On Postmodern Ethics and Pandemics
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Fire and Ice – Robert Frost
The earsplitting alarm could be heard from all four winds of heaven: the great fires in Australia, the melting ice caps in the Arctic, the storms in California, and finally, the coronavirus courtesy of a bat from China. On the environmental level alone, these are the four horsemen of the 21st-century apocalypse.
According to the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5780 (more commonly rendered in numerical letters, התש"פ) marks 220 years before the end of the first of 6,000-year cycles of creation, each culminating in a millennium of destruction, according to the Kabbalistic doctrine of the Shemitot (eons), upon which the world will perish. Similar millenarian cosmic cycles featuring much larger numbers than exist in Hindu and other ancient cultures. The typological Jewish number of 7,000 represents approximately the time since the invention of writing and the birth of the city. Jericho and Varanasi come to mind, rising as twin towers of civilization. Perhaps this doctrine represents a memory in our collective unconscious of the finite period of civilization, within which the self-destruct mechanism built into human culture plays itself out. Human consciousness, it may be suggested, emerges time and again from the abyss of primordial unawareness, stretching itself forth as an increasingly clear and creative force until it is able to realize scientific accomplishments. Then, in the midst of the hubris of its hyper-production and overconsumption, it collapses once more into embryonic depths, intoxicated by a powerful cultural saturation no longer aware of its own self-destructiveness.
Experts say the timeline of ominous climatic predictions has shrunk by fifty times the original estimates. That is, the countdown to the Earth’s Year 7,000 is not proceeding at a steady pace; rather, the speed at which the environmental doomsday is approaching outpaces what was once written on the wall. A similar acceleration is experienced at the time of writing, as the worldwide spread of the coronavirus outstrips predictions by the day.
Note, however, that as suggested by the title, I believe this is a siren test – not the real thing. The difficulties we are experiencing and may expect to experience in the near future of this test attest, however, to certain cracks, deficiencies and imbalances that may prove more critical when the real apocalypse comes knocking at our global door, whether in the form of a climatic or viral crisis, or any other form yet unforeseen. In other words, while the pace – Hindu, Hebrew or hourglass – or form of the particular apocalypse still elude us, its steady approach and our unpreparedness for it appear certain.
In ancient times, the apocalypse, meaning the public prophesying and portraying of the end of all things, was the purview of oracles in waning civilizations, of the oppressed protesting against the pride of conquering empires, the voice of seers yearning for the divine destruction of their nemeses. One of the most spellbinding prophets of the apocalypse following the fall of the First Temple was Zechariah, who described unique visions in images whose interpretation remains elusive: “I saw by night, and behold a man riding upon a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees that were in the bottom; and behind him were there red horses, speckled, and white” (Zechariah 1: 8, KJV); “And I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came four chariots… In the first chariot were red horses; and in the second chariot black horses. And in the third chariot white horses; and in the fourth chariot grisled and bay horses” (6: 1-3). What are those four horsemen and chariots so clearly representative of the quadruple gestalt that symbolizes the cosmos?
One of the first to echo Zechariah’s captivating vision was fellow doomsayer John, whose words are deeply evocative of earlier Jewish and Christian millenarianism. And I quote:
[ …] when the Lamb opened one of the seals, […] I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him […] went forth conquering, […]. And when he had opened the second seal […] there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth […]. And when he had opened the third seal, […] lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; […]. And when he had opened the fourth seal, […] I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:1-8)
Four global catastrophes are listed in this vision: war, hunger, moral turpitude and pestilence. Death and Hell ride a green horse, given license to destroy humankind using all four. Painters throughout the Middle Ages and well into modernity have repeatedly portrayed the Grim Reaper at his indiscriminant work. Throughout this period, occult alchemic and proto-medial texts have consistently described the human body as consisting of four humors or biles that control metabolism, in four colors – black, green, yellow and red. Thus, it is noteworthy that whereas the apocalypse is global, it is in a way metonymically encapsulated in each and every human body, ticking, as it were, deep within us, rather than only resonating in the sirens or official public health announcements.
In modern apocalyptic literature, perhaps none is more prominent than Albert Camus’ book The Plague (1947) – the existentialist document of heroic secular sanctity. More recently, an unlikely protagonist who is perhaps less archetypical of modernity than Camus’ Dr. Rieux has arisen on the world stage. Emblematic of the utopian prophecy “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11: 6), Swedish 17-year-old Greta Thunberg appeared shortly before the siren test to predict that while the world may not be ending right this minute, it must certainly harken to the deafening sounds of the siren. Thunberg is also reminiscent of the messenger foretelling doom described by Walter Benjamin, with a scream echoic of the anxiety-tainted red skies on the eponymous painting by Edvard Munch—a painting inspired, according to some, by a contemporary climatic event.
At present, the global emergency heightens walls between and within nations, reconstructing the territorial as tangible, enclosing billions into narrowly defined communities and domestic spaces – as the nation-state once again rears its ugly head. The ethical challenge for humanity is to hold on our shared destiny and beliefs, and realize that coping with the crisis required global cooperation on a new and different scale. To put it in apocalyptic but also philosophical terms, without such coping, we might find ourselves infected with the terminal disease of the postmodern era, matching and encapsulating as perfectly as did the Holocaust and the Second World War the bygone modern era. This pandemic is irrevocably connected to the hubris of postmodern, post-everything humanity, of the so-called global citizen. It highlights the precise difference between modern society that banishes its lepers to an ex-territory and its inferior races to concentration camps, and the postmodern situation where everyone is de facto a leper in his or her own home. The postmodern rhizome has emerged in its most intimidating form.
Unlike Chekhov’s gun, the apocalypse does not take its time and shoots off simultaneously in all four winds of the heaven, bringing premature death to the doorsteps of millions. It essentially involves destruction, trauma, and an ongoing state of emergency sensed uniquely by each individual. This emergency affects all, but none equally. There are roles to be played. It is experienced differently by the affected individual, by the collapsing community, by the conquering enemy, by the prophet who foresees and the survivor who lives to tell the tale, by those who turn to doom mongering for personal profit as well as those who drown their own personal miseries in the Seven Seas of collective emergency. This state of affairs begs the following questions: Does a particular state of emergency by rights subordinate all others? What reserves should be set aside during the most critical time– in a kind of inverse Josephite advice – to ensure the restoration of all systems once the immediate threat has been overcome? In the Days of Corona, which place all of humanity in the emergency room, what are our priorities?
In his oft-quoted 1922 essay on “Political Theology”, Carl Schmitt stated that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, the moment of stepping outside the rule of the law in the public interest. Understanding the category of emergency and the legitimate and illegitimate ways it can be used is one of the most important issues for the healthy existence of every human society. Nevertheless, at this moment, both politically and theologically, it is the cosmos that seeks to declare itself sovereign. Increasingly as the siren test has ventured near, it has decided on a number minor exceptions. These were generally ignored, but for a few eco-activists, hitherto branded by many as alarmists, who sought in vain to cause the scream of the cosmos to reverberate from the four corners of the world. What happens when we face an entire pyramid of emergencies? How can we act upon it without a clear set of priorities?
This situation calls for building new social-ethical infrastructures top-down – multidisciplinary teams, international committees, and tighter public supervision of government actions everywhere in the planet – since it is everyman who is now at stake. We are in urgent need of a new ethics, an ethics of emergency deriving directly from within the body of humanity, as does the plague. In Hebrew, the word “plague” shares the same root with “body”. Whereas the latter is life, the former is the indiscriminate annihilation of bodies. When a single virus ignores petty human distinctions between superpowers and abject minorities, so too the new ethics we formulate should clearly be based on rules that fulfill the needs of our leaders in these unprecedented times, and apply to all nations and social classes.
What, therefore, does the pandemic require? The first fundamental ethical rules may be charted out as follows:
Politically speaking, no leader may be allowed to harness the collective state of emergency to his or her own interests.
Economically, no company or business may be allowed to take advantage of the state of emergency to hoard or overcharge for products in high demand such as masks, swabs or foodstuffs.
Socially, the younger must show deep consideration for the older, adjusting their lifestyles lest they become horsemen of the Apocalypse for the older.
With regard to intimate and family relationships, the pandemic focuses our attention on the question of mutual responsibilities and conjures an apocalyptic vision captured in Micah 7: 6 by the phrase “a man’s enemies are the men of his own house”. An originally obscure verse, or one referring to petty quarrels, it now assumes an unexpectedly darker, apocalyptic aspect.
The West has tended to focus on threats of a kind for which it is largely responsible, such as the migration waves following international power struggles and wars, and the depletion of global resources. It has idolized the information revolution and artificial intelligence, while geopolitical and ecological disasters destroyed the homes of millions worldwide, claiming myriads of lives. At the same time, and as the power centers of the Western world sought to deafen their ears to the ever-louder siren approaching from the planet’s socioeconomic margins, a double-edged sword is being thrusted right in its belly, causing panic in its capitals. Now the West grapples with its own problems, seeking the advice of its eldest and wisest. It is now all about the West, with no far-flung colony or rogue state on which to lay the blame.
Before addressing the political aspect of the pandemic, we need to consider that which is now the most critical question – its estimated scope and duration. Here we witness two opposing views. The optimistic view is held by statisticians. These calculate the percentages and compare the casualties of the plague to deaths due to more prosaic causes such as the “ordinary” flu, and keep reminding us that it is the elderly who are the main likely victims. Some hope for or fantasize about a Darwinesque or inverse War-of-the-Worlds-like redemption in the form of a “natural” vaccination. The opposite view is held by the humanists. Although they perfectly understand that arguably, the death of even many thousands is incomparable to the disasters that strike our planet on a daily basis, they remain pessimistic. Why? For the very simple reason that the statistician thinks of humanity in terms of nameless, alien numbers, whereas the humanist, or Buddhist, sheds a tear with and for every individual, as does God.
These views obviously have political implications. As the Corona Days unfold and nations grapple with priorities, emergencies and damage controls, we can see how fundamental philosophical principles and cultural norms affect the reactions of leaders and societies. Here, we attempt to apply a China-like ruthlessness out of fear of the Italian recklessness. The deep substructures of public perceptions, which in China reflect a kind of communism interwoven with Confucian capitalism, are related in Israel to Judaism as religion and nationality. In China and elsewhere in East Asia, the former has so far proven itself able to provide clear structure and severely limit the scope and duration of the plague to within several thousands and weeks, whereas the latter does share China’s economic and disciplinary abilities work medical-infrastructural wonders and its health infrastructures and individualist public attitudes are more similar to the Italian model.
The quick steps taken to control the spread of the virus, including the closing of its borders out of the religious valuing of human life and a strong national siege mentality appear to have been correct, but the probability analyses in Israel must not blind us to the fact that should the epidemic spread further the hospitals are unprepared to cope. In other words, we must settle for the hope that the sheltering strategy undertaken by each individual or nuclear family would enable the health system not only to prepare for a more massive outburst of the virus but also to prevent one from ever occurring
As the Israeli economy screeches to a halt in a desperate attempt to stem the pandemic tide and compensate for past hubristic miscalculations, the government must immediately propose a New Deal, an emergency socioeconomic plan to help citizens keep their heads above water, rather than abandoning them to anonymous oblivion like so many numbers under the guise of maintaining public health. Effective immediately, such a plan must support laborers, freelancers, small businesses, and those lacking assured income, as well as the aged. This problem will require global attention, particularly where the sounds of the siren have been most stubbornly ignored.
Some blueprints for such a plan already exist. Proverbial Pied Pipers on both sides of the Atlantic have promised, implicitly at least, that we would survive the plague but this time at the expense of the old rather than the young. I suggest, rather, that instead of Trump’s policy embodied in the saying that “the cure can’t be worse than the disease” and the similarly complacent attitude demonstrated, at least in the heady days of the early outbreak, by fellow neoliberal Johnson, we adopt policies promoted by their predecessors during the Great Depression and World War II. We must begin planning for the remedy while the crisis is still unfolding, based on the Keynesian concept that in times of economic depression and unemployment, the government must intervene intensively in the market, and act to jump-start economic growth. Laissez faire at this juncture would literally mean letting the virus do its worst.
To reiterate, this crisis is perfectly aligned with the postmodern, global era: the assumption that disasters occur in a place too geographically and culturally remote, too separate from the self to threaten it in any way is simply no longer tenable. There is no forbidden city. Every city is forbidden. Some of those refusing to accept the situation, who rage against their own or others’ dying of the light, reject the subordination of their pleasure principle to the reality principle, to others’ existence.
This is all the more reason for a new ethics. The apocalypse of the postmodern world rushes in not only from the four winds of heaven but also from the depths of its own subconscious. It emerges not from the intoxication of enlightenment as in modernity, but from the intoxication of a capitalism already embedded in postmodernism, which down to its deepest core is simply unable to conceive the reversal of the equation of master and slave, a situation whereby the cosmos it tyrannizes and whose resources it vandalizes would dare defy its rule. This is therefore the most reckless stage of capitalism, and the one most difficult to restrain.
The problem of the state of emergency when interpreted across multiple systems – medical, political, social and economic – is that minds not fully abreast of all might callously skip from one to the other without understanding the consequences, projecting from one to the other as if it were a reasonable, logical conjecture. Indeed, in this nightmarish situation we pine, out of our individual, cellular self- and government-imposed postmodern siege, for the controlled, well-planned and censored modern pleasures. But there are still no instant panaceas for these longings. They require the adjustment of old configurations to a postmodern world that, on the one hand, collapses into the real in the form of a home, and on the other isolates itself so deeply undersea that the virtual alone can serve as its snorkel.
Everyone has a name given to him by God and given to him by his parents…
Everyone has a name given to him by the sea and given to him by his death."
We are in the midst of a global medical emergency. I am protected within my domestic fortress as thousands die worldwide, and as the pandemic threatens to keep accelerating the pace of its spread. These anonymous strangers who fall ill and die do so at my doorstep, crying out to me just like the victims of previous genocides, stubbornly reminding me that everyone has a name.
The self-assuredness of political leaders in such Western powers as the US, Germany, France and the UK, currently eroding under the force of circumstances, reflects an implicit willingness to “shave off” two percent of the population that may turn out to be twenty, when the bells choose to toll true. This means letting “nature” roll the dice, letting “natural selection” select, taking us directly back to the modernist concentration camp mentality of who goes left and who goes right. In some cases, this is even stated explicitly, in terms of a tolerable increase in the mortality of our senior citizens.
This brings us back to the ethical question. Humanity, and the Western world in particular in its self-pretense as its representative, are notoriously complacent when it comes to catastrophes, but in the midst of the dizzying rush of postmodern life and its virtual neoplasm comes a plague to call it to a halt, one whose most recent incarnation was the Spanish Flu. If our leaders persist in fantasizing about “herd immunity” they would drain the remaining trust of communities and individuals in the ethical basis of every society, rendering meaningless the question what we live and work for, as this would be a transparent abandonment of a very particular age group to the ravages of the virus.
After the Second World War, the problem of the Other reemerged in force, and particularly the Other’s ethical claim on the self. Both disciples of Husserl, Levinas sought to reject Heidegger’s view on that question. According to him, existing meant being grounded in the private depths of being as the individual subject facing the mysteries of nature and of one’s own death, without being conscious of the existence of the Other. But what does it mean to become addicted as a subject to that being-of-the-world entire while experiencing the Other as a mere anybody? In the aftermath of the Holocaust, having survived a labor camp, Levinas refined his moral position, stating that the Other obligates me not only with his face turned to me in pleading, but also when he innocuously turns his back on me. Namely, the namelessness of each person and his irreducible individuality – the inability to identify by his face alone whether he is red, green or yellow, black or white, also addresses me with an ethical claim.
This is the ethical day of reckoning for all human systems. Each of the systems involved in the crisis is and will be exposed in its miserable nakedness – the bare, brutal skeleton of hardheartedness on which the body of global, postmodern capitalist society is hanging by the tendon. Whatever its choices in the near future, It will only hasten its collapse if it chooses the economy to the detriment of health. If it takes the side of statistics and chooses numbers rather than names, laying bare its indifference to the death of our grandparents and their treatment as a mere nuisance.
Following Frederic Jameson’s (1991) discussion of the Westin Bonaventura Hotel as symbolic of the end of modern ideologies, the collapse of the Twin Towers may be instructive as a metaphor for the collapse of postmodern culture and its structure as we know it. Or rather, the birth of a new version of postmodernism that on the one hand, experiences a post-globalist heightening of national walls and on the other is required to adopt an asymmetry between a concrete, tangible border, and broad universal thinking.
Apart from the human toll of that catastrophe, the mechanics of the buildings’ collapse exerted a grim fascination. More than before, I consider it a portent of the current collapse of our sociopolitical structure. At the risk of echoing popular conspiracy theories, let us go back to the towers’ drawing board. Although designed to survive a direct hit by a Boeing 707, in practice, whether due to limited calculation abilities or to the fact that the planes that actually struck were Boeing 767s with full fuel tanks, they did not. Immediately after the impact, the towers remained standing, falling only long minutes later as a result of progressive collapse. When they finally did, the first tower took only 11 seconds to crumble, and the second took 9. The bottom line is that when steel heats up as much as it did in the World Trade Center (due to an accumulation of causes such as damage to thermal isolation, the breakdown of water types, etc.), it loses some 85 percent of its strength. The steel infrastructure indeed did not melt due to the intense heat, but became too weak to support the towers’ weight. Consequently, that part of the buildings that was above the point of impact began tumbling, tearing down all the floors beneath it until it reached the ground.
This architecture of real-life collapse that occurred at the very beginning of the third millennium is the most relevant metaphor for the ramifications of the coronavirus epidemic two decades later. The impact is first felt at the top of the pyramid, at the heart of world power, the crown jewel of postmodern civilization, and leads almost instantly to the collapse of all systems underneath – the socioeconomic as well as political.
We do not see the implications in full, nor will we in the near future, despite the fact that some of them are already staring us in the face, as in the crash of the global stock markets. Vacuous slogans such as Trump’s are little more than desperate attempts to save those markets. Arguments such as “the panic in Israel is uncalled for as our condition is great compared to the world” are also empty rhetoric, quicker to soothe public anxieties than to seriously come to terms with the fact that our hospitals are simply unprepared to treat the masses of patients should the siege be alleviated (and even should it not).
The deflection of attention from the realistic anxiety over bodily death to the economic anxiety is similarly out of place. Nobody argues against the need to provide an economic response in the immediate future. But, to reiterate, health must not be devaluated as we persist in worshipping the Golden Calf. Displacing individual anxieties onto a fear for the death of society and the democratic ethos will do little good either. Anxiety is there, and with good reason. One realistic fear should not exclude the other, however. My friends, we must fear and act, but we must fear for all implications, rather than for one at the expense of the other. This situation calls for multilayered, complex solutions, rather than for simplistic, cold-hearted calculations.
The old and downtrodden values of family and community of the old town and village, of the self-sustaining home economy, of planning that encourages the productiveness of each and every community and country rather than the destructiveness of the delusory global village rise from the ashes of globalism. Narcissist hyper-capitalism has dealt itself a boomerang blow, and the global citizen must heed the siren.
The day of judgement that is upon us has brutally exposed the unpreparedness of multiple mechanisms worldwide, including in Israel. Health systems have revealed themselves grossly incompetent in the face of mass disasters. Having abandoned traditional self-sufficiency and even modern productiveness for excessive international interdependencies, our economic systems are at a standstill. And in terms of our ethical system, the disregard for the old and wise has been exposed, with longevity becoming something of a derogatory term.
Apparently, this whirlwind of digitization and globalization must be recalibrated to maintain a certain balance, so as not to outstrip the fundamental elements of a slowness that has regrettably become synonymous with slow-wittedness, breaking away from the infrastructure of the real economy, only to evaporate in an imaginary bubble a cartoon-like figure lets fly in a short-lived tweet or buzzword.
While Paul Virilio spoke of the culture of acceleration of our era, here the imposed pause leads to simultaneous slowing down worldwide – an event unprecedented in scale and duration. This earth-shattering pause now heard like a scream from all corners of the world is clearly at the same time a still small voice urging us to slow down. We who will have lived through this moment will surely remember it and call it by name, a century after the outbreak of the first global event – World War I and the ensuing plague – for despite some similarities it is the first of its kind. An episode long remembered as the siren test alerting us to a war that has not broken out. Thanks to this early warning, we will do well to fashion an ethics long overdue.
What is urgently needed right now is traditional Jewish mutual responsibility (arvut hadadit), or Husserlian intersubjectivity at a scale humanity has not been required to adopt since the dawn of civilization, having been united perforce due to the pandemic. We need not raise our eyes in expectations of the new world paradigms after having overcome it – if the Chinese example is relevant, the siren test would end in two weeks or two months at most. Still, it would require greater patience and a willingness to envision a truer end of the world, and the requisite moral backbone for a reformed human society. Perhaps we need to be reminded here of the wrath of Jonah, the narcissist prophet, who turned his back on his mission at the cost of the destruction of a mighty city and its myriads, failing to understand the concept of compassion and repentance: two traditional but now apparently radical ideas of mutual human commitment and hope for change.