Viral Attack on Fragile Subjects

by Florian Bossert

“The hell of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is what is already here, the hell we live in every day, that we make by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the hell and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.”
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

More suggestively than genuinely interested, I asked a friend in January 2020 whether this is not the “usual panic” in the face of new infectious diseases after he repeatedly pointed out the significance of a new pathogen that seems to be spreading in central China. Weeks later, under the impact of the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, I first recall The Monster at Our Door, a 2005 book by Marxist historian Mike Davis1, purchased under the impression of the swine flu that circulated between 2009 and 2010, and which has endured its unread existence on my bookshelf since I bought it. Davis ends his book with the warning that the “hour hand on the pandemic clock” is approaching midnight and that “a real monster” in the form of a global pandemic is just around the corner.2 The past pandemics and their scientific, literary, and cinematic reverberations seem to have fallen prey to my repression until the spring of 2020. Albert Camus has Doctor Rieux observe in The Plague that “a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination ... since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead”3. Mass death, no matter how extensive the devastation, always threatens to remain an abstraction without an emotional capacity for comprehension corresponding to the event, and without the mediating experience of individual deaths.

More than two years after the first proven infections, the horror of the pandemic is no longer abstract. It has become tangible, not only through acquaintances who have fallen ill or died but also through the painful loss of a supposed normality, of which a core element even before Covid-19 had been the horror and indifference with which this normality can only be endured. The “monster of the pandemic” predicted by Davis has temporarily put an end to an accustomed life for us all, and despite a vacuous promise of salvation, it remains uncertain whether and when the salutary identification with the virulent aggressor will be able to technologically override its destructive power on a global scale. The perpetuating abandonment of almost everything that makes damaged life endurable — social relationships, spontaneity, transgression, or escape from the daily grind — has become a difficult burden for many to bear. The gradual removal of government measures to slow down the pace of infection does little to mask the fragility of the new normal. This is evidenced by a palpable powerlessness in the face of expansive futility. The pandemic is a reminder of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of life, of how a single, sometimes random event can undo the mental fabrications of human culture4. At the point where this powerlessness leaves the subjects in despair and the power of a viral object, as invisible as it is incomprehensible, becomes the mortification of an already weak ego, symbolization fails and thinking collapses.

With only a short delay, the world's population faces not only the real fear of contagion but also that of social decline in the troubled global economy. While the rulers in the centres of power in Berlin or Paris recently declared war on a viral enemy, it seems that the war metaphor and the rhetoric of the state of emergency have led seamlessly to both actual sabre-rattling and brutal economic clean-up operations in the wake of the great debt. The class antagonism, which incorrigible liberals thought was over, returns brutally with the insight that one's own survival is becoming increasingly precarious, together with an Enlightenment bound to the unreason of an absolute disposition over nature. The Covid-19 pandemic thus appears not only as possibly the first truly global expression of an ecological crisis, which could in principle call attention to the fragility of the social structure but may also be a harbinger of the climatic devastation that will unfold in our century. And, with the shocking images from Shanghai in mind, one might ask to what extent we have witnessed an image of the future, in which a militarised-illiberal approach to dealing with climatic horror became visible.

Can psychoanalysis help us reflect on the pandemic misery and formulate a thought that is more than just contemplative? The recourse to psychoanalysis would be superfluous if it were only a matter of stating the objective irrationality that has inscribed misery in the annals of world history. But because psychoanalysis is “the only [science] to seriously go into the subjective conditions of objective irrationality,”5 it finds words for phenomena that begin in the mental life of the subject. Searching for echoes of the experience of plagues in Freud's work, we encounter uncanny analogies to the present situation. The Freud family was struck several times by the Spanish flu, which ultimately killed the youngest daughter Sophie — almost exactly 100 years before the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. Freud remained silent; the pandemic perhaps drowned out by the mass deaths in the course of the First World War. In a letter to Sándor Ferenczi, he wrote about the death of his daughter: “Wafted away! Nothing to say.”6 He complained of a depressed mood, fatigue, fear of the “next winter, which is expected to be bad”, lamented about foreign travel being “unbearably bothersome”7, and noted the “undisguised brutality of our time.”8 Travel restrictions prevented him from visiting his sick daughter and attending her cremation: “For years I was prepared for the loss of my sons, now comes that of my daughter. […] Very deep within I perceive the feeling of a deep, insurmountable narcissistic insult”.9 Grief, Freud writes, will probably come later.

An almost unbroken silence on the question of plague characterises the psychoanalytic literature of the 20th century. It seems as if the subjective experience of the first psychoanalytic generation has been buried. Only under the sign of the HIV pandemic, with over 36 million deaths by 2021, do we find the first tentative psychoanalytic attempts to fathom the significance of the viral for subject and culture. Yet, significantly, the experiences of this last great pandemic are hardly reflected in current discussions. There may be various motives for this that cannot be explored here, but the presence of the viral may affect thinking itself. The generalising chaos and the persecutory but not clearly delineated qualities of external reality (including the virus itself) ultimately generate internal scenarios of psychic reality.

This text is based on a March 2022 presentation of the book Viral Attack on Fragile Subjects, which attempts to explore how pandemic reality affects the subject's psychic life and thus the ability to think.10 I can only hint at some basic considerations here. A systematic discussion of the failure of thinking in pandemic times, which becomes visible, for example, in conspiracy thinking and knowingness (Bescheidwissen), but also in the group-dynamics in which this failure is generalised, would depend on a different framework. My concern here is just to refer to some — as I think — potentially fruitful and sometimes surprising psychoanalytic perspectives and, in as comprehensible a form as possible, to some contemporary models and concepts associated with them.

In ‘We Unhappy Few’, Endnotes addressed the question of political groups and the production of theory using Wilfred R. Bions ‘theory of thinking’, along with its further development by other psychoanalysts who have gained insights into human thinking, especially in their work with psychotics. In the final part of my text, I take up Endnotes’ argument that theory, and to a certain extent the political group, can form “an apparatus for thinking the experience of life dominated by capital and the movement beyond”. In doing so, I hope to explicitly detach the rich body of so-called British object relations theory (with which Bion is associated) from a merely clinical application, to which the theory is often reduced today, and to apply it to the social field. It is likely that in the coming decades, we will be confronted with developments that will put immense demands on critical thought. The real confrontation with the affective sediment of the subjects, and the capacity to think the emotional experience that the state of the world will demand from them, is still pending as a collective, perhaps initially theoretical, but very soon also interventionist practice.

The Virus and the Limits of Nature's Mastery

The question of whether the immediate origin of SARS-CoV-2 was gain-of-function research in a lab or a more ordinary viral zoonosis in the wild may never be conclusively answered. Destructive pathogens do not encounter a passive society and its human bodies. Viruses, as well as bodies and society, have a history that is entangled with the developmental processes of late capitalism. The structural causes of epidemics must therefore be brought into the light. The biological events in the context of the pandemic are, I assume, mediated by the social forms of the capitalist mode of production, and can only be understood in their interconnectedness with social relations.11

With Covid-19, we are therefore not dealing with a natural catastrophe that has arbitrarily broken into society from the outside. So critical theory must decipher the interplay between pathogen and host society and release the epidemiological events from the reification that blinds us to the social practice that has prepared the breeding ground for the crisis. If one wants to psychoanalytically determine the significance of the viral for the subject, this can only succeed if the virus is understood as a product of human mastery of nature and thus identified as a product of both first and second nature. If Marx predicted an irreparable rupture in the metabolic process between man and nature under the conditions of capitalist economy, we must state today that this prognosis is coming true in our century: that the history of progress has crossed a final threshold and is now directly producing death.

Just as state interventions cannot address the roots of this metabolic rift and track down the driving forces of the ecological crisis, there seems to be little interest in identifying the structural driving forces behind infectious diseases. This is clear in the vivid representations, images, statistics and narratives of viral spread produced in the course of the pandemic, all of which make the infectious event appear primarily as a biomedical and thus natural process.12 The social driving forces behind the mutation and spread are largely overlooked.

Although the mastery of external nature is a necessity for a species and its culture, it is nolens volens only to be had at the price of the repressive conditioning of internal nature, where the suffering of the subject begins. Society, which does not determine itself but is increasingly determined by a part of itself that rises above it and is external to it, has produced a way of controlling nature that does not control itself. SARS-CoV-2 stands paradigmatically for this impossibility of mastering nature. The virus appears to man as a threatening external and first nature, that is, as something that has always existed and is therefore natural and external, not belonging to human nature. But this natural appearance would have to be demystified as pseudo-nature because the pandemic event makes visible and perceptible how man and nature are intertwined. On the one hand, humans are exposed to plagues and therefore experience feelings of powerlessness; on the other hand, there is the possibility of realising that they themselves could be the originators of these plagues. However, as a consequence, we do not have to choose either the optimistic side of mastery over nature or the side of enslavement to nature (Naturverfallenheit), where nature is fetishised as a normative guide to which human life would have to orient itself. Instead, nature should be understood as always already involved in the social process. At the same time, it should be emphasised that it retains a moment of unavailability, of resistance. This unavailability cannot be grasped positively but can only be experienced in moments of failure.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, in the face of an almost completely dominated nature, the question remains as to the mediating function of the virus: mediating because, I assume, the virus represents an extraordinary challenge for the psychic apparatus and thus reveals itself as a link between inner and outer nature.

The Viral Uncanny

However, the virus initially reveals itself as a supposedly alien intruder of external nature that intends to settle in the body of the host. Because the alien intruder can only exist, spread and become threatening through humans and their relationships, it is not only alien but at the same time familiar and part of themselves. Freud took up and further developed the concept of the uncanny for phenomena that are at once strange and familiar. According to his thesis, stirred emotions are transformed into fear through repression and henceforth remain hidden in the unconscious in an alienated way. If this fear reappears, it takes the form of uncanny experiences and ideas. The uncanny is thus something that has become alien to the subject because it was too close to him.

Just as the uncanny creeps into the ego insidiously, through stealth and deception, and triggers fear, the virus also nests in the human body — invisibly, secretly and in its infectious dynamic, often through contact with the familiar. The virus lurks in those close to us and in our relationship with them. SARS-CoV-2, a virus intitially alien to the human body, is an infectious entity that can exist and unfold its power of action exclusively in the host cell. The virus is thus, in a bizarre way, both alien and familiar at the same time. If Freud is correct that the uncanny arises when something appears at once frighteningly alien and all too familiar, if we are thus reminded of a repressed and forgotten aspect of ourselves, and if such unconscious content strives to appear in consciousness in a distorted way as a “return of the repressed”, then we must ask which repressed aspects of ourselves are now becoming conscious in the face of the pandemic.

The potential intrusion of the viral foreign body, which is as threatening as it is invisible, initially destabilises the sense of the body: we become aware that the boundaries of the body are permeable, that the body itself is inscrutable. The viral danger thus goes hand in hand with the perception of a loss of control over the body. It reminds us of the limits of what can be physically controlled and questions the stability and security of human boundaries: human and non-human, health and illness, inside and outside, ego and non-ego. Boundaries that were erected in the course of the formation of the subject become fragile in the face of the diffuse but immediate threat. One's own body is fragile, bodily control limited, mastery of nature limited, proximity to loved ones potentially dangerous, one's own life finite, and the ecological crisis associated with the pandemic partly our responsibility. These mostly unconscious contents, which until now have been repressed, become a threat to the ego in their proximity to consciousness and evoke fear because they are both alien and familiar at the same time. This return of the repressed can be so disturbing for the individual subjects, the feelings evoked can be so difficult to bear, that they mobilise defence mechanisms ranging from renewed repression to denial to splitting.

It can thus be observed that the virus calls into question what was thought to be certain, unambiguous and familiar, rendering our perception of the body, nature and relationships becomes precarious. It is significant, however, that it is the perception in consciousness that becomes precarious because the certainties about the body, nature and relationships only become these certainties in the course of subjective and cultural formation and through what psychoanalysis identifies as the process of repression. In the now unconscious core, they retain their difficult, impetuous and fragile nature.

At the same time, the technical-rational mastery of nature fails in the face of the virus. It makes visible the fact that man is sometimes exposed to illnesses that he does not know how to adequately prevent, treat and control: we thus become radically aware of our own powerlessness in the face of nature. Once familiar but now suppressed, nature returns and makes humanity encounter the uncomfortable reality that its transformation and excessive cultivation has produced an ecological crisis. But through the uncanny encounter, at least the possibility opens up of pausing before one's own reflection. From the body, to personal and social relationships, to the relationship between man and nature, something comes out of its rigid joints through the viral dynamic and becomes understandable in a different way.

Viral attack on the ego

While we have so far essentially followed in the footsteps of Freudian psychoanalysis, the following explanations are based on the theoretical models and clinical conceptualisations of British object relations theory.13 This psychoanalytic school, including figures such as Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion, began to emerge in the 1920s. In this school the object relation essentially describes the subject's relation to its world. On the surface, that relation is is not about the real relation to other persons or objects, as was still the case with Freud, but rather about the phantasised or imagined relations to human and non-hum an objects, which in their totality represent an object world in the sense of an unconscious phantasy. All psychic activity, including emotional perception (which is phantasised as concrete incorporation), and thoughts (which are experienced as objects), are thus based on phantasised object relations.

The assumption that all drive impulses are psychically represented in the unconscious phantasy extends the Freudian conception in the sense that the unconscious phantasies are no longer merely imagined gratifications of unsatisfied libidinous impulses, but also represent the destructive drives and dimensions of a failing reality with its frustrating objects. All physical and psychological experiences with either external reality or one's own libidinal drives are thus expressed as unconscious phantasies, which take the form of object relations and organise the personality structure.

The unconscious thus consists of relations between objects. An unconscious phantasy is the conviction of the activity of concretely felt 'inner' objects. The ego exists in relation to these objects, which, depending on how they are felt, are experienced either as good objects that trigger pleasurable feelings or as bad objects that trigger unpleasurable feelings and want to harm the subject.

Based on her clinical observations, Melanie Klein conceptualises early fears, unconscious Phantasy and the organisation of the inner object world through projection and introjection. She points out that infant life starts from an early paranoid-schizoid position and a depressive position, thus conceptually distinguishing herself from Freud, who conceives the child's development exclusively in phases. Although Klein assumes that the paranoid-schizoid position precedes the depressive position, she largely abandons the idea of clearly delineated libidinal-developmental phases over time. Instead, she increasingly focuses on these two psychic positions, which she describes as constellations of fears, defence formations, object relations, and drive impulses. These form in early childhood and represent early childhood modes of dealing with oneself and the outside world. However, they remain as organisational forms of the psyche throughout the entire life span. Early childhood does not form a fixed, enduring psychic structure, but rather the ability of the ego to switch back and forth between both positions.

The paranoid-schizoid position contains at its core a readiness to hate unpleasant stimuli, on the basis of which an early split takes place between the internalisation of good objects and the ejection of bad objects. This paranoid-tinged introjection and projection process represents an archetype of an aggressive object relation. It goes back to an originally normal defensive reaction against internal and external threats in the earliest stages of development, in which everything good seems to come from within through introjection, and everything bad is projectively expelled and experienced as external. The early object experience is initially a purely physical one: the persecuting bad object invades the ego and tries to overwhelm and destroy the idealised ego and the self. The resulting fear of annihilation forces the ego to fight for the cohesion of its psychic structure. This is fought out through mobilised defence formations such as projective identification and splitting.

In the course of socialisation, this primitive mechanism for dealing with inner and outer perceptions and the archaic fears behind them is mitigated in a somewhat humanly acceptable way but never completely overcome. If the subject succeeds in perceiving and enduring objects in a holistic way, it switches to the depressive position, which is a process of integration. The central fear is now of having damaged an object with one's own projective hatred, and the subject has to deal with a painful feeling of grief (which gives the depressive position its name). The object is now experienced and endured as a whole object with both good and bad parts, and — at the same time — the depressive fear of the loss of the beloved object must also be endured, and damages must be repaired. Because the two positions are never completely overcome, there is a constant alternation between the tendency towards integration and that towards disintegration over the entire life span. Especially in times of existential crisis, the probability of a regressive return to the paranoid-schizoid position increases, in which the unconscious belief prevails that one is safe through isolation, splitting off, externalisation, persecution and annihilation of the fear-inducing threat.

Because viruses penetrate the boundaries of the body, they challenge not only the clear division between ego and non-ego, inside and outside, but also between reality and Phantasy. The uncanny virus, which is all too familiar to the subject and therefore had to become alien to him, is consequently experienced as a hostile foreign body that occupies one's own body and, analogous to the paranoid-schizoid experience, threatens the ego first as an external, then as an internal, persecuting object. In object relations theory, inner objects refer to an unconscious experience or Phantasy that a concrete object is located inside the ego and thus also the body, and harbours its own motives and intentions towards the ego and other objects. According to this view, the viral foreign body is phantasmatically charged with meaning, becomes the object of the subject, yet remains an impossible phenomenon for the ego because of its viral nature since it can never be fully represented. The subject lacks a narrative for the viral as its meaning can never be fully comprehended or mastered: it remains invisible, intangible, without colour, smell or sound. It is there, but only immediately comprehensible through the perception of the global epidemic with images of inadequate health systems, millions of sick and dead people as well as measures that make one's own perishability, fragility, finiteness and mortality tangible for the subject on a global scale. As a traumatic, misunderstood residue, the uncanny viral object demands to be decoded; it must be integrated, inscribed and affectively translated so that it does not remain an incomprehensible horror. If this process fails, the ego is simultaneously confronted with an inner and outer persecutor. The viral object is then experienced in the psyche as an idea of an internalised but non-assimilated and deadly hostile object, which activates fears of persecution and annihilation in a paranoiac way.

Since the real fear of infection and illness is connected to the other due to the viral mode of transmission, the other appears highly ambivalent within the framework of the pandemic. Of particular importance for the psychic apparatus is that the early fear of destroying the good object by loving it is reactualised and reinforced by hygiene, control, and social distancing measures, thus creating the perception that the subject in contact with the other can itself become the bad object that infects and damages others.

If we assume that the pandemic is accompanied by a loss of control, the compulsive attempts with which the ego tries to cope with the difficult-to-contain emotional and libidinal impulses become understandable. The attempts at control that act as compulsive mechanisms, ranging from hoarding toilet paper to the Corona warning app, thus appear as a reaction to the impossible shape and quality of the virus itself, as well as the fear of infection and the virally produced and regressively released early fear situations and imagined objects. A persecutory chaotic perception arises because the ego is confronted with both an inner and an outer disorder. The compulsion to control thus represents, in the sense of a symptom formation, a self protective attempt to stabilise the threatened ego, counteract the psychotic dissolution of boundaries and contain the free-floating, diffuse anxiety.

Viral Attack on Linking

Object relations theory thus enables an understanding of SARS-CoV-2 as a viral object and is suitable for conceptualising the phantasmatic psychic reality under the impact of the pandemic. The concept of psychic positions also opens up the possibility of interpreting psychic modes of experience and reaction as movements towards the paranoid-schizoid or the depressive position. And if Freud shows that all subjects necessarily have neurotic parts, the object relations theorists point out that all subjects have psychotic parts of their personality from birth, which can emerge again and again in the course of their lives.

Whereas Freud was concerned with the ego and its conflictual confrontations with unconscious and external reality, the object relations theorists expanded Freud's work to include a large-scale 'geography' of inner objects, including their unconscious phantasies. They were increasingly interested not only in the meaning of specific psychic phenomena in the context of the inner and outer object world but also in the generation of thought and meaning. Starting from their work with psychotics, they, most notably Wilfred R. Bion, investigated human thought. They worked on the assumption that archaic forms of human thinking and feeling become visible in psychotic thinking, which is in principle also effective in non-psychotically ill people. The unconscious phantasy of the inner object world, the psychic positions and especially the projective and splitting defence mechanism are fundamental to this.

Bion developed two central models for understanding thinking processes. On the one hand, he examined thinking with the model of a psychosomatic digestive tract: unbearable, persecuting, structurally threatening, and therefore indigestible psychic contents must be excreted projectively from the inner object world as excremental, bad objects. Once excreted, they require an object that understandingly absorbs these contents and transforms them in the sense of a digestive process. If these contents have been detoxified to such an extent that the subject can reabsorb them, they can then, in the best case, be understood and endured. If this is the case, the contents are available for thinking.

The second model builds on the mental positions already presented: the back and forth movement between the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive position understood as the basis of thinking. In the paranoid-schizoid position, entities are broken up, distinctions are made, certainties are dissolved, the old and familiar are abandoned and incoherence dominates. In the depressive position, new things are put together and unknown experiences are opened up. The dissolving movement of thinking toward the paranoid-schizoid position is accompanied by catastrophic feelings of falling into pieces and persecuting fears of annihilation. If these feelings can be endured and a movement back to the depressive position is possible, a creative thinking process between coherence and incoherence emerges, where the old can be abandoned and the new can be thought and integrated. Accordingly, thinking always initially represents a threatening catastrophe for the subject. If this catastrophe can be endured, and if a continuous movement of thinking between the two positions takes place, a learning, knowing and understanding of reality occurs.

How can these models be applied to the pandemic situation? If SARS-CoV-2 has not only a biomedical but also a psychic meaning, i.e., if the virus can take possession of us not only physically but also psychically, we are doubly persecuted and threatened: both by an introjected bad object and by the viral threat in the external reality. The virus and with it the viral object is thus able to trigger sensations and emotions that, because they are not yet affectively comprehensible, are still without meaning for the subject. They therefore remain concrete, immediate and physical. This confrontation with intolerable psychic contents that are incompatible for the psychic apparatus is, I assume, necessarily accompanied by archaic fears of persecution and annihilation and the urge for projective excretion. The fears split off from the ego and projectively excreted are subsequently deposited in other objects of the external world and attacked with hatred towards the imaginary evil: The rage that reaches extremes and is no longer accessible to reflection, for example, against vaccination refusers, mask wearers, partying youths or virologists, testifies to this increased projection activity that only knows clearly bad and good objects and can no longer recognises ambivalences.

In principle, projection processes are active at every moment of life: we are all repeatedly confronted with the incomprehensible and the psychically threatening and are incessantly inclined to expel these impressions. The process of projective identification, thus a projection activity with the propensity to initiate an identificatory reaction in the subject into which something is projected, is therefore not initially a pathological process but a component of all communication. While normal projection activity aims to name psychic contents and make them bearable, the excessive psychotic externalisation of psychic contents aims for immediate relief. The specific problem that arises from the pandemic situation is, on the one hand, that the overwhelming reality in the face of the external threat from the virus and the internal threat from the viral object affects the thinking capacity of all subjects. Regarding dealing with a pandemic threat, there are hardly any subjective as well as collective emotional backgrounds of experience and thus hardly any objects that are available to the individual subject for an intersubjectively acquired understanding of the world situation. If in recent years, in the face of conspiracy thinking, knowingness14 (Bescheidwissen) and, most recently, the unmistakable rattling of the sabre, we have stated that the world has become increasingly chaotic and at times delusional. If we find ourselves in a mental chaos, then this indicates a consolidation of paranoid-schizoid states and the absence of an individual or collective thinking apparatus that is available to us to find a way of dealing with the overwhelming impressions of this world. However, if no suitable external object can be found for the ejected psychic contents, which absorbs these contents, endures them and transforms them into digestible contents that can be reabsorbed by the subject and used for its own thinking process, then the world appears more and more threatening, incomprehensible and thinking becomes psychotic.

If too many parts of the self are excreted with the psychically indigestible contents, not only does the paranoid-schizoid state solidify, but the ego functions are weakened further and further, and a loss of identity thus threatens the subject. To counteract this psychotic process, the fragile subject is dependent on objects that promise holding, safety, understanding and identity. It occasionally encounters conspiracy narrators in its search for these objects, who offer themselves as thinkers of the uncomprehended pandemic. The movement of Corona deniers thereby functions against the fragmentation of the ego and the loss of identity.

The pandemically reactivated primitive fears and conflicts acquired in early childhood can be kept halfway socially tolerable and latent in less crisis-ridden periods. But now, when these fears experience a dramatic potentiation, they overwhelm these mechanisms in some subjects. As a result, the pandemically generated real fear is combined with primitive fears. The subject, regressing under the pressure of the pandemic, returns under the emotional threat situation to primitive affective states of disorientation and helplessness, fears of dissolution, as well as felt existential dependence with early defence mechanisms of projective identification, idealisation, denial and splitting. Through the interplay of these defence mechanisms, ambivalent feelings and perceptions are split off in order to projectively externalise the indigestible affective contents: what destabilises the individual's psychological state and threatens to become a symptom now forms, as it were, a collective symptom in which the individual participates without suffering from it in an individual-pathological way. Freud describes this process as “spurious healing” (Schiefheilung). By this, he means that the subject apparently experiences some healing through relief by externalising conflicts and fears, but only at the price of compartmentalisation and an ever-increasing fear of reality. What used to be part of the self now appears in a paranoiac-alienated way in the other and must be fought with pathic vehemence.

In accordance with the paranoid-schizoid position, radical splitting processes dominate in forming large groups: reality is split into an unambiguously good and an absolutely evil part, whereby alternatively the alien, secret and sinister powers or even the personified libidinous (party people, rule breakers, vacationers) are stylized as enemies. Through excessive projection, the uncomprehended, tabooed or unbearable pleasurable or unpleasurable parts of the self are excreted, deposited in these enemies, persecuted and fought against.

If a pandemic is always also a mortification of one's own phantasies of omnipotence, and if this mortification is so severe that it leads to ego weakness, an exit strategy from the narcissistic crisis may be found through identification with leader figures who understand the subject, share his hatred, and pretend, as it were, to protect him from the impositions of our existence. Here the promise of salvation, of omnipotent strength and healing of the damaged inner and outer object world, typically remains bound to blind trust towards these figures. But the need to understand the world is only seemingly satisfied: the unbearable reality is eventually replaced by an alternative, fear- and hate-filled reality. If reality is psychically destroyed to a large extent, the core elements of the depressive position, i.e., the capacity for grief, concern, regret, doubt, and thoughtfulness, are enduringly repulsed. Omnipotence thus takes the place of thinking, and omniscience takes the place of learning through experience.

While some hope for an understanding provided by conspiracy thinkers, the overwhelming majority turns primarily to mouthpieces of science and the state. While trust in these institutions sometimes seems just as blind, a symbiotic dependence on behavioural instructions, numbers and statistics also becomes apparent in this case. The state actors of the crisis in particular, however, have so far hardly contributed to responding to the pandemic malaise in a non-repressive, understanding, mediating and transformative way. On the one hand, they stage themselves as crisis solvers who explain the state of threat to citizens, but their own failure is systematically split off and projectively excreted into the population. In this way, not only is a paternalistic-authoritarian mode of crisis resolution normalised, but also the rhetorical figure of personal responsibility is perversely positioned against the powerless subject. Such action not only denies the generation of meaning and understanding, but also blames individuals for individual and collective suffering. And such a way of acting ultimately fuels the exculpatory turn to conspiracy thinkers who, instead of assigning blame, promise a symbiotic fusion, omnipotence, and liberation from fear and guilt.

We were and to a certain extent still are all confronted with the imposition of not-knowing, for example, about the state of danger, the duration of the crisis, our own vulnerability, the virus, or the meaningfulness of measures. For the ability to think, however, this not-knowing only becomes a problem if, for example, the psychic sense of cohesion has been damaged to a considerable extent or if it has not been possible in the course of one's life to develop sufficient tolerance for frustration. If not-knowing cannot be tolerated, developing a state in which the subject does not want to know but omnipotently asserts knowledge is all the more likely. This claimed knowledge manifests in a space-filling knowingness, which denies the painful emptiness and the powerlessness of not-knowing. However, knowingness manifests itself not only in conspiracy thinking, which helps the subject to survive psychically by forming delusions. Knowingness also manifests itself whenever subjects engage in hobby virological assessments and try to establish prognoses and rules of behaviour for themselves, but especially for everyone else, with a patchwork of knowledge. I would like to refer to this form of knowledge as the panic of reason - as reasonable behaviour that wants to be so reasonable that it abandons the very essence of reason, namely weighing the pluses and minuses. When a rigid crackdown on the population or restrictions on basic rights is demanded, one's own thinking is willingly abandoned in favour of authoritarian rule. Characteristic of this phenomenon is a kind of virological worldview that views the social process of life only from the one-sided viewpoint of infectious events. Inherent in such a worldview is a scientific-technical reification of the virus and the dynamics of infection, which is reflected in the cold aesthetics of graphics, figures, modelling and maps.

The viral object, which is thus supposedly pinpointed, subsequently appears controllable. It can, under this illusion, be not only contained but destroyed by behavioural adjustments, state intervention, and technical achievements in external reality. If it is to prevail, such a perspective must inevitably come into conflict with the basic principles of democratically constituted societies. Initially, however, the longing for safety and control manifests itself in demands for tougher, more rigorous state action. Because these demands are hardly heard, rigid rules of behaviour soon dominate. Their non-compliance by others always produces culprits onto whom one's own feelings of guilt can be projected and then aggressively attacked. The subject thus knows precisely which measures are effective for the final elimination of the viral object; deviating views or references are immediately regarded as suspicious and are defended against with excessive vehemence. If the Corona deniers await the arrival of a leader who will relieve them of feelings of fear and guilt, the reason-panic know-it-alls thirst for scientocratic conditions, where even stepping out of one's own house becomes a dubious affair.

Common to both tendencies is a denial of reality. This reality consists of frustration and lack of knowledge, meaning, certainty or unambiguity. Only if this emptiness can be endured, if the not-knowing can be tolerated, can the thought that the pandemic forces upon us ultimately be thought. What separates hobby virologists and conspiracy mythmakers in this sense is just their current degree of intolerance towards reality.

Instead of the insight that the pandemic has created a situation that confronts the subject with the hitherto incomprehensible, such as perishability, finiteness, and powerlessness, an omnipotent assertion takes place. What is then avoided is an actual learning through experience, a thinking of thoughts that would diminish the sense of frustration. In this mode of not-wanting-to-know, the psychic performance of distinguishing between true and false no longer exists. Rather, the mental apparatus is determined by apodictic assertions about what is morally false or true. Consequently, reality is not merely denied instead of being confronted, but the phantasmatic psychic reality of the subject appears to be set at one with reality. If this phenomenon occurs regularly in psychotics, then even the knowing subjects operate in a paranoid-schizoid mode, where the inner object world, divided into good and bad objects, is misjudged as the reality of the external world. Under this view, the distinction between reason-panic knowingness and conspiracy thinking is no longer as easy as one might like. Thus, conspiracy thinking does not get along without excessive moralism, omnipotence and denial of reality, which replace the understanding and examination of reality: It is ultimately about superiority and inferiority, not about understanding and growth.

The viral object and the pandemic event can be understood from the perspective of object relations theory as a call to think, as a thought that has not yet been thought of and threatens to go beyond the existing framework. A wanting to know and a wanting to get to know the reality is present when we want to get to know the virus with all its implications that touches on the existential. But where the preoccupation with numbers and statistics or the repetition of the words of media-featured virologists reproduces or accumulates knowledge but denies the not-knowing, where the gap between the ego and the outside world is not given any meaning, even though knowing takes place, even a wanting to know better, a not-wanting to know dominates. A development of thinking is conditioned by an openness to new ideas that give meaning to new experiences and that do not correspond to the prevailing ideas. The prerequisite for this is a destructuring of existing theories and thoughts, an emotional and not only cognitive willingness to question whatever one believes one knows.

Thinking under (viral) fire

In a chaotic world where we are all under fire from constantly new and often unmanageable impressions, “thinking under fire”, as object relations theorists put it, becomes the central skill for surviving the assaults on the self and for preserving critical thinking. At stake is the difficulty of relating to a reality that has not yet been grasped while we are in a crisis of not-knowing. It is as if we are trying to take a picture of a bullet being fired while we are already being hit.

The pandemic has seen the familiar life - the inner as well as the outer object world - with all its habits, experiences, self-deceptions and certainties under fire by an invisible, intangible viral enemy. It threatens to engulf the subject and society in a regressive maelstrom. To think the psychotic-traumatic content of our present, we depend on a psychic thinking apparatus that can be used to understand not only the viral horror but the existential threat, be it pandemic, climate crisis, or impending world war. In the affective storms that accompany events like the pandemic or the war, where not only the usual suspects, (i.e., hyperventilating liberals and right-wing opportunists), but also people with some capacity of critical thought, are led astray by the significance of impressions, thinking is manifestly in distress. But in every affective storm, there is also a calm eye in the form of the depressive position. The path to the depressive position forms what object relations theorists call “negative capacity” in reference to the romantic poet John Keats. A capacity of the unconscious that serves to endure the gap, the not-knowing, and thereby provide an inner space in which what is not yet known can be thought. This also involves coming to terms with the feeling that we are on the verge of a psychic breakdown or a mental catastrophe mirroring the outer catastrophe but have the toughness to endure the ongoing experience of growth in thinking. If the thinking apparatus does not have or insufficiently has this negative capacity, then the nothingness cannot be endured, and the void is filled in desperate omnipotence with what is already known, asserted or delusionally phantasised.

The pandemic experience, at first chaotic, confusing, and meaningless, could take on meaning as experience by leading to critical reflection, debate, and openness to a reasonable establishment of social relations. However, when thinking becomes psychotic, not as a pathology but as an archaic mode of psychic functioning, this experience is replaced by hallucinations that organise themselves into a delusional narrative or a morally charged knowingness.

The negative capacity bridges to the depressive position through the hope that what is not understood can be understood at some point. It can be characterised by receptivity to other opinions, tolerance of uncertainty and doubt, and by allowing grief, powerlessness, and acts of reparation. However, the critique of social conditions also requires splitting, and with it the rage of the paranoid-schizoid position. Criticizable social reality is not a given thing that only needs to be interpreted. Rather, it is a process of becoming in which critique must passionately engage in order to penetrate reality. Critical thinking that enables action depends on processes of splitting. It is ideally supported by an attitude that oscillates between certainty and doubt, and thus runs the risk neither of despairing at the state of the world nor of lapsing into dogmatism.

In the course of the pandemic, we are confronted with experiences that threaten to lead our self-deceptions onto slippery ground: human omnipotence, the inviolability and infinity of life, the infallibility of factual belief and the absence of any societal alternatives are suddenly up for grabs. The chaotic situation that the pandemic at least promotes is characterised by the intertwining of existential fears, political loss of legitimacy, a crisis-ridden world economy and social unrest. The political administrators can no longer guarantee the stable functioning of the world economy to such an extent that substantial parts of their population can live without lack and in good health. Thus, as it were, it succeeds less and less in conveying a sense of security and hope to its subjects. This development is accompanied by the rise of populist demagogues who, skilled in the art of splitting and projection, fuel psychotic thinking.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the forces that reject (under right-wing populist auspices) a social approach to the crisis in the sense of the overwhelming majority have remained a noisy, if not harmless, minority. Even if the movement of Corona deniers is likely to subside as control over the infectious event increases, and even if right-wing consciousness is still confused and fragile, the psychic and social substrate from which the movement has outgrown remains. In the wake of the ecological crisis, it will re-enter the political arena in a similar composition and with comparable states of affect. I believe that both manifestations of pandemic thinking — conspiracy thinking as well as reason-panic knowingness — are now working their way through the acts of war in Ukraine and the impending world catastrophe. Without a new idea that organizationally and programmatically unfolds into a serious alternative to the status quo, the conformist rebellion will pick up speed and find a new flowering. On the other hand, the affective basis of this thinking, which demands partisanship in a hail of bullets and which can only understand the world with the aid of delusions, is constantly ready to attack its own in others. It should be understood not only historically and materialistically, but also psychoanalytically.

The affective furor of these authoritarian rebels has been caught for the time being in segments of society where, not least, the fear of economic damage from the measures to prevent infection is rife. The overwhelming majority of society, on the other hand, accepted the material reality of the pandemic, tried to protect itself and others and, especially in the spring of 2020, showed considerable altruism in a wide variety of initiatives. Mostly decidedly apolitical and committed to the simple principle of mutual aid, they hardly extended beyond the immediate neighborhood and disintegrated with the end of the first wave of infection.

Studies of human responses to catastrophic events such as earthquakes, fires, or terrorist attacks refute the common notion that disasters bring out the worst in human nature.15 Instead, hope and solidarity are observed in disaster communities. The ecological crisis, which is becoming pandemically visible around the globe and which reveals that the existing social normality is already the catastrophe, is not followed by famines, mass deaths, and a cutting and stabbing along social Darwinist lines as a matter of natural law. The question, then, would be how to dissolve social orders that make disasters so catastrophic, and how to normalise the hopeful behaviour that disasters evoke: how to outlast the single catastrophe and organise it as a conscious social practice.16

Hope and a solidary, caring action, meanwhile, require the existence of a thinking apparatus that is not shut off to a different way of thinking about disasters and that allows for reflection on the damaged life. Only in this way would it be possible to envisage means with which social life can be organised beyond the market and the wage relationship, and also beyond paternalistic care and short-sighted activism. If we currently state a kind of psychotisation of thinking, then it would have to be asked what, who and how a thinking apparatus can be provided to give meaning to the puzzling and meaningless world as a kind of assistive ego.

Critical theory and a movement willing to abolish the present state of affairs would have to form such an apparatus,17 asking how the expansive fear can be diminished and how an affective understanding of the world situation can become possible. The challenge here is that the climatic disaster, and the latent threat of a world war can hardly be understood affectively in terms of the damage that the subject and society could take in the process. The question arises — once again — how one can think about something whose effects are hardly imaginable.

Because the pandemic is not likely to be the last calamity of its kind, the current crisis rather reveals under the magnifying glass what is likely to grow into a comprehensive ecological crisis over the next decades in a temporally equalised way. Still, without a technical promise of salvation, the defence of thinking is so urgent. Where psychotic thinking becomes pandemic, there is a need for a thinking apparatus that can generate meaning, symbolise experience, provide space for thinking and dreaming, and anticipate the contours of another world. Critical theory should be about reflection, concern, scepticism, and the tolerance of not-knowing. But if it wants to help the Commune to achieve a breakthrough, it will have to be, as it were, angry, combative, hopeful, and sometimes unreasonably passionate.18