Thank Virus for Symbiosis

Timothy Morton
15 min read
4 Apr 2020

Things happen on several scales at once. There you are, starting your car. Nothing happened to the biosphere—that’s a statistically meaningless event. But billions of cars starting billions of times are part of why global warming is happening.

There you are, “sheltering in place” to stop the spread of CoVID-19, the hyperobject of our age, the hyperobject within a hyperobject, the global warming one. Is it global warming prep? Is it a disastrous distraction? You’re terrified, if you’re like me. I have bad asthma and sleep apnea, so if I get this, I may well be dead.
But if you’re like me you’re also weirdly glad. Greta Thunberg can finally take a break, and go back to school, which has been canceled! This virus has decimated pollution and carbon emissions. Nonhuman beings are returning. The streets of Boulder Colorado are stalked by mountain lions, usually too shy and sensible to come within range of humans with guns.
Neoliberal capitalism is imploding, as if it were that computer in that episode of Star Trek, to which Captain Kirk speaks a viral sentence that causes it to go into an infinite loop and destroy itself. When a CEO or a president tells you that “the solution may be worse than the problem,” what they are telling you, nakedly, is that you should die to save the automated system, the adaptive AI called capitalism that machine-learns better and better how to extract value from lifeforms. But when I say that the solutions can be super violent and oppressive, I don’t mean that at all. It’s more like how I talk about my depression, which is also an autoimmune response gone mad, like how white blood vessels will kill their host in the name of keeping out foreigners.
Life is not a fascist bundle where everything is integrated into the one true community, where you get your identity from that “something bigger” to which you belong. Life is a loose collective of uneasy alliances. Life is ambiguous. The Latin word hostismeans host, guest, friend, enemy. Hospitality means you might open your door to a killer. I don’t want to die. I don’t want anyone to be killed by this virus. But I only just figured out, long story, what “alive” meant as opposed to “survival.” And I can’t un-figure that out, even as I obey the lockdown rules.
Shock doctrines aside, the global economic system is survival mode—it’s why they forced Darwin to include “survival of the fittest” in his book—and right now that mode is destroying the host organisms. Without which, the automated system will have no value. It’s a Moebius strip. It’s a strange loop.
People, planetary awareness just arrived. We just found out the hard way how humankind means solidarity with nonhuman people.
I hate it. And I love it. Unlike the patriarchal god, Gaia is very ambiguous and her emissary is way more ambiguity than I can tolerate. I’m having wild mood swings. Thank Virus.
Viruses are a logical consequence of life as such—they say something true about it. Flowers came later than plants, but they are logically prior to stems. Flowers say something true about genetic mutation—that it’s random. Sexual display says something true about sexuality, that it doesn’t depend on “healthiness” or heterosexual reproduction. Can you see gay people, in the mirror or otherwise? Good. I rest my case.
It’s the same with art. Art is not PR for meaningless blobs. Beauty is the reason why things can exist. Beauty is the ring of truth. Beauty is truthfeel. Beauty is also a tiny little bit of death. If the beautiful thing got turned up to 11, your internal organs would melt and you would die. Or you could eat the beautiful thing, and it would die. Beauty is an uneasy symbiosis. Beauty is the possibility of death—beauty is fragile. Beauty is fragility.
Beauty is a virus.

About Timothy Morton

2020 01 30 STRP Scenario5 Boudewijn Bollmann LORES 31 kopie
Picture by Boudewijn Bollmann

"We are all symbiotic beings that are intertwined with other symbiotic beings"

Timothy Morton (philosopher and professor at the Rice University in Houston, USA) is concerned with the question of how humans relate to ecology. 12.500 years ago, we divided the world into nature and culture, into man and animal, with man in the leading role. This way of thinking in terms of boundaries and species, also known as anthropocentrism, must change because humans, animals and things are interwoven, according to Morton. We are all symbiotic beings that are intertwined with other symbiotic beings.
His books are an invitation to start thinking in an associative, playful way. ‘Dark Ecology’ (2016) is now considered a standard work and ‘Being Ecological’ (2018) is his most recent book. Don’t expect it to give you a summary of ecological facts and figures or an accusatory monologue, but rather a plea for handling ecological knowledge in a more sincere way.