“There’s no image of it, other than that disco-ball microscopic view of the thing.”
In my previous post, I drew on Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology to argue that the “spiky blob” image of the coronavirus produced by designers at the CDC is an ideological image that “interpellates” us by repeatedly triggering in us a flight instinct that leads us to an isolating abyss of fear and thus constitutes us as subjects amenable to the project of neoliberalism.
The broader visual culture of COVID-19 is similarly inclined and has taught us how to fear food, doors, phones, neighbors, mail, voting, the outdoors — everything that connects us and sustains us socially and communally. Moreover, as we diligently keep track of the threat such things pose, we confront all of the tallies, maps, charts, and graphs to be found on or in websites, television programs, and newspaper articles, each of which informs us about the number of people infected, dead, critically ill, recovered, and so forth, all parsed by nation, state, and even county, all updated in as close to real time as possible.
Johns Hopkins University, which is part of what Althusser calls an Ideological State Apparatus (or ISA), namely the educational ISA, has produced one of the more official of these agglomerations of data, and it shares with the “spiky blob” image much more than its grey-red color scheme and its proliferation of danger-indicating round spots. My aim for this post is to depart from this data visualization project, which is being viewed billions of times per day, to analyze how, beyond its fundamental fear-triggering, COVID-19 visual culture works more pervasively to establish neoliberal consensus. I hope this critical stance will help us see how we might work against that.
Of course, just the sort of physical distancing that the “spiky blob” wants from us is entirely appropriate, though the fear by which it achieves that distance is lamentable (a “bug” that is actually the “feature”). Still the ends of data visualization also do not justify the means. The Johns Hopkins site is undoubtedly a helpful resource that informs the public about the progress of the disease, and, in that sense, it is useful. Where it becomes troubling is the extent to which it smoothly converts human suffering into a computational exercise that reduces human lives to numbers. Like the “spiky blob,” it presents us with an ideological choice: to choose to see ourselves as quantified statistics. We each potentially become “one,” accepting, again, that we are separable, lone, isolated beings without particularity or qualities, without connections to others, and desperate to survive, to preserve this oneness even at the expense of really and truly living well. If we make this choice, we acquiesce to our being individuals — calculable and thus equatable to other things, including especially money.
One of the books that I would most like to have at hand to assist with analyzing COVID-19 visual culture is T. J. Demos’s recent Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today, which performs a terrific analysis of imagery that depicts environmental concerns like climate change to argue that our ways of envisioning nature and the human impact on it tend to sanction broadly neoliberal actions. When the visualization of data in so many graphs, charts, and so forth becomes our main way of making visible phenomena like climate change that are invisible to the naked eye (in this case because they are too big rather than, like a virus, too small), then the environment begins to appear as something manageable, like the economy is manageable. Such equivalence of ecology and economy leads quickly to the conclusion that humans ought to geo-engineer ecosystems on a large scale in a manner akin to how states tinker with the economy. Demos thinks that this will become yet another neoliberal project of profit extraction with disastrous environmental consequences. Unfortunately, my copy of Against the Anthropocene, unlike my copy of Althusser, is in my campus office and has been inaccessible to me as I have been writing this post initially under a stay-at-home order and now under a healthier-at-home order. Still, the gist of Demos’s argument applies, I think, to the ways in which we are visualizing the coronavirus and its spread.
As we have seen repeatedly since the outbreak of COVID-19, governments are tabulating just how much death they will tolerate to keep economies running. The equivalence of lives with numbers leverages data to help manage the coronavirus toward the familiar economic ends of profit and their major societal externality: injustice. This process feeds on existing societal racism and inequality, which are now ensuring that the virus continues to have disproportionate impacts on working people, people of color, and indigenous people, who, it is worth noting, have found alternative ways to visualize the coronavirus that emphasize resilience over fear. After all, the demographic-neutering data that we see over and over tends to exclude mention of just who is affected and who is not — a point similar to one that Demos makes about the way that environmental data visualizations often obscure who is most responsible for climate change.
This refusal of particularity is data visualization’s equivalent to the nowhere-therefore-everywhere placelessness of the “spiky blob.” It conceals the patchiness of where the virus is at any given time when that very patchiness is actually the thing worth knowing if our goal is really to put health first and mitigate infection. When you look at the screen of a news channel, though, you tend to see very generic data about total cases and total deaths in the country and around the globe. In countries where testing is even less available than the United States, the availability of data is itself patchy, and what data are available give an incomplete or even false picture of the situation, discounting the humanity of people who get sick and die, their lives not counting for as much in the tallies because they are less likely to be tested. At the same time, clever imagery of the virus is emerging from these places to raise awareness about it. This imagery is often less fear-inducing and more humanized, reflecting the truth that the virus is not a ubiquitous menace but borne by the vectors of its carrier: our bodies.
The only people who, alone, really are the “one” that neoliberalism wants us all to pretend to be are the “one percent” isolated behind security gates and protected by security guards who alone could get tested for COVID-19 on demand when ordinary people could not. If the rest of us have not already been, we will eventually be interpellated to “reopen” the economy by those in power or their minions among us. The latter are already so afraid as to be in total denial (the conspiratorial, far-right-funded, “fake virus” protest scene) or incapable of imagining anything other than facing the virus alone while government (by, of, and for the people, no less) ignores them and gives their tax dollars to the rich as corporate welfare. When it comes to capitalism’s need for growth, we are told — for once — not to fear because the decisions being made on our behalf are “data-driven,” which is just vague enough to feign a cover of scientific legitimacy and medical sanction for what might very well be a purely economic decision. After all, that opaque term, “data-driven,” fails to specify precisely which data are driving what exactly. Precisely as Althusser would expect, we again find our places within capitalism’s relations of production.
After I wrote this post, widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality began throughout the United States (and the rest of the world) following the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. I wanted to offer a brief comment on them because I was heartened to see them begin and have happily participated in them since. These protests are a reminder of what “one” life really is (“Black Lives Matter” as both a movement and a phrase makes this abundantly clear), and those protesting in them are fearlessly constructing the visibility of vital knowledge about how to live well together. May that be a source of strength for those pursuing all kinds of justice — social, distributive, environmental, and otherwise — and may all who seek justice find common cause, for assuredly having one kind of justice requires having all kinds because letting any kind of injustice go unchecked lets other kinds increase too.
Robert Bailey is associate professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma.