Agamben, the Virus, and the Biopolitical: a Riposte [1]

 

 

 

Summary:

The text is a philosophical critique of Agamben’s much debated response to the coronavirus pandemic and the states of emergency declared.  It argues not against its (mis)interpretation of the force of the new pathogen but revisits instead the conceptual apparatus of its support: the “biopolitical,” “bare life,” “state of exception.”  In the first part, the writing questions these (old) concepts, as developed in other texts by Agamben (Homo Sacer, State of Exception), and as inherited from Foucault, Benjamin, and Arendt, with regard to their “contemporaneity” today: at the time of a globalizing epidemic, the “geocide” on course, (Michel Deguy), the climate “collapse.”  In the second part, the essay turns to Deleuze’s concept of a life in order to do justice to, to recuperate, a dimension of living that is neither “good life” nor reducible to “bare life.”

 

 

Our society no longer believes in anything but bare life.  It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick.  Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. (Giorgio Agamben)[2]

 

The mistake, or shall I say after Deleuze, the bêtise, of Agamben’s response to the new coronavirus (“the invention of an epidemic”) is not that it mistakes the pathogen for a “normal” flu, an infection whose victims are small in number and, for the most part, with light or moderate symptoms (even though by late February when the first provocative piece appeared,[3] the scale of the devastation in Wuhan and elsewhere was evident, whether or not it constituted an “event” [that Agamben invites us to reread François Brune’s Ces évènements qui n’existent pas implies that the answer to this question should be negative]; besides the question of competence, the category “normal” has a questionable place in virology, as the history of epidemics, as the devastation of the natives of the Americas attest.  Viruses “normalize” or/and get “normalized.”)

But Agamben, as he will remind his critics in a later interview,[4] is not an epidemiologist or virologist; he does not intervene in the question in the capacity of a specialist in infectious diseases.  The error (this time neither mistake nor bêtise) concerns not the nature of the virus itself (which is Nancy’s argument) but lies at the very heart of his philosophical project and its application/invocation of the (old) concept of the biopolitical (and the state of exception as its purest form) with regard to the time of the day, today: the time of the “geocide” (Michel Deguy), the climate “collapse,” the generalized catastrophe (collapse of coordinates)…  The flaw in the argument that the fear of the manufactured epidemic is (put) in the service of the political (governments) and responds to the real need for a collective panic – for which the “epidemic is an ideal pretext” – is not that it underestimates the force or potency of the epidemic for (biological, economic, social, cultural) devastation (which it does); nor does it lie in reading the aggressive governmental responses to the epidemic as essentially and fundamentally “biopolitical”; rather, it lies in failing to grasp these responses as manifestations and symptoms of a radical mutation in the field: the inversion of the order of the articulation bio/political, the détournement and reversal of the direction of forces that traverse the nexus which inexorably, irrevocably, and today without mercy, binds “bios” (organic and inorganic life) to the political.

 

The “biopolitical”

As we know, Agamben’s re-appropriation of Foucault’s concept turns the biopolitical into an axiomatic “thesis”: the political (of the West) is always already biopolitical, is constituted as such, as the exclusion (fabrication) of “bare life” at the point of its origin (Aristotle, the Greeks).  I leave aside here my reservation regarding this initial founding gesture and recall only that Arendt’s reading of the same history generates a different structure and narrative of the origin.  It assigns the creation of the political—the founding distinction/division (oikos/polis; zoe/bios)—to the performative work of the Law that belongs to neither domain.  The Law (or the Wall, the physical manifestation of the nomos) orders the city it constitutes into two distinct spaces it itself separates: oikos, or the private space of “privation” (production/reproduction // need and necessity // birth and death…), and polis, or the public space of visibility, exposure, action.  True, the polis excludes zoe from its domain: the “metabolism of life” is hidden from view on the other side of the Wall by the Wall.  But the Wall, this early precursor of “separation,” unlike the contemporary variety that creates enclaves, only separates, sorts out, makes a categorical distinction; the Greek citizen, the citizen-body, crosses over the Wall daily and is the habitant of both domains.  In other words, the polis excludes, but does not capture, hold captive what it excludes.  The structure, oikos/polis, in this Arendtian rendition, is irreducibly heterogeneous to the “inclusive exclusion” yet to come in the future, whose “paradigm is the camp,” which in turn is the “nomos of the modern” (see paragraphs 5 and 7 of Homo Sacer).

One need not embrace Arendt’s narrative reconstruction of the origin to see the slippage (perhaps even sleight of hand) in Agamben’s regarding Foucault’s biopolitical.  The “always already” smooths over, flattens out, the disruptive gesture of Foucault’s genealogy, which cuts into the flow of history, inserting into it the discontinuity of a heterogenizing mutation; namely, a new political or governmentality that, unlike the sovereign power it replaces, takes charge of life.  In Agamben’s revision, the Foucauldian genealogy of heterogeneous formations is contracted, its discontinuity replaced by a long and continuous biopolitical history and “development” (I use his term with caution as a shorthand) which, while filled with repetitions, resemblances, precursors, forgotten originals, and returns, is still, in the last instance, always the biopolitical fabrication of bare life.  In its purest, that is, most reductive form, the biopolitical becomes the state of exception—the most reductive form and absolute limit case with regard to both life and, paradoxically, the political itself, for absolute power over absolutely reduced life is achieved at the cost of the Law rendering itself inoperative, by law.  “It encompasses living beings by means of its own [lawful] suspension” (State of Exception, 3).

We can see how the emergencies recently declared all over the world would lead or permit Agamben to recognize in them the classical form of the state of exception, now normalized:

 

What is once again manifest is the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government.  The legislative decree immediately approved by the government “for hygiene and public safety reasons” actually produces an authentic militarization “of the municipalities and areas with the presence of at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of transmission is unknown, or in which there is at least one case that is not ascribable to a person who recently returned from an area already affected by the virus”.  Such a vague and undetermined definition will make it possible to rapidly extend the state of exception to all regions, as it’s almost impossible that other such cases will not appear elsewhere.  Let’s consider the serious limitations of freedom the decree contains: a) a prohibition against any individuals leaving the affected municipality or area; b) a prohibition against anyone from outside accessing the affected municipality or area; c) the suspension of events or initiatives of any nature and of any form of gatherings in public or private places, including those of a cultural, recreational, sporting and religious nature, including enclosed spaces if they are open to the public; d) the closure of kindergartens, childcare services and schools of all levels, as well as the attendance of school, higher education activities and professional courses, except for distance learning; e) the closure to the public of museums and other cultural institutions and spaces as listed in article 101 of the code of cultural and landscape heritage, pursuant to Legislative Decree 22 January 2004, no. 42.  All regulations on free access to those institutions and spaces are also suspended; f) suspension of all educational trips both in Italy and abroad; g) suspension of all public examination procedures and all activities of public offices, without prejudice to the provision of essential and public utility services; h) the enforcement of quarantine measures and active surveillance of individuals who have had close contacts with confirmed cases of infection (“The Invention of an Epidemic”).

 

* * *

 

Whether at the point of its origin or, for Agamben, in its purest state, the state of exception, or again, in its latest variety of bio-economico-political order — power always flows from the political in the direction of life: toward its regulation, control, dressage, confinement; its manipulation, exploitation, putting it to work (see insulin production), turning it to a weapon (biological warfare); or, as power becomes ever more creative, it moves towards recombination (DNA), transplantation, hybridization, manufacture …  and, in the last instance, not in terms of chronology, the fabrication of life as bare life…

The state of exception therefore is also exceptional in this regard: it targets to control the whole of life.

As structure, perhaps, but certainly as (empty) form, the state of exception would appear to cover—as a lid covers what falls under it—the multiple ever more draconian, ever more restrictive regulations recently enacted: distancing, spacing, quarantine, confinement, self-isolation, and, most recently, the tracking of movements and contacts of bodies—citizen bodies.

And yet, something escapes.  First, the virus escapes.  Literally.[5]  From the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the wild (wild life: bat, pangolin—a rare anteater) in Wuhan, a life form escapes, an RNA sequence that is not even properly alive.  It leaps over the barrier between species, escapes its confinement to “nature,” its assigned proper (own) territory.  Following, opportunistically exploiting the routes and pathways of globalization—that other aggressive, indiscriminate invader—it itself globalizes, but englobes not the globe or the earth, but the World.[6] In Jean-Luc Nancy’s terminology: space(s) where sense circulates.  In Deleuze’s language, it deterritorializes from “nature,” the “wild” (or the bio-lab), and simultaneously reterritorializes (there is no deterritorialization without reterritorialization) the “socio-political domain”; it leaps over to the other side of the Wall of separation that long ago constituted its territory by confining it on the inside.  In other words, the direction of invasion, intervention, penetration—that is, of forces passing though the nexus—gets reversed: now they flow from the direction of life; the sense (in every sense of this word) of the bio-political gets inverted as it is the political body/the body of the political that is invaded, attacked.  The tissue of connections that make and remake this body is torn apart, in self-defense; the biological, living citizen-body is forced to retreat from public spaces, to take refuge in the space of privation, the oikos, leaving the virus to circulate in the public space, more or less freely.  (And not just the virus: as we learnt recently, wild animals, foxes, coyotes, have been returning to the streets of the city.  In South Africa, a pride of lions has been photographed sleeping lazily on an empty highway.)  The state of exception (if this term still applies) in the case of this “novel” virus is not the exercise of power over life as bare life, but, on the contrary, an extreme (exceptional) self-defensive measure and immune reaction by the political body to an invading life form that is not even properly alive.

The bio-political: we have been so certain, so confident of our control over our own “invention” (as Agamben understands this term, as a political construction) “nature,” as distinct and separate, a domain apart, that our language left out the hyphen that would mark the conjunction, designating the place of articulation where forces cross over, and which is also the weakest point in the construction, opening up the concept to deconstruction, on the one hand, and the political, the life and the only life our societies have known for some time, to a potentially total destruction, on the other.  The notion (again Agamben’s) that the “contagion” would be an invention of the political is thus a fantasy that belongs to this same old biopolitical order, without a hyphen, whose order (ordering of the relation) has been overturned, whose forces (first “containment,” then “mitigation”) have been, to stay with the war metaphors so popular nowadays, de-routed and, so far, defeated.  Not just by the newly discovered, infinitely inventive virus, but by the far more massive and irreversible contagion that will not go away when “all this ends,” and has been on course for some time: the climate catastrophe, collapse or geocide, which is the terrain on which this epidemic unfolds, their common “transmitter” being, as we well know, globalization.

The bio-political response to the contagion, a state of exception, is thus a defensive immune reaction, or more precisely, a reaction of auto-immunity (in Derrida’s precise definition of this term) that turns against the very body it is designed to defend.  It acts into, destroys the connective tissue of the political body: it interrupts the flow of communication, closes border crossings, isolates, prohibits contact, confines, excludes, isolates; it punctuates public spaces by opening up gaps, inserting intervals; it empties cinemas and theaters, turns the grand boulevards of great cities into deserts, commands a distance large enough between bodies to prevent con-tact even by the air exhaled.  (In its mechanism of auto-defense, the political thus mimics the living body, whose excessive immune reaction to the virus destroys the body itself: floods the lungs and, depriving it of oxygen, brings about its total organ failure.)

 

“Bare life” vs. “a life”

A personal digression is perhaps permissible at the time of this pandemic: for days the phrase or syntagma “born to life” has been circulating in my head. I thought it was in reference to “bare life.”  Naked or nude?  I’ve asked myself.  Which is the more appropriate term?  And what is the difference?  One is born nude but certainly not naked; one is born into a web of relations, to a language, that is, to a world, where sense circulates and which makes sense (in every sense), however senseless this world may appear.  At least, this is how Hannah Arendt understood nativity—born to a language, to a World.  Across the distance of their different philosophies, these notions also correspond with Benjamin’s condition of “man,” at least in one reading of his inherently, incurably enigmatic “Critique of Violence”: “existence, that is ‘life’ is irreducible to the total condition that is ‘man’”; and in an even stronger formulation: “man cannot at any price coincide with the mere life in him” (Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 251). By consequence, naked or bare life, the blosse Leben of Benjamin that Agamben often cites, is secondary; it cannot be the original, the first condition.  On the contrary, it comes after, is something extracted from life itself and not the result of a violent separation or dispossession of acquired attributes and qualifications.  In other words, bare life is the product of an operation and, as such, not a thing.  It is relational, possible only within a structure imposed in/by/through a political relation.

I soon realize that the syntagma’s origin is Aristotle, or rather Agamben’s reading of Aristotle’s Politics: “man is born with regard to life but exis[(s] essentially with regard to good life.”  Aristotle’s categorical distinction is in fact the kernel of Agamben’s “biopolitical” thesis: the original political relation is the exclusion of existence as bare life.  It also allows for a different reading of Benjamin’s enigma, one that forces the ambivalence mentioned above in the other direction—that of a moral contempt for the ignominy (Benjamin’s term) of a life that would voluntarily choose bare life, clinging onto existence at all cost, to nothing but the bare life (in life).  In other words, a contempt for the Italians in their willingness to surrender every political right, even sociality (family, friendship, funerals), to escape from the sickness of the virus.  (This same moral contempt may also explain why, many decades ago, Agamben advised Jean-Luc Nancy not have the heart transplant that saved his life.)  For confirmation, Agamben again cites Aristotle: “if there is no great difficulty as to the way of life [kata ton bion], clearly most men will tolerate much suffering and hold onto life (zoe) as if it were a kind of serenity [euemereia, beautiful day] and a natural sweetness” (Homo Sacer, 2).

Something, however, remains unaccounted for: the “as if” of Aristotle.  As if we could or should read it as casting doubt upon the reality of the “beautiful day” and natural sweetness, or upon what Glenn Gould characterized in Bach’s method of composition—its endless detours, delays, and refusal to reach the end—as what matters (in music): the “joyous essence of being.”

What if we read Aristotle’s “as if” otherwise?  Pointing to the founding gesture of the concept itself whose own division of the life-world bios/zoe is founded on the (non-inclusive) exclusion of a remainder: something of life, not bare life but the “beautiful day,” which is the remainder of the conceptional division that neither register, neither bios (qualified life) nor zoe (bare life), can accommodate.

Today, more than ever it seems, we need to return to this unaccounted-for remainder; especially today, at the time of this epidemic, we need to recuperate it from its exile underground, as we—not just the Italians but the whole world—tremble in the face of a globalizing threat to life in each and every one of us.

In Foucault’s original construction (invention), the biopolitical opens a path in another possible direction, leading away from drawing any direct or indirect line between the agonizing body of the coronavirus patient in the hospital bed and the death camp (“the nomos of the modern political”).  This new paradigm of governmentality takes charge of life, even if only life and nothing but biological life.  No matter how reductive a concept of life its bios may be, unlike existence—static, as it were, lifeless—bio is “vital,” the terrain of dynamic articulations, the encounter of forces/intensities/sensations…  In the original construction, the concept cuts up things in the world differently; its new political invests itself in life, manages living, the biological existence of the living, whose powers it enhances, whose force and capacities it amplifies and augments, whose life span it prolongs (see Michel Serres’ celebrations of the biopolitical advances made in the last century: the eradication of diseases, the reduction of poverty and hunger, the extension of life expectancy, etc., across the world).  For this reason, the biopolitical is embarrassed in the face of death as evidence or proof of its failure.  (Hence one more reason for the embarrassment at the rising number of infections and the death toll.  Trump lies about it, the Russians, the Iranians and, at the outbreak, the Chinese try to hide it.)

It is perhaps safe to say that the political response to the pandemic has been biopolitical in Foucault’s classical definition of the concept:  a practice of governmentality that takes charge of the ensemble of the living, in this case, of the mechanics of life as concerns the health, hygiene, survival, and death of a population.  (“Flattening the curve” is exemplary in this regard: it is concerned with the survival rate of the population, and hence with “herd immunity,” the spread and incidence of the infection over time, and not with the life of the individual (saving lives)).  But it would be an error to deduce from this that the reactive agent itself is the same old biopolitical.  In the age of mondialization—when “population” is fluid, constantly de- and re-constituted at different geographic locations by a mobile and migrant capital in search of the lowest cost—governmental practices have long renounced the one form of biopower, namely, the fostering of life, and aggressively maintained instead only the other component, withdrawing from life to the point of death.  Rather than a continued extension/expansion of biopolitics, the current emergency measures are reactivations of old forms.  The virus forces governments to rediscover the “population” they abandoned long ago; or rather, it itself reconstitutes or recomposes, with great force, the masses of disparate, atomized bodies living in cities, regions, and states into the living body of a collective collectively exposed, infected and infectious, contaminated and contaminating…[7]  Just as it exposes the impower of the digital, the virtual, the artificial, the gig economy, the forces of immaterialization, derivatives, bitcoin, the financial industry …  and the power of life and of the material real (masks, ventilators, protective clothing, medicines; the daily food supply, life-saving medicines, even toilet paper). Just as it exposes the extraordinary and extraordinarily unexploited power of the living body of the most downtrodden, the “essential” labor of migrants and minorities; of the truck driver, the janitor, the garbage collector, the bus driver, the mailman, the cashier, the distributor, the grocery clerk, the fireman, the delivery man; of orderlies and caregivers in old-age homes, workers in meat processing plants, seasonal agricultural laborers, and by extension, those hands responsible for milking cows, feeding pigs, gathering eggs, baking breads, picking fruits…

If it is not (necessarily/immediately) in the hospital bed, in the intubated body hooked up to a ventilator, that we find bare life today, then where is it?  What region of this globalized political is its proper habitat?  Has it vanished from the theater of the political?  In fact, it is everywhere (different geological planes/plates of the political co-exist, are contiguous, in the same chronological time).  It is, for example, the body bobbing in the Mediterranean Sea, clinging onto the side of a packed inflatable; it is the body “kettled” behind barbed-wire fencing off camps on all sides at both edges of Europe; it is caged into the enclave outside Idlib, Syria, and crowded onto a sliver of dry land between two bodies of filthy water on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar…

The question is then how to rescue what necessarily falls in between, exists in the gap between life’s nakedness and its full qualification (person, personality, the singularity of its quality), between political life and bare life?  How to rescue by way of a concept or concepts the sweetness Aristotle spoke of, and rescue it as irreducible to fear (of death), to instinct (of survival), clinging onto life at any cost (which earns Agamben’s contempt and Benjamin’s characterization as ignoble)?  How to rescue that element or dimension—but what is the right word here?  Is it not sense?—the sense (in every sense of this word) of life, whose “non-existence would be something more terrible” (says Benjamin) than any “attained” condition of man?

The body clinging onto the side of an overcrowded inflatable, the body that makes one last effort to cross the desert, is bare life: standing in a relation, even in it its absolute solitude and abandonment.  It is a creation, a product manufactured by the machinery of a political that expelled it precisely from the world into which it was born.  In fact, from the World itself.  Outside the law but held by the law outside the World.  On the other hand, what Aquarius and the other rescue ships are searching for in the open sea, what the volunteers combing the desert of Texas for refugees hope to save, is a third category of living existence.  Deleuze gave it the simple name: a life.

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No one has described better what a life is than Charles Dickens … A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying.  Suddenly those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life.  Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point, where, in the deepest coma, this wicked man senses something soft and sweet penetrating him [Aristotle’s “beautiful day?”] … Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death (“Immanence: A Life,” 28).

 

Even in animals, or rather, in our relation to animals, we distinguish between bare life and a life: animals are killed on mass, think of mass fishing, without committing a crime.  But when residents along a coastline rush to save a few whales that have beached themselves, pushing and pulling them, watering their skin against the heat of the sun until the next tide comes in, what they respond to in each instance is a life, a single and singular life passing through this or that body of a giant animal.

The patient lying on the hospital bed, gasping for air, doctors bustling about him, is a patient-body, a sick-body wherein a life is combatting death.  “The life of an individual gives way to an impersonal yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life … : ‘Homo tantum.’” The life of an individuality (what Benjamin called “qualities” and “attributes”) “fades away in favor of a singular life immanent to a man who no longer has a name” (“Immanence: A Life,” 29).

This pure event is beyond the reach (re-territorialization) of every economy, calculation, measure, or comparison.  It is something the political, biopolitical or not, cannot possibly grasp or touch, even if the medical personages, its agents or actors, respond to it instantaneously, intuitively, without necessarily understanding it.  And when the political does touch it, when its relative value—relative to another life, to its utility or the life years it still has left to live—is measured on the scale of a point system of “last resort guidelines,” then this pure event of a life is instantaneously converted into nothing more than bare life.  When the ventilator is removed (or not) to help another patient survive, both become nothing more than bare life, more or less deserving to live according to a measured and measurable “merit.”

                                                                                                   Toronto, April 17, 2020

 

Postscript

 

Just as I finish drafting this text (without finishing with any of the questions the inventive virus keeps throwing at us, differently every day), Viktor Orbán of Hungary extends by decree the previously declared state of emergency, claiming indefinite powers for his office, indefinitely.

Hungary: is this final accomplishment of “illiberal” democracy a vindication a posteriori of Agamben’s much criticized (rather than critiqued) contribution to the question?  Did he foresee it, did he predict its coming?  That the virus will be turned into a political weapon, and not only by Orbán, and become the pretext for the state of emergency becoming the normal form of government?

Once again, is it not just the form?  (Form is relatively stable, but the content varies (Nietzsche)).  Is it not just the form that is turned into a weapon, in the service not of a biopolitical regime carried to its very limit but, in the case of Hungary, of an archaic despotic kleptocracy?  (Hungary has no experience of democratic forms of government, not even in its most reduced formalistic version now practiced elsewhere/everywhere.)  Instead of an exercise in biopower, the new political of Hungary stands in a relation of grotesque symmetry with that other regime of illimitation, that of Bolsonaro in Brazil, whose rhetoric incites public “incontinence”—promiscuous consumption, including the consumption by fire of the Amazon forest and its “river in the sky” that brings the rains to Africa.

What future path the globalized world will breach for itself, one cannot know.  Whether it will try (in vain) to return the world to what it was just a few months ago (although it seems like a lifetime), or, worse, make the economy “roar” like a spruced-up car engine; or, on the contrary, it will learn the lesson this virus may teach us regarding the other existential crisis, which will not go away, even if we have almost lost sight of it in the midst of this immediate emergency?  The lesson being: decarbonization is possible.  The skies over Mumbai are blue again, the sea around Venice has been taken over by wildlife.  Whether this lesson—mercilessly delivered by nothing more than a few strings of molecules, dormant, waiting for a life to come along to live—will be learnt, one cannot say.  All that can be said is that what the “after” might be is yet to be determined.

Now this “viral” lesson, harsh and cruel as it may be, curiously resembles the divine justice of Benjamin.  It does not spill blood, kills without leaving a trace of the act—in the interest of life.  Without a trace: after the epidemic has passed and the generation responsible—if only through complicity—for the geocide on course will have been decimated, there will be no memory of the act.  In the interest of life: perhaps it is a chance, perhaps the only chance, for another future for, made by, another (the “Greta”) generation.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Agamben, G.:

-           (1998) Homo Sacer, transl. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford

University Press).

-           (2005) State of Exception, transl. by Kevin Attel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

 

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

 

Benjamin, W. (1996) “Critique of Violence,” in Selected Writings, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

 

Deleuze, G. (2001) “Immanence: A Life,” in Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, transl. by Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books).

 

Foucault, M.:

-           (1990) “Right of Death and Power over Life,” The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, transl. by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books).

-           (2008) The Birth of the Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France,  1978–1979, transl. by Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).



[1] I am writing this at the beginning of April, only a few short weeks after Agamben’s first intervention, during which period the virus has escaped definitions, evaded defensive measures, outpaced projections, predictions, prognoses …  This viral inventiveness, however, is only one reason why I will not engage Agamben regarding the nature of the virus nor predicate on it the discussion here.

[2] Agamben’s first interventions (“L’invenzione di un’epidemia,” and “Lo stato d’eccezione provocato da un’emergenza immotivata,” February 26), subsequent clarifications (“Chiarimenti,” March 17) and interviews circulate in several versions and lengths in Italian, in French and English translations, often under different titles (in Quodlibet, Positions, Il Manifesto, Acta-zone, Marseille infos Autonomes).  The quotation here from “Chiarimenti,” or “Clarifications,” appeared in English translation together with the first intervention (“The Invention of an Epidemic”) in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, where it was accompanied by a number of responses, including one by Jean-Luc Nancy (“Viral Exception”).  See https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers.

[3] “L’invenzione di un’epidemia,” Quodlibet, February 26, 2020,  https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia.

[4] “Je ne suis ni virologue ni médecin.”  “L’épidémie montre clairement que l’état d’exception est devenu la condition normale,” Le Monde, March 28, 2020.

[5] According to the latest, in all likelihood, “conspiracy theory,” it escaped from the P4 high-security bio-lab of Wuhan and from the control of the scientists or lab technicians who created it, or at least sought precisely to take charge of it, learn how to master it, manipulate its code.  This paranoid fantasy speaks to the dominant relation, even if it overestimates the power of science over life.

[6] In this partial and selective destruction, the virus resembles the neutron bomb designed to kill only the living, while leaving (dead) infrastructure untouched.  The virus, on the other hand, attacks the World, the living space of making (creating) sense, where sense circulates and is exchanged; it empties cities, theaters and the cinema; turns to deserts public spaces of gathering, of protestation, and mourning and celebration, where one makes an appearance, becomes visible …—all the while leaving/passing through other living forms (bats, pangolins) without leaving a trace.

[7] This curious forgetting of population would need to be reflected on at length.  Here I can only defer to Foucault’s argument (The Birth of Biopolitics) that in certain forms of neoliberalism economy detaches itself from society to enter into a reciprocal, symbiotic relation with the political: the political authorizes economic operations, which in turn legitimize the political.  The excluded third, the social (health, welfare, housing, etc.), enters the ledger of negative expenditures.

12 May, 2020

______

 

Zsuzsa Baross, retired professor from Trent University, Canada.  Her work on temporality, memory, history; the image and the imaginary; the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard; the ethics of writing… appeared in numerous anthologies and journals; held seminars (“Le Cinéma selon Jean-Luc Godard,” “Il y a du rapport sexuel”) at the Collège International de Philosophie,  Paris; has been collaborating and published with the group on Artistic Research at Orpheus Instituut, Ghent, Belgium. She is the author of The Scandal of Disease (1989), Posthumously, for Jacques Derrida (SAP, 2011), Encounters: Gerard-Titus Carmel, Jean-Luc Nancy, Claire Denis (SAP, 2015); ”On Contemporaneity, after Agamben: the concept and its times Vol.1” (SAO, 2020).  The second volume of On Contemporaneity, after Agamben: Art in the Time that Remains is forthcoming by Sussex Academic Press.

 

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