By: George Harry James
Borders are fundamental to our perception of ourselves and the world around us. This article will explore what happens when these boundaries, private and public, are undeniably overcome. On both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere, we are seeing that illness never concerns only health, but strikes at the heart of identity itself, of who we think we are.
What to make, then, of briefings in the press that British prime-minister Boris Johnson, recently released from an intensive care unit, doesn’t ‘believe in illness’; that is to say, until recent events he considered himself immune? More than simply a biomedical construct, the notion of the immune system, argues Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito in Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, has long been the ‘nerve center through which the political governance of life runs’. This has been the case, goes the argument, ever since Enlightenment thinking loosened the protections granted by religious narratives of salvation and the state subsequently took explicit charge of safeguarding life itself. This process marked a transition from a sovereign power manifested in public executions and the taking of life to a biopower concerned with matters of public health and preserving it. Whether the danger that lies in wait is ‘a disease threatening the individual body, a violent intrusion into the body politic, or a deviant message entering into the body electronic’ what remains constant is the place where the threat is located: ‘always on the border between the inside and the outside, between the self and the other, the individual and the common’. It is the primary task of state to negotiate, define and uphold these immunological distinctions and these are precisely what is at stake during the current coronavirus pandemic.
Contrary to his hyperbolic suggestions that living under quarantine represents a purely biological existence devoid of political rights, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben is right to point out in Quodlibet that ‘a war against an invisible enemy that can nestle in any human being is the most absurd of wars’, it is, in truth, ‘a civil war’ for ‘the enemy isn’t somewhere outside, its inside us’. We are experiencing a momentous rupture in the current immunitary paradigm, as every state apparatus charged with the protection of life – border forces, surveillance, police and so on – proves impotent in the face of a contagion which, unlike the usual threat of terrorists or immigrants, cannot be subjected before the law, the inside/outside social boundary par excellence. From our lockdowns we glimpse once more, at least on a biological level, the chaotic ‘state of nature’ laid out by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan; a life underscored by the continual ‘fear and danger of a violent death’, in which ‘every man is an enemy to every man’.
This disruption to the normative functioning of the state is felt nowhere more keenly than the opinion pages of the conservative media establishment, and with the recent hospitalisation of the prime-minister, this distress has become profoundly acute.‘Boris is loved’, wrote decorated culture-war veteran Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph, ‘in a way that the metropolitan media class has never begun to understand’. Pearson’s obsequious paean to the PM reaches a striking crescendo as she implores: ‘make no mistake, the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself’. The medieval conception of the ‘body politic’, argues Anne McLaren in The Elizabethan World, denoted a ‘quasi-spiritual union of king and subjects, joined together by bonds of faith’. This understanding of political and national identity as residing in an immortal cosmic entity was intended to secure the stable continuation of rule in the event of a monarch’s death but, in fact, came to ‘focus enormous attention on the physical body of the king’. As Pearson predicates the eternal body politic upon Johnson’s mortal flesh and mourns the suspension of ‘life and liberty that no-one values more than he does’, the columnist reveals a conception of power that wouldn’t be out of place in the court of Louis XIV, the tyrannical Sun King whose corporeal form assumed such significance, McLaren argues, that his ‘virility and virtue protected his people and order itself’.
More than simply a delusion of medieval grandeur, Pearson mobilises an understanding of the nation state as coterminous with the body that necessarily has immunitary dimensions. ‘Each time the body is thought in political terms, or politics in terms of the body’, Esposito explains in Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, ‘an immunitary short-circuit is always produced’, one destined to close the political body ‘in opposition to its own outside’. Since the nation-state has functioned in a biopolitical mode with the life of the population at the centre of its calculations, the body politic metaphor has often taken on profound new meaning, for bodily confines are ‘exactly what act as lines of defence against what threatens to take life away from itself’. What can be said to threaten the integrity of the body politic must therefore be a threat to life itself.
Pearson’s account is replete with talk of boundaries, even as it appears to deliberately efface any distinction between the nation and its leader. Pearson notes that ‘like a sleeper agent, COVID-19 has infiltrated his system and now that its activated, his MI5 is at risk of losing control’, familiar motifs of political espionage are deployed but Johnson’s body stands in for the nation. Yet, Pearson tells us, Boris does not rest ‘like any normal person’, instead devoting ‘every ounce of his energy to defeating the enemy within’: prime-ministerial duties replace personal recovery as nation now stands in for Johnson’s body. This rhetorical slippage seeks to reinforce Pearson’s central idea that the borders of the prime-minister’s body are one with the borders of the British state: it remains unclear whether the ‘enemy within’ refers to physiological or national boundaries. The consequences of understanding nationhood in bodily terms are found within every biopolitical regime which took such logic at face value and translated ‘influential metaphor into absolutely real reality’. As Esposito explains, ‘if people have the form and the substance of a body, then they must be looked after, defended, and reinforced with instruments and a finality that are purely biological’. The actions of the Third Reich became perfectly legitimate when considered as a therapeutic cleansing in the body of the German volk. Doubtlessly written with more benign aims, some provocative responses to COVID-19 have begun to blow the dust from discursive tools best left in the ruins of the twentieth-century.
It is paradoxical that we see conservative thinkers reach for symbols of the past precisely as current events prompt a uniquely modern approach. Public availability of information around viral transmission, microscopic pathogens and personal hygiene goes far beyond that of any previous pandemic, and, as such, this outbreak largely defies the systems of scapegoating and exclusion which have largely defined responses to plagues throughout history. No doubt the furthest reaches of the internet abound with the same nonsensical Soros conspiracies and some now look upon East Asians with suspicion, but, by-and-large, public understanding of medical science means these racist views belong to a fringe minority and the virulent, non-discriminate contagiousness of COVID-19 is a truth (nearly) universally acknowledged. Sergio Benvenuto has presciently noted in Antinomie how the spread of the pandemic has disarmed the rhetoric of the world’s populist leaders – Salvini, Trump, Erdogan, and Johnson – for whom the ‘the danger is always from the outside, never from within’. In a situation where anyone can be infected, or infect, writes Benvenuto, ‘the danger is not external, Africa, China, Muslims, and so on’, nor from another ‘circumscribable group from within, one that can be isolated like the Jews were for centuries in Europe’; instead ‘the danger is everywhere, even in a child, a grandparent, a lover’. We are presented with a new political paradigm, Benvenuto concludes, for when ‘the basic signifying oppositions of our Schmittian being political animals – us versus them, me versus the other – collapse and we’re all equally dangerous, the gipsy is no more dangerous than my own daughter, racist categorizations lose all their mobilising charm at a stroke’. As the all-encompassing contagion of COVID-19 cuts across global societies and immunitary distinctions give way, those who peddle fear of the other are ideologically set adrift.
In the biopolitical imaginary of nationalism, a threat to the body of the prime minister threatens the breakdown of British identity itself, and thus Pearson seeks to invest Johnson with all the power belonging to the foundational myths and symbols of the nation. ‘We find ourselves in the middle of a newly written Shakespearean tragedy’, Pearson suggests. Her column strikes a combative tone as Johnson is attributed the words of William Blake’s iconic hymn, and unofficial national anthem, ‘Jerusalem’: ‘I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’. Pearson insists that the British people count on their ‘galvaniser-in-chief’ in the ‘historic Battle of Corona’, utilising proper nouns as if to afford current events the significance of a Trafalgar or Waterloo, and trace a direct historical lineage.
Unlike the kind of geographically specific battles that Pearson alludes to, the coronavirus is a global pandemic which does not pit nation states against each other in any conventional sense. Yet, as Pearson would have it, General Johnson’s opponent in this war is not simply the virus, but also his critics in the media, who are imagined as a ‘battalion of Boris bashers’ that should ‘hold their fire’. The enemy journalists, with their ‘snide stories’ and ‘Boris-Bashing’, are essentially blamed for the prime minister’s infection as Pearson declares it is ‘no wonder the poor prime minister was physically exhausted and susceptible to the virus’. If, as we are soon reminded, ‘his health is our health’, then the Daily Telegraph is, not for the first time, outlining a specific group as a danger to the ‘body politic’: this time the ‘Enemies of the People’ are not frustrating Brexit but exposing the PM to a deadly disease. This noteworthy aside gestures back towards the rhetoric of totalitarian biopolitics, where biologically understood threats to the people must be treated with biological finality. Pearson’s militaristic invective ultimately represents an attempt to shore up the kind binary opposition – authentic patriots and dishonest cosmopolitans – that the universal contagion of COVID-19 renders insignificant.
In taking the rupture of the bodily borders as an impetus for a meditation on history and national identity, Pearson has the most unlikely of antecedents in a 1962 work by the American poet Sylvia Plath. We meet the speaker of ‘Cut’ in the surprisingly jubilant aftermath of a domestic accident: What a thrill / My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone / Except for a sort of a hinge’. The speaker addresses her wounded digit as a ‘Little pilgrim’, informing it that ‘the Indian’s axed your scalp’, and imagines her blood as an unfurling ‘turkey wattle carpet’. The speaker imagines stepping out on this red carpet, ‘clutching my bottle / of pink fizz’; the injury causes no grief but instead ‘a celebration, this is’. The injury becomes a kind of national nativity scene, complete with a cast of pilgrim settlers, savage natives and thanksgiving turkeys all assembled on the glamourous red carpets of Hollywood. This all-American celebration cannot be sustained, however, as the seeping blood comes to recall the British enemy forces in the War of Independence: ‘out of the gap / a million soldiers run / redcoats, every one / Whose side are they on’. The breech of the body’s proper border throws the immune distinction of self/other into question, as that which properly belongs to the ‘inside’ crosses the threshold into ‘outside’.
Exhilaration gives way to the muted assertion that ‘I am ill’(23), and the now-bandaged thumb takes on a series of personas that have threatened the integrity of American bodies, borders and national identity throughout recent history. The speaker’s thumb is a ‘Kamikaze man’(28), evoking the Japanese pilots whose wartime suicide missions successfully proved US military might to be penetrable, and a ‘Babushka’(31), denoting not only the Russian doll-within-a-doll, but the inconspicuous American citizens, such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were arrested and executed as Soviet Union spies during the Cold War. Labelled a ‘gauze Ku Klux Klan’, the speaker’s thumb comes to suggests the dangers coming not from outside but within the upstanding centre of American society. The disruptive force in ‘Cut’ is not the knife which makes the incision, but the blood which seeps out of the wound. Through this framing, Plath undermines the immunitary logic which states that danger must always be external, ‘out there’ beyond impermeable walls. Our mortality is always our own, rooted at the cellular level in the telomeres which safeguard the unique structure of our DNA, successively shortening over time until they cannot function and the cell dies. Enduring cultural totems must always compensate for the impermanence of biology. Just as the prime minister’s infection leaves Pearson retreating to the comforting hallmarks of Britishness, so does Plath’s dismembered speaker turn to the established foundational myth of the United States; the genius of the poet comes from her vivid illustration of the messy reality beyond the fantasy binary of pilgrims and Indians. Plath’s poetry provides an uncompromising insight into the discordant nature of every identity, the fragile contingency of every way we try to understand ‘I’.
Illness – the recurring charge that must be paid for the privilege of this thing called life, an always-untimely reminder of nature’s imperfect constructions. As we breathe oxygen, so we get ill. Yet this scientific reality has historically not been the belief of the prime-minister, who is recalled as being ‘intolerant of anybody who was ill’ by Sonia Purnell; his biographer and former colleague told the Daily Telegraph in April that ‘his outlook on the world is that illness is for weak people’. ‘Knowing Boris as I do’ revealed one cabinet minister to the same publication, the prime minister ‘doesn’t believe in illness’ and, having contracted COVID-19, ‘will be really angry about it and frustrated.’ That the PM, in the face of a virulent pandemic, supposedly thought himself immune from the vicissitudes of vitality is clearly steeped in significance.
In Illness as Metaphor, an inimitable dissection of the cultural meanings imposed on sickness, Susan Sontag highlights the ‘peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease’, a tendency which ‘seems to provide control over the experiences and events (like grave illnesses) over which people have in fact little or no control’. In a world where religious understandings of death no longer offer immunitary protections for the self, death becomes ‘the ultimate affront’. The persuasiveness of the (pseudo) psychology espoused by the likes of Johnson, Sontag’s work suggests, comes from its being a ‘sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of “spirit” over matter’. If ‘that ineluctably material reality, disease, can be given a psychological explanation’ – dismissed as a mere frame of mind – then ‘death itself can be considered, ultimately, a psychological phenomenon’. We see the appeal of this quasi-spiritual conceit as Pearson imagines the prime minister’s illness as a battle of wills: ‘Boris Johnson has always been larger than life, we are now counting on him to be bigger than death’. Erased from this account are the consultants, nurses, physiotherapists and others whose tireless work is saving lives in intensive care units up and down the country, no, this is a straight-up mano-a-mano between Boris and Death himself.
More than simply the kind of performative eccentricity we’ve come to expect from our prime minister, the mind-over-matter approach to illness is a widely revered modern ideal. Harnessing the psyche as a form of medical treatment, to put it simply, is a highly lucrative industry, from the promotion of lifestyles centred around cultivated – and genuinely valuable – habits such as positive thinking and mindfulness, all the way to the magic cures of ‘Quantum Healing’ proselytised by cultish New Age spiritual leaders. Sontag summarises the purported Johnsonian philosophy of affliction: ‘illness is interpreted as, basically, a psychological event, and people are encouraged to believe that they get sick because they (unconsciously) want to, and that they can cure themselves by the mobilization of will; that they can choose not to die of the disease’. Declaring illness to be matter of belief and oneself a non-believer inescapably corrodes social discourse by constituting a new form of undesirable other: those who do believe, the disciples of disease. When getting sick becomes a matter of possessing insufficient moral fortitude, a new logic of responsibility emerges. As Sontag writes, ‘patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it.’
Many would describe the views towards illness attributed to Johnson as nothing more than good old-fashioned stiff-upper-lip .‘He’s pretty stoic and can be a bit bloody-minded about that kind of thing’, Johnson’s former communications director Will Walden told the BBC after the PM’s hospitalisation. The trait of resilience – ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ – has long been considered something of a British national virtue, the wartime image of a woman sipping a cuppa amidst the bombed-out rubble of her home is a cornerstone of our collective self-identity. Yet, Johnson’s alleged conception of illness as an essential deficiency of character is unmistakably out-of-step with a population who routinely count a universal health service among their most treasured national institutions. This embrace of universal provision follows the premise that illness itself is universal, and, as such, is a properly Stoic project: ‘don’t say you’re an ‘Athenian’ or a ‘Corinthian’’ wrote Epictetus ‘but a ‘citizen of the world’’. In the mind of a prime minister who is above all a Classicist, the kind of voluntarist self-belief described by Sontag may well dovetail with a deliberate overture towards ancient Greece, but a refusal to believe in illness is to declare oneself in opposition to the laws which govern the entirety of humanity, and precisely the opposite of Stoic acceptance.
There exists a profound relation between a personal refusal to ‘believe’ in illness and the immunitary tendencies of the nation state, each stem from the same desire for exemption, the urge to be released from chains of reciprocity borne of being in the world. To consider oneself invulnerable to sickness expresses on an individual level what national projects of ‘building the wall’ or ‘taking back control’ indicate at the level of the collective: the ‘chilling fantasy’ that Donna Haraway labels the ‘perfection of the fully-defended, victorious self’ in her seminal 1991 essay ‘The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies’. It makes complete sense that a conservative columnist should so easily slide into the biopolitical discourse of the body politic when presented with a politician with views of illness like attributed to the PM. Put simply, Johnson’s alleged notion of biological immunity is nothing more than the personal figuration of traditional nationalist thinking. This conception of impermeable borders naturally strikes a chord with all those immersed in the dream of British exceptionalism, ‘splendid isolation’ and the sacred white cliffs of dover.
It is indicative that the cliffs loomed large on the front page of the Daily Mail on the day that the UK officially left the European Union, and, on the 29th March 2017, became the front page as The Sun projected their headline onto the rocks when Theresa May formally trigged Article 50. The white cliffs occupy a place in the British cultural imagination far beyond their status as a geological marvel or a recognisable coastal landmass facing the European continent: the cliffs serve the political function of a wall. Less conspicuous than the militarised man-made border structures of Israel or Trump’s America, the white cliffs are routinely put to the same ideological purpose. Far beyond simply obstructing the passage of unwanted elements, argue Andrea Brighenti and Matthias Karrholm in Urban Walls, modern walls are a ‘spatial technology aimed at symbolically governing the body politic’, they are ‘a sort of ‘self fencing’, an immunitarian practice to preserve the idea of a possible and final territorial integrity’. The white cliffs constitute a wall inasmuch as they are imagined to embody the threshold between the internal, unified ‘will of the British people’ and the chaotic, untrammelled diffusion of (migrant) bodies in the Schengen zone beyond. The prominence of the white cliffs in our political imaginary reveals the presence of deep-rooted anxieties about the sanctity of boundaries, and suggests the unique challenge posed by a global pandemic which respects none.
The pandemonium caused across the world by the coronavirus crisis has laid bare innumerable ironies, none more striking than the fact that withdrawing to a solitary physical existence inside our homes seems to have brought about new considerations of solidarity. At times, it almost appears that the upending of immunitary definitions of where danger resides, and where it doesn’t, has drawn our national gaze away from imagined bulwarks like the white cliffs and closer to home, towards our neighbours, carers and communities. The reason that ‘everything feels heavy with symbolism right now’, as Pearson confesses in her column, is because immune distinctions never concern only biology, and right now these distinctions are being transgressed on the scale hitherto unknown. As Plath suggests in ‘Cut’, illness always troubles health and identity alike. The framing of the immune system motif in Esposito’s work as the ‘nerve centre through which the political governance of life runs’ carries weight precisely because questions of the self and the other, the inside and the outside, questions of the border, the boundary and the limit are all so central to our human apprehension of a chaotic and meaningless existence.
The ill-defined social paradigm of the Covid-19 pandemic will prompt some to retreat into fantasies of exception and isolation, outdated reveries of a harmonious population united in the impervious body of its leader. For others, this crisis will make it plainly apparent that the disruptive force of illness requires no belief and offers no exemption. From this moment of revelation, we may begin to dispel the immunitarian dream of autarky and wake up to the possibilities of being-in-common.
George holds a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Sheffield. He researches and writes on the postmodern, bodies, borders and the virtualisation of life. Say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org.