Against The Totalitarian Language of History

Wars, pandemics, sovereignty, and a hint on what needs to be done.

-isms War and Peace


COVIS-19 test
Image courtesy of Pikist.


Wars don’t only change our habits and biographies, our everyday existence and those of the ones directly involved in fights; wars also change political, social, and economical realities beyond the boundaries of the strict events (however prolonged) they are. We might say, following this narrative, that wars are changes-in-continuity. Yet, despite the aforementioned changes, war’s real  or objective  specifics, don’t exhaust its influence.


The concept of war also bears weight on our language, on the common usage of insipid sentences and words which govern the way we think and act according to the world around us, not vice versa. As we know from the enormous inquiries into the history and practice of propaganda (with its inherent negative connotation), war is a narrative-driven custom which employs and engages general supporters and opponents. Thus, the virtual  specifics of war — that is to say, what accompanies it besides the direct combatant activities — are as important as the real ones.


Radically different both in cultural and objective terms, the present pandemic is, in one way or another, governed by the very same manner of speech that spreads out from the language of war. For example, it was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who first stated that "we are at war" and "we have to mobilize all our forces." The others followed his headship.


What’s more, the language of war goes hand in hand with the juridical formulations and measures explicitly establishing it. Our constitutions (or sub-constitutional laws) often employ identical behavioral models in epidemic/pandemic situations as well as in times of war. Especially after the so-called Geneva Conventions  — which established the standards for humanitarian treatment in war  —  this equation is even more present. Some European countries explicitly, or at least implicitly, implement in their juridical systems parts of Geneva’s provisions in situations involving the rapid spread of diseases. This is in line with the 20th century concept of "protection crises."


Consequently, since the classification of dangerous infections as a kind of war is rooted in the legal conceptualization of war itself, such classification thus precedes its current use in political language. My aim here shall be to examine the foundations of this close connection between the politics of pandemics and politics of war, and to reveal their philosophical interconnectedness. However, in order to do so in such a brief exposition, I’ll follow a more reductionist thread. I hope that the thin, rough strokes traced here with quasi-genealogical references will not obscure but strengthen the basic argument; namely that these two phenomena of our collective existence are impending satellites to the very idea of state power and its exercise.


Some fifty years earlier, Paul Virilio wrote that war’s "conductibility  (the coherent plan devised in time and space that can, through repetition, be imposed upon the enemy) [is] not the instrument  but the origin  of a totalitarian language of History."¹ We’ll focus, for now, on the first part of this sentence. He’s referring here to the specifics of place  —  the intersection between time and space, in other words, the topos in which the battle takes place which must be well known on the one hand, and composed by strictly synchronized actions on the other. War’s conductibility then, consists of both spatial and temporal dimensions. Still, its basic source of power doesn’t come from the real, which the spatial and temporal both represent, on the contrary  it comes from its virtual sphere.


Earlier in the same chapter, Virilio unveiled this virtual plane of legitimacy as what we call information. It isn’t enough for the conductor (i.e. the general) to know the space where the conflict takes place or severely synchronize the actions of his subordinates  —  archers first, then the cavalry and so forth. He should also know what other conductors don’t.


Conductibility, hence, is impossible without knowledge. Its major role as a reducer of the game of chance is to "morally and physically deny the adversary the chance to rework his hypotheses." Virilio draws an astonishing conclusion from here  —  if information is what drives the inherent dialectics of war, eliminating the contingencies and predetermining conflict’s outcome, then conductibility  isn’t "the instrument  but the origin  of a totalitarian language of History." 


The figure of the dictator isn’t only one who seeks to operate within war’s conductibility to protect his precious and privileged place thereby producing а pretence for monopoly over information. The informational flows that are already present within the preconditions of war presuppose such behavior, presuppose the becoming-dictator. He, himself, is produced because of this algorithm which functions within "the language of History" itself. Тhe strive to subdue the enemy’s actions to the extent that everything is known in advance and with better consequences for you than him, is a heritage  —  not a natural, but a historical and cultural one. This very process, with its respective stages, overwhelms everything else, even in peaceful times.


Information is thus in direct relation with the concept of a secret and its monopoly by power structures. And the history of those structures is written in secrets: war secret, enemy secret, state secret, top-secret, confidential information and so forth. Science and technology, however primitive or modern, perform a major role in protecting the secret. Despite that, a secret has the form of lasting  interiority and precisely because of this  —  for disturbing the enemy  —  secrets should be reformatted.


In the digital era, this ensues by competition within the virtual space and by mastering the adversary’s code  —  hacking via decryption (or decoding). Another way, the old-fashioned one, is via recruitment. For both, the intents are pretty straightforward  —  not a one-time revelation of the secret's interiority and its content, but  —  again  — a lasting  "tunnel" through which the interior would become exterior. The purpose of intelligence is perpetual exteriorization. This tunnel, and the subsequent reformation of the secret, produces another secret as long as it must appear as maintaining its original, interior-oriented form.


Recruitment and hacking (through decryption  or decoding) alike ensure an immediate medium  for the implosive transformation of the secret. Beyond the enemy’s gaze, we must add. Malware is  —  just as the recruited subject  —  a kind of double agent. Yet this leads us to another "dualistic nature." Namely that of the enemy  —  he can be both internal  (inside the group, class, community we’re part of, or within the very code of our informational flows) and external  (outside them). The internal one could be by itself or an extension of the external.


Minimizing the unknown variables through mastering an adversary's informational flows, however, doesn’t mean we know everything. The war enemy  —  the Other par excellence  —  is still, at least in potentia, the Third. He’s always capable of transcending the domain of static objectification in which one tries to solidify him via the known. Within-himself, he’s always more than  for-one. Thus, uncertainty  is always present, despite one’s vigorous efforts to squash it.


Returning, let’s partially translate this interpretation of Virilio’s reflections on war into the domain of our interest. The first and most obvious point is that the disease is  the enemy. Тhe attempt to monopolize the information concerned with it, as well as the field of our collision (i.e. our very bodies, both particular and collective), is the actus primus  of any government. Thus the virus, just as a human war enemy, "embodies a particular face of nature, one that is at once representative of the radical contingency of evolution and nature as such, and at the same time embodies the fundamental entanglement of both life and death."²


Here lies the cornerstone of the intimate conceptual relationship between wars and diseases. The very fact that diseases often prevailed during times of war —t he minimal hygiene and poor quality food, as well as the imperative of wandering in unfamiliar and wild areas implies the encounter with unknown pathogens — suggest that the constant concern, the agitation and fear, must have been present long before humanity knew what caused mass-diseases. At this point, it may have seemed to come from the enemy himself, from some sort of magical power and the fact that he had mastered information inaccessible to us. One thing was surely certain: this had to be an inhuman(e)  foe bearing identical objectives as the human one, namely  —  to slaughter us. It might even be the case that rivals intentionally used contagious subjects —  as a kind of early biological weaponry —  in order to spread dangerous pathogens within the enemy's population and thus undermining their rigidity. Biological warfare might be much older than one expects.


In a recent piece for the London Review of Books, Thomas Poole argued that Hobbes’ Leviathan  —  or, the modern concept of authoritarian sovereignty  —  is somehow determined by crises of this sort. Thucydides’ historical account on the Peloponnesian War and its plague (to which modern scientists,  looking to the symptoms described by Thucydides, refer to as typhus) was translated into English for the first time by Hobbes himself. But the England Hobbes knew also "experienced waves of epidemics every ten years or so, some resulting in urban mortality rates as high as 20 per cent." Contrary to Thucydides’ somewhat nostalgic vector of narration moving from "order to chaos" (i.e. the destruction of Athens democracy because of the disease), Hobbes offers "a systematic thought experiment that takes the opposite trajectory, from natural barbarism to civilization within the state."


Nevertheless, the immediate consequence of both formulations  —  those of Thucydides and Hobbes  —  are, in themselves, forms of tyranny. Thus, this quasi-war against the ghostly and disease-inducing adversary might be just as important for the "origin of a totalitarian language of History," in Virilio’s words, as the genuine war. The conversion of the so-called "primitive" and "segmentary" societies  —  lacking a rudimentary form of a state  —  to those defined by (at least some) distinguished institutions of government, may have happened via society’s collision with precisely those two problems:  wars and diseases, not supply scarcity.


Cultivating land and breeding livestock wasn’t merely the beginning of the end for nomadic cultures, it was the commencement of humanity’s struggle against contagions, which turned out to be even more dangerous and common once the settled culture of urban life occurred. The first great concentrations of humans must have led to the first great pandemics. Nomadism, however, around different settled cultures, as James C. Scott points out, has still been present and particularly frequent, especially in circumstances of genuine war. Of great importance for the choice of the incessantly mobile way of life by many was the always present danger of infection among the settlers. In the meantime, besides conquerers from the settled cultures, mostly merchants crossed the land in length and breadth.


It took time before capitalism made imperative the free movement of labour-power, thus transforming the notion of nomadism. Of the least endangered by infections, as the old nomads were, the modern ones are the most threatened due to the unpreparedness of their immune systems to cope with the ever-new dangers they face. 


However, it’s important to note that those pathogenic viruses arose from the artificial selection of required animals and livestock, as well as from the destruction of wild animals’ habitats for cultivational purposes. "The ‘deadly gifts’ from our ‘animal friends’  —  Sonia Shah wrote  —  include[ed] measles and tuberculosis from cows, pertussis (whooping cough) from pigs, and influenza from ducks." We’ve initiated this war. Capitalism didn’t invent pathogens, as many from the left infantiley insist on, but it certainly accelerated and deepened their evolutionary replication, turning them into a norm of our modern-day life. On the other hand, bourgeois law did codify and strictly organize our reaction towards them, leaving enough room to strengthen the positions of the ruling class. 


The second point is that both our social and individual physical bodies, including their spatio-temporal localization, are the real dimension  of pandemic’s conductibility. What we’re dealing with here is the fundamental strategy observed in each living system we know  —  reproduction. It isn’t enough for us to have an objective image and precise comprehension of how the virus replicates and mutates on a micro- or macroscopic level. It’s equally ,  if not more,  important to know what it will do next;  what kind of subsequent replication or mutation to expect. This future-oriented knowledge includes the way the virus interacts with different groups and individuals according to their lifestyles: their concomitant "standard" of living, their immediate environment, their present co-morbidities. In other words, their multifaceted and multidimensional context. Further, such an expectation must also assume the way the virus responds to the performed interventions,  be it by medications and technological manipulations on a physiological level, or at a more general, societal level by measures such as lockdowns, social-distancing, and so forth.


Therefore, thirdly, our endless strive for more data, as well as the possibility of reforming the virus' secret interiority and its connection to the exterior, denotes the virtual plane  of this war’s conductibility. The critical connection with information here follows the same pattern as it did with war proper. To understand how to impose any specific behavior on our enemy — i.e. the virus  —  or, moreover, how to lead to our desired end necessitates both "hacking" and "recruitment." Vaccines and stem cells treatments (especially for new and aggressive pathogens as COVID-19) have many points of contact with this suggestion. Overall, society’s scientists are our most rugged intelligence service. The gathered data help us know in advance  how to proceed and what to expect on the "battlefield."


We can assume that early societies wouldn’t have been much different. All kinds of sorcerers, healers, religious priests, etc. must have established their symbolic capital in these early cultures precisely through the same model: setting-up an alternative power axis. However, if mastering information in war proper further separates the warring camps, here the process is a little different. Pathogens, insofar as they are inhuman, have a truly unifying potential. It is the free exchange of information between various intelligence groups as well as the free exchange on the various technological means of resistance, that carries this potential. Capitalism’s strive for profit undermines this potential, isolating private groups of intelligence services in their restrained corporate shells. Market competition in the realm of vaccines, for instance, creates genuine war-like conditioning for developing genuine war-like secrets. Here, once again, the whole analysis of hacking and recruitment is entirely applicable.


We might say that these two power axes  —  the war-and disease-intelligence informed groups  —  constitute one of the pillars of rudimentary and modern state alike. The explanations given for wars or mass-diseases matter little. What matters is that there’s always this feeling for something not entirely spoken. Why? Because articulating it might be bad for the economy, it might spread panic or give advance to the adversary by revealing part of the secret’s interiority, etc. Probably that’s the reason why conspiracy theories thrive both in wars and pandemics. It is the very notion of information and its preservation into the hands of those in power that constitutes the immediate associations of politics of war with politics of diseases.


The state of emergency as a radical move to cope with a situation containing too many unknowns is compelled by the way we perceive both of them. Hence, the "authoritarian language of History" and its origin is rooted deeply within these pair of phenomena. 


Opposition against wars is just one part of the solution. The obligation to fight against the market's genuine war-like competition which produces virtual secrets within the already existing real ones must become imperative, just as any other struggle against imperialism is. Still, both the genuine and the quasi-war forms aren’t natural ones, as I’ve tried to show here. Their conceptualization in language isn’t a mere reflection of what happens around us, but emerges by the very practice of war. Be it against another man or nature as such, our attitude towards the world along with our notions of it must change if we’re to disrupt the totalitarian language of History.


[1] Popular Defence & Ecological Struggles by Paul Virilio, Semiotext(e), p. 17.
[2] "Viral Defence," by Richard B. Keys. Identities Journal:



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Philosophy, War, Warfare, Propaganda, History, Coronavirus, COVID-19