On the absence of the world, one more time; or finding the world, again (Part 1)

Abstract: The essay, appearing in two parts in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, may be read as a belated postscript to the author’s first volume On contemporaneity, after Agamben (the concept and its times) and/or as the untimely preface to the second, still in progress (Art in the time that remains). Continuing the reflections that began in the first volume, it returns to Derrida’s reading(s) of Paul Celan’s prophetic phrase: “the world is gone, I must carry you”—across two ruptures in the vertebra of time (Agamben).

The first rupture, and the location of one mutation, is drawn between what Blanchot may have still called the space of “historical time,” and what at the time of writing of the volume was already an “epoch without an epoch” (Stiegler) or, more dramatically, the “time of the geocide” (Deguy). The second break, epidemic time, is taking place in the continuous present almost simultaneously with the writing, which cannot but redouble as a sort of journal of the caprice of its movements, phases, variations. Epidemic time, a “heterochronia” (Foucault), is not a cut in continuity but the hollowing out of a Zone of time on the interior of our already disordered temporality. If the first break creates distance, is the conditions, indeed, the requirement to separate ourselves in writing from inherited interpretations of Celan, including Derrida’s; the second break—a captivity, an inescapable proximity—compels us to ask about the mutating sense of the world as it is leaving, disappearing, departing from us…

The essay breaches a path to this second task.

 

 

Preamble

 

Here is the last verse of the short poem “Grosse, blühende wölbung” by Paul Celan:

 

“Die Welt ist fort, ich muss dich tragen.” (The world is gone, I must carry you.)

 

Two discrete phrases, absolutely heterogeneous discursive units: the one is a constat, a statement of fact, the other an injunction that commands. At once separated and, in their dissonance, joined together to form a single line by the typographical mark of a comma, they themselves become carriers—of missives, alerts, cries… in excess of their referents. Today, they carry (tragen) a series a series of disconcerting questions regarding “You” and “I”: who (which one of “us”) is addressing “You” in the accusative form of “Dich” in the first person as “I”? Who (among us) is brought together, face-to-face, by the sheer force of these words in this nonreciprocal, asymmetrical relation of duty and obligation vis-à-vis “You”? Who is to occupy the one and the other vacant subject position ready made by these personal pronouns, waiting for us to be addressed by Celan’s words, even before we will have arrived there?

But where “there”? To where in the world (as asks the common idiom) should “I” carry “You” when the world is gone?

Today (and the vocable as we know does not say the same day, the missive carried is not the same every time, every day), these questions from Celan reach us via Derrida, as filtered, modified, transformed, reconstructed, invented … by the reading of Celan by Derrida. But this time (for this is inexorably a function of time, of reading, of writing) they also concern Derrida, regard our relation—in a world that is gone—to the figure, the voice, the corpus “Derrida.”

 

I

2019, Paris

 

“Die Welt ist fort, ich muss dich tragen.” I first write this, cite this double phrase of Celan, in early 2019, well before the arrival of this virus and the time of this pandemic.[1] It was a difficult missive to receive, to hear properly, even then. The first component, at once a grammatical statement and a sentence in the juridical sense, passes a terrible judgment on the state / fate of the world: it “is gone.” The second pronounces a cruel, if not impossible imperative: “I must carry you.” And if the weight of the burden of each were not difficult enough to bear (tragen), the comma in between places us at the point of their conjunction: commending or condemning (me? us?) to carry “you” (who remains unnamed) when the world (whose world?) is gone.

I am citing Celan in the text, but in the writing I am reading Derrida, especially and especially closely his last seminar La bête et le souverain, 2002–2003, where, after Béliers and other texts, he returns to this “last verse of a short and great poem.”2 I am thus reading Celan with and through the writing of Derrida, which, more than ever, yields to the rhythm of his living discourse. I am following the course of perhaps excessively long séances (they will be the last, as he probably knows; despite the promise to return to a subject the following year, there will be no next time[2]). They systematically map out, with infinite patience pursue and track down, the elusive, plural, proliferating sense of the verse of Celan. It is thus Derrida who brings me to Celan. I am reading the last verse both apropos and by way of Derrida: by being faithful or, as he himself asks for, by “faithfully betraying” (jurer avec) Derrida; and because it is the writing of Derrida, which, as always, fascinates me. I admire the obsessively precise and infinitely patient processus that gives sense to, indeed, fecundates with sense the two key terms of Celan. The first, “fort,” is made to migrate between departure, withdrawal, absence, loss … (of the world); the second, “tragen”—in plurilingual translations of the polysemous German word—is itself made to carry [tragen] the sense of the French porter, supporter, transporter, the English to carry, to bear, and, via its complex semantic links to Heidegger’s German, “Austrag” and the even more distant “Walten”).

But my fascination has yet another reason this time. Simultaneously with its vertiginous hermeneutics, the seminar speaks to me in a different tongue; it carries a new missive, addressing me differently from another place or space. It strikes me—I have the intuition, the sensible certitude as I am rereading it in 2019 (I use this date that also heads this section as a shorthand and index for an order of time, whose character is not yet clear at the time of the writing, and in fact will become its very question)—that the sense of Celan’s enunciation “Die Welt ist fort” has mutated since the time of the seminar, even since its publication as a text, not even a decade ago. This time, it has come to concern / regarde Derrida, the corpus “Derrida”—now that his world, the world of his deconstructions, is gone, has departed, is absent.

 

“Now” and “world”—two unstable vocables, in this context both a haunting deictic. Rather than naming, they designate an empty place, leaving open the question of Whose time? Which world? Whose world, in what order of time?

In the space of this essay, the “now” will correspond with and mutate across three different orders of time or world-times (for as Derrida says, time is world): the “now” of this extraordinary epidemic time, which is the time of this writing here, will be the subject of the rest of this essay; 2019, the year in the calendar when I first return to the seminar as a text, as writing, indexes here the order of time in which the sense of Celan’s verse mutates for the second time (the first time being the exegetic work of the seminar, in 2003 in ordinary calendar time). It redoubles and, from the interior of the text, turns to speak of the discourse of the seminar itself as discourse whose world, whose time in the world, is gone, departed, absent… While this mutation takes place in the text of Derrida, as its location and milieu, this time it is not the work of the writing of Derrida. Indeed, it necessarily exceeds it, escapes it, being its posthumous after-effect, belatedly actualized in the performative repetition of my rereading it—in another order of world-time.

My contemporaries continue to struggle to name this new order, to give it a name as “other”: “an epoch without an epoch” (Bernard Stiegler); a time of “mutation,” still in historical time (Jean-Luc Nancy); the time of effondrement, in works by the school of “collapsologists”; and most radically and dramatically, the time of the “geocide,” of the Earth becoming another planet (Michel Deguy). Despite the dissonances, even contradictions, these diagnoses are variations on the same theme. They say differently that a world is gone, that they speak in a world “after” (however they may define it), from the other side of an abyssal interval that separates their “now” (indexed here as 2019) from the world-time of the seminar (2003 in calendar time) when we were reading (Heidegger, Celan, Benjamin…, indeed the whole Western canon) with Derrida; when we were still reading Derrida (almost) at the same time as he was writing his seminars; when we (Derrida and us) still cohabited the world as the same world we had in common, whose future, we thought, we still had in common and to which—notwithstanding catastrophes, disappointments, reversals…—he could (still ask us to) say “yes.” Unconditionally.

The “world after”: that is to say, after the world of the corpus “Derrida” is gone; after the world-time that (his) deconstructions silently assume as their ground, fond, terre, sol, is “fort,” lost, absent… —which is to say also, simultaneously: after the verse of Celan repositions us, and (re)assigning the subject positions—the “I” (ich) and the “You” (dich in the accusative case)—burdens me / us with the task; it imposes on me / us the impossible obligation and duty to carry (tragen). It is I / we who now must transport the figure, the missive, the corpus “Derrida” to a “here and now” and make it our contemporary, in / of this world.

Such was not the conclusion but the point of reasoned departure for the first volume On Contemporaneity, after Agamben (Baross, 2020a) to which this text here may serve as a belated postscript or become the untimely preface to a second volume (In the Time that Remains), which is yet written, but given the order of time that is “now,” may not be written.

 

II (a)

Toronto, Summer / Fall, 2020

 

I am writing in the time of the epidemic, or as I should rather say, I am beginning to write; for I cannot know if or when I will be able to finish, if I will have the time, whether the epidemic will give me / leave me the time, or again, whether it will finish first or will outlast my time, or, even worse, will never finish with its time. Indeed, there are signs already that its time has mutated, acquired a “history.” The first shock of astonishment regarding the impossible— “time is out of joint,” “die Welt ist fort”—has dissipated; the epidemic has installed itself for the duration (for how long?). (Just recently, two of the several forums[3] that have responded to the immediacy of the urgency as the urgency to write, for writing to be on time, to be contemporaneous with this epidemic time, have adjusted the temporal index in their titles: Jérôme Lèbre’s electronic YouTube chaîne “Philosopher en temps d’épidémie” has become “Philosopher au temps présent”; while the Journal of European Psychoanalysis opened a new “tribune”: Enduring Pandemic: Further Transmissions from Psychoanalysts & Philosophers.) The time of “exception” has become normal without being normalized.

The time of the epidemic: a curious time. A “drôle de temps” (after Sartre’s “drôle de guerre,” a war without fighting a war): a time, a temporality, whose time is not passing. A suspended, arrested time (if in time, in what order of time?), or, more precisely perhaps, a peculiar instance of time’s involution. It evokes the (still) image of Hokusai’s famous Great Wave that rises into mid-air but never completes its downward descent to crash into the foaming waters below. Or an even better metaphor is the “arrested, frozen wave, with the curve and the foam on the crest” that so impressed the cineaste, Alain Fleischer (2020), in the harbor of Reykjavik.[4] As he hypothesizes, the wave could not have been formed in an instant, all at once, but was built wave by wave, each new wave adding a fresh layer of ice to what must have been just a grain at first, but which already blocked the waves’ passage. This moving image (Fleischer is after all a cinematographer; he even tries to replicate the effect in La Vague Gelée, 1997) better captures the sense of this epidemic time, at once in movement and paralyzed, movement in paralysis. A thickening, a densification of the present, to which Instants from the future continue to arrive but cannot pass to the past, blocked as they are by an arrested present still occupying their place. As if the active synthesis of time—for which the present functions as a point of passage, contracting at once with the instant passing to the past and the future yet to come—was arrested mid-way. Successive presents are crowding together in the same place, piling up on one another, without contracting into a flux, into a time that passes. The next wave and the next instant recoil before the future ahead, blocking its passage in mid-stream. A new temporality is born; for time still temporalizes, giving birth to a perhaps never before experienced “presentism.” The inversion of what has been just now, not even a month ago, our dominant relation to time. Facilitated, willed, imposed by technology, it has devoured the future and obliterated the past in a perpetually extended and, paradoxically, accelerated present; in contrast, this epidemic is a slow time, of waiting, waiting for the present (confinement, contagion, the danger of infection) to pass. Will it ever pass? we ask anxiously. Will the / a future ever come to pass? Will there be an exit from this unending time? And if yes, to what order of time? Will the same world-time as before await us at the other end? (“Reboot” is a term often used.) Or it will be the same, only worse, as Michel Houellebecq (2020) has predicted.[5] Or have we entered a wholly other order, which has already appropriated to its history this present epidemic as one in a cascade of catastrophes, both past and yet to come?

A time without events. There are peaks and ebbs, the curve of new infections now rises then flattens, before rising again; “hot spots” flare up, “waves” begin, spread from “clusters” to whole cities, to cantons, provinces, and continents … then to the globe itself. All the while, nothing happens, nothing passes, which is another justification for calling it a “phony” time. For as Bergson taught us, time is nothing unless it is doing something. True, there is a state of emergency, but it is without urgency: no mad rush, feverish panic, frenetic agitation, or call to action. On the contrary, the call or order is for inaction, immobility: do not move; stay at home; lock yourself in; keep your distance. Yes, scientists are urgently searching for the antidote, the vaccine. But are they looking for it in the right place (on the surface of the virus or in the cell)? Such a vaccine has never been made. Will it come?[6] Will it work, be safe, give full or only partial immunity? For how long? Even more importantly, how to live until then? If there is an “until then,” if there is a time to come “after,” if we are not living already in the time “after.” What would “the livable life of life” be, “la vie vivable de la vie” (Duras & Noguet, 1984) until then? For those who will not live until then, for whom this epidemic time is all that remains to live? These uncertainties: “certitude trembles,” “we are exiting of the era of certainty” (Jean-Luc Nancy (2020c), only reinforce our immobility.

For passive we are. As Blanchot (1980) writes, “we are passive in relation to (par rapport) the disaster” (p. 9). Except, our passivity is not a relation, which, as Jean-Luc Nancy often reminds us, requires a distance, the distancing of a gap, an interval, without which (“pas rapport sans écart”), as we will see, there can be no world, no world can “world” (to borrow Heidegger’s turning of the noun into a verb). For the gaps / interstices / intervals that run through the tissue of the world are not empty, idle, or unproductive spaces. They are modulators of distance and proximity, operators that rhythmically structure (differentiate / heterogenize) space; they are productive of what Foucault called “other” spaces, at the same time as they cut into space the lines of communications that compose the infinitely complex web of linkages that hold up the tissue of the world, the tissue that the world is. For this same reason, “catastrophe” would be a better term than “disaster,” which is spectacular, evoking images of wild destruction, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, forest fires, wars …, whereas the collapse of coordinates (the mathematico-geometrical sense of catastrophe: discontinuity caused by continuity) is a silent event. Indeed, the material world outside my window looks much the same as before, as if after a neutron bomb event. Its physical structures are intact but the streets are empty of bodies. Inside this zone, time (if it still merits the name) is without sign posts; missing are the markers necessary for orientation, finding direction, fixing one’s location: future and past, before and after, tomorrow, last week, the day before. The distinctions between yesterday and tomorrow, past and future—is this the next week already?—become blurred, lose their sense as sensation. Yet, it is these markers that give us the sense of time, are the sensible condition of the experience, as sensation, of time. The sense of time: its color (“one emerged from the gray of the night” [Paul Klee]), its season and its seasoning (“La matinée était très sucrée” [Paul Morand]). In a conference presentation “Voir le temps venir”[7] (“To see time to come”) that predates the pandemic, Nancy (2019) speaks toward—and only toward, for the infinite richness of time cannot be recuperated—its coming and going; return and repetition; its passage and taking place; it being a countable or a propitious time (of the now); or having a duration in time… Perhaps for the first time, ever so briefly, he also touches on the “season” and the “seasoning” of time: a time in the cycle of the year or the day and its taste or flavor (as in seasoning with herbs and spices a dish one prepares). But this time, this present in the “here and now,” lacks not only these qualities. (Sunday has lost its shine and nothing enters from the grayness of the night, no fire, nothing “wrapped in blue floats over icefields.” It is because of this nothing, that nothing, no color emerges from it, that Delacroix may have called “grey the enemy of painting.”) Exceptionally, this time, time also lacks the properties “proper” to time: progression, passage, and delay; belatedness and being in advance; departure and arrival; rhythm and pulsation … Amorphous and homogeneous, it has no structure, no shape. Like molasses or the subatomic particle X, the Higgs boson that gives matter its mass, it resists passage. The passage of time itself and our passage through it.

*

What World corresponds with this time, as its other face and reverse side? For time is also world, world-time, says Derrida (1994) (“Time: it is le temps, but also l’histoire, and it is le monde, time, world, history, world” [p. 19]). What history could be still written by this suspended, non-productive time? What world still worlds, to ask with Heidegger, what “Welt weltet” in a time empty of events, suspended but without the suspense of events, of a future to come (l’avenir à venir)?

On the socio-anthropological plane, in the register of “civilization,” of techno-scientific culture, the virus “serves nothing,” as Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2020) replies to his interlocutor.[8] It brings no revelations; it is not the “inessential manifestation of essence,” as Gérard Bensussan (2020) proposes, after Hegel. It is questionable whether it is an “event” at all in the proper sense, or that it brings to light the “insisting presence of death” at the heart of our projects, as Jean-Luc Nancy (2020a) claims.[9] It discloses no metaphysical truths or even “social facts” (in Durkheim’s definition) that we did not or could not or should not have known: the ruthless logic of the globalized economic order; the chasms that run through the social body between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native, suburb and inner city, front-line (“essential”) work and télétravail, the young and the old…; the pitiful state of our hospitals, health-care systems, care homes, prisons… Nor does it deliver lessons yet to be learnt regarding our catastrophically destructive relation to what we still call the “environment,” “nature,” or the “planet”…

Still, there is a massive “virus effect”: a threefold humiliation inflicted on the world, which is not a moral lesson in humility (again as Bensussan would suggest), but three times, to borrow Avital Ronell’s characterization, a massive “narcissistic wound.”

 

i.

The first wound is inflicted on the self-image of the “man of our age” or on the “mankind of modern civilization.” Of the latter, Freud already declared (in Civilization and its Discontents, 1930): “he has almost become a god himself … When he puts on all his auxiliary organs” – the still modest telegraph, telephone, radio, etc., in comparison with the “exo-organs” (Stiegler) attached to / implanted / grafted onto the body of his successor, the so-called “posthuman”– he “is truly magnificent” (Freud, 1989, p. 44). Three decades after Freud, Blanchot (“On a Change of Epoch [1960]”[10]) reaches back to Teilhard’s techno-romanticism of the same epoch and to Jünger, who is already writing of the atomic age, to conjure up (one does not quite know whether with approval or approbation) the latest prototype of this man as the man of “lack of measure.” Propelled into, breaching paths to infinite, unlimited progress, this “man has become a sun, who seizes the constitutive forces of nature”; embarks on an “extreme adventure of unforeseen consequences,” and “each time Mother Earth begins to tremble [...] is able to take this shaking in hand and capture it” (pp. 176–8).

As we well know, these figures are not the first, not the inventors of the invention of reinventing the world. They have ancient precursors, are the creative mutations of Homer’s (invention of) the “man of many wiles,” whose calculative logic Adorno and Horkheimer blamed for or placed at the origin of the “disenchantment” of the world. There is a long history, passing through Descartes and Heidegger, modern science and politics, to this project of (re)creating the World as ours alone, not just unshared but unshareable with all other (living) things (either worldless or poor in world).

And yet, this World closed upon itself has always been open to the skies, albeit differently conceived, even perceived. Today’s successors of the ancients have blasted open the vault, literally, to look back in time at the origin of the universe: of light and of time itself. Tracing in reverse rays that reach us only now from the immemorial past, they have almost touched the birth of light (time) itself.

Just a few weeks ago, the world, at least a small world (including the President, especially the President, eager to show off the private nature of the enterprise) enthusiastically celebrated the launch of the SpaceX capsule taking, after the hiatus of many decades, American astronauts to the International Space Station. (In defiance – or was it rather méconnaissance or denegation? – of the virus, they did not distance or wear masks.) The spectacle was bound to disappoint those who sought a repetition of the “original” jubilant experience of the heroic epoch of the Apollo mission. Not that there was any need for it. There have been far greater, far more “magnificent” achievements than this “taxi-service” since: the spacecraft Rosetta was sent to catch up with the comet Tchouri, an object travelling on a trajectory in a wholly other space-time, from the beginning of the time. No calculation, no measure in (earth) years and miles, could possibly apprehend the encounter for human imagination. Still, the last photograph, a glimpse that Rosetta captured of the site / sight of the lander Philae on the rocky surface of the comet, may compensate for this failure of poetics by space sciences. It is, one must admit, of exceptional poetic beauty: a fragile metal object, barely visible, is caught in the shadow of a crevice. One of its three thin legs is stretched out as if to be illuminated for this one photograph by the faint light still reaching it from the sun. A “folie,” like the madness of useless architectural objects planted in gardens and parks. Or a fossil of human technology now on its eternal journey deep into the universe, until the end of time or of the comet, when its ball of ice is burnt up by a sun. After which it would continue on its journey, all alone. A precursor of the future of art, or what art is to be in the time that remains?

The SpaceX mission is almost banal in comparison. For the new protagonist is no longer the man of infinite progress (faster, lighter, cheaper), breaching the path of limitless continuous progression. The new figure, “limitrophic,” takes up residence on the limit, or, even more transgressively, turns the limit into a springboard for leaping to other “spaces”: the red shift (a distortion of vision) becomes the means to detect the (invisible) movement and expansion of the universe; the gravitational field of planets serves to lob spacecrafts, against their own gravitational force, onto new trajectories leading to even more distant objects; the new man of science “listens” to the gravitational shock waves that ripple through space-time, searching for events that passed billions of years ago inside black holes: the invisible / the impenetrable par excellence… This figure is thus closer to Ulysses who defeats the gods by outwitting them. It represents a break with the inventors of war machines, of propulsion engines, of everything that meets force with an even greater force.[11]

Yet, it is this “man,” the collective subject of spectacular adventures and accomplishments, without precedent in the history of the universe (if we may assume, by hypothesis, that we are all alone and the stage of this spectacle is the universe), that the virus shows up as impotent, leaving him with no other means of self-defense than a flimsy cloth mask, forcing him to retreat from the world and to exile himself in the “oikos,” the space of privation treated with contempt by the Greeks. The other protection, the vaccine, if successful, takes time, takes up the duration of our living time. Unmanipulable, incompressible, it must be lived through. Meanwhile, “it”—a mere nanometric “thing,” a “virus without quality”[12] (Houellebecq, 2020) whose status as a living entity is itself questionable, composed of only 30K RNA molecules—brings the whole world of global humanity, in the first truly global catastrophe, to a halt. Even more humiliatingly, it brackets (in the phenomenological sense of suspension) the “magnificent,” the “spectacular” and “groundbreaking,” overcoming of the limit. With the backward move of an “après coup,” it qualifies man’s omnipotence and magnificence by exposing the “fragility of the skin of the world” (the title of Jean-Luc Nancy’s [2020b] most recent book), the limit condition, as that which has never changed. True, he knew that he was standing on Earth (he) devastated, but he could at least console himself with having acquired the powers of the sun, with having become the creator of matter, and time, of subatomic particles and their ephemeral durations, in earth time, for the first time.

He, who may have dreamt of / planned his escape by colonizing other planets, now finds himself failing, falling into a maelstrom, away from the world (of men).

 

One could understand Agamben’s outrage[13] over the passivity of the collective acceptance of this humiliation, as one could also understand the anti-mask protests in the name of “liberty”—provided that the target of this irrationally rational / rationally irrational gesture was the virus itself and not the political, itself at loss, outwitted, outrun by the virus. In this case, the protest could be taken in homage to, in memory of, Voltaire’s protest against nature’s irrational devastation of Lisbon in the massive 1755 earthquake. Agamben is right: the states of emergency in force all over the world amount to a passive acceptance of and surrender to impotence. Even more so than Agamben believes it to be the case. For the notion that the state of emergency is a political stratagem in the service of a totalitarian tendency to suspend the law and normal rule of government attributes power over the virus and the potency of action to at least a certain class of political agents. Whereas, if we concede, as I’ve suggested elsewhere (Baross, 2020b), that the drastic measures (lockdown, quarantine, closure, surveillance) are the last self-defensive resort of an impotent political, then what is at stake is not individual survival “at any cost” but the survival of the political itself. Not of this or that government or regime but of the body politic, the World constituted as a political body, the world politically constituted as a body.

Nonetheless, the state of exception is doubly biopolitical.

First, the self-defense of last resort is an autoimmune reaction (in Derrida’s rigorous definition of the term). By virtue of its own logic, it turns against itself, destroys the very body it is meant to protect. (Curiously so, in that it mimics the reaction to the virus of the biological body itself.) As if incapable of recognizing itself, the political body attacks its own tissue, the interconnected network of relations (proximity, touch, encounter, inter-course…) that constitutes, to borrow once again a terminology from Heidegger, the world of World-building (Weltbildend) man. The grotesque irony of this post-age epidemic is that the one (being / Dasein) who embarks on journeys of unforeseen consequences, who dares as a latter-day Prometheus to steal the powers of the sun, becomes a prisoner, forced to seek shelter, to lock himself in the space of banal domesticity.

The second purely biopolitical aspect of the confinement—contrary to the claim made by those who cite Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as their evidence—is that the modern biopolitical is dedicated to life (or, as one could say with Benjamin, to “bare life”), its founding principle being that the administration and management of the life of the population is the political task par excellence. Death for such a regime is an embarrassment, a failure, as Foucault (1990) tells us in the earlier text appended to The History of Sexuality. The mass deaths in care homes, in the neighborhoods of minorities and the poor, the deaths in their hundreds of thousands in whole states, only expose the humiliating impotence and incompetence of biopolitical regimes.

 

ii.

The second order of humiliation is inflicted on the most elementary form of sense. Not on common sense in its common usage, a faculty of sound judgment in navigating the practical affairs of the world; nor on Descartes’ “bon sens,” whose equal distribution among men in the world he assumes as axiomatic. It is not even Hannah Arendt’s “sensus communis” — a discursively accomplished sense of the world as shared, as the same world seen from different perspectives —that is humiliated, but the precondition of all these. What is just a “sense.” Like pain or hunger, impossible to negate or doubt. It has force, it enforces itself. One may call it a “sensible certitude” (again in Benussan’s borrowing of Hegel), a certitude so certain that its case paradoxically cannot be made, argued for or demonstrated. It can only be pointed to, could only be a geste, a performative: “look!” Therein lies also its fragility. When questioned, when, against every sense, it is denied, it cannot defend itself nor can it be defended.

Now, the humiliation inflicted on this primitive sense by the virus is of a second order. It arrives to a sense already humiliated. When its inherent vulnerability, perhaps more than ever, is amply and frustratingly experienced, openly displayed; when nonsense sticks like molasses to the sense of the “real” and to the real as a “sense”; when a collective hypnosis successfully resists, neutralizes, renders impotent every argument, demonstration, or “évidence,” as in the French vocable; when the latest mutations of Foucault’s “grotesque power” and the “tyranny of buffoons” (Salmon, 2020a[14]) have effectively rendered the power of the grotesque—itself a sense, of laughter, irony, parody, farce, and comedy—against Badiou’s (2004) “comedy is a thought of the present” (p. 19)—impotent. Nothing could lastingly dislocate, disturb, dismantle, or crush the infinitely resourceful and productive machines of the false, which have successfully appropriated even the terms “false,” “fake,” “faux”…

Nothing, that is, except the virus. Where science, reason, argument, evidence, persuasion, demonstration, protest, contestation, revelation … even experience, have all failed, the virus is succeeding, albeit not without difficulty and reversals. It is establishing in the continuous present its cruel truth. Truth by numbers—the exponential explosion of infections, hospitalizations, incubations, and deaths—and by the infection of the great falsificators (Trump, Bolsanaro) themselves. Where the “sense” of the real and the reality of sense have failed, the virus—as Benussan suggested—renders justice. Not to ideas, not to the idea of truth or justice. Only to the facticity of facts—which, in this epoch, is not nothing.[15]

 

iii.

The third humiliation, a purely moral one, is selective. For the virus is selective. It appears to act in the world as if another invisible hand. On the one hand, it seems to prosecute a program of eugenics, on the model of familiar fascist ideologies; on the other, to administer (in the absence of the divine) a cruel and crude “natural” justice. The first “hand” promotes the survival of the fittest and targets for elimination the weakest and the most vulnerable: the sick, the immuno-compromised, but also the undocumented migrants, farm workers, “black and brown people” in general. It especially, and especially ruthlessly, kills those unproductive by virtue of their age—the old. Curiously, in its form, this injustice resembles Walter Benjamin’s divine violence: it strikes without warning, kills without spilling blood or leaving a trace. People die alone, in isolation units, and out of sight. There are no rituals around the corpse, no funerals, no communal mourning. Corpses disappear, unceremoniously, without witnesses, into the fire of public crematoria.

The viral justice meted out by the other “hand” has little to do with the difficult death, which is visited, more or less randomly, on many of the sick. Its humiliation—if humiliation could be considered justice, if justice could humiliate—is reserved for the old: the generation that is implicated in this viral catastrophe and cannot consider itself objectively innocent, as the helpless victim of a purely bio-hazard event. It bears a collective responsibility and moral liability for what we still call a “climate crisis,” despite it being man-made, and of which this epidemic is both a consequence and a manifestation. This will be, as Isabelle Stengers predicts, the most hated generation “in human memory.”[16] The generation that “‘knew’ but did nothing or too little … [but] which will avoid the worst of catastrophic times, and will be already dead” (Stengers, 2015, p. 3).

The humiliation is not that this safe assumption may turn out to have been very wrong. It is not fear either, the fear of living what remains of life in the fear of an almost certain death sentence, in the case of infection, or, if not yet touched by it, of living in constant fear of it, a life reduced to nothing but (bare) life. Viral justice takes a different course: it reverses the direction of “intergenerational solidarity.” Curiously, it too reassigns the subject positions in the frequent call, as duty, as obligation, for solidarity: of whom it is asked, to whom it must be shown. Up until quite recently, it was the “young” who asked for it, demanded it, pleaded for it—marching, protesting, rebelling, striking (do we still remember “Global Strike Day” on March 15, 2019?) against the programmed “extinction” of their future. School children, too young to vote or take part in political life, left their classrooms all over the world pleading—in vain—that the future be saved. Their own future and that of the Earth, their future on this earth. They received nothing but platitudes, empty promises (in response to Greta’s great speech at the UN of “How dare you”: “the fantasy of economic growth”). Whether they know it or not, those revelers on beaches and in bars dancing in the summer night, ecstatic to have been liberated from confinement, laughing at the dangers of the virus, are only reversing the order of dependence—for life. And whether the generation complicit in bringing about or at least creating the conditions for this catastrophic collapse knows it or not, the virus, selectively targeting the old with a most cruel and difficult death, has reversed the order of solidarity, which the “young” now refuse to give.

(Of course, this reversal, this justice by revenge, will do nothing to repair the damage, still less to abolish the “wrong” (tort), in Lyotard’s sense of the term: viruses will come and go, but the violence done to the Earth the young will inherit is to last forever or, at least, for hundreds of thousands of years.)

 

II (b)

Toronto, Fall / Winter 2020

 

In the previous section I have asked: what world corresponds with this epidemic time as its other face and reverse side? This, however, is not exactly the right question. There is not one world, there is not one homogeneous, continuous time. There is an Outside.

The time of this epidemic is a time-zone, a Zone of time, embedded in, enveloped by other, world historical, geological, planetary… times.[17] The time that does not pass is itself not a passage of time; it does not succeed, follow, or come after another time, pushing it or letting it pass into the past, in accord with—following the order, law, and logic of—chronological time. An involution of time, it is closed upon itself, without an exit. On the outside, we know (even if we are unable to think it, to convert this “knowledge” [savoir] into thought), times are rushing ahead just as before, out-spacing our capacity to think them, just as before. Signs burst through the semi-permeable envelope; news of “occurrences”—for they are not events—reach us from the outside: Siberia is burning, the ice sheet of Greenland has suffered an irreversible collapse; 70% of known living species have gone extinct; fierce fires, scorching heatwaves, ever more forceful hurricanes, invasions by locusts… traverse the terrain; on another plane, that of the World, the infrastructures holding up economies, socio-political structures, and cultural institutions—that is, our “civilization”—are on the verge of “collapse,” just as the eponymous new science has been predicting. Unlike epidemic time, the times on the outside are prodigiously productive. Along different but interactive / interlacing / confluencing trajectories, they are rushing the World and the Planet ahead, toward disasters foretold long before this epidemic: “L’effondrement total de notre planète, de la vie sur terre, vers le milieu du siècle prochain” (René Dumont, 1974[18]). Space here permits me only to ask: is this advance still in what Blanchot (1995) called “historical time”—that of an infinitely open horizon, unending, even if passing from one disaster, from one catastrophe, one collapse (as collapsology argues) to another? Or, with the geocide on course, we have departed from “historical space” and entered the new order of an ending (without end) of time.[19]

There is an Outside: what does this mean, structurally, beyond the phenomenological description of our experiences? It means first of all this: the Zone is not the Whole. While impossible to flee, closed upon itself “like a sea shell,” it is not the Whole (World). (Although it may appear that way on the inside, as all that remains of the world after the loss of the World, or rather, as we will see, after the undoing of the world.) It is not one (world) either, identical with itself, coinciding with itself (although, again, this may be our experience on the inside). Life on the inside is haunted from the Outside.

Without an exit: without a history, or histoire, a narrative or witness testimony (one reason why analogies with the great epidemics of the past—historical or fictional, actual or mythical—break down and metaphors fail to do their work.) “Epidemic literature” (Defoe’s diaries or Thucydides’ history, the fictions of Camus or Sophocles or Márquez) is a genre of the survivor, an actual or fictional narrator who remains outside and ahead of the story he tells. Bocaccio’s Decameron is doubly a fiction: both the 100 tales and the young men and women who recount them as a diversion from the grizzly story unfolding inside the walls of Florence, are Bocaccio’s inventions, dated 1350, two years after the end of the plague. If to compose a narrative, to write a history or histoire is to forget (to do the work of mourning) or to create distance (écarter) by some other means (by offering up, for example, the “most fair and delightful planes” in 100 tales), the epidemic “here and now” does not let us forget. It leaves no space in between, permits no distancing, not even the hairline of a gap, even less the fault line of an interval. It contaminates every space in between bodies, even the air that passes from mouth to mouth, even the non-space of the touch of touch. And “in between,” as noted before, is the condition of having or establishing or entering into a relation. Rare therefore is the discourse today that is truly contemporaneous, lets itself be marked by the time of this epidemic as its proper time, while escaping at the same time the double danger Heidegger warned about: of either posturing as diagnostic, a discourse immune to the condition it addresses as its own inescapable milieu (as in Agamben’s prognostic provocations); or becoming symptomatic (as is most mediatized / political discourse today) by letting itself be contaminated by the fear, hysteria, and panic induced by the epidemic and whose denial and denegation are only different expressions of the same contamination.

Inside, we meander: search for virtual / provisory / hypothetical diagnoses of our present condition; project / predict / forecast future scenarios, speculate about the world “after.” “Where are we?” we ask. “Où suis-je,” asks Bruno Latour (2021) in the first person. “Where have we landed?” and not, distancing ourselves from Latour (2017) this time, “where to land?” Où atterrir? The time for such decisions is over. Are we traversing a crisis, a brutal but brief episode of an incursion? Are we traversing it, passing through it?—in which case, there will be an exit, an outcome, a world after to prepare and plan for, or even engineer. However far away it may be. Or are we at a turning point? A mutation, a change of epoch? In which case, according to the case Blanchot makes, we are already in the “world after.” Indeed, did we not pass a point of turning without return some time ago? Is this global disaster, said to be the first, not only a rehearsal for the great confinement (the climate catastrophe) yet to come and yet insidiously already at work everywhere, but also a repetition? The one disaster that reclaims a posteriori all the epidemics of the past that at the time still appeared local and localized—the Ebola and Aids crises, the countless swine and bird flu epidemics, Zika, mad cow disease, SARS-1—as preparations? As precursors, have they not been announcing as unending, incalculable, and unpredictable the cascade of catastrophes that characterizes this new epoch?

The truth is, we do not, we cannot, know. As Bataille writes in Guilty, inside another time Zone, that of the war, in such a time “nothing can give [us] such knowledge” (1988, p. 26). And Blanchot’s verdict in L’Entretien infini (1971) regarding the inaccessibility of such knowledge is even more radical. Of (not) knowing whether we are at a turning point he writes:

 

Si c’est une certitude, ce n’est pas un tournant. Le fait d’appartenir à ce moment où s’accomplit un changement d’époque (s’il y en a), s’empare aussi du savoir certain qui voudrait le déterminer, rendant inappropriée la certitude, comme l’incertitude.

 

If it is a certainty, it is not a turning. The fact that one belongs to this moment where a change of epoch accomplishes itself also takes away the certain knowledge that would determine it, making certitude as inappropriate as incertitude (p. 394).

 

The fact of turning itself places knowledge of it not just out of reach, but outside the region / register of (un)certainty. In which case, our not knowing where we are, where we have landed—in a crisis, which as always, will invent its exit (Deguy) or a change of epoch turning to the absolutely unknowable—is without repair. Our ignorance alone is certain, endemic to where we find ourselves, and will not serve as evidence for the one or the other scenario either way. Such is our situation inside the Zone. Such is the sense of the adjective in Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent remark: “we have entered an epoch of radical uncertainty” (Nancy & Bouthours, 2020).

What does this mean for thought, or, to borrow Jérôme Lèbre’s title for his “chaîne” of reflections, for “philosophy in the time of the epidemic”? Silence? No, says Bataille (1988). On the contrary, it is a rare “privilege to be in tune with the incompleteness of history” (p. 26). This incursion or invasion (we do not yet know which) by the “thing” we have named Covid-19, this suspension of time’s passage, is a chance to be contemporaneous with our time, to not arrive too late, after the flight of Minerva. But this chance for timeliness is also an exigence to not turn away, to not refuse to entertain precisely (and these are the words of Bataille’s contemporary, Blanchot [1995]) “the incompletion that it necessarily holds in it” (p. 268).

Inside, we meander. On the outside, bugs and butterflies, the plants in my garden, birds on the trees, even domestic dogs … continue to live life as before, each according to its own rhythm, unique season, cycle of migration. Even better, some (many) flourish in our absence, reclaim (re-territorialize) the seas and the air, take over the urban spaces whence the virus has exiled us, forced us to evacuate. I watched a fox walk down my street the other day. Untouched by the virus, immune / indifferent to / ignorant of the contagion, the micro motions of the plants on my balcony, the suddenly freed, unhindered circulation of other living creatures (who we exiled to “nature” long ago), gives a new sense to our separation. Their co-presence in what still appears to be the same space-time, the same air that we breathe, their proximity to our bodies, expose us to our own strange, newfound “Weltlosigkeit,” our loss of the world, albeit not in the same fashion as the animal is said to be poor in world (weltarm) or plants (if one may assume that like rocks they are without world) weltlos by Heidegger.

Our separation is of a different order than one of inclusion or exclusion, of sharing or not sharing the same world, or the world as such. It is categorical, and the line of separation (not of division) runs between World and Territory. Following this viral exposure / exhibition, it may appear that we are shut out of the same world that we shared before, when the same air was still passing between us. But the “territories” other living creatures territorialize, inhabit, cohabit, and inside whose boundaries they circulate so freely around my balcony, outside my home, in the city… are not continuous or commensurate with, do not communicate or compose or otherwise mix with what is “world.” Of course, it may appear that all other living creatures claim a place in this world, but World and Territory are heterogeneous. And while the latter is wholly outside the world, it does not constitute the Outside that from the outside haunts our lives inside the Zone of this epidemic.

Territories may overlap, coincide with, or be superimposed over the Zone, or, since they are mobile (flocks of birds, swarms of bees, continuously de- and re-territorializing), they may, like clouds, pass over the Zone without leaving a trace. But they do not compose with it (as musical notes in a composition reciprocally modify one another in a melody, or as images composing a montage give birth to something absolutely new). Territories do not conjugate or articulate with the Zone as its “other” face or reverse side, and which, haunting it from the Outside, would reciprocally define it as a Zone—of confinement, interdiction, or “other” space. It is not with regard to Territories that we should interrogate the Zone as neither the whole (World) nor as one (world) but as one element in a con-figuration, which, by way of hypothesis, I will consider here as a heterotopic structure, in the sense of Foucault’s (1986) definition (invention) of the concept.

 

A concept, staying still with the philosophical vocabulary of Deleuze, is at once a creation (of philosophy) and creative (productive of possible worlds). The concept “heterotopia” cuts up space differently and re-assembles the sites, emplacements, places it itself creates into a wholly other, dynamic configuration. It dramatizes the topos of the world and the world as topos. As Foucault’s nomination implies, “Other” spaces are not passive containers of (active) objects and events; their alterity concerns not specific qualities but forces: the power to “suspect, neutralize, invert” a set of relations. For while both irreducibly “other” and un-superimposable, heterotopias do impose con-figurations on / with other sites, mobilizing relations in and of spaces. In short, they are “agitators,” contesting, soliciting, perverting, juxtaposing … other sites in the network of rhizomatic relations in which they themselves are implicated.

Ordinary heterotopias (if such a term may apply to what is “other” by definition) are commonly dispersed throughout the fabric of the social world. Churches, cemeteries, airports, trains and train stations are among Foucault’s “ordinary” examples. At the limit, the extreme case of “other spaces” is constituted by zones of interdiction: prisons, gulags, camps—refugee, labor and “re-education” camps; the “Jungle” in Calais, the camps China built for holding the Uighurs in Xiang province, the island of Lesbos after refugees set the structure on fire; insane asylums; spaces of internal and external exile (in the USSR, in the apartheid of South Africa)… In a very different sense, the “America” of Günther Anders’ exile during the war or the island of the shipwrecked Robinson (the other protagonist in Derrida’s meditations on the loss of the world) also represent limit cases. Applying a certain “forcing” to Foucault’s original concept, I will consider them as radical or “extreme heterotopias.” (The Zone, as we will see, is doubly the extreme or limit case—of heterotopic spaces and of the concept of heterotopia itself: it touches the limit in / of space, it carries alterity to the very limit of their possibility, of the possibility of pertaining to the category of “space”; and there, at the point where “alterity” could not be further radicalized, it brings the concept itself to the limit of its [im]possibility.)

Is the Zone an Other space?

The three examples below may pave the way to an answer by permitting a closer examination of the “extremity” of both the space and the concept.

 

Through the dense wire mesh covering her window, the prisoner watches a man opening a door across the street: an ordinary, banal gesture; the man need not even take notice          of it, but on the inside, a “here and now” that is a world, it is the Outside.

           

The camera slowly “travels” along the barbed-wire fence of the abandoned camp. Across the fence, it films an ordinary open field. The silhouette of a church tower punctuating the horizon in a distance suggests the presence a village: “another planet” says the narrator of the famous film (Night and Fog / Nuit et brouillard [Resnais, 1955][20])—at once infinitely close-by and at an infinite distance.

           

A group of armed Chechens take over the crowed Dubrovka Theater during a performance in Moscow. Some hostages are killed during the siege and up to 204 die in a botched rescue attempt. When after 83 hours of captivity a survivor finds herself alone on the street, the cafes are full, the street is crowded with pedestrians, cars and buses are running as before. In all that time—an “enfer” of time inside the theater, its density, its contraction, immeasurable by chronometry—time on the Outside has not changed at all, has continued to pass, measurably, just as before.

The first question to ask: what or whose passage is interdicted—by law, or by geography, by the force of arms or by the virus? Whose passage from inside a “zone” is blocked to an outside and vice versa? For subjects, bodies—dead or alive—will pass, even if in a controlled and regulated manner. Guards will pass, daily; the same holds for supplies and deliveries (a surreptitious route of escape, as we know from one of the best informants, the cinema). The prisoner, the inmate, will be or may be eventually released or liberated. What, however, cannot pass over this wall, actual or virtual, what cannot circulate on both sides of the interval, is sense, while still making sense, while making the same sense. The space of confinement is absolutely heterogeneous with the Outside, its other side or face, especially with regard to “sense,” with regard to their respective “worlds” as worlds that make sense (especially if it concerns the loss of the world). Even when, as we know from the witness par excellence, Primo Levi (1960), the sense that makes “world” and the sense that the world makes is nonsense. It is not that nothing makes sense, but that the absence of sense (“Hier ist kein warum” [p. 24]) alone makes sense and is the sense that the world—or indeed, the universe, for it is a wholly other space, l’universe concentrationnaire—fabricates daily, with every blow.

A correlate of still this first question regards the “sense” confined to the Zone of this epidemic: to what other space, to what outside, can it not pass, while still haunting life on the inside? Once the epidemic becomes a pandemic, englobing everything, the Outside becomes a space geographically unlocalizable. It is nowhere, which means not that it is not elsewhere, an “elsewhere,” an ailleurs. I have been watching cinema from pre-epidemic times, that is to say, from the history of the cinema: everything extracted from this world—touch, face, crowd—is there. Effortlessly, naturally, unselfconsciously. The very possibility of their absence is in the region of the unthought / unthinkable. And yet, this cinematic space—whether represented, or projected, or the cinema’s own space in the theatre—does not articulate or compose with the world “here and now” to reciprocally define it as a Zone.

This cinema is of the past, today gone, parti, absent. More precisely, its world is past, the world in which it still claimed a place on earth (“une place sur la terre,” is how Godard names his cinema) is gone and will not return— not even as Godard prays, “in the time of the resurrection” (“l’image viendra au temps de la résurrection”[21]). This cinema certainly merits a backward glance (of the kind that Lot’s wife cast back at the “empty windows of the tall house,” “the court-yard where [she] sang,” in the magnificent short poem of Akhmatova [1924]), even if by such “last regard” we risk becoming paralysed, like Lot’s wife, who has no name, by nostalgia. Still, it is not the past, it is not past cinema, the past / memory of the cinema, or the past archived and projected by the cinema that haunts life inside the Zone from the outside. And we can say this with some measure of confidence, even though we do not (yet) know how to say / how to think what that Outside is.

One other significant feature distinguishes radical heterotopias: reversibility. Inside the juxtaposition, the direction of solicitation gets reversed. In “ordinary” heterotopias (church, theatre, cemetery) the articulation of spaces is relatively stable. As structures, they resist the solicitation / contestation (of the “hetero”) at work on the interior of the articulation itself. Radical heterotopias, on the other hand, easily destabilize. The direction of forces active on the interior of the con-figuration gets reversed, the relation of the disjunction, topos / heterotopos, pivots, and the quality of being “other,” the force of alterity, gets transferred to the other side of the interval. (Silently, invisibly, such a transfer has already taken place here in this text. Perhaps no space other than the Outside, haunting life inside the Zone, is more deserving of this epithet, “Other.” To the Zone, inside which we live, which is a real place and all the space that there is, the Outside has become the “Other” space, even if we cannot yet say what sort of space it is.)

The prisoner will be eventually liberated; the same holds for the hostages who do not die in the attack; the camp will be rendered inoperative, its ruins preserved, not as a memorial, but as testimony to the unthinkable. The theatre will return to being the same ordinary heterotopia it has always been—a space for the unfolding of other fictional “other” spaces. But when the prisoner looks back from the street outside at her window covered with wire mash, what she will see is an opening to a wholly other world on the other side (of her “this” side). Tourists, but also former inmates visiting the ruins of the camp, will have to summon all their powers of imagination to project the radical alterity of an other continent onto the meadow or the church tower on the other side of the fence. As for the liberated hostage, by the time the world on the busy Moscow street at night has tilted upright again, the terror, so cruelly and absolutely real just a few minutes ago, will have begun to sink into the irreality of a nightmare….

A second, albeit provisional question arises at this point: will the abyssal hiatus that has opened up in the fabric / tissue of the world here and now close up just as spontaneously as it has appeared, leaving behind nothing but an ugly scar? In memory of the massive humiliation visited upon the World, the absurdity of compulsive hand washing, of distancing from every other as Other? In other words, will the world turn upright again, will time slip back to its joint and begin to turn again? Or, should one rather say, give oneself trouble here, by pointing out that the memory of the absurd, of the past as absurd, is a forgetting, whereas a scar, as Deleuze (1994) writes, citing the Stoics, “is not the sign of a past wound but of ‘the present fact of having been wounded’”? (p. 77). In which case, the world after, should there be one, is / will itself be a world scarred. Whether we will know it or not, it contracts with the past. So that this inescapable fact, which need not bear a relation to, register in, or be contingent upon the faculty of (faulty) memory, would be a fragile but indelible link preventing the complete rupture of the World into two absolutely discontinuous domains.

There are two possible, complementary responses to these concerns.

The first pertains to time or, better yet, to space-time. For one could easily see that this transference (in close to the psychoanalytic sense of the term) of alterity to the other side of the interval is facilitated, or indeed, is conditional on a corresponding, simultaneously operative heterochronia. A schism opens up in time, and it will not be healed by a scar. There will be no synthesis in the place of the scar. Time itself pivots along the axis cut between inside / outside; it splits into two heterogeneous, discontinuous temporalities. The two “continents” of sense will not be held together in time, in the same order of time. So when Primo Levi (1960) passes what he calls his “chemical exam” inside the camp, he has the definite sensation “of not being believed, of not even believing it himself” (pp. 123–4), that in 1941 in Turin he took his degree in chemistry; later, on the other hand, while sitting at a table and writing this very testimony (Survival in Auschwitz), he himself is not quite convinced that what he is writing about actually happened.[22] And when Günther Anders (2012) returns to Paris from his exile in America after the war—a jubilant return: “Paris est là!”—the many years spent on the other side quickly recede into oblivion; from this side of the other side, he has the greatest difficulty in pronouncing “our telephone number over there (là bas)”; or the number of a cousin in New York who (as he imagines) “in this moment is sitting in front of his typewriter, trying to evoke the Europe that is absent, while we over here … are traversing the forbidden landscapes of old times” (p. 114).

Again, the two “continents” will not be held together in time, in the same order of time.

(The “other side of this side”: the “sides” are reversible; the “otherness” oscillates, from one to the other side of the interval that heterogenizes the two spaces. This means not that alterity is relative [no longer irreducible], only that in the case of radical heterotopias, the world is no longer a measure).

The second response to the questions posed above, and which also takes the form of questions, concerns the Outside: whence the solicitation, the contestation of life inside the Zone—restless, nervous, exhausted and irritated? Why is the (com)pulsion to flee—to somewhere, to anywhere, outside the Zone—permanently frustrated, blocked? What sort of space is this Outside, which, while solicits us, also excludes us? What “other” space (for Foucault insists, other spaces are real spaces: men live there…) necessarily constitutes the Outside of our confinement, co-constitutes it as a Zone, as confinement? Since the epidemic has become a pandemic, since it has reterritorialized the entire globe, leaving us no space to flee, no place in the world free of its (actual or potential) contamination, turning the entire Globe into the Zone, what Other space remains, now that the Zone extends to / encompasses the whole World (and yet, is not the whole)? Now that we live (in) the extraordinary situation that there is nowhere else (to go, to be) than the here and now of the Zone?

When the “elsewhere” is not somewhere else, when it is not an “anywhere” else, it is nowhere. It is the Nowhere. And what other space could be more deserving of the label “other”?

Kafka’s old parable, “The Departure,” may cast light upon our predicament: The “master” saddles his horse and goes to the gate. When his servant asks where he is going, he replies: out of here, anywhere.[23] Our desire to flee, to exit from this Zone to anywhere, is no less impatient and could not be any stronger. But the virus, which is everywhere, leaves us no other space, no other space than Nowhere as the Other space, as the Outside.

That the Outside is Nowhere is not a negative statement, a negation or proposition claiming that the Outside is nowhere, that there is no Outside. On the contrary, it names the limit case of what may constitute an Outside, not a no-place, utopia or fiction, or an imaginary space, but a zero-degree space, the zero-degree case of the space and of the concept of heterotopia. The vocable Nowhere is not an empty signifier, without a referent; not an adverb, pointing to an absence. A noun, it names the object of the predicate in the sentence. The Outside is Nowhere, which is the absolute limit case of heterotopia, a zero-degree space, or the skin of the world. It takes up no space, it is the limit-line, the lining of the limit. It is as such limitrophic space that it carries the concept of heterotopia itself to its limit: the limit of its (im)possibility, where it de-constitutes itself.

 

 

 

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[1] The text appeared a year later under the borrowed title “Die Welt ist Fort” in volume one of my On Contemporaneity, after Agamben (Baross, 2020a). Written in the aftermath of Agamben’s influential small book (What is the Contemporary?) the writing focuses almost exclusively on the “actuality” of the difficult obligation announced in the second half of the verse: “I must carry you.” Today, when the epidemic has acquired the onerous title of “pandemic” and when the world itself has become a question, it is the sense of the first pronouncement, “Die Welt ist fort,” that insists on being recognized urgently as having much gravity. The present essay, which may be read as a postscript to the last book or a prologue to the next, yet to be written, is an attempt to respond to this new urgency.

[2] In a touching moment in the last seminar, which reminds us of Socrates’ adieu in Phaedo, Derrida reassures his student disciples that they could do the work without him, but then, in between parentheses, “permits himself” to return to the subject the following year (2010, p. 391).

[3] There have been several others, most notably Gallimard’s electronic publication, Tracts de crise. The 69 interventions during the period of confinement in France were published in paper form as Tracts de crise (2020). On the virtual platform Rencontres Philosophiques de Monaco, Joseph Cohen (2020) launched his Antivirus philosophiques, a series of 18 contributions between March 11 and May 8.

[4] The exhibition in which this film appeared, curated by Antonio Somaini with Eline Grignard and Marie Rebecchi with Antoine Prévost-Balga as Associate Curator, opened on January 12, 2020, in the city of Parma, and was closed on March 8, 2020, because of the national lockdown due to the pandemic. See https://vimeo.com/499133645.

[5] In a letter read out on France Inter: “Nous ne nous réveillerons pas, après le confinement, dans un nouveau monde; ce sera le même, en un peu pire.”

[6] Since I wrote this, several vaccines have been developed and deployed, but without disposing of any of these questions. The virus continues to mutate. It outruns us in the race, taking the globe as its terrain.

 

[8] “I fear it serves nothing,” “Je crains qu’il ne serve à rien.”

[9] “Ce que la pandémie met au jour, nous demande à nous interroger sur tout cet ensemble de projets … à l’intérieur duquel nous découvrons la présence insistant de la mort….”

[10] I am citing this abbreviated edition (1995) as it, significantly, includes the date in the title.

[11] Another distant relation is perhaps the shift in sports that Deleuze takes note of: in place of marshalling brute force against force, as with jumping, lifting, even running against gravity, the new sports—surfing, gliding, skateboarding, acrobatic and even traditional skiing—compose with existing forces—that of the wave, the current of air, the almost frictionless gravity of the snow-covered slope.

[12] “En un peu pire, réponses à quelques amis” (Houellebecq, 2020).

[13] See my “Agamben, the Virus and the Biopolitical: a Riposte” (Baross, 2020b).

[14] “On voit depuis 2016, et pendant la campagne qui l’a précédé, un homme multipliant les figures burlesques, transgressant par rapport aux rituels ou aux images qu’on attend d’un monde, en bousculant cet univers symbolique qui entoure les candidats au profit d’un agitateur” (Salmon, 2020b). Unlike their precursors (Foucault, lacking contemporary examples, cites Nero, Mussolini or Hitler), who take their role seriously and can be still parodied (by a Chaplin or a Brecht), the contemporary variety—Trump, Salvini, Johnson, Bolsonaro—deliberately play the role of the buffoon rather than that of the statesman.

[15] This is not to say that language, thought, critical discourse, and even comedy do not suffer the daily humiliation of impotence in face of the “banality of evil” and / or the evil of banality (the two have become indistinguishable), of their impower to render inoperative, to crush (écraser) by ridicule (Brecht’s method), the dominant discourse incapable of uttering a single phrase, sometimes not even a coherent phrase, that would not be a cliché. But this humiliation remains without justice being rendered.

[16] Stengers and I both belong to this generation, share the same burden of responsibility, of complicity without remedy, which raises the question of right: by what right am I writing this text here? And not some other, which would not implicate me, call upon me as witness for the prosecution against me? In response, not to exonerate me but “pour mieux comprendre,” I am citing here from the letter J.M.G. Le Clézio (2020) sent to Bernard Stiegler with regard to this very question. (Stiegler, we sadly know, committed suicide earlier this year. Perhaps—but we will never know—he could not bear [tragen] the weight of living toward the “coming barbarism.”):

Je vous remercie beaucoup de m’avoir invité à soutenir l’action de Greta Thunberg, et la vôtre, pour que les générations futures vivent dans un monde meilleur. Je suis né à une époque où cette préoccupation n’existait pratiquement pas. Particulièrement pour ceux de ma génération, nés pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale, la question qui se posait était plutôt d’ordre politique et social… Cela dit, non pour nous exonérer de nos responsabilités, ni pour nous atténuer nos erreurs, mais pour mieux comprendre le chemin parcouru depuis cette époque… Le mérite de Greta, et de tous ceux qui soutiennent son combat — rappelons-nous le sens du mot écologie, la science de la maison, puisque le monde après tout est notre seule maison—c’est de nous placer devant cette urgence, cette absolue nécessité : examiner nos valeurs maintenant, faire nos choix sans plus tarder, décider nous-mêmes de notre avenir et de celui de nos enfants. Cela s’appelle la vérité, tout le reste n’est qu’un vain discours, une chimère destructrice, une mascarade sans issue.

 

[17] Anselm Kiefer situates his work, often literally, in “deep time”: buries his massive canvases underground, in the earth, or leaves them outside exposed, precisely, to the “elements” in box containers, at times for years in calendar time. He lets Earth-time do its own fossilizing, pre-subjective work—predating the final touch of the artist but also of “art” and the “subject.” Paint, canvas, and other perishable matters are thus transformed into fossils of the present, that is, memories of the future, of a future that may not be for us, our species, which is one reason why they need to be considered as prototypes of art in the time that remains.

[18] “Il faut hurler,” cries out the agronomist René Dumont in the 1970s: “We are going straight to death.” “Nous allons à l’effondrement total de notre planète.” Even Jean-Luc Nancy, who in 2016 (Que faire?) still insisted on the present being a mutation in historical time, admits by 2020 that we are exiting civilization, at least a certain civilization, without knowing what we are entering into. “Nous sommes vraiment dans un sortie de la civilisation… une humanité court a sa perte, elle va à une fin… peut-être l’humanité a fait son temps, du moins une certaine humanité” (Nancy 2020d).

[19] Our “departure from historical space” may also mean that we cannot immediately appeal here to Derrida’s “différance.” The concept, which still pertains to historical space-time, cannot be transported (carried / trägt) across the abyssal hiatus that separates us to the present, to be offered up against a final end that, in accordance with its law, cannot but defer / differ from itself, without end. Outside historical space, in the time of the geocide, the ending without end must be thought otherwise than as a finality that cannot catch up with itself. For the quick appeal that Nancy (2019) nonetheless makes to the concept, see his closing presentation, already cited.

[20] “Premier regard sur le camp: c’est une autre planète.”

[21] The formula, freely adopted from Saint Paul, is repeated throughout his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–1998).

[22] “Today, at this very moment as I sit at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened” (Levi, 1960, p. 120).

[23] “Where are you riding to, master?” “I don’t know,” I said, “just away from here, just away from here. On and on away from here, only in this way can I reach my goal.” “So you know your goal?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you: ‘Away-from-here,’ that is my goal.” At https://atrulyenormousjourney.tumblr.com/post/49070165513/the-departure-franz-kafka-i-ordered-my-horse-to.

 

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09/07/2021

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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 Institute, Ghent, Belgium. She is the author of The Scandal of Disease (University of Amsterdam, 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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