by Alison Jasper

A protestor wears a mask honoring Breonna Taylor in downtown Louisville, Kentucky on 1 June 2020. Photograph: Amy Harris/Rex/Shutterstock

One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most fascinating concepts is that of the war machine (A Thousand Plateaus, 1988) or more broadly, the notion of a machine. It suggests endlessly complex and variable interrelationships between institutions, social groups, bodies, objects, movements, ideas and environments, moving and producing change in accordance with shifting and differentially weighted purposes and moods. In a machine, components are brought together or rearranged for different aims that can be anything from the nurturing of a child (involving a sucking mouth and a breast) to the way in which states and nations are made, moved or dismantled through the mobilisations and disconnections of civil and military forces in relation to environmental factors such as the weather.

Talking about the exponential growth and sophistication of medical and information technologies, Andrew Hass has already suggested that these implicate and are implicated in a great range of human processes and desires. In terms of this Deleuzian & Guattarian idea of the machine, you could perhaps describe them, in the current situation, as components of a Covid19 machine. The virus is dispersed around the world by means of human breath, speech and song, inhalation, ingestion, touch and physical contact, that have been mediated through innumerable technological, entrepreneurial and bureaucratic processes driven by human desire and anxiety. It’s a machine of human desiring but also one for the growth and spread of a living non-human organism. Humans constitute a vital vector for the virus. The machine has grown the virus wonderfully well. In that way, it’s a success story! Meantime the human hosts or victims are themselves provoked into thought, action or change by their desires in response to this disease.

I have been reading and considering these things during lock down. It is uncomfortable, to think of oneself, not simply acting but being worked or acted upon. But shifting our perspective – uncomfortable or not – does allow us to see and feel differently. So for example, this is not simply an invisible enemy whose attacks leave us feeling intensely vulnerable and frustrated. It is also a revelation of how we can trust and count on each other. And then, we start to recognise how much we are currently trusting and counting on a whole range of poorly-paid ‘unskilled’ workers – cleaners, shop assistants, drivers, farm workers, food preparers – many of whom, like NHS staff, have been forced to put their health and lives at risk for the rest of us. We see that we cannot do without those who clear away our rubbish, or cook hospital meals or help our elderly get to the toilet and dress when we are not there to do it ourselves.

Another notable effect of this shift of perspective has been the increased visibility of racism and racial violence during this time of pandemic. Far from being irrelevant or simply coincidental, I would say that racism is profoundly interconnected with Covid19’s progress. BAME people are disproportionately affected by the disease. They come to this health crisis with poorer underlying health. They are disproportionately represented in poorly paid work. They will be disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic. If they are dismayed by a general contempt for what many of them do as ‘un-skilled’ workers, they are often in a poor position to change these circumstances. The racism part of this machine is itself an assemblage of multiple factors from the existence of powerful, well-funded and militarised police forces and the profile of the judiciary, to the differential availability of housing and education and the circulation in all of this of some deeply rooted stories of racial hostility and contempt. In societies dominated by forms of white masculinity, they invoke the thought that people who are not white, are not entirely – or at all – human. They frame BAME people as a threat to white lives and property and they must be controlled. These stories are ultimately, the legacy of slavery and imperial conquest, but more recent racist customs and statutes such as Jim Crow or apartheid, though long suspended, remain lodged in parts of the common imaginary as the possibility of legalized racial segregation.

Staff outside King’s College Hospital in south London join in the applause to salute NHS and care workers © Jonathan Brady/PA

Covid19 and racism achieved one very clear machinic articulation last month, when our intense involvement with technologies of information and communication brought us the video streamed death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minneapolis. George Floyd died on May 25, 2020 when four armed police officers arrested him on suspicion of having purchased something at a convenience store, using a counterfeit $20 bill. He was held in a choke-hold by a police officer for so long that he died. It was a powerful illustration of that fear and need to control; saving black lives was not the priority here. The incident has led to widespread and persistent protest – a sense that many people want things to change. But this assemblage of racist attitudes and actions can also be subject to further intersectional analysis. Another part of the Covid19 racism machine is the silencing rather than the circulation of stories. It takes considerable effort to find out the (many) stories of how black, lesbian, trans women or women with mental health issues, have been killed in similar situations to George Floyd.

Last week, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, interviewed a group of six women involved in the campaign #SayHerName! for her podcast, Intersectionality Matters. All of the women had lost sisters or daughters. Fran Garrett, the mother of Michelle Cusseaux described how her daughter was killed on 14 August 2014. In the course of following up on a mental health check, 8 armed police officers responded to Michelle, raising a hammer by shooting her dead. Maria Moore described her sister Kayla, as a trisector – a black transwoman with mental health issues. Like Michelle Cusseaux she was killed when police, as first responders, deployed forms of control in preference to de-escalation. Even more shockingly in some ways, Shelley Frey was killed by a Wallmart security guard – an off-duty sheriff. Suspecting her of shop-lifting, he shot into her car, even though he was aware there were children in it. At the time of the interview, five of the six had received nothing by the way of justice, compensation or apology. The one successful prosecution was subsequently overturned by a judge. The campaign iterates how these stories need also to be told. If no one tells these stories, how can anything change?

The Covid19 pandemic is an assemblage of parts and motivations and viewed as a machine, prompts us to recognise that human agency and desire maybe overlaid by other, less obvious purposes including those of the virus. Nevertheless, one of the features of this conceptual framework where human desire is involved, is the presence of cross-cutting stories that fuel and direct its flows and trajectories. Drawing on some of the insights of CR we can perhaps suggest that it can be fruitful to pay more critical attention to the presence and effects of these culturally freighted stories. There is a familiar feel to some of them as they express praise, thankfulness and respect for self-sacrifice reflecting a desire to save lives. But in the Covid19 machine, there are also stories whose effects produce sorting strategies for determining which human lives are, in Judith Butler’s memorable term ‘grievable’, or for limiting our view of which particular lives matter and call forth that kind of self-sacrifice (Frames of War: When is life Grievable?, 2010). Thinking courtesy of Deleuze and Guattari in this sense does not provide us with any clear rules or best options but it does encourage us to reflect in this time of pandemic; to try out shifts in our perspective and perhaps internalise tools for averting the worst dangers of ‘final solutions’.