From False Consciousness To Viral Consciousness


From False Consciousness To Viral Consciousness [1]

My father wants nothing more for me than that I acquire a good job, and a good husband, and that I make a few children who will be very good grandchildren. My maternal grandfather wanted the gender-appropriate version for his daughter — a good job was not in my mother’s profile.

When we reproduce, we want confirmation of our own worth. We also want to make amends for our own failures. These two goals are contradictory in that our worth is compromised by our failures. This contradiction makes us want both to reproduce ourselves as clones and to produce not ourselves, but something other, something monstrously other.

The reproduction of ourselves as clones falls under the broad rubric of economy and its concomitant circling and return to the origin. If the figure of economy is the circle, as Derrida suggests, then to want our children to return to us what we have presented to them as a gift is to annul the gift.[2] In truth, we give nothing to our children, rather we sell them and we sell things to them. We always want a return for our effort.[3] And since the desire for return precedes the “gift of life”, there is in essence no gift, and perhaps there is no life. “Life”, here, as freedom to choose (how) to live.

The child of reproduction is born to indentured servitude, is enslaved by parental desire and by the economic debt of return. This debt can only be repayed through the return to the same, through the subsequent recycling of history.

My father wants nothing more for me than that I acquire a good job, and a good husband, and that I make a few children who will be very good grandchildren.

To see the production of children as a function of capital is to see the extent to which capital has invaded our bodies and our being. Capital penetrates to the very DNA which allows us to replicate and makes us reproducers — makers of the same. We make children who will have good jobs and good spouses and who will make good children who will have good jobs…

Jobs always figure prominently in this economic scheme. We are producers of producers, machines who are makers of machines. Capital replicates itself indirectly through the creation of progeny who act as job-seekers and job-holders. The value of the replicators is predicated on the job-worthiness of their progeny, and so the replicators will always strive to replicate, to reproduce more of the same.

Capital, then, as a kin to viruses. Both capital and viruses are non-living yet highly effective agents. Both latch onto living beings, penetrate them, and colonize them. Both capital and viruses multiply indirectly through the beings they colonize, and both cause genetic replication which serves them as masters and does harm to the slaves. Just as capital circulates, so there is always a virus “going around.”

We can go so far as to call capital a kind of virus, but it is a special kind. When capital invades a person and causes that person to reproduce, the person reproduces him- or herself as a maker of capital; whereas when a virus invades a cell, the virus co-opts the cell’s DNA or RNA and forces the cell to produce new viruses. The cell loses its ability to reproduce itself and becomes instead a producer of the monstrously other.

In discussing Derrida’s views of phallocentrism, Gayatri Spivak writes:

By virtue of the father’s name the son refers to the father. The irreducible importance of the name and the law in this situation makes it quite clear that the question is not merely one of psycho-socio-sexual behavior but of the production and consolidation of reference and meaning. The desire to make one’s progeny represent his presence is akin to the desire to make one’s words represent the full meaning of one’s intention.[4]

Derrida, via Spivak, here suggests that to reproduce oneself phallocentrically is to make oneself the font of meaning, to place oneself at the center of value, and to create like value in one’s progeny.

What we see here is a reversal of valuation from what we discussed above. The two versions, again, are first that we reproduce children who will become valued members of the economy so that we can then confirm our own value as makers of things which have marketable value, and second that we reproduce so that we can see ourselves as the source of all that is valuable. We make our children take our names and our values in an effort to confirm the worth of our name and our values.

In both cases, we reproduce ourselves. That is, we have children so that we can see ourselves once again — ourselves either as valued for having made valuable children, or ourselves as valuable for being the source of all value.

An economy of capital production and accumulation is based upon reproduction — that is, upon the production of the same. Our children must have our values, and our value, if capital is to continue its rule and aggrandizement. Seen from the point of view of the family, we have children as a way of proving our worth in a noble, moral sense, but under the logic of capital, we have children to demonstrate our economic worth.

Each of these selves, the family self and the capital self, is at work at the same time. The family self is the self of Marxian ideology, or false consciousness. In discussing the overlapping of ideology and false consciousness, Engels writes: “the real motives impelling [the agent] remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.”[5] Terry Eagleton adds, “Ideology is here in effect rationalization — a kind of double motivation, in which the surface meaning serves to block from consciousness the subject’s true purpose.”[6]

An ideological attachment to children as proof of one’s moral worth is a fiction designed to cover up the truth of the underlying economic exigencies of reproduction.

The contrast between the Derridean phallocentric reading and the Marxian economic reading is a sharp one. For Derrida, as we noted above, phallocentric reproduction of the same arises in response to the desire to be the font of value. That is, re-production is entirely self-serving when it is seen in its true light. For Marx, on the other hand, re-producers of a capitalist economy cannot, on this reading, be truly phallocentric because they are not really reproducing themselves so much as they are making capital.

The level at which we might see the phallocentric is rather that of capital. Capital is phallocentric in that it reproduces itself and gathers itself solely for its own greatness. Capital desires to be the sole value, the sole measure of value, and the sole source of value.

Capital takes over the reproductive capacity of its victim, alters the victim’s reproductive functions, and causes its victims to reproduce beings who will reproduce capital. In this way, capital acts as a virus potent enough to overcome the potentially deep-felt desire either to reproduce phallocentrically, or the desire to produce rather than to reproduce. (“Production,” once again, is taken to mean creation of what is monstrously other.)

It will be helpful here to pause to steep ourselves in biology for a few paragraphs. “Biology” is to be taken loosely because biologists do not think of viruses as living beings, and biology is the study of life processes.

For a virus to invade a cell, the cell must have a receptor site which complements a binding site on the virus. That is, virus and cell must be compatible in a specific way before there can be an invasion. The cell “recognizes” the virus’ binding site, and the virus “recognizes” the cell’s receptor site.

The virus attaches itself to the cell, breaks through the cell wall, inserts its genetic coding, either DNA or RNA but never both, into the genetic material of the cell, and, just like that, the virus has control of the cell’s reproductive functions. Viral reproduction occurs by the cell’s producing viral particles which then escape from the parent cell in search of their own cells to occupy. This escape can either be a painless passing through a cell wall, or a sudden bursting of the cell wall as the internal pressure of many viral particles increases to the breaking point. With this latter event, the cell explodes from the pressure and the viral particles are scattered.[7]

Viruses cannot multiply without helper cells, and these helper cells must be compatible with the virus even as the virus must be compatible with some kind of cell. That is, viruses cannot do what they do without some kind of community within which they simultaneously recognize and are recognized. Mere exposure to a virus, then, is a necessary though not sufficient condition for infection.[8]

Two kinds of viral infections suggest themselves here — computer viruses and AIDS. We know that computer viruses spread when two computers are linked by wires, telephones, or shared disks. The viral program travels across the linking medium, attaches itself to a new victim, and forces the new victim to replicate the virus. Computer viruses are not living beings, but rather have some kind of mediated existence.

Computer viruses cannot be transmitted between computers that are not somehow compatible. The computer that adjusts my car’s fuel consumption does not recognize my IBM PC. And since my PC has no modem, it can recognize other computers only through floppy disk insertion. If I use only pure disks in my computer, it will remain mute, isolated, and virus-free.

Recognition equally plays a role in the transmission of AIDS — especially in the media coverage of the disease. In the beginning, somewhere around 1982, AIDS was a Haitian disease, a gay men’s disease, an intravenous drug user’s disease, and an African disease. Somehow, AIDS only travelled within these communities of mutually recognized people. Haitians had, perhaps, some genetic or national susceptibility to the disease. “We” did not recognize “them,” and so “we” were not at risk. (Parenthetically, we still do not seem to recognize the plight of Haitians.)

Each of the groups that was reported to have widespread AIDS infection was just that — a group — them, not us. As long as we did not recognize any of these groups, we were safe from infection.

But just as my computer could in principle recognize nearly any 5 1/4″ floppy disk inserted into its A or B drive, so could nearly any body recognize the insertion of AIDS — infected bodily fluids, and since people have more than two drives, AIDS spreads rather handily. Still, we try to protect ourselves through declarations of non-recognition, as if mere language could protect us from the sense of community that viral transmission requires.

This denial of commonality allows us to talk about mutually exclusive groups: the gay community, IV drug users, promiscuous people, and “us”. As we learn that these boundaries, far from being fixed, are actually fluid and flowing, we have two choices. The first is to admit our community with these communities. The media did not do this. The second is to place large barriers around all susceptible orifices as if to say, “we may be somewhat intertwined temporarily, but really we are not open to each other, we are separate and have nothing in common.” Thus, dentists wear rubber gloves, paramedics wear face masks, lovers wear condoms. George Bush “wears” rhetorical garb which says that Haitians are fleeing economic misery and not political misery — as if these two could possibly be separated. The United States “wears” laws that bar people with AIDS from penetrating the nation’s borders. Ronald Reagan wore “silence.” In defiance of Reagan’s cloak, people with AIDS wear buttons that say “Silence=Death,” and indeed, they are right.

This death comes about both literally — through ignorance and through absurd bureaucratic delay, and figuratively through the refusal to recognize in the Hegelian sense of recognition. Self-consciousness dies without recognition of the other. By refusing to recognize these others then, we not only destroy them, but we also destroy ourselves. What silence cannot do, however, is destroy the virus. Nor can it destroy what “we” share in common with “them.”

The “bio” statement for Arthur Kroker in the Panic Encyclopedia says, “Arthur Kroker is the Canadian virus. His aim is to invade the postmodern mind, replicate its master genetic code and, in this clonal disguise, endlessly proliferate critical thinking.”[9] Kroker wants to be a good virus, a virus for the good. Perhaps this means that he cannot be the American virus, for American invasion is necessarily imperial, while Canadian invasion sounds merely impotent. We should wonder as well whether or not Arthur Kroker is critical thinking, for as a virus, he would be causing postmodern minds to replicate Arthur Kroker in all of us, at least insofar as we recognize one another.

The two traditionally recognized ways of subverting capital are first, the Marxian returning to producers the right to what follows from their production, and second, emphasizing the non-productive. The second way — emphasizing non-production — comes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s critiques of Marx’s insistence on production as the sole medium through which human beings realize their essence. The second way, then, is a critique of the first way. Martin Jay’s characterization of this second position follows Arendt and Adorno. Jay writes, “Implicit in the reduction of man to animal laborans…was the reification of nature as a field for human exploitation. If Marx had his way, the entire world would be turned into a `giant workhouse.'”[10]

The violence implicit in the phrase “The world is my oyster” is the self-same violence of conquest and exploit. It is the violence of production and workhouses. We need merely crack open oyster shell after oyster shell after oyster shell in search of the perfect pearl. If millions of oysters die in the process, that matters little when compared to the dis-covery of a pearl. Even if the opener of the oyster gets to keep the profits from the pearl, still there has been violence. It is worth noting that although the pearl is a thing of beauty and value for humans, it is a sign of disease for oysters.[11]

The fruit of the sea, the fruit of the land, and of the air are all there to be used, to be re-made, to be the source of human profit-making. Not only is all of this available to us, we must make use of it all if we are to become fully human. Under this logic, to become self-realized, we must deny the value of all that is other, we must dominate all that could conceivably exist independently of us.

To demonstrate our own liberty, we must enslave otherness and bring it into the circulation of the money economy. This is the logic of capital, of the phallocentric reproduction of the same. The circle emerges as the perfect figure, as the infinite repetition of itself, as the endless return to the same, and as the endless return of the same. The circle is the figure of the cosmos.

The phallocentric reproduction of the same is mediated reproduction. That is, it demands otherness recognized as otherness as a mediator. More concretely, males require females for the making of more males; the Lacanian Symbolic requires the Imaginary; Hegelian self-consciousness requires the awareness of the other. The other, then, is a fundamental category for possibility of reproduction of the same.

Because otherness becomes a reified category in this scheme, essentialist gynocentric glorification of the other merely serves to uphold the status quo in the same way that Marx’s emphasis on production serves to uphold a capitalist framework. Gynocentrism may attempt to overthrow the yoke of mediation, and hence to be subversive, but because the basis of gynocentrism is still otherness, it cannot be a completely radical strategy anymore than production can radically subvert capital.

With this argument in place, we can see the attraction of non-production for those who wish to subvert, and we can see the reason that capital fears the non-productive.

Any threat to production is met with stern disapproval. Hence, the popular dismay with drugs that alter consciousness (e.g. LSD); the popular support for those which enhance production (e.g. caffeine); the traditional loathing of both homosexual relations and birth control which turn sex into non-productive recreational activity; and the general commodification of all human activities so that no matter what we are doing, we are still in the production/consumption scheme.

We have gone, then, from Hegelian “being” to Marxian “doing.” Non-production is an attempt to return to being-as-non-doing. Hegelian being, though, is not a stable state, and Marxian doing and the reification of otherness seem to be logical followers to being. For Hegel, the opposition between being and non-being is resolved through becoming. Becoming is both the flow of time and the ever-circling movement towards self-realization. Becoming is the enabling condition of doing, and hence also of self-realization. Neither being nor non-being is stable, whereas doing maintains a kind of dynamic stability. Thus, we are perpetually trapped in the Hegelian circle of doing. Given a Marxist spin, this doing becomes producing, and producing means exploiting.

If we are to subvert capital and the exploitative nature of production, we must find a way to break out of the Hegelian circle of doing. Here, we can begin to see the possibility for subversive viral production.

Viral production of the other is different in kind from phallocentric reproduction of the same. Where phallocentric reproduction requires a mediating other to make the same, viral production requires a mediating same to make the other. In this way, the terms of production are, as it were, stood on their heads. There is still making, but it is the making of the other rather than the making of the same.

It is this other that breaks out of the circle, that is launched not into orbit, but on to some unpredictable tangent. There is, here, a sharing of origin and hence the figure of the tangent. Tangential relations are communal to a point, but then they diverge in unpredictable, even monstrous, ways.[12]

If we re-think Marx’s emphasis on production and see not production so much as control of what is produced, then we can see even more space for subversion. That is, when the same and the other are reified, when relations of production are fixed, the results are purely pre-dictable, “pre-dictable” in the sense of “saying before” and creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the other is a mediator rather than a product, a catalyst or reagent instead of a chemically imbalanced substance, then the result of the reaction is precisely reactionary and not revolutionary.

Viral production of the other is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It is monstrous in the sense of always leading to unpredictable results. It is not safe. But then we should consider what safety and predictability mean within the status quo.

AIDS, guns, poverty, pollution, and war are predictable in their results, and profitable for their phallocratic makers. Death is a safe bet, but the stability that leads to such good odds is not perhaps the stability that we should desire.

Viral production of the monstrously other is prima facie risky and fearsome, but when compared to the sacrifices made in the name of the phallocentric reproduction of the same, perhaps the risk is less than it seems.

The question remains, can there be a good virus? A productive virus?

One possibility that viral replication opens up to us is that of genetic production as opposed to genetic reproduction. Instead of remaking ourselves over and over again, as we do under the logic of capital, we can produce something new.

Viral consciousness, then, can be seen as mutant consciousness. It is an escape from the capitalist and phallocentric logic of the same. The virus is the other that recognizes and is recognized; it is the other that will allow us to produce otherness, rather than to reproduce ourselves.

Viral consciousness is thinking the production of the monstrously other — the other we cannot predict, the other whose beauty may well be unrecognizable because it is originary. Even with the originary nature of the product of viral production, still there will be recognition — recognition not of the same, but of a community of tangentially related differences.

Viral production invades us, occupies the reproductive organs of capital and of the phallocentric order, and fundamentally alters the process of reproduction. Or even, altogether ends the logic of reproduction. There is now only production.

My father wants nothing more for me than that I acquire a good job, and a good husband, and that I make a few children who will also be good grandchildren.

I want nothing less for my daughter than that she…


[1] An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Popular Culture Assocation annual meeting in March 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky. I am grateful to the Adjunct Advisory Council of Indiana University at South Bend for a grant to support the presentation of this paper.

[2] Jacques Derrida, “Given Time: The Time of the King”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, #2, (Winter 1992), pp 161-187.

[3] “And because the first instruction of Children, dependeth on the care of their Parents; it is necessary that they should be obedient to them, whilest they are under their tuition; and not onely so, but that also afterwards (as gratitude requireth,) they acknowledge the benefit of their education, by external signes of honour…nor would theire be any reason, why any man should desire to have children, or take the care to nourish, and instruct them, if they were afterwards to have no other benefit from them, than from other men.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 382.

“Yet this freedom exempts not a Son from that honour which he ought, by the Law of God and Nature, to pay his parents. God having made the Parents Instruments in his great design of continuing the Race of Mankind, and the occasions of Life to their Children, as he hath laid on them an obligation to nourish, preserve, and bring-up their Off-spring; so he has laid on the Children a perpetual Obligation of honoring their Parents….From this Obligation no State, no Freedom, can absolve Children.” John Locke, Second Treatise, in Two Treatises of Government, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. 354.

Hobbes and Locke clearly demonstrate in these passages that the creation of life is the creation of debt, and is not at all a gift.

[4] Gayatri Spivak, “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman,” in Displacement: Derrida and After, ed. Mark Krupnick, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 169.

[5] Quoted in Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 89.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Much could be said about parallels between viral re-production and family structure.

[8] I am grateful to Tom Platt, Professor of Biology at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana for information on the nature of viruses.

[9] Arthur Kroker, Marilouise Kroker, and David Cook, Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 265.

[10] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1956, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), p. 259.

[11] A pearl of wisdom is equally a sign of distress, for wisdom seems to arise mostly from pain.

[12] The pain inherent in getting off on a tangent is visible in the faces of students who want concise notes from concise lectures so that they can predict their grades. Lectures that yield either bizarre notebook figurations, or worse, no notes at all, cause endless pain.

Dianne Rothleder is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. She is writing on the relationship between Richard Rory’s epistemology and his politics. Her non-dissertation research is currently concerned with theorizing the family. She is an instructor in philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Notre Dame, Indiana.