Society for Sick Societies: Hold Your Breath

Society for Sick Societies is a diagnostic project. Built as a series of episodes, each one of its vignettes sets out to analyze an expressed symptom of a sick society–a practice, pattern, gesture, proverb, or technique that seems to encapsulate social malaise in pseudo or post-democratic societies. The triple S is critical theory’s first aid to a state of crisis, probing sickness as both real and symbolic, affecting the biological body, the social body, and the body politics. The series is edited by Laliv Melamed.

My pandemic pod of four has rented an apartment in Cape Cod for a restorative week of breathing sea air. We bring our bikes, but I forget my helmet and spend a good part of the week searching for one. On Monday my partner takes me to a store that advertises gear for a variety of activities that I tend to think of as White People Sports: surfing, diving, skating. This is unfair, I know, but county demographics (92.2% white according to the 2019 census) confirm my suspicions. They do have skate helmets, but the store is closed. Closed on Mondays. Peering up I see the store is called “Sickday.” The logo is a human stick figure bent over a toilet. The website offers clarification: over the anonymously buff silhouettes of a couple carrying surfboards into a misty ocean the tagline reads “Enjoy life. Take a SICKDAY.”

The message is ostensibly subversive: “Pretend you are sick and take the day off from work so you can play.” The image adds: “The ocean is a large playground.” Sickness is a caper, a ruse to outwit the boss. If time is measured in capitalist increments, by the working day and hour, sickness is idled, unproductive, personal time. (In collusive refrain the other bike store in town is called “Idle Time.”) Sickness is leisure: stolen time packaged and sold back as surfboards and bike helmets. Susan Sontag credits the Romantics with transforming sickness into a bourgeois aesthetic. “Sickness,” she writes, “was a way of making people ‘interesting’—which is how ‘romantic’ was originally defined” (30). The wan tubercular invalid, retiring to the mountains or seaside in pursuit of literary and creative convalescence, was among the first modern personalities. Invalidism individualized sickness, turning it from structure into style. The romance of convalescence is alive and well: a prosaic advertisement can sell the logic of the sick day (recover temporarily so that you can go back to work permanently) as something to be consumed, worn, and enjoyed.

When sickness is a prescription for health, should we not see it as a symptom of social malaise?

Guy Debord, writing in 1971, argues that the commodity-form is the source of malaise. Workers, he writes, understand fully that the general result of alienated work is sickness and death. This result is given to them “in all transparency to see—and breathe” in the chemical pollution of the air, water, space, bodies, and environment writ large—in the sick planet recreated as the milieu and motor of a “society that is ever more sick, but ever more powerful” (84; 81). That slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide have been the motors of alienated work, and that Black death is the disproportionate result of pollution, policy, and policing have been given in equal transparency to Black workers to see and breathe. The “emergency” paid sick leave newly granted to some US workers during the coronavirus pandemic cannot solve the permanent debilitation of racial capitalism. A sick day offers no protection from what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of the group-differentiated vulnerability to social death” (28).

To the contrary, the very notion of sickness as individual, acute, or temporary (“I’m taking a sick day”) rather than ongoing, systematic, and chronic, preserves its structural sources. Jacqueline Patterson, an NAACP officer, attested as much at a recent US House Subcommittee hearing on environmental justice amid the pandemic when she said: “racism [is] a through-line that imperils us at every turn, not just in extreme circumstance such as disasters, but merely when we are walking in a park, making a purchase in the store, jogging down the street, sleeping in a dorm hallway, sleeping in our own bedroom in our own homes, or just breathing air.”

Patterson could have reached for a metaphor that many others have when speaking out about the combined tolls of coronavirus and policing on Black lives amid the breathtaking mismanagement of life-sustaining resources such as food, healthcare, education, housing, recreation, and jobs: Racism is a disease. Capitalism is the pandemic. Permutations abound: George Floyd’s death is the symptom of a disease. The police are infected with the virus of racism. We are living in a racism pandemic. Doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but Black people will continue to wait for a cure for racism. Diagnostic and prognostic declarations have issued from all corners—lawmakers, physicians, psychologists, Black and Indigenous activists, organizers, and cultural critics. Many come with treatment plans and cures for the people and institutions experiencing the disease: reforms to policing and the criminal justice system. Anti-bias training for doctors, cops, deans, and executives. A twelve-step program for addicts to racism. A pill that lowers prejudice. That several of these pronouncements emerged alongside a wave of corporate statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter already marks, for some, their limited social vision. But this limitation of social vision is also powerfully shaped by the metaphorical constraint of sickness understood as breakdown—as pathology, defect, deviation, interruption, or aberration—rather than the idled surplus of a system working exactly as intended.

Chronically ill and disabled people—those who know that illness and disability can cause each other—understand that sickness is not an interruption of capitalist productivity but its “condition and product” (17). This is, in fact, the thesis of a 1970 manifesto by the Socialists Patients’ Collective (SPK), a group of patients at a psychiatric facility in Heidelberg Germany who viewed illness as a source of revolutionary productive power. A number of disability justice activists and scholars have since noted that it is only under capitalism that illness and disability—experiences that can forge resilience, community, ingenuity, and knowledge—become grounds for exclusion from social and economic life. The pervasive use of sickness and disability as metaphors for what is broken, defective, or in need of fixing constrains us all: it takes away from our capacity to envision and create truly sustaining social structures, and it takes away from those who are ill and disabled the capacity to inhabit their experiences and bodyminds in empowered ways (11; 142; 189).

In an essay describing how the medicalization of her autoimmune disorder not only disabled but idled her, Carolyn Lazard explains that impairment alone is not disabling:

Impairment is an illness, injury, or congenital condition that causes loss of ability or partial ability to function. Disability, in contrast, signifies a particular relation to one’s environment. Disability is the reflection of barriers that prevent people with impairments from participating in society. For example, when I have difficulty walking, it is a physical impairment. I am disabled not by my physical impairment, but by the fact that many buildings don’t have ramps or elevators.

Sick and unemployed, reading Sontag and SPK in bed, Lazard describes feelings of guilt over her inability to work, and the paradox of longing for wellness and productivity amid the sickening realization that they would be the death of her. SPK come to a similar conclusion: “To be healthy,” they write, “means to be expropriated and exploitable” (15).

Like disability, sickness can be a portal to “a place of freedom,” in Sunaura Taylor’s words, “from the continual work our society demands of us to be ‘normal’” (136). The place of freedom—of crip space and time—is a place of work: the exhausting but also life-affirming work of generating alternative values of mutual care, interdependence, personal connection, and solidarity in defiance of the values of “efficiency, progress, independence, and rationality” that debilitate and disable human and nonhuman lives in the name of the norm (145; 136). This freedom work, as Taylor, Lazard, Eli Clare, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and so many others have testified, is harder still because relief from suffering is often desired by the sufferer more than anything else.

This is why cure is so fraught. “Cure always operates,” Clare writes, “in relationship to violence,” because it is at core an ideology centered on the eradication and normalization of disabled bodyminds (15; 28). Clare is referring to cure not as relief from suffering but as an imaginary that understands sickness and health only in individual and medical terms. Disability justice teaches us that cure as imaginary can narrow the portal. It also teaches us that care has, for generations and centuries, meant being locked up. That the true function of hospitals, group homes, and sanatoriums—which, like prisons, have historically served as warehouses for surplus populations—is not to enable those who are ill, injured, or impaired to participate as full agents in society but to manage, contain, and domesticate the insurgent power of the sickness endemic to racial capitalism.

Sickness as diagnostic and prognostic metaphor can work in one of two ways: it can obscure the structures that hold insurgent sickness in abeyance or it can clarify those structures. The distinction is the difference between the suffocation of Black life and its protest, both of which have relied on the figurative deployment of sickness. The charging document for Derek Chauvin, based on a preliminary autopsy report by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, attributed George Floyd’s death not to lynching by another name—traumatic asphyxia or strangulation, as an independent coroner would later confirm—but to “the combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions, and any potential intoxicants in his system.” The deployment of sickness to deflect agency from perpetrator to victim is a classic feature of what Patricia Williams calls “the trope of black bodies killing themselves.” Like “suicide by cop,” the diagnosis reserved for people with mental disabilities murdered by police, “co-morbidities” makes the sickened responsible for their predicament as well as its solution: eradicate (the behavior or trait resulting in death) or be eradicated. When sickness is made individual and medical, as opposed to collective and structural, our capacity to envision solutions is limited, violently, to cure.

No wonder then that “I can’t breathe” has become the protest of the sickened trapped in a seeming Möbius strip of sickness and cure. The mobilizing capacity of “I can’t breathe” has been attributed to its motility as a metaphor. “‘I can’t breathe’ makes us cringe in sorrow, induces frightening political constrictions, yet doubles also as coronavirus’s power to make its victims literally gasp for breath,” writes Williams. For Achille Mbembe, “I can’t breathe” is a rallying cry for war against “everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression,” one that points to “that which we hold in-common…the universal right to breathe.” I want to affirm these critiques of the structures that sicken and damage all kinds of bodies without turning sickness into a symbol of constriction, suffocation, oppression, and sorrow—into a metaphor for life interrupted.

Sickness is coming. Whether or not we want it to be the case, sickness is coming—for those of us for whom it hasn’t already arrived, for some of us faster than others, but for all of us, surely and unavoidably—in the form of debilitating complications, chronic illnesses, and disabilities from the criminal mismanagement of COVID-19. We need to learn to inhabit sickness, to glimpse its portal, without turning our protest into the cause of our own suffocation. This is the lesson of the sick day. To build from there we need to ask ourselves a version of the question posed by Robert McRuer—“What might it mean to welcome the disability to come, to desire it?” (207)—using the formulation Nirmala Erevelles has offered: within what social conditions might we welcome the sickness to come, to desire it? (29).

The question contains another: what if sickness rather than health—the capacity to hold our breath, to build our social capacity and redirect our energy, rather than the right to breathe—is what we hold in common, the source of our revolutionary productive power? And another: What lessons can we learn from those who have inhabited the hold, who have been containerized and warehoused in ships, prisons, hospitals, and sanatoriums—from those who have had to create the social conditions of care in an uninhabitable world? Sickness and disability, McRuer and Erevelles suggest, can be desirable metaphors for the community to come, on the condition that we create the conditions to endure and thrive in sickness. Conditions where, in Piepzna-Samarasinha’s words, “people feel fine if they get sick, cry, have needs, start late because the bus broke down, move slower, ones where there’s food at meetings, people work from home…from our sickbeds, our kid beds, or our too-crazy-to-go-out-today beds” (108) Those who have been working to create these conditions and communities of collective care, over “years of relationship building and building trust, from fucking up, making repair, learning from mistakes, and showing up for each other,” have invited us to realize that we are and will be them (127; 129). Let’s not waste any more breath on suffocating metaphors of sickness, there is freedom work to be done.

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Pooja Rangan

Pooja Rangan is author of Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (2017) and an associate professor of English in Film and Media Studies at Amherst College. She is a 2020-21 ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellow at the Center for Media, Culture, and History at NYU.