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Naming the Virus, Becoming the Virus: Affective Forces of Threat from Hà Nội to Atlanta and the Possibility for Anti-Racist Solidarities

“Chống dịch như chống giặc” (“Fight the pandemic like an invader”) has become Vietnam’s slogan in its battle against COVID-19. From the pandemic’s onset until April 2021, Vietnam performed exceptionally in halting the viral spread and preventing deaths from COVID-19. While COVID-19’s origin remains contested, Vietnam’s 1,306km border with China posed an acute risk during the first wave in early 2020. Defying odds, Vietnam kept the virus at bay. With a low case load and death count between Jan 2020 – June 2020, Vietnam stood out from its northern neighbor, China, as well as other European countries and the United States. Simply crediting Vietnam’s success to an authoritarian regime misses a deeper distrust of the Chinese government within Vietnam. This distrust stems from the historical colonization of China over Vietnam and imminent military and sovereignty threats posed in the East Sea (or the South China Sea) over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

This post explores how a “political ontology of threat” (Massumi, 2010) played in favor of a less powerful country, enabling swift action in an emergent pandemic while powerful Western nations still downplayed the threat of COVID-19. Understanding this affective force of threat in Vietnam requires a critical examination of the fraught political relationship between Vietnam and China. I then compare the idea of “naming the threat,” or more specifically, “naming the virus” across Vietnamese and US contexts (Siegel, 2006). Since the pandemic, hate-crime attacks against the Asian community in the United States have skyrocketed. The Asian community in the West has “become the virus,” owing much to racist tropes like the “China virus” or “kung flu” deployed by former US President Trump. Embodying the virus as Asian engendered waves of verbal abuse and physical attacks against the Asian population in the United States. Racism against Asians is deeply rooted in legacies of wars and colonialism that frame Asian bodies as passive, inferior, uncivilized, hypersexualized, or disposable (Spivak, 2003; Nguyen, 2020). While the Western gaze conflates all Asian bodies as the source of the virus, the naming of the virus in Asian countries is more complex, which leads me to examine whose bodies Asian authorities perceived as a threat to public health during the pandemic. Finally, I conclude with what it might mean to “become the virus,” drawing on Deleuze and Guatarri’s plane of immanence in order to highlight the possibility of deterritorializing the boundary of life and nonlife and putting forward a more dynamic view of the world in which the virus, the nonhuman, or the nonlife have tremendous affective mobilizing forces that can transform and/or constrain our humanity.

How “Distrust of China” Helped Vietnam Mitigate the First Wave of the Pandemic

Understanding Vietnam’s early pandemic success requires attention to affective dimensions of threat stemming from Vietnam’s long-standing contested relationship with China. What enabled Vietnam to respond so swiftly and drastically? “[The] two countries taking the quickest action are Taiwan and Vietnam — they shared the same reasons: geographical proximity to and distrust in China,” asserted Nguyen Xuan Thanh, an expert in the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Group (cited from Belluz, Do, & Nguyen 2021). Grade school textbooks teach Vietnamese students about the one-thousand-year Chinese domination or colonization over Vietnam (“1000 năm Bắc thuộc”), starting from 111 BC to 905 AD (Le 2012). Vietnamese history books also laud the courageous battles of the Vietnamese to reclaim the country from Chinese rule. While some historians refute the claim of a “1000-year Chinese domination” (Taylor 2013), for the Vietnamese and their government, China is a “tyranny of geography” — a big and powerful empire constantly posing threat to its smaller neighbors’ very existence (Thayer 2002). This “China threat” is not historical, but a present political concern. In 1979, China invaded northern Vietnam to intervene in Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (Keyes 2002). In 1988, Vietnam and China’s naval forces went into battle in the East Sea (Thayer 2002), contesting claims over two islands, Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and Trường Sa (Spratly) ever since (Ong 2020).

The past year has revealed COVID-19 to be a devastating disease, claiming more than three million lives. Yet the threat of this virus was relatively unknown to global health experts and world leaders in early 2020. Nonetheless, the Vietnamese government, based in Hà Nội, was skeptical of China’s downplayed claim about the severity of the virus as a common flu. Vietnam’s early strict measures to close the borders were the result of preemptive actions induced through affective forces of threat and fear. Brian Massumi (2010), like Jean Baudrillard, explicates the political ontology of threat as something hyperreal — more real than real without any underlying material reality. Threat is rooted in semiotic or signs-becoming in which signs of threat (in Massumi’s case, the potentiality of Iraqi WMDs) constitute could-have/would-have logics, or anticipatory realities of a threatening future, regardless of current material reality or truth. These, in turn, can activate preemptive actions (i.e. the Iraq war, or Vietnam’s response to COVID-19) against a currently-nonexistent threat. Understanding the affective ontology of threat highlights the fraught distinction between logic and feeling. Massumi does not argue that feeling contradicts logic, but, rather, feeling or felt reality activates operative logics of power.

This affective fear of China as a political and public health threat was also intensified when the Chinese government accused a Vietnamese state-backed hacker group, APT32, of hacking into personal and professional email accounts of Chinese government officials to extract information about COVID-19 in April 2020 (Stubbs & Statter 2020). The Vietnamese government denied the accusation, yet such an online hacking activity illustrates “a distrust about Chinese government announcements and a sense that when China sneezes, it is its neighbours that get the flu – in this case literally,” explained Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert (Stubbs & Statter 2020). In Vietnam, the affective force of threat activates “a surplus of reality” which produces a “surplus of being” or “collective becoming” (Massumi 2010) in which both the government and its citizens become a united front to fight against COVID-19 as if fighting against an invader.

Naming the Virus

Naming the unnamable, whether witchcraft, a virus, or terrorism, displaces or supplements truth and engenders new forms of violence that protect law or dominant interests. James Siegel (2006) examines the naming of witchcraft and subsequent violence inflicted upon those named “witch” in relation to modernization and the maintenance of Indonesia’s New Order. To Siegel, this is “a violence that inheres in and that turns against itself.” Siegel argues, “The fear of witches as we have seen it, however, is directed against something unnamable. The word ‘witch’ galvanizes our attention only when it is charged with the uncanny, and that is not always the case. When it is, it remains outside the possibility of recognition, which would be the basis for making ‘witch’ the equivalent of ‘enemy’ and thus the basis for a political system.” The act of naming Asians as a virus is imbued with hatred and the need to explain or demonize contagion. Concealing truth by naming the unnamable generates affective force, obscuring actual threats, risks, and violence within an order to protect its power structures (Massumi 2010). The idea of terrorism, which racially targets Muslims as potential threats, obscures the fact that the main threat to America is white supremacists, who almost brought down American democracy with their Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. Throughout the pandemic, the Asian community has become a supplement to conceal the truth behind the failures of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Furthermore, Trump’s racist rhetoric against China, in particular, stems from ongoing geopolitical tension between the U.S. and China, as China emerges as a global superpower, challenging U.S. hegemony. Like naming the witch in East Java, naming the virus in the West has precipitated much violence, trauma, and suffering to Asian communities.

On March 16, 2021, six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta in a hate crime fueled by white supremacy and a racialized misogynistic culture. The gunman saw these women as a sexual “temptation” in need of elimination. To him, these six Asian women were less-than-human. The police officer managing the case told reporters he was just “having a really bad day,” which, in some twisted way, justified the killing of eight innocent lives. This white man’s cruelty derives from a deep-seated fetishization of colored bodies (Taussig 1987; Morris & Leonard 2017). Michael Taussig (1987) argues that we cannot explicate the excesses of violence and madness through reason and rationality. Building on Freudian fetishism to highlight the tension between perceptions and senses, Taussig highlights that the racial fetish of the white man arises from his uncanny recognition of his own deepest desires in the people he meant to civilize, enslave, and subjugate. Race fetishism is about value in a Hegelian and Marxian sense, but with the added ascription of savagery to rationalize brutality and assuage conscience. The white man in Taussig’s analysis wished to be cultured and humane but recognized himself as inhumane and savage (or in this gunman’s case, his sexual addiction). The colonizers wish for colored bodies to be inferior, primitive, and in need of their benevolence, yet still recognize that colored bodies are as equal as themselves. These contradictions generate terror and violence upon colored bodies out of the madness and paranoia of the white man. The cold-blooded murder in Atlanta repeats this enduring history of violence and terror that the white man has inflicted upon colored bodies as a savage reconciliation of the very internal contradictions within their double selves.

What saddens me most is that some of the perpetrators of violence against the Asian community also comprise people of color. For global racial justice, people of color must unite to fight white supremacy for better justice and equity. And yet, in Asian countries, the naming of the virus takes on different forms but carries similar underlying racialization against minority bodies. While Singapore has controlled the pandemic well, it also experienced several surges in COVID-19 cases resulting from dormitories for Bangladeshi and Indian migrant workers (Beech 2020). South Asian bodies come to embody the virus in Singapore, rather than exposing a preexisting hierarchy. In India, Muslim bodies become the virus, concealing that Prime Minister Modi’s election campaigns were more likely to have led to the deadly surges (Slater & Masih 2020). Naming the virus requires different scapegoats by country or region but underscores deep-seated racisms against historically subjugated bodies who come to supplement and displace the ways in which the state and the law efface the violence of class and colonialism.

Becoming the Virus

Can the virus serve as a moment to expose internalized explicit or implicit racialized hierarchies and call into question our ways of life in which we neglect to recognize the precarity of our bodily apparatus and the affective forces of nonlife/nonhuman actors? In Geontologies, Elizabeth Povinellli (2016) highlights the ability of all living or nonliving things to “affect and be affected”. Povinelli offers ways to reorganize, reconfigure, and reterritorialize our ways of life and our relationships with others and the planet. The Virus, one of Povinelli’s three figures in late liberalism, can disrupt, challenge, and ignore the distinction between Life and Nonlife by using materials and properties from Life and/or NonLife to grow, mutate, transmit, and extend itself. Like Siegel, Povinelli recognizes the Virus as supplement, which gets associated with the racialized body or “the political other.” Like the virus that knows no borders, racism knows no bodies. Rather than seeing the virus, the racism, or the hatred in ourselves, we frantically displace those figures onto others. Rather than recognizing the interconnectedness and the mutually affective forces of all life and nonlife, we feverishly construct an archive with racialized and human-centric hierarchies at the core.

The Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher” captures an alternative reckoning of reterritorializing human/nonhuman and life/nonlife assemblages. The documentary centers around the life cycle of a female octopus who affects and is affected by a diver/filmmaker, other marine species, and her surrounding environment. The documentary subverts the hierarchy between human and non-human actors, as the diver/filmmaker becomes deeply attached to the octopus’s intelligence, resilience, and creativity, subsequently affecting him to “think like an octopus.” Becoming an octopus, becoming the virus, or becoming-animal, is, according to Deleuze and Guattari (1987), an ethical way of living that emphasizes an alternative reckoning of the interconnectedness and multiplicity of all living things and new, possible transformations beyond any distinctions or dualism between life/nonlife and human/nonhuman. “Becoming” reckons new ways of reterritorializing our movements and connections with others, which allows us to become beyond what we assume to be. Becoming the virus, like becoming women or becoming minoritarian, challenges and deterritorializes an archive that would otherwise limit perception to a male and white-dominated majoritarian perspective, freeing us from entrapment within logics whereby the virus and racism work in tandem to further divide and subjugate weaker and minority bodies. Doing so enables non-majoritarian perspectives and knowledges that allow affect to lead us to new intensified feelings and understandings of the world.

Our Task Ahead

By juxtaposing Vietnam’s distrust of China with anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. throughout COVID-19, this post highlights the complexities of naming the virus, which stem from the long-standing legacies of colonialism and the ongoing manifestations of racism masked under the politics of threat. To Frantz Fanon (1967), one of the greatest successes of colonialism is the internalization of colonial effect, in which racialized bodies are more likely to internalize the racist ideas of the colonizer and reproduce racism against other races, ethnicities, or religious groups. In other words, resistance against racism takes perverted forms in which racialized stigma is insidiously passed along to the racialized subject – like a contagion. Like COVID-19, racism is a virus. Unlike COVID-19, which can be treated and potentially eradicated by mass vaccination, racism cannot be cured through the techno-solutionism of any medical treatment. Rather than displacing threat and inflicting hatred or violence onto others, we need to recognize the potential threat within ourselves. Our human body is made of thousands of microbiomes, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.  This pandemic should teach us to embrace the precarity of life and the interconnectedness of all things and to transform beyond racism and hatred. The virus of racism has mobilized the Asian American community to work toward a new Anti-Asian Hate Crime Act, which has been signed into law by President Biden. The task ahead for all of us is to reconfigure human rights, racial justice, and solidarity, especially between people of color. In February, I witnessed a rally against anti-Asian racism in Lower Manhattan, made up of people of different races walking and chanting together: “Stop Asian Hate. Racism is a virus.” Rather than internalizing racism against one another, more urgently than ever, people of color need to stand together to fight against historical and structural racism and work toward reconciliation, reparation, and rightful recognition, while moving towards new ways of co-existing with all things that deterritorialize hierarchies and distinctions of life.

Three people stand in a park in the foreground of a protest holding signs. The first sign reads, "I'm vaccinated against COVID-19, but not against white supremacy." The second sign reads, "Hate crimes against Asians are real." The third sign reads, "We belong here."

People of all color, class, and gender rally together to “Stop Anti-Asian Hate” in Chinatown, NYC, on March 21, 2021. Photo Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld, Getty Images

 

This post is part of the series “(Re)Assembling Asias through Science.” Click here to read the series’ introduction and contact editors Chunyu Jo Ann Wang (chunyuw@stanford.edu) and Tim Quinn (quinnt@rice.edu) if you are interested in contributing!


References

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