Guest Post: Eric Santner on Agamben’s Pandemic Writings

[As part of the research for my Slate article on Agamben’s covid writings, I interviewed several colleagues, including Eric Santner, whose ground-breaking interdisciplinary work is surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Rather than limiting himself to short answers to my questions, he found himself composing a longer essay on the roots of the paranoid pandemic turn in his earlier writings. With Eric’s permission, I am posting his full response here.]

Reflections on Hobbes form a central part of the analysis of sovereignty delineated by Agamben in the inaugural volume of his Homo Sacer project. When Agamben returned to Hobbes in a series of lectures given at Princeton very shortly after 9/11 it was in the context of a more general discussion of the concept of stasis, of “civil war as a political paradigm.”[1] There Agamben tries to refine his earlier analysis of the notion of the state of nature as synonymous with the city as if dissolved (ut tanquam dissoluta consideretur). Though he doesn’t put it quite this way, the claim is that civil war represents (for Hobbes) something like the realization of this “as if,” that is, the emergence of a real state of exception or emergency in which a now really disunited multitude (rather than merely “as if dissolved”) attempts to reconstitute itself as a people by positing a new sovereign authority that will mediate its unity, represent itself to itself as one. Or alternatively, the (only virtually real) dissolved multitude represents a remainder/reminder of a (really) disunited multitude, one now held in reserve by the sovereign (the one who decides on the state of exception). In the state of exception, the sovereign power suspends the rule of law in the name of the protection and security of the people in the face of some threat or emergency. In the time of the exception the people in some sense return to a kind of pre-political status, to a “state of nature” now directly under state power and authority without the normal cover or mediation of law.

Presupposed in all of this is Hobbes’s view that the people—those who share in the commonwealth—only truly come to exist as one by way of symbolic “incorporation,” by way of the “artificial” efficacy of a representative sovereign body. It is necessary, as Hobbes puts it, for men “to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, to beare their Person; and every one to owne, and acknowledge himselfe to be Author of whatsoever he that so beareth their Person, shall Act or cause to be Acted . . . and therein to submit their Wills, every one to his Will, and their Judgements, to his Judgement. This is more than Consent, or Concord; it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.” It is, Hobbes goes on,

as if every man should say to every man, I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner. This done, the Multitude so united in one Person is called a Common-Wealth, in latine Civitas. This is the Generation of that great Leviathan. . . . And he that carryeth this Person, is called SOVERAIGNE, and is said to have Soveraigne Power; and every one besides, his SUBJECT.[2]

Stasis represents, then, something like the passage from a mythic or fictive state of exception—a state of nature internal to, posited by, the sovereign power—to a real one that opens on to a kind of “night of the world” in which the Other, the Leviathan guaranteeing the consistency of the body politic—of the “people”—ceases to exist.[3] The state of nature thereby becomes legible as a kind of fundamental fantasy—“a people is being beaten”—underwriting the transference with the Other, its efficiency as, to use another Hegelian formulation, a determination of reflection. We might say, then, that the function of the state of nature—the state of exception as constitutive of the commonwealth—is to “allow” us to remain unconscious of the night of the world in the daytime of our life in the city. What Agamben calls bare or sacred life is life that no longer enjoys that allowance but is lived, instead, at this nocturnal threshold where it is fully exposed to the object of anxiety, to the dissolution of the city “secreted” in the very midst of the city. That is, Agamben has argued, the secret of sovereign power and authority, the arcanum imperii of political life in the West. Agamben’s archaeological project has been devoted to unearthing the various configurations of this fundamental fantasy through which we give shape to a primordial anxiety and therewith subjectify our social bonds.

In the lectures, Agamben addresses the two small figures placed next to the cathedral in the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan and who are distinguished by the special mask worn by plague doctors. Because the multitude becomes the people of a commonwealth as soon as they are represented (by the sovereign), the former “can be represented only through the guards who monitor its obedience and the doctors who treat it. It dwells in the city, but only as the object of the duties and concerns of those who exercise sovereignty,” an exercise in which the “biopolitical turn of sovereign power” was beginning to take shape. “Hence the notion of the dissoluta multitudo, which inhabits the city under the Leviathan’s dominion, may be compared to the mass of plague victims, who must be treated and governed” (Stasis, 48–49; my emphasis). That is to say, however, that the subject matter of biopolitics is, at least at some level, not so much the measurable vital forces of the population (as Foucault largely saw it) but rather the “bare life” called into being by states of exception manifest as the biopolitical administration of public health; the plague at issue is, in a word, never simply a disease of the body—a natural phenomenon—but largely pertains to the persistence of the state of nature in the city, a state of “dissolution” that is anything but natural. Or more precisely, the state of nature is seen here as the quasi-juridical condition in which the rule of law is displaced by the administration of the bare life of the population.

The way I understand the thrust of Agamben’s interventions over the course of the pandemic comes down to the claim that the people—and in his case, he focuses almost exclusively on the Italian people—have allowed themselves to be cast into just such a state of nature, to be cast as so many specimens of bare life that must be treated and governed. For Agamben, it would seem, as soon as health becomes public health—a species of what was once referred to in German as Polizeiwissenschaft–we are for all intents and purposes caught in the snares of, captured and captivated by, a state of exception that has become the norm. As soon as the state gets involved in monitoring and maintaining the homeostasis, the regulation of the life of its citizens, those citizens have consigned themselves to the edge of a stasis barely held in check by the state.

Perhaps because I have experienced the pandemic in the United States largely during the years of the Trump presidency, my sense of how Agamben’s conceptualization of stasis maps on to life as lived under Covid is rather different. In the United States, the problem was not so much an excess of biopolitical administration but rather its lack. We might say that in the United States the state did not so much deploy as hinder those “plague doctors” from doing their work of “treating and governing.” And indeed, it was Trump himself who, instead of declaring a state of emergency seemed to push toward a true civil war, one that has, since his departure from office and by way of his continued imposture of unbroken sovereignty, only come closer to realization. Here the “multitude” appears not in the guise of those who submit to what Agamben, along with Ron DeSantos, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, among others, have characterized, in a kind of caricature of Foucault’s thought, as the regime of a biopolitical security state but rather as the ostensible resistance to it. In the United States, this resistant and often armed multitude has sought to reconstitute itself as the true people still (or again) represented by Trump, the only true Leviathan.

Another way of putting it would be to note that the pandemic has, among many other things, laid bare not so much the life of citizens as the systems of health care that were meant to allow those very citizens to recover from maladies that would otherwise reduce them to their bare life or death. And indeed, the emergency measures that Agamben has so strenuously criticized were largely meant to keep those health care systems from being overwhelmed. One of the paradoxes of Agamben’s position is that the draining of resources from those health care systems as well as from other governmental support systems was largely undertaken in the name of neoliberal opposition to the use of tax dollars to fund the “deep” biopolitical security state.

There is clearly much more to say about Agamben’s interventions: their histrionic, even apocalyptic tone, their rush to compare life under Covid with life in Nazi death camps—here Agamben seems to claim the posture of a new Primo Levi bearing witness to life in the city-cum-camp–their lack of a sense of solidarity with the sick, dying, and dead, their dismissal of those treating the sick as officiants of a new cult, that of medicine as religion. Among the most extreme, most histrionic of his pronouncements was his identification of teachers and professors who worked quite hard to develop online pedagogical capacities during the worst of the pandemic with Italian academics who pledged allegiance to the Fascist regime in 1931. Such things have led a number of critics to want to throw overboard all of Agamben’s work, to see his statements as disqualifications of the fundamental concepts and arguments he has used over the years to carry further Foucault’s groundbreaking work on, among other things, sovereignty and biopolitics. Instead, I see Agamben’s remarks about the pandemic as a transformation of his own work into a kind of ideology, something that makes him an easy target for his critics. One might say that in his writings about the pandemic, Agamben became, sadly, an “Agambenian.” Though I continue to read and engage with Agamben’s writings, it is clear to me that this turn of events invites a careful rethinking of his vast and–to my mind–still compelling body of work.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, trans. Nicholas Heron (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015). Subsequent references are made in the text.

[2] Hobbes, Leviathan, 95–96. Freud presents the same logic of group formation on the basis of identification with a leader in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. In his seminar on the psychoses—the one that deals largely with the case of Daniel Paul Schreber—Lacan makes use of this same logic apropos of another early modern treatment of sovereign authority. In his first presentation of the concept of the master signifier qua “quilting point” of a discursive field, Lacan closely follows Hobbes’s reasoning apropos of the effects of the fear of God in Racine’s play Athaliah. We might say that Lacan is after the more purely theological dimension of the logic of the signifier while Hobbes’s treatment pertains to the realm of political theology: “The fear of God isn’t a signifier that is found everywhere. Someone had to invent it and propose to men, as the remedy for a world made up of manifold terrors, that they fear a being who is, after all, only able to exercise his cruelty through the evils that are there, multifariously present in human life. To have replaced these innumerable fears by the fear of a unique being who has no other means of manifesting his power than through what is feared behind these innumerable fears, is quite an accomplishment. . . . This famous fear of God completes the sleight of hand that transforms from one minute to the next, all fears into perfect courage. All fears—I have no other fear—are exchanged for what is called the fear of God, which, however constraining it may be, is the opposite of fear.” See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955–56, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 266–67.

[3] Slavoj Zizek regularly uses this phrase to capture the import of radical, abstract negativity in Hegel. Zizek’s reference is Hegel’s manuscript for the Realphilosophie of 1805–6: “The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity. . . . This night, the inner of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head—there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful.” Cited in Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992), 50.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Eric Santner on Agamben’s Pandemic Writings

  1. This is a very interesting reading of Agamben’s later texts. You write that it is republished with the consent of Eric Santner. Is that to say that this entire post is Santner’s, including the ultimate reflections, which do sound very much Kotsko (no offence intended)?

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