To the nonacademic ear, the word “discourse” may sound like jargon. Yet its meaning is crucial for society because of the snug connection between authoritative discourse and power relations. Discourse plays a crucial role in entrenching and reproducing power relations by shaping collective consciousness and by steering human behavior in consequential ways.
To forestall misunderstanding, I want to clarify at the outset that this essay is not about vaccination as such; it is about the official discourse of vaccination. In other words, I am not here evaluating COVID vaccination in terms of protection efficacy, potential risks, and merits or demerits as blanket public health policy. That is an important cluster of issues, that should be democratically considered and debated, but not my focus. My intention here is to dissect the political and cultural inflections of the official (spoken and written) discourse surrounding the vaccination “mandate.” Those inflections carry momentous consequences for humanity and for the fate of Earth—consequences that remain largely unheeded.
I contend that the official vaccination discourse serves regimes of domination and inequality in both nonhuman and human realms. In that sense, discourse in general and the vaccination discourse in particular are consonant with what social theorists call ideology. But discourse can be far more insidious than ideology: for discourse displays itself as if simply representing reality, thereby transmitting its ideological messaging “under the radar.”
In a nutshell, the official COVID-19 discourse submits that vaccination is the science-based and morally mandatory response to the current public health crisis. This core content of the discourse presents itself as forthrightly rational and it has been widely accepted by the public at face value. Its tacit claim is that political agendas, ideological subtexts, and historical consequences are irrelevant to the vaccination rationale. On the contrary, however, politics, ideology, and history are integral to the landscape of the vaccination discourse.
A discourse has two facets that go beyond its face-value content. One, what its messaging affirms to be the case—which is to stipulate and control what sociologists call “the definition of the situation.” Two, what its messaging conceals through omission and distracting-away-from. Such affirmative and concealing effects—manifesting just beyond the boundaries of a discourse’s explicit content—are known (in social linguistics) as “perlocutionary effects.” We can think of such effects as subliminal—the sotto voce communications that ride the wave of a discourse but are nowhere to be found overtly in its statements. While not explicit, however, those communications are subterraneously disseminated and entrain consequences.
On the affirmative side, the vaccination discourse promulgates the message that the public health response of vaccination—a technological fix—is adequate to the problem—the virus itself. Starting with the latter thread, the discourse defines the virus as the problem. But if the problem were defined in terms of root causes—those being the origins of the virus and the comorbidities that make the virus perilous (more on both below)—then the virus itself would appear in another light. It would no longer be “the problem,” but a dangerous symptom of root causes that have enabled an infectious disease to emerge and take its toll. (And of course, left undisturbed, those root causes will sprout new diseases and pandemics in the future.) In short, how discourse chooses to define the problem maneuvers social attention in different directions. In the case of the vaccination discourse, not toward the root causes of the pandemic but away from them.
Turning to the techno-fix aspect of the vaccination discourse, the avowal that the vaccine is a necessary and quasi-mandatory response to the pandemic strengthens the sovereign reign of the technological fix. The dominant vaccination framing ideologically broadcasts that the technological fix is a powerful lever, if not panacea, for global emergencies. The vaccination discourse—in the context of the all-powerful sway of technology in the global culture—works as a forceful ideological (re)installer of the salvific nature of the technological fix into the social body. It has delivered this ideological missive by utilizing a time-honored, highly effective political vector: the exploitation of collective fear.
To exemplify the official discourse’s far-reaching subterranean effects, we might for instance ponder the question: Will the strategy of weaponizing fear, coupled with the pledge to alleviate it with a technological fix, prove a handy dress rehearsal for deploying geoengineering as the fix for climate breakdown? If the techno-fix of geoengineering can thus be foreshadowed as the way to combat global heating, whose interests are now being served by this supposed solution? Geoengineering has long been on the horizon of corporate and political elites—the absurd “ace up their sleeve” that has helped them drag their feet on the climate crisis for decades. That in-the-wings techno-fix for climate change is getting a convenient boost by officialdom’s resounding and global techno-fix of vaccination.
As mentioned, a discourse does not only steer collective attention by what it affirms to be the case; it also manipulates social perception and serves elite interests by what it seeks to conceal. The official vaccination discourse—surprisingly successfully thus far—has worked to conceal two paramount realities of the pandemic. One, the question of how the virus was unleashed on the global scene in the first place; two, the question of what has facilitated the disease and death caused by the virus. (These realities are concealed in the sense that they have been cast out of most political, policy, and cultural conversations.) Regarding the first reality: Where did the virus originate? And related to this, Where do infectious viruses—potentially far deadlier than SARS-CoV-2—generally originate? Regarding the second reality: Who is getting the most sick and dying at the highest rate in this pandemic? When these two dimensions of COVID-19 are spotlighted and foregrounded for public deliberation and policy-making, then that which is demonized as the public health menace—the virus itself—emerges as a revealer of deeper structural perils and inequities in global society.
While the origin of COVID appears as yet indeterminate, or possibly covered up, we are all but certain that it either came from incursions into wildlands—the ferocious violence of bushmeat, wildlife trafficking, and wet markets—or from reckless and arrogant laboratory tinkering with viruses for so-called “gain of function” purposes. Beyond the specifics of this pandemic, we also know that Confined Animal Feeding Operations (factory farms), with their inhumane and disease-causing conditions, are breeding vats for dangerous and potentially pandemic-causing pathogens. Even so, the official vaccination discourse—with its focus on the virus per se and its exaltation of the technological fix—occupies the entire conceptual, pragmatic, emotional, and ethical landscape. The origins of the pandemic (and of future ones) have been pushed out of public conversation. The origins of the pandemic have been muted and distracted-away-from—in a word, concealed. This concealment is serviceable to the status quo and to power elites: violation of wildlands, abuse of wild and farmed animals, and irresponsible genetic engineering—all business as usual—can continue unimpeded and out of the spotlight.
The second concealment propagated by the official vaccination discourse is who is getting hospitalized and dying. The elderly are a highly vulnerable demographic—and among the elderly those with comorbidities (prior chronic-disease load) are far more at risk. Indeed, from early in the pandemic it was clear that COVID is not an “equal opportunity” agent of morbidity and mortality. Those suffering from chronic diseases—diseases of industrial civilization—are disproportionately afflicted. Underprivileged people are far more likely than the privileged to be plagued by such diseases of the developed (and increasingly developing) world as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and certain cancers. Which begs the question: where do these chronic diseases originate? While a number of factors are at play, the overwhelming one is exposure to cheap, processed, toxin-laden food. Since food is, by definition, all about nourishment and medicine, I will call such industrial disease-causing food fake food, for short.
So while COVID is a trigger for disease, suffering, and death, the actual killer is largely the industrial fake-food complex—comprised of the industries of chemical agriculture, processed foods, junk foods and beverages, industrial animal agriculture, and fast food chains. Most especially in their gruesome alliance, these enterprises contaminate, corrode, and congest the human body, making human beings (most especially the disempowered) chronically diseased and physiologically sub-optimally functioning, and thereby inordinately susceptible to serious repercussions by any infection. Yet this root cause of the pandemic’s grim sweep is not on the table for scrutiny or reform. The official vaccination discourse works to conceal it.
By its affirmative and concealing surreptitious effects, the official vaccination discourse serves the interests of elites. Officially defining the virus as “the problem,” to be tackled across the board by a technological fix, bolsters the establishment. It tacitly communicates that nothing needs to be transformed in current societal arrangements, including the following: How humanity comports itself in the wildlands of the planet; how farmed animals are cruelly treated in industrial settings and wet farms; how food is contaminated and tainted through industrial production and processing; how society countenances gross human inequality as “normal”; or how genetic engineering meddles with living processes for dubious motives. The official discourse maneuvers social attention away from these matters. It communicates that technological interventions suffice in response to emergencies, as emergencies serially arise. As noted, among other potential consequences, this messaging prefigures the rolling out of geoengineering schemes when climate gets so broken that collective fear can be mobilized for humanity’s compliance to “whole-planet management.” This enables the fossil fuel industry, today, to continue chugging along, breaking the climate: that industry has long been cognizant of the geoengineering “solution” to climate change, and the exaltation of the vaccination techno-fix to the pandemic fits right into that playbook.
Furthermore, the vaccination discourse has consolidated power over nonhumans by distracting away from the violence perpetrated against animals, in their wild homes and in factory farms—forms of violence that are well-known to spawn infectious disease. Additionally, maintaining and entrenching power over underprivileged human groups is at work, accomplished by the vaccination discourse averting attention from the root cause of their over-susceptibility to COVID: namely, being forced into unhealthy lifestyles by economic hardship and targeted marketing, their bodies brutally assaulted by fake food.
On all these counts, the official vaccination discourse serves the interests of the powers-that-be, including the corporate sectors (worth repeating): chemical agriculture, processed-food and junk food/beverage industries, industrial animal agriculture, and fast food operations. The vaccination discourse occludes their direct complicity in the pandemic’s reach. Let’s not forget that the interests of Big Pharma are also copiously served. First, the pharmaceutical industry profits immensely by medicating the symptoms of today’s chronic-disease epidemics that are largely caused by fake food; it may be safe to assume that the industry would prefer to leave that lucrative setup unruffled. Second, Big Pharma just received a windfall of blockbuster jab profits; the industry would prefer to keep that setup going and growing too.
The sorrow of unnecessary suffering and death that nonhuman and human beings endure—with and without the pandemic—reaches into history’s future as far as the eye can see. It raises before us the specter of the Sixth Mass Extinction. The Sixth Mass Extinction has no technological fix. In a socioeconomic system that exalts the technological fix as cure-all, and consecrates its sovereignty, it should come as no surprise that the anthropogenic mass extinction event is passed over in silence by the establishment and remains steeped in profound ignorance in the public.
How did we as a humanity lose touch with what is the most precious thing of all—our home planet and our relationship with it? How could we (let) unwind the breathtaking beauty of this Earth, the onetime gift of a living planet, and our love for our Earthling kin? This disconnect is the core spiritual vacuum through which humans are hurtling, destination unknown but terribly frightening.
We see everywhere technology rushing in to fill the spiritual vacuum, to usurp reality: the endless stream of screen entertainment, video-gaming, pornography, online shopping, internet surfing, social media, and now life on Zoom. Humanity is headed (if not there already) to disappear into the electronic mists, to become a biological prosthesis of the Virtual Machine. Thus, humanity’s fate may not turn out to be civilizational collapse, but rather an apocryphal disorder of reality loss with rapid descent into medicated and manipulated forms of madness.
The achievement of human greatness turns on our recognizing our love for home Earth. It turns on our eyes opening with kindness and wonder for the beauty of every being who is here. The tiger burning bright and the goofy pig with floppy ears and moon-round eyes. The innocence and fragility of human children. The flowering plants. The flowers in our gardens, but above all the wild prototypes—the uncountable wildflowers, creating exquisite synesthetic experience, wafting sunward, earthbound. Without this love for Earth and all her beings, who are we?
There remains the question: Did COVID originate from the torture of animals? Or did COVID originate from shrouded genetic engineering research? Either way, COVID-19 is a product of modern civilization and its slavish technophilia. COVID-19 is a big mirror for civilization to see itself in for what it is. But the political, corporate, and military establishment keep people from looking into the mirror. They reject it and distract humanity away from it.
COVID is not a monster. It is bitter medicine. We can take the medicine, look into the mirror, and begin to heal. Or we can demonize the virus and run for hiding behind a technological fix that ultimately fixes nothing.
Read ‘The discourse of COVID vaccination and the sovereign technological fix’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blogTweet