Giorgio Agamben on the Plague behind the Scrim(mage) of the Pandemic

April 23, 2020

The band X recently decided to release Alphabetland, its first album in over three decades, on the 40th anniversary of the release of their first album, Los Angeles. In an interview with Randall Roberts, in the L.A. Times, John Doe commented that “(W)hen you see celebrities saying that we’re all in this together. No, we’re not. You’re on your boat. We’re here.” Doe is leaning on the word “this” in particular. Celebrities want to embrace multitudes by pretending that they are pointing at something specific, but Doe’s immediate objection underlines how such cheap rhetoric is just another shoddy magic trick of ideology, and that such comments only end up registering as antibodies in the suppurating complacency that is at the heart of the plague behind the scrim(mage) of this pandemic.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has recently posted several short essays on the social ramifications of the pandemic, which caught the attention of poet and translator Paul Vangelisti. He has obtained the permission of Agamben to publish his translations of Agamben’s pieces on my blog. With gratitude to both the author and translator, I post the following for your consideration:

April 13, 2020: “A Question” by Giorgio Agamben (translated by Paul Vangelisti)
April 6, 2020: “Social Distancing” by Giorgio Agamben (translated by Paul Vangelisti)
March 27, 2020: “Reflections on the Plague” by Giorgio Agamben (translated by Paul Vangelisti)

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A Question

Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague…
Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether
they would be spared to attain the object.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War,II,53

I would like to share with whomever wishes a question upon which for more than a month I haven’t stopped reflecting. How could it happen that without being aware of it an entire country has ethically and politically collapsed in the face of a sickness? The words I’ve used to formulate the question have been one by one carefully weighed. The measure of abandoning these very ethical and political principles is, in fact, rather simple: it involves asking oneself what is the limit beyond which one is ready to renounce them. I believe that the reader who will go to the trouble of considering the following points won’t fail to agree – without being aware or pretending not to be aware – that the threshold separating humanity from barbarism has already been crossed.

1) The first point, and perhaps most serious, concerns the corpses of dead persons. How could we have accepted, simply in the name of a risk unable to be clearly defined, that persons dear to us, and human beings in general, not only might die alone, but also – what has never taken place historically from Antigone to the present – that their corpses were burned without a funeral?

2) We accepted with no real fuss, simply in the name of a risk unable to be clearly defined, to restrict our freedom of movement on a scale never before seen in our country’s history, not even during the two World Wars (blackouts were only in place during certain hours). Consequently we’ve accepted, in the name of a risk unable to be clearly defined, to suspend our contacts with friends and lovers, because the next has become a possible source of contagion.
3) This could only have happened – and here we get at the root of the phenomenon – because we have cleaved apart the unity of our life experience, which is always bodily and spiritually conjoined, into a purely biological entity on the one hand and an emotional and cultural one on the other. Ivan Illich, as David Cayley here recently recalled, demonstrated modern medicine’s responsibility for this schism, which is taken for granted and which instead is one of the greatest of abstractions. I understand well enough that this abstraction was accomplished by modern science through the use of reanimation techniques that are able to maintain a body in a pure state of vegetative life.
But if we extend this condition beyond its proper spatial and temporal limits, as we are today attempting to do, making it a kind of principle of social behavior, then we fall into a contradiction from which there is no escape.

I know someone will immediately answer that we’re dealing with a temporally limited condition, after which all will be as before. It’s truly peculiar that one may repeat this if not in bad faith, as the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency won’t stop reminding us that when the emergency is over, we will need to keep observing the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it’s been called with a telling euphemism, will become the new principle for social organization. And, in any case, that which, in good or bad faith, we’ve accepted to endure may not be cancelled.

At this point, because I’ve singled out the responsibility some of us have, I can’t fail to mention the even more critical responsibilities of those who had the task of keeping watch over human dignity. Above all the Church, that making itself the handmaid of science, by now the true religion of our time, has radically renounced its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope called Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. Has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is to visit the sick. Has forgotten that the martyrs teach us that we have to be ready to sacrifice life rather than our faith. Has forgotten that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing our faith. Another group that hasn’t lived up to its job is the judiciary. For some time we’ve grown used to the thoughtless use of emergency orders through which in fact executive power takes the place of the legislative, abolishing that principle of separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been overstepped, and one has the impression that the words of the prime minister or the head of public safety have, as we once said of the Fuhrer’s, the immediate force of law. And we don’t see how, once the limits of the decrees’ temporal validity have expired, these restrictions on freedom, as have been announced, may be maintained. With what juridical contrivances? With a state of permanent emergency? It’s the judges’ task to verify that constitutional regulations are respected, but the judges are silent. Quare silete iuristae in munere vestro?

I know that invariably someone will answer that this surely grave sacrifice was made in the name of moral principles. And for them I must recall that Eichmann, apparently in good faith, never tired of repeating that he had done what he had done according to his conscience, obeying those precepts he believed to be Kantian morality. A norm, affirming that one must renounce good in order to uphold the good, is certainly as false and contradictory as that which, in order to protect liberty, demands that we renounce liberty.

Giorgio Agamben
April 13, 2020

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Social Distancing

“Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The
premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has
unlearned to serve. To know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.”
Michel de Montaigne

Since history teaches us that every social phenomenon has or may have political implications, it’s worth carefully taking note of the new concept that has today entered the Western political lexicon: “social distancing.” Although the term was probably manufactured as a euphemism in respect to the crudeness of the term “confinement” used up to now, one ought to ask oneself what a political order based on this might look like. Thus it’s much more urgent, given that we’re dealing with a not purely theoretical hypothesis, if it’s true, as we’ve begun hearing from many sides, that the actual health emergency may be considered as a laboratory in which we prepare the new political and social structures that await humanity.

Even though there are, as always happens, the foolish who suggest that such a situation may be certainly considered positive and that the new digital technologies have for some time freely permitted communicating from a distance, I don’t believe that a community founded upon “social distancing” may be humanly and politically livable. In any case, whatever the perspective, it seems to me that it is upon this theme that we ought to reflect.

A primary consideration concerns the truly singular nature of the phenomenon that “social distancing” measures have produced. Canetti, in that masterpiece Crowds and Power, defines crowds upon which power is based by the inversion of the fear of being touched. While men usually fear being touched by the extraneous and all the distances that men institute around themselves are born out of this fear, the crowd is the only situation in which such fear turns into its opposite. “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched . . . As soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch . . . The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body . . . This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.”

I don’t know what Canetti would think of this new phenomenology of the crowd that we find before us: that which “social distancing” measures and panic have created is certainly a crowd – but a crowd so to speak turned upside down, made up of individuals who keep themselves at all costs at a distance from one another. A crowd, then, that isn’t dense but rarefied and that, in every way, is still a crowd; if this, as Canetti clarifies shortly thereafter, is defined by its density and by its passivity, in the sense that “truly free movement wouldn’t be in any way possible . . . it awaits, awaits a head, who must be revealed.”

A few pages later, Canetti describes the crowd that forms by means of a prohibition, “in which many people brought together don’t wish to do more than until that moment they had done as a single person. The prohibition is unexpected: they alone impose it … in each case it happens with the maximum force. It is categorical like an order; its negative character is nevertheless decisive.” It’s important not to overlook that a community based on social distancing would have anything to do, as we might ingenuously believe, with an individualism pushed to the limits: it would be, much to the contrary, like what we see around us today, a rarefied crowd based on prohibition and, exactly in this way, especially dense and passive.

April 6, 2020
Giorgio Agamben

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Reflections on the Plague

The following reflections aren’t in regard to the plague, but what we may understand about people’s reactions to it. It’s a matter, then, of reflecting on the ease with which an entire society felt it had been contaminated, isolating itself in their houses and suspending normal living conditions, work relationships, those of friendship, love and even its religious and political convictions. Why were there, as it would have been easy to imagine and often occurs in these cases, no protests or opposition? The hypothesis I’d like to suggest is that in some way, perhaps even unknowingly, the plague was already here. Evidently the conditions of people’s lives were such that it was enough for an unexpected sign to appear showing how it really was, that is, intolerable, as with a plague. And, in a certain sense, this is the only positive given that we can take from the present situation: it’s possible that, at some later date, people may ask themselves if the way in which we lived was right.

And to a no lesser extent it’s worth reflecting on the need for religion that the situation brings to light. There’s a clue in the media’s hammering use of terminology taken from eschatological vocabularies that, describing the phenomenon, recurs obsessively, above all in the American press, with the word “apocalypse,” often explicitly evoking the end of the world. It’s as if this religious need, which the Church is no longer able to satisfy, seeks gropingly for it elsewhere, and has found it in what by now has become the religion of our time: science. This, like any religion, can produce superstition and fear or, in any case, may be used to spread them. Never before as today have we taken part in a spectacle, typical of religions in moments of crisis, of differing and contradictory opinions and prescriptions, ranging from those of an heretical minority (represented even by prestigious scientists) denying the phenomenon’s gravity to the orthodox, dominant discourse affirming it and, nevertheless, often radically diverging on the means of facing the problem. And, as always in these cases, certain experts or those self-styled as such are able to secure the favor of the monarch who, as in those times of religious disputes that divided Christianity, took sides for this or that current of thought according to his own interests and imposed his own measures.

Another thing that gives one pause is the obvious collapse of any common belief or faith. One might say that humans no longer believe in anything – except for bare biological existence that needs be saved at any cost. But upon the fear of losing one’s life we can only base tyranny, only the monstrous Leviathan with his bloody sword.

Because of this – once the emergency , the plague, is declared over, if it may ever be – I don’t believe that, at least for those who have conserved a minimum of lucidity, it may be possible to return to living as before. And today this is perhaps the most discouraging thing – even if, as was said, “only to those who have no more hope has hope been given.”

March 27, 2020
Giorgio Agamben

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