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?.

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’.

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,

[2] Agamben, 4.

[3] Agamben, 3.

[4] Agamben, 2.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an Epidemic,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, February 26, 2020,

[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: Remember to switch on the highlighted notes at the top, though.