Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us.”

Share

“What is a society that has no value other than survival?” Giorgio Agamben asks, in this piece published today in Italian on the blog Quodlibet.  The essay was republished on Medium, and in an authorized translation by Adam Kotsko , who described it as the important European philosopher’s “indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy.” It was also included in the European Journal of Psychoanlysis, in a round-up of thoughts on “Coronavirus and Philosophers,” and from there to Facebook, where it came to my attention: 

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 technology, 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.


Tags:

4 Responses to “Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us.””

  1. George Says:

    Would Boccaccio’s contemporaries have practiced social distancing, say, moving to the country, during an epidemic? How we have fallen off.

    Irony apart, indeed there have been worse epidemics in the past. But our knowledge of how diseases are transmitted has helped us keep most epidemics more or less under control for the last century. For centuries before that there were rigorous quarantines at many borders when plague was a danger on one side, sometimes when it wasn’t. Local–very local, to the household level–quarantines have been imposed in the US within the last century.

    There is also the question of social responsibility. Like most men, I believe myself invulnerable, however thoroughly I know this is not the case. I would happily enough walk to the office for work, maybe buy a coffee en route. But I could contract a case of Covid 19, perhaps mild, perhaps serious, and infect others. Taking reasonable precautions, not only for one’s own sake but that of others, seems the better choice.

  2. Lois Frank Says:

    Well written
    Appreciated

  3. Sasha Guezentsvey Says:

    Does the author consider following normal hygienic rules in normal times also an indication of fear?

    He is not the only one concerned with what the pandemics will turn world into after it’s over. E.g. https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75?fbclid=IwAR2jLF-f8KjLitwCl2D1NCkZzVyjOlCkwznGiDtaH1tSZEu1MadeuSlmxJM. Y.N. Harari manages to list dangers and challenges without Mr. Agamben’s puerile dare

  4. Prasanna Choudhary Says:

    Very well articulated message. An unknown, unseen virus whispered ‘statue’, and almost three billion human beings just turned into statues! Pity the humankind, and think about the power of non-human agency! Human biosphere is just an island encircled by the ocean of viruses and bacteria. We have, over the last few thousand years, forced a number of species out of existence and thinned the biodiversity of our planet Earth in a profound manner with our lifestyle based on high carbon footprint. The more we celebrate our ‘victory’ over nature, the more we get exposed to being host of viruses and other micro-organisms. It is high time to ponder over the way we live. As you expressed your concern, ‘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 technology, 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.’ The unrestricted, authoritarian profit-seeking technological march and maddening self-serving consumerist culture need to be challenged. Thank you.

Leave a Reply