nothing here but social contagion

issue 046 - 22nd March, 2020

CJW: This is a bit of an odd issue, because, well, these are odd times. 2 weeks ago the COVID-19 situation seemed like a distant concern (in my part of the world, at least), but in the past 2 weeks it’s become all anyone can think or talk about. I hope you’re staying safe and well. Please stay to the end - we’ve got some links that might prove useful, and also a community call-out that I hope people respond to.

This issue we say goodbye to Austin. We’re almost 2 years in, and 2 original contributors down. In another 3 years there will be no one here, just a sophisticated GAN I’ve trained to scour the internet and share links and rants with no need for human interference. But, until that hallowed day, you’re stuck with me (Corey J. White) at the helm, your current events sin-eater. And I'm still joined by Marlee Jane Ward (MJW), your fabulous goth aunt, and m1k3y (MKY), your pop culture pundit for the end of the world.

I’m sad to see Austin go, but life changes means he doesn’t have the time to dedicate to the newsletter. And for me personally, if it’s down to Austin taking the time to contribute here, or working on Oh Nothing Press and his own projects, I’d much rather see him writing and producing That Good Shit. So, godspeed, brother.

And for all the isolationistas out there in self-quarantine, Austin and I (and John! Early adopters will remember John) wanted to make the CREEPER ISSUE 1 PDF FREE FOR DOWNLOAD. It contains personal essays from Austin and I, a story from m1k3y, and great fiction, non-fiction, and art from our fantastic contributors.

On his way out the door, Austin leaves us with one final bonus letter: Chair Talk: 4 Chairs Encountered in Recent Strange Circumstances. To get access to it, our future bonuses, and the full archive, just go here to become a supporter.

CJW: Preparing for COVID-19 (via Damien Williams)

I’m sharing this piece by Leigh Cowart because it’s the best short and sweet summary of COVID-19 realities I’ve come across - just about all of these facts, figures and links I had come across elsewhere, but not all in the one place.

Related: What Does 'Social Distancing' Mean?


CJW: Social Contagion (via Ospare)

Now is not the time for a simple “Scooby-Doo Marxist” exercise of pulling the mask off the villain to reveal that, yes, indeed, it was capitalism that caused coronavirus all along! […] Of course capitalism is culpable—but how, exactly, does the social-economic sphere interface with the biological, and what kind of deeper lessons might be drawn from the entire experience?


[The outbreak] is an instructive opening in which we might review substantial questions about how capitalist production relates to the non-human world at a more fundamental level—how, in short, the “natural world,” including its microbiological substrata, cannot be understood without reference to how society organizes production (because the two are not, in fact, separate). At the same time, this is a reminder that the only communism worth the name is one that includes the potential of a fully politicized naturalism.

No doubt you’ve read a lot this past fortnight about COVID-19, but this is easily the most in-depth piece I’ve come across. It’s a long and well-researched look at the history of epidemics under capitalism, the conditions in China (and it's connections to the global economy) that made it likely for an epidemic to spread from there, whilst steering well clear of any of the racism and sinophobia that was particularly prevalent when the virus first hit. And, to be honest, it contains some pretty depressing stark truths about the totalising nature of global capital…

Also, it's a must-read if you're interested in modern statecraft and the possibilities of insurrection.


CJW: We're not going back to normal (via Ed)

The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships. But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.

The idea of 18 months of social distancing and the far-reaching changes it would wreak on our society are frankly frightening, but generally this piece is mostly sober and hopeful.

MJW: I have said sentences in the past two weeks I never thought I’d actually say outside of fiction. ...if work is still open because of the virus. ...if there’s any [whatever] still left on the shelves. I signed off a group email chain to a bunch of writers with ‘Let's hope that this doesn't last too long. Best of luck!’ which was code for ‘I hope we don’t get evicted and die!’ The group email was informing us that the event we were doing was cancelled. Every panel and festival we were doing is cancelled. The arts in Australia has collapsed in the past week. My job that pays the bills is customer-facing, close-quarters, impossible to do from home, and it will probably close soon. Like many Australians, I’m a casual employee so I have no paid leave. 

And all that’s before even worrying about how anyone I care for might get sick. 

I guess all this ‘me, me, me, my feelings, etc’ is to say that I’m having a lot of trouble engaging with these articles. I’m quite mentally ill on a good day, so this is heightening things to a furious level. I’m just hoping I emerge from this as a weathered, wizened apocalypse witch and not completely bonkers. I’d settle for as bonkers as I was before. 

Please excuse me as I wander around the rest of the newsletter, dazed and vaguely commenting in only feeling words. 


CJW: How to Generate Infinite Fake Humans (via Sentiers)

A quarter of a century later still, you and I and everyone else fashion the scraps of images and symbols, the physical exhaust of industrialism having given way to the symbolic exhaust of the information economy. The crowd isn’t made up of people anymore, but of pictures that might be people, of corporate brands impersonating them, of young people dancing politically in TikToks, of tweets about youths in TikToks, of disputes absent referents, of bots shouting into the void. Cacophony, an ever-amassing crowd awaiting a train that will never come.

An interesting take from Ian Bogost on deep fakes and the like, looking at modernism and the history of the city, and how since the beginning of the industrial age we’ve always been shocked and disturbed by unfamiliar faces. He argues that whether or not those faces are generated by a neural network is beside the point.


CJW: Why don't rats get the same ethical protections as primates? (via Dan Hill)

The logic behind these studies is paradoxical: rats are close enough to us to serve as models for human psychopathologies, but far enough to be outside of ethical concern. Researchers today would hardly dream of creating human psychopaths to study, or showing a human subject a real drowning child in order to offer a chance to rescue. The reason is simple: humans have an empathic nature that ought to be respected. But we do it to rats, despite their own empathic nature.

This piece via Dan Hill very much put me in mind of that essay by Jane Rawson I linked to a couple of issues back, in that both are about the ways we do (but more often do not) recognise the importance of the lives and suffering of non-human animals. An important discussion of human ethics and our failures in the face of animal empathy.

Related: Writing From the Point of View of a Chicken

Our error is not anthropomorphism, but the opposite. We refuse to believe, to the point of absurdity that we and they are first animals, that there is no us and them in this regard, only us, all of us.

This one also came via Dan Hill’s newsletter, which you should subscribe to if you haven’t already. Animals and ideas of interspecies solidarity are going to be more prominent in my future writings, so of course this piece about writing from the perspective of a chicken appealed to me. It also includes this fact I hadn't heard before:

Hens sing to their eggs and the embryos twitter back through their shells.

Read over that again.

Expect me to share more about animals, ethics, and related concerns as time goes on. I hope to write a sequel to my current WIP that includes perspectives that are not entirely human, so I’m very interested in how other writers have already approached it.

MJW: Oh fuck, now I’m sad about Rats, too.


CJW: How to design a smart city that's built on empowerment—not corporate surveillance (via Sentiers)

The city is not a lab; it is not the public’s interest to subsidize private companies’ experiments with little to no oversight. (To say nothing of constructing a surveillance state.) Even major consultancies such as Deloitte have found that most smart cities have failed to improve people’s lives, despite costing governments tens of billions of dollars.

This piece looks at the "problematic" nature of smart city technology today, and the further negative potentials of it in the future, using examples from both China (largely state-backed), and the West (largely driven by Big Tech). But that's just the starting point. As you can probably guess from the title it goes on to consider technological potential futures as a way of empowering users instead of harvesting them for data.


MKY: A few bits of good news/developments to hold onto as we watch the best and worst of people play out rn.

Last March, scientists announced that Mr. Castillejo, then identified only as the “London Patient,” had been cured of H.I.V. after receiving a bone-marrow transplant for his lymphoma. The donor carried a mutation that impeded the ability of H.I.V. to enter cells, so the transplant essentially replaced Mr. Castillejo’s immune system with one resistant to the virus. The approach, though effective in his case, was intended to cure his cancer and is not a practical option for the widespread curing of H.I.V. because of the risks involved.

A person with a genetic condition that causes blindness has become the first to receive a CRISPR–Cas9 gene therapy administered directly into their body.

The treatment is part of a landmark clinical trial to test the ability of CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing techniques to remove mutations that cause a rare condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA10). No treatment is currently available for the disease, which is a leading cause of blindness in childhood.

"It is about finding another part in your supply chain that you can get rid of some plastic and find a sustainable and viable alternative," he says. "My only concern would be if it doesn't function as well. The cost difference is negligible."

Great Wrap is keen to create a plastic wrap alternative for the consumer market as well but for now is focused on the business to business market.

"The biggest issues we face around the world are B2B," Kay says. "It's great to see people using keep cups and reusable bags but we personally believe consumers are just tip of the iceberg."

MJW: Thanks for the good news, m1k3y. I needed that.


Cutting Room Floor:

MJW: In 2010, Australian teacher and honours student Angela Williams was hit by a motorcycle. She went to the police to make a statement, but instead was arrested for a thirteen-year old outstanding warrant and immediately placed in prison. Snakes and Laddersis about the way that sometimes the past just isn’t finished with you, no matter what you’ve done to outrun it. 

The story is told with all the analysis an academic mind can uncover from big ideas like ‘abuse’ and ‘incarceration’ and ‘addiction’, but with the emotional ferocity of someone who has lived them, and the prose of a powerful writer. 

Okay, yeah, I’m a little biased because Angela is a friend of mine and I read Snakes and Ladders in an earlier inception, but it doesn’t change that this is a powerful book. The sharp shock of prison after the freedom of a hard won, uni-educated, middle-class life is jarring. She brings to life the realities of women's prisons in Australia: the power imbalances, the mental illness, the shit and the heat and the small victories. 

Reading an earlier draft of Snakes and Ladders informed my writing Prisoncorp - which says something about the current dystopian nature of our nation's prisons.



CJW: Remember how at the end of 2018 we all looked forward to 2019 because we thought there was no way things could possibly get any worse, and then 2019 happened? It’s come to my attention that people thought the same thing about the transition from 2019 to 2020. Sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but from here on out, things are only going to get worse and weirder, in ways that we couldn’t possibly even imagine until they happen.

I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, and I’m not trying to scare you, I just think that this accelerating chaos is our new normal, and we need to accept that and make the necessary adjustments and preparations. We also need to recognise that anyone trying to sell us a “return to normalcy,” or a return to some prior golden age (whether that is 2008 or 1958), is a charlatan. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to recognise that we need new solutions, or otherwise the power structures we’ve lived our lives under are going to collapse. This doesn’t have to be a catastrophic event - this can mean a return to local community and extended family as the default and less of this focus on global capital, the nuclear family, and hyper-individualism.

Last weekend MKY said that our lives (collectively, if not also individually) are now a series of wicked problems, and that seems like the best summary you’re likely to hear.

And just lastly: Inspired by Damien Williams’ recent newsletter, I thought I’d make a similar offer: if you are someone who makes a living from public speaking, touring, or selling your art at conventions and the like, and you find yourself facing some months of uncertainty in terms of work and finances, please feel free to get in touch. Hit reply and send me links to anything useful I can share here, and maybe a short description of what you do, so if anyone has need or want of your skills/services/art/music/etc they can get in touch. If we get enough replies, I might send out a bonus ‘Community Links’ letter, otherwise I’ll share them here next time.

Another option (shared via Ospare) is peer-to-peer wealth distribution via Leveler. If you’re a wage worker who can afford to, you can share funds with 10 freelancers affected by Coronavirus. It looks legit in that the group running it don’t touch the funds, they’re sent directly via Paypal/Venmo, but I’m feeling too precarious at the moment to try it out (my job is directly linked to schools, so if they close for an extended period, I may be out of work).

So yeah, scary times on the cards at the moment. But try not to panic. Try not to forget that there are people around you who are vulnerable and who need us to come together calmly and with compassion to help all of us get through this - not just the rich, the elite, or the people who’ve ravenously hoarded a garage full of toilet paper and hand sanitiser (either for personal use or racketeering purposes).

Because like I always say - we’ve only got each other.