Myth, magic and ritual largely define pre-modern thought. Now, and at least since the Enlightenment, science attempts an explanation of the world. It is around points on an epistemological spectrum, bounded by these simplistic characterizations, that societies cohere. From the time of Socrates, it is the analysis of these systems of thought that form the basis of philosophy, the modern version of which, since Kant, has developed as a critique of knowledge. Early in the twentieth century, the American philosopher John Dewey established the concept of ‘Publics’, arguing that within societies, smaller groups develop around shared perceptions of potential harm. Our general understanding of the world, and an awareness of the threats humans face within it, are now subject to a global transformation.
Science has revealed the SARS-CoV-2 virus in spectacular imagery rendered by the electron microscope. It is pictured as a florid, multi-colored, globular life form, but it is the virus’s invisible-to-the-naked-eye transmission across the pervious borders of human skin that have infected our bodies and haunted our imaginations. Its colonization of humanity, having been previously confined to Asian bat populations, has enabled the pathogen to express itself dramatically in the form of a global pandemic. As image, performative infection, scientific phenomenon, and statistical event, the little microbe has assumed the role of protagonist in the world’s unfolding present.