A Measure of Distance
emerging viruses know no country— S.S. Morse
It has only been a matter of months since the summer bushfires that savaged Australia’s east coast came to an end and a new crisis of untamed proportions emerged with COVID-19. Back to back, these events set an agenda of survival, upping the ante on human abilities to adapt to new social and environmental relationships, exposing fallibility in the scrabble for effective responses. This biological agent brings with it an unmitigated sense of doom that quickly finds the limits of language. Politicians resort to military metaphors of war and defence; the word ‘pandemic’ bears the weight of centuries before unravelling its new histories; social media conversations mutate in threads of remote companionship and shared convalescence as the silences of grief and mourning slowly spread throughout our systems.
I waver between writing a lot and writing nothing at all, watching and waiting for facts to migrate across languages and interfaces, meanings to evolve from new stories and sites. This approach is not all that different from my usual process, except that now, the romance of writerly seclusion that I have depended upon and sought out as needed, has become a moral performance of social regulation and civil obedience. This is not a solitude of choice, but it retains the germ of acute attention and awareness wrought by solitude so vital to any writer’s project.
Writing in this new terrain is an exercise in observation, a chance to witness what happens when external controls impose on intimate relations and language is besieged by fear.
As public awareness of the virus grows, the media dictates new territories of knowledge, airing the collective voices of isolation and helplessness in the face of rising human losses. In the charting of statistics and updates, a new hyper-present emerges in which the writer’s task of imagining new worlds feels awkward, subject to a field of speculation shaped by cycles of news, all vying for the best truth, the most profitable predictions. I come to rely less on reading and believing, and more on observing metaphors and making notes on transmission and contagion like a scientist whose detachment still allows for curiosity and the possibility of change.
Government controls mandate social distancing and isolation and I develop an acute sensitivity to time, the way it struggles to pass in its usual way, its new burden making the present swell, the future recede further and further from view. Perhaps this is not unlike the typical effects of illness or disease on anyone, but in global time, apocalyptic visions shadow the global metrics of the nightly news, splitting human populations into the living, the survivors and the dead. For a while I hold onto beliefs in the safety of my isolation, remaining hyper-vigilant to the growing threat, sifting through updates for information and clues, stubbornly resisting the fear of an unknowable future.
Over days and weeks, my vigilance starts showing signs of wear. The repetition of words – safety, contact, risk, exposure, transmission, infection – creates a kind of holding pattern and I begin to realise this solitude is not really my own. I read somewhere that human consciousness was the result of viral mutation and begin wondering whether reducing language to the same fields of meaning might eventually cause mutations in our DNA. I wonder whether the pandemic might create a new code of human consciousness, fulfilling Burroughs’ vision of viral language as the limit of total control, the ultimate infection. To temper these anxieties, I begin collecting ideas and quotes from articles to use later when continuity returns, archiving connections for a folio of possibilities that might at some point be useful. I harbour favourites like this:
throughout the lifetime of an animal, memory cells will remember specific pathogens and can mount a strong secondary response if the pathogen is detected again…(t)his type of immunity is both active and adaptive because the body’s immune system prepares itself for future challenges.
Hit and stay viruses evade immune control by sequestration, blockade of antigen presentation, cytokine escape, evasion of natural killer cell activities, escape from apoptosis, and antigenic change.
The idea of COVID-19 as a hit and stay virus begins to chart its own symbolic territory in my mind, becoming a criminal strategist involved in its own blockades, evasions and escapism, forcing its host to produce new cells for survival. I scrutinise my body as a threat both real and imaginary, picture its future immunity, weighing up the purpose of my actions against the greater orders of risk, futility, surveillance, control. News footage of military-sized oxygen tankers outside hospitals reminds me that the air I breathe is not my own and I practice holding my breath as a form of self-containment, an attempt at fortitude where the disease makes the body weak. Practicing these small resistances every day, I write and wait for the virus to make a bad move, falter in its reproduction, knowing any change in its mechanism could equally increase its threat and provoke new strains of infection and metaphor.
As each day shifts and stretches, my writing seems to stagger over further distances, navigating more complex webs of meaning and biological worlds, new relations between species. I make lists of possible pathways for ideas, but each one loses momentum by day’s end, disrupted by ever changing sequences of new cases, vulnerable countries and global statistics. The more the virus erodes communities, the more it seems to colonise the mechanism of containment, outrunning knowledge every time and increasing the pace of change. Amidst these proliferations, my own isolation seems inert and fruitless and I cannot shake the paradox of belonging at its root, the tension between community and immunity creating new boundaries of language and being. There is a particular loneliness in watching the neighbourhood dogs being walked past my house each day, my neighbours pottering in their yards, performing the same rationalised safety, sharing the same goal. How readily these moments expose the fragility of our connection to time and place, creating their own symptoms of estrangement and troubling our processes of belonging.
In my local community, fear has hardened our geographical boundaries into borders. Never far from the spectre of colonialism, the Tasmanian news media plies the canon of militarised language for old myths of defence and protection. Headlines such as ‘We have a moat and we’re not afraid to use it’ and ‘Fortress Tasmania’ evoke ghosts of the colony, reminders that the island’s isolation is knitted to histories of disease migration and the use of contagion as a weapon against its First People. Fortress metaphors recall capitalist colonists of more recent years, rich survivalists running in fear of civilizational collapse, buying up ‘untouchable’ land for post-apocalyptic bunkers. As I watch fit, white joggers on the foreshore, I am reminded of the myths of wilderness that fuelled the fever dreams of the Cold War period, the Texan-built post-nuclear fallout bunker that lies dormant on Aboriginal land in the central highlands, an echo chamber of extremist individualism and privilege in a place deeply scarred by the paradoxes of isolation and survival.
The remoteness of Tasmania has always been a measure of distance that serves colonial interests, its myths of shelter and fortification covering up a host of atrocities and fuelling illusions of safe havens and protection. These histories continue to push against the containment lines here, still replicating themselves and interacting with the host, like ghosts still carrying meaning where it has been lost. But as news reports of cruise-liners with contagious passengers fill my daily newsfeed, I wonder if ghosts don’t just come from the past anymore, but emerge fresh each day from these unanchored ecologies, the makeshift morgues of unprotected cities and the limits of exhausted health systems. New truths emerge and disappear as fast as coronavirus cases do, pitting those who can afford the premium of survival against those who can’t, diluting the morbid silences of shuttered towns with images of fresh, clear water streaming into old canals.
These are the ‘undiscovered countries’, in Woolf’s words, that create new languages that I can’t get used to, nor learn quickly enough before new territories form their own borders and rules. From the relative safety of my solitude, I walk this terrain each day, as everyone does, wondering how this new virus evaded detection, how it got away, and exactly how fast it is colonising the future.
S.S. Morse, (1993) Emerging Viruses, New York: Oxford University Press.
William Burroughs, (1971) Electronic Revolution: 1970-71, Cambridge: Blackmoor Head Press.
Virginia Woolf, (2017) The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5: 1929-1932. New York: Random House.