Convergence / Health / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

From Pandemic to Pan-Demos?

Gopaul Dagnogo, Waiting-for-the Vote of the Wild Bea

Image Credit: Gopal Dagnogo, Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Beast. (2015). Courtesy of the artist.

For Kamau Brathwaite, in memoriam

The word “apocalypse” is commonly equated with a cataclysmic world-ending, heralded by all manner of natural disasters from plagues to earthquakes and tempests, and marked by the violent deaths of multitudes. Yet its original meaning has to do with revelation, a laying bare of those things hidden since the foundation of the world; the prototypical apocalypse for the so-called Christian West is the strategically placed final book of the New Testament, known precisely as The Revelation of St. John the Divine, purporting to be a visionary prophecy addressed to the “seven churches which are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4) by one John, “who am your brother, and companion in tribulation…was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9). Historians of the Bible contend that John of Patmos had been banished–today we would use the word “deported”–to a barren, rocky island in the Aegean Sea by the authorities of the Roman Empire, in the wake of the massive repression of the first Judaean revolt against that empire, figured in the text as “Babylon” in direct allusion to an earlier oppressive and enslaving order. Over the centuries, this hallucinatory denunciation has been best read by the marginalized and the sufferers in the Christian West who rightly see it as a summons to a radical uprooting and transformation. In the rough, ominously inflected call of the 1920s blues singer Blind Willie Johnson and the assured response of Willie B. Harris, “John the Revelator” is not only the writer of the Book of the Seven Seals but is also associated with Jesus and Moses, possessed by the spirit to become champions of the oppressed against despotic power and its enforcers. Rastafarianism, whose emergence as a powerful belief system was roughly contemporary with Johnson’s recording, involves a careful reading of Revelation that adapts it to the condition of Africans in the Americas and indicts the (temporarily) hegemonic “Babylon shitstem” of enslavement, colonialism, and present misery. Bob Marley’s lyrics, as a globally diffused manifestation of Rasta consciousness, often allude to or quote directly from John of Patmos’s text.

The unveiling of the Book of the Seven Seals to John of Patmos occurs gradually, and the Book’s “text” is depicted as a visual pageant; as the divine Lamb’s opening of each Seal is followed by one of the four beasts at the Lamb’s throne enjoining John to “come and see” each stage of the allegorically figured global catastrophe. Much has been made of the image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death–but the text makes it clear that they are all intertwined manifestations of the same generalized social affliction. The rider said to represent Pestilence is described as follows: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see…And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him…And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7-8). It is worth pointing out that Hell here is seen as an earthly state, not the separate subterranean realm by which it would come to be known.

Nor is “pestilence” as such singled out as an attribute of the rider, and this should be kept in mind when “coming and seeing” the current COVID-19 global pandemic–although the inclusion of the “beasts of the earth” as death-dealing forces certainly resonates with the likelihood of the virus in question having leapt from animals to humans. War and hunger are also proximate causes of the mass death brought by the pale horse and its rider. To be sure, the present pandemic can be termed apocalyptic, but only to the degree that it reveals all the contradictions and depredations of global capitalism in stark detail: the prevalence of institutionalized racisms and widening inequality caused by the division of society into classes, with the attendant oppression of the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the undocumented, the incarcerated, the warehoused elderly, women and queer people beset by gender violence and the violence of gender, all those with preexisting socially imposed conditions of constant stress ailments, preventable diseases, and downpression, not to mention the “frontline workers” hailed as “essential” yet treated by their bosses and political rulers as disposable, interchangeable sacrificial offerings to the Moloch of the money economy. And even as that fetish of modern society, the “economy” to which all must sacrifice, comes close to collapse in shockingly short order, crumbling under the assault of an invisible virus resulting from the metastatic growth of that economy as it encroaches further upon and commodifies (read: loots and warps) the sphere of nature, its victims remain a source of profit for capitalists specializing in–and aggravating–disaster. These monetizers of misery were anticipated in Revelation by the image of the rider on a black horse holding a “pair of balances” and ventriloquized by a voice among the beasts of the Lamb’s throne: “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny, and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine” ( 6:6).

In the wake of the May 1968 revolt and general strike in France, Guy Debord succinctly unveiled the fundamentally thanatocratic nature of headlong capitalist economic “growth”: “This society is ruled by an overdeveloped economy which turns everything–even spring water and city air–into economic goods, which is to say that everything has become economic ill – that ‘complete denial of man’ which has now reached its perfect material conclusion. […] The rate of production of non-life has risen continually on its linear and cumulative course; a final threshold having just been passed in this progression, what is now produced, directly, is death” (Debord, 84-85). That his prophetic insight has only deepened with time is made brutally clear by the ravages of the pandemic, with corpses piled in trucks and buried in mass graves and potter’s fields. Behold the spectacle of large-scale industrialized death: from aerial bombardments and chemical warfare to concentration camps and the destruction of civilian areas — whose victims are duly, if incompletely and misleadingly, consigned to statistical tables and weighed against what the masters of society and their willing accomplices and enablers see as necessary measures to maintain the pace of extraction, accumulation, and financialization. They even vampirically profit from donated plasma, competing with each other in a pell-mell race to produce potentially lucrative and national-prestige-boosting vaccines, time and care be damned, as long as the bottom line is held.

Writing out of the experience of mortal illness–which is at once psychic and physical (as perhaps all such afflictions are)–the great Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite, in his final published collection, links the ravages of disease to cultural destruction and the suppression of collective memory by malignant forces of unbeing: “But Death from Disease / and the induction into this by yr culturally committed murderers / it is the cruellest infliction that you cyant adjust or find xcuses for / the lonely is Xtreme . the pain something no painter can describe or horror” (Brathwaite, 96). The rulers, keeping an illusory safe distance from such anguish, exhibit either pathologically depraved indifference or crocodile tears of feigned sympathy. The solitude Brathwaite describes is cruelly evident in under-equipped hospitals where, because of the high risk of contagion, the dying cannot even be in the same room as their loved ones. Without sufficient protection, workers in hospitals, fields, mines, transportation, slaughterhouses, are essentially compelled to work for and toward their own deaths. But even this atrocity sheds tenebrous light on the conditions of exploitation prevailing in global capitalist society, which wears people down and out. Whereas in advanced capitalist countries’ postwar boom there were those who refused the false choice between dying of hunger or dying of boredom, the pandemic has for myriads narrowed that choice to one between–in the words of many–dying of hunger or dying of the virus. The hollow nostrum “we’re all in this together” is no longer sufficient to mask the persistent workings of that old enemy, class society. All one need do is look at who is dying, and in what numbers.

The lethal consequences of treating human needs as commodities available only to those in a position to pay for them and suitable only for being traded, monetized, and speculated on have long been in evidence, yet the sheer incompetence of so many managers and deciders when faced with a crisis of this amplitude should, as if further proof were needed, delegitimize them completely. Whether suppressing warning of a possible pandemic years before this outbreak for its conveyance of “bad news”; punishing those who speak out of turn and dare on the basis of the lived truth of experience to challenge cruelly negligent policies; seeking to cast blame for their idiocies on this or that scapegoat; opportunistically reinforcing, in the name of crisis management, their existing mechanisms of repression and plunder; orchestrating mendacity on a level that dupes only the willing fools (of whom there are far too many, but fewer than they would like to think), their performance would be farcical were it not so dangerous to the planet.

Yet people have their own resources to combat this pandemic: the unstinting dedication of medical workers struggling to soothe and heal in the face of shortages and institutionally imposed constraints, which they often publicly challenge and protest, as have food-service and grocery workers. As always, emergencies bring out exemplary human qualities manifested in generosity and mutual aid that do not always appear in the routinized impoverishment of “ordinary” daily life. At the same time, the role of long-nurtured cultural riches in coping with adversity cannot be underestimated; just as these have served in the past to keep alive an ethos of community even under besieged conditions, so also do they simultaneously anchor and propel a sense of dynamic continuity “ancient to the future. ” This can be seen in the actions of many Indigenous communities in the Americas, who have taken steps to protect their communities against outside intrusion from people and enterprises that have never been beneficial to them and, in the absence of access to medical clinics, avail themselves of traditional pharmacopoeia in their healing practices.

Indeed, a collective resurrection from (social) death and the claiming of their “right to the tree of life, [that they] may enter in through the gates into the city [of the New Jerusalem]” (Revelation 22:14), have been powerful motivating forces in freedom movements worldwide. This is fundamentally a poetic process, in the sense of poetry as a form of making. Kamau Brathwaite sees the biblical figure of Lazarus, who experienced death and was miraculously restored to life, as emblematic of an agonistic struggle at the heart of human existence: “At the heart of Death – alongside its ?opposite or contrast Immortality/Eternity – is the phoneme & phenomenon of the end of Nature – Light Space/Time-Nommo and what we call Consciousness – Love/Feeling/Memory/Vision/appetite/sexuality/horizon And ‘Beyond’ this is Resurrection […] wherein one has to be reNatured […] – behold again the Wizard Light – be/come un. blind and recover Consciousness & Speech. be/come like ‘ordinary’(?) again – the miracle of absolute reTransubstantiation and the agony of that” (Brathwaite, xiii). Another Caribbean poet, the Cuban José Lezama Lima, considers the poetic image as a body of infinite possibilities, and resurrection as the greatest such possibility, counters Martin Heidegger’s notion of “being-towards death” with “a concept of poetry that establishes the prodigious causality of being-for-resurrection, of being that triumphs over death and over the Saturnian realm” (Álvarez Bravo, 177). Playfully related to this is the Cuban popular song about the dead man who, when the drums start up during his wake, miraculously leaps out of his coffin and goes out the door dancing the rumba.

But the most popularly acknowledged avatar of Lazarus – San Lázaro – is the Yoruba orisha Babalúaiyé, who “is depicted as a human being who is forced to endure the earth’s anger and is the symbol of what happens when the earth turns against you. [He] is connected with diseases that are connected with excessive behavior, and also with viral diseases that are epidemic in nature. […] Babalú, as the earth’s retribution, evolves into different forms of disease as man’s science struggles to keep pace. The more science tries to deny his authority to censor man’s actions, the more exotic and confounding the diseases become which are sent upon man. Babalú will always remain one step ahead of science, and will punish man for his excesses, one way or another. […] Babalú demands moderation and a certain amount of humility in all things. […] Babalú is associated with heat, and he is sometimes called ilé gbóná (hot earth)” (Mason and Edwards, 70-72). In short, this orisha is both actual disease and potential cure; his very presence is a warning against global heating and environmental devastation, implicating all those who do not take sufficient heed of the earth and the ways in which it is being ravaged. Implicit in Babalú is the need for human endeavor to coexist with, rather than destructively encroach upon, the processes of the natural world. Marked with the skin disease that gave Lazarus his name Babalú represents the suffering involved in the process of “renaturing” of which Brathwaite speaks, but if properly acknowledged and placated he can also help restore humanity’s common house.

Yet are we not getting too far ahead of ourselves? This essay was of course written in conditions of (voluntary and necessary) confinement, where the world must fit into a small space for an indeterminate duration until, like Dante at the end of Inferno, we emerge to see the figurative and literal stars above beckoning us to move forward and upward. In this latest catastrophe within a life already damaged and imperiled by climate disasters it becomes more important than ever to husband and extend one’s critical resources while under lockdown, for as Guy Debord warns, “[H]istorical consciousness has never been in such great and urgent need of mastering its world, for the enemy at its gates is no longer illusion but its own death” (Debord, 85).

Writing after the end of the First World War, and in the wake of a failed German Revolution, the heretical Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch envisaged a kind of moral, spiritual, and especially sociopolitical resurrection in the name of the not-yet-present, and in the process formulated ideas that are of particular relevance to a situation of tactical withdrawal from the space of social being and becoming. Being solitary need not entail aggravation of an already ruinous state of alienation from the world; rather, it can prompt deeper and more sustained reflection on that alienation and on that world, in preparation for an eventual intensification of emancipatory struggle. As Bloch points out, “…the inner glow won for us elsewhere…must move back far into the medial life all around. From this place of the self-encounter, so that it may become one for everyone, there consequently springs, inevitably, the arena of political-social leadership: toward real personal freedom, toward real religious affiliation. […] [E]ven if its luminosity darkens at first, one has to persist: this light must be moved from the inner sanctum into a broader domain” (Bloch 2000, 237). For “…how could there be an inwardness, and how would it notice that it was one, whether as sorrow or as truly paradoxical joy, if it stopped being rebellious and desperate against everything given?” (Bloch 2000, 238). The dialectic of individual discontent, often felt as an inner malaise yet all too often unarticulated in the public sphere, and collective coming-to-revolutionary-consciousness (which is a felt awareness that things cannot go on as before, that this is not what we want from life), is encapsulated in the image of light.

The Quaker saying “If thee cannot turn to the inner light, where can thee turn?” exists in a similar dialectic with the African-American spiritual that, sung collectively by men and women facing injury and possible death, became a civil-rights anthem: “This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine. ” All those lights together, fusing individual commitment to collective determination, exemplify Bloch’s call for a self-encounter that becomes one for everyone. As John of Patmos states, through the “great voice from heaven”: “He that overcometh shall inherit all things” (Revelation 21:7). Parenthetically, let it be said that “overcoming,” with its overtones of protracted struggle to relieve oneself of an oppressive burden, carries far deeper implications than the flat, overused, and abused word “winning,” since the act of overcoming is only the beginning of a long and difficult process of repairing and building a social world where “there shall in no wise enter…any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie” (Revelation 21:27). In keeping with Bloch’s aphorism “What is decisive: to transcend without transcendence” (Bloch 1972, 9), the poetry of Revelation’s “book of life” must be stripped of its sectarian trappings and made open to all for writing new pages in it.

Even as it is necessary to support any and all demands for better working conditions, collective land rights, rejection of extractivism, abolition of rents, cancellation of debts, more money for less work, freedom to self-organize, and free and equal access to health, shelter, clean water, nutrition, and education–the list is endless, and is added to daily–it would be equally useful and rewarding to develop a utopian critique while opposing prefabricated and static Utopias: Very broadly speaking, one can think in terms of creating over time a democratically planned society–a pan-demos–coordinated globally yet whose creative and reparative energies flow from the grass roots, and that subordinates the so-called economy to human development and access to resources, such that “the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over [Babylon]; for no man buyest their merchandise any more” (Revelation 18:11).

Of course, we are still quite distant from bringing about such comprehensive transformations, however desirable they are for the planet and for its creatures. The perils ahead cannot be dismissed or underestimated; as Bob Marley lamented, “Many more will have to suffer / many more will have to die / Don’t ask me why. ” But there is a “natural mystic blowing through the air,” which in some areas has become cleaner during these days of lockdown, and which calls on everyone to ask themselves: Once this pandemic subsides, do we really want to go back to the way things were before, if that is even possible? Can we not think of living differently? In a previous time of struggle no less fraught, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks declared in “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” that “This is the urgency: Live! / And have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind. /… / All about are the cold places, / all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft — / All about are the stormers and scramblers but / what must our Season be, which starts from Fear? / Live and go out. / Define and / medicate the whirlwind. / … / It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud. / Nevertheless, live” (Brooks, 453-456).

This is what it all comes down to: fearlessly preserving and extending life and livity.

Works Cited

Álvarez Bravo, Armando. “Interview with José Lezama Lima (1964).” Trans. James Irby. Sulfur 24 (Spring 1989).

Bloch, Ernst. Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom. Trans. J.T. Swann. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

—. The Spirit of Utopia. Trans. Anthony B. Nassar. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

Brathwaite, Kamau. The Lazarus Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2017.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1992.

Debord, Guy. A Sick Planet. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford / New York / Calcutta: Seagull, 2008.

Mason, John and Gary Edwards. Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World. Brooklyn: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1985. 

The Bible. London / New York / Toronto: Oxford UP, n.d. Authorized King James Vers.

Tags: , , ,