Human Traces on the Surfaces of the World

If we did not know before that we share the surfaces of the world, we do now. The surface that one person touches bears the trace of that person, hosts and transfers that trace, and affects the next person whose touch lands there. The surfaces differ.  Plastic won’t bear the trace for long, but some porous materials clearly do. Something human and viral lingers briefly or longer on a surface that constitutes one material component of our common world.

If we did not know before how important objects are in linking one human being with another, we probably do now. The production, distribution, and consumption of goods now carry the risk of communicating the virus. A package lands on the porch, and the trace of the other who left it there is invisible. By picking it up and bringing it inside, one makes contact with that trace and a wide range of others one does not know. The worker who leaves it there is also carrying the traces of those who made and packed the object, those who handled the food. The worker is an especially dense site of transfer, taking on the risk that those who have food packages delivered seek to avoid. Although the interrelationship of all these people cannot be seen, its invisibility does not deny its reality. The object is a social form, that is, a form constituted by a set of social relationships. This may well be a general truth, but it takes on a new significance under the conditions of pandemic: why is the person who drops off food still working even though it may expose her to the virus more readily than someone who receives the food from a courier? Too often, the choice they face is to risk illness, possibly death, or to lose one’s job. The brutal choice that the worker had to make is also folded into the human trace borne by the object, a trace of labor which now potentially carries the trace of the virus. A virus never belongs to any one body that contracts it. It is neither a possession nor an attribute, even though we say “so and so has the virus.” Rather, the virus comes from elsewhere, takes that person into its grip, transfers onto a bodily surface or into an orifice through touch or breath, takes the body as its host, burrowing there, entering cells and directing their replication, spreading its lethal tendrils, only to enter into the air and shed on new surfaces and enter other living creatures. The virus lands on, enters, one bounded body and departs to land on the skin of another or on an object, looking for a host—the surface of a package, the porous material of a shared world. The objects that delineate our social relations are sometimes goods, but sometimes they are railings and landings and all the tactile planes of architectural life, the seat of a plane, any surface that hosts and carries a trace for more than a passing moment. In this sense, the surfaces of the world connect us, even establish us as equally vulnerable to what passes through material infrastructures and becomes part of the living surface of things, and we become more dangerously susceptible to what lives on the objects that pass between us. We rely on objects to live, but there is also sometimes something living on the object, or a living trace of another living being in its form and on its surface. The porosity of the surface determines the longevity and activity of the virus, and so the life of the virus is supported by the surfaces on which it can dwell. As a matter of course, we humans rely on a material world to establish balance and movement, to provide the air that keeps us breathing, and so we are suddenly reduced to the rudiments of life, deliberating on each step it takes to fulfill the most basic requirements. For the most part people seem to fear close contact, the aerial relay of the virus from face to face. The facial encounter is perhaps even more widely feared than the contamination through the handled object, and it now appears that the aerial relay is the preponderant form of viral transfer. Rarely do we have full control over our proximity to others in the daily course of life: the social world is unpredictable in this way. Unwilled proximity to objects and others is a feature of public life and seems normal for anyone who takes public transit or needs to move along a street in a densely populated city: we bump into each other in narrow spaces, we lean on the railing, we touch whatever is in our way.  And yet, that condition of chance contact and encounter, of brushing up against one another or some stray thing, becomes potentially fatal when that contact increases the potential of illness, and that illness carries the potential of death. Under these conditions, the objects and others we require appear as the potentially greatest threats to our lives.

if we ask about the general form of the human trace that the package carries, we are also asking about the conditions of life and death that hold for the social organization of labor.

The conditions of the pandemic ask us to reconsider how objects structure and sustain our social relations, encapsulating those relations of work, but also the conditions of life and death implied by work, by movement, sociality, and shelter. Of course, in Capital, Marx detailed for us how the laborer invests his labor in the object, and how the value of that labor transforms into exchange value in the socio-economic world structured by the market. He searched for metaphors to describe how the trace of human labor gets carried and reflected back by the crafted object, and how the value of that object, transformed into a commodity, is determined by what consumers are willing to pay, what profits owners seek to make, and all that goes into the notion of market value. The object was “mystified” and “fetishized” precisely because it embodied a set of social relations only in an enigmatic way. We could not hold up the commodity to a light that would illuminate those social relations with transparency: they were embedded in the object in a way that remained mysterious without the kind of analysis that Marx could provide. We were asked to understand the vanishing trace of human labor in the commodity form along with the animism of the object—that was one of its mystifying effects. Whatever embodied labor went into the object was pretty much elided by its ensuing exchange value. To the extent that human labor was negated by the commodity form, however, it still survived as a trace, invisible, not readily decipherable. In other words, it was a trace that called for the kind of critical reading that Marx sought to provide. The fact that social relations are congealed in the object form did not mean that those social relations, qua relational, were good or just. Hardly! In fact, under conditions of capital they were understood as relations of both exploitation and alienation. And yet, some intimation of social interdependency is also communicated through that very form. A chain of workers, a system of work, all enter into the commodity in some way. The hopeful inference that sometimes follows from this insight takes shape like this: the object bears the trace of humans we do not know; the object connects people in invisible and sometimes indecipherable ways; ergo, people are interconnected, and not just isolated individuals. 

The temptation to rejoice in interconnectedness, however, should be quickly tempered by the recognition that these forms of interdependency can be mired in conditions of inequality and exploitation. Even for Hegel, Marx’s precursor, “the Lord” and “the Bondsmen” are interconnected figures, even interdependent, but that does not mean that they are dependent in the same way, or that they are equally dependent. Not all interdependency is reciprocal. Further, they each negotiate a different relation to life and to death. The Lord seeks to consume what the Bondsman makes to reproduce his own life, and the Bondsman seeks to produce what the Lord requires in order to secure the conditions of his own life—conditions controlled by the Lord. These relations are condensed into its form. But are they also invisibly borne by its surface? Not just the form of the surface, but the surface of the form. The body of the worker is never fully elided by the commodity form because the worker sheds some invisible trace of the body onto the object, and the worker herself carries invisible traces of others as she works and lives. 

Under conditions of pandemic such as COVID-19, work on and with objects of exchange potentially sheds lethal viral cells. In general, even outside of the conditions of pandemic, if we ask about the general form of the human trace that the package carries, we are also asking about the conditions of life and death that hold for the social organization of labor. Who risks their lives as they work? Who gets worked to death? Whose labor is underpaid and finally dispensable and replaceable? Under conditions of pandemic, those general questions intensify. Those who are potentially imperiled by the work they do include the health care providers working without proper masks, the unprotected and overworked laborers at Amazon, the postal and delivery worker who cannot know whether a lethal trace transfers on or through them as they handle packages and goods, one who lives with such a fear, but cannot afford to lose that job, those who are unemployed and depend on public distribution of food, those for whom the street is both ground and shelter, those sheltered in crowded and dangerous conditions, like prisons, or homeless shelters, and those for whom food can only be found on the street.

Both Marx and Hegel further an anthropocentrism according to which the human mark or trace animates the object with a specifically human vitality. The worker has the life taken out of him by labor, but the commodity emanates an ever more vibrant life. What if the object one requires is also the one that threatens one’s life? Not the object alone, but the handled object, the one that bears the trace of the other. The virus acts on the surface, but the surface also acts. The virus enters the body, acts on the cells, entering their own action, then acting on others. All these actions act when the human acts. The human is but one part of the chain of actions. The epidemiological challenge is to stop the chain. Luckily, the object cannot transfer the virus if it is covered in soap or if its surface is radically non-porous. So the porosity of the object contributes to the transfer; the object is defined in part by its porosity: the extent to which it can absorb or convey another set of materials. Porosity is part of the definition of humans and objects both; it is also another way of understanding their interrelationship as potential inter-penetrability. “Sheltering in place” is supposed to limit that porosity, the possibility of virus transfer among humans and through objects and surfaces. And yet, those who are homeless, living without a shelter, or only with a provisional shelter, or those forced by law to shelter in place in structures crammed with too many people, cannot keep the social distance, and cannot rely on the enduring and secure form of shelter that is supposed to guard against exposure to the virus. This is but one form of inequality, of unequal exposure and risk. Those who have been deprived access to good health care may well encounter the virus with compromised immunity, pre-existing medical conditions. It is no wonder that African-Americans stand a statistically higher chance than white people in the US to become symptomatic, to suffer in greater numbers, and to require hospitalization to stay alive.

On the surface, as it were, the transfer of the virus through objects is not at all like the transformation of labor value into exchange value. After all, the virus seems to bring the market and finance to a halt. The stock market falls, wages and savings are lost, and jobs are taken away. At the same time, however, another market quickly emerges to profit off the pandemic. Many social critics have already published on the coronavirus and capitalism, opening up a vital field of thought and activism. At stake is whether capitalism will seize upon the pandemic as a new opportunity for wealth accumulation for those with capital, or whether the pandemic will check unbridled capitalism, reminding us of the global condition that now touches all our lives. Whereas some maintain that inequalities will be intensified under the conditions of pandemic and in its aftermath, others maintain that communities of care that are now organizing will reawaken, or give new shape to, the potential of socialism, horizontal solidarity, and a genuine ethics of care. The fact is, we do not know. When public discourse turns to the question, how will the world re-start, we may imagine that it will either be the same world (whose inequalities will be intensified) or a new world (in which we will recognize our radical equality and interdependency). My wager is that the conflict between those visions will become more pronounced. The continuing climate emergency surely requires that we cut back on production, extraction, fracking, and environmental damage that increasingly destroys the life-worlds of the indigenous. The virus foregrounds the racial and geopolitical differences in suffering, and we have clearly seen the racist response to pandemic conditions in India through blaming the Muslim minority, in the US and Latin America through the racism against Asians, and the willful failure of the Israeli state to provide medical assistance to Gaza where the Palestinian population is forcibly restrained in close quarters with radically inadequate health facilities. The willful negligence of the lethal effects of the pandemic in prisons is a kind of murder by default. This new form of death sentencing is but another example of the ways that the incarcerated are regarded as disposable populations, those whose lives are not ‘worth’ saving. If anything, the pandemic intensifies the struggle to oppose capitalism and its systemic inequalities, the destruction of the planet, colonial subjugation and violence, the rights of the homeless and the incarcerated, of women, queer and trans people, and all those minorities whose lives are not regarded as mattering. At the very same time that it has never been more clear that one life is bound up with another life, and these bonds cross regions, languages, and nations, that they portend a global solidarity committee to establishing livable conditions for all lives, it is also clear that the profound and intensifying inequalities have new opportunities to intensify under pandemic conditions.  We can predict and prophesy in the direction of utopia or dystopia, but neither help us to oppose with a steady activism the obscene distribution of suffering at work right now.

Yes, the virus links us through its objects and surfaces, through the proximate encounter with strangers and intimates, confounding and exposing the material bonds which both condition and imperil the prospect of life itself. But this perilous and potential equality is transfigured in a social and economic world which imposes its myriad forms of inequality as well as the clear demarcation of disposable lives. The communities of care we build may well foreshadow a more radical social equality to come, but if they remain bounded by local community, language, and nation, we will not see the successful translation of communitarian experiments into global policy. The surfaces of life teach humans about their shared world, insisting that we are interconnected. But as long as health care remains unaffordable and inaccessible for so many, as long as the rich, the xenophobic, and racially privileged persist in the arrogant conviction that they will be first in line for whatever vaccine emerges, for the promising anti-viral, or access to plasma rich with antibodies, those very ties are broken and ruined, and inequality intensified. And the consequence is clear: life is only a right for the privileged. The virus brings with it no moral lessons; it is affliction without moral justification. And yet, it gives us a refracted view of the potential interconnection of a global solidarity. That will not happen of its own accord, but only through a struggle that renews itself now, under lockdown, in the name of the equality of the living.

—Berkeley, April 12, 2020

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990); Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993); Excitable Speech (1997); Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning (2004); Undoing Gender (2004); Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009); Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015); The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind (2020). Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages.