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COVID, historicity, and self-mythologization: the importance of valorizing our historical moment

An underappreciated factor in the historicity of COVID, I believe, is smell. It seems that the collective retrospective has remained fixated on the Event of lost events: what did not get done and which, contradictorily, is not a result of the failures of late capitalism. (By the way, the pun in this article’s title is not lost on me.) Our heads, so to speak, have been severed from our bodies, our spatial awareness from our macroscopic and self-reflective tendencies: How else might one feel cooped up in homes of varying safety for over a year? And so the Lacanian “Big Other” becomes at once clearer and more distant: the root causes and imminent dangers of COVID are at once projected on others (it’s the idiots not wearing masks, that other political party, the numbers are going down), and the self is forgotten (I’m stuck in here, there’s nothing to do, this is a natural phenomenon out of my control). Much of this is a textbook case of the sinister tendencies of hegemonic ideology: that is, a belief (or system of belief) that radically discounts and ignores the fundamental, obvious causes of something world-destroying. I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’ account of “inoculation,” or, in other words, the ways oppressive systems justify themselves to their citizens. “One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil,” he explains; “one thus protects it against the risk of generalized subversion.” That is, we accept the COVID-19 pandemic as something unfortunate, and potentially mishandled at times, but not at all as something we could deal with, effectively, on a large scale. Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism (via Jameson and Žižek) comes to mind, here, as well: that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” There has got to be a more effective way to combat these oppressive systems that doesn’t succumb to the cynical and impotent defeatism of capitalist realism. We are living in the most extreme period of autonomy-loss perhaps ever—and, I argue the metaphorical/-physical aspect of this hasn’t been explored or appreciated enough yet. The (o)ver(l)y literal and physical ways of viewing the pandemic are, I believe, symptomatic of a culture drenched in a hegemonic ideology: it is a simplistic and reductive reading of our situation. Sure, we’re unable to partake in whatever pro-capitalist activities we could have “if not for COVID”—but so what? What is it that allows us to view the pandemic simply as a natural phenomenon and not as a gross mishandling of a potentially dangerous situation, which led—and is still leading—to millions of deaths worldwide, and of which we continuously fail to recognize the root factors? And by “root factors” I mean the grander, metacognitive/superstructural ways we think about the ways we think about the pandemic, our situation, and this moment in history. Why do we simply regard this as an event, an inevitable natural occurrence (thinking of the “every hundred years” myth, here), and why we’re failing to historicize? (Recall Frederic Jameson’s imperative at the beginning of his Political Unconscious: “Always historicize!”)

A key factor in this failure, I think, is smell. If Hegel, that old don of sense-consciousness, was correct that “human beings achieve their freedom through retrospective self-understanding,” then it makes fundamental sense that we might be able to ground and re-examine our historicity from the starting point of the five senses. (Take your pick. Any will do.)

Jean Baudrillard’s materialist semiotics in his 1968 text The System of Objects does this well and is a fitting example. What he articulates, in a larger sense, is the ways systems of control seep into—and, importantly, seize—our unconscious sensory data. “How is the ‘language’ of objects ‘spoken’?” he asks. “By what means does this ‘speech’ system (or this system which falls somewhere between language and speech) override the linguistic system? And, finally, what is the location, not of the abstract consistency of the system of objects but, rather, of its directly experienced contradictions?” The concept of the intersection between such a system’s “abstract consistency” and “directly experienced contradictions” gets to the heart of the matter, here. It’s fitting the text was published when it was, dovetailing with the May 1968 student protests in France—and it is doubly so appropriate that such a semiotic analysis was conducted under the supervision of Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and Pierre Bourdieu, those grand old men of minute-mythologization and unconscious suppression. If nothing else, The System of Objects outlines the ways systems of control become reified (push, nudge, ideology) in the form of physical, often shared spaces—the layout of a living room, for example, or the use of wood framing in a house. The sign reigns supreme, here, an elevation of Barthes’ wry observations of near-ubiquitous cultural phenomena to the analysis of ubiquitous modes of habitation and structure.

And so it seems reasonable to posit that a little-noticed aspect of this more physical domination would be smell. I mean, applying Baudrillard’s analysis to everyday twenty-first century life, just think about it: McDonald’s restaurants have become associated with a putrid-yet-seductive oily stench, doctors’ offices with hand sanitizer, Macy’s with… whatever Macy’s smells like. Somewhere, deep in our autonomic–olfactory nervous systems, smells have become associated with places have become associated with attitudes have become associated with mindsets. Perfume: Buy. Musty books: Be quiet. Baking bread: Eat. In this way, it seems, just from passive observation and wry personal introspection, that the loss of smell (from masks, from quarantining indoors, from a more large-scale denial of access to differing spaces) has been accompanied by a feeling of inertia: it has become difficult to track the seasons, for example, which had—I believe—up till now been a cornerstone of the ways time is tracked, physical spaces are navigated, memories formed. Though this time-tracking is by no means exhaustive of the forms of smell-loss inertia I believe to exist. I’m sure there’s much psychological literature on this. (And philosophical literature, too; Ann-Sophie Barwich’s Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind probably explores this much more, but I wouldn’t know as I’ve been waiting on it from the library for like three months now. Oh well.) I hope, also, to write a longer reflection on these smellosophy-adjacent topics in the future, in order to draw more connections between hegemony and smell. But that won’t really be a focus in this piece. Instead, I hope to use this sort of smell-hegemony as a starting-point to investigate the ways collective class consciousness has failed, largely, to appreciate grander, subtler themes underlying our historical moment. 

One might counter, though, that, indeed, if we are drawing a connection between sense-consciousness and implicit control, wouldn’t it be beneficial, then, to be disconnected from these systems of oppression in this way, during quarantine? However, I believe these superstructural forms of coercion have become so deeply embedded in our unconscious ways of taking in and interpreting sense-data that the only way “out,” it seems, is to disconnect from these habits completely; while it is true that we are no longer necessarily, in quarantine, under the immediate influence of the scent of the Forever 21 down the block, so to speak, we have also collectively lost our orientation within our respective environments. So it seems we’re in a double-bind here: Either we submit passively to these systems of control or we sever ourselves from them, the latter choice of which leads to a macroscopic dizziness and, I argue, an odd inability to historicize. This, I argue, is inhumane. We shouldn’t have to resort to the second option. This reminds of how Mark Fisher had replied to former Tory MP Louise Mensch when she (infamously) remarked in 2010 that (and this is quoting Fisher’s latest volume of lectures, Post Capitalist Desire) “the protesters of Occupy [London] had no authenticity or validity because they went into Starbucks, and also… they had iPhones.” Fisher claimed, in effect, that it’s uncharitable and unrealistic to expect those critiquing late capitalism to be able to remove themselves completely from it. In one sense, it’s inescapable. And, in another sense, we should, at this point, be able to benefit from modern abundance without having to “submit” to its larger, attendant forms of oppression. This, I think, is where we may be able to behead the Lacanian “Big Other” qua symbolic and semiotic order, so to speak.

But, so, as I hinted to earlier, the root issue here isn’t so much the lack of smell (please wear your masks), but the way the lack of smell (and other odd, anomalous things going on right now) allows us to extrapolate and notice the ways we have become historically, self-reflectively, and politically impotent. To bring Hegel back in, it seems we have lost our “retrospective self-understanding” through this loss of sense-consciousness.

In a larger sense, we have forgotten (how) to mythologize. Something, somewhere, in Barthes’ model of sign-mythologization went wrong; it seems that instead of cultural phenomena accruing mythical proportions, our system of objects—our culture, our history—has begun to tower over  us. Barthes’ 1957 Mythologies spends its last fifty or so pages outlining the ways mythology conspires with power; the implicit message, at the end, is a muted call-to-action to wrest the power from these signs and shadows. But how is that possible? This sounds, at first, like the most annoying philosophy(ies), separated from praxis and obsessed with analyzing terms (kinda). Though I think there is direct action that can be taken here: We must become bigger than our myths, we must mythologize ourselves and our times. I mean thinking of ourselves within history, living through and by historical watershed moments. And we must begin those attendant analyses of such a phenomenon immediately. (This feels, to me, like a reasonable reconciliation of existentialism and structuralism, those two age-old foes. I’m thinking Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, that revisionist masterpiece of theatre that examined the American AIDS epidemic through a new hyper-mythologized lens. I mean, look at its subtitle: “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”) This is where the tendency of viewing the pandemic as a “natural” occurrence, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, becomes problematic. This places the phenomenon effectively out of our control; it nudges us to sit by and wait for it to be over. But instead, I believe, viewing COVID-19 as a unique historical moment in itself can motivate the kind of analysis and introspection we reserve for other stuffy things like the American Revolution and the Civil War: not the events that happened or didn’t happen (since when are either of those periods viewed simply as just a sequence of dates and battles?) but the modes of thought that made them possible. 

Not that party or concert we couldn’t go to, but why the loss of such things is such a blow to our entire beings. Not how miserable the pandemic is/was, but how political bureaucracy and a terminal case of widespread American Exceptionalism led to the pandemic taking on much more drastic and lethal proportions than it could or should have otherwise. I am strongly of the belief that this kind of big-picture thinking and self-reflection, somewhat like Hegel’s grand visions for absolute idealism, can both wake people up and rouse them into action.

As with everything, I think there are lucrative connections to be made, here, between these systems of control (i.e. stuff like smell), neo-mythological revisionist forms of self-consciousness, and transness. In particular, I think there are ways to analyze systemic forms of trans silence and epistemic mismatch (think of how a concept like “beauty” is understood and applied by cis and non-cis groups), narrative-construction and truth-making, in the context of becoming grander than our historical moment.

All this is just the first step.

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