Appearing in the December 2021-January 2022 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, my article was commissioned by WJT Mitchell for the Critic’s Page that the magazine invited him to curate and edit. Tom’s chosen theme was “Sounding the Idols,” inspired by Nietzsche’s Preface to Twilight of the Idols where the philosopher advocates approaching the idols with a tuning-fork, thereby not smashing them with a hammer, but tapping them so that they are made to emit music.
My essay is part of my current book project on “extinction aesthetics” wherein ethical and aesthetic responses to species extinction—such as the ongoing loss of millions of birds and their birdsong—are argued to involve being attuned to these ensuing silences, to this mute music.
What is the relationship between loneliness and the history of thought? How have thinkers thought about loneliness through time? The reinvention of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Europe saw an influential upheaval of the relation between solitude and sociality. Whereas aesthetic experience might remain a lonely state in practice, its ability to conjure the human faculties into a state of ‘free play’ was thought to register its inherently communal nature, which Hannah Arendt understood to form the core of an unwritten and arguably still unrealised political philosophy. Like solitude, loneliness has also been a site of philosophical fantasies: of self-presence and self-sufficiency, but also of the possibility of disposing with, or escaping from, markers of identity or difference, including race, class, gender and sexuality.
This event brings together scholars whose work has addressed loneliness at the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and queer theory. We will be asking: what role has loneliness played in the history of philosophy? How has it structured philosophy’s attempts to establish the foundations, possibilities and limits of both subjectivity and community?
John Paul Ricco outlines a queer ethos of finitude in which both solitude and things affirm time as only ever the time that remains
By looking at the ways in which Denise Riley’s essay, Time Lived, Without Its Flow, and Adania Shibli’s novel, Minor Detail, confront the singularity of death and what of life remains unlivable, and then turning to Dean Sameshima’s photo series, being alone, and zu verschenken(‘to give away’), Ricco begins to outline a queer ethos of finitude in which solitude and things are two principal existential and empirical affirmations of the sense of time as only ever the time that remains.
I will be in conversation with Jean-Paul Martinon (Goldsmiths). You can register via the Eventbrite link below.
Adam Barbu:Empty History invites us to think through the idea of curating “queer” beyond teleology. Following my time as Vtape’s 2019 Researcher-in-Residence, I presented a selection of works that document various individuals engaging in solitary, indeterminate, and workless gestures and activities. The artists included in this program, namely, Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael, do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by constructing new queer utopias. Instead, they pursue pleasure in pursuit of the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Part of what John and I wanted to discuss today is precisely what is at stake in this care for the irreparable, as well as the aesthetics and ethics of queer solitude so elegantly explored in these works.
I can think of several conversations we have shared, each staked at key moments in the project’s development. Today, more than six months after the close of the exhibition, we find ourselves set against the backdrop of a world in transition that neither of us could have predicted. To begin, I thought we might consider the idea of queer solitude and the various works in the exhibition in relation to the COVID pandemic.
John Paul Ricco: Over the last couple of months, as I’ve been asked to make comments on the relationship between art and the pandemic, I found myself returning to Empty History. Thinking about the idea of solitude as something distinct from loneliness and isolation, it struck me that your exhibition could become a key reference point. What we’re seeing in each of the works included in the show, presents another way of thinking about solitude—a particularly queer solitude.
Recently, I read an article reporting on a study documenting the effects of the pandemic on members of the LGBTQ population. Researchers found that the effects were incredibly pernicious and negative. The majority of respondents had suffered depression and no less than 90% had experienced some kind of homophobia or transphobia. This was particularly acute amongst young queers who suddenly found themselves back at home, feeling completely isolated, untethered from their support networks, their friends, their allies, and so forth. As we begin this conversation about queer solitude, here is an opportunity to make clear what we’re not talking about. We are beginning to see the emergence of the neologism “queerantine,” or, queering the quarantine. It seems that there are both positive and negative valences of that term. Within the context of this study, it can signal the particular negative effects of quarantine, especially on young queers. There is also another, more positive way in which we can think about putting the “queer” in quarantine, which is what we’re interested in—a certain kind of queer solitude and perversity that would demonstrate that one could still be queer even in the quarantine, against the isolating effects of homophobia or transphobia that so many queers in the pandemic find themselves experiencing.
AB: Speaking of solitude and perversity, perhaps you can briefly introduce Gilles Deleuze’s essay Michel Tournier and The World Without Others.
JPR: This text has become another important reference point as I continue to think about the question of solitude. In the appendix of his 1969 book The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes an essay on Michel Tournier’s novel Vendredi, or, in the English translation, Friday or The Other Island. In Vendredi, Tournier attempts to rewrite the Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe story, and part of that rewriting involves foregrounding Crusoe’s companion Vendredi. Deleuze considers the way in which the other operates here different from what he calls the structure Other—the kind of general way in which all perceptual fields and all senses of possibility are delimited and constrained. He is also interested in life on a desert island, as living in a world without Others, in which solitude is that other island—the other side of which would be loneliness or isolation. In this sense, the essay examines the way in which Tournier’s novel offers a story of escape from an enclosed, organized, workable, and merely possible world of Others.
AB: It will be useful to introduce another text that has become an important reference for us both, namely Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading (2003). Empty History does not attempt to reclaim truths about identity, community, or shared history by exposing the effects of homophobic discourse—a position that Sedgwick would describe as paranoid. Paranoid reading practices are rooted in the assumption that we can only begin to dismantle systemic oppression once such historical truths are uncovered. Reparative reading, on the other hand, is a matter of using “one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole.”1
Sedgwick is also attentive to the transitions that take place across and between these positions. This simultaneously paranoid and reparative reading seems to lie at the heart of exhibitions that have worked to reconstruct fragmented queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Empty History offers us the chance to think beyond paranoia and reparation. In the curatorial essay, I wrote: “Logue, Wong, and Michael refuse resolution and finality, opening up a space of perpetually unfinished business in which action always already fails to result in change. And this is not for lack of care.” At stake here is a certain lateral intensity, one that encourages a shift in thinking from the visibility of queer actors and performances of queer actions towards a non-productive, non-teleological queer worklessness as that which operates outside the logic of queer progress or so-called progressive queer curating.
JPR: Some of the writing that I have published during the pandemic has focused on worklessness and impotentiality. With this recession and reduction in workplace work comes an opportunity to think about ways of living and doing that aren’t entirely beholden to productivist logics. Certain effects of the pandemic allow us the think about life in terms of the sabbatical or the day off. The works in the exhibition, in their own simple, one might say, minor, vernacular way, allow us to think through these ideas further. Perhaps we should briefly describe them for the audience.
AB: Upon entering the gallery space, one encounters a large video projection of Lucas Michael Fixed Kilometer (2018), in which the artist records himself dragging his index finger approximately one meter in length across 1,000 different surfaces in various private and public spaces—a reference to conceptual process and the work of Walter de Maria, more specifically. Located nearby is Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), a video that documents the artist as he attempts create the perfect day to himself in the midst of a drug-induced hallucination. The exhibition also includes an installation of Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017), in which the artist attempts to balance standing on top of the pullout partition of her writing desk. Finally, in the middle of the exhibition space sits a sculptural work by Michael titled Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2011), which roughly translates from Latin to “fortune favors the bold.” The work is a crushed, warped silver trophy that rests on a mirror placed directly on the gallery floor. As such, it no longer symbolizes progress or victory and is thus rendered a useless object. Each of the works refuse narratives of transformation, self-realization, or overcoming.
JPR: All of these works were created well before the pandemic. They would be interesting at any moment, but it is rather uncanny that your exhibition took place in November and December of 2019, and within a month or two, the world was, in various stages, going into lockdown with many people finding themselves at home. Today, we can imagine ourselves engaging in any one of the activities seen in the works. They are records of a certain kind of ordinary worklessness that suggests a different rapport with oneself, with other things, and with day-to-day life.
Like the Tournier novel, these works operate without a thesis. And they do not really feature any characters. We are simply seeing individuals whose bodies happen to belong to the artists themselves. Further, they cannot be described as scenes of interiority, since the solitude of the singular bodies function without the structure Other—the structure that would mark social difference and that would provide, as Deleuze writes, the margins and the transitions that structurally divide inside from outside, and organize the perceptual field in terms of what can be seen, what can be done, and so forth. These works, largely free of that structuring of the perceptual field, including the paranoid and reparative positions that Sedgwick describes, seem to be pursuing a kind of mundane adventure involving experiments in the body and experiments in bodily perception. They attempt to find out what might happen to a body and its perceptions if that body and its perceptions were not limited to what was merely possible. It is this reading of worklessness, as that which is outside the merely possible, that connects these works with Deleuze. What we see are individuals operating in a perceptual field that hasn’t been completely structured or determined in advance.
AB: For viewers who haven’t yet read the essay, it is important to note that, for Deleuze, being in a world without Others is not guaranteed by solitude alone. It entails an entire rethinking and de-structuring of one’s way of thinking and being that cannot be defined as anything like productive. Here, I would like to highlight Deleuze’s description of Tournier’s Crusoe as he begins to face the crumbling of the structure-Other during his time on the island. He writes, “Pulling himself from a wallowing-place, Robinson seeks a substitute for Others, something capable of maintaining, in spite of everything, the fold that Others granted to things – namely, order and work.”2 (314) He then throws himself into a world of “frenetic” production, but, as Deleuze adds, “in line with this work activity, and as a necessary correlate to it, a strange passion for relaxation and sexuality is developed.”3 Finally, as Crusoe inches closer to a workless existence, he enters into a state of “regression much more fantastic than the regression of neurosis […] Whereas work used to conserve the form of objects as so many accumulated vestiges, involution gives up every formed object for the sake of an inside of the Earth and a principle of burying things in it.”4
I am tempted to describe this fantastic regression as the scene of Logue, Wong, and Michael’s, worklessness. As Deleuze writes, being in a world without Others is not simply a question of space but also of time. Worklessness can be figured in terms of a salvation from, or, an unlearning of, the oftentimes comforting yet ultimately brutal logic of capitalist temporality.
JPR: Why is it that Deleuze describes Tournier’s Crusoe as perverse? Because he is, in a way, wholly oriented towards ends but only to the extent that they provide the means to deviate from those ends. The story is not occupied by questions of origin but instead of deviation. For Deleuze, it is this deviance from that productive end, that objective, that sense of fulfillment or completion that makes the character particularly perverse.
The structure Other, or, Other structuring, doesn’t allow for that deviation from the end. To the extent that that end has already been preordained, what is available to us is simply a matter of the possible. The preordained end constrains, delimits, and defines what is possible. It seems that the least interesting curatorial projects will set up that sort of thematic structure and simply work to fill it with recognizable content. The Vtape residency became a means for you to research works that would not necessarily add up to anything—although, in fact, they do.
AB: The residency calls to mind the idea of a non-reparative curatorial practice that concerns neither ends nor means-to-ends. On the one hand, it is worth highlighting that Empty History is an ongoing project. This particular exhibition does not signal an end. My research continues. Yet, approaching the question from a different angle, we might begin to consider how the works themselves reveal minor curatorial practices. Each individual is seen organizing the world in pursuit of pleasure for its own sake—a pursuit that remains indeterminate and illegible, that cannot be named or revealed as anything in particular. Recently, I have been thinking about workless pleasure as an empty, open, frameless time that cannot be appropriated by the logic of the structure Other.
JPR: Within the installation, the works reinforce, and, in a certain sense, replicate one another. Insofar as each documents an individual subject engaging in this workless work, there is a kind of relentlessness that is accumulated, suggesting that one can never quite find that sense of resolve or finality. The works both support each other and amount to nothing in particular. Turning to Lucas Michael’s deflated trophy cup placed in the middle of the gallery, it is as if this is the kind of award you receive for doing workless work. This may be the one object that ties the works together without really being bestowed upon any of them. Everyone’s a winner and no one’s a winner.
AB: I want to underline your comment about the work of worklessness. Worklessness is, despite what the term may suggest, real work. We are speaking about worklessness as a form of de-instrumentalized resistance that is expressed, for example, in the restless continuity of the performed action—whether that is Logue’s desk balancing act, Wong’s search for the perfect day, or Michael’s invisible line drawing.
What motivates the work of worklessness, then, is a realization that the world is not easily repaired. Non-reparative curating would be a matter of a radical embrace of the irreparable as such. It seems that this embrace should be figured as a discipline of the mind and body—a discipline that is perverse insofar as it cannot be assimilated into the logic of capitalist temporality, the timeline of so-called progress, the world of the structure Other, and so on. Here, we begin to arrive at a particular reading of non-reparative queer curating that is based upon a taking care of indeterminate, illegible, and “empty” history.
JPR: What do we mean when we speak of the politics and ethics of the irreparable? And how should that not be confused with other things with which it is often easily confused? In the literal sense, the irreparable refers to that which either cannot be repaired or need not be repaired. It is in the sense of the latter that one often runs into trouble with those who think of this work as an apology for the status quo, or, a complicity with the way things are. In our view, this is certainly not what the politics and ethics of the irreparable is about—quite the contrary. Returning to Sedgwick’s essay, our interpretation of the irreparable does not reside in either the paranoid or reparative reading position. The perversity of queer solitude, and the way in which that perversity relates to the irreparable, opens up a space between these two, prevailing means of reading, or, to put it differently, ways of relating to others in the world.
Paranoia, following Sedgwick, is an aversion to surprise. It is a very rigid temporality, at once retroactive and anticipatory. One is paranoid about that which is about to happen based upon some sense of the past. One is, in other words, in the future that is always already in the past. While it is perhaps more palatable, the reparative reading position is based upon the contingency of desire—that is, it still involves the various relations between subjects and objects. In this commitment to the irreparable as a form of non-reparative curating, we are attempting to move beyond paranoia and reparation.
Instead of the structure Other we are speaking about a perverse structure. This does not mean living in a world with Others but rather with otherwise Others—as Deleuze says, truly concrete Others, not phantasmatic meta-Others. These otherwise Others will always be anonymous, promiscuous, and clandestine. In fact, Deleuze writes that these otherwise Others would be so perverse that they are beyond voyeurism and exhibitionism. This completely bears upon the world of art and visuality and visibility in curating. As Sedgwick herself says, being made visible is its own form of violence, just as much as being made invisible can be.
AB: I have been thinking about the irreparable in terms of a retreat from the traditional model of queer curating—one that is firmly rooted in the logic of art historical inclusion and reparative visibility. How might we figure these ideas of worklessness and de-instrumentalized resistance within the contemporary political context?
JPR: Today, there is a paranoid consensus in which the left and the right find themselves strangely proximate to each other. This has led to a certain kind of political stasis or “civil war”—for instance, mutual accusations on both sides about the deep state, terrorism, and so forth. From the perspective of the left, elections are either about disenfranchised voters or foreign meddling, and on the right, they are about voter fraud and rigging. We find ourselves in this incredible moment of paranoid politics. The paranoid and the reparative work hand in hand. And it is in the oscillation back and forth from the paranoid and reparative positions that the status quo is maintained. A commitment to the irreparable involves a refusal of this rhythm, which is the structure and the motor of the status quo and a certain kind of political gridlock. There is all the more need for an alternative to these two positions. This is what Deleuze offers us in his essay, as well other authors, including, in particular, Giorgio Agamben, who has been hovering in the back of our minds. A more detailed examination of his work on the irreparable and impotentiality would have to be part of a longer conversation, which we hope to have in the future.
1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 128.
2. Gilles Deleuze, “Michel Tournier and The World Without Others” in The Logic of Sense (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1993)314.
If there is any way to hold out hope today, it must not be the protracted optimism of liberalism and its implicitly theological promise of ultimate redemption: “one day, just you wait.” Instead, the kind of hope that I will speak of here is immanent, yet precisely as the immanent force of finitude.
One figure of it is found in Goethe’s Elective Affinities: “Hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star.” Following Calvin Warren’s philosophy of black nihilism and the latter’s absolute refusal of the politics of hope, we might refer to the falling star as an image of spiritual hope—its luminescence darkening the sky as it cosmologically burns bright. Unlike the politics of hope and its infinite deferral, the worthiness of such cosmo-spiritual hope lies in it standing apart from both the torment of expecting what cannot be had (ends), and of bestowing upon hope the power of a mitigating force (means). As the last gift of the gods, hope (Elpis) is what remains in Pandora’s jar, after her curiosity led her to open the container, thereby letting all of the other evil forces (except hope) out into the world. At the end of, The Adventure (2015), Giorgio Agamben writes: “The fact that hope, as the final gift, remains in the box means that it does not expect its factual accomplishment in the world—not because it postpones its fulfillment to an invisible beyond but because somehow it has always already been satisfied” (93). What might Agamben mean by this, and how is such a postulation not a capitulation to the status quo, and hence perhaps a fate even worse than the politics of hope?
I think one answer can be found in a text by Agamben published twenty years earlier, on the writer Elsa Morante. Toward the end of that essay, included in the collection The End of the Poem (1996), Agamben turns to Morante’s theoretical description of colour and light in paintings by Fra Angelico. As when she writes: “Colours, are a gift of light, which makes use of bodies…to transform its invisible celebration into an epiphany…It is well known that to the eyes of idiots (poor and rich alike) the hierarchy of splendours culminates in the sign of gold. For those who do not know the true, inner alchemy of light, earthly mines are the place of a hidden treasure” (Agamben, 106). As Agamben explains, “The ‘celebration of the hidden treasure’ is therefore the becoming visible, in bodies, of the alchemy of light. This alchemy is both a spiritualization of matter and a materialization of light”—something like a falling star.
Agamben then reminds his reader of one of Kafka’s aphorisms: “The fact that only the spiritual world exists deprives us of hope and gives us certainty,” and once again we are faced with what appears to be a counter intuitive. Yet only if we refuse to see spirituality as a materiality of its own, precisely as keyed to the glimmer of starlight, of moonlight. Such that, as he goes on to say, “the loss of hope (even of that retrospective hope, nostalgia for Eden [or that prospective hope, promise of emancipation] is the terrible price that the mind must pay when it reaches the incandescent point of certainty” (108).
It is that incandescence of which Goethe and Morante wrote, and that we might imagine remains contained in Pandora’s jar, now a symbol for the colonization of cosmo-spiritual hope. Hope is neither a hidden treasure nor a future salvation. Instead, its mystery is the secret held by Melville’s Bartleby, who we might imagine, in the near silence of his preference not to, holds out the hope that salvation (appropriation) and damnation (abandonment), will no longer be the extraneous forces that bear upon life, but that instead, he will be able to exist as the singular self that he is—irreparably unfinished in his finitude, and therefore to be loved.
This issue or more properly, Stratum 7, also features essays by Alain Baidou, Bruce Clarke, Priscilla Wald, and many others. It also includes fiction, music, and sound works.
Through a reading of Agamben, Foucault, Heidegger, and Marcus Aurelius, I argue for the virtue and value of disappearance, and the ways in which the force of extinction is the provocation for thought, itself. Taking disappearance as other than negative, and finding its ecological correlate in extinction, I am interested in instances of being attuned to, and inspired by, the sonorous sound of the invisible flight of the birds, as moments when ecology becomes muse-ecology.
I am one of 1,000 people who have been invited by Andrea Rosen Gallery and David Zwirner to manifest Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990. I will serve as one “place” as part of one total “site” (the world) of an expansive exhibition, curated by Andrea Rosen, that will run from May 25 – July 5, 2020.
My “place” is designated as: John Paul Ricco, Toronto, Canada. The manifestation of the work, in the form of an installation of a pile of individually-wrapped fortune cookies (original number: 1,000), will take place in the lobby of my condo building.
I decided to locate the work in the building’s lobby, in order for residents and their guests to have the opportunity to live with the work, and to be able to take pieces from the work—as stipulated in the core tenets that guide the work. While respecting social-distancing protocols that are still in place here in Toronto, the installation finds a built-in audience in the building’s residents and guests, who make up the day-to-day traffic, as they enter and exit, check their mailboxes, retrieve deliveries, and speak with the concierge.
Take-out delivery food orders arrive at the building on a daily basis, and as many of these meals are coming from local Chinese restaurants, the placement of the pile of fortune cookies in the lobby accrues particular meaning, structured around issues of public and private space, the paid-for commodity and the gift, uncertainty and future fate or fortune, eating in isolation and communal partaking in individual treats.
For a copy of the press release from Andrea Rosen Gallery and David Zwirner, which also includes a copy of the invitation to participants, including core tenets of the work, guidelines for its manifestation, and questions to consider, go to: http://www.andrearosengallery.com/press-release
I will be adding documentation of the presentation, to this blog post, over the next six weeks. Please check back!
The title of this post comes from the research project that I embarked on five years ago, with generous support from a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). I recently returned to my grant application, partly because the funding period for the grant is set to expire this week, and with that ending comes a need to look back and to assess. Yet given the current moment in which this retrospective gaze is being cast, I am inclined not only to try to measure the distance between the beginning of 2015 and the present, but also the degree of proximity between the terms I had used to frame the research project, and my present thinking and writing about the COVID-19 and the latter’s tremendous impact on public health, sociability, and autonomy. Here’s the opening paragraph of my “Summary of Research,” excerpted from the SSHRC application:
What if security is not the means of assuring freedom but of losing it altogether? What if fixed, enclosed, and secured grounds and ends are what we must abandon if the condition of freedom, as unconstrained, open-ended experience, is to be preserved? In the contemporary global context of curtailments of civil rights and liberties, the fortification of borders, and the militarization of society—all in the name of securing freedom—this question is of tremendous consequence and deserves to be addressed in new ways. In my project “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” I argue that the space of freedom is a spacing or spaciousness that is “outside yet not beyond.” Which is to say that freedom does not belong to a transcendent or abstract realm, and also to argue that our experience of freedom has a thoroughly corporeal basis. In its physical corporeal reality, however, freedom is not absolutely immanent, which makes it imperative to develop an understanding of bodies not as enclosed entities but rather in terms of exorbitant extremities, exceeding corporeal limits. Such excess renders bodily limits as always-unfinished edges rather than as definitive ends. Following the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose work has been central to the development of my own thinking, I regard the experience of exorbitant corporeal openness as one of both pleasure and risk, up to and including joyous, passionate abandon to the outside and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
Johann Peter Frank, M.D. System einer medizinische Polizei, 1779.
The Risk of Health
As Michel Foucault outlines in an interview that took place in 1983, one of the primary risks of security is the risk of dependence upon the State and the system and attendant institutions of social security (public health, unemployment compensation, housing provisions, etc.). Security breeds dependency, and dependency in turn demands greater levels of security. This feedback loop is, at the same time, in tension with the demand for independence (autonomy) from the very systems that are meant to provide security. (Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in The Essential Works of Foucault, volume on “Power,” edited by James Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley and others; The New Press, 2000: 365-381).
The space of this tension between dependence and independence is quite narrow, and as Foucault emphasizes, this “calls for as subtle an analysis as possible of the actual situation” (367). The latter of which he goes on to define not as the large-scale system of economic and social mechanisms, but the “interface between, on the one hand, people’s sensibilities, their moral choices, their relations to themselves and, on the other, the institutions that surround them” (ibid.). In other words, such analysis of the “microphysics” of power, knowledge, and freedom, is less that of politics in the traditional sense (dare I say, even of “bio-politics”), and more so one of ethics; it is also less about spaces of enclosure than environmental openings. For Foucault, this is the distinction between what he calls “sociologism,” and an attention to ethical problems.
Even further and of particular interest in the current context of the global viral pandemic, is the way in which Foucault understands “health,” specifically not as a “right” but only as something that must be understood in terms of “means:” “means of health.” Before I explain what Foucault meant by this notion, it is necessary to foreground one of the most essential insights he puts forth in this interview. Namely, that the need and demand for health is, by definition, an infinite demand, according to which the problem then immediately arises, as to how this infinite demand inevitably finds itself within a finite system of means (373-74). Given that this is always the case, Foucault says that limits cannot be set theoretically and once and for all, but only established ethically, and in terms of each particular case. Yet such ethical decision would occur, as he goes on to describe it, within a collectively agreed upon framework of decision-making and “ethical consensus,” involving the users as well as the practitioners. This process creates and sustains what Foucault refers to as “a cloud of decisions”—one that in terms of the issue of “health,” need not be entirely determined and dictated by medical reason.
Foucault then asks the question: “must a society endeavour to satisfy by collective means the need for health of individuals?” (374). To which, from the perspective of actual practice, is a question that would need to be answered in the negative, simply because satisfying these innumerable and infinite needs and demands of health, is not feasible. Here’s how Foucault expresses this inevitable conundrum:
I do not see and nobody can explain to me, how technically it would be possible to satisfy all the needs of health along the infinite line on which they develop” (375). The problem raised is therefore that of reconciling an infinite demand with a finite system” (377).
Current public health care systems and its practitioners are always weighing this infinite demand against finite means; just as users are always weighing their dependence on, and independence from, these systems. There are a variety of ways in which people come to accept that their health and their lives will be protected and assured, and that they will, at some point, be allowed to die. One example that Foucault provides, is military service, especially in wartime. Others include those people whose diets are high in salt (risk of hypertension) or sugar (risk of diabetes), and those who are addicted to alcohol and tobacco. We are fully aware of the negative effects of each of these, which are tremendous not only in terms of physical health, but also in terms of economic cost and mortality rates. Nonetheless, these are practices, risks, and costs that neoliberal reason of public health has been willing to countenance, to absorb, to insure against, to pay for. Eight million people die from tobacco use each year; with 1.2 of those being non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. And yet, what we might now be inclined to describe as “smoking distancing,” typically takes the form of smokers standing little more than a few feet from entrances to buildings and the like. Without providing a response, I will simply ask: what makes the COVID-19 novel coronavirus different, and an exceptional exception?
Means of Health (not Right to Health)
There is much more than can be said about the conjuncture of the political economic, the bio-political, and the social-moral, that constitutes neoliberal rationality, of which social security and public health is one major strand. But perhaps I will bring this post to a close by briefly discussing three things that Foucault advocates when it comes to these issues.
A system of social security that will “free us from dangers and from situations that tend to debase and or subjugate us” (366). Which means a system that first and foremost protects us from the subjugating effects of safety and security—those risks.
A system of social security, or what I have called elsewhere, “a government of the commons,” that operates by way of the current activist motto, “nothing about us, without us.” Meaning: users are decision-makers, and decisions are made from the ground up.
A system of social security that offers means of health (distinct from “right to health” which as such does not exist). For Foucault, means of health is a mobile line traced according to technical-medical + economic-collective + social decision-ethics practices, and that always confronts questions of access and its necessary and inevitable limits and exclusions, yet does so collectively, ethically, and not theoretically-programmatically (i.e. not “once and for all”).
To this I would add that any ethical-collective means to health, while never losing sight of the conundrum of infinite demand and finite means discussed above, nonetheless must seek to find ways to operate as “pure means” (Benjamin, Agamben), which is to say, without instrumental, economized, techno-managerial, rationalized, and generally-equivalent ends.
Virology of the Common
This would require ways of thinking the ontology of the common as a shared exposure to contagion, and to the infiltration and intrusion of unknown forms of alterity into the heart of the self and its rapport with others. This would be to speak and think and write in terms of our common virality, contagion, and collective contamination—those “vectors” that are the forms and modes of undetectable or anonymous commerce and communication. This would, at the same time, not lose sight of the incommunicable that always persists at the limits (but, again, perhaps also at the heart) of the known and the communicable. It is this that makes any community worth living an unbecoming community. And it is to this that Jean-Luc Nancy recently gave the name “commonovirus.”
As Greg Bird and Penelope Ironstone describe in the opening of their Editorial Introduction, “This is a rapid response collection of essays. In the evening on Sunday, March 15 we began contacting Canadian-based scholars working in the field of biopolitics to write a short, biopolitically-inspired essay that critically interrogates some aspect of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
I am pleased to have my “three brief meditations” on friendship, intrusion, boredom, ethical distance, and sabbatical, included in this wonderful collection of incredibly astute critical voices.
My friend Warren Crichlow reminds me that in my recent paper on the invisible flight of the animals (soon to be published in the online journal Alienocene), it is the unexpected crossing of animal and human paths, as the former intrudes upon the human’s own prior violent intrusion of it and its domain, that resembles the scene to which the origin of the current COVID-19 pandemic has been attributed and traced (viz., back to the alive and slaughtered wild animals sold in food markets in Wuhan, Hubei province, China).
In light of this inescapable reality, we must at the same time assert—counter to epidemiological retrospection and stigmatizing blame—that that which cannot be determined by the logic of the origin, may be the source of a beginning again and hence perhaps even of a way out. This is one of the ways in which we can understand Agamben, when he writes in his early book, The Idea of Prose: “That which can never be first let him glimpse, in its fading the glimmer of a beginning”—a statement that I use as the epigraph to my paper.
In the current climate of the unprecedented mass extinction of species, it is the intrusion of the animal and in particular its potent viral load that comes to us, almost as a messenger, to remind us of the force of extinction. This includes the degree to which humans have come to use this force against the natural world, yet in ways that prove to be detrimental to human existence as well. At the same time, it should also remind us that the human is its own viral animal.
Not only a contagious species, but also one open to contagion, which is to say: to the capacity to be contaminated by a virus that in this latest case, seemingly quite easily and suddenly jumped from captured animal to human. And the human, in the ensuing regimes of self-isolation and quarantine discovers itself to be not only “domesticated” but captured (as part of the animal has been released). This viral jump or leap was a transmission event that we must recognize only as being possible due to the receptivity of human bodies to serve as hosts to these (for us) particularly diseased agent-guests. At which point, we are left asking (once again): what is it, exactly that separates the human and the animal?
From here, and in light of the widespread expressions on the part of many of those self-quarantined that they do not know what to do with themselves now that they are “stuck” at home, one might turn to Heidegger on boredom as that which “brings to light the unexpected proximity of Dasein and the animal” (Agamben, The Open, 65). For it is precisely here, in the de-activation that is brought about by boredom that a way out might be found. An exit from operative production to in-operative creative use and care of self, bodies, things, and places—i.e. pure potential (the potential not-to) or means without end.
According to which Agamben, at the end of his book, The Open: Man and Animal (originally 2002), arrives at the following description and prescription:
To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek new—more effective or more authentic—articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that—within man—separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of the suspension, Shabbat of both animal and man (92).
In the “boredom” brought on by global responses to the viral pandemic, one might discover a sabbatical. Not only from animal-human-human contagion, but from capitalist production, which is the real form of capture.