PANDEMIC, PANIC, PAN

Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián – May 2020

 

Too much freedom was given to me all at once, freedom to make those I miss live again, freedom to pursue the apparitions standing real before me.

Suzanne Césaire[i]

 

We are being educated in unfreedom. We are being relentlessly brutalized, blind-folded and repressed in myriad ways by a narcissistic archenemy who hides in a thicket of telecommunications networks and exhibits himself obscenely as a compound image of disconnected, defeated, sub-natural phantasmagoria. Welcome to the orgiastic celebration of total power and the fulfilment of implacable annihilation in the name of fabulous profit for the powerful few. We navigate an age of vertiginous obsolescence and disposability, feeding the planetary landfill at incalculable speed. In the worldwide scenarios of a common confinement, what stays and what returns? This is not a fable, but a mirror image of a fragmented process. Call it modernity or colonialism, exploitative neoliberalism or extractivism. Call it the current COVID-19 pandemic. The image splits.

The biopolitical stakes are transcendental. In a few weeks we, transient citizens, detainees, immigrants, all en route, have transitioned swiftly from a fragmented panorama of latent biopolitical junctures onto the terra incognita of planetary necropolitics. Hypermodernity, accelerated capitalism and pleonexia caaaaaame toooo aaaa haaaaaaalt, staggered on the verge of regression like a squealing locomotive. For a short period, we heard birdsong, saw wildlife reclaim our cities, breathed cleaner air and beheld the twinkling stars on the crisp midnight skies. These last few weeks have been an experiment in regression, an ironic reckoning with the camp and retro foundations of the neoliberal landfill. The air is too crisp, the trees are exuberant. Is this hay fever or the virus?

Many images have entered our consciousness uninvited, turning seductive and frightening in their apparent innocence. They have projected themselves like old films against a thick fog, like visitations from the depths of our collective unconscious, yet they are intimately associated to individual experiences and lived trajectories. Because images structure how we are collectively represented and represent ourselves in the world, we remain attentive to unexpected turns in our imaginaries, aware that they will require new modes of biopolitical alertness and corporeal action. We reflect below on one of those uninvited images that for us encapsulates the scenes of transmission and confinement.

I

It is said that once a man entered into a friendship with a satyr
Aesop[ii]

Pan seduces Daphnis, who holds the flute meekly, concentrating on the first lesson, wondering cautiously at the magical object that carries the enigma of music, storytelling and song. This knowledge can be accessed by conscientious application and practice, until the skill becomes second nature, declaring the wisdom and introspection of the lyrical shepherd community. (We are reminded of Miguel Hernández, the Spanish goatherd who perished in a fascist prison after being jailed for his Communist engagement during the Spanish Civil War. He, too, lived and wrote poetry in confinement, and died of tuberculosis). Musical and literary practices are transmitted through intimacy, seclusion and sensory attentiveness.

Pan and Daphnis. Roman marble copy after a Greek sculpture by Heliodorus, ca. 100 BCE.
Collection of the Naples Museum of Archeology.

Astute and well-seasoned in the arts of strategic deceit and pastoral paideia, Pan holds the young Daphnis by the bare shoulder, his rugged hands guiding the youth’s own unskilled hand in the appropriate direction. After centuries of demonization and bad press, by the likes of Jerome of Stridon, Augustine of Hippo, and Isidore of Seville, Pan, and the satyrs and fauns, were condemned to pestilent marginality as the carriers of obscenity, indecency and bestiality. But in this pagan image of an allegorical encounter we discern two sentient beings engaging in erotico-musical intercourse. The young Daphnis’ world mirrors our own narcissistic fantasies of limitless reproduction and growth echoing across colonizable space. Pan hails from a different place, the Arcadia of natural harmony and splendor, an idealized Peloponnese of sensory co-existence and queer transmissions. For the confined islander who writes these notes, Pan and the nymphs reside in the archaic depths of laurisilva, the wet forests of the Canary Islands and Madeira.

The transmission of erotico-musical practices reminds us that cultural intelligence thrives through the sharing of material techniques, the affective configuration of cultural objects, and the memory of promiscuous transmissions. Today’s Daphnis – we, transient citizens, queer detainees, immigrants all; consumers, members of the precariat, the dying, the young – can no longer relate freely to the echoes of Pan’s long-forgotten influence upon humanity, his inspiring and fertilizing hold on humanity’s shoulder in Arcadia, the domains of Cybele and Poseidon. Instead, we surrender to the commodities that a multiply displaced labor precariat assembles in intimate contact with state-managed machines, and that we utilize and discard with little regard for Arcadia’s irreversible disfiguration and our own psychic loss.

As we accomplish the annihilation of the biosphere and total necropolitical subjugation, we are told that we can develop a means to limit and eventually exclude Pan’s excessive hold on us, young and old images of Daphnis. Our hyperconnected planetary consciousness deploys images of Pan as pandemic, pandemonium and panic. In the aftermath of COVID-19, we learn of ever more insidious means to trace our latent contribution to the basic reproduction number (R0). Watch where you sit: on a rock, in the company of some nymph or faun, or somewhere among the herd. We are all governed and traced, and suspected of resisting well-justified biopolitical surveillance. We are all potential saboteurs. Remember the 1980s and ‘90s, imagine this in the midst of the AIDS pandemic. We know how Pan, a figure of interspecies transmission and contagion – a figure of relational co-habitation and common sensory freedoms –, was represented and disfigured to preserve homophobic fantasies of young Daphnis as a biopolitically reprogrammable ego ideal. Through this sanitized image of separation and autonomy, the transmission and circulation of erotico-musical practices was effectively contained and progressively evicted from the common imagination. We call this integration, but the image splits.

 

II

 

On distributing the story into smaller proportions that will correspond to the capacity of absorption of our mouths, the capacity of vision of our eyes, and the capacity of bearing of our bodies.

Trinh T. Minh-ha[iii]

Who are the muses of confinement? Which ideological talents do they whisper? We write these notes as islanders and members of a confined intellectual diaspora. Pondering the clear night skies in North East England, we have wondered about different ways of scrutinizing the stars across the ages, from Athens to Yanomami territory. Remembering our sleeping bag excursions to Mount Teide, we have thought about the urgent need for communal lucidity, elucidation, a patiently negotiated clarity. Unable to plan, we have felt excluded from historical and temporal perspective. How shall we chronicle this stasis? How shall we narrate the recent and the unreachable? The scene in the shape of a marble sculpture comes to us from the mythical depths of European consciousness, a fantasy of an ideal Europe that we have questioned for a long time. Its sculpted anecdote urges us to consider the value of distant and remote images of ourselves.

We extract the Earth’s riches and ravage the biosphere to satisfy our lustful pleonexia. We do this efficiently and in the name of self-evident technological conquest, rational utilitarianism, economic acceleration and exorbitant progress. But the music is gone, the future has vanished, Daphnis sits alone and sick, having become more marble than human. The arcane practices he learned from Pan had helped him to live as a human among other species. The warm caress, the deep and gentle hum, the musky odor of a fellow creature, are all signs born of a common planet. The space of this intimate encounter is the wilderness, a realm of enigmatic life forms and sensuous transmissions. Its libidinal economy reverberates with the long-lost fantasy of Arcadian innocence and proto-agrarian coexistence: an economy of immediacy and exposure, unregulated vulnerability and sensory interdependence.

We listen to the radio and watch documentary and fiction films, impromptu “home videos” and audiovisual pieces streamed for us on a permanent basis. We turn to personal archives in search of places, experiences, environments, and vivid recollections from the time of normality. We delight in a fresh appreciation for practices of recovery, reassembling, recontextualizing materials from a limited past dating back to our grandparents’ shared memories, communicated in familiar intimacy and carrying the distorted echoes of a now remote past century. The experience of confinement enables the rediscovery of limited temporalities, not abyssal origins; sensory evidence, not exotic longing; essential listening and remembrance, not elaborate daydreaming. How much have we suppressed in the name of technological connectivity and illusion-driven ideation?

We are being educated in unfreedom. Short of global warfare, an archipelagic proliferation of sensory data from localized conflicts comes into sharp focus, translating as a permanent state of disconnection across multiple war zones. In the midst of this representational superabundance, recent conflicts are consigned to an anecdotal, interstitial regime. COVID-19 is a collapsed state of tactical elisions and compulsory connectedness. The question remains: Will we listen to Pan in the aftermath of this feverish state? “I want you to act as if your house was on fire.”[iv] Our house is on fire and the unravelling of this devastation is streaming in “real time,” no matter how carefully we turn away from the multiply localized war archipelago. If a catastrophe is a radical or unexpected turn, and we hear predictions of an imminent return of the state to protect us from what it has been so profoundly complicit in sustaining, then we can also envision an imminent overturn of state forms. As we all turn and states turn, we can imagine an initial phototropism. Like plants, we could turn to the light or remain turned away. Will we resist the allure of a fraudulent choice between hyperproductive unfreedom and deaccelerated pandemonium?

 

III

 

Fever when you hold me tight.
Little Willie John[v]

 

Another image, of a fictional Amerindian couple in a cage, insinuates itself as we ponder the Pan and Daphnis marble. The Couple in the Cage, a 1993 video by Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia, chronicles in “real” and edited time a performance by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992-1994). Watching these images today, witnessing the public’s reactions to the itinerant display of an “indigenous” couple in a cage exhibited in museums and public spaces across the world, we immerse ourselves in an astonishing flow of racist stereotypes, cultural prejudices, and gut reactions to an event that is calculated to elicit scopophilic panic and uncomfortable public debate. The spectacle brings us momentarily closer to the experiences of the displaced and the detained. As we prepare for a precarious return to public space, and re-enter the deserted streets of the recent past, how much will we remember? These images count among our transitional objects.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992-1994).

Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia put Pan and Daphnis in global context. The performance they document hinges on fake discovery and ignorant wonder. Implicitly, they question how we figure, contextualize and chronicle our inadequate identifications with this and other couples in the cage and with those who visit the exhibition of an itinerant anomaly. Today, our individual performances suffer from a series of attritions: unfreedom is now re-contextualized as un-precedented, un-certain, un-clear, un-available, un-thinkable. As we absorb the expanding ripples of an event that, we are told, occurred and was meant to remain contained in distant China, we desire images from a possible future we can control. Instead, we have images of a geopolitically opaque and stagnant present. As the fog lifts (for how long?), a renewed awareness of systemic institutional failure, fractured state protection, and corporate entropy extends like a nightmarish panorama of imminent devastation.

The seduction scene is a figure of timeless encounter in the optimal dreamworld of prelapsarian Arcadia. It is also a reminder of our own impermanence as spectators at the dystopic performance of planetary catastrophe. Because we find ourselves immersed in an unstable realm of archetypal figures, these images can migrate and relocate to be experienced in multiple contexts, allowing for myriad projections and perspectives. But what do these images chronicle? We suspect that they do not measure events in the present time of confinement and social distancing, but perhaps simply register a remote and irrepressible memory of erotico-musical transmission. We are conflicted about exiting these domestic laboratories of the confined body-mind. We are ambivalent about waking up entirely or too abruptly from this intermediary kingdom of imaginary visitations and apparitions that nonetheless constitutes us partially as static travelers and caged detainees. It could be a long journey back to the other end.

We reflect upon this sudden reorganization of our sensory capacities; this realignment of proximity, scale, and perception. We are co-opted to subtend “the economy” and the markets, tutelary specters of permanent planetary disorder that excrete their subjects, rendering our modes of existence obsolete, rendering us disposable. We fear further unfreedom as we witness a feverish reorganization of our private and communal economies. What shall we make of this ostensibly limited and disorienting time, when we consider our affective economies and sensory commitments? A fierce assault on the aesthetico-political promise of this and future moments of occlusion and aperture is certain to occur and gain force in the shape of new pandemic, environmental, and technological panics. As we step out of immobility, what new demands will shape how we mobilize? What images will guide our imaginary projections, our commitment to freedom? The memory of Herculaneum and Pompeii will still haunt us. Will we also remember Haiti and Syria, the Amazon and Lesbos, and all the walls?


[i] Suzanne Césaire, The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945), ed. Daniel Maximin, trans. Keith L. Walker (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 21.

[ii] Aesop, “The Man and the Satyr,” The Complete Fables, trans. Olivia and Robert Temple (London: Penguin, 1998), 48.

[iii] Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Keepers and transmitters,” Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 123.

[iv] Greta Thumberg, “Cathedral Thinking,” No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (London: Penguin, 2019), 45.

[v] Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell, “Fever,” performed by Little Willie John, 1956.