A Remarkable Brain by Claire Colebrook
LOCKDOWN THEORY #29
If you want to extract a virus like this from your head - you can’t come to the door of its little old-fashion prairie house with passé kinds of thinking, because the little king will not answer someone knocking, will not come out of the door to glare into the sunlight, won’t talk about anything in level terms, or jump around to appease you like some Chubby Checker impersonator bent over backwards under a limbo stick. Nor will it offer any hospitality - swart summers or not - no matter how much knocking, trick-or-treating, ceremonial presents, or tantrums about why the door was kept closed. I can prove that I have this virus. I have kept the bit of crumpled-up paper, the proper results of medical tests completed by top doctors of the scientific world. They claimed I had a remarkable brain.
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, 2013
Lockdown. Quarantine. A Land at War, at war with itself. Self-isolation. These twenty-first-century events not only have precedents; they are constitutive of who we are. Using the word “we” these days is not smart, even if there are claims that a virus knows no borders, and that - to quote Slavoj Žižek – “we’re all in the same boat now” (a claim that modifies Dipesh Chakrabarty’s 2009 prediction that there would be “no lifeboats for the rich”). The “we” I use is the “we” made possible by a pre-history of self-isolation, lockdown and quarantine. The way this virus has played out is not at all in the manner of a “China virus,” and is far closer to Alexis Wright’s white virus that seeks to make a land great again: “The virus was nostalgia for foreign things, they said, or what the French say, nostalgie de la boue; a sickness developed from channeling every scrap of energy towards an imaginary, ideal world with songs of solidarity, like We Shall Overcome” (Wright 2013, 3).
Self-isolation: the ideal liberal subject is achieved through lockdown and self-isolation. There has been far too much anti-Cartesian theory in the twentieth century, far too many objections that Descartes’s conception of the self as a distinct substance set apart from extended matter misses the extent to which selves are embodied, connected, and affectively attuned to a world in which they are enmeshed. The problem with pointing out Descartes’s error is that while the notion of mind as some distinct substance that is cut off from the world may be utterly at odds with the true nature of the world, and might be a terrible way to think about one’s own being, the idea of “the subject” as a distinct substance captures the comportment of liberalism and neoliberalism, and expresses a composition of one’s bodily being that is one of ongoing lockdown and social isolation. Even before social media, dating apps, smart devices and highly personalized forms of media streaming, one can think of the modern, Western, affluent social subject as a distinct center of self-management, for whom the rest of the world - including others - appears as so much data to be managed. In John Rawls’s 1970 Theory of Justice a fair society is imaginable only if I first cut myself off from the world, and then imagine what I would agree to if I happened to occupy any position whatsoever. Well before neo-liberalism asks us to treat our own person as a commodity that ought to be maximized for efficiency, with the world around us being nothing more than a marketplace for self-promotion, a history of empire and colonization had forged a myth of the liberal subject as a being whose “humanity” resided in their own private dignity with whatever is beyond the subject being nothing more than material and opportunity for self-furtherance. Cut yourself off from the world to secure your own being; once that is achieved you may re-encounter the world as a place of stability and security. When climate change and pandemics threaten that security and self-isolation, the modern subject finds itself in the odd position of having to confront the volatility and instability generated by centuries of subjective lockdown.
Prior to the 2020 pandemic one could already see procedures of isolation and lockdown in response to the climate chaos that had been caused by the centuries of hyper-consumption and hyper-extraction that enabled the modern subject. Post-apocalyptic cinema presents a dystopian future where the human species is split between those who can create pockets of stability amidst a world in disarray, and those who are dispersed and exposed to an utterly volatile planet. That imagined bifurcation in the post-apocalyptic imaginary is merely an intensification of the present, where water, housing, healthcare, education and food are already unevenly distributed. The actual lockdowns and self-isolations of 2020 brought this into even sharper relief. If you happen to be a health worker, homeless or live in a densely populated urban center with unevenly distributed resources you are not only not able to shelter in space; you are also at the mercy of the privileged subjects for whom self-isolation is a violation of their economic rights. When the US president tweets that we ought to “Liberate Michigan,” and does so in a response to a demonstration where confederate flags were unfurled, it is necessary and easy to dismiss the irresponsible violence of such speech acts. At the same time, it is no less necessary to see that the cause of confederate liberty - a liberty premised on the social death of others - is at the heart of supposedly constitutional freedoms. The unquestioned right to life of the liberal subject was always made possible by isolation from the dangers of a world, along with the outsourcing of risk and death to those who seemed less than human precisely because they did not appear as sovereign liberal subjects cut off from the world. When far right groups in the US call for a liberation from lockdown their manifest civil disobedience really follows from obedience to a civic space built entirely on the security of the economy at the expense of life. Lockdown and self-isolation have always been part of a world that produces pockets of safety and stability for the privileged few, all the while presenting the hostile milieu outside those pockets of safety as a land of opportunity.
Descartes could not have written his Meditations without preceding centuries of empire and colonization that produced the private spaces of reading and reflection typical of modern European philosophy. The modern novel that depicts the individual hero making their way in a world that is at once obstacle and opportunity would not have been possible without the production of a private and affluent domestic sphere that was, in turn, enabled by slavery, global plundering, colonization and invasion. Today, the spaces of lockdown and isolation that will supposedly save humanity and the economy for “the” future are at one and the same time sites of privilege and sites of the exposure of an internal insecurity. Some domestic spaces will be scenes of violence and poverty: the smaller your abode and the more exposure and viral load your day to day existence brings back into your home the more your domestic space becomes one of capture rather than security. The more your nation is split between those who have a space for refuge versus those who are homeless, the more conditions of lockdown and self-isolation expose what we ought to have known before the 2020 pandemic, and before the intensifying awareness of climate change: what calls itself humanity has always walled itself off from a world that it stabilized by outsourcing its risk and fragility to those whose lives are not able to shelter in place.
If self-isolation and lockdown typify and make possible the 2020 predicament of shelter in place policies, there is also a long pre-history of “our” lands being at war with silent internal enemies. In her masterpiece novel of 2013, The Swan Book, Alexis Wright describes a closed off brain populated by a malevolent virus that inflicts violence on an outside world:
Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old qui vive out the window for intruders. It ignores all of the eviction notices stacked on the door. The virus thinks it is the only pure full-blood virus left in the land (Wright 2013, 2).
Despite global systemic collapse, the virus lives on, holding on to its walled off space.
It was not a virus that forced Australia’s indigenous peoples into forced quarantine. In 2007 the Australian government enacted “The Northern Territory Intervention,” that policed and managed welfare payments to indigenous communities under the pretext of community safety. Despite manifest declarations of apology and reconciliation, the Australian government has not come to terms with the ongoing war it has conducted on the indigenous population. As Rachel Perkins detailed in her 2019 Boyer lectures, white settlers at one and the same time deemed indigenous peoples to be subjects to the crown, while also waging a war on these people who - as subjects of the crown - could not legally be at war. What was in fact a war was deemed to be an issue of national security. Again, well before the 2020 pandemic white industrial nations were already at war with themselves, already creating conditions of lockdown and enclosure that distributed security and fragility in a racially divided space. What indigenous writers and thinkers like Wright and Perkins offer for the present is twofold. First, before the 2020 pandemic there was already a political form of autoimmune disease, where a body that declared itself to be humanity secured itself by destroying its “own” populations - populations it would declare to be its own in moments of land seizure and quarantine, but which would be left without water, healthcare or housing. Second, the declared states of emergency that appear at first to be violations of civil liberties are continuations and intensifications of white humanity’s securing of itself in a space of security while the world beyond its bordered ease is both deemed to be volatile, and the proper place for those whose lives are the recipients of outsourced risk. Declarations of states of emergency, along with calls to shelter in place, are not at odds with the neoliberal subject: subjectivity is the effect of a long history of lockdown, self-isolation, and a declared war on internal enemies.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry
35.2 (Winter 2009) 197-222.
Perkins, Rachel. 2019. The Boyer Lectures 2019: The End of Silence. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/the-end-of-silence-part-3/11729624
Wright, Alexis. 2013. The Swan Book. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2020. Pandemic!: COVID19 Shakes the World. New York: OR Books.
Claire Colebrook is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English, Philosophy and Women's and Gender Studies at Penn State University. Her next book is Fragility (2020) forthcoming from Duke University Press.