Benjamin Bratton on why philosophy failed us in facing up to the pandemic, and why we need to rethink biopolitics as a matter of life and death.
As yet another wave of infection blooms and the bitter assignment of vaccine passes becomes a reality, societies are being held hostage by a sadly familiar coalition of the uninformed, the misinformed, the misguided, and the misanthropic. They are making vaccine passports, which no one wants, a likely necessity. Without their noise and narcissism, vaccination rates would be high enough that the passes would not be needed.
But it is not simply the “rabble” who make this sad mess, but also some voices from the upper echelons of the academy. During the pandemic, when society desperately needed to make sense of the big picture, Philosophy failed the moment, sometimes through ignorance or incoherence, sometimes outright intellectual fraud. The lesson of Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, in part tells us why.
Famous for critiques of “biopolitics” that have helped to shape the Humanities’ perspectives on biology, society, science and politics, Agamben spent the pandemic publishing over a dozen editorials denouncing the situation in ways that closely parallel right-wing (and left-wing) conspiracy theories.
Over the past two decades, the soft power influence of his key concepts in the Humanities - homo sacer, zoē /bios, the state of exception, etc. - has been considerable. This has also helped to cement in a stale orthodoxy suspicious of any artificial governing intervention in the biological condition of human society as implicitly totalitarian. In the name of being “critical”, the default approach to any biotechnology is often to cast it as a coercive manipulation of the sovereignty of the body and lived experience.
If one were to imagine Alex Jones not as a Texas good ol’ boy, but rather as a Heideggerian seminary student, this would give a sense of how Agamben himself approached the requests for public comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in February 2020, with “The Invention of an Epidemic”, he called the virus a hoax and the belated lockdowns in Italy a “techno-medical despotism”. In “Requiem for the Students”, he denounced Zoom seminars as acquiescence to a Silicon Valley concentration camp condition (his words). In “The face and death”, he derided the use of masks as sacrificing the ritual humanity of the naked face.
Each short essay was more absurd and strident than the last. Upon publication of the earliest of these, Agamben’s friend, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, warned us to ignore him, and that if he himself had followed Agamben’s medical advice discouraging a heart transplant that saved his life, that he would be dead.
Earlier this month, Agamben went all in, directly and explicitly comparing vaccine passes to Nazi ‘Juden’ stars. In a short piece called, “Second class citizens”, he connects the fates of those who refuse vaccination to that of Jews under fascism and concludes that “The ‘green card’ (Italy’s vaccine pass) constitutes those who do not have it in bearers of a virtual yellow star.” After picking up my jaw, I cannot help but compare Agamben’s analysis to that of QAnon-influenced United States congressperson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who beat him to the punch when she tweeted back in May that “Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazi’s forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.”
In this ongoing performance, Agamben explicitly rejects all pandemic-mitigation measures on behalf of an ‘embrace tradition, refuse modernity’ conviction which denies the relevance of a biology that is real regardless of the words used to name it. Something seems to have recently cracked open for him, and yet at the same time, re-reading his foundational texts in the light of the pandemic pieces is illuminating. His position has not suddenly changed. It was there all along.
Romanticism has been a permanent passenger on the flights of Western Modernity, and its mourning for ‘lost objects’ always just-out-of-reach vacillates between melancholia and revolt. Romanticism’s aesthetic disgust with rationality and technology finally has less to do with their effects than with what they reveal about how differently the world really works from how it appears to myth. Its true enemy is less alienation than demystification, and so it will always accept collaboration with Traditionalists.
It is not surprising then that Agamben earned the thanks of both Lega Nord and the anti-masker/vaccine movements. His conclusions are also similar to those of the Brazilian populist president Jair Bolsonaro, who sees the virus as an over-blown plot by techno-medical globalists to undermine traditional authority and natural bodily and communitarian coherency. What is the lost object? Agamben’s contributions are, at their core, an elaborate defense of a pre-Darwinian concept of the human and the mystical attachments it provided. Ultimately, he is not defending life, he is refusing it.
As of today, Agamben’s biggest online supporters are not his many long time readers but rather a squad of new fans, primarily a Based coalition of wounded contrarian man-childs. From vitalist Reactionaries quoting Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin to the anti-vaxxer roommate who puts energy drinks in his bong, these and other lonely anti-heroes are doomed by their burden to see clearly through the hypocrisies of our Matrix reality. For them, Agamben’s principled stand unites them with the legacy of Romanticist glorious and occult refusals. At work is perhaps less a horseshoe theory of Red-Brown alliance, than the tender bond between outcasts and idiots.
In my book, The Revenge of The Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World, I consider the origins and doomed future of Agamben’s brand of negative biopolitics. “While Agamben’s own worldview is classically Europeanist, dripping with lurid Heideggerian theology, his influence on the Humanities is much wider and deeper” and so the reckoning due goes well beyond revised syllabi. “The question is how much of the philosophical traditions to which Agamben has been attached over the last decades will also need to be shelved. What then to do with the artifacts of Agamben’s life work? It is a traditionalist, culturalist, locally embedded doctrinal edifice, protecting the ritual meaningfulness of things against the explicit nudity of their reality: like the defiant monologues of a Southern preacher, his sad, solemn theory is undeniably beautiful as a gothic political literature, and should probably be read only as such”
Even so, the reckoning with legacies of his and other related projects is long overdue. His mode of biopolitical critique blithely ventures that science, data, observation and modeling are intrinsically and ultimately forms of domination and games of power relations. Numbers are unjust, words are beautiful. To accept that real, underlying processes of biochemistry are accessible, and generative of both reason and intervention, is presumed naive. It’s a disposition also found in different tones and hues in the work of Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and especially Ivan Illich, who died from a facial tumor he refused to treat as doctors recommended. Even here at University of California, San Diego, a hub of interdisciplinary biotechnology research, many colleagues insist that the “digitalization of Nature” is “an impossible fantasy”, even as they accept an mRNA vaccine based on a prototype bioprinted from a computational model of the virus’ genome uploaded from China before the actual virus even made it to North America.
As I have suggested elsewhere, this orientation is exemplary of the drawn-out influence of Boomer Theory. The baby boomers have tyrannised the Left’s imagination - bequeathing tremendous capacities to deconstruct and critique authority but feeble capacities to construct and compose. Perhaps the ‘68 generation’s last revenge upon those who inherit their messes, is the intellectual axiom that structure is always more suspicious than its dismantling and composition more problematic than resistance, not just as political strategies but as metaphysical norms. Their project was and remains the horizontal multiplication of conditional viewpoints as both means and ends, via the imaginary dismantling of public reason, decision and structuration. This is how they can at once fetishize “the Political” while refusing “governmentality.”
I grew up in this tradition, but the world works very differently than the one imagined by soixante-huitards and their secretaries. I hope that philosophy will not continue to fail those who must create, compose and give enforceable structure to another world than this one.
Agamben’s pandemic outbursts are extreme but also exemplary of this wider failure. Philosophy and the Humanities failed the pandemic because they are bound too tightly to an untenable set of formulas, reflexively suspicious of purposeful quantification, and unable to account for the epidemiological reality of mutual contagion or to articulate an ethics of an immunological commons. Why? Partially because the available language of ethics is monopolized by emphasis on subjective moral intentionality and a self-regarding protagonism for which “I” am the piloting moral agent of outcomes.
The pandemic forced another kind of ethics. The Idealist distinction between zoē and bios as modes of “life” around which Agamben builds his biopolitical critique is a conceit that snaps like a twig in the face of the epidemiological view of society. Why did we wear masks? Because of a sense that our inner thoughts would manifest externally and protect us? Or was it because we recognize ourselves as biological organisms among others capable of harming and being harmed as such?
The difference is profound. As we pass by a stranger, how do the ethics shift from subjective intention of harm or endearment to the objective biological circumstance of contagion? What is then the ethics of being an object? We will find out. But when presented with the need for intensive sensing and modeling in the service of highly granular provision of social services to those in need, many public intellectuals choked, only able to offer hollow truisms about “surveillance”.
At stake is not just some obscure academic quarrel, but rather our ability to articulate what it means to be human, that is to be all together homo sapiens, in connection with all the fraught histories of that question. I argue that we need instead a positive biopolitics based on a new rationality of inclusion, care, transformation and prevention, and we need a philosophy and a humanities to help articulate it.
Fortunately, in many ways we already do. A short and very incomplete list of such might include Sylvia Wynter’s mapping of “who counts” as Human in Colonial Modernity in ways that open the category to reclamation: “We” have been defined by exclusion. It includes those studying the microbiome including the role of microbial life inside of human bodies to keep us alive: The human is already inclusive of the non-human. It includes those studying Anthropogeny and common evolutionary origins of the human species and planetary future: The human is continuous, migratory and changing. It includes those studying experimental Astronautics and the limit conditions of survival in a fragile artificial environment: At thresholds of survivability the human is like a fish discovering water. It includes those studying CRISPR and other re-weaving technologies for genetic therapy: The human can recompose itself at the deepest levels.
The affirmation or negation of what the human is also plays out through what humans can be. This animates the cultural controversies over gender reassignment therapies and techniques. The human is also a contingent, complex and pluralistic assemblage available to self-fashioning so that one may finally feel at home in their own skin. But the general availability of synthetic androgens, estrogens and progesterone draws on Modern laboratory biotechnology that Agamben’s biopolitics sees as invasive and unnatural.
If Philosophy and the Humanities are to claim due legitimacy for present and future challenges, the collective conception of another positive biopolitics –based in the reality of our shared technical and biological circumstances–is absolutely essential.
Toward that, I conclude with another passage from The Revenge of The Real: “A laissez-faire vitalism for which “life will find a way” is not an option; it is a fairy tale of a comfortable class who don’t live with the daily agency of sewage landscapes and exposed corpses…” Instead, “(This positive) biopolitics is inclusive, materialist, restorative, rationalist, based on a demystified image of the human species, anticipating a future different from the one prescribed by many cultural traditions. It accepts the evolutionary entanglement of mammals and viruses. It accepts death as part of life. It therefore accepts the responsibilities of medical knowledge to prevent and mitigate unjust deaths and misery as something quite different from the nativist immunization of one population of people from another. This includes not just rights to individual privacy but also social obligations to participate in an active, planetary biological commons. It is, adamantly, a biopolitics in a positive and projective sense.”
The pandemic is, potentially, a wake-up call that the new normal cannot be just the new old normal. This means a shift in how human societies —which are always planetary in reach and influence— make sense of themselves, model themselves and compose themselves. This is a project that is as philosophical as it is political. Failure is not an option.