arendt.  This is why human acts of grave omission,   as well as commission, are morally culpable if they bring about a disaster of making life not  livable. We make life livable interdependently and are co-responsible for it.  

 The eruption of coronavirus into our world has certainly added to the conditions that make life not livable.  The disease has  put us  into a precarious condition  and we now seem to  protect some and live some people to their fate. Having neglected health infrastructure to built  commerce on bodily life that puts health for sale, our acts of omissions have now led us  to choose between those lives that are grievable and those lives our ungrievable .  By not testing enough we are exposing our moral hollowness and we do not feel the guilt that some life is thought to be disposable as well as ungreivable.  This is why  we have the imperative to overcome this ethical blindness.  

 This is our best opportunity to rethink ethics to include the morality of weakened agency. We are already  experiencing a weakened agency  though the manufacture of  our consent for the market and politics by  big data analytics as well as  the vector that transfers the infection of coronavirus without knowing it.  In both cases, human vulnerabilities are constructed. In the first case, it is an economic and political vested interest that creates the conditions that may weaken our agency  while in the second case it is the novel virus that becomes a condition that constructs our vulnerabilities and weakens our agency.    Maybe we have to return to Aristotle’s work on  Akrasia or ordinary weakness of the will to  analyse a constructed weakness of the will  that we are facing right now.   The failure of intentionality that we are considering here with critical attention is not wilful. It is inflicted on us by our precarious conditions.  

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 Facing our Self at a Time of Coronavirus – IV

 

The moral quandary that we are facing due to the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic challenges most of our ethical principles.  Today most of us have become potential vectors of coronavirus.  Now that we do not have any known cure for the infection and that the disease can lead to death we cannot simply think that we are not morally culpable for transmission of the same.  We have the ethical obligation of the care of self as well as that of other’s bodily life.  

Hence, the only ethical option that we have is to observe strict social distancing as well as observe personal hygiene like face masks and hand sanitisers. This means even those that are already victims of coronavirus have an ethical responsibility to take adequate treatment as well as quarantine themselves so as not to transmit the lethal virus to others. This is why even those who are asymptomatic victims of covid-19 have a moral responsibility to protect themselves and the other.   We can derive these ethical obligations from our existing ethical principles. 

 Unfortunately, the new condition of humanity under covid-19 has manifested us our precarity as well as vulnerability.  Precarity is the unpredictability of catching an infection as well as transmitting the same. Vulnerability is the condition that increases the possibility of us being both victims as well as vectors.  Both precarity and vulnerability intensify as there are also asymptomatic victims and vectors of the lethal infection. The governments have factored this along with the metabolism of the virus and enforced strict lockdowns.  

Given the gravity of the condition, we cannot dismiss the morality of the vectors whether symptomatic or asymptomatic as the case of lack of knowledge and intention.  I rather consider it as a case of a weakened agency or failure of intentionality inflicted on us by conditions that cash on our vulnerabilities. This is why a weakened will or intention has to be brought within the moral calculus as we are facing a situation of life and death.   The new phenomenon of a global pandemic is weakening our willpower from outside just like Big Data Analytics is being used to prey on our vulnerabilities for profits in economics and politics. This is why our search for the morality of a weakened will is both urgent and relevant. 

A weakened will has been already considered in the ancient Greek philosophers. Socrates taught that ignorance (Agonia) weakened the will of the person.  This is why for him, ignorance is vice, and knowledge is a virtue.  This means it is the weakness of knowledge that leads to the weakness of will.  Socrates does deny the weakness of will. To him will simply submit to knowledge. Imperfect knowledge weakens our action.  When this happens, we have what he calls the phenomena of bad choice or pathema.   

Greeks did discuss the condition of a person who knows what is good but unwilling to do it. Protagoras, for instance, thinks that such people are overcome by pleasure, pain, love, fear, etc.  Plato did recognize this loss of self-control because of the conflict of human desires.  But Plato does not use the term akrasia to describe this weakening of the will. It is used by Xenophon and Aristotle.

  For Aristotle, the term Akrasia  describes a condition of a person who clearly knows what one has to do but does not do it because of a lack of the right sort of desire to do it.   This seems to stay within Socratic summum bonum, ‘Know by self’ where a defect within it brings about a weakened will that leads of akratic action.  It seems that we are becoming more and more akratic persons today with the rise of social media, AI, communication revolution and the disruption of coronavirus.  Naturally, an akratic action is thought to be blameworthy as it does not follow the prudential calculus of Aristotle. It is viewed as a primary failure of self-mastery ordered by the Socratic dictum ‘know thy self’. 

 Lubomira Radoilska  thinks acratic actions are pre-intentional actions. They are actions done not out of choice. Radoilika  tries  to interpret intention as a choice in order to understand Aristotle who thinks that akratic actions are those actions where a person does not act according to his/her choice.  This means akratic action displays a lack of discernment.  But it is possible to have the right discernment but still not do the right action. Aristotle dismisses such instances as cases of moral depravity.  

Thus, for Aristotle akratic action does not include an agent’s choice but nevertheless leads to moral action that fully engages his /her responsibility.  We may say Aristotle seems to think that akratic actions lead to the animalization of human beings. Since it is the immediate pleasure that takes control of our motivation and action, it is viewed not as an intentional but is seen as pre-intentional action.  Therefore, we can still think of it as a voluntary action.  It is voluntariness without the right choice. 

We seem to have entered this phase where we can act willingly but do not have the luxury of the right choice.  We have choices. But our choices are defective. Choices are not taken away from us. But our power of choice has lost the power to do the right choice as we manipulated or instigated to make choices that we would otherwise not make because of operations of big corporations using Big Data Analytics. Here we can still resist this clever deception. But it is not easy.  In the situation of the pandemic, we being potentially able to harm others to the point of death we are robbed of the right choice.  This means we have become akratic people. 

Nothing stops us from excising our choice but we simply do not have the right choice.  This choice that is not the right choice is voluntary and we are responsible for our akratic acts.    This is why we require to carefully consider the moral status of these akratic acts. Right now unfortunately deprived of the right choice, we are mostly left with what Socrates might describe as a   bad choice.  The absence of  the right choice does not mean defective choices are all evil. Their moral culpability will depend on the consequences of those actions.  If they really transmit the lethal disease, then they are certainly morally wrong acts.   Thus we have made room for the akratic act in the moral calculus. The question still remains is consequentialism the only moral compass that we can use to ascertain the morality of these actions?  Reflection has to continue. We experiencing a heightened condition of (un)freedoms.  Do we need an ethics of (Un)freedoms? 

 

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao