On 26 February 2020, in Il Manifesto, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a short response to the current coronavirus outbreak that, according to the World Health Organization and others, borders on—if indeed it has not already become—a global pandemic. You can read an English translation of Agamben’s essay, “The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency” on the web site of the journal Positions.
A day later, on 27 February, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy put out a short response to Agamben, titled, “Viral Exception”, published in Italian and French, on the Antinomie web site. Here is an English translation, for which I thank Philippe Theophanidis (York University, Toronto), who also brought this philosophical exchange to my attention.
Giorgio Agamben, an old friend, says the coronavirus is hardly different from a normal flu. He forgets that for “normal” flu there is a vaccine that has been proven effective. It still has to be readapted to the viral mutations every year. But “normal” flu always kills a few people and the coronavirus against which no vaccine exists is capable of obviously a much higher lethal performance. The difference (according to sources of the same type as those of Agamben) is about 1 to 30: it is not indifferent.Giorgio assures us that governments seize pretexts to establish all possible states of exception. He does not notice that the exception is indeed becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds (displacements, transfers of all kinds, impregnation or diffusion of substances, etc.) are reaching a hitherto unknown intensity that is growing with the population. In rich countries, the increase in population also means longer life expectancy and an increase in the number of elderly people and, in general, people at risk.We must not be mistaken in our targets: an entire civilization is involved, there is no doubt about it. There is a kind of viral exception – biological, computer, cultural – that is pandemic. Governments are nothing more than sad executioners, and attacking them seems more like a diversionary manoeuvre than a political reflection.I reminded you that Giorgio is an old friend. I am sorry to appeal to a personal recollection, but I am not leaving a register of general reflection. Almost thirty years ago doctors decided that I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake. Giorgio is nevertheless a spirit of such finesse and kindness that one can say – and without the slightest irony – exceptional.
In an email, my friend and colleague Victor Li has astutely remarked that in referring to Agamben as “exceptional,” it would seem that Nancy is calling Agamben out as “someone who is completely out it,” or, “as in baseball parlance, something or someone who is completely out in left field.”
To this seemingly unavoidable and thereby justified reading, I would like to add the following, by way of furthering Victor’s observations.
I can’t help but think that Nancy’s repeated emphasis on “old” is its own further qualification of Agamben’s stated “exceptional” status. I hear Nancy saying that Agamben is out-of-date, not with the times, and that perhaps even his conceptualization of states of exception is not properly applicable in this current situation—or at least is in need of a serious update. One that would not overly focus on national governments, for instance; as Nancy suggests.
At the same time, “exceptional” here might also mean that while the two men remain friends (many recent encounters verify this), when it comes to this issue (and others, Nancy’s heart transplant, for instance), they no longer touch each other or are “in contact.”
Nancy of course also remains exceptional in being someone for whom the bare life of another became the means by which his biological life was restored. Yet one must go further, as he himself did in “The Intruder,” his essay occasioned by his heart transplant, so as to understand that his very existence—ontologically—is predicated upon an originary force of intrusion; that he is (himself), like any other entity, an intruder. In other words, the bio-technical intrusion in the form of a heart transplant is conditioned by this a priori ontological/existential force of intrusion by which existence is born and shaped.
But this also means that not every intrusion (e.g. virus) is the same or indifferent, and therefore due to this singularity, each intrusion cannot be ascribed to serving the same “state of exception.”
Before one is a friend, one is an intruder; and in the persistence of that intrusion, subsides a friendship that does not grow old.