Essays

To Coronavirus, C: An Anthropological Abecedary

Hilary M. V. Leathem

The images are from Breathe, an exhibition of masks at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. The co-creators, Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd, both Métis artists, invited other artists to create masks to reflect emotions felt around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. See more at whyte.org/breathe.


A, Archaeology

Archaeology is the study of the past and its adherents are archaeologists, who would rather die than be compared to their popular counterparts like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Archaeologists are curious beasts. Excavations are marked not only by scientific rituals, like mapping and licking stones to see if they are bones, but by traditional mating rituals that feature alcohol, meat, and sex. Their informants are primarily the dead, alongside close examinations of rocks, pots, and architecture, which allows them to amass pools of empirical data designed to recreate life in the past. Their preoccupation with the dead and predilection for figurative resurrection means they’re astoundingly well-equipped for understanding the spread of viruses, how contagion works, and the physical or sensuous traces viruses (non-humans, if you will) leave on our bones. There is an entire field within archaeology focused on societal collapse. Archaeology already knows what lies ahead for (and with) the Coronavirus.

B, Black Death

The Black Death occurred in the fourteenth century and was spread by the fleas riding the bodies of rodents. It is credited with completely rewriting Western civilization, probably because it killed off most of the population, allowing for change in a way that basic strikes and shifts to legislation could never deliver. Before the Black Death, people slaved away under the feudal system, which extracted as much labour as possible for no remuneration save for a place to stay (sometimes!). Sound familiar? After the Black Death, because labour became scarce workers were able to fight for better compensation and rights.

C, Capitalism

If one imagines a god to be something we serve and dedicate our finite energies to, then capitalism is contemporary society’s god. Pundits might expound the glory of this system, but capitalism is a so-called “modern” reconfiguration of slavery or feudal practices, predicated on the extraction of labour to create commodities of value. Capitalism depends on a constant surplus of value, conceived of as infinite. The problem? Resources—and human lives and bodies—are anything but infinite. Some anthropologists say we live in an epoch called the Capitalocene, arguing the defining feature of humans today is our obsession with commodities. America is capitalist. Europe is primarily socialist. Coronavirus loves capitalism. Coronavirus was made possible by capitalism and will continue to spread because of capitalism’s conditions. Capitalism is not a defining feature of Civilization; rather, the mark of a coherent society is, as Margaret Mead once said, care. P.S. Read Karl Marx.

D, Double-Bind Theory

The theory of the double-bind, first described by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, describes a situation where individuals or groups receive conflicting messages that negate one another. At issue is not simply communication, but logic. The double-bind can plague groups across society when they are presented with two conflicting demands that initially seem paradoxical, but when unravelled manifest as two distinct logical propositions that are irreconcilable. This causes distress. The Coronavirus creates a double-bind for healthcare workers. If healthcare workers want to save lives, they must stay clear of Coronavirus, yet they must be around the Coronavirus in order to save the lives.

E, Ecology

The most concise way of understanding ecology would be to point out its etymological roots, which come from the Greek for habitation, oikos. Ecological anthropology is the study of how humans adapt to and shape our myriad environments and, in turn, how these unique environments produce differences in our political, social, and economic lifeways. Our environments and landscapes once determined what foods we ate, and even influenced the development of particular architectural styles. Ecology in the time of Coronavirus asks us to consider how the virus will reshape us and our surroundings; we already are seeing how Coronavirus utterly changes our forms of sociality and everyday rituals. Will we alter or extinguish the Coronavirus? Enchantment and magic appear at this juncture. To quote from Max Gluckman’s 1954 BBC Radio address entitled, The Magic of Despair: “New situations demand new magic.”

F, Functionalism

Functionalism compares society to a living organism; it imagines society as constituted of different parts that must function correctly in order for it to survive. Each part of society, or the “living organism,” is a social institution, such as religion, economy or law. These social institutions developed over time to keep society functioning. So, too, do social institutions have their own distinct function, meaning they fulfill physiological and psychological needs, and are governed by their own set of norms and technologies. Though functionalism is now considered outmoded in anthropology, its primary proponents, Bronisław Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, were highly influential and their ideas echo today. The Coronavirus is an invader disrupting society. Our social institutions, such as science, medicine and law, are designed to remedy the situation and restore function. But therein also lies the potential for alternative approaches, through institutions like religion or magic, which might explain the “function” of the virus as a supernatural event. Functionalism, when taken to extreme ends, can fuel conspiracy theories.

G, Government

Government is a hallmark of civilization designed to wield power and create order from chaos by imposing the rule of law. As a social institution, it is given to many shapes or systems. We know of democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, fascism, or tyranny. Dictatorships, undesired monarchs in a way, count here, too. The last two centuries have witnessed the rise and fall of all these systems of government. Governments can be good—they can save and protect human lives; governments can be bad—they can enact genocide and wipe out great swaths of their citizens based on their race, ethnic identity, language, class, sexual orientation, religion, and more. With government comes governance, the act of governing—or its failure. Coronavirus challenges governments everywhere and exposes the cracks in our legal foundations. The failure to act in the face of the pandemic is a failure of government, which signifies what, exactly? If government truly is a hallmark of civilization, then does its collapse foretell our downfall?

H, Heritage

Heritage is a paradoxical inheritance. The word’s contemporary usage is inextricably entwined with the singular vision of UNESCO’s World Heritage list of properties. Heritage can be material—our monuments, landscapes, architecture, antiquities and heirlooms—or it can be immaterial—cuisine, language or oral literature. Many people argue that the most powerful form of heritage is the monumental: the grandiose ruins of palaces or temples, from Greece and Egypt to Mexico, Peru or Zimbabwe. Embodiments of History or proof of the passage of time, heritage is also emotional, symbolic, and moral, as the archaeologist Lynn Meskell writes (2015). This is evidenced by the ways that these sites, as well as the immaterial forms of heritage, mediate human relations. Heritage is genealogy, and not only about property but possession. Coronavirus is the universe’s response to the question that has plagued heritage studies for the last several decades: to whom does heritage belong? Coronavirus is true universal heritage; it does not discriminate and infects bodies regardless of background. Viruses are communal and collective property; it will own everyone and we will own it. Future humans will look back to the virus as their irrefutable shared past.

I, Immunity

Ideology, a system of ideas (and ideals) that shapes our legal, political, and economic worlds (among others) fits here, but Immunity is more poignant. Political leaders and scientists throw the word around often, and Boris Johnson and the Tory party touted the notion of herd immunity as one approach or solution to the Coronavirus. The concept of immunity—or being immune—is used not only in science, where it simply means one can no longer contract the virus, but also in the legal sphere, where immunity equates to freedom from liability. In other words, the individual cannot be prosecuted. Immunity emerges as something that is at once empirical and grounded, but also moral. This also extends to sovereign immunity, wherein the government cannot be convicted of committing any wrongs. Coronavirus is not only about a scientific struggle for immunity, but it is a polarizing figure that galvanizes us to scrutinize our governments and those in power—did they commit rights or wrongs?

J, Jingoism

Even before the advent of the Coronavirus, the United States and United Kingdom were practicing jingoism, “belligerent nationalism,” to quote from Encyclopædia Britannica. Both the US and UK are hotbeds of virtuous and aggressive patriotism, though they tend to take different forms. The attitude of “Britain before all else” underpins the Brexit movement, and resembles, quite insidiously, Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Current conservative parties on both sides of the Atlantic gesticulate wildly about the inferiority of those outside their borders. The Coronavirus aggravates jingoistic tendencies, driving wedges between and among communities by weaponizing patriotic statements in such a way as to repress counterpoint and oppress whoever is glossed as different.

K, Kinship

Are there fictive kin? Perhaps not. The old adage goes: “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Anthropologists once made kinship charts of societies across the globe in order to understand if there was a universal law governing kinship, such as the idea that one must be related by blood. There is none. One creates their own modes of kinship through adoption, for example, or through disowning family members who might be too toxic or abusive. Kinship is a form of social cohesion. Coronavirus stands to utterly reconfigure our notions of kinship through the ways it modifies or severs typical relations. Most citizenship laws are products of nation-states that envisaged nationality and kinship as the same, tied to blood and thus the land. After the virus, we may think of kinship differently.

L, Landscape

Coronavirus alters the landscape: the ways we view it, the ways we relate to it and the ways we inhabit it. Anthropologists (and archaeologists) of the landscape might look at what it means to dwell, the emotions that different landscapes evoke and how they are built and utilized. Humans, it is said, transform landscapes and are, in turn, transformed by the landscapes. Lands are natural and cultural assemblages full of multiple meanings. A land might be locally conceived of as happy, blessed, depressed or haunted. Some say landscapes absorb energy from past events and human activity leaves psychic imprints or wounds in the land. These sedimentations of meaning paint landscapes as dynamic and important focal points of our collective existence. Landscapes in the time of the Coronavirus are suddenly conceived of as either facilitating or inhibiting the virus’s flow, as scientists and politicians speculate on whether certain climates or seasons and other natural features render Coronavirus more or less powerful.

M, Mask

Masks emerged as ritual or ceremonial objects. Deeply symbolic, their purposes are myriad and may be used for disguise, transformation into preternatural beings or animals, amusement, or protection. They may even offer avenues into communing with ancestors. Yet rather than donning masks to ward off evil spirits or contact deceased loved ones, our masks protect us from another invisible enemy: the Coronavirus. During previous plagues, doctors wore masks for both literal and figurative protection. Scientists tell us to wear a mask, but the power of masks originates in the rituals that assign them Magical efficacy. Rituals, argued the symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner (1967), make the obligatory desirable. While we may find masks aesthetically displeasing, their sudden necessity quickly integrates them into the seams of our social fabric, transforming our world.

N, Nation-State

Amidst the outbreak of Coronavirus, Governor Gavin Newsom declared California a nation-state. On the other side of the Atlantic, Brexit finally crystallized, which may be another re-emergence of the nation-state. What does this mean, and why does it matter? States are geo-political entities, but nation-states presume that there is a common cultural core. Imagined communities, Benedict Anderson once wrote, nation-states have all the same parts as a simple state but are festooned with extra trimmings that can, in some instances, make for dangerous sentiments, such as bigotry. A common ancestral, ethnic background or shared past and traditions can make societies cohere by instilling pride and belonging. When skewed far to the left or right, however, ethno­nationalism takes over. The Coronavirus ignites nationalist sentiments because nation-states imagine themselves as independent yet cohesive socio-political entities; the nation-state protects the communities by defeating what’s foreign and invasive, fortifying its mythic borders. Brexit and a sovereign California represent insular fantasies just as much as they provide commentary on the successes and failures of government. Designed to be global players, the nation-state preserves the local.

O, Orientalism

Derived from the Orient, meaning east of the so-called Occident or West, the purported epicentre of civilization, the term is colonial and oppositional, creating difference by imagining the East as the West’s Other. Orientalism was elaborated by the Palestinian-American scholar, Edward W. Said, in his book Orientalism (1978). One of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies, Said excavated Orientalist fantasies from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to highlight the patronizing attitudes inherent in Western representations and imaginings of Arab societies, but the term (and its attitudes) extend beyond this region into East Asia. Considered exotic and backward, these cultures are simultaneously uncivilized and desirable. Trump’s gloss of the Coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” is deeply powerful, resurrecting Orientalist discourses, which re-create and reinforce difference between imagined West and East.

P, Possession

Possession has multiple connotations. It can be socio-economic in its usage, denoting an item that belongs to an individual or a people. Patrimony is both an individual and collective possession, as it refers to inheritance in all its forms. Possession, then, is about property. Yet possession also can be spiritual or religious. Traditionally, an anthropology of possession means dealing with how and why spirits, demons, or other invisible entities come to occupy or possess human bodies. It is also medical. Folk medicine in Mexico, for example, revolves around cases of espanto and susto (“terror” or “fright”), illnesses caused by being possessed by “bad winds” acquired via deities or witchcraft. A sort of exorcism is performed by a curandera as the remedy. The Coronavirus is a harbinger of fear and uncertainty; it possesses our bodies and is a plague of fright that cannot be exorcised in any religious sense. Whether it is a bad wind or not, the virus incites deep fears regarding control and the inhabiting of our own bodies. It begs the existential question: why this, why now?

Q, Quarantine

A medically enforced isolation that is often imposed on only the infected. The life and path of the Coronavirus makes it unique. Delayed symptoms and easy transmission force the whole of society to shack up indoors. Anthropology is defeated by quarantine because we work with people. What does the anthropology of quarantine look like? Will it be ethnographies of Netflix consumption or investigations into human relations with machines and animals?

R, Race

Race is a social construct, which means exactly what you think—humans create it through social relations. Biological anthropologists have even shown us that more genetic variation exists between members of one group (like Italians or Koreans) than geographically distant groups. Translated: my Croatian grandmother may share more, genetically speaking, with someone in Peru than a neighbor in Dubrovnik. Since race is a social construct, its persistence depends on its belief and performance; part of the reason society sustains race is because it is instrumentalized and weaponized in the name of power. Race plays a pivotal role in pandemics, currently and historically. Coronavirus exposes gaps and cracks in a system purportedly designed to serve everyone equally; America’s ever-increasing death toll echoes with the ringing of massive disparity. As Chicago and Detroit reported, nearly 70% of all Coronavirus deaths are amongst African-Americans from underserved or working-class communities. This is not at all new. Smallpox and yellow fever are pandemics from previous ages that ravaged Indigenous or non-white populations because of their lack of immunity, reinforcing further racial hierarchy through what some call immuno-privilege. In this instance, the death toll is less about a biological immuno-privilege and more about socioeconomics or access to healthcare.

S, Sex

One of the most recent health crises of the last century was the AIDS pandemic, where sex—and Sexuality—took centre stage. Given that HIV, and consequently, AIDS, was primarily spread through sexual transmission or other forms of swapping bodily fluids, one of the first concerns regarding “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” was whether sex would be safe—can the virus also be sexually transmitted? The AIDS pandemic was deeply stigmatized not only because of the mechanisms of its transmission, but because of the ways sex, sexuality, gender, race and class became intertwined to fuel more prejudiced attitudes toward the LGBTQ2SI community. This previous pandemic disproportionately affected gay, Black, working-class men. Coronavirus is working in a similar way. While it may not primarily affect the LGBTQ2SI community, it undoubtedly affects those late-capitalism does not favour. Furthermore, that this pandemic is one where we are quarantined makes sex one of the few available pleasures. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead recognized the human need for sex and the expression of desire. Sex toy sales are booming, but there is also a dark side: a rise in domestic abuse and violence. Post-pandemic, rather than a baby boom as some media outlets have predicted, we may see divorce rates skyrocket. In addition, we may also witness the return of past struggles. For example, women and the LGBTQ2SI community might find themselves needing to reassert their rights in both the domestic and public sphere.

T, Taboo

Various news outlets assert that a Chinese man ate a bat, leading to the emergence of the Coronavirus. The sentiment that he should not have eaten the bat forces us to reckon with the notion of taboo. Eating bats is taboo according to Western perspectives, as bat meat (and many other forms of animal flesh) is not consumed. A taboo is relative; it is a socially sanctioned and unspoken rule. Because taboos are designed to protect individuals in a society, violating or flouting a taboo may create fear and lead to punishment. Its etymology comes from Polynesia, though which exact language it’s derived from is unknown. Tabu, they say, means forbidden or sacred. Classic anthropology says that taboo lends society a sense of order and establishes boundaries between the sacred and the profane. Food is a popular subject of taboo; the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote Purity and Danger (1966), which sought to explain the logic of Old Testament food prohibitions. Taboos, she concluded, operate via a dichotomy of what is pure and what is dirty, the latter being dangerous.

U, Universal

The Coronavirus is a universal; it affects (and infects) everyone. Structuralism, a school of anthropology pioneered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, posited that what British anthropology termed social institutions were cultural universals, cognitive traits like mythology and ritual, that structured societies across the world. Lévi-Strauss was an aide to UNESCO, shaping their cultural policy and may have introduced the language of (or offered intellectual support for) universal human rights and values. Today political organizations mobilize the language of the universal frequently.

V, Virus

An infection, an invader, or an invisible enemy, formal encyclopedic entries cast the virus as an agent that infects all living organisms, whereas its etymology links it to poison. From a linguistic standpoint, the vocabulary surrounding and defining the word virus is alarmist and akin to language taken up during war. In her book, Geontologies (2016), the theorist and anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, views the “Virus” as one of three critical figures of what she terms geontopower, a form of governance that regulates the distinction made between life and non-life. She links the Virus to collective speculation of the figure of the Terrorist (again, echoes of an unstoppable invader). But most important here is how the Virus, and the Coronavirus specifically, disrupts our previous social arrangements. Viruses exist outside the normal boundaries of what we think of as containing life or being dead. Even before Coronavirus was Trump’s “Chinese Virus,” it was already a foreign threat. The phrase “going viral” will never be the same.

W, Witchcraft

While the persecution of women that characterizes American witchcraft hysteria is particular, there are cross-cultural ideas of witchcraft that focus on the ways that the witch, who might be male or female, acts as an anti-social being that destroys social relations. Anthropologists are less interested in assessing whether witchcraft and the Witch are real, and are more taken with the role or impact of a belief in witchcraft on any society. Witchcraft, according to a classic study by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (who notably saw “witchcraft on its path”), is an innate ability, and its role in society is to offer logical explanations for the misfortune of others. Alongside conspiracy theories, the Coronavirus pandemic will spur new speculations on its magical or human-made emergence as people confuse the borders between science, magic, and religion. The virus is witchcraft.

X, Xenophobia

As several of these entries make clear, one of the consequences of Coronavirus—and indeed what allows it to possess its powerful hold over people, inciting fear and panic—is xenophobia. Fear of the other or fear of the foreign, Coronavirus is unknown and foreign on two counts: it is both a newly identified and transmitted virus and first emerged in China. Pandemics, war, famine, and other traumatic events in history see the twinned phenomena of humans practising either care or violence. Xenophobia is sustained or buttressed by polarizing media, which teaches us that, as the “Chinese Virus,” we should fear anything associated with Asia.

Y, YouTube

Coronavirus troubles or kills off our daily routines or rituals. It has disrupted our normal modes of socializing, making us more reliant on social media and the digital world as a way of connecting and sustaining our relationships. Yet the problem with platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or even Zoom lies in how they are cesspools of false information. Because of the extraordinary coupling of social media’s sudden necessary role in our life and its accompanying lack of regulation, lies and “alternative facts” proliferate. Previously spaces for the occasional and playful reimagining of human relations, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms become dangerous supplements or, even more, substitutions for actual human face-to-face connection. This is far from better than the real thing.

Z, Zoonotic

Zoonotic diseases are infections transmitted between humans and animals or insects, or in other words, between humans and non-humans. Most people have heard of Lyme disease and rabies; by contrast, most had not heard of coronaviruses until February. Zoonotic is a musty, limited classification of our world—it entails the construction of a dichotomy that is quite futile. It presumes that categories like nature and culture are neatly bounded, when they are in fact porous, dynamic, and prone to wild confluences. The Coronavirus’s sweeping success proves there are no boundaries between humans and non-humans and that these separations are shaped by epistemologies and cosmologies. Archaeology has long recognized humans and nonhumans are entangled; anthropology that pursues multispecies research would view zoonotic as a Western artifact. However corny, Earth, humans, polar bears, raccoons and that mould in your shower are all one.

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