What Can We see from Confinement? – Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal
Almost every mind in the world is focused on the same concerns these days, and I worry that I cannot add much to all the analysis that the great collective intelligence is already offering. I think it will take a while to get the information and distance that will enable a sensible analysis. And, fortunately, I am not among those who have dramatic or exceptional cases around them, so I consider my individual testimony to be of no particular importance.
So I choose to take advantage of this invitation to think about more daily points. How does this crisis affect the perception of routine? These days, I am increasingly aware of a series of guidelines that already organized my time, of the lack of exceptionality within this state of exception. Let me explain:
I'm writing this text from the same desk where I've been working since the quarantine began a couple of weeks ago. I have not yet acclimatised to the slight feeling of confinement that the quarantine produces - I don't think many people can get used to it in these circumstances. My personal situation is calm, but there is one deeply haunting point: how little my daily routine has changed. The table where I write has been my usual place of work for quite some time. I don't want to say that the coronavirus crisis hasn't affected me; it has disrupted my life in a brutal way, from having to alter or cancel my entire work schedule, to the constant concern for people close to me, or the fact that something as daily as going out to do the shopping is a stressful and disheartening experience, not to mention the distressing situation of workers who have no other option but to work in front of the public in risky conditions.
I want to highlight how my daily routine has not changed drastically in the wake of the coronavirus, but it has been radicalised. I usually work alone, from home, occasionally out on specific projects; I collaborate with a large group of people, but we communicate by email, Zoom or Skype; a large part of my time is spent on developing projects for open calls. Other activities are reviewing texts, studying or management work: handling information. A precarious job in its material conditions and in its future perspectives. These are the conditions of what some authors from Italian post-operaism, such as Franco 'Bifo' Berardi or Maurizio Lazzarato, call "cognitariat", where the worker's body becomes part of a technical chain in the infosphere, a virtual place formed by psychochemical flows of data. The "cognitariat" (of "cognitive" and "proletariat") is characterised by the high need for flexible schedules, services and travel (now impossible), and a lack of solidarity, of class consciousness. Much of the blame for this lack of solidarity lies with the spatial organization of labor under cognitive capitalism: if the proletariat had the factory as a common place where they could physically recognize themselves as part of a larger collective, the cognitariat is fractured, divided into capsules connected among themselves. A plethora of peripheral spaces from which to work, hidden from each other.
In a recent interview, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe said that the power to kill has been "democratized" at the moment when our body and its contact with others has been transformed into a potential weapon in this pandemic. A discourse that justifies controlling the movement of bodies, a fundamental part of what the philosopher calls "necropolitics," the power to "kill and let live”. Mbembe takes the paradigmatic example of Palestine to analyze the deployment of a power that controls populations through the creation of internal borders and limits, a militarization of daily life that fragments space, and creating checkpoints that require official permits for movement between different places. These are some of the procedures that we have seen implemented since the beginning of the quarantine, but these are not new techniques. These are strategies that, for example, we find expanding the southern border of Europe, so that it ceases to be a wall and becomes a series of "operations" which take place in many places and through different institutions, being internalized by means of racist mechanisms. These are techniques aimed at segregating the population. The Argentine sociologist Diego Sztulwark analyses how the transformations of contemporary "post-fascist" neoliberalism replace confidence in progress with an obsession with security: "The appeal to xenophobia, sexism and classism arises in response to and as a substitute for the values of liberal multiculturalism typical of a phase of capitalism that dreamed of a world without borders, while at the same time administering them with cruelty".
For European neocolonial institutions, the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to expand their policies and reinforce the process of territorial segregation that is already underway. The obligation of confinement separates legitimate national bodies from racialized bodies that are excluded from the possibility of shelter. Through confinement to the home, the bourgeois and patriarchal fantasy of the interior as a space of security is reinforced, while the set of people who do not have a permanent place, resources that allow them to safely quarantine or who have to move through public space, are designated as possible carriers and diffusers of the virus, dangerous bodies that must be persecuted.
This segregation is not new; the coronavirus crisis radicalizes a previous colonial structure. The healthy body, the "hero", is the one that stays at home. The "home" is not an abstract place, despite the attempts to show it as a safe place, as if gendered violence (among many other situations) did not exist and was not reinforced within the walls of the home. The house where the white national bodies take refuge is inspired by the bourgeois fantasy of the home, but it evolves under the cognitive economy I was talking about before. The house under the neoliberal imaginary is the capsule where separate "virtual" workers connect to exchange information from the "collective solitude" of the rooms with screens. These capsule-houses not only project a particular vision of space - a series of internal points without continuity, where the outside is a dangerous place where contact with other human beings can lead to contagion - but also of time. The "safe" neoliberal architecture produces a temporal perception marked by discontinuous rhythms of work and the constant bet on the future.
Working as a freelancer on cultural projects means always working on a series of future projects; multiple lines that open up multiple possibilities. The project proposal has become a literary genre, a type of text that could be framed between the short essay and speculative science fiction, aimed at briefly reflecting on specific problems, launching proposals for events that will take place in the future and rigorously and seriously elaborating the effects that these will have. All this by means of a writing that transmits confidence and will, the will to look towards progress. It is essential that the project conveys that we fully believe what we are writing, even though we know full well that the chances of the project being chosen and carried out are usually small, and that sometimes this means proposing multiple different projects that would ultimately be realized all at once; proposals which are completely incompatible with each other. This is a state of imagining and defending simultaneous futures in order to have more possibilities; in order that at least one will be chosen and turned into a reality. "Each project is, above all, the declaration of a new future that is believed to come once the project has been carried out." It is a work that constantly seeks to de-synchronize us from the common flow of life and projects us into a future, a nebulous time that never comes, because even if the project is carried out and we can dedicate ourselves to it, the race to continue projecting new possible futures must continue.
The project produces a particular future that can be described as linear, homogeneous, cumulative, and individualistic. A future based on individual competition, where the only transformation will be a series of gains or losses that we risk, but where the conditions that are projected "forward" imagine the time to come the same as the present, under the same need to fight against people better or worse than us (there is always a ranking) to win new and better projects. And in this capitalist fantasy of accumulation and eternal competitiveness, anxiety is a central component. It is a logical effect for which there are pharmacological remedies that help us to continue working, but it is never a sufficient reason to question the functioning of the system. Anxiety is part of everyday life.
Well, with this coronavirus crisis and the almost total shutdown of cultural projects around the world, all those possible futures that are imagined in the projects we write in our "own connected rooms" are shaking. The future - this neoliberal, linear, cumulative, homogeneous future - has disappeared. But this is not a revolutionary change, the shooting of the revolutionaries in Paris at the tower clocks to "stop time", as Walter Benjamin relates; it is not a leap in the continuum of history. Our situation, cognitarians of the world, has not changed, it has only become radicalised. Our loneliness and isolation is accentuated; as anxiety grows towards future projects and expands towards our present, towards the situation of all our loved ones. And from the institutional discourses, the aim is to intensify the permanent competition, the over-exertion, the excessive sacrifice, now under the warmongering discourse of a war against the virus. The health professionals (I am thinking of Spain, I do not know how it has happened elsewhere, although I imagine the situation will not be much different) are grateful for the applause and the shows of support from the people who recognise them as "heroes", but they remind us that they are not, that they are professionals doing their job and that what they need is not chants about the exceptional nature of their task, but economic support for a public sector decimated by years of neoliberal plundering.
Right now I can only think of one thing more terrifying than the situation we are experiencing: the possibility of returning to normality and treating these weeks of crisis as a time of exception. "The state of exception in which we now live is indeed the rule "; it is still true. We must arrive at another concept of history consistent with the situation we are going through. A conception of time that starts from the physical reality of the confinement that fractures our being in common, but not this confinement produced by the virus, but the one that already preceded it and that now becomes intolerably evident.
The neoliberal response to coronavirus implies a state of exception and confinement for any activity that is not aimed at the re-acceleration of the economy. This morning I woke up with the surprise that the journey to agricultural work is allowed as long as it is an economic activity, but travel to pick or gather your own produce is forbidden in Spain, a measure that reinforces unpaid domestic labour - well studied by the writer and feminist activist Silvia Federici as the foundation of capitalist accumulation.
It is necessary to situate financial abstractions in concrete stories and bodies; bodies that inhabit domestic spaces (with all the complexities that this word ‘domestic’ brings) that are not neutral spaces, but rather constructed on the basis of gender differences and other vectors. The confinement of quarantine radicalizes the presence of our enclosed bodies, turning domestic space into a tool of the neoliberal policies that are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce their privileges. An absolute reconceptualization of domestic space is necessary so that it stops being a tool of oppression and becomes a language of solidarity. To do this from the physical distance in which we find ourselves is a very complex challenge.
A. Mbembe, Necropolítica, Editorial Melusina, 2011 ↵
D. Sztuljwark, La ofensa sensible. Neoliberalismo, populismo y el reverso de lo político, Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2019 ↵
B. Groys, La soledad del proyecto, en Volverse público p.73, Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2014 ↵
W. Benjamin, Tesis sobre la historia y otros fragmentos, Protohistoria Ediciones, Rosario, 2009 ↵
Ibid. p.22 ↵
“¿Puedo ir al huerto que está fuera de mi municipio? No en el caso de un huerto particular (consumo propio). Sí en caso de actividad económica.” https://elpais.com/espana/2020-04-01/35-preguntas-y-respuestas-sobre-los-limites-de-nuestra-movilidad-donde-empieza-la-irregularidad.html ↵
S. Federici, El patriarcado del salario. Críticas feministas al marxismo, Traficantes de sueños, Madrid, 2018 ↵
About Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal
Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal (Spain) works as an artist and curator, individually and collectively, between writing, the creation of poetic artifacts and the mediation of collective projects. He is currently studying at the Dutch Art Institute Roaming Academy.