Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Virus and Cultural Creativity

Prof. Timo Maran

Corona virus has had a major impact on the functioning of our societies, health-care and economy. Many people have lost their lives or health, and even more have lost their jobs. The virus has severely disturbed education, travelling, sports and other aspects of our lives that we used to consider self-evident. In relation to this we tend to attribute a lot of agency to the corona virus. In media we often find expressions that derive from military discourse. We talk about “casualties” and “contamination”, glorify stories of tragedy and heroism, and discuss different strategies to defy the virus. In media and in everyday speech the virus becomes an enemy, a malevolent force. We have given it a proper name “Covid-19”, and a face – grey sphere with red spikes – although there are no visible colors in the micro scale where viruses are operating.   
In biosemiotics, it has been questioned if viruses are alive at all. They do not have metabolism, they are not able to feed, breathe and keep up their organization or homeostasis. In the outer environment they disintegrate quickly in a couple of days. Viruses are also not able to reproduce outside human or animal organisms, from where they can harvest energy and necessary organic matter. In a biological and in a biosemiotics sense there is little agency in viruses and they are not alive in the same sense as we are.[1] Virus is more like a piece of information, a complex text or a string of code.

If virus is not alive, then from where does its agency and devastating power come? It seems that virus takes it agency from us, that it makes use of our own biological, cultural and social systems. It twists and alters our codes, meanings and habits in strange and unexpected ways. Corona virus instructs our cells to produce its own proteins and RNA. But it also makes use of our social habits for spreading. In lynxes, mountain lions or other solitary species this type of virus could not survive because there is too little social contact. Deaths also are not caused by the virus itself but are the results of unspecific immune response of human body. Many meanings at a cultural level become twisted as well. If humans usually relate affection and friendship with physical closeness then at the times of corona virus keeping distance has become a new sign of caring. If in earlier times a masked face in public was a sign of a subculture or religious group, now wearing masks becomes in many countries a new social norm.

What I want to indicate here, is, that aside of terrible tragedy and loss of lives, corona virus appears to create conditions for cultural renewal. Semiotician Jury Lotman had an idea that for creativity culture must be unstable. In his thinking, creativity was connected to partial misunderstandings that lead to new and unexpected interpretations.[2] Could it then be that shifts and twists that corona virus brings along in our cultural codes may also catalyze cultural innovation, new skills and practices? If schools are locked down, parents and children need to find new ways for playing and learning together. People who have seldom prepared their own food, are now acquiring cooking skills. In local communities, bringing food and medicines to those in isolation and other forms of mutual care have started to emerge. Pubs and fitness clubs are closed and there is leisure time waiting to be filled with new ideas. Corona virus has twisted our conventional ways of doing things and many old habits are not productive anymore.

In its heart, this is a situation of creativity.

[1] van Regenmortel, M. H. V. (2016). The metaphor that viruses are living is alive and well, but it is no more than a metaphor, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 59: 117-124.
[2] Lotman, J. (2009). Culture and Explosion. (Semiotics)

About The Author

Prof. Timo Maran

Professor of Ecosemiotics and Environmental Humanities...

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