Covid’s Metamorphoses: The Derangement of the Atmospheric Unconscious

Peering into and Breathing in the Cloud

Whenever scholars, politicians, and the media scramble to get a handle on a crisis, they often resort to what Marshall McLuhan characterized as “the rear-view mirror” approach. “When faced with a totally new situation,” wrote McLuhan, “we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future” (74-5). Thus, as commentators breathlessly clamber to account for our current Zeitgeist, they tend to take recourse in a litany of previous crises and solutions as though ossified nostalgia could provide a foothold on the abyssal terrain that we now inhabit. But moments of extreme rupture behoove us to reflect on our periodizing strategies so that we can endeavour to look toward the future through the windows of our apparatuses and maybe even acquire a measure of distance from the immersive media technology that orients us towards our current communal atmosphere.

The beginning of the twenty-first century was punctuated, for many, by the attacks on the twin towers, the emergence of Bush and Cheney’s interminable “war on terror,” and the radical perforation of American unassailability in the global imaginary. Much of the world hoped, with baited breath, that the Obama presidency represented a new inspirational turn in, even a break with, the spirit of an age that had gone off the rails. Vehiculated by newly emergent social media and pervasive smart telephony, Obama’s sermonic rhetoric of hope and belief was a breath of much-needed fresh air. Those of us who desperately needed to believe in America’s ability to recuperate and reanimate its Enlightenment mission watched it brutally dash against the jagged rocks of economic meltdown, oligopolistic inequality, and a ceaselessly metastasizing war.


An Atmosphere of Generalized Derangement

The advent of the Trump presidency marks an even more potent caesura with received political wisdom and so-called “common sense.” Parlaying his media celebrity into a political force of nature, a seemingly-deranged Trump stridently deployed his Twitter account to run roughshod over the moribund Bush-Clinton consensus. In effect, he took a page out of the Obama campaign’s vaguely inspirational social media playbook and drove it to its farcical conclusion: the triumph of a charismatic leader whose aura emerges out of fidelity to a nebulous, rhetorically-viral message; but, unlike Obama, Trump does not even need to feign competence, compassion, or honesty so long as he persists in promulgating the hallucinatory vision of a retrievable superlative American past that could somehow be safeguarded by an impossibly forbidding wall. This generalized derangement has unhinged some of the last remaining Enlightenment coordinates of liberal democracy.

Given America’s current crisis of sovereignty, it is more than a little ironic that corona derives from the Latin for “crown.” Decades of cynical corporate welfare, ever-expanding neoconservative wars, outsourcing, and a grotesque lack of concern for those who cannot “pluck themselves up by the bootstraps” have culminated in a political catastrophe for not just the US, but the entire world. Corona has emerged as a sovereign force that has accelerated the dismantling of Fukuyama’s “end of history” narrative as police violence, protests, and riots erupt out of the volatile epicentre of biological, rhetorical, and digital contagions.


Covid and the Impossibility of Communal Videology

In a state of perpetual agitation, we continue to naively absorb these densely mediated calamities through the same screens that entangle our attention and imaginations in mollifying entertainment spectacles. This slipstream of fragmentary narratives radically destabilizes the prospect of a cohesive social imaginary. Let us also recall Freud’s attempt to define the id (that impulsive, unconscious, and pleasure-driven locus of human behaviour): “a cauldron full of seething excitations [that] has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the pleasure principle” (73). Here, Freud could just as easily be describing the digital subject’s distracted immersion in a corona-afflicted milieu under conditions of declining symbolic efficiency. The explosive rhetorical, medial, and biological furnaces are agitating each other with a virulence that would seem to preclude the vital possibility of large-scale communal projects.

Philosopher Roberto Esposito argues that community and immunity must be thought through across the same plane of understanding:

The news headlines on any given day in recent years, perhaps even on the same page, are likely to report a series of apparently unrelated events. What do phenomena such as the battle against a new resurgence of an epidemic, opposition to an extradition request for a foreign head of state accused of violating human rights, the strengthening of barriers in the fight against illegal immigration, and strategies for neutralizing the latest computer virus have in common? Nothing, as long as they are interpreted within their separate domains of medicine, law, social politics, and information technology. Things change, though, when news stories of this kind are read using the same interpretive category, one that is distinguished specifically by its capacity to cut across these distinct discourses, ushering them onto the same horizon of meaning. This category . . . is immunization. (1)

Drawing on Derrida’s observations about the perilous dialectic of immunity and community in the wake of the 9/11, Esposito underscores the insidious paradoxes of auto-immunity. The perennial drive to immunize communities of rogue, parasitic elements (ranging from diseases to terrorists to computer viruses) can all-too-readily slide into auto-immune spasms whereby the boundaries separating inside from outside, symbiote from parasite, cure from disease, rightful citizen from potential criminal, and friend from enemy dissolve into an indissociable miasma. To make matters worse, as pernicious as this immunizing drive is, we would be naïve to understand it as a bug rather than an inherent feature of our communicative environment. What then becomes of community in such an opaque, virulent atmosphere?


“I Can’t Breathe”

Media philosopher Peter Sloterdijk picks up this immunological thread and deftly applies it to the most invisible medium of our existence, the air. Modernity, writes Sloterdijk, erupted in the WWI Belgian theatre of war, when the German army launched the first strategic toxic gas attack on unsuspecting Canadian soldiers. This inaugural understanding of “the environment from the perspective of its destructibility” (26) by targeting an enemy’s “acute environmental living conditions” (29) forever disfigured our relationship to “natural” life-preserving atmospheres.

Sloterdijk characterizes this assault on the living air envelope as the explosion of a Zeitgeist whose defining feature is the ceaseless theoretical and practical explicitation, or “rendering explicit,” of our life-enabling environs. This techno-rhetorical “unfolding” has entailed an ongoing reciprocal feedback loop between a febrile cascade of disclosures about the (ecological, biochemical, statistical, algorithmic, and technological) constitution of “life itself” and its ecosystemic infrastructure, on the one hand, and the constant emergence of new techniques for protecting and attacking our supposedly immunized environs, on the other.

The implications for the possibility of community are vast. Sloterdijk traces the unfurling miasma of toxic modernity as the air takes on an undead life of its own. The German technoscientific prowess that culminated in the invention of Zyklon A for “peaceful” pest control morphed into the Zyklon B used by the Nazis to murder concentration camp prisoners (who were, not incidentally, figured as vermin whose very existence threatened the integrity of the Aryan body politic). But “atmopolitical” violence was far from exclusive to the Germans. Quick on the heels of the Nazi “showers,” America began to employ gas chambers for criminal execution spectacles. By the time, Sloterdijk finishes his genealogy with a timely assessment of the contemporary fog of climate-controlled spaces, mass-scale pollution, and “atmoterrorism,” the reader is rendered incapable of ever perceiving the air as an empty, innocuous vacuum again. At every turn, the digital-capitalist imaginary of an atomized subject-avatar circulating in transparent, friction-free virtual space seems more and more absurd.

As Slavoj Žižek and Jodi Dean frequently point out, the fantasy of American-style neoliberalism also involves a belief in the relatively seamless coupling of corporate capitalism and democratic ideals. Even more than the rise of China, the emergence of Covid-19 as a global force compels the entire world to interrogate a pervasive, longstanding approach to the political sphere that subordinates all social considerations to an economic theology attendant to “the Market’s desires.” Rather than basing our political calculations on gross domestic product, inflation, policing, and war, we desperately need a communitarian politics that understands local and distal body politics as protean entities whose manifold parts never exist in an immunized vacuum. For starters, until we understand medical care, high quality education, and a safe inhabitable environment as universal human rights, concatenations like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are nothing but opium smoke for the masses.

An update of Sloterdijk and Esposito would have to take into account the irruption of the airborne Covid-19 pandemic. Our opaque milieu comprises not merely an “acoustic space” of ubiquitous electronic communication, as McLuhan averred, but a more pungent olfactory space of bad air. In addition to its literally toxic qualities, the air has become rhetorically rancid with new admixtures of anxiety, conspiratorial paranoia, hypochondria, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, xenophobia, and aporophobia. A proper genealogy of this fetid cloud would also have to come to terms with American police officers impudently murdering George Floyd and Eric Garner, whose dying gasps, “I can’t breathe,” have become a viral anthem against a police state traditionally guaranteed by officers’ “qualified immunity” against prosecution.


A Case for Social Proximity

The commingling of techno-medial, ecological, and rhetorical atmospheres has never been so volatile. From the instantaneous effects of Trump’s deranged accusatory tweets to 24/7 coverage of draconian tear gas attacks on both racial justice protestors and the media to the wild circulation of conspiracy theories about 5G wireless causing coronavirus, the world is caught up in autoimmune spasms that call upon us to forge vital new vectors of community.

It is telling that we refer to physical distancing from those around us as “social distancing.” As we navigate the fog of injunctions to anxiously distance ourselves from odious, overproximal neighbours, it also falls upon us to cultivate countervailing social proximities in the hazy, deranged ambience of digital modernity. Our unavoidable porousness to each other necessitates new frontiers of kinship, solidarity, comradery, friendship, intimacy, and sym-pathy (literally, feeling together). Such an agora must not be figured as a siloed crystal palace on a hill or even a utopian global village. Through the murky haze of generalized derangement, the emerging ether comes into relief as a much harder-to-visualize atmosphere of shared breath and co-immunity. There is no other choice.


Esposito, R. (2011) Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge: Polity Press).


Freud, S. (1933) “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.” 1933. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXII (1932-1936): New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and Other Works. Trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. 1-182).


McLuhan, M., Fiore Q. & and Agel, J. (1967) The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books).


Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air. 2004. Trans. Amy Patton (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)).


Daniel Adleman is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Toronto, where he teaches A Brief History of Persuasion, Digital Rhetoric, Rhetoric of Health and Medicine, and Writing for Social Change.  His writing has appeared in Canadian Review of American StudiesCanadian LiteratureCultural StudiesCrossing Borders (ARP, 2020), Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Trump (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and Performing Utopias in the Contemporary Americas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).  He is the co-founder of the Vancouver Institute for Social Research (VISR), a graduate-level critical theory free school held at Vancouver’s Or Gallery.


Chris Vanderwees is a psychoanalyst and registered psychotherapist in private practice at St. John the Compassionate Mission in Toronto, Canada.  He is also an affiliate and research guest of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society, a member of Lacan Toronto (Affiliated Psychoanalytic Workgroups), a member of the Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis (San Francisco), and a member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario.  He was previously awarded SSHRC Doctoral and Postdoctoral Fellowships for his research on language, trauma, and psychoanalysis.

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis