“You haven’t learned anything about the plague. It will always come back”

A group of critical management scholars around my colleague Ronald Hartz from the University of Leicester has formed a virtual reading group on “The Plague – Diagnostics, Aesthetics and Politics of the Pandemic”, which I had the pleasure of joining for one session. Part of the agenda was a re-reading of Albert Camus’ 1947 book The Plague and a discussion of the 1992 film by Luis Puenzo based on the book (in addition to lots of Foucault, of course). There was a general sentiment of the film not being very good for various reasons, and particularly when seen as an adaptation of Camus’ book, but I found it interesting to watch in the light of today’s situation. Of course, Camus’ plague is fictional and written more as a metaphorical critique of fascism than as a critical analysis of pandemics, but it draws on historical evidence on previous pandemics, so many parallels to today’s situation became evident.

One thing I found striking was to see the sudden shift from normal, joyful social life to the lockdown situation, illustrating how things that we usually take for granted can suddenly become risky and forbidden. It seems absurd – but this does not mean it is not real, nor that it can not last. As Camus’, an absurdist philosopher, famously wrote in The Plague, a quote that also appears (in altered form) in the film: “When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though the war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves”. The same can be said about the pandemic. “It” – the pandemic, a war, fascism – “always catches us off-guard”.

The film also captures well the different realities of people – some still hustling and bustling in bars and restaurants, others directly faced by horrible disease and death. Through frequent references to the smell and sound of death in the film, especially the haunting scream of the dying choral boy, we get a sense of what it might be like for those working “on the frontline” of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of course for the families directly affected, the fates and suffering of which is buried behind death statistics and largely invisible to us. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of the book and film (played by William Hunt), desperately revolts against the transformation of human existence into bureaucratic entries by asking an official overseeing a quarantine camp to write a woman’s full name instead of just giving her a number. Yet, especially in highly affected areas, it is an inevitability to “administer” death through mass graves and statistics. Such depersonalization is a core ambivalence of bureaucratic systems (see lecture 3).

It is maybe not surprising that Camus picked the plague as the “pandemic of choice” to provide a critique of fascism. As Alan McKinlay argues in his article “Foucault, Plague, Defoe”, Foucault sees the plague a “a vital conceptual and historical bridge between the classical and modern ages; between different institutions; and between ‘disciplinary’ power and ‘biopower’” (p. 168). While leprosy could be dealt with by excluding infected individuals, the plague hit the heart of entire populations, requiring elaborate systems of management and regulation, discipline and surveillance. For Foucault who has extensively studied and written about the emergence of modern health and punishment institutions (e.g. 1973; 1977), the plague constituted “a moment at which all existing conceptions of the body, of family and social life, of the divine, and the nature and purpose of political authority were thrown into total confusion” (p. 168). The modern clinic and public health policies can be seen as disciplinary spaces as much as the modern prison.

Animals, a source of pandemics throughout history, appear only in the beginning of the film where we see sick rats hushing through buildings. But these images remind us that pandemics result from a mix of inhumane living conditions and an unhealthy relationship between humans and animals – a mix not only evidenced by reports about the Wuhan animal markets, but also by the insights into meat factories in the heart of Europe where people – like animals – are herded up and treated like disposable cattle.

In the film, we see people being pulled out of houses and put into quarantine by force. What is meant as a metaphor for the treatment of people deported to concentration camps during the holocaust by Camus, we have seen similar pictures from Wuhan in January and February 2020. Many of us perceived these as surreal or science-fiction-like. But, as The Plague reminds us, these practices are not only real today, but have also been real in the past. We see auxiliary hospitals being erected; we see face masks, a struggle to make sense of death counts and statistics and attempts at revealing the outbreak and criticisms of autopsies. Despite centuries of progress in medical science, we are left to archaic methods of confronting the virus, something epidemiologists today frequently stress in the public debate. These methods are not uncontested, because they reassert the power of the State which is necessary to confront complex crises, but can also easily be abused by populist and authoritarian leaders. When a family whose daughter has died from the plague in the film is being held in quarantine for months without any justification, Rieux, in the scene mentioned before, blames the official to “treat everyone like a suspect“, indicating that the measures he himself supported from a medical standpoint were being abused by people that “think they are God” and end up “locking up the whole city”. I would argue that the thin line between an assertive state necessary to handle the pandemic and save people’s life and authoritarianism is a key struggle for national leaders – particularly in Europe where the history of fascism is still very near. “There is a bit of the plague in all of us” is a repeated message – and one that I would say many political leaders in Europe have taken quite seriously.

In both the book and the movie, the confrontation between the scientist and humanist Dr. Rieux and the priest Father Paneloux is central. While the priest refers to the plague as the tribunal for people’s sins, Rieux emphasizes the Sisyphean task of trying to safe life by life, driven only by humanist values and not a belief in a greater order. Here Camus’ philosophy of absurdity, in which he asks us to think of Sisyphos as a happy person, comes to life through Dr. Rieux who recognizes and accepts the absurdity of life and inevitability of death, yet revolts against it by trying to live the best life possible, which is where – according to Camus – freedom can be found. But what is the role of religion in the current Covid-19 crisis? Organized religion was shut down early in the pandemic and excluded from its usual role in accompanying death as an infection control measure. It was and still is in the news as a site of superspreading events. In this way, organized religion has been rather silent – whereas it provides the soundscape of The Plague movie, which has psalms, sung by an innocent boy, as its main soundtrack. Religion also surfaces in broader frames and discourses: is the disease a punishment for our exploitation of nature (religious frame), or a natural evolution that happens from time to time (evolutionary frame)? Church groups have played an important role on the community level, providing services like food delivery for the elderly in many places. Without faith, journalist Martine Rambert (a character created just for the movie) argues, the world is a desolate place: “there is only the present, no memory, no hope” – but memory and hope – whether from a religious or humanistic angle – is needed to move forward in times of crisis. And since modern society with its focus on self-optimization has little solace to offer when it comes to death and disease, religion might also play an important role on an individual level as people struggle to accept that death is a normal part of life, of which for instance the suffering of Jesus on the cross is a constant reminder. The conflict between Rieux and Paneloux is somewhat resolved as Paneloux gets involved in caring for the sick and it becomes clear that both strive for the same: empathy and solidarity.

So, as a distraction of or complement to your coursework, I can recommend that you read and watch “The Plague”. While not the greatest movie ever made, it adds a layer of sound and visuals to the more sterile images we get from the news. The book has seen record sales during the coronavirus crisis already. If you want more, you can also look at Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, a chronicle of the 17th century London plague outbreak written in a unique style that veers between historical fact and fiction to express the confusion and extraordinary events societies were put into because of the plague outbreak.

2 thoughts on ““You haven’t learned anything about the plague. It will always come back”

  1. Pingback: “You haven’t learned anything about the plague. It will always come back” | Organizing in Times of Crisis – Kritische Organisationsforschung

  2. Pingback: Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis” | Organizing in Times of Crisis

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