Pandi noir

Pandemic and panic look a bit the same. A pandemic is a characteristic shared by everyone, in this case a disease or its threat. Panic pertains to Pan, the god of wild nature. To panic is to go wild. According to pan can be taken to mean “all” in both cases – i.e. all people, and nature as a whole, a unity. The graphics on the cover of Slavoj Zizek’s new book: Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World tortures the word Pandemic, with something like Pan[dem]ic! The book is not in print yet. I’ve included a list of recent relevant op-eds by philosophers such As Zizek in the bibliography below.

At times like this, streamed movies divert attention to normal life, unless you go with the apocalyptic. This week I watched the film Contagion on Prime Video, directed by Steven Soderbergh with actors Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, etc, and released in 2011, just after the H1N1 pandemic. It plays through a fictional scenario not unlike the current Covid-19 pandemic. But in the film the mortality rate is about 100%, there are riots as people try to get food and medicines, and eventually, the vaccine. Mercifully, the US President goes into hiding in a secret bunker and isn’t heard from. Other than that the scenario is current: massive emergency hospitals in convention centres, fake cures, profiteering, warnings about face touching, social distancing, lockdowns, and mass quarantining.

Judging by the film’s success, pop culture at least was prepared for the unfolding of a global pandemic, and there are other films ranging from vérité to very weird. Techradar lists “The top 10 best pandemic movies you can stream right now,” including: The Crazies (1973), Outbreak (1995), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Last Man on Earth (1964), It Comes at Night (2017), The Host (2006), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Day of the Dead (1985), Zombieland (2009).


The current isolation scenario reminds me of another piece of fiction, EM Forster’s short story The Machine Stops. That was published in 1909, ten years before the great influenza pandemic after WW1.

In Forster’s story the culprit is not a disease, but people’s dependence on the life support of the ubiquitous machine, as people live underground, isolated in air conditioned pods. The reader is to assume it’s the failure of the air conditioning that eventually kills everyone as they gasp for breath lying strewn across the corridors of their underground labyrinth. But its people’s unquestioned acceptance of isolation that disturbs the most: “People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine” [9].

Like now, people made contact through audiovisual communication channels. But the maverick son in Forster’s story longs for contact with his aloof mother: “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine” [2].

The back cover of Zizek’s book includes the sentence: “We live in a moment when the greatest act of love is to stay distant from the object of your affection.” Our global pan-quarantine contravenes two components of a full and healthy life: the restorative benefits of direct communion with nature as we are required to stay at home, and direct sociability that makes touch possible — or it makes us value them even more.



  • Images above: aquarium in Hull, England; reflection of a sculpture by Antony Gormley standing in the Water of Leith, Edinburgh.



  1. Asad Khan says:

    Zizek is active again, and in my opinion, that Agamben article was quite narrow-sighted and controversial. Here’s another philosopheme on the situation by a communist philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berradi:

    1. Thanks for that, Asad. I think you also sent me the Agamben article link. So thanks for that too. “Active again”: Do you think philosophy is a virus?

      1. Asad Khan says:

        Indeed, Richard, philosophy exhibits some form of virulence, as Keith Ansell-Pearson in ’Viroid Life’ would say: “Philosophy is not simply a tribunal of reason, it is also a battleground of infections and sicknesses.” Philosophy operates on thought and language. If we consider viruses as automatons parasitising, propagating and spreading from host to host, using humans as its’ vectors of dispersal’ – then language and therefore, thought – propagates similarly with its ability to graft its bits onto other bits, spreading, mutating, reproducing and using humans as mere hosts.

        Also reminiscent of George Bataille in ‘The Accursed Share’, “Communication is best understood from the perspective of contagion” – where any human being is no more than a conduit of communicative process, a channel for ideas which pass through him or her. Isn’t this similar to Dawkins ‘memetics’, the meme-gene hypothesis? And, yes, Michell Serres concept of ‘The Parasite’ – as an infectious model of social order, where the parasite is the uninvited guest who takes up the hospitality of the host without giving anything in return. His parasite is also a ‘thermal exciter’, causing fever and transforming relations.

        Situated responses to contagions include vaccines, quarantine, preparedness, witchcraft and demonism (in my village), and chicken soup (not bat-soup). Let’s see if they are useful against philosophical contagions!

  2. The ‘machine stops’ is a favourite of mine. I think that it is worth emphasising its date (first published 1909!) and that the communication devices were circular screens like the not yet invented radar screen (and the refresh screens used with early CAD systems like House Design).

    1. It’s notable too that EM Forster died in 1970. “The Machine Stops” was reprinted in various anthologies since he wrote it, and there are film/tv adaptations and derivatives. As far as I can tell, he never changed the text to update to rectangular screens and jet aircraft, confirming yet again that sci-fi stories are of their time.

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