COVID-19 as Metabody
Some reflexions for a metahumanistic debate and pragmatics
by Jaime del Val
COVID-19, the coronavirus disease emerging in late 2019 in China and becoming global pandemia in early 2020, has exposed, perhaps more than any other event in (recent) history, our entanglement between each other and the world, both at molecular and global scales, expressing both our fragilities and our alignments. Since WWII and the rise of information society it is the first pandemia that has such systemic effects of suspension of activity and economy, quarantine of entire countries and impact in almost every country a few months after its emergence, literally a WWIII. The virus and its disease don’t merely unleash a complex situation, but create an entire global ecology and process, a becoming of which we are part.
In words of Dorion Sagan we are meta-metazoa because on the one hand we are offspring of a simbiogenetic evolution where microorganisms, including viruses, inhabit each other in increasingly complex ways, we are a chimeric hybrid o bacteria and viruses evolving into cells of multicellular organisms, while still largely made of bacterial and viral assemblages; and on the other hand we have a planetary impact and have the capacity and obligation to reflect upon and take responsibility for that impact, as we create a sort of planetary technological hyper-organism or which we (so called humans, hegemonic or not) are part, a hypercyborg.
I will propose to think the coronavirus disease and the situation it has unleashed, its exposure of molecular and global entanglements, through the concept of metabody, where meta- means both in-between, moving across, mutating and underlying. A metabody is a field of movement relations that emerges, varies and transforms, in the balance of consistency and openness, as the universe unfolds from fluctuations. The world is made of endless metabodies/fields, relating and reciprocally transforming in multiple ways, each body is itself a complex metabody, a convergence of many fields, so is each society, or technical system or phenomenon. Linear perspective enacted a planetary-scale metabody of relations based on fixed points of vision. Big data systems enact a planetary scale metabody of autonomous algorithms, code and gridded infrastructures of microchips and data centres. Selfies bring together in a new way both linear perspective and big data profiling in social networks conforming a selfie metabody, whose economy is crucial for current algorithmic governance. Likewise a pandemia, such as the one unleashed by the virus COVID-19 can be understood as a complex and multifaceted metabody. Let’s consider some of its complexities.
First of all let’s consider viruses and how they have been source of genetic diversity as primordial means of Horizontal Genetic Transfer (perhaps the primordial source of genetic diversity) throughout evolution. Viruses are a crucial means of evolution as diversification. Viruses are cuasi-life forms that need to he hosted by cells to proliferate and activate themselves, they are an in-between the living and the non-living, a meta-life form, and a means for movement of molecules and genes in excess of bacterial sex or sexual reproduction. They are complex molecular affordances and movements. Over billions of years viruses have been part of the fluctuating movement of molecular assemblages, or molecular metabodies, slowly bringing up diversity on the planet, long before plagues and pandemias started to threat human populations.
The first recorded plagues are those of Athens, when it was epicenter of trade in the Aegean and thus of unprecedented and quick movements of people, connecting, exchanging and moving across bacterial and viral ecosystems. Since then plagues and pandemias have been recurring, perhaps associated to the quick movements of people in trade and colonial societies, where immune systems and viral ecologies which had emerged over billions of years of dynamic equilibrium, have been upset by the continuous abstract-but-very-real movements of people following economic and political factors at odds with the dynamics of ecosystems.
COVID-19 exposes on the one hand our molecular nature and fragility in a time when the human keeps expanding its dream to become God through technological domination and absolute control. On the other it exposes our global entanglement, related partly to the extreme amount of physical displacements in late capitalism (which run along our internet entanglement which has its own viruses and ongoing but mostly invisible cyberwar). The speed of dissemination of this physical virus is what has created this unprecedented situation. The virus exposes the fluctuating nature of the world and the problem of trying to ignore or fix that fluctuation.
Furthermore, COVID-19 exposes our molecular fragility and our global superalignments as being radically interrelated, so that alignments allow the virus’ movement to take on a devastating effect as the molecular, biological virus connects to the viral society of speeded up media, of contagious gestures and displacements.
The virus also exposes the systemic and economic dependencies that come to the foreground when activity is suspended in a new global war scenario where the enemy is within and across bodies, where absolutely everyone is suspect, much more than in global terrorist threats, as the virus is the one responsible, though people or States not taking measures to avoid contagion will in turn be held responsible. Responsibility becomes strangely distributed as decisions radically change, like when a country that had taken no measures suddenly imposes quarantine to its entire population and everyone is obliged to follow precautionary measures that were not at all considered one day before. First the virus is responsible, then a state, then people in the state.
The situation fluctuates radically with the propagation of the virus, whose effects are only seen with 14 days delay. It’s an invisible enemy whose potential presence and threat is expressed in the quarantine as new social condition. Meanwhile fake news spread, attention is more massively than ever in social media, markets and entire industries like tourism collapse, while online work is strengthened, fluctuations enter exponential spirals. Borders, including within European Schengen territory, are closed and new borders can appear inside countries, anywhere, as well as new monitoring of behaviours. Paternalistic and patriotic messages acquire strange associations with astonished concern and at times solidarity.
In the process one can see taken onto a new level and mode the ecologies of fear and threat that came up after 9/11 with the “war on terror”, as exposed by Brian Massumi’s concept of Ontopower, a power that tries to preempt an unknowable future reorienting movements as they emerge while disseminating an ubiquitous sense of threat where everyone is suspect. For the first time since WWII the entire planet is in a palpable state of war (besides the ongoing and mostly invisible cyberwar and the distributed wars of late capitalist exploitation) not exempt of apocalyptic undertones, with an increasing amount of countries in quarantine, against a virus which is similar to the flue, but propagates much more quickly.
Closing down borders is never enough as any person could have it inside already, we will only start to know two weeks later. The so called “missing half-second” of preconscious activity where control information systems try to redirect our attention has suddenly become a 14 days interval suspending entire populations as span of radical uncertainty where every decision will fluctuate according to the many factors being measured, including the economic impact of any decision.
The metabody of COVID-19 is in the molecular movements of the virus, and also, largely, in the state of exception, the fear and threat, the quarantine of populations, or in economic collapse. But also in new gestures of solidarity or complicitness between people (a strange one implying distance and suspicion at the same time, including for oneself as no one know if one has the virus till 14 days later), of uncertainty, and of awe and wonder at the unprecedented situation: a sense of shock, which is deep and existential, not only relative to confinement measures but to this feeling of it all being a planetary situation, a new feeling of molecular and global connectedness, of the fragility in ourselves and our systems, that pretended to be so robust.
It also exposes the intimacy of our daily gestures, implicit in every act, no particular (sexual) intimacy is needed like in HIV transmission, no suspicious gestures or behaviours. It exposes the intimacy of our molecular entanglement, much more than did HIV. Our molecular, viral intimacy is there all the time, unavoidable and evolutively necessary, echoing with McMennamin’s idea in Hypersea theory of body fluids as commons in evolution. That intimacy is indeed the source of evolution and life. Though our perspectival culture of articulate distances had made us forget that entanglement. The most usual daily movements (modes of contact and proximity) can transmit it. A new economy of movement will thus ensue, perhaps of further distancing.
We are slow at understanding this molecular ecology and its movements, since old ontologies had ignored our molecular swarming for too long, we have difficulty in understanding the ways of minimising contagion while avoiding paranoia, as we don’t understand how our viral entanglement operates, its unavoidability and indeed necessity, but also its major channels of dissemination, which are not always obvious. In consequence many people (at least in less disciplined Mediterranean countries like Spain) tend to ignore the invisible enemy till hard measures are imposed from above. Or paranoia abounds.
This invisible enemy within, across and in constant mutation and dissemination (meta-), relates to endless other factors like heat or sun radiation, human concentrations in winter, humidity and moist in the body and the concentration of globules in our immune system, and so forth.
Attempts to understand the molecular movement of COVID-19 and generate a vaccine are still unfruitful several months after it’s appearance. Meanwhile the entire global economy is suspended and entering a potentially severe recession whose future is utterly uncertain as the virus could still disseminate in unpredictable ways. First the production machine of China was paralyzed, now the consumption machine of Europe and perhaps the US are suspended. China is leaving its state of exception while Italy and Spain, and Europe in general (as of March 17th) is entering it, and also the US, after going more strongly through Korea and Iran. It is the rich countries that seem to be attacked now, perhaps due precisely to the connection of the virus with globalized displacements. But molecular movements have no logic, they swarm and fluctuate in always unpredictable ways.
Along the way we could develop immunity, and the virus can mutate or it could become seasonal like the flue, while vaccinations could start to appear, and new dependencies on pharmaceuticals, also part of this new metabody.
The radical fluctuation of the virus’s movements seem to accelerate exponentially as they relate to the superalignments of our Age of Algorithms, or Algoricene, where bodies quickly displace along planetary-scale trajectories. Maybe we need to slow down? Is Nature taking revenge for our accelerated destruction? Is this a restoration of the balance, a return to the indeterminate, fluctuating source? But slowing down is not enough, we need to regain a richer embodied experience.
In excess of the economic crisis that may ensue, this situation entails an unprecedented change in our becoming and awareness as metabodies, of our molecular and global entanglement, our fragility (and the consistency of responses, at times hard, coercive), and our being part of fluctuation movements and systemic dependencies.
Maybe the virus, in exposing all of this, can teach us about the problematic systemic aspects of current society, though it’s unlikely that this will entail positive systemic change. The change is more likely to be in the sense of new unprecedented means of social control, of fear and threat ecologies, increase of online work (more vulnerable to digital viruses or the threats of cyberwar, of surveillance and algorithmic governance), increase of distance between bodies and dependency on the chemical choreographies of pharmaceuticals and surveillance, and meanwhile increased precarity of the already precarious who are losing their jobs in the process.
At the same time the stage for the (no longer science-fiction) scenarios of potential and more severe bacteriological and viral war is set. This is just the mild beginning, the introduction, which however exposes that reality is always already more advanced and complex than any sci-fi movie (no matter how much the latter format our expectations and prepare the stage). Reality is always reontologising itself, plastic as it is, moving beyond the existing ontologies, concepts, established ways of thinking and understanding (which one often sees reflected in Science-fiction narratives). The realities (movements) of the autonomous algorithms in our smartphone apps, or now COVID-19, are challenging radically our concepts, practices, systems, economies and life styles. We need to invent new ones.
After the cold war, AIDS, the “war on terror”, the ongoing and mostly invisible cyberwar, and the visibility over past years of digital surveillance and control (from Snowden to Cambridge Analytica), coronavirus crosses a new threshold in scenarios of war and domination, but also of collective mutation. This mutation is (and always was) not only genetic, but mostly epigenetic: relative to our habits, affects, media, our movements in general (which have epigenetic effects but also wider mutations in ourselves and our ecosystems, our affects, neurons, metabolism, hormones and other chemical bodily fields).
Meanwhile new situations keep unfolding creatively. These days in Madrid the city sounds at times more lively than ever from my roofhouse’s terrace when people play music or play across windows, confined in the houses, and a strange complicitness appears between dogkeepers as we go out into the street, dogs being perhaps the only remainder of liveliness in the empty city, the exception within the state of exception.
The virus exposes, more radically than cyborgs or even companion species, a posthuman condition where both our evolutive molecular nature and our all-too-human and more-than-human technological alignments enter a radical spiral of reciprocal transformation. The virus threatens the open consistency of our bodies as it expands with unprecedented speed due to global displacements along daily gestures. But the response should not be in trying to retain a holy human nature that perhaps never existed, rather it’s about understanding much better the ways in which life and evolution (and with them “human nature”) emerge always in relation and need a balance of consistency and openness to sustain their movement of variation. Evolution is a business of slow molecular, bacterial, viral swarms.
A society that over millennia increasingly imposes on the planet extreme alignments and abstract dynamics that detach themselves from the biosphere’s dynamics and impose themselves on it disruptively (while forgetting its molecular-bacterial heritage and substrate), needs to learn that the human is always meta-human, always relational and emerging from and with fields of molecular movements that will return whenever they are neglected.
This (hyper)human, all-too-human (transhumanistic) society has favored planetary-scale alignments of rationalization and quantification by imposing atrophy on bodies and proprioceptions: the body’s sense of internal motion as tissue fluctuation. Bodies aligned with fixed points of vision expand their rationalising power on the globe, while becoming appendixes of dynamic networks of algorithms.
The virus, an ancient evolutionary mechanism, suddenly irrupts into these networks of delocalization disrupting them in turn.
In states of confinement and of distance or isolation with others as we are experiencing today, I invite people to explore their proprioception: a human body is a swarm of 360 joints whose combinatory is infinite, and what one feels is more the blurry fluctuation of tissue tensions and torsions in between, which go down to swarms of billions of proteins folding in our cells’ cytoskeletons (and their atoms decaying down to quantum fluctuations) every time a muscle contracts. Proprioception is also integrating every multisensory input in the body’s capacity to move and unfold an endless variation of its proprioceptive field. This field emerges, together with viruses, over billions of years of molecular movements and ongoing mutation and is the source of our Body Intelligence or BI, a selforganising and plastic capacity to move and sense, an expression of our selforganising molecular complexity, of which viruses are also part.
Regaining a sense of the richness and complexity of our proprioceptive fields should be part of a process of slowing down and displacing less, of caring more about ourselves and our surroundings. Let the body sense its movement, unfolding like an ameba or swarm, let its complexity unfold in different improvisation practices (dancing, drawing, playing an instrument, in conversation…).
In times of confinement and separation, I propose that instead of becoming increasingly subject to perspectival nodes of atrophy and control in a society of screens, smartphones, porn, TV, Facebook, fake news and ecologies of fear, let instead our proprioceptions, and our dog-friends, be source for reinventing and enriching our experience.