Lexicon of a Pandemic: Language as a Virus

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provided us one of the most important definitions of what it means to be human, namely that we are “zoon politikon” –that we are political animals. Aristotle added some nuance to this definition when, in his Politics, he said that humans, in addition to being political animals, are also “zoon echon logon” –animals possessing language. To be a political animal means also to be an animal of language, one that possesses and is possessed by language. For Aristotle, language not only allows us to express what is pleasant or painful, but also, and most importantly, what is advantageous or harmful, and thus, by extension, what is either just or unjust (Politics, Book 1, chapter 2, 1253a).  Language is the very condition of the possibility of naming justice.  It is the core of political existence.

By the same token, language may be the very condition for concealing, masking, and imposing injustice. Language may itself become a form of tyranny, or the way to sanction a tyrannical political system at least. This is what Orwell had in mind when he brought 1984 to a conclusion with an appendix: “The Principles of Newspeak,” one of the most powerful reflections on the political uses of language ever written. This may have been what William Burroughs also had in mind when wrote—or cut and pasted, in The Ticket that Exploded— “language is a virus from outer space.”

A virus is a biological entity, but language itself can be infected by the virus of double speak, misinformation, and obfuscation. Language itself can become the vector of other viruses. Still, though language may be a virus that infects the mind and our public existence, it may also be a source of healing, of clarity, good air, articulation, and inoculation for our public mind, something that makes us civically resilient. In a recent essay in the New Yorker (March 19th, 2020) Paul Elie, recalling Susan Sontag’s essay “Illness as Metaphor,” writes the following: “Rather than applying societal metaphors to illness, we’ve applied illness metaphors to society, stripping them of their malign associations in the process. It may be that our fondness for virus as a metaphor has made it difficult for us to see viruses as potentially dangerous, even lethal, biological phenomena. In turn, our disinclination to see viruses as literal may have kept us from insisting on and observing the standards and practices that would prevent their spread.” I disagree with the first sentence, for when we use the language of virus, or social sickness, in general, to talk about a social “pathology” we are precisely underscoring, not metaphorizing, its urgency and potential lethality. But I think that the sentences following  are on point. It is for this reason that, in a pandemic, we have to be especially attentive to the language we use to talk about who dies, as a result of what causes.  We must know what we are asked to do, or not to do. We need a lexicon for this pandemic, so we can become reflexive of the ways we conceal, obfuscate, disguise, and mask the basic issues of justice, fairness, urgency, and collective sacrifice that a crisis of this magnitude is hurtling into our midst. In the following, I want to reflect on some of the key terms that are being circulated in the public sphere right now as part of the collective attempt to describe, decipher, and discuss the “global health crisis.”

Social Distancing. At first blush this may seen like an innocent and apropos way to talk about what we must do to “flatten the curve.” Yet, as we are discovering, this is also the biggest misnomer of what we are actually doing. We all have reached out to loved ones, whether distant or close.  We have fired texts, emails, postcards, tweets, epistles; reaching out to friends, lovers, parents, sons, and daughters. We are in fact “socially de-distancing.” Though we are apart from each other, we have fallen back into the thickness, closeness, warmth, and proximity of our social existence. We are not “socially distancing,” but rather “physical distancing.” But the expression “social distancing” may be more insidious and viral than we suspect: for what is the “social” exactly? Hospitals, public transportation, libraries, schools, unemployment benefits— everything that we call “social services.” When we use the expression “social distancing” we are already getting ready to accept that “social services,” may have to be suspended, abridged, re-directed to those more deserving or entitled to them. What does it mean to social distance if not to put a greater distance between everything that constitutes “social services” and the most marginalized communities who depend on them? In California, for example, the agricultural cornucopia of the United States, the migrant labor force is made up almost exclusively of “Latinos” –many of whom over the last several years have been criminalized, demeaned, and vilified. They are the ones picking the food that must be picked, the food on which we are all relying to stay healthy. Yet they are socially-distanced out of the political community: they are ineligible for any social services or financial aid.  On top of this, they already do not use our public medical facilities.

Relief, Stimulus, Stabilization. These are terms that have been used to refer to the two trillion dollar package that Congress passed in order to deal with the “economic” effects of the pandemic. Stimulus and stabilization are perhaps the most egregious and even cynical ways to refer to what is turning into an economic depression worse than the 2008 financial collapse, and close to the depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The unemployment rate has already reached proportions beyond anything we saw in 2008. You cannot “stimulate” or “stabilize” an economy that is essentially grinding to a halt. At the most, the “package” voted by Congress in the last week of March is a relief package. We should thus talk about “rescue” Instead.  The money that will go to tax-filing Americans is a form of “relief” that may allow them to get by during what seems like it will be many months of economic stasis. But what we really need is a “rescue package” that will provide, in addition to immediate relief, long-term support that will allow citizens and workers to re-store and re-start their lives at the other end of this pandemic. We will need another Marshall Plan to re-structure and revive our economy.

Economic and Financial Time. Economists and economic journalists have been taking about the uncoupling of economic time from financial time as a way to highlight the challenges of dealin with the econoic consequences of this pandemic. The former refers to the time in which we are making, earning, saving money. The latter refers to the timelines of our debts or financial burdens: school loans, car payments, mortgages, small business loans, etc. We already knew that one of largest debts in our economy is the “school” debt that students have had to accrue over the last decades, as the costs of higher education have skyrocket. This is one of the reasons why Democratic presidential candidates, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, made the “forgiving” or “canceling” of student debts a central plank of their campaigns.. Here, too, the pandemic is making it all too evident, all too clear, why we need to address the school debt issue.  It is crippling this generation of young adults and it will cripple the next one, too. But this is perhaps only one of the most striking disconnect between not having a job, for many months, and not being able to keep up with one’s debts. As useful and important as the coupling or uncoupling of these two terms—economic time and financial time—may be for helping us get a handle on the extent of the economic crises, something falls out of view when use them.  Before there is economic or financial time, there is the time of life, what the Germans call Lebenzeit, or life-time. Our economic time is only one part of our living time or the time of living: we don’t live to work; we work to live, as the saying goes. There must always be life after work. For many—for children, for young adults, for parents, for all in fact—this pandemic also means that life has been put on hold. 2020 may turn out to be the year that life came to a stand-still.  Many will talk about it as the “lost year.” Some universities, thinking ahead to the disruption this is causing for their faculty and students, have “stopped the tenure clock” for faculty who would have been going up for tenure in the near future. But that’s just one example.  The pandemic has “stopped the clock” on just about every aspect of living time. There is yet another way to think of Lebenzeit, for which we have created an appropriate expression: life expectancy. Life is not a given.  It is at most a horizon of expectability, of what we can count on, and how long we think we may be able to live, all things being equal. It is revealing that one of the indicators of the justice of a society is measured in numbers by its “life expectancy” rates: the more just the society, the higher its statistical life expectancy; the less just, the lower the life expectancy. Life-time is in fact life expectancy; it is the living expression of the justice of a polity.

Virus. The Oxford English Dictionary provides us with the following etymology of the term: “classical Latin vīrus poisonous secretion, venom, virulent or malignant quality (of disposition or speech), acrid juice or element in something (as affecting its taste or smell), secretion having medicinal or magical property, animal semen, in post-classical Latin also human semen (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian) < the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit viṣa poison, Avestan vīša poison, ancient Greek ἰός poison. Compare Middle French, French virus (1478) in sense ‘substance which conceals an infectious agent’” This is a very revealing etymology: first, because in its most ancient uses the term refers to both a poisonous substance and a “disposition or speech,” i.e. a certain poisonous form or type of language and speech; second, because it refers to a secretion, whether vegetable or animal; and third, because it refers to semen, which, from another perspective, is the carrier of life. What is interesting is that in all these senses, virus indicates that we are the carrier and projector of viruses, not only because of our bodily effluvia, but also because of our rhetorical venom. Once again, as Burroughs reminded us, words are a form of poisonous effluvia.

Vector. This is the word we are using to track the spread of the corona virus. The Oxford English Dictionary, again, provides us with an illuminating etymology: “Latin vector, agent-noun < vehĕre to carry. So (in sense 1) Spanish vector.” Vector means, then, what carries. In an epidemic, the vector carries the virus, and the virus has its vector. In mechanics, a vector became the visual representation of a line of force, movement, momentum, velocity, or acceleration, which is the reason why in astronomy we talk about the “radius vector.” This is the line of movement of an astronomical object, the description of a parabolic arc around a gravitational pivot. A vector traces the trajectory of displacement around a curvature in space, as Einstein showed. More precisely, a vector is a representation of force.  Seen from this perspective, a virus is then a line of force with its own trajectory of propagation: a force of biology as well as physics.  This returns us to the original meaning: to carry. We are the carriers –the line of force- of the virus.  We project it.  We are its line of propagation.  Insofar as we are “zoon politikon,” we cannot but give more force to the virus. The virus traces the radial vector of our global social existence and, of course, our biological interdependence.

Foreign. This word has become key in the lexicon of authoritarian populism, at least since the first half of the Twentieth Century. In his amazing Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, the philologist Victor Klemperer notes that: “artfremd [foreign, literally, “of strange genus or type”] was a pervasive, recurring, and signaling term of the language of the Nazis. Foreign was everything that ailed, sickened, depleted, or weighed down the German people. This was why the Jewish people were described as rats or vermin, as an infestation.  As a virus. Racial nationalisms, xenophobic nativism, and anti-immigrant populism utilize similar rhetorical strategy today: everything that is deemed and labeled foreign is unhealthy, impure, virulent and ultimately.  It is revolting and polluting. But as American historian William Appleman Williams showed in his Empire as a Way of Life, this strategy of making foreign what is autochthonous is a way to sanction the vilification of alleged enemies and to legislate the acceptance of internal injustices. Viruses are not foreign. They are endemic to life. Arguably, the history of humanity is also a virological history, the history of our symbiosis with viruses. To be a living biological entity is to have learned to survive and co-exist with the DNA randomizers that viruses are. The virus that is rightly seen as a vector is also the one that demonstrates there are no foreign viruses.  It show that there are no foreign bodies, which, all alone, serve as the carriers of virus. If instead of speaking of a theodicy—of god’s (in)justice as expressed in the form pandemic, which kills indiscriminately—we spoke of anthropodicy, of the justice of the being of the human, we might even say that we humans are the virus that is killing the planet. Such language puts us on the slippery slope of a misanthropic rhetoric, though. It would be better, I think, simply to remember that we are all impure.  We are our viruses: our immunological systems of resistance, our learned and acquired immunity.

Disappear. This is probably one of most irresponsible words to use when referring to a pandemic, a global health crisis. Viruses do not disappear; they either mutate, killing the host and thus killing itself, or we develop antibodies or vaccines. Viruses are DNA bandits –they steal DNA, or dissimulate by taking over DNA bits. They use the host’s DNA as a cloaking system. In this sense, viruses are what we can call the “cunning of life,” to alter that wonderful expression of Hegel’s. To this extent, viruses are always with us.  Life itself cannot eradicate them, nor can we humans make them disappear. What we can do is learn to manage them, or to use Aesopian language, to co-exist with them. The idea that the virus will just “disappear” is the height of self-denial about the nature of pandemics and what kind of response this one demands.

Luck. This is possibly the second most irresponsible word to be using these days, or in the context of any global health crisis. Our trusted OED again: “The chance occurrence of situations or events either favourable or unfavourable to a person’s interests; the sum of chance events affecting (favourably or unfavourably) a person’s interests or circumstances; a person’s apparent tendency to have good or ill fortune.” We talk about “good” or “bad” luck with “respect” to chances, hazards, happenstance; to whatever is not in our control or within our power to determine; to what we cannot foresee. Lurking in the use of the term is a sense that some have better luck than others, because the stars have aligned in their favor, or because some divine being is guarding over their fate, like a guardian spirit or some beneficent angel. Luck thus insinuates some kind of privilege, some sense of invulnerability.  It is bound up with the idea of being a chosen one. But a virus does not discriminate on the basis of nationality, race, class, gender, of faith. This does not mean that viruses carry the vector of their lethality with the same degree of force and efficacy equally and indiscriminately. Those who have the means to “isolate” themselves, or have access to the right medical services, will be able to cope, to survive, and perhaps even develop resistance to the virus. Surviving a pandemic is not like winning the lottery.  It is more like having been the beneficiary of a robust, accessible, and affordable public healthcare system. Most importantly, public health, as we have learned from the many epidemics, influenzas, and pandemics we have lived through, is a matter of social solidarity and social justice. We may thus say: public health is the public face of social justice, i.e. public health is health justice.  It is not luck.

Deep State. This is a term that surely belongs in Orwell’s grammar of “Newspeak.” The connotation is that there is a hidden, secret, burrowed, illegitimate, undemocratic state that thwarts, undermines, disrupts, and aims to discredit the “open,” “real,” “honest,” “sincere,” “overt,” “public” state. It also has the connotation that what is being challenged, called into question, is the “real state.” Thus, when someone invokes the dog whistle language of the “deep state,” they are also thundering: “L’etat c’est moi”—The state, that is me.  Or, more directly, I am the state. Fortunately, in English at least, we have ways to undue this grammar of deligitimation and usurpation. We have the useful terms government, administration, and government powers. When the “Founding Fathers” drafted the Constitution, they specifically used the language of “Union,” “Powers,” the “granting” or “delegation” of powers, and “representatives.” It is a constitution of “States,” where each state, meaning a specific member of the Union, has its own constitution. In the United States Constitution, arguably, the term “state” appears only as something to be deconstructed. The Constitution of the United States constituted a government, not a state. States are either inherited or bequeathed, as in the “Right of Kings.” To the “State” belongs an entire political iconology, complete with pageantry and semiological seducements. But a “government” is not, and cannot be, an icon or an image, because it is an ever shifting, revolving, staggered set of peoples performing and executing different powers. A “government” speaks with the many voices of reason, science, and, above all, public deliberation. A government has no king, and a president is only one of the powers that must be checked by the other powers. True democracies have no “state.” What they have are governments and elected “administrations,” that may work hard to use the government for their ideological ends. Towards the end of his “Appendix” to 1984, Orwell, the philologist of  Newspeak, explainis how Old English had transformed into Newspeak.  He quotes the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments [note, not a state] are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…[in italics, as quoted by Orwell]

But to this our philologist of Newspeak, adds: “It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come along to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single world crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, where by Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.” It is exactly this “panegyric” on absolute government that the expression “deep state” invokes, but in reverse, which is why it is so similar to totalitarian language. It is language we should excise from our public deliberations.

Solidarity. There is a stark contrast between the language public officials in the US and in Europe are using to talk about this pandemic.  Among many, many other contrasts, one of the most telling is the absence of the language of “solidarity” from the pronouncements of US officials.  Europeans (Germans in particular) are repeatedly and emphatically referring to “social solidarity,” and “solidarity” more generally (see Chancellor Markel’s speech from 3-18-2020). Checking our reliable OED, we find the following definition for solidarity: “The fact or quality, on the part of communities, etc., of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations; spec. with reference to the aspirations or actions of trade-union members. Also attributive and in other combinations.” Solidarity is either a “fact” or a “quality.”  As a fact, solidarity means that the interests, aspirations—in general, the well being of others—is a primary interest and concern. As a quality, solidarity is a virtue, i.e. a way in which publics behave towards their members. A democracy, one might say, represents the extension of solidarity to each and every member of the polity, regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Solidarity is democratic love. Your interests, will be my interests; my interests will be your interests. We shall share burdens and benefits.  Where there are undue or maldistributed burdens, we will make every effort to shoulder them together. In an essay from the early nineties, titled, most appropriately, “Justice and Solidarity: On the Discussion Concerning ‘Stage  6’” Jürgen Habermas set out to show that universalism is not antithetical to social solidarity.  Both are indispensable, he pointed out, for the pursuit of democratic equality and justice. Blind justice is guided by solidarity: it may not see, but it is impartially concerned for the well being of each who stands before it to make her or his claims. There is a beautiful sentence in the essay that eloquently describes the entwinement of solidarity and justice: “every requirement of universalization must remain powerless unless there also arises, from membership in an ideal communication community, a consciousness of irrevocable solidarity, the certainty of intimate relatedness in a shared life context” (my italics). I would interpret this sentence, given our present “shared life context,” in the following way: every justice claim, every claim to fairness, remains silent unless it is given voice—and ears to hear—by the expectation that we are the agents and benefactors of “irrevocable solidarity,” that we share in an “intimate social relatedness.” This pandemic is making all too evident how much we belong to a “community of life,” to use Enrique Dussel’s beautiful expression, in which we have a claim to justice as well as to solidarity.  One cannot exist without the other. Solidarity and Justice are the highest virtues of a democracy. A pandemic is surely the most extreme challenge to our democratic virtuousness and healthcare institutions. Let us attend not only to what language we speak, but also to what we wittingly or unwittingly say with it.  Let us not forget to whom, for whom, and for what public good we are speaking.

Eduardo is professor of philosophy in central Pennsylvania, has volunteered to teach in Prisons, and presently in isolation drawing cartoons and writing poems for his friends. With two friends, they are keeping a international diary of the pandemic.

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