issue 2: covid-19 pandemic

may 2020

episteme issue 2 features the COVID-19 virus which has recently ravaged the globe to an unprecedented degree. The deadly pandemic has claimed nearly 240,000 and deeply affected people’s everyday lives around the world. Faced with the magnitude of such “crises”, how could and should “humanists” respond to the overwhelming sense of paralysis and unintelligibility? What thought and perspective can a critical engagement with the current conjuncture engender for the future as well as the present? Or, is such an intellectual engagement meaningful, even necessary at this moment? If it is, how so? In this issue, five authors whose scholarship address critical issues confronting Asia and beyond respond to these questions from their respective concerns and viewpoints. 

Shiqi Lin reflects on the impulse behind numerous practices of online documentation and asks: why are many of us obsessed with preserving records of life in this pandemic? What are we driven by? Reading the documentary impulse as both a symptom of and a response to structural crises, Lin considers the question of documentation in relation to themes including the illegibility of lived experience in the present, the promise of future, the hermeneutical prerequisite for ethical cohabitation, and a notion of delayed justice rooted in mourning together. As the COVID-19 pandemic hits us as a global crisis in which no one can escape, Lin’s essay suggests that we need an ethical thinking to imagine our existence with the past, the future, the deceased and the intimate Other, now more than ever. In this light, the documentary impulse not only provides a live record of the structural impasses in which we are trapped, but also preserves and opens up a communicative space to enable futuristic imaginations and reconstruct an inhabitable world with care and responsibility. 

Gavin Walker challenges the prevalent discursive modalities on COVID-19. From the outset of the emergence of the pandemic, Walker argues, the realm of social and cultural criticism has been suffused with responses, from epic pronouncements to social-media “thinkpieces”, producing a new discursive function of coronavirus almost as central as the actual medical phenomenon itself. The sphere of criticism has been marked by an inability to exceed the realm of doxa and amateur speculation, and above all, a remarkable lack of reflection on the very operational categories of this “coronavirus ideology”, and particularly its grasp of capitalist crisis and the concept of the political as such. 

Katsuya Hirano argues that not only does COVID-19 remind us of the truism that capital requires the structure of racial, gender, and age-based discrimination as an essential condition of its own survival; it also reveals capitalism’s perceived stability during times of “normalcy” as a mere fantasy as it brings to the fore capital’s systemic subjection of minorities to the double precarity of impoverishment and mortality. After examining Japan’s COVID-19 policies from this perspective, Hirano concludes that the pandemic does not signify the sudden and abrupt inauguration of a state of exception, as many have argued, but simply and unambiguously amplifies the state of bio-necro power within which we already live, as capitalism generates a sharply divided world, classifying human life into those worthy of protection and those considered disposable. The real question confronting us then is whether we resuscitate this capitalist machine of wealth-creation or break with it after so much tragedy, so many deaths.  

Toulouse Roy looks at the impact of COVID-19 on Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples and the measures that they have taken to combat the virus in their communities. Putting the Taiwan case in a broader perspective, Roy argues that the pandemic acts as a disquieting reminder of tragic legacies of colonial conquest and assimilation that have placed native populations in a precarious position for many centuries: they suffered devastating losses due to epidemics brought to them by settlers and conquerors over years, and now they stand to suffer disproportionately from this deadly pandemic. 

Suzy Kim discusses the Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite, drawing parallels between reactions to the film with responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the film that blurs the boundaries between realism and surrealism, she observes how the coronavirus exposes our “multiple split screens with conflicting realities” to question “what is the reality to which we must respond?” In the era of right-wing populism and “fake news,” Kim argues that the virus only aggravates the sense of anxiety about what is real, in ways intimated by the film’s aesthetic and narrative style. Situating the pandemic within the broader context of global public health inequities, Kim draws upon the Korean experience—North and South—to call for a course correction.

Katsuya Hirano, editor 

Legacies of Indigenous Dispossession in the Age of Corona

Indigenous Taiwan’s Fight against COVID-19 in Global and Comparative Perspective

Toulouse Roy