Monthly Archives: February 2020

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.


On Tuesday evening last week (Feb 11th), I landed in Cape Town, there to give two talks at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research. In the lead-up to my talk (see previous post), scheduled for Thursday morning (just 36 hours after having arrived), I anticipated needing to say something—as part of my opening remarks—about the affects that jet lag might have on my state of mind, given that my body would be reminding me that the 11AM start time for the lecture actually felt more like 4AM Toronto time (and I’ve never given a public talk at 4AM before). What I could not have expected is that such remarks would end up including an even more substantial caveat by way of anecdote about a lighthouse. But nonetheless that’s what happened, thanks to a thick fog that descended on the coast of Cape Town Wednesday night—the eve of my talk Thursday morning.

I was staying at a tiny hotel at Mouille Point, in the south-eastern Green Point neighbourhood, in a hotel room overlooking the beach and the Atlantic. Almost directly across the street from the hotel is the Green Point Lighthouse, candy cane-striped and—as I was soon to discover—still very much a working lighthouse.


Around 1AM, as I was still struggling to fall asleep, my body and mind still very much attuned to the time zone that I had left behind two evenings ago, I heard a loud, mechanical moaning sound. The sound returned and was repeated every 30 seconds, and while at first I was not sure what it was, or where exactly it was coming from, not before long I realized—having gotten out of bed to look out the large sliding glass doors of my room—that it was the lighthouse’s foghorn.

Already worried that I would not be able to get the sleep needed in order to be bright and alert for my talk at the university the following morning, it was now certain that unless I took whatever measures I could to dampen, or better yet, to block this awful repetitive noise, there was little-to-no-hope of getting any rest whatsoever. So I dug out my ear plugs, only to discover that they were barely effective. At which point I thought: I’ll put on my noise cancelling headphones, and wear them OVER the earplugs. Still, no relief from the horrible, insistent moan of the horn.

At that point I was pretty much at my wits end. More than an hour having passed without any relief and feeling even more awake and annoyed. Texting my partner back in Toronto, he suggested that I try to create some sort of white noise. I dutifully downloaded an app on my phone, only to discover that it was subscription-based. Since I had no intention of needing to make this a regular part of my sleeping regime, I decided not to sign-up. What next? What were my (seemingly last) remaining options?

I remembered that I had an album of “Long Ambients. Calm. Sleep,” on my phone. Four hours in length, it was a series of 11 tracks that, for some reason, I had never bothered to listen to. Now was my chance. The tricky thing was to adjust the volume such that the music blocked the noise of the foghorn, yet was not too loud as to prevent me from dozing off. That took a bit of time to modulate, but at some point I figured I had gotten it right.

A few hours passed, and yet while much more drowsy and relaxed, it was clear that I was still not asleep. At that point I started to think about lighthouses and the purposes of foghorns. The way in which the latter were needed to send out alert signals and warnings from the coast; to ships out at sea that would not be able to see the shoreline and its rocky, shallow and hence treacherous waters in such thick fog. This lead me to think about shipping, and sounds that take the place of visibilities, and of hearing things in the absence of being able to see them. Curiously, this was one of the motifs of the talk that I was to give the following morning: on the auditory sonorous sound of the invisible flight of animals. As my reluctantly awake mind turned and churned under headphones, earplugs and ambient music, it started to make further connections between these things, such that the image of the great white whale of Melville’s epic tale came to mind: that enigmatic creature that largely eludes the seeing of Captain Ahab, but that might be understood to be heard in the fog of night, sending its own signal of warning, like the lighthouse and its own whale-like moan.

The lighthouse’s foghorn calls out to the ships, neither able to see the other, and yet still in a sort of resonance, one with the other. Since my paper is also about calling, including in the form of naming, but also in the sense of vocation, my mind inevitably returned to the Melville novel and its famous opening lines: “Call me Ishmael.” Melville here is re-writing the opening of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word”), now making clear that in the beginning the word was also the name, and specifically the latter’s exigency or demand: “call me…”

It might then come as less of a surprise if I tell you—thoroughly amused as I was by this further remarkable coincidence—that the set of ambient tracks I was listening to were put together by Moby, the pop musician and DJ, whose nickname was inspired by him being the great-great-great nephew of Herman Melville.


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