A decade from now, historians may very well call the coronavirus pandemic the great deceleration. The bodies that had been endlessly propelled through cities on metros, buses, bicycles, and freeways now sit in self-imposed isolation at home, the international flights that had been relentlessly criss-crossing continents now are increasingly grounded, and the container ships that had been churning steadily back and forth across oceans now drift idly beside coastal ports, buoyed by their lack of cargo. Chinese factories lay serenely still without their workers as if they were relics of a bygone industrial era, while environmentalists post online about the substantial reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions. The relentlessly accelerating velocities of capitalism appear, quite unexpectedly and abruptly, to be grinding, lumbering, and lurching into a languid slumber.
Following from the desertion of offices, factories, universities, restaurants, and other places of work, the historical suspension of the planet’s economy has given us all time for long conversations in living rooms and on phones, for cooking intricate recipes and reading long-forgotten books on shelves, for bringing groceries and medicine to neighbors in need, for playing in baths with children sent home from school, and for watching films that had been put off for years. People sleep, write, cry, dance, play, exercise, have sex, and laugh in the new pause we find ourselves within. The fragility, vulnerability, and interdependency of life come to be more intensely felt and drawn more acutely into focus as the virus spreads, opening the way for new intimacies, solidarities, and creativities. Even when surrounded by crisis and fear, fragile but utopian moments nonetheless find life.
And yet it already appears that, after only a few days of a planetary interlude characterized by an unprecedented deceleration of life on every continent where people have begun questioning the social order that had defined their lives up to this point, immense accelerations have been set into motion in an attempt to socially, economically, and politically compensate for the velocities that had been lost elsewhere. The shutting down of our planet’s systems appears to have already been answered by a system reboot meant to capture the unactualized potentials of so many newly immobilized bodies, to economically put to use the many bodies that have rather unexpectedly found time to experiment with the multiplicity of life’s uses.
If a system reboot, what we might simply call the corona reboot, can be said to be taking place, it is only because power now understands society as being wholly integrated as a vast computer that can be programmed and reprogrammed as needed in response to whatever disruption, contingency, or event. In this sense, the deceleration of so many bodies appears to have opened the way for the cybernetic reorganization and reacceleration of planetary life, where social distancing has justified the implementation of the most intense forms of digitized connectivity and control technically realizable in our present. This text is ultimately an attempt to think through the possibility that the shutting down and subsequent rebooting of the planet presently underway may not in fact be a collection of ad-hoc measures that will fade as the contagion does, but that the coronavirus may come to serve as the catalyst for a new kind of society built upon the forms of digitized subjectivity that are forged within the unique historical circumstances of the pandemic.
At the very minimum, in this moment we must all struggle to understand the rapid transformations of social life, of work, and of politics presently underway not only in the interest of surviving this together and defending our common humanity, but also in hopes of establishing a different kind of society than the one presently imagined by power. If this planetary reboot takes form as a total recalibration of social, economic, and political life in the interest of preserving the continuity of the social, political, and economic order of capitalism, how might we begin to imagine social life differently in this trying moment?
At this early stage, it appears that at least two new kinds of subjectivity have already begun to take shape, both of which are mutually constitutive, intimately dependent upon, and shaped by the informatic infrastructures and apparatuses that now run through and organize much of our planetary society. On the one hand, we have the domesticated/connected subject, who in being confined to their home is pushed to invent new ways to reconnect to and participate in a virtualized economy. On the other hand, we have the mobile/disposable subject that serves as the circulatory system of the pandemic, a subject that becomes increasingly vulnerable and precarious as it is compelled to move at ever greater velocities. In order for domesticated/connected subjects to materially sustain themselves, they must be coupled with the mobile/disposable subject that fulfills the minimum material needs of society while ensuring the social possibility of isolated yet networked domestic life.
The domesticated/connected subject is horrifically cut off from social life in their home yet is intimately plugged into an increasingly networked economy. They are as docile as they are productive, integrated with society but integrated only as separate. Office workers, university professors, programmers, reporters, and cultural workers, among others, are all ordered to stay home, but to stay logged on. Video streaming platforms struggle to handle the new volumes of traffic while raking in profits, and everyone undergoes online training so they can continue to collaborate and work on a domesticated network. The isolation of the home corresponds with its degree of connectivity. The domesticated/connected subject can avoid the risk of being proximate and promiscuous with other possibly-infected bodies by simply connecting to the office meeting on Zoom, streaming culture on Netflix, ordering food on Postmates, venting on Facebook, and purchasing more hand sanitizer on Amazon, while Trump has announced that if you do end up with symptoms of the coronavirus all you must do is visit a site designed by Google to schedule a remote test. As the mobility of bodies becomes restricted to domestic spaces, computer keyboards dance with frenzied kinetic activity in service of slowing the contagion and keeping the economy stumbling along through waves of turbulent market volatility.
Emerging as a refrain to the domesticated/connected subject, the mobile/disposable subject moves at ever greater speeds and at ever greater risk so no one else has to. The interruption of public life is overrun by the feverishly accelerated mobile/disposable subject that is connected and subservient to the same informatic networks that connect domesticated/connected subjects to planetary economies. Commanded by smartphone apps delivering endless streams of pings and alerts that steer them from one gig to the next through nearly vacant streets, migrant workers on electric bikes have never been in higher demand, carrying food boxes from restaurants, bags of groceries from supermarkets, and miscellany from pharmacies, bodegas, and liquor stores to all of the salaried domesticated/connected workers who, now confined at home, create vast deluges of online orders. Amazon truck drivers speed across neighborhoods, always over capacity and behind impossible-to-meet computationally-generated schedules, carrying boxes filled with diapers, batteries, bleach wipes, laptops, and breathing masks. Ambulance drivers are asked to simply never stop driving, while garbage workers haul larger and larger bags of trash filled with larger and larger volumes of domestic refuse. All of these workers are expected to go increasingly fast to keep up with increasing demand, and thus increasingly expose themselves to the contagion and other forms of risk associated with their embodied acceleration. The massive containment and isolation of the domesticated/connected subject has as its twin the mobile/disposable subject that constitutes the system of distribution for a new pandemic economy.
Both the domesticated/connected subjects working from home and the mobile/disposable subjects racing through the streets are ultimately brought together not only by the immense interconnected apparatuses of the digital economy but also by the blanket waves of social abandonment that now affect all life. When bodies of all kinds can be connected as isolated nodes on a network, remaining deeply reliant upon and subject to shifting algorithmic command and demand structures, the value of any single body approaches zero as every node on the network can be algorithmically swapped out and replaced with any other. The cybernetic management and distribution of labor and commodities allows for the economy to draw on the population only as needed, while effectively abandoning the waste that is the remainder. When a domesticated/connected subject gets sick with the coronavirus and can no longer work, the still-healthy occupants of another house are ready to log on and fill their place, just as when a delivery worker breaks their leg after falling off of their bike, another can be pinged and made to run out the door. The emerging economic system doesn’t spare any time thinking of what may happen to all those who for whatever reason cannot manage to stay connected and working in this economy.
The massive deterritorialization of labor spurred on by the pandemic response has allowed for the implementation of a newly flexible organization of work that frees capitalism and the capitalist state of any responsibility for life in general as long as the economy survives. Providing adequate testing for the virus, guaranteeing universal access to healthcare, and ensuring monetary relief to newly impoverished populations are seen as unnecessary as long as everyone remains willing to connect, log on, and answer the relentless call of capitalism’s networks. The management of the population has become synonymous with the management of waste, excess, and trash, and only those who have the ability to accelerate will be sustained and supported by the larger logistical and infrastructural systems of a new post-pandemic cybernetic economy, which in reality is just a more extreme and refined form of the capitalism we had all already been accustomed to living within.
In this moment it is crucial that we insist that the reterritorialization of our society, the corona reboot, that is presently underway is not inevitable nor undefeatable. In the interlude of the pandemic there is an opportunity to refuse the imposition of digitized commands and coercive connections while defending and cultivating different kinds of human relation and interdependency. There is a chance now for all of us to consider how we might restart society differently rather than allow the logic of capital to unthinkingly do it for us. We’ll likely be in these pandemic circumstances for many months, so let’s use this time to disconnect from the pressures, exigencies, and demands of the economy and to reconnect with others in ways that do not conform or submit to the new kinds of acceleration and abandonment that are already being implemented everywhere around us.
The coronavirus pandemic marks the first time in our history that a planetary disruption of this kind and scale has occurred in a networked society such as ours, but that does not mean that we have to let the logic of capitalist networks be what ultimately reorganizes our ways of life. Already, we see mutual aid networks being constituted, new forms of digital labor being subverted, carceral structures being dismantled, and market logics being refused. We must think of this as just a beginning. How freely, wildly, and courageously will we allow ourselves to dream in this moment? What new practices of living and relationalities will we dare to put into practice? How can we overcome the domestic paranoia that sends people sprinting to supermarkets, the fear that keeps us away from neighbors, the depression that follows from reading the news, while also keeping one another safe and caring for one another as the virus spreads? How can we begin to find one another to act compassionately and collectively together in a struggle to arrive on the other side of this pandemic in a world not structured by abandonment, isolation, and acceleration but by the inextinguishable dignity and value of life itself? Each of us must dedicate ourselves to begin not only articulating but living answers to these questions in all of the varied situations we find ourselves living within.