Giorgio Agamben: “Clarifications”

Translator’s Note: Giorgio Agamben asked me to translate this brief essay, which serves as an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy (see here for the original Italian piece and here for an English translation).

Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter. The dead — our dead — do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject. What do human relationships become in a country that habituates itself to live in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society that has no value other than survival?

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.

What is worrisome is not so much or not only the present, but what comes after. Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact — every contagion — between human beings.

What if there’s no hope?

Looking at the primary results this morning, I wasn’t angry or outraged so much as sad. And there was something else in there I had trouble placing — almost a whistfulness or nostalgia, as though I was savoring the memory of that moment when I believed that a moonshot to the leadership of the Evil Empire was a feasible strategy. Ah, to be that young, that hopeful! I wish I could still be that person I was before 6pm yesterday evening! Most affecting, I think, was recalling some of my Twitter commentary, where I had bought into the Sanders narrative that mobilizing the grassroots would outweigh any chicanery on the part of the DNC. Who cares that a bunch of sad losers were lining up behind another sad loser? Who cares that another candidate is splitting the left-wing vote? Who cares that media coverage is one-sided and unhinged? At the end of the day, the people vote. And now Joe Biden is ahead in both the popular vote and the delegate count. Continue reading “What if there’s no hope?”

The Roaring Twenties

I have a tendency to take arbitrary numerical milestones literally. I try to close out my accounts as much as possible prior to the New Year, for instance, and my mind often wanders to other forms of autobiographical numerology about the number of years I’ve taught at various places, the timing of my book publications, etc. Now I am approaching one of the biggest of arbitrary numerical milestones — my fortieth birthday, which has me thinking a lot about the stereotypical experience of decade-based units of life (your 20s, your 30s, etc.). In my case, the objective life milestones match up weirdly well with the arbitrary deacde-based milestones. When I was 20, I did a study abroad semester in Oxford that completely changed my life, or at least made me realize that a different life was possible. And when I was 29, I finished my PhD and got my first academic job. There isn’t as clear a milestone happening right now, but my 20s and my 30s both map onto pretty clear stages in my life — the latter being a much happier time, in fact the only time in my life (perhaps aside from early childhood) when I would say I was happy most of the time.

I was not happy in my 20s, nor was I much fun to be around. Continue reading “The Roaring Twenties”

Reading the Qur’an: Muhammad and Moses

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

I was very gratified that when I put together my syllabus, the division between Meccan and Medinan surahs landed right at Spring Break (which has finally arrived!). Today we ended the class by putting up on the board a big list of themes from the Meccan surahs, along with patterns we had observed in the revisions (or corrections) of biblical stories. As we assembled our list, it became apparent that despite the repetition that students had (with some justification) complained of, there was a shift in emphasis over the course of our broadly chronological study. Earlier passages tended to go into more detail on the rewards and punishment awaiting the believers and disbelievers, a concern that gave way to defenses of the credibility of the resurrection of the dead, which was in turn displaced by an increasingly urgent reiteration of prophetic history (most systematically laid out in Surah 11, “Hud”). And the prophetic history became more and more ramified and complex. As I have often told students, Muhammad’s early message in his invocations of the ancient prophets is basically: “Mecca, don’t be a statistic!” The Qur’an establishes a stereotyped narrative where each prophet is met with rejection and derision, resulting in the destruction of the town. As Muhammad gains followers, however, the picture grows less stark. Jonah emerges as a counterexample to the trend, but most important by far is the figure of Moses.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Muhammad and Moses”

The Philosopher King

This semester, I am teaching a course on the classics of Western political theory. We start with Plato’s Republic, which is at once unavoidable and yet also kind of wasted on first-year students. The rhetoric is simply too complex to process, even for advanced readers, as it is very difficult to gauge the status of any of the claims on the table (does Socrates, and presumably therefore Plato, “really” embrace this view, or are they just adopting it for the sake of argument?) on a first or second reading. The result, which is especially understandable given the political context of the class, is that the discussion tends to take the ideal city Socrates outlines as a real political proposal that we should assess as such. And unsurprisingly, they don’t seem to think it will probably work out as intended.

I don’t presume to have the last word on this text, but as someone who has lived with it a little bit longer, I would point out that Socrates himself doesn’t believe it will work out, either. Continue reading “The Philosopher King”

Reading the Qur’an: Repeated Reminders

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

We have now entered into what I consider to be the main body of the course. Having looked at biblical and historical background and dipped our toe into the water with Sells’ annotated translation, we have been systematically working through the Qur’an, working our way backward through the Meccan surahs, which will occupy us up until Spring Break (surprisingly soon!). We have taken a couple days out to work on selections from Qur’anic commentaries and, given the centrality of Moses for the Qur’an, we also devoted an entire day to a discussion of the biblical account of the Ten Plagues in Exodus.

By and large, though, it has just been the Qur’an — and today my students finally reached a bit of a breaking point with the repetition. Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Repeated Reminders”

Syllabus Help Request

I am teaching a newly designed course, Rhetoric & Dialogue in Religion & Theology (REL 300), which is part of a new sequence of courses running from our introductory course (100) to a new theories and methods course (200) and ends with our capstone (400). This is the course description:

This course builds on the knowledge and application of theories and methods developed in REL 200. It introduces students to the skills of rhetoric and dialogue in religion and theology through close examination and evaluation of the writing and public discourse of contemporary scholars. Students will work with their peers to develop their own rhetorical styles and apply them both to a form of written communication fitting their post-graduate plans and to an oral presentation for an appropriate public, whether in or beyond the department. This course is required for Religion and Theology majors and meets the Effective Expression requirement for majors.

When we attempt to understand religion or we attempt to think through our theology we are presented with real human life, with the pain and joys of everyday life and the scope of human history. Writing and engaging theory is about much more than a piece of paper at the end of four years or the class significations that paper brings. It is about the ideas that live and die on leaves of paper bound and carried throughout time. So, in this course we will join together to study and improve our theoretical and dialogical skills, but we will also consider how those skills fit within the broader scope of the lives we live together.

The course will begin with an intensive working together on our writing skills before moving on to reading an eclectic mix of different pieces of writing on a variety of topics in religion and theology from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives. The course will end with a series of workshops honing our own writing, developing a piece of writing for a popular audience and one for an academic audience. We will end with a student conference where you present your ideas in an academic presentation for members of the Department of Religion & Theology with a question and answer session to follow. 

As part of the course I had students surface their own interests for topics that our reading would cover, since content isn’t the point of the course. I’m now trying to find a number of academic essays and popular writing on a variety of topics and am struggling a bit with the popular writings. If any readers have suggestions for the topics I am very open to hearing them. I am really interested to hear about work that you’ve found works well in the classroom.


  • Biblical Studies and the Use and Abuse of Scriptures
  • Meaning of Muhammad as the seal of the prophets
  • Origins and History of Cults/New Religious Movements
  • Chinese Anti-Muslim laws and actions
  • Religious Authority
  • Science and Religion debates, especially regarding evolution
  • Music and Religion
  • Gender and Religion, especially with regard to Islam