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.
In his extended research on Roman Stoicism, in his published and unpublished writing, and in his lectures at the Collège de France on “the hermeneutics of the subject,” and “the government of the self and others,” Michel Foucault began to sketch out a notion of the governmentality of ethical distance. For the source of this phrase and the best discussion of Foucault’s unpublished dossiers, including “Government of the self and others,” see the “Course Context” by Frédéric Gros, in Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-1982, translated by Graham Burchell (Picador, New York, 2005). These notes are deeply indebted to Gros’ reading.
At this current moment, in the midst of what has been classified as a global pandemic of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus, and the ensuing state-mandated practices of “social distancing” (along with self-quarantine and self-isolation), it might be a good time to return to Foucault in order to ask what lessons might be learned, including about how our present retreat from the world—while difficult and problematic for a whole variety of reasons—might not also be an opportunity to radically rethink and undertake new ways of living. Ways of living that are ethical, both in relation to one self and one’s life, and the lives of others. And that would also reside a great distance from the current statutory measures under which millions of people around the world, are now finding themselves living.
The first thing to note is that governmentality of ethical distance is entirely opposed to the logic of the state and its production of both the solitary individual and universal notions of community. Production that takes the form of policing (in all of its many permutations and manifestations), the welfare state, and bio-political regimes. This also includes the forms of pastoral power that we are witnessing right now, in which individuals as vectors of contagion are gently being forced to sequester themselves at home in the interest of protecting the greater populace, now figured as entirely vulnerable, and no longer allowed to gather in groups larger than 10 (this number varies depending upon specific context and is adjusted on nearly a daily basis).
In his reading the Roman Stoics, Foucault finds in an ethics of distance a social practice, in which the distance involved is not a separation from the world, nor does it consist of a cessation of activity. Instead, it is the means by which each self can rediscover itself as a member of a community or communities, yet in ways that are not determined or circumscribed by demographic, economic, or other such social political divisions.
Most importantly, certainly within the current context in which many people have been asked or told to stay away from their place(s) of employment for 2-3 weeks, this self relates to itself in ways not reducible to its job, work, or career. This is a self that, while occupying a role at work, does not allow that role to determine its sense of self, and with which it does not overly identify. Which means that one has not lost oneself in one’s work; has not forgotten oneself (and others) in one’s seemingly inextricable attachment to one’s job.
It is this detachment that, in part, Foucault points to when he speaks of “distance.” The latter of which is to be understood as “ethical” because the self whose life is structured by this distance, is not self-alienated but instead is in vigorous rapport with itself—and others. As Foucault emphasizes and makes clear, the kind of distance, withdrawal, and exercises of abstinence entailed in this new ethical ascesis, is not equivalent nor in any way related to the Christian renunciation of wealth. Instead, it is a mode of relating to one’s own material wealth in ways that, as Gros notes, ensures “that we will not be seriously disturbed if one day this wealth is lacking.” As Gros goes on to explain, “So it is not a matter of shedding all material goods, but of enjoying them with sufficient detachment for us not to feel deprived of their loss…We must learn again to bear wealth as one bears poverty” (539). To which we might add: we must also learn again to bear poverty as one bears wealth. This is what Agamben has brought to our attention, in his study of the Franciscans and their “highest poverty,” and why he has been so drawn to Foucault’s thinking on form-of-life (a notion that originates with and that we inherit from the Stoics), an aesthetics of existence, and friendship as a way of life.
At the end of his essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Leo Bersani arrived at the stunning conclusion that jouissance is its own mode of ascesis, a joyousness that transpires in and as “the risk of self-dismissal, of losing sight of the self.” Without in any way negating or opposing this insight, we might imagine that Foucault might have found the reverse equally valid: namely, that ascesis is its own form of jouissance. Indeed, this is exactly what is to be found in that dossier “Government of the self and others,” where Foucault writes of this ascetic conversion to the self:
…it is an ethical form which is characterized both by independence from everything that does not depend on us, and by the fullness of a relationship to the self in which sovereignty is not exercised as a struggle, but as an enjoyment (jouissance) (533).
As we find ourselves detached, willfully or not, from those things that suddenly prove that they do not entirely depend upon us, let us find in this abstinence from our routine functions, our proper and inalienable vocation or calling, by means of which we might retreat (ethically) back into the world.
On 26 February 2020, in Il Manifesto, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a short response to the current coronavirus outbreak that, according to the World Health Organization and others, borders on—if indeed it has not already become—a global pandemic. You can read an English translation of Agamben’s essay, “The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency” on the web site of the journal Positions.
A day later, on 27 February, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy put out a short response to Agamben, titled, “Viral Exception”, published in Italian and French, on the Antinomie web site. Here is an English translation, for which I thank Philippe Theophanidis (York University, Toronto), who also brought this philosophical exchange to my attention.
Giorgio Agamben, an old friend, says the coronavirus is hardly different from a normal flu. He forgets that for “normal” flu there is a vaccine that has been proven effective. It still has to be readapted to the viral mutations every year. But “normal” flu always kills a few people and the coronavirus against which no vaccine exists is capable of obviously a much higher lethal performance. The difference (according to sources of the same type as those of Agamben) is about 1 to 30: it is not indifferent.Giorgio assures us that governments seize pretexts to establish all possible states of exception. He does not notice that the exception is indeed becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds (displacements, transfers of all kinds, impregnation or diffusion of substances, etc.) are reaching a hitherto unknown intensity that is growing with the population. In rich countries, the increase in population also means longer life expectancy and an increase in the number of elderly people and, in general, people at risk.We must not be mistaken in our targets: an entire civilization is involved, there is no doubt about it. There is a kind of viral exception – biological, computer, cultural – that is pandemic. Governments are nothing more than sad executioners, and attacking them seems more like a diversionary manoeuvre than a political reflection.I reminded you that Giorgio is an old friend. I am sorry to appeal to a personal recollection, but I am not leaving a register of general reflection. Almost thirty years ago doctors decided that I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake. Giorgio is nevertheless a spirit of such finesse and kindness that one can say – and without the slightest irony – exceptional.
In an email, my friend and colleague Victor Li has astutely remarked that in referring to Agamben as “exceptional,” it would seem that Nancy is calling Agamben out as “someone who is completely out it,” or, “as in baseball parlance, something or someone who is completely out in left field.”
To this seemingly unavoidable and thereby justified reading, I would like to add the following, by way of furthering Victor’s observations.
I can’t help but think that Nancy’s repeated emphasis on “old” is its own further qualification of Agamben’s stated “exceptional” status. I hear Nancy saying that Agamben is out-of-date, not with the times, and that perhaps even his conceptualization of states of exception is not properly applicable in this current situation—or at least is in need of a serious update. One that would not overly focus on national governments, for instance; as Nancy suggests.
At the same time, “exceptional” here might also mean that while the two men remain friends (many recent encounters verify this), when it comes to this issue (and others, Nancy’s heart transplant, for instance), they no longer touch each other or are “in contact.”
Nancy of course also remains exceptional in being someone for whom the bare life of another became the means by which his biological life was restored. Yet one must go further, as he himself did in “The Intruder,” his essay occasioned by his heart transplant, so as to understand that his very existence—ontologically—is predicated upon an originary force of intrusion; that he is (himself), like any other entity, an intruder. In other words, the bio-technical intrusion in the form of a heart transplant is conditioned by this a priori ontological/existential force of intrusion by which existence is born and shaped.
But this also means that not every intrusion (e.g. virus) is the same or indifferent, and therefore due to this singularity, each intrusion cannot be ascribed to serving the same “state of exception.”
Before one is a friend, one is an intruder; and in the persistence of that intrusion, subsides a friendship that does not grow old.