A couple months ago, as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was setting in, I read a news story in which I learned that unwashed produce could put my life in jeopardy. Why am I being taught to fear vegetables? Louis Althusser may have some answers:
The Christian religious ideology says something like this:
It says: I address myself to you, a human individual called Peter (every individual is called by his name, in the passive sense, it is never he who provides his own name), in order to tell you that God exists and that you are answerable to Him. It adds: God addresses himself to you through my voice (Scripture having collected the Word of God, Tradition having transmitted it, Papal Infallibility fixing it for ever on “nice” points). It says: this is who you are: you are Peter! This is your origin, you were created by God for all eternity, although you were born in the 1920th year of Our Lord! This is your place in the world! This is what you must do! By these means, if you observe the “law of love” you will be saved, you, Peter, and will become part of the Glorious Body of Christ! Etc. … [Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” in On Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), p. 51.]
This is the example that Althusser gives of how an Ideological State Apparatus (or ISA) functions in his famous essay on ideology. The ISA in question here is obviously the church, and, like any ISA, it functions by way of what Althusser calls “interpellation,” defined as “‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects” (p. 45). That is, ISAs present us with compelling choices (“if you observe…,” in this example, “you will be saved”) that, when affirmed, position us within society in certain ways, specifically as individuals, and usually to reinforce dominant relations of production within the capitalist system. Employing a medical metaphor that is now perhaps more apt than it was fifty years ago when Althusser initially wrote it, he speaks of the “daily doses” of ideology that we receive from ISAs — values like “nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc.” (p. 28) that we reinforce through our repeated assent. The example of Peter is grandiose so as to convey the broader notion of interpellation clearly, but Althusser here warns us that ideology actually tends to function in much tinier and insidious instances — bit by bit — without our necessarily being aware of it, that is, without knowing that we are making the choices that make us who we think we are.
These days, the media, an ISA par excellence, is providing us with a daily (perhaps hourly or even secondly) dose of neoliberalism through the avatar of the coronavirus causing COVID-19, the so-called “spiky blob” produced by medical illustrators at the CDC and now ubiquitous in both its original form and in many mutations across print, television, and online media, including especially social media. We should always be skeptical of images with their origins in the state, particularly those that seem to appear everywhere naturally, though surprisingly this “spiky blob” has not received much analysis. It gets taken for granted, as ideology often does. Ostensibly meant to convey that a virus exists and poses a threat, I want to argue that, in doing just that, it also interpellates us as neoliberal subjects: individualists left alone to confront existential threats bereft of support from government, civil society, or any other notion of common life. It does this by offering us a choice not so different from the church and its religious ideology: the “spiky blob” tells us to be afraid for our lives and to act accordingly. But afraid of what? Not of God but of everything. “If you observe” this injunction, if you choose your own life by recoiling from contact with anything and everything that would locate you in social life as a member of a community, then you will survive — as the lonely, paranoid, fretful, covetous, accumulative, defensive, violent subject that neoliberalism requires in order to function: the private, “atomic“ individual.
Looking more closely at the “spiky blob” helps us to understand how it offers us the choice to become the fearful subjects of neoliberalism. First, a basic description of the “spiky blob,” which is neither spiky nor blob-shaped, that will inevitably segue into and out of more evaluative claims. We see before us on our screens a light grey sphere, irregular in surface texture, more or less evenly covered in small, red (danger!), protruding, triangular-shaped, mushroom-like clumps as well as a few smaller orange and yellow dot-like growths. Though the digital illustration is not a photograph of an actual virus particle, its high degree of detail, including naturalistic “lighting” and “shadows,” cause it to appear photographic (and therefore “real”). The parts of the sphere that appear more distant are rendered fuzzily, as if they are slightly out of focus, which causes those more proximate to us to appear as if they push out from our screens into our reality, threatening us physically. Surrounding the “spiky blob” is empty, nondescript space, a dark void in which it hovers effortlessly and into which it radiates rings of light, almost as if it were radioactive. As we look around this blankness, we find it populated by a few bright orange star-like dots that perhaps represent more of the same sort of particle that confronts us so menacingly, suggesting that we actually face not a threatening thing, scary enough, but the advance scout of a swarm coming our way.
The cosmic feel to the image contributes to its otherworldliness and conveys an inhuman quality that taps into and preys upon xenophobic reflexes, really primal lizard brain stuff that is evolutionarily baked into us because it kept our ancestors from being eaten. This means that, even if we are critical enough thinkers to reject interpellation explicitly, a part of us deep within automatically registers and accepts its prompt in the name of basic survival instinct. So, it is entirely fitting that the “spiky blob” looks like something from a science fiction film — an incomprehensible lifeform or a Death Star — or, worse, like something from the fictional science of conspiracy theorists, those masters of fearfulness, for whom the virus is, of course, a biological-technological hybrid hatched in a laboratory as part of a plan to control our minds with 5G cellular networks (and that’s the simple version of it). There being nothing in the image itself to suggest otherwise — its very lack of specificity permitting any specification to be projected onto it — the “spiky ball” facilitates the shattering of reality, and it is not hard to imagine what convoluted things the anti-vaccine conspirators are thinking about how much the vaccine looks like the virus itself.
Because the “spiky blob” seems to be nowhere in particular, it is potentially anywhere, so we are never safe from its possible presence. As the media reminds us, it could even appear on lettuce. This, combined with the image’s aforementioned screen-bursting three dimensionality, inhumanity, and menacing opaqueness — no face, seemingly no capacity to communicate, specifically to communicate intentions or negotiate a truce, certainly no interest in reasoning with us — reads as broadly and deeply threatening, leading quickly to a sense that our best response is to keep our distance, even to run away — afraid. While remaining separate from one another by physical distancing is what we ought to be doing, we ought to be doing it out of a concern for one another rather than out of a fear that distorts what is actually happening. Journalists’ attempts to restore some humanity to the “spiky blob” by profiling its makers in human-interest stories (historically, one of the most basic genres of yellow journalism) fail to compensate because pointing to specific people located in real space and telling their personal stories, like celebrity gossip, only further underscores individuality and does not highlight the realities of our connection to one another or point toward what is really needed: sympathetic recognition of ineluctable community.
In a previous post about the role of art in a pandemic, I discussed three artworks produced during the 1980s and 1990s amidst the early stages of the ongoing AIDS pandemic that helped to change people’s attitudes about the disease in genuinely productive ways by constituting the visibility of vital knowledge, particularly where our mutual obligations to one another arise. I think of these images as model counterimages to the sort being propagated by ISAs (though Althusser would caution us that the arts are themselves part of a cultural ISA). We will, of course, need our own new images specifically for this pandemic, images that enable us to see what is happening as something other than an occasion to fear and, specifically, as a reason to find and pursue common cause together. On those accounts, we have so far seen a few promising signs: some initial blow-back against the extant image regime, some deeper reflections on the insufficiency of prevailing images, first attempts to generate counterimages, and calls for still bigger-picture thinking and yet-grander imagination. Whether such efforts triumph over business as usual remains to be seen. In the next part of this two-part post, I will look beyond the “spiky ball” at the broader visual culture of COVID-19, including further alternatives to it.
Robert Bailey is associate professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma.