Gian Giacomo Fusco
Eugene Thacker opens his In the Dust of this Planet, with these words:
The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.
“Horror” is the name that Thacker gives to the absolute limit of our understanding of a world dominated by the irreparable catastrophe of the Anthropocene and the perverse effects of global capitalism. The feeling of the horrific does not have much to do with fear. It is instead the enigmatic thought of the unknown: the acknowledgement that the political, scientific and ethical paradigms with which we used to master reality are not absolving their function anymore, making the world increasingly unthinkable and therefore ungovernable.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in this sense, is truly horrific in that it pushes us to confront with the inability to deal with the unforeseen. The virus is a new one; our bodies have no barriers. What is instead clearly predictable, are the consequences of its uncontrollable spreading. The pandemic has uncovered the sadly well-known cracks in the capitalist system; more than the disease itself what is scaring is its impact on the socio-political body and mind of the world population. Here, as Franco Bifo Berardi puts it, ‘the unknown stops the machine, the biological agent turns into an info-virus, and the info-virus unchains a psychotic reaction’.
The problem of gazing into the horrific is not much that the horrific start gazing at you; rather, is that it needs a big effort to look away from it. The horrific is magnetic, paralysing and totalising; it captures the gaze, making you lose lucidity. Perpetually exposed to the infodemic spectacle of the horrific abyss of the pandemic (the invisible enemy; the death of loved ones; engulfed intensive care units; the unknown economic shock, which we are told “this time will be different”), we are in a way unable to consider the deep ethical and political implications of the emergency we are living in. Caring for our own survival (aka bare life) seems to be the only acceptable reaction to the catastrophe. Urgency needs action, not thinking; it needs certainties, not useless speculations.
In the paralysing spectacle of the pandemic, we are witnessing a strange revival of the state. In an ironic twist, the vituperate entity that we-the-moderns call state – whose death has been celebrated tragicomically in countless occasions – is back at the centre of the stage, as the saviour; as the only certain shelter remained in a world devastated by economic, ecologic and sanitary tragedies. Blessed are the governments caring for the health of the population, and holy are the exceptions made in the name of our security. Salus Populi Suprema lex: there are not rights immune to be sacrificed for the sake of the health of the population – this is what we are told.
Forgetful of the fact that the state in its connivance with the capital played a huge part in producing such tragedies, we remain jammed in the magic of the spectacle of the pandemic (whose reality, of course, should not be doubted). And in such re-enchantment of state’s institution, contesting the exception, and the ethical conundrums of the “contagion” appear the ultimate blasphemy. So it goes we are stuck on the binary option of being with either the (bad) virus or with the (good) state; either with the (Malthusian) human natural selection or with the herd of good citizens practising social distancing for “protecting themselves and the others”.
On the 26th February, Giorgio Agamben has published in the Italian communist newspaper “il manifesto” a short article titled The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency. His grasp of the situation is summarized perfectly in the title: COVID-19 is not a serious threat as to justify the enactment of a so though measures as those currently in force in Italy. This short piece is based on the opinion expressed at that time by the CNR (National Research Council) – according to which the virus is not particularly lethal – and exposes all the disproportionate measures enacted by law-decree (AKA state of exception). Agamben was certainly wrong in his diagnosis of the impact of the virus. His claim that the epidemic is expedient to impose limitations to basic liberties and other forms of pervasive controls on the population, was also rather dodgy – at the limit of conspiracy theory.
This text has been followed by four other pieces titled respectively Contagion (11th March); Clarifications (17th March); Reflections on the Plague (27th March); Social Distancing (6th April) in which he seems to retreat from some of the claims included in his first “unfortunate” intervention, leaving – however – the substance of his argument unchanged: we should resist the exception in any forms. Every time that the Leviathan is awaked from its normal-constitutional torpor it is not possible to get back to normal life without some (semi)permanent scares: ‘What worries me – Agamben claims – is not only the present but also what will come after. Just as wars have bequeathed to peace a series of nefarious technologies, in the same way, it is very likely that governments, after the end of the health emergency, will seek to continue the experiments that they have not yet managed to carry out: that universities and schools close and only give online lessons, that we stop gathering and talking for political or cultural reasons and only exchange digital messages, that as far as possible machines replace all contact – all contagion – between human beings’.
Predictably, this series of short considerations caused a shitstorm. Agamben has been lapidated – a sport quite common in the era of digital communication: he is a living example of the complete detachment of theory from reality; the state of exception is right now a useless dogma; Paolo Flores D’Arcais defined Agamben’s theory a fucked up philosophy (una filosofia del cazzo). Even Jean-Luc Nancy, felt the need to reply, noting how his old-friend Agamben is often wrong when it comes to “medicine”. Some have gone so far as to put Agamben, together with Trump and Bolsonaro, on the side of the liberal/libertarian negationist, who would sacrifice public health to the altar of their egos.
Let’s put it bluntly, Agamben was surely wrong on his premises (which were based on a communication of the Italian CNR). The time of his intervention was also questionable: in a so quickly evolving crisis, expressing opinions is always a risk. It would have been wiser to formulate analysis on more solid grounds. However, the agitated reactions to Agamben’s ideas missed completely his ethical and political points; they remained stuck in the horrific spectacle of the pandemic: during the plague, only the plague counts; primum (super)vivere, deinde philosophari.
The state of exception is what the law provides to face the unknown, to grasp the contingency of the unfolding of human life in history. In an increasingly uncertain world, the expansion and the normalisation of the state of emergency is, therefore, a logic reaction. But as Agamben reminded us on many occasions such stabilisation of exceptional measures has some serious ethical and political implications: ‘People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We, in fact, live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity’: a perennial state of war.
It is worth noting, that the modern doctrine of the state of exception is substantially rooted in the context of war and the experience of being besieged. Legally speaking the state of exception is a crisis reaction mechanism, which alters the division/balance of powers and suspends certain liberties to restore as quickly as possible a condition of normality. However, by giving to authorities the faculty and the power to declare a state of emergency, the law allows for making real what it is not, or what it is not yet real. The war metaphors to depict the pandemic are consequently the discursive companion of the application of specific measures thought for wartime: they are meant to create the semiotic atmosphere to make the exception legitimate. In the end, as Agamben argues, ‘the emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd or wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us’
As it has been noted, Agamben’s reading of the risks entailed in the state of exception and in the transformation of human relationships in a time of emergency is a legitimate one both if the COVID-19 is simply something slightly more serious than seasonal flu, used much like a Reichstagsbrand as an expedient to tighten surveillance, and depoliticise the population, or, as it is now clear, a real threat to health systems and economy on a global scale. In both cases, we are faced with a radical limitation of our liberties for the sake of our survival and substantial alteration of the state’s democratic life. Moreover, even if the threat is a real one, it does not mean that no one will try to take advantage of it.
Agamben’s arguments, thus, are more than legitimate; they are indeed questions that anyone reflecting on the current global state of exception with just a pinch of lucidity should not refrain from raising. But it seems that we are too busy in feeling like responsible citizens for staying at home, clapping hands for underpaid nurses and doctors, saying thanks to the exploited delivery guys bringing us food, to understand that COVID-19 is a further demonstration the moral and political bankruptcy of our form of life. In times like these, there is anything more irresponsible that caressing the fur of state power and supporting passively what the government of the day tells is the right thing to do.
In his sparse considerations on the pandemic and the consequence global state of exception, Agamben left us with a crucial ethical problem. It is right now evident that the protection to all costs of our bare life is transforming our lived existence in something that has departed from what we have usually valued as human. It is obvious, Agamben writes, that we ‘are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them’.
In the modern treatment of epidemics in which – as Foucault has taught us – the relation inside-outside typical of the marginalisation/management of otherness is inverted. The threat is not coming from outside but is nestled among us all. We must isolate ourselves from the other because both us and the other are a threat to each other’s survival. And this is expressed clearly in the slogan “stay home”; which is an imperative directed to us as individuals and as part of a whole, omnes et singulatim, whose function is nothing other than motivating otherwise reluctant people to comply with the exception.
But “stay home” is a rather insidious slogan. Such narrative produces, in the end, a false sense of solidarity, mutual accountability and empowerment, the result of which however is the same form of exclusion of the other as a plague spreader; but with the illusion of heroically renouncing to our liberties for the common good, all adorned by the hideous greetings to the ill-fated who remain exposed to the virus to work for crap salaries. Implicit in the “stay home” is the substantial impotence of state power in facing the pandemic. What we are saving and protecting by stay home, is not our health but the state’s capability of taking care of it (indeed the slogan in the UK sounds like Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save lives).
Hopefully, social distancing implemented in its harsher form (at the limit of misanthropy) will save us from the current pandemic; but of course, this could lead the gravest of the perils: the renunciation to what makes human life bearable and the emergence of mere biological life as a permanent living condition. But, as Agamben asks: what do human relationships become in a country that habituates itself to live in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society that has no value other than survival? Even in the impending catastrophe, we should never refrain from questioning our forms of life and the strategies governmental powers implement to shape it.