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There Can be no Amnesty.
Reflections on the previous 2 years.
In Roman law, as well as laws in many great empires of antiquity, there was the right of exile. To voluntarily (or involuntarily) banish one's self from one's homeland in order to prevent a far more severe punishment. As time went on, self-banishment was freely offered, even if it entailed a total alienation and effacement from a person's people and homeland. Exile often became romanticized, suffering the cutting off of one's roots for a higher purpose. So writes Kafka in his first unfinished novel “Amerika”, in a letter between the Senator and his nephew, the main character, a 16 year old in exile to the States Karl Roßmann:
“As you will already have realized during our much too brief companionship, I am essentially a man of principle. That is unpleasant and depressing not only to those who come in contact with me, but also to myself as well. Yet it is my principles that have made me what I am, and no one can ask me to deny my fundamental self. Not even you, my dear nephew.”
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it is the matters of principle that seems so chaotic and weaponized, distorted and tortured as a logic in the Covidian and now post-Covidian era. The principles of “bare life” vs. That of autonomy, or at the very least, the dignity of refusal to a micro-power of the body imposed from the outside. Perhaps it is the other Kafka story, “The Metamorphosis” that encapsulates this relation between internal self-banishment, bare life and an imposed manifestation of “bug life”. “hideous vermin” as Gregor Samsa is described.
It is near the end of the Metamorphosis were Gregor is nearing the completion of his bug-like transformation (a bugman) and he becomes increasingly trapped and isolated, abandoning any vestigial ties to the human world, the buildings outside his window become but a grey mass, losing sight of the outside world itself from his cocoon-like bedroom; what both of Kafka's stories demonstrate is the sort of liminal existence of the exiled, the banished, adapting to ever-increasingly absurd situations to cope. The inherent precariousness of the exiled is on display in the foreign land of a new continent, or the foreign land of another existence in-toto. One (Amerika) is of complete vulnerability to the outside, to the world as a series of absurd and seemingly cruel banalities. The other as a complete detachment from the outside met with the callous indifference of those around Gregor (in the end, Gregor volunteers to starve to death after becoming a burden, and his family moves out of the apartment. entirely forgetting about him or his previous human state).
One can make parallels to the subject that, until recently, consumed life at every waking moment for the previous 2 and half years. COVID, the mass bio-security state of exception that pitted neighbour against neighbour, family member against family member, all in the name of an ever absurd series of contradictory public health measures. The contagion which spread on its wings was that of its memetic contagion, its everyday Girardianism which accompanies every state of exception.
Instead of the usual affair of “public health measures”, a moral panic was sought out as the right policy for governments, especially western governments. It was, and still is in large part an extension, or rather, an acceleration of existing political divides we experienced during the Covidian era. But one side had near omnipotent power to impose the rule of law over the exception. Not merely over physical impositions of public health, but in discourse and mindset. Quasi-medical terms invaded public conciseness, numbers, figures and procedure-speak chanted with a religious devotion.
But now that we are in a moment of reflection in its aftermath. Where we can finally be allowed to publicly express concern over the events of what transpired, such as open talk of the lab leak origins hypothesis, the “discourse” is being shut off from us. Which in itself is a farce, a tragicomic inversion of what truth and the arrival of truth through dialectic and discourse looks like. To be granted finally the “right” to freely assess a history of the Covidian era, such talk which would banish you from the online public square, betrays these pious notions of “truth through discourse”. Which the more astute of us knew was always a lie of the global liberal regime.
What do I mean by it being denied from us? Like, as Agamben pointed out, the denial and banishment of public rituals, even public grieving over our dead and dying by denial of entry to hospitals and the virtual carrying out of “distanced” funerals. This lament over so many virtual injustices, inversions of truth, the rapid switching of narrative, etc. All of this grieving and questioning as a collective is denied to us for a supposed greater humanitarian and “empathetic” option: that of mass forgetting and mass amnesia.
This is essentially what has been told to us by the Atlantic, to the (thankfully) chorus of mass derision and defiance at its publishing. Writer Emily Oster declares that we must declare a “Pandemic Amnesty”. Essentially the only ethical and compassionate thing to do is a mass act of collective amnesia and “forgiving”. To forgive those “disinformation” spreaders, and anti-medical sacrament people, as well as on the other side, to forgive those who perpetrated the global bio-security theatre act of the last 2 years.
Quote: “We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty. We can leave out the wilful purveyors of actual misinformation while forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge”1.
Before I proceed, let me first make clear that, at the risk of tempering my anger over the whole situation, I can understand Oster's position, and wish no vitriol directly towards her (which is more than I can say for the Atlantic(ist) as a publication). People have dug up her old tweets from the Covidian years to highlight the hypocrisy, and covering up of the real line of questioning which can lead most people down a rabbit hole. A train of thinking the global regime wishes to desperately stifle in the lessening of restrictions.
But to forget is a sort of healing act in a way, a messianic hope of redemption after the final exhaustive breaths of collective madness. I can empathize with Oster's plea for a collective forgetting, a burying of the pain and agony and distrust. I believe Oster has the right intentions (even if the Atlantic doesn't), but this logic is flawed. But worst of all, would only serve to cover for the hideous ghouls who have severed the last threadbare ties among people in our societies through bio-political moral panic and scapegoating.
I had a professor once in grad school who is a foremost Chinese politics and foreign policy expert in Canada, who was even there after the Cultural Revolution as a student. I remember him telling the class a story about a professor friend of his in Beijing who was tortured by a student during the revolution, and whom would later come to work in the same department as him afterwards when the new revolutionary guard replaced most teaching positions.
Of course I am not in no way comparing the atrocities of the Maoist experiment with the last 2 years, or any other mass act of internal social upheaval. But the effect is the same, whether it is that example in China, or post-Interahamwe reconciliation courts in Rwanda. Forgetting often accompanies reconciliation, a turning of the cheek, which is often noble. Even if it means working and living closely to those whom have oppressed you.
I believe my professors exclaimed that it was for the greater good of the Chinese people, so these atrocities were soon forgotten or never acknowledged, even on the personal level. There was just life that needed carrying on in the aftermath. One can make parallels to relations people have now a days, to a less severe degree of course, between friends, neighbours and family members who were torn apart by the various public hygiene measures that took on a ersatz matter of civic faith.
What makes the Covidian era different to many of these other states of exception is the virtuality of it. Of course the mass killings, genocides, intra-ethnic conflict and religious violence of various periods outweighs the exclusion and internment of various people during the Covidian moment, and this goes without saying. But we must examine those moments of everyday cruelty, subjection to absurd rituals of public health and like as a legitimate state of exception.
Never the less these effects were virtualized. By that I mean that life was experienced through stasis, through “distancing”. The scapegoating and alienation of “disinformation agents” and the “anti-vaxers” was largely conducted in state and media condoned acts of what some have termed “normie sadism”. A form of casual and irreverent, even prosaic expressions of sadism in thought, word and sometimes in deed that is condoned as a pressure release valve within post-history liberal society. The “two minutes of hate” if you will against acceptable targets, but this form of sadism is rendered impotent. What is key to understand is that normie sadism is often engineered or weaponized as a means of hijacking our internal and institutional impulses to be accepted, the need for ritual, etc.
In Canada this was especially true, and expressed through every single sector of public life. Normie sadism was the largest newspaper in the North, the Toronto Star, openly publishing a bombastic front page from supposedly “anonymous readers”2 declaring their open hatred and gleeful celebrations of suffering and death to those who did not buy into the bio-political civic faith. It was Justin Trudeau saying those who did not get tripled up were probably “racist, sexist, transphobic”3 and the like.
It was the banishment of the non-jabbed from within the state, denied the right of voluntary exile via travel restrictions. A stark real-world application of Agamben's theory of bare life, the Homo Sacer who is “abandoned to the law”. Paradoxically outside of the juridical rights of the system, yet still within the system on a liminal basis, in order to justify the existence of the perpetual state of exception itself. A non-entity within the regime who can be persecuted freely and without consequence. How many chanted such free and casual punishments via exclusion, such as the denial of healthcare to the un-jabbed.
Let me indulge for a moment, as I am sure most of you reading this are not Canadian, and probably (rightfully) do not care about the 5 acres of snow sitting above America. But this is applicable to the rest of the world as well, as Canada more than most places, demonstrated these contradictions and sadistic ironies of the Covidian era. Let me indulge in a theory I had since nearly the beginning of the Pandemic.
The reason the average Leaf so maniacally followed the rules of every contradictory order. And paid attention to statistics, right down to following the tiniest of measures, is because for the first time it provided something approximating a model of identity for modern post-national Canada.
the Covidian moment created a model of community involvement that was sufficiently “open” and “multicultural” in that you got to stay apart and separated, yet indulge in a feeling of community. The criteria was not an identity based off of racial, religious or cultural lines, but a veneer of a so-called “scientific” one. The public healthcare system was worshipped as the model of progress and left-wing anti-American (non) nationalism for years, so now it had finally ascended to a true institution of civic faith. The feeling of community paradoxically felt through near total isolation, and with the added benefit of counter-signalling that evil right wing science-denying country south of the border.
The Covidian moment provided a legitimacy to Canadians for their sense of stand-offish atomization and almost complete trust in public institutions to fulfill most roles of public life in a secularized, hyper-modern and post-national country. It is the need for community in the absence of roots, when “roots” itself violates the very foundation of Canada's multicultural state ideology. But also Canada, among other nations, provided an instantaneous work-around for end of history global liberal ideology.
In the beginning of the Pandemic, there were voices on the political right, most notably Curtis Yarvin, who predicted wondrous things for our Post-COVID world4. That it would lead to global skepticism towards the liberal project. That in the wake of a total bio-security threat, mass migration, globalization of trade, off-shoring and the like would cease. The “post-borders” and “post-national” liberal Utopian future would be put on hold, perhaps forever.
But this wasn't the case, in fact if anything, the globo-liberal project was strengthened. In Canada, immigration numbers continued as usual, even among travel restrictions. What was worse is that throughout the West and even the East, individuals, rather than populations, were targeted. In essence, a micro-power denoted the Covidian moment. You then could not travel or conduct economic activity, and in some places even buy food from grocery stores, without following the protocols of a certain medical decision.
Economic activity in terms of globalized industry took a hit, but at the largest of corporate levels, not that significantly. It was the small businesses who were excluded and abandoned to the market. In one of the largest transfers of wealth from the lower runs of the economy to the top in our lifetime. This was to ensure that the globo-liberal project remains in tact, and unimpeded, even if medical segregationist measures within localities were put in place. Yarvin's analysis and other forms of optimistic Rightest thinking around the Pandemic breaking confidence in Globo-Liberalism was sadly misplaced. Canada demonstrated that post-nationalism could perfectly integrate into a newer from of crisis-management and exception. As Agamben pointed out in his blog posts, just as the economy and Neoliberal economization becomes a meta-structure that all life must conform to, so too does an added overarching concern for bio-security become sacrosanct in every avenue of existence.
Between Victim And Victimizer.
In keeping with the paradoxical situations that accompany every state of exception or “site of liminality”, the question of blame naturally arises. Oster wishes to bury this question entirely, but at the height of the Pandemic, blame was screamed out from the rooftops. Those who dissented were double-enveloped at both ends. They were portrayed as both a victim of propaganda, and a victimizer. Even the spreading of the contagion itself was met with a moral gravity. The spreading of disease carrying agency, especially one with the unique ambiguity of asymptomatic cases being so prevalent.
Even human breath itself (as so many masked up journalists and pop medical “experts” online proclaimed) was a danger and a sign of moral malignancy. To go out unencumbered by a measure in which everyone must participate in for it to be effective, and with dubious efficacy, was condemned as being recklessly careless at best, and murderously selfish at worse.
But this is worth examining, because Oster's linchpin for Pandemic Amnesty, especially in terms of blame, is that people acted the best they could on imperfect information. Which is essentially going back to an old platonic argument when dealing with the divide between perfect knowledge and perfect action; in the Protagoras, Plato argued such a point, that complete knowledge would naturally lead to complete action in kind. But we know this is not the case, and philosophers in epistemology and ethnics have been arguing over this for centuries now.
The argument presented by Oster falls to pieces when we look back on and remember what actually went on. People descended into a Girardian mania over those spreaders of “disinformation” and those who refused to follow pandemic measures. They were human contagions, not merely of the virus itself, but of a virtual malignancy of “disinfo”. Half-victim/half-perpetrator, the drive to route them out of polite (distanced) society was the number one public concern at the height of Covidian social policy, both online and in meatspace.
The goal set out by governments towards instilling right actions in their populations was by ensuring a sort of moral hygiene towards correct beliefs. Those who were infected both with COVID and with the disease of misinformation must be condemned and excluded. The functionality of civilization itself was at stake.
This was the pervasive moralization I alluded to earlier when it came to Canada and a new Covidian identity. But this was extended to some degree throughout the world. Identity in the absence of the sacred, in the absence of culture or ethnos, can only be formed on the basis of moralism and politics. Secularized and universalized humanitarian liberal morality was perfectly grafted onto bio-politics, and still thus required an exception-population to function. A source of moral dastardliness which could not come from a place of race, or religion or creed. So therefore, the biologiziation of moral thought around social action met with the biologization around politics itself. Politics became a reduction to biology by another means during the Pandemic.
But going back to the Atlantic article, this is what has caused such an outrage towards it, the burying over and disregard for these deeply personal stories of loss and exclusion. Elderly loved ones suffering loneliness and exclusion, skeptics of the global response to the Pandemic utterly demonized and case as perpetrators of death, while also being susceptible to the embrace of death itself. There were endless strings of gloating articles in leftist publications about “such as such conservative preacher who refused the jab dying of COVID”. Or the opposite flavour of COVID coverage, where this such and such healthy person died and ergo everyone is on an equal footing in terms of risk. Both never being accompanied by any context or information around medical histories and circumstances. To even ask for follow-up information in regards to stories of exceptional deaths was seen at one point by Covidian public health enthusiasts (mostly boomer liberals) as cruel and callous. Even if it's a natural human response to seek cope and comfort via information which excludes oneself from the possibility of a bad outcome or death.
The Covidian information war revealed the precarious state of our assumptions about what really constitutes liberal society in terms of an educated populace. On the one hand, medical-biological information became a moral mission, but the “wrong kinds” of information must be excluded. You were made to pay attention to case counts and figures as a matter of life and death, but questions over contextual information around the Pandemic itself and certain instances of fatalities was seen as dangerous and even morally odious. The assumption that a well educated populace could self-govern and ensure a “democratic future” was being shredded before our eyes. Because of course the repositories of public information and expertism had soiled their credibility. Whilst these public institutions and media outlets went on pretended that this loss of faith, via the rapid shifts in information and procedure, and the utter callousness by which so-called experts treated dissent and healthy skepticism, was non-existent.
The public could be trusted with the “right kinds” of information handed to them by the expert class, but were not trusted enough with these “wrong kinds” of information. The whole process of garnering the correct or diverse sources of information had now become moralized. Epistemology was now wedded ethnics and ethical action. The assumption about the previous moral good of “free and open inquiry” has been overturned. It is no wonder that such an idea of Pandemic Amnesty seems ridiculous to most. The great forgetting assumes that these upheavals in life, and common assumptions about what is correct in advanced modern societies via the Covidian moment would naturally “go back to normal”. But there is always a delay, and unforeseen externalizes.
Conclusion: Everything is Permitted.
“noting is real, everything is permitted”. Most think that phrase was written for the Assassin's Creed video game, or a quote from Nietzsche, but Nietzsche himself attributed to the mystic warlord Hassan-i-Sabbah. Who led his cult of Assassins against the Seljuks, providing them a vision of a heavenly garden (Firdaws I-Bareen) from which transcendence was achieved from the fortress at Almut. The saying means there is no fixity to this material reality, everything is perspectival. But this is not relativism or postmodernism per-say. For Sabbah uttered it in the context of Islamic Sufism and Batiniyyah. To be close to the “Zahir”, the exoteric world of form, the less one understands the “Batin”, or the esoteric world of meaning.
In times of crisis and exception, this lack of fixity to commonly held assumptions about what a society is constituted by is felt more than ever. Like the end of the Soviet Union as depicted in Adam Curtis recent archival footage documentary “Trauma Zone”. All of the assumptions about the future of soviet scientific socialism and futurism had been thrown out, and an alien way of life and ideology (so-called liberal capitalist democracy) invaded the social body. It is within these moments of precarity and cross over from one epoch to another that all previous sources of knowing are revealed and tested by fire. People in the newly created (and looted) Russian federation experienced a grinding stasis of life that was oddly similar to the previous 2 years. There was no point in working or maintaining any sociopolitical function. Th concuss reality has been obliterated, for entirely different reasons than what we experienced during the Pandemic, but never the less.
As it was in that time, so too do we live in the ashes of this great loss of common assumptions, and as Houellebecq predicted5 at the start, the acceleration of previous trends we were heading to anyways. The loss of family, the disintegration of the social, supremely neurotic health-complexes, mass death-denial via bio-political control, and more. And to tie this back to Kafka's “Amerika”, in a New York Times review, what is depicted is a strange land filled with seemingly endless and nonsensical trials and sufferings for the exiled. But as it is in “The Trial” and even The Metamorphosis, “the crucial innovation of the later novels, which makes their dream-worlds so convincingly uncanny, is the way Kafka’s avatars always seem to be colluding in their own punishment”6.
If only the main character in the Trial left his house and stopped consenting to such a line of absurd questioning. If only Gregor Samsa stopped internalizing his bug man-like state. If only we did not choose to descend into hating family members, or being coerced into unwanted medical decisions. If only. But these questions open up wounds that run deeper than anyone would care to admit in the aftermath of a total shredding of the social. I cannot forgive my government for treating me with contempt and scorn, the dead cannot forgive for the crimes of state-enforced loneliness before death, and the careless and sterile/clinical removal of them after death, denied ritual and the sentiments of families grieving together.
During the middle of lock down I did a woodcut of this photo (in the title image of this article) I saw floating around social media, one of many that we remember, of strange and luridly radicalized common interactions ripped apart by the Pandemic. Those almost surreal events such as the screaming of people at night in Chinese cities, absurd public rituals etc. But this picture was different, it was of a woman hugging her elderly loved ones fully masked through a sheet of plastic. It reminded me of the post World War 1 woodcuts of German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz. Women clutching on to men and children in solemn, fearful embrace, gaunt and ghostly shells of people yearning for warmth and comfort in the wake of mass tragedy. Death hanging in the air through the stark chiaroscuro of ink areas. It is but one small image, in the multitude of images I feel that I must depict as an artist. For this is the price of forgetting, one that that work of art does in remembrance of things past. Those covered and masked figures disappearing into a plastic sheet, a mass of feelings not truly felt, and human connection interrupted. To forget is not an act of mass compassion and amnesty, but a betrayal of our humanity.
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