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Animal Performance Studies

Laura Budriesi

Filosofia, zooantropologia, teoria della performance, etnoscenologia, studi teatrali

Philosophy of the virus

Felice Cimatti

Note de l’éditeur

A first, Italian similar version of this paper was published in «aut aut» 389/2021, Riflessioni sulla pandemia. Pensare con il virus, pp. 32-55.

Texte intégral

The plague will return
(Serres 2000, 129)

1. The Deleuzian century

1It is increasingly true what Foucault wrote in 1970 – reviewing Différence et répétition and Logique du sens – that «un jour peut-être le siècle sera deleuzien» (Foucault 2001, 944). A phrase worn out by a thousand repetitions, yet it is difficult not to think of our time, the time of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as the time that opens a century that fulfills this strange prediction, hope or even fear, of Foucault. It is a question, then, of understanding in what sense the virus can be understood both as the object of thought and, perhaps above all, as the model of a thought to come. In fact, what is at issue is not as much what the virus is, but rather the virus as a powerful diluent that dissolves the categories within which we have thought about our world so far. In fact, we knew that what the virus is destroying was already on the verge of coming down; the virus has just made this process obvious.

2First of all, what is a virus? Essentially a virus is composed of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) enclosed in a protein envelope called “capsid”. Is this enough for us to consider the virus as a living entity? No, because a cell is the minimum living unit, while the virus cannot be said to be alive in the same way a cell is alive. To try to answer this question it is better to ask what a virus does, rather than what a virus is: when a virus enters a host cell it gets rid of the capsid, frees its own genes, and induces the replication apparatus of the cell to reproduce its DNA or RNA in order to make copies of its proteins. Then, these new viral particles assemble themselves into new viruses that can, in turn, infect other cells. In this sense, the virus is not so much the agent of contagion, rather it is the contagious process itself; you cannot properly distinguish what the virus is from what a virus does. Thus, this means that what represents a contagion (and sometimes even death) for the host cell literally coincides with the (strange) life of the virus. That is, the virus does not exist if it is not contagious. The virus is a pure viral movement. The life of the virus is the contagion. The virus puts into question the very distinction between what an entity is and what it does or undergoes. To be is not different from to do or to undergo. The very distinction between subject and action collapses.

3The virus, then, forces us to think of a world that is not made up of isolated things that at a later date does something or suffers the actions of other entities. The virus is the prototype of a world in which the distinction between subject and object, between who does and who receives the effects of such an action, is no longer useful. In fact, the virus is an object that does something to a ‘subject’ (the living cell): consequently, the virus is at the same time an object and a subject. Still, as we have seen, the virus is not properly someone or something that performs a certain action, since the virus coincides with the infection process. The virus properly is neither in the world of the living nor in that of the dead, neither in that of agents nor in that of patients, neither in the world of objects nor in that of subjects. The virus is purely transitive, and it has so pure a transitivity that it neither starts nor arrives anywhere. The virus, therefore, challenges our classifications and our perceived ontology, an ontology, on the contrary, based on such basic dualisms of subject and object, human and non-human, culture and nature. For this reason, the virus challenges us, because it reminds us that the real world is very far from our ontological distinctions.

4Take the case of the concept of “contagion”. The case of the virus shows us that the concept of “contagion” is more a health policy concept than a biological one. In fact, what is considered contagion by science, it simply means life for the virus, since the virus only ‘lives’ by infecting; the virus cannot exist without infecting. That is, the very existence of the virus shows us how our conceptual and political categories imply considering life as a sort of danger. The fight against the virus is becoming a war against the life. Because life is contagious. On the contrary, the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari is a philosophy of life and becoming. For this reason, as once Foucault said, maybe this century will be the Deleuzian century:

Unnatural participations or nuptials are the true Nature spanning the kingdoms of nature. Propagation by epidemic, by contagion, has nothing to do with filiation by heredity, even if the two themes intermingle and require each other. The vampire does not filiate, it infects. The difference is that contagion, epidemic, involves terms that are entirely heterogeneous: for example, a human being, an animal, and a bacterium, a virus, a molecule, a microorganism. Or in the case of the truffle, a tree, a fly, and a pig. These combinations are neither genetic nor structural; they are interkingdoms, unnatural participations. That is the only way Nature operates—against itself (Deleuze, Guattari 1987, 241-242).

5But the virus, someone will object, is a special case, it is the exception not the rule. In fact, the virus has a fundamental role in the origin and development of life itself (Schuster, Stadler 2008; Villarreal, Witzany 2010), although it is not a fully vital entity (Gilbert, 1986; Harris, Hill, 2021). This basically makes the distinction between living and non-living, between thing and animal, even more permeable and unsound. In addition, to further complicate the picture, the discovery that a significant amount of the human genome is of viral origin «makes us understand that the very essence of Homo sapiens is infinitely more complicated and mysterious than we thought a few decades ago». The virus is not the other, we are the virus: «If our DNA is full of retroviruses, and if retroviruses are full of our molecules, then where is the limit between us and them? Is it fair to say that our cells and retroviruses are basically just different manifestations of the same reality?» (Silvestri 2019, 53).

6The problem is not that biologists have not yet agreed on how to classify the virus, that is, in which taxonomic box it can be placed; rather, that the virus seems to stand there to remind us of the presumption and violence implicit in the very project of classifying the world (Homo sapiens is this very project). The virus, like the migrant who crosses the desert and the sea to finally land on European shores, tells us that borders are porous and arbitrary, and that they are sharp and well drawn only in maps and border police regulations. This is why Deleuze and Guattari write that «viruses are not translators» (Deleuze, Guattari 1987, 53), because they do not simply transpose a pre-constituted code into another, but rather they confuse and mix codes until these codes are useless, or they produce completely new ones. In this sense the virus is the exemplary figure of «becoming»:

Finally, becoming is not an evolution, at least not an evolution by descent and filiation. Becoming produces nothing by filiation; all filiation is imaginary. Becoming is always of a different order than filiation. It concerns alliance. If evolution includes any veritable becomings, it is in the domain of symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms, with no possible filiation. There is a block of becoming that snaps up the wasp and the orchid, but from which no wasp-orchid can ever descend. There is a block of becoming that takes hold of the cat and baboon, the alliance between which is affected by a C virus (ivi, 238; cfr. Benveniste, Todaro 1975).

2. Life and infection

7When, at the end of the nineteenth century, the existence of something like viruses (entities usually much smaller than bacteria, which is microscopic) began to emerge, the Dutch microbiologist and botanist Martinus Beijerinck advanced the hypothesis that the virus was a “vivum fluidum”. Even if today we know that he was wrong, Beijerinck undoubtedly grasped a distinctive feature of the virus: its radical transitivity, its being a process rather than an isolated and self-sufficient entity. What is at stake with the virus is that it is not properly a thing, rather it is an action, or, better, a pure relation.

8Let us briefly consider the biological history of SARS-CoV-2 virus: a virus normally present in bats and pangolins and then able to pass (spillover) into the human species. In this sequence of passages, the virus transformed, it did not remain unchanged. The virus, properly, is this very passage which carries modifications from one species to another. The virus is nothing more than a continuous spillover process. In fact, one should not think to «spillover» as a noun but as an intransitive verb: the virus spillovers. For example, it rains does notmean that the rain takes action because, rain is nothing but the very fact of actual raining.

9Let us try to observe the viral sequence from the point of view of the virus, and more broadly of the living world – thus, no longer from a public health and economic perspective. What we are observing now is the normal process through which life expands at the expense of another one, just as human beings do with a lot of other non-human animals and plants, or precisely like the virus does at the expense of the cells within which it ‘reproduces’ itself. Not to mention that just as there are zoonoses, that is infections that pass from animals to humans, there are also anthroponoses, infections that pass from humans to non-humans (Fagre et al. 2021). In this sense the virus is not at all an exception, on the contrary, the virus is the prototype of life, which is infected because otherwise it would not be alive. ‘Infected’ in the sense that life is this pure and unstoppable movement/contact from one body to another, from one species to another, from one ecosystem to another. This means, again, that virus and host aim to achieve the same goal: to spread, to live, and hopefully to coexist. An extraordinary example of this situation is the widespread biological phenomena known as Horizontal Gene Transfer, that is, the passage of genetic material not from the parents to the offspring (the usual vertical process), but among living species not phylogenetically linked (that is, horizontally or laterally), as in the case of the passage of antifreeze protein gene from the herring genome through horizontal transfer to the smelt (Graham, Davies 2021). The case of HGT highlights that the role of biological processes is somewhat more similar to that of an “infection” than to the ‘normal’ passage of genes from parents to offspring in life evolution: «HT of DNA transposons has contributed significantly to shaping and diversifying the genomes of multiple mammalian and tetrapod species» (Pace et al. 2008, 17023).

10Thinking with the virus means to think of life as an absolute «becoming», a becoming that therefore has no beginning (think of the frantic search for the so-called patient zero, which does not exist and cannot exist, because there is no time without infection); in reality the virus, although in partially different forms from today’s, has been circulating for a long time, and it can only be this way, because without infection there is no life. At the same time an infection, properly, does not end cleanly, but it is very likely to become endemic, that is, it remains in ‘our’ bodies, as it has already happened with many pandemics of the past. This means that a living time without infection does not exist. Moreover, this means that Nature is not synonymous of equilibrium and harmony:

Nature as the production of the diverse can only be an infinite sum, that is, a sum which does not totalize its own elements. [...] Physis is not a determination of the One, of Being, or of the Whole. Nature is not collective, but rather distributive [...]. Nature is not attributive, but rather conjunctive: it expresses itself through “and”, and not through “is”. This and that – alternations and entwinings, resemblances and differences, attractions and distractions, nuance and abruptness (Deleuze 1990, 267).

3. A viral ontology

11Ontology is viral, that is, the natural world is not made up of isolated entities that subsequently relate to each other. The world is an immense network of intertwined relationships (which are not positive nor negative: relations are beyond moral); that is, the world is viral, contagious. Taking the virus seriously means changing the mental model through which we think the world. It means to switch from an ontology of isolated entities, to one of relationships and relationships of relationships. A viral ontology means nothing but that in the natural world boundaries does not exist. Life means nothing but spillover.

It is still often assumed that life is composed of discrete, genetically homogeneous, organisms, either single cells or the descendants of a single originating cell in the case of multicellular organisms. This assumption accords well with the orthodox metaphysical thesis that the world is composed of things, or substances. These things are typically thought of as fairly stable entities, and as bearers of properties. Although these properties can change, some subset of them must persist if the entity itself is to persist. Things are thought of as having reasonably clear boundaries, and their important properties, the properties that determine their continued existence, as being intrinsic, i.e. as being grounded on features that lie entirely within those boundaries. […] Realisation of the near omnipresence of symbiosis, however, is one factor that has presented severe problems for this background position […] The boundaries of the organism, which may or may not be taken to include some or all of these symbionts, may be to some extent indeterminate. The realisation of the integrated nature and blurred boundaries of organisms has led to claims that traditional (substance-based) metaphysical accounts of individuality should be replaced with a process ontology, as the only ‘philosophy of organism’ that can make sense of the biological phenomena as we now know them (Dupré, Guttinger 2016, 109-110).

4. A materialism on the encounters and of vortices

12To infect a cell, the virus must enter it. This means that the virus is a material entity. The virus, however, has no intention of infecting a cell. Life lives, without any will to live. There is an infection, we could perhaps try to say, without an infectious agent. There is an action without any agents for such an action: life is impersonal and intransitive. Life does not decide to live, life is nothing but living by the life. Life that shows itself through a physical encounter with another body, even if you cannot predict when it will happen. Only the human ‘subject’ thinks by himself and decide when to meet the world. In this sense the human ‘subject’ is such a strange living entity who does not believe to be part of the living world. Where does the freedom of the virus stand? To understand this situation, it can be useful the Lucretian concept of clinamen as a random encounter. The clinamen is necessary, but also completely contingent. Then, once that the first contact has taken place, other encounters will follow, simultaneously necessary and contingent. The virus does not want to encounter a cell, but at the same time it keeps on trying to infect one. If a relatively stable entity develops itself from an encounter, such an entity is nothing but a temporary vortex (in the world there is nothing which is not doomed to melt; all entities are temporary): «the vortex is unstable and stable, fluctuating and in equilibrium, is order and disorder at once, it destroys ships at sea, it is the formation of things. And so on: the sun dries the earth, it melts wax; fire melts gold and shrinks leather; the wild olive is a feast for goats, but bitter to men; marjoram is poisonous to pigs and a remedy that brings us back to life; atoms can be pathogenic germs» (Serres 2000, 30).

13The virus escapes the dualism of determinism and indeterminism. In this sense, the materialism of the virus is what Althusser defined, with an interesting formula, «aleatory materialism» (Althusser 2006). “Materialism” refers to the fact that only as a material entity the virus can infect a cell (the mask, after all, represents the definitive end of any form of idealism); “aleatory”, to the fact that matter is not ‘material’ at all, that is, blind and passive. The viral materialism finally gets rid of sense and meaning:

Epicurus tells us that, before the formation of the world, an infinity of atoms were falling parallel to each other in the void. They still are. This implies both that, before the formation of the world, there was nothing, and also that all the elements of the world existed from all eternity, before any world ever was. It also implies that, before the formation of the world, there was no Meaning, neither Cause nor End nor Reason nor Unreason. The non-anteriority of Meaning is one of Epicurus’ basic theses, by virtue of which he stands opposed to both Plato and Aristotle (ivi, 168-169).

14The virus does not imply that the world is senseless, because the senseless is still an anthropocentric concept. The virus shows us that there is a world, and that the world is all that there is. That is why the metaphor, so abused in recent months, about the “war” against the virus was so inappropriate. The virus is life, and the war against the virus is a war against life (which does not mean that all encounters are good; an encounter among living entities is nothing but an encounter). The war against the virus is a war against the world. The human ‘subject’ is the only living entity who, in order to defend himself, is declaring war on the very life. To be human implies that, in order to protect human life, one has to defend himself from life. The virus shows us a world that escapes human control (the real is real only because it is elusive), a world that ‘does’ without being intentional or subjective, a world that meets us despite all our precautions.

5. Bergsonian time

15Can an infection be predicted, i.e. can one predict when the clinamen of life (life is clinamen) will bring together two «vortices» to form another vortex? As the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus shows, it is possible to predict that there will be a species jump (scientists were sure that an influenza pandemic would break forth; cfr. Osterholm 2005), but it is not possible to predict when it will occur. The clinamen is an unpredictable shift. Nature is the place of necessarily contingent encounters. In this sense, the world of the virus, like that of Lucretius for Serres, «is outside» (Serres 2000, 68). A radical “outside” that tenaciously and stubbornly resists all our attempts at controlling and management. Nature is “outside”, always. This is what SARS-CoV-2 shows us, the virus to which we have given a name in order to recognize it and identify it (i.e. to fix it into an identity, as well as we fix with a pin an insect in a display of a museum) even though it never stops changing before our eyes. Predicting means, after all, ‘ordering’ the world to adapt to our calculations and statistics, while the world, like the virus, continues to change: «everything flows, everything falls apart without truce no rest. Every object spills, being both the source of flow and flow itself. Everybody is hollow; everybody is well and everybody is a fountain. Nature fluctuates» (ivi, 89).

16The other side of this unpredictability is the ending of the global time, the Greenwich time, the ‘official’ time of waged work and calendar. Physics already knew it, but now the virus shows it to everyone, because, as from every infection originates a new form of life, so it originates a local time, that the one of a particular vital “vortex”: «there is no time but that of objects» (ivi, 48). A circumscribed time that then goes up the thermodynamic flow of dissipation: «time would be nothing without the situation of objects in space, without their respective movements, without their formation, their disintegration. Pardon me, but the clock that Lucretius sets right in the middle of nature cannot not tell Newtonian time; because it is the whole of things, between their birth and their collapse, it records a Bergsonian, that is to say a thermodynamic Time. An irreversible, irrevocable time, pointing to the endless flow of atoms, flowing, rushing, crashing towards fall and death» (ivi, 125). In nature as pure becoming, «vortices», forms, and contagions are continuously created, and more or less quickly are reabsorbed, so that the movement of life can resume elsewhere. This multiplicity of forms of worlds is not subsumed under a single temporality: «Nature [...] is power. In the name of this power things exist one by one, without any possibility of their being gathered together all at once» (Deleuze 1990, 267).

6. Pure immanence

17The world of the virus is a flat world, without transcendence or immanence, neither platonic nor antiplatonic. Every encounter, every infection happens by physical contact. The world of the virus is in presence, always. In this sense it is a world without intentions and subjectivity. But this does not mean that then it is only an objective world. The ‘subjective’ pole exists only if compared and distinguished from an ‘objective’ pole, which has no other characteristic than being opposite to the other pole, and vice versa. The virus is neither subjective nor objective. It does not think of itself as being something (for example, to be a virus), but this does not mean that it is a mere ‘thing’ because the virus knocks down the distinction between subject and object, person and thing. In fact, the virus neither is a subject nor a thing. Therefore, it forces us to give up our simplistic dualism of the subject and the object.

18The condition of the virus is therefore that of an «absolute immanence», as Deleuze defines it. It is the adjective that makes all the difference, because otherwise we would go back to the dualism between transcendence and immanence, between the sense and the absence of sense, between the subject and the object, between what is beyond the world and what is here. Immanence is absolute, just as the virus is an agent without being a subject, or object without being a simple thing. Absolute immanence therefore means a radical coincidence with the world, just as the virus has no expectations or hopes. The virus is the infection that launches itself towards its own dissolution: in fact, as soon as it enters the host cell, the virus loses its capsid, and so ‘its’ DNA or RNA begins to replicate in the nucleus of the infected cell, then the cellular ribosomes produce ‘its’ proteins that finally assemble to form another viral unit. The sequence of encounters are necessarily fortuitous Its life is nothing more but these necessary/contingent encounters. For this reason, as Deleuze wrote in Immanence: a life..., «absolute immanence is in itself: it is not in something, to something; it is not depend on an object or belong to subject» (Deleuze 2001, 26).

19The virus somewhat ‘teaches’ this absolute loyalty to life. So absolute that the virus obviously does not know that it is loyal to life. Absolute immanence also means perfect coincidence with the singularity and unrepeatability of its existence. Every singularity is unique. As Deleuze wrote in Difference and Repetition, any virus, as any world entity, is a «difference in itself»; in fact, what is the repetition of a viral sequence (...infection-reproduction-infection...) if not a repetition that each time produces a different virus (Sanjuán et al. 2020). The result is an affirmative and integral view of life, in which the role of the negative (i.e., dualism and language, transcendence and ethics) is secondary and ultimately marginal:

difference is affirmation. This proposition, however, means many things: that difference is an object of affirmation; that affirmation itself is multiple; that it is creation but also that it must be created, as affirming difference, as being difference in itself. It is not the negative which is the motor. Rather, there are positive differential elements which determine the genesis of both the affirmation and the difference affirmed. It is precisely the fact that there is a genesis of affirmation as such which escapes us every time we leave affirmation in the undetermined, or put determination in the negative. Negation results from affirmation: this means that negation arises in the wake of affirmation or beside it, but only as the shadow of the more profound genetic element - of that power or ‘will’ which engenders the affirmation and the difference in the affirmation (Deleuze 1997, 55).

7. Ruthless

20An encounter between bodies is only an encounter, that is, its possible consequences – positive, neutral, or negative – do not affect its nature, which is precisely that of a bare encounter, neither more nor less: «Morality is physics» wrote Michel Serres in his famous book on the physics of The Rerum Natura by Lucretius (Serres 2000, 38). This, however, does not mean that there is no morality (we will discuss this matter soon), but it does mean that the morality of encounters, so to speak, is a posteriori and not a priori. That is, the goodness or badness of an encounter cannot be decided before the actual encounter. First the encounters take place, after they can be judged: «finding, encountering, stealing instead of regulating, recognizing and judging. For recognizing is the opposite of the encounter. Judging is the profession of many people, and it is not a good profession» wrote Deleuze and Parnet in Dialogues (Deleuze, Parnet 1987, 8).

21The result of such a view is a wonderful and terrible world, the world of the virus, a singularity that lives only in encounters, which we humans call ‘infection’, and which the virion would simply call ‘life’. A ruthless world, and yet the world of the virus is here. It is the same world, and it is very difficult to accept, for that particular entity that thinks of itself as having nothing to do with the virus, the talking animal of the self-defined species Homo sapiens: «Who am I? A vortex. A dispersal that comes undone. Yes, a singularity, singular» (Serres 2000, 37). If the virus could tell us something, maybe it would tell us just that, but probably it would not tell us anything at all, taken as it is with infecting and therefore with living, because the virus is pure life, majestic, and cruel. In his lecture on ethics, Wittgenstein, after all, tells us about the world just as the virus would tell us if it felt like talking about it, «aesthetically, the miracle is that the world exists. That there is what there is» (Wittgenstein 1979, 86). With the clarification that the “miracle”, for Wittgenstein, is not the extraordinary or transcendent event, on the contrary, the miracle is the perfect adherence to the life we live. If morality is physics, this applies a fortiori to theology.

8. How to talk about the virus?

22The first and perhaps the greatest difficulty posed by the virus is that we do not know how to describe it, that is, we do not know in which category to place it. The noun “virus” seems similar to “bottle” or “pen”, that is, it seems to denote a spatially delimited entity, a specific thing, just as “bottle” refers to the glass object on the table and “pen” to the plastic object we use to write. In the case of the virus, as we have seen, we are not in such a comfortable situation. From the very beginning, the virus seems to escape our linguistic grasp: is the virus a thing or is it a living entity? Which personal pronoun should we use when we name it? Is it female or male? The point is that not knowing how to answer to this question in a simple and uncontroversial way ends up reflecting on “bottles” and “pens”: perhaps the distinction between what is an object and what a process, or between what is alive and what is not, is not as obvious as we believe, or as we would like it to be. In fact, the main metaphysical consequence of the virus is that it puts into question the very distinction between things and persons, between things and living entities, between objects and processes.

23In fact, the virus forces us to think of a world that is not made of bare things, such as bottles and pens, with properties (the color, for example) and involved in relationships of various kinds with other things. The virus, as we have seen, coincides with the process of infection. In this sense the virus is not separable from ‘its’ main activity, that is, to live/infect. On the contrary, ‘our’ language normally presumes (one could say that language is nothing but such a presumption) that on the one hand things exist, and on the other hand language attaches labels on them. From this point of view, even a verb, for example “to live” transforms the process of living into a kind of object, a strange sort of isolated entity; that is, the linguistic denomination isolates what a word receives from the set of relationships that every entity in the world is woven into (Cimatti 2020). This means that the linguistic signifier is always stronger than the meaning (signified), and so we end up thinking about the process indicated by a verb as if it were something delimitable and delimited. The virus, instead, does not allow it, if not in a completely arbitrary way.

24The virus, therefore, puts into question language as an ontological device that claims to divide the world into distinct regions, each governed by its own authority and laws and with its own peculiar ontology, which cannot be connected to each other. The other side of this difficulty is to understand what the virus really is. In the last few months, we have sadly discovered that the more we say about the virus and the pandemics, the less we know about them. The virus shows us how great is our presumption to understand the world, and how the reality of the world escapes our grasp. The virus is real, and the real, as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said, is the impossible. That is, impossible to understand. The virus reminds us of the huge and unsurmountable gap separating our words and concepts from the real world. The virus, therefore, is a permanent threat to our presumption to understand the world. The virus, at the same time living and non-living, is self-contradictory;

that is how it is, in the thing itself, and no discourse can change it. As if the contradiction separated themselves, as if they repelled each other, in the battle of reason and language, while the contraries cohabited in the black box of things. If, one day, some subtle and playful dialectician disconcerts you, be quiet, don’t answer join the children, play at tops. (Serres 2000, 30).

9. Ethics, ethology and morality

Et si je me demande quel est le sens le plus immédiat du mot éthique, en quoi c’est déjà autre chose que de la morale, et bien l’éthique nous est plus connue aujourd’hui sous un autre nom, c’est le mot éthologie. Lorsqu’on parle d’une éthologie à propos des animaux, ou à propos de l’homme, il s’agit de quoi? L’éthologie au sens le plus rudimentaire c’est une science pratique, de quoi? Une science pratique des manières d’être. La manière d’être c’est précisément le statut des étants, des existants, du point de vue d’une ontologie pure (Deleuze 1980).

25Deleuze told in his lecture of Cours du 21/12/1980, during his course on Spinoza held at the University of Vincennes. Ethics has to do with «ethology», which is the science that specifically studies the behavior of non-human animals, that is, those living animals whose behavior cannot be explained by referring to the ideas and values that people have, or say they have, about what they actually do. Non-human animals ‘act’, and therefore ‘decide’, without basing such actions and decisions on moral principles. The virus, then, also falls within the field of ethic-ethology. But the virus, as we know, is not an ethical subject. What about morality, instead? What is morality for Deleuze? While ethic-ethology deals with the «manières d’être», that is ontology, morality deals with values:

Dans une morale, au contraire, il s’agit de quoi? Il s’agit de deux choses qui sont fondamentalement soudées. Il s’agit de l’essence et des valeurs. Une morale nous rappelle à l’essence, c’est à dire à notre essence, et qui nous y rappelle par les valeurs. Ce n’est pas le point de vue de l’être. Je ne crois pas qu’une morale puisse se faire du point de vue d’une ontologie. Pourquoi? Parce que la morale ça implique toujours quelque chose de supérieur à l’être; ce qu’il y a de supérieur à l’être c’est quelque chose qui joue le rôle de l’un, du bien, c’est l’un supérieur à l’être. En effet, la morale c’est l’entreprise de juger non seulement tout ce qui est, mais l’être lui-même. Or on ne peut juger de l’être que au nom d’une instance supérieure à l’être (ibid.).

26While ethics refers to the actual world, morality is about how the world should be. Now, as we are interested in the virus, in thinking with the virus, consequently, we are interested in the world. It is important to stress that we are not interested in judging the world, let alone judging the virus. Morality is about the subject, the human ego that judges and is judged, ethics is about the singularity of the living body. We must not confuse the two types of agents. Only the first, the ego, can be selfish or narcissistic; the second cannot, because the virus has no ego to love or hate. Selfishness is a moral figure, not an ethical one. Ethics is about being, therefore, bodies, and encounters with other bodies, like a virus infecting a cell, or a cat standing on a branch staring at a dog barking at it. The virus, from an ethical point of view, is always alone, driven by the vortex of encounters in which it cannot but fall, because without encounters it has no life. This is why «ce qui est ne peut être mis en rapport avec l’être qu’au niveau de l’existence, et pas au niveau de l’essence» (ibid.), that is, at the level of morality. It cannot be otherwise, because ethics, as ethology, has not transcendental principles to which it can appeal. Ethics-ethology is always local. And in fact, while «dans une morale, vous avez toujours l’opération suivante: vous faites quelque chose, vous dites quelque chose, vous le jugez vous-même. C’est le système du jugement. La morale, c’est le système du jugement» (ibid.). In ethics, instead, one never judges. The virus is not something to be judged, if possible one should avoid meeting it (in this sense the mask is an ethical device, and not moral). But, does this means – the moralist will immediately object – that anything is possible? In order to answer to this question, it is again important to distinguish the moral subject, the human ego, from the ethical one, the virus. The latter can only do what the contingency of life allows it to do. Ethics is about encounters, real vortices. Instead, it is only the moral subject, that is to say, someone who feels superior in respect to the virus and life, who may wish to perform actions completely detached from the plane of existence. The virus does not want and does not fear, the virus lives, thus it keeps on infecting. Thinking with the virus means thinking ethically, not morally:

le point de vue d’une éthique c’est: de quoi es-tu capable, qu’est-ce que tu peux? D’où, retour à cette espèce de cri de Spinoza: qu’est-ce que peut un corps? On ne sait jamais d’avance ce que peut un corps. On ne sait jamais comment s’organisent et comment les modes d’existence sont enveloppés dans quelqu’un (ibid.).

10. The Anthropocene is already finished

27«It seems appropriate», writes the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Paul Crutzen, «to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch» (Crutzen 2002, 23). Paul Crutzen, as Malcolm Ferdinand (2019) points out, is a Dutch scientist from that Netherlands, which for centuries has been extending its surface by transforming the sea into pastures and farmland, that is to say, to a civilization that considers the sea as an object to be freely disposed of. At the same time Dutch colonialism considered in a similar way the peoples of ‘his’ colonies all over the world. If there is one thing that the virus is showing us is that the anthropocene is already over. A virus is enough to stop the entire human world. But only the human world, precisely. We are not that important. The clouds, the seas, the animals, everything continues,we are not necessary. Because, as Lucretius wrote, Adsidue quoniam fluere omnia constat (De Rerum Natura, V, 280). The Anthropocene, that is, the anthropocentric and anthropomorphic age of humans has already finished. The time of virus has begun.


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Full Professor of Philosophy of Language at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Calabria. In recent years he has published: Unbecoming Human: Philosophy of Animality After Deleuze (Edinburgh University Press 2020), Il postanimale (The postanimal) (Derive Approdi 2021).


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