• #Giorgio_Agamben, “The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency”

    This is a translation of an article that first appeared as “Lo stato d’eccezione provocato da un’emergenza immotivata,” in il manifesto, 26 Feb, 2020.

    In order to make sense of the frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic of coronavirus, we must begin from the declaration of the Italian National Research Council (NRC), according to which “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy.”

    It continues: in any case “the infection, according to the epidemiological data available as of today and based on tens of thousands of cases, causes light/moderate symptoms (a variant of flu) in 80-90% of cases. In 10-15%, there is a chance of pneumonia, but which also has a benign outcome in the large majority of cases. We estimate that only 4% of patients require intensive therapy.”

    If this is the real situation, why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a true state of exception, with severe limitations on movement and the suspension of daily life and work activities for entire regions?

    Two factors can help explain such a disproportionate response.

    First and foremost, what is once again manifest here is the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm. The executive decree (decreto legge), approved by the government “for reasons of hygiene and public safety,” produces a real militarization “of those municipalities and areas in which there is at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of the infection is unknown, or in which there is a least one case that is not connected to a person who recently traveled from an area affected by the contagion.”

    Such a vague and indeterminate formula will allow [the government] to rapidly extend the state of exception to all regions, as it is practically impossible that other cases will not appear elsewhere.

    Let us consider the serious limitations of freedom imposed by the executive decree:

    A prohibition against leaving the affected municipality or area for all people in that municipality or area.
    A prohibition against entering the affected municipality or area
    The suspension of all events or initiatives (regardless of whether they are related to culture, sport, religion, or entertainment), and a suspension of meetings in any private or public space, including enclosed spaces if they are open to the public.
    The suspension of educational services in kindergartens and schools at every level, including higher education and excluding only distance learning.
    The closure of museums and other cultural institutions as listed in article 101 of the Statute on cultural heritage and landscape, and in executive decree number 42 from 01/22/2004. All regulations on free access to those institutions are also suspended.
    The suspension of all kinds of educational travel, in Italy and abroad.
    The suspension of all publicly held exams and all activities of public offices, except essential services or public utility services.
    The enforcement of quarantine and active surveillance on individuals who had close contact with confirmed cases of infection.

    It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year.

    We might say that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.

    The other factor, no less disquieting, is the state of fear, which in recent years has diffused into individual consciousnesses and which translates into a real need for states of collective panic, for which the epidemic once again offers the ideal pretext.

    Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitation of freedom imposed by governments is accepted in the name of a desire for safety, which has been created by the same governments who now intervene to satisfy it.

    #état_d'exception #exception #coronavirus #covid-19 #Agamben #urgence

    • Eccezione virale

      Giorgio Agamben, un vecchio amico, sostiene che il coronavirus differisce appena da una semplice influenza. Dimentica che per la «normale » influenza disponiamo di un vaccino di provata efficacia. E anche questo va ogni anno riadattato alle mutazioni virali. Nonostante ciò la «normale» influenza uccide sempre diverse persone e il coronavirus per il quale non esiste alcun vaccino è capace di una mortalità evidentemente ben superiore. La differenza (secondo fonti dello stesso genere di quelle di Agamben) è di circa 1 a 30: non mi pare una differenza da poco.

      Giorgio afferma che i governi si appropriano di ogni sorta di pretesto per instaurare continui stati di eccezione. Ma non nota che l’eccezione diviene, in realtà, la regola in un mondo in cui le interconnessioni tecniche di ogni specie (spostamenti, trasferimenti di ogni sorta, esposizioni o diffusioni di sostanze, ecc.) raggiungono un’intensità fin qui sconosciuta e che cresce di pari passo alla popolazione. Il moltiplicarsi di quest’ultima comporta anche nei paesi ricchi l’allungarsi della vita e l’aumento del numero di persone anziane e in generale di persone a rischio.

      Non bisogna sbagliare il bersaglio: una civiltà intera è messa in questione, su questo non ci sono dubbi. Esiste una sorta di eccezione virale – biologica, informatica, culturale – che ci pandemizza. I governi non ne sono che dei tristi esecutori e prendersela con loro assomiglia più a una manovra diversiva che a una riflessione politica.

      Ho ricordato che Giorgio è un vecchio amico. Mi spiace tirare in ballo un ricordo personale, ma non mi allontano, in fondo, da un registro di riflessione generale. Quasi trent’anni fa, i medici hanno giudicato che dovessi sottopormi a un trapianto di cuore. Giorgio fu una delle poche persone che mi consigliò di non ascoltarli. Se avessi seguito il suo consiglio probabilmente sarei morto ben presto. Ci si può sbagliare. Giorgio resta uno spirito di una finezza e una gentilezza che si possono definire – senza alcuna ironia – eccezionali.


    • Giorgio Agamben : “Clarifications”

      Translator’s Note: Giorgio Agamben asked me to translate this brief essay, which serves as an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy (see here for the original Italian piece and here for an English translation).

      Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians 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. Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter. The dead — our dead — do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject. 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?

      The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. 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.

      It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. 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 of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.

      What is worrisome is not so much or not only the present, but what comes after. Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact — every contagion — between human beings.


    • Must Society be Defended from Agamben?

      Many European countries have by now been in lockdown for more than a week. This has given everyone ample time to reflect on our current condition. Many of the world’s leading critical thinkers have shared their thoughts with us through op-eds, blog posts, and so on. Among the more troubling are three opinion pieces Giorgio Agamben wrote for his Italian publisher Quodlibet. As one could have expected, Agamben vehemently opposes the use of the state of emergency to control this crisis. For the majority of patients, COVID-19 poses no more trouble than a regular flu. Agamben thus fears that exceptional measures pushed through today are dangerously disproportionate. If the reader thinks that makes Agamben sound like coronavirus denialists such as Bolsonaro or Trump, then I must confess they are right. Just like these authoritarian leaders sacrifice global health to their own egos, it seems like Agamben dangerously underestimates the threat the coronavirus poses. So the question must be asked: must society be defended from Agamben?

      For me, this problem is particularly urgent. I am a graduate student in philosophy writing my dissertation about Agamben’s work. Should I, from now on, excuse myself for mentioning Agamben in my research? Will I have to answer mean questions about him and the coronavirus on my PhD defense? I know I am not accountable for the ramblings of a 77-year old man in Italy, but still, I cannot help but feel a bit responsible for whatever my dissertation topic writes. Taking to heart his own statements about ‘abandonment’ as the exposure of people’s bare life to the decision over life and death, I cannot but wonder whether the proposal of doing nothing – a position Agamben shared with the US, the UK, and the Netherlands until a few days ago – is not more problematic than the lockdown we are now in. Is it not the politicians pleading for sacrificing the weak and vulnerable for the sake of ‘group immunity’ who are abandoning the population to the virus’ sovereign decision over life and death? Is it not obvious to Agamben that, today, going into lockdown is riven with class privilege? Upper and middle classes can work from home, while workers, refugees, and the homeless are left to fend for themselves. To give Agamben a fair chance, I will address each of his three arguments against the deployment of the state of exception separately:

      (1) Agamben, firstly, laments the fact that we value biological survival over all other social concerns at the moment. It seems like populations are willing to give up everything – their jobs, their social life, seeing their families – in order to stay alive. Agamben has a point that this shows just how much we have become permeated by the biopolitical imperative to value life above all else, but so what? There is not much to enjoy from social contacts or seeing your family once you are dead. Biological survival is a necessary condition for the cultivation of other social values, so it seems only appropriate that, in times of need, survival comes first. On the other hand, Agamben’s indictment seems fair once we realize that the coronavirus is, in actual fact, not very lethal. Only a small minority of patients develop strong symptoms and, among them, only a minority dies. Agamben, however, misjudges the threat as one of survival or death. What makes the coronavirus so dangerous is not its lethality, but its impenetrability. The problem with the coronavirus is its opaqueness to the governments trying to control its spread. As Bifo wrote recently on Verso Blogs, “neither the immune system nor medical science know anything about the agent. The unknown stops the machine, the biological agent turns into an info-virus, and the info-virus unchains a psychotic reaction.” COVID-19 operates as an info-virus that upsets governmental plans to keep the population safe. Hospitals and clinics are ill-prepared to face this challenge due to years of budget cuts in health services. In that sense, it is more appropriate to regard the recent declarations of the state of emergency as signs of institutional breakdown rather than as a totalitarian ploy to exert domination over the population.

      (2) Agamben’s second criticism is that the fear of contagion governments promote turns everyone into a potential source of infection. During the War on Terror, everyone suddenly became a potential terrorist and could be treated accordingly; nowadays, people suddenly become a potential health threat to each other. This not only grants governments the authority to impose severe restrictions on even healthy citizens, but it also destroys social bonds. People no longer dare to give each other handshakes and the Internet is bursting of messages from lonely people in quarantine begging for a hug. Agamben is right that physical contact is crucial for social well-being. One of the major consequences of the lockdown will be a mental health crisis of unseen proportions. For many of us, the isolation we experience now will have lasting effects for some time to come. On the other hand, Agamben should also not exaggerate the problem. I do not believe people will hesitate to embrace their loved ones once this crisis is over. The restrictions on social interaction are temporary and there is no reason to assume anything different. In the meantime, solidarity is maintained through other means. Right now, my own university department is setting up a system to put lonely students in lockdown in contact with each other. People incessantly find new ways to help each other through these times, whether it is singing Bella ciao from one’s balcony, sewing mouth caps for the local hospital, or babysitting nurses’ and doctors’ children. Lamenting the breakdown of social bonds, like Agamben does, vastly underestimates the viscosity with which the multitude sticks together.

      (3) Agamben’s strongest argument is that the draconian emergency powers of today could become tomorrow’s apparatuses of oppression. Usually, what starts as an extraordinary measure during a state of exception, becomes a permanent tool in the governmental arsenal once the crisis is over. China is already normalizing some of its emergency measures to spy on its population. It has implemented an app-based system of health codes that assign different colour codes to citizens depending on how closely they have been in contact with corona-affected areas. Access to public transport and job facilities could be linked to this data. Public health can hence quickly serve as a pretext for ‘risk scoring’ citizens or even sabotaging political dissidents. Also in Western countries, a cluster of disaster capitalism is forming around the crisis. Private companies have already started developing apps that combine geolocation data with health scores to monitor public life. As Agamben mentions, universities are also switching to online teaching to minimize contagions, but what hinders them from regularizing online teaching? Rather than investing in proper academic staff and offices, they could find it is much cheaper to pay an expert once for making an online teaching module and afterwards pay a grad student peanuts to answer students’ questions online. Are the academics recording their courses at home right now automating themselves out of a job?

      All the while, the main tactic of leftist opposition has become impossible: public manifestations. Believing that socialism is upon us simply because governments are, in times of crisis, considering a universal basic income or universal healthcare, is naïve. If we should have learned one thing from decades of austerity, it is that neoliberals never let a serious crisis go to waste. Keynesian and Neo-Marxist policies might be considered in times of need, but they will quickly disappear in the annals of history if there is no substantial political backdrop to solidify their effects. If the Left fails to grasp this momentum, it will be business as usual once things go back to normal. But how do you organize opposition from the comfort of your home that exceeds free-floating clicktivism? The Left is confronted with a challenge of reconstructing the world after COVID-19 and has lost the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. Corona has hitherto only changed the world in various ways; the point, now, is to give it the correct interpretation to not let it go to waste.


    • Reflections on the Plague (Giorgio Agamben)

      The reflections that follow do not deal with the epidemic itself but with what we can learn from the reactions to it. They are, thus, reflections on the ease with which the whole of society has united in feeling itself afflicted by a plague, has isolated itself in its homes, and has suspended all normal conditions of life — work relationships, friendship, love, and even religious and political beliefs. Why were there no protests and no opposition, as was certainly possible and as is usual in these situations? The hypothesis that I would like to suggest is that somehow, albeit unconsciously, the plague was already present. Conditions of life had evidently become such that a sudden sign was all that it took for the situation to appear for what it was — intolerable, like a plague. In a certain sense, the only positive thing that might be gained from the present situation is this: it is possible that people will begin to ask themselves if the way in which they had previously been living was right.

      We should also reflect upon the need for religion that this situation has made visible. This is indicated by the appearance of terminology from eschatology in the discourse of the media: the obsessive recurrence, above all in the American press, of the word “apocalypse” and other evocations of the end of the world. It is as if the need for religion, no longer finding any satisfaction in the Church, began gropingly to look for another place wherein it could consist, and found it in what has become the religion of our time: science. This, like any religion, can give rise to superstitions and fear — or at least can be used to spread them. Never before have we witnessed such a spectacle of diverse, contradictory opinions and prescriptions — typical of religion in periods of crisis — ranging from minority heretical positions denying the seriousness of the phenomenon (held by some prestigious scientists) up to the dominant orthodox position affirming it, and differing radically on how the situation should be handled. As always in these cases, there are some experts, or self-styled ones, who succeed in securing the favor of the monarchs who, as in the era of the religious disputes that once divided Christianity, side with one current or another according to their own interests and impose measures accordingly.

      Another thing to think about is the obvious collapse of any conviction, or common faith. One could say say that men no longer believe in anything at all — except for bare biological existence which must be saved at any cost. But proceeding from the fear of losing one’s life can only result in tyranny, the monstrous Leviathan with his drawn sword.

      Once the emergency, the plague, has been declared over — if it ever will— I do not believe that it will be possible to return to life as it was before, not for anyone who has maintained a modicum of clarity. And this is perhaps the greatest cause for despair (la cosa più disperante) — even if, as has been said, “Only for those who no longer have hope has hope been given.”*

      *Walter Benjamin. The themes of despair/desperation and hope along with the same quote from Benjamin appear in “The Noonday Demon” in Stanzas.


      Texte original (en italien):

    • #Panagiotis_Sotiris – Coronavirus. Contre Agamben, pour une biopolitique populaire

      Nous avons publié récemment un texte de Giorgio Agamben sur l’état d’urgence et le coronavirus. Il semble aujourd’hui qu’il s’appuyait sur des données scientifiques – officielles – erronées qui le conduisaient à minimiser l’importance de l’épidémie. Il n’en reste pas moins qu’il rappelait utilement combien l’état d’urgence s’inscrit dans une généalogie inquiétante et combien l’État moderne s’est toujours servi des crises de tous types pour accroître et exercer son emprise violente sur les peuples. Tout cela en se cachant sous une apparente neutralité savante.

      L’épidémie frappe désormais l’Italie de plein fouet et prolifère à toute vitesse en France, rendant nécessaires des mesures à grande échelle pour contrer son expansion. Alors que commencent à s’esquisser, notamment en Italie, des formes d’auto-organisation populaires et que fait jour la nécessité d’une lecture rationnelle et antagonique des mesures prises par les gouvernements, il nous a semblé important de publier ce texte de Panagiotis Sotiris. Prolongeant le dernier Foucault, il s’attache en effet à imaginer ce que pourrait être une biopolitique communiste, s’appuyant sur les luttes populaires et l’intelligence collective.

      La récente intervention de Giorgio Agamben, qui caractérise les mesures mises en œuvre en réponse à la pandémie de Covid-19 d’exercice de biopolitique de l’« état d’exception » a suscité un débat important sur la manière de penser la biopolitique.

      La notion même de biopolitique, telle qu’elle a été formulée par Michel Foucault, a constitué une contribution importante pour notre compréhension des changements liés au passage à la modernité capitaliste, notamment en ce qui concerne les modes d’exercice du pouvoir et de la coercition. Du pouvoir comme droit de vie et de mort détenu par le souverain, nous passons au pouvoir comme tentative de garantir la santé (et la productivité) des populations. Cela a conduit à une expansion sans précédent de toutes les formes d’interventions et de coercitions étatiques. Des vaccinations obligatoires aux interdictions de fumer dans les espaces publics, la notion de biopolitique a été utilisée dans de nombreux cas comme une clé pour comprendre les dimensions politiques et idéologiques des politiques de santé.

      Cela nous a permis dans le même temps d’analyser différents phénomènes, souvent refoulés dans l’espace public, depuis les façons dont le racisme a tenté de se fonder « scientifiquement » aux dangers incarnés par des tendances comme l’eugénisme. Et effectivement, Agamben l’a utilisé d’une façon constructive, dans sa tentative de théoriser les formes modernes de l’« état d’exception », c’est-à-dire les espaces dans lesquels s’exercent des formes extrêmes de coercition, avec comme exemple central le camp de concentration.

      Les questions relatives à la gestion de la pandémie de Covid-19 soulèvent évidemment des problèmes liés à la biopolitique. De nombreux commentateurs ont ainsi affirmé que la Chine avait pu prendre des mesures pour contenir ou ralentir la pandémie parce qu’elle pouvait mettre en œuvre une version autoritaire de la biopolitique. Cette version comprenait le recours à des quarantaines prolongées et à des interdictions d’activités sociales, tout cela étant permis par le vaste arsenal de mesures de coercition, de surveillance et de contrôle ainsi que par les technologies dont dispose l’État chinois.

      Certains commentateurs ont même laissé entendre que les démocraties libérales n’ayant pas la même capacité de coercition ou comptant davantage sur le changement volontaire des comportements individuels, elles ne pourraient pas prendre les mêmes mesures, entravant ainsi les tentatives de faire face à la pandémie.

      Cependant, ce serait une erreur que de poser le dilemme entre d’un côté une biopolitique autoritaire et de l’autre une confiance libérale dans la propension des individus à faire des choix rationnels.

      C’est d’autant plus évident que le fait de considérer des mesures de santé publique, telles que les quarantaines ou la « distanciation sociale », uniquement sous le prisme de la biopolitique, conduit en quelque sorte à passer à côté de leur utilité potentielle. En l’absence de vaccin ou de traitements antiviraux efficaces, ces mesures, tirées du répertoire des manuels de santé publique du xixe siècle, peuvent s’avérer précieuses, notamment pour les groupes les plus vulnérables.

      C’est particulièrement vrai si l’on pense que même dans les économies capitalistes avancées, les infrastructures de santé publique se sont détériorées et ne peuvent pas réellement supporter les pics de pandémie, à moins que des mesures ne soient prises pour réduire leurs rythmes d’expansions.

      On pourrait dire, contra Agamben, que la « vie nue » a plus à voir avec le retraité figurant sur une liste d’attente pour un appareil respiratoire ou un lit de soins intensifs, en raison de l’effondrement du système de santé, qu’avec l’intellectuel qui doit se débrouiller face aux aspects pratiques des mesures de quarantaine.

      À la lumière de ce qui précède, je voudrais suggérer un retour différent à Foucault. Nous oublions parfois que ce dernier avait une conception très relationnelle des pratiques de pouvoir. En ce sens, il est légitime de se demander si une biopolitique démocratique ou même communiste est possible. Pour le dire autrement : est-il possible d’avoir des pratiques collectives qui contribuent réellement à la santé des populations, y compris des modifications de comportement à grande échelle, sans une expansion parallèle des formes de coercition et de surveillance ?

      Foucault lui-même, dans ses derniers travaux, tend vers une telle direction, avec les notions de vérité, de parrhesia et de souci de soi. Dans ce dialogue très original avec la philosophie antique, il propose une politique alternative du bios qui combine de manière non coercitive les soins individuels et collectifs.

      Dans une telle perspective, la décision de réduire les déplacements ou l’instauration d’une distanciation sociale en temps d’épidémie, l’interdiction de fumer dans les espaces publics fermés ou la prohibition de pratiques individuelles et collectives nuisibles à l’environnement, seraient le résultat de décisions collectives discutées démocratiquement. Cela signifie que de la simple discipline, nous passons à la responsabilité, vis-à-vis des autres puis de nous-mêmes, et de la suspension de la socialité à sa transformation consciente. Dans de telles conditions, au lieu d’une peur individuelle permanente, capable de briser tout sentiment de cohésion sociale, nous déplaçons l’idée d’effort collectif, de coordination et de solidarité au sein d’une lutte commune, éléments qui dans de telles urgences sanitaires peuvent s’avérer tout aussi importants que les interventions médicales.

      Se dessine ainsi la possibilité d’une biopolitique démocratique. Celle-ci peut également se fonder sur la démocratisation du savoir. L’accès accru aux connaissances, associé à de nécessaires campagnes de vulgarisation, rendraient possibles des processus de décision collective fondés sur la connaissance et la compréhension et non pas seulement sur l’autorité des experts.
      Une biopolitique populaire

      Prenons l’exemple de la lutte contre le VIH. Le combat contre la stigmatisation, la tentative de faire comprendre qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une maladie réservée aux « groupes à haut risque », l’exigence d’éducation aux pratiques sexuelles saines, le financement du développement de mesures thérapeutiques et l’accès aux services de santé publique n’auraient pas été possibles sans la lutte de mouvements tels qu’ACT UP. On pourrait dire qu’il s’agit bien d’un exemple de biopolitique populaire.

      Dans la conjoncture actuelle, les mouvements sociaux ont une grande marge de manœuvre. Ils peuvent exiger des mesures immédiates pour aider les systèmes de santé publique à supporter le fardeau supplémentaire causé par la pandémie. Ils peuvent aussi souligner la nécessité de la solidarité et de l’auto-organisation collective pendant une telle crise, par opposition aux paniques « survivalistes » individualisées. Ils peuvent également insister sur le fait que le pouvoir (et la coercition) de l’État doit être utilisé pour canaliser les ressources du secteur privé vers des orientations socialement nécessaires. Enfin, ils peuvent faire de la transformation sociale une exigence vitale.


    • je n’ai pas fait de seen à part parce que pour moi l’affaire Agamben était déjà classée (classement vertical).

    • Oui, il y a de quoi avec ses gargarismes permanents sur l’état d’exception et leur aggravation sous Covid. Mais, à part sa fin pénible, l’article de François Nathan donne en synthèse un peu d’histoire des épidémies, et, pointant ce qu’une politique du soin interdit (dont la « pensée » du sieur A.), très implicitement sur ce qu’elle supposerait (ne pas tenir séparés le biologique du social-historique). Enjeu tout à fait négligé, y compris en partie ici il me semble, braqués que nous sommes sur les « données » et les effets.

    • #Donatella_Di_Cesare: “Dear Agamben, I write to you…”

      From profound critic of neo-liberalism, to guru of anti-vaxxers. The philosopher Donatella Di Cesare writes a ‘letter from afar’ to Giorgio Agamben.

      As the second year of the planetary pandemic draws to a close, one cannot help but recognize, among the many devastating effects of this vast catastrophe, a tragic event that fully affects philosophy. I would like to call it the ‘Agamben Case,’ not to objectify the protagonist — to whom I am addressing myself, as if writing a letter from afar — but to underline its importance.

      Giorgio Agamben — like it or not — has been, and is, the most significant philosopher of the last few decades, not only on the European scene, but throughout the world. From American university classrooms to the most remote oppositional groups of Latin American, Agamben’s name, in some ways even going beyond the philosopher himself, has become the banner of a new critical thought. For those of my generation, who lived through the 1970s, his books — particularly starting with Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life in 1995 — were a chance not only to scrutinize the disturbing and authoritarian depths of neo-liberalism, but also to unmask the successful and watered-down pseudo-left, which today self-identifies as a moderate progressivism. This pseudo-left has no critique of progress, and a philosophical inventory that came to a halt in the 1980s, it practices a politics that reduces its activities and direction to administrative governance under the dictate of the economy. In the wake of the best tradition of the twentieth century — from Foucault to Arendt, from Benjamin to Heidegger — Agamben has offered us the vocabulary and conceptual repertoire to try to orient ourselves in the complex terrain of the twenty-first century. How can we forget the pages on the “camp,” which after Auschwitz, rather than disappearing, became part of the political landscape, and also those on bare life, first and foremost of those exposed without rights, or on post-totalitarian democracy that maintains a link with the past?

      This makes what has recently happened all the more traumatic. In the blog ‘Una voce,’ hosted on the Quodlibet website, Agamben took to commenting on the irruption of the coronavirus in semi-journalistic terms. The first post on February 26, 2020, was titled “The Invention of a Pandemic.” Today this sounds like a malicious prognosis. At the time, however, Agamben was not alone in deluding himself that covid-19 was little more than a flu. There was a lack of data and the magnitude of the disease had not yet been revealed. In my own pessimism, which caused me to see the first signs of covid as the entry to a new, worse, era, I felt surrounded by people who preferred to downplay the phenomenon or detach from it. During the lockdown we were all struck by the measures taken to combat the virus, as indispensable as they were shocking. Life confined within domestic walls, our being consigned to the screen, deprived of others and the polis… it all seemed almost unbearable — until the suffering of those emerged who, without breath, were fighting for life in intensive care units. The image of the trucks transporting coffins in Bergamo marked the point of no return for the whole world. The sovereign virus, which the sovereignist regimes, from Trump to Bolsonaro, grotesquely pretended either to ignore or to bend to their own purposes, manifested itself in all its terrible potency. The catastrophe was ungovernable. And it exposed the pettiness and ineptitude of the politics of closed borders. Europe responded.

      The time had come for Agamben to acknowledge outright: “I made an interpretative error, because the pandemic is not an invention.” But Agamben never rectified his error.

      His posts continued until July 2020 in the same vein. As news of his developing denialism spread abroad, I read his embarrassing texts convinced that the nightmare would soon be over. But it wasn’t. His posts have become the subject of two books and the ‘voice’ of the blog has continued with its prognosis, reaching its lowest point with two interventions of July 2021 — “Second Class citizens” and “Green Pass” — where the Green Pass was obscenely likened to the yellow star. This gave significant succour to the worst of the anti-vax movement, intellectually and philosophically legitimizing them. The rest, including the ‘Doubt and Precaution Committee,’[1] is (recent) history.

      Concerns over securitarian drifts are justified. The politics of fear, the phobocracy that governs and subdues ‘us’ by instilling a fear of what is outside, nurturing hatred for the other, is the current political phenomenon that characterizes immunitarian democracies and it precedes the pandemic. In different ways philosophers, sociologists, economists, and political scientists have denounced it. It is equally right to argue that the Italian context is in this respect a political laboratory without equal. However, a state of emergency cannot be confused with a state of exception. An earthquake, a flood, a pandemic are unexpected events that must be faced in their necessity. A state of exception is dictated by a sovereign will. Of course, one can border on the other, and we are therefore aware both of the danger of an institutionalized state of emergency and of the threat represented by those control and surveillance measures which, once in place, risk becoming indelible. It is true: there is no government that cannot avail itself of the pandemic. Let’s keep the suspicion; such suspicion is the salt of democracy.

      But the further step, which is a drift into conspiracy-theorising, we should not take. Therefore, we do not say that the covid-19 epidemic is an invention, nor that it has been used intentionally as a pretext, as Agamben does with the caveat included in his book: “if the powers that govern the world have decided to take the pretext of a pandemic — at this point it does not matter if it is real or simulated…”

      Personalizing power, making it a subject with a will, attributing an intention to it, means endorsing a conspiratorial vision. And it also means not considering the role of technique, or technology, that machinery that, as Heidegger teaches, employs those who pretend to employ it. The designers become the designed. Through this perspective one can see how power works. It is precisely the sovereign virus that has shown all the limits of this power that runs amok, is unjust, violent, and yet is impotent in the face of disaster, incapable of dealing with the world’s disease.

      No, I do not associate myself with the anti-conspiracist vulgarity of those who, certain of possessing reason and truth, reduce a complex phenomenon to a mental cramp or a lie. With even more regret, I say that Agamben’s gloomy insinuations, his declarations on the “construction of a fictitious scenario” and on the “integral organization of the body of citizens,” which refer to a new paradigm of biosecurity and to a sort of sanitary terror, simply embed him within the contemporary landscape of conspiracy.

      As is known, Agamben has found himself on the right, or rather the ultra-right, with a following consisting of anti-vaxxers and those against the Green Pass. From time-to-time he has even lashed out against those on the left who defended the vaccination plan. It does not seem to me, however, that in these two years he has expended a word for the riots in prisons, for the elderly decimated in the nursing homes, for the homeless abandoned in the city, for those left suddenly without work, for the delivery riders, the laborers, and the invisible. I would have expected, from the philosopher who made us reflect on ‘bare life,’ an appeal for the migrants who are brutalized, rejected, and left to die at the European borders. Indeed, an initiative that, with his authority, would have had certain weight. But there has been none of that.

      He has often forced us into to distorting analyses but, above all, by taking paradoxical positions, he has pushed us towards common sense. As far as I am concerned, perhaps this is one of the major damages, since philosophy requires radicality. But the damages go beyond this and are difficult to estimate, starting from the surfeit of discredit cast upon philosophy itself.

      For us Agambeniani, survivors of this trauma, it will be a matter of rethinking categories, concepts, terms, some of which — such as ‘state of exception’ — have become almost grotesque. And it will be necessary to save ‘Agamben’ from Agamben; to preserve the legacy of his thought from this drift. Nor can we gloss over the political problem, given that one of the decisive points of reference for a left that surrenders neither to neo-liberalism nor to the model of moderate progressivism is now missing, and in such a disastrous way. The path will be rough.

      Donatella Di Cesare

      19 December 2021 (L’Espresso)



      La lettre originale, en italien, publiée dans le journal italien L’Espresso:
      Caro Agamben, ora dobbiamo salvare te e la filosofia dal tuo complottismo

      È stato il filosofo più significativo di questi ultimi decenni. Ma da quando ha iniziato a commentare gli eventi legati al coronavirus ha abbracciato il negazionismo. Sarà quindi necessario preservare Agamben da Agamben, il lascito del suo pensiero da questa deriva

      Mentre volge al termine il secondo anno della pandemia planetaria non si può fare a meno di riconoscere, tra i tanti devastanti effetti dell’immane catastrofe, un evento tragico che investe in pieno la filosofia. Vorrei chiamarlo il “caso Agamben”, non per oggettualizzare il protagonista, a cui invece mi rivolgo, come scrivendogli una lettera da lontano, bensì per sottolinearne l’importanza.

      Giorgio Agamben - piaccia o no - è stato ed è il filosofo più significativo di questi ultimi decenni, non solo nello scenario europeo, ma in quello mondiale. Dalle aule universitarie statunitensi ai più periferici gruppi antagonisti latinoamericani il nome di Agamben, per qualche verso anche al di là del filosofo, è diventato l’insegna di un nuovo pensiero critico. Per quelli della mia generazione, che hanno vissuto gli anni Settanta, i suoi libri - soprattutto a partire da “Homo sacer. Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita” del 1995 - hanno costituito la possibilità non solo di scrutare il fondo inquietante e autoritario del neoliberismo, ma anche di smascherare la pseudosinistra vincente e annacquata, che oggi si autodefinisce progressismo moderato. Nessuna critica del progresso, un inventario filosofico fermo tutt’al più agli anni Ottanta, una pratica della politica che la riduce a governance amministrativa sotto il dettato dell’economia. Sulla scia della migliore tradizione del Novecento - da Foucault ad Arendt, da Benjamin a Heidegger - Agamben ci ha offerto il vocabolario e il repertorio concettuale per tentare di orientarci nel complesso scenario del XXI secolo. Come dimenticare le pagine sul “campo”, che dopo Auschwitz, anziché scomparire, entra a far parte del paesaggio politico, e ancora quelle sulla nuda vita, anzitutto di chi è esposto senza diritti, o sulla democrazia post-totalitaria che mantiene un legame con il passato?

      Tanto più traumatico è quel che accaduto. Nel blog “Una voce”, ospitato sul sito della casa editrice Quodlibet, Agamben ha preso a commentare l’irruzione del coronavirus in termini semigiornalistici. Il primo post del 26 febbraio 2020 era intitolato “L’invenzione di una pandemia”. Oggi suona come una funesta profezia. Allora Agamben non era però il solo a illudersi che il Covid-19 fosse poco meno che un’influenza. Mancavano dati e l’entità del male non si era ancora rivelata. Nel mio pessimismo, che mi spingeva a scorgere nei primi segnali l’ingresso di una nuova epoca, mi sentivo circondata da persone che preferivano minimizzare o rimuovere.

      Durante il lockdown fummo tutti colpiti dalle misure prese per contrastare il virus, tanto indispensabili quanto scioccanti. La vita confinata tra le mura domestiche, consegnata allo schermo, privata degli altri e della polis, ci sembrò quasi insopportabile - fin quando non emerse la sofferenza di chi, senza respiro, lottava per la vita nelle terapie intensive. L’immagine dei camion che a Bergamo trasportavano i feretri segnò per tutto il mondo il punto di non ritorno. Il virus sovrano, che i regimi sovranisti, da Trump a Bolsonaro, pretendevano o di ignorare grottescamente o di piegare ai propri scopi, si manifestò in tutta la sua terribile potenza. La catastrofe era ingovernabile. E metteva allo scoperto meschinità e inettitudine della politica dei confini chiusi. L’Europa reagì.

      Per Agamben era tempo di riconoscere a chiare lettere: «Ho commesso un errore interpretativo, perché la pandemia non è un’invenzione». Ma Agamben non ha mai rettificato. I suoi post si sono susseguiti fino a luglio 2020 con lo stesso tenore. Mentre la notizia del suo incipiente negazionismo si diffondeva all’estero, leggevo quelle righe imbarazzanti convinta che l’incubo sarebbe presto finito. Così non è stato. I post sono diventati materia di due libri e la “voce” del blog ha continuato a vaticinare raggiungendo il punto più basso con due interventi del luglio 2021 - “Cittadini di seconda classe” e “Tessera verde” - dove il green pass viene paragonato alla stella gialla. Un paragone osceno, che ha dato la stura ai peggiori movimenti no vax legittimandoli. Il resto, compresa la “Commissione per il dubbio e la precauzione”, è storia recente.

      È motivata la preoccupazione per una deriva securitaria. La politica della paura, la fobocrazia che governa e sottomette il “noi” instillando il timore per ciò che è fuori, fomentando l’odio per l’altro, è il fenomeno politico attuale che caratterizza le democrazie immunitarie e precede la pandemia. In modi diversi lo hanno denunciato filosofi, sociologi, economisti, politologi. Altrettanto giusto è sostenere che il contesto italiano è sotto questo aspetto un laboratorio politico senza uguali. Tuttavia non si può confondere lo stato d’emergenza con lo stato d’eccezione. Un terremoto, un’alluvione, una pandemia sono un evento inatteso che va fronteggiato nella sua necessità. Lo stato d’eccezione è dettato da una volontà sovrana. Certo l’uno può sconfinare nell’altro e siamo perciò consapevoli sia del pericolo di uno stato d’emergenza istituzionalizzato sia della minaccia rappresentata da quelle misure di controllo e sorveglianza che, una volta inserite, rischiano di diventare incancellabili. È vero: non c’è governo che non possa valersi della pandemia. Manteniamo il sospetto, che è il sale della democrazia.

      Ma il passo ulteriore, quello della deriva complottistica, non lo compiamo. Perciò non diciamo né che l’epidemia da Covid-19 è un’invenzione né che viene presa a pretesto intenzionalmente, come fa Agamben nell’avvertenza del suo libro: «Se i poteri che governano il mondo hanno deciso di cogliere il pretesto di una pandemia - a questo punto non importa se vera o simulata…». Personalizzare il potere, renderlo un soggetto con tanto di volontà, attribuirgli un’intenzione, significa avallare una visione complottistica. E vuol dire anche non considerare il ruolo della tecnica, quell’ingranaggio che, come insegna Heidegger, impiega quanti pretenderebbero di impiegarlo. I progettisti diventano i progettati. Non si può oggi non vedere il potere attraverso questo dispositivo. Proprio il virus sovrano ha mostrato tutti i limiti di un potere che gira a vuoto, ingiusto, violento, e tuttavia impotente di fronte al disastro, incapace di affrontare la malattia del mondo.

      No, non mi associo alla vulgata anticomplottista di quelli che, certi di possedere ragione e verità, riducono un fenomeno complesso a un crampo mentale o a una menzogna. Con tanto più rammarico dico che le cupe insinuazioni di Agamben, le sue dichiarazioni sulla «costruzione di uno scenario fittizio» e sulla «organizzazione integrale del corpo dei cittadini», che rinviano a un nuovo paradigma di biosicurezza e a una sorta di terrore sanitario, lo inscrivono purtroppo nel panorama attuale del complottismo.

      Com’è noto Agamben si è ritrovato a destra, anzi all’ultradestra, con un seguito di no vax e no pass. Di tanto in tanto si è perfino scagliato contro chi a sinistra difendeva il piano di vaccinazione. Non mi risulta, invece, che in questi due anni abbia speso una parola per le rivolte nelle carceri, per gli anziani decimati nelle rsa, per i senzatetto abbandonati nelle città, per quelli rimasti d’un tratto senza lavoro, per i rider, i braccianti e gli invisibili. Mi sarei aspettata dal filosofo che ci ha fatto riflettere sulla “nuda vita” un appello per i migranti che alle frontiere europee vengono brutalizzati, respinti, lasciati morire. Anzi, un’iniziativa che, con la sua autorevolezza, avrebbe avuto certo peso. Nulla di ciò.

      Ci ha costretto spesso a elucubrazioni fuorvianti e soprattutto, prendendo posizioni paradossali, ci ha spinto verso il senso comune. Per quel che mi riguarda forse questo è uno dei maggiori danni, dato che la filosofia richiede radicalità. Ma i danni sono ulteriori e difficilmente stimabili, a partire da un sovrappiù di discredito gettato sulla filosofia. Per noi agambeniani, sopravvissuti a questo trauma, si tratterà di ripensare categorie concetti, termini, alcuni - come “stato d’eccezione” - divenuti quasi ormai grotteschi. E sarà necessario salvare Agamben da Agamben, il lascito del suo pensiero da questa deriva. Né si può sorvolare sulla questione politica, dato che viene meno nel modo peggiore uno dei punti decisivi di riferimento per una sinistra che non si arrende né al neoliberismo né alla versione del progressismo moderato. Il cammino sarà impervio.