1) Deadly Machine
I remember how it seemed to me awkward, in college studying the life of viruses, when I discovered that life is just what a virus doesn’t have. It is not considered a living being because, among other reasons, it does not reproduce itself. It is a protein molecule that only replicates when it invades a cell that is capable of reproducing it. It is more of a well-ordered and predictable invader, a machine, like a fractal, even though it includes mutations in the process.
The idea of an independent, deadly, but predictable agent disturbs our habitual approaches to the real. It is not the real of a wall, for example, against which we stumble and which always returns to the same place in life and analysis, nor is it the real as the unexpected, the tsunami, the random catastrophe. As M. Bassols points out, the virus presents us not with a lawless real, as we have been used to thinking, but with a real “with-a-law”.
2) Paranoia and Epidemiology
This inhuman but relatively predictable real, spreading on a global scale, has changed our lives, probably forever. Until now we have been used to finding some collective ways of dealing with the absurdity of life, of dealing with a lawless real that doesn’t make any sense. We are used to composing One world via religion, via the order of the patriarchal tradition or even via paranoia, which locates and defines the other as the root of evil.
When we are faced with pandemics, everything looks different. One can always have faith, appeal to paranoia, elect China as the bad guy who is producing the virus, for example. Trump and his Brazilian generic tried to do that, but it doesn’t work so well because it is very difficult to impute bad intentions to a virus. As É. Laurent points out, it was epidemiology, a statistical control of populations, that came to the fore in terms of guidance. Science, which has been so badly treated lately, gained prominence, even in Brazil, where our scoundrel president is still trying to take advantage of our absurd levels of inequality to oppose health and economy.
3) The Other’s Desire
We isolate ourselves, then, to delay contagion by an enemy which, as Romildo Rêgo-Barros recalls, is not an enemy for the simple reason that it has no desire. It’s hard to say that a virus wants something, even harder to impute evil intentions to it.
That’s exactly what pandemics paradoxically force us to remember: We’re desiring beings. We cannot free ourselves from the desire that sets us in motion. To stress this is the aim of these notes.
If anyone taught the foundational value of the Other’s desire, it was Lacan. But he also pointed out the importance of facing it, more specifically in facing what of this desire is undefined. When we can give some meaning to it, when we can turn it into a demand, it is possible to talk, to argue, to negotiate. These are things that always calm us down. But when we encounter an otherness with an essentially indeterminate desire, in addition to the anxiety that it can bring, something new can emerge.
The Other of anxiety is imagined by Lacan as a giant praying mantis. What does this inscrutable thing, anxiety, do? This Other, as a Praying Mantis, the devil, but also the mugger on the corner or even the loved one, what does he want from me? However, it is precisely in this indeterminacy of the Other’s desire that we find the possibility of interpreting our own desire: “How did I end up here? What am I doing with my life?” At that moment, an abyss opens up between myself and what I am; there, dropped from all the analogies of heaven and earth, incredible as it may seem, that’s when I can do most. I can run out, say the missing word, espouse a cause, or a person. Depending on how we act in response to the question of desire, the power of a new destiny can come to us.
4) Empty Street
It turns out that the virus is not a praying mantis. In its generalized expression, that of the real of the pandemics, there is no encounter with any otherness, only the certainty of a deadly real without any precise location. As M.-H. Brousse says, the empty street is the Other’s desert.
It is not by chance that, in addition to paranoia, prefabricated interpretations came to project a desire onto this protein machine that we are confronted with. They try to deal with the unknown as before. Some rely on their phobic tendencies, which can result in radical isolation, others on their obsessions with interminable disinfection, for example, or hypochondriacal fear, or a melancholy “we are doomed”. There are even those who isolate themselves in their homes and count the days until they can return as slaves to their bosses and be reunited as before.
I have rediscovered, in this hard moment of the Other’s desert, how much of my practice is to find, at the exact point of anxiety, a passage to the dimension of desire. So I understand why the words of analysands and the texts I read have touched me. It is something that the following testimony by P. B. Preciado delicately stages.
The subject of the text, caught by the disease at the beginning of the epidemic, spends days in a fever and, once he has recovered, discovers, in isolation, a world of empty streets. He then immerses himself in a desperate fantasy: what if it lasts forever? The lover who lacked courage would blame himself without forgiveness for never being able to find his beloved except virtually; the spouse who dreamed of sexual adventures will have to go on forever with virtual partners; the daughter who needed to impose distance from her mother will have to be without her for the entire period of quarantine; anyone who had longed for solitude would now be immersed in it forever.
This fantasy of eternal confinement reveals one of the greatest values of a true event. In the absolute indeterminacy of what is to come, we at least know, with cruel certainty, what we have done with our lives until now, careless of our desire.
It is not the will of the virus that is decisive, but the turning point that can be for us the desire of who is our Other. Therefore, the first thing that Preciado does, after asking himself if it would be worth living in these conditions, is to write a letter to his ex to speak, I imagine, of his love and of how much the enigma of his ex’s desire had paralyzed him.
6) The Neighbour
In a pandemic, the question of desire remains crucial, but it shifts. It will no longer be placed in the one who is on the other side, on the imaginary frontiers of a culture––the people of the favelas, the black ones, the women––the places of anguish; it will be on those who are on this side. The desire of the Other, as imponderable, becomes the desire of the neighbour, of the supermarket cashier, of the one who can sneeze at any moment in order to contaminate us for pure pleasure, or even the one––who knows?––who sings for us from the window.
Thus, the virtual becomes relative. Is it possible to have a real encounter without a meeting of bodies? Would psychoanalysis exist on these terms? I don’t think that’s the biggest challenge in quarantine. No one will disagree that it is not the same thing, whether bodies meet or not. A few will be absolutely sure that analysis, or love, is possible, or impossible, via virtual means. What can we know? We’ll make the necessary arrangements and we will see. The important thing is to know if that person, on the computer screen or in the ear, will be able to materialize the magical combination of strangeness and proximity that makes up the delights of a real encounter.
The world seems to be facing the limits of the virulent behaviour of capitalism, but it tends to choose control and surveillance, or, at worst, a more inclusive necropolitics extended to the elderly and the poor. A collective solution, necessarily of many, remains to be invented.
Could there be a new solution if solutions only focus on the usual segments of society or in the developed regions of the globe? Is there a way out if the solutions don’t include Maré as well as Leblon? If it doesn’t include the multitudes that are at this very moment on the streets because there is nowhere for them to be isolated? Is there a way out if we forget the horror of the simple fact that Burkina Faso has only 11 respirators for its 19 million people?
What kind of world awaits us? Looking at an empty street, but knowing that the streets in the favelas are full, I assume that it will have to be a world that includes the dimension of desire as operator of the unpredictable, that it must be a world in which the politics of the unconscious will have its role to play, always collective because there is no way to desire without the desire of the Other.
It is the experience of the unconscious, precisely, in life and in analysis, that allows me, exiled as I am far from the ones I love most, to know that the small objects, the songs, the smells bind us together as long as we want them to. It is only necessary, from time to time, that the encounter bring the splendour of being, in a second, in contingency, together in the experience of desire.
Originally published in Portuguese in Correio Express da EBP https://www.ebp.org.br/correio_express/2020/04/18/notas-sobre-o-desejo-e-o-isolamento/.
Rêgo-Barros, R. and Vieira, M. A. “The Presence of the Analyst”, https://youtu.be/w4iaqv4_ybs
Bassols, M. and Salamone L, “Conversations on Psychoanalysis and Our Times” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rvo_QmgOisc
Brousse, M. H., “Empty City” LRO, April 2020.
Laurent E., “The Other that Does Not Exist and Is Scientific Committees”, https://www.thelacanianreviews.com/the-other/
Preciado, P. B. “A conspiração dos perdedores” https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2020/03/27/la-conjuration-des-losers_1783349 e https://medium.com/@sarawagneryork/a-conspira%C3%A7%C3%A3o-dos-perdedores-babd1f6b4c10
Rêgo-Barros, R. “Us and the virus”, https://www.ebp.org.br/correio_express/2020/03/22/nos-e-o-virus/
On the situation regarding ventilators in African countries: https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/bbc/2020/04/09/coronavirus-3-respiradores-para-5-milhoes-de-pessoas-drama-da-pandemia-na-africa.htm