A more or less chronological selection of Philosophers on the virus:
March 2020 (updated version (June 2020) available here).
It’s important in times of crisis, that we not forget to think. And indeed, this apparently exceptional moment has given rise to thought among contemporary philosophers, in particular those in the continental tradition, for whom this event confirms or nuances or reminds them of certain things they’ve been thinking about for quite a while now, or it reminds them of moments from their tradition which suddenly stand out as relevant and significant in thinking what is going on today.
So here is a selection of fascinating debates on the matter, that have appeared in the press, largely online, over the last few weeks, and it constitutes a great example of the vitality of philosophy and the way in which it can be deployed constantly to reconceptualise events that are happening to us, either frequently or only from time to time, as they seem to be today in particular.
We start with an excerpt on the plague and the way power (disciplinary power) was exerted in times of plague, by one of the philosophers who coined the notion of ‘biopolitics’, which is to say the application of law to (biological) life, and that means political power governing and controlling life, which according to some was by no means always the case — since the place of life, mere life, bare survival, the reproduction of physical, biological life, was understood in Aristotle and thus ancient Greece to be the home (the oikos) and not the city (the polis): life and death, health and disease were taken to be private matters, matters for private life; not public life, civic life, the life of the citizen, the (for Aristotle) truly human life.
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”, https://antinomie.it/)
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 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.
The Invention of an Epidemic
(Published in Italian on Quodlibet, https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia)
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.
(Published in Italian on “Antinomie”, https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/02/27/eccezione-virale/
Giorgio Agamben, an old friend, argues that the coronavirus is hardly different from a normal flu. He forgets that for the “normal” flu there is a vaccine that has been proven effective. And even that needs to be readapted to viral mutations year after year. Despite this, the “normal” flu always kills several people, while coronavirus, against which there is no vaccine, is evidently capable of causing far higher levels of mortality. The difference (according to sources of the same type as those Agamben uses) is about 1 to 30: it does not seem an insignificant difference to me.
Giorgio states that governments take advantage of all sorts of pretexts to continuously establish states of exception. But he fails to note that the exception is indeed becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds (movement, transfers of every type, impregnation or spread of substances, and so on) are reaching a hitherto unknown intensity that is growing at the same rate as the population. Even in rich countries this increase in population entails a longer life expectancy, hence an increase in the number of elderly people and, in general, of people at risk.
We must be careful not to hit the wrong target: an entire civilization is in question, there is no doubt about it. There is a sort of viral exception – biological, computer-scientific, cultural – which is pandemic. Governments are nothing more than grim executioners, and taking it out on them seems more like a diversionary manoeuvre than a political reflection.
I mentioned that Giorgio is an old friend. And I apologize for bringing up a personal recollection, but I am not abandoning a register of general reflection by doing so. Almost thirty years ago doctors decided I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice, I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake. Giorgio is nevertheless a spirit of such finesse and kindness that one may define him – without the slightest irony – as exceptional.
Cured to the Bitter End
(Published in Italian on Antinomie, https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/02/28/curati-a-oltranza/)
In this text by Nancy I find all the traits that have always characterized him – in particular an intellectual generosity I was personally affected by in the past, drawing immense inspiration from his thinking, especially in my work on communities. What interrupted our dialogue at one point was Nancy’s sharp opposition to the paradigm of biopolitics, to which he has always opposed, as in this text, the relevance of technological apparatus – as if the two things were necessarily in contrast. While in fact even the term “viral” itself points to a biopolitical contamination between different languages – political, social, medical and technological – united by the same immune syndrome, meant as a polarity semantically opposed to the lexicon of communitas. Though Derrida himself used the category of immunisation extensively, Nancy’s refusal to confront himself with the paradigm of biopolitics was probably influenced by the dystonia with regard to Foucault that he inherited from Derrida. In any case, we are talking about three of the most important contemporary philosophers.
It remains a fact that anyone with eyes to see cannot deny the constant deployment of biopolitics. From the intervention of biotechnology on domains that were once considered exclusively natural, like birth and death, to bioterrorism, the management of immigration and more or less serious epidemics, all political conflicts today have the relation between politics and biological life at their core. But this reference to Foucault in itself should lead us to not losing sight of the historically differentiated character of biopolitical phenomena. One thing is claiming, as Foucault does, that in the last two and half centuries politics and biology have progressively formed an ever tighter knot, with problematic and sometimes tragic results. Another is to assimilate incomparable incidents and experiences. I would personally avoid making any sort of comparison between maximum security prisons and a two-week quarantine in the Po Lowlands. From the legal point of view, of course, emergency decreeing, long since applied even to cases like this one, in which it is not absolutely necessary, pushes politics towards procedures of exception that may in the long run undermine the balance of power in favour of the executive branch. But to talk of risks to democracy in this case seems to me an exaggeration to say the least. I think that we should try to separate levels and distinguish between long-running processes and recent events. With regard to the former, politics and medicine have been tied in mutual implications for at least three centuries, something that has ultimately transformed both. On the one hand this has led to a process of medicalization of politics, which, seemingly unburdened of any ideological limitations, shows itself as more and more dedicated to “curing” its citizens from risks it is often responsible for emphasizing. On the other we witness a politicization of medicine, invested with tasks of social control that do not belong to it – which explains the extremely heterogeneous assessments virologists are making on the nature and gravity of the coronavirus. Both these tendencies deform politics compared to its classic profile. Also because its objectives no longer comprehend single individuals or social classes, but segments of population differentiated according to health, age, gender or even ethnic group.
But once again, with regard to absolutely legitimate concerns, it is necessary not to lose our sense of proportion. It seems to me that what is happening in Italy today, with the chaotic and rather grotesque overlapping of national and regional prerogatives, has more the character of a breakdown of public authorities than that of a dramatic totalitarian grip.
Riposte by Jean-Luc Nancy to Roberto Esposito (through email to Sergio Benvenuto):
“Dear Robert, neither “biology” nor “politics” are precisely determined terms today. I would actually say the contrary. That’s why I have no use for their assemblage.
Best regards, Jean-Luc”
Welcome to Seclusion
(Published in Italian on Antinomie,https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/03/05/benvenuto-in-clausura/)
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 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) 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.
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 “hearthed” 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.
1] The figure has increased to 3652. Until now there are 107,000 ascertained cases and 61,000 recoveries (8 March 2020)[editors’ update]
 The number of fatalities in Italy has risen to 250 (8 March 2020) [editors’ update]
 A resolution made obsolete by the government ordinance effectively sealing off part of Northern Italy (8 March 2020). [editors’ update]
The Community of the Forsaken: A Response to Agamben and Nancy
Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan
(in collaboration with the Journal “Antinomie”, https://antinomie.it/)
India has for long been full of exceptional peoples, making meaningless the notion of “state of exception” or of “extending” it. Brahmins are exceptional for they alone can command the rituals that run the social order and they cannot be touched by the lower caste peoples (let alone desired) for fear of ritualistic pollution. In modern times this involves separate public toilets for them, in some instances. The Dalits, the lowest castes peoples too cannot be touched by the upper castes, let alone desired, because they are considered the most ‘polluting’. As we can see, the exception of the Brahmin is unlike the exclusion of the Dalit. One of the Dalit castes named “Pariah” was turned into a ‘paradigm’ by Arendt, which unfortunately lightened the reality of their suffering. In 1896, when the bubonic plague entered Bombay, the British colonial administration tried to combat the spread of the disease using the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. However, caste barriers, including the demand by the upper castes to have separate hospitals and their refusal to receive medical assistance from the lower caste peoples among the medical personnel, added to causes of the deaths of more than ten million people in India.
The spread of coronavirus, which has infected more than 100,000 people according to official figures, reveals what we wonder about ourselves today—are we worth saving, and at what cost? On the one hand there are the conspiracy theories which include “bioweapons” and a global project to bring down migration. On the other hand, there are troublesome misunderstandings, including the belief that COVID-19 is something propagated through “corona beer”, and the racist commentaries on the Chinese people. But of an even greater concern is that, at this con-juncture of the death of god and birth of mechanical god, we have been persisting in a crisis about the “worth” of man. It can be seen in the responses to the crises of climate, technological ‘exuberance’, and coronavirus.
Earlier, man gained his worth through various theo-technologies. For example, one could imagine that the creator and creature were the determinations of something prior, say “being”, where the former was infinite and the latter finite. In such a division one could think of god as the infinite man and man as the finite god. In the name of the infinite man the finite gods gave the ends to themselves. Today, we are entrusting the machine with the determination of ends, so that its domain can be called techno-theology.
It is in this peculiar con-juncture that one must consider Giorgio Agamben’s recent remark that the containment measures against COVID-19 are being used as an “exception” to allow an extraordinary expansion of the governmental powers of imposing extraordinary restrictions on our freedoms. That is, the measures taken by most states and at considerable delay, to prevent the spread of a virus that can potentially kill at least one percent of the human population, could implement the next level of “exception”. Agamben asks us to choose between “the exception” and the regular while his concern is with the regularization of exception. Jean-Luc Nancy has since responded to this objection by observing that there are only exceptions today, that is, everything we once considered regular is broken-through. Deleuze in his final text would refer to that which calls to us at the end of all the games of regularities and exceptions as “a life”; that is, one is seized by responsibility when one is confronted with an individual life which is in the seizure of death. Death and responsibility go together.
Then let us attend to the non-exceptionality of exceptions. Until the late 1800s, pregnant women admitted in hospitals tended to die in large numbers after giving birth due to puerperal fever, or post-partum infections. At a certain moment, an Austrian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis realized that it was because the hands of medical workers carried pathogens from one autopsy to the next patient, or from one woman’s womb to the next’s, causing infections and death. The solution proposed by Semmelweis was to wash hands after each contact. For this he was treated as an exception and ostracized by the medical community. He died in a mental asylum suffering from septicemia, which resulted possibly from the beating of the guards. Indeed, there are unending senses of exceptions. In Semmelweis’ case, the very technique for combating infection was the exception. In Politics, Aristotle discussed the case of the exceptional man, such as the one who could sing better than the chorus, who would be ostracized for being a god amongst men.
There is not one paradigm of exception. The pathway of one microbial pathology is different from that of another. For example, the staphylococci live within human bodies without causing any difficulties, although they trigger infections when our immune system response is “excessive”. At the extreme of non-pathological relations, the chloroplasts in plant cells and the mitochondria in the cells of our bodies are ancient, well-settled cohabitations between different species. Above all, viruses and bacteria do not “intend” to kill their host, for it is not always in their “interest” to destroy that through which alone they could survive. In the long term—of millions of years of nature’s time—”everything learns to live with each other”, or at least obtain equilibria with one another for long periods. This is the biologist’s sense of nature’s temporality.
In recent years, due in part to farming practices, micro-organisms which used to live apart came together and started exchanging genetic material, sometimes just fragments of DNA and RNA. When these organisms made the “jump” to human beings, disasters sometimes began for us. Our immune systems find these new entrants shocking and then tend to overplay their resources by developing inflammations and fevers which often kill both us and the micro-organisms. Etymologically “virus” is related to poison. It is poison in the sense that by the time a certain new virus finds a negotiated settlement with human animals we will be long gone. That is, everything can be thought in the model of the “pharmakon” (both poison and cure) if we take nature’s time. However, the distinction between medicine and poison in most instances pertains to the time of humans, the uncanny animal. What is termed “biopolitics” takes a stand from the assumption of the nature’s temporality, and thus neglects what is disaster in the view of our interest in – our responsibility for – “a life”, that is, the lives of everyone in danger of dying from contracting the virus.
Here lies the crux of the problem: we have been able to determine the “interests” of our immune systems by constituting exceptions in nature, including through the Semmelweis method of hand washing and vaccinations. Our kind of animal does not have biological epochs at its disposal in order to perfect each intervention. Hence, we too, like nature, make coding errors and mutations in nature, responding to each and every exigency in ways we best can. As Nancy noted, man as this technical-exception-maker who is uncanny to himself was thought from very early on by Sophocles in his ode to man. Correspondingly, unlike nature’s time, humans are concerned with this moment, which must be led to the next moment with the feeling that we are the forsaken: those who are cursed to ask after “the why” of their being but without having the means to ask it. Or, as Nancy qualified it in a personal correspondence, “forsaken by nothing”. The power of this “forsakenness” is unlike the abandonments constituted by the absence of particular things with respect to each other. This forsakenness demands, as we found with Deleuze, that we attend to each life as precious, while knowing at the same time that in the communities of the forsaken we can experience the call of the forsaken individual life which we alone can attend to. Elsewhere, we have called the experience of this call of the forsaken, and the possible emergence of its community from out of metaphysics and hypophysics, “anastasis”.
Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan (philosophers based in the subcontinent).
 Coincidently, the name of the virus ‘corona’ means ‘crown’, the metonymy of sovereignty.
 Which of course has been perceived as a non-choice by most governments since 2001 in order to securitize all social relations in the name of terrorism. The tendency notable in these cases is that the securitization of the state is proportionate to corporatization of nearly all state functions.
 See Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Intrus (Paris: Galilée, 2000).
 See Gilles Deleuze, “L’immanence: une vie”, in Philosophie 47 (1995).
 It is ridiculous to attribute an interest to a micro-organism, and the clarifications could take much more space than this intervention allows. At the same time, today it is impossible to determine the “interest of man”.
 We should note that “viruses” exist on the critical line between living and non-living.
 In Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
The virtues of the virus
It is difficult to resist the temptation of analogy when trying to make sense of the proportions of the pandemic event. In the reflections that accompany its uncontrolled spread, Covid 19 has become a sort of generalized metaphor, almost the symbolic precipitate of the human condition in post-modernity. What happened forty years ago, with HIV, is repeating itself today. The pandemic appears as a sort of experimentum crucis, able to test hypotheses that go from politics to the effects of globalization, to the transformation of communication at the time of the internet – reaching the heights of the finest metaphysical speculation. The isolation, the mistrust and suspicion the virus causes, make it alternatively “populist” and “sovereignist”. The emergency measures it forces upon us seem to universalize the “state of exception” that the present has inherited from the political theology of the twentieth century, confirming Foucault’s thesis that modern sovereign power is biopolitical (a power that is articulated in the production, management and administration of “life”). Also, because of the fundamental anonymity characterizing it, the virus seems to share the same immaterial quality that grounds the dominion of financial capitalism. Because of how contagious it is, it can be easily compared to the prereflexive and “viral” nature of online communication. Last but not least, the virus signals our eternal human condition. In case we have forgotten that we are mortal, finite, contingent, lacking, ontological wanting, etc., the virus is here to remind us, forcing us to meditate and correct our distraction, that of compulsive consumers. These considerations are legitimate. They are, in fact, perfectly justified. This is, however, also their defect. If they make sense, it is precisely because they reduce what is unknown to what is known. They use the virus as intuitive proof that responds – to speak in phenomenological terms – to an expectation that is theoretical. For the critical insight that is being developed around the virus, Covid 19 is rather the name of a science fiction film used to certify previous knowledge.
However, if it is true that the virus displays the characteristic of an event (it would be difficult to deny this), then it must also possess its “virtue”. Events are such not because they “happen” or, at least, not only because of this. Events are not “facts”. Unlike simple facts, events possess a “virtue”, a force, a property, a vis, that is, they do something. For this reason, an event is always traumatic to the point we may say that if there is no trauma there is no event, that if there is no trauma, literally nothing has happened. What exactly do events do? Events produce transformations that prior to their taking place were not even possible. In fact, they only begin to be “after” the event has taken place. In short, an event is such because it generates “real” possibility. One must bear in mind that here “possible” merely means doable. Possibility means being able to do something. Possibility is nothing abstract, it is not the free imagination of other worlds that are better than this one. Remaining on a pragmatic level, without indulging in metaphysics, possibility is only “potency” and potency is nothing more than action, determined activity. The “virtue” of an event thus consists in rendering operational methods possible, methods that “before” were simply impossible, unthinkable. It follows that an event can only be thought of starting from the future it generates (and not from the past), because it transforms, because it creates that which is real, and with it possibility. Common sense is therefore right when an event is thought of as an “opportunity” to “make a virtue of necessity”.
We are too close to the Covid 19 event to be able to catch a glimpse of the future it bears, our fear is human, and this makes us unreliable witnesses. However, some signs of the shift in paradigm that this virus is generating are already visible, and they display an unexpected sense. The most striking is probably the sudden disappearance of the ideology linked to “walls”. The virus has come at a time when the planet seemed to converge towards the shared belief that the only response to the “threats” posed by globalization consists in redefining guarded borders and strong identities. Populism hates books, but it dogmatically believes in the primacy of “culture”, understood in an anthropological sense. The kind of community it promotes is, in fact, historical, romantic and traditional. This community is local by definition, its sworn enemy is the frigid abstraction of cosmopolitanism. What is even more alien in the eyes of populism is nature, which is nothing other than a resource to be exploited for the well-being of the community (one need only think of Bolsonaro and the deforestation in the Amazon, of Trump and his indifference to global warming, of Salvini’s hatred for Greta…). Populists never doubt the idea that humanity is “exceptional”. On the contrary, it is an article of faith. I might add that if a populist kisses the cross, it is because this act theologically confirms this exception. In a matter of days, and with an incredible speed, the virus has forced us all, willingly or not, to take upon ourselves – with everyday actions (wash your hands…) – the destiny of the global community, and, what is more, the destiny of the community of man with nature. Our culturalist and anthropocentric prejudice was not overcome by the slow and almost always ineffective action of education: a cough was enough to make it suddenly impossible to evade the responsibility that each individual has towards all living beings for the simple fact of (still…) being part of this world, and of wanting to be part of it…
With the objective force of trauma, the virus shows that the whole is always implied in the part, that “everything is, in certain sense, in everything” and that in nature there are no autonomous regions that constitute an exception. In nature there is no “dominion within another”, as Spinoza wrote, ridiculing the “spirit’s” claims to superiority over “matter”. The virus’s monism is wild and its immanence cruel. If culture de-solidarizes, if it erects barriers and constructs genres, if it defines gradations in the participation in the notion of humanity, tracing horrible borders between “us” and the “barbarians”, the virus connects, and forces us to search for common solutions. Nobody, at a time like this, can think it is possible to save oneself on one’s own, nor is it possible to do this without involving nature in this process. It is said that the epidemic is leading to the creation of red zones, domestic seclusion, the militarization of territories. This is indeed the case. Here, however, the wall has a completely different meaning compared to the walls the rich build to keep out the poor. A wall is being erected for the other, whoever she or he may be. In times like these “thy neighbour” is radically reduced to the dimension of “anyone”. A wall, in all its forms, including the one metre separating the people standing in bars, is erected to substitute handshakes, now impossible, with that “anyone”. It is a means to communicate, not the sign of exclusion. This is confirmed by the fact that the fascist rhetoric has not been able to appropriate these walls and use them to say how right they were about their proposals for segregation. In the face of the immense power of this virus, the fascists have had to put away, at least momentarily, their most effective weapon.
We are too close to the event also to be able to evaluate the effects it will have on the political sphere. There is one fact, however, that must be noted. The virus seems to restore the primacy that once belonged to the political. Classical thought used a metaphor to convey this primacy, the image of a ship’s pilot navigating through stormy seas. Thinkers of the past were realists, they knew that there were no safe harbours to enter and end one’s journey. Navigation, they said, is necessary, life is not. The “element” washing the political is a kind of nature in which fortune, chance and risk play an ineradicable role. Political “virtue”, in fact, consisted in testing the force of this element, governing it with cunning intelligence (metis) and resilience. The political is such precisely because it renounces the “human, all too human” illusion that it is possible to appropriate the force of natural elements, an illusion which, on the contrary, constitutes the metaphysical dream of “modern” humanity, which has conceived of the relationship with nature as a war of the spirit against brute matter. Political primacy means governing nature, not dominating it. Also, to explicit the fully “political” nature of this government, it is important to recall the formula so dear to Plato: kata dynamin, as much as it is possible for a human. Undoubtedly it is precisely the hypothesis of dominion that is ridiculed by a cough in Wuhan, a cough that makes it necessary to apply the pragmatic intelligence of a ship’s pilot to govern, as much as possible, the spontaneity of a process unfolding against our intentions. Covid 19 also possesses this virtue: it commands politics to take on its specific responsibility, it returns the primacy that politics had delusionally left to other sovereign spheres, becoming subordinate to them, declaring its own powerlessness and limiting itself to playing an exclusively technical role. Following Wuhan the agenda can only be set by politics, which must navigate through the stormy seas of a progressive and apparently unstoppable contagion (indeed the Greeks described political virtue as being “cybernetic”, that is, nautical). Indeed what until a few weeks ago seemed to be an unrealistic claim has now become a watchword. Politics must have precedence over the economy. It is the latter that must yield to the needs of the Prince who cares about the destiny of his crew.
Finally, the virus invites us to meditate. I do not think, however, that the object of this meditation is the contingency of being and the precarious nature of human affairs. We certainly do not need Covid 19 to reflect on our fragility. This anxiety has never really disappeared (despite what the journalist in their studios keep saying, when they pontificate about how thanks to the virus humanity, made stupid by the media, so by them, has finally “rediscovered” its ontological insecurity). The virus rather articulates existence, ours and that of others, as “destiny”. Suddenly we feel we are being dragged by something that is overpowering, which grows in the silence of our organs, ignoring our will. Is freedom compromised to such an extent? This idea of freedom is certainly mediocre if it conflicts with the inevitability of what takes place. Among the virtues of the virus, we must also mention its ability to generate a more sober idea of freedom: the freedom achieved in doing something about what destiny does to us. To be free is to do what must be done in a specific situation. This is not philosophical abstraction. We see it embodies in the efforts that people make, the earnestness and dedication with which thousands of people work daily to slow the spread of the infection.
Giorgio Agamben: “Clarifications”
Translator’s Note: Giorgio Agamben asked me to translate this brief essay, which serves as an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy (see here for the original Italian piece and here for an English translation).
Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter. The dead — our dead — do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject. What do human relationships become in a country that habituates itself to live in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society that has no value other than survival?
The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.
It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.
worrisome is not so much or not only the present, but what comes after. Just as
wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technologies, from
barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will
seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments
did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and
doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together
and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital
messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every
contact — every contagion — between human beings.
Slavoj ŽiŽek responds to the whole debate (before Agamben will have made his ‘clarifications’):
MONITOR AND PUNISH? YES, PLEASE!
BY SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK
Many liberal and Leftist commentators have noted how the coronavirus epidemic serves to justify and legitimize measures of control and regulation of the people that had been till now unthinkable in a Western democratic society. Is the total lockdown of Italy not a totalitarian’s wet dream come true? No wonder that (at least the way it looks now) China, which had already widely practiced modes of digitalized social control, proved to be best equipped for coping with catastrophic epidemics. Does this mean that, at least in some aspects, China is our future? Are we approaching a global state of exception? Have Giorgio Agamben’s analyses gained new actuality?
It is not surprising that Agamben himself drew this conclusion: he reacted to the coronavirus epidemic in a radically different way from the majority of commentators. He deplored the “frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic of coronavirus” which is just another version of flu, and asked: “Why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a true state of exception, with severe limitations on movement and the suspension of daily life and work activities for entire regions?”
Agamben sees the main reason for this “disproportionate response” in “the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” The imposed measures allow the government to seriously limit our freedoms by executive decree: “It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year. /…/ We might say that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.” The second reason is “the state of fear, which in recent years has diffused into individual consciousnesses and which translates into a real need for states of collective panic,for which the epidemic once again offers the ideal pretext.”
Agamben is describing an important aspect of the functioning of state control in ongoing epidemics. But there are questions that remain open: why would state power be interested in promoting such a panic, which is accompanied by distrust in state power (“they are helpless, they are not doing enough…”) and which disturbs the smooth reproduction of capital? Is it really in the interest of capital and state power to trigger a global economic crisis in order to reinvigorate their reign? Are the clear signs that not just ordinary people, but also state power itself is in panic, fully aware of not being able to control the situation – are these signs really just a stratagem?
Agamben’s reaction is the extreme form of a widespread Leftist stance of reading the “exaggerated panic” caused by the spread of the virus as a mixture of power exercise of social control and elements of outright racism (“blame nature or China”). However, such a social interpretation doesn’t make the reality of the threat disappear. Does this reality compel us to effectively curtail our freedoms? Quarantines and similar measures, of course, limit our freedom, and new Assanges are needed here to bring out their possible misuses. But the threat of viral infection also gave a tremendous boost to new forms of local and global solidarity, plus it made clear the need for control over power itself. People are right to hold state power responsible: you have the power, now show what you can do! The challenge that Europe faces is to prove that what China did can be done in a more transparent and democratic way:
“China introduced measures that Western Europe and the USA are unlikely to tolerate, perhaps to their own detriment. Put bluntly, it is a mistake to reflexively interpret all forms of sensing and modelling as ‘surveillance’ and active governance as ‘social control’. We need a different and more nuanced vocabulary of intervention.”
Everything hinges on this “more nuanced vocabulary”: the measures necessitated by an epidemic should not be automatically reduced to the usual paradigm of surveillance and control propagated by thinkers like Foucault. What I fear today more than the measures applied by China (and Italy and…) is that they apply these measures in a way that will not work to contain the epidemic, while authorities will manipulate and conceal the true data.
Both alt-right and fake Left refuse to accept the full reality of the epidemic, each watering it down in an exercise of social-constructivist reduction, i.e., denouncing it on behalf of its social meaning. Trump and his partisans repeatedly insist that the epidemic is a plot by Democrats and China to make him lose the upcoming elections, while some on the Left denounce the measures proposed by the state and health apparatuses as tainted by xenophobia and, therefore, insist on shaking hands, etc. Such a stance misses the paradox: not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity.
Who, today, will be able to afford shaking hands and embracing? The privileged. Boccaccio’s Decameron is composed of stories told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the plague which afflicted the city. The financial elite will withdraw into secluded zones and amuse themselves there telling stories in the Decameron style. (The ultra-rich are already flocking with private planes to exclusive small islands in the Caribbean.) We, ordinary people, who will have to live with viruses, are bombarded by the endlessly repeated formula “No panic!”… and then we get all the data that cannot but trigger a panic. The situation resembles the one I remember from my youth in a Communist country: when government officials assured the public that there was no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves in a panic.
But panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: as if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic… So, what would be an appropriate reaction to the coronavirus epidemic? What should we learn and what should we do to confront it seriously?
When I suggested that the coronavirus epidemic may give a new boost of life to Communism, my claim was, as expected, ridiculed. Although it looks that a strong approach to the crisis by the Chinese state worked – at least it worked much better than what is going on now in Italy -, the old authoritarian logic of Communists in power also clearly demonstrated its limitations. One of them was that the fear of bringing bad news to those in power (and to the public) outweighs actual results. This was the reason why those who first reported on a new virus were arrested, and there are reports that a similar thing is going on now:
“The pressure to get China back to work after the coronavirus shutdown is resurrecting an old temptation: doctoring data so it shows senior officials what they want to see. This phenomenon is playing out in Zhejiang province, an industrial hub on the east coast, in the form of electricity usage. At least three cities there have given local factories targets to hit for power consumption because they’re using the data to show a resurgence in production, according to people familiar with the matter. That’s prompted some businesses to run machinery even as their plants remain empty, the people said.”
We can also guess what will follow when those in power note this cheating: local managers will be accused of sabotage and severely punished, thus reproducing the vicious cycle of distrust… A Chinese Julian Assange will be needed here to expose to the public this concealed side of how China is coping with the epidemic. So, if this is not the Communism I have in mind, what do I mean by Communism? To get it, it suffices to read the public declarations of WHO. Here is a recent one:
“WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday that although public health authorities across the globe have the ability to successfully combat the spread of the virus, the organization is concerned that in some countries the level of political commitment does not match the threat level. ‘This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops. Countries have been planning for scenarios like this for decades. Now is the time to act on those plans,’ Tedros said. ‘This epidemic can be pushed back, but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government.’”
One might add that such a comprehensive approach should reach well beyond the machinery of single governments: it should encompass the local mobilization of people outside state control as well as strong and efficient international coordination and collaboration. If thousands are hospitalized for respiratory problems, a vastly increased number of respiratory machines will be needed, and to get them, the state should directly intervene in the same way as it intervenes in conditions of war when thousands of guns are needed. And it should rely on the cooperation with other states. As in a military campaign, information should be shared and plans fully coordinated – THIS is all I mean by “Communism” needed today, or, as Will Hutton put it: “Now, one form of unregulated, free-market globalization with its propensity for crises and pandemics is certainly dying. But another form that recognizes interdependence and the primacy of evidence-based collective action is being born.” What now still predominates is the stance of “every country for itself”: “there are national bans on exports of key products such as medical supplies, with countries falling back on their own analysis of the crisis amid localised shortages and haphazard, primitive approaches to containment.”
The coronavirus epidemic does not signal just the limit of market globalization, it also signals the even more fatal limit of nationalist populism, which insists on full state sovereignty. It’s over with “America (or whoever) first!” since America can be saved only through global coordination and collaboration. I am not a utopian here; I don’t appeal to an idealized solidarity between people. On the contrary, the present crisis demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rationally egotistic thing to do. And it’s not just coronavirus: China itself suffered a gigantic swine flu months ago, and it is now threatened by the prospect of a locust invasion. Plus, as Owen Jones noted, the climate crisis kills many more people around the world than coronavirus, but there is no panic about this…
From a cynical vitalist standpoint, one would be tempted to see the coronavirus as a beneficial infection, which allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out a half-rotten weed, and thus contributes to global health. The broad Communist approach I am advocating is the only way for us to really leave behind such a primitive vitalist standpoint. Signs of curtailing unconditional solidarity are already discernible in ongoing debates, as in the following note about the role of the “three wise men” if the epidemic takes a more catastrophic turn in the UK: “NHS patients could be denied lifesaving care during a severe coronavirus outbreak in Britain if intensive care units are struggling to cope, senior doctors have warned. Under a so-called ‘three wise men’ protocol, three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care such as ventilators and beds, in the event hospitals were overwhelmed with patients.” What criteria will the “three wise men” rely on? Sacrifice the weakest and eldest? And will this situation not open up the space for immense corruption? Do such procedures not indicate that we are getting ready to enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest? So, again, the ultimate choice is either this or some kind of reinvented Communism.
But things go much deeper than that. What I find especially annoying is how, when our media announce some closure or cancellation, they as a rule add a fixed temporal limitation: the “schools will be closed till April 4” formula. The big expectation is that, after the peak which should arrive fast, things would return to normal. In this sense, I was already informed that a university symposium is just postponed to September… The catch is that, even when life eventually returns to normal, it will not be the same normal we were used to before the outbreak: things we were used to as part of our daily life will no longer be taken for granted; we’ll have to learn to live a much more fragile life with constant threats lurking just behind the corner.
For this reason, we can expect that viral epidemics will affect our most elementary interactions with other people and objects around, inclusive of our own bodies: avoid touching things which may be (invisibly) “dirty,“ do not touch hooks, do not seat on public toilets or on benches in public places, avoid embracing others and shaking their hands… And even be careful about how you control your own body and your spontaneous gestures: do not touch your nose or rub your eyes – in short, do not play with yourself. So, it’s not only the state and other agencies that will control us; we should learn to control and discipline ourselves! Maybe, only virtual reality will be considered safe, and moving freely in an open space will be reserved for the islands owned by the ultra-rich.
But even here, at the level of virtual reality and the internet, we should remind ourselves that, in the last decades, the terms “virus” and “viral” were mostly used to designate digital viruses which were infecting our web-space and of which we were not aware, at least not until their destructive power (say, of destroying our data or our hard-drive) was unleashed. What we see now is a massive return to the original literal meaning of the term: viral infections work hand in hand in both dimensions, real and virtual.
So, we’ll have to change our entire stance toward life, toward our existence as living beings among other forms of life. In other words, if we understand “philosophy” as the name for our basic orientation in life, we’ll have to experience a true philosophical revolution. Maybe we can learn something about our reactions to the coronavirus epidemic from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who, in her On Death and Dying, proposed the famous scheme of the five stages of how we react upon learning that we have a terminal illness: denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact: “This can’t be happening, not to me.”); anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact: “How can this happen to me?”); bargaining (the hope we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact: “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”); depression (libidinal disinvestment: “I’m going to die, so why bother with anything?”); acceptance (“I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”). Later, Kübler-Ross applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (joblessness, death of a loved one, divorce, drug addiction), and also emphasized that they do not necessarily come in the same order, nor are all five stages experienced by all patients.
One can discern the same five stages whenever a society is confronted with some traumatic break. Let’s take the threat of ecological catastrophe: first, we tend to deny it (it’s just paranoia, what happens are the usual oscillations in weather patterns); then comes anger (at big corporations which pollute our environment, at the government which ignores the dangers) followed by bargaining (if we recycle our waste, we can buy some time; plus, there are good sides to it also: we can grow vegetables of Greenland, ships will be able to transport goods from China to the US much faster on the northern route, new fertile land is becoming available in northern Siberia due to the melting of permafrost…), depression (it’s too late, we’re doomed…), and, finally, acceptance: we are dealing with a serious threat and we’ll have to change our entire way of life!
The same holds for the growing threat of digital control over our lives: first, we tend to deny it (it’s an exaggeration, a Leftist paranoia, no agency can control our daily activity…), then we explode in anger (at big companies and secret state agencies who know us better than we know ourselves and use this knowledge to control and manipulate us), which is followed by bargaining (authorities have the right to search for terrorists, but not to infringe upon our privacy…), depression (it’s too late, our privacy is lost, the time of personal freedoms is over), and, finally, acceptance: digital control is a threat to our freedom; we should make the public aware of all its dimensions and engage in fighting it!
Even in the domain of politics, the same holds for those who are traumatized by Trump’s presidency: first, there was denial (don’t worry, Trump is just posturing, nothing will really change if he takes power), followed by anger (at the dark forces which enabled him to take power, at the populists who support him and pose a threat to our moral substance…), bargaining (all is not yet lost, maybe Trump can be contained, let’s just tolerate some of his excesses…), depression (we are on the path to Fascism, democracy is lost in the US), and acceptance: there is a new political regime in the US, the good old days of American democracy are over, let’s face the danger and calmly plan how we can overcome Trump’s populism…
In medieval times, the population of an affected town reacted to the signs of the plague in a similar way: first denial, then anger (at our sinful lives for which we are punished, or even at the cruel God who allowed it), then bargaining (it’s not so bad, let’s just avoid those who are ill…), then depression (our life is over…), then, interestingly, orgies (since our lives are over, let’s get out of it all the pleasures still possible – drinking, sex…), and, finally, acceptance: here we are, let’s just behave as much as possible as if normal life goes on…
And is this not also how we are dealing with the coronavirus epidemic that exploded at the end of 2019? First, there was a denial (nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic); then, anger (usually in a racist or anti-state form: the dirty Chinese are guilty, our state is not efficient…); next comes bargaining (OK, there are some victims, but it’s less serious than SARS, and we can limit the damage…); if this doesn’t work, depression arises (let’s not kid ourselves, we are all doomed). But what would acceptance look like here? It is a strange fact that the epidemic displays a feature common with the latest round of social protests (in France, in Hong Kong…): they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. But this acceptance can take two directions. It can mean just the re-normalization of illness: OK, people will be dying, but life will go on, maybe there will be even some good side effects… Or acceptance can (and should) propel us to mobilize ourselves without panic and illusions, to act in collective solidarity.
What we should accept, what we should reconcile ourselves with, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which always was here and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it. And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent spiritual edifices we, humanity, bring out, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all… Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end.
To make this point clearer, let me shamelessly quote a popular definition: viruses are “any of various infectious agents, usually ultramicroscopic, that consist of nucleic acid, either RNA or DNA, within a case of protein: they infect animals, plants, and bacteria and reproduce only within living cells: viruses are considered as being non-living chemical units or sometimes as living organisms.” This oscillation between life and death is crucial: viruses are neither alive nor dead in the usual sense of these terms. They are the living dead: a virus is alive due to its drive to replicate, but it is a kind of zero-level life, a biological caricature not so much of death-drive as of life at its most stupid level of repetition and multiplication. However, viruses are not an elementary form of life out of which more complex forms developed. They are purely parasitic; they replicate themselves through infecting more developed organisms (when a virus infects us, humans, we simply serve as its copying machine). It is in this coincidence of the opposites – elementary and parasitic – that resides the mystery of viruses: they are a case of what Schelling called “der nie aufhebbare Rest,” a remainder of the lowest form of life that emerges as a product of malfunctioning of higher mechanisms of multiplication and continues to haunt (infect) them, a remainder which cannot ever be re-integrated as the subordinate moment of a higher level of life.
Here we encounter what Hegel calls “speculative judgment,” an assertion of the identity of the highest and the lowest. Hegel’s best-known example is “Spirit is a bone” from his analysis of phrenology in Phenomenology of Spirit, and our example should be “Spirit is a virus.” Is human spirit also not some kind of virus that parasitizes of the human animal, exploits it for its own self-reproduction, and sometimes threatening to destroy it? And, insofar as the medium of spirit is language, we should not forget that, at its most elementary level, language is also something mechanic, a matter of rules we have to learn and follow.
Richard Dawkins claimed that memes are “viruses of the mind,” parasitic entities which “colonize” the human mind, using it as a means to multiply themselves. It is an idea whose originator was none other than Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy is usually perceived as a much less interesting author than Dostoyevsky – a hopelessly outdated realist for whom there is basically no place in modernity, in contrast to Dostoyevsky’s existential anguish. Perhaps, however, the time has come to fully rehabilitate Tolstoy, his unique theory of art and humanity in general, in which we find echoes of Dawkins’s notion of memes. “A person is a hominid with an infected brain, host to millions of cultural symbionts, and the chief enablers of these are the symbiont systems known as languages” – is this passage from Dennett not pure Tolstoy? The basic category of Tolstoy’s anthropology is infection: a human subject is a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements that, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another. And Tolstoy goes here to the end: he does not oppose to this spread of affective infections a true spiritual autonomy; he does not propose a heroic vision of educating oneself to be a mature autonomous ethical subject by way of getting rid of infectious bacilli. The only struggle is the struggle between good and bad infections: Christianity itself is an infection, if – for Tolstoy – a good one.
Maybe, this is the most disturbing thing we can learn from the ongoing viral epidemic: when nature is attacking us with viruses, it is in a way sending our own message back to us. The message is: what you did to me, I am now doing to you.
 Benjamin Bratton, personal communication.
 Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, London: penguin Books 2004, p. 173.
A Lacanian psycho-analytic viewpoint on the virus, one among several:
A World in Quarantine?
The COVID-19 is a new name of the real, that which from the start does not have a whole sense, since we do not know exactly what it is and, although we try to compare it with previous things (other coronaviruses), there is always an unknown remainder left. This is what anguishes us and the spring of collective panic. For the moment, it is a single signifier – COVID 19 or Coronavirus – that is missing the second part: the full story that would explain it, locate it and thus put it “under control”. We are still constructing that story, not without difficulties, since in the midst of the crisis the narrative is full of fakes, partial data, sometimes accurate alerts, other times disproportionate ones. When the story progresses and we get to know who it really is, how it works and how we can prevent it, panic will fall… until the next unknown.
The consequences are, therefore, somewhat unpredictable, but some can be advanced: the world is increasingly quarantined; some are placed on it by medical prescription and others by prevention or panic, or even by modus vivendi. Some companies begin to notice it in the rise of their stocks: Zoom, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon or Slack. All of them allow teleworking or home entertainment. Those who depend on direct or on-site supplies or labor are falling. Capitalism, as always, finds a benefit out of any crisis.
For some time now we have all been a little quarantined, protected in the TV series and on social networks, removed from the contact with each other, the social phobia that Freud spoke of a century ago. Even a basic need such as eating does not require us to leave the home fort, for this we have the deliveries and their booming platforms.
A new digital gap seems to be drawn between those who can resist the virus, isolated in their homes, and those who have no choice but to face it hand-to-hand. The paradox is that many of those who can more easily protect themselves from the hostile enemy by subtracting the body, through their digital avatars, are those who later on (after the exception time) will be able to pay for face-to-face care (teachers who speak to them , doctors who explore them, people who take care of them). Others will be left only with virtual care (remote learning, telecare, digital diagnostics) which is cheaper and more universalizable.
Soon, body to body contact, face-to-face interaction in healthy conditions will be a luxury that many will not be able to access. COVID-19 (and as the viral joke says, number 20 and those that will come after it) has come to remind us of our fragility, now that we had begun to believe that we were absolute masters of our own destiny, believers in the limitless power of technology. The truth is that we still inhabit a body.
Published in La Vanguardia, on Friday 12th March 2020.
We don’t so often speak of miasmas now, but they once explained all kinds of illnesses the causes of which were not quite clear. Miasmas were invisible vaporous emanations, or “bad air” from decaying organic matter on those foreign parts of moorlands or urban areas. A miasma has never been detected. Whilst miasmic explanations of disease held sway for centuries, we have other theories about the spread of disease now, and so we don’t take miasmas to be a material reality. None the less, the expression remains.
Lacan mentions miasmas in the second chapter of Seminar XI in talking about causes, and which Jacques-Alain Miller takes up in his 1988 seminar Cause et consentement, with the emphasis of a separation of cause and effect, with a cut, stumbling block, distance, deviation, or hole in continuity there, this is what Miller draws from Lacan. Those things where a continuity sustains, such as gravity, may be known as a law except in so far as distance may take its effect there, such as the gravitational pull of the moon effecting the tides.
“…miasmas are the cause of fever—… there is a hole, and something that oscillates in the interval.” This is how Lacan describes the miasma – that cause of fever which is characterised by a hole, by an effect of something oscillating in the interval between cause and effect.
It seems to me that miasma could be one name of something which may be apparent in our experience, in our clinic, now, in the suffering which the coronavirus brings aside from any material infection. Miasmas could be understood in some regard in the manner of something else which fell out of scientific use – the gaze. Being that which is not the seeing or being seen, not that which can be traced in a continuity, but that which evades, drops out of the laws of visibility, a cause, not a law. And which we attend to in our clinical work, localising, dissipating, distancing, there are any number of ways of working with what can be so distressing in an experience of the gaze.
It seems that in this time of the virus, beyond the microscopic droplets of infected airbourne material which may or may not reach us, there is an atmosphere. A thickening of the air with what is not there, marked by a hole between cause and effect, a miasma, experienced as both foreign and intimate to the body, outside and in. Aside from the practical measures we may take to care for ourselves and others against the material of the virus, and which is not the realm of psychoanalysis, we work with something which was not necessarily of so obvious before, which perhaps miasma names.
 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Seminar XI. Ed. J.-A. Miller, trans A. Sheridan, (Norton: New York/London, 1978), p. 22
 Jacques-Alain Miller, Cause et consentement, lesson of 3rd February 1988, delivered at the Department of Psychoanalysis, University of Paris VIII (unpublished).
 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Seminar XI, op. cit., p. 22
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Virus is a pure force, the real without borders or limits. It must be taken at its most radical at the time of impact: terror without terrorist, identity or objective. The name Lacan gave to this nameless real had to therefore be in the negative: “it doesn’t work”. It doesn’t work for it is situated as external to failure to enter any form of collaboration with the symbolic, to strike a deal, to be tamed, to submit to instructions and to immunisation. Maurice Blanchot, who has written on psychoanalysis, described the “mythical cell” of cancer as “the refusal to respond” wherein analysts can find an indication of the location of the real. He continues: “here is a cell that doesn’t hear the command, that develops lawlessly, in a way that could be called anarchic. […] it destroys the very idea of a program and wrecks the possibility of reducing everything to the equivalent of signs […] and, from this perspective, is a political phenomenon, one of the rare ways to dislocate the system, to disarticulate, through proliferation and disorder, the universal programming and signifying power”.
Let’s have no illusions about it. The force of the viral cell that has swept the world for over a month now, has no equivalent except for the primary signifier that leaves the mark of language on the body prior to any sense effect. Blanchot clearly places the cell outside the universal, paternal order. This has not stopped prevented us from acknowledging our powerlessness in continuing our attempt to humanise the viral cell by calculating the algorithm of mortality and the statistics of increase of deaths from country to country. In effect, scientists and politicians have made the lethal cell believable.
To approach the primary mark of language on the body, Lacan went beyond the literary and paternal solutions and pointed to the saint. Who is the saint? It is the one whose body remains external to seductions of meaning, and to authority built on it, and who renews his affliction with the real every time he encounters corporeal trauma. The saint embodies part of the waste attributed to him and embraces the real. He even, in some incomprehensible way, loves the real albeit we would have to distinguish love of the real from loving one’s delusion or one’s symptom such as the woman. Saints have always shown a bizarre love for a person that in Latin, per-sonnare, signifies a body present through sound, voice. Saints were never chumps of the powerful, religious or secular alike, or indeed of the capitalist bosses. Francis of Assisi was an anomaly and a deviation in Church ranks which only accentuates the singularity of “it doesn’t work” for a speaking being. In the eyes of Pope Innocent III, Francis brought the shameless, opulent Benedicts to their knees and, in effect, refreshed the relation to the causa Dei. The saint, as Lacan approached him, incarnates the trashitas, rather than caritas, which amounts to assuming a place on the map drawn up by the real that undermines political programs and displaces the capitalist interest in all pursuing wealth into anarchic variants of social concern.
It is interesting to learn that some scientists, like Dr John Ashton and Paul Hunter, support this orientation towards the social dimension. But there are also those whose interest oscillates between the genetic history of the SARS CoV19 and the possibility of calculating statistically the end of humanity. The history of the viral pathogen shows us it is an effect of 11,000 years of mutations that lead back to one, supposed origin. Geneticists concede that the viral spreads of past decades are mutative examples of genetic sequence variations, in this case RNA and not DNA, that recently (pig’s, bird’s, bovine flus), turned out to be less harmful to humans than the one we are currently dealing with. It goes all the way back nowhere else than to the animal kingdom where bats and pangolins are the main carriers and culprits.
The lures of science have not stopped those who feel the impact of the epidemic from taking steps and compiling food supplies as well as bales of toilet paper to ensure their safety when panic reaches the stage of the somatic reactions requiring anal hygiene. Everyone is puzzled, yet everyone knows. With the World Health Organisation declaring CoV 19 a world pandemic, we have now entered the stage of political strategy. Donald Trump for one went on to cancelling all flights to the EU, which surprised many. The space for political phenomena of this kind is only emerging now, as Blanchot anticipated. After the initial impact, and a gradual reconciliation by the WHO in cooperation with various governments that deaths will spiral, we are on the road to write another chapter on the unconscious and its politics. It is in this sense that Freud, not knowing what he was doing, and Jung when he was still an analyst, approached American with a declaration they were bringing a plague. The virus of the unconscious, prior to any semantic mutation, is indefensible because we are all subject to ignorance in the face of forza del destino of the primary signifier. Which is why Lacan called it a “bearer of infinity” with a potential of inflicting anyone who comes into contact with it. Making the virus believable in this way puts it in the position of the not-all, -“x Φx. Every time someone comes to analysis, he brings a virus he does not want to hear or to know anything about it.
Political strategies vary at present. On the continent schools, universities, public gathering museums, restaurants, cinemas, theatres are gradually being shut. In the EU, there is a lockdown on flights en masse, and sport and seminar events are cancelled for at least a month. The level of isolation is growing which makes us all more connected. This resembles a state of war and goes well beyond the hysteric’s demand being alternately refused and following the master command. Instead we are dealing with the socio-economic rupture of pandemonic and diachronic proportions. For many, British government acts too slow. Isolation means economic disruption which in the face of Brexit should be delayed as long as possible. But the delay also reveals the trait of a modern political leader who flees the scene of disaster to hide in the delusion of getting on with business as usual. What will awake those leaders? This does not look like an encounter with the real but a strategy to delay, hold back, and reason: prudence in the face of a hiccup. Is panic and turmoil (émoi), where Lacan situated the little real, a, that shakes the system, the only way to set things into motion? The virus virility is still not recognised as a political phenomenon.
Professor Dr John Ashton was very critical about the political strategy of Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer. He has only been in the job since January this year and his career was in pharmaceuticals and biology. Dr Ashton called Boris Johnson’s position on Coronavirus “a disgrace”, and reproached people in charge for allowing biologists and pharmacists to dominate the whole issue. What it ignores is the social dimension and the lack of expertise how to organise social groups and communities in the event of pandemic. Dr Ashton was equally critical, which was supported by a more moderate academic Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia, of the new proposal of “herd immunity” calling it a “fantasy narrative”. As he plainly put it, herd immunity is not only unethical but allows the virus to run wild across society and communities until mortality rate goes above 60%. Only then would the virus be assimilated and turn into home flu, a domesticated Other. Apparently, this already happened in the past in Tahiti when its population was decimated after Captain Cook left them. From the Lacanian perspective this proposal amounts to forcing to create a community of saints through a trait of incorporation of the Other’s jouissance. Needless to say, this approach would be a complete reversal of the immigration policy whereby a foreigner has for millennia been the carrier of diseases which led to border closures and internal isolation. To introduce isolation due to the viral threat, one must be in close proximity to suffering within social community. Otherwise it’s a Stalinist tyranny, as Dr Ashton remarked.
A community of saints does not exist, let’s add. The nearest to it, a community of analysts, does not believe in the common good but in the not-all the traumatic real, different for every member of the community. An attempt to tame and domesticate the real of the virus for all would serve as a demonstration of failure to symbolise it and to make it domicile. A prospective loss of millions of lives appears not to deter the British politicians to drop the idea at the very moment it emerged. If you can’t defeat it, submit to it, even bring it on. A friend shared with me a memory of an interview in which Johnson envisaged building beaches where sharks keep watch. Nietzsche’s motto “live dangerously and build your houses under Vesuvius” smacks of politics of masochism when espoused by a national government. The UK answer to the threat is politics of delay and avoidance. It reveals a trait of ignorance linked to letting the death drive run wild or to being already dead. It is no surprise that Lacan approached death as imaginary and put life on the side of the real that fails and thus pushes, urges us to seek new signifiers that apply to groups and communities. It could work, as Lacan showed in “British Psychiatry and the War”.
On the day when the earth is slowing down and coming to a standstill, British politicians revert to the position of their colonial masters watching impassively the course of events and misleading population, so that there is no economic disruption. Hence the refusal to collaborate with colleagues from the continent to introduce measures to suspend for the time being institutions, organisations, including corporations. We are getting closer to the point of sacrifice to keep things in order in accordance with what people voted for.
 M. Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. A. Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p. 86-7.
 Professors J. Ashton and P. Hunter were interviewed by Matt Frei on LBC Radio on Saturday 14 March 2020.