Modernity, Disease, Life

April 30, 2020 John Drabinski

It’s hard to know what to say in this moment.

The emergence of COVID-19, coronavirus, ‘rona, whatever you call it … it’s been terrifying and disorienting. What is there to say? There is science. I’ll leave that to the scientists. There is politics. I have a lot to say about that. And so do you. The unevenness of our political leadership and voices? Astonishing and its own kind of terrifying.

I won’t pretend to be a scientist and prognosticate about what’s to come.

But I’ve been struck over the past few weeks by the specificity of this anxiety we all feel, and how, for me, that anxiety draws on a very particular set of affects. Affects, I’d say, that are produced by what’s come to be called “modernity” and the forms of life it makes possible, even necessary.

By “modernity,” I simply mean the emergence of calculative, bureaucratic, and managerial reason. Natural and social science embody so much of modernity, not because they are products of modernity itself, but because they play such a prominent, determinative role in our thinking, feeling, and social relations. Scientific reason, the management and calculation of data in the interest of charting life and its course, is as much part of our emotional and psychic life as it is part of our social and political projects.

How is modernity inside us in this moment?

I’m thinking here of an under-read and underappreciated book by the late Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies. I have taught this book many times as part of a course on death and dying. The insight that always strikes me is this; modernity has reconfigured our relation to mortality – my own death and the death of others. Embodiment has become medicalized – an unsurprising, even obvious claim, but one that has broad implications. To be a body is to be the object of medical reason, managed with medications, dietary adjustments, surgeries, and all other sorts of interventions. When the body is sick and remains sick, illness has come to mean less the vulnerability of our incarnate presence to the world, more the failure of medical reason – personal or professional – to manage the body properly. This has multiple registers. If, say, I am diagnosed as diabetic, that means I’ve eaten improperly for years. My heart condition is linked to poor health choices or an undetected pre-existing condition that could have been remedied or treated if seen earlier. Aging is so complicated under this regime. We will always fail because death comes for us. It’s what it means to be human. Or is it? I think death has come to mean  that we’ve failed to keep a person alive – social failure, political failure, medical failure, cultural failure. “We did everything we could, it was not enough” is a potent phrase. It is not only what the physician says. It’s what we say to ourselves in the face of our own mortality, the fact of our dying: “I hope they can do enough.” This de-naturalizes death, moves it from an existential experience and into the realm of bureaucratic, instrumental reason – and so we understand dying on the model of the failure of management, they did what they could, but the techniques were not sufficient. This is Bauman’s argument and I think he’s fundamentally right. Vulnerability is about exposure to poor managerial reason. If we could only think and manage better, then what would our bodies be like? More alive, alive longer, less vulnerable, perhaps invulnerable. A form of immortality. Modernity promises that, however quietly: managed properly, life could exceed and surpass death.

In this particular moment, I see Bauman’s insight so clearly in my own affects and the affects of others as we try to think about what comes next. How to live after coronavirus? That’s my question. It’s probably yours too. But what catches my eye is after. That’s the formulation of managerial reason, in which we think that natural and right question to ask is how the virus can be eliminated so that our lives are managed in the right kind of direction. Of course we don’t want the virus. That’s no insight or interesting claim. It’s basic need, fear, desire: we want to be as safe as we can possibly be. But we don’t ask what it would mean to live with disease, to live with the virus amongst us and between us, as a part of walkabout and everyday life. That’s the unthinkable and, when it is floated as even just a small possibility, it invariably gets cast – by the speaker and/or the reporter of the speech – as “dying for something higher and better.” Like the economy, sadly. That is pathetic and ridiculous and sad. Or, as I’ve written here, dying for a principle of freedom, which I find bizarre and sad. We have to triangulate our mortality if we accept it outside of a managerial model. Martyrdom. Mortality itself isn’t existential or a part of life. Instead, it is managed through a third party value.

What we don’t think about: death as part of life. As ubiquitous. As part of being in community with others and with nature. We think on a managerial model and anchor both fear and hope in that model. Or we inflate our sense of purpose and claim death to be honorable – for the economy, for freedom, or maybe even for the reelection of Donald Trump. Triangulation is evasion. It is also modernity and its morality.

I do want to be clear and note this: I am neither nonchalant about death (I’m the opposite, really) nor prescribing some sort of indifference or neutrality toward the very real, very existential threat that coronavirus poses to all of us. Fear of death, our desire to avoid it, our mournful response to loss – all of that is utterly and completely human. Beautifully so. Entire moral, religious, and cultural systems and traditions are built on that human response; managing anxiety around mortality is part of what it means to be human in the presence of other humans. To make worlds that respond to our deepest terrors and fears. So, I not only share the anxiety around coronavirus and its implications, but I think that anxiety is right, certainly expected, and in its own way healthy.

What I am saying is simply this: the social and political shape of our anxiety is lodged deep in our psyches, which makes those historical formations seem natural rather than produced by a certain historical-political form in which we live. Modernity’s obsession with the managerial structure of everyday life comes to bear on our psyches when we think about the virus and identify hope as a better form of calculative, bureaucratic, and managerial reason – elimination of the threat. I do think the “war position” rhetoric that has come from the presidency and the professoriate – see Danielle Allen’s piece on war and the virus – is revealing, but also very limited. That war position imagines an enemy in opposition to our humanity. We rally against it. Maybe even buy a memorial coin (yes, we’ve hit rock-bottom on this one). But I think Bauman’s conception of the bureaucratic structure of the medical body gets it better: the enemy is not the virus. Rather, the enemy is the unruly relationship to calculative reason. Therein lies our real fear: that modernity’s power will be limited, its scope revealed to not be as total as we imagined.

I share that anxiety and sense of the enemy. I’m also a psyche formed by modernity and its contents, and so disturbed by its discontents. What does this mean? Where does this thought take us?

That’s the hard part. We don’t accept living with disease and ubiquity of mortal threat. Such ubiquity is always the product of failure rather than a fixed feature of precarious living as natural creatures. So, for me, I guess, I try to imagine what the summer and fall looks like with the challenge of imagining, of looking out from my future self, a sense of my self and my family, friends, and community as living with disease, rather than walking a path with only markers of failure to manage bodies properly. We die. I don’t know quite how to think about the presence of death without thinking about death as medical failure. But I want to know how to think death differently. Not just as what Martin Shuster has called the genocidal element in our response, but more broadly death and disease as part of life – never to the exclusion of modernity and its reason, but alongside it, ever persistent, a reminder of our creatureliness. 

That turns the world upside down. I’m getting my bearings in that future, upside down.


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