In the dark mirror of the pandemic

Gabriel Zacarias 21/04/2020
“This society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation.”

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, §167
Tradotto da Fausto Giudice
Talking to a friend who lives in Bergamo – a city in northern Italy where I studied and which is today one of the most affected by the Coronavirus epidemic – he described the situation to me as “an endless episode of Black Mirror”. In fact, it is difficult to dispel the sensation that we are living a dystopia, like those represented in so many series of this kind. It’s no coincidence that Black Mirror, the most famous of them, carries the term “mirror” in its title. Its episodes do not represent a distant world – distant times, remote galaxies, parallel universes – but simply something like a near future of uncertain dating. At the same time strange and familiar, its plots are based on recurrences of trends already present in our daily lives. Perhaps what we go through presently can be understood in the same way. The derailment of normality seems to herald a near future (already begun) at the same time strange and familiar. Can we learn something about the world we live in from this “endless episode”? Times of crisis or exceptional ones can serve at least to better understand, and critically, our usual normality. I have proposed elsewhere that we look in the “mirror of terror” as a way to better understand the society of late capitalism that has given rise to new forms of terrorism [1].. In an analogous way, I believe that we should reflect on what we find of our present in the image that is forming in the dark mirror of the pandemic.
There is certainly much to think about on different planes – in relation to political organization, economic reproduction, the relationship with nature or the uses of science. Here, I want to problematize just one issue: the idea of “social distancing”, quickly accepted as the norm, with the progressive prohibition of meetings and the conformation of a daily life in confinement around the globe. The pandemic situation rests on a contradiction that needs to be underlined. The rapid expansion of the disease results from the global flows that have unified populations on a planetary scale. A unique paradox of a unified global population in the same state of confinement is born from the state of pandemic. In short, there is a physical isolation of individuals in a world that is fully connected. This paradox is not an exclusive paradox of the pandemic, but a paradox that the pandemic has taken to its extreme, making it visible. In fact, the dialectics between separation and unification (of the separated) is at the base of the development of Western capitalism that unified the globe.
Guy Debord had already noticed this structuring contradiction when he tried to understand the “spectacular” phase of capitalism, which was announced in the middle of the last century. What he called the society of spectacle was a form of society based on the principle of separation. What was commonly described as a society of mass communication could be understood inversely as a society in which the ability to communicate was massively lost. Communication, in a strong sense, was the appanage of community life, a common language fostered by a common experience. What happened in the societies of advanced capitalism was precisely the opposite. The expansion in space – big cities, remote suburbs, global economic circulation – and the rationalization of work, with the hyper-specialization of individual tasks, meant the concrete distance between people and the loss of common understandings, a factor further increased by the state monopoly on the organization of collective life. The progressive loss of the community and its forms of communication were, therefore, the precondition for the emergence of the mass media – which were the opposite of means of communication, since they were based on growing real isolation. The image of millions of viewers prostrated before television sets, which only consume the same contents but in no way communicate, remained a clear figuration of the fact that, as Debord wrote, “the spectacle brings together the separate, but only as separate” (§29). For many, however, this figuration and the criticism that accompanies it would have become obsolete in today’s world, with the advent of the Internet and its derivations. Instead of passively prostrate spectators in front of television sets, we would have active spectators today, exchanging messages, producing and broadcasting contents. But the truth is that nothing in the last 50 years has called into question the founding separation that underlies the very advance of communication technologies. It would be enough as an example the usual scene of a restaurant table where everyone looks at their own phone instead of talking with each other. The separate is gathered as separate even in the same physical space.
What has been taken away from us now, amid the pandemic crisis, is this possibility of cohabiting the physical space. Under current conditions, the ban on meetings and the obligation of isolation seem easier to impose on the global population than it would probably be a ban or a breakdown of the Internet and social networks. Ironically, “social distancing” is now evoked as the great salvation of a society that has always been founded on distancing. The only meeting place that exists in the commodity-producing society is actually the market – that is where commodities take their producers and consumers into their hands and that is where people meet. It is the hindrance of these meetings, now being banned, that scares so much – the closure of work and consumption spaces. But capitalism, which was a social relationship mediated by things, unfolded into spectacle, into a social relationship mediated by images. And it is already possible to be in the spaces without being in them; it is possible to work (to a certain extent) and consume (without limits) without the need to leave home. Wasn’t the great promise reiterated by the publicity of having the world at hand thanks to a simple touch on the screen – everything can be bought and delivered to your home – always the promise of voluntary confinement?
In this sense, the state of exception of the pandemic seems to have realized, at least in part, the dream of capitalism. If the dystopian episode we live through were to reveal itself as an “endless episode” it would not be difficult to imagine a population entirely accustomed to virtual relations, to the confinement watered by delivery and Netflix. Travel would be prohibited, and restricted to the flow of goods, now the fruit of a largely automated productive sector. The struggle of the spectacle to destroy the street, the meeting and the spaces of dialogue – only from communication can an alternative to the spectacular pseudo-communication be born – would finally be won. The real space would now belong only to merchandise; human beings, confined, taking refuge in virtuality. Human circulation, “a by-product of the circulation of goods”, would now be dispensable, in a world entirely given over to “goods and their passions”. (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, §168 and §66)
This is just an imaginative effort – a scenario that is still unlikely. While it is easy to anticipate a future with a significant increase in control over global flows and the movement of people based on health arguments, this will be followed by a normalization of some of the current exception measures (as we have seen happening with terrorism since the September 11, 2001 attacks). In any case, it is always reckless to make predictions amid so much uncertainty. But the moment requires reflection, and what we can do best is to think about what we already know. What we may feel as less problematic at this moment is what perhaps needs to be problematized the most. It remains to be hoped that social detachment will turn into detachment (Verfremdung) in Brecht’s sense – a break with the autonomous representation of the society of the spectacle and its illusions (among them the greatest of all: that of the capitalist economy, the senseless and incessant reproduction of abstract value to the detriment of life). A detachment, therefore, from this form of society: a necessary opportunity to rethink, critically, the separations that found it, and the deep limits of daily life that late capitalism imposes on us.
[1] Gabriel Zacarias, No espelho do terror: jihad e espetáculo, São Paulo: Elefante, 2018