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Coronavirus and the Rise and Fall of Humanism

Contemporary engraving of Marseille during the Great Plague in 1720 – Public Domain

It is a truism that the Black Death helped produce the age of humanism. Through making death ever-present, the plague undermined a system of religious authority in which the church and the church alone claimed to have answers to the fundamental questions of human existence; the priests naturally still asserted that this was the case but were now as likely as not to drop dead once they did so. Amid the dissolution of the church’s legitimacy as well as, more specifically, its monopoly on truth and salvation, survivors began tending to all that was immediate and material, specifically in the form of the particular and the human.

It was out of this reorientation in which humans became the central focus of concern and inquiry — a worldview in which the secular and the particular were seen as valuable in and of themselves — that the Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man, Rousseau and Marx, and Hitchcock and Dylan emerged.

Humanism has simultaneously been cogently condemned, as the civilizational project elevating above all else human interests has led to a particularly ferocious rapacity that views other animals and the environment as means merely to be exploited for human ends. It is but one of many ironies that Europe’s mining industries, and with them European concentrations of lead, dramatically expanded in the centuries following the Black Death. And, of course, in reality there exists not some monolithic humanity but instead a minute ruling class that justifies its atrocities through speaking for, while extracting the life and wealth from, the vast majority. From the annihilation of the Peasants’ Revolt to the mass slaughters committed by Leopold II and George W. Bush, the exaltation of humans always implied in practice not humanity per se but a self-appointed elite living through the subjugation of everyone else.

That said, it is interesting to note that the current pandemic is, aside from its exponentially growing number of victims, primarily being experienced through highly mediated online apparatuses including so-called social media. If 9/11, perhaps the most recent major crisis of a comparable order in the US, was largely experienced passively through watching television, coronavirus has of yet been experienced mainly through not only reading but also writing out one’s fears and anxieties to an audience of readers on attention-economy sites such as Facebook.

Such virtual interaction laid the groundwork for and meshes with the physical distancing that governmental and other authorities are currently mandating. All you had to do was observe some friends hanging out in a bar to see that we have long been isolated from one another. This goes beyond the supposedly stodgy lament of one who agrees that attention is the highest gift we can give each other. If the discourtesy of not listening to a friend is supposedly beyond politics, the reason that we are ignoring each other is not. We are lost not in beautiful mountains or other wonders of existence when we endlessly ask our interlocutors to repeat themselves but in social media and dating sites in which algorithms determine the distribution of physiologically addictive rewards and thereby shape intrinsically individualistic and competitive behavior that not only isolates but also homogenizes us. Quarantining us in our apartments or houses, proscribing human interaction within six feet, and sanctioning society’s revulsion toward human secretion, breath, odor, and matter, the state has committed its authority and coercive force to the digital revolution as well as the broader transhumanist projects of Musk and other powerful misanthropes whose fantasies of self-obliteration are peddled as mystical transcendence.

Locked into a hyper-capitalistic internet whose material purpose is the commodification of our subjectivity and an ensuing eradication of our interiority, the particular is, more systematically than ever, being erased from human reality. If the Black Death helped usher in humanism, coronavirus, for better or worse, may well hasten its end.

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Joshua Sperber teaches political science and history. He is the author of Consumer Management in the Internet Age. He can be reached at jsperber4@gmail.com  

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