This piece has been adapted from Covid Year Three, an episode of Death Panel released earlier this month. It presents an incomplete timeline of the sociological production of the end of the pandemic across 2022. What follows is the third part of a three-part series; Part I is available here and Part II is available here.
By May, it’s common knowledge that we are now largely in the dark on Covid information.
We can summarize this month through two headlines, especially since there’s little activity on covid from the Biden administration during this time.
The first is from the Washington Post, May 9th:
One of the things the article touches on is that Philadelphia had recently made an extremely brief attempt at reinstituting its mask mandate, and ultimately failed to. It was the only large US city to do so at the time.
By mid-May, New York City was back to “High” covid spread—even on the CDC’s covid Community Level map—but Mayor Eric Adams decided to ignore it and did not issue either a mask mandate or a recommendation.
The other headline that’s most indicative of May is also from the Washington Post:
By this point, testing infrastructure and reporting had become so dismantled that the suggestion that is often offered to people is just to take whatever the reported daily cases number is and multiply it by five or ten times, to get a figure that’s probably closer to whatever is happening around you.
Even with shoddy reporting, cases were going up.
Before the end of May, most liberal public health talking heads had entirely stopped even being ok with saying the word “mandate,” and certainly were not speaking out in support of one.
David Leonhardt picks up on this expository opening, writing a widely shared column titled: “Why Masks Work, but Mandates Haven’t.” Almost immediately this newsletter gains traction, particularly in right-wing circles, who jump at the chance to delight in the New York Times saying “mask mandates don’t work.”
In May we quietly pass one million dead by the official count.
Just over 12,000 covid deaths are recorded in May by CDC’s count.
We begin our June timeline with something that happened in the months prior but only breaks June 6th. Exact timing for when these events occurred is not given.
On June 6th, 2022, Politico published: “How many Covid deaths are acceptable? Some Biden officials tried to guess.”
From the piece:
Biden officials in recent months privately discussed how many daily Covid-19 deaths it would take to declare the virus tamed, three people familiar with the conversations told POLITICO.
The discussions, which took place across the administration, and have not been previously disclosed, involved a scenario in which 200 or fewer Americans die per day, a target kicked around before officials ultimately decided not to incorporate it into pandemic planning, according to the people. The discussions were described as exploratory, said the people, who were granted anonymity so they could speak freely about internal deliberations.
One U.S. health official told POLITICO the number was “aspirational ... a general metric people have bounced around a lot” that would signal that “the pandemic would be under control.” But, this person added, the figure “never passed the hurdles to be a formal metric.”
One of the three people involved in the conversations last year said it was an effort to gauge what the American public would “tolerate.”
“Five hundred a day is a lot. You still have 9/11 numbers in a week,” the person said. “People generally felt like 100 [a day] or less, or maybe 200, would be OK.”
With fewer than 200 people dead per day, the person added, hospitals wouldn’t be overrun and infection rates would be comparatively low, allowing Americans to live closer to pre-pandemic times with less threat of infection.
“When you spread 100 to 200 [deaths] around the country, then it’s minimal around your [geographic] area,” the person said.
But the idea never became official.
Whether these talks go very far or not, they certainly contextualize what we’ve just seen the Biden administration do. Our opinion is that this reflects a broader issue: that, by this point, the Biden administration have clearly absorbed a central lesson, which is that as long as they attempt to make a good show of things––pretending everything is ok––the levels of illness, death, debility, and disability from covid that the US public will apparently just absorb without rioting is shockingly high.
Importantly though, one of the individuals cited says that the number of deaths floated, 200 a day, would be “aspirational.” And that individual was right: even with our now-restrained data reporting infrastructure, we’ve never gotten down to that level. In fact, the lowest we’ve gotten to for any significant stretch of time is still an average of 300 deaths a day, or over 110,000 deaths a year.
On June 20th, the TRIPS waiver is officially defeated at the World Trade Organization. The Geneva Health Files newsletter offers a fitting summation of this is in their headline: “Trade Won, Health Did Not. A Sliver of a Waiver at the WTO.”
10,000 people died of covid in the US in June.
61% were vaccinated.
38% were boosted.
July also sees a large media conversation in which a surprising amount of writers seem to discover, perhaps for the first time, that covid reinfections not only exist, but are common. Almost universally, however, the media describes this as a novel issue caused by the latest covid variant, the omicron sub-variant BA.5, despite the fact that by this point countless people have experienced second and third infections with previous variants.
Here are some examples:
Washington Post, July 10th: “As the BA.5 variant spreads, the risk of coronavirus reinfection grows.”
July 11th, in the Atlantic, Ed Yong writes “Is BA.5 the Reinfection Wave?”
July 17th, in Vox: “BA.5 doesn’t care that you just had Covid-19.”
Even Emily Oster gets in on the discourse, writing a blog post for her Substack.
Oster’s read of the moment is particularly salient because she happens to synthesize the rising media concern with reinfections with the concurrent widespread acknowledgement that we are now totally in the dark about the actual rate of covid spread in any given part of the country. Prior to this, much of Oster’s brand of covid advice—by now, notably, similar to the Biden administration’s own advice—was to take in information about rate of covid spread around you and use that to decide whether or not to do x or y based on your individual risk tolerance. This media cycle changes Oster’s opinion, though perhaps not in the way you might hope:
The presence of BA.5 has raised significant concerns—in some of the messages I get, I would say this borders on panic — about reinfection. …
There is a glass-half-full take here, which is that reinfection may be less common than you fear. But this discussion also forces the realization that reinfection is possible, and even if you had COVID before and have had all your shots, you could get it again. With this realization, we renew questions like, “Should I fly now?” or, “What about indoor dining?”
In the past, many of us were looking at data on case rates to inform decisions like this. I will level with you: that isn’t going to work now. The testing and surveillance situation in the U.S. is not good, and we really have no idea what case rates are. This is frustrating, but it seems to be where we are. The combination of this fact and the realization that reinfection is possible means that it may be time to make a less contingent, more permanent, set of choices.
You are now in a world where COVID is some risk more or less all the time, and you probably will not have much more than a vague sense of the size of the risk. Given that, what kind of long-term precautions do you want to take? …
I’m talking about choices like indoor dining, movies, concerts, airplanes. Do you do these? And if you do these things, do you mask? How will you approach testing?
You have been thinking about these choices all along. The difference I see now is thinking about these choices as almost permanent, or at least long-term.
Not, “Should I travel by plane this week, given the COVID rates?” But rather, “Am I comfortable with plane travel knowing the risk of COVID is present?”
Not, “Should I wear a mask in the movie theater this week?” But rather, “Will I generally mask at the movies?”
Not, “Should we rapid test before this particular gathering?” But rather, “Will we generally be rapid testing before we get together?”
I don’t imagine everyone will come down in the same way on these questions. Comfort with COVID risk differs for many reasons. But at this point, I think the question you need to ask is: What behaviors am I willing to undertake long-term to avoid infection? This question is sort of a bummer, since it recognizes that there isn’t some moment when COVID will be gone, but it also lets you off the hook from re-making these choices every time.
Of course, no discussion of July 2022 could be complete without the big story in July: Biden himself gets covid.
This interrupts the Biden administration’s usual M.O. of: try not to talk about covid, do not mention masking, downplay the fact that many people are still dying, and don’t change any policies really, because you’ve already undone so much that there’s not much left to dismantle anyway.
Here was our own take on Biden’s covid diagnosis at the time, via the Washington Post’s Dan Diamond:
“I think Biden’s own covid response is what made [his infection] inevitable, really,” said Artie Vierkant, co-host of Death Panel, a left-leaning podcast that has blamed the administration for not pursuing a universal mask mandate and paid sick leave, among other mitigations. “He’s just one of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are going to test positive for covid today.”
The main story around Biden’s covid case, however, was not Biden’s covid case itself. Instead, the main thing that happens is that the Biden administration does its best to spin his case as a success story.
Ashish Jha, after a short period of being slightly more out of view than usual, reemerges with a barrage of media narratives. This is when we first see the perhaps impromptu development of a few new lines.
One is this, said by Jha in a press conference shortly following the announcement that Biden was sick:
“We are now at a point, I believe, where we can prevent nearly every COVID death in America. That is a remarkable fact.” The Biden administration has used this line countless times since then.
The second line is a familiar one; perhaps in a rush to find new language, the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” line is rehabilitated into something somehow more sinister.
Here’s Jha on NPR shortly after Biden tests positive:
RASCOE: You know, rightly or wrongly, at this point in the pandemic, testing positive for COVID is starting to feel kind of ordinary for some Americans. And it's happening multiple times. They're catching it multiple times. Is that to be expected, or is that alarming from a public health perspective? Deaths are up to nearly 500 a day.
JHA: Yeah. So I think, Ayesha, that's the key point there is that it's not the cold. People are still getting quite sick from it. But if you look at who's getting sick, who's really ending up in the hospital, who's ending up in the ICU, who's dying—unfortunately, it's people who are either not vaccinated or not up to date on their vaccines, people who are not fully, you know, boosted or double boosted if they're older, people who have not gotten treatments. We have to do our part. We have to continue working hard to make sure that Americans get vaccinated, get their immunity up, get treatments. We also obviously have to do a lot of work to keep infections as low as possible.
As we joked at the time, the Biden administration is no longer outright saying we are in “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Instead, they’re now saying we’re in a pandemic of the unboosted, or perhaps, a pandemic of the didn’t-get-paxlovid-on-time.
Following both of these events—the interminable discourse cycle of pundits realizing for the first time that reinfections are common, and the Biden administration’s largely successful attempt to spin Biden’s covid case as a success story—there is a brief media discussion before the end of July about whether everyone has in fact already had covid, and by extension, if people should just get it over with and catch it. These are the following:
July 21st, the Washington Post: “Meet the covid super-dodgers,” with the subheader: “The no-covid club gets more exclusive every day. And some members have no idea how they’re still there.”
July 22nd, in The Atlantic: “America Is Running Out of ‘COVID Virgins”
July 25th, the Wall Street Journal: “Think You’ve Never Had Covid-19? Think Again.”
11,000 people die of covid in the US in July.
On August 3rd, the Biden administration released their plan for long covid.
We reviewed the documents on Death Panel in an episode called “The Long Welfare State.” In summary, the biggest part of the plan, a document called “Services and Support for Longer-Term Impacts of COVID-19,” is 120 pages mostly listing the programs that exist under our currently-existing, woefully inadequate welfare state.
On Death Panel we called it “quite possibly one of the most patronizing documents ever seen out of the Biden White House.”
Long covid does, thankfully, get a lot of attention in August. One of the reasons for this is not the Biden administration’s plan itself, though, but instead because, at the end of August, right-wing think tank the Brookings Institution released a report showing that as many as 4 million people are out of work because of long covid.
In August, the Biden administration finally becomes much more public about its work to kick covid care to the private market.
In an interview with the Chamber of Commerce, Ashish Jha says the following:
"My hope is that in 2023, you're going to see the commercialization of almost all of these products. Some of that is actually going to begin this fall, in the days and weeks ahead. You're going to see commercialization of some of these things,"
Jha also says in this interview that while the US government has been pleased to play this role, they want to “get out of the business” of covid treatments and vaccines.
At the end of the month, an HHS blog post comes out titled “COVID-19 Medical Countermeasures and the Commercial Marketplace” which echoes Jha’s statements. The post argues the following:
Over the course of the pandemic, the federal government has played the central coordinating role in buying, distributing, and ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and tests. We have made significant progress as a country over the past 19 months in making these tools widely available and free to the American people. …
While the federal government has been pleased to play this role, we have always known that we would not be in this business forever. We have always intended to transition this work to the commercial market and have been planning for that transition for some time now.
17,500 people died of covid in the US in August.
This is also unfortunately the last month we have up to date figures on breakthrough deaths, because the dataset lags.
The Biden administration opens September with a rush to get as many people to take the updated bivalent booster as possible, all while doing as little as possible to actually achieve that goal.
They also decide to go with a claim that the covid vaccine will be a once a year shot like the flu shot, despite no evidence that once a year is enough protection in the absence of masking and literally any other protections, including our insufficient social welfare programs.
Since our timeline is now approaching the date of writing, and we’re only looking a few months back, let’s look at current vaccine uptake:
As of this writing, just 14.1% of people in the US have gotten the updated booster.
Worse, only 3% of kids aged 6 months to two years have completed the primary series of vaccination, even though the shots have been approved for months.
For kids between two and four years old, only about 5% of them have completed primary series vaccination.
Not only is it brazen and irresponsible to claim that this is a “pandemic of the unboosted” (in so many words) given just what we know about breakthrough deaths, it is grotesque to claim such a thing with vaccination rates this low.
There are many, many things the Biden administration could do to change this. Instead, as we will see in sharp detail when we reach October on this timeline, they have focused primarily on a vaccination strategy of relying on corporate partnerships to do the nation’s public health work, and on admonishing the public when that strategy ultimately fails. We suspect the administration has largely gotten away with such little effort thanks, in part, to the persistent myth that low vaccination rates are caused exclusively by an extant population of Republican anti-vaxxers. But partisan politics alone does not explain low vaccination rates: data suggests people living in low-income areas—including those that tend to vote for Democrats—have meaningfully lower vaccination rates than people living in wealthier areas. This suggests to us a clear class divide that is completely ignored in mainstream discourse about vaccination rates; the end result is that the Biden administration is left off the hook for its failures in this area.
On September 19th: Biden, speaking to 60 Minutes at the Detroit Auto Show, declares the pandemic is over. Just for context, according to data from Johns Hopkins, 937 covid deaths were reported the day Biden said this.
Here’s the quote itself:
"The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lotta work on it. It's… but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one's wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it."
This quote ignites a wave of debate, much of which argues that Biden was right to make this remark. Some of that debate allegedly happened within the administration itself. From POLITICO, September 19th:
The declaration surprised the president’s own senior health officials, many of whom only learned about Biden’s remarks from tweets and news headlines. The president had not originally planned to make major news on Covid, nor had he discussed with his health advisers announcing an end to the pandemic soon, two senior officials said.
When the White House reviewed a transcript of his comments after the interview, which was taped earlier in the week, it did not alert its Covid team — leaving the administration without a coordinated response for the immediate aftermath.
In the hours since, health officials have privately and sarcastically applauded themselves for a job well done: After 20 months of round-the-clock work, they joked, all it took to end a once-in-a-century crisis was for Biden to declare it finished. Others argued that the time had actually come for such a declaration; that the virus is in a manageable state and Biden was simply putting in blunt terms where his administration has long been headed.
Outside of the White House, a small chorus gathered to try to assert that the timing was right, and that Biden should declare the end of the pandemic more proudly. Here’s one take from New York Magazine, headlined “Biden Is Right to Declare the ‘Pandemic Is Over’”:
[Biden’s comment] angered a number of public-health professionals and COVID hawks, who are furious mitigation tactics against the virus haven’t been pursued into the fall of 2022.
The argument against Biden is compelling. Technically, of course, the pandemic is not over. More than 400 people still die daily of COVID in the U.S. The virus has not, in any way, vanished. …
[But t]he segment of the public-health community and pundit class most enraged at Biden ignores the obvious science behind COVID-19, particularly the latest variant, BA.5. Mitigations against the variant work less well than they would have in 2020, since it spreads far more easily than prior versions of the virus. Your level of vaccination does not matter, either, in the sense that breakthrough cases are inordinately common with BA.5 and the vaccinated can spread the virus as easily as the unvaccinated. … Vaccination still safeguards you from severe illness and death. It does not, however, hold the magic key to making COVID disappear. Nothing does.
Public-health officials should understand that it’s impossible to expect any population to be on permanent war footing.
On September 23rd, STAT News publishes a piece including commentary from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Biden’s statement:
“I think that there are a lot of different ways to think about a pandemic being over” …
“I will not let go of the 350 deaths that we are having every single day,” she said, but noted that “it’s still way less than 3,000” deaths that were occurring each day in January 2021.“And so, I think we are in a very different place.”
Possibly the most consequential result of this statement, of course, is the enormous self-inflicted damage it did to the administration’s own argument that Congress should fund the covid response. Conservative press immediately seized on this statement as an easy explanation for why no Republican representatives should so much as consider voting to fund further covid efforts, a line they push to this day. Even as Biden and his administration have continued to argue that Congress is the villain in the story of the pandemic response, their actions show them as just as guilty a party.
12,700 people died of covid in the US in September.
On October 25th, Biden gives a speech, flanked by executives from CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Albertsons, and more, to announce the administration’s covid plan for fall and winter.
The plan is most notable for its list of coupons and other promotional efforts it promises for people who get an updated covid booster at any of the businesses present at the announcement. For example:
CVS … is offering $5 off any purchase of $20 (redeemable in-store or online) for consumers getting an updated COVID-19 shot.
Albertsons is also offering 10 percent off groceries (up to $20 off) for people who get their COVID-19 vaccine in-store.
Rite Aid will offer coupons for $5 off $25 purchase for those who receive a COVID-19 updated booster (not valid in New York or New Jersey).
The plan makes other pronouncements, like that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will send a second email reminder to Medicare recipients suggesting they get the shot. The plan also includes the following highlight, a program with some of the most specific eligibility criteria we’ve seen Kamala Harris' 2020 presidential run:
Walgreens, Uber, and DoorDash: Walgreens, Uber, and DoorDash are stepping up to answer the President’s call to action by increasing access to COVID-19 treatments. Walgreens is working with Uber and DoorDash to provide free delivery of prescriptions of Paxlovid, an oral COVID-19 treatment, directly to the doorsteps of Americans living in underserved communities. Patients with a prescription for Paxlovid being filled at Walgreens who live in a socially vulnerable community, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index, will be able to have their Paxlovid prescription delivered to their home through Uber Health and DoorDash at no cost via Walgreens.com and the Walgreens app.
All of this is incredibly bleak, but the rhetoric Biden used in his speech announcing the plan was even worse. Biden and team choose this moment to prominently feature the newly rehabilitated “pandemic of the unvaccinated” line:
As a country, you know, we—we have a choice to make. Can we repeat what happened in past winters—more infections; more hospitalizations; more loved ones getting sick, even dying from the virus—or we can have a much better winter if we use all—all of the tools we have available to us now?
Let me be as plain as I—let me be as plain as I can. We still have hundreds of people dying each day from COVID in this country—hundreds. That number is likely to rise this winter.
But this year is different from the past. This year, nearly every death is preventable. Let me say it again: Nearly every death is preventable. …
Here’s the bottom line: Virtually every COVID death in America is preventable—virtually every one. Almost everyone who will die from COVID this year will not be up to date on their shots or they will not have taken Paxlovid when they got sick.
So there you go. A pandemic of the unboosted. A pandemic of the didn’t-get-paxlovid on time. This also has shades, of course, of the line from 2021: “We are looking at a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated—for themselves, their families and the hospitals they'll soon overwhelm.”
An important thing to note, as the Biden administration prepares to hand off covid treatments to the private market by 2023:
On October 21st, Pfizer announced its covid vaccine will cost $110-$130 per dose once it’s transitioned to the private market.
We know from 2021—as we wrote about here at The New Inquiry—that Pfizer has been eagerly awaiting this move, and likely lobbying for it in the background. In a 2021 investor call, Pfizer had called its current scheme appropriate for “a pandemic pricing market” saying “obviously we’re going to get more on price.”
By the time they announced the $110 price point, it had only been a month since Biden declared the pandemic “over.”
In October, “Immunity Debt” becomes a favored talking point among liberals. Emily Oster, first in The Atlantic and then in a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered, suggests “Let’s Declare A Pandemic Amnesty.” One team of researchers, writing in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), develops a brilliant idea for reframing the ongoing workplace disruption of death and disability caused by our covid response: “long social distancing.”
From here, we are firmly in recent history. Our comments on the remaining months on the timeline will be brief as a result.
12,000 people died of covid in the US in October 2022.
On November 18th, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, speaking at the STAT Summit in Boston, says that Pfizer's vaccine will continue to be “free for all Americans.” He’s only talking about people with a health insurance plan, ignoring the mass of uninsured and underinsured people in the US.
Also in November we have, for the first time in a while, a renewed attention on breakthrough cases and deaths. This happens in part because the Washington Post does a series of different articles on the same CDC dataset that both we and the Kaiser Family Foundation drew from on breakthrough deaths
Here’s how they framed this though.
This should go without saying, but one’s age does not make one’s death less tragic. Equally, we must question what kind of political economy could consider these losses “acceptable.”
12,000 people died of covid in the US in November 2022.
This brings us to the last few weeks.
Cases are spiking again. In the first week of December 2022, 3,115 people died of covid in the US. In the last week, as of this writing, an additional 2,703 people died of covid. This is between 400 and 450 people dying of covid every day.
This has led to some state and local governments once again “recommending” masking but falling far short of mandating it.
The CDC and the Biden administration has even broken its long streak of going out of its way to not say “masking” or “masks,” though their subtle—and likely temporary—shift in rhetoric is woefully insufficient to actually meet the moment.
Further, some comments by administration officials make clear that no such return to promoting universal masking is in the cards. On December 15th, speaking on a livestream event with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ashish Jha said the following (emphasis added): “The notion that you could cut respiratory infections—there is no study in the world that shows that masks work that well. You’re never going to get the kind of benefit from mandatory, year-round masking as you would from making substantial improvements to indoor air quality.” This statement—a patently untrue one—shows that the Biden administration intends to stay on course with its longstanding prerogative of downplaying masking, as we document in “How Liberals Killed Masking.”
For its part, major press outlets have similarly continued to cast doubt on and stigmatize masking. On December 7th, the Washington Post pondered, “With such a heavy burden of illness straining the health-care system, it may be hard to believe that something as simple as a face mask could make a meaningful difference. But health experts say a quality medical mask remains a highly effective line of defense.” Also on December 7th, the New York Times prominently quoted Bob Wachter in one article, claiming, “The early days of ‘What I do affects you, and what you do affects me’—there are very few people who still think that way … It’s a natural phenomenon to move from a communal point of view to this individual risk benefit point of view.” On December 20th, the Times opinion page listed masking in a roundup of “debates that made us rage [and] roll our eyes” in 2022, asking: “Are people who still wear them living in the past or looking out for their communities?”
According to POLITICO, the Biden administration has begun to prepare to end the official federal declaration of a public health emergency, an action that would have disastrous consequences on state Medicaid programs, in addition to speeding their process of kicking covid vaccines and therapeutics to the private market. Worse, Congressional Democrats have moved just this week to embrace a Republican policy proposal that would put an early end to enhanced pandemic-era Medicaid funding before the public health emergency is officially declared over.
As we said at the beginning of this timeline, in Part I, we are increasingly living simultaneously in the covid pandemic as an ongoing event, and as its own aftermath. But just because so much has been undone doesn’t mean we can’t change.
The Biden administration has held dogmatically to a vaccine-only strategy against the pandemic, unwavering even in the face of enormous ongoing evidence that such a strategy is insufficient. Over the last three years, covid mitigations and covid itself have come to be understood as a factor of individual, personal risk; an understanding championed by the Biden administration itself, and exacerbated by a collective fantasy that there are intrinsically healthy people and intrinsically unhealthy people.
Last year around this time we engaged in a similar exercise on Death Panel, looking back at the year 2021 through a lens of how the pandemic was normalized, what we have called the sociological production of the end of the pandemic. A theme of that retrospective was that our pandemic response has resulted in part from Biden’s role—and more broadly, the structural role of the presidency itself—as a chief manager of capitalism.
After all, Biden pledged before he was even inaugurated: “I’m not going to shut down the economy, I’m going to shut down the virus.”
Was it worth it?
This miserable economy in which so many people are struggling? The temporary economic gains produced by a race to “re-open the economy” that just slipped away immediately because forcing everybody back to work meant forcing people toward illness, over and over again?
Many of us would like to think that there must be some level of death, some level of sickness and disability or debility, that will make the system stop working, or that will cause some wake up call for liberals. The last two years under Biden have demonstrated very plainly that that is not the case.
The reality of our political economy, as we try to document in our book Health Communism, is that the capitalist state relies on social murder as a management function. The capitalist state is deliberately not set up to support individuals who aren’t “productive” to the capitalist economy, to the point of ultimately turn this population of “surplus” into economic fuel for extractive state capacities. In this way, social murder—or organized abandonment, slow death—is component to capitalism itself; a crucial state capacity.
But the fact that even under our current political economy—under capitalism—we could have saved so many speaks volumes to the depravity of the current makeup of the US state. Our demands must be large, and they must be oriented at a horizon that breaks this political economy. Capitalism has weathered crises like covid before, and will again, but only if we let it. There is nothing to wait for. There will be no better time.
This piece has been adapted from Covid Year Three, an episode of Death Panel released earlier this month. It presents an incomplete timeline of the sociological production of the end of the pandemic across 2022. What follows is the second part of a three-part series; Part I is available here.
February is the month that the final remains of state mask mandates went away.
In early February, a group of states announced the end of many of the last remaining mask mandates both statewide and in schools. By the end of February, the CDC introduced its “Community Level” system for its masking guidance, newly prioritizing hospitalization figures over new cases and covid transmission for determining guidelines.
Many who organize or advocate around covid will remember this moment clearly as a de facto CDC endorsement of the end of universal masking.
It’s important to note that masking was already gone in most of the country. Only eight states still had statewide mask mandates in place, along with a small number still mandating masking in schools. By this point, some states had outright banned mask mandates. In ten states, mask mandates had never been implemented at the state level in the first place, and still have yet to be at any point during the pandemic. There was still a federal transportation mask mandate in place for things like planes and public transport, though this would ultimately be struck down by a judge in April.
Additionally, as we document in an episode of Death Panel released this week, “How Liberals Killed Masking,” the key moment in undoing mask mandates and universal masking actually came when the CDC changed its masking guidance on May 13th 2021, emphasizing that vaccinated people no longer needed to mask indoors or outdoors.
At that time (spring of 2021), mask mandates were still in place in roughly half of states. At least seventeen states were due to see their mask mandates expire in the following weeks, meaning that they would have to decide whether to renew them or simply let them expire. Following the CDC’s surprise announcement, those seventeen states allowed their mask mandates to expire. Although the CDC would reverse its guideline change in July, the damage was done—those seventeen states never reinstated statewide mask mandates.
At the beginning of February 2022, with cases still enormously high and some 18,000 people dead from covid in the first week of February alone, states started either peeling back mask mandates, or announcing that they would shortly do so, starting with New Jersey, California, and New York, followed shortly by Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
All of these states announced they would drop their mask mandates around the same time. The reason this was more or less coordinated is made clear in contemporaneous reporting. On February 8th, the New York Times characterized the events as follows:
The easing of New York’s pandemic restrictions on businesses comes as Democratic-led states from New Jersey to California have announced similar moves this week, in a loosely coordinated effort that is the result of months of public-health planning, back-channel discussions and political focus groups that began in the weeks after the November election.
It was Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey who began the effort last fall, weeks after he was stunned by the energy of right-wing voters in his blue state, who nearly ousted him from office in what was widely expected to be an easy re-election campaign. Arranging a series of focus groups across the state to see what they had missed, Mr. Murphy’s advisers were struck by the findings: Across the board, voters shared frustrations over public health measures, a sense of pessimism about the future and a deep desire to return to some sense of normalcy.
Then, Omicron hit, delaying any easing of restrictions.
But slowly, as case rates began to fall again in January, conversations between Mr. Murphy’s aides and senior officials in other states began to pick back up. No actions could be taken until the virus eased its grip, the officials acknowledged.
Last week, they took their concerns to the White House. As members of the National Governors Association gathered for a meeting in the East Room, several asked President Biden to provide clear guidelines for their states to move from the crisis footing of a pandemic to a recognition that the virus was here to stay—and that it could be managed without completely upending daily life.
Other events similarly demonstrate that by November 2021, elected Democrats and liberals in the media were increasingly adopting a view that moving right on covid protections should be a part of the their 2022 electoral strategy. On November 15th, conservative Democratic party-aligned think tank Third Way published a memo following Terry McAuliffe’s prominent loss in an election for Governor of Virginia. The memo argued that “School closures + COVID policy were a bigger factor than CRT.”
This memo quickly went around in liberal policy and media circles, and the idea that covid protections would hurt Democrats in the upcoming election soon became establishment wisdom, despite the clear ideological underpinnings of its source, Third Way. The idea was prominently featured in articles in the New York Times and elsewhere. On November 23rd, Ezra Klein tweeted “Dems can't pretend COVID policy doesn't have political consequences, and there'll be a lot of on-the-margin decisions they need to make about masking and school ordinances in the coming year.”
We raise this in part because some people look at only one thing in particular as a smoking gun on masking, which is the letter sent by Biden’s polling firm Impact Research on February 24th. Impact Research told Biden in no uncertain terms to “take the win” on covid by rolling back covid protections, explicitly in order to improve their chances in the upcoming midterm elections.
While this letter is significant evidence informing their strategy going forward, based on our timeline, it seems clear that the Biden administration’s specific changes on masking guidance and the forthcoming Community Level system were already in motion by the time Impact Research’s letter arrived. As in most hegemonic constructs, while there are certainly key turning points, the aggregate effects of many key moments of social reproduction and knowledge production can’t be discounted when trying to assess what caused a particular state action to occur.
On February 9th the New York Times ran the following headline:
From that story:
The White House has been meeting with outside health experts to plan a pandemic exit strategy and a transition to a “new normal,” but the behind-the-scenes effort is crashing into a very public reality: A string of blue-state governors have gotten ahead of President Biden by suddenly abandoning their mask mandates.
Public health experts agree that school mask mandates should not last forever, but are divided about whether it is time to drop them. The C.D.C.’s current masking recommendations advise state and local officials to enact indoor masking policies in areas of the country where transmission is high.
A color-coded map on the agency’s website shows the entire country in red; 99 percent of all counties are in a high transmission zone — a point Dr. Walensky underscored on Wednesday.
The public is understandably confused.
The meetings with outside experts appear to have been prompted by a trio of articles published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which six former Biden transition advisers urged the administration to take a longer view and begin drafting a pandemic playbook aimed at “the new normal.”
The effort was led by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and medical ethicist who advised former President Barack Obama. In the first article, Dr. Emanuel, Dr. Gounder and Dr. Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, wrote that the United States must avoid becoming stuck in “a perpetual state of emergency.”
To be better prepared for inevitable outbreaks—including from new coronavirus variants—they suggested that the administration lay out goals and specific benchmarks, including what number of hospitalizations and deaths from respiratory viruses, including influenza and Covid-19, should prompt emergency mitigation and other measures.
As we observed in Part I, a major theme of early 2022 was the advancement of the idea that case counts no longer mattered, and that the metrics we should now be considering are hospitalizations and deaths. While we can be certain that the advisors listed above were not the only people suggesting this to the Biden White House (Ashish Jha was also promoting this idea at the same time) the Biden administration was searching for some rationale like this.
After all, some days later, on February 21st, just four days before unveiling the CDC’s new Community Level system, Rochelle Walensky would appear on Andy Slavitt’s podcast and say the following of masking:
“I just know people are tired. The scarlet letter of this pandemic is the mask. It may be painless, it may be easy, but it’s inconvenient, it’s annoying, and it reminds us that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
On February 25th, the CDC updated its recommendation guidelines for which counties should require masking, introducing the Community Level system still in place today. The following will describe the change in brief; for a more detailed analysis we recommend our episode of Death Panel from when the change was announced, which is called “Lying Like A State.”
Previously, the CDC made masking recommendations based on covid transmission. Transmission, full stop. This was because new cases are what leads to deaths; for that matter, new cases are also what leads to new cases of long covid. It’s not particularly complicated: in order to die from covid, you have to actually catch covid first, making transmission an enduringly useful metric.
The new system changed that to deprioritize cases and transmission. The simple explanation first:
Until the CDC changed their masking guidance, their transmission map, which is the visualization of how prevalent covid spread is and where masks should be recommended, was bright red, with nearly every US county filled in at “High” transmission. This is still the case, in fact: you can still see the old map if you try—it’s just no longer used to set federal public health guidance.
Under the new guidelines, the map immediately turned a discomfiting shade of pastel green. All of a sudden, masking wasn’t recommended by the CDC in 70% of the country.
Recall that almost no states even had a mask mandate by this point. Before the CDC made this change, those states had been universally going against CDC guidance. The CDC basically changed its guidelines to say, “Yeah, sure, ok.”
Headlines in major media outlets at the time focused on this 70% figure, followed by updates in early March that masking was no longer recommended for 90% of the population. Almost no press focused on the fact that the CDC had simply changed how covid risk was calculated. The overwhelming message conveyed by this change was therefore that covid was, biologically, no longer as much of a threat as it had previously been; a far cry from the reality.
A more technical explanation of the Community Level system is this:
The CDC used to declare a county “High” covid risk—meaning masks should be worn there, appearing bright red on the map—if transmission was happening at a level of 100 cases per 100,000 people.
Under the new metric, covid cases themselves do not even count toward the guideline determination until there are twice that amount of cases—200 cases per 100,000 people.
In other words, under the new system you can have twice the rate of covid transmission that would previously have qualified as “High” risk level in the area where you live, and your area will still be counted as “Low.” Here is a useful visualization of this:
This new substantially higher threshold for cases is used really only as a modifier for the new principle metrics taken into account to calculate community levels. These are the following:
One of our favorite analogies used to explain this system comes from our colleague Nate Holdren: if you replace “covid” with “drunk driving” in this system, then while the old system was like saying, “Hey friend, you’ve had a lot to drink. Let me call you a cab,” the new system is more akin to saying, “Hey friend, you’ve had a lot to drink. Let me Google how many open hospital beds there are in the area real quick before you go ahead and drive home.”
It’s worth noting that the Biden administration was quite proud of this new system.
By this point, we know that they were looking for a way to communicate that people could relax on covid, while being eager to avoid a repeat of the previous year’s “declaration of independence from the virus.” So when they announced the change in metrics, it was described as a win. Walensky justified the move in the CDC telebriefing announcing it:
We wanna give people a break from things like mask wearing when our levels are low and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things get worse in the future.
This updated approach focuses on directing our prevention efforts towards protecting people at high risk for severe illness and preventing hospitals and healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. … Please remember that there are people who remain at higher risk for COVID 19 and who may need additional protection. … Those people might choose to take extra precautions regardless of what level their community is in.
60,351 people died of covid in the US in February.
The introduction of the Community Level system enabled pundits to be even more extreme in their pronouncements about masking and other covid “restrictions,” as media figures love to call them.
Here’s David Leonhardt from March 9th, 2022, in a newsletter called “Do Covid Precautions Work?” with the subheader, “Yes, but they haven’t made a big difference.” Leonhardt writes:
I’ve come to think of the point this way: Imagine that you carry around a six-sided die that determines whether you contract Covid, and you must roll it every time you enter an indoor space with other people. Without a mask, you will get Covid if you roll a one or a two. With a mask, you will get Covid only if you roll a one.
You can probably see the problem: Either way, you’ll almost certainly get Covid.
The guideline change had some other obvious effects, including a series of articles across media outlets stepping in to provide, essentially, self-help guidance for people who were still masking. Here are two examples:
March 4th, Huffington Post: “How To Cope When You’re The Only One Wearing A Mask At Work.”
On March 1st, Biden delivers his State of the Union address, maskless, of course, to a room full of maskless people over seventy that we collectively call “Congress.”
Politico’s headline for this is: “The masks come off at Biden’s State of the Union address.”
In the speech itself, Biden touted the CDC’s community level guideline change as one of his administration’s accomplishments, saying:
Just a few days ago, the CDC issued new mask guidelines. Under these new guidelines, most Americans in most of the country can now be mask free. …
We can end the shutdown of schools and businesses. We have the tools we need.
That same day, the Biden administration released an updated version of its “National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan.” It was sold as a bold new agenda for how the White House wanted to move forward; in reality, the plan is quite miserable, an early feint toward pushing all covid treatments and care toward the private market.
The Washington Post described this announcement as such: “White House unveils plan to move America past covid crisis, says shutdowns no longer necessary.”
So what was in this plan?
It was our first introduction of Test to Treat, the program of making Paxlovid available to be prescribed at the pharmacy. As a matter of policy, this continued the administration’s broader prerogative of relying on major pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens to be the first line of public health administration on covid. As we’ve all seen, this strategy does not work out great.
The plan also bluntly states the following:
“We look to a future when Americans no longer fear lockdowns, shutdowns, and our kids not going to school” … “It’s a future when the country relies on the powerful layers of protection we have built and invests in the next generation of tools to stay ahead of this virus.”
Despite touting “layers of protection”—one of the most basic layers of protection, by far, is masking, which the administration had been working to undo—the plan also says this (emphasis added): “Masks have been a critical tool to protect ourselves, but they have a time and a place.”
Additional goals in the document include a pledge to “support broad access to free testing across the country.” This is, as readers who have gotten this far in the timeline will undoubtedly know, ironic considering that the Biden administration would promptly do just the opposite, dismantling testing infrastructure across the country, or allowing it to be closed without taking federal action to keep it running.
And yet, in the words of the Biden covid plan, the Biden administration has “successfully put equity at the center of a public health response for the first time in the nation’s history.”
March 2022 also marks the emergence of something that would define the rest of the year, which is Biden’s weak attempts to make Congress continue to fund the covid response
We won’t be exhaustive about this interminable part of the year, but in summary: by mid-February, Biden’s HHS had informally asked Congress for about $30 billion to keep funding the covid response, including the vaccines and therapeutics that the federal government is, at time of writing, still paying for. In early 2022, the federal government was still paying for covid care for uninsured people, an undoubtedly important component of a pandemic response for a country where healthcare is a privilege for those who can afford it. That program, which covered covid care for uninsured people, was unceremoniously killed March 22nd, 2022, when the Biden administration and Congress allowed its funding to run out.
Around the state of the union, the Biden administration finally got around to formally asking congress for funding. They painted the picture as extremely urgent and dire, but then, just days later, counteracted their own message by substantially reducing their funding target. This pattern would play out continually over the course of the year, allowing the Biden administration to paint Congress as the central reason the covid pandemic continues to be such a disaster, while simultaneously normalizing covid in every other way possible, diminishing the sense of political urgency.
Immediately after this, it appears that a conversation gets prioritized within the White House while simultaneously getting hidden from the public for most of the year: preparations to kick covid vaccines and treatments to the private market by 2023.
In Biden’s March 2022 “National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan” the Administration hinted at this transition in the following way under the header “Explore public and private insurer coverage of COVID-19 treatments this year,” in a longer list of their immediate goals (emphasis added):
The Administration has worked during the pandemic to ensure that COVID-19 treatments are free and accessible to all Americans. … Under the Administration’s current model for distributing effective treatments against COVID-19, treatments are free to the public and distributed directly to states and territories and to community health centers across the country to ensure equitable access in our hardest-hit communities. The Administration also reimburses providers for the cost of administering COVID-19 treatments to the uninsured. To ensure that these treatments remain accessible and to reduce the ongoing costs to the federal government, the Administration will work with insurers and Congress to explore public and private insurer coverage of COVID-19 treatments this year.
No timeline is given for this goal, so it goes largely ignored until August of 2022, when the administration starts making more official announcements about it. However, by June, we see the first indication of a time horizon, when Ashish Jha says unprompted in an interview with Bob Wachter that, while talking to members of Congress, he has to explain to them that covid care can enter the private market in “maybe 2023.” We cover this statement as a significant development on Death Panel, but at the time, almost no one picks it up.
That said, on March 15th 2022, the administration does telegraph this shift more substantially, though, again, no timeline is suggested. The following is from the transcript of a press call with an unnamed “Senior Administration Official” who, from word choice and manner of address, we presume to be Jeff Zients, who was at that time still the White House coronavirus response coordinator:
MUNOZ: Let’s go to Tamara Keith at NPR.
Q: I’m hoping that you can sort of explain the mechanics of the markets for these various things, like why the government still needs to be involved in making these large purchases; why, you know, large hospital groups couldn’t be buying the vaccines or buying the monoclonal antibodies; like, why—why it is all so contingent on federal funds.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Tamara, it’s a good question.
Look, in our preparedness plan, we outlined that we want to explore in the future the ability to transition some of COVID treatments and potentially other tools to insurance-based market, like other healthcare. … [W]e want to explore over the long term a safe, a smooth transition. But right now, we have immediate needs, and we need Congress to act.
MUNOZ: Let’s go to Zeke Miller at the AP.
Q: Hey. Thanks for doing this. Just to follow up on Tam’s question there: So, why not, if—you know, if the need is immediate and Congress right now shows no sign of budging, aren’t you exploring those alternate avenues? You know, you just required private insurers to cover the cost of at-home tests. Why not have them cover the cost of vaccines and Paxlovid and other things like that?
Why does the government still need to be the middleman there, given the current rate of COVID-impacted society and mortality? I mean, how is that different than, you know, cancer or heart disease, other things where insurance is — the private insurance market is already effective there? …
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Zeke. So, on your first question, I’d say, look, we are exploring those alternatives. We made that clear in the—in the Preparedness Plan that we released a few weeks ago. But it takes time, as you know, to move to that—to such a system. We—it needs to be an orderly, smooth transition. So we’re working through that. … So it’s certainly something we’re exploring.
Presuming the “Senior Administration Official” in that call is Jeff Zients, this turns out to be one of the last major acts he would take while covid czar. On March 17th, Ashish Jha is officially announced as the new hire for the job.
As we said at the time, our general impression is that Jha is brought in largely to make everyone feel more positively about the Biden administration.
Progressive media outlets had lobbied plenty of criticism at Zients by the time Jha was announced to replace him. Much of that criticism, however, centered exclusively on Zients’ lack of a public health background and his (certainly damning) career in private equity. Jha fit the bill as someone who could alleviate those concerns: the Dean of a public health school—notwithstanding the largely administrative role of Deans in academia—and, most importantly, someone who had been, for better or worse, playing TV doctor to the country for the better part of the covid pandemic. STAT News had called him, in early 2021, “TV’s everyman expert on covid.” And now, in a move that certainly would have made the press aghast in the Trump era, the White House had essentially decided, “Get me the guy from TV.”
About 30,000 people died of covid in the US March.
This brings us to April. But let’s stay on breakthrough deaths for a second.
As we mentioned in Part I [link], in April, the CDC finally updates one of its datasets that had been dormant for months, tracking deaths by vaccination status in 27 jurisdictions.
On April 21st, 2022, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report on this dataset. On Death Panel, we also covered this in an episode called “Breakthroughs.” That episode—not the episode itself, but the existence of the episode—pissed off a lot of liberals, and added fuel to an interminable discourse in early April that to be concerned about breakthrough deaths was to fall prey to “the base rate fallacy.” This argument was always nonsense—the US vaccination rate was and remains piss-poor—so we won’t revisit or re-litigate it in full here. But the important claim is this:
Until this point, the main arguments demonstrating that the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” line was both incorrect and grossly stigmatizing were rhetorical. We could reference the many anecdotal cases of breakthrough deaths, or the inconsistent handful of states that reported them. And we did that. But this was the first systematic look at how common breakthroughs are. By the end of April, even the Washington Post prominently acknowledged this with the headline “Covid deaths no longer overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated as toll on elderly grows,” although they couched this claim in a framing device the Post would call, by late November, “a plague of the elderly.”
For us, this new information was a pretty frightening validation of something we’d been saying for a long time: the vaccine-only strategy pursued by the Biden administration does not work. We still need, in 2022, layered protections—layered protections just like the masks that the Biden administration said in March that there was “a time and a place for.”
There’s one last tragic point on this.
As of April, none of us knew it yet, but April 2022 is the first month where a majority of the people dying are fully vaccinated.
And not by a small margin either. 59% of covid deaths in April were in people who were fully vaccinated.
This means that while liberals were yelling at us—and the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Washington Post—about the Base Rate Fallacy and how we were undermining Biden’s covid response, more than half of people dying of covid were vaccinated. All just after the Biden administration had just done so much work to undo what remained of masking and other pandemic protections in the US.
The major policy development of April came on April 18th, when a federal judge struck down the TSA’s transportation mask mandate, one of the last major remaining mask mandates.
What did the Biden administration do in response? Did they turn immediately to say, “We will fight this”?
Nope. At first, they just … dithered. They called the ruling “disappointing” and took the opportunity to essentially stress to people that you could still make an individual decision to mask on an airplane or on the bus, if you really want to.
Before the Biden administration can even decide whether to appeal it, discourse kicks up that it’s for the best and that it was long past time to undo the transportation mask mandate. David Leonhardt writes a whole newsletter entry about how fun it was to fly unmasked. Leonhardt’s piece is filled with such trenchant observations as, “The trouble with the transportation mask mandate was that it was both too broad and too lenient.” He also couches the entire argument in what was by this point becoming a common refrain of his, that we can’t be sure that masking does anything, anyway, saying: “Rigorous laboratory tests show that masks reduce Covid transmission, but supporting real-world evidence tends to be much weaker.”
Also at the beginning of April, the Gridiron Dinner happens.
For those who don’t remember, this was a literal superspreader event attended by a bunch of Washington’s elite, including Fauci and Kamala Harris. It becomes a minor scandal.
It ended in at least 72 confirmed infections, which is a lot, considering that this number does not include infected staff who worked the event, since infections among staff were kept private and never disclosed.
Here are some highlights from the Washington Post’s account of the dinner:
[S]ome of the comic skits [at the event] featured actors dressed as the coronavirus, like large, green bouncing balls with red frills …
At one point, a performer dressed as Fauci sang from the stage to the real Fauci in the audience: “Doctor, doctor, give me some clues, we’ve got a bad case of covid blues.
13,000 people died of covid in April, according to the CDC
You may have noticed that there was much less activity on Covid from the Biden administration in April, apart from some dithering around the TSA mask mandate.
This will be characteristic of the rest of our timeline, beginning with Part III. There are long stretches in the remainder of 2022 where the Biden administration more or less seems to be trying to talk about covid as little as possible.
And in the background of this, we are becoming increasingly ill-informed about the state of the pandemic itself.
Programs are ending. Testing facilities are closing. People are being encouraged to use rapid tests at home, and none of those tests are being reported as positive test results by states, in part because there is no real mechanism to do so.
In other words, the Biden administration has by now successfully pivoted to a regime where cases don’t matter, only hospitalizations do. And as part of that pivot, the work they’ve done has also made it difficult to even understand how many cases are happening in most of the country
Recall the change to the Community Level system covered at the beginning of this section. The new Community Level system significantly increased the threshold of covid cases required to trigger a masking recommendation (importantly: recommendation, not mandate).
When you add to this decreased testing infrastructure, and substantially decreased, or increasingly infrequent, reporting by states of covid data, the bar is raised high for the CDC to ever broadly recommend masking again. Information on covid has dried up, and the processes the state used to employ to synthesize that information have also been subverted to paint a much rosier picture of covid risk in the US than the reality. It’s no surprise that, by May, the Washington Post asks: “How big is the latest U.S. coronavirus wave? No one really knows.”
We are living simultaneously in the covid pandemic as an ongoing event, and as its aftermath.
On September 21st of this year, US President Joe Biden remarked to 60 Minutes that “the pandemic is over,” and yet the covid pandemic is still very much ongoing.
As of the most recently available data on the data from the CDC, in the first week of December 2022, 3,115 people died of covid in the US. In the last week, as of this writing, an additional 2,703 people died of covid. This is between 400 and 450 people dying of covid every day.
According to the same data, in the last year 255,361 people have died of covid in the US—a quarter of a million people, and more than two and a half full “Incalculable Losses,” to borrow a phrase from the New York Times early in the pandemic.
And this is, obviously, not to mention the many other consequences of covid, among them: long covid, or the more than 10 million children who have been left without a caregiver because of the pandemic.
Since Biden’s statement in September, many have challenged his assertion, and many more have wondered how it is possible that the pandemic can be “over” in the face of the overwhelming figures above. As we have written previously, the answer to this lies in something we have been calling, along with our collaborators on Death Panel, the sociological production of the end of the pandemic.
In other words, there has been a profound social and political process to naturalize the pandemic and its effects.
This piece presents an incomplete timeline of the key moments in US covid normalization throughout 2022. Our aim is to show when and how this normalization occurs; calling out when what’s often presented as a novel insight into covid has much less to do with anything real and much more to do with what we’d like to believe about the pandemic. Or what people in power would like to believe.
A key component of that story is emphasizing that, despite its many assertions to the contrary, the Biden administration has failed to meaningfully combat the pandemic. Instead, they have taken the leading edge in normalizing covid and turning a collective responsibility into a matter of individual risk.
But just because the Biden administration and many in the media want to be done with the pandemic doesn’t mean it’s over. And just because they’ve normalized things like the end of masking, doesn’t mean that these losses can’t be won back.
Left to its own devices, the Biden administration would press for the pandemic to end without so much as passing paid sick leave. For that matter, far from taking this moment to recognize we have a profound unmet need in providing free universal healthcare (or, health communism), the Biden administration is actively about to kick covid vaccines and therapeutics to the private market and stop guaranteeing to pay for them at the federal level.
And while many of the Biden Administration’s worst pandemic offenses were in some ways baked into our existing political economy of health, the fact that it would have absolutely been possible to mobilize for far less death, disability, debility, and immiseration during covid, while still operating under a capitalist political economy, is all the more damning.
Let’s set the scene.
It’s the end of 2021. We’ve passed 800,000 dead; we haven’t hit 1 million yet, by the official count at least. There are still statewide mask mandates in 8 states. Only 8.
By mid-November 2021, following a series of enormously influential op-eds and press appearances earlier in the fall, experts such as JG Allen have began spreading the idea that “one-way masking works,” which would become the de facto slogan of ending masking.
Also prominent in the discourse at the time is the idea of “off-ramps.” The New York Times writes “We Need to Talk About an Off-Ramp for Masking at School”; Monica Gandhi writes in The Atlantic that “It’s Time to Contemplate the End of the Crisis.”
On November 12th, 2021, David Leonhardt writes for the New York Times: “The bottom line is that Covid now presents the sort of risk to most vaccinated people that we unthinkingly accept in other parts of life. … [This] raises the question of which precautions should end — now or soon — and which should become permanent.”
November 2021 also puts us within one year of the midterm elections. Some Democratic party politicians, like the Governor of New Jersey, start running focus groups. One of their findings, according to the New York Times, is that remaining covid protections galvanize at least one bloc of voters in their state to vote against them. Governors start talking amongst themselves about this. This will be important to our timeline when we get to February.
At the end of November, while many people are gathered together for Thanksgiving, as they have been encouraged to do by the Biden administration, the world learns of Omicron for the first time, followed by a more or less immediate spike in cases and deaths.
Despite this, a media narrative immediately emerges to insist the new omicron variant is “mild.” The idea that omicron was milder than previous variants ultimately wouldn’t pan out, but that doesn’t stop people from running with the line for months, and really, to this day.
That said, the supposed “evidence” that omicron is a milder variant came almost exclusively from anecdotal comments made by physicians and virologists in South Africa shortly after omicron was named a variant of concern, when they were asked by press to comment on how they felt about the new variant.
One other fascinating piece of context: at this point, by the end of December 2021, the CDC’s official stance on reinfections is as follows:
“Cases of reinfection with COVID-19 have been reported, but remain rare.”
Despite the enormous prevalence of this supposedly “mild” new variant, between November 3 2021 and December 29 2021, 73,514 people died of covid in the US.
In December 2021, the Biden administration was still using the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” line, which would disappear briefly in early 2022 before coming back in a new form in the late summer. Here’s Biden on December 21st:
“Almost everyone who has died from COVID-19 in the past many months has been unvaccinated. Unvaccinated.”
It’s important to understand that this line first emerged during a time when data on breakthrough deaths—that is, deaths in people who have been fully vaccinated, which is defined as having taken a primary vaccine series—was not forthcoming from the CDC.
In the fall of 2021, the CDC stopped reporting vaccination status alongside information on covid deaths. We were then––after about September 2021––totally in the dark regarding breakthrough deaths for the next few months.
However, in April, the CDC finally began updating one dataset on breakthrough infections and deaths again, showing deaths by vaccination status in a dataset that covers about 66% of the US population. In the remainder of this piece, we’ll be citing this dataset when possible, and assuming it is nationally representative.
Given what we now know about breakthrough deaths, the month that Biden said the above line about covid deaths being almost exclusively among the unvaccinated, 29% of US covid deaths were actually in people who were fully vaccinated.
Breakthrough cases become so prevalent that even in the absence of information they become a minor matter of public discussion; Biden officials start getting questions from mainstream press outlets about whether they’re actively collecting this information, and if they are, why it isn’t being released.
What’s important about this is that the CDC was collecting this information; they just weren’t revealing it to the public yet and wouldn’t do so until April 2022.
Here’s Anthony Fauci on CBS’s Face the Nation on November 28th:
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why did the United States decide not to track those breakthrough infections? …
FAUCI: It's a very complicated situation. And often the public doesn't hear yet in time things that are being collected. So there's a lot of data, clearly a lot of data, that's being collected by the CDC that people don't know about yet.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But is there data being collected now in the United States about breakthrough infections that the public doesn't know about?
FAUCI: Yes, yes. Yes. The CDC is collecting data, yes.
In a December 10th, 2021 press briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is asked a similar question:
SERENA MARSHALL: Dr. Walensky, I’m wondering if there’s any plans for the CDC to change how they will be managing breakthrough cases and tracking those. I know there’s been a big call within the medical community to have more real-time data reporting, especially now learning, as outlined, that many of those Omicron cases currently in the U.S. are among the vaccinated.…
WALENSKY: Yeah, thank you for that question. So we have many different mechanisms by which we follow breakthrough cases. One is through passive reporting. But we know, through passive reporting, we’re not getting all of those cases in.…
And then we’re also tracking in numerous departments of public health. And over 20 departments of public health are now combining their vaccination data with their testing data with their hospitalization data. And that’s over a third of the population, and that’s giving us a really accurate view of breakthrough cases, both for two doses of vaccine and now for booster shots as well.
Suffice it to say, our speculation is that the White House and CDC assumed that seeing the prevalence of breakthrough deaths would lead to vaccine hesitancy and so they didn’t report them for months. Instead, they decided to keep with the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” line despite the fact that covid represents an ongoing threat to everyone in the absence of layers public health protections like masking and paid leave.
If the CDC and other organs of the federal government had some idea that this was not, in fact, “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” there is no indication that they considered changing their messaging. In fact, it’s at this time that the White House instead doubles down on this idea.
From a CNN report December 18th 2021:
“President Joe Biden's top health officials came to an afternoon briefing at the White House Thursday [December 16th] with a warning—and a request. … Biden listened intently as the officials laid out the contours of a looming coronavirus surge that could accelerate rapidly, swamp hospitals and send the country into another bleak winter.
Yet Biden's team also came to the evergreen-bedecked Roosevelt Room with potentially more positive news: Many of those cases will remain mild or even asymptomatic in vaccinated people—particularly those who have gotten booster shots.
It was a message the officials urged Biden to deliver to the public in the clearest terms possible, according to people familiar with the session. Only by laying out the stark difference in outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated infections could the gravity of the moment come through.
That very same day, Biden says the following in a public address:
“For [the] unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death—if you’re unvaccinated—for themselves, their families, and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.”
The final major development in December 2021 is the abrupt shift from the long-established covid isolation policy to a much shorter one—just 5 days of isolation, down from 10—with the explicit intention of getting people back into the workplace quicker, whether they’re still shedding virus or not.
There are many competing versions of where this abrupt change came from, but it helps to contextualize it with the discourse circling in the press at the time.
As noted above, by December, the idea that Omicron was “mild” was in full swing. Pundits were demanding “off ramps” to pandemic protections like masking and isolation. In early December, isolation guidelines begin to come into question as well.
The Atlantic, on December 7th: “Why Are We Still Isolating Vaccinated People for 10 Days?”
Vox’s Dylan Scott, on December 17th: “Does it still make sense for vaccinated people with Covid-19 to isolate for 10 days?”
On December 17th 2021, Ashish Jha—at that point about 3 months away from getting the job as the new White House coronavirus response coordinator—says in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered: “We do not need to be doing mass quarantining right now. We have kids across America at home waiting out a 14-day quarantine. Totally unnecessary.”
Industry groups also get involved. On December 21st, the CEO and two other representatives of Delta Airlines send a letter to the Biden administration, asking for the following:
“To address the potential impact of the current isolation policy safely, we propose a 5-day isolation from symptom onset for those who experience a breakthrough infection.”
December 23rd, “Airlines for America,” a lobbying group for the airline industry, sends a letter requesting the exact same thing.
Importantly, this change in guidance is broadly interpreted as a signal from the CDC that covid now lasts about 5 days, and that the new guidance on isolation timing was made accordingly. This is far from the case, as should be evident from the multiple administration officials, including Biden himself, who tested positive for periods longer than 5 days just this year.
Instead, administration officials are very open about this guideline change being made with the economy and workforce participation in mind.
On December 29th, Walensky appears on CNN to explain the change:
Q: “So from what you’re saying it sounds like this decision had as much to do with business as it did with the science?”
Walensky: “It spoke to behaviors as well as what people were willing to do” … [that] “people would feel well enough to be at work”
In a separate interview, Anthony Fauci described the decision as follows:
“There is the danger that there will be so many people who are being isolated who are asymptomatic for the full ten days, that you could have a major negative impact on our ability to keep society running. So the decision was made of saying let's get that cut in half.”
The CDC also runs an ad on social media and elsewhere around the same time, which seemingly emphasizes the guidance change without mentioning it directly. The ad shows a masked barista standing confidently with text that reads, “I’m Not Letting Covid-19 Take My Shifts.”
So the Biden administration were very explicit about what the priority was here: doing this abruptly, in the face of a huge wave of infections, to prioritize economic productivity over people’s lives. Not only that, as mentioned earlier, there wasn’t evidence that people aren’t transmissible anymore after 5 days—and instead, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.
In January, we found out just how rushed this decision was. Here’s how the New York Times said it went down:
On the Sunday night after Christmas, Dr. Walensky called an emergency meeting of the agency’s Covid response leaders. She told them the agency would shrink the recommended isolation period …
The new guidance would be made public the next day, Dr. Walensky said, and officials were not to discuss it until then.
Stunned, the scientists scrambled to gather the limited data to support the recommendations and to rewrite the hundreds of pages on the agency’s website that touch on quarantine and isolation. …
There was so little evidence for shortened isolation … that the “science brief” that typically accompanies guidance was downgraded to a “rationale” document.
Some researchers bristled at being left out of the decision-making process and were enraged by the agency’s public statement the next day that the change was “motivated by science.”
By the end of 2021, over 825,000 people had died of covid in the US.
By January, the idea that Omicron is “mild” was more or less solidified, despite no real evidence that this is the case.
In spite of this sunny depiction of reality in the nation’s paper of record, 69,986 people would die of covid in the US in January alone.
This idea of “omicron in retreat” was part of a broader phenomenon that held in the early months of 2022. This rhetoric argued that “cases were falling” or even “crashing” dramatically, even though cases were still at record highs—they were just “falling” in the sense that they were reducing from an outrageous peak of hundreds of thousands of cases per day. This idea that the line was trending down, even with cases still at record highs, was constantly referred to in the first months of 2022.
The year started with a lot of activity. Added to the “mild” discourse was an increased drumbeat that “one way masking works,” which at the end of 2021 had not yet been fully accepted but had gained a huge foothold by the beginning of January.
Some members of the commentariat went so far as to propose that, beyond omicron being “mild,” we could also consider it to be “nature’s covid vaccine.” This led to one of the most outrageous headlines of 2022, with the Wall Street Journal opinion pages proposing, on January 10th, 2022:
There were two other significant signposts ideas of early 2022:
First, that covid cases were now “decoupled” from deaths, and that we should stop worrying about covid cases entirely. Considering how the rest of 2022 is characterized by a substantial drop in testing, if you wanted to accuse someone of being a “lazy writer,” you could call this decoupling narrative “telegraphing,” or “too overt of telegraphing,” but that’s just what happened.
My favorite example of this is Ben Mazer at The Atlantic, who wrote a piece with the following headline:
Mazer argued that we were testing too many people, catching too many positives in people who were asymptomatic. Therefore, “Each unnecessary swab that you consume means one fewer is available for more important purposes—such as diagnosing a symptomatic infection.”
Others leaned more specifically into the angle that we should no longer be looking at cases, but at hospitalizations instead.
Monica Gandhi published a New York Times op-ed headlined “Why Hospitalizations Are Now a Better Indicator of Covid’s Impact.”
Ashish Jha, still doing his work for free, tells ABC News in late December: “I no longer think infections generally should be the major metric. Obviously, we can continue to track infections among unvaccinated people because those people will end up in the hospital at the same rate, but we really have to focus on hospitalizations and deaths now.”
This idea ultimately echoes the same conceit behind the CDC’s mask guideline change to the “Community Levels” system, which emerged in February.
The second signpost idea was this:
In January 2022, the idea of adjusting how covid hospitalizations are tracked to consider those “hospitalized with covid” versus those “hospitalized for covid” is mainstreamed among liberals. New York Governor Kathy Hochul is among the first major Democratic Party officials to embrace this line, in new guidance issued in January. Previously this had been a fringe idea, where to cast doubt on the existence or severity of the virus, right wingers and covid deniers would argue that covid hospitalizations were artificially high; that people would go into the hospital for things like car crashes or broken legs, test positive for covid, and be counted as a covid hospitalization, inflating the figures. This wasn’t true, but ultimately became adopted by some liberals regardless.
For more on both of these two lines from January, we would refer readers to an episode of Death Panel from that month, “Vaxxed and Collapsed.”
January was also, most importantly, a big month for the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to downplay the pandemic.
On January 7th, Rochelle Walensky enraged almost the entire disability community and many other covid advocates by telling Good Morning America:
“The overwhelming number of [covid] deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really these are people who were unwell to begin with. And, yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.”
Not only was this line more or less a reiteration of the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” myth, penalizing people for having “pre-existing conditions,” it was also a comment based on only 36 deaths in a larger study. (The MMWR this statistic came from can be viewed here). In other words, certainly not anything you should be making talking points around, unless your goal is to make sure everyone stops giving a shit about covid. Which was probably the goal.
January 13th, Kamala Harris is asked on NBC’s Today Show whether, in light of an open letter from former Biden advisors, it’s time for the White House to finally change up their covid strategy. Harris responds with the immortal words:
“It is time for us to do what we have been doing. And that time is every day. Every day it is time for us to agree that there are things and tools that are available to us to slow this thing down.”
On January 11th, at a Senate hearing, acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock says, “Most people are going to get covid … What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens.”
The next day, January 12th, during a regular White House press briefing Fauci is asked to clarify Woodcock’s comments; he says the following:
“[S]ooner or later, as we begin to live with it, what she was referring to is that virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely get infected”
The next day, January 13th, Jen Psaki is asked some frankly rather softball questions on whether the administration should change course on covid, and responds:
“[W]e could certainly propose legislation to see if people support bunny rabbits and ice cream, but that wouldn’t be very rewarding to the American people.”
This light pushback from the press and from others ultimately doesn’t go far enough in getting any kind of real course correction in a positive sense, but we do think it instills an idea in the White House that they do need to shake some things up if they want people to believe that covid is under control.
Into all of this comes two notable pieces of media released by the New York Times before the end of January:
The first is: “How Did We Fail So Badly?” an interview by Kara Swisher with economist-mommy-blogger-turned-pandemic-guru Emily Oster and Ashish Jha (at that time still working for free, not yet hired by the Biden administration to run its covid response). In this interview Jha says Oster was right on schools, “more right than I have been.”
The second notable piece of New York Times content is David Leonhardt’s January 25th 2022 newsletter “Two Covid Americas.” This newsletter in particular, and the accompanying Daily episode, spread widely. Leonhardt walks right up to the line of saying that masking and other mitigations don’t do anything, a position he’s more explicit about in later months.
In “Two Covid Americas,” Leonhardt worked with “global decision intelligence company” Morning Consult to gin up a poll on people’s self-reported perception of their covid risks.
Leonhardt writes of his findings:
[T]he poll results suggest that Americans have adopted at least some irrational beliefs about Covid. In our highly polarized country, many people seem to be allowing partisanship to influence their beliefs and sometimes to overwhelm scientific evidence.
Millions of Republican voters have decided that downplaying Covid is core to their identity as conservatives, even as their skepticism of vaccines means that the virus is killing many more Republicans than Democrats.
Millions of Democrats have decided that organizing their lives around Covid is core to their identity as progressives, even as pandemic isolation and disruption are fueling mental-health problems, drug overdoses, violent crime, rising blood pressure and growing educational inequality.
It’s a remarkable disconnect between perception and reality. A majority of the boosted say they are worried about getting sick from Covid. In truth, riding in a car presents more danger to most of them than the virus does.
At this point it’s worth noting that, at least according to some reports, Leonhardt counts President Biden among his readership. (We have seen this assertion disputed but have not seen firm evidence that it is not true, and so refer to the Politico report linked).
Leonhardt also goes on the New York Times podcast The Daily to talk to Michael Barbaro about these ideas.
The Times takes this so seriously that they make this The Daily episode a two-parter, under the title “We Need To Talk About Covid,” Parts 1 and 2; in the second half, Barbaro interviews Anthony Fauci and more or less begs him on mic to personally end mask mandates.
From that exchange, with emphasis added:
BARBARO: So we wanted to talk to you because it feels like we might be at a potential turning point in how we think about and respond to this pandemic, and how we learn to live with it, rather than having it be a life-altering, in some cases life-dominating virus that people desperately try to avoid. And a few things prompted that question in our minds. And I want to walk through them very briefly.
BARBARO: The first is that at this point, every person over the age of five in the U.S. who wants a vaccine can now have one. And most Americans are now vaccinated. Second, Omicron is hugely contagious but meaningfully milder than previous variants, so many people have accepted that infection is likely in their life. Third, the costs of our current approach are becoming very high.
There’s a well-documented crisis of childhood education and childhood mental health, for example. And fourth and finally, you yourself said about a week ago that we’re heading into a phase of this pandemic where it resembles — and this is a quote from you — “the infections that we’ve learned to live with,” end quote. So given all that, let me put this to you very simply.
Is it time to perhaps start treating Covid a lot more like the flu? And I didn’t pick the flu by accident. Because statistically speaking, among vaccinated people, even among people 65 and older, the Omicron variant of Covid seems to present less danger than a normal flu.
FAUCI: So everything you said is correct except a very minor, minor misquote of me.
69,986 people died of covid in January.
Because we know now what we didn’t then, we have that broken up by vaccination status as well, per the CDC data mentioned above.
Of those 70,000 deaths, 42% were fully vaccinated. Additionally, of those 70,000, 12% were not just vaccinated, but boosted as well. So assuming those are nationally representative, more than 29,000 vaccinated people died of covid just in January of this year.
By mid-January, there had been a total of 850,000 deaths. We had still not yet reached 1 million dead by official count.
However, by this point, 432,000 of those deaths—more than half—had now occurred under the Biden administration.
This is the end of Part I. In Part II, we look at the events from February to April 2022, when a barrage of policy changes put an end to the very last remaining mask mandates in the country. In Part III, we look at events from May 2022 to the end of the year, and the narrative and informational vacuum the Biden administration has cultivated on the pandemic.
A woman lies in bed in a large maternity ward. She’s just risen from a dream, and it overflows from sleep to tint her waking perceptions. A poplar tree glittering with sun is framed “like a mirage” in a large window; the ward is filled with “the peaceful sound of women’s voices” whose bodies appear “as bluish shadows” before a “flood of light.” When the woman reaches down to touch her belly, it feels like “wetting her hands in a shallow puddle.” Takiko, twenty-one and unmarried, has just given birth to a baby boy. Yet the fact seems alien to her: “Whether what she’d given birth to was alive or dead… need not concern her right now.” She’s merely relieved “her own body seemed to have come through safely.”
So begins Woman Running in the Mountains, a 1980 novel by the late Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima, reissued this year by NYRB. The scene is characteristically Tsushima’s: the sensuous descriptions, the lush presence and simultaneous remoteness of one’s body, and, above all, the bewilderment of motherhood. In a thoughtful introduction, the novelist Lauren Groff pinpoints these as qualities of “entangled pain and rapture.” Tsushima, who died in 2016, was one of the major Japanese writers of the late twentieth century, recognized for her prolific oeuvre of more than forty novels and stories centering the experience of women––typically single mothers––navigating urban life at the peak of Japan’s economic miracle, which stretched from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War. Like much of her work, Woman Running in the Mountains follows its protagonist, Takiko Odaka, through her first year of motherhood in 1970s Tokyo, a course alternating between drudgery and mysterious, burgeoning delight.
Takiko, a friendless, apparently unexceptional girl (an acquaintance describes her as “a bit short on personality”), still lives with her family in a middle-class suburb when she gets pregnant. Her mother, motivated by fear of the shame conferred on single mothers and illegitimate children, badgers Takiko, first to get an abortion, and then to give the child up for adoption; her father, a drunk, is physically abusive and emotionally detached. They don’t have much money; Takiko worked in an office until she could no longer hide her belly. Her mother ekes out a living as a seamstress and her father is on disability after injuring his leg. A semi-sympathetic younger brother seems more concerned with staying out late than supporting his family. Takiko has no plans to involve the baby’s father, either, who she slept with almost perfunctorily, and who has since moved away with his wife and children.
The book traces Takiko from the maternity ward to daytime nurseries and the various jobs she struggles through as she attempts to support her son, Akira. At one point, she makes a comical stab at selling cosmetics door-to-door. “There must be something else you can do with your face, surely?” a fellow saleswoman wonders. Eventually, Takiko ends up working for a city garden, a job that becomes a sort of refuge and catalyst for transfiguration. All the while, Woman Running in the Mountains catalogs the day-to-day realities of caring for a newborn as a mother largely unequipped to succeed. Sometimes Takiko feels an ineffable connection to Akira. Elsewhere, she gets drunk at an old haunt, sleeps intermittently with one of the bartenders, and lets the baby wail himself to sleep. In a brief middle section, the prose is replaced by meticulous journal entries from Akira’s nursery, which underscore the tedium of caring for an infant.
All of this might seem like a recipe for bleak, unrelenting realism. But one of the great pleasures of Tsushima’s work is that it is infused with an almost ethereal tenderness. Her prose is elegant and spare and strange, a facet gracefully captured by the late Geraldine Harcourt, Tsushima’s longtime English translator. And though the cards are often stacked against Tsushima's characters, they are never really victims, never without hope. Certainly, her stories have their share of suffering––the scenes in which Takiko fights with her father are some of the more blatantly upsetting in Tsushima’s work––but her protagonists tend to move through the world in something like a state of dreamlike discovery, chasing rich inner lives, seeking fulfillment even as they’re bounded by convention and practical constraint.
In Takiko’s case, her inner life centers on an inchoate vision of nature: a mountain, a frozen sea, a suffusion of light. She first imagines the landscape in the maternity ward, when a sunlit tree takes on the shape of a “white plain uninterrupted in any direction” in her mind’s eye. The scene, a mixture of childhood memory and imagination, turns into a field of ice, crosshatched by the carved trails of people on dogsleds (curiously, Takiko initially thinks of Native Americans), a fantasy which will recur throughout the novel. Later, a complimentary reverie materializes, of mountains “blue with distance…” looking over the frozen prairie. Sometimes, Takiko imagines herself running through the mountain’s greenery “like a child.” The image verges on freedom, but it’s also isolating. She’s alone “in her solitude among the mountains,” and as she runs, she weeps aloud. “She can’t go down there,” Takiko muses on the human landscape below. “It is a distant, other world.”
Tsushima is ostensibly an urban writer, concerned with life in cities, but nature is central to her work. Spaces of greenery and windows flooded with light operate as loci of transfiguration, sites of freedom or healing, but also danger, as if they have a mystic capacity. In Territory of Light, a sublime predecessor to Woman Running in the Mountains which first appeared in English in 2019, a mother momentarily loses her three-year old daughter in a park. In Tsushima’s famous short story, “The Silent Traders,” the narrator envisions a furtive exchange occurring between her fatherless children and the abandoned animals in a neighborhood garden.
In an essay for the Chicago Tribune in 1989, Tsushima wrote of her admiration for Tennessee Williams, whose heroines “hate to be self-contained in everyday life.” She felt akin to what she deemed “their expansionism––going outside to find happiness.” This conception is everywhere in Tsushima’s work, both the literal urge to go beyond the city, to be surrounded by light and leaves, but also the idea of going beyond oneself, of yearning, of exceeding. Even Tsushima’s name bears such a stamp. Born Satoko Tsushima, she felt her mother had chosen a kanji––the Chinese character used to spell her name––that was too symmetrical: 里, translated in some cases as “inside.” The kanji “had no room for expansion,” she writes. Instead, she chose the pen name Yūko, using 佑, “a simple character, but one which suggests movement toward the outside.” It also means, non-coincidentally, happiness or blessing.
This idea, “movement toward the outside,” is a keystone, inherent to the happiness Tsushima’s characters pursue. For Takiko, the movement finds its provenance at Misawa Gardens, where she works in the latter third of the book. The job, which entails delivering decorative plants to offices and stores around the city, is fulfilling, though physically demanding (it’s originally intended for a man). Eventually, a work trip takes Takiko to “the mountain,” the name her coworkers give to the area outside the city where they source their plants.
Takiko has become increasingly drawn to a coworker named Kambayashi, who she feels able to commiserate with after learning that he is the father of a mentally handicapped son (Tsushima’s own older brother had Down syndrome and died in his teens). His fatherly devotion, she feels, has given her “words for having and raising Akira”––a grammar to justify her choice to raise a child that society will condemn to the margins. This affection toward Kambayashi only deepens during their one-night stay at the mountain, when she discovers a connection between his life and her fantasy: his grandfather used to live in the far north, the icy landscape of her daydreams. In fact, Kambayashi has Ainu and Gilyak ancestry, two little-known peoples indigenous to Japan and the Russian Far East, the latter of whom were recognized, among other things, for their mastery of dog sledding. He thus appears to be a living embodiment of Takiko’s yearning, the culmination of her movement outside.
This is one of the stickier moments in Woman Running in the Mountains, and one interpretation risks dating the novel: Takiko’s fantasy can seem to constitute a discomfiting idealization of indigenous life, particularly for American readers, and her identification with Kambayashi’s son leverages disability into a catalyst for personal transformation. Yet, when one places the book in its time, a radical element also becomes clear: here is a novel about a woman and child on the margins (Akira’s family register, bearing the mark of his illegitimacy, will impact his future education and job prospects) searching for an alternative kind of self-sufficiency and community on those very margins. Takiko glimpses the possibilities of such a life in her work at Misawa Gardens, anomalous to the patriarchal and industrial labor systems booming in her country at the time, and kinship with, even desire for, Kambayashi, another parent stigmatized by society. It’s not a physical but political movement to the outside. Taken in these terms, the gesture has a kind of sweeping empathy to it, an expansion of who is, or should be, legitimated by society.
Tsushima, in fact, was a vocal advocate for the indigenous peoples and cultures of Japan. When invited to teach literature at the University of Paris from 1991 to 1992, she chose as her text, not canonical Japanese writers, but yukar, sagas from the rich tradition of Ainu oral literature. Yukar had long been classified as foreign in Japan, part of the centuries-long effort to eradicate and assimilate Ainu culture into the mainstream Japanese that began with the Meiji era annexation of their territory in the nineteenth century. In a 1994 essay on the subject, “The Possibility of Imagination in These Islands,” Tsushima offers a scathing assessment of the Japanese treatment of the Emishi, a larger denomination of hunter-gatherer tribes native to Japan: “The history of Japan is the history of the subjugation of the [E]mishi.” Yet, the preservation and promulgation of the culture Japan so long tried to erase, Tsushima believed, was in fact central to Japan’s longevity. “We must revive our memory of that kind of imagination,” she writes, referring above all to the intimate communion with the natural world captured in yukar epics. She saw the effort to embody and preserve such an imagination as her responsibility as a writer.
Tsushima’s work is often characterized as feminist, a label that feels both accurate and somehow incomplete. Critics have noted the way Woman Running in the Mountains, for instance, subverts the often misogynistic folk tale of the yamanba, or mountain-witch: an old crone who attacks passing travelers. But the novel isn’t strictly a clarion call; its vision is broader, and stranger. After Akira is born, for instance, Takiko finds herself surrounded by women in the hospital. The maternity ward is a liminal space, siloed from the patriarchal world, and Takiko experiences a kind of languid freedom there. But later, as if pained by unreality, she feels that the maternity ward has become “a place she’d rather not remember.” Another stunning passage captures the paradox at the heart of her urge for self-independence, as she imagines the woman in her mountain fantasy encased in “the cold, crystalline hardness of… quartz.” Akira’s kanji is also quartz: Takiko’s vision of liberation on the mountain is also a vision of entrapment. It’s a complicated view of motherhood, a tragic submission, even as Tsushima seems to sense a rapturous possibility in the act. Such moments, replete throughout Woman Running in the Mountains, resemble less a political screed than a perceptual field, a crucible for the internal and external tensions that society foments in a woman’s life.
Throughout the novel, Takiko exhibits an almost porous relationship with the world. At times, in her ear, Akira’s cries meld with the cry of cicadas. When she surveys a grove of trees, she has “the haunting sense that these things were her body.” The agon of the novel is embodied in language like this. Is self-independence requisite, Tsushima asks, or insufficient? Must you also give in: to others, to your family, your child, your world? If you make a movement toward the outside, will that movement conserve or consume you?
Any mention of Tsushima’s life is almost impossible without making at least passing reference to her father, Osamu Dazai, another major figure of twentieth century Japanese literature, who, when Tsushima was one, committed double suicide with his mistress. The mark of this act is impressed everywhere on her work: the ever-absent and adulterous fathers, the abandoned mothers, the failed parents. Paired with the devastating fact that Tsushima, who was a single mother herself, lost her own son just a few years after Woman Running in the Mountains was published, readers are apt to see Tsushima’s work as a reflection of her life. Indeed, typically writing in the first person, Tsushima did much to advance the “I-novel,” a semi-autobiographical Japanese form that predates the current American discussion of autofiction by about a century.
But even amid its accuracy, such attention also seems, like the feminist label, to incidentally bracket and reduce Tsushima’s stories. Woman Running in the Mountains, for its part, is written in the third person; it feels lived in, certainly, but less interior than novels like Territory of Light, its vision somehow grander. The book itself is longer, a more meticulous account of a year in its protagonist’s life, and while this causes the story to drag a bit in the middle, so, surely, does motherhood.
Born in 1957, Lauren Berlant theorized neoliberalism’s affective life. From 1984 to 2021, they taught at the University of Chicago, an institution which was instrumental in developing neoliberalism’s ideological infrastructure. Cruel Optimism (2011), Berlant’s breakout hit, is about what happens when “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” We remain, for instance, in a relation of cruel optimism with what Berlant called “the good life,” which is both the fantasy of inconvenience-free existence, and America’s short-lived postwar boom, which, post-Financial Crash, had begun to deteriorate visibly.
As free market capitalism, reduced government spending, and deregulation facilitated authoritarianism across the second half of the 2010s, Berlant looked at the rise of “freedom” as fetish object. In “Trump, or Political Emotions,” Berlant argued that Trump was popular, not because of his policies, but because he is “so free.” Supporting Trump lets his supporters to feel free by proxy, even as Trump destroys their freedom materially. During this same era, Berlant also analyzed the aesthetics of comedy. What’s the venn diagram overlap between the predator and the jokester? Between humor and humorlessness?
Berlant began publicly using they/them pronouns in the last few years of their life, a decision which, as scholar Colby Gordon has pointed out, many queer theorists of their generation took as a deathbed conversion—it wasn’t. In a 2019 interview, Berlant said: “The commune I lived in when I was in high school, Twin Oaks, had a gender neutral pronoun: Co. And I used it for years. And got my ass handed to me in grad school for being pretentious. So stopped.” Berlant was in fact wary of distracting away from trans people who had been out for longer and were more vulnerable (“not trying to get cred,” they said in the same interview). It’s also true that their writing on “lateral agency” and “remaining attached” gave words to what, years later, Trans Studies would call “dissociation.”
On The Inconvenience of Other People (excerpted below) was Berlant’s last book. The title is itself inconvenient, clunky, hard to say. Why not The Inconvenience of Others? What is the “on” even for? But the title is, of course, intentional, as annoying, funny, and necessary as the book’s thesis. Which is: that we annoy each other because perfect mutual recognition and communication is impossible; that some of us, individually and on a population level, are inconvenient to the social reproduction of racial capitalism; and that, despite all this, we (via what Berlant called the “inconvenience drive”) crave others anyway.
While “the university” is gutted by privatization and austerity, one way of keeping us cruelly, optimistically attached is via parasocial attachments to super star academics such as....Lauren Berlant. But as covid-era higher education enters a new phase of decline management, perhaps we’re beyond the phase of cruel optimism which once imagined academia as the vanguard of revolution. Berlant didn’t pretend to know what would come next. Angel of History-like, they proffered “transitional infrastructures.” Prepared for their own death, Berlant even wrote their own eulogy: “They did what they could at the time.”
- Charlie Markbreiter
Hell is other people, if you’re lucky.
“Hell is other people” is a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, although its continued appeal as a thing people say has little to do with the play. In Sartre’s version, characters are sentenced to occupy a room in Hell, exposed eternally to each other’s bodily presence and, much worse, to each other’s insufferable sameness. When people utter “hell is other people,” though, the phrase confirms more than the miserable effects of the relentless repetition of other people’s personalities. Freed from context, “Hell is other people” is an affirmative quip, too, emitting a comic, even courageous, air. Such a blunt cut can generate the conspiratorial pleasure of just hearing someone say it: it’s other people who are hell, not you. They really are, it’s a relief to admit it.
In other words, along with describing a saturating disappointment in others and expressing a kind of grandiose loneliness that aspires to fill its own hole with the satisfying sounds of superiority and contempt, “Hell is other people” has become a consoling thought.
Of course, some other people are hell, relentlessly saturating situations so fully that it’s impossible to relax while being around them—so much so that the very idea of them becomes suffocating. This affective sense of the stultifying person or kind of person also girds the affective life of racism, misogyny, ethnonationalism, and other modes of population disgust that Judith Butler points to in her work on “grievable life.”
Mostly, though, other people are not hell. Mostly, the sense of friction they produce is not directed toward a specific looming threat. Mostly, people are inconvenient, which is to say that they have to be dealt with. “They” includes you.
“Inconvenience” is a key concept of this book: the affective sense of the familiar friction of being in relation. At a minimum, inconvenience is the force that makes one shift a little while processing the world. It is evident in micro-incidents like a caught glance, a brush on the flesh, the tack of a sound or smell that hits you, an undertone, a semiconscious sense of bodies copresent on the sidewalk, in the world, or on the sidewalk of the world, where many locales may converge in you at once materially and affectively. It lives on in the many genres of involuntary memory—aftertaste, aftershock, afterglow. It might be triggered by anything: a phrase, a smell, a demanding pet, or someone you trip over, even just in your mind. It might be spurred by ordinary racism, misogyny, or class disgust, which can blip into consciousness as organic visceral judgments. The sense of it can come from nothing you remember noticing or from a small adjustment you made or couldn’t make, generating an episode bleed that might take on all kinds of mood or tone, from irritation and enjoyment to fake not-caring or genuine light neutrality. In other words, the minimal experience of inconvenience does not require incidents or face-to-faceness: the mere idea of situations or other people can also jolt into awareness the feel of their inconvenience, creating effects that don’t stem from events but from internally generated affective prompts.
The important thing is that we are inescapably in relation with other beings and the world and are continuously adjusting to them. I am describing more than “being affected” and sometimes less than “being entangled”: this analysis is grounded in the problematics of the social life of affect, drawing from situations involving genres of the sense of proximity, physical and otherwise, that might involve a sense of overcloseness at a physical distance, or not, and might involve intimate familiarity, or not. It might involve unclarity about how one is in relation to what one is adjusting to, or not. At whatever scale and duration, “inconvenience” describes a feeling state that registers one’s implication in the pressures of coexistence. In that state the body is paying attention, affirming that what’s in front of you is not all that’s acting on or in you.
Whatever tone it takes, whatever magnetic field it generates, this latter kind of contact with inconvenience disturbs the vision of yourself you carry around that supports your sovereign fantasy, your fantasy of being in control. This state is a geopolitically specific one, too, insofar as its model of the individual-with- intention includes a political and social demand for autonomy as evidence of freedom. The sovereign fantasy is not hardwired into personality, in other words: as US scholars of indigeneity such as Jessica Cattelino, Jodi A. Byrd, and Michelle Rajaha have demonstrated, sovereignty as idea, ideal, aesthetic, and identity claim is an effect of an ideology of settler-state control over personal and political territories of action that sanctions some privileged individuals as microsovereigns. This fantasy, which saturates the liberal colonial state and the citizenship subjectivity shaped by it, is thus seen as a natural condition worthy of defense. But sovereignty is always in defense of something, not a right or a natural state.
As I will argue throughout, the sense of the inconvenience of other people is evidence that no one was ever sovereign, just mostly operating according to some imaginable, often distorted image of their power over things, actions, people, and causality. It points to a style of being in relation and a sense of how things should best happen. People use phrases such as chain of command or the commons of x to describe what to do with nonsovereignty. The fact of inconvenience is not the exception to one’s sense of sovereignty, therefore; sovereignty is the name for a confused, reactive, often not-quite-thought view that there ought to be a solution to the pressure of adapting to “other people” and to other nations’ force of existence, intention, action, entitlement, and desire. Sovereignty is thus a fantasy of jurisdiction. It is a defense of entitlement, reference, and agency. Wounded sovereignty is, in some deep way, parallel to the concept of wounded narcissism. For if you or your nation were truly—as opposed to retroactively—sovereign, what then?
We know that, just by existing, historically subordinated populations are deemed inconvenient to the privileged who made them so; the subordinated who are cast as a problem experience themselves as both necessary for and inconvenient to the general supremacist happiness. All politics involves at least one group becoming inconvenient to the reproduction of power; that power might be material or fantasmatic, in the convoluted paranoid way endemic to the intimacy of enemies. The biopolitical politics of inconvenience increases the ordinary pressure of getting in each other’s way, magnifying the shaping duration of social friction within the mind’s echo chambers and the structuring dynamics of the world.
As an affect, inconvenience can thus encompass all kinds of intensity but still be cast as a mode of impersonal contact that has an impact, opening itself to becoming personal, creating images of what feels like a looming social totality, and making a countervailing social organization Imaginable. Think about Cheryl Harris’s staging of Blackness as “trespassing” on white consciousness as it strolls and scrolls through the world expecting not to feel impeded; think of the pervasive sexual violence women imagine concretely when they’re walking somewhere alone. These sensations of threat are ordinary to the people moving through in the lifeworlds of a supremacist society and its entitlement hierarchies… When is a body an event because of the kind of thing it is deemed to be, as when they walk into a room or cross a state line? What price and what kinds of price are being paid in order to live a life as other people’s inconvenient object?
To a structurally and/or fantasmatically dominant class, though, the experience of inconvenience produces dramas of unfairness. Take, for example, the paranoid reversals of “incels” and other entitled persons who experience their vulnerability as an injury of unjustly denied deference. It is predictable that the structurally dominant feel vulnerable about their status and insist that if the historically subordinated deserve repair, so do the entitled. It is as though there is a democracy in vulnerability, as though the details do not matter.
This means that inconvenience, though intimate, inevitably operates at a level of abstraction, too, where we encounter each other as kinds of thing—but not necessarily in a bad way, because there is no other way to begin knowing each other, or anything. We cannot know each other without being inconvenient to each other. We cannot be in any relation without being inconvenient to each other. This is to say: to know and be known requires experiencing and exerting pressure to be acknowledged and taken in…
Thus, the inconvenience of other people isn’t evidence that the Others were bad objects all along: that would be hell. The inconvenience of the world is at its most confusing when one wants the world but resists some of the costs of wanting. It points to the work required in order to be with even the most abstract of beings or objects, including ourselves, when we have to and at some level want to, even if the wanting includes wanting to dominate situations or merely to coexist. The pleasure in anonymity and in being known; the fear of abandonment to not mattering and the fear of mattering the wrong way. I am describing in inconvenience a structural awkwardness in the encounter between someone and anything, but also conventions of structural subordination. Thus “people” in the title stands for any attachment, any dependency that forces us to face how profoundly nonsovereign we are. The concept also points to hates and to the danger to our sense of well-being that is produced even by the things we want to be near; it clarifies some things about the registers of power that attach dramas of such disturbance to bodies living approximately in the ordinary.
This excerpt is from On the Inconvenience of Other People by Lauren Berlant, out now from Duke University Press. Copyright Duke University Press, 2022.
The production of death under capitalism is well understood. Innumerable terms and theoretical formulations exist to define the endpoint of capital’s immiseration, the one constant to human life that our political economy is particularly adept at expediting. “Social murder” is the term used by Engels and his contemporaries. “Its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission.” Likewise “statistical genocide,” or “democide.” Lauren Berlant called this “slow death”—“mass physical attenuation under global/national regimes of capitalist structural subordination.”
The finality of death in the social imaginary as the ultimate conclusion of capital’s violence can produce fantasies of a moral or ethical capitalism. This is arguably the dream chased by capital’s true believers: with modifications to its systems, we can slow slow death to a crawl, render statistical genocide statistically insignificant. With “premature” death the imagined enemy of capital’s internal narrative of its own beneficence, minor reforms become enshrined as a legible mirage. But the primary sites of violence under capitalism are not those that lead directly to death. They are instead the quotidian forms that situate capitalist belonging; the reproduction of norms socially as well as legally and administratively, abetted by a “cynical din of knowledge production” that institutionalizes logics of eugenics and austerity.
For this reason, we focus not on how capitalism reproduces death but on how and why capital keeps you alive. We consider what is elsewhere called administrative violence; in the words of Dean Spade, “how law structures and reproduces vulnerability.” We follow how those marked as vulnerable by administrative violence are not only immiserated, but also become the object of capital accumulation.
Central to this is the figure of the surplus population(s), the necessarily amorphous and indefinable category that is the focus of our project. How the political economy has evolved in the last century to maximize its exploitation of the surplus populations—pathologizing with one hand while generating capital with the other—is a process that must be understood by those mobilizing for health justice or health communism, and to begin to imagine a world free of the eugenic philosophy of capitalism. It is toward this understanding that Health Communism begins.
The surplus population was initially defined in economic terms in separate writings by Engels and Marx in response to the moralizing, demographic panics of industrial capitalism’s early philosophers, among them Adam Smith and Robert Malthus. (Smith: “The demand for men, like that for any other commodity, necessarily regulates the production of men”; Malthus: “A distinction will in this case occur, between the number of hands which the stock of society could employ, and the number which its territory can maintain.”) Both Engels and Marx, in referring to the surplus populations as capital’s “general reserve army,” make clear that their formulation has to do in large part with the population of unemployed people who could otherwise be a part of the labor force. Engels refers to the surplus populations as “keep[ing] body and soul together by begging, stealing, streetsweeping. . . It is astonishing in what devices this ‘surplus population’ takes refuge.”
Health, disability, and debility are largely absent from early discourses around the surplus populations that Marx and Engels responded to, except in cases of characteristic pathologizing of the poor. (Malthus again: “The labouring poor . . .seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole attention, and they seldom think of the future.”) Engels and Marx do, however, share concerns for the public health of the surplus population and the disablement wrought by industrial production. Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England can be regarded as an early work of “social” epidemiology, locating capital’s impact on the social determinants of health just as the idea of public health was at its formation. Marx notes of the relationship between health, private sector industrialization, and the state, that
health officers, the industrial inquiry commissioners, the factory inspectors, all repeat, over and over again, that it is both necessary for [factory] workers to have these 500 cubic feet [of space per person], and impossible to impose this rule on capital. They are, in reality, declaring that consumption and the other pulmonary diseases of the workers are conditions necessary to the existence of capital.
A contemporary understanding of what it is to be “surplus” is necessarily more expansive. Major societal shifts in the late modern period, discussed at length in our chapter LABOR, solidified the worker/surplus binary in public consciousness in part by incorporating a conception of workers’ health or disability as a central facet in their certification as surplus.
The surplus, or surplus populations, can therefore be defined as a collective of those who fall outside of the normative principles for which state policies are designed, as well as those who are excluded from the attendant entitlements of capital. It is a fluid and uncertifiable population who in fact should not be rigidly defined, for reasons we discuss below. Crucially, this definition also elides traditional left conceptions of the working class or the “worker.” As we will describe at length throughout Health Communism, the idea that the worker is not a part of the surplus populations, yet faces constant threat of becoming certified as surplus, is one of the central social constructions wielded in support of capitalist hegemony. Similarly, the methods the state employs to certify delineations between surplus populations constitute effective tactics in maintaining this hegemony. An understanding of the intersectional demands of those subjected or excluded by capital constitutes the potential for building solidarity, which is definitionally a threat to capital. An understanding that the marking and biocertification of bodies as non-normative or surplus constitutes a false, socially constructed imposition of negative value is also a threat to capital. An understanding that illness, disability, and debility are driven by the social determinants of health, with capital as the central social determinant, itself constitutes such a threat. We argue therefore that in order to truly mount a challenge to capitalism it is necessary that our political projects have and maintain the surplus at their center.
While the surplus population does contain those who are disabled, impaired, sick, mad, or chronically ill, the characteristic vulnerability of the surplus is not inherent to their existence—that is, it is not any illness, disability, or pathologized characteristic that itself makes the surplus vulnerable. Their vulnerability is instead constructed by the operations of the capitalist state. The precarity of the surplus population is made through what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment,” the deliberate manipulation and disproportionate dispossession of resources from Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled, and poor communities, rendering them more vulnerable to adverse health.
Understanding the shifting social constructions of surplus under capitalism, and the organization of this “organized abandonment,” is uniquely illustrative of the imbrication of health and capital. At the time of its initial formulation, surplus populations are largely discussed in the sense of surplus constituting “superfluous” (another term wielded synonymously for this population at the time) or otherwise irrelevance, waste. We can see this literalized in early American labor benefits: the few national unions that offered a permanent disability benefit paid a sum equal to the meager benefit a worker’s family would receive on the worker’s death. A worker becoming disabled thus not only constitutively passed the boundary from “worker” to “surplus”—their social value following disablement was, effectively, as good as dead.
This categorization and certification of surplus has become a focal struggle in the history of capitalism, socially reproducing a collective imaginary of who is a worker, who is property, and who is surplus—and to what degree of personhood each category is “entitled” under the scope of law. Those who are deemed to be surplus are rendered excess by the systems of capitalist production and have been consequently framed as a drain or a burden on society. But the surplus population has become an essential component of capitalist society, with many industries built on the maintenance, supervision, surveillance, policing, data extraction, confinement, study, cure, measurement, treatment, extermination, housing, transportation, and care of the surplus. In this way, those discarded as non-valuable life are maintained as a source of extraction and profit for capital.
This rather hypocritical stance—the surplus are at once nothing and everything to capitalism—is an essential contradiction Liat Ben-Moshe identifies this characteristic through the intersection of disability and incarceration: “Surplus populations are spun into gold. Disability is commodified through [a] matrix of incarceration (prisons, hospitals, nursing homes).” Jasbir Puar, in The Right to Maim: “Debilitation and the production of disability are in fact biopolitical ends unto themselves . . . Maiming is a source of value extraction from populations that would otherwise be disposable.
In much of the following, we situate our analysis of the social construction of surplus through the lens of disability, as one of the many contingent embodiments of surplus identities. Disability not only operates as one perceived extreme of the worker/surplus binary but is also understood within the capitalist political economy as constituting, or at least including, a state of being irremediably ill or unwell. In this sense, it is a total ideological reduction of the subject into a valuation of what role they are certified as “capable” to adopt under capitalism. Far from being left as an abstract category, the state, including the constituent social-reproductive apparatuses upholding it, has developed over time an array of tools to certify the exact boundaries of what qualifies an individual as “surplus.” For the surplus, this regime of biocertification shapes both how the state interacts with them and the boundaries of their participation in social life. In Fantasies of Identification, Ellen Samuels analyzes how certain forms of state assistance, resource allocation, or support are often understood within the popular imaginary as a “kind of currency.” These benefits are gatekept by abstract bureaucratic systems of eligibility predicated on the verifiability of someone’s biological state and identity. As such, Samuels argues, the role of biocertification, namely the process of assuring that only “legitimate” claimants receive this “currency”-in-kind, is reinscribed with a simulated social “banking function,” reinforcing the idea that the process of biocertification itself is an efficient means of allocating economic resources. Biocertification is assumed to be a necessary gatekeeping mechanism or checkpoint to prevent the “wasting” of resources on fakers, cheats, imposters, and malingerers: “invoking both a model of scarcity, in which resources must be reserved for those who truly deserve them, and a distrust of self-identification, in which statements of identity are automatically suspect unless and until validated by an outside authority.”
The generosity of these currencies-in-kind is often extraordinarily overstated in the social-reproductive imaginary. Cultural perceptions dictate a picture of disability, illness, and marginalization which is not reflective of the material “gains” that come as a result of being biocertified for social welfare supports like the United States’ Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicare/Medicaid. This is what Samuels describes as a tendency to commonly perceive “these [eligible] identities as lucrative commodities.” The boundaries and borders of qualification are guarded by a combined medical-legal authority and rest on the understanding that identities are readily measurable, verifiable, and fixed, ascribing meaning to biological observation and institutions of authority which seek to standardize the line between social citizenship and exclusion.
This constructed preference for standardization and biocertification arises out of the imbrication of health and capital. If the economy of health is to be bled for excess profit, then the fundamentally inefficient process of facilitating our mutual survival must be made to be efficient. The modern welfare state measures and quantifies metrics of individual health against a picture of the individual’s economic resources and labor power in order to restrict the administration of aid. To determine eligibility for SSDI in the United States, for example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) “uses formulas and charts to transform bodily conditions into percentages of ability.” Physical conditions of the body and its organs are clinically evaluated to determine their relative distance or deviance from an abstract ideal normal body (worker). To the SSA, all impairments, symptoms, circumstances, and conditions are of equal value and attention; all health is equally neutral. This is because the severity of illness, impairment, or disability is not actually the metric the SSA uses to determine eligibility. The crucial axis is instead the individual’s relationship to work. What emerges from these phenomena is a shadow biocertification regime that hides in plain sight as a means test to ward off would-be “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Labor power is equated to bodily state, and health is measured through this contradictory lens.
To the SSA, illness is only relevant in relation to whether and to what degree it impacts a person’s capacity to work. As Rosemarie Garland Thompson argues, this presumes that ill-health, disability, and impairment are located only in the body and not also in the broader social, political, and geographical context that comprises the individual’s social determinants of health. Impairments and disabilities are reduced to numbers on a page: “On one scale, for example, limb amputation translates as a 70% reduction in ability to work, while amputation of the little finger at the distal joint reduces the capacity for labor by a single percentage point.” Garland Thompson’s critique of the disability eligibility schema in the US questions the ability of the state to meaningfully measure such complex and dynamic situations as a person’s health and worth using a precise “mathematical relation.” Labor power, social and material conditions, and bodily states are collapsed into a single metric, measuring all health along a continuum of relative currency.
The ideological framing of wage work as a mitigating factor in an individual’s eligibility for health and welfare benefits attempts to map economic valuations of life onto regimes of biocertification, as is readily evident in SSDI determinations. Social Security disability eligibility is a legal process of decertifying a body for work, not the certification of a body for any type of qualifying disability or impairment demonstrating need for care and additional social supports. These notions have become replicated in social security and social insurance programs internationally. Countless states limit or adjust their benefits dependent on the amount of productive labor the individual has already participated in during their life. This has become particularly prevalent alongside the spread of social insurance privatization schemes by international financial firms, as discussed at length in BORDER.
The authority of medical opinion is widely used as a means to measure the truth of a body’s impairment and certify to the state’s satisfaction that the benefit applicant is truly biologically incapable for work, through “no fault of their own.” This arguably subjective perspective of medical authority is treated as if it is a visible and clearly quantifiable fact. The state relies upon the signifier of medical authority as a means of depersonalizing and depoliticizing the biocertifi cation process writ large. Relying on claimed scientific or medical frameworks, biocertification schemes seek to identify and sort bodies, placing each within the context of their correct category, which is reflective of the intersections of their race, gender, citizenship, wealth, or ability, as a means of validating the social truth of a person’s identity. This framework assumes that a person’s biological identity can in fact be scientifically measured, rendering their ultimate categorization or eligibility as if depoliticized—a procedural, objective, binary decision. An individual’s material conditions or identity cannot be understood as in any way fluid or abstract under this biocertification preference. Existing outside of certification means categoric exclusion.
Biocertification regimes assume that validating characteristics are readily obvious or apparent, falling squarely in the category of “common sense” generalizations, meaningful or not, about various observed metrics. Despite little scientific basis, strategies of biocertification are treated as fact and reinscribed through law and policy, leveraging medical authority to consolidate the power of the state to determine life chances—who lives and who dies. Importantly, none of this is to say that states of being, “conditions,” ailments, and so on do not exist. Far from it. Instead, it is to say that the intersection of those conditions of health—or simply of being, of states of existence—have become of signifi cant use to capital in its demarcation of ontological boundaries within society and the resulting distribution of resources. Resisting biocertification does not mean resisting “diagnosis” or identification. It means resisting the leveraging of these certifications by capital and the state.
Health Communism by Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant is now available from Verso.
States depend on the consent of the governed: there are only a finite number of cops, and politicians, once stripped of authority and armed guards, are about as liable to die from gunshot wounds or immolation as anyone else. The deepest wish of the modern state is to forge precisely the sort of population which might perfectly support it.
The cruder versions of this practice are arithmetical. Fostering the right sort of births from the right sort of families, the inclusion of the right sort of immigrants from acceptable countries: such enlargements are addition. Genocide, forced disappearances, and summary executions represent subtraction. These are brutish tools of the state.
But the operation the state truly longs to master is not arithmetical but algorithmic. For the state, this is the philosopher’s stone, the perpetual motion machine, the good shit: not to increase or decrease a people but transform it. Residential schools and re-education camps, de-radicalization and assimilation, nation-building and detention centers--we could keep going. The dream of the state is to build a machine which could transmute one type of citizen into another. In those halcyon days when Manhattan’s towers still smoldered, some even believed that such machines could be packed up for export and deployed, with suppressive fire, in the middle of Kabul or Baghdad or Pyongyang.
The trouble is that, despite decades of field trials, the machines just aren’t that good. States, of all varieties, keep feeding in people, but the results remain inconsistent at best. Sometimes it works, and model citizens are manufactured. Other times, the people who emerge are just traumatized versions of those who entered. In the very worst cases, the machines spew out embittered individuals who keep suspiciously glancing at critical national infrastructure. There are entire peoples that each state struggles to digest, those of inauspicious nationalities, suspect cultures, or doubtful pedigree: populations resistant to correction and regulation, grit in the machine.
But when the machine is fed children, it nearly always functions perfectly. The child of a subversive whistles the national anthem on the way home from school. The immigrant parent finds their accent mocked by offspring who dream only in the coarse tongue of their hostile new home. The foreign child is a perfect input, a blank slate to mold into a citizen as easily as one might the native-born. The child of the most unbecoming parentage can become cleansed, perfected, born anew. Such profound thaumaturgy is concealed behind words like “belonging,” “inclusion,” “charity,” and “home.” Any act of malfeasance required to facilitate a metamorphosis so sublime is surely forgivable: a kidnapping never given the name, a mother never given a grave.
To build the machine is the dream of each contemporary state. To feed it the children of the world is the privilege of empire.
The formal phase of the War on Terror died with images of birth: Afghan babies passed over the Kabul airport’s razor-wire fence, wrapped in U.S. Army jackets in the bowels of lumbering C-17s. The Pentagon sent journalists photos of soldiers tenderly cradling swaddled babies. The war, we were shown, was humanitarian after all. Perhaps 200,000 did not die in vain. Were it not for U.S. ground forces, those parents would have had nobody to pass their children to.
Only 16% of Americans believed that adult Afghan evacuees were sufficiently vetted. A majority feared that some would go on to commit acts of terror in the heartland. Tucker Carlson reminded his viewers that, in any case, flying in masses of “completely different” people is a recipe for demographic and societal catastrophe. “It doesn’t work. There may be a good way to do that,” he said, but “nobody has yet figured it out.” Alarmed by the number of “fighting age men” and large families onboard the military flights, fellow Fox host Laura Ingraham warned that Democrats were letting a “mass of humanity” flood in to “fundamentally transform America.”
The airborne huddled masses did contain one group who provoked a quite distinct response. The Kabul airlift was less than halfway complete when Today published an article about “How to adopt Afghan refugee children.” Regrettably, for the readers interested, international law means that there is “no easy path.” It wasn’t just bleeding hearts who were disappointed. Morgan Ortagaus spent years as a Republican foreign policy insider before she was hand-picked by Mike Pompeo to serve as State Department spokeswoman. Now running for Congress with Trump’s “Complete and Total Endorsement,” she reported during the evacuation that she’d received “many requests” to adopt Afghan children. “Unfortunately,” she reported, “that looks highly unlikely right now.”
It seems crude to interrogate something as ostensibly altruistic as international adoption, particularly for those who, like your author, have reaped some of the benefits that the system provides. Once something is labeled “humanitarian,” its opponents can only be the partisans of inhumanity, an unenviable and untenable position. The moral imperative of the humanitarian act is so great that it comes to seem self-evident. Even the mass relocation and renaturalization of hundreds of thousands of children from peripheral nations to the United States over the greater part of a century becomes commonsensical because, as the residents of Kandahar know, humanitarianism justifies anything. No human price is too high to pay to kill inhumanity, which is why the revelation of Auschwitz retroactively evaporated any debt incurred by Nagasaki’s mushroom cloud.
As a humanitarian act, the occupation of Afghanistan had long centered the well-being of babies and children in an abstract, far-off sort of way. Specific children might have a whole host of different life outcomes under Deobandi theocracy or, alternatively, after U.S. white phosphorus munitions cauterize their flesh. The general category “children” does not suffer such complications. In November 2001, then-First Lady Laura Bush told the nation that not only do “our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because, in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us,” a world where “even small displays of joy are outlawed.” A War on Terror. A War for Women, and Children, and Joy.
Three days earlier, Laura Bush’s husband had proudly announced that “children across America have organized lemonade and cookie sales for children in Afghanistan.” The bake sale proceeds were dispersed to a sprawling NGO complex: “such a force multiplier for us,” in the words of Secretary of State Colin Powell, “such an important part of the combat team.” Armed with USAID grants and middle America’s lemonade stand revenues, NGOs would be tasked with the positive role of building civil society in the vacuum that would ensue after the Taliban were erased. Together, they would ensure that those Afghan children redeemed by America’s youthful drink and cookie vendors would grow up into the citizens of a liberated Afghanistan, a nation democratic, capitalist, grateful, and free.
By the time of the Kabul airlift, the children the Bushes spoke of were in their twenties, and that nation-building dream was dead. A new generation of infants would be recruited to serve as props in one of the occupation’s last rhetorical flourishes, captured crying in the arms of U.S. troops in front of U.S. military cameras--a small victory wrenched from the jaws of defeat.
Such images could even have melted the heart of the likes of Fox’s Laura Ingraham. For years, she warned of the “massive demographic changes” wrought in the U.S. by legal as well as illegal entry. Ingraham isn’t a conservative of the old establishment, one of the antiquated kind professing themselves to be opponents not of immigration but illegality. She doesn’t style herself the supporter of legal immigrants, facilitating their assimilation by limiting their numbers, feigning indignation at line-cutting on their behalf. Ingraham is different. She doesn’t object only to unassimilated immigrants who ungratefully scorn the customs and ideals of their new home. Her critique is not procedural or cultural but racial: not ethos but ethnos. She does not defend the nation's laws and norms so much as its blood.
Yet Ingraham does vociferously defend one type of admittance to the U.S.: At the 2013 Step Forward for Orphans march in Washington, D.C., she implored the Obama administration to expedite international adoptions. Ingraham spoke as the mother of three international adoptees herself, one of them from Guatemala.
It may simply be that Ingraham is a hypocrite. Certainly, if more U.S. families followed her lead, the arrival of millions of Guatemalan-American adoptees would constitute a sweeping demographic shift for the nation. But there is likely something more profound at play. Ingraham thinks of her adopted daughter’s ethnicity as entirely distinct from the equally Guatemalan migrants she fears will overrun the southern border.
From the outset, international adoption has involved a strange racial transubstantiation. The international adoption system was born in Korea after the conclusion of open hostilities in the first modern U.S. war against an exclusively Asian enemy. Koreans may have been the first people to die while being called “gooks” by U.S. troops. Journalists found that GIs, who “never spoke of the enemy as human as though they were people, but as one might speak of apes,” were “ready to fire at any Korean.”
A 1951 Navy documentary features heroic footage of the U.S. military napalming Korean villages and picking off survivors. “Kill after kill,” drones the narrator. “Whoever runs gets shot down with small arms fire.” At times, the words have a culinary tinge: “fry them out, burn them out, cook them.” But first, we’re shown that our troops’ chief concern was the wellbeing of Korean orphans. “Sometimes, I think that’s the last thing any of us will ever forget. Those kids. Laughing, crying, homeless, hungry. Until we fed them.”
Many were the mixed-race offspring of the sexual economy of occupation and war. Not fully Korean, but in no way white. If they were older at the war’s close, their marriage to a white person would have been illegal in the majority of U.S. states. Despite this, and though they may have “once called all Koreans ‘gooks,’” reported the Christian Science Monitor, American soldiers threw themselves into caring for these war orphans. U.S. audiences responded so strongly to images of the “waifs of war” that they began adopting them into their own homes. Some of these saviors of Korean children doubtless became acquainted with their plight while cheering as the the military fried, burned, and cooked Korean adults. That those first adoptees were rescued from growing up into the kind of people against whom such acts are appropriate may, from this perspective, have been as large a kindness as bestowing family, shelter, and food. If some are born destined for savagery by a curse of history or blood, their civilization and redemption would be a more profound conversion than their transformation into smoldering flesh at Sinchon or corpses consumed by the Sonoran Desert. A foreign child, unencumbered by the corrupting social ties of her nominal home, can yet transcend her destiny.
The international adoptee undergoes a profound metaphysical change, though it leaves no outward sign. Adoption can’t change a child’s skin tone or eye shape. Adoption can’t change how much of a gook she’ll be to the man on the street. But the Korean during the war was an approximation of meat, a thing to be fried and cooked, while the wartime Afghan was the approximation of Terror made flesh. Through adoption, the empire ponders: What if their children could, instead, become an approximation of us?
Adoption is of course the territory of self-conscious liberals, slouching towards post-racial America while wringing their hands about how to best support their children of color. These are the kind of people who write New York Times Magazine articles guiltily confessing to their readers that as they retrieved their daughter from Guatemala, they overheard a man muttering, “There goes another baby taken from their country.” (This particular author goes on to proclaim that she’s already steeling herself to have hard conversations about race with her daughter once she’s older, though by that time, her daughter will presumably be able to find the article online herself.)
Less self-reflective liberal adoptive parents believe their families show that the post-racial utopia is already here, that love has truly conquered all. But the demographic alchemy of international adoption also permits its defense by racialist nativists like Ingraham. Conservatives defend international adoption from “wokeness,” from the “evil” of “modern progressive” critiques. Wars in foreign countries are justified because their inhabitants deserve to be destroyed and because their inhabitants deserve to be saved. American power is justified by its vibrant civil society, a sphere which not only permits but positively encourages ruminations on the injustice of our falling bombs.
The adopted child has been welcomed by those who “build bridges” and those who “build walls,” welcomed by those who hold that admitting to the U.S. all those who wished to pass would be a domestic political catastrophe, an unacceptable pollution of the body of the state and the blood of the people.
For children cannot unmake us. It is we who can unmake them.
Children aren’t adopted from just anywhere to anywhere. The unwanted babies of the Hollywood Hills never end up in Tegucigalpa. No quantity of deserving infertile Honduran couples could cause such a thing to transpire. Like wealth and immigrants, adoptees only fall into the core of the empire, a motion that its residents take as evidence of the fundamental goodness and impartiality of American society and governance. “It is one of the noblest things about America,” Michael Gerson’s Washington Post column declared, “that we care for children of other lands who have been cast aside.” Immigrants might be admitted to the country, but the adoptee gets the inclusion that only English labeled unaccented and hearts free of homesickness can provide. Adoptees don’t just get social security numbers; we get surnames and relatives, too. The U.S. can’t remake the world in its image, but it can remake a portion of the world’s excess kids.
Now, all young children might be considered potential blank slates insofar as they’ve not yet congealed into specific types of people. What prevents infants from actually being little screaming tabulae rasae are the various social assemblages already forming them into the people they will one day become: the family that raises them, the neighbors that know them, the state that records their name in its records. The process of adoption is both the plane that takes the adoptee and the knife that carves her out of these relationships so she might be sutured to others. That knife annihilates the legal personhood attached to a bundle of meat and nerves; that flesh is joined to a new identity birthed from Department of Homeland Security documentation.
Each adoptee has been born twice and died once. The space between lives exerts pressures distinct from the laws prevailing on either side.
In an analogous excision, useful, valuable things must be cut away from their context to be exchanged as commodities. A Toyota Hilux can get you to work, haul materials to a contracting job, or serve as a weapons platform for a DShK 1938/46 Soviet heavy machine gun. But what makes the Hilux a commodity is the fact that you can sell yours and use the proceeds to buy anything you please. In transaction, the specificities of production and use are painted over by the fact of price within the context of the market.
Though individuals in market economies are naturally subject to market pressures, what prevents you from being exchanged for the 1988 Motor Trend Truck of the Year is a set of political rights bestowed by the state in whose dominion you reside. These rights are wrapped around a legal identity attached to you by that same state, an identity which generally follows you, for better or for worse, for the entirety of your time on this mortal coil. The thing about international adoption is it is predicated on the obliteration and replacement of this formal personhood. Thereafter, as a CDC report cited in Samuel Alito’s Roe v. Wade draft opinion declares, “adoption is governed by forces of supply and demand.”
When we think of the the paradigmatic adoptee, we imagine someone removed from their society proper long before adoption, suspended in the liminal space of the orphanage. Nameless and alone, she awaits the identity she will one day be given. U.S. law demands orphanhood: only the “eligible orphan” qualifies for legal adoption.
Such a requirement might lead you to think that all adoptees start as children with no families to support them, abandoned by parental neglect or death––but this is not actually the case. Some children are stolen; some given up for purely economic reasons. Others just disappear from facilities that their parents placed them in temporarily. The demand for Guatemalan babies was so great that some were born for the purpose of sale onto the adoption market. A nonprofit was caught trying to traffic 103 children from a Chadian refugee camp to France. Their adoptive parents had already paid a cash advance for the children, who unfortunately weren’t orphans at all. Orphans are constructed by poverty, by trade deals and treaties, by anti-natalist policies, by social welfare cuts. Sometimes our parents die, too.
But the myth of the universally orphaned adoptee lives on because it contends that our social relations were already null. That there was nothing from which we were removed, only a place to which we had not yet been joined. Being divorced from a specific identity, adoptees are essentially equivalent to each other. Within the sea of Korean or Colombian or Black or white American potential adoptees, there’s actually no rational way to differentiate one child from any other. When the state in whose borders you reside decides your personhood is no longer worth enforcing, there is precious little to save you from the abyss of fungibility and exchange.
If the adoptee-commodity comparison seems a bit overwrought, consider the fact that some of us begin our journey by being stolen and sold into the international adoption system. Generally, when people are taken for profit, it is not theft at all but rather kidnapping. Kidnapping only works because of the social ties of the kidnapee. If you do not pay the ransom, it is not a random person but your husband, daughter, or ambassador who’s toast. It is only because of the care of others for a specific individual that kidnapping makes any sense at all. The reason why adoptee baby thefts are not baby kidnappings is that adoptees are worth more as an interchangeable unit on the adoption market than whatever our birth parents could pay. We were more valuable as possibilities than as people. The actual citizens of some countries are worth less than the potential citizens of others. That a child might be converted from one into the other is thought to be such a charitable act that it justifies the inequality that makes the whole thing possible.
International adoption provided a whole set of benefits to a range of global actors. It fed the domestic U.S. demand for adoptable children, which has traditionally outpaced supply. It allowed developing nations to slough off surplus population, and it allowed the U.S. government to assert its comparative benevolence, whether taking in the human byproducts of its Korean misadventure or rescuing the unwanted daughters of the one-child policy. These transfers made up a substantial part of a huge nonprofit adoption and child welfare sector, in the U.S. a $19 billion market.
As it stands, international adoption is, in fact, largely dead. The Netherlands brought in 40,000 international adoptees from 1957 until last year, when international adoptions were suspended after a government committee found widespread abuses including fraud, smuggling, and child theft. But Dutch adoption had already dropped precipitously, just as adoptions plummeted worldwide. In 2004, 1,300 children arrived to new families in the Netherlands. In 2019, there were only 145. In the U.S., international adoptions peaked in 2004 with 22,986 arrivals. 2019 saw just under 3,000. The following year, there were only around half as many.
International adoption was a peculiarity of the Pax Americana, a patchwork apparatus of imperial power, developmentalist schemes, and civil society bloat. Today, the market has dried up. Russia and Guatemala have both prohibited adoptions to the U.S., while China, South Korea, and Ethiopia have passed legislation to dramatically limit out-country adoptions. The Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoptions mandates restrictions to prevent child trafficking and abduction. The U.S. government scrutinized international adoptions more closely at the same time as the purchasing power and child protections of provider countries grew. Nations with more resources generally find the export of children an embarrassment and curtail the practice. A level of uneven development combined with the congruent interests of disparate bureaucracies around the globe is necessary for a healthy child market. By and large, favorable conditions no longer prevail.
Prospective adoptive parents and NGOs now militate against the unwillingness of the federal government to keep the baby trade routes open. The National Council for Adoption decried the U.S. State Department regulating instead of advocating for international adoption. The conservative culture warriors at The Federalist warned of its impending “extinction.” The American Enterprise Institute hosted Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans at an event entitled “Saving International Adoption,” dedicated to “deconstructing popular myths and objections” to the practice. Medefind, who said concerns about child trafficking are simply “not rooted in fact,” previously directed the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office’s mandate was to liaise with the religious charities that President Bush hailed in one speech as “the leaders, the generals, the soldiers in the armies of compassion.” He then reminded his audience of the ongoing “war” against terrorism and “outlaw regimes which hate our country and arm to threaten civilization itself.”
The failure of the Afghanistan occupation and the collapse of the adoption complex are not as distinct as they might appear. The U.S. made itself out to be the standard bearer of the “rules-based international order,” the sphere of democratic capitalism that opened development to all regardless of culture or creed so long as the capital and commodities flowed. Developing countries could blossom into the U.S. just as their abandoned children could join American homes. But that narrative expired on the Kabul runway. The images of pitiful children beamed into American homes provoked an outdated adoptive reflex inside the country that crafted ethical consumption into a political art.
As of this writing, U.S. coverage of the invasion of Ukraine has been largely adoption-free. The few stories about adoption largely concern interruptions to adoption proceedings initiated before the war, not the plight of war orphans. A far-right former state representative and militia enthusiast evidently tried to spirit a few dozen Ukrainian children to U.S. families, but news coverage was hardly favorable. The National Council on Adoption condemned the practice, in this case pointing out that certifying their true orphanhood would be impossible during a war. Perhaps the idea of orphan-as-blank-slate is more appealing when their country of origin is thought defective in some regard: too poor, too savage, too authoritarian, not a European, Christian nation whose only flaw is that it is simply too close to Russia.
International adoption is dead, but desire is not. In January, a woman shopping in a Walmart offered another shopper $250,000 to purchase her baby, enthralled by his blue eyes and blond hair. Not taking no for an answer, she doubled her offer, screaming in the parking lot that “she wanted him and she was going to take him.”
Supply chain bottlenecks make people do crazy things.
It gives me great pleasure, as well as relief, that The New Inquiry has agreed to republish this landmark essay. For a while now, strangers have been sending me emails, on average, every month, asking where my translation of the great German communist Bini Adamczak’s landmark piece about circlusion––the obverse of penetration––can be found. The original article in German, “Come On,” appeared in the Berlin-based Missy Magazine in March 2016. I had just helped out with the translation of Communism for Kids (Adamczak’s short book, which isn’t actually for children, excerpted in The New Inquiry). Almost immediately, I began an English-language version of “Come On,” working in a Google Doc in conversation with Bini. We eventually published the results, “On Circlusion,” at Mask Magazine in the summer of 2016. Ever since, especially in the semi-offline and subterranean passageways of global queer culture, the text has enjoyed cult classic status. Due to the shutdown of Mask, however, Bini’s essay has not been available for a couple of years. Now, at last, it’s back.
“Circlusion” has been on many adventures since Bini Adamczak proposed the term. There were discussions everywhere from BDSM sex blogs to French Cosmopolitan and Le Monde. Sex therapists and intimacy coaches took up the expression. The British poet Gloria Dawson published a poem cycle, Circlusion, in April 2018 (“Why don’t you come in to us. By us. For us. With us. Despite us. Let the cupboard’s mouth suck on our dance. And swallow us. And swallow us. And swallow us.”) Dance and performance studies conferences in Denmark eagerly adopted “circlusion” as a companion term for Ursula K Le Guin’s “carrier bag theory of fiction.” Bini’s conceptual baby even infiltrated a Los Angeles art gallery, as the title and foundation of an exhibition by Genevieve Belleveau. In 2019 a huge arts festival in Berlin called itself “Circluding History.” Performance artists known as “Hazy Borders,” in Leipzig, developed a show called “Just a Circlusion.”
The term continues to catalyze reflection in academic feminism, psychoanalysis, queer culture and feminist practice. In her 2019 book Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo, Mithu Sanyal wonders: “What would classics like Donald Symons’s The Evolution of Human Sexuality—which Thornhill and Palmer cite as the inspiration for their Natural History of Rape—sound like if a term like circlusion had been in common use?” In 2017, I was, in retrospect, clearly inspired by circlusion when I wrote “Amniotechnics.” In Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, I explicitly deployed circlusion as a way of making gestationality intelligible. Clearly, McKenzie Wark found the framework similarly useful when writing her memoir about sexual labor, Reverse Cowgirl, of which one chapter or vignette is entitled “The Art of Circlusion.” Writes Wark, of her lover, Leslie: “She pressed so hard into femme that it was as if she was fucking her own look from the inside. … Her skin came on my skin.” As such, the circlusive subject-position can serve to describe the labor of topping, or it can inspire theorizing from the bottom (bottom theory), or it can confound the top/bottom distinction altogether. Thanks to Bini, the stickiness of our libidinal relations is well illuminated. See you on the rims…
by Bini Adamczak (English translation: Sophie Lewis)
I wish to propose to you a new term, one that has been missing for a long time: “circlusion,” or, if you prefer a purer latinate, “circumclusion.” It denotes the antonym of penetration. It refers to the same physical process, but from the opposite perspective. Penetration means pushing something––a shaft or a nipple––into something else––a ring or a tube. Circlusion means pushing something––a ring or a tube––onto something else––a nipple or a shaft. The ring and the tube are rendered active. That’s all there is to it.
This word, circlusion, allows us to speak differently about certain forms of sex. We need it because penetration still rules supreme over the heteronormative imaginary and its arbitrary division of bodies into “active” and “passive.” The verb to penetrate evokes a non-reciprocal or at least unequally distributed process. The one who is penetrated is implied to be passive. More than that, being penetrated, like being screwed, is automatically imagined as disempowerment.
To make matters worse, penetration exerts its disproportionate influence over the queer imaginary too. This is evident in contemporary mainstream porn but also in BDSM and so-called post-porn. The dildo and the penis function, almost unchallenged, as practical signs of power. Bewilderingly, this is also true among those who should be experts on power play. Dommes/doms of all genders are associated with the dildo, the penis, and erect fingers of the hand. Subs tend to express their affinity with the figures of the mouth, the vagina, the anus. Sometimes the vulva or the anus of a domme even appears taboo. It’s as if making use of these body parts would have disempowering effects. Maybe not if they were approached by a tongue, but definitely if approached by a dildo.
What matters is not what parts a body possesses, but rather, which parts are put into action. Practically everybody has an anus, but somebody who uses theirs sexually––in conjunction with a dildo, penis or hand––becomes a bottom, a passive, somebody’s sub. Almost everybody can afford a strap-on or a dildo, but a person who uses one sexually, as a rule, counts as a top or a dom––as active.
Stranger still is the fact that a person who has genital sex, tensing their pelvic muscles all the while and vigorously rocking their hips, can nevertheless understand themselves to be the one “getting fucked.” This person is encouraged to think that they have “bottomed”––even if they were lying on top!––simply because they functioned as the bearer of the vagina or anus in relation to the possessor of the dildo/penis. The fantasy around penetration remains intact even when contradicted by all the facts. Frustrating.
It is a contradictory feature of bourgeois ideology that effort gets causally associated with power in a society premised precisely on the opposite: power derives from the exploitation and appropriation of others’ activeness. It’s remarkable how quickly this supposed link between power and effort is forgotten where blowjobs are concerned. But that’s beside the point. What concerns me here is that this direct link between penetration and power exists at all. That’s what has to go.
In our discourse about penetration, we map its “meaning” largely in terms of violence. When we say fuck the police, for example, we don’t have in mind a nice kind of annihilation or an experience of delicious plenitude. Penetration conjures up forceful, conquest-related images––swords and sheaths, drills and holes, rods and sockets and suchlike. Mind you, circluding isn’t necessarily less violent, nor is it a guarantee of good sex. But the idea of penetration unjustifiably overshadows our understanding of what it means to “fuck.” Thinking about sex in a different way would mean that when we say I’m getting fucked by the system we’re actually saying I’m getting badly fucked––badly or unwelcomely circluded, for example––or not getting fucked at all.
Technical as well as colloquial language tends to narrow the meaning of penetration down to practices involving vaginas, anuses, penises, and dildos. Finger-between-cheeks and nipple-in-mouth play are often not referred to as “penetrative sex.” But the word “circlusion” does not have to share this narrowness. On the contrary, it might designate the action of a closed hand around a dildo, of lips around a foot, of a vagina stretched over a fist. All these are ways of “circluding” someone. However, they don’t have to be understood that way. Since the meaning of a sign is only ever determined through its use, “circlusion” could equally usurp the place “penetration” has hitherto occupied in language … only, this time, without conjuring the kinds of images that interfere so negatively with people having sex.
Think of the moment when you were taught in school how to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. No one would ever think of trying to push the banana into the freshly opened condom, would they? The task of correct condom application is easy when you think of it as unrolling the tube onto the banana.
Indeed, circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches fish, a throat envelops food, or a hand encircles a bottle of beer...
In German, the word “penetrating” (penetrant) is a synonym of another adjective—aufdringlich (which means pushy or intrusive). Aufdringlich is actually made up of the idea of pushing-through (dringen) together with the prefix auf (over/onto). Thus, paradoxically, to penetrate or be aufdringlich is about pushing over/onto someone… that is, circlusion! Penetrant should really mean eindringlich instead (urgent, emphatic, im-press-ive), where the prefix ein stands for in/into.
O workers of the anus and the mouth, of the vagina and the hand, I say to you: be aufdringlich! Whoever so wishes may propose sub-distinctions. Let’s say: rotating a bolt into a nut is penetration; and rotating the nut onto the bolt, circlusion... Obviously, both processes are happening at the same time.
The term “circlusion” enables us to articulate experiences we have been living for a very long time. Adopting it is no hindrance at all to those of us who want to continue to employ our vaginas, cleavages, hands, anuses or mouths in the business of getting fucked. What’ll be new is that outstretched fingers, penises, dildos and fists can also be used for that very same purpose.
I don’t mean to suggest that we weren’t practicing this already. But the element that was missing, until now, was a word to describe that latter dimension of what we’ve been doing. No doubt, “circlusion” might end up serving mainly as the kind of formal, technical word one might reach for when talking to a lawyer or a doctor. In bed with a playmate, it might behoove us to develop some kind of snappier equivalent like “gulfing,” “circling,” or “gulping.”
We often think of feminist vocabulary as a highly complicated matter. But the word “circlude,” I think, is easy to learn and simple to use. Look: I circlude, you circlude, she/he/they/it is circluding, we circlude. Above all, it is much more handy than its counterpart. Penetration has four whole syllables; circlusion only three. By adopting it, we’ll end up saving valuable time while talking… time which we can spend having sex.
“The Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have the Great Wall, the British have immaculate lawns, the Germans have castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have grand churches. And Americans have shopping centers.” wrote Kenneth T. Jackson in his 1996 article “The World’s a Mall.” Jackson, an eminent historian of New York City, turned his gaze to the suburban phenomenon of the American mall and found it to be a striking synecdoche for a particular epoch in American history. And he wouldn’t be wrong. The mall––in its sameness, and abundance, its hidden seediness and advertised cleanliness––captures the ethos of capitalist post-war America and the rise of neoliberalism. But as time churned on and neoliberalism became the defining structural tenet of American life, even the mall’s half-hearted attempt at creating public space was cannibalized by a system orchestrated under one flag: profit maximization.
The hold that capitalist imaginaries had over working- and middle-class lives was especially strong in the Midwest, the birthplace of the mall, because of the region’s own history as a place managed from the outside and structural atomization facilitated by the suburbs.
While there have been shopping centers for as long as there have been settled societies with merchants, Southdale Mall boasted the first temperature-controlled indoor mall that relied on consumers who drove their own automobiles to enjoy the abundance. Southdale Mall promised Minnesotans refuge from the harsh winter, ensuring that every day was a perfect day, just like the last. Lives at the mall were perhaps overdetermined, but at least they were also pleasant.
For the first ten years that shopping malls were an American staple, Jim Crow was the stated law of the land. The appeal of the shopping malls was in part rooted in white Americans’ desire to escape the need to frequent urban neighborhoods for shopping needs, and malls rely heavily on a large security presence. These security presences are dialed down in the face of suburban white teenagers who might use the mall parking lot to experiment with drugs, or the Victoria’s Secret to experiment with petty theft, and dialed up when it comes to reinforcing racial hierarchy and surveillance. After 9/11, government agencies and corporate entities funneled money into think tank reports on reducing the risk of terrorism in malls, which served as an impetus to invest increased private and state funds in profiling and targeting patrons perceived to be Muslim. Black Americans are regularly surveilled while shopping. This racialized policing is not just a fluke; it is a feature. The imagined mall patron is a white person, and those who might make the experience even slightly inconvenient for this white patron are systematically excluded.
Context collapse of all public space under private enterprise, guarded by its own security force, renders the public space of the busy city and the unsurveilled space of the countryside irrelevant. Suburbanites no longer had to think about the maintenance of urban districts, as they had no need to traverse them for leisure. They could avoid seeing minorities through rigid policing of their retail space. The promise of the mall was that it could prop up public life on the back of retail space, a private-private partnership. Suburbs car-centric design already facilitated familial atomization and a reliance on planned institutions such as school clubs and formally organized social and sports groups. By 1980, nearly 50% of Americans lived in suburbs, and even the technologies of leisure—gardening, home playgrounds, patios—reflected an individualist relationship between people and their surroundings, and a closed-offness from chance connection or mingling.
Neoliberal austerity facilitated this increasing privatization of leisure, as money was increasingly funneled into maintaining an economically laissez-faire police state concerned with broken windows policing. While the brunt of this policing was geared towards punishing populations deemed surplus, it also fundamentally structured the lives of the intended benefactors. As gathering space became an insurmountable hurdle for group activity, the mall became the most viable “third place” for many Americans––a place that was neither home nor work where they could spend their time. Of course, they were spending time and money in equal measure.
It feels like no small coincidence that the first mall, and many quintessential malls during their golden period, were distributed across the Midwest. In Midwest Futures, his thoughtful collection of essays about the region’s history and identity, Phil Christman describes how the Midwest was first incorporated into the United States through surveyors’ eyes. These surveyors saw the forceful dislocation of indigenous Americans as a step in clearing land that would function as a fund for their economically struggling government trying desperately to find a way to pay off their debts. “Not a place—a fund,” Christman writes.
Department store companies, and their associated developers like the Homart Development Company of Sear’s, eyed the suburbs with the same dollar signs in their eyes. Every mall, thus, has a similar layout, anchored by several department stores that are essential to the dollar-per-square foot calculus of the shopping center. Though obviously not exclusive to the Midwest, the mall carries a Midwest sensibility wherever it goes. See also: the sneering way many New Yorkers describe the mallification of the SoHo area and the city more broadly, by which they mean: sameness, rising rent and securitization for the comfort of white people who grew up in suburbs; a one stop shop to identity as commodity.
A mall, no matter how much it laudes itself as one, is not a town square. Orchestration from the outside became a defining tenet of Midwestern life. The region took shape as an area where industries “make places, rather than picking from among pre-existing sites. So the place was planned and settled in batches… Towns often arose before settlers came to live in the surrounding hinterlands, rather than springing into existence as trading outposts for initially isolated farmers… A new town always needs a little of everything, so agriculture, industry, processing, transit, and farm tech also grew up together.”
Malls rapidly cropped up in communities at the behest of a number of retail giants who hoped to seize more Americans leisure time, thereby becoming an integral structuring institution of their time and space. Another way to frame the oft-mentioned “third place” dimension of the mall is that the mall created a space where every part of identity and every aesthetic experience was a result of or resulted in a consumption choice. That is, the mall was a space in which every part of identity and every aesthetic experience was planned, down to the rips in the Hot Topic jeans.
In the model of post-war abundance and the shift to America as a commercial society, the mall offers the middle class not only physical objects, but the means of social reproduction and identity formation. Just as the single-family home models the horizons of possibility for intimacy, the mall created a blueprint for a certain kind of social interaction, especially for teens. In Rax King’s essay collection Tacky, she captures the affective power of the mall for young people: “[When we went to the mall, w]e wrote scripts and novellas about ourselves by living them; we taught ourselves about the humanity in each other by exploiting the social tension that bound us all. Entering a shopping mall was like walking onto the stage of a great opera. We knew our roles and how to play them. We played out the great love stories of the world in cruel, petty simulacra.” The set dressing of the mall provided a backdrop to the epic highs and lows of the teenage years, shaping the desires, neuroses, and relationships to a generation’s consumption. It absorbed, and in turn created, norms of sociality that could then be reproduced outside the mall. I, an older member of Gen Z, often marvel at how people in the past used to meet much more in public––my parents met in a hotel bar!
The mall provided a testing ground for the state of public sociality many young people find ourselves in now. This state of sociality is birthed by the suburbs’ planning, and accelerated by “stranger danger” mentalities, helicopter parenting, the increasing share of 18-to-29 year olds who live with their parents, and rising rates of social anxiety. Public gathering, instead of being a site for serendipitous connection, is a way to rehearse out interaction with a group of people you already know from somewhere else (maybe school, or work, or Tinder); attempts at connection from those not already deemed “safe” are an interruption to this psychodrama.
The psychodrama’s script was not only written by actual social interactions, but by media representations of the mall. These media representations popped up in many of the quintessential American movies of the 1990s. Films like Pretty Woman, Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and many more lent an eroticism and fantasy to the mall, and presented it as a site to stunt existing capital, mingle with people who might otherwise be out of reach, or accrue new social clout. One quintessential mall movie, Mean Girls, posited the mall’s common space as an animalistic free-for-all where teens could enact their basest instincts. Social capital was conferred through Regina George’s simple call: "get in loser, we’re going shopping."
When you were at the mall, you could be anybody because you could buy any type of outfit. This is especially true under neoliberalism, where large amounts of money are funneled into convincing people that identity is about language and consumption choices. Suburban teenagers, whose securitized upbringings often didn’t allow them to interact with subcultures, might do something like buy a rainbow flag shirt from a company actively lobbying against LGBT rights. The mall likely had a role in defanging a number of counter-cultural movements in the suburbs by selling an imagined “punk” outfit next to a “hippie” one next to a t-shirt that said “Feminist AF.” This isn’t to blame the people who bought these things. Teenagers who don’t have a lot of options for plugging into movement politics or for feeling connected to people through sharing public space would obviously want to broadcast the affinity they have for those politics in any way they can.
It seems no coincidence that “alt” fashion posited as such, which largely regurgitated the same too-polished imitations of punk and goth signifiers like high, striped socks, mini skirts with chains on them, and platform boots, took off during the pandemic on TikTok. One viral online trend that juxtaposed “my fashion last year” (bad) with “my fashion now” (good) consisted mostly of white teenagers and young women who wore avante basic trends one year ago wearing fishnet tights and chains in 2021. The re-emergence of mall-core scene inspired looks gave even the most mainstream teens a way to position themselves against the norm as they felt increasingly unmoored from their typical sites of social reproduction, just as the promise of Hot Topic’s t-shirt wall did for teens in the aughts. Also, some of that shit looked cool as hell. I still have a necklace that says “feminist killjoy” that I think I bought at the mall when I was like sixteen, before I had read any Sara Ahmed or willfully participated in any real activities one might consider “feminist.” Being able to adopt countercultural signifiers without any linkages to the history of these countercultures, whether they be punk rejection of consumerism or feminist attempts at reconfiguring love and power, is a critical component of neoliberal identity formation, and perhaps nowhere is this more explicit than in a mall setting. It wasn’t just countercultural identities that experienced context collapse in the mall; lower middle-class people who wanted to tie their identity to the myth of meritocracy could easily walk into a Hollister and begin to dress “preppy.'' Never mind that preparatory school tuition regularly clocks in higher than the median household income of the United States of America. The outfits (and options) are disappearing, though: in early 2021, regional malls had a vacancy rate of 11.4%. Teens are more likely to find their alt fits on Amazon, the most prominent surveyors of online consumerism, creating their own personalized Amazon storefronts to suggest purchases to others and reap a small amount of the profit.
Mall nostalgia is nostalgia for a moment of strongly felt American dominance––the specter of online retail is not just the loss of public shopping, but its replacement by retailers who engage largely in drop shipping products from China. White American nostalgia is neurotically fixated on social constructions that are imagined dead even as they become stronger and stronger. These nostalgias become a mechanism by which its practitioners eliminate or challenge remaining threats to hegemony. And so, what is the ethos of society inscribed by the tragedy of the mall?
When a system whose defining feature is profit maximization cannibalizes its own institutions, it disciplines its populace into understanding that the limits of people’s ability to control the spaces they frequent are the limits of their consumption. This is how we see, even in moments of literal riots across the country about state-sanctioned brutality, the call to “support local business.” It’s how we convince ourselves that buying products from wealthy people who share identities with the populations eugenically designated for confinement and death is a way out of that confinement and death. It says that if we want things to exist, we have to earn them through working enough and fight for them through buying enough, and maybe even go into debt for the privilege of public space. It affirms that the people managing our lives are far away from us, planning our next move, and if they find a way to cut some corners they will still offer identity maintenance, no matter how gutted of material fodder that identity is.
And as the mall ends, there is some sense that something has been lost, a deep nostalgia intertwined with an understanding that the past was unsustainable.
The average person who misses the mall likely doesn’t miss a time when profit margins were higher for retail giants. Many people’s mall nostalgia is built on a very simple premise: we used to have a place to go and hang out and have fun and spend our time and didn’t have to pay for if we really didn’t want to or couldn’t, and now we have less of that. Retail is disaggregating from physical space, but maybe that’s okay. The Juicy Couture sweat suit was never really what made an after-school mall trip special. Public nostalgic energy for the mall would be better directed at creating or demanding spaces that facilitate connection. Augosto Boal argues that theater—and therefore, in this argument, planning––is a site for imagining and rehearsing for the society we want to live in. Maybe there were parts of the mall that really didn’t work: racial inequality, the way that a huge underpaid labor force across the globe toils to support white middle-class teen identity formation, a level of consumerism that we have all understood is completely unsustainable.
The mall is a tragic hero in the American metanarrative. We are spectating its denouement. The pandemic made in-person retail a minefield of risk for many, and the need for the constant churn of new purchases halted as many people found themselves at homes more. In-person retail actually still accounts for a significant majority of purchases. Under a profit-driven model, though, 14% of overall sales lost is as good as dead.
If you weren’t at the mall already, you would never know that people are still going. In the Wikipedia page for the mall, the death of the mall makes it into the first two paragraphs. Searching “mall” on Youtube will yield a large crop of “dead mall” videos, as well as videos from outlets and individual creators theorizing the rise and fall of the American shopping mall. And articles arguing that malls need a new life and place in the public imaginary––maybe even as fulfillment centers for online retail––are published regularly. So maybe the mall is on its way out, but we speak of it as if it is long gone. One does wonder how much of the mall’s public death is part of a cyclical routine of reinvestment in propping up the bloated corpse of industry through bail outs at the expense of any last semblance of the economic viability of the middle class.
The mall is dead. Long live the mall. For over a decade now, the American mall has been in decline. We see it in the imminent closure of 380 malls deemed “non-viable,” in the ever-expanding two-day delivery dystopia, in the increasing digitization of retail life. Of the various post-war American institutions eroding steadily since the late twentieth century, the mall perhaps warrants a less frantic attempt at a recapture than, say, access to medical care or a place to live.
Youtuber Natalie Wynn, in her video on opulence, suggests that dead mall media takes on a gothic romantic character. Like a gothic castle, a dead mall is a big, empty space whose emptiness is evidence of a rupture. The fascination with the death of the mall is a fascination with the fact that we once believed in the prospect of what Lauren Berlant would call “the good life,” the life of relative comfort characterized by homeownership, a car, 2.5 children, and a white picket fence. Mall gothic as a genre understands the world of the mall to be dying. And, as we have seen, the world of the mall was the world of identity, of abundance, and consumerism as a monument to American exceptionalism.
Just as Ancient Greek theater was planned both structurally and narratively by its ruling class, the mall, or the Midwest––is planned, it reflects those who planned it. This is especially true when things are funded and organized from without; a system created by a funder who does not participate in that system reflects how the powerful think others ought to live. And when failure is involved, whether it be the eventual disinvestment of the mall or the tragic hero’s final moments, it reflects the limits of those planners’ desires, imaginations, and value systems.
If, as Augosto Boal says, a classic tragic arc is about reinscribing the ethos of the powerful, let’s entertain that the arc of the present, too, is about how lives and institutions are planned. In the face of abandonment by the forces that planned our connection for us, perhaps we can start to plan something else.
In Disaffected, scholar Xine Yao looks at the racial history of unfeeling. Trained as a nineteenth century Americanist, Yao, much like Lauren Berlant, shows how sentimentality was used for nation-building. Sentiment promised to unite disparate people into a single, stable country if they all “felt right.” Of course, who is allowed to feel “right,” and who is punished for not doing so, is socially determined. While this suffocating framework of universal feeling is writ large in global modernity, Yao theorizes unfeeling as modes of disaffection and dissent that emerge from different entanglements of biopolitical difference. If feeling is implicitly for white people and only taken as valid in accordance with power, can a case for racialized unfeeling be made?
In addition to these relevant theoretical interventions, I argue that Yao’s analysis of Affect Studies and its persistent “race problem” also provides a much-needed corrective to Trans Studies and its white-washed dissociation rhetoric. While this discourse helpfully seeks to unstick trans people from obligations and stereotypes of maximal, spectacular feeling—inspiration, humiliation, violence—it often ignores how emotion is racialized. If dissociation is a way to survive the routine shame of getting clocked, not everyone can just check out. As Yao reminds us, overt disaffection in response to white feelings has historically been met with punishment.
This conversation with Yao touches on boundaries and detachment; we also discussed our deeply grateful, deeply ambivalent relationships to Berlant’s scholarship. Talking with Yao made me question whether we still live in a cruelly optimistic era, or one defined by un-optimistic cruelty.
CHARLIE MARKBREITER. Could you talk about the history of sentimentality, its role in the American nation-building project, and how both you and Berlant address this topic?
XINE YAO. Part of the founding of the US as a nation had to do with ideas of sympathy: how do you draw together disparate peoples for a national project? The right feeling is supposed to lead to the right type of politics. But trying to just cut feelings out (as if we could) is also not an answer. Think about the alt right phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings” (as if white supremacy was based on fact). One thing Berlant’s work does so well is take seriously what sort of politics are enabled by feeling: what sort of effects does it produce, what also does it limit.
But I also have a hard time with how feelings are talked about––not just by Berlant, but by Affect Studies in general––which is like: isn’t it cool how sticky and porous emotions are? And my reaction is just, what about boundaries? What about the possibility of detachments? As black feminists like Audre Lorde have pointed out, boundaries are a way to refuse the constant demands for gendered and racialized emotional labor.
That’s so interesting. We know that boundaries are important, but when you talk about them as a topic of academic inquiry, people don’t take you seriously. I wonder why. Maybe because, with increasing neoliberalism and austerity, universities increasingly discourage academic workers from having any boundaries at all, as near-constant, precarious labor becomes the norm.
I’ve been thinking about the pedagogical aspects of unfeeling, and what it means in terms of our engagements with our students. Because we’re in a time when there’s so little in terms of emotional resources—or any resources for that matter. And what we’re seeing is that students need us to be resources of care, but also that we barely have enough care for ourselves. And as a result of this scarcity, you see many different types of cruelties manifest. Like there’s this impossible, cruel demand, and people are either suffering from trying to meet it, or inflicting cruelty by doubling down on their methods of discipline and control.
So what I’ve been trying to enact in my own teaching instead is: how can we teach not just give care and be a resource for care, but how do we teach care as a methodology of engagement? How do we teach students to think about building care laterally, and to think of care as necessarily reciprocal?
One way of doing this was not just by asking for feedback, but by showing students what that feedback would be used to do, and how the results would impact their learning experiences. This not only made students more engaged–-it also made them give better feedback, which of course helped us in turn. Another thing I did was separate students into pods of six and set aside time for them to share work online or just hang out. In both cases, the aim is to build laterally in a way that isn’t naive to existing power dynamics.
In Tamara K Nopper’s recent TNI piece, she describes how, for bell hooks, the personal is not an end in and of itself. I mean, it is helpful—it shows people that that they are the experts of their own experiences. But, most of the time, we see the reverse: instead of this movement out, structural forces are reduced to the personal.
In an abolitionist context, something like de-escalation is, in a way, also about feeling less. Because in a moment of heightened conflict, what both sides need is to just like take a second and be like, “Wow. I need to chill. And touch grass.” And one way to de-escalate is actually to reframe the conflict so that it’s less about individual blame, or saying that the pain anyone feels is unreal, and more about how the situation is socially reproduced by structural forces which oppress everyone involved.
I remember this tweet that Mariame Kaba had like maybe a year ago about how social media functions and exploits our experience in the activism of escalation. Which is often less helpful in an actual organizing context, which is when you have to compromise with each other to get things done.
This reminds me of my “getting in fights with people on Twitter” era lol. I’d tell my enemies, “I’m right,” and they’d just be like, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” Which was embarrassing because it was true. I’m obsessed with you in that I’m giving you so much of my energy. And, in an attention economy, what could be more of a self-own?
It reminds me of the bullying we experience as children. And how it heightens your self-surveillance and our attempts to become as non-responsive as possible so that the bullies don’t get any pleasure out of picking on you. When people portray the trauma response of dissociative shut-down, they usually vilify it. But just because you need to switch off doesn’t mean you’re dissembling. You’re making a decision about the allocation of care. Maybe you failed to “rise to the occasion,” but would it actually have mattered if you did? Maybe you’re just saving your energy for those who actually need it.
Lauren Berlant famously also examined “not feeling it” as both a trauma response and a survival strategy.
Lauren Berlant came to Cornell while I was doing my PhD there. They also did their PhD at Cornell, and at one point jokingly referred to the “Cornell school of sentimentality.” Berlant’s writing has been so informative for me. But it’s also not the sole determinant of how I approach the world. For example, their diagnosis of citizenship and the good life as exclusionary mechanisms is both extremely helpful and an over-reification of the US and citizenship as the ultimate model. And while they know that citizenship is built upon exclusions, what they don’t really explore is: what if you don’t want citizenship? What does it mean to read their work in the US, as someone who’s not a US citizen and it’s not really interested in being a US citizen and then to feel and stay with that dissonance? In the nineteenth century, Chinese sojourners didn’t always want to stay. Many of them wanted to go home. Which, again, isn’t even about Berlant, but the problem of sympathy, and how the solution is always just, “Okay. We’ll do better next time.”
I hate the obsession with finding, denouncing and then reclaiming each of racial capitalism’s niche effects. It’s supposed to reveal the contradictions of life, but more often performs a siloing function in addition to justifying harms caused via a mode of cost-benefit analysis thinking—which is more neoliberal than anything else. As if to say, “It’s all worth it, so long as...” some queer theorist can reclaim your pain. Which is actually quite different than saying, “Decades of dissociating causes lasting trauma, both individually and collectively. How do we heal from that?”
And this actually also resonates with the question of identity politics that I tried to analyze towards the end of my book. The point of identity politics was never about this hyper focus on individual; instead, it is the starting point for methodology. Now there are so many jokes about people naming their privileges and then they go off and do whatever they are going to do anyway. But actually you’re supposed to look at the nexus of differences and privileges and then realize therefore, “This is what I’m responsible for.” Which doesn’t just mean that feelings are valid, but about looking at the attachments to those feelings, and what they may but also may not actually index. Which is part of why the work coming from Trans Studies by scholars such as Maxi Wallenhorst is so exciting, and why I’m also grateful for Queer of Color critique, which looks at how white gay/trans feelings are overly universalized.
Along those lines, I’m curious if you could talk more about how dissociation is racialized, both discursively and in life. Trans Studies has done a great job of showing how dissociation is gendered and sexualized by analyzing it via dysphoria; “Fucking Like a Housewife” by Jamie Hood is a great example of this kind of analysis. But one reason I really appreciated your book is the way it shows who is allowed to access unfeeling, who is forced into it to survive. Which helpfully undercuts the liberal sentimental practice of associating maximum feeling with maximum truth, as if those who felt most and best were automatically the most valuable. Trans Studies dissociation discourse has a race problem, is maybe what I’m trying to say.
When you’re talking about affect, there’s always the temptation to make a universalizing move. Because you want something that speaks to the individual, but is also more generally useful. But this is when it becomes useful to bear in mind Sylvia Wynter, or Denise Ferreira da Silva, whose work analyzes the way universal affect leads to the Enlightenment’s universal “Man.” We don’t want to do that. What we’re trying to do instead is make frameworks that speak deeply as a theory in the flesh, both to us and to those we care about in our communities. So how can we push back against universalism’s portability, which is of course based on racial violence.
That makes a lot of sense. Because most of the time, when white trans people universalize, they’re not like, “I looooove whiteness,” more like, “This thing helped me, so it will help you, also.” Without understanding that it might actually not. It’s perhaps another example of what historian Jules Gill-Peterson called “white gender.” That term is from her piece on Christine Jorgensen, who was the first mainstream American trans celeb, and also about her own experiences with white trans women.
Feelings are valid, but sometimes there has to be a type of distancing to really understand the attachments that are involved.
As dissociation has become a more prominent topic in both Trans Studies and mainstream culture, how do you feel the concept of dissociation has been racialized?
Following Wynter, we might say that “universal feeling” over-represents whiteness and the Human, and that, in this case specifically, it leads to an over-representation of the white trans person. So, dissociation is gendered, especially via its contact with dysphoria, but that experience coheres differently for different kinds of subjects in a way that can’t be extricated from the sort of wider colonial biopolitics of difference.
It’s less about proving that dissociation isn’t actually a theoretical panacea, because of course it isn’t, but asking: how was dissociation produced as the catch-all answer in the first place? And if dissociation is the catch-all answer, then what was the question?