Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Apocalypse Live: Italian Media in the Time of COVID-19

This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

On March 27, 2020, Pope Francis delivered an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi (“to the city and to the world”) blessing to an empty St. Peter’s Square, offering the faithful a chance to receive a plenary indulgence via internet livestream, television, radio, and other media forms. [1] The blessing proved unusual for at least two reasons. First, Urbi et Orbi blessings are usually reserved for high holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and the election of a new pope. This one, however, was crafted as an intentional response to the pandemic currently sweeping the globe. In the invitations to the blessing that were distributed across social media and diocesan websites, the Pope was quoted as having declared, “We want to respond to the virus pandemic with the universality of prayer.” [2] Second, the pope delivered this blessing standing in the doorway and on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, moving back and forth between the Basilica and the Square, the church and the world, rather than the typical gallery above the Square. While the pope usually delivers the address from the gallery to those below, keeping himself removed from people, the absence of any public meant that the pope could safely address the city and the world from the ground floor, so to speak, of the Roman Catholic Church, and so symbolically and spatially identify himself with those who might otherwise have been there if not for COVID-19.

Photographic and video images of the Pope’s blessing have been widely circulated around social media and variously called “haunting,” “stunning,” “profoundly beautiful,” “striking,” as well as, yes, even “extraordinary.” [3] The visual contrast between Francis and the empty St. Peter’s Square underscores not only the seriousness of the pandemic, but also the sense of abandonment, exhaustion, and vulnerability that many people presently feel around the world. In particular, images in which Francis may be seen delivering his homily, or the video which captures his belabored breathing as he walks up the steps back toward the Basilica, emphasize the physicality and spatiality of the blessing and have proven remarkably resonant, often regardless of whether viewers identify with Roman Catholicism or its liturgies. [4]

One perhaps obvious reason for this is the absence of the people. An integral part of Catholic worship, the people — that is, the laity, the leitos which, when joined with their ergos (“work”) constitutes the word liturgy — signify in the most concrete fashion of all the participants in the worship service the Church’s embeddedness in time, both sacred and secular. The absence of the people may thus be taken to suggest something like a suspension or absence of ordinary time, which is an experience that, although differentially configured and endured throughout the world, has been regularly cited as marking most people’s quarantines and post-COVID-19 living conditions. [5]

A Time of Crisis and Choosing

In early Christianity, the tension between chronos (everyday time) and kairos (apocalyptic time) ran through theological practices and the scriptures of the New Testament. In her identification of new media as the ideal medium for crisis, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun also labels crisis as “a condensation of time that demands a decision.” [6] In deciding to hold the unprecedented livestreamed Urbi et Orbi, the Pope mobilized kairotic time, mastering the perpetual crisis language of mass media.

Christianity and media’s shared language — of “tuning in,” of “receiving,” and of “messages” — goes beyond metaphorical quirks. Though there is ample discussion of the mediatization of Christianity in the postwar era (the televangelism of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, for example), perhaps more interesting is the Christianization of mass media. In following the Christian origins of thinking about media and community, it becomes apparent that all Christianity is mediation, the Pope and priests mediators between their audiences and God. Michael Engelke summarizes the recent turn to mediation in religious studies, [7] writing, “this turn has meant much more than expressing an interest in particular media technologies: printing, painting, audio recording, and so on ... religion can be understood as mediation: a practice that both builds up and bridges the visible and invisible worlds through various technologies and signs.” [8] Although the Protestant Reformation promised a more direct relationship with God compared to the ritualistic, doctrinal Catholicism that had come to dominate 16th-century Europe, mediation in the church is resilient. The duomo or cathedral itself becomes the site for this mediation, and now, with the Pope’s livestreamed masses, the site of a double-mediation of sorts.

“ In deciding to hold the unprecedented livestreamed Urbi et Orbi, the Pope mobilized kairotic time, mastering the perpetual crisis language of mass media. ”

One way that Catholicism attempts to cover up for the lack of presence inherent in this mediation is through the transubstantiation — the receiving of the Eucharist whereby the bread (communion wafer) and wine is transformed during the Mass into Christ’s body and blood. The giving of the host (sacramental bread) and the sacramental wine, a stand-in for the body of Christ, bridges the gap between the spiritual, invisible world and the embodied one. How does the Pope, as the chief institutional representative of Roman Catholicism, deal with the anxiety produced by this newfound “double” mediation?

In the homily that accompanied the Urbi et Orbi blessing, Pope Francis himself addresses the concerns thematized by the photographs and videos of the service, aiming to provide spiritual comfort to those feeling isolated, worn down, and vulnerable. Again, two features of the homily are worth emphasizing. The first is Francis’s suggestion that COVID-19 may serve as a reminder of humankind’s utter dependence upon what has come before us, whether that be God, the natural world, humanity as a species, the community of the faithful, or the contexts and persons to whom we owe the immediate conditions of our existence, as well as, in the Pope’s mind, the fundamental unity that this dependence engenders. On this note, Francis says:

“We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected and turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other ... The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain, and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare ... all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity ... In the storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos ... has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”

The Pope’s desired audience here is ambiguous. Who belongs to whom as brothers and sisters? Of course, the homily is designed particularly for those who profess Christian faith and so find themselves united, in however intimate a way, by the understanding that they are part of a communion of saints, “a common belonging.” Even the language of “brothers and sisters” follows biblical precedent for referring to gatherings of the faithful. His use of categories, pronouns, and narrative, however, suggests a more universal and universalizing scope. Francis’s use of personal, possessive, and indefinite pronouns, especially, troubles any too-clean identification of his desired audience with only the Christian faithful: “On this boat ... are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying, ‘We are perishing,’ so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.” Nevertheless, what is most important about this element of his homily is not his precise audience, if such a thing may be parsed, but his assertion that human beings are fundamentally dependent and historical. For the Pope, human beings exist as creatures marked by interlocking webs of time, inheritance, relation, and accident, and our dependence on these and other such webs, which have come before us and will remain after us, is what unites us all to one another. Further, his language throughout the homily evidences his conviction that this unity ought to be regarded as both a comfort and a resource. At the very least, we find ourselves in one another.

The second, related element of the homily worth highlighting is Francis’s assertion of the necessity of action at this particular moment, as well as the forms of action he prescribes. Insistent that COVID-19 is not an instance of divine judgment, Francis instead argues that his audience, whomever they may be, ought to regard “this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of [God’s] judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” Again, Francis mobilizes kairotic time, insisting that the unfolding crisis necessitates a ;time of choosing or moment of decision. Following the movement of the biblical passage from which his homily is derived, he goes on to characterize this choosing as a response to the call of Jesus made through the voices of the suffering. Returning to tropes already deployed in the opening of the homily, Francis says: “In the face of so much suffering ... we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may be one.’ ... The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support, and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.” Such practices of solidarity and hope in the midst of COVID-19, which are likely to take the form of minor expressions of care, acknowledgement, and reassurance, given state and health guidelines for social intercourse, “allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity, and solidarity” to emerge. For Francis, what is necessary now is what unites; what is demanded are acts of care, love, and support, as well as creative reminders of togetherness that have the potential to generate new forms of solidarity.

The Liveness of Livestreaming

The Vatican was not alone in using the live broadcast or the livestream to foster a sense of community and solidarity through synchronicity. As deaths from COVID-19 climbed past the 20,000 mark in Italy on Sunday, April 12, 2020, and the world looked upon Italy as the epicenter of the world-wide pandemic, Andrea Bocelli broadcast a live concert from the Duomo di Milano, by then long-closed to the general public. The concert, “Music for Hope,” was presented by the City of Milan and the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, and nearly 27 million people viewed it live via the Italian singer and songwriter’s YouTube channel. [9] The video opens with aerial views of an empty Milan: shots of a deserted Naviglio Grande, a closed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and a single tram quietly snaking its way across the still city. [10] In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau compares the scopophilic aerial view to the “blind” or myopic view from the street. From the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, Manhattan, for example, the city becomes “one gigantic mass ... immobilized before the eyes.” [11] For de Certeau, the aerial view could stop not only the sensation of constant movement, but also the sense of time moving forward. Film, through its aerial shots and close-ups, has the unique ability to show the city through both vantage points: as both a gigantic mass “immobilized” and the animated, up-close view from the street. “Music for Hope” does the same, but in a way remarkably devoid of people. The city does not need to be “immobilized” through the distance of the aerial view, for it is always already immobilized by restrictions and stay-at-home orders.

Andrea Boccelli poster

Finally, as an aerial shot of the Duomo comes into view, Bocelli’s voiceover is heard saying, “I believe in the strength of praying together. I believe in the Christian Easter, a universal symbol of rebirth that everyone, whether they are believers or not, truly needs right now. Thanks to the music, streamed live, bringing together millions of clasped hands everywhere in the world, we will hug this wounded Earth’s pulsing heart.” Embracing the idea of “together apart,” Bocelli’s concert utilizes “liveness” and synchronicity as a means of fostering what Benedict Anderson might call an “imagined community.” The Pope’s livestreamed Masses and Bocelli’s livestreamed concert reveal an undercurrent of vitalism, which some argue is central to Italian thought. As Roberto Esposito points out in Living Thought, vitalism — the belief that there is a life force that animates — is central to the cluster of Italian theorists he explores. Vitalism always already implies a dualism — a separation between the living and the nonliving. For Esposito, Italian thought comes into being after the linguistic turn. It is against language and what is against language is life.

“ The Pope’s livestreamed Masses and Bocelli’s livestreamed concert reveal an undercurrent of vitalism, which some argue is central to Italian thought. ”

Anderson coined the term “imagined community” in an attempt to explore the relationship between language, capitalism, and the modern nation (or nation-state). Anderson argues that capitalism and language factor heavily into the development of national identities, and in turn, the development of the nation as the standard unit of measurement in today’s world. The capitalist mindset prevailed as Latin was supplanted by vernacular languages around the time of the Reformation. As Latin was supplanted and vernacular prevailed, the imaginary Christian community construct was supplanted as well, and national consciousness grew. Language began to contribute more and more to national identity as people gained greater awareness of the other people who spoke their language. It also allowed communication across dialects that perhaps were not as easily translatable in verbal communication. Additionally, languages became more fixed, allowing for tradition and history to become established; writings could exist in a time vacuum, instead of being updated by monk-scribes until they no longer resembled the original work. [12]

The beginning of “Music for Hope” clearly leverages Italy’s national marketing points, putting its beautiful tourist sites and Catholicism on full display. Bocelli’s voiceover continues: “Italy prides itself on this wonderful international melting pot. The generous, courageous, proactive Milan and the whole of Italy will, once again, be a role model, an engine of a renaissance that we all hope for. It will be a joy to witness it in the Duomo, during the Easter celebration which evokes the mystery of birth and rebirth.” [13] Italy’s identity is, at this point, inseparable from its global brand. It occupies a niche in global tourism and manufacturing. And with Bocelli’s gesture to Rinascimento or Renaissance, it cements its place in a cyclical process of medievalism then renaissance, of continual death and rebirth (an Easter celebration, indeed). As Bocelli invokes “the mystery of birth and rebirth,” he touches upon the importance of mystery in the Christian tradition. From the early Christian practice of keeping rites a secret so that pagans would not mock them, to the mysterium fidei (mystery of faith) which is defined in the Catholic Catechism as that which God knows but does not reveal, mystery plays a central role in Catholicism, and Christianity more broadly. And, insofar as the mysteries of faith are experiential rather than rational, then so too is the magic of mediation. Or, rather, mystery is the matte-ness of mediation. Mysteries are opaque, one does not understand how they work, and yet they also do not seem deep enough to bother explaining.

But, according to media theorist Wendy Chun, networks “do not produce an imagined and anonymous ‘we’.” They are not “imagined communities” because they do not “depend on mass communal activities, such as reading the morning newspaper, to create national citizens,” but rather “rely on asynchronous yet pressing actions to create interconnected users.” In essence, networks “pierce through the ‘mass’ or community to capture individual and preindividual relations.” [14] And yet, when 27 million people synchronously watch a live concert on YouTube, do we need to rethink the network as “asynchronous yet pressing”? What about the current moment, the global pandemic, demands a return to liveness, and a desire to watch synchronously?

In 2014, Giancarlo Lombardi (Professor of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and College of Staten Island) wrote about the emergence of so-called “quality” or “prestige” television in Italy, brought about by the rise of on-demand subscription services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. With the advent of online platforms and television crossing borders in new ways, Italian screens were touched by emerging “prestige” genres such as Scandinavian noir and big-budget Anglophone period dramas. Italian producers, struggling to compete, upped their game with new shows on the RAI (public) and Mediaset (private) networks. [15] In turn, television no longer seemed to be taking a backseat to film and printed media in the field of Italian screen studies, where it had long been neglected. [16] Whereas analysis of Italian television had once largely been limited to “the institutional level, paying particular attention to the role played by opposing political forces in its daily practices: the Christian Democrat hegemony of the early days, the division of managerial oversight of individual public channels among Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists in the late 1970s and 1980s, the consequences of the advent of private networks, and questions around the later entry of media-mogul Silvio Berlusconi into politics,” now it expanded into other areas of concern. [17]

Yet perhaps the pandemic has resurrected a societal desire for “liveness.” In the tradition of radio and cable television of yore, the biggest draw of livestreaming is a sense of synchronously-occurring habits and routines — a sense of community. This return to a desire for liveness and for originality, strongly associated with television, cements a link between the medium of television and the computer and phone screens with which most people now consume content. In a moment where culture is moving away from liveness and more towards on-demand viewing, what is it about the pandemic that demands liveness? But it is equally important to interrogate the concept of “live,” and television’s promise of the live, just as Mary Ann Doane and Mimi White have done in their work on televised catastrophe. The seeming temporal liveness can obscure a dis-reality or un-reality in the televisual. Even “real” programs such as nonfiction news are orchestrated, rehearsed, heavily edited, and manipulated. Yet the liveness of these media forms is contradictory, insofar as it is also routinized, repeatable, and habitual. Prior to the global pandemic, Francis refused to livestream his morning liturgies, alternatively referred to as the Masses at Santa Marta. As Father Federico Lombardi, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, explained: “It is a Mass with a group of the faithful present in which the Pope wants to preserve a familiar character.” [18] But in March, Francis changed his mind “in light of the emergency.” [19] The masses began to be broadcast live every day, becoming an iterative practice for the faithful tuning in. Just as the formal aspects of the liturgy involve repetition as a matter of doctrine, these repeated livestreamed Masses became habitual, contradictorily both “new” every day, and yet also involving repeated elements. Thus, kairotic time, invoked in light of the emergency, is arrested indefinitely; there is no everyday time to return to because the apocalypse is ongoing, or perhaps the kairotic time becomes everyday time (chronos). In a sense, then, what has happened with the livestreaming of the Masses is the mundanization of the extraordinary, in which, as Giorgio Agamben might say, the originary state of exception ceases to be exceptional and, instead, becomes the rule. [20]

“ In a sense, then, what has happened with the livestreaming of the Masses is the mundanization of the extraordinary, in which, as Giorgio Agamben might say, the originary state of exception ceases to be exceptional and, instead, becomes the rule. ”

Although the livestreaming of Masses may have become ordinary in the sense of being routinized, the extraordinary, kairotic urgency of the moment and the attendant need to make decisive choices remains. The rhetoric of Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi homily may once again prove illustrative. As briefly discussed above, he begins by establishing a connection between a passage from the Gospel of Mark and the coronavirus pandemic. Metaphorized as a dark storm (tempesta), he depicts the COVID-19 pandemic as a thick weighty darkness that has gradually descended upon the Earth, filling it with a deafening silence and emptying it of life — both literally, considering the horrifying death toll, and figuratively, as nations impose lockdowns, thereby leaving cities around the world almost devoid of human presence. “When evening had come,” the Pope began, citing the Gospel of Mark, likening our current experience in the pandemic to disciples facing the turbulent storm. And indeed, evening did come! In a spectacular manifestation of the Pope’s homily, the skies, already darkening, opened up and rained down. Of the many images that were taken to capture this extraordinary moment, those by Yara Nardi are particularly poignant. In them, we get the sense that the Pope’s words, punctuated by the echoes of the rain, bridge the spatial and temporal gap between the narrated events of the Gospel and the homily’s present moment. The metaphorization of the pandemic collapses the distinction between past and present. By bringing the historical and religious to bear on current events, the Pope is seeking a location for the present and future using past events insofar as they are recounted and used as a catalyst to change what is to come.

“Historical experience,” as Agamben notes, is obtained by the image, and the images themselves are charged with history.” [21] Every image is charged with movement, like stills from a film, it captures the present moment. Of the many images that were taken to capture the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing, the above is charged with the dynamic tension that animated the Pope’s homily. The visual elements act not just as representations but reverberations of the multilayered metaphors used to refer to the current events. [22] The darkness — the evening and the metaphorized pandemic — overtakes the light, descending upon it, surrounding St. Peter’s Square, just as the pandemic has descended upon the global community, taking it by storm and destroying many lives in its wake. The Pope stands alone surrounded by a halo of light, like a shining beacon amid the storm, a symbol of the hope and fortitude his homily sought to instill. In the image, the deafening silence that the Pope speaks of is visualized by the emptiness of the square.

The March 27 Urbi et Orbi and the April 12 Bocelli concert, extraordinary as they were, serve as a new occasion to raise old questions — of mediation, of universality, of community, of temporality, of care, and of immunity, among others — that are once again urgently pertinent in the era of COVID-19. Some such questions may include: How do communities work in the era of social distancing? In what ways might persons exist together as we exist apart? What practices of care are possible, or desirable? And, returning to the Pope’s metaphorization of illness in his homily and blessing, how might individuals and communities generate amongst themselves the antibodies they need to confront adversity? Although raised here by the local event of the Pope’s blessing, these questions currently resonate globally — as demonstrated by the regular and widespread circulation of the images that captured it.

Modes of Immunization

Perhaps not coincidentally, such questions have also long preoccupied a group of philosophers and intellectuals who may be loosely grouped under the heading “Italian Thought” or “Italian Theory,” as Roberto Esposito suggests in his 2012 Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy. In this work, Esposito characterizes “Italian Theory” as a tradition of thought marked by a distinctive style (what he calls “the Italian difference”) that has arisen as a result of the Italian experience of the late, and perhaps never fully realized, arrival of a formal nation-state, that most modern of political communities. [23] He explicates this thought-style with reference to three overarching commitments that he suggests differentiate it from other Western and European traditions. These are: (1) the immanence of conflict, that is, “the idea that conflict is constitutive of order;” (2) the historicization of the nonhistorical, that is, the constant attempt to come to terms with that historically intractable element, origins, that paradoxically rests at the foundations of history; and (3) the mundanization of the subject, that is, the deconstruction and reconstruction of subjectivity as a category of life — each of which may be indexed by the terms politics, history, and life, respectively. [24] What results from these three commitments, he argues, is a vitalist tradition that enacts “a rupture with the specialized, self-referential lexicon that characterizes the discourse of other traditions,” [25] and which places a simultaneous emphasis upon the power of thought-in-action for channeling creativity, openings, newness — life. For Esposito and those intellectuals whom he identifies as ostensibly operating under the umbrella of Italian Thought, philosophy and critical inquiry are as much about making new forms of historical, political life possible outside the hegemonic structures of Western modernity as they are about solving intellectual and categorical problems. In fact, one of the fundamental assertions of Living Thought is that there is little distinction between the two in Italian Thought.

Without suggesting that Roman Catholicism as represented by Pope Francis’s homily and Italian Thought as represented by Esposito’s Living Thought are engaged in parallel projects of inquiry, politicization, and/or worldmaking, it does seem that the traditions share something of a common emphasis upon creating forms of human togetherness that appeal to some sort of originary unity, however provisional. Hence, it may prove interesting to read Francis’s March 27 Urbi et Orbi address and Esposito’s characterization of Italian Thought together as well as against one another, especially as it relates to the constitution and maintenance of communities. How do each deal with politics, history, and life?

One of the central tenets in Esposito’s thought is the immunity-community paradigm, where “immunity constitutes or reconstitutes community precisely by negating it.” [26] That is, community is not only identified with the common, what unites the people together, it is also the threshold that continually risks collapsing into itself. [27] Immunity enters into the social as a mechanism that functions through the use of what it opposes; it is a reaction that hinders another force threatening the community. [28] Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Esposito’s immunity-community paradigm becomes especially relevant; as the global community struggles with implementing not only biomedical immunization measures — urging the public to wear protective masks, providing testing measures, racing to create a medication and vaccine — but also political immunitary mechanisms (instating lock down measures within the nation and closing down borders, calling in military forces to help manage the crisis, implementing various social distancing measures and using the police to enforce them).

“ [In the Urbi et Orbi address,] the temporal collapse between the events of the Gospel and the current pandemic serves as a reminder that faith is the immunitary mechanism that is required to confront this adversity. ”

In Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Esposito, by drawing on Emile Benveniste’s etymological study of the terms sacred and holy, highlights the intrinsically immunitary character of religion. The concept of the sacred bifurcates into two horizons of meaning; on the one hand, it refers to what is animated by the divine and divine power, and on the other hand, it refers to what is forbidden to human contact. The immunizing effect of religion is inscribed in the functional overlap between these two aspects; religion affects a state of immunity that blocks evil by setting up an impassable limit within the community. That is, “religion saves — or heals — life through the absorption of something that binds it to its opposite, that draws life from death, or includes death in life.” [29] Religion, therefore, opens up a salvific space of survival that is predicated on the presence of restraint within the community. The immunitary trait of religion lies in its guarantee of safety and salvation in the face of deadly peril. [30]

In particular, Esposito examines the immunitary trait of religion by analyzing the relationship between religion and technoscience as a dialectic of incorporation and rejection. He states that “on the one hand, religion, especially Christianity, has universalized itself through the spectacular forms of media provided by contemporary communication technologies; on the other hand, in order to protect its principles from their destabilizing effects, it maintains an attitude of cautious reserve.” [31] For Esposito, Christianity’s immunitary function has been achieved through its perhaps singular relationship with technologies of mediation. Simultaneously dependent upon them and critical of them, Christianity both deploys these technologies to widen its sphere of influence, as the Pope’s tweeted invitation to the Urbi et Orbi demonstrates, and disavows them as the very means by which this sphere of influence gets interrupted or otherwise challenged.

In the Urbi et Orbi address, for example, the Pope asserts that the pandemic unmasks (smaschera) the false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily lives, many of which are dependent upon modern technological advances, insisting that our forgetfulness of the lessons from the past has led us to the current crisis. In doing so, “we have denied ourselves the necessary immunity needed to confront adversity” (privandoci cosi de l’immunità necessaria per fare fronte a l’avversita). The Pope sees the coronavirus pandemic as a culmination of humanity’s continued disregard for all of the disasters that human and human technologies have created—disasters that are framed as divine signs warning us of our unhealthy lifestyles and the grave danger they pose to our ailing planet. The storm that has beseeched the global community is thus broadened to include the normalization of war, global injustice, income inequality, climate change, and capitalism. The Pope fashions a timeline by working backwards from the current coronavirus pandemic to other modern ills, including ecological devastation and the myriad violences of capitalism and global warfare, reframing these historical events as a series of ignored warnings that have led to the current crisis.

“Why are you afraid? Do you not have faith?” (Perché avete paura? Non avete ancora fede?) This repeated refrain cuts through the homily, effectively establishing faith as what is common to the community and the threshold that threatens its collapse. According to the Pope, the global community’s lack of faith has engendered the fear and anxiety permeating our every gesture and glance. At the same time, the temporal collapse between the events of the Gospel and the current pandemic serves as a reminder that faith is the immunitary mechanism that is required to confront this adversity. In the homily, the Pope seeks to reconstruct the global community as a community of faith marked by action as faith’s external evidence. Like the disciples, we must be secure in the knowledge that God’s strength and mercy will ultimately bring serenity to this storm. The repeated refrain frames the Pope’s homily as a microcosm of what the community should look like when faith becomes the frame that holds the community together.

Transnational Epic and Global Community

Such faith may take the form of the actions that the Pope prescribes in his homily, namely, minor expressions of care, acknowledgement, and reassurance that “allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity, and solidarity” to emerge. They may also take a grander, more poetic form. One final example illustrates how COVID-19 has caused people around the world to revisit old questions of religion, media, community, politics, history, and life with sometimes surprising results.

On March 13, 2020, a photograph was published of a banner placed outside Maria Nuova hospital in Florence. According to the news source, the banner was made by four Chinese boys (the reports did not specify whether the boys or their family members had been treated at the hospital). [32] The bilingual sign reads: “Medici e Infermieri, eroi moderni senza poeti a raccontare il vostro coraggio ... Grazie di cuore” and is translated as “Doctors and nurses, modern heroes with no poets to tell of your courage. Thank you from the heart.” In response, three poets — Jeff Dolven, Maureen N. McLane, and Geoffrey Nutter — sought to fill the lack noted in the banner and composed poems as a gesture of appreciation for the medical workers at the frontline of the pandemic. The image, along with the poetry, create an imagined world where borders — be they geographic or linguistic — give way to transnational communication. The banner, composed in Italian and Chinese, is a testament to the power of poetry to document and commemorate historical events. The need to honor medical workers’ courage far exceeds the limits of a singular linguistic stratum. The photograph reveals the relationship between the visual and the literary, emphasizing the inherent link between the various forms of expression. The banner, in its calling for the poetic inscription of courage, and the medical worker, who is unrecognizable behind the cover of protective equipment, with shoulders hunched over perhaps in defeat or with exhaustion, configure and reconfigure in a continual cycle of signification. The photograph stands as a transmedial bridge between the different forms of expression, as the visual and textual are engaged in a continual act of translation. From one language to another, from one medium to another, the medical workers’ courage has been inscribed into history and the banner itself becomes a translated and translating subject.

In her poem, McLane gestures towards the tradition of Greco-Roman epic poetry as a mode of historical writing. Epic as historical narrative became a staple in Italian medieval and Renaissance poetry with poets like Dante and Tasso narrativizing historical events in poetic discourse. In her own act of historical narrativization, McLane describes the state of medical workers at the frontlines of the pandemic:

They too need a song
modern heroes
alive to the moment
rushing in, armored or no
heedless of kleos
sing them a song
studium, praxis, touch, instrument
pharmakon pharmakon
the greatest athlete is the one who vaults
toward the wound

Here, McLane likens the modern heroes — medical workers — to the ones that populate epic poetry from Odysseus and Achilles to Tasso’s Tancredi. The notion of armor, then, takes on a dual meaning: the war armor of epic heroes gives way to the PPE of medical workers. Heroic glory (kleos) occupies a central place in epic poetry, as a reference to both the warrior’s heroic deeds in battle and the bardic tradition that keeps his memory alive. McLane subtly gestures towards the lack of PPE available to medical workers. “Armored or no,” medical workers rush into hospitals to save lives. Public recognition of this risk comes to define the concept of kleos within the poem.

“ The community that is created ... is defined by our shared inhabitance of Earth; a global community that transcends geopolitical borders, one that is built upon our shared experience of the pandemic and the heroism of medical workers around the world. We, the readers, are tasked with being the epic bards that are meant to record and memorialize this experience. ”

The image and accompanying poetry attest to the fact that communities are also produced and constructed as places — physical or imagined — in which forms of belonging and sociability occurs. In this case, as in the Pope’s homily, the establishment of a community hinges on the recognition of belonging. It is an affective bond of kinship that is formed when one recognizes and names a commonality with another. At the end of her poem, McLane addresses the reader and the community asking that we all “sing them a song under a shared sky.” Therefore, the community that is created in those lines is defined by our shared inhabitance of Earth; a global community that transcends geopolitical borders, one that is built upon our shared experience of the pandemic and the heroism of medical workers around the world. We, the readers, are tasked with being the epic bards that are meant to record and memorialize this experience. After all, as Toni Negri asserts “pain is the constitutive process, and only by undergoing it, suffering (compatendo) with the world, can we reconstruct the world from pain. Compassion goes beyond recognition, beyond the concept, beyond representation … it is not the divinity, then, not a meaning that descends from above, but suffering and pain, which come from below, that construct the very being of the world.” [33]

[1] According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” plenary indulgences offer a full remission of the “temporal punishment due to sins.” One helpful way to understand what this means is to think of Dante’s Purgatorio. Very roughly, a plenary indulgence would free one from having to spend any time in Purgatory and move straight to Paradise.

[2] See Reuters, for example, both on Twitter, and through their homepage at homepage.

[3] The homily was delivered in response to the following passage from the Gospel of Mark: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:35-41 NRSV).

[4] Pope Francis-Moment of prayer 27-03-2020,” Vatican News, video, March 23, 2020,

[5] Ordinary Time” is not here meant in the sense of the Church’s liturgical calendar, but in the sense of mundane or everyday time.

[6] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2016), 74.

[7] For an example of a work that takes as its explicit concern the relationship between Christianity and media, look to media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion and Media (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), written after his highly-publicized conversion to Catholicism, and edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek.

[8] Matthew Engelke, “Number and the Imagination of Global Christianity; or, Mediation and Immediacy in the Work of Alain Badiou,” South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 4 (October 1, 2010): 811.

[9] Lorenzo Tondo, “Pope’s blessing in empty St Peter’s Square watched by 11m on TV,” The Guardian, March 28, 2020,

[10] “Andrea Bocelli: Music for Hope – Live from the Duomo di Milano,” April 12, 2020, video,

[11] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 383.

[12] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

[13] Translated from the Italian by Mariam Tarek Ibrahim Aboukiahir. Original: “Meravigliosa fucina internazionale che orgoglio Italia. La generosa, coraggiosa, propositiva Milano e l’Italia tutta saranno nuovamente prestissimo uno modello vincente, motore di un rinascimento che tutti auspichiamo. Sara una gioia testimoniarlo in Duomo, nella festività che evoca mistero della nascita e della rinascente.”

[14] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2016), 4-5.

[15] Giancarlo Lombardi, “Rethinking Italian Television Studies,” The Italianist 34, no. 2 (2014): 261.

[16] Lombardi, “Rethinking Italian Television Studies,” 261.

[17] Lombardi, “Rethinking Italian Television Studies,” 261.

[18] “Pope Francis’ morning Mass broadcast live every day,” Vatican News, video, March 8, 2020,

[19] “Pope Francis’ morning Mass broadcast live every day.”

[20] While not wholly pertinent to the subject at hand, Giorgio Agamben’s by-now infamous meditations on coronavirus as an opportunity for western governments to enact and routinize a new state of exception are worth considering here. For the first two meditations in which he advances this most clearly, see For the third, which turns more explicitly to the problematics of religion, medicine, ;Krisis, and cultic practices, see

[21] Giorgio Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films,” trans. Brian Holmes. Lecture, Sixth International Video Week, Centre Saint-Gervais, Geneva, Switzerland, November, 1995.

[22] Phrasing borrowed from Kavita Singh.

[23] Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 21.

[24] Esposito, Living Thought, 24-31.

[25] Esposito, Living Thought, 11.

[26] Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 9.

[27] Roberto Esposito, Communitas: ;The Origin and Destiny of Community, trans. Timothy Campbell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 12.

[28] Esposito, Immunitas, 7.

[29] Esposito, Immunitas, 57.

[30] Agamben’s concerns with the way that medicine now functions as a religion are a nice supplement to Esposito’s community-immunity paradigm. See again Giorgio Agamben, “Medicine as Religion,” trans. Adam Kotsko, in An und für sich, the blog of “an intellectual community dedicated to innovative thinking in the humanities,”

[31] Esposito, Living Thought, 52.

[32] Jeff Dolven, Maureen N. McLane, and Geoffrey Nutter, “Modern Heroes with No Poets to Tell of Their Courage,” Cabinet, March 24, 2020,

[33] Antonio Negri, The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor, trans. Matteo Mandarini (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 93.