The COVID-19 pandemic returns us to our impotentiality and hence to our capacity to resist

In a short essay titled, “On What We Can Not Do,” included in his book, Nudities (translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella; Stanford University Press, 2011; originally 2009), Giorgio Agamben makes clear that today (that is, in what is commonly  referred to as the era of neoliberal rationality), we are alienated not from our potential to do, but from our impotentiality, that is: from our potential to not do. Agamben is well-known for having identified this force of impotentiality as the most proper power of human beings. As he writes: “human beings are the living beings that, existing in the mode of potentiality, are capable of just as much of one thing as its opposite, to do just as [much as] to not do…human beings are the animals capable of their own impotentiality” (44).

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the injunction to stay home, many of us are at least somewhat removed or distanced from our jobs, and perhaps also thereby, put a bit closer to (finding, re-discovering, amplifying) our vocations.

Following Agamben’s argument, we therefore can read the current situation not as the forced estrangement from our potentiality, productivity, work, etc., but precisely as a possible opening to our “being able not to do”—which is to say, our impotentiality. In no more than five short paragraphs, Agamben makes clear that this would be the highest form of poverty, a renewal of a capacity to resist, and an experience of freedom. Including freedom from neoliberal rationality that has led so many people over these past few weeks to work ever more relentlessly, and in doing so, to allow this state of exception to further advance and intensify what has unfortunately been the norm for quite some time.

I will close with the vision of a form-of-life that Agamben leaves his reader with, in the concluding sentence of his essay:

And just as it is only the burning awareness of what we cannot be that guarantees the truth of what we are, so it is only the lucid vision of what we cannot, or can not, do that gives consistency to our actions (45).

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