The Unknowable Virus: Relationship between human and non-human agents

Bichen Xu
BSc Anthropology

Infectious diseases, including zoonoses—diseases that are transmitted from nonhuman animals to humans—have always been intriguing sites of anthropological enquiries. The recent call for ‘Ontological Turn’ and growing emphasis on the ‘Anthropocene’ shed new light on these topics. Homo sapiens have always coexisted with other forms of life, living in equilibrium with an intricate and interconnected ecosystem (Gibbon et al. 2020). Therefore, in order to refuse human exceptionalism, understanding non-human agencies and their perspectives to the environment and societies becomes crucial. Coronavirus Sars-Cov-2 is the infectious agent for COVID-19. Like other viruses, it is invisible, intangible, mutable and hard to be defined. I argue that the unknowability and uncertainty of the coronavirus provides a new approach to studying pandemic. This essay will analyse the ontology and agency—action and intentionality—of Sars-Cov-2, discussing how this uncertainty disrupts and remakes our cognition, bodies, and biopolitics. 

The uniqueness of viruses, including coronavirus, is given by their ambiguous niche between living and non-living, organic and inorganic, biological and physical. Instead of having their own metabolism, they can grow and reproduce only through their hosts’ living cells by parasitising the chemical processes and resources of the hosts. Sars-Cov-2 is a positive strand RNA virus, jumping from reservoir bats to intermediary animal hosts, then to human. The ribosomes of the host living cells can directly translate its RNA codes into proteins through receptor bindings, which then synthesises more viruses. From an evolutionary perspective, the more genes are being spread and multiplied the more advantages the virus gains (Salali 2020). Some microbiologists thus define viruses as quasi-species. Therefore, Sars-Cov-2 is ontologically different with each species it infected.

Similar to other viruses, the existence of Sars-Cov-2 challenges our scientific epistemology and categorisation of Life and Non-life. It can use, ignore and disarrange the Life/Non-life division because it does not fit in the criteria, and its sole purpose is “diverting the energies of arrangements of existence in order to extend itself” (Povinelli 2016). From a social anthropological approach, what Povienlli claimed as ‘arrangements of existence’ can be interpreted as patterns of relationships, and agencies of actors are ‘energies’. The COVID-19 pandemic alerts us that humans are not the only active agents. Subsequently, if applying a more-than-human or multispecies perspective, the pandemic could be regarded as an assemblage of uncertainties—unexpected and unpredictable relationships and interactions between different actors generated by the coronavirus. Multispecies cloud—“collections of species transforming together in both ordinary and surprising ways”, an idea raised by anthropologist Lowe to conceptualise the H5N1 avian influenza in Indonesia also seems referable to the current situation (Lowe 2010). 

Uncertainty is firstly generated by coronavirus’s capacity to breach the politics of species and blur division of life and death. Viral exchange and transmission of coronavirus between humans and animals demonstrate a dynamical multispecies relation. Evidence has shown cases of animals in close contact to infected humans catching up the disease, including a tiger and lion in a zoo as well as cats, dogs, hamsters and ferrets1. Humans and animals can both be ‘hunters’ and ‘prey’ of each other. All the participants of the pandemic can be active actors threatening each other’s lives. Moreover, viruses, unlike parasites, could still be ‘alive’ when existing in non-life. Bushmeat is likely to be the origin of the coronavirus spill-over to human beings. In June, Beijing announced a mutated coronavirus carried by European imported frozen salmon caused a second outbreak in Xinfadi market (Zhao 2020)2. Viruses, by their nature, can adjust to the environment in both vital and dormant state. While Sars-Cov-2 parasitizes non-living beings in low temperature, it remains dormant; when it parasitises the living organisms, it is enlivened, starting to copy, replicate and mutate. Therefore, our life/death division does not influence the being of coronaviruses, as things are all inert and unmoving to them, and they are always in a state of becoming (Povinelli 2016).

Another aspect of the uncertainty derives from the transformation of Sars-Cov-2 from unknowable to knowable to humans. Humans cannot detect the invisible and intangible coronavirus through their senses alone. The identities of the viruses are known through enactment with others. Other “techniques” are required to make the unseen objects “tangible, visible, audible and ultimately knowable” (Mol 2003 in Lowe 2010). Through infection and illness, laboratory tests, governmental tactics etc., the coronavirus became visible and knowable. While agreeing with Mol, I argue the significance of bringing in a relational epistemology that has been applied by anthropologists to reformulate animism and human’s relations with animals and natures (Bird‐David 1999). All actors in COVID-19 should be viewed relationally, and all are in states of becoming. Enact is a dynamic process of mutual constitution of the virus and the thing that enacted it. 

The coronavirus is identified in a solid and material manner mainly through infected bodies. Ergo, bodies of the host are essential for enacting and forming the identity of Sars-Cov-2, thus a pivotal subject for analysing the agency of viruses and how it is related to ours. Inspired by anthropological research on landscape, I suggest that a phenomenological perspective helps better apprehend the materiality and intentionality of both virus and hosts, in particular, humans. Body and environment are mutually constitutive. Humans are neither outside nor contained by landscape, for it is a part of ourselves in which movements and contemplations are performed (Tilley and Cameron-Daum 2017). There are similarities in the host-virus relationship. Following certain paths in the air, Sars-Cov-2 dwells in hosts’ bodies through mucous membranes and reaches the lung. Hosts’ bodies are dynamic environments where the viruses perform complex interactions to mix their genes with ours. From a virus’s point of view, bodies are always sources, media and products for replication and mutation. A host’s immune system will respond to Sars-Cov-2, and the severity of inflammations determine the result; yet, the aftermaths of this novel disease are still hidden. Infection means coexistence with the quasi-species. Infection is also an intimate process of a human accommodating and reacting to the agency of coronavirus and being reshaped by it. The human, to some extent, is not the entity or being, that we are generally perceived as, but a “becoming with”, lingering in an uncertain and unknowable state with the virus (Haraway 2008). 

By acknowledging the unknowability of coronavirus and its disruptions of our epistemology, identities and biology can we gain new insights into our experience and management of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as this assemblage of uncertainty. Because interactions between bodies and viruses are always located in space, supervision of bodies and control of space are equally vital in controlling the pandemic. Therefore, a biopolitical governmentality which relies on population management with statistics and other measurements is certainly demonstrated in COVID-19. For instance, “grid reactions” are used in China where blanket surveillances are imposed over residents in a grid—“a cluster of households” (Xiang 2020). Testing-tracing-constant isolating strategy has been prevalently operated to collect data on the population, including case-fatality rate. Technoscientific measurements are applied to detect as well as model the virus. However, it might be an oversimplification to conceptualise governmentality for COVID-19 merely as biopolitics. Foucault described biopolitics as series of “interventions and regulatory controls” on bodies that perform the mechanics of life and serve as the ground of biological processes (Foucault 1978). Nevertheless, viruses seem not to fit in. The epistemological division of Life and Nonlife that I discussed earlier is the foundation of biopolitics. Whilst Sars-Cov-2 breaches the former division, it can also confuse the latter. It is true that humans are subjects that have been disciplined and regulated for the sake of health. Yet, what governments are trying to regulate and govern is the coronavirus that coexisted with us. While the invisible viruses can be enacted in visible data through COVID-19 testing, they cannot be “subjected, used, transformed and improved”, or be comprehensively known by us for they are ontologically unknowable to us (Foucault 1978). What our managements are addressing are the uncertain parts of the society and the potential futures that we can speculate.  

When the appalling global pandemic ruptures the normality of life, halts our economy and incites hostility and anxieties, Sars-Cov-2, with its disruptive power, forces us to reflect on humanity and our relations with the non-human beings. Viruses are invisible, intangible and ultimately unknowable for humans. Their unique agencies and materiality not only question our enduring epistemology of Life and Non-life, but also redefine and reconstitute our entity, our relationship with other animals and the biopolitical relations in management. The COVID-19 pandemic should therefore be seen as a site where human and non-human actors respond and accommodate to each other’s agencies, which generates uncertainty and cloudiness in its process. The coronavirus and the pandemic, in the end, remind us of the urgency of embracing a more-than-human perspective to avoid an anthropocentric understanding of the world we share with others.

1 UKRI, 2020. Can animals get COVID-19? [WWW Document]. UK Research and Innovation.

2 Zhao, Y., 2020. China’s CDC experts investigate Xinfadi market three times, announce groundbreaking virus tracing discovery – Global Times [WWW Document]. Global Times.

Title image: An illustration of Sars-Cov-2 (Covert)

  1. Bird‐David, N. 1999. ‘“Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’. Current Anthropology 40 (S1), pp. S67–91.
  2. Foucault, M. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London: Allen Lane.
  3. Gibbon, S., Daly, L., Parkhurst, A., Ryan, C., Salali, G. D. and Tasker, A.. 2020. Biosocial Medical Anthropology in the Time of Covid-19. New Challenges and Opportunities. Medical Anthropology at UCL, [blog] 29 April.
  4. Haraway, D. J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Lowe, C. 2010. ‘VIRAL CLOUDS: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia’. Cultural Anthropology 25 (4), pp. 625–49.
  6. Povinelli, E. A. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham London: Duke University Press.
  7. Salali, G. D. 2020. ‘How Our Behaviour Affects Virus Evolution’. Medical Anthropology at UCL, [blog] 22 May.
  8. Tilley, C. Y. and Cameron-Daum, K. 2017. An Anthropology of Landscape: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary. London : UCL Press.
  9. Xiang, B. 2020. From Chain Reaction to Grid Reaction: Mobilities and Restrictions During the Epidemics of SARS and COVID-19. Somatosphere, [blog] 6 March.
  10. Zhao, Y. 2020. China’s CDC Experts Investigate Xinfadi Market Three Times, Announce Groundbreaking Virus Tracing Discovery – Global Times. Global Times [online].

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