Exploring “Viral Culture”
Today’s guest post is authored by Mark Featherstone and John Armitage, editors of the new Cultural Politics issue “Viral Culture.” Learn more about “Viral Culture” or purchase the issue here.
In this blog post we want to explain the originality and relevance of the idea of ‘viral culture’, which we explore in the special issue of Cultural Politics devoted to the idea. However, before we talk about originality, it is important to note that it is possible to find precursors to what we are calling ‘viral culture’ in the work of a number of writers who understood what was happening with processes of globalisation and informationalisation from the 1960s onwards. It is important to acknowledge their influence upon our theory of ‘viral culture’ because in a sense what we have done is picked up the debates they started and explored them in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In looking for these influences we might track back as far as the 1960s and think about Jacques Derrida’s early work. In his early works, such as Of Grammatology, Derrida was interested in the informationalisation of biology through the discovery of DNA and communication processes filtered through computers that translated meaningful language into mathematical symbols. In his view this transformed everything, what he spoke about in terms of ‘the living’, into a kind of text that was endlessly on the move and fundamentally unfinished and unfinishable. In much the same way that one never finishes writing, Derrida saw that reproduction is endless and really represents the transmission or communication of DNA code to a new generation through sexual contact. This final point about sexual contact and the combination of DNA in the formation of a new person or animal was very important for Derrida because it represented communication and the emergence of new life, new meaning, and new possibilities. As the new is born, so the old must die out. This is why in his later works he writes about auto-immunity, which really means maintaining openness to the other through opposition to processes immunity that seek to shut down communication.