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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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OLIVIER, Bert. The Covid-19 pandemic: An opportunity for reflection on the place of humanity in relation to nature?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.4-2, pp.1103-1131. ISSN 2224-7912.

The present article poses the question, whether the novel coronavirus-pandemic is a blessing in disguise, in so far as it offers humanity the opportunity to reflect on its place in relation to nature, as well as on its future. This question is answered affirmatively, in light of scientific evidence that human economic practices are responsible for the emergence of the coronavirus. Specifically, the destruction of natural habitats by humans, who destroy rain forests to make way for soya and palm tree plantations, as well as for cattle farming, places tremendous stress on animals like bats, that tend to shed the viruses they carry when they get into contact with humans in spaces such as so-called "wet markets". This constitutes what Jean Baudrillard calls "blowback", that is, the manner in which nature exacts a kind of revenge for human technical interference in natural processes, and which one may anticipate in the wake of the medical-technological development of a vaccine against the virus, in so far as it is likely to generate the evolution of other, possibly more lethal viruses. An interpretive analysis of a science fiction film (The Day the Earth Stood Still; Derrickson 2008), demonstrates the effects of short-sighted human economic behaviour as far as species-extinction is concerned, which, in the film, is thematised fictionally as something that could adumbrate the extinction of humanity itself. It is argued that this film, which is a timely reminder of humans'responsibility towards nature, can be related to the present pandemic as far as the destruction of natural habitats is concerned, which demonstrably leads to the shedding of viruses. The novel coronavirus is further placed in the context of what Castells calls the "network society", by showing that, similar to computer viruses, its rapid spread has been facilitated by the global network character of contemporary society. Decisive in this regard has been the global web of air travel routes that spans the globe, along which the virus was transported from China to other countries in the world. The economic aspect of the pandemic is explored in relation to the social stratification of the network society according to Castells, who depicts the world's elites as constructing their own exclusive spaces by means of various functions of networking. It appears that the pandemic has exacerbated the exclusionary drive, as well as the further self-enrichment on the part of the elites, and a parallel is drawn between this state of affairs and Michel Houellebecq's novel, The Possibility of an Island, which traces the incremental exclusion of ordinary human beings from the exclusive spaces occupied by the wealthy. This leads to a discussion of Naomi Klein's fears, that the current pandemic has given the world's technocrats an ideal opportunity to inveigle public authorities into investing taxpayers 'funds in communications technology that would putatively safeguard people from infection by the coronavirus while, at the same time, allowing economic and educational activities (among others) to continue. She exposes the hidden truth, that this would be available to the rich, but at the cost of the safety of thousands of workers behind the scenes providing much of the safeguarding services to the wealthy, as well as the fact that technocrats like Eric Schmidt want these private projects to be funded by the public. Klein also points to alternative ways to adapt education safely without sacrificing the advantages of face-to-face teaching, even if she grants that communications technology has an important role to play. The philosophical implications of the pandemic are pursued along the lines of the question, whether the "network society", which has undoubtedly facilitated its speedy unfolding, is really as new as it seems, leading to a discussion of both the affirmative and the negative answers to this question. While it is indeed new in terms of the actions (such as quasi-instantaneous global investments) made possible by communications technology based on the internet, there is a sense in which the structure of the network society is as old as the proverbial hills. This is clarified with recourse to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's ontology of becoming, multiplicity, rhizomatic connections and assemblages, which contrasts with traditional thinking in terms of hierarchical, arboreal structures. In Deleuzo-Guattarian terms, it is pointed out, reality has always been one of interconnectedness-in-becoming, so that, startlingly, society has always been a "pandemic society" in a virtual sense, and as actualisedfrom time to time. The argument further focuses on the potential for what Slavoj Zizek terms "barbarism with a human face", which is reminiscent of Achille Mbembe's "necropolitics" and "necropower" ("death power"), itself a response to Michel Foucault's notions of "biopolitical power" and "biopower". While the latter were employed by Foucault to characterise and analyse the modern state's mode of governance in so far as it exercised power in relation to the modalities pertaining to human bodies that are born, become economically active, get ill and die, Mbembe argues that this conceptualisation is no longer adequate in an age where the state (for example in contemporary Palestine) has, by and large, reduced bodies to the "living dead", and constructed "death worlds" where military technology is employed to control and, if necessary, terminate, human beings. Zizek highlights the ideological potential of the state's actions and expectations under pandemic conditions in so far as people are induced into so-called "personal responsibility", while the state's complicity with regard to the inception of the pandemic is occluded. As Zizek points out, nothing less than a fundamental change regarding society's mode of life is required, namely a replacement of the extractive, destructive economic system ofneoliberal capitalism by an economic system that factors nature into the economic equation. In conclusion, this is developed further by foregrounding the irony of "socialism for the rich" in the context of the pandemic, which is compared, via David Harvey's work, with the massive transfer of wealth from public funds to the wealthy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It is argued that, in light of the unavoidable destruction of nature by the current, hegemonic economic system, which is bound to give rise to further health hazards in the shape of viruses passed from stressed animals to humans, nothing less than a rejection of capitalism is needed, in the place of which a system has to be adopted which considers human beings to be part of an encompassing nature. In this regard reference is made to the work of critical economist, Charles Eisenstein.

Keywords : capitalism; coronavirus; nature; network society; pandemic; necropolitics.

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