Coronavirus and Philosophers

Michel Foucault

From “Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison”, translated by A. Sheridan, pp. 195-228. Vintage Books, 1995.

(in collaboration with the Journal “Antinomie”,


The following, according to an order published at the end of the seventeenth century, were the measures to be taken when the plague appeared in a town.

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another, the “crows”, who can be left to die: these are “people of little substance who carry the sick, bury the dead, clean and do many vile and abject offices”. It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.

Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere: “A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance”, guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, “as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion”. At each of the town gates there will be an observation post; at the end of each street sentinels. Every day, the intendant visits the quarter in his charge, inquires whether the syndics have carried out their tasks, whether the inhabitants have anything to complain of; they “observe their actions”. Every day, too, the syndic goes into the street for which he is responsible; stops before each house: gets all the inhabitants to appear at the windows (those who live overlooking the courtyard will be allocated a window looking onto the street at which no one but they may show themselves); he calls each of them by name; informs himself as to the state of each and every one of them “in which respect the inhabitants will be compelled to speak the truth under pain of death”; if someone does not appear at the window, the syndic must ask why: “In this way he will find out easily enough whether dead or sick are being concealed.” Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked — it is the great review of the living and the dead.

This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor At the beginning of the “lock up”, the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears “the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition”: a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call. Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits — deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities is noted down and transmitted to the intendants and magistrates. The magistrates have complete control over medical treatment; they have appointed a physician in charge; no other practitioner may treat, no apothecary prepare medicine, no confessor visit a sick person without having received from him a written note “to prevent anyone from concealing and dealing with those sick of the contagion, unknown to the magistrates”. The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it.

Five or six days after the beginning of the quarantine, the process of purifying the houses one by one is begun. All the inhabitants are made to leave; in each room “the furniture and goods” are raised from the ground or suspended from the air; perfume is poured around the room; after carefully sealing the windows, doors and even the keyholes with wax, the perfume is set alight. Finally, the entire house is closed while the perfume is consumed; those who have carried out the work are searched, as they were on entry, “in the presence of the residents of the house, to see that they did not have something on their persons as they left that they did not have on entering”. Four hours later, the residents are allowed to re-enter their homes.

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in l which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead — all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of the evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions. It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him. Against the plague, which is a mixture, discipline brings into play its power, which is one of analysis. A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, allowing a quite different truth to appear. But there was also a political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power; not masks that were put on and taken off, but the assignment to each individual of his “true” name, his “true” place, his “true” body, his “true” disease. The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of “contagions”, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.

If it is true that the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion, which to a certain extent provided the model for and general form of the great Confinement, then the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects. Rather than the massive, binary division between one set of people and another, it called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power. The leper was caught up in a practice of rejection, of exile-enclosure; he was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate; those sick of the plague were caught up in a meticulous tactical partitioning in which individual differentiations were the constricting effects of a power that multiplied, articulated and subdivided itself; the great confinement on the one hand; the correct training on the other. The leper and his separation; the plague and its segmentations. The first is marked; the second analysed and distributed. The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society. Two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures. The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power. In order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature; in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion.



Giorgio Agamben

The Invention of an Epidemic

(Published in Italian on Quodlibet,

February 26, 2020

Faced with the frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded emergency measures adopted against an alleged epidemic of coronavirus, we should begin from the declaration issued by the National Research Council (CNR), which states not only that “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy”, but also that “the infection, according to the epidemiologic data available as of today and based on tens of thousands of cases, causes mild/moderate symptoms (a sort of influenza) in 80-90% of cases. In 10-15% of cases a pneumonia may develop, but one with a benign outcome in the large majority of cases. It has been estimated that only 4% of patients require intensive therapy”.

If this is the real situation, why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to spread a state of panic, thus provoking an authentic state of exception with serious limitations on movement and a suspension of daily life in entire regions?

Two factors can help explain such a disproportionate response. First and foremost, 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 disproportionate reaction to what according to the CNR is something not too different from the normal flus that affect us every year is quite blatant. It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.

The other no less disturbing factor is the state of fear that in recent years has evidently spread among individual consciences and that translates into an authentic need for situations of collective panic for which the epidemic provides once again the ideal pretext. Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.



March 3, 2020

Sergio Benvenuto

Welcome to Seclusion

(Published in Italian on Antinomie,

I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, yet the idea has formed in my mind that – though over seventy, and hence among the most vulnerable – I have little to fear from the coronavirus for my health. “For mine”, for mere reasons of probability, like when I fly on a plane: it could crash, but it’s highly unlikely. In fact, so far only around 3000[1] people worldwide have died as a consequence of the virus. Practically nothing compared to the 80,000 killed by common flus in 2019. Those who have died in Italy from the epidemic (over 50 at the moment of writing[2]) are probably less than those killed in car accidents plus worker fatalities. In short, I am not so much scared of contagion, but I’m more concerned about the economic backlash for a country like mine, in constant decline since 1990s. After all, poverty kills too.

But I also know that my relative disregard, though rationally based, is civically reprehensible: were I a good citizen I should behave as if I were panic-stricken. Because everything that’s being done in Italy (closing schools, stadiums, museums, theatres and so on) has a purely preventive function, it only slows down the spread of the virus. It plays on large numbers, but appeals to each particular being.

The panic that has stricken Italy (but not only, all over the world people are talking about nothing else) was basically a political choice – or a biopolitical one, as Roberto Esposito stresses – established first and foremost by the World Health Organization. Because today, in an era when the great democracies are producing grotesque leaderships, it’s the great supranational organizations like the WHO – and the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the other central banks, and so on – that (fortunately) take the real decisions, thus partly redressing the neo-fascist whims of today’s democracies. Tedros Adhanom, the Ethiopian who is Director General of the WHO, has clearly stated the need for prevention: he knows that for the time being Covid-19 is not causing disasters and that maybe in the end it could turn out to have been nothing more than an insidious influenza. But it could also turn into what the so-called “Spanish” flu became in 1918: the latter infected a third of the planet’s population causing something between 20 and 50 million deaths, more victims than all military casualties during the First World War. In other words, what’s really frightening Is not what we know, but what we do not know about the virus, and there’s very little we do know about it. We are getting to know it day by day and so it creates the anxiety – by no means irrational – of the unknown.

Note that in the case of the “Spanish” flu political power acted in exactly the opposite way as it is doing today: it concealed the epidemic, because in most cases the countries involved were at war. It was named the “Spanish” flu simply because at the time it was only in Spain, which was not at war, that the media talked about it (but apparently the flu originated in the United States). Political power today (which is, I stress once more, increasingly supranational in economics too) has chosen the strategy of panic, so as to encourage people to isolate the virus. And indeed, the isolation of the infected still remains, after centuries, the best strategy to suppress incurable epidemics. Leprosy was contained in Europe – as Foucault too stresses – precisely by isolating lepers as much as possible, often relegating them to faraway islands, like Molokai in Hawaii, where various movies have been filmed.

In August 2011 I was in New York when it was about to be hit by Hurricane Irene, which had already devastated the Antilles. I was struck by the way experts and politicians on the media all gave frankly quite cataclysmic messages to citizens: “it will be a complete disaster – the refrain was – because New Yorkers couldn’t care less, they’re snobs”. But it turned out that they followed the guidelines scrupulously (even I vacated my garden respecting the precepts) and Irene crossed New York causing no damage. So, did those experts and politicians get it all wrong, or did they have a bit of fun terrifying the population of New York? No, a disaster was avoided. In some cases, spreading terror can be wiser than taking things “philosophically”.

Let’s imagine that Italy as a whole – from the media to government officials – had opted for the “Spanish” strategy, deciding not to take any precautions and allowing Covid-19 to spread across the country like a normal flu. Every other country, including other European states, would have immediately isolated Italy, considering the whole country a hotbed: something that would have caused far greater economic damage than the considerable one Italy is enduring now. When others are scared – for example the Israelis and Qataris, who have prohibited Italians from entering their countries – we’re better off being scared too. Sometimes being scared is an act of courage.

Let’s imagine that, once allowed to spread at will 20 million Italians caught the virus: if it’s true, as the earliest calculations indicate, that COVID-19 is deadly for 2% of those infected, this would have led to the death of around 400,000 Italians, mainly senior citizens. A hypothesis many do not consider entirely negative, because it would allow our old-age pensions system to breathe: Why not trim down a few oldies in a country that’s ageing by the minute? is what they think without saying it. But I don’t think public opinion would have accepted 400,000 deaths. The oppositions would have risen up, the government would have been ousted by popular acclaim and the far-right leader Salvini would have won the elections with at least 60% of the popular vote. In short, the precautionary measures that have been taken, however painful – especially because of the economic damage – are the lesser evil.

The measures taken in Italy are not therefore, as one of my favourite philosophers, Giorgio Agamben, argues, the result of the despotic instinct of the ruling classes, who are viscerally passionate about the “state of exception”. Thinking that the measures adopted in China, South Korea, Italy and so on are the consequence of a conspiracy means falling into what other philosophers have called “conspiratorial theories of history”. I would call them paranoiac interpretations of history, like the millions who believe 9/11 was a CIA plot. My domestic worker, a very good-natured woman, is convinced that the epidemic was schemed by the “Arabs”, by which I suppose she means the Muslims. Whether we’re influenced by our small parish or by Carl Schmitt, whether ignorant or extremely learned, many of us need to make up our own plague-spreaders.

I am often surprised how often many philosophers need to be reminded of something that, paraphrasing Hamlet, sounds like: There are more politics in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

When I say I’m convinced that this epidemic will produce far greater economic calamities (a crisis like in 2008?) than medical ones, I place myself within an optimistic perspective, which could be disproved in the next days.

And as from tomorrow, I too, though chuckling somewhat, will try to be a good citizen. I will avoid certain public places, I won’t shake hands of persons I’ll meet. I live in Rome, and I will not visit friends in the North and I will discourage them from coming to see me[3].

After all, the effects of this epidemic will strengthen a tendency that would have in any case prevailed, and of which “working remotely” or “wfh”, working from home and avoiding the office, is only one aspect. It will be less and less common for us to wake up in the morning and board public or private vehicles to reach the workplace; more and more we will work on our computers from our homes, which will also become our offices. And thanks to the Amazon and Netflix revolutions, we will no longer need to go out to do the shopping or to theatres to see movies, nor to buy books in bookshops: stores and bookshops (alas) will disappear and everything will be done from home. Life will become “hearhted” or “homeized” (we already need to start thinking up neologisms). Schools too will disappear: with the use of devices like Skype, students will be able to attend their teachers’ lessons from home. This generalized seclusion caused by the epidemic (or rather, by attempts to prevent it) will become our habitual way of life.




Giorgio Agamben


March 17, 2020

An Italian journalist applied himself, according to the best practice of his profession, to distorting and falsifying my considerations on the ethical confusion into which the epidemic is throwing the country, where there is no longer even any respect for the dead. In the same way as it’s not worth mentioning his name, it’s not worth rectifying his predictable manipulations. Those who wish to do so may read my text Contagion on the Quodlibet publishers website. Instead, I would rather publish here some further reflections, which, despite their clarity, will presumably be falsified too.

Fear is a bad counsellor, but it makes us see many things we pretended not to see. The first thing the wave of panic that’s paralysed the country has clearly shown is that our society no longer believes in anything but naked life. It is evident that Italians are prepared to sacrifice practically everything – normal living conditions, social relations, work, even friendships and religious or political beliefs – to avoid the danger of falling ill. The naked life, and the fear of losing it, is not something that brings men and women together, but something that blinds and separates them. Other human beings, like those in the plague described by Manzoni, are now seen only as potential contaminators to be avoided at all costs or at least to keep at a distance of at least one metre. The dead – our dead – have no right to a funeral and it’s not clear what happens to the corpses of our loved ones. Our fellow humans have been erased and it’s odd that the Churches remain silent on this point. What will human relations become in a country that will be accustomed to living in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society with no other value other than survival?

The other thing, no less disturbing than the first, is that the epidemic is clearly showing that the state of exception, which governments began to accustom us to years ago, has become an authentically normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought of declaring a state of emergency like today, one that forbids us even to move. Men have become so used to living in conditions of permanent crisis and emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their lives have been reduced to a purely biological condition, one that has lost not only any social and political dimension, but even any compassionate and emotional one. A society that lives in a permanent state of emergency cannot be a free one. We effectively live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “security reasons” and as a consequence has condemned itself to living in a permanent state of fear and insecurity.
It’s not surprising that we talk about the virus in terms of a war. The emergency provisions effectively force us to live under a curfew. But a war against an invisible enemy that can nestle in any other human being is the most absurd of wars. It is, to be truthful, a civil war. The enemy isn’t somewhere outside, it’s inside us.

What’s worrying in not so much the present, not only the present a tleast, but the aftermath. In the same way as the legacies of wars on peacetime have included a whole range of nefarious technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear plants, so it is very likely that there will be attempts to carry on pursuing, even after the medical emergency is over, many of the experiments governments hadn’t been able to implement: may universities and schools remain shut, with lessons and lectures taking place online, may an end be put once and for all to meetings and gathering to talk about political and cultural questions, may we only exchange digital messages and may wherever possible machines replace any contact – any contagion – between human beings.




Sergio Benvenuto

Forget about Agamben

March 20, 2020

The immediate reaction of the sovereignists – an ennobling euphemism to define neo-fascists – to the coronavirus pandemic was the reflex we would all have expected from xenophobes: closing borders and identifying Covid-19 with the Foreigner. It’s what Trump did by blocking communications with Europe without doing anything at the domestic level. The danger is always from the outside, never from within.

It was said that this pandemic would have pulled the rug from under the feet of the neo-fascists (among whom I include Trump, Johnson, Salvini, Erdogan…). Indeed, in cases in which anyone can be infected, the danger  is not from the outside – Africa, China, Muslims, and so on – and not even from another nameable and circumscribable group from within, one that can be isolated like the Jews were for centuries in Europe. The danger lies everywhere, even in a child, a grandparent, a lover…. As the journalist Massimo Giannini said, “We are not in danger, we are the danger.” The basic signifying oppositions of our Schmittian being political animals – us versus them, me versus the other – collapse and we’re all equally dangerous, the gipsy is no more dangerous than my own daughter, racist categorizations lose all their mobilising charm at a stroke.

Within this picture, it doesn’t worry me that the various countries have suspended Schengen. It would have been more disturbing had there been a closure of each country against another, but in fact it’s just another of many closures at all levels: each citizen closes him or herself to the other.

The eminent philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes (in this same Tribune):

Even sadder than the limitations on freedom implicit in the provisions is, in my opinion, the degeneration of human relations they can generate. The other man, whoever he may be, even a loved one, must not be approached or touched, and indeed it is necessary to keep a specific distance form him, which according to some should be of one metre, but according to the latest recommendations by experts should be of 4.5 metres (interesting to note those extra fifty centimetres!) Our fellow man has been abolished.

It is difficult to imagine an equally superficial reaction. In fact the epidemic overturns the cliché that if I love my fellow men or women I should hug them, kiss them or stick to them like sardines … Today I display my love for the other by keeping her or him at a distance.  This is the paradox that collapses all the lazy ideological frameworks (ideological not in the Marxist sense) of the left and right,  not to mention of the populists.

The edifying propaganda of some politicians and the media appeals to our selfishness as well as to our altruism: “If you avoid others, you are protecting them, but yourself too.” Now, very often this is by no means true. It is now common knowledge that young people can be infected like everyone else but that it’s quite rare for them to fall ill; it’s also common knowledge that this pandemic is a geronticide,that those really at risk are the over 65s.

A young friend of mine keeps me at a distance of at least three meters and smiles. I very much appreciate this non-gesture of his, because I know that it is mainly he who is trying to protect me; because I’m old. It’s true that he’s also protecting the elderly in his own family: his father, his mother… But in any case I’m grateful to him. The more the others keep at a distance from me, the closer I feel to them. This is why Agamben has failed to understand anything about what’s happening in the molecularity of human relations.

On the contrary, in recent days I came across several people who did not respect this secure distance and didn’t even wear gloves or face masks; and they expressed their scepticism on the gravity of the disease… I could gather from their arguments that they were basically cynical and ultimately antisocial individuals. Today the sociable avoid society.

Last winter 8000 people died in Italy as a consequence of lung complications due to influenza, mostly the elderly.  This year, with coronavirus, the death rate will probably rise to something between 20 and 25 thousand, three times the “normal” number of victims, mostly among the elderly [addendum on December 7, 2020: deaths by coronavirus reached a toll of 60,000].  Is the fact that “only” three times as many people die because of a seasonal illness enough to say that Agamben is right in saying that this is a fake epidemic?   No. Because this is an unknown virus that could have even more disastrous consequences.  Everything that’s being done is merely preventive.  And, above all: in our societies it is unacceptable that three times as many people as normal die in one winter.  It’s a biopolitical – that is, ethical – choice.

A grotesque clown like Boris Johnson told the British people to “prepare to lose loved ones before their time”.  But why not address the dying too?  Why not say “prepare to lose your lives”?   As if death were always the death of the other.  Perhaps he meant “prepare to lose your elderly….”   For BoJo those who will die, those who have all the ingredients for death, also lose the quality of addressees, they’re no longer even a “you”.  Italy made a different choice: quarantine and economic paralysis to protect its senior citizens.  Among them we also find Agamben, born in 1942.  I sense something of the heroic in this vigorous defence of those who do not have long to live.


[1] The figure has increased to 3652. Until now there are 107,000 ascertained cases and 61,000 recoveries (8 March 2020)[editors’ update]


[2] The number of fatalities in Italy has risen to 250 (8 March 2020) [editors’ update]


[3] A resolution made obsolete by the government ordinance effectively sealing off part of Northern Italy (8 March 2020). [editors’ update]

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis