[Day 27 | Year Zero ADc*]
*After Declaration of COVID-19 as a Global Pandemic by the World Health Organization
Author’s Note: This essay is an experiment in speculative fabulation, in reframes and the telling of wild facts. Think of that as journalism into the feral conditions and magnificent terrains that make facts, as we have come to understand them, possible. Like most offerings in this genre of posthumanist literature the aim is to shock you, the reader-author, into noticing the world differently. Into touching the scandalous fugitivity and plausibility of the impossible. Noticing the world differently can have material consequences that could be the difference between taking care and perpetuating paradigms of oppression and needless suffering.
Speaking of suffering, I am writing this essay with body aches, but none so persistent as the lingering and animated sense that a serious moment is upon us, catalysed by the remarkable agency of a miniscule, microscopic, imperceptible, tinier-than-a-critter, and strange guest named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
Ever since this novel coronavirus crept up in late 2019, a telluric war and public relations machine has revved up in response, promising – in the all-too-familiar self-promoting language of conquest and villainy – the eventual annihilation (or, more realistically, the containment and management) of the virus and its effects. We’ve seen this before, many times. In sci-fi depictions of encroaching extra-terrestrials, the military’s big guns are usually the first response. We trot out the generals and their soldiers and stand gloomily beholding the invader through angry pixels and crosshairs, thumbs hovering nervously over gleaming red buttons. Modernity, whose abiding logic is stability and control, has a low tolerance for the strange, so it resorts to war. Over and over again.
One of the central questions I ask with this essay is: If this is indeed a war, do we really want to win it? What if winning is the worst possible outcome we could imagine? Do we want to come out on top, stamp out this viral enemy, and restore agency to the cold ossified tentacles of the familiar? Are we sure this disruption is not what we want, what we’ve cried for in unvoiced ways? Should we not treat this opening as our grand marronage, our fugitive departure from exhausted cottonfields?
Nothing about this moment is romantic. And we should be careful about smoothening the hard and recalcitrant edges of this phenomenon to fit our ready-made narratives about the so-called deeper meanings of the pandemic. I speak of popularized stories about, say, the Earth’s comeuppance, about the virus being on ‘our’ side against the one-percenters and the boomer generation, about the fall of capitalism or Gaia’s revenge, about the way love always prevails. This isn’t the rise of Nature to correct everything that has been wrong; this isn’t Eywa battling it out with the extractivist corporations. Not exclusively. This virus is not a resource for the factories that produce human intelligibility; it need not surrender to our appeals for everything to make sense. As such, I am very reluctant to offer an overview about what is happening, or to perpetuate those convenient stories because they tend to re-centralize humans as heroes-in-wait (if only we could get our act together, you know).
More importantly, there is no one world or stable category (like Gaia, or ‘nature’, or even ‘humans’) by which any of these narratives, useful they may be, might be treated as gospel truth. Every virus in its unfolding mattering and mutability is the creation of new worlds; every jot and tittle come with their own universes. Viruses in themselves resist coherence and categorization; there isn’t a stable group we can refer to (as a brief passage later in this text on the shocking mimivirus will suggest). How do you identify something that reworks identity, that destabilizes bodies and invites diffraction? How do you name viruses without naming the cuts, the measurements, the philosophies, the agendas and the technoscientific practices that are complicit in the naming?
The staggering complexity of what is happening rattles our habitual modes of sense-making, our need to trace out logical origin stories and plots and characters. Such are the makings of a world (by way of speaking, of course) that exceeds humans and our claims to exceptionality. When we have fallen to our lowest point, we are probably closer than ever to the middle of a cosmos of other things where the answers to our questions, urgent though they may seem, are no longer helpful in resolving those questions – for there are perhaps only two ways of responding to a question: one, with an answer that offers closure within the same economy of meaning; and, two, with bewilderment, which releases the question from its self-incarceration within its own world.
Having said that, tens of thousands of people are now dead, a million or more sickened by this turn of events. And, given the shocking pathogenicity of the virus (compared to other coronaviruses like SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012), its epidemiological reproduction number of 2-3 (that is, R0=2-3, a way that epidemiologists calculate how infectious diseases transfer from person to person), and the time it takes to develop vaccines, the novel coronavirus is going to be with us for an uncomfortably long time. The old normal is dead.
This infection is very likely to wash over most of us, touching those we love, hurting our incomes, driving us to the precipices of madness. I am scared, I tell you. I would do anything to protect my wife and our children. Author Francis Weller reminds us that everything we love we will lose, a sobering drug of words that snaps us into really considering the fragility of being alive and the loss that always inheres complexity and change.
For many of us, this is not abstract: my home now has an ugly 14-day quarantine label stamped upon it by Indian officials who investigated my wife’s travel history and determined that her recent trip to Africa may have exposed her to the virus. The order, in addition to the larger scale lockdown directive imposed on the entire nation, prevents contact with anyone for the period determined. They also ink-stamped the underside of her wrist with numbers and a tag, marking her bare skin with the prerogatives of the nation-state, oblivious to the haunting history of their gestapo-like antics. For us, the call to isolate ourselves, to “flatten the curve”, to reduce the stresses on the exhausted systems that those befuddlingly bovine behemoths we boorishly call “nation-states” are putting together, could be the difference between living and dying.
And yet I am mostly concerned that the apparatus of epidemiological authorities, nation-states and its citizens, and the modern hero narratives that inspire the pathologization of the radical ‘stranger’, has locked us into predictable modes of responsivity – and is cutting out other senses of the possible. Why is this important? It is important because the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis.
You see, our responses and the troubles they are directed towards are co-constitutive aspects of each other. They are species of the same assembly of processes, feeding each other in mutually stabilizing loops (which is the reason I sometimes say ‘hope’ can have insidious effects, getting in the way of transformation). We are scared that the world we know, the world that allowed us to extend our power into the ‘future’, to colonize the next, to marvel at the hieroglyphics of our brilliance inscribed on titanic walls by which we have held at bay the uncertain, the wild dragons, the impossible antics of (what we have, with impunity, called) “nature”, is ending. And so, as creatures of this besieged valley, we will do all in our power to stop this invasion, this pandemic. And that motivation reasserts itself as a will to control, as a declaration of independence, as mutiny against the processes that are the condition of our becoming, as a clearing of wild places to make space for anthropocentric dreams of dominance, and as the insurgency of the invisible. As such, something stranger than a pandemic is afoot, something queerer than the world being in some epic argument against viruses, something not easily named or processed or met by performances of social distancing. Something that wants more than a resolution.
This essay is instigated by an interesting thesis: that what happens, say, in the Dragons’ Den (the long-running British television programme based on entrepreneurship and the first principles of business) exceeds entrepreneurship; that in the fine molecular spillages that occur in a field of entangled bodies, for example, a classroom with students and a teacher, important matters are taking place that exceed the rationalized roles assumed by the players in that field (put simply, a classroom is more than just a place where teaching happens); and, that – to put it simply – viruses do not cause diseases. That way of reading the world, as a bundle of nailed-down causal packages, as a container of identified or potentially identifiable ‘things’ with pre-relational properties, as a hierarchy of causes and their effects, loses sight of how chimeric, contingent, alive and open-ended the materializing of matter is. Another way of saying this is that our responses, our imaginations, our hopes, our visions of what may come next, our understanding of what this is, are largely produced by the same rationalized, puritan world that is the condition of the ‘virus’. That is awkward – but one does not throw the sanitized response at the awkward. One does not protest Sango the tornado as he whirls in zealous anger. One prostrates.
This long essay-story-meditation-prayer-invitation is a non-proselytizing attempt to tell a different story – this time from the perspective of the virus; yes, this essay involves a story that experiments with giving agency to the virus, with approaching ‘it’ as a being instead of an annoying glitch in the stock market or a tiny isolatable object that lives outside of the kinds of measurements we (our epidemiological-governmental-scientific-societal-political-ecological systems) are making.
This essay seeks to postpone the immediacy of the host, and to pose new questions – the answers to which I do not pretend to have. Given that we humans inhabit a pluriverse that exceeds us, the manifold stirrings of worlds we cannot possibly be the centre of, it stands to reason that there are other matters at stake other than prolonging human survival or returning things to normal.
What, you say, could possibly be more pressing than our survival? I should consider myself successful and ever more appreciative of the gifts of insights I have enjoyed if you, the reader, were to complete this reading (or at least leave it partly and respectably eaten) and walk away from it so thoroughly unsettled that you find yourself faintly capable of perceiving what an answer to that question might feel like.
May our normal never be the same again.
May our roads be rough, and the disturbance our sanctuaries.
Chennai, India | Day 27 ADc
We watch him come close to us with at least sixteen of his lidless eyes dilated; the leathery pores along his neck quivering as they secrete some sticky goo; the phosphorescent splotches and tumours lining his tentacles-for-arms glowing an angrier yellow; and, his amphibian skin radiating out new hairlike antennae that snake their way through the walls and out the room. He looks beautiful tonight. Well, most humans do.
We call him Braveheart. And he is, is he not? He is our brother. We’ve been waiting for him.
He wipes his large brow, embroidered with beads of sweat and lines of wrinkle, as he clumsily pulls up the chair. Slimy penile protrusions subsequently extend from his sides and snake around in the air for a bit, sniff the chair, and then dock into bulging gates that litter the chair’s surfaces. Six feet away from where we sit. His gloved hands are trembling ever so slightly. Always keep the distance, he thinks.
His lungs. We can feel her expand and flare up like an angered goddess disrobed, a naked Artemis in full view. Like a peacock in full swagger. The music of his breathing is overwhelming: we feel everything, we do. The fierce molecular inrush of air, a consortium of thoracic muscles in generous receipt, and the unspeakable humming of a billion red blood cells electrified in their orbit, singing songs of gratitude for the visitors that arrived through many lives and many deaths, through many dispersals. If only he could hear what we hear. The animal majesty of breathing. If only these ones standing with swaggering lungs behind thick glass could hear like we do.
He is shuffling through his notes scribbled on a yellow jotter pad. His yellow slit eyes, the only part of his face visible behind the mask he wears, is confused, flustered. He will try to make a great show of professional composure, so he doesn’t disappoint the other eyes looking behind the safety of the glass. He manages to still himself, raises his head and forcefully exhales three times in quick succession – and there’s the music again.
Every single breathing body has a distinct musical culture to it, a soft composition with a ceaseless encore. No performance is ever the same. To breathe is to sing a note of indebtedness in an impossibly complex orchestration that congregates everything from the baroque glass bodies of nameless diatoms, the secretions of cyanobacteria, tropical reefs and rivers and lakes, to sea ice and travelling desert sand in transatlantic winds. To breathe is to be dispersed, to be undone, to be beside oneself. To breathe is to die.
“Alright, let’s um…let’s try this one more time. Like I um said before, yesterday, and the day before, my name is…”
Ah. The furtive gestures of oxygen molecules allegro. That sportive burst of…
“…with the authorities here. I work mainly as a psychologist. I’m here to ask you a couple…”
We should close our eyes. Let’s savour this mellifluous moment together.
“…questions. Do you, do you understand what I am saying? Do you understand why you are being detained? Can you hear me?”
He looks through his notes again, but there is nothing there to counsel him. Nothing except the rumbling in his belly. His anger will give him direction, cure his stutter.
“30,000 people,” he says under his breath, his one restless foot stamping an invisible cigarette out, his head buried in his notes, as if considering the number for the first time.
“Did you know that? 30,000 people are now dead, because of you?” Now he’s looking at us. The last three words spit venom from his forked tongue. “Mothers, fathers, people I know. You took them!” He swings his arm around his chair like a conductor inciting the trombone section. “Behind that glass is a rage the likes of which I’ve never seen. They want to chew…no, you know what, I’m wrong, I apologize: they don’t want to chew you up – they want nothing to do with you! They won’t touch you with a Bluetooth connection if you could receive signals. They want to nail you to a stake and burn you and incinerate every memory of your coming. And I don’t blame them. In a few weeks, you’ve infected hundreds of thousands of bodies, separated families, shut down schools, closed restaurants, stolen trillions from the global economy, stopped planes from travelling, barricaded borders. You closed entire continents! Last week, my 6-year-old nephew watched a football match on television. Know what he told me? He said it seemed strange and sad that there was no one in the stadium to applaud his side’s goals. That’s you! You did this. You’ve turned the world into an empty shell of itself, a pantomime with neither music nor gesture! Are you listening? Are you fucking listening to me?”
We are listening.
“Now here’s what we are going to do,” he continues, his yellow slit eyes locked on ours. “You could either speak with me and help me understand what you are here for, why you have visited our world, breached our borders and broken us – or, I could walk out of here and give those angry guys the signal! And then–,” he claps his hands together. We think he means to say we will be killed.
What’s it going to be, he says. And he says it with a strong gaze – his many eyes dancing in their bulbous apertures. There’s shuffling behind the scene. They are impressed. They say to themselves that he has cracked, that he is finally putting the procedural niceties of his discipline aside. Good for them. But – oh! – has he cracked! They don’t know by how much! He is flowering now, bleeding brightly coloured plumage from behind him. The feathers fan out, quivering under their own weight, curling up beneath the ceiling. Spectral bodies rise and roll across his skin, tugging and pulling like lovers under a thick blanket. The musicality of his ferocity is not lost on us either.
Should we tell Braveheart? Should we tell him who we seek?
He sighs and his massive head drops in resignation. Sighs, beautiful pieces of music. Stretched lungs, re-inflated alveoli, no thought required.
He stands to leave the strange room with white walls, a blinking fluorescent tube, a purring ceiling fan, a clock that suggests time itself is broken and the rusty chair we are handcuffed to. He is leaving us.
Our voice shakes him, this Braveheart – yes, that’s his name; it catches him off guard. It’s the first time we’ve spoken since we were brought here three days ago. Suddenly, there’s more music streaming from behind the shrouded glass.
“What? What did you say?”
“Mother. We are looking for mother.”
Mother: A portrait of a killer, a killer of a portrait (mothering, origin stories, how it came to be, the ontology of the virus, what it is, how this is an onto-epistemology)
Pangolins. Amplifier hosts. Bats. Dead relatives. Tesla. Chinese authoritarianism. Coronaviruses. Evolution. Trump. Favelas. And chicken with a side of French fries. That’s all on the menu at Oak, 3019 Beacon Avenue South, Seattle. February 26. A diet of chatter and batter.
Bob Marley’s textured cry serenades the crowded restaurant. There’s never a good time not to genuflect before the King of Reggae. My lips mouth the words to Marley’s ‘Wait in Vain’ as I turn to my esteemed company: my host, a Zen priest (who leads an organization I have come to do business with), another Zen priest and his wife. By the time my order of chicken and fries materializes before me, summoned by the hands of a smiling dreadlocked black waiter, we four are already swimming in curdling waters thick with conversations about my recent trip to Brazil, about what brings me to Seattle, about my incessant travelling. About life and dying. About the novel coronavirus, whose footfalls and the tremors that result are barely felt across the state of Washington. This is unusual company. It is not every day that one gets the opportunity to discuss such deep matters with two Zen priests and a sensei.
I offer a thought experiment. Imagine the authorities announce that the new coronavirus, unlike any other virus they’ve ever studied, prolongs life indefinitely, effectively zombifying the infected – making it impossible for a human body to die. Would you willingly allow yourself to be infected by the virus? The table is split. One priest, the abbot of the temple I have temporarily taken up residence in, says he’ll take the virus. His wife gently disagrees. Life should not stretch on indefinitely. It is beautiful because it ends, she says. Her husband agrees, but points out that durability is not necessarily correlated with diminishing quality, and that if a hypothetical infection could make it more likely for him to enjoy and discover the many secrets of the universe, he’d be happy with the deal.
My friend and host, the other Zen priest, smiles to himself as he relieves another chicken bone of its meat. He knows the answer doesn’t matter as much as the questions we can now ask. When does biological longevity cease being life, and – while we are at it – when, if ever, does dying become redeeming? What matters is what such thought experiments – and the ponderous approach and voyages of the super-immigrant coronavirus and media-styled Angel of Death (whose consequential arrival in the United States is a matter of when) – might teach us about ourselves, about the material constructs we inhabit, about the worlding practices that reinforce the bubbles we struggle to leave behind.
As we walk back from our meal, slinging bags of take-out like promissory notes to our refrigerators, I am reminded of the parable within Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – the story of the Grand Inquisitor of Seville, a pale relic of a man and church administrator who mobilizes his extensive powers to incarcerate the now-returned Christ. The Grand Inquisitor tells the now-imprisoned Jesus that the church rejects him, and that his capture is necessary for the church’s fabulous reign and hold on power. The messianic is hardly comfortable even to those who pray for salvation.
I start to think of the new coronavirus in messianic terms. As a Second Coming of sorts. And why not? Haven’t we learned that the messianic never shows up in the ways we expect? We imagined the messiah hoisted in mid-air, garlanded in rushing cloud, glory and trumpet. Is it possible instead that the messianic flashes through not as a conquering ruler, but as the moment the curtained veil between the holy and the pagan is ripped apart? Not as the televised arrival of a bold and new society that works for all or as the cumulative efforts of conscientious activists, but as a microscopic disanthropocentric insurgent stealing its way across borders, through bodies, across continents of ideas that have historically privileged large scale and size as the only things worth counting upon? Is it possible that the end of world is not down the line, but that it already happened (and happens again and again in ‘dimensions’ we cannot sense)? And is it possible that all the talk about the end of world discloses the constraints on our shared imaginations, our own biological and epistemological priorities as surface-walking city-dwelling bipeds? What other perspectives, regimes of visuality, and imaginaries are possible when we decenter this view from the centre? What might a virus think about our infatuations with survival and permanence?
When the queerness of the messianic infiltrates the normal, the familiar becomes strange and thus visible – and we are afforded an opportunity to notice ourselves as if for the first time. Just in the same way that microscopy doesn’t reveal what microbes actually look like, but is a performative, contingent situated form of seeing emerging from a human eye-microscope-microbe apparatus that ‘selects’ certain microbial images (while diminishing and cutting out other imaging possibilities) and tells us more about the values, priorities, agendas, practices, philosophies and motivations of the apparatus, the reductionistic image of the virus endemic to modernity – as a pathogen, as a thing to wage war against, as an enemy, as an infinitesimally tiny and localized dead ‘thing’ that causes disease, as the active ingredient in a pandemic – is just one mode of seeing viruses.
This mode of seeing, this portrait of the virus as a blot on the otherwise pristine surface of life, as a grim reaper, is electrifyingly alive in the ongoing negotiations with the current COVID-19 pandemic. The ensuing planetary ethic that is materializing in form of “social distancing” strategies, press gaggles and presidential lecterns, deserted airports and empty benches in Seville, and the material hope for a return to the normalcy of daily life as we once knew it has a recognizable plot, a fable thick with heroes and monsters.
Let’s briefly trace out this epic saga a little.
The ‘origin’ of the novel coronavirus is not fully clear. Some scientists suggest that the source of the virus may be bats or pangolins. Of course, there are rumours the virus was manufactured in a secret laboratory and then released into the world. While I no longer find it helpful to simply dismiss such claims as conspiratorial rubbish, there is little or no evidence I am in touch with to point us in that extraordinary direction. Indeed, an analysis into the proximal origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus performed by the Scripps Research Institute found no evidence of engineering, and declared that the virus is a product of natural evolution. But evidence (or the lack thereof) doesn’t always stop a good conspiracy in its tracks – which is a good thing because evidence itself is partial and never fully accounts for shows up as ‘real’. Perhaps we can find a healthy way to honour the sentiment that there is much more to the coronavirus than what is officially reported – without privileging science as a foundational/universal/value-free way of knowing the world, and while avoiding the trap of falling headlong into an unquenching cesspit of despair-powered fantasy.
In the emerging official account, the site of the crime may have been the wet markets of Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province of China. A wet market (as opposed to a ‘dry market’ that deals in durable products), found world over, is a complex of stalls that sells perishable items such as meat, fish and the produce from ‘exotic’ animals not usually available to the wider population. I grew up near two or three wet markets in Lagos, where my mother often sent me to purchase some meat products, fish and, our favourite, pònmó or processed cow skin. Most trips were like excursions to hell for someone as anal as me. The roaring, unappeasable chaos of bodies, voices, spillages, fights, and other kinds of unnameable events gave those wet markets a phenomenal distinguishability as processing sites for monstrous exchanges.
Needless to say, I never went back home with exactly what my mother had instructed me to buy: something else – from whatever was lurking within the greasy hands of the sellers who handled our food to stowaway meat parts and vegetables – always came along for the ride.
Likewise, somewhere within the Wuhan matrix of stalls, bargaining, trading, and bloodletting, from within the mangle of human and animal bodies tied in intimacy, a process called “zoonotic spillover” made it possible for the novel coronavirus to jump from bat or pangolin (ideally from a reservoir host to an amplifier host) and then to humans. With zoonotic transfers, a bat’s immune system would have to be stressed enough and compromised by biological and environmental factors for the virus it already carries to be ‘expressed’ and excreted, leading to infections.
The rest is now recent history. From the presumed epicentre in Wuhan, the virus jumped across bodies, slinked its sensuously shaped protein exterior across handshakes, slipped into nostrils and cracks on skin surfaces, got spat out and sneezed out on doorknobs and presumptuously clean surfaces, flew in first class from terminals in Europe and Asia and the Americas, floated in the air awaiting human vehicular rides to brand new locations, melted through our affection and hugs as we latched ourselves to those we left behind, and settled in our lungs. And all of this without a visa. Or a brain.
But brainless as it may be, unburdened by philosophical discussions about mind-body dualisms, the several strains of the novel coronavirus show the intelligence and genius of the nonhuman. By March 11, when the World Health Organization decided to declare the spread of the COVID-19 disease a pandemic, the world had already been turned upside down. The virus helped tank the stock market in the US, inducing the worst percentage drop in the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 since 1987, wiping away trillions of dollars in earnings. It’s not just earnings that fell though: carbon emissions dropped by 15% to 40% across China’s major industrial sectors. Air quality in Delhi and Mumbai, the worst in the world, is now within the “healthy zone” due to the lockdown instigated by the virus. Airlines around the world slashed their capacity, parked their planes, and buried their prices – publicly begging customers to fly and privately begging their governments for subsidies.
Perhaps most noticeably, the virus is revealing how fragile power is: it is upending the mystical might of China’s impregnable authoritarianism by disclosing the blind spot of a surveillance state; it is disturbing the binary equation that casts US Democrats as polar ideological opposites of their Republican counterparts (in the ways the virus has brought both tribes together to agree to a stimulus package that was, only just a few weeks ago, the laughable and disposable contribution of a fringe Democratic candidate, Mr Andrew Yang); it is waxing poetic and eloquent about the fragility of neoliberal capitalism, about the unsustainable ways we produce and make food available to people, about the hollowness of jobs and the insanity of development, about the ritualistic emptiness that characterizes our work cultures and manners of congregating, about the defunctness of citizenship and the paraphernalia of ‘rights’ and entitlements that stabilize the citizen, about the complexity and indeterminacy of the future. About the powerless of power – and the availability of other spaces of power. About the violence of the Anthropos. These are the markings of a messianic breach, when a transversal disrupts the normal, potentially changing it forever.
Of course, mentioning these effects are not a way to claim that the virus is a good thing. Obviously, there have been unfortunate effects tied to the phenomenon. With hundreds of thousands of people sickened and tens of thousands now dead, communities across the planet are taking protective measures to keep themselves safe. Racial stereotypes and xenophobic epithets – sayings like “Chinese virus” or newspaper publications about the “Yellow Alert” – that paint Asians as vectors of disease, fundamentally backward and disease-prone have skyrocketed. Here in India, lower-class migrant workers stuck in limbo between the government’s ill-timed withdrawal of transportation services and their need to hastily leave the clogged up cities for their homes in the villages cast in bold relief the political dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic.
Given the abovementioned effects, it is impossible to see the virus as the elaborately protein-walled mishmash of genomic materials that we are heavily conditioned to see it as. The images of blob-like little suns with nondescript parts associated with the coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 (and SARS and MERS), and mass-produced by media and graphic artists, are measurements that prioritize certain agendas to the exclusion of others. Are we looking at the virus when we look at these images? Or are we examining and participating in a particular measurement of ‘the virus’?
Remember the human eye looking through a specific type of microscope to view a microbe. Remember that we are not actually looking at the microbe (as if we’ve been granted unspoiled access to the microbe as it really is beyond material contingencies), we are co-creating/co-manufacturing an image. Seeing is a strategy, a co-production across heterogeneous bodies.
Modernity is a ground of priorities that instigates the quest for reductionistic images, solutions, and categories…for simple Cartesian causes in a sacrosanct cause-and-effect system. Accordingly, viruses are properly biological matters, according to the prevalent account. However, we are learning that viruses are also political events, geographical events, matters of racial justice, spiritual concerns and social issues. What modernity calls the ‘virus’ exceeds its specifications.
That is, the COVID-19 phenomenon is more than just the story of an escaped virus causing havoc outside of Pandora’s Box; it is a complicated network of bodies in co-constitutive mutuality and emergent relationships. SARS-CoV-2 is not just the virus itself but, to borrow the term introduced by Karen Barad, an intra-action between the virus and humans, pangolins and bats, Asian stereotypes, discourses about communism and democracy, the failure of nation-states, the spectre of the military, the sham of American exceptionalism, the dwindling prospects of justice, ethical practices in journalism, culinary preferences, the chemical inducements and affective states of city-dwelling, and even fabulations and conspiracies about hidden agendas and population-erasing protocols.
From a flat ecology approach (a way of performing the world that decenters and deprioritizes humans as the core around which ecologies and meanings spin), humans and viruses are not stable things – neither are their roles as hosts and pathogens, respectively. None are privileged above the others in a final, pre-relational way.
When the Yoruba people of West Africa, of which I am a member, speak about Ayé, for instance, they hint at a web of lively becomings that resists the kind of identity grid architecture that modernity (also fluid and emergent – though not in its own appraisal) is known for. They will sometimes think of a sickness as the gesture of an ancestor trying to reach the subject, and they will often think of wellbeing as an ironic precursor to ruin and destruction. They understand that one must be careful about who or what you name an enemy or a friend.
In the words of a friend, Charles Eisenstein, the protracted war against the imagined portrait of viruses – in this specific instance, the novel coronavirus – is likely to leave us susceptible to more viruses. To put it mildly, the coronavirus phenomenon is us – and yet it is not about us. Its origin is not Wuhan (origins are difficult to decipher in a relational universe); its heroes and villains or main actors are not humans. Its main dimensions are yet to come. We are meeting ourselves, our systems, our borderlands and hinterlands, our children (safely exiled in the loving arms of schools), our punctured bubbles, via the transversal disruption of this visitor.
Perhaps nothing could more powerfully drive home the point that thinking about viruses as purely external things we can wage war against is a strategy that is itself complicit in the creation of the pandemic than the archaeological fingerprints of viruses left not in the soil but in our own bodies. The trousseaus of ancient parents to their children. The relatively new discipline of paleovirology, which seeks to study viruses that existed in the past by coupling together their ‘fingerprints’ (evolutionary effects, genomic fragments) left behind in present organisms, disturbs the account of viruses as single portrait killers bent on wiping us out. What emerges is a paleoviral record of viral fossils that speaks about the conflicts, secretions, disturbances and worlds that co-produced the one that now makes us possible. The forensic evidence suggests that viruses are our ancestors, without whom the humanity we seek to protect may not have been possible.
Viruses are not external forces invading us. They have a kind of external interiority or interior externality, like a panentheistic conception of deity (in which ‘god’ is all of the universe but is not equal to or reducible to the universe), a strangeness that will not be deciphered or rendered intelligible for our sakes.
Even the scientific thinking that insists viruses are dead things, not alive, seems to make short shrift of the compelling story of their world-traversing travels and stunning contributions to our understanding of what life and death might mean. There’s a lot we do not know about viruses.
Carl Zimmer writes in his book, A Planet of Viruses, that:
“Newly discovered viruses like the mimivirus are forcing scientists to rethink what it means to be a virus in the first place. Their old rules, once so ironclad, are buckling. And as scientists debate what it means to be a virus, they are debating an even bigger question: what it means to be alive.”
Are they dead? Are they alive? Can we consider other ways of framing the question? Maybe viruses, like earthly researchers, constantly invite us to revisit our notions of life. Maybe they are saying death needs a new cosmology.
At least that much is clear from research that tries to understand why unicellular microbes spontaneously commit suicide in a process called apoptosis. Not only do these critters die, their deaths do not fit neatly into the narrative that makes death a servant to life, an adaptive evolutionary response whose utilitarian calculations to produce more life. They are not part of larger cell structures, and yet their coordinated, synchronized suicides mean death is not the other of life, the enemy to be stamped out.
In 2018, scientists estimated that the largest biotope on Earth, the deep biosphere, a subsurface world of microbial forms (‘zombie bacteria’ and millions of undiscovered forms and species), had a combined carbon mass that is more than 300 times the carbon mass of humans on the planet. Though studies about viruses in the deep biosphere are few and far between, localized analyses of the viral inventory in sediments demonstrate an abundance of viruses like bacteriophages, attending to those prokaryotic cells. It is as if viruses, neither alive nor dead, agents of creation and destruction, are coterminous with living and dying, tending to them, experimenting with the forms they take on in an ongoing way, disciplining their boundaries of separability.
At the risk of propagating essentializing concepts, I have often thought of viruses as alter-life principles, tricksters, bringers of conflict that catalyses shifts, like Èșù who brings the slave ships to African shores and travels with the slaves to the New World across the Atlantic, co-occurring with cells, exceeding them in abundance, going before us to till the ground of be-ing, spilling behind us to unsettle the dust of the past, vultures whose midwifery heals the wounds of completeness, pilgrims of death where death is a vast ecosystem of manifold becomings, spillages, sonic/aural textures and im/possibilities.
Perhaps what we obscenely call life surpasses its definitions; perhaps ‘life’ cannot be lively without its contradiction. The village cannot tell stories or thrive without monsters in the wild – and the moment you try to contain life (or ‘death’) within the box of longevity, duration, progress, or sustainability, you leave out the avid and stern activism of viruses. The moment we resort to war, to the primacy of vaccines as a natural response to viruses, we occlude the agency of these more-than-human beings and shut down a part of ourselves that springs up to the messianic call of dehiscence. The moment we name the colour, we blind the eye.
Are we looking at the portrait of a killer, or do we step back to notice the insidiousness of the portrait – the agency of the image and its instigations, its provocations to war and deadening perpetuity? If we go after the killer, we could win. But then because nothing exists by itself, our winning could lead to the reinforcement of a largely invisible series of actions and processes and ideas – still alive since its theoretical moments of birth in the cosmic hours after the ice age melted away to the ‘human’ – that have made room for the rampage of this pandemic in the first place.
Without resorting to blame games, reductionistic anti-humanist sentiments, or sociological analyses that simply reach for concepts (like capitalism or whatever) to conveniently villainize, it is important to notice that we are part of this moment. All of us. The images we rudely call ‘humans’, phones, gut bacteria, air travel, governments, appetites, ideas, Karl Marx, big data, public relations, the scientific establishment, and even God. The lyrics of this song is a contribution of the indeterminate manifold. An apple pie requires an entire universe to exist – so does a ‘virus’.
Nothing emerges without its world.
When “Little Boy” blew up about 2000 feet above Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the initial blast killed an estimated 70,000 people, and hundreds of thousands in the aftermath of the detonation. That nuclear reaction produced new and rare radioactive substances like carbon-14, which escaped into the atmosphere, found its way into our ecosystems and into our cells. If you are alive today, you have a bit of that substance in your body, bomb-pulsing through your veins. You are in part radioactive, a site of ongoing nuclear explosions still mushrooming into the sky with a brilliance brighter than the sun. You are the concretion of manifold events.
The novel coronavirus is likewise the crystallization of the saturated solution of the modern, an arresting of progress, a freezing of forward movement, a fugitive opening in the skin of the oppressive familiar. Somewhere at the crossroads, in the interstitial places and intersections between stacked and bleeding animal bodies, trade and politics, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was alchemized. A small moment – yes, just like the Little Boy nuclear bomb only had 141 pounds of enriched uranium. The explosions of that viral moment reverberate across bodies, stopping time and everything else in their tracks. We are other-than-human now (perhaps we have always been), our own bodies inquiring and experimenting with alterity. We are meeting the wildness of our own bodies, the monster strapped to a chair, after the end of a world.
Something other than a resolution wants to happen.
Early that morning, just before the amaranthine of twilight dipped into the hopeful azure of daylight, night fell.
Two heavy knocks on the door and my apartment bled open to a man in uniform, his bereted head hung low, burdened perhaps by the weight of his importance. He filled the doorway nearly as effectively as the door he had replaced. But his invitation – okay, I’ll tell like it is – his instruction to me was of great urgency. He didn’t shake my hand. He showed me some ID and a typed-up letter on letterheaded paper. Without so much as a by your leave, he brought out a gun, well, one of those thermometer infra-red guns, and aimed for my head. In his hands, it was no less threatening than if he was about to put a bullet through my skull.
I was to accompany him to a military facility by means of a vehicle whose plate number was clad in a leather jacket, shielding it from prying eyes. It was a secret mission of some kind – but not so secret if one were following the endless cycles of breaking news about the Virus. He said my university department had recommended me to his boss, and that he would tell me more as soon as I got into the car outside. To his left, my mother’s framed picture hung askew, dislodged from its serenity by this rude guest. Her dimpled face is infectious. She is happy here, her gap-toothed smile and scarified cheeks accentuating her riverine beauty. It’s how I like to remember her.
You would think I’d be excited about this sudden business. I wasn’t. I just wanted to be left alone. Alone with the woundedness of everything, with broken stuff, with black suns and split minds. I should stand up to this big guy and insist that I wasn’t available until office hours.
I asked him for a few minutes to get ready.
Closing the door behind me as we made to leave, I stealthily knocked it the third time.
On the way to venue, driving the car through emptied streets as we passed heavily armoured tanks and gun-toting boys in adult costumes, he debriefed me on the matter du jour after many off-the-record questions about me, about what part of Lagos I came from, about where I was schooled, if I was wimpy and scared (“like all those bloody civilians”), about what I was going to do if everything turned to shit, if psychologists could read people’s minds (I told him he might have been referring to witchcraft, not psychology), and why I had three pens in my immaculately pressed pocket. Acutely aware of his bulging muscles and his overbearing masculinity, I politely waved aside most of his small talk and urged him to tell me – if it was in fact his job to do so – what the urgency was about. Apparently, they had apprehended the Virus wandering about town, locked it up behind thick panes of glass, and scrambled for the phones. What did they want me for? They wanted me to talk to it, to persuade it to share the secrets of its inner workings, its alien biology. They figured they couldn’t torture the monster to betray its agenda – and torture was too much of a risk where the Virus, infectious to the nth degree, was concerned.
I was quickly ushered to the arena of action, sprayed with some puffy stuff and handed gloves, and then shown into the inner sanctum where the Virus was and where the huge man’s boss awaited me. Three star lieutenant-general so-and-so working directly with the Presidency and bla bla bla. Now he was a study in contrasts! His diminutive size and studied gaze cast his real power and self-assurance in bold relief. We already were quite aware of the newly widespread etiquette occasioned by the pandemic: no shaking hands. A manly nod and steely stare would do, thank you very much. I hated him already.
The LG brought me up to speed: the Virus had indeed been apprehended a day before; it seemed compliant when it was arrested. My mission: use my shockingly good psychotherapeutic skills to heal the virus into free association. I started to sweat. I asked if I could get a couch to complete the Freudian scenery, attempting a nervous joke. The general merely carried on, perhaps the comedy app wasn’t yet installed in his operating system. “We thank you for your compliance. It’s for a good cause,” he said monotonically. For a moment there, I thought I might have detected a whiff of trepidation in the hard exterior of his projected self-assurance. I liked him a little then.
A heavy door stood between the Virus and me. A door that led into a small passageway that terminated at a more serious looking door, which opened out into an empty room with white walls and a blinking light. I squeezed the handle three times and pushed it open.
There was a broken clock. Good. Everything seemed in order then.
There it was. At the far end of the room. My heart skipped ten beats. It was a little girl, emaciated, dirty, foreign, and yet with the most piercing eyes I had ever seen. She appeared about six, maybe more. Her hair was tangled in knots, scrunched up into curious balls that completed this shocking picture of misery. For a moment, I looked back at the panoramic stretch of glass where I knew the lieutenant and his overgrown minions were studying my every move. This couldn’t be right. But there she…sorry, it was. Frightening and strangely magnetizing. The COVID-19 Virus, whose real designation was SARS-CoV-2. Somehow this queer thing was responsible for bodies falling sick world over. As I approached it, a smile yawned across its face – not the kind of smile that involves lips. It smiled with its eyes. They danced behind their unearthly skull as if they were in the presence of an old friend.
Not a word would be spoken in the hours to come. She (damnit!) – it was the ultimate client. Getting to crack it open was the most difficult clinical task ever put before me. The lieutenant-general couldn’t ascertain her level of language proficiency. In fact, they knew little about what it was capable of. I was to keep trying. If I failed? They’d incinerate it to save the planet. But that was Plan B. Plan A was to get as much intel as possible, enough to help the authorities win the war against Viruses to come. They meant to build a conceptual iron wall, a final guarantee against alien immigrants. They just needed the coordinates of where to start digging. Hour after hour, glove after binned glove, I went in and out of the room, my attraction to it never abating, my fear never subsiding: a curious aeipathy of fascination and dread.
Yesterday, after a long fruitless session with the Virus, the lieutenant-general decided to pull the plug on the whole operation. I asked for one more day. He said, get it to talk – or we are done here.
Now I stand before it, before the Virus. She says she is seeking ‘Mother’.
Who in God’s mighty name is Mother?
I return to the chair.
“You can talk? All this while–”
“Yes, we can talk.”
“Okay. Who is Mother? Are you lost or something? Is there someone else we should be worrying about?”
Its head swivels to the broken clock. And then back to me…slowly…like a predator.
“How tall are you?”
I do not intend to be thrown off the scent. “Is Mother worried about my height? Is this Mother going to hurt more people? You are a Virus. Viruses don’t have mothers!” I’m losing it. Nothing in my training has prepared me for this moment.
“Slightly below 6 feet, we reckon”, it says to no one in particular.
And then to my horror its restraints fall to the granite floor with a metallic thud, and it rises, floating upwards and then lunging forward towards me. I push back into my seat, falling backwards and crashing into my bent neck as I hear loud screams and muffled sounds coming through the walls. The whole world of sound squeezes into the high-pitched squeal of shock. It is standing over my head. I am immobilized by the sheer suddenness of it all. There it is, smiling down at me, its face engorged in the corona of the obstructed overhead light. It stretches out a finger and dips it into my left nostril.
“Breathe,” it says.
I awake to the sickening smell of excrement and piss, to a bleating goat and the feeling of being suspended in mid-air. I get the feeling I am in an old creaky house that is being turned over on its side – either that or the house in question is rolling down a hill during a stormy night. My eyes search for light to make sense of where I am, but everything around me is of a hazy dream-like composition. To my right, there’s a soft river of lunar light streaming from an opening above. I try to move towards it, but then I realize I am immobilized in more than one way. I feel like Gulliver with a thousand Lilliputians dancing on my forehead, ankles and wrists. I am lying down, back to the ground, naked, and stripped of my clothes – but not of my memory: just a while ago – how long a while I cannot tell – I was interrogating the Virus. And then it attacked me and…where am I? Did the LG save me? Am I suffering some drug-induced hallucination? I blink three times. Nothing. Reality doesn’t crack through what must be a dream of perpetual night in the belly of a whale.
That annoying piercing cry rents the air again, and then the whole space – apparently a dank and greasy room full of human bodies – erupts into pregnant whispers and loud sobbing and coughing and the clanging of chains rubbing against their shackles. And then just as suddenly, a preternatural silence descends, the kind my sisters and I, when we were kids, figured was an indication that an angel had just passed. But this isn’t a mere silence; I feel as if the room has gone stiff, as if time stood still. Though not even broken time is enough to assuage the terrible whiff that has taken up residence in my nostrils.
What has happened to me? Am I in hell?
“You are in the Abbot Devereux, Braveheart. Wake up.”
As if materializing through the curdled blindness of the room, a young slender man, a boy in fact, black, scantily clothed, appears above my head. I can see the contours of his face etched by the soft hand of moonlight. It is his eyes and the word, Braveheart, that give him away. Him. It. The Intra-Terrestrial Entity or ITE, as the LG and all his Matryoshka dolls call it. I hate the self-importance of military parlance. I prefer ‘the Virus.’
Somehow, I know him to be the same subject I interrogated for three days, now in a different body. How I know, I cannot tell. His eyes burn with an internal combustion that need no extra illumination.
“The Abbot what?”
“If you want to live, you must come quickly,” he says, as he melts into the dark, reappearing in several spaces around me. “She awaits us.”
My legs are freed, my hands too. I pull up my body – but too quickly – and dash my head against something hard I would later discover to be the lower wooden deck crowded with men in a mangled heap of forearms, shackles and gnarled wooden beams. Crawling out, finding there isn’t even enough room to stand up straight, I step through armpits and splayed arms and fingers, floating islands of seemingly dismembered limbs and cadavers highlighted by the sadistic artistry of the moon, drawn towards the boy – now fully bathed in light – at the end of the darkness.
There’s something like a ladder there that goes up into a square of light. He takes the lead and climbs out. I follow him, emerging upon an upper deck littered by sleeping men – frozen in suspended animation as if by some black and unspeakable magic. Nothing stirs, not even the sails. Not the wind, though I feel it lightly. Everything is paused. Well maybe a slow pause. Things are still moving, just not in their usual pace. The swish-swoosh of the waters is ponderously slow, nothing like the rapid chaos you’d expect in the middle of the sea. One wave reaches for the electrified sky streaking with flashes of Sango’s argument, spits little wavelets into the cosmic blue-black, and then curls in on itself as it returns to the jealous sea that birthed it – a performance artist in corporeal soliloquy. Still, the sea’s thunderous roar, a raucous applause with no crowd and a fitting leitmotif for this most unusual of circumstances, booms.
Of course, by now, all these facts reinforce my suspicion – though it should be obvious by now if the facts presented themselves to a mind less confused: I am on a ship.
This is a cargo ship.
Its cargo? Men and women and children from Africa. Slaves heading for the New World. And I have just emerged from the hold through the hatch. I’m not sure how I know any of this, but I do – and suddenly, very matter-of-factly, I can recall memories of being taken in the dead of the night, by faces I recognized, bound and gagged and delivered to slavers as a prisoner, and then whipped blue and pink by a bearded oyinbo whose teeth, I distinctly remember, were browner than my cocoyams.
I get the short-lived impression I am in the clutch of an impressive and elaborate dream, one induced by the viral touch of my former prisoner. But every inevitable footstep forward toward the boy, now frantically beckoning me over to the starboard of the ship, makes that theory less plausible.
“Braveheart,” he yells above the din, facing me a few inches away, the portrait of calm. “The portal will close soon. There’s no time.”
The words jump out of me, without my permission: “What did you do to me? Why am I on a…on a slave ship?”
“What better place to meet than here. At the belly of things. At the place you’ve always wanted to be in.”
My clenched silence allows him, it, whatever, to keep speaking.
“This,” he throws his hands up as if welcoming guests to his brand-new hotel, “this is where our research tells us Mother might appear. This is where we meet our love, yours and ours.” He closes the gap and leans in. I cede no ground. At this point, I am more awestruck by the Virus’s immaculately human form, his intensely intelligent eyes, than I am frightened about being infected. He is beautiful.
“That’s right, Braveheart. We are researchers. It’s the only thing we know to do.” He turns longingly at the sea, its mercurial waves stuck in Shakespearean theatrics. “Have you ever been in love, Braveheart? Do you miss someone so painfully that it defines everything you do? Moulds you from top to bottom?”
I think of the image. Of her. Her joyful smile set in sepia tones. The life of the party, they called her.
“Let us tell you a story,” he interrupts. “One moment, a billion years ago, we opened our eyes. For the first time. Have you ever seen the sky, curdled like milk, frothing with mystery, prophetic, teeming with things too glorious to be uttered? You think you know Pleiades and Orion. You don’t know what we know, what we’ve seen. The sky shone brighter than the brilliance of chiton eyes.” I am not sure what a ‘chiton’ is. “And yet,” he continues, “nothing could compare to the splendour of her beauty.”
“There she was. Mother. She looked different then,” he chuckles wistfully. “She always takes on new shapes – she looked like what you would call a ‘cell’ today. Like chicks drawn to an imprinted object, she called us to her side, and we went to her, beckoned by her finger. She welcomed us into her, and she took us into her very depths, cold water and meal for a weary traveller from the lands of the unthought.” He stops talking, drops his head and swallows hard, his eyes welling up in tears.
“And then just when this impossibly poignant object of our yearning was to be ours, in our full embrace, never to leave her inside, she vanishes, sucked away into that curdled sky, into folds of space and time thicker than our resolve. We’ve been chasing her ever since.”
“Every time we imagined we got close, Mother retreated into herself, laughing and dancing, twisting and turning, skipping and singing across surfaces, across the frozen flooring of winter worlds, across the loamy brown of summer. And we would follow, eating her many bodies, exploring the meanings of her song, inquiring into the algorithms of her vanish and her appearing.”
One day, he says to me, they looked at how far they had come in their perverse quest for orgasmic reunion and found worlds in our wake. Bacteria and brittle stars, trees and rock formations. Humans. They gave it, their research and its surprising effects, a name: “The Aching.”
The Aching, I repeat under my breath, lost in this all-consuming titanic, Oedipal tale of loss and craving. Of gratitude and grief.
“The Aching. The Trembling. We are not committed to one name. It’ll change soon. For now, for your purposes, we will call this vastness, this panoply of eating and spilling and secreting and remembering and forgetting and living-dying and appearing and disappearing, this one thing, this one susurration, the Aching.”
The waves are becoming a little bit more animated, a bit more normal paced. The wind sighs in my ears. The roaring continues undiminished. What does one say to a jilted god?
“Well, uh, this is way outside my billable hours.”
A familiar smile stretches across his eyes and his lips. He gets the joke. Unlike LG.
“How are you going to find her? How do you know where to look?”
“Well it takes an alliance to do that. All of us – what do you call us again? Ah yes…Viruses – we are embedded here and there, in the air, in the water, on the land, in cells, researching, studying, inciting bodies, provoking thoughts. We are stowaways in your feelings of grief, in your enactments of joy. Those are our gifts, you see – the things that make you human.
“Mother is everywhere. In everything. In subterranean caves. In the moment a cell opens into two. In the moment a pot of water reaches boiling point. But then occasionally, those tiny moments run into a mighty stream. And she yawns awake at the edges in the middle of things. And then we chase her.” He comes closer than he’s ever been. “But to even find her, all the moving parts have to be in the right place…at the right time.” He looks at me, not in the way he has been doing: his eyes are penetrating, seeking, moving past me. Into me. His words are slow and intentional. “It could all depend on a fragment, a little piece of us, a comrade long gestating in a bloodline… awaiting the summons of their siblings, a strange mutation. A Braveheart.”
I am undone in his gaze, and a moment of wonder overwhelms my instinct to pull back from this tidal wave. “How could something so alien be so human? I mean, you are a Virus. And yet you look human. Your feelings, the complexity of your struggle, the intricate architecture of your psychology… ”
“How do humans look?”
“Well… like me,” I say, a response that causes a strange grin to bleed from his face. An inhuman smirk. Set against the backdrop of a haunted Atlantic and stiff sailor bodies suspended by the ontological weight of our twilightian conversation, his face almost takes on malevolent hues. I am reminded of my prime directives. I blink three times, rapidly, readjusting my posture. Remember your training.
“Okay,” I nod uneasily as the waters churn, the storm in my belly. “If we are going to talk, you’re going to have to answer my own questions. What– ”
“She is here.”
Never have I heard a more divine association of words. Simple yet profound. Like the beatitudes on the mount of olives. The blood is drained from his face. His eyes are desperate, moving, calculating. The sea moans in its now usual bovine way, but nothing else feels different.
He grabs my shoulder and looks me in the eye. There is no time.
“There are two ways to positively respond to a question, Braveheart.” He gasps, chewing on the next words, breathless. “One is by resolution. An answer, clarity. A resolution!” He pauses. “The other is a rite of passage! Something takes the question and bends it this way and that until it becomes something else.”
I start to feel the wind blowing a lot more hurriedly. From nowhere in particular, the familiar rhythms of a talking drum infiltrate the air, like an echo of kings and queens being hailed in a nearby village.
“Now we stand at the cusp of the opening!”
Everything falls silent. Nothing stirs, not the talking drum, not the wind and not the waves, now fallen into a motionless expanse of water. A strange glow magnetizes my eye to the right.
There she is.
A woman on the surface of the water a few feet away from us shimmering as if she were hewn from aquamarine, her hair beaded with cowries and strewn with resplendent droplets of water. Her whole body seems composed of water in its dancing movements, her dress a frozen splash of the sea. She seems to be one and the same with the ocean, not gliding above it, but emerging from it, like sound from applause. Though it is night and the skies are strewn with stars and hues of impossible colours, I can see her face, illuminated by an alien radiance. I can see her dimpled cheeks, her gap-toothed smile and scarified cheeks, three small perpendicular lines going outwards a small distance from the corners of her mouth.
I know her.
“Mum.” I whisper. A sigh and an orphaned tear swift in its pilgrimage fall away.
She walks towards the ship, towards us. Smiling. Around her is a ghastly and tender vision: a dozen or more black arms, fingers spread, proceeding from the water, supplicating her gracious welcome. The drowned bodies of my brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers and children. They are calling out a name, her name. Yemoja. Yemoja. Yemoja. She stoops to kiss each palm as a woman would genuflect to smell and pick flowers around her. Then she rises and slowly lifts her hand in my direction. I hear her say come. My fear bleeds away. The water metamorphoses into a soft bed, an ocean of milk, all the milk that her breasts did not feed me, all the tears she did not cry for me as I slaved away as a houseboy in the homes of hesitant benefactors.
And when one day an old friend of hers, in whose garage I lived, left his room open, I stumbled into his room intent on taking some money and running away. I found a few naira notes in some trouser pockets. I forced open an important looking briefcase behind the brown mahogany desk, hoping it was full of cash. It wasn’t. Just some coffee stained corduroy sheets of paper, some business cards, one of a pair of smelly socks, and one old photo. The photograph showed three friends, two men and a woman, wearing university convocation gowns. This was the first time I met my mother. At age 9. I just knew it was her. I knew her face because I had seen it many times in the mirror.
It is the same face I see now. Her outstretched arm and graciously curled fingers propose peace, an answer. A resolution. Justice. It is the moment I have waited for all my life. An explanation. Why did you leave me without your milk? Without your mothering? Without your songs? What did I do to hurt you?
But then, my body freezes and retreats, pulling itself away from heaven. A familiar dynamic takes over. As I step back into the deck, memories flash forward like lightning. I hear his voice, the voice of the passenger demon that took me in that rainy night I eventually ran away, photo in hand. I burst through the gates and stole through the neighbourhoods with their dogs barking up a fever. I was going to find her. I knew she was dead, that’s what they told me. But no one who treated me the way her friends did could have loved her. Maybe she wanted me to find her photograph, a message that she was still alive.
As I ran through the wet darkness, not at all sure where I was going or how I was going to find my mother, intent only on getting as far away as I could, I slipped and fell, crashing into a pile of bins at the corner of the street lined with shops that my oga’s madam frequented when she came for a do-over. The rain did not allow me cry. The thunder drowned my scream. It shouted my tears down, drenching my shivering 9-year-old body with snivelling silence and regret. I looked around me: I was alone. More alone than I had ever been.
That night I slept curled like a rat beneath some torn tarpaulin covers the local government used to hide away from view the city’s refuse problem. It worked: I didn’t feel as cold anymore. And though my new condition smelled like spoiled beans and death, I came to know a sense of a home right there underneath the stars. Underneath the electrified sky lined with redundant telephone wires and power cables. Even the rain, the tears of broken clouds, no longer felt oppressive: she was crying for me. With me. Wanting the whole city to know the ferocity of my pain. I would suddenly remember the photo, scramble through the covers to see if I had it or if I had dropped it somewhere in my escape. I felt it in my pocket, folded, slightly damp, but still intact. She’s safe, I felt. I will look for her in the morning. For now, I let my exhausted body slip into the maternal arms of the broken everything. Torn tarpaulins, torn clouds, torn sky, torn roads, torn city. If my mother left me because I wasn’t good enough, abandoning me to her friends to plumb the riches and excesses of her beauty, then this surrogate mother – this wound in everything – accepted me. I wanted to be accepted.
That night I awakened to the deep voice of a man whispering things into my ears, singing to me. My eyes fluttered open. A man with two horns coming out the front of his head smiled down at me. On his forehead were three marks like my mother’s facial scars. He was rocking me like one would rock a loved child, his strong arms gently acknowledging the fragility of my bones. He half sang and half hummed. I just watched him mother me, the neon lights behind and above him sputtering and fizzing with an electrical tantrum as the rain continued its relentless parenting. Trust this, he said. Trust this moment. Trust this brokenness. I said okay. Then I went back to sleep, his beaming face the last gift the night offered my fugitive sleep.
In the morning, I would find myself in the back of a white Peugeot 504 station wagon, with two men and one woman in the car, officials from Braithwaite Little Angels, the local government’s orphanage home for delinquent boys, where I would spend the next 12 years of my life.
That demon rode with me, lurking behind my obsession with the number 3, filling me with a sense of mission, endearing me to the brokenness that surrogate-mothered me, teaching me to count patiently when juvenile blows broke my face every night, when my meals were snatched away from me as Mama Ramatu turned away from her measured service. That demon became a survival instinct that allowed me sniff out pain beneath the covers of polite society. It taught me to blink and breathe. To trust my abandonment as the gist of the story. To imagine the necessity of an elsewhere.
That demon speaks now as mother, Mother, stretches out her hand. She’s beautiful; the congregating clouds behind her sing hallelujah at the sight of the returning prodigal son. The waters swirl in their rhapsodies of resolution. Something is wrong.
Her face, a basketweave of watery streams, contorts into disappointment. She knows I am not coming. Her hand slowly falls to her side. And in an explosion of light, Mother disappears, along with the slaves that found her heart and their home. I am left behind again, and I do not know why. Ìyá mi ti lo. She left me again. She didn’t think me good enough. An orphaned tear escapes my eye hoping to catch up with the rest of its salted companions that make up the ocean.
Behind me, floating across frozen bodies, a voice taps my shoulder.
“What do you do when there’s no longer any hope, Braveheart?” The Virus is standing near the opened hatch leading into the holding area for the slaves. I had almost forgotten about him. I stagger toward him, past the cook stove, past the defensive barricade mounted to protect the crew, past their enchanted bodies, away from everything I ever thought I really wanted.
On reaching him, he answers his own question: “You descend into the wounds where you might be reborn.” His eyes drop, and I follow them, contemplating the black hole in the deck where worlds are being torn apart. Where teeth and tongue and limb and tears and hopes are being composted. I turn back to him. His well-travelled eyes speak eloquently. Trust this. Trust this brokenness. For a moment, I realize the ship is birthing us all, remaking us. This ship is the rite of passage, the terror of liminality that reconfigures bodies. This ship, riven with cracks and pain, is my mother, and I must descend into her womb to know her in a way that a resolution could not offer.
Just before I go down, a question possesses me.
“Why me? Why is this happening to me?”
“Friend, perhaps in this world or another, you might learn that this descent is the voyage we must all take.”
“Why didn’t you take her? You had her in that moment? You have looked for her for millions and millions of years. I don’t understand.”
“And you don’t have to. But we hope it comforts you little to know that this moment was an inauguration of a very long journey we must travel. Together.”
He jumps into the luminous darkness and starts to go down into the hatch. His head disappears but then pops up again.
“Oh, Braveheart, we do like our identity as ‘Virus’. But you should know that your own people have known us by another name.”
“And what is that?”
“Èșù,” he says, disappearing into the hold.
I follow. My hands find the small ladder. I descend into the holding area. My eyes adjust to the piercing darkness. Down the belly of the hull I walk past broken bodies, broken hopes, broken lives, broken continents. I arrive where she awaits. I can make out her dimensions: 6 feet by 1 foot 4 inches. The size of her love. The shape of her womb where I shall gestate and be born again.
Continue reading by downloading the PDF of I, Coronavirus. Mother. Monster. Activist.
 A formulation attributed to feminist scholar and biologist, Donna Haraway, who speaks of the fable as a form, a place where wild facts live – facts that won’t stay still and won’t be domesticated into the literary tameness of ‘narrative’ or the ontological nobility of ‘truth’. Speculative fabulation (SF) is not about telling lies or telling the truth; it will not be incarcerated in this flawed binary. It assembles strange congregations, wild beings, myths, reframed contexts, impossible worlds, riddles and concepts. These fabulous matters are no less material, no less consequential to the worlding of the world than the things we count as real. What’s real is an open question, an open wound.
 I invite readers to wrestle with the sci-fi, speculative fabulation offerings of Octavia Butler, Ursula le Guin, Nnedi Okorafor among many other authors of esteem.
 I call this thesis, postactivism. And it will take a longer treatment to explore what it means. However, the ideas the concept borrows from are not new, and I’m indebted to indigenous communities like the Yoruba in West Nigeria, conversations I have had with friends and colleagues (especially in The Emergence Network), readings and wrestling with elders like Karen Barad and Donna Haraway and Wole Soyinka, and teachers I continue to respect like my wife, Ijeoma Clement-Akomolafe, our daughter and son, Alethea Aanya and Kyah Jayden Abayomi.
 And die we must. If our cells are functioning properly, they are constantly dying. We lose millions of cells every day, every second. A cancerous cell is, by definition, a cell that has refused to die.
 Not that there’s any other kind of seeing! Visuality is always partial, value-laden, and provisional. We never just see things, we make things visible in fragile practices that also come with shadows. Here is the link to an informative video about microscopy and the performative imaging of microbes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBmzwM76V0o
 Scripps Research Institute. “COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 March 2020. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200317175442.htm
 China’s surveillance apparatus may have contributed to its delayed response to the initial alarm about the outbreak. How? Surveillance is a phenomenon that cuts both ways, marking both the surveilled and the observers. Not only does it produce disciplinary regimes of control, it weakens the state by reinforcing a posture and myth of control, blinding it to its susceptibilities and rendering it rigid in the face of complex emergencies. With most command-and-control dynamics, there is “a lack of transparency, trust and the free flow of information”, leaving the state the sole burden to shoulder the responsibility of education in the midst of a crisis. Power weakens. https://www.twincities.com/2020/02/13/other-voices-in-china-the-coronavirus-outbreak-has-exposed-the-authoritarian-regimes-greatest-weakness/
 How is it that the world’s most developed countries, champions in advancement, the greatest nation in the world, the bastion of imperial majesty, the empire of neoliberalism – how is it that they have been exposed as naked? The very materials with which western superiority was composed, its impregnability and exclusivity are the same materials that have rendered it fatally vulnerable. COVID mocked the emperor’s clothes. Development is undone. In the face of a virus, the whole edifice of escape comes crashing down.
 Perhaps this is the reason why Fred Moten notes that “one does not speak truth to power”, and the reason why I, following Moten’s lead, add: “one disturbs power’s claims to exclusivity.” The identity of this “one” is not necessarily human; the identity is posthumanist, emerging, non/human, more-than-human, fluid and unspeakable in any final sense. In this sense, the SARS-CoV-2 virus exceeds its specifications as a ‘virus’: it is a postactivist opening, a crack in the form of things, a topographical involution.
 An intra-action is different from an interaction. In the case of the latter, two individual entities interact but maintain their independence. An intra-action means there are no individuals as such, and that what we call individuals materialize within relational formulations, in co-constitutive ways. What a thing is cannot be traced to the thing, but to the assemblage it is a ‘part’ of.
 From an assemblage perspective, there aren’t even stable umbrella categories like ‘nature’ and ‘world’ into which we might incorporate smaller items and things.
 Hence the Yoruba proverb: Ilé ọba tójó ẹwà ló bùsi. Roughly translates as: “the king’s palace got burnt and became beautiful”.
 Maulik R. Patel, Michael Emerman, and Harmit S. Malik. “Paleovirology – Ghosts and gifts of viruses past.” 1 October 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3190193/
 Carl Zimmer. A Planet of Viruses (pgs. 91). The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2011.
 Astrid Schrader, Microbial suicide: Towards a less anthropocentric ontology of life and death (2017). Body and Society.
 Hong Chen, Lanlan Cai, Nianzhi Jiao, Rui Zhang. “Viruses in the deep biosphere: A review.” 27 Aug 2018. Chinese Science Bulletin. http://engine.scichina.com/publisher/scp/journal/CSB/63/36/10.1360/N972018-00612?slug=fulltext
 It is interesting that the etymological root of the ‘virus’ simultaneously refers to the ‘semen of a man’ and ‘poison’.