Not Knowing Introduces Itself

By Adnan Softić

The new co-creative exhibition project of ifa EVROVIZION.CROSSING STORIES AND SPACES wants to explore the current socio-political situation in Europe while touring for several years. The first public event was supposed to be a get-together in Sarajevo, but the corona virus made it impossible for the project participants to meet. In his essay, Sarajevo-born author, visual artist and director Adnan Softić, who lives in Berlin, reflects on the virus and how to deal with the pandemic.

Ships with Goods © Adnan Softić

Nearly two decades ago, soon after 11 September 2001, photographs of the US president at the time, George W. Bush, appeared in the media, clearly showing grazes on his left cheek and a small cut on his lower lip. It looked as though someone had thrown a shoe at him. But this was apparently not the case, either then or at any time thereafter. The president had choked on a pretzel while watching television, and this had irritated his vagus nerve1, which then signalled to his heart to reduce its rate, and this led to him fainting and falling …

During the greatest crisis his country had seen since the Second World War, the most heavily guarded man in the world was nearly killed by a pretzel. This was not in the sights of his security team – in an instant a tiny piece of bread highlighted the gaps in every system of defence, and then all of that was forgotten again, just because risks like these cannot be planned for. The 'pretzel' file is closed, as an acceptable loss of control. Period.

Thus, this incident had no consequences, and life went on as usual. The war on terror and its total surveillance package, the 'US Patriot Act,' was implemented. The need to completely control all imaginable areas of the social fabric could even be seen as an ironic lesson learned from the 'pretzel' incident.

Preferred animosities and well-rehearsed phobias

Today a primitive biological structure – as thick as a plank, one might say – has managed in just a few weeks to bring the most powerful countries in the world to a standstill and to provide people there with their first ever experience of an emergency situation. The world we knew is no longer turning. And here too the disaster has evolved in ways that no catastrophe profiling could have predicted.

It was clear that the governments of this world were not prepared, and it was obvious that existing scientific expertise on pandemics was of no significance to them. There was no file ready with even remotely appropriate measures for action, and even if there was one, it was simply ignored. Although everyone knows that pandemics may break out at any time, this one nonetheless seemed to come right out of a blind spot, bringing everything to a halt and showing that our horizons of security and safety are just not as we thought.

Our preferred animosities and well-rehearsed phobias would have us believe that the apocalypse will most probably come as a result of nuclear war, a terrorist attack or the overwriting of identity caused by migration. These already established doomsday fantasies serve as a basis for evaluating what the system needs at all costs and where savings can be made. In short, what is of value and what is not. The governments of this world clearly did not take viruses into account.

This makes our present realisation even more interesting, that all of a sudden notoriously underpaid supermarket staff, carers and the institutions they work for – or generally all invisible reproductive labour, like washing, caring and cooking – are far more valuable than unaffordable Patriot missiles or even more expensive surveillance systems. But what shall be done with these insights? Will life go on as normal after the pandemic, or will the parameters defining the ‘true’ danger shift, and with them our system of values?

Large changes are not based on just one beginning but always on several. I am thinking here of all the catastrophes we have become so accustomed to that we no longer even notice them. Many millions of people die every year of hunger, malaria, the consequences of climate change, in wars … phenomena that have long been responsible for the endless processes of migration that Europe in turn is doing its best to ignore. But all of these well-known catastrophes take place in more or less 'tidy' ways – at an appropriate distance that is reinforced through the drawing of firm borders. We have become used to them; indeed, they have become part of our culture. They are the markers we will leave behind us, and future generations will correctly understand us in terms of these markers.

Here is an idea: if our behaviour can be so radically changed as a result of COVID-19, then shouldn't we also be changing how we behave with respect to all these other catastrophes?

Ships with goods © Adnan Softić

The other equates to our own death

In physical terms, our horizons are very limited when we are isolated, but the horizons of our imagination are now vast. In various incubation spaces of the mind the new age after the virus is being busily imagined.

The politics of national entities, which were always in thrall to the belief that everything could be controlled, are in no way learning their lessons from SARS-CoV-2. On the contrary, their thinking just confirms the notions of social health and ethnic and cultural hygiene that they operated with in the past. In this understanding, illness was always a sign of the other that comes from outside and infects and destroys the intact sovereign subject. Migrants, just like all others that seem in whatever way alien to this subject, mutate in this world view to viruses and are perceived as aggressors. Looking through the 'find the pathogen' lens unleashes imaginary effects that can transform an illness that needs to be taken seriously into a totalitarian catastrophe. The sovereign subject believes it must combat others to be successful, and thus every form of regression, atrophy and decease is automatically seen in conjunction with the other. Put simply, the other equates to our own death. Control societies need no longer be concerned that terrorism has lost its function as the justification for extraordinary action. In many countries we are witnessing an advanced trend towards turning the state of emergency into the normal paradigm of government. Intelligent surveillance and other automated executive instruments are now ripe for market, and their dark horizons of fear are already in view. China is approaching total surveillance with its own highly developed technical tools, and this leads to a new discipline encompassing all social processes. Video surveillance in private spaces, with no blind spots, gives the controlling authorities a panoptic view of the private lives of unwanted minorities … The leaked China Cables put it like this: 'effectively resolve ideological contradictions, and guide away students from bad emotions.'2 The term 'bad emotions' indicates a psychological disorder, while the national state becomes an isolated subject with emotions. This development is not new, but rather a continuation of developments in the twentieth century. The danger of national states with identity neuroses clashing up against each other is again very real.

Membranes and peripheral areas instead of fixed borders

There is another perspective, however, that brings a very different metaphor for this illness into play. The global economy, the cultural industry and science are attempting to explain that there is no distinct self and that mutations and transformations should be understood as a fundamental driving force of development. We no longer speak of fixed borders separating one thing from the other but of membranes and peripheral areas that permit both permeability and demarcation at the same time. We are observing the permanent exchange between different natural processes and discovering that entities are modifiable forms. Within us, as humans, live other complex entities, and we are ourselves bound up in an even more complex entity. Seen in this light, the idea of a distinct sovereign self seems to be very fragile indeed, or even false, and it certainly is not a useful idea. The other and the self are no longer in opposition – instead, they permeate each other in a search for balance. This pandemic is the proof that we require a different normality and a different understanding of ourselves in order to achieve this balance and something approaching the general good.

Heimatmuseum © Adnan Softić

Does the virus have an ideology?

There is a fundamental question at stake here, whether a pandemic may be remotely suitable as a messenger and whether it makes sense to generate metaphors from an illness. Does the virus have an ideology that it wishes to disseminate via its hosts?

Totalitarian vs. universal: two contrary models of the world struggling for dominance in the battle over the transformation of society. It seems to me that both sides are just reflecting their pre-existing perspectives, convictions and utopias in this pandemic, and thereby also considerably reinforcing them. In this game, the virus is a picture puzzle that permits different views depending on the status of knowledge and interests. On the one hand, viruses remain dangerous infiltrators, while, on the other, they are indispensable life-giving elements and a constituent part of all complex life forms. There are 10³¹ individual viruses, making them the most common and yet the least understood form of life on our planet. Less than one per cent of them are pathogenic. There are viruses that generate cells and also viruses that can fight cancer cells … primitive or perhaps in fact highly complex?

One thing is for sure, however: the SARS-CoV-2 virus is highlighting the limits of our knowledge. We are undergoing the experience of not knowing and are staring uncertainty right in the eyes, and no one can say for sure what is happening and what is going to happen.

The links between cause and effect (and this applies to the Anthropocene too) are not open to direct experience. The consequences of an action in the here and now do become manifest somewhere and sometime, everywhere and all the time. The butterfly effect has never been as evident as it is today. But our information societies wish to give us the feeling that a global overview and total control are feasible. We therefore need a very different approach in order to develop the sensitivities that can counter this striving for the total view and lay open the complexity and confusion of processes, while offering constructive strategies for dealing with insecurity. The problem cannot be solved with fact-checking and by science alone, as science also has its own urge to keep an eye on everything, encompassing, comprehending and categorising. It too has a systemic tendency to control and lays claim to universal validity.

What we need are techniques that more precisely explore the limits of our knowledge, making the gaps and lacunae more evident, and cultivating them. Focusing on the unknown and maintaining openness and ambiguity are less common within today's scientific practice. It is more in the nature of the arts to permanently create gaps in the protective shield of the habitual and to challenge existing regimes of order and knowledge, so that 'all the rest' – the unknown, the concealed, the open, the unsaid – can show its face.

"Nonsense, show yourself!" © Adnan Softić

Empathising with the semantic zero

So much is standing still and hanging in limbo. The world we knew is not turning right now. The new ifa project EVROVIZION.CROSSING STORIES AND SPACES, which was due to start in June this year with a get-together and a symposium, cannot commence for the time being – Homi Bhabha and many interesting guests I was very much looking forward to meeting will not be able to convene. All of us who believe in the value of meetings and wish to make these happen – we won't be meeting for a while.

Instead the encounter takes place without us and perhaps this will mean that it is a bit more honest than we expected. It seems to me as if the subaltern is finally speaking out and presenting a kind of foreword. It is the non-encounter that is now introducing itself.

Doing nothing also means being able to take into account the conditions of the invisible rest. The impossibility of meeting others, of travelling or appearing somewhere and speaking for yourself is the condition of the vast majority of the world's population. In our enforced break, our own habits become visible, and the repressed residues come to the fore. This includes the profiles of all of those people we didn't realise were actually more important, and whom we wrongly placed on the periphery. New ways of thinking require a break from normality and time to explore the depths, so as to better sense the complexes of our world.

The semantic zero is something worth empathising with if we are to find the capacity to concede, in all sincerity, that no one knows what is really happening. In fact, this is a good start.