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A metaphysics of presence: philosophy in corona-time

There are levels of response to Covid. We see increased expressions of commitment to others: e.g. volunteering with food deliveries, or sign-ups to community newsgroups.


Steve Latham


However, there is also the need for these same food deliveries, to families with parents laid-off, or ‘furloughed’ (where the money is never enough to pay all the bills).

Nevertheless, ours are first-world problems. A Zimbabwean friend tells me they only have water two days a week, probably soon reduced to one: how to wash hands with soap in warm water there? Moreover, the now-ubiquitous online video calls are themselves tiring. We’re discovering too that it doesn’t matter whether people’s vlogs possess good lighting; we want people whom we can trust.

The heavy psychological weight of Coronavirus (responsible for many instances of stress headaches or insomnia) makes concentration on work difficult, and causes uncertainty about the future.

Decisions about weddings, holidays, and business plans, are being put ‘on hold’, delayed until ‘this is all over’ (a phrase we’re becoming used to).

The very conditions for our survival act to prevent collective action: instead of solidarity, separation, isolated in our own homes to prevent infection.

One local community leader told me the pandemic is so “totalising”, that it’s now the only thing we can talk about.

Even when we discuss something else, such as the demand for cancer treatments delayed by the virus, or the war in Yemen, it’s always in the light of Covid. It dominates our every thought.

All the varied, vague, and vaporous, concerns of our culture, are now condensed into this one focus of attention

Like Frederic Jameson’s “Political Unconscious”, Corona is nevertheless something we try to repress, but which pops back up. It lingers at the back of our mind, niggling away.

Unlike the concept of ‘false consciousness’, it’s not wrong, but a reality which we prefer to not know that we know.

Hence the phenomenon of people now avoiding the TV news, where they had earlier avidly consumed any details, because now they/we are tired and want to ignore it.

Jacques Derrida used to criticise the prioritisation of “presence” in western thought. Instead, he claimed, there is only an “absence”, revealed by “traces” of what once was.

Today, it’s the opposite – nothing but “presence”, the presence of Covid, a background radiation; a negative presence, the presence of a negative – a dis-presence.

Covid, or rather its psycho-cultural reification, is like Jean Baudrillard’s “black hole”, which sucks everything in, and lets nothing out. No other thought is possible during Corona-time.

And yet, an actual back hole also projects outward plumes of gas. What energy must be needed to overcome its super-gravity?

Perhaps then there is a way out of Corona-time, more akin to Paul Virilio’s phantasmatic metaphor of possibility: “escape velocity”?

We need a kind of epidemiological “Great Escape”. But how to discover an equivalent of Steve McQueen’s daring motorcycle launch over the prison fence?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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