Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Beliefs and knowledges – The Sound of Silence: The Aestheticization of the Coronavirus in Service of the Production of Knowledge
Dr Shirly Bar-Lev, Dror (Imri) Aloni Center for Health Informatics, Ruppin Academic Centre, Israel.
Three weeks into the lockdown in Israel, while idly surfing Facebook, I came across a powerful image. Under the banner “Would you still go out if you could see it?”, the image shows a New York City street, deserted but for a barrage of enlarged, evil-looking spiky red balls representing the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The very next day, Israeli news sites featured images of armed soldiers and policemen roaming the empty streets of Israeli cities to uphold a strict curfew on the Eve of Passover. The interplay between these surreal images tells an interesting story of how a particular aestheticization of the virus feeds our collective imagination, enabling certain narratives and forms of governance to emerge.
Invisibility is a recurring theme in the narrativization of SARS-CoV-2. Indeed, invisibility is the essence of this virus, which can both disguise itself (manifesting in some infected individuals as no more than a mild cold), and can remain hidden in seemingly healthy bodies. Sophisticated technologies developed for the purpose of visualization – detecting the presence and quantity of viral molecules – have been found to be impractical for performing clinical diagnostic testing or broad surveillance. With no effective way to detect or evade it, the virus has brought to a halt nearly all aspects of daily life.
“We are at war with an invisible enemy”, proclaimed Prime Minister Netanyahu. To defeat this foe, Netanyahu authorized unprecedented use of intelligence tracking tools to tap into a vast and previously undisclosed trove of cell phone data, thereby allowing authorities to precisely retrace the movements of people known to have contracted the Coronavirus, and identify for self-isolation others whose paths they crossed. By these means, argued Netanyahu, “we will be able to see who they were with, what happened before and after [they were infected], and we will be able to isolate the Coronavirus and not the entire country”.
To combat the obscure – to reveal the concealed – governments inversed the order of seeing. If we cannot massively track the virus, we’ll track the (unsuspecting) hosts carrying it within them. The “test, trace and isolate” systems used by many countries are based on this principle, but these often rely on citizens’ cooperation. Yet the Israeli case (and others) show where the will to see ultimately leads. The Israeli defence minister proposed a data system in which each citizen would be assigned a dynamic 1-to-10 score based on his or her movements, capturing the likelihood of that citizen being infected and infecting others. In China, government-installed CCTV cameras monitor the apartments of those under quarantine, to ensure they do not leave their homes. Drones admonish people caught in the street without masks, and digital barcodes on mobile apps highlight individuals’ health status. In Hong Kong, some residents must wear wristbands that alert authorities if they leave their place of quarantine. Footsteps, credit card transactions, smartphone location data, and videos are tangible traces of the untraceable. The invisible becomes visible. The illusive now has a recognizable face, and a consciousness that can be fashioned, disciplined, and displayed (in graphs, computer models, incriminating videos, and photographic images).
This wide range of technologies now in use – never before a part of epidemiological or medical inquiry – make up a novel type of epistemic culture in which the virus can be made visible and known. Knorr Cetina defines epistemic cultures as “those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know” [1, p. 10]. The use of these machineries of knowledge is also predicated upon the complex relationship between the private body and the body politic . It is through this prism that I wish to examine the dictates of the body politic upon private bodies in the war waged against the Coronavirus.
The machineries of knowledge emplaced to fight the spread of the Coronavirus combine forms of reasoning deeply rooted in three disciplines: biology, epidemiology, and data science. Together they command a regime of visibility that aims to “arm healthcare professionals and government decision-makers with intel they can use to predict the impact of the coronavirus”. These apparatuses have two traits in common: 1) their stated purpose is to sustain the biological survival of individuals; and 2) they are designed to separate, isolate, and atomize individuals, while regulating populations. In this type of bioethics, individual bodies are singled out, and dynamically classified into three categories: harmful, potentially harmful, or at risk.
Lining up in Coronavirus drive-thru test sites to have a swab sample taken from our throat and nose, installing a tracking app in our mobiles, and staying at home – all follow the modus operandi of an epistemic culture that extracts knowledge from fragmenting the living body (DNA samples, genes, cells, tissues, bacteria, and viruses are routinely extracted, dissected, cultured, and studied under a magnifying glass). More importantly, it is an epistemic culture geared towards the enhancement and extension of life. It therefore holds in high value the individual’s right and obligation to ensure longevity . As the physical body is put under a figurative microscope, individuals are encouraged to look inward. They are told, in the words of Edith Wharton, that “the only cure … is to make one’s centre of life inside of one’s self […] with a kind of unassailable serenity”. Isolation thus becomes an ethical imperative, enabling a knowledge of the self – or even self-therapy – that can only be gained in solitude [4, 5]. Ironically, this “care of the self”  takes place as, for the sake of living, the individual body is reduced to data – a traceable number.
Agamben  distinguishes between two forms of living: “bare life” (zoё), denoting the simple fact of living, or living for the sake of living, and bios, denoting biographical life – the belief system, aspirations, words, and deeds that render life meaningful and worth living. The obsession over the “perfectibility of life”, warns Knorr Cetina, can allow governments and corporations to exploit the gap between bios and zoё, to strip citizens of their bios and reduce them to a life exposed to either social or physical death . This “care of the self” is predicated on the privatization of experience, rather than on a social imagination as a source of cure and salvation. In fact, argues Knorr Cetina, a “culture of life” thrives on the gradual dismantling of the social as a moral compass, and its replacement by a type of individualism that curtails social rights and welfare .
In a recent interview, Agamben astutely observed that contemporary Western societies “no longer believe in anything but bare life”. He also warns that exclusive focus on the preservation of “bare life” at any cost threatens the possibility of meaningful human relationships and thus of any semblance of “society”: “Bare life – and the danger of losing it – is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them”, says Agamben. In this respect, the technological apparatus emplaced to identify, classify, and register citizens according to their level of potential harmfulness is alarming, not only because it infringes on their privacy, but because it reduces persons to muted blobs on the Coronavirus map. Condensed to mere statistics, they are made to partake in pure spectacle.
On the Eve of Passover, as a countrywide curfew confined people to their homes, many in Israel celebrated the Passover seder using video-conferencing programs like Zoom and FaceTime to connect virtually with their loved ones. In some communities, people came out onto their balconies to sing together the Four Questions, a part of the seder usually recited even by the non-religious. This spectacle of public unity – often videoed and posted online – can be read as people’s attempt to disavow the role of passive audience and become, yet again, the producers of their own visual images. Yet is it the nascence of a vibrant public spirit that we are seeing, or the triumph of exhibitionism? Early in the pandemic, the world watched on social media as Italians gathered on balconies or at their windows every afternoon to sing and dance, keeping up morale. Does what began as spectacle end with a silence of sorts, as “coffins pile up in churches, [and] people in their 80s die alone”? To mitigate the dangers of short-sightedness, societies need to redefine the concept of a morally qualified life in terms of humanistic values and social dignity, not just biology. This revaluation must lead to policies that beneﬁt public well-being, secure a sense of social security, and prioritize humane living over just living.
 Knorr Cetina, K. D. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Harvard University Press.
 Hashiloni-Dolev, Y. (2007). A life (un) worthy of living: Reproductive genetics in Israel and Germany (Vol. 34). Springer Science & Business Media.
 Knorr Cetina, K. D. (2005). The rise of a culture of life. EMBO reports, 6(S1), S76–S80.
 Harris, M. (2017). Solitude: In pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world. Thomas Dunne Books.
 Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford University Press.
 Foucault, M. (1986). The care of the self: The history of sexuality, Vol. 3. New York: Pantheon.
 Guenther, L. (2012). Resisting Agamben: The biopolitics of shame and humiliation. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 38(1), 59–79.
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