Posing With the Flag

About the coronavirus and performances of care

In “Social Contagion,” an essay about the coronavirus published a few weeks ago by the Chinese Marxist journal Chuang, the authors link to a video (originally posted in this tweet) shot from an apartment window in Wuhan during the lockdown there. In their view, it symbolized “the basic character of the state’s response” in China.

Essentially, it shows a number of people who appear to be doctors or first-responders of some sort outfitted in full protective gear taking a picture with the Chinese flag. The person shooting the video explains that they’re outside that building every day for various photo ops. The video then follows the men as they take off the protective gear and stand around chatting and smoking, even using one of the suits to clean off their car. Before driving off, one of the men unceremoniously dumps the protective suit into a nearby trash can, not even bothering to stuff it to the bottom where it won’t be seen. Videos such as this one have spread rapidly before being censored — small tears in the thin veil of the state-sanctioned spectacle.

As the crisis has hit the U.S., I’ve been thinking about this video and the sorts of spectacles being crafted here, and the angles from which you can believe you are seeing them for what they are. Part of this has involved suddenly seeing how much of what had seemed “realistic” and “just the way things are” before the crisis has now been revealed to be eminently suspendable when necessary. Francis Tseng started this thread collecting a list of “everything that is normally disallowed (paid sick leave, access to water, no arrests) but clearly feasible based on the coronavirus response.” It can seem that the “veil of state-sanctioned spectacle” was much stronger a few weeks ago.

Even in a crisis, the conflation of care with commerce feels inescapable

But mainly I am finding it impossible not to see how different media entities (i.e. everything) have quickly pivoted to virus and created spectacles of their connection to this new zeitgeist. The ones on TV are the most obvious, of course, with the usual ghouls taking up their established positions to perform their concerns and try to assuage viewers’ fears between blocks of commercials. There has been the usual special show of concern for the lives of celebrities, who make it seem more real somehow, even slightly aspirational, something that’s trickling down to us. There were a lot of viral basketball players at first, mainly because they had curiously been prioritized for testing. Before all sports were canceled, VIRUS appeared on the ESPN chyron as though it were a league of its own. It had been safely assimilated, as though to demonstrate that real-time updates would go on as inexorably as usual.

There was a similar feeling to the first round of emails I received from banks, retailers, car dealerships, various cultural institutions, charities, discogs.com, and the like assuring me about their concern for my welfare and my ability to continue to be served by them without interruption. These also feel obviously performative, if not as outright scammy as some of the ads I’ve seen crop up on the fringes of the articles I’ve been reading online and in the interstices of social media for masks, vitamins, immune boosters, and so on. The companies in my inbox want to pose with the coronavirus flag while it is the only thing that can capture consumers’ attention. They don’t seem as blatantly cynical as the person cleaning their car with the presumably fake hazmat suit; it’s more that they are earnestly and desperately trying to reassert capitalist normalcy in the face of total disruption. No, really, you can still spend money to feel safe! You are still “free to choose” us! Even in a crisis, the conflation of care with commerce feels inescapable. Already it is threatening to become nostalgic.

Since last week, whenever I’ve looked at Twitter, which has been even more than usual, I’ve worried about how I too would be posing with the flag if I posted anything. That’s not necessarily because I might weigh in with some superfluous hand-washing tips (sing a happy song while you scrub!) or complaints about government officials sending mixed messages or heartwarming links to TikTok content to keep us preoccupied during this period when it has become unethical to leave the house. It’s because the coronavirus flag is currently draped over everything. Anything you hear anyone say anywhere is de facto about the virus, even if it isn’t. One upsetting, context-free thing I overheard someone say in a gas station last week: “That’s why they’re running out of bullets.”

With panic palpable in the air, it feels like a decidedly bad time for paranoid reading. It seems trivial to expose acts of concern as mere performances, as if they weren’t always at least that. It is tempting to seize upon the virus as an epistemic opportunity, as the one real thing that can be used to measure the degree of bullshit involved with everything else, but it’s not clear that this would help keep anyone from dying in the short term. (It’s also a fantasy; the virus is not “real” for everybody in the same way.) Getting people to adhere to difficult and inconvenient protocols for longer and longer periods of time will involve more and not less ideology. This will certainly redistribute suffering and death, and maybe it will even reduce it some.

In enforced isolation, one has to simulate the sensation of being on any kind of team. But one is already part of a collective action

In a post at Verso’s blog, Judith Butler notes that “it seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between grievable and ungrievable lives, that is, those who should be protected against death at all costs and those whose lives are considered not worth safeguarding against illness and death.” That reinscription will take surprising forms and hide behind alibis we’re probably not expecting. Right now it’s easier to see the old ways it had been inscribed, in terms of things like who has sick leave, who has health insurance, who gets tested, who gets treated, and who receives actionable information before everyone else. But there will be new inscriptions in the post-Covid-19 era that will be newly obscure and make that “spurious distinction” newly tolerable. It will be a time for mutations.

In the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge in which a degree of failure is inevitable, everything can feel retrospectively pointless. I don’t know what to watch for, what I should have been doing. I’m used to reading about how community and mutual aid and collectivity are the only ways forward, inherent forms of resistance against atomizing capitalism and its habitus of selfishness and “enlightened self-interest.” I can always construe my life as a series of individualistic gestures, futile in their scope, probably not even effective at protecting myself let alone helping anyone else. It depressingly feels as though everything I do is merely symbolic, photo ops for structuring my own unfolding story, but there is no way to tell for sure. There is no unilateral move one can make that would make the difference, and no view from above from which you can always tell who is merely posing with the flag and who is really part of a team of responders. I don’t have that sort of perspective even on myself.

In enforced isolation, one has to simulate the sensation of being on any kind of team, but the fact is that one is already part of a collective action, vast and subjectless, but visible in the scenes of empty restaurants and streets. It has been organized by the state and imposed as obedience and not resistance. Up until a few days ago, I’d been walking around the city performing my social distancing, ostentatiously using my sleeve to open doors and doing everything I can to refrain from committing any acts of public coughing. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to call this a “state-sanctioned spectacle.” It felt as though I was pledging allegiance.

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.