An Idiot’s Guide to COVID-19: On Doing Ethics with Viruses

By: Angela Ross Perfetti and Randall Burson II

Figure 1: Transmission electron microscopy visualization of 2019-nCoV emerging from a cell (NIH: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases n.d.)

Images like this one have circulated widely since the first New England Journal of Medicine paper describing the emergence of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. Dr. Na Zhu and colleagues use a rush of electrons to demonstrate a bizarre, mutual ensnaring of human and viral particles (2020). Even in its original context, the image is more provocation than dictum: what is this entity, and how do we come to know it? How can a viewer look at it clearly, with certainty, with a firm grasp on what it is? Viruses, odd hybrid things with an insatiable hunger for symbiosis, have defamiliarizing effects on classical concepts of singular human biology and even life itself (Hoag 2019; Helmreich 2015). For many natural forms and for viruses in particular, how we know, what we know, and what “it” is are interrelated. Ways of responding–knowing about, speaking of, and behaving toward–are acts that materialize the pandemic. How do these interconnected stakes inflect an ethics of producing knowledge in this climate of urgency? Building on Isabelle Stengers’ metaphor of the “idiot,” we propose a practice of opening intervening spaces in order to attend to the consequences and foreclosures inherent to the work of human-viral knowing.

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus is an emergent phenomenon of mutating forms, knotted with multispecies biologies and billions of hospitable doorknobs. This viral moment meets a rich heritage of cultural critique interrogating science and the ontologies its apparatuses produce (Latour 1991; Haraway 1994; and many others). These works characterize a shift from concerns about the politics of representation to the conditions that underpin the constructive work of knowing (Law 2004; Mol 2002). Feminist scholars of science trace the emergence of observed phenomena through a set of enacted relations and positive work that “we” do with “it.”[1] In this framework, matter, meaning, and representation are inseparable and co-constitutive, neither existing prior to the other (Barad 2007).

Viral forms evoke this mode of thinking, at least in part due to their empirically-obvious indeterminacies: evolving material forms, symbiogenic potential, and resistance to easy ontological categories. In her account of HIV treatment and prevention, Marsha Rosengarten describes how virologists and epidemiologists conceptualize “wild type” and “resistant” viruses as stable and discrete entities, despite the dynamism and inter-relationality of these forms. These ontological categories work with drugs and tests to materialize HIV and its hosts, exposing the role of scientific imaginations in constructing the “real” viral object (2004). Rosengarten claims that knowledge about HIV is always provisional and emergent, and that the process of coming to know “it” through the apparatuses by which we interact with it materializes the domain of the real, or as Rosengarten phrases it, “the generative effects of the grasp” (2004, 219).

The blurry viral relations of SARS-CoV-2 are ordered through speculative apparatuses of knowing.

Figure 2 modeling a slipstream of virus, KU Leuven and Eindhoven University (Thoelen 2020).

As demonstrated in Figure 1, viral and human biologies are deeply dependent. Viruses usurp the proteins and mechanisms of human cells to make more viruses. Human biological functions, both material and processual, become a part of viral material, capacity, and behavior. Conversely, research in evolutionary sciences has long suggested that viruses have shaped human genomes. Battles between viruses and hosts have shaped fundamental elements of human genomic structure and function. Structures that once fought viral infection billions of years ago now regulate our genes, which themselves include copious viral DNA (Arney 2020; Maxmen 2017). As SARS-CoV-2 viruses burrow into and burst out of cells, they interlace human, non-human, and viral constitutive matter as they mutate, reproduce, and effect (“Nextstrain” 2020). Figure 2 demonstrates a model predicting how viral particles might enter a slipstream behind a jogger, with the goal of informing the public about “safe” distancing. The ANSYS cloud models used were originally built to generate information for performance sports such as cycling, where a rider’s slip stream becomes a competitor’s aerodynamic advantage (Thoelen 2020). These viral models are grounded in assumptions derived from little more than guesses about how these viruses behave, entailing decisions about what can and can’t be. These assumptions are then melded with mathematical recreations of racing games to produce an apparatus of viral apprehension. The behavior of this presumed human-viral system does not just inform safe social distancing practices. It also orders speculation about the material relationships between humans and viruses, and therefore also humans and other humans. The imaginations and ontologies of “it” and “us” built into the ANSYS model condense and become the “realness” of that interwoven matter. These slipstream models transform into discourse and praxis about COVID risk. Materialized by pervasive anxiety and unwieldly maneuvers around a presumed viral cloud, they generate and shape modes of public conduct.

Figure 3 Image from Kendi, I. “What the Racial Data Show” (2020). MIM.GIRL/SHUTTERSTOCK/THE ATLANTIC

These modes of conduct, ways of relating that encompass knowing about, speaking of, and behaving toward, are also derived from the idiom of “the curve.” Situated in epidemiological ways of knowing, “the curve” shapes a discourse and set of practices together called “social distancing.” Determination of certain labor as “essential” and the acceptance of a designated level of infection vis-à-vis a single and decontextualized “the curve” allows for viruses to thrive in politically-disposable hosts (Burson and Ross Perfetti 2020; Jean Buck 2020).[2] The curve and its practices work with pre-existing structural disparities to justify and naturalize a political public health response and testing apparatus that allows for some bodies, particularly black, brown, and indigenous bodies, to embody disease. Differential access to testing allows some to know that they are noninfected, infected, or immune, and others to wonder, worry, and potentially transmit viruses. These responses determine what becomes vehicle for disease- the L train from Brooklyn or a car parked quietly in a suburban garage. The viral form is very much a participant in these relations. Social distancing practices reinforce how viruses can and cannot act, such as spreading through physical proximity. Divisions between hospitable and inhospitable viral environments may select for or against certain viral iterations. Figure 3 is the image used to populate the header on Ibram X. Kendi’s call for racial data on COVID-19, an image similar to the original electron microscopy by Zhu et al., except for the overlay of black and white (Kendi 2020). In doing so, it connects the social life of COVID-19 with the virus itself, suggesting the indeterminacy and interconnectedness of both forms. The story of “the virus” that is unfolding now emerges through commitments to knowing and telling its story (with it) in some particular ways and not others (Haraway 2013; Barad 2007).

The generative effects of knowing on the matter and manifestation of viral-human relations obliges heightened sensitivity to the ethics of knowledge production. If we take our starting place as the void, “an infinite sum over all possible histories” (Barad 2012, 212), then acts of knowing necessitate defining matters of concern, making cuts, creating inclusions and exclusions that knit our mutual becoming (Schrader 2010). Agency, commonly defined as the capacity to act, is configured in classical and object-oriented ontologies as a capacities to act toward others that a person or object has, in relation to human/kind or other networked unit has (Latour 2005). A new materialist approach to ethics upends this construction, positing instead that, given our infinite state of becoming with, there is no a priori “us” with which to inhabit an agency. Instead, agential capacity is a quality of a relationship between the undetermined “us” and “it,” or, in other words, within the relationships that materialize the unfolding phenomena (Barad 2007). At first blush, this reconfiguration may seem to leave “us” without any agency to act and therefore skirt responsibility toward the viral form. But on further consideration, the notion of entangled ontologies radically deepens “our” commitment to “it.” Before we can define an ethical conduct toward “it,” we must account not only for what is done or known, but to some extent, toward what is (Barad 2007). In his reflection on COVID-19, David Napier proposes that human societies live alongside potential pandemic forms and describes how social and biological “herds” come to bear on the materialization of these pandemic potentials (2020). His formulation resonates with Barad’s formulation of our responsibility as a response-ability, enacted in the integral relationships that pre-exist intentions.

In an important sense, in a breathtakingly intimate sense, touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is: matter is condensations of response-ability. Touch-ing is a matter of response. Each of “us” is constituted in response-ability. Each of “us” is constituted as responsible for the other, as the other (Barad 2012, 215).

Figure 4: A concept sketch of Full Pink Moon, a 6-hour experimental opera streamed on Zoom, April 7, 2020. Or, trialing a form of viral relation enacted through the arts and lunar cycle (Edgar 2020).

The implication of this thesis in the era of COVID-19 is that an ethics of conduct is no longer about what is right but is instead generative of what is, in the most fundamental sense. In other words, ways of responding– knowing about, speaking of, and behaving toward- are acts that materialize the pandemic. How can we, as scholars of science and medicine, attend to these enormous ethical stakes? How do we participate in responses that account for the foreclosures inherent in this project of positive knowledge-building (and by extension, world-making)? In this climate of emergency, how do we refuse the production and naturalization of a single path forward?

In her Cosmopolitical Proposal, Isabelle Stengers offers a solution in the character of “the idiot,” first elaborated by Dostoyevsky and then Deleuze. The idiot resists the thinking and doing mobilized by the climate of emergency by claiming that there is something more important, though does not provide answers as to what that may be. Rather than create perpetual confusion, the idiot’s resistance to authority opens an interstice, an intervening space from within the confines of the evolving emergency. “The idea is precisely to slow down the construction of this common world, to create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say ‘good’… a passing fright that scares self-assurance, however justified” (Stengers 2005, 2–3). The idiot’s question threatens claims to validity and disrupts the acceptance and naturalization of that validity. But this provocation does not deny the necessity of positive work to be done, only opens space to attend to doubt, alterity, and critical reflexivity (Pigg 2013).

An idiot’s guide to COVID-19 invites actions to be thoughtful, thoughts to be situated, and in that situating, begs a pause for the interstice offered by alternative imagination. What kind of knowing mediates looking at viruses through a rush of electrons? Attend to the praxis of the curve; what does it mean to “flatten” it? For whom is this model relevant? What kinds of knowing are involved in its creation? What does it mean to say that the pandemic is a “‘perfect storm’” (Brandt and Botelho 2020)? Doubt whether Zoom-mediated labor and sociality is the unavoidable modus operandi. Wonder why other labor is called “essential.” Ask who matters, and how. Be curious about who is worried about a slipstream, whom the model was built for, and why. Are these viruses troubling companions, ones that we have participated in a becoming with, guides that illuminate and amplify pre-existing relations of late capitalism at the expense of the most vulnerable? Or perhaps not? Be aware of the work of this climate of urgency and its ensuing easy authority to make alternatives appear foreclosed and the weaving of the phenomenon consensual (Stengers 2005). Bring your viral theories, enact them as a measure of response, and ask: is there something more important?

Our touching of viruses is not pure or “aseptic” as we bring the phenomenon into mattering. This transformation necessitates attention to the contingency of history, present-history, and mutual futures, and to the open ethical questions of which forms and consequences those cuts entail (Hollin 2017; Foucault 1991). The idiot’s pause offers opportunity to cultivate a slightly different awareness of the Coronavirus phenomenon, illuminating the indeterminacies that are foreclosed as a matter of responding. These interstices open space for ontological questions without answers. They allow for the imagination and articulation of different processes, of sensibilities outside of the reigning regimes of knowing and doing (Yusoff 2013). They allow for the noninevitability of everything, a noninevitability that continues to invite alternatives even as these stories are woven.  

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Dr. Ramah McKay for her insightful feedback and encouragement. This research is supported by the University of Pennsylvania Medical Scientist Training Program.

Angela Ross Perfetti is an MD-PhD student at Harvard University and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Her research interests are in sensory worlding and its intersection with knowledge-producing practices of the body and disease in the context of hospital critical care. Also on Twitter @pluralperfect

Randall Burson II an MD-PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His research is situated at the intersections between anthropology and health services research. He focuses on how health policy and scientific evidence are operationalized and “peopled” in health services, and how patients and providers navigate these services in the US and Latin America. In particular, his long-term ethnographic fieldwork is focused on how biomedical practitioners and indigenous Mapuche healers/leaders enact care and articulate knowledge in Southern Chile’s intercultural health services. He can be found on Twitter at @RandyBurson2.


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 Edgar 2020)

[1] By positive work, we mean broadly the work of generating something with, in opposition to deconstruction, criticism, etc.

[2] Though it may appear paradoxical that a person is both essential and disposable, we clarify that their labor is deemed essential but that their lack of political recognition becomes a lack of “countability” as a victim and therefore exclusion as a matter of concern from the perspective of the State.

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