The Coronavirus Looks Like Neoliberalism, Part Two: Images and Counterimages

“There’s no image of it, other than that disco-ball microscopic view of the thing.”

Terry Allen

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Screen capture of CNN reporting on coronavirus in the West Wing of the White House, May 11, 2020

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.

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The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard

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.

Against the Anthropocene

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.

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Screen capture of CNN, May 23, 2020

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.

Two “spiky blob” mutations on The New York Times homepage amidst stories about locking down, reopening, and the economy

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.

Addendum

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.

4 thoughts on “The Coronavirus Looks Like Neoliberalism, Part Two: Images and Counterimages

  1. I wanted to comment on the data-driven. In the United States, we experience ~40,000 deaths each year from traffic (car and truck) accidents. As a thought experiment, with the exception of cases were medical treatment needs to be quick (so lets carve out exceptions for that, i.e. you can use a car for that), I would suspect that our average lifespan would INCREASE if we banned cars and trucks (we would eat healthier and get more exercise). Now food would have to be grown much closer to where it is consumed (reducing our food choices dramatically), there would be incredibly inefficiencies, i.e. all of us would spend more time growing and preserving food etc. and there would be many other negative economic (and other) consequences. We as a society have made a choice that the economic (and it is not just economic, but both cars/trucks and opening up society after Covid has many other benefits other than economic) benefits of having cars/trucks outweighs the 40,000 deaths each year. The mortality rate is the key piece of data for Covid 19, that should be the data driven part of the decision. The rest of it is a risk/reward decision, just as with cars/trucks. I believe there really is no right or wrong decision from an individual’s perspective, it is all about one’s assessment of risk and reward. However, if one chooses to not be in a motor vehicle, then one is giving up many things and in my opinion should have to deal with the consequences. Government (i.e. laws) are a different matter and one’s philosophy on how much government should act to reduce risk to both individuals and society at large says a great deal about one’s politics.

  2. Agreed that mortality rate is a, if not the, key piece of data concerning what kinds of decisions governments (and individuals) should be making, especially when it is parsed into rates for various groups because the mean is kind of meaningless for individual decision-making as there are very few if any people who are the “average” person in a case like this. As far as I know (I’m not a public health expert nor very good at math), we don’t actually have enough data on mortality rates to know for sure what we’re dealing with yet, which, as far as I (as a layperson) am concerned, is reason to be cautious and not let this virus rip as we do the flu and common cold because we’ve been able to calculate the risks there and make sensible, well-reasoned decisions. I’m also totally willing to accept that there are other factors in play, including non-economic ones… there’s a watering hole or two that I really miss patronizing. Testing has, however, been a problem (lots of false positives, unavailability of kits, etc.), there’s lots of presymptomatic and asymptomatic people buzzing around, and so on — all complicating our ability to say “this disease has a mortality rate of x.” We simply may not have the data to make good data-driven decisions for now, which means that priorities (human life, economic growth, etc.) come to the fore to play that role and we deliberate more on the basis of principle than fact. I’ll just own up to my leftism here and say that I place considerably greater value on life than I do on money, especially Jeff Bezos’s money, and I wish the government could force him to pay his workers, who are on the front lines of this pandemic, wages that reflect the risk they are forced to entertain to make a living. I also wish that other actors, particularly in politics, would be honest about their motivations because their deceitfulness corrupts our deliberative process and turns the state into a bad-faith actor that, for instance, won’t protect Amazon workers (i.e. the people, whose will it allegedly represents).

    You’re also absolutely right that we, as a society, have decided that we will tolerate the risks associated with cars to derive the benefits of cars (and, indeed, I these kinds of decisions are normal and basic to living in a society, where we pool risks, share hazard, etc. — though, lamentably, often unequally). Whether that continues to be the case — and for reasons of CO2 emissions more than car crashes — remains to be seen. Anyhow, my real point is that your example of emergency vehicles like ambulances being given a “pass” on imagined future restrictions to automotive travel is, I think, really crucial and will only become more so. How we define “emergency” or — as the pandemic has made clear — “essential” is going to be really important as we face various crunches related to available resources and associated failures of systems to address needs. I fear the word “triage” or its equivalents is going to become more commonly used. Strange times. Then again, who in 2019 thought of grocery store workers or delivery drivers as essential workers? Now some of us are thinking more and more that police officers (once the very definition of essential workers) might not be as essential as society regards them. I’m concerned that historically the state has been in a monopolistic position to define the “state of emergency” because our state seems less and less willing to manifest the will of the people, which means that we as people don’t have a deliberative body through which to decide what is “essential,” so such decisions will be made for us, via the bad-faith-actor state as legitimating intermediary, by the Jeff Bezoses of the world.

    Thanks for your comment. Lots to discuss on Friday!

  3. I just came upon another visualization (courtesy of Open Culture) which attempts to make the toll of the pandemic more meaningful by showing deaths from COVID-19 (from January through the end of June). It does not personalize the pandemic in the way the New York Times tried to–deaths are still aggregated, by country. Still, showing the global spread of actual death is quite powerful. The discussion in the post that presents the video is quite good–and touches on the idea raised by the Vox story on “shifting baselines” I mentioned in my comment the other day.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Zev. I’m struck by how closely this hews (or hues?) to the color scheme of the Johns Hopkins site and the spiky blob. Grey and red, grey and red. Why these colors over and over? Connoting neutrality and danger? Unimaginative imitation of previous representations? Something else? I haven’t figured that out. Maybe it just looks good from a design perspective… After all, we do get an intense aestheticization of destruction here with those rippling rings of target-shaped color, which recall the way that nuclear bomb destruction radii get visualized. I noticed this, then followed your link to the original post to see that I’m not alone in having that association. (I’m reminded of this website, which lets you drop the atomic bomb of your choice on the location of your choice: http://www.nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/ I’ll leave it to you to decide where to bomb and to what exact level of total devastation.) The risk here, I think, is that, while perhaps affecting, these images still make something horrible a little too manageable. For those who don’t see the pandemic as real or as a problem, this realization might be a sublime wake-up call to the enormity of it all. But, for all of us, it might also make the pandemic look beautiful, which can de-realize it, further shift the baseline, normalize the new normal, etc. How we depict traumatic experiences is ethically fraught, to say the least.

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