Indestinacy and the Modal of Lost responsibilities

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Indestinacy and the Modal of Lost responsibilities



Las tendencias preexistentes de los arreglos mundiales han permitido la pandemia y han distribuido el sufrimiento concomitante a través de los canales de relaciones preexistentes de desigualdad y privación en todas partes. ¿Podemos decir que no podríamos o no deberíamos haber previsto estas consecuencias? Estas palabras modales -“no debería tener” y “debería tener”- expresan el sentido de nuestra responsabilidad y capacidad en retrospectiva. Son los “modales de las responsabilidades perdidas”. Expresan una determinación colectiva de no dejar que continúe el acuerdo existente. Esto solo puede suceder al imaginar nuevas posibilidades de actuar colectivamente, incluso cuando nuestra indestinación, es decir, la libertad de fines trascendentes, implica que lo que pretendemos, actuamos y creamos podría volver a desplegarse como componentes de otra acción u otra acción. Las modalidades de responsabilidades perdidas nos muestran que “debería” tener sentido solo en la reunión de todos, y no en la resolución individual o en las organizaciones regionales.

Palabras clave: Covid 19, Pandemia, Indestino, “Debería haber sido”, modalidades de responsabilidades perdidas, colectividad.



The pre-existing tendencies of the world’s arrangements have enabled the pandemic and have distributed the attendant suffering through the channels of pre-existing relations of inequality and deprivation everywhere. Can we still say that we could not or should not have foreseen these consequences? These modal words – “should not have” and “should have” – express the sense of our responsibility and capability in hindsight. They are the ‘modals of lost responsibilities’. They express a collective resolve to not let the existing arrangement continue. This can only happen by imagining new possibilities of acting collectively, even as our indestinacy, that is, freedom from transcendent ends, implies that what we intend, act, and create could be redeployed as components of another action or another’s action. Modals of lost responsibilities show us that “should” makes sense only in the gathering of everyone, and not in the individuals resolve or in regional organisations.

Keywords: Covid 19, Pandemic, Indestinacy, “should have been”, Modal of Lost responsibilities, community.


The Covid 19 pandemic has occasioned this unprecedented lockdown of the whole world. And through this great isolation we are also experiencing a recession in our ability to comprehend a truly world-wide situation of evil. Evil concerns human action, and it is that which should not have happened, that should have been prevented. This verb forms —should have been and should not have— are modals of lost responsibilities.


If we look around the world, today, in India, for example, there were several cases of pregnant women or small children who had contracted COVID but were turned away from three hospitals before they died on the wayside. Thousands of migrant labourers within India have been forced to starve, kept in detention centres on two meals a day at best. Many of them have walked home to their village hundreds of kilometres away as they lost their  employment, daily wage and therefore their homes in the cities where they worked. Many among them starved to death on the highway or were crushed under cars and even a train. We will never learn of their numbers. We should remember that the majority of the poor in India bear the discriminatory traditional identity of “lower caste” and all the deprivation that comes with it. In  other parts of the world, a very large number of deaths of elderly people have happened in Old Age homes or care homes in the UK, Italy and elsewhere. These deaths were due to such a wilful callousness that we can speak of it in no other way than as a massacre or a genocide.


The devastation caused by both the virus and the lockdown, does not today distinguish the first world from the third world, or the global north from the global south. But it does distinguish between the rich and the poor, between black and white, between upper caste and lower caste. This reveals something about our world.


Despite all the advances of the 21st century there is a contrived incapacity in this encounter with an epidemic. In a way the mass graves that we see in remote islands, and the bizarre graves of refrigerator trucks, and in the US, as well as in Iran and Brazil – they bring to mind the pathos of the plague during the Peloponnesian war, described by Thucydides. Even in ancient times, people had to abandon their funereal customs and resort to “shameless burial methods” as epidemics and wars piled up corpses. However, unlike ancient times, our helplessness is the consequence of our ill-preparedness on the one hand, and on the other hand our obdurate tendencies in politics and thought.


To say this suggests that if only we did things differently, the dangers of the viral infection and related problems could have been diffused, brought under control. It suggests that the scale and character of the suffering –—told and untold— that the people of the world are experiencing, fall within the scope of human action. Now, out of habit, we do pause with humility before thinking such a thought. And yet, today we must have the courage to suffer and investigate this very thought in an entirely new way–the thought of human responsibility, political responsibility and collective responsibility. It is the thought of responsibility that includes sense of guilt and recompense but is much more than that.


Previous epidemics in our century —Ebola, SARS, MERS— had made entirely predictable a situation like the present one. And yet, we have witnessed regionalist responses to something that was recognized quite early as having the potential to overwhelm the world. And it did. We have seen nation-states competing for the humble masks and medical gowns and fighting each other for strong drugs that might not even treat the viral infection. There is an excruciating wrangle over funds and jurisdictions that is going on within federal democracies, and among members of international unions. The regionalist tendencies have made the lockdown a game of dealing in pitiable lies and deceptions about the course of the pandemic. As important as the deceptions exchanged by nation-states are the deceptions to which most governments are submitting the people they are supposed to represent.


In other words, it is the pre-existing tendencies of the world’s arrangement that have allowed this viral infection to become world-wide and have distributed the suffering through the channels of pre-existing relations of inequality and deprivation everywhere. How can we witness millions of people in distress, thousands dead, and still say that we could not or should not have foreseen the consequences of the viral infection? It would be like saying, we would rather not do anything about it. Again, this is what happened in most places, but we also know that in a tiny number of places things are indeed better than in the rest of the world.


This predictability is and should have been the touchstone for thinking and transforming the worl-wide arrangement. I would like to stress the expression “should have been.” It is a modal verb in the past tense, and it expresses our relation to our will and capability in hindsight. Let us call it “the modal of lost responsibilities” and the “modal of lost possibilities.” It is the mode of recognition of mistakes, it is the mode of apologies that do not merely exchange a gesture of apology for a crime. Architects of genocides and even prestigious bystanders of crimes against humanity have often been asked to make such gestures. These gestures are nothing, especially if punishment for the crime does not follow, but the point above all is something more: it is to not let it happen again. The suffering brought down upon so many in this pandemic is of that magnitude too, and the apology we must insist on is the collective resolve to not let the existing arrangement continue. Therefore, it is the resolve which speaks in the modals of lost responsibilities.

The “should have been” opens the fight for the ability to create new freedoms – freedom from being poor and unequally cared for, freedom from exploitative labour, freedom from murderous discriminations at work, in the public arena, at home, and in public institutions. And this fight for the democratic availability of the freedom to create new freedoms is politics. As the philosopher Shaj Mohan and I have tried to understand it: politics is the fight for freedom.


A powerful poetics of the modals of lost responsibilities is the novel The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. It uses the first person-plural voice “we” to narrate the harsh experiences of Japanese immigrants, especially the “picture brides” who were trafficked to the USA in the early 1900s. Their labour was extracted for the benefit of the economy; but then during the second world war they were suddenly seen as enemies and were secretively relocated from the cities and farms to internment camps. The last chapter of the novel gives over the narrative voice to their American employers and neighbours. They realise that they should have done something about the sudden absence and likely abuse of their Japanese employees and acquaintances: “We wonder if it wasn’t somehow all our fault. Perhaps we should have petitioned the mayor. The Governor. The president. Please let them stay. Or simply knocked on their doors and offered to help. If only, we say to ourselves, we’d known”.


On entering the mode of reference to lost responsibility, we do something more besides examining the past, and rehearsing the steps that we could and should have taken. The “should have been” subsumes the “could have been,” that is, it acknowledges that there is something we could have done which we did not. This is how we recognise a crime and impute or assume responsibility.  Further, the thought of “what should have been” makes us think about why we did what we did, or, in the case of the actions of powers that are bigger than individual citizens such as governments, corporations and global institutions, we think of what it is that  prevented us from doing what could have been done. This recognition allows us to make a new plan, prepare a new fight. It is this mode that brings us to the streets to protest, that pricks our imagination to create and propose new possibilities such as new institutions, new legislations, new ideas, new programmes, new solutions, new demands, new collectives.


Even further, the “should have been” subsumes the will have been or the future anterior tense. The “will have been” means – for something to be present in our thoughts as a foregone event before it has taken place. This modal has two comportments: The first is when the “will have been” expresses an exasperated foreknowledge of an unavoidable future situation, and the second is the knowledge that the monstrous and the entirely unpredictable can always befall us. The first comportment of the future anterior is a futility. Its second comportment is, of course, that we cannot think of the world without this possibility that the unthinkable and impossible can nevertheless come. This is a necessary fact. And yet, the future anterior is not the tense that can guide our actions, precisely because we cannot act on the calculation with the impossible, and yet we must act! So perhaps, the “will have been” or future anterior was never the tense or the time of politics. This is because, knowing that certain terrible things are bound to happen is not enough, rather we are again driven further to build resources with respect to it, to prepare for it. In this sense, January and February 2020 were months during which we should have said that the viral epidemic will still have come but its scale, character and trajectory could and should have been very different and we should think of how to make this happen.


It is in the modal of lost responsibilities that we can recognize the many ways in which these months of pandemic illness and confinement have been crimes against humanity. And we can also recognise it as a crime when governments are striving such that with a few minor contortions and adjustments the pre-existing economic and political arrangements of the world may be quickly revived and restored (the very arrangements that have contributed to the present disaster).


Modals of lost responsibilities point to nothing other than politics. Politics really is Fight for freedom which reminds us of the most basic should that should have been – we should have done more to collectively enable freedom for everyone. Yes, even in the times to come, many unfreedoms and crimes will have come about. But at least the paths by which they will become actual will not be the same ones we earlier trode. That is, we can assume the responsibility that the pre-existing arrangement that paved the paths to predictably repeated crimes against humanity should have been changed. The present arrangement is already in crisis. It should have provided points of departure for new paths to the well-being and freedoms of everyone, everywhere.

Let us  hold in view the outlines of these pre-existing paths which we cannot wish away but which we can strive to change by acting collectively, and this means by imagining new possibilities collectively.


We have been unable to cope with this world-wide calamity because we are immured in certain obstinate habits in thought. Many today think that this moment announces the collapse of the “modern” world which was in the making ever since the 15th or 16 century when ‘modernity’ displaced the old world. There is even a growing enchantment for that old world while actively forgetting its horrors. Underlying these claims is the tendency in thought to posit a destiny for the world, whether of progress or decline. The human animal appears alternately as an all-powerful commander of destiny ors as all doomed by a destiny.


The prophets of destiny have privileged a ‘proper’ or authentic state of human interaction which they contrast with both confinement (excessive governmental control) and overcrowding (migrant masses uprooted from tradition and soil). But what reality could possibly satisfy these criteria? Only a village life that would immobilise men in the ceremonial regularities of blood and soil and of the speeds of the limbs which shun all machines. Such thinking  attributes the value ‘good’ to something construed as the ‘natural’ state and speed of things. This is a way of thinking which is hypophysical. According to Hypophysics: Nature, as made by God, is good, and deviations from it are evil. In hypophysics X is good if it is “natural”. This is very different from metaphysics which is about determining everything as some X. We can see the nihilism within hypophysics. Gandhi’s thought was an arch hyphophysics which demanded that one should train oneself to not even think, desire or move outside what nature intended for us. Such evaluations have made it easier to intensify hatred against migrants, to ignore the true dimensions of the crisis, and to neglect the demands it is making on our imagination.




The expectation in this hypophysical way of thinking is that the world should remain the stable matter to which our will can give a form once and for all, make it sustainable, devoid of surprises. What is more, this thinking does not even permit any new or surprising desires to take hold of us. But in this vision, the stability of the world’s course be matched with the stability of some men’s imagination so that altogether this arrangement reflects the form of a destiny (whatever its content). Instead, everything reminds us, in fact, of the indestinacy (that the world is indestinate.


However, in-destinacy does not mean totally un-mouldable or something which is wholly free and precarious or un-stabilisable in principle; the idea of precarity is another misleading thought today. Rather, to mould implies that the matter of the world is itself free in such a way that it takes the forms given to it— these forms could be many: such as hetero-normative families, ethnocentrism, non-ecological production techniques, subjugation of people by people, male dominance. At the same time the world is free to take another mould in our revolutions, for example, the revolution in the domain of love and our bodies, the development of green energy and greener technologies. And the world is also free to take a mould to our surprise, such as viral mutations, asteroids and volcanic ashes.


This freedom of the world implies that there is something indestinate about us, the human animal. In-destinate is that which is given to the possibilities of freedom to mould, freedom to unmould, and freedom to be surprised. These are the possibilities that are intimated in the modals of lost responsibilities, together with all the other modals: would, could, will.


As we witnesses the present crisis, our situation is something described by the last words of a poem by Tedi Lopez Mills, “Una Vida en el Dia”. This poem consciously recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Visit to St. Elizabeth’s.” But Lopez Mills is not referring to a mental asylum as a special place of disturbance in the world. Rather she refers to our whole world.


(Let’s go down to the broken stones, I say,

the slopes of dust in black and white

with Mr and Mrs Gómez in mind,

in a block that is a house

in the newspaper photo,

Let’s play that this is a day

in the neighborhood called El Paraíso

and not another day from another day,

Let’s just end it for ending sake.)


We do not have to accept each day as another day from another day. We can play at making a different kind of day, which we can wend for something new. And we can realise it too. In the poem, “play” means pretense which turns away from a terrible world, but I also carries a deeper meaning: that we can change the character of the day starting with our imagination. Thinking is transitive, it produces acts and works and these are of course not fully in our control. We intend, act, and create but the results can be redeployed as components of another action or another’s action. In this weave of our reciprocal interactions, human bodies and specific institutions meet viruses and create pandemics that they must fight. Politics is the domain whose time and tense is constituted by modals of lost responsibilities, that is, by our sense of the foreseeable as well as unforeseeable acts and impacts we initiate and suffer.



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