Index “Corona”: Symbolic Employment of COVID-19 in the Public Discourse in Serbia

  • Marko Pišev Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade
  • Bojan Žikić Department of Ethnology and Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade
  • Mladen Stajić Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade
Keywords:
semiology, “corona”, pandemic, index, metonymy, metaphor, inversion

Abstract

In this paper we analyze the different ways in which COVID-19 is used as a carrier of cultural communication, whereupon it appears as a signifier of other socio-cultural phenomena and as a conveyer of messages of such communication. Accordingly, this paper will not observe health plan of COVID-19, nor the accompanying sociological phenomena of the epidemic in the strict sense of the word, but will focus instead on the cultural dimension of the infection. As a cultural phenomenon, the process of the planetary spread of COVID-19 infection – and hence the virus itself – can be viewed as an ambiguous symbol through which the collective experience of reality is constructed and communicated, perceived and interpreted. By relying on the decades-long tradition of Serbian ethnology and anthropology in the modified application of structural-semantic analysis, we define the use of COVID-19 as a symbolic means of cultural communication, here seen as indexical. This means that the said communication is organized on the principle that “A indicates B”, where the signifying A refers to the metaphorical and metonymic use of the disease, and B refers to various social phenomena related to it. As a metonymy, the considered phenomenon can be seen in the light of the classical binary division of purity and danger, whereupon the virus, in the cultural sense, divides the whole social reality into pure (still unpolluted) and impure aspects, one corresponding to the “normal” condition of things, and the other indicating a sense of explicit danger – not only from infection, but from the collapse of the social system and the disintegration of public health and community as well. As a metaphor, we observe the virus in relation to the official political instrumentalization of the discourse of warfare, which – depending on who employs it, and why – generates different notions on the “invisible enemy”, war victims (deceased as a consequence of infection) and “(super) heroes” (primarily, health workers, but also state officials and other public figures). COVID-19 is, however, peculiar because it can also play the role of an inverse sign, by which common cultural concepts and representations are perverted, destabilizing the shared sense of “real” and “normal”.

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Published
2020-11-07

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