Abstract

I argue that the commonplace suturing of images of the COVID-19 pandemic to the genre of the zombie apocalypse signals the manner in which the figure of the zombie excites a popular mode of sense making, intensifying anxieties about the state of society while bringing into plain view the ongoing reproduction of racialized forms of debility and the uneven distribution of disposability. The COVID-19-zombie apocalypse construct, therefore, should not be trivialized as fictional nor allegorical. It functions as a “primal scene” in which racism is authorized and legitimized. This sanction, however, gets obscured by the postracial bumper sticker, “We're all in this together.” The zombie is a biotrope of the postracial, signifying the production of blackened biothreat bodies, rituals of securitization—including weaponizing the coronavirus itself—and the circulation of fantasies regarding the reclamation of white masculine sovereignty. The postracial is a form of discourse that is invented and mobilized through destabilizing events wherein angsts about social collapse (or excitement about social change) offer up anti-Black sentiments and radical political possibilities. First, I will develop a rhetorical theory of biotropes by focusing on how they enable the blackening of bodies by turning them into biothreats with an immanent risk of disease and infection. Here, I want to provide clarity regarding their capacity to incite fear of and revulsion toward blackened flesh, tainted blood, and bodily vulnerabilities. Biotropes traverse multiple scales and registers of perception and feeling. Paradoxically, they can seem unseen, undead, but also mobile and spectacular. Next, I will perform a diagnostic on how the primal scene of COVID-19 invented blackened biothreats, fostered rituals of securitization, and vivified postracial fantasies of white masculine sovereignty. Lastly, I'll make the case that the zombie is “real” in the sense that it materializes modes of visuality, sensibility, and polity, in our shared actuality.

Two days into the abrupt suspension of in-class meetings for universities and K–12 schools across the country along with “shelter-in-place” orders due to COVID-19, my daughter came to me with trepidation in her eyes and said, “It's like the zombie apocalypse.” I reluctantly agreed. Like so many parents and caregivers coping with the coronavirus pandemic during the spring and summer of 2020, I struggled to dispel or dampen the anxieties produced by one's life suddenly put on hold and turned upside down. The image of a virus that turned people into flesh eating monsters seemingly filled with mindless rage needed to be kept at a safe distance. As I held her close and told her not to worry, I told myself “no more talk of the zombie apocalypse.” But my daughter and I weren't the only ones with zombies on the brain.

For years, my newsfeed has been calibrated to snag accounts of zombies, and so by May 2020, my inbox was flooded with stories about how the pandemic was eerily reminiscent of all those films, video games, and TV programs featuring life and death struggles not only against the living dead but also the moral degenerates who wreak mayhem due to a social collapse. These observations were chronicled by people from different parts of the globe. A couple of weeks after the coronavirus hit South Korea and provoked strict stay-home orders, residents there started posting pictures of empty streets and stores and noting that the climate was “Like a zombie apocalypse.”1 Writing for The New Yorker, Lorrie Moore also took note of this phenomenon, especially in terms of the manner in which New York City was debilitated by the virus. It takes a lot for the Big Apple to grind to a halt, but it happened and there were plenty of folks wondering if this never-before-seen infection could turn people into ghouls.2 Given the fact that the world had not gone through a pandemic since the early twentieth century, the general population had no schema for thinking it through. On the one hand, we could grasp the fact of a disease sweeping across the globe, but we tussled with coming to terms with that very scale and intensity. Psychologists commented upon an increase in wild, vivid, disorienting dreams as a sign of an incapacity to get our heads around what we were going through. These so-called “quarandreams” were one side effect of this failure to make sense of a pandemic.3 Canadian poet Laura Furster confessed that she, too, had been caught up in attempts to integrate the pandemic into forms of thinking and feeling that would reduce her anxiety but decided that the trope of the zombie was appropriate: “Anyway, I've spent my share of time thinking strategically about the zombie apocalypse, and never more than during real-world viral outbreaks.”4 This strategic thinking is, of course, precisely what the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other institutions advise in emergencies, often using the slogan, “If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, you're ready for anything.”5

The conjuncture of the zombie apocalypse and the COVID-19 pandemic has been preconditioned for decades in various forms of media. Faced with an awe-some (and awful) interruption in everyone's routines, it is not surprising that the unsettling stories we tell about the undead and a breakdown in civilization got mapped onto our novel health crisis. After all, in those horror stories some sort of contagion often triggers the destabilization of the social order. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones voiced skepticism, however, about the guidance we received from consumer culture in order to endure staying home and social distancing, saying that it was drenched in “positivity.” Jones noted how all sorts of corporate entities marketed their commodities to “lockdown culture” by putting a happy face on the predicament and encouraging us to “bake, exercise and singalong.” But because “the end of everything we took for normal has a dire aesthetic fascination,” Jones asserted that we should take the time to open ourselves up to the uncanny “disturbing sights,” to appreciate the “apocalyptic vision.” Deep down, he averred, we desire to stare into the bleak void and succumb to the capacious uncertainty regarding what comes next: “A normally bustling city or town that has been reduced to ghostly calm is a startling instance of the sublime.”6

The recognition that the pandemic offered up intense aesthetic experiences alongside strategies for coping is significant. It suggests that our bodies—indi-vidually and socially—have been (and continue to be) habituated by the stories we live and tell. Repetitive patterns of thinking and feeling take root in us and operate as modes of processing “real-world” events, ways of stitching together a pastiche out of rapidly moving images and stories that “work” for us. They provide cognitive maps for thinking as well as structures of affect, bodily inflections that seem to mate up with those events, making them somehow bearable. Take, for instance, a photograph of anti-lockdown protesters who in April 2020 stormed the Ohio legislature in Columbus. Composed by Associated Press photographer, Joshua A. Bickel, the image of angry, contorted, and grimaced faces pressed against the glass windows and doors of the statehouse initiated a Twitter storm noting the image's remarkable resemblance to a “visual trope” common in zombie films and TV shows.7 Shot from inside the statehouse, the picture incites feelings of claustrophobia, entrapment, and danger, as if the protesters banging on the glass have contracted a “rage-inducing infection.” One woman tweeted, “I thought this was a screencap from a zombie movie,” and another thread contained a tweet from a man noting “some strong ‘Shaun of the Dead’ energy in this photo from the protests in Ohio.” You may be wondering what Bickel was thinking when he took the picture—it wasn't zombies: “When I was making the picture, I thought the windows and door were an interesting compositional element, but not much beyond that.” He didn't notice the zombie-likeness until others, including horror movie filmmakers, pointed it out on Twitter.8

Without trying to delve into Bickel's motives for composing the image the way he did, there are reasons why others saw zombies swarming the statehouse and he did not. As a photojournalist, he was covering a protest against stay-home orders fueled by antigovernment fervor, “anti-vaxxer” paranoia, and pro-Trump zeal. Bickel was capturing a chaotic political event when his shutter closed. When the picture went viral, however, it entered a screen culture that provokes feel- ings and invents meanings by weaving together disparate images and narratives. Folks on Twitter did not only (or exactly) “see” protestors on the steps of the capital in the state of Ohio. They were bearing witness to the production of a “primal scene”9 involving a specific “visual trope” from “classic” horror shows.10 Once Bickel's mode of visuality was reconfigured in keeping with the grammars of the zombie apocalypse, he saw it, too. It is important to note the point of anti-lockdown protests that also occurred in Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere. In general, attendees did not practice social distancing nor did they wear masks. If we peer beyond the partisan vitriol, we may discover that such a protest is emblematic of a political culture wherein contagion, sickness, and death are simply the price “real” Americans should pay for the “freedom” to go about one's business bringing the economy back online.11 But, we know that such an expense historically falls on Black, Brown, and poor people far more severely than on others. My point is that the disregard for some people's lives is a radicalized feature of this political culture and, thus, is also responsible for how the pandemic resonates with the generic appeal of the zombie apocalypse.

I argue that the commonplace suturing of images of the COVID-19 pandemic to the genre of the zombie apocalypse signals the manner in which the figure of the zombie excites a popular mode of sense-making, intensifying anxieties about the state of society while bringing into view the ongoing reproduction of racial- ized forms of debility and the uneven distribution of disposability. The COVID-19-zombie apocalypse construct, therefore, should not be trivialized as fictional nor allegorical. It functions as a “primal scene” in which racism is authorized and legitimized. This sanction, however, gets obscured by the postracial bumper sticker, “We're all in this together.” The zombie is a biotrope of the postracial, signifying the production of blackened biothreat bodies, rituals of securitization—includ- ing weaponizing the coronavirus itself—and the circulation of fantasies regarding the reclamation of white masculine sovereignty. The postracial is a form of dis- course that is invented and mobilized through destabilizing events wherein angsts about social collapse (or excitement about social change) offer up anti-Black sen- timents and radical political possibilities. First, I will develop a rhetorical theory of biotropes by focusing on how they enable the blackening of bodies by turning them into biothreats with an immanent risk of disease and infection. Here, I want to provide clarity regarding their capacity to incite fear of and revulsion toward blackened flesh, tainted blood, and bodily vulnerabilities. Biotropes traverse multiple scales and registers of perception and feeling. It is a paradox that they can seem unseen, undead, but also mobile and spectacular. Next, I will perform a diagnosis of how the primal scene of COVID-19 invented blackened biothreats, fostered rituals of securitization, and vivified postracial fantasies of white masculine sovereignty. Lastly, I'll make the case that the zombie is “real” in the sense that it materializes modes of visuality, sensibility, and polity in our shared actuality.

Biotropes and Blackened Flesh

The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic sparked many questions. How long will the outbreak last? When can we expect a vaccine? How best can we mitigate the spread? Journalists also noted an uptick in questions about the basic nature of viruses. Denise Chow, an NBC News science writer, sought answers from some of the leading virologists in the United States. Her explanation of the fundamen- tal character of “these tiny parasites” offers this simile: “Part of the problem is the nature of viruses themselves. They exist like freeloading zombies—not quite dead, yet certainly not alive.”12 Viruses are understood as undead microscopic matter that seek out living hosts to invade and feed upon, draining the host's energies while sickening it. In layperson's terms, viruses eat people. This account also describes human physiology and immunology in terms of the body's response to viral attack. When encountering a viral home invasion, our bodies launch countermeasures in the form of antibodies that wage war on viruses. Chow's technical language seamlessly merges with battle metaphors that make graphic the life and death struggle on the terrain of our flesh and blood. This writer draws no distinctions among the types of bodies fighting for their lives. One can easily understand why the postracial sentiment that “we're all in this together” had potency. But when Chow interviewed Adam Lauring, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, the stakes of the biological war become social through the invocation of a well-known phrase attributed to Charles Darwin (but coined by Herbert Spencer13). “Viruses just want to make more of themselves and find new hosts to infect,” Lauring explains. “It's truly survival of the fittest.”14 To be sure, this researcher was talking about whether a particular host's defenses would be able to beat down the virus. We can take advantage of the utilization of an evolutionary trope, however, to uncover the productive power of biotrope, its historical relation to American evolutionary theory, and the racist idea that Blackness acts like a virus.

In The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, Kyla Schuller explores how “Impressibility functioned as the nineteenth-century precursor of the notion of affect” by integrating theories of sentiment into “the materialization of modern ideas of racial and sexual difference.”15 At the heart of this provocative account of the emergence of racism as a function of modern biopower lies a deep-seated anxiety regarding the capacity of white civilization to be safeguarded through “sensorial discipline.”16 Schuller's analysis is consistent with scholars like Michel Foucault regarding the obligation of the nation-state to manage mass populations by identifying groups and communities as biothreats.17 I have argued recently that Foucault's analysis needs to be articulated to the global trafficking in Black and Brown bodies determined by colonial ventures and per- manent Black slavery.18 Schuller complicates this intervention into the relations of biopower and racism by explicating how the body's impressibility—its capacity to be affected by environmental stimuli and properly rationalize those impressions—becomes the topic of scientific inquiry and helps to steer the material and symbolic basis for making race. Important to this centuries-long process that seizes individual bodies and whole populations is the idea that evolution could be managed by carefully and brutally regulating bodily sensations. In order to secure future generations of “civilized” people, “the progressive power of habit” was harnessed and institutionalized as an agential mechanism training members of society how to properly respond to the dynamic forces acting upon the body.19 Thus, “senti- ment” referred to the achievement of the intellectual and moral character needed for the ideal modern subject. Theories of sentiment proposed that the proper feelings accrued over time and could be passed down to offspring. Impressibility, however, was risky precisely because the body's exposure was linked to the body's susceptibility. To be affected was to be potentially infected and degraded. In John Locke's writing on the subject, for example, “the constant regulation of sensation produces the boundaries of the coherent yet highly vulnerable self.”20

Endemic to theories of sentiment, especially “For the race scientists in the American School of Evolution,”21 is the obligation for biopolitical administra- tions to invent groups of people who lacked the capacity to become sentimental beings: “In order for the national population to maintain its equilibrium, bio- politics fosters the life of the population as a whole by identifying those groups whose continued existence would threaten its economic and biological stability and who thus must be allowed to die.”22 Keeping in mind the fantasies of colonial and slave masters regarding the immutability of Black bodies—fantasies warrant- ing barbaric forms of rape, torture, and killing—it should come as no surprise that Black and Brown skin was increasingly imagined as signifying a paradox: “In the [Black] flesh alone, there was no mind to register the feelings of pain or pleasure.”23 The transfiguration of people of African descent, in particular, into workable and disposable bodies is but one step in the unprecedented degradation of human being.24 Sentimentality underwrote the wide-spread belief that Blackness signified a “‘dead material in the center of our vital [white] organism.’”25 Schuller unwittingly testifies here to my investment in the trope of the zombie as a means of thinking racism and Blackness when she reports that “[blackened] bodies were seen as overly excitable and functionally dead, due to the absence of the capacity to respond appropriately to their stimulations.”26 Like a virus, Blackness was considered a form of the undead.27

The production of blackened flesh was not incidental to philosophies of sent- iment. The cultivation of the “civilized” required the presence of the “savage” in the shape of Black biothreat bodies so that whiteness “could overcome the threats inherent to the impressible body, for sympathy allowed them to transform others’ suffering into opportunities for personal growth rather than for degeneration.”28 It is perverse that dead, yet overly excitable, blackened flesh should be manufac- tured so that white civil society can rationalize its moral education, can demon- strate its fitness for survival. We need to recognize that as race was ushered forth by biopolitical racism, debility and incapacity had to be represented; they needed to be made legible. Blackness is voiceless, but white affective capacity speaks vol- umes. Sentiment required a durable apparatus and legitimacy. It, therefore, was posited as “an epistemology, an ontology, and a discipline.”29 Black flesh became the object of vast discourses securing the humanity of whiteness. Key to the racist labors of these discourses was (is) the overdetermined character of the biotrope.

The above discussion indicates that forms of racialization—like undead Blackness and white humanity—are produced through the assembling and circulating of biotropes. But what do I really mean by biotrope and how does it work? I mean to signal its capacity to turn the rhetorical critic toward a hidden or elided dimorphism always being asserted through tropes of race—a pairing of racism's force on the body with the signifying mechanics of discourse. Biopower conceives of unseeable genetic and viral material as racialized material by asserting an ontogeny of difference into sociality (and vice versa). In this manner, biotropes can establish both the fields of social war and its perimeters. Biotropes signal the vulnerability of the personal and social body to deleterious contacts with foreign matter. Biotropes get under the skin and make the blood boil.30 Biotropes represent a fearful relationality between whitened bodies and populations and the blackened biothreat bodies putatively carrying toxicities and impurities. Biotropes draw upon and generate intense affective currents as they travel and assemble. As noted above, depending on specific historical contingencies, biotropes secure the humanity of whiteness, which is parasitic upon the nonhumanity of Blackness. And yet this parasitic relation gets inverted in social life. Blackness is reviled as virus infecting whiteness. Frank Wilderson sees this relation as fundamentally antagonistic because, using my terms, its biotropologies posit whiteness as an “antibody” to viral Blackness.31 Such feeling was intensified by the pandemic and vivified the production of blackened biothreat bodies—undead insurgents—requiring rituals of securitization and “home defense.” In this postracial fantasy, the zombie warrants the violent reclamation of white sovereignty.

The Primal Scene of COVID-19

Writing about the blunt-force trauma that coheres memories of 1968, Sylvia Shin Huey Chong notes how the post-Civil Rights era exhibited “an affective disorder” wherein intense anxieties about the crumbling of a nation were exercised on the nightly news. This screen fear was an essential aspect of how publics encountered a variety of struggles and battles regarding not just law and order in the United States, but a tumultuous world beyond the nation. The intimacy of the living room became the theater for viewing bloody clashes between the police and protesters on city streets, napalm fires and charred bodies in thick jungles.32 The network news habituated a mode of visuality regarding Black and Asian otherness that encouraged a creeping sort of unease about the safety of one's very home. Let us not also forget that the Cold War had already provoked security rituals in case of nuclear attack; the Bomb compelled many Americans to harden their abodes, to be ready for a long siege.33 Images of war-weary soldiers, student civil disobedience, and Black fists held high overhead became a tableau for dinnertime. The “American 1968” signifies more than a moment in time—it references historical fragments caught on film, soundbites dislocated from speakers, the juxtaposition of violent acts unconnected in real life but flashing across the same screen. Narrated by journalists, it links “the racialized violence of the Vietnam War with another, domestic crisis; the unruliness of the black body in both civil rights protests and urban race riots, which itself draws on a long tradition of disciplining and violating the black body in U.S. history.”34 Important to this news montage, this “visual repetition of already traumatic violence,” was its potent and latent capacities for sense making. The “American 1968” functions as an imaginary beginning—a “primal scene”—in which social relations with others become disoriented or rearranged. It is where the past suffers an untimely demise and ongoing events are coordinated and understood together because they are seen together.35

This mode of visuality, however, cannot produce a consensus about how publics should feel about what they see. Rather, it reveals a dissensus and historical alterities not fully available to the projected image.36 Screen pictures come equipped with an “optical unconscious”37 due to the recognition that there is something beyond the camera's grasp.38 When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April 1968, there were more than 100 instances of Black unrest for news crews to transmit into homes. Because such coverage could be dangerous, news producers relied upon helicopters to film the outrage: “From such an aerial vantage point black bodies lose their significance as human subjects and become ‘information,’ extended features of a wild landscape that is itself racialized as other.”39 The images of anonymous, faceless Black bodies swarming down streets on fire call up other pictorial forms in the social imaginary not themselves on screen. The optical unconscious involves the imaginary relations that can be conjured in the mind's eye, formulated in accordance with one's subject position in a web of discourses and structures of feeling.40 The primal scene is potent and generative; it enables the staging of fantasies of racialized violence and resistances to it.

Configuring the COVID-19 primal scene requires a consideration of how the killing of George Floyd by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the global unrest that followed bring into clear view the basic operation of racism.41 There is no need to provide a depressing catalogue of all the Black death that led up to Floyd's disposability on May 25, 2020.42 For our purposes, it is enough to think about how those eight minutes and forty-six seconds compelled protests across the United States and the world. There was no shortage of images of marchers facing off with the police, being pepper-sprayed and repelled by so-called nonlethal projectiles. Our social media feeds provided a continuous visual story of how Black Lives Matter was mainstreamed. We marveled at how just a few years before prominent people couldn't bring themselves to say the phrase, but suddenly had the words “Black Lives Matter” fully formed in their mouths.43 Throughout the summer of 2020, the COVID-19 primal scene streamed a montage of masked faces, signs encouraging social distancing, exhausted nurses and doctors, raised fists, tear gas, empty shelves at the supermarket, police in riot gear, daily briefings from health experts, and a column of armored military vehicles in Washington, DC. Stress, fear, and anger wove those disparate visual elements into a scene in which we imagine being at war with ourselves and a virus. The scene also captures the production of blackened biothreats as debilitated and disposable bodies.

In an effort to dissolve the binary between the able-bodied and the disabled body, Jasbir K. Puar, in The Right to Maim, posits the notion that biopower produces “gradations of capacity and debility.”44 Puar argues that we should not think of people as always already occupying subject positions marked as capable or dis- abled, nor should we look to a disaster moment when one gets significantly injured. Such a perspective misses the important point that in a control society, disciplinary tactics are continuously deployed so as to “modulate” or “tweak” bodies, shifting them from having capacity to being mired in slow death.45 What is required, she writes, is a focus on “racialization as a process of debilitation, of the mark of a defective body. . . . How disabled bodies are solicited and manufactured.”46 Key to such a solicitation are the modes through which the biopolitical administration of populations gets coordinated by racism and capitalism. For some segments of the population to enjoy capacity—mobility, health care, wealth management, housing—other segments are strategically blackened by the biopolitical agencies of racism: “The historical downsizing of welfare provisions and disability provi- sions coincides with the rise of the prison-industrial complex and the expansion of populations deemed criminal.”47 It is important to note that the computational log- ics of blackening locate moments and spaces for value extraction by naming some bodies as “objects of care,” sites of medical and criminal intervention that generate profit for service industries and institutions like prisons.48 The manufacture of blackened biothreat bodies serves as a prime example of a racist regulatory procedure. The modern nation-state has virtually perfected two aligned levers of power for this purpose, “working and warring,” the “work machine and the war machine both need bodies that are preordained for injury and maiming.”49 Puar tends to treat these twinned forms of debility as distinct because of how Deleuze and Guattari comprehend the “zombie work myth” in A Thousand Plateaus.50 In this con- ception, the zombie-slave is debilitated labor, where the slow death is voiceless. The trope of the zombie disappears, however, as the discussion turns to the war drone. But we need not maintain this distinction between the zombie-worker and some other form of machine made for war precisely because in this pandemic work has been transfigured into a form of military-style service.51 This conflation makes sense once we think through the entailments of racialization as zombification and take note of whose bodies in what spaces are subject to the uneven manufacture of debility and disposability in the primal scene of COVID-19.

By July 2020, the United States was anything but united in its fight against the coronavirus. Some states had been able to weather early storms of death and hospitalizations through tough measures against social mixing and requiring the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Other states were criticized for med- dling with data and reopening too soon and without safeguards.52 Although these matters of life and death, sickness and health emerged under differential condi- tions, they share a common feature. Even under the best political regimes, people face vastly variable risks. For example, according to CDC data released in early July, people of color were significantly more likely to get infected and suffer more severe health effects than white people.53 The trend is global: “The pandemic may affect us all, but its effects are not equal. In Britain, which has the highest death toll [in late May 2020] outside the United States, they are unfolding to reveal a gross inequality. As in America, ethnic minorities—exposed at work and subject to social neglect—are disproportionately falling victim . . . black people are nearly twice as likely to die of the coronavirus as white people, while Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are also at a significantly higher risk.”54 The imposition of debility takes a multiplicity of forms, but in early 21st century, they each are modes of racialization—processes of blackening—where the social suffering typical of one's life can be intensified by the imperatives of capital and normalized through a painful habituation.55 The award-winning writer, Mark O'Connell, recently commented on how COVID-19 could vivify the kind of meanness people generally associate with medieval times: “The coronavirus is a present-day dystopia. Unfortunately, it is not the stuff of a science fiction novel. . . . If not stopped, this pandemic threatens to become a new type of normal, one where the pain and misery are chronic, and therefore gradually seen as acceptable.”56 Acceptable to who? Whether it is a nurse who has to go into “battle” with poor PPE while banks get bailed out (again),57 or teachers and students, and staff being asked (or compelled) to get back to work so that universities can protect their endowments or avoid bankruptcy, we are met with this horrifying fact: “debility is profitable for capitalism.”58 In other words, but just as sharply, “The work of ethnic minorities may be essential. But their lives are expendable.”59 This disposability is the essence of zombification. If we illustrated these practices as moving images, we would see bodies being driven like a herd toward “human sacrifice.” Mike Ryan, of the World Health Organization, criticized theories of a “herd immunity,” a concept that underscores arguments to get the economy going, like this: “‘An individual animal in that sense doesn't matter, from the perspective of the brutal economics of the decision-making.’”60 Needing to overexpose oneself to biohazards in order to buy food, pay bills, and take care of loved ones is not only a function of a “brutal arithmetic”61 always at work in bio-economics, but it is also a basic feature of racism. We are merely seeing it in more stark and undeniable ways in the COVID-19 primal scene. This blackening of lives matters, and it is graphic enough to earn an “R” rating. But for the scene to be truly nauseating, blackened bodies had to be turned into vile and putrid flesh. Slow death could no longer be an “acceptable” laboring condition; for some bodies, debility was also reimagined as an incubation period of disease. COVID-19 was anthropomorphized, blackened bodies were zombified as biothreats.

Almost from day one of the Trump administration, Stephen Miller, a senior advisor, worked to push through anti-immigration policies specifically targeting the US southern border.62 The pandemic curtailed much economic activity and summer festivities, but it opened an avenue for the White House to intensify its attack on immigrants. In addition to calling them rapists and violent members of gangs, immigrants were depicted as dangerous biothreats, seemingly signify- ing the coronavirus itself. The Trump administration used “an arcane provision of a quarantine law first enacted in 1893 and revised in 1944 to order the blanket deportation of asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors at the Mexican bor- der without any testing or finding of disease or contagion. . . . US Border and Customs Protection is labeling the policy a public health ‘expulsion’ instead of an immigration deportation.”63 This was not an entirely new tactic; it was attempted in 2018 when the administration painted the so-called “caravan” of desperate peo- ple seeking refuge from violence in their home countries as “vectors of disease.”64 It is interesting (and enraging) that the Trump administration nearly at once called the pandemic a “hoax,” minimized its severity, and identified immigrants and people of Asian descent as its terrifying source. “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy,” Trump tweeted, “as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”65 Trump was speaking the racist language of some of his followers who assume that the coronavirus is “a plague brought by immigrants” who have no right to seek entry into their “home.”66

Not only are immigrants less able to self-isolate due to housing conditions, they are less likely to have paid sick leave through low-wage employment. Many were deterred from seeking healthcare because of fear of being arrested and deported by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).67 The US Citizenship and Immigration Services, ostensibly trying to signal safe harbor at medical facilities, released this statement: “If the alien is prevented from working or attending school, and must rely on public benefits for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and recovery phase, the alien can provide an explanation and relevant supporting documentation.”68 Such discourse is separatist and reinforces the “idea . . . that viruses are somehow connected to immigrants and foreigners.”69 The invention of blackened biothreat bodies, of course, can be used against anyone a political regime wants to marginalize to the point of disposability. Consider this moment of ugliness from Rep. Devin Nunes talking about the homeless on Fox News in April 2020: “‘I call it ‘zombie apocalypse’ because a lot of people have done drugs for a long period of time. You know, they're just not well.’”70 Blackening is debilitating, but being imagined as having deadly flesh—a blackened biothreat—should come with a trigger warning because it sponsors rituals of securitization and weaponization.

The primal scene of COVID-19 encourages nearly everyone to prepare for long periods of time at one's home. When people are asked what sort of provisions they would store under such conditions, they tick off a laundry list of the usual items: food, medicine, water, batteries, and so forth. When people are asked to consider hunkering down for an “apocalypse,” however, they think in terms of guns.71 The pandemic produced record gun sales, lawsuits filed on behalf of gun shops so they will be delegated as “essential,” and intense gun violence.72 The stockpiling of guns is a key feature in rituals of securitization. There are several, often disjointed, narrative elements involved in the invention of a mode of visuality that conjures the apocalypse brought on by blackened biothreat hordes. Some people are convinced that the Rapture is nigh; some people believe that the coronavirus was engineered by a monstrous enemy, that it is a “Democratic conspiracy.”73 In either case, “home defense” is required and one must “look after yourself first and survive at the cost of other people . . . in all of these cases it is civilization as both an idea and structure that is considered a very fragile thing.”74

This idea and structure did not come into existence overnight. It has been cultivated for decades as partisanship has become toxic. It materializes as speech wherein “Partisans are willing to explicitly state that members of the opposing party are like animals, that they lack essential human traits.”75 Scholars of digital media have analyzed the problems associated with disinformation online as a form of “contagious content.”76 The practice of staying ensconced within a digital ecology where one does not come across counternarratives to one's belief system is also associated with rituals of securitization. Political scientist P. W. Singer describes the use of social media and alt-right digital outlets to circulate extremism as a “public health issue.” “Superspreaders are another parallel to public health, that in the spread of both disease and hate or disinformation, a small amount of people have a massive impact.”77 This insight allows us to see that racism is the true viral threat, but it deflects that primal danger onto Blackness. Thus, it is important to again note how viruses act like an undead home invader that in a racist order gets visualized as blackened flesh that must be repulsed by high-powered weapons.78 This imaginary war within the social body is embraced by so-called “ammosexuals,” men who relish “the prospect of finally getting to shoot people consequence-free,” and “accelerationists” who want to speed up what they see as the inevitable—“a race war that will topple the federal government.”79 The rituals I'm describing involve prepper communities that are steeped in gun culture and active at gun shows.80 A subset of this community explicitly uses zombie apocalyptic scenarios that drive their training: the bodily habituation of the fear and loathing projected onto blackened biothreat bodies.81 These intense effects produce hate-object relations that mark the anti-sociality common to the zombie apocalyptic genre. Under such conditions the nation-state fractures into tribes and the “public” disintegrates. We seem stuck in a “vicious cycle” where “The violence of extremist groups provides ammunition to ideologues seeking to stoke fear of the other side.”82

We are not quite at the precipice of tribal war, but there are armed militia-style groups that can't wait for it to happen. Such people were on display in the spring of 2020 in Michigan and Virginia (and elsewhere) toting “high-powered rifles and tactical gear”83 protesting lock-down orders. Extremists weaponized the virus in a general economy of hate. The situation is sustained through an affective feedback loop that drives gun sales, prepper training for tribal war, and nourishes anti-Black sentiment: “According to experts who study extremist groups, anti-lockdown demonstrations fit perfectly into the ideology of white supremacists and other far-right groups, such as sovereignty, rejecting the legitimacy of government, and anti-immigration sentiment.”84 Rituals of securitization and weaponization are not pure aesthetic practices that exist for their own sake; they have as an objective the reclamation of white masculine sovereignty. They also have roots, of course, that predate the pandemic and must be ascertained if we are to be able to grapple with their staging in the primal scene of COVID-19.

“‘I Can Do What I Want and You Can Shut Up’”85

Fantasies of sovereignty or mastery cannot be disconnected from the ontological and psychical structure of the First Amendment. Passed in 1791, the First Amendment reflects the late eighteenth-century humanism of that philosophical era. The very idea of what it means to be human is inscribed into the document because speculations about human nature shaped the deliberations about the amendment. 86 These considerations and their constitutional effects are haunted by the Africanist presence87 in the United States and on lands held by some of the framers.88 Possessing enslaved Africans and enshrining white male humanity and freedom are paradoxical events, and they make up the central logic of a racist order. The freedoms inscribed in the First Amendment are weighed down from their inception by extraordinary exceptions that cannot be adequately understood if we stick to the language of rights. Conservative columnist David Brooks noted recently that American-ness was in excess of citizenship; it was a “calling,” a “vocation.”89 The barring of Blackness from this special status is also tinged with a kind of religious fervor. This exclusion should not be reduced to legalities because it is brokered by the psychic structure and pseudo-scientific discourses responding to the biopolitical imperatives of racism, and it has burrowed deeply into our social imaginaries. The affective reservoir that gets replenished by the exertion of anti-Blackness spills out as the kind of vitriol most Americans are happy to forget existed during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was often eviscerated in the press for being a meddling outsider who abandoned norms of civility.90 Let us not forget that “Both civility and democracy were marred by the inclusion of black people in politics because in the view of [white supremacists] . . . black people had no business participating in the first place.”91 This is the psychic structure of discourses regarding freedom, sovereignty and “taking our country back.” Taking it back from who? From alien, foreign, blackened biothreats. Fantasies of reclamation are held together and circulated by complex, intersecting narratives that incite fury due, in part, to the belief that conservative policies and values are under siege. This conservative storyline asserts that it is the Left that has abandoned reason and tolerance when asked to encounter conservative values.92 The fantasy works through a highly elaborate and coordinated media blitz that supposedly champions free speech while promoting a false equivalency between the alt-right and the Left. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson attempt to correct the falsehood: “But there is one overriding culprit behind the failure of the US political system: the Republican party. Over the last two decades, the GOP has mutated from a traditional conservative party into an insurgent force that threatens the norms and institutions of American democracy.”93 Put bluntly, the Left is not intolerant of conservative values; indeed, many liberals are probably nostalgic for the “good old days” when they only had to contend with the neo-cons. Rather, the Left is intolerant of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. “The Republican Party,” Hacker and Pierson continue, “has moved dramatically rightward and now represents a radically disruptive force that the U.S. political system is ill equipped to contain.”94 Yoni Appelbaum stresses that “the fate of democracy lies in the hands of conservatives” precisely because “Trump deprioritizes conservative ideas and principles in favor of ethno-nationalism.”95 This observation is all the more distressing when we consider that “Trump told a more convincing story [in 2016] about what was happening in America than the left did.”96 Trump's influential narrative fit comfortably within fantasies and occurrences of racist violence by individuals and groups.

One such group is the Proud Boys, an “all-male hate group” that engenders violent confrontations with counterprotestors at events like the 2018 rally in Oregon called “A Night for Freedom.” And by “freedom,” they mean a “belief in absolute individual sovereignty and complete rejection of any form of collective authority.”97 Referring to the New Zealand shooter, an anonymous online user boasted “I will be starting my own contribution to the fight soon, in every way that I can. I will start a group. I will train. I will be part of this if it fucking kills me. I hope I'm not the only one.” He is not. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that in 2018, “at least 40 people in the U.S. and Canada were killed by individuals who were either motivated by or attracted to far-right ideologies.”98 Nearly 150 others suffered life-altering injuries. These extremists feel sufficiently alienated to imagine themselves to be “the people” who really count, invested in a form of politics to “assert their own version of truth, rooted in faith, instinct, and practical experience, not to mention authenticity.”99 We faced a “toxic super-spreader” in the White House who daily spewed noxiousness in general. But he was not outdone by people like Fox's Tucker Carlson, who regularly broadcasted fear of the Brown migrants at the southern border infecting “real America.” “It is never true,” Carlson stressed in July 2018, “that diversity is your strength.”100 Such a statement exemplifies the excessive energies feeding our current COVID-19 primal scene. If diversity is never a source of strength, then one should always inbreed. And isn't that kind of what's going on here? The reproduction of the whitened tribe angrily resisting the effects of globalization?

Sovereignty implores the pursuit of what the Proud Boys refer to as “maximum freedom,” enacted through rituals of securitization. The postracial fantasies they routinely consume and enact compel them to get in on boarder-patrolling themselves. Groups like United Constitutional Patriots are notorious for tracking down migrants crossing the southern border and holding them “at gunpoint.”101 Their activities are illegal, and that is the point: to flaunt the law as a mode of reclaiming an imagined lost authority. Likewise, the group called Identity Dixie has taken this logic to its extreme conclusion. The white supremacist group stockpiles food and weapons rehearsing a “race war” that it hopes will result in another white secession from the Union. Identity Dixie uses warped versions of Christianity to not only fuse together various white supremacist ideologies, but also to assert what it calls “Christian Dominionism,” which boils down to the slogan “Retake Everything.”102 It is important to note that this is a full-throated exclamation of sovereignty that includes the desire to put white women back in their “proper” places as servants to the white supremacist movement and to the men who naturally must lead it.

The primal scene of COVID-19 refracts this history and recent developments through a (zombie) apocalyptic mode of visuality producing a dizzying sense of “nonsense.”103 At the time of this writing, Trump lost the election by a decisive margin and yet refuses to concede the loss based on the wild conspiracy that the election was stolen through wide-spread election fraud.104 And, according to MSNBC's Chris Hayes, the objective was to rapidly distribute all sorts of absurdities and lies at once. This incoherence resonates with the disorienting experience of a primal scene. Alternating figure and ground, modifying relations to temporalities, and disconnecting viewers from commonality, the primal scene of COVID-19 is more than confusing. For some it may feel like a symptom of a deeper problem in need of “second amendment remedies.” Wannabe soldiers of the “boogaloo,” for example, began as “an online phenomenon with its roots in meme culture and dark humor. Its name comes from the panned 1984 movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” which has become slang for any bad sequel.105 These people want a rerun of the Civil War and have linked up with other extremists that seem to be fed up with a perceived powerlessness and loss of white prestige. In defiance of more than sixty court decisions106 that rejected challenges to the legitimacy of Joseph Biden's victory, Trump recruited his loyalists to storm the US Capitol in an effort to overturn Biden's win by keeping Congress and Vice President Pence from certifying it.107 The so-called “MAGA Mob” had been convinced that blackened biothreats committed massive fraud, materializing the moment of reclamation dreamed up by the postracial fantasy—the moment when “real Americans” must “take the country back” by “stopping the steal.” The primal scene of COVID-19 reveals terrible flashbacks, visual reflections of histories and unseen scenes cohering into a pattern. It shows how the police and the “mob” repeatedly enact a social ritual of shared security concerns and, more or less, dispense with antagonistic drives or postures toward one another. Historically, this consubstantiality occurs when blackened biothreats are imagined as having forgotten their place. And so, when the mob broke into the Capitol—hunting Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence—we witnessed more than an insurrection. As a prominent Confederate flag was paraded through the scene—through the Capitol's rotunda—the outlines of a lynch mob came into focus. This is one reason some Capitol police and other agencies treated the insurrectionists like neighbors and friends. Again, the lynch mob and the police historically have been collaborating forces—mutually aligned on the side of anti-Blackness and supposedly fighting for liberty.108 “Those opposed to the lockdowns [and believe the election was stolen from Trump] argue they would rather die in supposed freedom than live under restrictions designed to keep them well.”109 Sovereignty and death: perhaps we can discern a precarious commonplace after all.

“We're All in This (Shit) Together . . . ”

In a special issue published by The Atlantic at the end of 2019 called “How to Stop a Civil War,” contributors weighed in on our fractious political culture from points of view as diverse as the revered former secretary of defense, James N. Mattis, and the Tony-Award-winning writer/composer/actor, Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is an intriguing read, oscillating between appeals to “empathy” so antagonists might better hear and see one another and sharp skepticism toward traditional forms of “reconciliation” that historically have not served the interests of Black people.110 For the editors of the magazine to have even conceived of the issue in prepandemic times signals the kind of trouble we must find ourselves now. In general, the special issue is guardedly optimistic about an American future because it presumes a second civil war can be avoided. Its confidence is developed through some needed historical analyses, biographical reflections from writers, and poignant pleas for sanity. What it lacks on the whole is a sustained assessment of racism and a blueprint for reinventing antiracism.111 I wonder what such an issue would look and sound like if framed by the primal scene of COVID-19? What might contributors say, for example, about the intensifying strife between governors and mayors of prominent cities?

In July 2020, the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, sued the city of Atlanta because its Black female mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, did something sensible. As COVID-19 cases surged, she ordered the use of masks and face coverings and returned the municipality to its former, stricter stay-at-home provisions. Atlanta is predominately a city-of-color and, thus, its residents are at higher risk of the coronavirus.112 Tensions had been building between the two political rivals during the pandemic regarding violence between the police and National Guard and protestors of police brutality.113 On one level, the struggle was about the pace and scale of reopening the economy, but as I have argued throughout this article, these policies and procedures are racialized and produce uneven social suffering and death. Mayor Bottoms was trying to protect the most vulnerable people under her jurisdiction, whereas Kemp was trying to safeguard a weak economy. In the case of the former, there was an effort to stave off intense debilitation, and in the latter we saw among other things the exertion of white masculine sovereignty. These dynamics are not unique to Georgia; they are at work in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee.114 Let me be clear: I am not saying (nor do I need to say) that these governors are racists. I am arguing that their political and economic worldviews are aligned with the biopolitical and structural imperatives of racism.115 How might we even imagine coming to terms with such a dehumanizing, zombifying, operation?

When I hear arguments about getting back to work—or coming back to campus—I tend to also discern a handful of ugly and pernicious half-truths: that everyone's health and welfare are paramount to strategies to reopen; that decisions about how to get business going (or close back down) will be made by expert opinion of health officials and the best available data; that everything possible will be done to ensure public safety. As I have said, the primal scene of COVID-19 is a site (sight) of revelation. Racism requires these partial views to appear as the whole truth. In my more pessimistic moments, I understand policies to reopen everything as soon as possible functioning as if people of color, people in poverty, people with compromised mental and physical health do not count. They are work-war drones. They are zombies. Again, this reputed mindlessness and voicelessness is hardly new: but the pandemic has reanimated the real viral infection plaguing society: racism. Black and Brown people know too well that racism is never dormant, but it often goes less understood in quarters of the population usually considered immune—so-called working-class white America. In The Atlantic, Tara Westover takes us on a virtual tour of her hometown of Preston, Idaho, a place with twice as many funeral parlors as grocery stores.116 Her town seems to be drawing its last breath, and residents feel as though the Democrats are the enemy. I want to end with this predicament because it just may offer a glimmer of how antiracism can be cultivated. The primal scene of COVID-19 dispels the illusion that one political party can be solely blamed for the desperation in places like Preston, Idaho, or Ferguson, Missouri. This is not to posit a false equivalency among political institutions, only to recognize that Westover's people are also being fed upon by racism. They matter to its operations because they are predisposed by discourses of racism to draw upon and recharge the energies of anti-Blackness even as they suffer racism's debilitating effects. Their sickness and deaths are useful to racism because they can be weaponized as soldiers enjoying the fantasy of a reclaimed sovereignty. Racism requires anti-Blackness and puts some white communities to work as its disposable tiller. My point here is that racism holds no necessarily special place for whiteness and holds no place at all for Blackness. Westover seems on the brink of this revelation when relating this observation from a cousin: “You know what? It's getting so the only thing there is to do around here is to die.”117 I am not interested in recentering white suffering so it can be used as a fulcrum for building alliances. I am speculating here about what sort of stories we can invent (and critique) that endow robust voice to zombies. Where zombies recognize their blackened lot. Such a project has to bring into the light the specificities of Black debility and death precisely because they will showcase the usually undetected modes through which a group's presumed racial identity no longer (or never) delivers existential security. Such stories have to lay bare and reveal in its naked form, the undead character of racism. When racism invented the genre of “Man,”118 it presented a talisman—a charm—to the West that continues to cast its spell. Under this toxic influence, some people delude themselves into believing they are the chosen ones, the humans immune to racism's parasitic infection. This infection does not only target vital organs of the social body—the police, Congress, public education, criminal justice—it attacks the brain and the central nervous system. It makes zombies. Perhaps it is time to cast aside the genre of “Man,” of human as well, and embrace the notion that we all can be (are) zombies.

Notes

1

“‘Like a zombie apocalypse’: Residents on edge as coronavirus cases surge in South Korea,” Postmedia Breaking News, February 20, 2020; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-southkorea-cases/like-a-zombie-apocalypse-residents-on-edge-as-coronavirus-cases-surge-in-south-korea-idUSKBN20E04F.

2

Lorrie Moore, “Experiencing the Coronavirus Pandemic as a kind of Zombie Apocalypse,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/the-nurses-office.

3

See for example, Rachel Schnalzer, “You're not imagining it: We're all having intense coronavirus dreams,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2020-04-07/coronavirus-quarantine-dreams.

4

Laura Furster, “Laura Furster: The Artists’ Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” Laura-Furster.com, May 9, 2020, https://laura-furster.com/2020/05/09/the-artists-guide-to-the-zombie-apocalypse/.

5

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also produced a graphic story about a zombie outbreak to spur action toward preparation for natural disasters. https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/zombie/index.htm.

6

Jonathon Jones, “Apocalyptic Vision: The Unsettling Beauty of Lockdown is Pure Sci-Fi,” The Guardian, April 29, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/29/apocalyptic-vision-the-unsettling-beauty-of-lockdown-britain-is-pure-sci-fi-coronavirus.

7

Maura Judkis, “That Ohio Protest Photo Looked Like a Zombie Movie. Zombie Movie Directors Think So, Too,” Washington Post, April 17, 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/that-ohio-protest-photo-looked-like-a-zombie-movie/2020/04/17/b518fc48-80/c-llea-9.

8

Judkis, “That Ohio Protest Photo.”

9

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). I will elaborate upon the propriety and usefulness of the “primal scene” as a mode of thinking the historical contingencies of the staging of antiblack modes of visuality and sensibility.

10

Judkis, “That Ohio Protest Photo.”

11

Tom Leonard, “Trump's Very Uncivil War,” Daily Mail, April 21, 2020, https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20200421/281741271559679.

12

Denise Chow, “Why Are Viruses Hard to Kill? Virologists Explain Why These Tiny Parasites Are So Tough to Treat,” NBCnews.com, May 7, 2020, www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/why-are-viruses-hard-to-kill/n1202046?cid=eml_nbn_20200507.

13

For a lucid explanation, see Dan Falk, “The Complicated Legacy of Herbert Spencer, the Man Who Coined ‘Survival of the Fittest,’” Smithsonian Magazine, April 29, 2020 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/herbert-spencer-survival-of-the-fittest-180974756/.

14

Chow, “Why Are Viruses Hard to Kill?”

15

Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 10, 12.

16

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 18.

17

Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975–1976 (New York: Picador, 1997).

18

Eric King Watts, “Postracial Fantasies, Blackness, and Zombies,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (2017): 317–333, https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2017.1338742.

19

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 36.

20

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 45. I suspect this anxiety is caught up in a different sort of suspicion—that the white-self-subject-body—is always already infected.

21

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 54.

22

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 15.

23

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 54. Also see Calvin L. Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

24

Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford, 1997); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The Centennial Review 3 (Fall 2003): 257–337; Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

25

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 50.

26

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 55.

27

By no means am I suggesting that this metaphor is most apt, nor have I struck gold and found its “essence.”

28

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 56.

29

Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 56.

30

Lisa Keranen, “Concecting Viral Apocalypse: Catastrophic Risk and the Production of Bio(in)security,” Western Journal of Communication 75 (October–December, 2011): 451–72).

31

Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

32

Chong, The Oriental Obscene, 2.

33

See Calum L. Matheson, Desiring the Bomb: Communication, Psychoanalysis, and the Atomic Age (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019).

34

Chong, The Oriental Obscene, 24–25. It is important to note the naming of the primal scene functions like a trope; it turns our attention toward certain forms of discourse, encouraging us to engage specific modes of visuality. And when it comes to the manufacture of Black flesh, we cannot escape the gravitational pull of the primal scene of the “Human.”

35

Chong, The Oriental Obscene, 13, 38.

36

We might think of these alterities as waves, the ripples in time and space known as the “wake,” the afterlives of slavery. See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

37

Chong, The Oriental Obscene, 44.

38

Jacque Rancière, The Future of the Image (New York: Verso, 2007); and Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (New York: Continuum, 2010).

39

Chong, The Oriental Obscene, 58. Also see Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

40

Debra Hawhee and Megan Poole, “Kenneth Burke at the MoMA: A Viewer's Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 105, no. 4 (2019): 418–40, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335630.2019.1657237.

41

Ersula J. Ore has discussed such violence in terms of US civics lessons in Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019).

42

For such a disturbing account see Noel A. Cazenave, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as Social Control Mechanism (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2018).

43

The commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, is an excellent example of this about face. In a video released on June 5, 2020, Goodell admitted that the NFL was “wrong” about its stance regarding players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. He was criticized, however, for his failure to explicitly mention Colin Kaepernick, the player that started that silent protest against police brutality.

44

Jasbir K. Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 22.

45

Puar, The Right to Maim, 2.

46

Puar, The Right to Maim, 66.

47

Puar, The Right to Maim, 80.

48

Puar, The Right to Maim, 77.

49

Puar, The Right to Maim, 64.

50

Puar, The Right to Maim, 64–65. Also see, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone Press, 1988).

51

There are plenty of examples: Joe Biden, in a debate with Bernie Sanders, said that “we're at war with a virus.” Trump early into the pandemic also held that he was the commander-in-chief of a country at war with an infection. We routinely thank our “front-line workers” for their service and label them “heroes.”

52

Allen Smith, “‘I'm Looking for the Truth’: States Face Criticism for COVID-19 Data Cover-Ups,” NBCNews.com, May 25, 2020, www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/i-m-looking-truth. As of this writing, the world is experiencing differential spikes in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

53

See “COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/disparities-illness.html.

54

Sonia Faleiro, “Britain's Ethnic Minorities Are Being Left for Dead,” New York Times, May 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/22/opinion/britain-coronavirus-minorities.html.

55

Amber E. Kelsie, “Blackened Debate at the End of the World,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 52, no. 1 (2019): 63–70.

56

“Author Mark O'Connell: For the Ultra-Rich, This Pandemic Is a Trial Run for Apocalypse,” Salon.com, May 6, 2020, https://www.salon.com/2020/05/06/author-mark-oconnell-for-the-ultra-rich-this-pandemic-is-a-trial-run-for-apocalypse/.

57

Nesrine Malik, “It's No Accident Britain and America Are the World's Biggest Coronavirus Losers,” The Guardian, May 10, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/10/anglo-american-coronavirus-crisis.

58

Puar, The Right to Maim, 13.

59

Faleiro, “Britain's Minorities”; emphasis added.

60

“Author Mark O'Connell.”

61

“Author Mark O'Connell.”

62

Caitlyn Dickerson and Michael D. Shear, “Advisor's Quest to Tie Diseases to Immigrants,” New York Times, May 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/03/us/coronavirus-immigration-stephen-miller-public-health.html.

63

Lucas Guttentag and Stefano M. Bertozzi, “Trump is Using the Pandemic to Flout Immigration Laws,” New York Times, May 11, 2020, https://law.stanford.edu/publications/trump-is-using-the-pandemic-to-flout-immigration-laws/.

64

Dickerson and Shear, “Advisor's Quest to Tie Diseases to Immigrants.”

65

Nick Miroff, Maria Sacchetti, and Tracy Jan, “Trump to Suspend Immigration to U.S. for Sixty Days, Citing Coronavirus Crisis and Job Shortage, But Will Allow Some Workers,” Washington Post, April 21, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/coronavirus-trump-suspend-immigration/2020/04/21/464e2440-838d-11ea-ae26-989cfce1c7c7_story.html.

66

Adam Lee, “Not the Apocalypse They Wanted,” Patheos.com, May 6, 2020, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2020/05/not-the-apocalypse-they-wanted/www.daylightatheism.org.

67

“‘We're Petrified’: Immigrants Afraid to Seek Medical Care for Coronavirus,” New York Times, May 12, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/coronavirus-immigrants.html.

68

“‘We're Petrified.’”

69

Conner Perrett, “Why Anti-Lockdown Protestors Are a ‘Magnet’ for White Supremacists and Far-Right Extremists,” The Business Insider, May 20, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/why-white-supremacists-have-protested-lockdown-orders-2020-5. See also Tammy La Gorce, “‘Everybody Was Sick’: Inside an ICE Detention Center,” New York Times, May 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/nyregion/coronavirus-ice-detainees-immigrants.html. This article suggests that ICE was complicit in COVID-19 spread by refusing to set up special quarantine facilities.

70

Ed Mazza, “Devin Nunes Claims Homeless Are Like a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ amid Coronavirus,” Huffington Post, April 6, 2020, www.huffpost.com/topic/devin-nunes.

71

Edelyn Verona and Bryanna Fox, “We Know Americans Have Bought a Record Number of Guns, but There's a Lot That's Uncertain, Write Two USF Professors,” Tampa Bay Times, May 12, 2020, https://www.tampabay.com/opinion/2020/05/15/theres-a-lot-we-dont-know-about-guns-during-the-pandemic-column/.

72

Danny Hakim, “N. R. A. Sues New York in Bid to Keep Gun Shops Open During Pandemic,” New York Times, April 3, 2020.

73

“Food, Faith and Farming in the Apocalypse: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Rural–Urban Divide,” Salon.com, April 18, 2020, https://www.salon.com/2020/04/18/food-faith-and-farming-in-the-apocalypse-the-coronavirus-pandemic-and-the-rural-urban-divide/.

74

“Author Mark O'Connell.”

75

Yoni Appelbaum, “How America Ends,” The Atlantic, Special Issue: “How to Stop a Civil War,” 324 (December 2019): 46.

76

Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, “Why It Feels Like Everything Is Going Haywire,” The Atlantic, Special Issue: “How to Stop a Civil War,” 324 (December 2019): 59.

77

Keegan Hankes, “Move Slowly and Break Everything,” Intelligence Report (Spring 2019): 34.

78

Konstantine Toropin and Theresa Waldrop, “St. Louis Couple Who Waved Guns at Protestors Face Charges,” CNN.com, July 20, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/20/us/st-louis-couple-weapons-protesters-charges/index.html.

79

Lee, “Not the Apocalypse They Wanted.”

80

Casey Ryan Kelly, Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2020); also Eric King Watts, “‘Zombies Are Real’: Fantasies, Conspiracies and the Post-Truth Wars,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 51 (2018): 441–70.

81

Watts, “Postracial Fantasies, Blackness and Zombies.”

82

Appelbaum, “How America, Ends,” 50, 47.

83

Michael Kunzelman, “‘Boogaloo’ Anti-Government Movement Rises in Pandemic,” ChicagoTribune.com, May 20, 2020, https://digitaledition.chicagotribune.com/tribune/article_popover.aspx?guid=d25879a5-f597-4e96-b9d7-617e56766ef6.

84

Perrett, “Why Anti-Lockdown Protests Are a ‘Magnet.’”

85

Adam Serwer, “Against Reconciliation,” The Atlantic, Special Issue: “How to Stop a Civil War,” 324 (December 2019): 107.

86

Christopher M. Finan, From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007).

87

Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).

88

One of the more notable constitutional framers who owned enslaved Africans was Thomas Jefferson. See “The Constitution and Slavery,” The Constitutional Rights Foundationhttps://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/the-constitution-and-slavery.

89

David Brooks, “The First American Invasion,” New York Times, May 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/opinion/us-coronavirus-history.html.

90

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).

91

Serwer, “Against Reconciliation,” 110.

92

Eve Fairbanks, “The ‘Reasonable’ Rebels: Conservatives Say We've Abandoned Reason and Civility. The Old South Used the Same Language to Defend Slavery,” Washington Post, August 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/08/29/conservatives-say-weve-abandoned-reason-civility-old-south-said-that-too/?arc404=true.

93

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “The Republican Devolution: Partisanship and the Decline of American Governance,” Foreign Affairs 98 (July/August 2019): 42–43.

94

Hacker and Pierson, “The Republican Devolution,” 45.

95

Appelbaum, “How America Ends,” 49, 51.

96

“Left Behind: The Real Roots of the Urban/Rural Divide,” Tara Westover conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, Special Issue: “How to Stop a Civil War,” 324 (December 2019): 53. Indeed, as of this writing, Trump has lost the 2020 election, but still garnered a staggering 70 million-plus votes.

97

Brett Barrouquere, “A Living Death Sentence,” Intelligence Report (Fall 2019): 22.

98

Bill Morlin, “The ‘Alt-Right’ Is Still Killing People,” The Intelligence Report (Spring 2019): 6.

99

Sophia Rosenfeld, “Truth and Consequences,” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture 21 (Summer 2019): 23.

100

Heidi Beirich, “Rage Against Change,” Intelligence Report (Spring 2019): 38.

101

“A Stranger's Hate,” Intelligence Report (Fall 2019): 6.

102

Barrouquere, “A Living Death Sentence,” 28.

103

“The Plan is No Plan,” All In with Chris Hayes, July 15, 2020, video clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci describing Trump administration disinformation and attacks on him as “nonsense,” July 15, 2020, https://topnewsshow.com/all-in-with-chris-hayes-7-15-20-msnbc/.

104

Kevin Roose, “What is QAnon, the Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” New York Times, January 21, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html.

105

Kunzelman, “‘Boogaloo,’” 11.

106

William Cummings, Joey Garrison, and Jim Sergent, “By the Numbers: President Donald Trump's failed efforts to overturn the election,” USA Today, January 6, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/elections/2021/01/06/trumps-failed-efforts-overturn-election-numbers/4130307001/.

107

Henry Goodwin, “Trump's MAGA Mob Left Behind a Disgusting Mess in the US Capitol,” The London Economic, January 8, 2021, https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/news/world-news/trumps-maga-mob-left-behind-a-disgusting-mess-in-the-us-capitol/08/01/.

108

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: the culture of segregation in the south, 1890–1940 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

109

Leonard, “Trump's Very Uncivil War.” Leonard notes how Trump tweeted “Liberate Virginia” in support of armed protestors intimidating lawmakers.

110

“How To Stop A Civil War,” Special Issue, The Atlantic 324 (December 2019): 54, 107.

111

Lisa A. Flores, “Between Abundance and Marginalization: The Imperative of Racial Rhetorical Criticism,” Review of Communication 16 (2016): 4–24.

112

For a breakdown of Atlanta's demographics see United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts, Atlanta Georgia,” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/atlantacitygeorgia.

113

The political lines hardened even further when a white police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in June. See Nicholas Bogel Burroughs and Campbell Robertson, “While Virus Surges, Georgia Governor Sues Atlanta Mayor to Block Mask Rules,” The New York Times, July 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/brian-kemp-georgia-keisha-lance-bottoms-atlanta.html.

114

See for example Joe Perticone, “Trump Loves to Attack American Cities—and Politically He Doesn't Need Them,” BusinessInsider.com, July 29, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-loves-to-attack-american-cities-during-political-fights-2019-7.

115

This is so because we need to avoid a trap that is often sprung by the discourses of racism: to lure us into debates about the intentions or the hearts of individuals rather than interrogate the structures of racism and how they solicit agents and disposable bodies.

116

Tara Westover in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, “Left Behind: The Real Roots of the Urban/Rural Divide,” The Atlantic, Special Issue, 53–54.

117

“Left Behind,” 54.

118

Wynter, 257–337.