“When I described the tumor in my esophagus as a “blind, emotionless, alien,” I suppose that even I couldn’t help awarding it some of the qualities of a living thing. That at least I know to be a mistake: an instance of the pathetic fallacy by which we ascribe animate qualities to inanimate phenomena.”

    • – Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

The world, needless to say, is currently battling with a similar kind of a ‘blind, emotionless, alien’ in the form of CoVid-19, which has efficiently rattled the 21st century’s ‘global village’, matching in its pace in bringing the fast paced life to a grinding halt, rupturing the grand apparatus of globalisation by reinforcing the borders of nation states along with creating new borders of quarantine from  cities, towns, streets to new segregations, even  within the space one calls ‘home’. Hitchens’s understanding of the cancer in his esophagus as an ‘alien’ is understandable to most and relatable to some, almost familiar in a sardonic way (in the limited confines of language) as a foreign invader of a host’s body. But cancer never managed to evoke the kind of global terror that CoVid-19 has managed to do in such a short time, primarily because of the scale of damage it has done and is still capable of until contained. What makes CoVid-19 more alien is the directly proportional relationship between its rapid global spread and the looming unfamiliarity of the virus without a potential cure.

Taking a break from the Covid-19 virus for a moment, if one should just look at the term ‘alien’ without getting into its historiography, one can still broadly club together the polysemic aspects of this term as primarily constituting the ‘other’, in a colonial, castetist, classist and racial sense, flowing from the notion of ‘self’ within the confines of the anthropocentric world view.  In other words, the term ‘alien’ has been used by some humans to categorize other humans in order to oppress, supress or separate the latter, in different contexts throughout history. Until the advancement of modern science in the last two centuries and the discovery of the microbial universe (of which CoVid-19 is very much a part of), the explanations for the occasional outbreaks of plague and disease (at best or worst) were angry acts of God, catering to the need to give form to the mysterious , thereby  restricting the definition of ‘alien’ to the social sphere.

The term ‘alien’ attained new meanings as science developed, while retaining the ones in the social sphere. One can argue that this addition of new definitions to the term ‘alien’ by modern science is gradually marring the ascribed social categories of ‘self’ and the ‘other’, as the human species understands more and more about the planet and the universe. On the other hand one can also argue (very convincingly) that the advancement of technology in this capitalist structure of the current ‘global village’ has only reinforced the notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’, of rich and poor, of haves and have nots, of the expendable and the unexpendable, where the old dictum ‘knowledge is power’ has evolved to ‘control of knowledge is power’. One can continue to argue that there is a looming gap between the advancement of technology and scientific/rational thinking in the ‘modern’ society. This holds especially true in the case of India, where the state is actively participating in endorsing and encouraging pseudo-scientific and superstitious practices among its citizens in the name of ‘warding off’ the CoVid-19. Most recent example is the active response to the Prime Minister of India’s call to chant, ring bells, bang empty utensils of steel and light candles. It would be redundant to interpret this as simply respecting the position one holds in the office or a mere matter of showing national solidarity or worse feeling patriotic. Rather, (if one should draw from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment) is an ostentatious display of power on the human body in modern society through the instruments of pseudo-science and the fear of the unknown, where the politics of subjugation derive legitimacy through a hazy mix of the scientific and the pseudo. The facilitation of the ‘known’ through science for an individual (thanks to technology) feeds into the fear of the unknown for the collective, becoming a breeding swamp for the pseudo and the superstitious to take control and subdue. In other words, the fear of the unknown (CoVid-19) is crucial in facilitating this mass performance to mitigate the social angst caused by the virus. But this mass act is not a spontaneous one. It needs a sutradhara, a director, a father figure, the dear leader to “administer” it. Theodor Adorno in Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda writes:

“When the leaders become conscious of mass psychology and take it into their own hands, it ceases to exist in a certain sense… just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance.”

Until the age of the Industrial Revolution, when the world was yet to be fully explored and colonised by the white man,  the notion of ‘other’ always had room for the mythic and the unknown. Animal motifs in art since antiquity are replete with examples (like the unicorn) giving a form to the fantastic and the mysterious. Fantasy played a significant role in trying to bridge the gaps between the known and the unknown, the rational and the irrational, the ‘self’ and the mysterious ‘other’. This fantasy has evolved with the evolution of the scientific discipline over the centuries, consistently finding room to accommodate the irrational. In the quote at the beginning, Hitchens’ conscious acknowledgement of ‘attributing qualities of a living thing’ to the cancer in his body is at best an affectation on the not-so-conscious attribution of the ‘bad spirit’ like stature given to CoVid-19 by the Indian mass psyche. Therefore, while labs across the world are trying to find effective ways to test and treat the spread of the virus, there seems to be no harm (as is endorsed by many popular figures in India from the film industry), to look at the astrological chart and pick a time to collectively generate ‘positive vibrations’ by ringing bells and banging utensils to fight the virus (a seeming Pascalian wager).

Also, the fear of the CoVid-19 virus has strengthened the fear and alienation towards the known ‘other’. For instance, the most recent development in the treatment of the minorities in India (Muslims and the North-East people included), is their perceived symptomatic relationship in the spread of CoVid-19 in the popular discourse. Another instance is the treatment meted out to the doctors and the nurses working tirelessly to treat the infected across the country in spite of the lack of proper protective gear. While on one hand this has resulted in vague praises by the state and the civil society, it has also catapulted them into the category of the ‘other’ in many parts of India. They are being ostracised and vilified by certain sections of the same civil society with the fear of them acting as agents for the spread of the virus.  It is interesting to note that, ideally this lockdown should have brought the plight of Kashmiris closer to the broader Indian psyche but it is not so. If anything, the fear of the virus has only segregated and monstrosised the ‘other’ from this ‘Pan-Indian’ majoritarian ‘self’.

Image: The Phantom (From Dreams: A Series) by Vasudeva Naidu

As the pandemic continues its work and the potential ‘modern’ host languishes in the confinement of the indeterminate quarantine (exempting the poorest of the poor), there are notes of hope that when this is all over, the virus will leave an indelible mark on the existing economic structure of the world for the better. One can already feel the pitch of optimism in a particular class of the society who for instance while reading Milan Kundera’s Slowness would periodically post Instagram stories, musing on how slowness facilitates remembering, helping in coming to terms with one’s ‘self’ as opposed to the fast paced life brought about by modernity and technology, that one is only too familiar with.  Maybe the virus will manage to do just that in an alchemic way, turning isolation into solitude for many, or maybe not. But, this renewed form of assertion and negotiation of the self with the ‘self’ as a consequence of the conditions imposed by the virus has left enough room for the possibility of a reassertion of the known ‘other’ as a more ‘alien’ and  dangerous entity, pushing the category closer and closer towards the fear of CoVid-19 and latching it altogether with the virus, leading to a phantasmagoria of the pandemic.

One cannot help but remember William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which the band of boys trapped on an island during wartime, organise themselves democratically to survive hoping to be rescued eventually. As the novel progresses, this order quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys become idle giving room to paranoias, the chief of which is a supposed monster they call the “beast”. Acting on this paranoia results in the escalation of a series of tragic events leading to the death of Piggy who represented civility and rationality on the island.

Vasudeva Naidu K Was a research scholar in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar from 2014 to 2017. Currently teaching in Salesian College, Darjeeling.


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