Iconographies of the Pandemic

We review the visual symptoms of the pandemic, its representation by individuals, politicians, media and the entertainment sector, and the dilemma posed by combining these with the personalised tracking of the population.

American Red Cross volunteers preparing surgical dressings, 1918

American Red Cross volunteers preparing surgical dressings, 1918 | Edward A. Rogers, Oakland Public Library | Public Domain

The avalanche of images that has reached our screens in recent days means that we are reconsidering how to articulate the negotiation between the imaginary sustained by the different conceptual frameworks activated by the crisis  (contagion, invasion, war, science, sacrifice, guilt, illness, the discipline of bodies), the incessant flow of data, and the personalised monitoring or tracking of the population. It is the images provided by video-surveillance that simultaneously question the very idea of image – most of which are not made to be seen by human eyes but scrutinised by algorithms – and the paradox of the balance between control and safety.

Solitary figures crossing deserted streets, faces hidden by surgical masks, bodies avoiding each other leaving at least a one-metre distance in front of pharmacies and supermarkets, field hospitals in sports centres, healthcare teams wearing hazmat suits, 3D printers sculpting respirators, police patrol cars and military vehicles occupying the public space and even rows of coffins waiting to be ferried away are just some of the images that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving in its wake. With the lockdown of a large part of the population, furthermore, the infographics of maps and statistical curves, in line with the recordings provided by video-surveillance cameras and the omnipresent three-dimensional representation of the virus, in an often disturbing clash with videos and photographs from the news and the press, provides evidence of and injects tension into one of the singularities typical of our contemporary contract with images: the transformation of spaces for contact and intersection between the powers, Big Data, the representation of singular emotion and suffering and the visual motifs provided by iconographic tradition.

The immunosuppression of images

In effect, how is the space for negotiation articulated between the imaginary supported by different conceptual frameworks activated by the crisis(contagion, invasion, war, science, sacrifice, guilt, disease, body discipline),[1] the incessant flow of data, and the monitoring or personalised tracking of the population, both its digital accesses and its physical behaviours? With what language can the voice be modulated of a fear that is accentuating and at the same time undermining certain social and representational logics that already constituted the essence of contemporary society before the crisis? What are the visual symptoms of the pandemic? To begin, it is necessary to remember the first flood of images that filled our screens in Western countries following the spread of the virus in the Chinese locality of Wuhan. From one day to the next, and linked with images of the annual exodus that usually accompanies journeys made for the Chinese New Year, a magma of images infiltrated our television, computer and smartphone screens made up of archive shots of the market of Huanan, in Wuhan, very rare visual documents from hospitals and some official images supplied by China: recordings taken by its extensive network of video-surveillance cameras – over 200 million of them – and stop-motion sequences of hospitals built in a week.

While the Internet filled up with fake recordings of sudden collapses caused by COVID-19 and, from the Western viewpoint, the images from Huanan market took on the role of total otherness, of an evil associated with what is distant and different – including all the clichés about food and hygiene in markets in China – little by little, and in a more intense way following the initial contagions in Northern Italy, the bias of the images changed. The media started to provide the first images of lockdown in the locality of Codogno, in Lombardy, and of traffic restrictions in cities such as Milan. The tone was marked by an authentic aesthetic of disappearance. Other images, such as those of overcrowding among refugees and migrants from Syria at the border between Turkey and Greece, or those of the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and of dengue in Latin America, started to disappear from the news. It is sufficient to perform a search in Google for “measles epidemic Congo” and “coronavirus epidemic” to appreciate the radical difference between the individualised photos of ill children and scenes of misery in remote villages in the Congo that had started to appear when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and the images that appear of the latter: individuals anonymised by face masks in the public space, empty streets and squares, and infographics showing the virus’s propagation and structure. It is precisely the images provided by video-surveillance cameras that raise the question of the scope of the very idea of image – most are produced not to be seen by the human eye but to be scrutinised by algorithms – and the paradox of the balance between control and safety.

What does a Coronavirus isolation pod look like? | The Telegraph

Perhaps the image of the extraction of a parent in a negative pressure device, which appears in this elementary search, is the most explicit among all the results, the one that seems to invoke a specific iconography that dates back, through the  visual baggage of the fights against Ebola and the Spanish Flu, to the isolation practised during major epidemics of cholera, the plague and syphilis in previous centuries. However, one of the first specific visual forms that the pandemic took on in Europe was an allusive image: A crowd of journalists from all over the world positioned one after another in the same place on the municipal borders of the locality of Codogno, along a bend in the road that leads to the village. There was nothing on that road, by the milestone that flanks the entrance to the village, that would enable the dynamics of the contagion to be represented. It was not presented exactly as an epicentre, unlike the market of Huanan, but as an island, contemplated with perplexity from the outside. The privacy of the “home sphere”, as alluded to by Peter Sloterdijk in Spheres (2003-2006), his treaty on the immunological logic of contemporary thought, coincided with the impossibility of representing the negativity, the reality, of the viral threat. It was simply an image incapable of returning its gaze, with the presence of reporters or correspondents as close to the unrepresented danger as the authorities would allow.

Before the media who were translating the as yet incredulous perception of the town’s population, unfolding on the screen from that first image of Codogno were a succession of views of places usually packed with people but now deserted. These started to coexist with the visual rhetoric of crisis and social panic – queues outside shops and panic buying of food, crowds at the airports, etc. Defined at the intersection between the two visual modalities was the idea of exceptionality, according to the need to control the epidemic and safeguard the lives and health of the population. The true state of alarm, which seemed to take even the very governments responsible for declaring it by surprise, was preceded by de facto images and the viralisation of memes and fake news that in no way managed to gauge the size of the true extent of the situation. In Italy and Spain, first, and later in France – which had held municipal elections just days earlier – what became clear was the collective impossibility of giving communicative and visual form to the spread of the virus. If, as pointed out by Franco “Bifo” Berardi in Futurability (Verso, 2019), the fundamental characteristic of contemporary politics is often powerlessness, the social imaginary gestated during the pandemic corroborates the breakdown of a relational logic between affects, emotions, images, and social representations and political power. The tense and inconsistent reactions of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are the manifestation of how Twitter-based politics fails dismally when faced with an outbreak of the unexpected.

The insistence on expressions such as “Chinese virus” by Trump, or the comparisons with flu and colds by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, confirm, furthermore, the syntactic servitudes and the swallowing of other possible imaginaries within the cognitive automaton that holds up the contemporary communication fabric. It is, however, on one very precise idea – the state of emergency, which has fuelled so much philosophical writing in recent weeks –[2] that it is necessary to focus to try to highlight how COVID-19 exposes and simultaneously exasperates the paradoxes of our contemporary relationship with collective images and representations. In four articles published on the website of publisher Quodlibet, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has underlined his concern that freedom has been sacrificed and  “our neighbour has been cancelled” due to the current state of emergency, which creates a set of social regulations and a language based on the defence of the nuda vita, in other words, life reduced to its purely biological condition, even if it represents the denial of the usual social, affective and political life. Although this concern about fundamental liberties continuing to be cut back after the pandemic being something agreed on by all critical voices raised from philosophical, sociological, and political quarters in recent days – examples include Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Edgar Morin, Slavoj Žižek, Yuval Noah Harari, Alan Badiou and David Harvey – the lack of space for any responsible governmental response in the Agamben paradigm and an apparent lack of attention paid to any collective commitment regarding the suffering caused by the pandemic in the first of the articles, La invención de una epidemia (26 February 2020),[3]  has been an extensive reason for criticism and debate.

Interdependence and power

In an enlightening and erudite text, Dal contagio alla vita. E ritorno. Ancora in margine alle parole di Agamben, Luca Illiterati emphasises the need to break with the polarity between the nuda vita (bloße Leben, in accordance with the notion formulated by Walter Benjamin) and the idea of a full life in the Aristotelian sense. The notion of natural life or nuda vita is a mere abstraction, supposedly separated from history but impossible to separate from historicity, from the singularity of each circumstance. Just as the idea of the sphere as a space for immunity and the fundament of all social construction for Sloterdijk, so nuda vita cannot be understood solely as a horizontal construction outside the vertical vector of historicity. At the political level it has determined, in any case, “the algorithm of life, which, of course, has nothing to do with our personal and irreducible lives”, as pointed out by Santiago López Petit.[4] However, for Illiterati it is also necessary to break down the opposition between the organic and the social, without necessarily abolishing it, in order to define the true biopolitical dimension of the restrictions due to lockdown and control policies, none of which is new in reality. However, the problem lies less in the general abstraction in which the discourse of Agamben moves than in the complete absence of images as singularities, leaving present suffering in a regime of infra-representation.

Pope's Urbi et orbi for an end to the coronavirus pandemic | Vatican News

As suggested by Hannah Arendt (Was ist Politik, 1950), politics is not an abstract entity but a space woven based on singularities, a relational fabric of individuals, therefore it must remain always alert to images, to the faces that form part of it. The response from Jean-Luc Nancy to the first text by Giorgio Agamben puts a finger in the wound: in Eccezzione virale[5]  he appeals to the dimension of life in a Hegelian way, in its specific complexity, beyond abstractions and based on his own condition as a person who is immunosuppressed due to a heart transplant he underwent over twenty years ago. Making an appearance with this text are specifics: the low lethality tag attached to the virus during February and early March in the news, or the blasé idea that it only affects old people, as if that somehow made it less important, lost all validity when the deaths, although only part of the percentage envisaged, started growing by the thousands and including our own loved ones. The images of stunned politicians in front of videoconferencing screens, the Pope officiating the Palm Sunday mass in front of an empty St. Peter’s Square or wild animals coming back into the cities all link up with an aesthetic of disappearance that materialised following 9/11 in apocalyptic films such as The Happening (2007), or in series such as The Leftovers (HBO: 2014-2017). However, what about the real deceased, the suffering of those infected? To suggest, as Agamben did, the convenience of not undertaking measures of confinement or social isolation due to the threat these represent for society once the virus is controlled collides frontally with the real pain of the thousands who have died, their absence and the impossibility for their families to say goodbye to them due to the risk of contagion, which is undoubtedly a dramatic novelty with this pandemic; there will not be, from this crisis, as there would be if this was a war or other type of catastrophe, any images in the form of pietà or figurations of shared lament that somatise the pain of the loss.

This infra-representation of suffering or, if one prefers, the uncoupling between emotion and the singular pathos, the schemes for social control and their representations is plunging society into disconcertment, into paralysis, into an authentic psycho-deflation, as indicated by Franco Berardi “Bifo” in Cronaca della psicodeflazione,[6] which crystalizes in an infinite scroll: a flow of constant information where what is not produced is what Carlo Ginzburg calls, in Paura, reverenza, terrore (Adelphi, 2015) the conjuncture, the inclusion of the historical storyline in the images. It is not possible to give full visual form to the current situation, just as it is not possible to project an image of the future, but those were walls that were already laid around today’s society. The images of extenuated healthcare staff, with marks from their facemasks criss-crossing their faces, the daily photographs of recovering patients, and tutorials on YouTube, Instagram or TikTok on how to make masks or use gloves are, perhaps, true visual forms in which an iconography has materialised of the two essential values that may sustain the leap between management of the pandemic crisis and the immediate future: inter-dependence and responsibility. Hygiene and social-distancing measures must be understood from an empathetic logic of self-discipline and not as the result of an exercising of biopolitical control by states, and even less by private companies or organisations. That iconography, which has its origin in healthcare practices introduced in the 19th century by Florence Nightingale, is framed within a warlike genesis of the heroic work of healthcare professionals and is expanded in this case to society, as the road to a collective conjunction that lockdown itself seems to hinder.

Pedro Sánchez video conference with regional presidents

Pedro Sánchez video conference with regional presidents | Pool Moncloa / Borja Puig de la Bellacasa

It is curious, in this sense, to notice how this iconography of the collective strength enters into dialogue with the imagery of power. Politicians appear over and over before a split screen with the different faces of their team – whether via Skype, Zoom, StarLeaf or whatever – trying to take on board the idea of leading. Even the opposition insists on setting the scene with the same device to invest itself with the attributes of power, while some television programmes are also made from presenters’ homes. They often show the most desolate, least personalised of their rooms with the aim of protecting their privacy. But undoubtedly the most intense iconographic clash occurs between the images of healthcare teams and the visual and narrative rhetoric of entertainment: the insistence on the need to fill the leisure space that has occupied networks and televisions certainly has the intention of catalysing the lockdown and limiting the spread of the virus, but it runs the risk, in reality, of being hurtful to those who cannot adhere to the lockdown because their work prevents them from doing so, or alternatively, those who, due to lack of resources, live in small spaces where access to networks, for example, is impossible. The media’s obstinacy in showing the practising of leisure – this comes from consumerism and the attention economy, which refuse to be interrupted by the pandemic – in large, spacious homes with various rooms, computers, smartphones and consoles, again separates towards a regime of infra-representation an enormous parcel of society: the poor. The home is not an idyllic refuge, nor is it safe, for everyone, as noted by Judith Butler. The arrival of atmoterror, in other words, respiratory fear of one’s environment, which Sloterdijk studied in Terror from the Air (Semiotext(e), 2009), analysing the legacy of the use of toxic gases in the First World War, also reveals the preservation or “bunkerisation” of society’s cognitive body, those who can telework and thus sustain the mechanics of financial capitalism, while either leaving to one side, visually too, those people who cannot participate in that function or, alternatively, incorporating healthcare, transport and food workers into a militarised rhetoric.

The Big Data civil contract

The body of the Western capitalist economy is in a state of lethargy, although it does not appear that, as Žižek ventures in his text, Coronavirus is a “Kill Bill”-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to a reinvention of communism[7]  and in his imminent volume Pandemic. COVID Shakes the World (2020), that necessarily means announcing a space for cooperation and interdependence where competition is the norm. Of course, it is a shared responsibility to learn from the present and to prevent the system from making the same mistakes. Only through solidarity, through redistributive policies – a minimum income that is extended beyond the crisis – investment in healthcare and, in the European case, the implication of the European Union, will it be possible to construct a scenario that will be capable of overcoming a depression without precedents. Or even, as Žižek indicates, aim towards a different model to the current one, based on constant and exponential growth, on the depredation of resources and a reduction in non-redistributive work. Cooperation is the central idea that Byung Chul-Han underlines in La emergencia viral y el mundo de mañana. In an open criticism of the closing of Western borders as a way of controlling the pandemic, Byung Chul-Han defends the Asian model consisting of using Big Data without restrictions to control spread: access to people’s geo-localisation and telephone services, to their biometric data and combining these with the facial recognition system of the Chinese camera network, Dragonfly, although he does warn that its importation could lead to a police state, something that Ai Weiwei underlines more forcefully.

By stating that the sovereign, in contrast with what has been highlighted so many times by Agamben based on the analysis of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology (1922), is not only “the person who decides on the state of emergency”[8] but also “the holder of data”, Byung Chul-Han places emphasis on a fact that has a visual, iconographic counterpart. The existence of this constant cross-referencing of digital information, which will also be applied in Europe with the partial relaxation of the lockdown, expresses a new paradigm in which the imaginary of viral transmission, but also its epiphenomena, such as the infra-representation of individual suffering, is subordinated to Big Data. This is nothing new. The point of encounter between Big Data and hypodermic biopolitics, as Harari calls it, is the condition under which the dynamics of visual representation have gradually problematised or redefined the status of the most common iconographies and motifs in the public sphere, although they have not destroyed the strength nor the power of those surviving visuals. When Chris Anderson, then editor-in-chief of the magazine Wired, pointed out in his legendary article  “The End of Theory” (2008) that the theoretical models in the sciences were disappearing before the possibility of compiling and processing data in volumes unthinkable up to that point, then the representativeness status of images was also buried. Where is the shared, archetypal and simultaneously historical role of images against data traffic? How do those data that do not strictly constitute images overlap with them? An example is provided by the maps published in recent days by the press in areas where there is a greater incidence of COVID-19 such as cities like Barcelona and New York. It is the poorest areas that are suffering the highest numbers of contagions and deaths, although there are no other types of figuration, of archetypal images that express this circumstance.

Distribution of COVID-19 cases in Barcelona, 27 April 2020

Distribution of COVID-19 cases in Barcelona, 27 April 2020 | Agència de Salut Pública de Barcelona

Equally, an analogous monitoring of routes taken by people linked to the care of the elderly and ill without resources would reveal a reality for which there are no images as powerful as those opening this article. Also paradoxical is the image of the mask-wearing multitudes, an image which has been a constant in the case of Asia but that, in the West, has arrived late, only once the persistence of the virus in the air has been recognised. Under lockdown, the invisibles are even more invisible, whereas the political power and the majority culture, from televisions to social media networks including the major platforms – Netflix, Amazon, etc. – insist on a dangerous we and on corporate messages that are not, in effect, representations of the totality. In Crowds and Power (1960), Elías Canetti identifies in crowds the inversion of each human being’s primary fear of being touched by the unknown, and with “social distancing”, a reintegration occurs of that primary fear that abolishes a perception that is simultaneously collective and singularised. Could crowds, with their social power, their virtues and their dangers, be based on the mechanisms of digital connection and Big Data, without other forms of combination? That contact limited to online technologies, and social distancing, are forcing a dissolution of the mechanisms of equality that sustain the crowd is something as evident as the fact that many individuals are excluded by them.

The social networks and platforms for audiovisual consumption also offer a world of circulation of images that, like the aforementioned TikTok, seem to have been designed in advance for lockdown, the reiteration and domestication of bodies. In her book The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008) Ariella Azoulay points out that all photographs, all images, involve a social pact and that, in contemporary society, the photographic act is always implicit even when a material image of each encounter between people is not produced. There is always a pattern of power and a construction of language that accompanies that photographic act. It could be said that digital tracking is the true emblematic image of our society, and that it has opened a new space for negotiation with the images linked to traditional iconographic forms. But what is Big Data’s civil contract? It is not possible to accept that, like the photographs emphasised by Azoulay, there is no reciprocity, inter-dependence, transparency and collective coordination in the use of that digital tracking? Between the infographic on the virus, the live movement maps and the plague of normalisation of the middle-class home where investing leisure hours in domesticated entertainment opens up a chasm in which the state of emergency also turns out to be a state of exception on images and their role in the public sphere.

Just as philosopher and historian René Girard, in his essay Violence and the Sacred (1983), sustains the thesis that in the sacrifice of Christ the very idea of sacrifice is abolished, in his book Daech. Le Cinéma et la mort (Éditions Verdier, 2016), filmmaker and critic Jean-Louis Comolli alludes to the actual abolition of traditional cinematographic capture by referring to the images of the camera strapped to the body of one of the terrorists in the attack in Paris on 9 January 2015. In the very existence of those images, he argues, as happened with the attack on a mosque in New Zealand in 2019, broadcast via Facebook Live, the possibility of full continuity among the uses of the image over the course of history and the possibilities opened up by technology is abolished. In his book, which Comolli dedicates to the iconographic work of Ginzburg, the French filmmaker sets the scene for the other side of the virality of online images and video-surveillance images: the infiltration by forms of violence caused by this new control paradigm into the everyday experience of the images. At the same time, he demands a search for images that represent breaking away, within that new partnership statute between Big Data, the digital and possible abusive, criminal or even necropolitical uses of video surveillance.

La France contre les robots | Jean-Marie Straub

One of those responses could well be the subversive film premiered by French filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub in the early morning of 6 April 2020, La France contre les robots. In an echo of the debate on the dangers of extending surveillance and the state of emergency after the pandemic, nothing can be more disconcerting, in the current state of lockdown, than seeing filmmaker and actor Christophe Clavert strolling around a lake while he recites a fragment from the book La France contre les robots, written by an author with such a turbulent and equivocal ideological trajectory as Georges Bernanos at the end of the Second World War, but who seems to pick up on current fears regarding the possibility of a neuro-totalitarian use of biopolitical and psycho-political control mechanisms. “The system will not change the course of its evolution, because it is not evolving; it is organised for the sole purpose of lasting an instant, of surviving. Far from wanting to resolve its own contradictions, it seems to me increasingly more prepared to impose them by force thanks to an increasingly more detailed and strict regulation of private activities […] A world won for technology is a world lost for freedom”, is the conclusion of the two sequence shots, at daybreak and once the sun is up, that accompany and reiterate the monologue. With this film, disturbing in its simplicity. Straub not only tries to question how the use of images can “contribute to the destruction of the world”, as demanded by Harun Farocki in his book Desconfiar de las imágenes (Caja Negra, 2013), but to also understand from a cinema angle how the interpenetration of images with Big Data, whose usefulness is indisputable and necessary against the COVID-19 pandemic, can also contribute, as a prolongation of the virus, to the destruction of the world that we know.

[1] Domenico Secondulfo has analysed those frameworks in a splendid article: “Mille e non più mille, l’immaginario del coronavirus”, in the Immaginario blog from the Sezione Immaginario of the Associazione Italiana di Sociologia.

[2] It is sufficient to see the collective volume Sopa de Wuhan, compiled by Pablo Amadeo (Facebook @pabloamadeo.editor) and published under the label ASPO (Preventive and Obligatory Social Isolation), from whose translations some terms in this text are recovered.

[3] Also in: Ibid., “La invención de una epidemia», p. 17 ff.

[4] Santiago López Petit, “El coronavirus com a declaració de guerra”. Also in: VV.AA. Sopa de Wuhan. Op. cit. “El coronavirus como declaración de guerra”, p. 55 ff.

[5] Also in: Ibid., “Excepción viral”, p. 29 y ff.

[6] Also in: Ibid., “Crónica de la psicodeflación”, p. 35 ff.

[7] Also in: Ibid., “Coronavirus es un golpe al capitalismo al estilo de Kill Bill y podría conducir a la reinvención del comunismo”, p. 21 ff.

[8] Giorgio Agamben, Stato di eccezione, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2003

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Iconographies of the Pandemic