Sunday, 20 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times Still More IV: Personas of Pessimism and Optimism

by Simon Smith 

Looking back at what Agamben has said and what has been said here about it, there seems to be a disconnect. Things aren’t adding up. Agamben’s fears are both legitimate and reasonable and yet the reality of the situation hasn’t entirely borne them out. Perhaps his mistake was to suppose that governments still seek to control their citizens’ movements and their ability to foregather. In truth, governments are more preoccupied with The Economy[1] and rightly so, from their perspective, since economic control is all the control they need. It separates us far more effectively, by making competition our (dis)organising principle and individualism our foundational (anti)social condition. It mollifies social, political, and intellectual desire with a cornucopia of consumables, both literally and figuratively sugar-coated. It obviates our capacity to think and act humanly by entrapping us within a usurious system that forces us to service its requirements, to sustain it, rather than one another. By comparison, the idea that a government might simply stop people doing things sounds almost quaint.

This may explain the superficial similarity between Agamben’s views and those UK Tories/American Republicans who (claim to) believe that we have surrendered too much to precaution and to the virus itself. The cure, we are told by people who have access to the very best in medical care, cannot be worse than the disease. Indeed, and the fact that US infection rates appear to have topped 125,000 per day while their mortality rates are, we are told, averaging a comparatively meagre 1000 per day suggests that this is, indeed, so. Whatever the cure may be, short of complete extinction, it is unlikely to be worse than the disease.

Whilst arguments from the political right are sometimes framed in terms similar to Agamben’s, the differences are important and revealing. What is particularly evident is, as already noted, their concern for and interest in The Economy. Here, in fact, is where I find myself disagreeing, respectfully, with Agamben. For him, the problem is the sanctification of Risk and the new religion, the only ‘true religion of our time,’ that is science. He is likely correct about Risk, but not about the rest. The golden calf before which all others, even the Church, even science, must bow down is The Economy. It directs our lives, conditions our work, sets the terms of our society. It is of supreme and absolute importance and we must be prepared to make every sacrifice to sustain it. That those who are sacrificed are always the most vulnerable, often Black, Asian, and other ethnic communities, is unfortunate but apparently unavoidable. That, it seems, is the great god of Europe and America, that and no other.

The situation is not new. We in the west have never really cared very much about those who had to suffer that we might buy. Way, way back in the ancient days of the 1990s, Peter Singer was calling our attention to WHO statistics showing that 75% of the world’s food resources are consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population, while the poorest 20% receive just 15% of those resources.[2] Things have changed very little since then. It’s just that, whereas those who are suffering have traditionally been very far away, and therefore easier to ignore, they are now far, far closer. Right on our own doorstep, in fact.

That said, I am not as pessimistic as Agamben, either about covid-present or covid-future. Gloomy, perhaps, but not pessimistic. This is because I am convinced, for reasons philosophical and historical, that it is perfectly possible for people to transcend their circumstances and themselves. We are capable of being better than we are, of recognising the ways in which our actions affect one another, of caring about those affects, and of doing something about it. Human beings are also capable of changing the world for the better. It’s been done before. This capacity for transcendence is what it means to be human. We become ourselves by overcoming ourselves, to coin a phrase. So much, both Farrer and Feuerbach, among others, tell us.

And in case anyone is wondering, self-overcoming or self-transcendence is entirely compatible with Camus views on the Sisyphean nature of existence. To face the absurdity of the universe, to live cheerfully on the edge of the precipice, does not entail nor even tend to suggest that we must surrender our becoming to mere being. Indeed, acceptance of the truth is an essential component of transcendence; how can I strive for better if I do not clearly and honestly recognise the reality of myself and my situation?

In sum, I cannot agree with Agamben that ‘the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.’ The threshold that separates humanity from arseholery has been crossed and re-crossed many times. Indeed, it seems that some people are enthusiastically trying to eradicate that line altogether. It’s called ‘history.’ But humanity is alive and relatively well in the real world, beyond computer screens and quiet, bookish rooms. Human contact is surviving too, though at a distance, obviously; being mostly masked, humanity goes back to its Latin roots, personalising itself with an exaggerated persona.[3] We do what we must to make ourselves understood, to be our understanding selves. More importantly, perhaps, anyone who ventures outside quickly finds themselves paying more attention, looking harder at people, making, in short, more effort to interact. What’s more, it seems we may not be as afraid of others as Agamben supposes. The consensus appears to have coalesced around the idea that wearing a facemask does not protect the wearer per se, it protects others from any infection he or she may be carrying. And if we both wear masks, as many people are willing to do, we protect one another. Not afraid of others, then; afraid for them.

Perhaps such a sunny view of human nature is not to everyone’s taste. Bringing all this to some sort of conclusion, then, one last point. I have, as I say, some sympathy for both Agamben and his critics in all this. It is important to keep in mind that these are strange days indeed. Reading Agamben’s essays, both in Inscriptions and the EJP, it seems clear that he is not enjoining us to rush into the street, there to cough into one another’s faces. However, he is, I think, pointing out some things that ought to genuinely concern if not appal us, perhaps even more than the rampant spread of this plague. Leaving aside the socio-political dangers and the dangers of isolation and separation, we should be horrified that people have been left to die alone in the midst of all this; we should be horrified to learn that our most ancient duties and obligations, those which stand at the very foundation of our distinctly human existence, have been compromised, even abandoned, that ‘cadavers should be burned without a funeral.’ The dead are dead, but we are not, not yet; and Agamben is correct to see this as a sign of barbarism, of inhumanity. We might also point to the hoarding of food and other essentials, the mindless manufacturing of shortages in a crisis, both by those who enthusiastically stampeded into it and those who profited from it. Could we, as a society, as a species, have behaved more shamefully or more foolishly? Almost certainly, ‘yes’; and no doubt we will, given time. Can we, will we, behave better? I should think so, given time.


[1] A reified construction that has become so familiar that we frequently forget how little it really means: people buying things they don’t really need in order to ensure that more things no one really needs can be manufactured from the resources of far poorer countries populated by far poorer people for whom ‘the economy,’ if it means anything at all, means ‘getting enough money to buy food.’

[2] Peter Singer Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 220.

[3] Because the Latin root of ‘person’ is ‘persona’, which means ‘mask’, geddit?.

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