Preliminary Materials for a Theory of Devi Sridhar

27 January 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Sinéad Murphy

Devi Sridhar

Following her appearance on Newsnight on Friday January 22nd, Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, tweeted this:

During the past year, those of us opposed to Government lockdowns have repeatedly asked this question: What has disarmed the populations of apparently democratic societies that they have so quietly accepted the suspension of their freedoms?

Devi Sridhar’s tweet – banal as it is – contains all the ingredients for an answer to this question.

2020 did seem, as it unfolded, to impose a sudden reversal of established freedoms. But the surreptitious erosion of those freedoms had, in fact, long been observed.

In 1999, for example, the French magazine, Tiqqun, published a short text entitled Preliminary Materials For A Theory Of The Young-Girl, which sketched an outline of the emergent citizen of Western democratic societies, who willingly participates in and perpetuates their own oppression at the hands of global corporate governance, actively consenting to “the molecular diffusion of constraint into everyday life” and to the “immuno-disarmament of bodies”.

The Tiqqun text summarized this acquiescent citizen as the “Young-Girl”. The descriptor has met with objections for its alleged misogyny. But it applies to men as well as to women, and to the old as well as to the young, only seeking to capture the defining characteristics that make the populations of twenty-first century democracies so ripe for control.

These characteristics are: infantilisation, emotionalization, and relativisation. The Young-Girl, as model citizen of modern democracies, is childlike, sentimental, and eminently prepared to relinquish heretofore absolute values.

Devi Sridhar’s tweet is a perfect example of Young-Girlism. It is worth taking the time to pick it over.

The tweet begins with “I feel like…”

If there is one expression more than any other that has colonised our forms of speech, it is this one: “I feel like…” Mostly, it replaces what is now an outdated construction: “I think that…” The even older formulations – “I know that…” or “It is the case that…” – have largely disappeared.

Anyone who teaches is likely to have noticed this development, which replaces objective statement with subjective sentiment. In recent years, I have challenged students to contribute to class discussions without the preface, “I feel like…”, and have been taken aback at how difficult they have found it. They seem to experience any contribution that does not have this soft introduction as aggressive and unwarranted.

But the formulation “I feel like…”, for all its apparent innocuousness, works to undermine rigour in interpretation and commitment in discussion. It is easy to retreat from an opinion couched in the phrase “I feel like…” and easy, therefore, to propose such an opinion and allow it to circulate, even among contradictory opinions, which, if also prefaced by “I feel like…”, are themselves compatible with all other views.

The “I feel like…” discussion is a fairly low-content, hazy love-in, in which the stakes can never be very high and the energy of conviction is out of place.

When reasoning is replaced by liking, when thinking gives way to feeling, interaction is certainly smoothed out, but at the expense of difficult content, demanding standards and hard-held commitment. Emotionalised formulations are therefore the enemy of substantial thought and action, but such a nice enemy, such a friendly one, that we are disarmed with ease and with impunity. Indeed, the “I feel like…” mode is now abroad as the most reasonable, the most mature, the most civilised of interactive styles. That it obviates much need for intellectual effort has undoubtedly helped it spread.

Now, even the hardest data, let alone the interpretation of that data, may be heralded with the formulation, “I feel like…” And if “I know that…” is used sometimes in its stead, it is the “I know that…” exhortation of the rhetorician – I know that the British people can come together to defeat this virus. Pseudo-argument, from sentiment, from emotion, from the subjective.

2020, and now 2021, has, in many ways, been a year for science. But it is Science with a capital ‘S’. An emotionalised Science, with slogans and images full of pathos. A sentimentalised Science, appealed to with tearful eyes and in trembling tones. And a quite stunningly accommodating Science, capable of encompassing in its warm embrace the most contrary and well-established scientific facts, proceeding gaily and regardless, with evidence giving way to what feels right, and controlled trials yielding to fervently expressed hopes and dreams.

When this sentimentalised Science calls as its allies those aspects of human life more traditionally prone to sentiment – the welfare of the vulnerable, for example – the resultant mode of debate is so steeped in emotionalised content that it would cloud the clearest of judgements, and effortlessly recast attempts at reason and argument as unsentimental, unemotional, and therefore inherently callous. It is on this stake that so many of those sceptical of Government lockdowns are now summarily burnt.

What Tiqqun’s Young-Girl text draws our attention to, however, is the callousness of the emotionalised mode, which is unmoved even by the suffering of those whose welfare it places close to its heart. The most saccharine expressions of feeling for those who are old, disabled, alone and sick have, this year, run parallel with the most outrageous neglect of the old, disabled, alone, and sick: old people ejected from hospitals to die without treatment in their care homes; disabled children excluded from their settings, wasting away under forced ‘social distance’; those who live alone, sentenced to life without a single touch; the sick left to suffer and die at home, where excess mortality continues at above average levels. The sentimentalised Vulnerable is as irrelevant to actually vulnerable people as sentimentalised Science is unmoved by what is actually happening in the world.

But it is the Virus that has been the most emotionalised of all the year’s realities; the Virus and its inverse, the Vaccine.

The Virus has been sumptuously vilified, as the enemy without and within, against which we must fight to our last breath, and whose emotional depiction in the media has borne little relation to its nature and progress on the ground.

The Vaccine, for its part, has been almost all sentiment. Offering uncertain protection, both against transmission and against contraction of the disease, it comprises, it seems for now at least, little more than an occasion for rolling out sentimental hyperbole that is satisfyingly opposed to that occasioned by the Virus: relief at our salvation, tears at our rescue.

But emotionalised Tears are as empty as all the other objects of our newly emotional faculties; when Matt Hancock shed them on national television, they were remarkable for their absence. The sentimentalism of the Young-Girl (and Hancock is a Young-Girl) is indifferent to realities: real tears, real vaccines, real vulnerability, real science, and even the reality of respiratory viruses, carelessly set aside so as not to stem the flow of feeling.

Following its “I feel like…” opening, Sridhar’s tweet reports that she is looking ahead six to 12 months.

In this, she is doing no more than we have all been repeatedly asked to do this year: focus on the future, on the end of lockdown, on the return to normal, on the roll-out of the vaccine; just three weeks, just until the summer, just for a month, just until Easter…

On and on it goes, this pushing of life ahead of us, a carrot that is always about to be eaten, subjecting the supposedly educated populations of supposedly advanced societies to just that tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow deferral with which we often placate the unreasonable demands of spoilt children. You can have it next week. Next month. Next year. Anything, to keep them happy.

This infantilising deferral of pleasures to a future time, when we will be rewarded for our patience, is another feature of Tiqqun’s citizen as Young-Girl.

Deferral has been a dominant conceit during this Covid year: the November lockdown in England was explicitly presented as a way of ‘saving up’ for Christmas. But it has long been established as a rationale for our lives that are endlessly put off: in which childhood is managed as a quick succession of ‘milestones’; in which the most energetic and inventive period, adolescence, spends itself sequestered indoors in preparation for full-blown adulthood; and in which so much of productive life is oriented towards retirement, of which the holidays that puncture it are tantalising tasters to keep us going. Life lived for a future that mostly never arrives.

In fact, that the future mostly never arrives is now explicitly built into our orientation to it; the future, increasingly spoken of as a time in which we will… recall the past! The project of making memories has had growing purchase on our modes of living during the past two decades, spurred on by the personal devices that encourage us to record life for enjoyment later. More and more, we involve ourselves in present events for the sake of a future in which those events will be remembered, in which those events will have been.

This creep of the future-perfect tense completes the emptying of life long contained in our looking to the future, by implicitly accepting that the future will be empty too and consist of little more than the remembrance of a past that never really took place other than as a preparation for the future. Life, fallen between past, present and future, and never really lived at all.

Children, of course, have their whole life ahead of them. To put off their demands until a future time is not inappropriate. But the longer we live, the less of life we have ahead of us, the more grotesque this deferral becomes. A radio advertisement for a company that sells retirement homes here in the UK encourages its would-be customers to buy one of its houses and start making memories. For when? There is not that much future left to you when you are retired, but a lifetime’s habit of deferral cannot easily be broken.

This childlike orientation to the future, even at the end of our lives, may go some way to explaining what has this year revealed itself as our remarkable reluctance to contemplate our inevitable demise. There has been excess mortality this year, for sure; yet, once calibrated for age and population size, it is no greater than the excess mortality of 2008. But we were not bombarded with mortality figures during 2008. We were not asked, every day, to say the number of those who had died. And that is all it has taken to instil a hysteria of denial of the fact of death in a population for which the meaning of life has long been lodged in the future.

That that future never really arrives has been mitigated for us by strategies of deferral that have grown ever more numerous and more elaborate. To present our future as potentially non-existent, as threatened by death from Covid, has shaken the whole Ponzi scheme at its foundations.

The German Government this year produced a short propaganda film for its Covid-suppression policies. In it, an old man, presumably 60 years or so in the future, looks back gently at the bittersweet all-in-this-together efforts of the year 2020. A perfect depiction of our present as only shoring up for the future, and of our future as only remembering the past. This flip-flop of past, present and future opens up a vast and vacant space, a space where life should have been, now fertile ground for the implantation of whatever narrative is spun with the loudest voice and the simplest sentences.

We are currently living a non-life – it is filled, on the ground, with much fear and loathing – for the sake of a future without any content other than its fond and false remembrance that we nobly sacrificed life for future’s sake.

The average age of Covid death in England and Wales is over 82. Older than the average life expectancy. At this age, let us be blunt, one has no or not much future. But our childlike habit of living for the future as if our whole life is ahead of us cannot be broken even at 82. So, we continue to say tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, right up until the day that tomorrow never comes.

Having revealed her orientation to the future, Devi Sridhar’s tweet states her determination to sketch out “how things could evolve (best to worst case) so we work towards best case”.

According to the Tiqqun text, the emotionalised and infantilised condition of the citizen as Young-Girl is compounded by her radical relativisation.

Everything the Young-Girl thinks and says and does is measured according to a standard of taking into account all possible viewpoints and values, so much so that everything the Young-Girl thinks and says and does approaches an ideal of total vacuity. Only the most empty of thoughts, only the most inclusive of statements, only the most cosmopolitan of actions, will do. Gone, the absolutes of established ways of life; whatever has been unimaginable must now be admitted as possible. Nothing off the table. Everything in play. All options considered.

Even this time last year, even the mainstream British press reported on the lockdowns imposed by the Chinese government to contain the spread of the Covid virus with a fascination, a kind of wonder, that reads, in retrospect, like a lost innocence. Even this time last year, the prospect of locking down the UK was simply inconceivable, the sort of thing carried out by authoritarian regimes whose practices and principles no one dreamed for a moment could be ours. Even the Government’s advisory committee, SAGE, even that infamous member of SAGE, Neil Ferguson, did not imagine that lockdowns were an option. Lockdowns were off the table, something that, in the UK, you simply could not “get away with”.

But, as the Tiqqun article warned, the populations of Western democracies have been gradually inured to reneging upon their absolutes. After several decades of assault by the liberal intelligentsia, during which so many of their fundamental cultural categories had been rooted out, exposed to the air and found wanting – even categories as basic and constitutive as ‘men’ and ‘women’ – these populations have lost their foothold on their own cultures and grown ripe for relinquishing whatever fundamentals are left: freedom to travel, the right to protest, Christmas celebrations… one by one, during 2020, the remaining vestiges of our ways of life lost their special privileges and were put on the table, up for grabs. The end of absolute necessity; the advent of relative importance.

The argument has been, of course, that one requires to consider all options in order to choose the ‘best’ one. But considering all options is precisely the relativisation about which the Tiqqun text was concerned. Rather than being the unobjectionable, reasonable openness that it is advertised as, considering all options irreversibly alters the horizons of our judgements and of our lives.

When once that option of lockdown was considered, when our right to leave our own homes ceased to be absolute and was recast as only relatively important, then all other options on the table were made to look different. Providing support to those with symptoms and those most vulnerable to the disease immediately became ‘merely’ providing support to those with symptoms and those most vulnerable to the disease.

With everything to be considered, with everything on the table, only practicalities act as a stay upon the possible. And when once a society has ceded its absolute values to what is practical, that society is a technocracy, its limits imposed not by ethical but only by technical impossibilities; and these are, for the most part, only temporary.

For a way of life to exist – whatever it consists of – many, many things must be impossible. For, a way of life is a closed system, a defined whole. It may alter itself somewhat around its margins. It may change some of its ways – often very slowly and after much debate. But its horizons of possibility, from which those who live it derive the meaning of their existence, rely essentially upon its closedness, upon the many principles and practices that it simply cannot entertain.

The measures governments have taken during this past year, ostensibly to reduce the spread of COVID-19, have brought to completion the process of relativisation that has for many years been eroding our cultures, and has banished, possibly beyond recall, our ways of life.

“This is public health”: so declares Devi Sridhar’s tweet, as if everything else must inevitably give ground and all our objections are disarmed.

What 2020 has shown is that Public Health is to be the theme of our new subjection, bringing to completion the trend that Tiqqun described for us more than 20 years ago. For the sake of Public Health, heretofore democratic societies are to be wholly remade into loose assemblages of Young-Girls, whose infanitlisation, emotionalisation and relativisation render them prone to the intrusive control strategies brought to bear by the convergence of government and corporate interests that has constituted the Covid crisis of this past year.

Public health: an entirely abstract phenomenon, above all our heads and surely indifferent to all our bodies.

A last defining characteristic of the Young-Girl, as Tiqqun records it, is an uncompromising hostility to their body. Experienced as the great betrayer of Instagram standards of perfection, and the silent attacker of implicit expectations of immortality, the Young-Girl’s body is to be dismantled, subjected, managed, improved, controlled.

For the sake of Public Health, we are now asked to lock away our bodies, to steer clear of our bodies, to shroud our bodies in masks and gloves and aprons, to check our bodies’ temperature, to test our bodies’ viral load, and, at last, to alter our bodies at the level of their basic make-up in a live and mass medical experiment the likes of which has never been witnessed in human history.

In her Newsnight interview, after which she posted her tweet, Sridhar spoke of the upcoming challenge, of outpacing the virus’s mutations by quickly reinventing the mRNA vaccines and “getting them into arms” as fast as possible.

Getting them into arms? Is this how one of the guardians of Public Health should speak of our human bodies? As if they are no more than corrupted constellations of body parts, mere ports for the insertion of pharmaceutical products?

Such offhand contempt is revealing of the extent to which the cause of Public Health is now anathema to our basic rights and freedoms, so many of which rely upon the personal sovereignty that has seemed reassuringly to follow from the defining contours of our bodies.

The beautiful sentiments, the childlike dependency and the inclusive relativism of the citizen reformatted as Young-Girl heralds a disassembling of our bodied lives that is at least as dehumanising, in its reduction of each of us to our arms, as was the grinding industrial toil imposed on those we used to describe once as hands.

But the tweet’s worst was saved until last, with the playful concession that concern for Public Health is “not the most fun at parties I know”.

It is worth pausing for a moment at what this implies: that those who spend their time in service to Public Health are to be acknowledged as sacrificing what the rest of us enjoy (anyone had any “fun at parties” recently?); and that the alternative to the pursuit of Public Health (living in the present, thinking things through, holding onto basic values) has all the substance and merit of “fun at parties”.

When once we allow to pass unchallenged, this throwaway dismissal of everything that is now expected to surrender to Public Health as “fun at parties”, we lose this fight. When all that has been taken from us – the friendships, the family, the festivals, the education, the care, the touch of human hands – when all of this may be summarised as “fun at parties”, we lose this fight. When all that has been imposed on us – the anxiety, the depression, the abuse, the penury, the hunger, the sickness and, yes, the death – is whitewashed as “fun at parties”, we lose this fight.

Those who this year have worshipped at the altar of Public Health have not done so at the expense of “fun at parties”, for all that they have posted images of young and joyful revellers as a convenient tag for any criticism of their enterprise. They have done so, and continue to do so, at the expense of what makes life meaningful, and, for many, at the expense of what makes life survivable. That they so carelessly gesture towards the scene of their destructiveness, dismissing it as “fun at parties”, is offensive and grotesque, and no less so for being couched in the soft, protective, and inclusive tones of the Young-Girl.

For the last few weeks, we sceptics of Government lockdowns have reneged somewhat on our righteous outrage; our energy, our firmness, even our lightness and humour, have waned a little. We have come under renewed attack since Christmas, and the attack has, at least in part, seemed reasonable and calm. But let us not be disarmed by the brand of reasonableness of the Young-Girl, the gentle sentiment, the fervent hopes for the future, the brave crusade to consider every option. And, of all things, let us not be tempted to reproduce it.

We must keep thinking, and not bow to feeling. We must reclaim the present and not be put off until Easter. And we must remember that some things are always and absolutely off the table.

Dr Sinead Murphy is a Philosophy Lecturer at Newcastle University.