Varieties of Ignorance in the Viral Condition

Varieties of Ignorance in the Viral Condition

Paola Rebughini

While we are confined at home, out of the window we can observe nature living its own life without us. While the overdose of our geographical mobility is frozen, we envy the freedom of non-human living beings. In a few weeks, animals and plants have colonized the spaces that humans were obliged to leave, and with a strange concern we marvel at nature’s capacity to regain its space. Life ‘out there’ ignores the worldwide exacerbation of inequalities triggered by the virus (access to health resources, nutrition and living conditions, guaranteed or not guaranteed jobs, the digital divide, to name but a few), the dramatic impact of neoliberal politics on public health systems, or the discomfort generated by the lack of face-to-face relationships.

In the general bewilderment of this viral condition, we are confronted by the multiple faces of our ignorance – scientific ignorance, certainly; ignorance generated by a social model still based on the modern idea of the nation-state; ignorance of our anthropocentric illusion. These different ways of being ignorant are connected.

As Ulrich Beck already noticed, we are supposed to live in a knowledge-based society, but there is always a moment when we discover that we also live in an ‘ignorance-based society’. Ignorance is related to uncertainty and to risk, to the management of the ‘unknown’, but at the same time it is itself a product of modern scientific knowledge, whose characteristic is to be always in progress. We have produced a lot of knowledge about the coronaviruses, but we have become aware of the wide amount of ignorance (and unpreparedness) in front of the rise of new forms of virus that spill over.

Epistemologically, more than a dark space of inaction, ignorance is a point of departure, as we see from the attitudes of virologists and epidemiologists involved in the exploration of the unknown landscapes of SARS-CoV-2. For all the others – confined at home to give science the time to dispel such ignorance – the communicative management of the unknown is highly problematic. Especially nation-states, confronted with the distress of health-systems and economic emergencies, have an urgent need to manage the sudden overload of complexity and uncertainty in which the national systems have been involved.

Expert-knowledge occupies the media, and different standpoints of expert-knowledge confront each other offering different explanations or alleged solutions. The management of ignorance is the object of talk-shows, columnists’ debates, public duels of scientists, or polemics between science prescriptions and economic interests. Ignorance, as the hidden side of the political kitchen, becomes an evident political stake. Some crucial elements such as the calculation of the number of infected people and victims, the rules about the swab tests and detection of antibodies, or the evaluation of the efficaciousness of masks and bodily distance, are at the intersection of political strategy and scientific knowledge, where ignorance can be hidden or declared according to the situation, or the political opportunity.

Nevertheless, the old manipulative strategies of political communication are probably not the deep core of the problem. Our ignorance is not only a matter of knowledge, information and political opportunism, but it is also related to the incapacity to recognize the chain of connections of meanings with material and symbolic events. Indeed, our interpretative frame of this emergency continues to be that of modernity, where each nation-state imagines itself as a community capable of self-regulating resources and risks (such as health and economic crisis) through investments, statistics, surveys, behavioural prescriptions, panoptical apps, and normative decisions, effective only on a given territory. While the interconnections of globalization are widely recognized, the main recipe continues to be that of a national defensive apparatus, where biopolitical reactions at the national scale – based on the connections among health, politics, territory and demography – are confronted by necropolitical consequences on the planetary scale.

While the speed of the virus crosses over boundaries with instant global effects, the attention remains focused on the national intertwinements of medicine and politics, with a medicalization of politics and a politicization of medicine. Yet, even though some are using the state of exception to erode already weakened democratic rights, more than efficacious biopolitical controls, such efforts appear as the laboured attempts to face the damage of downsized public health systems.

Still, after weeks dedicated almost exclusively to the counting of victims or to the political evaluation of governments’ decisions, some reflections about the intertwinement of Covid-19 and the environmental crisis arose. Ignorance is no longer simply related to the shortcomings of scientific knowledge in front of a new pathogen, but also to our selective ignorance in avoiding the recognition of the role of our well-being and social models of ‘progress’ among the causes of the virus’s occurrence.

Slowly but surely, the reframing of this health crisis into a wider and epochal framework of environmental collapse is becoming clearer, along with the limits of national remedies, completely unarmed in front of the complex planetary connections of human and non-human agencies. Hence, while commenting on the current situation, scholars, novelists and journalists have started to confess to feel themselves as the ‘true viruses’. This is not related to the recognition of being a potential infectious agent with Covid-19, rather it is the acknowledgment of the necessity to overcome an exclusive anthropocentric interpretative standpoint to give sense to our current viral condition.

Our exposure to the virus reminds us that we have been ignoring the fact of our belonging to the natural system. While on the one hand, the critique of anthropocentrism probably represents just a novel version of modern nihilism, on the other hand, it firmly questions modern, western, ideas of freedom, originally based on the separation between us and ‘the rest’, where ‘the rest’ is all that can be at the disposal of some categories of privileged humans.

Hence, the trial of the viral condition is more than a scientific, social and political undertaking. It lifts the ‘veil of ignorance’ about the material and moral consequences of specific ways of living. Behind the veil, we have been living ‘as if’ we did not know, as if our position was neutral. Now a virus contaminating almost all the material and symbolic tools of a too reductive idea of freedom opens a moment of kairos to take into account the consequences of our opportunist ignorance.

When we look out of the window we realize that the virus – as other events that are calamitous only from a human perspective – expresses its ‘agency’ in an environment that we persist to ignore as a ‘life in itself’; a reality in turn ignorant and indifferent in front of our need to consider it as a material, aesthetic or moral resource for human action.

As Gramsci noticed, lifting this veil of ignorance produces – every time we do it with or without scientific tools – the emotional shock of our radical contingency. Making good use of this shock, and of the multiple levels of ignorance disclosed by this virus, would be another step in the never-ending process of revision of all the contradictions we have condensed in the idea of ‘modernity’.


Paola Rebughini is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Milan.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Artist: Igor Mitoraj,  Blindfolded Eros