What Has Led To What & What Will Lead To Everything (Poem)
Thoughts on COVID, Affect, and xenophobia: COVID-19 has been called “the Chinese virus” by racist politicians like Donald Trump and his followers. There is now a Wikipedia page titled “List of incidents of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic”, and the list is long.
The xenophobic rhetoric of illness exists in the discourse around cancer, in autoimmune diseases, and in the standard anti-biotic commercial. “Foreign invaders” is always the way infections are described, but the sheer idea of a ‘foreign invader’ is a result of colonization and violence. We don’t know how to speak of these things differently because it is everything our culture silently upholds. It’s obvious that xenophobic medical rhetoric results in actual violence, because our language is as performative as anything else that we do – in the sense that language has the power to enact a reality. If we speak of this xenophobically, anti-immigrant violence will ensue.
Joe Biden and most of the mainstream media have described the pandemic as a war, and the Surgeon General spoke of the coming week as if it were Pearl Harbor or 9/11. On March 29, CNN published an article titled “Coronavirus preys on what terrifies us: dying alone”, as if the illness was lurking around us and planning out how exactly it will torment us the most, like a serial killer in a movie where the murderer is never caught. If we speak of this as a war, it is. If we speak of it as a serial killer, it is.
Gilles Deleuze wrote of self-destruction: “in reality, what is involved is always a group of parts that are determined to enter into other relations and consequently behave like foreign bodies inside us. This is what occurs with the ‘autoimmune diseases’… or, inversely, with suicide.”
The idea that an autoimmune disease is the mirror image of suicide has been taught to me, directly or indirectly, since the day I found out what I had was an autoimmune disease. For some reason, it is the easiest way for any practicing physician to describe to any patient what is happening to their body.
Our cultural association of illness and violence seems like it is the only possible association. I don’t know how many people would take me seriously if I told them that I think of my autoimmune disease as someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing but is slightly misguided. Just like in the movies, we want something that is pure evil, something that has no conflict with our understanding of morality.
To say that xenophobia and war exist in the discourse around autoimmune disease is to say that these metaphors and realities have been engraved in the way that my body is understood. Every poem I write and every piece of art that I make is an attempt at refusing the idea that illness is something that should reinforce a racist and imperialist ideology. I refuse to write about my illness in only negative terms. I don’t mean to say that I enjoy my disease – I will be in pain for the rest of my life and I have more scars on my body than I can count, and even more cysts under the surface – but I am affected by it, positively and negatively. If we think of disease in terms of affect, in terms of how the illness is presented, we can open up new ways to think about it, ways that don’t lead to violence.
John Prine died last night. Some articles about his death focus on his impact on Nashville, others on his frequent mentioning of Milwaukee, on his neck surgery in the 90s, on his most recent album. Most of them discuss the affects of COVID-19 on his body – it was ravaged, destroyed, attacked.
When singing about death, John Prine wrote that he was going to “get back into show business, and open up a night club called the Tree of Forgiveness”. I don’t think that anyone who writes about death with such nuance would only talk about the way a disease “ravaged” or “attacked” his body. I don’t think that the song John Prine would write about COVID would be completely negative, or at least, without any room for nuance.
Problems of illness are problems of language. The way we talk about disease and have learned to apply violent metaphors to it have negatively affected ill peoples’ experience by using language to enact a negative feeling. While illness is certainly a body problem, the true precarity of disease is due to capitalism’s violence toward the sick and the neglect toward a positive understanding of disease. We do not have proper care or treatment because the production-driven economy of capitalism does not treat the sick as a group who deserves it. The sick are pushed to the margins because sickness is talked about exclusively in a negative light.