The COVID-19 pandemic returns us to our impotentiality and hence to our capacity to resist
In an essay titled “On What We Can Not Do” in his book Nudities, Giorgio Agamben makes clear that today (a present that 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.”
In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, in which millions of people have been laid off, are now working from home, or have had their work hours scaled back, they might not only be removed or distanced from their jobs, but might also be put a bit closer to finding, rediscovering, or amplifying their singular vocations.
Following Agamben’s argument, we can therefore read the current situation not only as the forced estrangement from our potentiality, productivity, work, and so forth, but also 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. This includes freedom from the neoliberal rationality that has led so many people over these past few weeks to work ever more relentlessly (in the many ways and forms possible under the rubric of “work”), 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.
Just as it is true that the novel coronavirus knows nothing of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is equally true that the virus is not the creator of the latter. Instead, both the knowledge and the creation of the pandemic (like any pandemic), belong to the human. In its extremely impure potentiality—that is, in its absolute reliance on a host organism in order to live and propagate—the coronavirus (like any virus) does not discriminate within the epidemiological parameters that define its microbiological domain, namely: animal and human bodies. Which is to say that as long as there are bodies to host it, or until there is a vaccine to prevent such viral hospitality, the virus will remain a contaminating and contagious disease that causes illness, and in some cases, death. In its global rapaciousness, the virus is a force of destruction similar to capitalism.
In these first months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it has often been asserted that the virus does not discriminate. By strangely ascribing agency to a thing that entirely lacks intentionality (especially since the virus is not even a living thing), commentators have wanted to find in the virus a common equality of contagion. But this is to conflate the epidemiological and the political, where in fact these two axes are most in need of being distinguished. For while epidemiologically speaking the virus does not discriminate, politically—that is, as an active virological agent cast within the global pandemic—it is made to operate in innumerable, discriminate ways, and thereby is made to inaugurate yet another chapter in the bio-political narrative.
The virus itself is that bio-viral entity that is entirely without potentiality, precisely because it does not have the power to not-be or not-do, but instead is constrained by the very limited things that it can do. In other words, the virus is either actualized or simply does not exist. When commentators (and many others) cast the virus as a sign of common equality, they not only confuse two different versions of equality (epidemiological and political), but also obfuscate the workings of the bio-political regime, and its division of life into productive life and bare life. That is: life worth saving and preserving, and life that is allowed to be abandoned or sacrificed. But perhaps more significantly, these voices also obscure what uniquely distinguishes human life from all other forms of life. Namely, impotentiality (i.e. the power or capacity to not-do, or to not-be), which is what all human life shares in common—prior, that is, to the bio-political division, noted above.
Rather than fighting over which of us living within the neoliberal rational order of productivity is, on one hand, more privileged, or on the other hand, closer to bare life, and rather than ascribing a force of equalization to a virus, now is the time to affirm and reclaim impotentiality as the only power that we truly share in common. It is this power that will return our incommensurable lives to their singularity and their vocations, which no political-economic or bio-political reason (let alone any virus) can ever provide the proper measure. When that happens we will be—together—contagiously resistant.
[This essay is also published in volume 7 of the SDUK broadsheet, Titling (1), free and available here: www.blackwoodgallery.ca/]