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Mourning, Denial, and Racial Violence in the COVID-19 Pandemic (Part II)

Jonathan Chou //

For Part I: Mourning, Denial, and Racial Violence in the COVID-19 Pandemic (Part I)

No sacrifice is excessive.

Faced with something supposedly novel, it is easy to imagine that what is happening has never happened before. Sontag wrote AIDS and Its Metaphors in 1988. She describes the fear and panic that the AIDS epidemic inspired:

Talk in the United States, and not only in the United States, is of a national emergency, “possibly our nation’s survival.” … This sort of rhetoric has a life of its own: it serves some purpose if it simply keeps in circulation an ideal of unifying communal practice that is precisely contradicted by the pursuit of accumulation and isolating entertainments enjoined on the citizens of a modern mass society. (1988, p. 173)

The differences between the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are vast and cannot be ignored (see Chee, 2020, and Valdiserri and Holtgrave, 2020). I look to Sontag more for her explication of the psychic and social operations of the war metaphor. 

What I want to argue in this section is first that what we call the war metaphor really stands for a way in which we deny our fundamental vulnerability and relationality. Second, I want to show how easily from here we arrive at a justification for racial violence. 

It is interesting to note that compared to the beginning of the pandemic, when I first began working on this paper, the war metaphor seems to have faded somewhat from the forefront of public discourse. We no longer see people leaning out their windows clapping for healthcare workers walking out of the hospital. Luckily, some time has passed since then. 

Sontag provides an explanation for why this should be the case: in a public health crisis like a pandemic, especially early on in the crisis, what is necessary – the reconfiguration of personal freedoms in favor of population and community health and the protection of those most at risk – “is precisely contradicted by the pursuit of accumulation and isolating entertainments enjoined on the citizens of a modern mass society.” 

The war metaphor could thus be said to have served its essential function at the threshold of the pandemic: 

Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one’s actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability. War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view “realistically”; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. In all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent – war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive. (1988, p. 99)

It is not just war that is invoked in the war metaphor but war at the end of the world, “all-out war.” It is totally unbelievable; still, we are not “supposed to view [it] ‘realistically.’” 

It seems to me that while we have moved on from an acute need for apocalyptic rhetoric and the war metaphor, we are now left to deal with the repercussions of their use. This has to do with the fact that war is never made alone; it is waged against an other. For all the war metaphor is able to accomplish in terms of appealing to ethical principle, it fails to disguise the fact that it is predicated on a fantasized subjugation of the Other. The war metaphor is in every instance an articulation of violence against the Other:

The [war] metaphor implements the way particularly dreaded diseases are envisaged as an alien “other,” as enemies are in modern war; and the move from the demonization of the illness to the attribution of fault to the patient is an inevitable one, no matter if patients are thought of as victims. (1988, p. 99)

Never mind that it is the virus that is first seen as “an alien ‘other,’” the war metaphor implements a self and other relation that is seeped in paranoia and fear, a relation that quickly and inevitably comes to substitute my real relation to you, you who are ill and suffering. Indeed, you cease to be a subject at all, instead you become the “sinful… dirty… intemperate… degraded” (Sontag, 1988, p. 143) people who deprived me of my freedoms, specifically defined as my right to capitalism. You are derealized, dehumanized, reduced to an object of my fear. 

A disturbing truth can begin to be appreciated: a political incentive exists for states to promote the use of the war metaphor during times of pandemic as it displaces public outrage towards one’s own government, which is forced to implement restrictive measures to curb the spread of infection, onto a convenient scapegoat, the foreign Other. It is easier to blame the Other for what I have lost than those who are meant to look after me, and look like me. 

The question of the value of using the war metaphor during a pandemic is thus an ethical one: can a society truly be effective at caring for its sick and securing the safety of all its citizens if that society is built upon a derealizing, violent relation to the Other? And while we no longer feel the need to use the war metaphor as we once did, have we really moved on from its driving self and other relation?

Of course, in a way, apocalyptic rhetoric and the war metaphor are not the problem. As Sontag writes, “[n]ot only does [COVID-19] have the unhappy effect of reinforcing American moralism… it further strengthens the culture of self-interest, which is much of what is usually praised as ‘individualism.’ Self-interest now receives an added boost as simple medical prudence” (1988, p. 161). If loss opens us to the world in the Other, the war metaphor closes us to it. It does this in part by preempting the realization of our constitutive relationality, which we experience in loss, by derealizing the Other and thus denying loss in the first place. 

In the fictitious world created by the war metaphor, the desire for invincibility and the total security of the self, the appetite for which long preceded the pandemic, trumps all. 

This brings us back to Butler. 

Read in terms of the war metaphor, the pandemic could be said to be won when the invading virus, the Other, is successfully repelled and the nation’s borders again secured. 

A psychoanalytic interpretation of the necessity of the war metaphor becomes possible in light of Butler’s notions of collective loss and corporeal vulnerability. As I have said, the pandemic must be viewed as an experience of collective loss. We must demand this in order to reveal in what ways we are fundamentally dependent on the Other, vulnerable to the Other, and in what ways vulnerability is distributed unequally around the world. 

Might the war metaphor, which claims the exact opposite – a refusal of our fundamental dependency, a view of the Other as not only deserving of violence, but deserving of my violence – not be seen as a kind of defensive retaliation against our experience of loss? 

We now see that the national border was more permeable than we thought. Our general response is anxiety, rage; a radical desire for security, a shoring up of the borders against what is perceived as alien… The result is that an amorphous racism abounds, rationalized by the claim of “self-defense”; a generalized panic works in tandem with the shoring up of the sovereign state and the suspension of civil liberties. Indeed, when the alert goes out, every member of the population is asked to become a “foot soldier” in [Trump’s] army. The loss of First World presumption is the loss of a certain horizon of experience, a certain sense of the world itself as an entitlement. (2003, p. 27)

It is interesting to note here that Butler wrote Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence in 2003 following the attacks of September 11, 2001. What we discover is that similar to what we experienced after 9/11, the pandemic has forced us to consider the possibility that we who live in the First World are no less vulnerable to calamity than those living in the Third World. 

It is the entry of this possibility into the public imagination, Butler suggests, that gives rise to the “radical desire for security, a shoring up of the borders against what is perceived as alien.” Is this not essentially the function of the war metaphor? Indeed, we have seen examples of such an “amorphous racism, rationalized by the claim of ‘self-defense,’” in the ten-fold and rising proliferation of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. in these past two years. 

What we might say is that rather than a reversal, what we observe when we notice the war metaphor fading from our minds and discourse is the imminent closure of our selves to the Other.

And whereas Asian people come to stand for the threat from abroad, insofar as Black people have always been felt to threaten the safety of American, read white, sovereignty from within, the killing of another Black man at home is simply a variation – a variant – on a theme, another attempt to restore that “sense of the world itself as an entitlement.”

The rejoinder to the war metaphor will always be that we are always already for the Other, by virtue of the Other. To imagine that one can drive out the Other and thus resecure that horizon of First Worldism is to indulge in a violent fantasy. It is not a refusal but a denial of the transformation that loss engenders, a failure to see how one has already been moved, given over, undone by the Other. 


Butler, J. (2003). Violence, Mourning, Politics. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 4(1), 9-37.

Chee, A. (2020, June 18). In this pandemic, personal echoes of the AIDS crisis. Retrieved on August 1, 2020, from

Sontag, S. (1988). AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York, NY: Picador.

Valdiserri, R.O., & Holtgrave, D.R. Responding to pandemics: What we’ve learned from HIV/AIDS. AIDS and Behavior24(7), 1980-1982.

Credit: War Bonds Poster painting / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)


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