“Trust the Scientist”: Notes Towards a Thanatology of Covid-19

The bulk of what can be said about COVID-19 can only be said in a time to come. A time which may never arrive. All of the positivist certainties are frailties and probabilities masquerading as expertise. It is the making-sport of scientific expertise in the domain of speculation. The unquenchable thirst for immortal immunity, theo-scientifically disguised as the absolutely unalterable drive for self-preservation at all cost, is what drives the Scientist into the political realm as shepherds and shamans of an age terrorized by the terror of Terror itself. “Trust the Scientist” is a political theology of science which the Scientist themselves should have rejected. Though it appears that there was an initial hesitancy to enter the public political sphere in Western science for years leading up to now, the new mantra “Trust the Scientist” most definitely lends itself to what Gorgio Agamben (I think) correctly described as “techno-medical despotism.” It is despotism – regardless – of whether or not the Scientist should in fact be trusted in the matters or not. Despotism is not an attack on the knowledge of the figure of power, it is an assessment of the power of the figure of knowledge. “Trust the Scientist” is the Philosopher King transformed into a Scientific Tribunal. It is the Scientific Tribunal which has now lead to the call from the CDC to shorten the time of quarantine from 10 to 5 days on the basis of “the scientific facts” of capital. The fact that scientist possess the key to saving the City is tied precisely to the idea that they alone possess the secret knowledge of what it takes to save the City. They are given the Key because they possess the Knowledge. But this is a relation of the Power/Knowledge apparatus that – regardless – (if we are analytically honest) is nothing more than the acceleration of biopolitics and biocapitalism under the intensification of the state of exception into infinity. There is no foreseeable future which does not include COVID-19. Therefore, there is no foreseeable future for which this state of exception might end. Thus, the Maxim of Life is reduced to bare life until further noticed.

It is to be understood, that it is understood, that these accelerated measures of biopolitics, biosurveillance, and biosecurity are taken as measures “for the greater good.” We will be the first to say that, if techno-medical despotism is a despotism at all, it is a despotism of the super-ego, a despotism of the greater good, where the greater good is collapsed into a teleological circle of life for life’s sake alone. But the whole world is blinded by the Maxim of Life. It is not our salvation, it is a ruse. It lies upon the ruse of immortal immunity and the axiological pretense that suggest self-preservation as the teleological drive of any living organism. A drive towards immortal immunity by any means necessary. The Maxim of Life mystifies the necessity of asking the question: “How should we die? What should dying mean? And how might we ensure that people face their dying days with dignity?” The Maxim of Life presupposes a body politic which has nothing it is willing to die for except work. For this reason, many people have not only had to bear the burden of death, grief and mourning precariously alone, isolated in hospital beds and nursing homes but they’ve had to bear this burden under the threat of the ongoing racial-capitalist imperative: Work or Die.

Departing National Institute of Health Director, Dr. Francis Collins stated: “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior. I never imagined a year ago, when those vaccines were just proving to be fantastically safe and effective, that we would still have 60 million people [in the United States] who had not taken advantage of them because of misinformation and disinformation that somehow dominated all of the ways in which people were getting their answers. And a lot of those answers were, in fact, false. And we have lost so much as a result of that.” In this statement, Collins expresses a foundational tension of the issue connecting scientific evidence and social relations. For Collins remains at the level of “truth” and the value of “information” in making his assessment about “what should be done” as if these terms are coterminous with himself and his thought-style. However, while misinformation and disinformation have played a fundamental role in anti-vaccination movements across the country, what has equally played a role has been a structural imposition of a form-of-life that permits death in the name of “essential labor” while attempting to shut down all of the other fruits of community that make being dead-labor worth the risk. I am not here to wrestle with the merits of this form-of-life from the perspective of health. I am rather attempting to raise a question about the merits of “Trust the Scientist” as a dictum of knowledge. From whence has this slogan arisen? And from whence has its opposition? The framing of “scientist” as foreseers, forecasters, and sport casters of the future of Life itself has not only proved bad for science, it has been productive of the chaos we found ourselves in currently. It is productive of the chaos precisely because it ridicules and diminishes the Symbolic import of scientist stepping into the sociopolitical while at the same time relying on that Symbolic import to invisibilize the sociopolitics of scientist. What this has lead to is the right-wing search for scientist who disagree with Anthony Fauci and the liberal deployment of science in the service of capital interest. The debate around Sweden as “evidence of herd immunity” is indicative of this dynamic. Rather than debate whether or not the Swedish COVID policy or the American COVID policy were “better or worst” for their population of people – a cynically statistical and cold mathematics that turns thousands of dead body-beings into abstract comparative numeration – what is more important is that both policies of death had scientist who supported them. Anders Tegnell is just as much of a scientist as Anthony Fauci. Tegnell is an epidemiologist; Fauci is an immunologist. The question of politics is forgone in “Trust the Scientist” which allows for scientist to become “neutral” exchangeable spoke-persons of any worldview whatsoever – maybe not sold to the highest bidder, but brought into the sphere of influence by the one in search of a logic for policy. Scientist are now the handmaidens of the State or is the State now a handmaiden of Science?

“Trust the Scientist” is a political theology of science which has lead to a biopolitical techno-medical despotism grounded firmly upon the Maxim of Life and the super-egoic (i.e., impossible) promise of Immortal Immunity. In short, there are few scientist we will trust who would say the obvious, the terror is coming tomorrow. It is coming today. It is coming for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated alike. There are protections to be made. There are measures that can be taken. There are ways to make the disaster easier for us all. But the disaster – Death – is on its way. The time is now for mourning. The time is now for grief. This time is ripe for the founding of a new ceremony grounded on the ungrounding ground of an immense accumulation of death and an immanent intensity of expression, passion, delirium and pain that this accumulation necessarily narrates. What techno-medical despotism’s Maxim of Life cannot grasp is a being for whom bare existence itself is never enough, a being for whom the risk of death is more imperative than the horrors of bare life. A being for whom – dancing with friends, hugging and loving on family members, going to church, heading to the club, going to a festival, and all of the few Pseudo-Dionysian spaces that remain, is more important than simply working to preserve the Self. This being can only be thought to be suicidal, and as with 9/11, the terror of the terror of suicide has reached a mass psychosis. The scientist today is always already a psychiatrist. They are to be trusted in hopes that their wisdom might soothe the weary mind through the darkest winters of this never-ending storm. Therefore, every rebuke is equalized. Every anti-psychiatry becomes the same. All of it is read as anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, anti-vaccine. All of it stands in the way of wellness, wholeness, fullness, Life. “Trust the Scientist” and the chaos will end. To not “Trust the Scientist” is to eternalize the chaos.

We are already beginning to see how science “begins to lose its way.” Science becomes “postmodern” (with all the simplistic derision this term has come to mean) in and of itself, despite itself, because it exists itself with and alongside what Jean-Francois Lyotard sociologically described as “the postmodern condition.” Lyotard wrote “The Post-Modern Condition” – what he described as his “worst book” – under the commission and request of the Quebec Governments. Lyotard’s book was precisely what Dr. Francis Collins considered as necessary currently, namely, a study of human behavior. More accurately, Lyotard’s book is a study of the behavior of human knowledge in highly-developed computerized societies. In Lyotard’s words: “Knowledge in the form of an information commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor.” This is where we are with the vaccine today, especially as Western countries continue to block vaccine patents from countries of the Global South. These bouts and spouts of “human behavior” are inextricably twined to the “control of information” that is monopolized by Academic Institutions, Privatized Medical Companies, Major Tech companies, Government agencies, War and Security capitalist, etc. With such a condition, scientific knowledge is transformed into another commodity on the market of information that is the age of internet racial capitalism. The credibility of a scientist today can be thought to be more rightly gauged by their amount of “followers” than their veritable degree in epidemiology. If the modernist scientist was the questioner (distinct from the skeptic in their capacity to “discover answers” to said questions), the postmodernist scientist is the one for whom “trust must be given.” It is postmodern irony that the Scientist no longer encourages questions but trust. We no longer are asked to emulate the Scientist by, like a scientist, questioning the science. We are asked instead to, like a priest, trust the Scientist and their gnostic providence over the secrets of the physiological body, which has become a political anatomy.

If there was a “Science” and a “Scientist” to which I would advocate a necessary return to in these COVID uncertain times, it would be a field of science which begins nowhere near the Maxim of Life. It would be a science of Death. It would be a Thanatology, indeed. Thanatology is a necessary science for these postmodern times. Elie Mitchnikoff, a Russian Immunologist, offered the idea of Thanatology alongside the idea of the field of Gerontology, in the early 20th Century. While his field-finding work on Gerontology and Immunology was accepted as an academic discipline, Thanatology was not considered a proper science until the 1950s when the Death with Dignity movement began. COVID-19 is not the time for another scientific Maxim of Life. It may instead be time for a science of death, a scientific revolution towards a death with dignity. The Scientist of Death will be a cross between a patron saint and a grim reaper, a historian and materialist future-teller, anti-philosopher and non-philosopher, undisciplined and fully rigorous, against method and poly-methodological, scientist and artist, caretaker and care-full.

2 thoughts on ““Trust the Scientist”: Notes Towards a Thanatology of Covid-19

  1. Thanks for this and the other 6 essays I read this week on mumbletheory. I found you looking for commentary on Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennet. I must concur with your point about The White Gaze, but I cannot tell if you feel a Black Pantheism/Panentheism that claims a similar philosophical premise is possible or desirable.

    ‘Trust the Scientist’ made my day. It’s not just the intelligence of your points, it’s the richness of your writing and powerful tempo of development. About Thanatology: You might find it worthwhile to look over 20TH CENTURY BOOK OF THE DEAD by Gil Elliot. He proposes the central inquiry of Thanatology is the question “Who dies, and why?”–and proves the answer brings an exponential reevaluation of historical fact and military policy. (For example, far more people, ordinary civilians, died from infrastructure collapse and tainted water etc than military hardware deaths.)

    Happy New Year


    1. Hey there Mary,
      Thanks for all these comments. I’m just now seeing this. I’m going to check out that book by Gil Elliot for certain! and I’m going to look into this question of Black Pantheism and Panentheism. These are questions that have been coming up in the corners of conversations I’ve had with people and it might be something worthy to return too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s