Re-imagining “America” in the Heart of the Pandemic

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Brown, Kevin. “Re-imagining ‘America’ in the Heart of the Pandemic.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2020,

Kevin Brown

University of Missouri

“America” (the imagined zeitgeist of the post-capitalist United States) has always been inscrutable, and the U.S. response to the COVID-19 world-wide pandemic is largely unintelligible, even when viewed from up close. Socially distanced, most of the unfolding events of the pandemic are viewed through various media windows, which often distort material realities. My own experience has largely been one of social isolation but continued health (knock on wood), as I continue to shelter in place with my family in the face of no other coherent strategy or intervention by the powers that be. Along with the rest of the world, I have watched the broadcasts of images of the hospital systems being overwhelmed in New York City, pervasive stories about health care workers who do not have the proper protective equipment to safely treat COVID patients, freezer trucks full of body bags with morgues overwhelmed, and drone-made images of mass graves being dug for people who have died whose families do not have means to pay for a proper funeral. There are occasions where the catastrophe has hit closer to home: my step-father relaying a story of a neighbor who attended a bridge game being wheeled off by paramedics in hazmat suits and never coming home; a story of a classmate from high school who passed away from a mysterious autoimmune disease (ostensibly, but maybe — or maybe not — COVID related); and I have heard countless stories from friends and family members who have lost their jobs. For the world outside my window, there are materialities that we must bear witness to, and contemplate ways in which change might be enacted out of the ruins of the pandemic.

From my position, as a middle-upper class white, cisgender male living in the middle of the Midwest United States in the mid-size city of Columbia, Missouri, I feel incredibly privileged. In mid-March, the President of the University of Missouri system where I work shut down the university and moved all classes online. I am one of the lucky ones: someone who still has a job and a nice place to live in a sparsely populated city that has been largely untouched by the disease (at least for now). One of the deeper lessons seems to be that the proximity to and the way in which one is affected by the crisis is inversely proportional to the degree of one’s privilege. When it started, some called Coronavirus the “rich people’s disease,” because of the way that it was being transmitted by people who travel globally and its initial prevalence in upper-scale neighborhoods that have at-risk populations, mostly among people who are both elderly and wealthy.

But as the spread of the virus has progressed, it can no longer be seen a just a rich people’s disease. There is a much higher probability of one catching and dying from the disease for people from lower socioeconomic classes, especially people whose living and/or working conditions are crowded. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous American people have been hit particularly hard. An uncanny dynamic has emerged, where a huge percentage of the population is unemployed, yet the U.S. stock market (with the help of corporate welfare liquidity being pumped into the economy from the U.S. Treasury) has continued to do relatively well because the people with the most money are the least affected. Yet even this phenomenon may soon change, as a recent economist predicted that the U.S. is like an airplane on autopilot that is flying for now, but in about six weeks will crash into the side of a mountain. It is a situation that may not be possible to clearly comprehend using standard logic; yet perhaps it might be possible to comprehend the vague outlines by applying political performance theory.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, French poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard made comparisons between Disneyland and America, writing: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation” (12). When read today, in the middle of a virtual turn brought on by the pandemic, the idea of America as simulacrum has never been more veracious. In order to understand what is happening in America today (if it is even possible to approach understanding) I would suggest watching one of two recent documentaries: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020), a documentary series released by Netflix about a man who remakes himself as “Joe Exotic” amidst a crumbling empire built on activity in the illegal cat trade; and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (2019) about Billy McFarland, a millennial entrepreneur who hyped an Instagram-ready music festival experience in the Bahamas that never fully materialized. Both of these make more sense to me than any of the current statistics — still rising in real time as of this writing. According to numbers published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (surely an undercount), as of 12 June 2020 the United States has the world’s largest number of reported cases — 2,016,027, and the largest number of deaths — 113,914 (CDC). That is over 25% of the number of deaths in the world, yet the United States has only 4.25% of the world population. These numbers are comforting to some as they try to make sense of the inexplicable numbers of dead, but statistics can also obscure the deeper, structural issues that are expressed by those numbers. This is only a moment in time, a snapshot. When viewed from up close — history, like America — is impossible to predict. Yet what is almost certain is that thousands more will die.

What the Tiger King, the Fyre Festival, Disneyland, and the United States have in common is a common ethos: an ethos that, in many ways, defines the cultural imaginary of “America.” It is an ethos that if one believes strongly in something, even if it is a lie, then it will become true. Both contain lessons about what happens when people put their faith in people who are pure charisma and no substance — all performance and no action. Both are examples of people who have learned to manipulate their media images to their advantage, at least for a while. Thus, what constitutes the “real” for many has become something as ephemeral as thoughts and prayers. But a virus cares little about non-material considerations, such as political party or ideology. Such a disease demands a response rooted in science and collective action based on empathy, not individual conceptions of “freedom” or profit. So, it continues to ravage the population despite whatever phantasmic presences are conjured. That is the situation that citizens of the United States currently find themselves in.

At the top, there is a failure if not complete abdication of leadership. At different times during the course of the pandemic, the leaders at the federal level have vacillated in approach, sometimes appearing to take the accumulation of deaths seriously, and at other times taking actions that actually have made matters worse. Amidst the nadir of a national strategy, local leaders have stepped up and put regulations in place that have stemmed the tide of the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the national leadership seems to have lost interest in even pretending that they want to do something to stop the spread of the disease, and thus it continues raging. They tell us we are economic soldiers in a pandemic war, and we must be ready to sacrifice ourselves to the gods of their false idols. The powers that be now seem focused on derisive issues such as using the pandemic to enact even more draconian immigration laws and as an excuse to push divisive, hot-button issues in order to fan the flames of the “Culture Wars.” The plague is unabated by the performance and rises like a wave in a churning ocean, cresting and washing over the masses.

Counter to this, a secondary force rises in the form of mass protests in the streets of American cities. The kind of protest also depends on positionality. “Anti-lockdown” protests early on were led by gun toting, mainly white, right-wing activists, organized through AstroTurf campaigns. More recently, the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis Minnesota has sparked massive protests against police violence, and have reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement. It would be mistake to think that these protests are only about one man in one American city. The protests are one of the instances where I have personally witnessed a local movement to material action. On 7 June 2020, over a thousand people took to the streets in peaceful protest, one of the largest political actions the city of Columbia, Missouri has ever seen (Jackson and Cowden). This is just the tip of the iceberg. These protests have grown in response to pervasive inequality that runs throughout many of the structural systems at play in the USA, in particular the growing economic gap between the haves and have nots, a bloated justice system now beholden to private prison systems, the failure of a private health system, and pervasive corruption in the U.S. government. The fish rots from the head, and it’s difficult to predict where this energy will go. With hope, the people of the United States will seize this opportunity to enact real, material change.

The Coronavirus crisis has exposed systems of inequality in a way that they have never been exposed before. In a touching essay, New York based writer/director Julio Vincent Gambuto mused that the pandemic: “[H]as given us is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves and our country in the plainest of views. At no other time, ever in our lives, have we gotten the opportunity to see what would happen if the world simply stopped” (Gambuto). Thus, to try to close on an optimistic note, we here in the United States are faced with a challenge, but also an opportunity. Gambuto implores us to use this opportunity to take a closer look at our values, and decide between what is important and what is not important. We must decide — what vital aspects of our culture will we conscientiously choose to re-enact, and what aspects of our culture are so toxic that they must be cast aside? This November, the citizens of the United States will vote for a new leader and new representatives. We have an opportunity to make change happen — not just in small, incremental steps — but in material, substantial, structural ways. But it will not be easy. The closing of Gambuto’s article is a warning about the coming “gaslighting” of America. He predicts that: “Business and government are about to band together to knock us unconscious again. It will be funded like no other operation in our lifetimes. It will be fast. It will be furious. And it will be overwhelming. The Great American Return to Normal is coming” (Gambuto).

This is where America is now. We are being told that if Americans can just believe strongly enough that the pandemic is over, and we repeat that lie enough times, then perhaps the virus will just “disappear.” But many of us are not buying the gaslighting. We are not ready to return to “normal.” We can see through the fog of war, and we know in our hearts that all of this is based on an understanding of power that is nothing more than a hollowed-out performance. Perhaps that is the crucial difference between performing and acting. We can no longer be satisfied with spectacular machinations that rhetorically condensate power. Instead we must become champions of a new political materiality where the phrase “Justice for All” really matters and crystalizes positive affect into people’s lives. We are fighting as hard as we can to RE-ACT — turning performance into action in order to re-make the imaginary of “America” into something better than the barren simulacrum we have been sold by a con man and his toadies. Give us a minute.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean.  Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan, 1994.

“Cases in the U.S.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Government. Accessed 12 June 2020.

Jackson, Adam and Teresa Cowden. “Huge turnout at Sunday’s Black Lives Matter protest.” Missourian. 7 June 2020. Accessed 20 June 2020.

Gambuto, Julio Vincent. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” Medium, 10 April 2020. Accessed 12 June 2020.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. Netflix, 2019.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Netflix, 2020.