Walking through the empty streets of lower Manhattan in mid-March, I moved among the handful of people silently weaving away from others. Everyone navigated easily from the sidewalk to the road and back in this new choreography of social distancing. Easily because the cars had suddenly vanished. So had the airplanes and helicopters. It was so quiet. Even construction cranes paused midair. Almost all the stores were closed. Coffee stands promised to be ‘back soon.’ Unrevised business hours affixed to the shops signaled that they were open for business. Shiny bags, shoes, and furniture beckoned from behind the grated windows of fancy boutiques. Some shuttered restaurants promoted their take-out and delivery menus. We’re all here, these businesses seemed to be saying. Still. Waiting. Time stopped.
Some invisible force had sucked the life out of the city. I felt as if I were walking through one of those ancient Mesoamerican cities, Palenque or Chichen Itza, that were abandoned by their populations with no physical sign of devastation. What happened? Was it a plague that wiped them out, I wondered now, reminded of Antonin Artaud’s description of its victim who “dies without material destruction?” As day after day of enclosure followed, I was again reminded of Artaud’s reflection that disaster—now so acutely personal, social, medical, financial, political, and environmental—proves “so far-reaching.” It’s a “delirium and its communicable.”
From one moment to the next, the world paused. The pandemic transported us all to an alternate universe that was both strange, silent, still, and eerily familiar. On the material surface of the city, little had changed. The buildings stood empty but intact. In the daily news, charts tracked terrifying trajectories—deaths skyrocketing, the stock market plummeting, then bizarrely spiraling up, Bezos’ record-breaking profits. Ghosts of 9/11 appeared, transmitting deep anxieties. NOTHING CRUSHES US, yelled a coffee shop window, a reminder of how this moment of abandonment in lower Manhattan resembled the weeks following the attacks on the WTC. This pandemic was also being called a ‘war,’ a ‘forever war,’ with no end in sight. This enemy again seemed invisible. The talk was all about essential workers, heroes, sacrifice, and victims. But even as many continue to ask why our society cannot protect essential workers, or why these heroes are too often the victims, and why sacrifice is so unequally distributed, they know. This is also a viral war targeted to eviscerate certain communities. The Trump administration has demonstrated its “revitalized commitment to the racial contract,” different rules for different races, and weaponized the virus against sectors of the U.S. population—black, brown, and indigenous communities, the incarcerated, immigrants, undocumented migrants, the now ‘elderly,’ and the disabled. In short, everyone but its stockholders.
Many of us in the U.S. know this, we’ve always known this, and we’ve adjusted. But Covid culture intensifies and amplifies the fractures often rendered invisible in the whirl of seemingly normal daily life—the paranoia, the brutality, the militarization of everyday life, the lack of care. Like the image of the Coronavirus captured by the microscope, Covid culture isolates, freezes, and frames the pathology, holding it up to the light. Covid culture is toxic, both deeply disorienting and potently transmittable.
The well-documented fact that 9/11 and the current Covid crisis are self-inflicted wounds, the culmination of bad faith and even worse policy decisions, dissolve in the fear and anxiety that envelop us. Back in 2001, those who lived in lower Manhattan saw the devastation; we smelt it, ate it, and felt the crunch of rubble under our feet. Today, everything and everyone is potentially fatal. We might try to insulate ourselves by wearing masks, even gloves, to avoid others. Touch, contact, breathing itself could kill us. And even if it doesn’t, what will be left at the end of it, whenever that might be? Will people have jobs, homes, food, health care, family, savings? Will we have a democracy, an election, voting rights, a department of justice, a legitimate Supreme Court? A stencil, stamped on various sidewalks throughout the area, asks: COVFEFE-19: FOUR MORE YEARS?
Covid culture illuminates the current existential predicament, the degree to which economic and social politics have forced many to adjust to toxic environments. Climate change. Vast income inequality. Racial, sexual, and gendered violence. A survival of the fittest ideology. You name it. We adjust. Like frogs in ever hotter water, we all adjust. Trump, and Bolsonaro, and other leaders like them, even intensify the danger. As Vladimir Safatle put it, “a state like ours is not just a manager of death. It is rather the ongoing agent of its own catastrophe, the maker of its own explosion… [mixing] the death management of entire sectors of its own population with an ongoing and risky flirting with its own self-destruction.” But we’re used to it. It’s terrifying how we’ve adjusted to the deep fractures and inequities in our worlds.
That adjustment, too, was being communicated, and it too was a delirium.
Back home at 7 p.m. I heard the clanging, like a call to prayer. I’d open my window and bang two large pot lids, making as much noise as possible, joining others at their windows or balconies who also stopped what they were doing to thank the medical workers. I scanned to see where the sounds were coming from, grateful for this new form of sonic sociability, for this sign of care. Who could have imagined all this less than three months ago?
And from our windows, streets, screens, we could see the Empire State Building pulsing red. I saw it as a sign of life, still here, still beating, and took heart. Others perceived it as deadly danger, a red alert. The heart stopped pulsing. Something, many things, were being communicated.
Suddenly at the end of May, almost three months after the silent and forced stillness of quarantine had been haphazardly imposed across the U.S., the streets were overtaken by the bodies, chants, signage, shouts, songs, police sirens, and the relentless thwopping of choppers overhead that make up street protest in the U.S. today.
Four armed officers pinned an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, while one of them, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8.46 minutes until he died. One of the most obscene acts imaginable—crushing the life out of an innocent human being—neutralized and normalized by the nonchalant manner in which it was carried out in full view. Floyd’s gasps and entries, “I can’t breathe,” could neither move Chauvin to stop nor propel the other three officers to intervene. Neither could the fact that the scene was being captured on video by a seventeen-year-old African American woman, by other horrified by-standers, or by the officers’ own body cams. Who could possibly hold him accountable for crushing a Black man, whom centuries of racism and discrimination in the U.S. had worked so hard to categorize as non-human?
This is what impunity looks like.
Outraged by that performance of racist and asymmetrical power, millions of protestors took to the streets in the midst of the Covid pandemic. An estimated twenty-six million protestors challenged police violence in the United States alone—an all-time record. “This is what democracy looks like!” “Whose streets?” “Our streets!” Women and men, Black, Latinx, Caucasian, Native and Asian Americans marched, shouted, sang, painted murals, and stamped and stenciled Floyd’s face and last words on public surfaces. Protestors wore the names and faces of the murdered on their T-shirts and face masks. The signs people made and carried read “We can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.” Throughout the country, Black Lives Matter murals, stencils, memes, slogans challenged the universalizing Eurocentric “All Lives Matter” rebuttal to remind us that if Black lives don’t matter, no one’s life matters.
The Covid confinement not only accentuated the force of the protests erupting into public space, but it helped trigger them in the first place. While the virulent sentiments and policies have always been latent in the U.S., at times, like the virus itself, they break through their regular and regulatory boundaries. The coronavirus has lived in bats, known as ‘reservoir hosts’ for millions of years without harming them. Other animals, ‘amplifier hosts,’ often get sick, allowing the virus to spill over into the human population. Trump, in this scenario, was both an amplifier and an accelerant who spewed confusion and flames. The plague of white supremacy had been raging during Covid, and many of us had more time now to notice its annihilating manifestations. The virus didn’t kill “regular folk,” the Chief of the Supreme Court in Wisconsin said as she overturned the Governor’s stay-at-home order in mid-May. It just killed brown people, migrants and immigrants working in the local meatpacking plants. The fact that the reporter referred to this statement as a sign of “classism” shows to what degree many had adjusted to the normalization of racism. Too obvious to name. Too unacceptable to own, until now. Trump, his white supremacist enablers, and the ‘fake news’ riled against the constraints and protocols to contain the virus as threats to their individual freedoms and liberty. Comforted by the data showing communities of color being devastated, they refused any limits on themselves. As Greg Grandin writes, “the United States dependence on the labor of people of color confirms the social basis of existence, and thus the legitimacy of social life. In a political culture that considers individual rights sacrosanct, social rights are something viler than heresy. They imply limits, and limits violate the uniquely American promise that it is all going to go on forever.” So they transgress all limits. An employee was killed for asking a shopper to abide by the state mandate to wear a mask indoors. Some followed the rules, but simultaneously expressed their defiance by wearing a KKK mask, or a swastika, or white nationalist insignia on theirs. The virus, of course, is not about personal liberties and continues to spread. But hatred is also contagious and communicates its own frenzied delirium.
The murder of George Floyd detonated the latent rage at the brutality of racism, structural inequality, and the very toxic culture many have endured in the United States for so long. The quarantine offered a pause, the time to pay attention. 8.46 minutes spans an eternity, as short as Floyd’s passage from life to death, as long as the anti-racist struggle. The anger and frustration reignited and caught on. The empty streets beckoned. Black Lives Matter activists put their lives at risk to decry the murder of Floyd, but not just Floyd. More and more names: Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Gardner, more and more. An avalanche of other cases followed. What happened to Ahmaud Arbery? Why did the white woman (generically labelled ‘Karen’) think it was ok to call the cops on the African American bird-watcher in Central Park? Black communities have always known that their bodies, their lives, are subject to the brutality and whim of white rule. But when did the nickel drop for those who had so long benefitted from white rule that this anti-racist struggle was theirs as well? Talk show and late night hosts added their own questions and commentaries. Universities, cultural institutions, professional societies, sports teams, media networks and other organizations and businesses rushed to condemn the violence. The sale of books about African American history and racism skyrocketed.
Those who chose not to be complicit understood: “White Silence = Black Death.” “Like silent rage,” Artaud writes, “the most terrible plague is the one that does not reveal its symptoms.” And many “non-racist” whites, silent spreaders, finally understood that many disseminate the disease without knowing they had it. In one way or another, people recognized the degree to which we had all been caught up in these entwined plagues. We had all adjusted to the shifting limits and the “successive thresholds” of the unthinkable, the unimaginable. We had developed percepticide or self-blinding, the refusal to witness, to intervene, or to care when faced with brutal shows of injustice. But percepticide undoes us, leaving us silent, unable to hear, unable to see. The triumph of atrocity forces people to look away.
The gratuitous murder of Floyd made evident that the brutality in the U.S. has gone beyond structural violence—the racism, sexism, and so on that maintains and benefits the system—to a form of what Balibar calls “ultra-subjective violence” and an “idealization of hatred” that needs to eliminate “any trace of otherness in the ‘we’ and in the ‘self.’” There was no room for Floyd, or Bland, or Martin, or Arbery in the naturalized white supremacist vision of the world. A ‘becoming-fascist” for Balibar, following Deleuze and Guattari, is “the emergence of a desire which ‘desires its own repression.’” Welcome to the suicidal state, as Safatle put it. The protests highlight the refusal to keep adjusting to the asymmetrical wielding of military and discursive power. It’s past time to fight back. The struggles extend and amplify. Federal Agents and police kill citizens, attack protesters, teachers, now mothers, now dads with leaf blowers while accusing the protesters of being violent. The double pandemic continues to ravage us. The promise that this American crisis will go on forever seems all but guaranteed.
On June 1st, the Empire State Building went dark to honor George Floyd. That powerful gesture again signaled both hope and danger. The city, it seemed, united in the honoring and mourning of Floyd. The shimmering dark from its tower acknowledged the beauty of blackness, the imperative to recognize and acknowledge that Black Lives Matter. By withholding its colorful lights, the building seemed to encourage us all to withhold, to resist, and to keep resisting as a sign of solidarity. To hold on to the pause. To witness. To acknowledge the pain and the loss. The dark tower encapsulated the seemingly endless months of Covid culture in one tight frame, honoring the pain and loss of so much, and so many. Not a moment of silence, but a night of silence that we shared with those on the streets, at their windows, in their balconies looking out. Yet, as Trump sent Homeland Security and Border agents to attack U.S. protesters and citizens, it was hard not to sense the premonition of more pain to come, a new spike in white supremacist violence, the spread of self-blinding and new rounds of deaths and mourning. Lights out, ‘America?’
—New York City, August 25, 2020
Diana Taylor is University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies and Spanish at New York University. She is the award winning author of multiple books, among them: Theatre of Crisis (1991), Disappearing Acts (1997), The Archive and the Repertoire (2003), Performance (2016), and ¡Presente! The Politics of Presence (2020). Taylor is outgoing director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, which she helped found in 1998. In 2017, Taylor was President of the Modern Language Association. In 2018, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Science.