The New Atlantis convened a slate of writers for a symposium on lessons to learn from covid. My contribution to the “Beyond the State of Exception” symposium is “Bad Air,” a mediation on aerosols, ventilation, and vulnerability.
We’re used to starting with a premise of safety and sterility. The goal of our policy and our private precautions is to return us to that baseline of nothingness.
The artist Anicka Yi uses scents as her medium, and, as she told the New York Times in an interview, she thought about how to replicate the crisp nothing that people expect as the marker of both safety and luxury. “I talk a lot about how power has no odor,” Yi explained. “This is why you should not be smelling any odors when you walk into a gallery in Chelsea, or when you walk into a bank. These are places of power and sterility.”
We are all vulnerable, open systems. Our lungs are not, at least topologically speaking, interior organs. They are part of our surface — more like the nakedness of our faces than the tucked-away security of a liver. Our public health must start from the premise that we are present to the world, and total retreat is not an option. Then we will have the freedom and clarity to decide how best to face a lively, dangerous, and beautiful world.