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COVID-19 and the Deadly Seriousness of Cultural Studies

Banner image of a graffiti spray painted mask and the series title.

Bruno Cornellier

June 30, 2020

This somewhat tentative essay is symptomatic of the near impossibility to articulate something meaningful and timely in moments of crisis. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, the critical and theoretical tools that otherwise grant an academic seal of approval to the clever things we teach and publish are starting to feel quite inadequate.

Out of this conundrum, I would like to revisit what the late Stuart Hall, in his 1992 essay “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” describes as “the deadly seriousness of intellectual work.”1 He coins this phrase to uphold and embrace the unresolvable tension between theoretical work and political practice that must animate our intellectual labour when faced (literally) with matters of life and death.

What makes Hall’s essay so relevant right now is not its theoretical content and pronouncements, but the ways in which he models humility as an intellectual practice. Humility about what scholars can and cannot achieve in their attempts to organically entangle their practice to a political conjuncture that has always already started to shift at that belated moment when we think we’ve successfully analytically seized it.

Hall writes about his desire to “return the project of Cultural Studies from the clean air of meaning and textuality and theory to the something nasty down below.”2 For him, theory is an indispensable tool of critique. It allows us to not take reality at face value. It offers us tools to denaturalize and try to interrupt what is (for now). It helps us connect the dots, as well as identify or draw new dots and patterns. As such, theory is conducive to action. But theory is always one step behind. It’s an abstraction that always comes too late. Things down here are just too messy for the clean air of abstractions. Hall explains elsewhere that theoretical concepts “tell us . . . that there is a kind of stable, only very slowly changing ground inside the hectic upsets, discontinuities, and ruptures of history.”3 Or as my colleague Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba writes, theory keeps us “from getting infected by [history].” Theory offers no closure, no guarantee “that the choices that you have made are right.”4

In 1992, it is the AIDS pandemic that renders quite literal Hall’s concern with the “deadly seriousness” of Cultural Studies. He insists that if critical intellectuals cannot feel the marginality and ephemerality of their work in the face of the dying, then “theory has left [them] off the hook.”5 This remains true in the current crisis, which has been brewing since at least the 2008 financial crisis. At that point, neoliberal hegemony started to crack at its foundation and new alliances were sought to desperately salvage the dominant bloc’s grip on power, which subsequently exacerbated the crisis. The difference is that the moral panic that accompanied AIDS in the 1980s and early 90s was successfully enlisted to strengthen the status quo, whereas the COVID-19 pandemic, quite to the contrary "accelerated this timetable of crisis”: the public health crisis and the economic meltdown sparked by failed state attempts to contain the virus are indeed intensifying a global reckoning with the bankruptcy of late stage neoliberal capitalism and the escalating, systemic, and historical inequalities embedded in its very functioning. And the crisis is unraveling at a moment when the virus is far from contained, and the worst outbreaks are perhaps even yet to come. What comes next, locally and globally, has rarely been as uncertain as it is now. At this juncture, privileging to the letter our theoretical darlings and loyalties over this novel and profoundly unstable political terrain, so as to make the “nasty down below” fit our pre-existing theoretical positions (as opposed to the other way around), can have dangerous consequences.

Giorgio Agamben’s premature critical response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of intellectual work suffering from such theoretical tunnel vision. Agamben first underplays the significant threat and lethality of the virus and reduces the lockdown in Italy to some sort of statist plot to further normalize what he famously theorized as the “state of exception.” In a second piece, he draws equivalency between university teachers who (often reluctantly) agree to teach their courses online this coming fall and those paying allegiances to fascists in the 1930s.

The problem with these hasty prises de position is not Agamben’s influential theoretical apparatus about biopower, bare life, and the state of exception. We might actually benefit from taking some of it seriously, for there is some prescience and wisdom in Agamben’s justifiable worries about the kind of emergency power uncritically granted to executive branches of governments, which they are unlikely to fully agree to let go once the pandemic is under control. The problem with Agamben here is that he starts with the theory—which he first elaborated decades ago, based primarily on his analysis of Nazism and fascism in 20th Century Europe—and then applies it indiscriminately and ahistorically to the current, profoundly unpredictable terrain of struggle, which gives his argument an increasingly conspiratorial tone. Perhaps this is not the best fit for the much more nuanced and grounded analytics of power we need right now.

Yohann Koshy made a similar critique against Slavoj Žižek’s equally hastily released book Pandemic! He accuses the Slovenian philosopher of “simply corralling events into a shape that fits his pre-existing interests and logical operations.” As Joseph Owen writes in conversation with Agamben (and this may possibly also apply to Žižek): “Often in hope and denial, we rely on timeworn assumptions that edge us closer to conspiracy and misdiagnosis . . . The desire to diagnose a crisis during its moment of rupture is a foolhardy enterprise.”

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we are powerless, or that intellectual humility in the face of life and death condemns us to silence or inertia. As the growing and spreading anti-racist demonstrations against ongoing anti-Black police brutality clearly remind us, what comes after the crisis is not already written. George Floyd’s last words—“I can’t breathe”—are still echoed from Minneapolis to nearby Winnipeg, and from Paris and London to Rio de Janeiro. And these very words—gasping for air—also remind us that just like police brutality, COVID-19-related pulmonary infections are overwhelmingly choking and killing poor Black, Latinx, and Indigenous folks.

If, as Owen has argued, the virus (instead of the State or “Her Majesty the Economy”) is now the sovereign, the fact remains that political forces and institutions intentionally built and maintained the racial capitalist terrain onto which COVID-19 overwhelmingly exposes to death certain bodies over others. One of the few things that we, as Cultural Studies scholars and students, can still confidently assert right now is that racialized bodies and bodies of colour die (or are killed) disproportionately because, historically and ideologically, they are made meaningful in that particular way. Given the coronavirus’s indifference to semiotics, it does appear that the virus might not be the one wielding the blade.

Crises are fertile grounds where emergent forces and possibilities can materialize as the outcomes of deliberate, organized struggle. And yes, the emergent is never entirely new. We are always tethered to the past, to history, to existing political languages, concepts, imaginaries, and ingrained structures. And yet neither the past nor the virus can guarantee what comes next. But with humility, and both our feet planted in the “nasty down below,” pausing there before looking up too hastily into the sky, certainly we can do something about it.

1 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies [1992],” in Stuart Hall, Essential Essays Vol. 1, edited by David Morley (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019), 85.

2 Ibid., 73-74.

3 Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities [1991],” in Stuart Hall, Essential Essays Vol. 2, edited by David Morley (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019), 65.

4 Stuart Hall, “Politics, Contingency, Strategy: An Interview with David Scott [1997],” in Essential Essays Vol. 2, 250.

5 Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” 83.

Bruno Cornellier is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies in the Department of English. His current research draws connections between authorship, racial capitalism, extractive capitalism, and cultural appropriation.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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