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.

Continue reading “The just one will live outside the social bond”

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?