The importance of flows

John Daniels writes about the flows of energy through our bodies and through the economy:

They’re all around us. Within us. We often don’t notice them, but without them we’d be dead. And not just us, as individual organisms and societies. There would be no life at all. 

I’m talking about flows: fluid movements from areas of high intensity to ones of low intensity.  The bigger the difference of intensities, the steeper the gradient between them, the stronger the flow.  That’s why close isobars on the weather chart mean that new umbrella you bought is bound to get blown inside out, so best leave it at home.

We think of our own bodies as solid items; and yet they’d be mere corpses without flows essential for life and health.  The oxygen entering our lungs and the CO2 exhaled.  The blood coursing around our bodies, supplying that oxygen and nutrients to its parts, and removing wastes.  The electrical signals which constitute our brain function, impossible without differences of electrical potential.  The selective flows of molecules and ions across the semipermeable membranes surrounding all living cells. 

And human society, too, only exists because of flows.  Flows of people, of information, of money, of things that people buy and sell…  Just like our physical environment and our own bodies, societies only exist as living things because of these flows.  Stop the blood flow to an organ for just a minute, and the result can be permanent damage.  Stop the flows that sustain society, and the results can, in their own ways, be just as lethal.  Things don’t just spring back to life again once the flows are restored.

That’s what’s happening now.  Because economies – flows of money, goods and services – across the world are deliberately closing down in response to Covid-19, lasting damage is being done to aspects of these societies.  That small independent retailer which has gone to the wall isn’t going to spontaneously re-open once restrictions are lifted; it’s likely gone for good.  And the tax it generated, which went back to the government to fund ‘our NHS’ and so much else besides, that will have stopped flowing too. 

Why is this wholesale and deadly shut-down of flows happening?  Because they’ve been interrupted by another kind of flow, one which started in China towards the end of last year.  It may have started in a bat, flowed on through animals kept in close, inhumane conditions in a market, and so on into the whole human population, thanks in turn to the huge flows of human bodies transported daily across the world in planes.

Flows, then, are essential for life, but can disrupt and destroy life as well.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari saw this clearly.  In their books Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus they describe the world as a succession of assemblages, heterogeneous mixtures of components brought together and assembled by flows.  For a while a particular assemblage takes on a form, looks solid, even gives the illusion of permanence; and then, when the sustaining flows wane, or when a new, disruptive flow comes along, it evaporates – just like a cloud on a sunny day.

As we try to grasp the meaning and implications of Covid-19, and of the human response to it, there’s one final kind of flow which has a crucial role to play.  That’s flows of desire.  With social assemblages, these play a key part.   

Our global capitalist society is a body of sorts.  For hundreds of years it’s been sustained by a variety of flows, latterly not least torrents of energy from fossil fuels.  But at root it’s shaped by a particular kind of desire – acquisitiveness, what Aristotle knew as the vice pleonexia.  Acquisitiveness + fossil fuels = a massive, complex, vigorous body, the like of which the world had never seen before.  We thought it would last for ever.  But now, in 2020, it doesn’t look so solid any more.  Its toxic environmental side-effects, the continuing hangover of the 2008 financial crash, and now Covid-19 – if this were a human body, it would be in intensive care.

Or maybe even palliative care.  If so, what kind of body – if any – will take its place?  Specifically, what kind of desire will give shape to the successor social body? 

If pleonexia has had its day, then Christians are called to be channels of another desire, a very different kind of flow: agape, ‘love’, as given definitive shape by the life, death and resurrection of a Jewish carpenter.  Deep down, so they claim, it’s this flow that holds all bodies together (Colossians 1: 15-20). 

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