“On the Real of Plague” – Notes from Berlin, in the Summer of Sars-CoV-2
Figure 1: Walter Molino (1962), Cover of the Dominica del Corriere (https://www.this-is-italy.com/in-1962-an-italian-magazine/), last access: August 13th, 2020
Il n’y a rien de plus ignoble que la maladie.
Albert Camus, 1947
The world’s always been a dangerous place.
Donald Trump, 11.8. 2020
Berlin, Summer 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has been developing since the end of 2019, millions of people have been infected, hundreds of thousands are dying. As one can read on the homepage of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) (https://www.rki.de/DE/Content/InfAZ/N/Neuartiges_Coronavirus/nCoV_node.html, last access: August 12th, 2020), SARS-CoV-2 is “a new type of virus that is contagious, causing a new, sometimes severe disease (COVID-19).” People are mostly infected through secretions, primarily through droplets or droplet nuclei (aerosols) released when one coughs, sneezes, or speaks loudly (Lednicky et al., 2020). The virus is transmitted through closer contact, even if you stay in small, poorly or non-ventilated rooms for longer periods. “Superspreader events” carry the risk that many people will be infected at once. It is particularly tricky that the virus is transmitted some days before infected people realize that they are sick, e.g. developing respiratory symptoms. In Germany, around 4% of the registered sick people die, in France, Italy and Great Britain between 13% and 15% (https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1103785/umfrage/mortalitaetsrate-des-coronavirus-nach-laendern/, last access: August 12th, 2029). On its website, the RKI warns that a “second wave” of COVID-19 must be expected. However, whether such a second wave will occur at all and how strong this second wave would depend on several factors. Individual behaviour plays an important role. Due to the highly infectious nature of the virus, “an exponential increase in new infections” and “a possibly very strong second wave” could occur again very quickly. As far as the “canonical”, i.e. empirically proven Covid-19 facts.
Despite this clear information, many people organize parties, large family celebrations and events. Some people meet in their thousands without keeping social distance or wearing masks. The parties in Berlin parks, the “Cornering” in Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel or the excesses on Mallorca’s “Ballermann” are just particularly prominent examples.
On August 1, 2020, tens of thousands met in Berlin Mitte, demonstrated against the protective Anti-COVID-measures. They celebrated “the end of the pandemic”, although the number of new infections rose continuously. A YouTube video shows the demonstrators chanting “The pandemic never existed” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjLji1ByzkE, last access: August 12th, 2020). Others had signs that read: “We are the second wave”. The organizers spoke of a “day of freedom”. Whether the reference was intended or not, the slogan is reminiscent of the Nazi party rally in 1935, which Riefenstahl not only documented in her propaganda film “Day of Freedom – Our Wehrmacht” but also stylized it aesthetically (see https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1enpje, last access: August 12th, 2020). Last but not least, the network of signifiers includes the fact that the Nuremberg Race Laws were promulgated at this disastrous party congress.
One month later, on August 29, 2020, the organizers repeated the demonstrations. The authorities tried to forbid the gatherings; they justified this ban with the risk of infection. So, standard measures of the big Other were mobilized. In return, the organizers fought against the ban by calling for a “Storm on Berlin” (https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/es-wird-zum-sturm-auf-berlin-aufgerufen-experte-warnt-nach-demo-verbot-vor-gewalt-am-wochenende/26130540.html (last access: August 29th, 2020). With the slogan “Storm on Berlin,” they use a typical Hitlerian metaphor. The “Führer” had called for a “March on Berlin” in November 1923, according to Mussolini’s “March on Rome”, in October 1922.
In the meantime, the term “Covidiots” is also circulating (see https://twitter.com/EskenSaskia/status/1289518034621612032, last access: August 12th, 2020). According to the Urban Dictionary (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Covidiot=, last access: August 12th, 2020), someone qualifies as a “Covidiot” if he or she acts “like an irresponsible idiot during the Covid-19 pandemic, ignoring common sense, decency, science, and professional advice leading to the further spread of the virus and needless deaths of thousands.“ Accordingly, “Covidiocy” means the “loss of the ability to think logically during a global pandemic” (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cov%28idiocy%29last access: August 12th, 2020).
So, the question arises why people develop “Covid-19 conspiracy theories” at all. Formulated more neutrally, it is the question of the relationship between the pandemic-real and the diversity of its imaginary-symbolic representations, which reflect the real in the form of “facts”, “alternative” facts or “counterfacts” (cf. Lacan, 1978/1979; Seminar on 9 January 1979). I am trying to come up with a few suggestions that will respond to these questions. First of all, I assume that COV-19 is an existential problem. My thesis is, based on Raab et al. (2013) that “Covidiocy” is just one of the innumerable shades of what we see as subjective “truth”. The ideology of the people who are referred to as “Covidiots” can, according to my thesis, be understood from the dialectic of the deadly-real and its imaginary-symbolic masks. Their behaviour is strongly reminiscent of Lacan’s (2016, p. 115) “passage à l’acte”. One more point: today it is not uncommon to refer to “La Peste”, the novel that Albert Camus wrote during the Nazi occupation. Of course, I will touch on some parallels between the (fictional) plague and Covid-19. But more important is the allegorical character: The (brown) plague is fascism. As an allegory, the novel points to the identification of the subject with the object a. The latter is incorporated through the other`s breath: not the mass virus, but the human being forms “the second wave”. People are the plague they deny. This disturbing identification would be a radical variant of Covidiocy, which will be examined in the following contribution.
The breath, object a, and the mask
Lacan (1974 / 1975, p. 1 ff.) distinguishes between three categories of psychic reality: the real (the unrepresented, unimaginable), the imaginary (the figuratively represented, vividly imagined) and the symbolic (the linguistic). These categories organize themselves in the “Borromean knot” in the form of three rings, loops or circles. Hegel’s theory of the subjective spirit, as laid down in the third volume of the “Encyclopaedia of Sciences”, offers a rather sophisticated approach to understanding this Lacanian figure. According to Hegel, there is matter and its idea, that is the soul or the subjective spirit (Hegel, 1971, § 388 and § 389, cf. Wolf, 1992, p. 45). If we follow Hegel`s traditional, however dialectically applied step model, we could say that the spirit/mind, i.e. the idea of matter, is exactly Lacan’s psychic reality, being composed of the categories of the real, imaginary and symbolic. The idea of matter (Hegel) ist the Borromean knot (Lacan). Figure 2 shows the relationship between matter and its idea, which consists of Lacan’s categories of the real (R), imaginary (I) and symbolic (S).
Figure 2: Matter and Borromean Knot as the matter’s idea.
So, SARS-CoV-2 is first of all “matter” that breaks into the subject with the breath of the other being infected. Aerosols are used as a transport medium. The material aerosol is a dispersive mixture of suspended particles in a gas. Aerosols are often only a few nanometres in size. They are like mini-missiles that stay in the air for a certain time and cover a certain distance (cf. Lednicky et al., 2020). At the level of matter, we have the other, the mouth and the virus-laden aerosols that float in the expelled breath, whether when we are chatting, singing or jogging. If we perceive this “pandemic complex” (the other with mouth, virus and breath), some sensations develop as a result of the stimulation of our perception organs. These unconscious, prelinguistic, non-intentional sensations, according to Hegel, are the “idea” of matter, i.e. the ideal side of the coin, what Hegel calls “natural spirit”: highly present, but not represented, incomprehensible, impossible (Hegel, 1971, § 389, cf. Wolff, 1992, p. 142 ff). We stay here, as I suggest, in Lacan’s Real: we see the other and how his lips move, hear how he speaks, sings, chats or gasps. However, we are not (yet) able to take these sensations as thoughts. The situation is particularly tricky because the virus is invisible to our eyes. We only know that the other could be contagious. He’s not a gangster who threatens us with a gun. His weapon is that he, who is potentially infectious, does not wear a mask, or that he coughs, does not keep social distance, etc. Thus, everyone qualifies as a danger: Hell is the other, and of course, the hell is the subject staying in contact with the others.
Only in a further step, does the sensation acquire a symbolic-imaginary quality being linked with a visual representation. The visualization of the SARS-CoV-2 in Figure 3 moves in Lacan’s category of the imaginary:
Figure 3: SARS-CoV-2
(https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/SARS-CoV-2#/media/Datei:SARS-CoV-2_without_background.png, last access: August 17th, 2020
As soon as the picture is linguistically named, i.e. being linked to a verbal legend and explained in more detail, i.e. with the information that Figure 3 shows an “ultrastructural morphology of a coronavirus”, will we move in the register of the symbolic (Lacan) or the logical domain of subjective spirit (Hegel). Of course, these dialectics work also when complications of a Covid-19 infection are processed in the media. Thus, Figure 4 shows the lungs (with the corresponding signification) of a woman who was completely healthy before the infection, around her mid-20s. She was transplanted as a result of the Covid-19 infection (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/health /coronavirus-lung-transplant.html):
Figure 4: Lung infected by SARS-CoV-2 in a young woman who was healthy before infection compared to non-infected lungs (https://www.rtl.de/cms/erschreckende-bilder-coronavirus-durchloechert-lunge-einer-jungen-gesunden-frau-4558975.html, last access: August 17th, 2020)
Coming back to the real, however: Lacan describes the other, whose precipitation (including his claims) is “real” in us, as “object a”. He determines the object a in such a way that it is “linked to orifices of the body” (Lacan, 1974 / 1975, p. 56). Zones of this kind experienced with pleasure and described by Freud as “erogenous”, such as the mouth or anus, are characterized by a “gaping”. The noun “la béance” comes from “béer”: “tear open, open, gape”. “La béance” is “the being torn open, being opened up, the gap, the orifices”. The edge, such as the lips, and the orifice form a unit (cf. Nemitz, 2015). What escapes the body are “partial objects” such as the gaze, the voice, the milk and the faeces. The orifices are the eye, mouth, breast and anus. The voice is a special case of breath caused by the vocal cords’ vibration. To conclude: SARS-CoV-2 is an object a that resides as a mini-particle in the other’s breath. One should be aware that the object a is completely real. The object a as a term is nothing but a placeholder for something we cannot understand, being an “index of the real without a name” (Leclaire, 1971, p. 21). As an “idea of matter”, the object a has already entered the subject’s psychic reality – but it is still unthought, unconscious, not represented. Breath, mouth, breast and voice can take the placeholder’s position in the real. In our case, we are especially interested in the pandemic “object-a-complex” that consists of the mouth (with its edges, the lips), the breath / the voice and the virus. The other’s lips (as the edges of an erogenous zone) shout “freedom!” or “resistance!”, they chat, inform, assert, and babble, and their mouths expel the breath that carries the chatting, informing, asserting and babbling voice. Of course, even before Covid-19, the breath has been ambigue: God breathed the “breath of life” into us (Genesis 2, 4-7). Otherwise, without this “act of inspiration”, we would just be a “bizarre work of earthen art” (Sloterdijk, 1998, p. 36). On the other hand, the air we breathe is foreign: The birth trauma, according to Lacan (2016, p. 327), does not (only) consist in the separation, but rather in “the inhalation, into oneself, of a fundamentally other environment.” The breath gives life, but that what is inhaled is strange and traumatic. In times of Covid-19, this otherness comes to a head: The other`s breath becomes an object that can bring death and perdition. Language is potentially a killer. The other`s breath, the other’s voice, they are the real thing of death. It is no coincidence that one speaks of the “breath of the plague”. This is where the true illocutionary speech act takes place: the one that infects at the moment of speaking, at the moment when words are pushed forward. It seems obvious to me that this object a is scary. The “turmoil” of fear arises when the object a appears in us, unconsciously, not represented, but extremely present. It is “a moment of traumatic unveiling whereby anxiety reveals itself for what it is” (Lacan, 2016, p. 312). This “turmoil of excitement” has to be managed somehow, be it with phantasms or actions.
Subject structure and avoidance of suffering
While object a “nests” in the real, for example as the “pandemic object a”, it takes a structuring of the subject’s phantasmatic world, with all the finesse of defence and transformation. Under its pressure, the subject invents imaginary and symbolic phantasms. Their “literal order” relates to the real like a cobweb to the (unrepresented) space, which, as Leclaire (1971, p. 22 and p. 24) puts it, “orders” the space and sets up some “traps”. In such phantasms, the other (originally the mother) will nourish or kill, harm or protect. The subject uses a variety of mental operations to control what we call powerlessness, vulnerability, fear, or anger. First of all, there is negation, splitting, denial and projective identification. They form a defensive wall against the blunt intrusion of the real. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, Freud (1920, p. 28) speaks of little “living vesicles” with a protective skin. One could imagine the Borromean rings as spherical “vesicles”. Mild excitations pass through the membrane of the three rings, and the subject is able, if necessary, to employ more mature forms of defence (including repression, displacement, condensation, rationalization) in order to bind the amount of excitement to images (I) and thoughts (S). Unbearable sensations are, however, especially by denial, completely excluded. If this does not succeed, the subject tries to anti-cathect the “environs of the breach”, as Freud (1920, p. 30) said, with psychic energy, i.e. the edges of the break-in point are fortified and reinforced libidinally. These are, in short, the means of “masking the real”. The Latin word for a mask is “persona”: I slip a mask over the real and thus become a certain person who chats, dreams, fantasizes, hallucinates and thinks, and in this way a particular identity is created.
When dealing with CoV-19, i.e. with the threat of death, the more or less boozy denial is a very popular defence. The task of denial is to protect us from the insight into the (most) probable worst that is mediated by the real. These celebrations, however, whether in Berlin`s Mitte, on the Ballermann, on the (gold) beaches of various seas, worldwide, everywhere, are carried out on a wafer-thin sheet of ice. Death is hidden under it. The denial of facts that are obvious, supported by further defensive measures (i.e. rationalization, affect isolation) creates a surface of harmlessness that indicates – with a particularly big noise – on its negativity, i.e. the threat of illness or death. It is only a question of the escalation level, whether it is one’s own mortality or the death of anonymous residents. Aren’t these dances of death a typical, regressive sign of the pandemic? In any case, the metaphor of the “Ballermann” forms a negative representation of the traumatic-real, this mix of jouissance and denial, of unbridled “Lust” (pleasure) and the complete hiding of danger, of – in the worst case – lethal castration.
The second wave: identification with the object a
Juan-David Nasio (1998, p. 92) refers to Freud’s notes, dated June 1938, in which, in a half telegram style, he anticipates some elements of a “theory of object a”:
„‘Having’ and ‘being’ in children. Children like expressing an object-relation by an identification: ‘I am the object.’ ‘Having’ is the later of the two; after the loss of the object it relapses into ‘being’. Example: the breast. ‘The breast is a part of me, I am the breast.’ Only later: ‘I have it’—that is, ‘I am not it’.” (Freud, 1938, p. 299)
Freud differentiates between identification (“being”) and possession (“having”). The subject identifies with the object when he loses it. On a more mature level, it is about owning the object, which implies that the subject can draw a differentiating line between itself and the object. It is precisely this movement of identification that Lacan attributes to the relationship between subject and object a: The subject identifies itself with the object a. It is the object a. It is the breast that feeds (or does not feed). It is the voice that speaks, for example as the superego. It is also possible that the subject identifies itself with the virus. The more mature form, according to Freud, would be if we were not the virus, but if we would be different from it, “have” it – in the case of an infection, as an infection. The Berlin demonstrators, however, announced in a striking way that they were the “second wave”: not that the virus is spreading again, but that the subject itself is indeed the “second wave”.
Figure 5: Demonstrators in Berlin on August 1st, 2020 describe themselves as “second Wave” (https://www.rnd.de/politik/protest-der-rucksichtslosen-wie-20000-corona-leugner-die-zweite-welle-herbeirufen-6XJTUG5IM5DQTL34KUK7RTUT3A.html), last access: August 17th, 2020)
This identification with the object (for example with the aggressor) offers the best possibility to ward off feelings of powerlessness, inferiority and helplessness: What can the virus do to me if I am the omnipotent virus? All subjects, as Achille Mbembe (2020) says have at this moment “the power to kill”. Now, power has been fully democratized. For this unrestricted power to enjoy the other’s body, de Sade’s categorical imperative applies (in Lacan’s reading): The subject behaves in such a way as if the body of the other would be colonized to the subject’s enjoyment.
“’I have the right to enjoy your body’, anyone can say to me, ‘and I will exercise this right without any limit to the capriciousness of the exactions I may wish to satiate with your body.” (Lacan, 2006, p. 769)
Anyone who firstly identifies with the “pandemic object a”, and secondly takes to the streets and demonstrates for freedom (to kill), might behave according to Sade’s phantasm. This identification takes place unconsciously: The person doesn’t know anything about it, just feels the pleasure. Sade’s subject is like a marionette acting on behalf of a tormenting and pleasure-addicted inner object (Lacan, 2006, p. 653; Nemitz, 2013). One more point: Of course, the subject cannot only relate to Sade’s position. There is also the complementary one: the position of the masochist. Then the subject who does not protect himself becomes infected and is now sick, powerless, worthless, his object a is like garbage (see Lacan, 2006, p. 657; Nemitz, 2014). And in the worst case, the deceased ends up in a garbage bag, somewhere in a clinic that is overwhelmed. There may be a lot of “masochistic” players who risk infection because they unconsciously want to satisfy the aggressors’ jouissance and enjoy their hidden fear of killing (Lacan, 2016, p. 177, cf. Nemitz, 2014). The object a will also be able to take a double-face position: infectious and infected, victim and perpetrator, garbage (masochistic position) and monster (Sade`s position). It would then designate the chiasmatic place where “active and passive”, “monster and garbage” etc. are linked. Those who expose themselves run the risk of being infectious and of becoming infected. This double-faced aspect of object a then enters the play of projection and (identifying) introjection – and all the other mechanisms of transformation and defence. Only then the phantasms of the subject are erected like a cathedral over the real.
Albert Camus: Black death and brown plague
Albert Camus completed his novel “La Peste” in 1946, after about five years of work. In September 1939, he signed up for military service. However, he has turned away because of tuberculosis. Camus commuted between France and Algeria. Because of tuberculosis (the so-called “white plague”), he stopped in 1942 for a cure in the Massif Central, near the village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where the “largest rescuing action of the Jews in the French Resistance” took place (Marin, 2020). Here he wrote the first version of the novel before he went to Paris for the resistance network “Combat”. In “La Peste” he describes the course of a plague that broke out in the northern Algerian city of Oran, from the perspective of the doctor Bernard Rieux. In May 2020, Lou Marin wrote about the novel in “corona times:”
„It is ‚the‘ novel about the corona crisis (…) Sure, Camus primarily describes a deadly epidemic, the quarantine situation of an entire city and how the population subjected to it after initial paralysis in ‚volunteer groups‘ and successfully counteracted the ‚plague‘ with internal and external resistance. Much of the novel reads against the background of our own experience of the contact ban, local curfews and the quarantine in times of the corona crisis like a realistic anticipation of today’s pandemic.” (Marin, 2020).
In the beginning, there are only a few dead rats. They are the (first of all denied) signs of the epidemic. Later the city is cordoned off and a mass death occurs. Here is the scene when Rieux, the doctor, discovers the first rat as a signifier of death:
“When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment, he kicked it to one side and, without giving it further thought, continued on his way downstairs. Only when he was stepping out into the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing, and he turned back to ask the concierge of the building to see to its removal. It was not until he noticed old M. Michel’s reaction to the news that he realized the peculiar nature of his discovery. Personally, he had thought the presence of the dead rat rather odd, no more than that; the concierge, however, was genuinely outraged. On one point he was categorical: “There weren’t no rats here.” In vain the doctor assured him that there was a rat, presumably dead, on the second-floor landing; M. Michel’s conviction wasn’t to be shaken. There “weren’t no rats in the building,” he repeated, so someone must have brought this one from outside. Some youngster trying to be funny, most likely. (Camus, 1948, p. 7).
One can observe how the defence of denial, projection and rationalization is used to build a symbolic wall against the plague epidemic. If you consider that Camus did not carry any plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis), but tubercles with Mycobacteria, so there is a first equation: Yersinia pestis – Mycobacterium tuberculosis – SARS-CoV 2. Initially, the people of Oran (apart from a few experts) largely reacted untouched to the epidemic. They tried to carry on living as before, there was no lifestyle change.
“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views? They fancied themselves free.” (Camus, 1948, p. 35)
One could think to be in a present-day trendy district:
“From the outlying districts, as happens every evening in our town, a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices.“ (Camus, 1948, p. 54)
Here is another impression:
“Oran assumed a novel appearance. You saw more pedestrians, and in the slack hours numbers of people, reduced to idleness because shops and a good many offices were closed, crowded the streets and cafes. For the present they were not unemployed; merely on holiday. So it was that on fine days, toward three in the afternoon, Oran brought to mind a city where public rejoicings are in progress, shops are shut, and traffic is stopped to give a merry-making populace the freedom of the streets. Naturally, the picture-houses benefited by the situation and made money hand over fist. They had one difficulty, however, to provide a change of program, since the circulation of films in the region had been suspended. After a fortnight the various cinemas were obliged to exchange films and, after a further lapse of time, to show always the same program. In spite of this, their takings did not fall off. The cafes, thanks to the big stocks accumulated in a town where the wine-and- liquor trade holds pride of place, were equally able to cater for their patrons. And, to tell the truth, there was much heavy drinking. One of the cafes had the brilliant idea of putting up a slogan: “The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine,” which confirmed an already prevalent opinion that alcohol is a safeguard against infectious disease. Every night, toward two a.m., quite a number of drunken men, ejected from the cafes, staggered down the streets, vociferating optimism.” (Camus, 1948, p. 72 ff).
Given the force of the plague epidemic, which could not be halted, this defence of the Oran people collapsed miserably. At some point, they could no longer fool themselves, and many reacted at first with panic, later with retreat, dull nervousness or a “hardening of the heart”, with depression.
“Since this first onslaught of the heat synchronized with a startling increase in the number of victims, there were now nearly seven hundred deaths a week, a mood of profound discouragement settled on the town. In the suburbs little was left of the wonted animation between the long flat streets and the terraced houses; ordinarily people living in these districts used to spend the best part of the day on their doorsteps, but now every door was shut, nobody was to be seen, even the Venetian blinds stayed down, and there was no knowing if it was the heat or the plague that they were trying to shut out. In some houses groans could be heard. At first, when that happened, people often gathered outside and listened, prompted by curiosity or compassion. But under the prolonged strain it seemed that hearts had toughened; people lived beside those groans or walked past them as though they had become the normal speech of men. (…) Plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure.“ (Camus, 1948, pp. 102ff.)
Camus precedes his work with a quote from Defoe: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.“ He points to the novel’s allegorical character. Firstly, the fictional black plague replaces the white one. But there was another plague: The fascism, and above all the occupation of France. The actual pestilence was the National Socialism. Plague is fascism, and fascism is plague. So sounds the novel’s allegorical equation. Moreover, Lou Marin (2020) sees the novel as a warning against neo-fascist tendencies:
“However, Camus only used the description of the course of the plague as exemplary symbolism. He was interested in a political comparison: The plague – that was the occupation of France by the Nazis from 1940 to 1944 in a historical-concrete sense. The plague – that was also a warning against renewed, different forms of dictatorship after the liberation.“ (Marin, 2000)
If right-wing extremists demonstrate against anti-corona measures, this could shed light on the unconscious structure of the protest. They are the (fascist) virus being unconsciously identified with the object a, according to Sade’s categorical imperative.
Passage à l’acte vs. the masks of the real
Not wearing a mask, corona parties, proclamations that the pandemic is over, this has a lot to do with a behaviour Lacan described as “passage a l’acte”. The mask of the real falls, and suddenly the real appears in the shape of the object a. One identifies with the object a, and – at least in the moment of action, in the moment of “greatest distress”, one might be reduced to this object a (Lacan, 2016, p. 111, p. 115). “We are the second wave,” the weekend guests shouted, moving through Berlin on August 1st, 2020. As a heterogeneous group with different views: esotericists, conspiracy theorists, corona deniers, they entered the scene of the symbolic. The “Strasse des 17. Juni” became a stage on which various imaginary-symbolic plays were performed. The demonstration became an “acting out”. But the actual risk of infection caused people to “fall” off the stage, like actors leaving it (Lacan, 2016, p. 115 ff.). Acting out is when the audience takes part in the game, i.e. the subject unfolds its phantasms in the symbolic-imaginary drama. The passage à l’acte, however, takes place when the actor, so to speak, throws himself into the audience (Lacan, 2016, p. 140; cf. Hewitson, 2010). The parties, bar visits, the cornering and the demos that play with death take place almost exactly on the edge of the stage, at the interface between the real and the symbolic. Isn’t that a delightful fascination, something that takes place on the edge of the stage, oscillating between object a and the phantasmatic world of the subjective, like someone holding a mask – and suddenly, in between, showing his “true face”?
On the symbolic level, we develop narrative constructs from information conveyed by social networks or the media that others at home or in a bar, at work, that unfold above the unrepresented fear of death. The results of the Bamberg research group led by Raab and Carbon are here quite interesting (Raab et al., 2013; Carbon & Raab, 2020). They examined how study participants construct a subjectively plausible story from a series of predefined information. Basically, the scientists were investigating how the symbolic composition of certain complexes of signifiers works. They found “thirty shades of truth” in a total of thirty participants: from “canonical stories” to “hybrid theories” to the (factually improbable) “conspiracy theories”. About 60% of the subjects tended – on this continuum – to “conspiracy theories”. Therefore, Raab et al. (2013) interpret conspiracy theories as a “living phenomenon of popular culture” that cannot be reduced to any psychological pathology. According to the researchers, it is an attempt “to organize one’s own life experience in a meaningful way” in a pluralistic world in which “great narratives” (Lyotard) have lost their credibility. It could be said that the entire spectrum of theories that we develop about the pandemic, from the canonical approaches to the particularly popular hybrids to “alternative facts” – is an attempt to organize a meaningful phantasm around the invisible centre of the pandemic object a, e.g. the contaminated breath that comes out of the other’s mouth. And when there is no longer a recognized (symbolic) framework, the subject brews its own phantasms.
Today, millions of people all over the world create, compile, discuss and reproduce “conspiracy theories” on Internet platforms, private websites or blogs. This process of creation, modification and serial reproduction offers countless models to make the mask of the real “meaningful”. Lacan (1976 / 1977, p. 105) describes the relationship between the symbolic and the real as follows: The symbolic can be included in the real, Lacan speaks of the “real symbolic”. Or the real is contained in the symbolic. This is then the “symbolically real”. The “real symbolic” is about the question of the “lie”. That which connotes as real inside the symbolic is anxiety. This means that the Covid-19 theories about the real, those 30 shades of “truth”, work in the register of “lies”. However, lying is a very strong term. It would be better to speak of the “shades of truth” Because there are as many shades as there are attempts to symbolize the real. Raab et al. (2013) view conspiracy theories as narratives that help us discover ourselves. Personally, I do not believe that the fascist-like reading of the pandemic actually may have the potential for self-awareness. On the other hand: Only when the real is “unmasked” does self-knowledge arise, which relativizes the pleasurable but sometimes hazardous naivety of Covidiocy.
Acknowledgment: I would like to extend my gratitude to Sanjeev Balakrishnan, London, for his assistance in revising the final version of the English text, prior to submission.