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 infinite 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, unbecoming. It is to this that Jean-Luc Nancy recently gave the name “commonovirus.”