Why Didn’t We See the Coronavirus Pandemic Coming?

A question of scale: Bettina Bildhauer argues that viruses are too small to be recognised in our anthropocentric habits of perceiving agency, but “new materialist” theories and pre-Enlightenment writing can help us challenge these habits.

As a humanities researcher, I have been feeling pretty useless in the current Covid-19 crisis. I cannot develop a vaccine, produce ventilators or test kits. I totally failed to predict anything like this, and the warnings of public health specialists and virologists that another viral pandemic was just a matter of time did not even register in my field. But my kind of knowledge actually can help to explain what the scientists cannot understand: Why did nobody listen to them? Of course many political, social and economic reasons have combined, but one of the most obvious, but at the same time almost entirely overlooked reason why we did not see this crisis coming is because it is both too big and too small for our habits of perception.

Humans cannot help but see the world from a human perspective and on a human scale. It is necessary for our survival that we perceive ourselves as individuals who are able to shape our environment. We need to know that we can dig out that root, pick that apple, run away from that lion; otherwise we could not survive. But what we have lost is the awareness that this anthropocentric world view is not the full picture. It is not reality; it is just one limited perception of reality. Animals, plants, gases and those tiny viruses that are far too small for our visual apparatus, and the global forces of pandemics that are far too big for them, have agency, too.

This limited perception of reality become enshrined in the Enlightenment in the Global North as the only academically acceptable way of viewing the world. Descartes influentially divided the world into subjects and objects: human subjects are the only beings endowed with reason, a mind, a free will and intentionality; the only entities capable of transcending the material world. This means that they are also the only ones able to be agents, to “act” in the sense of making conscious decisions and carrying them out.

This limited notion of agency, of the power to act, is what has occluded our ability to see how non-humans can act. A virus of course cannot act in a pseudo-human way; it is not a subject. It cannot think, decide to infect a human, or even move in a self-propelled manner. But that does not mean that it cannot act. It can, as new materialist Bruno Latour’s definition goes, “make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action”. It can be carried by air into the nose or mouth, activate our immune system, cause inflammation in our airways and kill its human host. Breathing with or without a virus in our lungs is a profoundly different action, in the same way that boiling water with or without a kettle is profoundly different undertaking. A virus and a kettle make a difference in the course of other agents’ actions; and it is only by looking at humans and non-humans together that we can understand and tackle a problem like the current epidemic.

New materialists like Latour, Jane Bennett or Karen Barad, and ecocritics like Serenella Iovino have long shown that we need to see the world from a microperspective and a macroperspective if we want to grasp larger-than-human-life phenomena like climate change – or indeed the Covid-19 pandemic. The minute and the global are beyond the grasp of our modern habits of perception. A popular meme shows a city street full of child-sized prickly red coronaviruses with the tagline: “If you could see it, would you go out?”. Because we cannot see viruses, it is easy to ignore them. It is not just that our eyes cannot perceive minute things, though, it is also that we cannot conceive of ways in which they act, because our thinking is so deeply shaped by the subject/object binary. Just because they cannot intentionally infect us does not mean that they cannot infect us. Just because the outbreak started in China, which many of us in the UK even in February dismissed with colonial arrogance as “far away”, does not mean that it cannot have effects felt globally.

So what can we do to change our exclusively human focus, which is literally killing us just now? In practice, we all already know that the division between the autonomous, free-willed human agent and the passive world of objects around us is an illusion. As anyone who has ever engaged with a mobile phone, a packet of crisps or a cigarette knows, the idea that we can consciously control our actions is laughable. Endorphines, nerve cells, chemicals and habits make us pick up that phone a million times a day or move that hand to the crisp packet one more time. As Latour puts it, there is a massive gap between the theory and the practice of our modern world view.

The trick is not to invert the master/slave relation, to say that the phone has control over us, that we are the passive objects and the viruses, tablets or drugs are the subjects. The crux is to find different, more nuanced ways of thinking and talking about agency. Not the either/or of intentional action and inert passivity, but a middle voice of nudging, letting, making each other do things. Not “I check my phone” replaced by “the phone makes me check it”, but attention to all the human and non-human agents involved: the bright screen, smooth surface, beautiful screensaver, friendly messages being perceived by the eye, sending electrical signals to the brain, emitting hormones and stimulating muscle movements in the hand to repeat that pleasurable action. Not “the virus is killing us”, but masks, testing kits, food, aeroplanes, water supply, nation states, health systems, political parties and many other agents besides humans and viruses have contributed in positive and negative ways to the current global pandemic.

Artists, writers and other creatives have long envisaged alternatives to that limited subject/object thinking. Especially those working before Descartes can give us inspiration for seeing the world in different ways. One wonderful story comes from Hans Sachs, a shoemaker and poet in sixteenth-century Nuremberg. He imagines the world from the perspective not of an invisible virus, but of a small coin. Human society with all its seemingly important preoccupations and actions – marriage, death, war, empires, religions – suddenly looks both very big and very small from the perspective of the coin: little individual trifles in a much bigger picture of the coin’s long-term view over many decades, the metal outlasting dozens of mortal human owners. Jacob Grimmelshausen in the seventeenth century even wrote an autobiography of a piece of toilet paper, from growing happily in a field of hemp via being made into thread, then fabric cut into a shirt, later used as a nappy, being recycled into paper for a book and finally cut up for use as toilet paper. The paper begs the human latrine user to spare it the final humiliation of being used to wipe his bottom, but in vain.

However frivolous or insignificant they may seem, it is from such stories and such different academic ways of describing the world that we can draw inspiration in this time of crisis. It may be the viruses who are killing us, but it is the humans who need to be able to perceive and understand them as part of a wider web of agency. We need to start seeing the non-human agents so that we can see them coming.


Bettina Bildhauer is a Professor of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews specialising in medieval German literature with a particular current interest in materiality. Her monograph Medieval Things: Materiality, Agency and Narrative in Medieval German Literature and beyond is forthcoming with Ohio State University Press.

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