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”

Reading the Qur’an: Background work

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

The first week or so of my course (syllabus) is dedicated to providing background to the Qur’an. The constraint of using primary sources meant that I couldn’t assign a straightforward historical review, so instead I am using Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, which is the earliest systematic compilation aiming to cover all of the Prophet’s life. I paired a series of selections on his life before becoming the Prophet with some narratives from the Bible on the early life of certain prophets (Moses, Samuel, and Jesus — I wish I had also included David, because there is a close parallel to the part where David is out in the field because they assume he’s too young). The students were generally already familiar with the Bible, but even those who were not found it easier to read. That was in large part due to a unique feature of Islamic historiography, at least as far as it concerns the Prophet — they want to keep everything that has been handed down, even if they doubt that it happened (as Ishaq tactfully announces when he begins a story with “they allege…”). This is because the life and practice of Muhammad has a quasi-Scriptural character, hence they want to err on the side of caution lest they throw out a part of the divine revelation. We discussed how the existence of multiple versions, while confusing to the reader, is likely an indication of the importance of a story. We also agreed that many of the fanciful-seeming stories where Muhammad gets divine signs from a young age and everyone “already knows” he’s going to be Prophet express a desire to reconcile the apparent contradiction that Muhammad was just “some guy” until one day he was Prophet — in other words, they are a kind of “prequel” gesture to try to align his early life with his ultimate calling.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Background work”

Reading the Qur’an: Introduction to an Occasional Series

This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Reading the Qur’an” (syllabus) as part of North Central College’s Honors program, and I plan to blog about my experiences, approximately once a week. The first day of class was today, so there is not much to share yet. We discussed a selection of prayers from the Qur’an, Hebrew Bible, and New Testament, which provided some initial orientation for how Islam relates to the other monotheistic traditions and gave me the opportunity to introduce some basic expositional facts.

I have offered several classes on the Qur’an and taught selections in other classes (including an Introduction to Islamic Thought course). This is the area — aside from fine arts — where I have most expanded my teaching competence since starting at Shimer. The Qur’an presents unique challenges in a discussion-centered course. The first is the unwieldiness of the text itself, which is not organized in an intuitively logical way. I believe that over time I have arrived at a workable order of presentation that strikes a balance between the likely chronological order of revelation and the practical need to have a relatively compact selection each day (rather than jumping around constantly). The second is the text’s embeddedness in Muhammad’s life and circumstances, a problem that is especially difficult to handle given the constraint of using “primary sources” wherever possible. I have addressed this primarily by including generous selections from Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, the earliest full biography of the prophet.

Finally, the Qur’an takes up and transforms existing biblical narratives, so that many of its fragmentary presentations of the various stories are hard to follow unless you somehow “already know” the overall narrative. I have addressed this by systematically pairing Qur’an readings with important biblical parallels — much more thoroughly than in any previous iteration of the course. Indeed, in previous years, I was continually frustrated to find that I had made mistakes (for instance, assigning the passage from 1 Kings on the Queen of Sheba alongside the surah actually named “Sheba,” which, in typical Qur’anic fashion, barely mentions Sheba at all), and I spent a lot of time double- and triple-checking that I had lined everything up correctly. While I have not been absolutely exhaustive, I am very pleased with the parallels I have lined up (including less obvious parallels, such as the similarity of argument in Surah 2 and Romans regarding the foundational role of Abraham).

I also provided for some consideration of how the Qur’an has been taken up in later Islamic tradition, as represented by selections from the Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries. In the past, I have included more feminist commentaries, but this time I was constrained (even beyond Shimer norms) not to use contemporary scholarly works. If I were offering the course again outside of the Honors setting, I would reintroduce that element. I did flag the issue in class today and offer to point interested students toward relevant resources for their final papers.

Aside from that gap in coverage, I am very pleased with how the syllabus came together and look forward to discussing the materials with my students — and with you, my dear readers.

Project for the TV criticism of the future

I know there’s probably not much audience for it, in part because it wouldn’t provide a lot of take-fodder, but I would love to see more TV and film criticism that didn’t hold the critiqued object up to an ultimately arbitrary standard and find it lacking. I feel like in every TV or film article I read, there’s a moment when the author “turns the corner” and expresses their disappointment that the work didn’t do something they wish it had done, either aesthetically or (especially annoying) politically. There seems to be a lack of clarity about what we actually expect a show or film to do. Do we want it to mirror our political views? But why do we need that? Do we expect it to educate other people in our political views? But why would the producers want to do that?

This really came to a head for me when Mad Men was on the air, and after a certain point, no one was talking about what the show was actually doing, only what they wished it would do. Why should anyone care what a random critic would do if they were in charge of the show? The one exception to this trend was a blog that did this amazing close reading of the wardrobe choices in Mad Men — what they would have signalled in that historical moment, what symbolism (e.g., color patterns) are emerging, etc. I felt like I actually learned something. Is Mad Men a perfect show with perfect politics? No. Did they always make the best possible decisions in terms of plot or emphasis? Obviously not. But it is extremely artfully planned and produced, and criticism that brought that to the fore was much more satisfying to me.

This style of criticism is somehow most exhausting to me when it comes from very smart people I respect. Take, for instance, Aaron Bady’s characteristically lengthy critique of HBO’s Watchmen, which presents the series as a series of missed opportunities. Angela and Lady Trieu should have teamed up to overthrow American white supremacist imperialism! The show somehow should have incorporated climate change even though it takes place in a world where that problem has been solved! And what’s most tragic is that the show was so close to fulfilling Aaron’s demands! (He is self-aware enough to be self-deprecating in the article itself about his tendency to read everything through the lens of climate change, so hopefully he won’t mind if I poke fun a little here.)

Continue reading “Project for the TV criticism of the future”