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Art by Arsène Marquis.
The power of language
Language is not neutral. It shapes what we can and can’t say, and how we say it. It gives us the flesh of our worldview, the bits and pieces we use to express everything we feel, and everything we think. At the same time, in the exact same gesture, it marks out the edges of this worldview, the places where words dry up, our voices with them.
Language was born of power. The worldview it puts together is not banal, the product of some aseptic or immaterial history. It is the view of the dominant ideology, of a series of beliefs that structure capitalist society and push it forward. The “what” and “how” of language – the ideas it makes sayable, the images it lays out before us, the spaces of discussion it opens and forecloses – are entirely determined by the people in power.
Language is a vector of capitalist ideology, and capitalism centres around norms, an ideal of the subject. It works to frustrate the expression of lives beyond a male, cisgender, white, heterosexual, able-bodied norm, to make them unspeakable. We have made up our own words to describe ourselves, and the violence done to us. We have reclaimed words once used against us. Language rubs out our bodies as lived, redraws them in its own image. We see this when we look beyond it.
Language and ideology move forward together, confirm each other in reciprocity, so that the space for speaking to life outside the norm tapers to nothing. Health, too, is an ideal. It points to the logic of maximal productivity, the need to extract the most work from people. In a society underwritten by this logic, there is no place for illness. The sick and the unwell embody the limits of the capitalist project, the flaw in its founding logic. There can be no space to talk of illness as it is lived, or for people to take up “being ill” as a political identity.
There are no words to express pain, of any kind. Part of the agony of illness, of periods, of sexual violence, comes from our having everything to say and no way to say it. When we are sick, or in pain, or traumatised, language comes apart in our throats. We choke on the unsaid. Sometimes, we speak to something, make our own words. Write poems, or poetry. We place, here and there, the rough-hewn bricks of something to be built, but not yet so.
As it picks apart our vocal cords, language rips the telling of our stories from our hands. Our silence pays testimony to the vice of a language found wanting. And yet, it is taken for our complicity. If nothing is being said, there must be nothing to say. Above the silence, the story of illness comes to be told in the third person. It unfolds through the plagiarism of lives and bodies. And the sick – bound up and mutilated – can do little to stop it.
Silencing the “others”
Only a real human discourse could communicate illness as it is lived, as is stretches out through time. In its place, society is fed a diet of crumbs and old chestnuts: the story of an illness that moves on, leaves no mark, that is scrubbed of pain and fluids. Enraptured, we lap up a whole mythology of illness, where the hero always gets the better of his condition. Where he takes back his rightful place in society, and becomes productive once again.
The foundations are laid out. There is the good sick person, who doesn’t complain, who stays upbeat, who recovers, who regains his strength and who, needless to say, is rarely a woman, and even more rarely a person of colour, or poor, or fat. And there are the others. Those already shunned for their race, their gender, their bodies. Those who cry out and moan, or whose bodies are marked or twisted with illness, carry its slant. And above all, those who refuse to contort themselves (back) into the injunction to productivity.
They must be silenced, at all costs. Stories of illness that inspire concern or disgust make sick people into human beings. They embody a refusal of the requirement for us to create, to invest, to (re)produce endlessly. Their silence is imperative. The sick must be emptied of any substance, stripped of their humanity. The human urge to identify with others must be fractured, rent apart: there must be no empathy, no connection, no reciprocity.
The sick person must be different, “other”. Must not be “us”. That is, apart from the “good” sick person, the one who gets better, or who keeps quiet. He knows his role well, doesn’t blush, doesn’t corpse as he plays the model citizen. He is welcomed back into the fold, the ranks of “us”, with open arms. A golden example of state values. A person we would do well to identify with, a figurehead for the requirement to be ever more productive.
But if sick people make too much noise, or the wrong noise, or if they defy the injunction to get better, they are firmly pushed out of the “us” that claims to be universal. Are made to be “them”. Just as people of colour, queer people, disabled people are pushed out. Along with the fat, and the ugly. Along with women who wear burqas or niqabs. Society folds itself in two, bisects itself into those who are complicit, and those who never could be.
Language firms up this distinction. Makes it seem natural, organic even. Language defines the parameters of our worldview: the duplicity of society is taken up and reproduced as given in every dialogue, every discourse. Language gives voice to those within the norm to take it from those without. It works to strip us of the stories and the bodies that we have given and that we still give everything to articulate.
And us, the others, not the “us” of society, we are left screaming and soundless. We have no pens, no paper, no tongue, no windpipe, even, to speak up or out. They hand us words to talk about our bodies: disinfected, hard, unable to convey the truth that we live. They weigh us, measure us. Rummage about inside us. They talk about our bodies and our pain in a foreign language. The language of doctors, of pathology and pharmaceuticals.
With careful, gloved hands, medicine amputates our tongue (that already was hanging by a thread). It cuts out our voice box, sews up our lips, and all in the name of science.
Metaphors, or the dust in our eyes
The exercise of rewriting our stories relies upon metaphor. […] Metaphors paint illness as war. The sick are fighters: they fight against disease. Or they are victims, people who lost their battle with illness. And doctors, for their part, have a whole therapeutic arsenal at their disposal. Illness is also invasion: of foreign bodies that break down, that infest, that eat away. Imperceptibly. A violation of the borders of the body. We talk about illness in these ways, and often without recognising the damage.
The primary function of metaphor is to convey an idea. To attach, through image and association, a set of meanings to something. And because the metaphors used to talk about illness are taken for granted, the meanings they convey are too. When illness is war, we must speak of an enemy. When there are victims, we must talk of guilt. When there is invasion, we must point to an outside, and an outsider. Metaphor has naturalised a vision of illness that speaks to foul play, to the existence of a hostile, foreign element. An enemy.
In a society that takes up metaphor unthinkingly, the intimate affair of lived illness is reworked into a story of two halves, ripe for public consumption. Refracted through this artifice, the sick person is called upon to play victim and culprit. But they are the only person in the line-up. Society finds them guilty. The trial was staged, it had to be: in the duplicitous logic that splices up society, health equals innocence, and illness equals guilt.
And if or more exactly when the sick person is found guilty, they lose their rights. They are not owed anything. No sympathy. No care that is deemed unnecessary, or too expensive. No time-consuming explanations. No attention paid to the ways that their body is touched or moved. No need to invite them to parties or to meetings. No adequate support from the state. No adjustments to the social landscape to level things out. Society points to their guilt and refuses to pay a penny more than it deems necessary on improving their lives.
It suits the established “us” to have a reason to banish the sick. They were always looking for one. They are loath to be reminded that illness can happen to anyone. They jump on this fiction, lap it up. It’s an international bestseller. The moral of the story? Illness is the sum total of poor life choices. If you get sick, you asked for it.
Society takes up this mantra, learns it by heart. Greedily. In desperation, almost. It beats beneath every conversation, every piece of gossip, every children’s story. As if immunity could be learned off by heart. As if making fiction into fact was the only vaccine we ever needed. They slip on the emperor’s new clothes, and drink to their good health.
The imperative to other
Sick people are pushed out, come to find themselves in the margins with the rest of us. Here is the underside of the logic of production: the logic of destruction. They go hand in hand. What must be destroyed? Anything and everything that points to the flaws in the capitalist project. A project that is also that of white supremacy, of the Church, of the heterosexual family, of the gender binary, of the beauty myth. It seeks to erase any body that is undesirable: deformed, lacking, dirty, corrupted. Any body that ruins the view.
It wasn’t enough to cut out our tongues. They must cut us out of their world.
After all, there isn’t enough to go around. A nontruth made truth. Not enough money, not enough housing, not enough love. People must be made to set themselves apart, fight among themselves, tear resources from each other’s hands. To struggle with one another, rather than against the system. All in the name of a hierarchy of value that itself is pure façade. Thought up by rich white men who wanted to eat their lobster in good conscience. Take care, sir, remorse doesn’t pair well with the delicate flavour of oysters.
But they aren’t serving lobster in hospital. Nor are they serving oysters. The entire apparatus of the regime tends toward reproducing the distinction between “us” and “them”, making it real. That’s the real pearl of capitalism: all of society is dragged into an endless struggle to be recognised as one of “us” and, to do so, must make a point of designating the people who should be “others”. Game, set, and match.
Except the game was rigged from the start. Majority rules, you see. You only have to put two and two together. […] And sick people, of course, will always be in the minority. Will see themselves confined to the margins. At least until they recover, if that is even possible. If the cost of recovery isn’t too high. Some will, and will take up their place among the ranks of “us”. Will turn their pockmarked, purpling skin inside out and slip back into the norm. Others won’t be able to. Still more others were already cast out. The winds of change blow softly indeed.
In all this, every new illness, every new nonwhite ethnicity, every new expression of sexual desire, in short, any new way of being a body will take up this distinction of “us” and “them” when it emerges in Europe or North America. Its place is already laid out, neat, level. Has been for ever. Since the capitalist project birthed a need for the “us” to endlessly observe and appraise, to cleave ways of being a body into the palatable and the unsavoury, the appealing and the disgusting. The new, the foreign, the not-“us”, must always be “other”.
A virus like any other
Coronavirus is nothing new. Not for us, anyway. Not for the “others” who have seen this before. With the first whispers of plague we could make out the sound of the old machine coughing back into action. Unhinging its jaw. We watched from afar as politicians passed notes to one another, shared wide wry smiles. We watched up close as suspicion spread through the streets. We saw, because we’ve seen it before, how your eyes grew weary, how you pulled your children in tighter, how you crossed the street at the sight of us.
Maybe it will be different, this time. After all, you talk of heroes and victims, of doctors who get sick and who die, even. We know that anyone can get ill. Maybe the sick will be spared, this time. How can society cut itself up, find an “us” and a “them”, when everyone could have the virus, or spread it? And after all, haven’t we been told that “we’re in this together”? That we all have a part to play in the “national effort”?
All of these things are true. Except: the unity of some implies the disunity of others. Their exclusion. We can only come together in the face of something, or someone, else. And to talk of a “national effort”, we must have a nation. And nation, at its very root, implies non-nation, foreignness: the logic beneath national unity is that of international disunity. So that the “we” who are “in this together” is not everyone, but a specific subsection of society, “us”. The powerful wave these grand ideals in the air, their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Lest we forget: we are at war. The entire country is being called up. The contours of our world are redrawn as war zones. Our hospitals are the front line, the trenches. Our doctors and nurses are soldiers, heroes, martyrs. There are field hospitals, and war cabinets. The air grows heady with the sick-sweet perfume of nostalgia. For blitz spirit, for wars gone by, for national heroes. Even the Queen does a turn, gets us all dancing to the beat, humming along to Vera Lynn’s wartime classic. “We’ll meet again.” We get drunk on the past.
People must be made to see: we are under attack. Bombarded on all fronts. In the minds of the public, Europe has become a battlefield. And to speak of war is to speak of an adversary: foreign, hostile, savage, immoral, infidel. To point to a mysterious not-us who is the antithesis, the exact opposition of our national values. “Nation” has long since been a synonym for “us”. The amalgam of enemy and “others” is a foregone conclusion.
But coronavirus is not a war. It is a virus. It has no will, no ill intentions. The war metaphor implies a force that is hostile, belligerent: the virus is neither.
Coronavirus, our worst enemy
When the virus is pictured as an invasion, people begin to look around themselves to find the source, the enemy within. The danger could be anywhere. The killer hides in plain sight, commits atrocities in broad daylight. Invasion drives our obsession with people who don’t have symptoms, and with “super-spreaders”. Perhaps the enemy knows they have the virus, perhaps they don’t. Anyone could be culpable. Society becomes a house of cards, a shifting mesh of mutual suspicion, where everyone is guilty until proven innocent.
The enemy takes shape, or better, takes shapes. It could be the person who coughs, their mouth uncovered, or the people who stray too close to one another. Perhaps it is the kid out skateboarding in the street, when everyone should be home, or the elderly or disabled person who rests for too long on a park bench. It may be the hoarder who has bought up all our supplies. The eye of suspicion falls on them, takes note, moves on. Social media echoes endlessly with hysteria, the same few tales of defying the new world order.
In the ardent exchange of accusations and hearsay, the enemy fills out. It remains foreign and hostile and cunning, but distends out in different directions. It accumulates sins and flaws. This is Schrödinger’s enemy, a figure of paradox whose inconsistencies only add to its menace. The enemy we weave is both active and passive, both the malicious agent of infection and its unknowing accomplice. In the first case, it is the criminal, spiteful, the epitome of evil. In the second, it is reckless and foolish. Either way, it is dangerous.
And yet, even as it takes form, it still lacks a face. Better still, it has too many faces. The enemy could be anything: it becomes a repository for everything we despise. The enemy could be anyone: it won’t be. Society is already riven with a distinction between the good and the bad, the “us” and the “them”. Irresistibly, the new division takes up the old one: “us” has always been shorthand for citizen and patriot, just as “them” was always code for enemy, for “other”. The new sustains the claims of the old, and vice versa. Ad absurdum.
This is how the tale unfolds. How they rewrite history before it takes place, a history that, in any case, couldn’t have been written any other way. Us, the “others”, we saw it coming. We’re used to being your scapegoats. The mistrust in your eyes is nothing new. Nor is your presumption of our guilt. Queer, people of colour, sick, disabled: we’ve grown up with the burn of your eyes on our napes, the frisk of your intrusive hands. We’ve long borne the weight of an identity marked out as improper, impure, ignorant, inferior.
The real collateral damages
Still, we see the danger. Better than most. Those of us who have made our homes in the margins, who drape ourselves in shadows: we already pay handsomely for our sins. We are long shed of our illusions. The costs will be extortionate. Not least because now, we are no longer abstract threat, some menace on the horizon, but the enemy of the people. The angel of death itself. The hands around the throats of those who grow cold.
We were once the possibility of the destruction of society. Now, we are its realisation.
Our lives were already precarious. Many of us don’t have homes, or heating, or a way to feed ourselves. We work part-time, on zero-hours contracts, or on no contract at all. If we even have a job, that is. We were already in financial ruin, isolated, exposed. We already lived violence of all kinds, everywhere. In public and in private. We were already walking on eggshells. And so we clench our teeth, and wait for you to strike.
Not directly, of course. Not most of the time. You only have to bide your time. Our bodies are depleted: from where they are left untreated, or starving, or red and wincing with the violence of your hands or your mouths. Illness is not a neutral event. It takes place in our bodies, that are run down, that are marked with addictions or violence. Our immunity has been compromised: we are more likely to get sick, and more likely to suffer complications.
To be clear: we are going to die more quickly and in greater numbers than you. In your prisons: you’ll say we shouldn’t have broken the law. In your clinics, your care homes: you’ll say that we were vulnerable, we were already on the way out. (At least now the kids can have the house.) Rather you than “us”, the good ones. The healthy, innocent ones.
And when we die, who will count the bodies? Who will count the bodies of the homeless who die in the street or in shelters, of hunger or cold or of a lack of care, because people still don’t give a fuck? Who will count the bodies of the women killed by their partners? Of the men killed by theirs? Who will count the bodies of the people who take their own lives after months of abuse, or of isolation? We aren’t holding out any hope.
Because if we are the enemy, if we are guilty, then we don’t deserve your sympathy. We don’t even deserve your healthcare. When we fall ill, we confirm your suspicions. Stoke the fire of division and, in doing so, further undermine our claims to fair treatment. The hierarchy of value that already determined our possibilities comes to determine the value of our lives. How much is a life worth? Very little, it would seem, if it’s one of ours.
This is how you justify what should be – what are – impossible choices: of who gets help, of who we care for, of who deserves a bed. Of who we save, and who we leave to die. (You leave us to die.) In your eyes, that see in metaphors, we deserve to die: we are to blame for our own sickness as well as other people’s. Here is the function of the division of society: it reduces our claim to equal treatment, to compassion and care, to humanity.
Inhuman, and prohibited from reclaiming our humanity, our lives are worthless.
Perhaps the deepest irony is that we can’t die. Not in your eyes, at least. We were never alive, never full subjects to you: how could we die? We were only ever the outline of a body stripped of emotion or desire or pain. Because language has stamped out our capacities for storytelling. And it is in the exact space that separates from society, the space of silence, that is charged with the unsaid and the unsayable, that we expire, soundlessly. You will throw our bodies in nameless graves, and try to forget.
(This essay has been abridged for this publication.)