• Azrael Encarnacion

VARIANT

The expected isn't as set as it wishes to be, variance is not only possible but also recommended.


I think I’m becoming obsessed with the word ‘variant’--If there were such a thing as lexicon awards, including Word of the Year, I’d be surprised if ‘variant’ wasn’t an automatic shoe-in nominee in 2021. We’ve all by now heard the word on the news or social media, likely escorted by GIFs and memes. Shit, I think it’s even safe to say 2021 was in many ways, the variant of 2020. A mutated variation. It sounds exotic and novel but in evolutionary biology, mutation and variation are as common as the scent of popcorn in a movie theatre. All Life on a cellular level, undergoes mutation as cells reiterate themselves. This can be beneficial, neutral or harmful to the host, depending on which cells mutate, as well as how, and when.


In humans, our genetic composition is constantly altered by such factors as sunlight exposure, consumed substances and/or diets, even flight on an airplane contributes to minor mutations. And these mutations, harmful or not, increase with age. So just as we’re highly variant, remixed iterations of our parents and fore-parents, we also, over time, come to be highly variant versions of ourselves. Like the message whispered in a rotation of ears during a game of broken telephone, morphing throughout every turn.


Not sure how many of you have watched the Disney+ Marvel Studios show, Loki—It was released on the earlier side of 2021—If you caught it, you definitely noticed it contained the word ‘variant’ as a central part of its story. Less to do with cells and viruses, (although the trickster parallels between COVID-19 and the Demigod of Mischief could be fun to explore). Instead, Loki dealt with alternate worlds, the idea of a multiverse where you might exist in various para-incarnations throughout the panoply of timelines. Specifically, the versions who deviate from their set timeline or path, these 'other-yous' are called variants. A nice coincidental nod to the pandemic, and one that also winks at comic book culture, because Marvel and DC comics are notorious for offering various cover artwork for the same comic book—As incentive for collectors to buy more copies—These alternate covers also happen to be called variants.


There’s something to the former association worth keeping in mind, if only to occasionally play with. The concept of potential, as a novel coronavirus discovers new ways of remaining novel. Eluding the set path, choosing fugitivity as it were, to fulfill more of what it can be.


This reminds me of a recent exchange between myself and a friend via our ongoing email correspondence. They mentioned the novel The Midnight Library by Matt Haig which also explored the concept of parallel or variant lifetimes. And like the TVA (Time Variance Authority) of Loki, The Midnight Library is a crossroads of existence outside existence. Housing infinite books that transcribe infinite, individual timelines. My friend expressed the importance of meditating on those hypothetical, infinite lives, so as to seek the iterations that cause the most excitement and inspire us, within the 4,000 weeks (the average human lifespan), to either touch or access or manifest something similar in our own timeline.


COVID-19’s mutation to DELTA and now OMICRON…And likely more yet to come pulls on this thread of extended potential.


I know it’s a sensitive matter. The grief countless people have undergone (myself included) or are undergoing due to the pandemic is a real thing and I mean no disrespect by considering the virtue of this villified, viral demigod. Calling COVID inspirational can feel wrong or privileged, but there is something to likewise be respected about its ability to affect us the way that it has. It’s cause enough to examine what advantage has COVID exploited over our human-centric world? And how have we failed to change or remove that advantage? It’s a study I’m not undertaking here but am nonetheless intrigued by.


The concept of being variant. That idea holds me for a second. In Loki, the anti-hero meets one of his variants, much older, who escaped death at the hands of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War by casting a projected copy of himself, while this real Loki absconds to a life of solitude far away. Again the elusive nature of variation is signaled here. The cunning of a sage who answers a challenge with a question is that it extends the unanswered moment, and the challenge or challenger whose power lies in an answer, is for the moment, nullified. As it stands within the MCU, Loki’s very existence is an unanswered question: He died, yet he didn’t, his mini-series is unconcluded (so not so mini) and as mentioned above, sets implications that even his death in The Avengers film was faked. it’s part of who he is as the god of mischief to trick you. To remain unanswered. This is likewise the strength of COVID-19, the amount of question marks suspended in the air, even with masks, guidelines, and vaccines are unphased. Leaving us, the challenger, vexed as our power lies in the answer, the arrival of which COVID and it’s gallery of increasing rogues are prolonging


The desired answer for humans, in fighting COVID is to restore human order. A jump back to a previous and recent iteration of human stability. One where our human world (or anthropocene) is largely unchallenged by microbes. Despite them always being there; despite our bodies constantly playing host for such living systems. The new and sudden awareness, on a widespread scale, that we are a shared bio-state with various living relationships—That earthling community extends beyond just the human—Is one we are trying to resolve now by something akin to quieting that knowledge. Inoculating ourselves against it. I’m vaccinated and I’m not against vaccines per se, I’m speaking more in poetry than logical social criticism here when I say we seek immunity from the new knowledge we cannot otherwise unsee. If I’m saying anything about vaccines, it’s this: they alone are not enough. If their purpose is to return the anthropocene to business as usual, and if business as usual is part of the reason COVID and other global crises are able to flourish, then likely the only thing vaccines and vaccines alone will guarantee...Is more vaccines.


There is a call here, to be variant. To discover a different recourse. The more we lean into the new variant earth--That has already begun expressing itself through climate change, a global pandemic and geographic or political displacement--Then the more we adapt and mutate with it; complimenting the variance. Answering its question with a question.


We’re so accustomed to this relationship working in the opposite direction, forcing the planet to conform to us but perhaps we’ve pushed too far and now earth is pushing back. So with humble readjustments in mind, we should be asking: What’s the variant of economy? What’s the variant of labor? Of capitalism? What’s the variant of citizenship? Of collective and individual? What’s the variant of the anthropocene? In The Midnight Library what alternative ways of being can we find in the books for each of these. The answers are always in dialogue with the planet which speaks in an expansive, intra-biological language. To ignore the correspondence because the dialect isn’t strictly human will continue to get us in trouble as we await a human answer.


I think of all this when I hear the word variant. When I remember The Loki series and it’s themes of glorious purpose, determination, determinism, fugitivity and change. Even the Gods of Mischief have to make difficult realizations and let certain things go. It’s also the case when I think of philosopher, Bayo Akomolafe, whose work has been very impactful on me as of late, and his conjuring of Eshu, the Yoruba trickster god who similarly is known to queer the set path. Bayo also talks of post-activism, the notion that questions agency, through the understanding that the agent is so intricately 'spilled' into various connections and relationships. The human centric responsibility to act on or save the world isn’t as powerful as it wishes to be. The title of ‘human’ deceives one to believe it escapes anything non-human, or that agency is an exclusive effort which does not require the participation or invocation of the non-human.


The word ‘agent’ at once, makes me think of Agent Smith from The Matrix. And because of COVID, I instantly go to the scene from the first film where Agent Smith tells a captive Morpheus that human society defies mammal classification as it is more behaviorally similar to a virus. If he’s right, then all the more reason to lean into the opportunity to mutate the anthropocene and deviate from what we previously perceived to be our set path. Like the older Loki, to offer as a sacrifice, a copied projection of the current anthropocene to that which threatens it; to partially expire what we believed was the role of humans for the planet, as we slip away and become something less detectable to the antagonist. It’s no coincidence that towards the end of the mini-series, Loki’s main collaborator Sylvie (his variant) believes the way to defeat a monster called Alioth isn’t by killing it but rather by enchanting it. And by doing so, opening a portal through which to escape beyond it.


I offer this in the spirit of an invitation to look beyond our monsters. To look beyond what we see. To make variant connections and stretch ourselves over variant definitions. Mutated possibilities. The walls we’re using to keep out what we are to become, are trapping us in. And what better key than ‘enchantment’ to bring to life what we usually see as inanimate, unliving (even when living) and therefore just as agental as ourselves in traversing solutions.