Naomi Richman examines the language, metaphors and imagery that our minds attach to the ‘invisible enemy’ that is coronavirus.
Governments around the world have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic by retrieving wartime rhetoric and policies. The outdated and rather overworked language of military warfare has us talking of a ‘battle’ in which we will be ‘victorious’ against our ‘enemy’; our experts are ‘generals’, our soldiers on the ‘frontline’ are key workers suffering from ‘shell-shock’, NHS volunteers have been conscripted to an ‘army’, whilst the rest of us on the ‘Home front’ develop creative ways to make do.
Unlike in a regular war, however, the ‘enemy’ we confront is an invisible one – it has no face, no ideology, and no intentionality. A virus not only lacks a consciousness but scientists remain divided as to whether it can be said to be alive, at all. It has a singular drive, to reproduce, but to ascribe a ‘motive’ to this basic propulsion to survive seems like a rather strange choice of words. So unless we, or those close to us have tested positive for the disease, the experiences we have of the virus largely emerge from observations we make about changes to our social and economic worlds, rather than anything we can actually see with our own eyes, or hear with our own ears. As a result, it is the image of a spiky ball that has come to symbolically and visually represent the kind of existential anxiety the pandemic has produced – our collective, unseen, and minute adversary. But it is all too easy to forget that this image is an algorithmic computer generation, rather than an actual photograph.
For most of us, then, a great deal of what furnishes our internal experience of the virus is constituted through the exercise of the imagination. Our minds latch onto the images and wartime metaphors circulated in the news and on social media, which come to powerfully shape our experience, mentally and also physically, of the pandemic itself. In other words, the spiky ball appears in the news, and a lump forms in my throat. Another reference is made to war, and my skin starts to crawl. How and why do these images and metaphors illicit such a profound and visceral response?
According to the cognitive scientist George Lakoff, it is in fact in our very ‘bodily experience’ that we find the ‘primal basis for everything we can mean, think, know and communicate’. Lakoff’s work on embodied cognition has contributed significantly to our understanding of the ways in which in times of crisis, ‘our systems of metaphorical thought, interacting with our mirror neuron systems, turn external literal horrors into felt metaphorical horrors’. Writing in the aftermath of 9/11, Lakoff observed that in these kinds of conditions, ‘we are not consciously aware of the metaphorical images, but they are part of the power and the horror we experience when we see them’. On one level, it is plain to see that the Twin Towers symbolically represented phallic power, so their destruction produces a sense of impotence. But Lakoff’s analysis takes us further than this. Buildings in general, he suggested, serve as ‘dormant’ metaphors for the head, and the windows for the eyes. Witnessing the hijacked plane piercing through the windows of the building over and over again therefore meant sensing being shot in between the eyes – ‘powerfully’, albeit ‘unconsciously’.
Lakoff’s reflections are interesting to think along with when trying to make sense of our own emotional and physiological responses to the current pandemic. We can similarly see how the metaphors and symbols we use are experienced within the body, rather painfully, in times of crisis. Representations of the virus, armoured with spikes, might give rise to a sense of our lungs being punctured. This embodied image is read through the lens of culture and registered on the conscious level as ‘shortness of breath’ or ‘tightness in the chest’, the widely recognised signs of stress. The depiction of the virus floating in a kind of plasmic sea (the primordial symbol of chaos), drives a sense of its unmanageable quality, its uncontainability, and of our lives and our futures being unanchored. And the facelessness of other persons – wearing masks, PPE, ventilation machines – we experience as alienation, dehumanisation and distance from our fellow neighbour.
Our minds absorb this kind of trauma by physically rerouting certain neural circuits, so that images and metaphors become encoded with certain physical feelings. In a sense, our minds (and bodies) undergo a kind of violent reshaping in response to the recycled rhetoric of warfare and images that accompany this, whether or not our bodies are subjected to the disease itself. This is certainly another reason for us all to exercise compassion towards ourselves, whether we are sick or not. But to go further and imaginatively ‘disarm’ the disease means we must resist the use of military metaphors and become cognisant of the affects produced by the images we eagerly consume. If the virus has no mind, then imagining it as a malicious enemy driven to cause human suffering makes little sense. No matter the extent of our pain, we cannot persuade it to call a truce. Here, it might be useful to be reminded of the 1978 work of Susan Sontag, ‘Illness as Metaphor’, where she warns, ‘as long as a particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease, most people with cancer will indeed be demoralised by learning what disease they have’.
Sontag’s insights emerged in the context of the AIDs epidemic and perhaps even her own experience of breast cancer, but are also powerful when applied to our contemporary situation. We have much to gain by reprising lessons learnt from crises of the past, personal as well as societal. Lakoff and Sontag remind us that the words we choose to describe our current situation will contribute to the formation of a cultural imaginary around it that will last well into the future. And whilst that future may seem hard to imagine, we can take charge of that which is in our hands – the story we are all writing, of a global pandemic in a global society. So let’s resist recourse to wartime metaphors and instead develop a new, more nuanced and appropriate discourse around the disease. It just might serve us better during the lengthy process of healing, that is just beyond ‘the curve’.
Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G. 2001. ‘Metaphors of Terror’, in The Days After. Chicago: Chicago University Press, Available: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/sites/daysafter/911lakoff.html.
Sontag, Susan. 1978. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
 Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago University Press, pp. xi.
 Lakoff, G. 2001. ‘Metaphors of Terror’, in The Days After. Chicago: Chicago University Press, Available: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/sites/daysafter/911lakoff.html.
 Lakoff, ‘Metaphors of Terror’.
 Sontag, Susan. 1978. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp.7.