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


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James Adams's picture
May 1, 2020

The political and economic fallout that has emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic fits the criteria of events that Mann and Wainwright specify as likely to engender the planetary Leviathan: “Processes are more likely to drive the creation of Leviathan if [a] they present an existential threat; [b] they are large scale (global); and [c] they pose challenges for the existing political order” (2018., 142). However, the history enfolding before our eyes doesn’t look like the birth of a new global sovereignty. Given that nothing close to either a Leviathan or Climate X alternative to the nation-state presented itself, citizens are left with no choice than but to rely on adapting extant public institutions, infrastructures, and state directives. At the national level, the US government responded by blaming the symbol of global public health, the World Health Organization, among its other political rivals, China and Iran. This is in keeping with the “Western” world’s tactic of pointing the carbon-emission finger elsewhere as well:

“Unfortunately, in discussions of climate politics, China is usually considered only a problem, an amoral polluter. How often are we in North America or western Europe told our efforts to slow climate change are meaningless because whatever ‘good’ we do, ‘China’ will ultimately render it futile? Sometimes this is a product of ignorance, sometimes of racist Eurocentrism, sometimes both” (Wainwright and Mann 2018, 116).

Both the Chinese and Iranian governments have returned condemnations along with supporting conspiracies. Thus, rather than leviathan, we seem to be witnessing a Behemoth scenario in which “one or more of these competing powers will continue to compete with the United States” (Wainwright and Mann 2018, 143). And perhaps we should take heed the warning that “History would seem to suggest this will lead to war, and it may well” (2018, 143). Currently these Behemoth-like counter hegemonies are merely struggling to win a rhetorical war of self-righteousness and self-preservation. What is uncertain is whether or not these responses to COVID-19 are indicative of a schismogenetic pattern developing in the contemporary geopolitical order. As Wainwright and Mann comment:

“The implication is that the management of the planet would unfold in the context of a world system that is neither democratic (since the vast majority of nation-states and peoples would have no real involvement in the important decisions about the Earth’s management) nor clearly dominated by one hegemonic power. Planetary governance would unroll on a lumpy, conflictual geopolitical terrain upon which elites continue to seek “adaptations” that meet their needs—political stability, continued accumulation, and so on” (2018, 143).

Kim Fortun's picture
April 30, 2020
In response to:

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.