The ‘Agony of the Event’ and COVID-19: Using the COVID-19 Pandemic to illustrate Deleuzian ideas of the Event

Thomas Cross identifies the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic as a Global Event and uses Deleuzian theory to examine our uncertain perceptions of time, narratives and potentiality in this unprecedented and historical Event. This essay is based on the first year ‘Global Events’ module.

Covid-19 virus Artwork courtesy of @amyyxzhang

Introduction

The Event lay at the heart of Delueze and Guattari’s idea on the task of philosophy; the creation of concepts to express the underlying problems, pure events, of the world and build a new one (Patton 1997). They did not produce ‘a coherent metaphysical theory or concept’ but tried to discover Event’s nature (Patton 2006: 109). Consequently, Deleuzian ideas of the event are formidable but COVID-19 helps to illustrate them. An Event ‘may be understood as being contingent, shocking, entangled, immanent, elusive, indeterminate, multiple, subject to appropriation, and open to counter‐actualisation’ (Ingram 2019: 33). COVID-19 is a geopolitical event (Green 2020), a happening that is disruptive, transformative and challenges our sense of the world; in the happenings of the Event it is possible for the world, or a world, to be broken a remade (Ingram 2019). My aim is not for an account of the happenings of the pandemic, nor to examine the pandemic according to ‘criteria’ of what an Event is, nor to dare attempt to use COVID-19 as a prompt to create a new concept to build a new world. Rather, my intention is to examine the Deleuzian idea of the ‘agony of the event’ with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. To do this the essay is split into sections examining time, unknowability & rupture, potentiality, and narratives & actualisation, of the Event respectively. In each section the theory is examined first and then COVID-19 is used to try to illuminate them.

I shall be focusing primarily upon the characteristic of Events as elusive and immanent. Deleuze draws a distinction between events (empirical actualities) and Events (virtual potentiality) (Ingram 2019). An Event is a recurring virtual pattern – Patton argues European colonisation can be thought of along these lines – whilst an event is merely the imperfect spatio-temporal realisation of an Event; the virtual potential inherent in the Event is never fully actualised (Ingram 2019, Patton 2006). Actualisations occur through narratives of the Event, narratives that are often familiar, producing the Event through a familiar frame of reference (Devetak 2009). The virtual-actual structure of the Event means it is irreducible to its actualisation in states of affairs and bodies, thus it is recognisable across different states of affairs and bodies (Patton 2006). Events are always in a state of becoming; it is the simultaneous becoming – ‘it is never something which is happening’ – that makes them agonising (Delueze cited in Ingram 2019: 24, Lundborg 2009, Patton 1997). Importantly becoming is not understood as the opposite of being (Colwell 1997). The state of becoming means they elude the present (and linear, historical, time), create dislocation through rupture, and defy full comprehension and actualisation (Ingram 2019, Lundborg 2009, Patton 1997 & 2006). For those experiencing the becomings of the pandemic, time is taken beyond linearity and there is palpable feeling of dislocation that stems from its rupture and unknowability. These ideas are apparent in COVID-19. Dominant imperfect actualisations – narratives of war – of the Event of COVID-19 are emerging. These narratives actualise COVID-19 through an existing frame of reference, simultaneously to try and comprehend the event and produce it as a particular kind of event, with everything that entails.

What day is it? Time in the Event

The production of an event is a ‘process of becoming, which lacks a final point of completion as well as an absolute presence or being’ (Lundborg 2009: n/p, emphasis in original). To illustrate this, Deleuze distinguishes between two, interrelated, forms of time: Chronos (the linear time of history)and Aion (the virtual time of the Event) (Ingram 2019). Chronos takes the present as the constitutive component of time, whilst Aion eludes the present and is instead divided between the recent past and apparent future (Ingram 2019, Lundborg 2009). The interaction between the two creates the becoming; Aion subsists and divides Chronos, destabilising it by making the past present (Lundborg 2009). The distinction arises from the difficulty, and paradoxes, of definitively saying precisely when events occur in history; the event of colonisation in Australia lacks a clear starting point and continues to haunt society (Patton 1997, 2006). Aion is the empty time of (pure) Event and consequently the Event lacks a present; it does not exist but rather subsist, ‘escaping into past and future’ (Ingarm 2019: 24). Consequently it can only be understood as a multiple becoming in relation to these two (Lundborg 2009). This multiple becoming is the ‘agony of the event’, it is simultaneously something ‘which has just happened and something that is about to happen; never something which is happening’ (Deleuze cited in Ingram 2019: 24, emphasis added). The ‘agony of the event’ is what renders it elusive; they are only ever understood in relation to what has happened and what will happen. The lack of a present means they are, capable of returning at any time, collapsing the past into the present, part of the constant expansion of the future (Patton 2006). For those experiencing the Event, this means that time eludes linearity; days bleed into one another giving the sense that ‘time is broken’ (Campbell 2001, Ingram 2019).

The example of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates these ideas of time in the Event, since its time can be thought of as Aion. An ever developing news feed constantly produces its becomings, which are divided between the past and future. It is understood in retrospect or projection; the effects it has had (principally the death toll) and what affects it will cause in the future. This allusion of the present illustrates the ‘agony of the event’; we cannot say definitively what is happening in the present, it is known by what might happen and what has happened.

The difficulty of identifying Events as discrete occurrences in Chronos is found in COVID-19. The ‘Covid-origin story’, its potential end, and at what point it became an Event (or indeed event), are filled with uncertainty (Readfearn 2020: n/p, McKie et al 2020). The WHO was first notified of suspicious pneumonia cases from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on the 31st of December, but symptom onset in the first patient identified was the 1st of December (WHO 2020, Huang et al 2020). In addition the first confirmed case by the WHO outside of China was in Thailand on 13th January, but retrospective testing of samples in France revealed its first COVID-19 patient was infected between 14th and 22nd December 2019 (WHO 2020, BBC 2020). Thus it is difficult to ascertain a precise starting point for the empirical actuality. Furthermore when did those cases become the Event of COVID-19? When did it become the rupturing force it is known as? Did COVID-19 become an Event when the WHO declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30th January 2020 or when it was declared a pandemic on the 11th March 2020 (WHO 2020)? Or did it become an Event even earlier? A proposed starting point will always be contentious and imperfect. Fundamentally, it is impossible to say definitively when Events occur as a point in Chronos since their time is Aion, and COVID-19 illustrates this; COVID-19 does not happen, it subsists.

Aion means Events disappear into the past and the future, and break linear time, both of which are apparent in COVID-19 (Ingram 2019). COVID-19 has brought WWII back into the foreground of the British imagination, an issue that shall be focused on later, and already appears to be slipping away into future issues, be that dating practices or long term implications for human rights in the US (Freedland 2020, Riotta 2020). COVID-19 has also created an impression of ‘broken’ time. The rupturing transformations of COVID-19 have meant people lack ‘the time to stop and take stock’; there is no present upon which to reflect upon the past (Kelly 2020: n/p). In addition the transformations were not smooth but ‘felt as though a ratchet was being yanked’; linear time is ‘broken’ or evaded. This left those affected with days bleed into each other; Google searches for ‘what day is it?’ rose in lockdown (Kelly 2020: n/p, Petter 2020). Thus COVID-19 further illuminates ideas of time in the Event.

‘Uncertainty is the only certainty there is’[1] The unknowability and rupture of the Event

An Event is fundamentally elusive; it always escapes being seemingly fixed, is only known by the imperfect impression it leaves, and destroys conventional experience itself (Colwell 1997, Ingram 2019, Devetak 2009). This elusiveness means Events lack a stable present to reflect on a past that may not have happened and a future that may not occur; knowledge is fundamentally imperfect (Lundborg 2009). To those inside the event experience of it is ‘something at once remote and all too near’; an Event is something at once real and imaginary (Patton 1997: n/p). Event experience carries this sense of dislocation and undoing because an Event is a rupture (Devetak 2009). An ‘Event changes experience itself’, and thus ‘exceeds intelligibility within prevailing frameworks of understanding’, furthering its unknowability (Devetak 2009: 796). Consequently an Event is more impression rather than definable empirical happening; at a fundamental level it escapes full conscious comprehension (Derrida 2007). This means experience of the Event is both passive and dislocating since ‘it flows through [the subject], affects them, carries them away and undoes them’ (Ingram 2019: 26). Nonetheless subject-centred knowledge or experience should not be denied, but recognised as imperfect and differential (ibid). Overall an Event is slightly Kafkaesque; a fundamentally elusive thing that produces feelings of powerlessness and dislocation in those it affects, and its rupture serves to enhance this.

It is possible to see how the unknowability and elusive nature of the Event is reflected in the COVID-19 pandemic. We have already seen how the ‘agony of the Event’ is reflected in COVID-19; it is understood in retrospect or projection. In addition, it is uncertain that what has happened is what has happened, or what is said will happen will happen; a compound agony of the Event. The uncertainties surrounding the UK death toll and infection rates are clear examples. The estimates of the number of possible infections in the UK are ambiguous (Lourenco et al 2020). In addition, there is substantial uncertainty about the national death toll and the ‘morbidity league tables’ used for international comparison (Cable 2020). Deaths are published in arrears, official death tolls are often only hospital death tolls; they are plagued by possible underestimation (Booth 2020). Death rate and infection rate are used in modelling of the virus but the huge uncertainties means that ‘all [the] models are wrong. Some are just less wrong than others’ (Borenstein & Johnson 2020: n/p). These twin massive uncertainties means not only is the ‘knowability’ of the present destabilised, so is the future; a ‘double’ agony of the Event. Thus we can see how COVID-19 follows the idea of the agony of the Event rendering our knowledge fundamentally imperfect.

That an Event is a rupture, and more impression than empirical happening is reflected in the ‘radical uncertainty’ created by COVID-19 (Kay & King 2020: n/p). This condition arises from slight knowledge or impression meaning we cannot ‘act with confidence’; COVID-19 is not a measurable uncertainty (ibid: n/p). Those families affected are uncertain of when the virus struck; it flowed through them, sometimes with deadly effect, known only by the holes it left in their families (Conn et al 2020). Those who have had to isolate with suspected mild symptoms are living ‘simultaneously in the kingdom of the sick and the well’, moving between opposed realities, living lives characterised by uncertainty and powerlessness; their liminal state reflects the elusiveness and dislocation of the Event (Farrier 2020: n/p). Further, lockdown means people are isolated without a full understanding of the Event – despite an ever present newsfeed – creating anxiety that is compounded by entanglement with other events, likely causing long term mental health impacts (Davis 2020, Murray & Sherwood 2020). The combination of experience of COVID-19 being at once isolation, paradox, dislocation, and deadly threat reflects how an Event ‘something at once remote and all too near’ (Patton 1997: n/p). The pervasive uncertainty of COVID-19 is heightened by its rupture. It is this quality of the Event that has caused commentators to predict that post WWII Britain would be ‘demarcated as BC and AC – before and after corona’ (Kelly 2020: n/p). Since it has upended routine and traditions, Ramadan rituals are one example, it has heightened feelings of dislocation and anxiety (Petter 2020, Alcorn 2020). In reports ‘everything was described as “unprecedented” now, because it was’ (Kelly 2020: n/p). Language has become inadequate, prevailing metaphors of war are found wanting, making comprehension of it nigh impossible (Farrier 2020). Overall it is evident that COVID-19 reflects how the rupture of the Event combines with its unknowability to make experience of them even more agonising.

‘The biggest challenge for the world since World War Two’[2] Narratives and actualisations of the Event

An Event ‘calls for an attempt to make sense of it, to recognise it, to comprehend it, to identify it, and to describe it’; the agony of the Event, that renders it unknowable, demands a response (Devetak 2009: 809). The process of actualisation is how an Event emerges in time to respond to this unknowability. The past (memory) exists virtually as a set of dissociated singularities or occurrences/events (Colwell 1997). It is not separate from the present, rather is part of each present (ibid). The process of recollection actualises virtuality by differentially repeating the singularities to organise them in a particular series, in order to bring ‘the past to bear on the present’ (ibid: n/p, emphasis added). Importantly this process is not intentional, the crossing of the virtual past and demands of the present forces an attempt at understanding; the singularities are ordered so it integrates a familiar series (Colwell 1997, Devetak 2009). What an actualisation does is reduce the Event from its state as problematic – its agony means it has no definitive solution – to a problem, allowing for a singular solution that can be potentially repeated (Colwell 1997). Thus Events are actualised, narrated, through an existing frame of reference – a familiar series of singularities – to try comprehended them, appropriate them, and generate singular solutions to them; they aim to soothe the agony of the Event (Patton 1997, Devetak 2009, Colwell 1997).

The actualisation of the Event within a certain social context determines it as a kind of event, with attendant consequences, meaning contestation of descriptions is politically important (Patton 1997, Ingram 2019). Importantly, since Events repeat differentially, an actualisation is a mutation of the virtual, not a representation; its embodiment in states of affairs does not capture or mirror the virtual (Colwell 1997: n/p). Nevertheless, whilst the Event is not reducible to its incarnation in affairs it is implausible to say that they are entirely distinct (Patton 1997). Narratives give actualisation to Events; indeed narrative is integral to ‘eventness’ since this quality is the product of narratives that are ‘internal’ to the event (Patton 1997, Devetak 2009). Narratives produce the Event, they are never inside or outside it, and the contents of narratives – verbal and visual – express ‘the incorporeal dimension of the actual events’ (Patton 1997: n/p, Devetak 2009). Further, narratives render them intelligible, making them ‘amenable to reflexive knowledge’ in the face of their agony (Devetak 2009, Ingram 2019: 31). The virtual potentiality of the Event means, in principle, it has no self-evident meaning; to tell its story is merely to foreground one out of ‘an infinite number of narrative[s]’ (Devetak 2009: 804). Overall, since an actualisation is a differential repetition and there infinite narratives that generate actualisations, a singular narrative is fundamentally, perpetually, imperfect since it cannot fully say the Event.

In an ontological sense an Event has no fixed meaning or narrative, but singular narratives and interpretations do (Ingram 2019). The reason why is power (Colwell 1997). Whether or not a narrative becomes dominant is not dependent upon its truthfulness but its political potential, since narratives can be used to appropriate Events (Devetak 2009, Ingram 2019). Consequently, Events do not play out at the level of facts, instead ‘the narrative emplots the sequence of event, characterising the story in a particular way’ (Devetak 2009: 811). Whilst, actualisation along familiar lines is not necessarily an issue, it becomes an issue when power makes one unconsented in order to appropriate the Event.  

The need to actualise an Event through familiar narratives to soothe the agony of the Event, and how narratives are determined by political potential is, is reflected in COVID-19. An example of the use of a familiar narrative is how COVID-19 has been folded into existing right-left partisan politics in the US; ‘everything is partisan in the US now, even death’ (Mahdawi 2020). The Event is reduced from problematic to problem; confronted with COVID-19, ‘modern right-wingers reduce complexity to culture war’ (Cohen 2020: n/p). Advice is dismissed on the grounds of the “liberal elite”, in what partly comprises an attempt to divert the narrative of the Event away from the deadly, systemic, failings of the Trump administration (ibid). The wearing of face masks in the US is politicised with Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to wear one (Mahdawi 2020). Here the demands of the present (COVID-19) have forced its integration into a familiar series, that of culture war. Further, the predominance in discourse of familiar cry of “liberal elite”, as opposed to reference to the virus, represents the repeatable ‘solution’ to Events that have been reduced from problematic to problem. Further, the Trumpian narrative of ‘Chinese virus’ – created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology – cares little for facts, it cares about politics: to re-elect Trump (Rudd 2020). This reflects how narratives of the Event are sometimes not created with truth in mind, but with political potential. Thus, COVID-19 illustrates how familiar narratives are used and how these narratives can be crafted for political potential rather than factual accuracy.

The potential harms of a dominant narrative of an Event is evidenced by the narrative of COVID-19 as a war. Narratives, and the language, of war has become commonplace in reports on COVID-19, producing it as a particular kind of event. The use of a narrative of war to actualise a pandemic is unsurprising, since ‘no historical development of human has entirely escaped the gravitational pull of war’: war is the ‘form of life’ of our age, the Eurocene (Grove 2019: 75). Accordingly the world is built by a geopolitics that ‘pursues a savage ecology’, ‘a form of life in which warfare is normal’ as in part of the ‘normal workings of daily life’ (ibid: 4, 60 emphasis in original). Narratives of war produce COVID-19 as a particular kind of Event in order to comprehend it within normal plane of reality. In the UK the Event of World War Two (WWII) has been differentially repeated in order to aid comprehension of COVID-19; the past has been brought to bear on the present. WWII has a particular hold on the minds of Britons; ‘a decent run in the World Cup has us dusting off the parallels’ (Freedland 2020).The discourse used by the UK government about COVID-19 is full of references and allusions to WWII; it ‘smells about a century old’ (Fisk 2020a: n/p, Freedland 2020).  The slogan “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” has a wartime ring, hospitals (but not care homes) are termed the “frontline”, and the mythical “Blitz spirit” has been invocated (Davis 2020, Freedland 2020). Even the advice about social distancing carries echoes of the advice given to new soldiers in the trenches; ‘keep your head down. Or the snipers will get you. That’s really what six feet means today. Keep apart, rather than keep down’ (Fisk 2020a: n/p). This mutates COVID-19 into a war against an invisible enemy, by actualising it through WWII, a narrative that is familiar but has grim implications.

The consequences of COVID-19 as war serve to underscore the political importance of understanding actualisations of Events as inherently imperfect, and thus open to contestation. It is a narrative being used to promote health nationalism in the UK; the Union Jack has been draped on the NHS to make ‘a political shield’ that allows the government to deflect criticism as some ‘sign of disloyalty to the national effort’ (Davis 2020: n/p). The National in NHS has become a rallying point for a narrative of British exceptionalism despite the international make up of its staff (ibid). In addition, this narrative of national heroism is argued to create a distraction from the failure to protect healthcare workers; proper Personal Protective Equipment is needed, not medals and platitudes (Clark 2020). The most sickening outcome of this narrative is found in the words of Trump: ‘they’re [nurses and doctors] just running into death just like soldiers run into bullets in a true sense… it’s incredible to see, it’s a beautiful thing to see’ (Trump quoted in Perez 2020, emphasis added). This discourse echoes Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade: ‘Someone had blundered/Theirs not make reply/Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die… Boldly they rode and well/Into the jaws of Death… When can their glory fade?’ (Tennyson 1855: n/p) The language and subjects have changed but the sentiment is constant: glorious sacrifice, of those whose place it is not to question, in a war against an insurmountable enemy. COVID-19 as war allows reduces it to a problem, the effects of which are regrettable but inevitable. In addition, this narrative allows for the effects of the pandemic to be reduced to an “acceptable” level (Fisk 2020: n/p). It is likely the numbers of deaths will gradually reduce until the point where ‘Britons will still be dying. But their deaths will have become normal’; victory will be declared but deaths will continue (ibid: n/p). The story of COVID-19 as war illustrates the power of narratives, and political importance of contesting and constructing alternatives to narratives constructed by those in power. An example of this is an initiative in Australia – Memory Bank: A Collective Isolation Project – that asks for donations of mundane items, receipts, leaflets, takeout menus, in order to create an alternative archive of the Event (Pich 2020). Overall, COVID-19 reflects the political importance of Events as virtual potentialities: alterative narratives can be constructed.

‘It is an opportunity that may not come again’[3] The Potentiality of the Event

Events rupture normalcy in terms of how the world is experienced, the space of the world, and linear time; it is possible for the Event to end ‘the world and begin turning it anew’ (Ingram 2019, Clark 2013: 22). Events are virtual potentialities, they are creative forces; their constant state of becoming has no pre-determined goal (Lundborg 2009).Thus they are never static, instead always open to new movements, creations, descriptions, never confined to singular expression (Colwell 1997, Lundborg 2009, Patton 1997). Their incorporeal nature means they can occur in different configurations and movements of bodies, but still be recognisable as the same Event (Patton 1997). There may be ‘long periods when it appears that nothing is happening’, but it always possesses the potential to ‘erupt into the present producing an upheaval’ to rupture normalcy (Patton 2006: 120, Colwell 1997: n/p). This challenges, and potentially dismantles, how the world is made sense of, potentially prompting new thought and action (Ingram 2019, Clark 2013). Momentary instances of Events and the upheavals they bring are where ‘new possibilities for life [are] glimpsed’ (Patton 2006: 122). Deleuze cites May 1968 in France as an example, but French society did not assimilate this Event (ibid). Consequently, the becoming of the Event means they possess the potentiality to rupture and produce a new future, but this must be enacted by societies, to counter inevitable actualisation through familiar narratives (Patton 2006, Ingram 2019, Devetak 2009).

The potentiality of the Event is reflected in COVID-19. However, it is important to note that it was pre-ordained to do this, whilst the disease possessed ‘pandemic potential’ and is difficult to control, it is politics and power that has determined its impact (Huang et al 2020: 504). The events of the pandemic in UK and the US have been characterised by political failure and with high death tolls, whilst the events in New Zealand are characterised by an effective response with a low death toll (Freedman 2020, Conn et al 2020, Donnell 2020). This reflects how Events are virtual potentialities; they possess the potential to damage and change, they are not pre-ordained to. COVID-19 reflects how the Event dismantles how normal experience and the response is actualisation through a familiar narrative. However it also reflects how new thought can be stimulated.

The effects of COVID-19 have meant that ‘all things that were taken as self-evident… are no longer so’; shelf-stackers and carers have been incorporeally transformed to become ‘key workers’ (Moore 2020: n/p). The multiple becomings of the Event revives or exposes long standing issues and folds them into the present to prompt a creative response. The effects of COVID-19 have been interpreted in a way to reinforce old arguments. For commentators on the left it has the effect of ‘bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt’ but the subsequent wreckage is of ‘a train that has been careening down the track for years’; it acts as an exposition of damage of capitalism (Roy 2020: n/p). In addition, it is argued that COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief ‘the real world impact of racism’, ‘deeply entrenched homophobic attitudes’ in South Korea and issues of workers’ rights, to name a few (Lentin 2020: n/p, Kim 2020: n/p, Busby 2020). Specifically, BAME people in the UK have a COVID-19 death rate ‘more than 2.5 times the white population’, currently attributed to higher than average rates of social detriments of health such as overcrowding, insecure work and lack of green space access (Siddique 2020: n/p, Lentin 2020). For some the upheaval of COVID-19 presents an opportunity to ‘examine its [the capitalist world system’s] parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fit it, or look for a better engine’ (Roy 2020: n/p). The upheaval of the Event has created glimpses of the possibilities of a new life –  COIVD-19 is interpreted as a ‘gateway between one world and the next’ – be that less cars on the streets or confronting the wealth disparity in the world (Roy 2020: n/p, Guardian 2020, Bakewell 2020). Thus COVID-19 reflects how the creative potential of the Event stems from its becomings, and how this creative potential is used to try to create what might be considered by some to be a better world.

Conclusion

Throughout, it has been illustrated how COVID-19 can be used to illuminate the ‘agony of the Event’ and its attendant consequences. The agony causes time to eschew linearity, renders our knowledge of Events fundamentally imperfect, forces narratives to be constructed – with political potential in mind – that look to reduce the problematic aspect of the Event to problem. In addition the ‘agony’ creates the virtual potentiality that gives Events the power to rupture and ability to remake the world, but human agency determines the form, if any, of the remaking. In COVID-19 we find all the above aspects, and it with this in mind that I turn to consider COVID-19 directly as an Event. I shall not definitively label it as such but given how well COVID-19 illustrates the ideas of the Event, it is surely worth consideration. The answer to this proposition will likely be clearer once the Event has progressed – I shall not say ended – to a point where it is possible to see to what degree the potentiality inherent in it to remake the world has been realised. Nevertheless, experience of the Event is nigh on universal, albeit mainly the implications of the virus (predominately ‘lockdown’) rather than the virus itself: COVID-19 will have affected us each unconsciously, left its imprint in our memories, our behaviours, our practices, our ‘micro-politics’. Even if there are no immediate changes to the ‘macro-politics’ of the world, COVID-19 will subsist and inhere, a shadow over our past and future. This shadow will grow and shrink over time, but it will always be there, with the Event ready to emerge from it.

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[1] Paulos cited in Borenstein & Johnson 2020

[2] Guterres referenced in BBC 2020: n/p

[3] Bakewell 2020: n/p

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