Giorgio Agamben: A Question

[Translator’s note: Agamben has again requested that I translate his latest essay on the ethical implications of the coronavirus crisis.]

“The plague marked for the city the beginning of corruption… No one was any longer disposed to persevere in what he had previously judged to be the good, because he believed that perhaps he would die before achieving it.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II.53)

I would like to share with whoever wants it a question on which for over a month now I have never stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country has, without noticing it, politically and ethically collapsed in the face of an illness? The words that I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of the abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a matter of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not prepared to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the points that follow will not be able not to agree that — without noticing it or by pretending not to notice it — the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.

  1. The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of dead persons. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, that persons who are dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their cadavers should be burned without a funeral?
  2. We then accepted without too many problems, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War (the curfew during the war was limited to certain hours), our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, de facto suspending our relationships of friendship and love, because our proximity had become a possible source of contagion.
  3. This was able to happen — and here we hit on the root of the phenomenon — because we have split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is actually the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was actualized in modern science through apparatuses of reanimation, which can maintain a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this condition is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are today seeking to do, and it becomes a sort of principle of social behavior, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out.

I know that someone will hasten to respond that we are dealing with a condition that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat this other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency never stop reminding us that when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it has been called with a significant euphemism, will be society’s new organizing principle. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, in good or bad faith, cannot be cancelled.

At this point, because I have declared the responsibilities of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibility of those who had the duty to keep watch over human dignity. The Church above all, which, in making itself the handmaid of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is that of visiting the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith.

Another category that has failed in their duties is that of jurists. For some time we have been habituated to the rash use of emergency decrees by means of which the executive power is de facto substituted for that the legislative, abolishing that principle of the separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been surpassed, and one has the impression that the words of the prime minister and of the head of civil defense, as was said of those of the Führer, immediately have the force of law. And we do not see how, going beyond the temporal limits of validity of the emergency decrees, the limitations of freedom could, as is foretold, be maintained. With what juridical apparatuses? With a permanent state of exception? It is the duty of jurists to verify that the rules of the constitution are respected, but the jurists are silent. Quare silete iuristae in munere vestro? (Why are jurists silent on what concerns them?)

I know that there will inevitably be someone who will respond that the sacrifice, which is of course serious, has been made in the name of moral principles. To them I would recall that a norm that affirms that we must renounce the good to save the good is just as false and contradictory as that which, to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.

Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina

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

Like everything else, my Qur’an blogging has been disrupted by coronavirus. We had one final week of in-person discussions after Spring Break — during which my class, full of graduating seniors and athletes, were understandably distracted by their disappointment in all that they’d be missing the rest of the year — and then moved to a discussion-board format. This was a natural fit given that I had assigned them to present short papers to the class as their primary writing requirement, so that those could be the main prompts for a text-based discussion. We are going to do a few optional video conferences in the remaining weeks, but overall the format seems to be working well. But I am still sad that this class, which I put so much work into designing, is ending in such a diminished form.

In any case! As I mentioned in the previous post, Spring Break marked the Hijra, and we are definitely in Medinan territory now. Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina”

We can’t let the invisible hand kill us

There is no binary choice of “next Great Depression or mass death.” The government can support people while they take the absolutely necessary steps to contain coronavirus, allowing them to pick up where they left off once sheltering in place is no longer necessary. Other, smaller countries are taking measures that could be models here and wouldn’t require any new programs or political infrastructure — just pumping money through existing channels. We have the technology (i.e., money). Lives and livelihoods do not need to be destroyed.

But left to itself, the invisible hand is going to inflict a Great Depression on us as punishment for doing the right and necessary things. The invisible hand will destroy careers and businesses and whole communities full of people who did all they could to save lives. How do you expect people to sit back and take that?

The Financial Crisis already inflicted a huge system-wide economic shock on people who were ostensibly “doing the right thing” (buying a home), and that was a huge blow to the legitimacy of the system. Coronavirus is on course to do even worse. And establishment Democrats are doing their level best to guarantee that once the legitimacy of the system — not just the neoliberal order, but perhaps the Constitution itself — is destroyed, the extreme right will be the ONLY organized force in a position to pick up the pieces.

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”

Reading the Qur’an: Training Wheels

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

One of my favorite resources for teaching the Qur’an is Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, which includes a translation of many of the shorter, more “poetic” surahs, together with helpful annotations — including an invaluable (and probably irreplaceable) section that guides you through listening to the recitation of certain surahs. It works well as an initial set of “training wheels” for reading the Qur’an in two ways. First, the ample commentary helps students to get a handle on the often enigmatic and fragmentary visions related in the surahs in question (mainly 81-114). Second, the translation is creative and subtle, conveying a sense of both the beauty and the strangeness of the Qur’anic idiom. Despite these benefits, though, I have found it to be a little hit-or-miss with students, whether because the commentary seems to leave too little to discuss or because the short surahs simply do not seem to provide enough for them to work with in discussion.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Training Wheels”