Covid Is Boring
by Justin E. H. Smith
Ordinarily I need no alarm to wake me up. I am able to rouse myself naturally, and usually within about two minutes of the time I had intended to start the day. The one exception is when I accidentally wake up an hour or so early, and determine to go back to sleep, which, if successful, often delays my intended moment of final waking by up to two hours. Last Monday I had to wake up at six, Paris time, to leave home by seven, to get to the Gare du Nord by 7:30, go through the grueling covid theater that I knew would be imposed at the station, and take the 9:13 Eurostar to London. But for some reason I spontaneously awoke at five, which is four UK time, which meant that if I did not get back to sleep for another hour, it was going to be a very long day indeed. So I turned to my iPhone, and opened “Alarm”. A pop-up screen informed me that this function is now part of “Health”, and that in order to set the alarm I would first have to set up my “Sleep Goals”. My immediate sleep goal being only to go back to sleep, I was of course enraged, an emotion hardly conducive to this immediate goal, and as I was vainly seeking with my huge thumbs to enter my desired Sunday bedtime, Monday bedtime, Tuesday bedtime, and all the while text continued to pop up informing me of the health benefits of adequate z’s, I abandoned my quest and stumbled into yet another ridiculous day.
It had been a difficult night. I had again made the mistake of taking care of bullshit e-mails too close to bedtime, and found myself lying there, awake and fuming, until two or so. One e-mail had been an unsubscription notice from Substack, in which a former reader had given as her reason for cancelling: “Not enough thought-provoking content”. Had I, your faithful content provider, let you, my content consumers, down? Or was this judgment only de gustibus? Another e-mail had been an automated message from the University of Connecticut, identifying me as a “Husky Vendor”, and telling me all sorts of new state regulations that were now to govern the relationship between me, a human person, and them, a corporate one. The message invited me to click a link, to enter into my “Husky Portal” and to make sure all of my contact information was up-to-date. You see, some years ago, back when this sort of thing still made sense, I travelled to St. Petersburg, Florida, to give a talk in a Hilton conference room to a dozen or so people, in exchange for a $2000 honorarium that was administered, for reasons I do not recall, through UConn (I was also given, on arrival, what the graduate-student assistant referred to as a “swag bag”, which included, among other souvenirs, a coffee mug with the phrase “Humility and Conviction” on it, which I still sometimes use when I am feeling prideful and indecisive). And evidently this was enough to turn me into a “Husky” for life, which I gather is that school’s athletic mascot, even though I have never even been to Storrs, and the trip to Florida exhausts my past and probable future connections to the place. Whether the talk I gave constituted an act of “vending” is of course another matter, which, coupled with the “Husky” designation (a term that caused much shame to me as a child whenever my pants size had to be spoken aloud), had me sufficiently enraged to write the following reply: “I was paid an honorarium once a few years back for giving a lecture at UConn. I don’t need to receive legalistic emails like this from you for the rest of my life. Take me off your list.” This e-mail, to a “no reply” address, of course bounced right back.
The next morning down at the station new humiliations in the human-screen interface awaited. I admit that I was not as attentive as may have been warranted to the ever-changing rules of travel outre-Manche in the post-Brexit pandemic era. I was only going to be in the UK for 36 hours, and I was coming with my official phone-based “Pass Sanitaire”, attesting that I had been fully vaccinated in May. I had vaguely understood that even the vaccinated are required to order a “Day 2 Home Test”, but I assumed that this would be irrelevant in my case as I was already to be back in France by the end of the second day. I was mistaken in assuming this. Before the French Eurostar employees would even let me into the security line, I had again to use my big thumbs on my small screen to order a home-test kit, for £48, from a private London-based lab, entering my overnight UK address, my French billing address, etc. Proof of purchase enabled me in turn to access the UK government’s “Passenger Locator Form”, filled out again with big thumbs on the small screen, which alone afforded me the right to enter the security line.
But it was not over. Because I had contracted covid in March, 2020, when I was vaccinated over a year later the French policy was to treat me as if I had already had one dose, and so a single clinical dose was held by French standards to complete my vaccination regime, as attested in my Pass Sanitaire’s QR code. But the UK sees things differently, and so no matter my official status in France, I am considered not-fully-vaccinated in Britain. What were the implications for my trip? It meant that I would have to order not only a “Day 2 Home Test”, but also a “Day 8 Home Test”. But by Day 8 I will have been back in France for more than a week! I explained. It doesn’t matter, they told me, you have to order one in order to be let in.
So I went back to the private lab’s website, with my big thumbs on the small screen, and began again to enter my data. The delivery address could only be one in the UK, but I did not have a UK address. I asked the official what I should enter. He told me to enter just any UK address at all. “But I don’t know any UK addresses,” I said, “though I have noticed their postal codes are long alphanumeric sequences, often including several W’s and X’s.” “Then enter some of those,” he said. “What about the street address?” I asked. “Just pick anywhere,” he said. “Anywhere?” “Yes.” And so I began to type: “Buckingham Palace, London, WX1 W1X1”, and with that, plus another £88, I was admitted to the United Kingdom.
I hope I don’t need to provide any further argument that this, like being a “Husky Vendor” or like specifying my “Sleep Goals”, is a bunch of bullshit, and the somewhat recalcitrant behavior on my part is not so much a sign of immaturity, as humanity. It is the same humanity that often leaves me, within a few seconds of interacting with a customer-service bot on the telephone, inevitably telling me information I had just read moments before on the company’s website and deemed inadequate to my situation, saying: “Fuck you. Give me a live customer-service agent.” It’s not that I want to hurt the bot, not exactly, but that I know the bot can’t be hurt, and I need to affirm this, to remind myself and any human being who might eventually be listening to the recording (“for quality and training purposes”). It is the same righteous instinct as the one that will soon have at least some brave rebels vandalizing and disabling robot police dogs.
It seems to me moreover that the absurd, dehumanizing, automated management of human subjects has been given its own Great Leap Forward with the rise of the new covid hygiene regime. Those of you who see covid as a culture-war issue will be relieved to find me adding that I am strongly in favor of mandatory vaccination. In fact I think much of the current theater, much of the current profiteering of the sort the private labs in London are now enjoying, and much of the aggressive implementation of new mechanisms of social control and surveillance, are the consequences, intended or unintended, of states being unwilling to infringe on their citizens’ supposed right to remain unvaccinated. The uncertain vaccination status of any particular person in a public space has enabled governments to treat each of us as if we were, individually, in need of constant monitoring and shakedowns of the sort I endured at the Gare du Nord. It has enabled states to implement an unprecedentedly vicious form of inequality, between the app-savvy and the preterites, between those who know how to flash a QR code like cosmopolitan pros, and those who lag behind, who can never quite get their papers in order (i.e., can never fill out all the fields on the screen correctly).
I am for mandatory vaccination, and I am also continually alarmed by my bien-pensant, progressive, educated friends who seem to have abandoned altogether their appreciation for Michel Foucault over the past two years, and who take resistance to vaccination as nothing more than a marker of trashiness and despicable cretinism. It was not long ago at all that the same people raved about scholarly work such as Nadja Durbach’s excellent 2004 study, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907. Durbach compellingly portrays Victorian working-class opposition to the state-enforced violation of the skin with disease-laced needles as a form of righteous resistance against the state’s biopolitical overreach — quite apart from any consideration of the epidemiological soundness of vaccination policy. But this “quite apart” is the sort of critical move we are increasingly discouraged from making in public discourse. And the reason for this, in turn, is that what we call “public discourse” occurs almost entirely on social media, which in the end is really just a public-discourse-themed video game, underlain by algorithms that for their part are essentially of the same sort as those that yield up the steady stream of bullshit incitements to state my “sleep goals”, to update my “Husky Vendor” status, to have a “Day 8 Test” delivered within a kingdom I have long since quit.
Much that is happening in fact seems an evident postscript to certain central theses of Foucault, and if the progressive left relinquishes him to the right, or at least to the “post-left”, they are only depriving themselves of a valuable analytical lens for understanding our contemporary world. Consider the argument of 1975’s Discipline and Punish. In the early modern period, people still enjoyed seeing gruesome spectacles of execution, as when a would-be regicide was drawn and quartered (i.e., his two arms and two legs are tied to four separate horses, and they are made to run in opposite directions). Such spectacles fell out of fashion, and corporal punishment of any sort eventually came to seem unenlightened. Prisoners were moved into “correctional institutions”, out of public view. And now carceral regimes like the United States are able to inflict unceasing brutality on millions of their citizens, year after year, all while barely even touching them, and with nothing for the craven public to gawk at (though of course in certain regions, such as the US South, the public spectacle of punishment, including the punishment of innocent people belonging to persecuted minorities, survived long after it had died out in, say, Paris and London).
We may in turn be moving now into a new era of even further sublimation of the will-to-punish, which might on the face of it appear to be an era of decarceralization, but which will only have been made possible by the rise and proliferation of digital monitoring technologies. This is further confirmation of Foucault’s enduring relevance. The modern state just keeps finding new ways to look nicer, just keeps rolling out snazzier apps with the help of its corporate partners, but behind this is an ongoing search for more effective, because more subtle, exercise of power. It seems to me plain, moreover, that it is in the nature of states to exploit crises of this sort in order to impose new regimes of control that subsequently have less and less to do with the initial circumstances that justified them. In this respect, the new covid theater really is much like the airport security theater that emerged after September 11, 2001. It is true that there is terrorism, but whether I remove my shoes or not has little to do with that truth. It is true that there is a pandemic, but my Day 8 test, which I will not take and which will go nowhere, has nothing to do with combating it.
Stopping anywhere short of a mandate, I believe, serves the state’s interest in making the current theater into a perpetual regime, just as it has evidently done with the security theater of the post-9/11 era. This is a regime of social control through tech: we won’t require you to get vaccinated, but we will require you to have an app that monitors everything you do, and that could be adapted in the near future to serve as the basis of a system, explicit or euphemized, of social credit. And meanwhile so many of my friends and peers, heels dug in so deeply on the side of anti-anti-vaxx signaling, refuse to acknowledge anything worrisome about the new high-tech hygiene regime, about how hard it might be to dismantle it once it has outlived its purpose, about how it might sprout new purposes that are inimical to human thriving.
Other than a personal essay that I wrote for The Point Magazine in March, 2020, while I was myself suffering from covid, I have pretty much gone about my writing business over the past eighteen months as if the pandemic did not exist. I find covid boring. I am not a public-health expert, nor an investigative reporter, and I just do not have much to say that is not also being said in a million other places. I watch with amazement my friends and peers who have somehow nonetheless easily transformed themselves into what look lie full-time volunteer nodes of information on epidemiology, on Delta rates in Alabama and the aerial spread of miasmas in ventilated vs. unventilated spaces.
I am about to say something that will likely hurt some of my friends, but it is necessary to do so in order to arrive at a diagnosis of our current moment. I have trouble seeing the ease with which so many educated people have taken up this new volunteer role as anything other than a sign of the total absconsion of the intellectual class in the age of the Twitter-Covid complex (the one component of this complex arrived somewhat before the other, but they both came of age together). In order to show this, I would like to depart for the next several paragraphs from the topic of covid narrowly understood, which in any case I find boring, as I have said, and to talk instead about the current state of arts-and-culture criticism. This is not a change of subject, but simply a different line of attack on the same problem, for it is my contention that the singular problem in contemporary debate about anything at all is the rise of a form of thinking among human beings that apes the patterns to which we have all become so habituated in our daily human-tech interface: it is quantitative, STEMified, “outcomes”-oriented, and philistine. It is a betrayal of human-centered inquiry and critique.
The political philosopher Jake McNulty reminded me recently of a wonderful observation of Adorno’s: that it was not the artists with firm political convictions expressed through their art, such as Bertolt Brecht, who ended up truly revolutionizing their historical moment, but those such as Samuel Beckett, whose work is infinitely ambiguous, non-committal, and open to endless interpretation. The one gave us Tin Pan Alley retrofitted with revolutionary slogans, the other gave us his own sort of revolution. One fears that the closest thing we have to intellectuals today are so disengaged from even the ideal of an avant-garde that they know only how to scan a work for its manifest content, and thus today’s descendants of Brecht are deemed good because they are “on message”, while today’s descendants of Beckett, if there were any, would be deemed irresponsible for failing to state explicitly enough their commitment to antiracism.
I see this variety of philistinism most vividly within the tiny world of Anglophone academic philosophy, which for years I have been trying to disown, but which keeps dragging me back into it like the dysfunctional family it is. Here I think I understand the historical causes fairly well. For decades analytic philosophers were convinced that they did not have to engage with the political. In effect they moved to the suburbs, often literally, but always metaphorically. Over the past years, with the latest American Protestant Awakening, the political has reasserted itself with a vengeance, and analytic philosophers have recognized that they must engage with matters of social relevance in order to have any kind of adequate grasp of why they themselves think what they think. But they are returning with an entirely suburbanized mentality, one that enables them to talk about society, but leaves them unable to talk about culture. Thus they take the social impact of a given entertainment, say, how well the latest Marvel movie scores on the Bechdel test, and presume that attention to such things exhausts what might be understood by “cultural criticism”. The idea that there might be a vanguard of cultural production, that doesn’t just nitpick the latest mass entertainments but instead operates in total freedom from these entertainments, seems to belong entirely to a forgotten world.
An equally significant transformation has occurred among those other philosophers, sometimes called “continental”, who were attentive to politics and to culture long before our present moment. Years ago there was a prevailing attitude among the “theory”-adepts that, whatever their actual political allegiances, shared something of the disdainfulness for the common and the simple and the straightforward that we often, rightly or wrongly, associate with right-wing elitism. I can well remember a feminist-theory conference I attended in 2000, where the Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers spoke, using the occasion to explore the various ways in which Black American identity is rooted in such concrete folk-cultural expressions as family recipes and hair-stylings passed from mother to daughter. With my broadly Herderian-Boasian disposition, I responded well to all of this. I found what Spillers was saying to be true and interesting. My white feminist-theory peers who were in attendance, by contrast, could not conceal their disdain, and after the conference was over did not even try to conceal it. They got into this business for the heavy weird stuff, the stuff that alienates grannies with their recipes, not the stuff that “includes” them. They wanted “political theology”, and words written sous rature.
One could almost say there was a foreshadowing of the attitude that today we call “alt-right adjacency”. Seen in this light, an extremist boob like Jason Jorjani, with his SUNY Stony Brook pedigree, is not so much a convert to the opposite of whatever he was supposed to be doing originally, as he is a dead-ender within a tendency that was there all along and that those who stoked it are now trying to forget. These people particularly enjoyed the frisson they could reliably elicit from Heidegger’s Nazism. Whether working on figures nominally on the right or the left, they enjoyed the somewhat weaker but still unmistakable frisson of transgression that came from dabbling in the German language. They lived in a world totally incommensurable with the attitudes and concerns to which Spillers was trying to draw attention: the domestic, the common, the “front lines” of education and daily life. I remember one specialist of German Romanticism who balked and groaned when she was asked circa 2001, by some early adopter, to contribute an article to a special issue of a journal on “intersectionality”. They were themselves romantics; the sensibility that brought them to philosophy was the one shared by Baudelaire, Patti Smith, and Susan Sontag, not one of “organizing” and “lifting up other people’s voices”. Even if their careerism eventually brought them to respectable domesticated Sturm-und-Drang figures like Schelling as the focus of their academic work, rather than, say, Julius Evola, the attitude that accompanied this work differed only by degree from that of the most decadent occultist aristocrat. That’s what they aspired to be. Now when I see them doing the equivalent of cheering on Hortense Spillers as she shares some recipes, I know they’re faking it. I was there before the revolution.
One thing the revolution has failed even to notice it was leaving behind, when it sought to shed its aristocratic airs, is the function that high culture long had not as a source of aesthetic delectation among an elite few who have been trained up to appreciate it, but as raw material for productive theorizing. I wasn’t trained up to appreciate Schoenberg or Proust. I discovered an innate love for the latter in adulthood, while I’m still waiting like Godot to fall in love with atonal music. But meanwhile I have read and benefited far more from Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music, about an art form I don’t love, than from Deleuze’s Proust and Signs, about a literature that I do love. Neither of these books was written for me, who grew up watching Three’s Company and listening almost exclusively to rock and roll. But I don’t need Adorno’s aesthetic education to get an education from Adorno’s aesthetic theory.
What Spillers was trying to draw our attention to was the vernacular as contrasted with the theoretical; seeking in recent years to raise up the vernacular, many former theorists have instead latched onto and promoted the algorithmic: the popular not in the sense of rootedness in folk traditions, but in the sense of “big online”. But this is just not going to work. Just as there can be no artistic avant-garde in a world that registers creative output in terms of metrics, an intelligentsia that only knows how to monitor these metrics is one that is too ignorant even to understand what the extinction of the avant-garde means, or to adequately appreciate the vernacular.
If you try to express this dire fact about our situation in an online venue, you will be told that you are failing to take into account the vibrant communities of mutual-support and encouragement that have emerged in recent years to promote the creative work of members of marginalized communities, as if there could be no other purpose of art than to lift up marginalized voices, as if there were no distinct function for the sort of “difficult” work a Beckett produces alongside the proliferation of vernacular forms. It is for just this sort of distinction that Danielle Rose, formerly poetry editor of the well-named Barren Magazine, had her association with that revue terminated, when she dared to write that poetry is unimportant for the great majority of people. Rose intended this as a frank confrontation with a sad truth. She was told in response that there is no place for such sadness, or such truth, in our current reality. The correct line is that poetry is doing great, and the correct emotion in the face of this great state of things is glee.
It is remarkable to me to see how neatly our social world is lining up: it is consistently the same people who think applying the Bechdel test to The Avengers counts as cultural criticism who also refuse to acknowledge anything worrisome about the new high-tech hygiene regime, about how hard it might be to dismantle once it has outlived its purpose, about how it might sprout new purposes that are inimical to human thriving. What is the difference of values that explains this rift? Is it perhaps only a difference of character? Some of the people who have ended up on the other side of the rift from me are people I admire very much, and I keep wondering what it is that they are seeing and I am missing, and vice versa. I keep waiting, only half in jest, for characterological diversity to make it onto the list of forms of difference for which we need to cultivate a greater understanding.
The best answer I have to these questions so far is that, in spite of surface differences, Awokening and STEMification are two horns of the same beast. It is the latter that threatens my well-being to a far greater degree. I see the logic of STEM-centric grant-seeking overtaking higher education, and I feel increasingly alienated from the institutions that seemed to hold out the promise to me a few decades ago, of maintaining and nourishing my career as a humanist. And I see young scholars in vestigially humanistic disciplines who are increasingly zealous in enforcing the new norms of a post-humanistic society, and who also seem perfectly at home in a university landscape where everything is conceived in terms of “outcomes”. For my part, when I am working on a grant application, and I am told to explain what my “data set” is, I want to cry, and I think to myself: Did Stanley Cavell have a “data set”? You can say perhaps that it was golden-age Hollywood remarriage films, but to call these “data” is a dishonor to the mode of engagement he brought to them.
Recently I was sent an article about “Glocalqueering in Singapore”, which had something to do with the ways in which queer communities in that strict city-state move in creative ways between the local and the global. The article struck me as ridiculous, and suitable for the mocking spirit in which it was sent to me. Yet when I think about the actual subject, I have to admit I find it interesting, and I want to know more. I find everything interesting, pretty much, including the queer communities of Singapore, and yet I find articles of this sort exasperating.
Why is that so? It seems to me that it is not the subject in question, but rather the rendering of the author’s observations of an entire form of life in the pseudoscientific terms of an “abstract” accompanied by “keywords”, reducing that form of life to data, that somehow makes the whole venture seem fraudulent to me. It’s the willingness to respond to the constant call —“If you could get us a title and an abstract when you get a chance, that’d be great, and maybe a couple of keywords”— that diminishes the humanistic project to the point where it becomes a mere counterfeit and rear-guard imitator of STEM. An even more austere reduction happens when you are dealing with an online grant-application portal, and punching your “data” into the various fields on the screen. Fat thumbs on small keys often yield the message that such and such field was completed incorrectly. Perhaps you have accidentally entered an unrecognized sign, and for reasons that can surely only be traced back to malice the online portal decides to make you begin again, erasing all the other information you had entered correctly. “Glocalqueering!” you write with your fat thumbs in the “keywords” field, and for that you are sent back to start.
Those who can tolerate this madness, who seem even to thrive in it, seem almost to a person to be the same who have volunteered their services as information-nodes and as enforcers for our new perpetual covid regime. This is anecdotal of course, and surely is open to counter-examples. But anecdotes are a preserve and a treasure of culture, as against society’s data, and I stand by them. I suspect however that it could also be borne out with data, if we wanted to “go there”, and that what these data would show is nothing short of the total takeover of the intellectual class by STEM-style thinking. The ultimate rationale of this thinking, in turn, could easily be shown to be dictated by capital, which has the power to make the great majority of people, including our thinkers, turn on a dime.
Meanwhile, for better or worse the closest thing we have to an avant-garde at the moment is to be found in the memetic exuberance of the right and of the “post-left”, who have inherited the sacred duty, once thought to belong by definition to the left, of skewering the status quo. I am no more happy about this fact than I am about the unimportance of poetry. Yet as W.E.B. Du Bois said of prejudice, “we may decry [it], yet it remains a heavy fact.”
In 1920 Vladimir Mayakovsky was still able to operate in the same spirit of avant-garde exuberance as his Italian Futurist counterpart, the fascist Filippo Marinetti. By 1930 the Russian poet would be dead by his own hand, and the only art tolerated under the Soviet regime he helped to envision would be gleeful renderings of grain fields and electrical lines. Marinetti for his part was able to continue to work for some years longer. I reject most analogies facilely made between the early twentieth century and our present moment, but I do sincerely fear that the left has allowed itself no freedom for the cultivation of a properly critical avant-garde, and in following the path of Mayakovsky has ceded the real spirit and power of art and culture to the Marinettis of this world.
It is the duty of intellectuals and artists to reject enforced glee, to tell robot customer-service agents to fuck off, to carve out a preserve for the life of the soul as best they can, and to call madness by its name. Covid is real, vaccination is necessary. But the regime that covid has helped to install, though it may be traced back to this reality, is itself a great victory for madness. If you think that the life of the intellectual is constituted principally by such acts as sharing Delta-variant stats and studies on the efficacy of various kinds of mask, if you insist on pretending there is nothing lost when we can no longer see a stranger’s living smile, you are complicit in this madness. You are not providing what the world so desperately needs from you.
About the Author
Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.