Sunday, 6 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times IV: What's Worrying Agamben?

by Simon Smith

Ah, is that the whiff of freshly vaccinated air I smell? (I smell?) Possibly, perhaps, maybe.

Under such finger-crossing circumstances, this seems like an appropriate moment to cast our baby blues or browns, or both, back to the first days of life in the New Pandemonia, back to the days when we all believed that it could never reach our own blithe little first-world hearth and home. Riding gallantly to the aid of remembrance and reminiscence, the very excellent journal Inscriptions recently published two short texts under the title, ‘Giorgio Agamben on health scare and the religion of science.’[1]

Originally written and published during the first weeks of 2020 – a year which, if it were a person, would surely warrant a cricket bat to the plums – Agamben wrote in these lovely slender articles about Italy’s first encounter with the plague. Given the universality of his concerns, some degree of extrapolation and comparison seems fair.

The trouble, our author avers, is plain: we have acquiesced in a state of exception. This state is not new; it predates the plague and has merely been normalised by it, embedded itself more firmly in our cultural consciousness, as it were. In consequence, our humanity is at risk, undermined, not simply by isolation as such – though, certainly by that – but by our enthusiastic embracing of it. Willingly, happily, it seems, we surrender to curfews more severe and more restrictive even than those experienced during WWII.[2] With furrowed brow and eager heart we endorse our governments’ declaration of ‘the most absurd of wars:’ viz. ‘a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person,’ ‘a civil war.’[3] (One cannot help thinking, somehow, of that other absurd, and ultimately lost, war, the war on drugs.) Science, we are told, has become the new religion and Risk the governing principle of thought and action. As the editors of Inscriptions pithily put it, we have placed ‘our ability to reason calmly and clearly in peril’ and, one supposes, dire peril at that.[4]

I have more than a little sympathy with Agamben here, for the fears he expresses, although I don’t necessarily agree with him. He was, after all, writing in the first days of the pandemic, when much in the way of progress and prognosis remained unknown. Elsewhere, for example, he quotes, Italy’s Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council), stating that those catching Coronavirus might reasonably, that is, statistically, expect to suffer ‘mild/moderate symptoms (a sort of influenza).’[5] That wasn’t just the Italian perspective, it was everyone’s perspective; we all believed it and, to some extent, still do. Recent research, however, suggests this may not be the whole story. Evidence of long-term health difficulties, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological damage, has begun to emerge. It may also be worth noting that, under the circumstances, just how long the long-term may be remains unclear.

This is not to deny Agamben’s point, particularly his broader point; but we should remember that, in such discussions, context is important and context changes. Perspective is important too and that is something that, perhaps, we could all make more effort to cultivate; in reminding us of that alone, Agamben’s message is a vital one.

Risking mortal, not to say catastrophic, injury, however, let’s see what kind of view straddling the fence has to offer. As usual, a little of both sides. That’s to say, I’m also sympathetic to those who find Agamben’s words troubling. It requires only the most exiguous sliver of sensitivity to see how easy it is to criticise those who fear a disease which has, lest we forget, killed quite a lot of people. Risk may be low, statistically speaking, but statistics are cold comfort when the coughing comes. We do not, by and large, presume to make life and death decisions for others (although perhaps in some circumstances we should).[6] And considering the way in which the plague has spread, largely unchecked, across the United States, some precautions don’t seem entirely unwarranted.

When Agamben wrote his pieces, some people, although not a great many, had already died from coronavirus. Nota bene, again, being a number in a low body-count is, one supposes, of little comfort to those being counted. Agamben is not blasé about those deaths. He is more concerned with the circumstances and attitudes they imply, however. He is more concerned, for example, with the fact that people have been allowed to die alone and uncomforted than with the cause of death. Hardly surprising, since circumstance and attitude is where the deeper moral questions lie. His job, as he points out, is ‘not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about… ethical and political consequences.’[7]

How sharp their teeth, those political consequences; and how hungry they are when they come back to bite us. Here’s the rub: Agamben is not, or not only, fearful of the present, ‘but what comes after.’ A certain nervousness with regard to political freedom is forgivable. Italian governments are not and never have been above enthusiastic flirtation with fascists and fascism. Agamben himself was born during the most famous totalitarian orgy in recent history; an orgy which was vigorous if, going by the mood, insufficiently lubricated. What’s more, the 21st century has already seen an alarmingly energetic rightwards thrust across Europe and, indeed, globally. That everyone has forgotten the dangers of right-wing politics is both terrifying and mystifying. (Well, perhaps not so mystifying when one considers the Catholic Church’s role in inciting violence against Polish LGBTQ* and feminist groups; it is, as others have pointed out, a matter of power and the fear of being forced to share it with the other.) Even the most recent and unquestionably excellent discharging of infected arse-water that was America’s most recent aspiring dictator has, in reality, only seen a return to so-called ‘centrist’ politics; where the ‘centre’ is most definitely right-of-centre.

Horn of a bull, hoof of a horse, smile of a politician, to misquote Joyce.[8]



[1]Giorgio Agamben on health scare and the religion of science.’ Inscriptions 3, no. 2 (July 2020): 72, https://www.tankebanen.no/inscriptions/index.php/inscriptions/issue/view/5.

[2] Agamben, 4.

[3] Agamben, 3.

[4] Agamben, 2.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an Epidemic,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, February 26, 2020, http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/.

[6] Arguably, where end-of-life decisions need to be made for clinical reasons but the person concerned is not capable of making them, it is up to others to do the job on their behalf. One would not, after all, leave an animal to suffer needlessly; why should the situation with our loved ones be different? Because they are not animals in the same sense? Precisely so, which is why we owe them more compassion, not less. I am especially grateful to Orla Smith for explicating this point and for giving David Oderberg a proper shoeing when he utterly failed to grasp the point during a Q & A at the University of Southampton several years ago.

[7] This and next, ‘Giorgio Agamben on health scare and the religion of science,’ 3.

[8] James Joyce, Ulysses. See the Joyce Project for an excellent annotated text: http://www.joyceproject.com/#. Remember to switch on the highlighted notes at the top, though.  

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