PRINT May/June 2020


Anicka Yi, Biologizing the Machine (terra incognita) (detail), 2019, acrylic vitrines, powder-coated steel, Venetian mud and bacteria, calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate, egg yolks, cellulose, custom PCB, gas probe sensors, dimensions variable. Photo: Renato Ghiazza.

HUMANS WAGE THEIR POLITICS WITH LANGUAGE: “Wuhan virus,” “Kung Flu,” “the Chinese virus.” And then come the material actions, such as a scapegoating racist who loads a thousand nanoscale virions—bits of RNA in their sovereignty-shaped protein capsids—into an actual gob of spit for hurling onto anyone Asian-looking in Trump’s America. Yet the toxic politics (language and action) operate at the wrong scale. But let’s start there, since narcissistic humanity lives out its affects at the scale of the individual person, the only representative we can imagine of a herd identity.

Of course you are screaming, “The social! The economic!” And yes, that scale came into play quickly enough. We have to admit that at that scale of political animal (zoön politikon) there are two very valid fears for the art world’s humans, confronting the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus (SARS-COV-2). Beyond personal suffering, there is the collapse of the precariat that keeps art going. More ominously, there are the omnipresent tools of right-wing control that feel like harbingers of fascism. Ironically, though, at least in the United States, the antigovernment bias and defunding mania of the current administration—such an obvious factor in the national failure to control the epidemic—make it unlikely we will experience the classic march to totalitarianism Carl Schmitt theorized so well in his fascist recipes for the “state of emergency.”1 What Schmitt couldn’t have imagined is how normally instrumental nationalist tools—those stirring emotions, those laws and regulations—have become abased under the whip of neoliberal capital. So what we have instead are billionaires to the rescue: a Jeff Bezos GoFundMe campaign for his striking workers (sans personal protective equipment in the Amazon warehouse); a prostitution-tarnished Robert Kraft performing absolution via philanthropy, delivering more than one million N95 masks to hospitals via the New England Patriots’ corporate jet. It is indeed a sickening cult of personality, ignoring the consequences of a systematically gutted state, but chaos and absurdity seem to forestall the assembly into any authoritarian apparatus (so far, nothing “runs on time”).

Pallets of N95 respirator masks from China are unloaded from the New England Patriots’ airplane, Logan Airport, Boston, April 2, 2020. Photo: Elise Amendola/AP/Shutterstock.

Thus the poor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a shadow of its former self, now has to send cheesy postcards emblazoned PRESIDENT TRUMP’S CORONAVIRUS GUIDELINES FOR AMERICA, as if the stable genius himself had been the one to figure out the lessons learned from the 1918 viral pandemic, or from the intact public-health infrastructures of Hubei, China, Daegu, South Korea, and Singapore. Treading a thin line between the supposed “socialism” of civil service and the desperate necessity for coordination, the Trumpian cult masks the failure of government to care for its population (what Foucault so brilliantly imagined governmentality was for). That institutionalization of care (the so-called nanny state) is what the right-wing most fears.

But the cult of personality is also an exaggerated caricature of the largely human-centered nature of our response to the crisis. Such anthropocentrism was unavoidable after the events of September 11, 2001. After 9/11, an emerging global consensus around climate action was abandoned overnight, deferred, drowned out by the heartbreaking enumeration of human victims, the necessary human celebration of heroes, the payment of compensation into human economies, and the passage of ostensibly patriotic human-surveillance laws. We own that response, for better or worse. But the “inhumanity” of today’s crisis comes from a radically different source: its more-than-human cause. As such, it needs a different response, at a completely different scale. Can we learn how to embrace the “species reset” that the current pandemic has forced on our everyday individualist episteme?

Robert Wise, The Andromeda Strain, 1971, 835 mm, color, sound, 131 minutes. Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) and Jackson (George Mitchell).

In the durational rituals of self-isolation, the metrics of distancing, and the contemplative time of quarantine, which have us going nowhere but in circles, we might actually be getting somewhere. In these practices, those who can isolate are performing extraordinary compassion for our beleaguered species and enacting respect for the nonhuman capacities of a mere virus. Those in low-risk cohorts are engaging in these human practices on behalf of at-risk cohorts (such as my own). While it’s statistically true that any one of us could be recycled into matter and energy by an unsurmountable viral load—the “peak viremia” in our bloodstream unleashing a cytokine storm that dissolves the individual human through its own attempts to mount an appropriate immune response—the gift of younger generations in “flattening the curve” is not to be ignored and needs to be repaid. The species reset of distancing and quieting is a rehearsal for the species reset of climate accountability. And the now elderly must disproportionately be held to that account. This essay demands that the proliferating RNA virus turn our thinking from selves to our species monoculture on the planet. Let’s begin by asking what kind of Gaian housekeeping viruses normally provide.

Viruses may be more ancient than life, but as part of the biosphere, they perform ecological roles as old as the life systems that now drive the planet. From the arrival of organic constituents of life in comets and asteroids (and the presumably chance-driven emergence of life from chemicals arranging themselves in cratered soups of vent-heated ocean water), viruses evolved to become crucial components of the planet’s biological and geochemical processes: the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycling on which all life depends. Never mind the now tiresome quibble about whether viruses are alive or not; they are in the life system, and without a doubt they are the evolutionary triggers of all kinds of heritable mergings and species events, forcing gene-besotted molecular biologists to accommodate an understanding of the viral as a driver of life in general, as opposed to more-anthropomorphic presumptions about selfish genes and stable Mendelian family trees.2 To think like a virus is to ignore the individual, aiming for ecosystems and humming in their homeostatic domains.

Since our strange species has invented art as a way of changing ourselves, can this cultural evolutionary force emerge, postcrisis, to help pry us from misguided imaginings of ourselves as “individuals”?

Virologists study virions at multiple scales: within a single cell, within a multicellular organism, within a species, and within an ecological niche (oceans, the most ancient of life’s soupy matrices, are now thought to harbor trillions of different virus types).3 Viruses are “abiotic.” They cannot metabolize on their own, but reproduce when the virion’s fragmentary genetic material breaks a cell’s membrane and chemically hitches itself to the active reproductive engines of that cell, whose mechanisms are thereby harnessed to produce copies of the virus. The now-multiplied virions may then “lyse” (from lysis, “loosen”) out of the host cell by bursting its walls and spreading (in, for example, that gob of racist spit, progeny just as repulsive as the nightmare births of Ridley Scott’s Alien). This is the pathogenic virus of the popular press and Andromeda Strain fame.

Human embryo at forty-five days. Photo: Omikron/Science Source.

But that is not the whole story. Much more important over the long haul is that viral agency has been a potent evolutionary force for biodiversity. Viruses do not always lyse their hosts fatally; they can be lysogenic, entering the host genome to do other things. Here they become crucial mutualists, contributing profoundly to speciation by allowing the now-evolved host to perform new tricks—as when one everyday retrovirus added its transformational genomics to a particular line of multicellular organisms during the Late Triassic. In this fateful transformation, the virion’s capacity to break cell walls eventually enabled the formation of a placental syncytium in that host, yielding us mammals. The syncytium (syn + cyte = “together cell”) is a layer produced as dissolved cell membranes fuse to form an undifferentiated mass. This spongy layer made it possible for a fetus to hang out for a long time inside a maternal host (rather than developing alone somewhere else, neatly closed off in a calcium shell). With the fetal organism’s normal cellular divisions now confused by the actions of lytic virions, the resulting placenta was both a barrier against recognition by maternal immune patrols (looking for alien cell-wall proteins) and a crucial layer of contact with the mother’s bloodstream and its nutrients. The parasitic fetus is nurtured while managing to avoid being recognized as an other. Retroviral agency shielded each of us from being identified as the beloved invader that we were. Long since incorporated into mammalian germ cells and passed on for at least the past two hundred million years, what is now an “endogenous retrovirus” (internal to the human chromosome) continues to mediate between the immune brains of self and other, confounding the episteme of individuation in what Luce Irigaray and Bracha Ettinger have long identified as the matrixial nature of existence.4

What about the viral at an ecosystemic scale? Here, what one species calls a pandemic another might experience as relief—ecosystemic course correction. By the law of random proliferation, viruses are more likely to infect and lyse fast-growing cells in populations that are booming, whether on the micro- or macroorganismal scale. There are simply more hosts to generate more lytic cycles of replication. But in a boom-and-bust dynamic, a virus’s success as pathogen will begin to eliminate more and more of its formerly proliferating hosts, and the balance will tip against dominant species. Ecological virologists call this “punishing the winner.” Writing in 2016 in defense of viruses as ecological agents of diversity, philosopher of microbiology Maureen O’Malley put it this way: In microorganismal interpopulational competition, “the less competitive populations end up surviving and even flourishing—but not too well, or they then become favored virus targets themselves.”5 Through their role in planetary homeostasis (as operators of the biological pump that moves carbon from the atmosphere into the ocean and back into the phytoplankton food web), viral agents become levelers of monocultures and tireless benefactors of biodiversity. What I’m recommending here is not a heartless “culling of the herd” perspective on human populations—the repugnant animal-husbandry metaphor that London’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson’s preferred newspaper, recommended for the UK’s elderly population some weeks before the prime minister himself was admitted to intensive care with worsening Covid-19 symptoms.6 Even more dramatically prone to being “culled” before their time are the ongoing victims of grinding inequities perpetrated by the market forces that have been allowed to rule our times—the societal injustices that disproportionately load the viruses onto the bodies of immigrant farmworkers, minimum-wage laborers, domestic workers of color, prisoners, populations suffering from homelessness, wage earners in the gig economy. These groups bear the brunt of the planetary viral load even as they work to sustain humans’ life-support systems. We can dream that the post-Covid species reset will also be a societal reset, a return to caring for the many over coddling of the 1 percent, a resurgent demos (people) turning to the postcrisis task of rebuilding, a shift from a surveillant gaze above the people (epi + demic) to the being-with of pan + demic: concerning all the people, all the time. Following the science of aggregation that is epidemiology, we can push for the policies of aggregation that democracy demands.

What will we trade for fear, postpandemic? I propose we get ready by thinking through the pharmakon: that wondrous thing that Plato’s Phaedrus offered as a metaphor for writing—pharmakon as simultaneously poison and salve, science and scapegoat. For Jacques Derrida and others writing on the concept in the 1980s, it was crucial that the contradictory reality of the pharmakon was not to be resolved. The cultural production in response to plague will always both inscribe memory and erase it, both cure and infect—and by that circuitry will perform an immunitary logic (the serum of the once-infected becomes the basis for the future vaccine). Historically, this logic is part of a self-propagating cycle between arbitrarily externalized scapegoats for the many and canny immunological responses within the self—differentially aggregated bodies, expunged or willfully impurified, in evolutionary and cultural flux.7

To break that tiresome cycle (that is, to keep immunity but ditch the scapegoating), we will need to cultivate a more-than-human listening for planetary messages. These parting human words conclude this essay’s philosophical polemic in progress—what we might as well call symbiontics.8 That ongoing diatribe argues that symbiosis (the state of “with-living”) is that-which-is, the ontic. Symbiontics refutes existential philosophies built on the individual in favor of the scale of our aggregation among aggregations. Its matrixial obsessions avoid the apotheosis of the one in favor of that continuous condition of convivial codependence that is life—beginning from our ancient endosymbiotic couplings and continuing through to our ongoing incorporations of viral lysogenic forms. Since our strange species has invented art as a way of changing ourselves, can this cultural evolutionary force emerge, postcrisis, to help pry us from misguided imaginings of ourselves as “individuals”? Can art join in the historic project that is already underway, the very human campaign of fusing environmental and social justice, of breaking with extraction capitalism, of fashioning a planetary redistribution of energies of which viruses have always been a part? May our pandemical solidarities transform into a humbled awareness of ourselves as entangled and interdependent heterotrophs, utterly woven together, just another genome in the planetary holobiont. 

We will always be both hosts and parasites, ever dependent on the thriving of life in general in its maximally diverse forms. 

Caroline A. Jones is professor of Art History in the Architecture Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.



1. Carl Schmitt was an important fascist-leaning legal theorist whose notions of law as norm or codex undergird much left-leaning political theory, as in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Schmitt’s ideas regarding the distinction between friend and enemy as the basis for political order developed over the 1920s, especially in his 1927 The Concept of the Political, fueling the Feindforschung, or “enemy research,” that the Nazis found so attractive. I’m indebted to a forthcoming collaboration with art historian Joseph Koerner for the opportunity to think through these ideas in relation to purification moves in modernist art.

2. See Maureen O’Malley, “The Ecological Virus,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, no. 59 (2016): 71–79, and, in that same issue, Thomas Pradeu, “Mutualistic Viruses and the Heteronomy of Life,” 80–88. I continue to be indebted to Bruce Clarke for these scientific papers and, in general, for his patient, brilliant efforts to school us all in Gaian metaphysics. For an introduction, see a listing of his recent writings at /

3. Carl Zimmer, “Matter: The Virosphere Is Bigger Than You Can Imagine,” New York Times, March 24, 2020. Building on new research by Jens Kuhn et al. published in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, Zimmer reports that “some researchers suspect . . . many more species of viruses. The true figure might be as high as 10 trillion.”

4. On the matrixial as a force within art, see Catherine de Zegher, Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, of, and from the Feminine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

5. O’Malley, “The Ecological Virus,” 73, citing the work of T. F. Thingstad et al. (on “punishing the winner” in pelagic food webs, 1993); as well as C. Winter et al. (on the oceanographic measure of bacterial and viral richness, 2005).

6. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” Daily Telegraph, cited by Indi Samarajiva, “The UK Surrenders to Coronavirus,” Medium, March 14, 2020, /|file:///Users/juliaribeiro/Desktop/May%202020/_HOT%20Jones.Vivion/||.

7. “The pharmakon is the movement, the locus, and the play,” per Derrida, Disseminations, trans. Barbara Johnson (London: Athlone Press, 1981), 127; see also René Girard on the pharmakos, or scapegoat, in Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

8. So far, this polemic has appeared in Olafur Eliasson, Symbiotic Seeing (Zurich: Kunsthalle Zürich, 2020); Jenna Sutela, NO|NSE|NSE (Trondheim, Norway: Kunsthall Trondheim, 2020), in forthcoming work on Agnieszka Kurant, and in various online forums including the Cultures of Energy blog (/ and Edge (/ I am grateful to these exceptional artists for allowing me to think out loud in collective cognition with their work, and to Anicka Yi, who first got me shifted from species-centrism toward the necessity of biofiction.