Join the Centre for Ethics for The Ethics of COVID, an interdisciplinary series of online events featuring short video takes on the ethical dimensions of the COVID crisis.
Isolation, Loneliness, Solitude:
The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Brought Us Too Close Together
In this brief talk I discuss how distance is the spacing of the ethical, isolation is the evacuation of that space, loneliness is the deprivation of the self, and solitude is what we need to reclaim as the only means by which an ethical sense of the common might take place. Drawing upon the work of Arendt, Agamben, Blanchot, and Foucault, I proceed to explicate how it is that the COVID-19 pandemic has actually brought us too close together.
This is an online event. It will be live streamed on the Centre for Ethics YouTube Channel at 3pm, Friday, May 29. Channel subscribers will receive a notification at the start of the live stream.
For registration: https://ethics.utoronto.ca/events/667/john-ricco-the-ethics-of-covid/
Drawing from Giorgio Agamben’s identification of impotentiality as the most proper power of the human, in this short presentation I argue that in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, resistance to the political-economic logic of neoliberalism and to the bio-political effects of bare life, lies in our potential to not-do and not-be. That is, to live in ways that affirm the in-appropriable singularity of our existence, and a commonality shared by each of us, to be some-one other than simply a productive subject.
I want to express my thanks to Jérôme Lèbre for providing me with the opportunity to participate in his project.
In conjunction with her recent interview with me for her podcast “View to the U,” Carla DeMarco has also published a short profile article, “Art in the time of COVID-19: finding ways to render the invisible visible.”
Here’s a short excerpt:
There has been an abundance of art and creativity bursting onto screens and into living spaces through platforms like Zoom, livestreams and over social media in the last few weeks of lockdown, but Professor John Paul Ricco is not surprised because he has borne witness to past social upheavals and health crises that have inspired artists.
“I do think this speaks generally to the value of art in all of its various forms, and that it is probably our principle and most developed way of being attuned to the world,” says Ricco.
You can read the rest via the link above.
View to the U: An eye on UTM research · John Paul Ricco
I was recently interviewed by Carla DeMarco for “View to the U,” the podcast that she produces and hosts out of the Research Office at UTM. In our conversation, framed in terms of “the value of art in times of social upheaval,” we talked about my research, and “how past health crises have shaped art movements” and artistic practice. As Carla goes on to describe: “We also talk[ed] about some of the ways in which this current pandemic may influence artists now and in creations to come, and what kinds of things [I have been] doing in this time of solitude.”
If you are curious about social distancing as an aesthetic proposition, or how walking in the city today has taken on a whole new choreographic quality, have a listen.
Here is a link to The New Yorker article that I mention toward the end of the interview:
The Blackwood Gallery has just released the latest issue in their SDUK series. It is free and you can download a copy here: www.blackwoodgallery.ca/
This issue, along with a second that is scheduled to appear around May 1st, features work by artists, poets, and writers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a beautifully designed publication, and my short essay, “Impotentiality and Resistance” (an expanded version of a recent blog post), is included. A copy of the essay can also be found here: https://unbecomingcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/04/21/impotentiality-and-resistance/
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/]
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).
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.”
The University of Toronto Press and its journal, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, have just published a collection of essays that address the current COVID-19 global pandemic.
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.
Here’s the Table of Contents
1. Being in Common at a Distance by Elettra Stimilli
2. In the Distance by Philippe Theophanidis
3. Biopolitical Economies of the COVID-19 Pandemic by Jon Short
4. On Ways of Living in the Midst of the COVID-19 Global Pandemic (Three Brief Meditations) by John Paul Ricco
5. Crisis, Critique, and the Limits of What We Can Hear by Stuart J. Murray
6. The Pandemic is (Extra) Ordinary by Penelope Ironstone
7. The Biopolitics of Numbers by Victor Li
8. Uncanny Convergences: Mobility and Containment in the Time of Coronavirus by Roberta Buiani
9. Biomedical Apparatuses or Conviviality? by Greg Bird
10. Government-in-a-Box, or Understanding Pandemic Measures as Biopolitics by Neil Balan