Saturday, 12 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times More IV: Agamben's Split and Aristotelian Face-Lickers

by Simon Smith

Being in the UK, I am, naturally, entitled to the moral high ground when it comes to all the sorts of political oppression and corruption and such like shenanigoats noted last time. After all, I live under a government that would never attempt to bypass democratic institutions in the name of reclaiming power for those institutions from invented oppression by a ‘foreign power’ which has been characterised by the liberal, or rather neo-liberal, application of ersatz Churchillian rhetoric. Or mislead the electorate about: a) £350 million a week for the NHS; and b) the “oven ready deal” that would secure those millions. Or seek enact domestic legislation designed to simultaneously override and undermine international law. Or attempt to bully its nearest neighbour into accepting deeply disadvantageous terms in order to bolster its own position while preparing to take a massive dump on an historic peace accord which itself was necessitated by a conveniently forgotten colonial past, a past which, although consigned to ancient history by some, to others is very much alive.

Quite so. How thankful I am to live in a country in which such low blackguardism is entirely alien, or should we say foreign. Let joy be unconfined.

Having ventilated, let us return to Agamben at the plague hospital. He is, I think, correct to remind us that ‘fear is a poor advisor’ – no irony intended here – and that nothing generates fear more efficiently than a perceived threat to one’s survival. Indeed? Not quite. In fact, the underlying point is that the greatest fear arises from a perceived threat to our most cherished and deeply held convictions. Naturally so, since those are the convictions which, most often, form the constitutive layers of one’s identity. Agamben’s point here is that those convictions – formerly social, moral, political, etc. – have been abandoned in favour of a commitment to survival alone or, as he terms it, ‘bare life.’ Blind fingers grab in panic for ‘bare life;’ frantic with fear and, worse, overwhelmed by base desire: to live and nothing more is mere instinct, the desire of beasts and broccoli, not human beings. ‘Bare life’ and the fear of losing it threatens to isolate us from one another as we begin to regard one another, not as human beings but as disease vectors. Shivering tentacles of terror clutch and drag us down, silencing conscience and consciousness as we gladly acquiesce in the dark depths of instinct and animal existence. That, as Austin Farrer averred, is virtually a definition of sin.[1]

This risk, if real, is far greater than that, of course. Isolated, we begin to lose our humanity altogether; for, humanity is a social construct, a shared belief. What makes us human, what makes us ourselves,  does not survive in one or with one. It needs others to reflect and refract, to correct, and to construct it. Literally and metaphorically, which is to say, metaphysically and biologically, humanity is born out of real intercourse. Abandon that and what remains is surely a poor excuse for a human life, framed by fear of the dark, consumed utterly by the demands of survival and nothing but. Here we are on the precipice. What shall we do? Skulk back into chthonic undergrowth of a bestial past? Fling ourselves faithfully into the void to be sustained by angels’ wings? Or shall we do as Camus asks and live where we stand, cheerfully, like human beings?

Agamben places the blame for this state of affairs squarely on the shoulders of the medical sciences. It is they, he suggests, that have ‘split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other.’ It is they who implanted the dualism that lives in the bone of all our thought and action. I don’t doubt his word on this. I’m certain that our friend and occasional contributor, James Beauregard, would wholeheartedly agree too; it is, after all the message which underpins his bioethical efforts. That said, we should keep in mind that the medical sciences have not worked alone.

Separation, dualism, and manufactured antagonism, that ‘split [in] the unity of our vital experience,’ has an ancient pedigree. Dusty philosophical fingers point in Descartes’ direction, he and those who blithely promulgate his realist nonsense; in back of them all stands Aristotle, boldly bearded, tackle out. Lest we be accused of bias, we know very well that logical coincidence makes idealism almost as bad. (Both of which forms of old toot, by the way, the Personalists will frequently and happily be found purveying.) We could also point to behaviourism here, the philosophical kind; but since behaviourists have enough trouble trying to work out who said what, let us be kind to them. Besides, the Church has provided plenty more grist for our mill. Agamben accuses the Church of having ‘radically repudiated its most essential principles:’ visiting and caring for the sick. To be fair, Pope Francis is supposed to be a radical. One might also point, here to the classical doctrine Contemptus Mundi and the necessitarian logic underpinning our Western, Aristotelised version Christianity. The Schoolmen taught us that contingency, finitude, is quite literally nothing before the transcendent majesty, the sheer unutterable reality of Necessary Being. They also taught us that sickness and misfortune are ordained from on high.[2] Perhaps, then, this is all just a matter of consistency.

And should we mention the cult of radical individualism, born out of economic and political neo-liberalism, which almost entirely saturates our lives?  Should we mention the feverish demand of constant competition, grounded as it supposedly is, in the Neo-Darwinist dog-eat-dog dogma?[3] It is, after all, as good a way of separating that ‘which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual’ as any. But let’s not labour the point.

The dangers of isolation and of deifying science are very real and very serious. There is no gainsaying Agamben on that. On the other hand, consider, for a moment, how the situation has actually played out. Agamben fears a retreat from real human contact, substituting at every possible opportunity interaction mediated by technology, pathological and impersonal. Very well, but here in the UK we have also seen public demonstrations, crowds of people coming together, perhaps unwisely, to protest against both mask-wearing requirements and institutional racism. There have been house parties of hundreds and pubs filled to bursting; the British people have taken to the streets to lick one another’s faces for the sheer joy of it. Meanwhile our government, far from striving to restrict our freedom of movement has been desperate to get everyone out of their houses as quickly as possible, first with the ‘Eat out to help out’ discount scheme, then with injunctions to Get Back to School and, irritatingly, to Get Back to Work (irritating, because those of us forced to work at home since March have, by the strongest possible implication, not been working.)

Given the continued rise in the number of infections across Europe and, perhaps especially, the United States, isolation and separation may not, in reality, have been the problem. Quite the opposite, in fact.


[1] See Austin Farrer, Finite and Infinite (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959), 207.

[2] See Wendy C. Hamblet, Punishment and Shame: a Philosophical Study (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011), Chapter 9 ‘A Christian Penology’, 125-134.

[3] Robert Newman, The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2015), ‘Group Selection’.

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