Opening Speech Strategic Roundtable: Benjamin H. Bratton

Professor of Fine Arts
University of California, San Diego

What the Pandemic Should Tell Us About The Biological Reality of Society

(For the video record of the speech please click here).

We may not yet be able to refer to the pandemic in the past tense. As the author of a book on “post-pandemic politics” I am crucially aware of the aspirational quality of that term. However, the only thing more foolish than some of our ill-fated responses to the pandemic would be to refuse to learn any lessons from it. Unfortunately, this notion is not necessarily unanimous. It is true that excruciating extended lockdowns and measures such as vaccine passports would likely not be necessary had governing responses been better prepared. At the same time, as we look into the streets and watch a motley coalition drawn from traditional Left and Right protesting not just these measures but even the efficacy of vaccines themselves, it is clear that the political problem is not just a matter of policy but also of culture. Observing that continuing new cases in rich Western countries are concentrated among those still unvaccinated (by choice or by circumstance), it is impossible not to feel, at this moment, that our societies are being held hostage by a populist politics of obstinate stupidity. I understand this feeling, but also recognize that the situation is more complex than it appears. People are correct to feel that a comfortable sense of subjectivity is being shaken. While some draw from this a profound lesson, others sadly do not.

Consider the intensity of cultural conflict over the wearing of masks. What really was at stake in the decisions people made? Ultimately, the rapid but awkward appearance of face masks in the West entails an even more radical confrontation with the limits of the subjective per se. It makes clear that regardless of one’s subjective ethical intention, good or bad, one remains a contagion vector just the same. One wears a mask because it doesn’t matter if one wishes to do good or harm, one’s biological proximity to others will cause good or harm regardless. Subjective intent is irrelevant. This is more than some people are willing to contemplate.
A source of confusion for many is then a shift in ethics from a position that calibrates subjective moral will to one that recognizes one’s self and body as an object in a cause-and-effect relationship with the world. It is often presumed that agency and subjectivity (if not also identity) are interchangeable, but the consequentialist ethics of being an object (less a subject) works differently. Outcomes are not a mirror of an internal mental state. They are not directly dependent on public demonstration, performance, and ritual to ffect physical change. The implications for other biopolitical and ecopolitical conditions, such as combating climate change, are decisive.

The main misapprehension so common in the mask war – that risk can be privatized – is not unexpected if considered in the context of how social ethics is already predicated on moral subjectivity. As opposed to the epidemiological conception of society, this practice sees ethics as the individual calculus of risk, reward, and consequences. The naked-faced do not mean harm, one assumes, and may even imagine themselves as bearing the burden of risk for everyone. This confusion between subjective and objective ethics cuts both ways, in that someone with a positive moral subjective disposition may imagine that the absence of harm they bring by wearing a mask is somehow due to their personal intention of goodness. It is not. To be contagious is not to be a bad person, but it does mean that, irrespective of one ’s wishes, one may cause objective harm to others. The harm that one person may bring to another person has nothing to do with the affective bond or antagonism they feel.
The revenge of the real, as I call it, arises in the ethical challenges posed by the realization that the virus is indifferent to the moral projections we might make upon it. A viable post-pandemic politics cannot be predicated solely on the calibration of subjective intention because subjective intention is not the only cause of the effects we wish to realize or prevent. This is a challenge to political philosophy as well, in that it demands the conceptualization of an ethics of being an object in addition to one of being a subject, which is, obviously, difficult for everyone and insulting for many. That is in no small part because of how many people have been long subordinated into positions by which their social identity is erased or diluted by being made into a less-than-human object.

And yet, the private vocality of subjective determinism cannot hold. The extreme subjectivism that asks you to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” as if internal mental states cause the external world to come into being, is not the solution to “neoliberalism”. It is its pinnacle.
This shift to the objective has everything to do with medical care and the relation between immediacy and abstraction. The body as a medical object is a real thing, flesh and blood and tears. Each of us, at different times, lives in a body as a medical object. When needed we assume this objectivity and receive care accordingly. When someone’s temperature is taken or they are intubated, or their internal organs are monitored by the puncturing of the skin and the drawing of their blood which is then analyzed for telltale traces, the care is not based entirely on the testimony of symptoms of this one body, but rather on this particular body as exemplary of a larger abstraction of medical knowledge about all the bodies that exhibit a similar pattern of symptoms, and all the bodies through which the virus has passed. That abstraction, the transference between the particular patient and the generic human, is the stuff of both high-tech and high-touch expertise.

This also illuminates the role of modeling abstraction in public health more generally. The capacity to provide care to the singular body in front of you requires the moment in which it becomes any body, to which a model medical abstraction, based on years of pattern recognition, must be applied as care. This is an epistemological relation, not just an affective one. Mediated through the work of the medical professional, a collaboratively-constructed model senses and acts back upon the world recursively through a careful expertise that would be impossible by sheer reckoning. The doctor may care deeply for their patient on an interpersonal level, but more likely they are able to care for them because they are able to see them as an object.

Taken seriously, the implications are indeed profound . Our sense of bioethics would extend then not only to the protection of personal privacy and the prevention of the violence of being treated like a mere object, but also to a kind of deliberate and ethical self-objectification as a responsible participant in these model abstractions through which the care of others is realized. Any overemphasis in bioethics on the sanctity of the sovereign individual, and the protection against over-intervention, over-sensing, and over-objectification, may obscure the ethical problems of under-intervention, under-sensing, and lack of access to medical care based on exclusive and incomplete models of society and, by consequence, limited access to intervention. Those in socio-economic positions that prevent them from receiving the medical care they need may be less concerned about the psychological insult of being treated like an object by the gaze of medical abstraction than they are about the real personal danger of not being treated at all. When a society declines the means for inclusive testing, sensing and modeling, and thus refuses to know and compose its own biological circumstance, it commits a violence of neglect upon itself.

When medical models built over years of expert care and collaborative honing become a matter of life and death, a more nuanced approach comes into focus, regarding both what is and isn’t invasive “surveillance,” and how a society should undertake sensing and modeling so that it can in fact compose itself deliberately. The same can be said for climate models, which will demand a similar reckoning with a social “ethics” that is not based on coaxing enough subjective moral gestures to change planetary geochemistry but on more direct interventions in that physical condition.
To be sure, the ways that this post-pandemic politics complicates deep cultures of individualism and subjectivism now at the center of conception of the common good, invites vociferous reaction and resistance. These habits and impulses reside at the core of Western social thought, so why would they be anything but stubborn? One assumes as well that this resistance will come not only from the obvious populist political cultures that have hitched themselves to preferred narrative realities until the literal end of the world, but also, I am sorry to say, from philosophers to whom people have looked for guidance as to what the interrelations between biology, politics, and the body have been and should be.
Such misapprehensions should be rejected by post- pandemic politics, even if the prospective demands for a positive biopolitics are not without controversy, legitimate and otherwise. The ‘negative’ biopolitical critique is one with which every university student is all too aware. It is based on the axiom that all forms of society-scale sensing, modeling, and governance are, in essence, forms of pernicious “surveillance” and so should be resisted on those terms. Concurrent libertarian positions are based on the complimentary myth that individuals exist first in a state of self-sovereign freedom and are only later “captured” by technology or collective representation. To recognize the limits of this well-worn formula is not to embrace the status quo. To the contrary, it clarifies the scope of the wasted opportunity represented by large private platforms offering manipulated models of society composed of hyperindividuated user profiles and predictions of their next desire, click, vote, or purchase.
While versions of this formulaic critique may be at home in different pockets among both the political Left and Right, they are antithetical to any epidemiological model of society that operates not at the level of individuals but of what connects them together. It is unlikely that the equitable and effective governance that is needed for post-pandemic world can emerge if wide-scale sensing and modeling is dismissed and resisted entirely as unwarranted “social control.” Put directly, the overinflation of the term “surveillance” is both politically debilitating and intellectually dishonest. It needs to stop.

The pandemic has very likely changed some of the ways that we might seriously define, interpret, discuss, deploy, and resist sensing and modeling. Not everyone, however, is ready to expand the conversation. As the virus first reached Europe, colleague of a mine, a theorist of technology based in Germany, argued to me that people should resist being tested for the virus and contributing to epidemiological models, because acquiescing to this regime would in the long run only encourage the invasive normalization of “big data biopolitics,” which he went on to claim is, ultimately, inseparable from eugenics, the colonial-era slave trade, AI bias and the torture of Uighurs. He proudly said that he even told his students that they should all refuse testing and, having recently checked in on him, he maintains this position still.

While he is not alone, the pandemic has in fact shifted the axis around which the politics of sensing and surveillance are considered. Again, in addition to the right to reasonable privacy there is also a right and responsibility to be counted. For post-pandemic governance, inclusivity is essential, all the way up to the planetary scale of human society itself. As said, equitable systems depend on the accuracy of models because the risk is always collective. However, as current controversies over citizenship reveal, we see that certain neighborhoods, certain populations, certain types of inhabitants, certain less visible persons, places, and processes are undercounted, under-measured, under-accounted for, even unnamed, and are functionally invisible in terms of what is due to them.

Finally, I am once more sorry to say that Philosophy, as a whole, did not provide the interpretive guidance to the situation that it should have. Behold the fear in this learned voice: “At stake here is nothing other than the new and ‘normal’ biopolitical relation between citizens and the State. This relation no longer has to do with free and active participation in the public sphere, but instead concerns the routine inscription and registration of the most private and most incommunicable element of subjectivity, the biopolitical life of the body” (emphasis mine). So wrote the eminent Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in (literally) comparing airport security screening to concentration camps. Among what that we certainly should learn from the pandemic is that “biopolitical life of the body” is not incommunicable, nor the basis of a privatized subjectivity. This should be obvious to anyone with a rudimentary interest in contemporary understanding of biology, let alone a genuine interest in the society in which they live.

Benjamin H. Bratton is Professor of Fine Arts at the University of California, San Diego.
He is programme director of The Terraforming programme at Strelka Institute. He is also Professor of Digital Design at the European Graduate School and Visiting Professor at SCI_Arc (The Southern California Institute of Architecture) and NYU Shanghai.
Bratton is the author of several books, including “The Revenge of The Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World”, published in 2021, in which he calls for a radical rethinking of post-pandemic politics that defines, rather than delays, a coordinated, pragmatic and equitable response to the biopolitical challenges of the 21st century. Other books include “The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty”, “The New Normal” and “Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution”.
His work spans philosophy, architecture, computer science and geopolitics.
His current research project, “Theory and Design in the Age of Machine Intelligence”, is on the unexpected and uncomfortable design challenges posed by A.I in various guises: from machine vision to synthetic cognition and sensation, and the macroeconomics of robotics to everyday geoengineering.