VIRUSHUMANS: A series from the RRG on Artificial Humanity

by Gabriele Schwab

Spring 2020. A group of eight scholars from various disciplines were supposed to be in residence at the UCHRI in Irvine to work on a collaborative project on Artificial Humanity. Enter the coronavirus whose arrival on our shores forced us into virtual space. Needless to say, our conversations and research were henceforth framed, and indeed profoundly changed, by the conditions of the lockdown. After an initial period of defensive struggles against the inevitable, we decided to embrace the moment and write on pandemic life and its impact on our thinking about artificial humanity. We then did two Zoom readings with our individual pieces. Hearing and discussing those pieces created a “pandemic intimacy” (Fox) that not only brought us closer together as a group but also shaped our other collaborative work. In the special issue we assembled for Foundry, we are presenting slightly revised versions of these pieces. We wanted to retain the more personal, informal and creative aspects of our highly diverse reflections while also addressing specific theoretical, philosophical and psychological aspects of pandemic artifices.

Pheng Cheah’s opening piece, “Auto-Immunity in the Age of COVID-19,” is a conceptual philosophical exploration of the Corona virus challenge. Reflecting on the relevance of Derrida’s philosophical take on autoimmunity to the global political economy of C0VID-19, Cheah argues that discourses on the anthropocene, grounded as they are in a moral idea of a proper relationship of humans to the environment and other species, never pose the question of the “giving of being,” that is, “they take for granted the simple fact of life itself.” Drawing on Derrida’s concepts of ontological friendship, hospitality and auto-immunity, Cheah explores being’s constitutive openness to the “radically other” in relation to self-protection and the regulating of exposure. In the case of viruses, the immune system is designed to defend the organism against harmful antigens. Autoimmunity, however, perverts the function of immune response, inducing the body to consider itself as a foreign antigen, thus destroying its own immune system.

COVID-19 forces us, so Cheah, to confront the structural auto-immunity or radical finitude of all being. For humans, hosting the very virus that threatens their being also pushes the boundaries of hospitality. Trying to find a vaccine then means that, instead of becoming the involuntary host of a deadly virus, we now offer ourselves as the host of a virus that has been domesticated with antibodies. This is, Cheah concludes, “the aporetic exigency that COVID-19 presents to our lived experience.”

In Renée Fox’s piece “Even Supposing—Bleak House and Pandemic Intimacies,” we get a psycho-historical glimpse into the vicissitudes of social distancing and isolation during the 19th-century smallpox epidemic. Exploring how social distancing generates particular, and we could say artificial, forms of intimacy, Fox opens up a space for us to contemplate what we can learn from the politics of pandemic affect in an earlier historical period. As an artifice of protection, social distancing moves interpersonal connections out of the so-called “real” world of material and corporeal encounters into the world of the mind. In this process, Fox argues, we are reconstituted by a pandemic intimacy that profoundly changes our relationship to our senses. Speech rather than touch becomes the prime medium of the alternative intimacies facilitated by or digital media world.

Annie McClanahan’s piece “On Circulation (for Margaret)” highlights a different kind of intimacy generated by supply chains and provision networks where goods moving from hand to hand become allegories of pandemic touch. (“Now I can’t stop thinking about all the hands that touched everything I buy.”) We note that this is a negative intimacy in which touch or the sweat of labor have become dangerous. Living under global capitalism in a pandemic world that weighs “economic cost against lived human catastrophe” leads to defensive communal reactions and a deeply compromised ethics of care. In this context, McClanahan suggests, the political imperative is to shift the terms of our imagination in order to envision the extended solidarity needed to fuel social movements of the future.

In “Landlord Tech and Racial Technocapitalism in the Times of COVID-19,” Erin McElroy outlines her scholar-activist work with a housing and technology justice cartography collective called the Anti-Eviction-Mapping Project.  She analyzes the logics of racial disaster capitalism that takes the confluence of COVID-19 and the BLM movement as a pretext to launch a new boom in surveillance techniques. Integrating with the proptech industry, this AI boom has catastrophic effects for poor, mostly black and Latinx property owners, erasing most benefits of the civil rights era Fair Housing Act. In response, the Anti-Eviction-Mapping Project traces neighborhood surveillance and facial recognition entry systems, virtual landlordism, e-carceration technologies, and tenant screening apps. McElroy ends by promoting her own vision of “extended solidarity” (McClanahan), namely a social movement of activist groups that merge housing, racial, and technological justice work to fight for “emancipatory propertied futures.”

Like McClanahan and McElroy, Long Bui emphasizes the revolutionary potential of the pandemic. “On Artificial Humanity, Coronavirus Revolutions, and the Zoomanities” explores the cultural artifact of ‘humanity’ within a wide spectrum of non-human realities and posthuman animacies. The corona virus appeared on the stage of homo sapiens as a viral migrant with an uncanny power to excite the imagination. Exploding the myth of human exceptionalism, Bui argues, the ensuing epigenetic pandemic trauma in conjunction with the tidal wave of racism, classism, heterosexism and religious intolerance opens “alternative pathways on how to live and die.” The coronavirus apocalypse, Bui concludes, can therefore be mobilized as the beginning of much-needed change.

Opening with a reading of The Matrix, Chikako Takeshita’s “On Becoming Virushuman” argues that the corona pandemic compels us to redefine our relationship with viruses. Beginning with a detailed description of the structure and function of viruses, Takeshita, like Bui, embraces the challenge to human exceptionalism and analyzes the human/virus entanglement as the basis for a transspecies concept of the virushuman. The latter accounts for the role of viruses in human bodily functions, including the brain. Mindful of the symbiotic relationships that define the human microbiome and virome, Takeshita sees humans as holobionts and the brain as part of a larger organismic intelligence. This concept is incompatible with conventional notions of brain exceptionalism, including those embraced by AI, which, according to Takeshita, fail to recognize that humans are transspecies beings. In conclusion, she proposes that must learn to think not against but with the coronavirus as part of a sympoiesis of species.

Our collection also includes my own piece on “Pandemic Surrealism.” I had already started writing a Corona Journal when our group decided on collecting pieces for what we initially called a “Corona Manifesto.” “Pandemic Surrealism” traces spontaneously emerging reflections, memories, affects and observations pertinent to the artifices of coping with a pandemic. I have selected three entries for our Foundry issue. The result is an eclectic mix of writing that approaches the alien pandemic world from a range of different perspectives. Focusing primarily on the psychic life of the pandemic, I address issues such as the resurfacing of traumatic memories, transspecies encounters, the use of AI in the pandemic, and ontological insecurity.