Exemption, Exception, Exclusion: The Spatial Use of the Pandemic
Ola Hassanain with Daniel Blanga Gubbay
August 30th, 2020
I was in conversation with Ola Hassanain during a reading group I organized in mid-March, in the first phase of the global outbreak of Covid-19. It started from a Facebook post, and ended up in a collective reading of Immunitas by Italian thinker Roberto Esposito.
These were the days when the virus was still being talked about as “little more than a flu,” in which the logic of herd immunity was opposed to that of isolation in order to slow down the spread of the virus. I proposed to go back to Esposito for the etymological link he traces between immunity and community, which share a common root in the Latin word munus, the gift, the obligation. The members of the community (com-munus) share an obligation; they are bound by a relation of reciprocal gift-giving whereas immunity is a self-exception from a shared condition. It functions by withdrawing the body from the community through immunization (a vaccine or parliamentary immunity). In this respect immunity is described by Esposito as “a negation of life in the name of the protection of life,” and it is analyzed as a paradigm in early twenty-first century Western politics, which among other things, finds its expression in in the erosion of human rights embedded in the narrative of self-protection in post-9/11 US politics.
The reading group engaged the complex relations between the two terms in time of pandemic, and the possibility of practicing immunity –an act of withdrawal— to save a community. The reading group eventually gathered people I knew and did not know, connected by video from Japan or Poland, São Paulo, Brussels, Beirut, and New York. This scattered geography generated a polyphony of perspectives on the pandemic and its political appropriation in different contexts: from its racist instrumentalization, to the strengthening of nationalist political discourses, or doubling down on surveillance. I would like to thank all the participants, since some of the conversations still resonate in this interview.
Community and immunity are configured spatially; they refer to an inside and an outside. In late April I proposed to the artist and architect Ola Hassanain to have a second conversation on the kind of spaces created by the pandemic: the reaffirmed division of public and private spaces, spaces of exclusion and forced inclusion, and the body as a place of inscription.
Daniel Blanga Gubbay: In reference to immunity and community, we can start from the current practice of self-isolation, narrated as withdrawal from public space. The discourse occurs through the simultaneous romanticization of two kinds of spaces: on the one hand, an a-critical imposition of the home as a safe space, and on the other hand, the visual fetishism for an aestheticized projection of deserted public space , a narrative that renders invisible the people working at the front lines of the pandemic, such as delivery workers, street cleaners, and other essential workers.
Ola Hassanain: Yes, this act of withdrawal from public space still remains conditional, since not everybody has a place to withdraw to. Or, while having it, not everybody has the possibility to stay there. But if staying home is conditional, the access to public space was also conditional. Not everyone can roam around freely. Well before Covid-19 was happening, Western society was constructed on forceful forms of withdrawal from a supposed idea of community,for instance with the paradigm of citizenship. Think of refugee camps, which are formalized acts of removal from the access to a community, or border checkpoints. These were conditions that have been imposed before [the pandemic], and yet were not regarded as a problem.
It makes me also think of the revolution in Sudan: when people were gathering in public space, the State always intervened to restore order by dispersing people. Following orders coincided with a withdrawal from public space. This is in conflict with the very liberal democratic way of thinking about space, which was based on the assumption that we existed in a public space accepting of all of us, and now we are being pushed back. The current discourse addressing the relationship between public and private spaces erases the fact that there are specific social and political conditions dictate the flow between them.
DBG: If we take Esposito’s notions of immunity and community , they seem to suggest a political agency and subjectivity, hence the possibility to form a community, and to withdraw from a condition of community without considering what happens when you are deprived of your subjectivity, dispossessed, forcibly included or excluded.
OH: Exactly. There are groups of people whose bodies and political positionality is already inscribed. There is the level of performing a subjectivity and the level of preventing someone from doing so. This condition is very telling of the notion of community. When someone cannot bring something to the table, how can they be part of a living life?
This is also present in the current reflection about the future. Some days ago, I read that Germany is developing a certificate of immunity from Covid-19. This will be the formation of a new community through the narrative of a health, with the materialization of the certificate as a new ID. Once again, you start thinking about the conditional, about who will have access to a vaccine and to immunity, should there be a vaccine in the future, and the risk of this happening on the practiced exclusion of others. As Arundhati Roy was recently saying, the current situation is a portal, there is a direction towards the future, even to write the future. Yet, it is not automatically accessible to all, and at least not in the same way.
DBG: You mentioned the practiced exclusion of others, and how this seems to be currently activated in nationalistic discourses and their political recuperation of the narrative of isolation. The image of a globalized world, which inevitably created the conditions for the virus to be extensible on an almost planetary scale, is taken up by right-wing narratives to justify the closure of borders and practices of exclusion. In the reading group, we received news of what was going on in Poland, which, in addition to closing the borders, was repatriating Polish citizens almost as heroes and without testing, implicitly suggesting that the virus is only brought in from foreigners, and that a compatriot cannot pose a risk to their fellow citizens.
OH: From the beginning it was striking to see how the terminology used to describe Covid-19 was very similar to the terminology used to talk about migration. We’ve seen the ability to fuse something that is classified as non-fictive with something that is fictive, to then activate this notion of us and them, such as Trump’s insistence on using the word “Chinese” alongside the word “virus,” which was followed by a global spike in hate crimes towards Asian people. Furthermore, if we take the Netherlands, it is easy to see how the situation works through discriminatory attitudes towards certain communities historically policed by the State. The pandemic becomes a magnifying glass put on certain neighborhoods to see who is following and who is not, amplifying the discrepancies in the narrative about who is part of the “Dutch culture” and who’s not, who is a good citizen (and erasing the problem of citizenship that remains conditional for so many people). Nationalism is part of Western modernity, and the spread of nationalism is part of a broader process of the Westernization of the world. It is constructed upon a racist, colonial, and imperialist episteme that classifies the Western subject as human.
DBG: What you are saying allows us to expand on several political forms of exclusion. Denise Ferreira da Silva refers, for instance, to exclusion and obliteration. If the colonial project primarily operates through the exclusion of racialized bodies, it is urgent to bring attention to a second and less analyzed practice, operated by white universalism, which erases narratives by imposing a “we” that corresponds to a white, transparent subject. Obliteration seems to operate today both in the promotion of the [concept of] herd immunity (a discourse that erases the elderly and non-productive bodies), as well as in the notion of self-isolation (erasing the racialized and underpaid labor of working bodies who have to be exposed to the virus to allow others to stay home). In this sense ,we are witnessing a discourse of forced inclusion in a broader narrative based on exclusion.
OH: Yes, herd immunity was initially promoted by the Dutch government. It is the obliteration of some people who simply have to pass away in order to produce immunity for the transparent subject, and it prolongs the warfare idea of “collateral damage” for a better future, or common goal. Then, another, seemingly opposite discourse emerged: the community needs to protect the most vulnerable. And even there, the category of the most vulnerable ones is defined from the point of view of the transparent subject: they have to look a certain way, with a close proximity to citizenship. This image of the most vulnerable definitely did not include those working in order to allow others to stay home. This raises the question of who is perceived as expendable but it also shows the complex mechanism for racialized bodies: here, you become more vulnerable by trying to be part of the community, since showing that you are a productive part of it might give you access to it. When for example the Netherlands decided to support independent freelancers or artists with a monthly stipend of a thousand euro, I wanted to apply. I went back to my visa applications and there is a question that specifically asks you if you have ever been supported by the State: What would make you trust that it would not be used against you later? Or that you wouldn’t be flagged as “non-productive.” A lot of racialized bodies are inscribed into the capital of Western, Arab, or Gulf countries, and inscribed into the capital that is producing the discourse premised on their absence from it. It is an irreconcilable kind of situation. Black scholars  have been using the term "social death" to describe this space of impossibility as political paradigm. What do you do when you are part of the machine? Africa in itself is the capital of the world. There is no dispute in that: everything that we look at somehow has a direct channel of extraction and destruction in Africa.
DBG The African continent has been at the center of Western media’s attention for supposedly the disease not spreading in some countries. It started by exceptionalizing the black body (exceptionalizing is here another logic of exclusion, taking out), a logic that pertains to the legacy of coloniality and exotification. I have the impression it shifted more recently to a narrative projecting an apocalyptic scenario that leaves little room for the possibility of other futures.
OH: This comes in the legacy of never presenting the black body as human, but rather exceptionalizing it. It is a eugenic type of thinking rooted in a colonial episteme that inscribes something–in this case, endurance and strength—into a set of physical attributes. The black body is then deemed to endure continuous violence.
At the same time, by exceptionalizing the body you also negate, remove, and eliminate everything that comes with the body, for instance its ontology of survival. In Africa there was the Ebola epidemic and so much has been developed to combat it, and you don’t want to acknowledge that this achievement comes from this particular continent. Yes, there is underdevelopment, there are difficulties, but there are also people who have been working for a long time, finding solutions and strategies, often without support or solidarity from other organizations that are doing the same work.
When no space is given to all this, it is easy for Melinda Gates to speak about “bodies lying around on Africa,” and to depict this apocalyptic scenario, as if this wasn’t literally happening in the US while she is speaking. It is easy to imagine this future, which excludes certain white, “unmarked” bodies. People in Africa are cornered to perform their own death, inside the global world predicated on Eurocentric social notions of life and inclusivity. We are dealing with a language that renders certain groups of people obsolete. You cannot go on with these foundations and NGOs if you do not recognize where the systemic issues are, otherwise you always build on narratives that do not recognize their own genealogy, or that intentionally miss the broader landscape.
DBG: Do you see the genealogy of this Western projection of victimhood lying in the continuous attempt to subtract agency from non-white bodies, which has been at the core of the colonial project?
OH:White supremacy has been inscribing a paradoxical simultaneity of victimhood and villainization onto black bodies. The paradox creates enclosures where, either way, your desire for something different does not register in the system in place. At the same time, we have to make a distinction between the power in agency and the agency of having power. We have to acknowledge that agency also exists when is not recognized. In certain situations, in Sudan’s revolution, for instance, there are so many movements and people trying to carve out spaces to live outside of State terror via strategic demonstrations. However the State’s powers enable it to lay out a structure that neutralizes protest movements, reducing their impact on the status quo.
DBG: In relation to Sudan’s recent history, from the arrest of Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 to the state of exception, and from the joint military-civilian Sovereignty Council of Sudan to the protests in the transition to democracy, I would like to ask you about the impact of the pandemic –and its political use– on the situation.
OH: We went through a revolution one year ago now. In Sudan, people who have been calling for the removal of the current form of governance came to the point of confrontation with the State, which birthed the sit-in in front of army head-quarters in Khartoum. On June 3rd, 2019, the entire area of the sit -in was burned down, an estimated one thousand people were shot, and some thrown into the Nile River. It became the space where the terror of the State unraveled; “they removed–obliterated them,” as Denise Ferreira da Silva puts it—stopping them from making their demands audible, eradicated these voices, and a state of emergency was declared to put out any flames of a push back. One year later, Covid-19 becomes the new declared state of emergency and the state entities, who were implicated in the killing and removal of people from public space, now reinforce curfews for people to stay at home for their safety. Which is just ironic.
Linking both events shows again how inclusion has to be in a certain way. We are to perform a level of inclusion that is predicated on our exclusion.
The public space is often presented to us as the epitome of democracy, but it is nothing if we do not acknowledge that democracy is praxis. After the demonstrations, there were videos circulating with people telling the army people, ”What we want also includes you. It does not exclude you. What we imagine for our future includes betterment for you.” And the next day the person was pointing a gun at us. It shows how any police force, and army, are not there for a public, but for the State.
DBG Immunization occurs by administering an antidote into the body; for Esposito, one has to incorporate a negation of life in order to preserve life. This pharmacological image echoes the biopolitical inscriptions of behaviors, language, and technology into the body. In resonance also with the idea of dictationship, and in the frame of the current use of the pandemic, what do you see being inscribed into the body today?
OH: I think that this happens on a few levels. First, the inscription of behaviors, which also corresponds to a misattribution of responsibility. We are rightly adopting measurements—wash your hands, stay home—but this also transfers the attention from a systemic shortcoming to the citizens’ responsibility. It supports the State in its underperformance in providing healthcare and providing access to testing. Inscribing this responsibility into the citizen’s body partially allows the State not to be accountable.
There is also what we are taking on, as a condition of living, in the long exposure to screen-time and anxiety. Something–the how we are living—is inscribed there, and what scares me is that the body is often not considered part of this conversation, neither in its biological nor non-biological part.
A last thing that is currently (re)inscribed into the body is the reaffirmation of the dichotomy of private and public space that upholds the notion of urbanization. Architecture and the spaces that surrounded us are always inscribed into our bodies and behaviors. With the practice of self-isolation, the division of public and private space is reaffirmed and, through it, the preservation of the State is inscribed into our body. It continues to administer life, and we continue to perform tasks. The virus is also a space, since it is a system of rewriting how bodies are socialized but also, because the virus is hosted in our bodies, brings the conversation back to us, as [individual] users of spaces and as enclosures.
I hope this will be the moment to recenter human geography; to acknowledge that cities, and the way cities are designed, are not aligned with public life, nor with health. Architect Hossein Sadri recently said that if we were to sit with the virus as a client, this virus would approve these densely populated cities we are designing now. Urbanity connects people together and allows different forms of socialization, but under urbanization–or the way cities are now designed, living on top of each other—our bodies will always be vulnerable to pandemics.
DBG: You mentioned in this conversation several types of space: the public space and the private one, the virtual one, and the virus as a space. Your recent work deals with the link between culture-specific gender, public space, and policies in Khartoum, and you recently explored the idea of space as discourse, an expanded notion of space that encompasses political and environmental questions. To conclude I would like to ask you more about this concept, and its political potential.
OH: Thinking of space as a discourse is a way to open up space as political subject thus allowing space to be transformative. When space becomes discourse, it can summon certain subjectivities to exist together, outside State terror. In my work, I look at how architecture is a practice that materializes the State’s imaginary and how the built environment has systemically anchored and monumentalized State ideologies. It does so in complete absence of its users. Our built cities are channels for the distribution of capital and do not take into consideration human ecology. Spatial discourse helps the tools of space-making (like architecture) to became a multifaceted dialogue, rather than a strict process of materiality. It frees these tools from being an insular language of the State, to and embeds alternative political aspirations into the profession of space-making.
1.Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press 2011).
2.Cfr. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), and its influence on Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
3.Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).