Covid-19 needs a better discourse

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanJun 14, 2020 | 07:31

Covid-19 needs a better discourse

We see man as the centre and controller of the earth, without realising the earth can do without us.

A jesuit teacher of mine at Darjeeling would insist that text and drama need a backstage, where one needs to examine the unstated and interrogate the silence of a narrative. The Indian narrative of the Coronavirus is a master narrative, presented in an officially epic manner. But its philosophically skin deep and its superficiality needs an analysis. Philosophically, the corona narrative has no sense of nature. Viruses and bacteria do not seem to belong to nature. We look at nature without a sense of evolutionary science or its complexity. As the biologist Lynn Morgulis said, we tend to be anthropocentric seeing man as the centre and controller of the earth, without realising the earth can do without us. The virus, plankton and the bacteria as forms of life maintained the earth's stability, its homeostasis, for a billion years before man emerged. The current view of nature is misplaced and must be challenged. Man has to see himself in symbiosis with nature.


Bowing to nature

We feel we can outwit nature. It reminds me of a story I heard as a child, the British scientist Desmond Bernal was out boating on Dinna lake near Jamshedpur. My father and he were discussing how the Tata company was planning to chemically coat the lake to restrict evaporation. Bernal stopped rowing and said it was a thoughtless idea. He added that man always feels he can outwit nature, but he claimed that in the long run it will always outthink us. My father felt it was the wisest advice that the TATA as a steel company had got from any scientist. It's not just our attempt to control nature. This attitude has led to two methods which have limited man's ecological imagination, one is the idea of the survival of the fittest and the second is the idea of nature as a resource. The Judeo-Christian idea of nature as being made for man's use has to be abandoned. Nature is something we dwell in symbiosis. Evolution is a map of kinship we must understand. The epidemics of the 19th Century have created a hostility to microorganisms which our present time seems to perpetuate.


Memory as a healer

A feminist friend pointed out it is also our sense of the social which is reified. We talk of policy economy and state as if they are large machines entrapped in a web of dualistic thinking. Official India talks of an economy which excludes 70% of livelihoods, in the informal sector. In terms of political folklore, the chaiwala as a representative of the informal economy has been decimated. We discuss the State with rarely a mention of civil society, as a result there is little discussion on ethics of caring. We treat the state as a piece of plumbing to be repaired urgently. My friend added, that disaster needs an unconscious which goes beyond timetable and body counts. We need to look at the subjective, create a sense of the anxiety we face, the fears we have lived through. This sense of subjectivity which includes a housewife sense of anxiety, a migrant sense of fear and waiting and the vulnerability of old age is missing. One wishes our Niti Aayog had a psychiatrist or a story teller to capture the corona not as an abstract phenomenon but as a lived and experienced world. A telephone message I heard, whose lecture preceded any phone call humanised the corona inadvertently.


She called it Karuna didi adding a different dimension of understanding to the epidemic. Another casualty of the epidemic would be memory. In seeking closure, we freeze time. Once we draw a line we forget what we went through. We seek to cling to normalcy which is artificial. Memory has been the casualty of most disasters from the Bengal famine to Bhopal. We insist normalcy demands the need to forget, failing to realise that one needs memory to heal. The therapeutic aspect of memory as a form of repair is something we need to consider. We also need to explore the failure of language. We use the language of command and control as if the epidemic were a cybernetic system we can command. The metaphor of control hides the complexity of the phenomena. In fact, as Steve Fuller, a Warwick professor put it, in communicating the metaphor of control we do not control the epidemic but the frameworks of narrative that define the epidemic. It doesn't control nature, but censors how we discuss it.

Limits of language

Finally, one must admit that in this media surge of technology, masculinity and control, democracy is now an absentee word. There is little sense of debate or discussion in the unilateral policy of the regime. What CAA and majoritarianism did in one way, the virus added to by fortifying the authoritarianism of the state. Our democracy has become too absentminded to protect the future as a responsibility.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: July 06, 2020 | 14:28
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