THR Web Features   /   April 28, 2020

Conditions of Life

A Comment on Giorgio Agamben’s Reading of the Corona Pandemic

Jan Hinrichsen

( Protestor at April 20, 2020 Open Up Our Ohio Rally. (Paul Becker via Wikimedia Commons.))

Around the world, academics in diverse disciplines are struggling to come to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic, a phenomenon unfolding so rapidly that it seems to outrun all efforts to make sense of it in reflection and writing. Because the events unhinge so much that has been taken for granted in this world, it seems unlikely that they can be approached and explained with accepted concepts and theories. Against the velocity of global events, philosophy, in particular, seeks to arrest the world in concepts and categories that can be so sweeping and inflexible that their users are incapable of seeing beyond them. In the echo chambers such philosophy creates, the world serves to explain the theories and not the other way around.

A case in point is the recent assessment of the pandemic by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, without question a leading figure in contemporary biopolitical thought. In this case, I would suggest, the combination of velocity and echo led Agamben to jump rather precipitously to his conclusions. To be sure, developments in Italy beginning around the end of March were met by drastic and unprecedented government measures, including the lockdown of entire cities and regions. To Agamben these measures are, first and foremost, indicative of a “society [that] no longer believes in anything but bare life.” Accordingly, they amount to an “Ausnahmezustand” (a state of exception), by which Agamben (drawing on Carl Schmitt) means both the occasion and instrumentalities allowing sovereign power to solidify, become concrete, in its densest, most immediate form.

But if what Agamben says about the government responses to the coronavirus is exactly what he had been saying about government practices in the contemporary world well before the virus began its global tour, we might have reasons for suspicion. So far, the unprecedented social and economic effects of pandemic seem to have had no discernible effect on the terms or emphases of Agamben’s echo chamber. So does this event provide merely a perfect “for instance” confirming his own theory? As Agamben hears things, the pandemic is nothing more, and nothing less, than a biopolitical plot by the Italian government (and by obvious extension, other governments) to unleash, in the name of fear and danger, the purest and most immediate form of power aimed directly at preserving and secluding bare life through what he believes to be “absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic of coronavirus.”

Admittedly, Agamben’s contribution to current thinking about the crisis is striking. It deserves attention for the way it builds on his explanation of the logics and functioning of today’s biopolitical regimes and of how these interact with sovereign power and statehood. We need to be aware of how the pandemic is being “used” for the reorganization and resurrection of nationalist logics, the revitalization (in many dimensions of this term) of the authoritarian art of government, and the swaying of public opinion into acceptance of the “state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” The astonishingly high rates of approval for current political measures against the pandemic in Germany would prove him right on at least the last point.

Echo chambers, however, make poor spaces for thinking. They block out so much of the noise that is necessary for understanding the state of the world amid a pandemic. To Agamben, there is no actual pandemic—“there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy,” he says, quoting the Italian National Research Council (which is technically correct, since it is a global emergency, a pandemic spreading in defiance of all measures to confine and mitigate it nationally)—there are only bundles of various technologies of government forming around an “unmotivated” event.

With recourse to a number of dubious “facts” (such as that coronavirus is no more severe than a common flu), Agamben envisions a scenario of a politics of fear, fear being intentionally produced by the state in defiance of those facts. But readers are left wondering, first, what those “facts” might be outside of the apparatuses Agamben’s critique is aimed at, and second, why only Agamben should be the one getting the facts right. With “irrational fear v. rational facts,” Agamben reproduces an outdated and unwarranted binary, failing to account, on one hand, for the affective nature of knowledge and the knowledge-based nature of affects or, on the other, for the “emotional style” of government. In short, Agamben fails to comprehend that fear is a central element of what the pandemic is, of what constitutes the latter as such. The affective dimension of corona is as infectious as SarsCoV2; and the state of exception is as affective as any other politically established form. Instead of pitting fear against facts, what would have been helpful is a nuanced reflection on the entanglement of the fear corona produces and feeds on and the knowledge-based problematizations of pandemic.

To be fair, the problem is not simply that, in the past, we knew less than we know now; it is not simply that we are progressing toward more accurate versions of the truth. The anthropology and sociology of knowledge and science cast suspicion on such notions a long time ago. Furthermore, with events being fueled by daily updates and bulletins, “secured knowledge” is a rare and unequally distributed phenomenon. Not only do different realms of knowledge and subsystems of society fight over interpretational sovereignty, with political reason, economic reason, and epidemiological reason all contending against one another; what is more, these realms are far away from a common sense of the pandemic. In short: Uncertainty is the only fact available at the moment.

Uncertainty is not simply a cause of limited knowledge. It is also a result of conflicting knowledge practices. By contrast with Agamben’s theory, the work of anthropologists Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff would suggest that there was and is no coup by the Italian state; instead, they see “configurations of normative, technical, and political elements that are brought into alignment,” in situations in which “living has been rendered problematic.” Agamben’s state of exception is this very alignment; and the state of exception is implemented not “despite” or “against” the facts but appears as a way of producing them. The reality of corona, accordingly, is produced in laboratories and improvised testing facilities, in charts, graphs, and statistics, thereby contingent on the methods of testing and the ways of counting. It is produced in political measures taken, and the effects of those measures. It is produced in industrial norms for ventilators and filter masks, and in the distribution and (mal)functioning of such things. And it is produced in everyday practices, from manufacturing and wearing self-made face masks to self-prescribed isolation to subversive acts of mockery, fatalism, or indifference.

Not an insignificant element of the problematization—that is, the assemblage that is COVID-19—is the materiality and recalcitrance of the very object that is problematized: the viral entity itself and the extraneous noise it creates. The virus is erratic; it eludes capture. Infection rates, ways of transmission, mortality— those are not fixed values, not given facts, simply “used,” “concealed,” or “euphemized” by government institutions. Furthermore, what the virus is—that is, what the disease it causes is, what a pandemic is—is constituted in those apparatuses of science and politics that, in Agamben’s view, merely instrumentalize it. Simultaneously, the virus exceeds and unhinges measures directed at its diagnosis and containment. So people die, in solitude, horrific deaths, suffocating from an infection of their corporeal lungs, while the technological ones—the ventilators and FFP3/N95 masks—are failing to reach those most in need, “getting lost” on Nigerian tarmacs, collapsing, failing. While what Agamben calls the Ausnahmezustand is in fact the problematization of the pandemic by way of assembling it as a problem, the state of exception is, in the perspective of Collier and Lakoff, a “regime of living”. As such it points towards an ethical problem, or an “ethopolitics.”

Agamben fails to acknowledge that “life”—even in Italy—goes on, under restricted circumstances, in confinement and isolation, and it is necessary to take a closer, more empathetic look at the ways in which everyday life unfolds through and in crisis. We witness other forms of sociality, other forms of solidarity, other forms of life, all of which deserve—require!—close analysis by the social sciences. Life, even in the presence of intubated death, seems to supersede and withstand those technological and political devices aimed at its control, supervision, protection, or negation. What bare life in pandemic is cannot be explained by a reduction to biological functions; furthermore, “life itself” is an object of contestation as well as manipulation. Especially in the face of a collapse of the health systems, “life” is an unequally distributed good, contingent on practices of valuation and recognition, with lives being weighed against one another. Shall the elderly be more vulnerable to death for the young to flourish, as a Texas lieutenant governor (and not only he) suggested? Who is eligible for life sustained by external respirators, and what is more: Who is authorized to decide? Beyond that, what price is society willing to pay for stabilizing the threatening economic recession already underway?

With Agamben, we can comprehend the Ausnahmezustand as a political instrument that arrests the qualifications of living (bios) in favor of its essential functioning (zoë) and that, therefore, complicates the relation of private (oikos) and public (polis). Not coincidentally, what is known as “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” confines life to the individual household, the oikos, and because of that, our political existence in the polis comes to a halt. I find Agamben’s theory of the state of exception and its biopolitical substrate a thorough and relentless critique of these mechanisms of governmental power but remain unconvinced that the corona-induced state of exception is simply the reduction of a qualified existence to its biological and corporeal functions.

Using his concept of “immunitas,” philosopher Roberto Esposito warns us not to focus only on the object of biopolitics but on the way this object is grasped. In this light, the pandemic and the state of exception are not simply reducing life to its biological functions but making the “immunization regimes” brought on by the pandemic be explicit about how life confined to the body mediates between life and politics. From the perspective of an “immunization paradigm,” the pandemic state of exception is not the division of bios and zoë. It is the problematization of their very intersection. In other words, “immunity” is the concept of a problematization of bare life. The state of exception is the suspension of the constitution in order to protect it—an affirming negation—and thus literally an immunization strategy: “delivering life over to the same powers of annihilation from which, contradictorily, it seeks to defend itself.” In order to live, one must subject him/herself to those powers that contradict life. From this vantage point, there is no simple opposition of bios and zoë, and there is no reduction of the former to the latter. Furthermore, the interaction of Ausnahmezustand and pandemic is a problematization of bare life, that is, an explication of its conditions and contingencies. As crises do, the pandemic makes explicit the societal arrangements life—“bare,” “itself,” “as such,” “naked”—is contingent on: care, social contact, unencumbered corporeal as well as technological lungs, recognition, and simply the possibility of “living a life” as opposed to merely “getting to live.” The COVID-19 pandemic makes explicit the precariousness of life, and albeit whose life weighs more and what weighs more than life.

Agamben’s contribution is symptomatic of a philosophy that no longer believes in anything more than its bare concepts. While a proper critical analysis of events that shook the earth and will continue to play out in effects unforeseeable would have been both helpful and possible, what this philosopher leaves us with is the drumroll of conspiracy theory.

Agamben’s approach to COVID-19 is not only limited in its theoretical scope. Foreclosing responsible and critical reflection, his critique also plays easily into the hands of those who benefit most from crisis, confusion, and conspiracy thinking, the very people of whom I am sure Agamben is most wary: the right wing, the populists, the anti-democrats, the anti-elitists.

The pandemic does indeed pose real threats to the world by provoking a dangerous return to ultranationalist ideologies and practices. In the name of bare life, the state of exception risks turning democratic political structures into quasi-authoritarian regimes (Hungary is among the best examples). But “Ausnahmezustand” and “bare life” do not explain the pandemic. They are entry points for an analysis of what the pandemic is, how it affects us, what it does to a society, and what it does to “life” in society. For those entry points, Agamben should be thanked. But instead of resting the case on a foregone conclusion, one should focus on what another philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, calls “explication of conditions of life,” as the pandemic continues, tragically, to shape those conditions.