Reflections on Avoidance/ Menahem Goldenberg
"Gentlemen, please tell us, where do you come from? … What kind of rules do you have, what kind of customs? Do you have figures that may not be touched? Are you familiar with the untouchable, as your hands withdraw from nothing and touch everything?"
Jakob Wassermann, The Gold of Caxamalca.
How is it that a colossal event, which has paralyzed the entire world and resulted in the collapse of governmental, economic and social systems goes by like a memory? It is still here, not yet over and already repressed. Brimming with potential and insights, yet already denied. Subsisting on shreds of ambitions and hope, on apologetic statements in social events, uttered by tired bodies, longing to return to the familiar. It is a time marked by return. All actions are determined by the logic of return. We return to routine, return to teaching, return to learning, return to work, return to life, to the beach, to the outside… or at least hope to return to some of them.
And still, it seems everybody knows – and some of us even hope – that this return is not exactly a return to what was before. It is not a return of the same and to the same, but rather a "return to difference", in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari. A unique moment was indeed summoned upon us, in which, it seems, creative thought finds its place in reality, is made reality (not without Nature's help). For a short (probably fleeting) moment, the infamous nature of thought seemed normal, logical – even necessary.
First, a few general thoughts about pandemics .
Coronavirus is a pandemic, in a literal sense, befitting the age of ignorance. In a rare and unprecedented event, worthy of the age of globalization, there is hardly an unaffected country in the entire world. Generally speaking, a pandemic happens when its cause (the virus) ignores geographic – or cultural – barriers, moving around the world, taking residence where possible, taking advantage of opportunities to infect as many people as possible, resembling only the freedom of thought. And just like thought, a pandemic primarily depends on the circumstances of its emergence and its spread.
Unlike a disease – and if we wish to further stretch the analogy to thought, then unlike opinion – which attacks something specific, and so, despite its circumstantiality, mainly depends on a compatibility of aggressor and victim, a time of pandemic sees a shift in priorities. Compatibility remains a necessary condition, but it is no longer sufficient. The pandemic depends on the spread of individual infections, and thus, depends on specific and random circumstances, external to its victim. It concerns the world, not only the individual. In this sense, and unlike diseases and opinions, which expose the individual in his or her vulnerability, the pandemic produces a "compatibility" with reality, thereby exposing the vulnerability of the "human worldview". In a pandemic, symptoms and injury do not affect the individual, in a personal, private sense; rather, they concern the relationship between the individual and the world, the symbiotic relationship between the individual and the reality of her or his life. It emphasizes The differences and gaps between the social, political, juridical, economic and medical systems sustaining human existence – and human existence itself.
Two of the conditions for the development of a pandemic are Infection and Spread. While a disease affects the individual, in a time of pandemic the disease not only affects, but also transmits itself onwards. In other words, the pandemic exploits human beings. It transforms us, unwillingly, into carriers. The pandemic's objectification of the person – besides triggering anxiety in our already-near-explosive existence – creates two conditions. First, it flattens differences through the criterion of infection – from the disease's point of view, all infected are equal, regardless of religion, racial, gender or even species identity (in the present case, the virus had spread from animals to human beings). In short, the pandemic creates a "flat ontology". Secondly, through the principle of spread, the pandemic summons globalization, culture, politics and economy: it summons redundancy and complexity, in order to attack the systems which had themselves made redundancy and complexity the very infrastructure and essence of existence. The collapse of the ideological systems arranging human existence – "the big picture" – leads to an abolition of hierarchies (everybody is home, "there are no cars", "there are no dress codes" – there is no distinction based on individual particularity), without cancelling differences; differences that, in many cases, have only become clearer and more pronounced (inflicting more anxiety, pain and injury).
In this fashion, the personal – the source of consumeristic narcissism – accumulated content (not experiences), while the sense and meaning of its actions (the field and discourse in which these actions occur) was put on hold, becoming, in many cases, irrelevant.
Now, imagine: being personal with no discourse and field – only through presence and contact.
And indeed, minimizing contact and avoiding contact were two of the most distinctive forms of action brought about by coronavirus. Facing a culture which stops at nothing, which invades every nook and corner, which had rummaged the soul and destroyed forests, cracked the cornerstones of nature and let the world bleed dry, the coronavirus pandemic positioned avoidance and minimization of contact as a form of existence: as actions that are not merely passive, but active; as a form of touch. As if wanting to remind us that when we have a "freedom of movement", when there are no priorities and all hierarchies are cancelled in the face of injury, when the spirit is free to act and to create, touch can be fatal, contagious. In other words: uniting. (dangerous)
Wishing to understand the plague pandemic as an analogy to his Theater of Cruelties, Antonin Artaud noted the plague damaged organs (an organic tool), and specifically the lungs and brain. Or in the words of Artaud, "the organ of will" and "the organ of consciousness". Coronavirus, on the other hand, inflicts damage first and foremost on the lungs, and subsequently on the heart. (As time goes by, and as befitting an "enemy of humanity", it turns out the virus is responsible for continuously accumulating manifestations and damages). According to the circumstances, that is, in compatibility with the condition of the "human", we can say coronavirus inflicts damage first and foremost on the "organ of emotion/spirit" and subsequently on the "organ of will". Two capabilities through which culture has formed and organized, while transforming them into systems of exploitation and oppression. Two capabilities dwindling under overuse and overexploitation, and left exposed and vulnerable.
Another distinction made by Artaud concerns the nature of the damage to these organs. Here, too, we can detect differences between "the modern pandemic" and "the post-modern pandemic". The plague had two unique characteristics: the first, that the symptoms appeared before the sick could feel any damage, and once that damage became apparent, it killed the victim almost instantly; the second, that the damaged organs remained intact, their form unaltered, yet seemingly charred by the plague which had destroyed them. The precedence of the symptom and the withdrawal of the Real before formal perfection became two of the basic principles that have shaped and characterized the modern worldview. Yet in the present case, the image of damage has changed. At first, coronavirus damages the infected body without triggering any symptoms – a stage that may last for as long as two weeks. This is an asymptomatic plague, necessarily triggering difficulties and anxiety. A plague that as we had mentioned, exposes the organizing principle of the current "human worldview": The Symptom.
Even more than other/previous pandemics, the coronavirus pandemic critically injures life-sustaining systems, what Althusser calls "the big picture" or "the general ideology". This is the context, the background and the world in relation to which the damaged meaning of existence is organized. In this sense, going back to the distinction made by Artaud, we will find that while the "organ" remains intact, the "form" inside which it is organized and functions has collapsed and disintegrated.
The grand majority of us, as individuals, will overcome the disease. We function normally, our strength and capabilities are unaffected. Yet the place in which they were supposed to appear and act has been cracked, has broken and failed. We can work, but our workplace is closed. We can perform, but all venues are closed, and gatherings are forbidden. The systems collapse and engender death – mostly due to lack of resources (not only of resourcefulness). This is a pandemic which only affects people "indirectly". It is the modern/ideologic mediation that is injured and collapses (and with it, naturally, the people who live under its auspices). The death, suffering and pain caused by the disease are mainly the result of the redundancy created by infection and spread, which has led to the collapse of life's organizing systems: health, economy, government. Let us take, for example, the attempts to (re)think the possibility of "fixing" the system: taking to the streets and demonstrating, on the one hand, or strengthening the regime's hold, on the other. Under the pandemic, the return to normal (the return to contact) – which may result in infection and spread, that is, in additional strain and complexity on the already-collapsing systems of existence – seems to be the political form of protest previously called "demonstration" against the authorities.
The coronavirus pandemic is organized in relation to the symptom's avoidance from appearance.
The symptom as a social concept/function (that is, as having an ontological status), not only a concept with psychoanalytic roots, enables the public appearance of the personal. In other words, it enables the appearance of the personal as human. Normal, pervert, like everyone. This is the reason it is uncontrollable, and more than that, unreceding. The symptom intensifies in accordance with the limitless possibilities defining the human (existence precedes essence, remember). In accordance with the personal's limitless possibilities of manifestation, through the symptom, in culture. The battle against the symptom (and for that matter, against ideology), as well as the attempt to passively avoid it – not to consume culture – is doomed to failure. It is not possible to escape the symptom, to escape culture, to escape the human. And although they are inescapable – as we are assured by those researching these matters (for example: Lacan, Althusser, Baudrillard) – we can, at least, manufacture the ‘appropriate’ symptom/personal/culture/human. And as it is hard not to notice, the result is that simultaneously with the symptom's wild spree, we are bombarded with courses and methods and therapies aimed at creating more personal and human and empowered and worthy human beings.
One of the symptom's essential characteristics – the one differentiating it from the Real and the Symbolic, for example – is contact or touch. The symptom can be touched, it can be lived with (as one can live with God). Thus, the asymptomatic nature of the coronavirus pandemic is manifested in positioning "avoiding contact" as an act – not a solution! No wonder people revolt against this decree, so contrary to our understanding and definition of what human is. No wonder the claim was made, although distortedly and exploitatively – that the solution was worse than the disease. Refraining from touch is not a solution for a problem, it is a proposition for a new world order, for a new, up-to-date action for a better future: avoiding the symptom. Avoiding the cultural, economic, political and juridical manifestations of the symptom. Refraining from the personal's attempts to camouflage itself under the human; avoiding the means by which the distorted, the wretched, the submerged in grief and pain and loss, those lacking shame and value, shape the public sphere under the guise of the human. Instead, and under the aegis of avoidance, we should permit the human to return and shape the personal as a condition for appearance in public. These times call for the convergence of the human into the personal, and towards a personal human touch.
When the symptom refuses to appear, as in the times of coronavirus, an interesting human movement is created: an attraction, a wish to get closer, to make contact, to spend time together, that is suspended just before actual touch, transforming into a form of withdrawal and distancing, of distance-keeping, into an estimation of danger, an examination of the appearance of the personal through the human. Two opposite forces exist simultaneously, like magnets moving on an axis: an active force of attraction and an active force of withdrawal. This is a bodily, physical, energetic state. An active act of identification of the unwilling to connect, the refusing to be bound: of that which cannot be touched. In this moment, as Nietzsche had said (Twilight of the Idols), thought must be physiological. It must reactivate those essential senses that had been abandoned, senses now at the forefront of the battle against the symptom's refusal to appear in coronavirus: (the loss of) taste and olfaction.
And things did start to "smell bad", in many ways: aggressivity and brutality have become instinctive reactions to the regulation of relations (politics); polluting chimneys and rivers of sewage spill plastic and chemicals into the bloodstream of nature, and from thence to all living beings; pain, suffering and blood have become promotional products. Until the pandemic has caused all movement to halt, and all touch to be forbidden. And the world, and we in it, can once again smell the air, breath a little. Taste the freedom of thought and action (not in the consumeristic sense of "doing whatever we want", but in the personal sense, of an unframed existence, examining ourselves and our lives). For a moment we felt the sorrow and pain of being personal without being public/human. For a moment, we could perceive the difference, the human, as it grows and is shaped out of our personal contact with our personal life. As it is shaped, not only by the forces of attraction (of the similar to the similar) but by the forces of withdrawal from what should not be touched; out of concern to the health of our own body and mind.
Times are changing. The return is to difference. We witness changes that are already occurring, changes that will mark all aspects of life. First and foremost, the economic and political fields: the two fields that were united under liberal capitalism, begetting distorted forms of governance, (like marriage within the family). Occupation and work are about to change. The forms of social organization will change. Essential roles will change. What will change? How? What forms will things acquire?
"What is broken, is broken according to its nature, and what is built, is built according to its nature." (Aphorisms for future action, the silence of the people of the plain)
Here, again, we personally face the nature of things and reality, we face human nature and ask fundamental questions. There are interesting times for thought. Interesting times to be human.
 Following and in light of "the disappearance of the Real", the symptom has gradually become omnipresent, and under the aegis of culture, also omnipotent, the only thing that can be coped with, lived with, the only thing that can be made public and through which one can become famous. But the symptom, unlike the Real, does not withdraw – unlike the Real, it only becomes stronger, more powerful, adding redundancy upon redundancy, complexity upon complexity. Adds insult to injury. And yet, we have no trouble coping with the symptom in its role as the god of self-image. We have produced a whole (and attractive) world out of it.