Contagion and Visibility: Notes on the Phenomenology of a Pandemic by J.-P. Caron



Photo by (c) Agnaldo Mori 


1. I must start by offering a somewhat insincere apology since I am here approaching theoretical themes that have to do with representational purport and the visibility of the phenomena such representations might yield. It is an apology in the sense that in such urgent times it seems like a luxury to be enmeshed in the field of not scientific theorization about the virus, which is not the business of a philosopher, but of theorization of the conditions of theorization of the social/natural situation we are in. But it is also insincere in the sense that the justification and worth of such endeavor shall be given in the context of the development here pursued. For the moment we shall put our confidence in Slavoj Žižek’s dictum: “Don’t act, think,” for thinking paves the way to what shall be done, when what shall be done is not provided by our habitual protocols of action. In a sense, I am not proposing solutions, though, much more stating why is it so difficult to implement solutions from the point of view of the subject through a sketch of a phenomenology of the situation of contagion.

2. The issue I intend to tackle briefly has to do with a conversation I had with a friend a few days back about the situation of the virus here in Brazil. At the time we were talking to a friend from abroad, incidentally an Iranian friend living in Canada, explaining the security measures that were happening - or not happening - in Brazil. Closing of borders between states, of stores, part of the sector of services, etc. A situation that was known through the news but the visibility of which was not attainable from a simple stroll in the streets of Rio de Janeiro: yes, a little decrease of public presence could be verified, but nothing like the measures quoted would be expected to have as a result. In a sense, the effects of the viral infection were not yet visible through my everyday means of inspection - a normal walk in the streets. Which brings me to clarify the idea of the present intervention: the disjunction between that which is knowable through the relevant scientific methods and data, and that which is visible through everyday experience.

3. To begin to tackle the dialectic between the knowable and the visible, I shall quote a paragraph from an anonymous text proposed by Fernando Zalamea:

There is a narrow corridor at Penn Station linking the subway with the NJ Transit platforms. The walls of this narrow corridor were always lined with vagrants and bums, wrapped in trash bags, sleeping on cartons, hugging their few belonging crammed into little trolleys, most of them soaked in their own urine, all of them half-crazy, mumbling to themselves, delirious. The great American workforce flowing in from New Jersey every morning would have to squeeze through this small tributary - this corridor of urine and bums. The sight hardly slowed anyone down. They passed it by, unflustered, like a river passes over the pebbles on its bed. I had to pass through it too - going upstream, into New Jersey. [...]

But now I must pass them... as one passes kidney stones. These vagrants are the kidney stones that no system of ideas has managed to pass. And just as microscopic kidney stones are capable of incapacitating an entire organism, so these vagrants are capable of shutting down the kidney function of the whole of Humanity. To see these pebbles as kidney stones: to be struck by a new “aspect.”[1]

The quoted text, “Wittgenstein Sheaves,” intends to shed light upon Wittgenstein’s philosophical method through the method of sheaves - the “gluing” of separate pieces of informations into a whole.

A sheaf is thus a rule

F : Space→Structures that is both compatible and satisfies a local-to-global condition and where a “space” is the object we are interested in studying and “structures” are those objects that we already “know enough about.” To construct a sheaf on some space allows us to “shift the discourse” from something less well-understood to something better-understood by ensuring that the less well-understood object is faithfully patched together from regions of better-understood structures.

In the example, a comparison between two pieces of information draws a transference from one domain to the other - and the corridor of vagrants is seen as the result of a systemic problem: a political dimension emerges not by conceptual analysis of the situation, but through the proximity of the images. In this sense, contrary to the Žižekian dicto, Zalamea turns to the Wittgensteinian one: “Don’t think, look.”

In my sense what is needed is to learn through thinking to see differently. Something like it must come to pass in the case of the COVID-19. We must, in a sense, learn to see otherwise, not just believe the information, but see it in the streets. We must learn to see the corridor not as pebbles but as both victims and conduits for the virus. In a sense, we must learn to inhabit a different world.

4. Nelson Goodman thought that we lived not in one readymade world, but in several worlds at once, worlds created through the symbolic means of humanity.

Consider, to begin with; the statements “The sun always moves” and “The sun never moves” which, though equally true, are at odds with each other. Shall we say, then, that they describe different worlds, and indeed that there are as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths? Rather, we are inclined to regard the two string of words not as complete statements with truth-values of their own but as elliptical for some such statements as “Under frame of reference A, the sun always moves” and “Under frame of reference B, the sun never moves” - statements that may both be true of the same world. Frames of reference, though, seem to belong less to what is described than to systems of description: and each of the two statements relates what is described to such a system. If I ask about the world, you can offer to tell me how it is under one or more frames of reference; but if I insist that you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say? We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described. Our universe, so to speak, consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.[2]

To learn to inhabit the new world is to learn to understand everyday experience through a different set of lenses, a different frame of reference. But in Goodman’s sense, frames of reference are the labor of Humanity’s symbolic powers. The very fact that in the present case the world being fabricated is not just the product of our own making as symbol dwellers puts up a challenge to Goodman’s account of Worldmaking. It stresses the dimension of external constraints being forced upon us, to which one must adapt. It expresses the truth of Realism - that there is a mind-independent reality, with the caveats of a form of Idealism- that the ways of constituting it are multiple. “Wittgenstein’s position on this point is, as we have seen, that certain facts could make our language games impossible or without interest, but that none of the facts which we can note and mention made them necessary.”[3]

5. The transition between worlds here being examined is not just a transition between two visible worlds, but it is also the emergence of something out of invisibility. An invisibility that is the result of a difference of scale amongst phenomena. The virus itself, as a token of this invisibility, makes itself visible through its effects only: both the disease, if one gets it, and other effects at different time-scales, spatially scattered - the effects on the herd dynamics and on the economy. The effects that were missing, although were expected, in my stroll on the streets of Rio de Janeiro four days ago, that were starting to become present two days ago.

How should one respond to an invisible menace? How should we respond to the creeping effects of its dissemination? What kinds of sheaves are to be constructed from these phenomena to our sensibility? These are the questions that are to be asked here.

In a text just published, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Joseph Norman take a jab at the individualist libertarian understanding of the scaling relationship of the virus risk between the individual and the socius:

Assume a risk of a multiplicative viral epidemic, still in its early stages. The risk for an individual to catch the virus is very low, lower than other ailments. It is therefore “irrational” to panic (react immediately and as a priority). But if she or he does not panic and act in an ultra-conservative manner, they will contribute to the spread of the virus and it will become a severe source of systemic harm. Precaution scales in a convex way for crossdependent small idiosyncratic risks that end up dynamically extremely large at the systemic level. Hence one must “panic” individually (i.e., produce what seems to an exaggerated response) in order to avoid systemic problems, even where the immediate payoff does not appear to warrant it.[4]

In other words, to be ethical in a pandemic one must use an as if argument - something familiar to every Kantian out there, but here for empirical reasons. One must believe in that which is not livable in the moment - the exponential growth of effects that are detected once it is already too late. In this context fear acquires a cognitive purchase - once our seeings-as are reasonably calibrated to the new conditions - by listening to the news and watching the growth of distancing behaviors from our peers, fear takes place as something real is thought to be happening. In a sense, fear comes to be the content of the form which is the knowledge of the existence of the virus - as in the Kantian phrase “concepts without intuitions are empty.” Fear brings the concept home.

6. But fear has political implications that ought to be balanced. The jab taken by the text in question has to do with the fact that, if the stakes are low for the individual, she tends to take unnecessary risks, even if the stakes are high for the community. Any politics that insists on the liberal understanding of the freedom of movement in this atomistic sense is condemned in the present juncture. At the same time, this pandemic is a patchwork engine, prompting nations and states to close off borders, in a movement towards decentralization and the severing of lines of commerce between them - even if lines of communication are more important than ever.

7. Even if desirable, at the individual level, not everyone can isolate themselves, and the present crisis by making itself visible is also making visible the rift between those who can and those who can’t; and the injunction to maximally isolate individuals from contact opens the door to violations from State interventions that, while acceptable in times of crisis like ours, run the risk of becoming commonplace, with governments and corporations seizing on the opportunity to fasten control over its users and citizens.

Will the present crisis mark the end of a politics that insist upon the priority of the economical calculation based on individual wants and needs, pushing forward a politics of the common that recognize public health as a good to be shared amongst all? Or will this be the beginning of new kinds of surveillance to be pursued by those on the top in order to maximize the reproduction of their profit and dominion?

Within the response to this predicament lies also possible responses to other crises to come that ask for broader cooperation between local powers beyond the current economic-political suture. The question becomes then: can the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic be repurposed for the approaching of other systemic world problems?

8. In an email exchange with Žižek, my friend Gabriel Tupinambá states another variation of the theme of the interrelation of fear and knowledge. I quote Žižek’s quote of him:

Tupinambá further noticed that the same paradox held for the outburst of the HIV crisis: “the invisible spread of the HIV crisis was so nerve-wracking, the impossibility of rendering ourselves commensurate with the scale of the problem, that having one’s passport ‘stamped’ [with HIV] did not seem, to some, like too high a price to pay for giving the situation some symbolic contours. It would at least give a measure to the power of the virus and deliver us to a situation in which, already having contracted it, we could then see what sort of freedom we would still have.”

The moment the spectral agent becomes part of our reality (even if it means catching a virus), its power is localized, it becomes something we can deal with (even if we lose the battle). As long as this transposition into reality cannot take place, “we get trapped either in anxious paranoia (pure globality) or resort to ineffective symbolizations through acting outs that expose us to unnecessary risks (pure locality).[5]

Tupinambá’s mobilization of pure globality and pure locality expresses well the predicament of a phenomenology of the pandemic - that between the necessity of believing the reality of that which is invisible - that is, maintaining a minimal “thickness” to the hypothesis of the existence of the virus, without succumbing either to anxious paranoia, or to its reverse - projective denegation of its existence. The predicament is not exclusive to the present pandemic, but is ubiquitous in the experience of contemporary global capitalism, wherein processes with causal efficacy supersede our capacity of making sense. In a sense, we are not inhabiting different worlds in the sense of Goodman here, diachronically switching between the worlds of art, scientific theories and philosophemes, but we are inhabiting a split between an intrusion to our abilities of worldmaking and the worlds we fashion to try and make sense of it. The phenomenon/noumenon split is immanentized within the situation.

In this situation, fear is most intense while it is a fear of the unknown. As Žižek comments on the same text: “if there is no great change in our daily reality, then the threat is experienced as a spectral fantasy nowhere to be seen and all the more powerful for that reason.”

If fear which is has an important cognitive purchase in the present situation, brings the concept home, by achieving some kind of experienceable scaling, the concept brings fear back home - domesticating it to productive use.

9. Took a stroll alone yesterday. Streets are empty, stores are closed. Remembered a line from the I Ching to be taken as an ethical imperative by everyone - another as if argument to be mobilized in the world in formation.

“Thunder mingles with startled screams of terror for a hundred miles around. As the people nervously laugh at their own fright, the devout presents the sacrificial chalice with nary a drop of wine spilt.”

[1] “Wittgenstein Sheaves (Anonymous, Communicated by Fernando Zalamea),” Glass Beads (2020), 7.

[2] Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1978), 2-3.

[3] “La position de Wittgenstein sur ce point est, nous l’avons vu, que certains faits pourraient rendre nos jeux de langage impossibles ou sans intérêt, mais qu’aucun des faits que nous pouvons constater et mentionner ne les a rendus nécessaires.” Jacques Bouveresse, Le mythe de l’intériorité. Expérience, signification et langage privé chez Wittgenstein (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1987), 593.

[4] Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Joe Norman, “Ethics of Precaution: Individual and Systemic Risk,” (March 2020), (retrieved April 1, 2020).

[5] Slavoj Žižek, “Slavoj Žižek’s Covid-19 Lockdown Survival Guide: Guilty Pleasures, Valhalla Murders & Pretending It’s Just a Game,” Russia Today (March 28, 2020), (retrieved April 1, 2020).


Many thanks to Mohammad Salemy and Gabriel Tupinambá for instigating the writing of this text.


J.-P. Caron is a philosopher and artist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is an associate professor of philosophy at the UFRJ (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), he militates in the Circle of Studies of the Idea and Ideology (CSII) - an international political collective dedicated to examining the viability of the “communist hypothesis” today, and is an instructor for the New Centre for Research and Practice. H has been practicing noise and experimental music for more than 15 years and he manages with friends his own label, Seminal Records. Together with a collective of like-minded artists and philosophers he maintains Fosso - a space in Rio for philosophical/political reflection and artistic endeavors.