Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion

[Translator’s note: Agamben has asked me to translate his latest reflection on the coronavirus crisis.]

That science has become the religion of our time, that in which people believe they believe, has been obvious for some time now. In the modern West there have coexisted and, to a certain extent, still coexist three great systems of belief: Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity, these three “religions” have often intersected, entering from time to time into conflict and later reconciling in a different way, until they progressively reached a sort of peaceful, articulated coexistence, if not a true and proper collaboration in the name of a common interest.

What is new is that between science and the other two religions there has ignited, without our noticing it, a subterranean and implacable conflict, the successful results of which for science are daily before our eyes and determine in an unheard-of way all aspects of our existence. This conflict does not concern, as happened in the past, theory or general principles, but, so to speak, cultic practice. Indeed, science too, like every religion, knows diverse forms and levels through which it organizes and orders its structure: to the elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatic there corresponds in practice an extremely broad and widespread cultic sphere which coincides with what we call technology.

It is not surprising that the protagonist of this new war of religions should be that part of science where the dogmatic is less rigorous and the pragmatic aspect stronger: medicine, whose immediate object is the living body of human beings. Let us attempt to fix the essential character of this victorious faith with which we must increasingly settle accounts.
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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.

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.

Summer: Phase 2

The transition from the independent Shimer College to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College entails a switch from semesters to quarters — meaning that my summer break is approximately a month longer than usual. Between my work on Neoliberalism’s Demons (which is nearly complete at this point) and my faculty seminar on “The Verbal Art of Plato” (which will be taking place at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., next week), I have done about as much as I could realistically expect to do in an average summer. Early August would normally be the time when my thoughts would turn more toward classes, faculty meetings, etc., but this year that stuff won’t be happening until September.

I suppose that I could have expanded my work to fill the time available, but instead I have effectively pulled a Cool Hand Luke and cleared out a space of freedom for myself. I’d like to use this time for something very different from what I’ve been doing recently, to get some rest and work out some different parts of my brain. I’ve thought of various reading projects, but what most appeals to me right now is finally getting a start on learning to read biblical Hebrew. I haven’t done a new language since Italian, and Hebrew is of course very different from the European languages I’ve tackled so far — fulfilling my variety criterion. I bought all the necessary books the summer before I started at Shimer, but never got much further than starting to memorize the alphabet. I could make it through at least a good chunk of the grammar book in August, and since my classes don’t start until noon for the fall term, I could likely spend an hour or so most mornings finishing up the grammar and starting to stumble through Genesis. People recommended that I learn Hebrew as a way to warm up for Arabic, and if I keep at it semi-consistently over the next academic year, maybe I could get a start on classical Arabic next summer. And with whatever time is left over, I could do some undirected reading and/or rewatch Star Trek for the hundredth time.

What do you think? What would you do if you had a block of time like this? What would you consider a change of pace or recharging type of activity?

Agamben translation update

I have completed a full draft of my translation of Agamben’s Karman: A Brief Treatise on Action, Guilt, and Gesture. A lot of work remains to polish and whip it into bibliographical shape, but that is all mop-up. The Italian version does not seem to have been published yet, so this could wind up being one of the smallest gaps between the original and the English translation in the history of Agamben (not due to anything I did, just coincidentally).

The text brings together a lot of familiar themes in a new way, and it includes some quite unexpected references to Buddhist thought (which ultimately seem to be doing much the same work his account of the Myth of Er from Plato’s Republic). I think it will help people to get a little more purchase on Opus Dei, which is one of those texts that seemingly fell onto the philosophical scene with a great deadening thud, and also some of what he’s trying to do with responsibility and guilt in Sacrament of Language — but tying the themes from both texts more closely to his concern with law (which is, additionally, more obviously “relevant” to contemporary life than either liturgy or oaths). So out of the small trickle of tiny books I’ve translated since The Use of Bodies, this feels like probably the most significant text.

The just one will live outside the social bond

I’ve got Romans on my mind, specifically 1:17 — “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (NRSV translation; Greek text: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται). This is the locus classicus of the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith (as opposed to works), an emphasis that has obscured the basic political meaning of the passage, including at the level of translation. Here I’m going to be following the inspiration of Ted Jennings’ reading as found in Outlaw Justice, but I am working through this verse myself.

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Was Socrates actually a gadfly?

Today the Shimer faculty ended its spring faculty meetings with a discussion of pedagogy, centered on the idea of the Socratic method. One of our texts was the famous passage from the Apology where Socrates describes himself as a gadfly sent by the god to harrass the city (30e). The Loeb translation reads as follows: “For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I got about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long.” I compared the Greek text and could not initially find the word for “gadfly,” which indeed does not appear where the Loeb translation (which is broadly correct though lazily imprecise, as Loeb translations tend to be) places it.

Here is the Greek, with the appropriate word highlighted (to get the full quote you need to go to the next page on Perseus):

ἐὰν γάρ με ἀποκτείνητε, οὐ ῥᾳδίως ἄλλον τοιοῦτον εὑρήσετε, ἀτεχνῶς—εἰ καὶ γελοιότερον εἰπεῖν—προσκείμενον τῇ πόλει ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὥσπερ ἵππῳ μεγάλῳ μὲν καὶ γενναίῳ, ὑπὸ μεγέθους δὲ νωθεστέρῳ καὶ δεομένῳ ἐγείρεσθαι ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος, οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.

The Greek word translated as gadfly is μύωψ, myops, which is primarily an adjective meaning “with squinted eyes” or “nearsighted.” As a substantive, it could mean gadfly or it could mean simply spur (as befits a horse metaphor) — and if you poke around in the lexicon in Perseus, you’ll see that there’s a passage in Xenophon where the exact same phrasing indicates a spur.

What I wonder, though, is why it can’t be an adjective. Then “ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος” would mean “by someone squinting” — such as, for example, the person who returned to the cave would be, before his eyes adjusted properly. We know that Socrates and his interlocutors agree without any hesitation that such a squinting loser would be killed. Even if I’m pushing the grammar here, surely this double meaning isn’t accidental. The notion that the great and noble steed of Athens is weighed down by its great weight would then be a metaphor for its attachment to the merely material rather than the spiritual or intellectual realm. The idea of being weighed down also recalls the chains in the cave.

A second question: is Socrates actually claiming agency over the harrassment? Here’s the relevant sentence again, with highlights: “οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.” The first highlight is “god,” and the second highlight is basically the equivalent to “who.” In this sentence, Socrates is in the accusative, whereas both “god” and “who” are in the nominative. Hence the god, who harrasses you at all times and everywhere (Socrates has to sleep and can only be in one place at once), has sent Socrates for some such purpose. [UPDATE: Commenters have convinced me that I’m wrong about this part. I’ve updated the translation accordingly.]

And that brings us to Socrates’ attachment to the city. He is “προσκείμενον,” a way of speaking he expects his hearers to find ludicrous. And that may be because this word has religious overtones — it can mean “devoted to” in the religious sense, in addition to “attached” or “placed.” I don’t think Socrates’ listeners would find it at all ludicrous to compare Socrates to an annoying bug. They may laugh at the idea that he has a divine mission.

So here’s an attempted alternative translation:

For if you kill me, you will not easily find such another, [who is] simply–to say something risible–devoted to the city by the God just as if to a great and noble horse [that is] also sluggish and bound under [its] great weight, [were] to be awakened by someone squinting/some gadfly/some spur, so the god seems to have allied me to the city as such a one, who, waking and urging and reproaching each one of you, never stops landing everywhere the whole day.

It probably needs some work. In any case, am I on to something or making stuff up?

Totally called it

In my forthcoming book on Agamben co-authored with Colby Dickinson, I include an essay that indirectly discusses The Use of Bodies, arguing that rereading The Time That Remains in light of the entire extant Homo Sacer series could be a good substitute for the book itself while everyone waits for me to finish translating it.

At the time I wrote that essay, and at the time that I compiled the collection with Colby, the actual epilogue to The Use of Bodies had not been finalized. Now that I’m translating the last few pages of the final text, I feel compelled to declare: I totally called it. Mere pages from the end, Agamben recapitulates his arguments from The Time That Remains about inoperativity and the “as not.” In fact, at the risk of overdoing it, it is arguably the most extended discussion of any single thinker in the epilogue — even the segment on Benjamin is shorter.