- Virus, Viral
In a recent article titled “After Life: De Anima and Unhuman Politics,” Eugene Thacker writes, “If our global context of climate change, disasters, pandemics, or complex networks tells us anything, it is that political thought today demands a concept of life adequate to its anonymous, unhuman dimensions, an unhuman politics, for unhuman life” (2009, 40). Thacker’s use of the unhuman, rather than the inhuman or nonhuman, alludes to the strange worlds and weird lives that reveal themselves by turning toward the emergent, unexpected, and challenging interactions, engagements, and limits between the human and nonhuman.
Thacker’s call for an unhuman politics arises in a swarm of viral hype. Everything has seemingly gone viral: Alongside repeated panics of virus outbreaks, there are also fears of vaccine shortages—but there are plenty of Anti-Viral Kleenex; the rise of PC computer viruses are fought with antivirus security software; and just as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have described the new world order’s institutional structure as being “like a software program that carries a virus along with it, so that it is continually modulating and corrupting the institutional forms around it,” there is now viral marketing, viral advertising, and viral media to aid, support, and propagate this structure (Hardt and Negri 2000, 197–98). Concurrently, the emergence of theories like viral ecology, viral philosophy, viral capitalism, viral politics, viral affect, and viral aesthetics to diagnose our culture today suggests that the virus perhaps is the major trope of the post-modern condition (Bardini 2006). The virus|viral looms as an exemplar for considering Thacker’s unhuman politics, as the nonhuman virus comes to bear multifariously upon the human, in part, through the human naming [End Page 29] or classification of what is permitted to be considered viral. What a virus is and does cannot only be extracted into the qualifier viral just as the qualities of the viral cannot be reduced to the virus. To think the virus and the viral is to engage in their continuous states of flux, transformation, and movements toward and between as well as diversions away from one another, attending to the fact that there is some kind of recognition or identification process that binds or links the virus and viral together for the human. The virus is difficult to conceptualize not only because it can exist in so many material substrates and is constantly changing but also because the virus has historically produced different generations of itself that operate in greater or lesser degrees of complexity, in both biological and computational forms. Thus, a dizzying array of viralities have emerged and continue to rapidly proliferate; the viral has indeed gone viral.
The viral emphasizes a break, or rupture, between fiction and reality that is hazy, fluid, unstable. Imitations of the virus, commonly labeled “viral,” are more like creative openings into fictions or poetics of the virus. These framings of the virus are unhuman, and unhuman politics is a framing for the examination of the overlappings, differences, and irreducibilities—mediations—of the virus and the viral.
What are our viral politics today? While Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker have written that “viruses and diseases are obviously not to be looked at as models for progressive political action,” our contemporary moment forces us to look there (Galloway and Thacker 2007, 96). Galloway and Thacker hint that the virus, as a product of globalization and conquest as well as computer security and digital control, is a dead end for radical politics. Yet political art collectives like the Electronic Disturbance Theater and Queer Technologies use the virus as an anticapitalist tactic. If these groups create a notion of the virus|viral that does not simply coincide with capitalism, are there other possibilities for a radical viral politics?
In this essay, I will explore the potentials of a viral, or unhuman, politics. I will commence by considering two axes of the virus|viral relation. The first is from the virus to the viral based on action, or replication and cryptography: this is the most common usage of the viral today, what Galloway and Thacker call the “becoming-number” of the virus. The second is from...