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20 Feb, 2020 10:13

Slavoj Zizek: What the coronavirus & France protests have in common (and is it time for ORGIES yet?)

Slavoj Zizek: What the coronavirus & France protests have in common (and is it time for ORGIES yet?)

Epidemic outbreaks – just like social protests – don’t erupt and then disappear; they persist and lurk around, waiting to explode when it’s least expected. We should accept this, but there are two ways to do it.

People outside China thought that a quarantine would be enough to tackle the virus’s spread, and that they are more or less safe behind that ‘wall.’ But now that coronavirus cases have been reported in over 20 countries, a new approach is needed. How are we to deal with such traumatic threats?

Maybe we can learn something about our reactions to the coronavirus epidemics from psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who, in On Death and Dying, proposed the famous schema of the five stages of how we react upon learning that we have, for example, a terminal illness: Denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact, as in “This can’t be happening, not to me.”); Anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact, as in “How can this happen to me?”); Bargaining (the hope we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact, as in “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”); Depression (libidinal disinvestment, as in “I'm going to die, so why bother with anything?”); and finally Acceptance (“I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”). 

Kübler-Ross later applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (joblessness, death of a loved one, divorce, drug addiction) and also emphasized that they do not necessarily come in the same order, nor are all five stages experienced by all patients.

One can discern the same five stages whenever a society is confronted with some traumatic event. Let’s take the threat of ecological catastrophe.

First, we tend to deny it: ‘it’s just paranoia, all that really happens are the usual oscillations in weather patterns’. Then comes anger – at big corporations that pollute our environment and at the government which ignores the dangers. That is followed by bargaining: ‘if we recycle our waste, we can buy some time; plus, there are good sides to it also, we can now grow vegetables in Greenland, ships will be able to transport goods from China to the US much faster via the northern route, new fertile land is becoming available in northern Siberia due to the melting of permafrost.’  It is then followed by depression (‘it’s too late, we’re lost’), and, finally, acceptance – ‘we are dealing with a serious threat and we’ll have to change our entire way of life!’  

The same holds for the growing threat of digital control over our lives. Again, first, we tend to deny it, and consider it ‘an exaggeration’, ‘more Leftist paranoia’, ‘no agency can control our daily activity.’ Then we explode in anger at big companies and secret state agencies who ‘know us better than we know ourselves’ and use this knowledge to control and manipulate us. It’s followed by bargaining (authorities have the right to search for terrorists, but not to infringe upon our privacy), depression (it’s too late, our privacy is lost, the age of personal freedoms is over). And, finally, comes acceptance: ‘digital control is a threat to our freedom, we should render the public aware of all its dimensions and engage ourselves to fight it!’ 


Even in the domain of politics, the same holds for those who are traumatized by Trump’s presidency: first, there was a denial (‘don’t worry, Trump is just posturing, nothing will really change if he takes power’), followed by anger (at the ‘dark forces’ that enabled him to take power, at the populists who support him and pose a threat to our moral substance), bargaining (‘all is not yet lost, maybe Trump can be contained, let’s just tolerate some of his excesses’), and depression (‘we are on the path to Fascism, democracy is lost in the US’), and then acceptance: ‘there is a new political regime in the US, the good old days of American democracy are over, let’s face the danger and calmly plan how can we overcome Trump’s populism.’

In medieval times, the population of an affected town reacted to the signs of plague in a similar way: first denial, then anger (at our sinful lives for which we are punished, or even at the cruel God who allowed it), then bargaining (it’s not so bad, let’s just avoid those who are ill), then depression (our life is over), then, interestingly, orgies (‘since our lives are over, let’s get all the pleasures still possible – drinking, sex…’). And, finally, there was acceptance: ‘here we are, let’s just behave as much as possible as if normal life goes on.’

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And is this not also how we are dealing with the coronavirus epidemics that exploded at the end of 2019? First, there was a denial (nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic); then, anger (usually in a racist or anti-state form: the dirty Chinese are guilty, our state is not efficient…); next comes bargaining (OK, there are some victims, but it’s less serious than SARS, and we can limit the damage); if this doesn’t work, depression arises (let’s not kid ourselves, we are all doomed). 

But how would our acceptance look here? It is a strange fact that these epidemics display a feature common with the latest round of social protests such as those in France or in Hong Kong: they don’t explode and then fizzle away, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives.  

What we should accept, what we should reconcile ourselves with, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which always was here and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it. 

And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent spiritual edifices we, humanity, create, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all. Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end.

But this acceptance can take two directions. It can mean just the re-normalization of illness: OK, people will be dying, but life will go on, maybe there will be even some good side effects. Or acceptance can (and should) propel us to mobilize ourselves without panic and illusions, to act in collective solidarity. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.