Metaphors (Denkbilder) and storytelling can be instruments for thinking about the future. This is what cultural critic Elisabeth Bronfen suggests. In the first months of the Covid pandemic, she wrote a book about how fiction could have prepared us for the crisis, and why we were still not prepared anyway.
Your book begins with a personal speculation: the pandemic could offer the opportunity to think about the future, not (only) on the basis of measurable calculations but also, rather, in the sense of thinking about what is possible. Why do you consider fiction to have such an important role in this regard?
Elisabeth Bronfen: There is no doubt that measurable facts are important for describing the world and understanding the past. But when it comes to orienting ourselves in an uncertain situation, it also helps if we can imagine things that go beyond this measurable and verifiable information. The decisive thing about fiction is this question of “What would it be like if…” or “How could it also be different?”, so the question of as-if, what is possible, not absolutely certain, and which has the potential to unfold. This space of the potential, of the possible, of trying things out is, for me, very much connected with curiosity. This space is the space of fiction. It is a place where things can be explored and many things can be elaborated because within this space there are not yet any concrete consequences. Fiction is a space for playing things through, for experimentation and exploration. Fiction is, of course, wonderful in itself, but it seems to me to be particularly useful in transitional periods or crises. Transitional periods are periods of risk in which it is often not possible to see exactly how they came about and where they are leading.
So you see fiction as a complementary form of knowledge alongside fact-based knowledge?
Yes, but I would like to stress that I am not interested in pitting fiction against fact. Verifiable information is important. For me, it’s a matter of what is additionally required to understand things or gain orientation. This has a lot to do with imagination in the sense of philosophy. Without this ability, we cannot imagine possibilities that have not yet occurred. This is why fiction, from my point of view, is so crucial: it is a place where the possible, the still uncertain, becomes imaginable. Fiction therefore also extends the possibilities for orienting ourselves in the real world.
At least as a thought experiment, a film like Contagion by Steven Soderbergh could have prepared us.
In your book, you also explore the question of why we did not take early measures to prepare for the pandemic as we could have guessed what was coming.
Yes, exactly. There are many novels and fictional texts about epidemics. People could have definitely imagined what was coming, but they did not want to. That is why fiction is so important to me as a place where we can imagine something that is not yet certain and does not necessarily have to happen, but could happen. At least as a thought experiment, a film like Contagion by Steven Soderbergh could have prepared us.
Actually, in the case of the Corona pandemic, facts were already known from Asia before the pandemic arrived here. So we would not even have needed imagination to realise what awaited. However, factual knowledge apparently did not have this effect.
No, and that does not only apply to this case. The statement “we could have known” appears in all pandemic stories and also in all political crises. As a cultural critic, of course I ask myself: why didn’t we know? This inevitably brings us to the question of storytelling. In English we say “to connect the dots”: the dots are there, but we have to connect them somehow. The way we connect the dots is linked with the stories we want to tell. This is related to the theme of the narrative. If we talk about changing the narrative, it is about making a selection from the vast amount of available information. We cannot talk about all the dots, we have to pick certain ones and make connecting lines. That is ultimately what stories do.
People are always smarter afterwards, but we are only smarter afterwards because we know the consequences.
So in the case of the pandemic, people saw the dots but did not want to connect them?
You could say that. The dots would have been there, but people did not want to put together the narrative that would have helped us orient ourselves – not beforehand and not at the beginning of the pandemic. People are always smarter afterwards, but we are only smarter afterwards because we know the consequences.
By the way, what I am saying here about epidemics also applies in a very similar way to wars. We could examine previous wars or stories about wars and wonder what might be repeated. This is where the concept of speculation comes into play for me. I am referring to the American philosopher of science Donna Haraway and the way she plays with the two letters s/f. These stand for “science fiction”, but also for “science fabulation”, “speculative fabulation”, “speculative feminism”1 and much more – all the way up to “so far”. This intellectual speculation makes it possible to think through different options in relation to what has already happened. Speculation makes possible actions visible and opens up possibilities for how a story could also have a different ending.
With your pandemic book, you have done just that: connect the dots. In it you use many warlike metaphors with reference to literature and film on pandemics. How do you explain that something which is, actually, a medical fact is told in such a martial way?
If we look at books on pandemics or on diseases, we usually encounter two major stories. There are many more, but I’ll pick out two of the most common here. One story is the religious one. This is always connected with guilt, sacrifice, retribution and punishment. The second is actually a martial story. I think this has to do with the fact that every form of pandemic, every form of disease is experienced as an attack. The sick bodies, for their part, mean an attack on the community. While people are in a supposedly peaceful state, they are suddenly attacked and have to defend themselves. They have to mobilise their defences, as is also said in the field of medicine, to strengthen themselves. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that war images are used in connection with pandemics.
The war images allow us to comprehend something that cannot be grasped, to make it possible to grasp intellectually and emotionally.
To what extent do you also see these mechanisms at work in the Corona pandemic?
One wave follows the next; we are in a prolonged siege, so to speak. New variants of viruses are constantly emerging, spreading in our bodies and among ourselves, which is why we have to fight them over and over again. What was not threatened before the pandemic is suddenly threatened. The war metaphor was also meaningful for another reason: it enables clear positions to be defined. In war, you are either friend or foe. The virus is our enemy. We can join forces to fight against it, although there are always people who do not join in with the fight and, for example, deny the existence of the virus or do not want to take any protective measures. The war images allow us to comprehend something that cannot be grasped, to make it possible to grasp intellectually and emotionally.
I am not saying that a viral pandemic is a war. But war images are useful metaphors (Denkbilder) for understanding the situation we are in and how best to behave – up to and including the lockdown which, although not imposed here in Switzerland, was imposed in France and Germany. This way of thinking using war images is part of our culture, not only Western culture. The founding myths of very many cultures contain stories of fights: gods fight each other, gods fight against titans and so on. In this way, structuring or defending orders can be reduced to images that can always be fallen back on.
In your book you mention that during the pandemic interest in vampire literature and zombie films increased. Why is that?
Not all vampire stories are pandemic stories, but some of the most famous ones are. Nosferatu, for example. Five years ago hardly anyone would have noticed, but now people have suddenly seen this story in a different way. When we watch the vampire brazenly travelling from one place to another by ship, it can be immediately compared with people getting on a plane – an airship, as the plane used to be called – in Wuhan and coming here and spreading evil. This movement of the infection from a distant location to us is always important in epidemic stories.
Some of these films therefore tell a story that we ourselves have experienced. The epidemic always comes from outside. It is brought in to us, is invisible at first and can only be recognised by the consequences.
In addition to war metaphors, you identify another metaphor (Denkbild) in the pandemic stories, that of transformation: the infected people transform into monsters that are sometimes killed, but can also turn into the enemy. Do you also see the theme of transformation in Corona?
The epidemic comes from somewhere else and, at first, can be seen only indirectly. In the vampire stories, these are the little bites on the neck. The idea that the bodies could be contagious is found in the vampire stories with the people who have been bitten, are not yet real vampires but could become one.
We see the consequences of Corona in people who cough or lose their sense of smell and taste. If you fall ill and lie in bed for three weeks, sweating, not quite in your right mind, then you can certainly speak of a transformed body.
At the level of storytelling, I see an analogy here that makes it possible to understand something. This expresses something quite archaic: the person who was still sitting there being friendly yesterday, someone I could embrace, is suddenly someone else. The person is potentially dangerous for me because they could infect me. How do I explain that to myself? For thousands of years, superstition has provided a wide range of images for this purpose. The body that is no longer the same as before can maybe be healed with the right herbs and magic remedies. In our mythopoetic way of thinking, we have numerous rituals to protect ourselves from the danger posed by the transformed other person.
So that would explain why it made sense to resort to vampires and zombies in the pandemic. But what function do these films fulfil? Why did many people take an interest in these kinds of stories?
When I suggested the comparison “viruses are like zombies”, a lot of people went along with it. Why? In situations of uncertainty, of doubt, we like to turn to excessive stories. A year and a half after the outbreak of the pandemic, we still know little about Covid-19. We have a vague idea of this virus, then a new variant appears and everything changes again. It is precisely in these situations, where we cannot grasp something and we ourselves are in a state of uncertainty, that we like to turn to big, dramatic stories where it is clear who the evil-doer is: a vampire, a zombie, a serial killer. These are exculpation stories, stories that offer relief of some sort.
Vampire stories are quite far removed from our reality, however
Yes, these are stories that have nothing to do with our daily lives. In contrast to the clear world of these stories, in reality we know many people who have fallen ill even though they have worn masks and protected themselves. Here the world of fiction offers clarifications. That is why the place of fiction is so useful. There are clear positions and heroes who always survive. When we read fiction, we are, of course, the survivors ourselves. There is also usually an arc leading up to the resolution: eventually the killer is caught, the world is saved just in time, the zombies are wiped out. These stories are “survival tales”. I think we do not only want to know that we will survive. We also want these stories because they show heroic deeds. People take action, defend themselves, have a strategy. Those who do not do it correctly right will have to be sacrificed, which then gives confidence to those who survive. These are the key components explaining why these dramatic stories resonated during the pandemic. They provided distraction and reassurance.
You say the vampires and zombies will be defeated in the end. But there are also many stories where the undead survive.
Since you mention the undead: I think that is something very crucial. The pandemic is never over. It can be contained to the point where it lies dormant again, as is the case with the wonderful ending of Camus’ The Plague. While all the other people are dancing in the street, the narrator, the doctor, says: well, what people don’t understand is that the plague has retreated like an army and is now sitting underground. It has infiltrated suitcases and clothes and will come back again at some point. So it never stops. In this sense, viruses are actually undead because they cannot be wiped out.
These pandemic stories must be understood as stories that people tell themselves in order to continue living.
I have noted down another quote from your book: “The virus is not a story, it reveals no truth. Rather, it highlights the limits of our knowledge in the face of a virological unknown.” (p. 128). By telling stories, we want to dispel uncertainty and keep unwelcome knowledge away. But as you show with many examples, there is also a desire for meaning in storytelling. Fiction is therefore both a form of knowledge and also an instrument of repression, and at the same time it can act as a protective spell. How does that fit together?
I don’t know whether we can speak of knowledge or rather only of premises in the sense of psychoanalysis. For me, a concept that is very important for Freud plays a major role here: illusion or deception – and therefore disillusionment, so the abandonment of an illusion.
These pandemic stories must be understood as stories that people tell themselves in order to continue living. The point is not that we all have to give up on our illusions and self-deceptions or self-lies with which we shape our lives to make it work for us. It is only a matter of recognising the deceptions. Sometimes we even fall ill because of the stories we tell ourselves. This is the psychoanalytical concept of the symptom. Symptoms are crutches. An urge for disillusionment, for absolute sobriety and the realisation of what the world would be like in its truest physical and psychological certainty – our bodies are transient, we are damaged, we are all going to die, we can never know everything – this makes us terribly unhappy. So it is about keeping a balance between telling ourselves stories and orienting ourselves to stories. Hence our love for stars, art, any form of distraction. And at the same time there is the need for disenchantment, for waking up again. That was also what interested me so much about the book Night Passages (cf. Bronfen 2008). We have to go into the night because only there can we experience, or think we experience, these different things. But we also have to wake up again.
So I am not at all trying to say that verifiable facts do not exist. What I want to say is that there is more than facts. My own educational interest is that people should realise what they are doing. If we tell stories about the virus that give it meaning and allow us to take a stance regarding the pandemic, to think about our own responsibility or to take responsibility towards others, then that is good. It helps us to live, to act, to reflect.
We need meaning in order to live well.
Yet the virus is not a story and does not reveal any truth?
No. It is very important to understand that the virus is not human. It actually has nothing to do with me, it is not an enemy agent, it has no consciousness, it is completely indifferent to me. I think about the virus in my anthropocentric human categories. It is arrogant to believe that my self-understanding, my language, my knowledge, my consciousness can be transferred to everything. There are matters and living beings that have a completely different way of being, of existing and acting. That is why it is so important for me to state matter-of-factly that the virus is not a story.
We can project ourselves onto this virus and see a mirror into ourselves in it. We can see what we want in it. In it I found stillness, pause, reflection, warning. We can do all that, but we have to know that they are our projections. We acquire this. It is not in the virus itself. Recognising what we do when we tell ourselves stories is very important from my point of view. It means that we could also potentially say: this is a bad story. A possible story, but not a particularly good one. We could also tell the story differently and therefore bring about a change of consciousness. Incidentally, this has always been the point of feminist intervention in the dominant discourses.
So the desire for meaning is quite crucial. We need meaning in order to live well. Without illusions, we cannot orient ourselves and make the most of our own possibilities. Presumably, without illusions, we cannot plan for the future and therefore cannot develop meaningfully.
You mention another function of stories. These can serve to keep unwelcome knowledge away and to delude ourselves into thinking that we have absolute control over our lives.
Yes, in such moments we should say to ourselves: I know that this is only a story that I am telling myself. Instead of saying that I have everything under control, I could tell myself that we are all part of a structure in which sometimes I have more control, and sometimes it is someone else, so I therefore don’t always have to be in control of everything, but also have to accept a subordinate role to some extent. This idea is also the basis of Donna Haraway’s approach.
From cinema, theatre and literature, we know another story besides the control fantasy: I can die with the hero and stay alive at the same time. So I can tell myself that I am dying and yet not die.
That is a very crucial point: the joy of surviving, of still being there when the other person is dead. Elias Canetti describes this in “Crowds and Power”. Freud describes something very similar in his thoughts on war and death. In literature, we are all-powerful. We can fight giants, monsters, we will always survive. When someone dies, we die with them. But at the same time we survive because we are the readers. This is why I call these stories “survival tales”, stories of survivors. Someone is telling someone else the story. Even if at the end of a disaster story all the people seem to be dead, for example in Mary Shelley’s novel, one – or actually two – survive.
The narrator and the reader
Yes, the person to whom the text is narrated. That is the implicit bet of these books. That is why they are so reassuring, I think.
In your book you emphasise the human need to tell stories. At the same time, you complain about a lack of imagination, for example in political discourse. Now we have to learn imagination. What role do you see for educational institutions? As a professor, you yourself work in an educational institution.
I emphasise the lack of imagination partly because in 2001 and 2002 I was very interested in the “9/11 Commission Report”. At that time, a commission was set up to review everything that had gone wrong on 11 September 2001. The main accusation of the commission – which consisted of politicians, lawyers and judges – was “lack of imagination”. In the run-up to 11 September 2001, people did not have the imagination to grasp what it might mean if someone from Virginia called and said “we have people here who want to learn to fly but are only interested in how to get in the air, not how to get back down”.
Imagination needs to be practised and this also includes educational institutions.
So educational institutions should promote imagination?
Imagination needs to be practised and this also includes educational institutions. These should place more emphasis on exploring ideas, trying out possibilities or a different consciousness, other realities. This is, in fact, a political issue at the moment. Universities, for example, are heading in the opposite direction. Quantifiable, verifiable knowledge that can be tested and ticked off in exams is gaining in importance, with all nuances being lost.
But there are counterweights to the tendency to test measurable knowledge. For example, it can be seen that creative writing is becoming more and more popular. It is used in a wide variety of places, from medicine and business to end-of-life care. In psychology, creative writing is used in the form of narrative therapies, in business as a form of problem solving. Adult education should also promote imagination. For example, it can offer more literature courses and promote reading groups.
For myself, art is the most important place of imagination, whether painting, literature, theatre or cinema.
Back to your book “Angesteckt”. You wrote the book from May to June 2020, a few months after the outbreak of the pandemic. It ends with a series of questions and with the hope that the pandemic could be a time of pause, deeper reflection and a critique of capitalism. How do you see it now, one year later: were new stories told in the pandemic that stimulate deeper reflection and open up new possibilities?
If we look at the current films, especially by younger film makers, I would say that they are predominantly serious, critical films based on strong cultural discontent. We will only gradually be able to read what is now emerging in literature.
But I also have to say that I wrote the book “Angesteckt” as a kind of diary. When it was finished, I deliberately decided to not revise it extensively because I did not want to remove this crazy uncertainty that existed at the beginning of March. In those months, the world really did seem to come to a standstill. I saw this standstill as an opportunity for in-depth reflection.
However, my optimism at the time that people would learn something from the pandemic has since faded away. We have learned very little from the pandemic. As far as the environment is concerned, the awareness was already there before. A different attitude towards mortality has not come about. The initial solidarity has also faded away. But narcissism is back. For example, many see their holidays as a basic right and no longer want to be told what to do.
So you can’t see any signs of a cultural transformation?
No, I do not sense a basic cultural transformation, quite the opposite, in fact. I actually have the impression that the pandemic itself could become a distraction from the much bigger problems. The constant talk about Covid-19 – to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, to wear a mask or not, how much distance is needed – stops us taking a closer look at the much bigger problems, first and foremost climate change.
But do you see any metaphors (Denkbilder) that could offer orientation or prospects for the future?
I think many younger people have realised that the world we live in is a very precarious one. Things we were sure about have become uncertain. Now this is thought from our position of prosperity. Compared to some other parts of the world, we still see ourselves as privileged, including with regard to the climate. While we are talking about the change in weather, elsewhere people are already facing the problem of having no water. However, being aware of a privilege now also means being aware that this privilege could be taken away from us. It is, after all, only a privilege.
When participation and diversity become central public issues, as is now the case, we could have hoped that culture would open up. But I am not convinced of that. How a fundamental change would be possible, I don’t know. I’m putting my hope in young people. It is their world, so they have to shape it. I think they are aware of that.
Elisabeth Bronfen (2020): Angesteckt. Zeitgemässes über Pandemie und Kultur. Basel: Echtzeit
Elisabeth Bronfen (2013): Night Passages. Philosophy. Literatur. And Film. New York: Columbia University Press.
Donna J. Haraway (2016): Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press