A Flight Indestinate

 

Today satellites make us the ‘watchers from the sky’ of the mass graves wherever the speed of COVID19 related deaths has outstripped the speed of medical and funerary care. In our confinements, the news websites and social media have become our apertures into extraordinary burial sites – remote islands and refrigerator trucks. Unlike what Agamben seems to suggest, this experience of incomplete ritualistic mourning is not new.[1] After all man was not set into civilisation in an instant through a singular act of the ‘heavens’. Through Thucydides’ accounts we know that epidemics in the ancient times too gave rise to such a situation:

“All the funeral customs they had previously observed were thrown into confusion….

Many of them … turned to shameless burial methods….

No fear of the gods or law of man was a deterrent.”[II.53–54][2]

Burials and laments were never and still are not the mere symbolic form of ‘respect.’ Nor are they a permanent metaphor of returning to dust. Handling the dead has always been a part of the arrangements for the circulations of health and sickness among the living and the non-living, the soils, the plants and the animals, including the human animal. Every once in a while, as the components of this circulation change and outgrow each other, the arrangements must be changed and tended.

Today, separated from their dead for the sake of their own health, thousands of people mourn in the company of strangers via tele-technologies. The journalists of the world have assumed a polynomial existence, functioning all at once as witness, postman, confessors, runners of meagre rations. The very vocation of the lament is borne no longer by religions (which in the best instances today are feeding and sheltering the unclaimed living). Instead, the lament is now raised for the living by nurses and doctors who plead with the protestors who oppose lockdowns.

Health advisors and relief groups plead with governments to sagaciously plan both the confinement and the traffic in necessary supplies. Researchers plead with everyone whom they can reach to discard superstitions and rumours, to heed the humility of reason and of established facts. These are today’s blind seers who know that the pandemic is to be comprehended in the fluctuating ratios between the known and the unknown, between the existing conditions and the changing quantities. This humility is proper to science.

The course of the pandemic is a matter of relative speeds and relations between speeds. The speeds of the viral infection are already multiple in accordance with the flight transformations available to it, which we must understand in the way that Elias Canetti taught us:

“It is to avoid [extinction] that, in whatever shape offers, everything living flees.”[3]

Canetti found that flight transformations have their twin principles in fear and food. Most often, we dwell selectively on his theory of flight-commands determined according to the principle of fear, but neglect his reflections on feeding. In Crowds and Power, he had also presented the hand as the locus of the food principle for men.  The human is a fragile animal   between its mouth and food there is as yawning interval which can only be traversed by human hands:

“It is the quiet, prolonged activities of the hand which have created the only world in which we care to live.”[4]

With hands we eat as well as feed, and we strive to build the technologies and institutions so as to exceed the speed of famines and epidemics. Today, it is the hands of the doctors and health workers that traverse the living, the dead, and all the medical techniques which strive to prevent the piles of corpses described by Thucydides.

Now, a virus itself is a type of mobile genetic element that becomes active and virulent only when transposed in its host environments. It is its proliferation within, for instance, the human animal under certain circumstances that results in an epidemic. This is where the principles and the relative speeds of human flight transformations become salient. In an epidemic, it is a question of the interacting relative speeds, say of the sprayed-and-deposited viral droplets and global contact-and-transport systems of humans. The dispensers of health and public order, too, measure their plans in terms of the relative speeds – of setting up hospitals, acquiring medical equipment, of testing, developing a vaccine, harvesting, trading and distributing food.

Speed is the measure of things turning with respect to each other. At a certain point doctors understood that the high rate of oxygen flow through intubation might not suit all patients as their lungs are diseased to differing extents. As one doctor said, in some cases

“It’s like using a Ferrari to go to the shop next door, you press on the accelerator and you smash the window.”[5]

The probing art of the clinical practitioner is to find such proportional articulations.

The world itself, which today connects everyone and everything in unprecedented ways, is an immense and dynamic arrangement of co-articulated components, that is, regularities within which things interact at determinate speeds. This arrangement only ever had degrees of proportional articulation – say between demand and supply, lending and profiting; while its other components abided in a disproportion whose span is not yet revealed – unemployed populations, stateless refugees, nuclear wastes, un-operationalized technologies, and also the yet to be imagined possibilities of politics that would respond to the problems of everyone in the world. Added to this arrangement is the virus as a new speeding component. The lockdowns seek to decelerate the flight of the virus. This is, however, also accelerating the decay of the present world system of exchanges that sustain humans (though not well). The pandemic has occasioned certain exchanges of speeds such that this world machine is seizing up like an overheated engine. What care does this moment need?

Many today cling to hypophysical habits of thought[6] by equating care with reparation. Heidegger sought to displace this equation by translating the surviving fragment of Anaximander. It was thought to say:

“… according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice”

but in Heidegger’s philosophizing translation, it said:

“… along the lines of usage; for they let order and thereby also reck [care] belong to one another (in the surmounting of) disorder.”[7]

In this way, the fragment offered the twentieth century thinker the plain-speaking riddle of the being of all things. For him, the being of all things came about in successive, ordered interrelations, in a such a way that each order (or arrangement) depended on and yet differed form the previous one. He found that none of the orders disclose, and therefore all of them hide, the dispensing of these orderings. Hence, Heidegger thought of being as an illegible destiny because what bound the successive orderings as one history was not revealed. And further he considered this “already forgone destiny of Being’s oblivion” as the very history of the West; its dawn was in Anaximander’s intimations of this destined oblivion, and its twilight was the accomplished oblivion of 20th century with its technological establishment of man as master of earth.[8]

But this 21st century viral pandemic has criticalized our world. That is, it has shown the limits of some of the world’s components as well as the unrealized powers of certain others. Let us entertain for a while a playful analogy between a fragment of a lost text and a virus. The philosophical fragment is a mobile thinkable element, and Heidegger had handled it as such. Today, let us assay another transposition of the Anaximander fragment. That is, we can make its intimations of ‘usage,’ ‘order’ and ‘reck’ once again mobile. But this time, without seeking the restoration of an original Greek destining:

Destiny and destination, which have the sense of coming to a stance, share the speculative root *sta, ‘to stand, make or be firm.’ The human animal came newly stumbling into a world that was not the bucolia of the middle panel of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Rather, it was a vast unwelcome in which one learnt, with the help of each other’s sustaining hands, to walk, to build and to suffer wrecks whether by storms or by one’s bad arrangements. One did not seek to reconstruct either a first space of arrival or the last collapsed edifice. One sought to make a new arrangement, which would reserve its future ruin as a surprise. We speak today of sustainability as though the world’s destiny – whether betrayed by technological man or fulfilled by abstinent man – were there awaiting revival. We speak of apocalypse today as though a destiny of decline, whether traced by Adorno or Heidegger, was “forgone.” But the proportionally articulated components, which enjoin things into a world, linger only in wait of coming disproportions. They gain new components of relative speeds and their new articulations. Only a while separates their stance from their in-destinacy. They compose a more or less temporary arrangement, a world, which is soon vacated for another arrangement, another world. Then, that place, which lets worlds come and go, is none other than this very world experienced as indestinate. Forsaken by origin and end.

Our world now relates everyone everywhere in an arrangement of reciprocal, though not equal, interactions – actions across distances, mobile effects. We witness this in the spread of the pandemic as well as in the effects of the lockdowns. This makes us responsible for everyone everywhere. Regionalities cannot isolate themselves from materials, ideas, diseases and news which come from the next city, state, country or continent. Governments rush to ease their ill-planned lockdowns, hoping perhaps to revert to pre-existing global arrangements, but we realize that this is a hesitating interregnum of decelerations in order to rearticulate the speeds of the whole world’s components. It can be an opportunity to rearrange our presently minimised regularities in order to find new accelerations for the care of everyone. Then, we must recognize ourselves as the world, and we must call and answer to the world as the world – a world democracy.

Instead, we are being called back by regional loyalties in philosophy, politics and care.  The theories of ‘modernity’ developed at the beginning of the last century were yearnings against two centuries of industrialization and growth of crowded cities. The theorists proposed that the evil of totalitarianism emerges from the ‘deracination’ of countryfolk and the emergence of floating “masses.” The world appeared to them destined to decline through an increase of something bad called power. Once again today, we are being told that life flows outside isolation, in human crowds, but at the same time we are quickly checked from flying too far, crossing borders, losing roots, crowding metropoles. And so the flight from the coop ends just inside the barn.

But in the pause of the lockdown we do imagine other flights. Canetti’s analysis of the flight transformations between crowds, packs, herds and institutions shows the polynomia of indestinacy. Polynomia is the power pf the mind to legislate different regularities in the same object. Among these many types of crowds, Canetti found that the specific formation of fleeing as an unregulated “open crowd” offers the experience of equality and dissolution into non-individuated humanity. Agamben’s biopolitics seeks this open crowd as the norm of human life.[9] But insensate freedom from ourselves through a lurching mass in intransitive flight – is another species of release from life itself. And Canetti knew it to be a rare, fleeting phenomenon. He pointed rather to “the patience of the hands” –

“words and objects are accordingly emanations and products of a single unified experience: representation by means of the hands. … the instruments of these transformations.[10]

By patience he meant not slowness or stillness but readiness for transformations. Reading Gandhi is the most instructive for us to recognize the false problem of crowd and isolation. He proposed the ideal village life of restriction to a minimality where the human hand would be staid. Canetti intimately knew and shrank from this stasis[11] as he recounted experiencing it in his book The Voices of Marrakesh: surrounded by clamouring beggars in a cemetery, he says,

“I could feel the seduction of having oneself dismembered alive for others.”[12]

Researchers and reporters who reason with the world know that solutions cannot be engineered from outside the conditions, needs and desires in this indestinate world (indeed, the only solution of this kind being proposed now suggests that we should do nothing and “let live” or “let die” in accordance with some invisible destiny). We today, however, respond to problems of the world-wide exchanges of speeds and regularities, not just those of provinces or nations. Our flight is of collective findings as well as inventions, of preparation as well as the unlooked-for. It is, to retranslate the Anaximander fragment,

… along the lines of indestinacy; for they must exchange arrangements and be re-articulated with one other, coming over stasis.

 

 



[1] Giorgio Agamben, “A Question,” April 23, 2020, http://autonomies.org/2020/04/giorgio-agamben-a-question/.

[2] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Steven Lattimore, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988, p. 100–101.

[3] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, translated by Carol Stewart, New York: Continuum, 2012, p. 348.

[4] Canetti, Crowds and Power, p. 213.

[6] See Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, Foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy, London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

[7] Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, translated by David. Farell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi. San Fransisco: Harper, 1975, p. 39, 47.

[8] Ibid., p. 51, 57.

[9] Agamben, “Social Distancing,” April 7, 2020,  http://autonomies.org/2020/04/giorgio-agamben-social-distancing/ .

[10] Canetti, Crowds and Power, p. 218.

[11] See Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy, Chapter 10, “Anastasis”.

[12] Canneti, The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit, translated by J. A. Underwood, London: Penguin 2012 p. 50.

Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059