Zian Chen’s COVID-19 test certificate from Taipei airport.

Even those countries least affected so far by the spread of COVID-19 within their communities have been feeling its impact, with ramifications extending into citizens’ livelihoods from the wider fields of economy and politics alike. Social media replaces social interaction; an environment devoid of genuine contact prompts the algorithmic intensification of fake news production. The pseudo-cybernetic nature of social media technology tends to strengthen its users’ pre-existing views, rather than encouraging them to tap into opposing perspectives (read: “errors”) – the chain of the #feedbackloop.

Most likely we’ve all been consuming a significant amount of it already. So let’s go low-tech for a moment, and look away from high media technology. I’d like to think, very simply, about the apology – not as a matter of mere courtesy or a diplomatic gesture, but as a technology of the self. We often talk about apologising as renewing the threshold of our relationship to another. But the apology, even viewed outside the pure efficacy of its social function, is a sort of mental yoga and a personal ritual. Its field of immanence connects a number of faculties: irony and sincerity go hand in hand, preceded by the disquiet and slowness of thought.

Below I have gathered some of examples of apologies I randomly encountered during the period of self-isolation which I underwent following my return home to Taiwan from London.

Han Song, “COVID-19 dampens the confidence of Chinese sci-fi.” Weibo. Feburary 3, 2020

In China, on the 21st of January, right after the government officially announced that the human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 had been confirmed, we began to notice a tremendous influx of fake news – and we could see where it was coming from. Social media was soon filled with calls for the Chinese public to be aware of what was happening. In February, science fiction author Han Song made a post on Weibo in an attempt to spark the critical consciousness of his circle:

From now on, I will be constantly doing one thing: screenshotting and saving every article in my feeds, because they tend to disappear so fast, sometimes faster than the speed of light… It makes me feel like science fiction is trash. […] I don’t think this epidemic will bring anything new to the table for sci-fi. What’s going on in Wuhan right now has certainly been written before, with even many matching details. And what use does it have? Probably none of the big shots in the party seats in Wuhan, or Huanggang, have read any of it. This shows exactly what science fiction is in the public mind: trash.

As Han observes, except for scanty and intermittent attention – always following some social crisis – Chinese sci-fi has largely been relegated to the trash bin. As Han currently works as a journalist for the Xinhua News Agency, he ends his statement with an apology:

Any mistakes I’ve made are due to the impact of this exceptional time on my reptilian brain. I beg the forgiveness of my family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and superiors. Should you wish for me to be discharged from work, I will desire nothing more.

Memoirs of ****: Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar: A Reputed Native of Formosa. Image source.

We see a similarly excessive self-deprecation and irony in the openings of Memoirs of ****: Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar: A Reputed Native of Formosa. The manuscript begins, “the last will and testament of me: a poor sinful and worthless creature commonly known by the assumed name of George Psalmanazar.” Psalmanazar, an odd charlatan of European descent, claimed for several years that he was a native of Taiwan, bringing him fame and notoriety in 18th century London. The rather dramatic admittance of his imposture in this “last will” is a playful challenge to the evangelical concept of salvation – he apologises for the forgery of his xeno-racial identity, but never actually reveals his real name.

Truth and apology go hand in hand, as the President of Taiwan indicated with her reference to the etymological proximity between the concepts of truth (balay) and reconciliation (sbalay) in the Atayal language, when she officially apologised to the island’s indigenous population for centuries of mistreatment.

Hu Jin-niang, a shaman from the Bunun nation uses miscanthus leaves to pray before the official apology to the indigenous people in Taiwan for centuries of injustice.

There’s no shortage of repentance among our various xeno-sapiens, and this goes for sci-fi writers too. Speaker for the Dead, by polemical author Orson Scott Card, centers around its infamous protagonist’s regret for the long-ago xenocide of the Formic species. Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem – the most successful representative of the Chinese sci-fi scene – has its main character literally apologise to an ant (though much more light-heartedly than Card’s angst-ridden ruminations). By updating our evolutionary perspective from a “survival of the fittest” paradigm to, say, that of “mutual aid,” we can proceed to develop our conversations in tones that enhance the interspecies space.

A joint piece by environmental scientist Jennifer Jacquet and painter Sarah Schlesinger expands this favoured format of sci-fi writers with an attempt to conduct an “intergenerational apology”:

One motivation to apologize is the personal relief that apologies can bring. To unburden one’s own conscience, the way that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did when he admitted his misjudgments that prolonged the Vietnam War. Another reason to apologize is an attempt to express to the future that at least some portion of society would have liked things to go differently, and that at least some among us attempted to instate a different habit of thought.

Jennifer Jacquet and Sarah Schlesinger, Intergenerational Apology, 2016. Photo Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

– Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow Zian Chen, 28 April 2020