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What does this text suggest for thinking about and responding to the COVID-19 disaster?

Thursday, April 30, 2020 - 9:06am

The aspirations of the Transnational Disaster STS COVID-19 project are similar to those of Climate Leviathan: to understand the range of political possibilities -- what could be called styles of governance -- that are emerging as COVID-19 unfolds.  We are reaching for what could be called COVID-X: 

P1: "While there is much justifiable attention to the ecological implications of global climate change, the political implications are just as important for human well- being and social justice. We posit a basic framework by which to understand the range of political possibilities, in light of the response of global elites to climate warming and the challenges it poses to hegemonic institutional and conceptual modes of governance and accumulation. The framework also suggests some possible means through which these responses might be thwarted, and political stakes in that construction of a new hegemony—which, to avoid suggesting we know or can yet determine the form it will take, we call “climate X”."

Mann and Wainwright give us four choices -- four hegemonic formations, each defined by “a mode of appropriation and distribution through which that hegemony is exercised: a capitalist climate Leviathan; an anti-capitalist, state-centered climate Mao; a reactionary capitalist Behemoth; and anti-capitalist, anti-sovereign climate X. They go on to say:  “Our central thesis is that the future of the world will be defined by Leviathan, Behemoth, Mao, and X, and the conflicts between them."  

What do cultural analysts bring to this? What if Mann and Wainwright’s hegemonic  formulations were thought of more extensively and discursively -- as the “problem-spaces” that David Scott draws out in Conscripts of Modernity (2004). Scott describes problem-spaces as the discuruvie context of articulation -- what sets up argument and stages intervention:

A problem-space, in other words, is an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political stakes) hangs. That is to say, what defines this discursive context are not only the particular problems that get posed as problems as such (the problem of ‘‘race,’’ say), but the particular questions that seem worth asking and the kinds of answers that seem worth having. (4)

Also see David Scott’s discussion of problem spaces in an exchange with Stuart Hall. 

Now, a “problem-space” (and obviously I’m severely compressing here) is first of all a conjunctural space, a historically constituted discursive space. This discursive conjuncture is defined by a complex of questions and answers—or better, a complex of statements, propositions, resolutions and arguments offered in answer to largely implicit questions or problems. Or to put this another way, these statements and so on are moves in a field or space of argument, and to understand them requires reconstructing that space of problems that elicited them…. I have wanted it to help us determine not only what the questions were that an author in a particular problem-space was responding to, but whether these questions continue in our new conjuncture to be questions worth responding to.

This, then, suggests how we could think in terms of the (four) narrative alternatives that Hayden White maps out in Metahistory, and about the thought-styles (Fleck) and modes of evidence through which different hegemonies consolidate.   This, in part, is what our “COVID-watch” would focus on.  

This way of reading would not only leverage cultural analysis but also makes education a critical arena of action - in a manner that doesn’t necessarily recuperarte the modernist subject.  Education --  and “the university “ -- is where we learn to question ways “the problem” is formulated, thus staging and legimating particular modes of response.  Security can be rendered in many different ways, for example. 


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