Agamben — Three Notes on the Virus (in sequence)

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The Invention of an Epidemic

26 February 2020

In Italian: https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia)

Faced with the frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded emergency measures adopted against an alleged epidemic of coronavirus, we should begin from the declaration issued by the National Research Council (CNR), which states not only that “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy”, but also that “the infection, according to the epidemiologic data available as of today and based on tens of thousands of cases, causes mild/moderate symptoms (a sort of influenza) in 80-90% of cases. In 10-15% of cases a pneumonia may develop, but one with a benign outcome in the large majority of cases. It has been estimated that only 4% of patients require intensive therapy”.

If this is the real situation, why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to spread a state of panic, thus provoking an authentic state of exception with serious limitations on movement and a suspension of daily life in entire regions?

Two factors can help explain such a disproportionate response. First and foremost, what is once again manifest is the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government. The legislative decree immediately approved by the government “for hygiene and public safety reasons” actually produces an authentic militarization “of the municipalities and areas with the presence of at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of transmission is unknown, or in which there is at least one case that is not ascribable to a person who recently returned from an area already affected by the virus”. Such a vague and undetermined definition will make it possible to rapidly extend the state of exception to all regions, as it’s almost impossible that other such cases will not appear elsewhere. Let’s consider the serious limitations of freedom the decree contains: a) a prohibition against any individuals leaving the affected municipality or area; b) a prohibition against anyone from outside accessing the affected municipality or area; c) the suspension of events or initiatives of any nature and of any form of gatherings in public or private places, including those of a cultural, recreational, sporting and religious nature, including enclosed spaces if they are open to the public; d) the closure of kindergartens, childcare services and schools of all levels, as well as the attendance of school, higher education activities and professional courses, except for distance learning; e) the closure to the public of museums and other cultural institutions and spaces as listed in article 101 of the code of cultural and landscape heritage, pursuant to Legislative Decree 22 January 2004, no. 42. All regulations on free access to those institutions and spaces are also suspended; f) suspension of all educational trips both in Italy and abroad; g) suspension of all public examination procedures and all activities of public offices, without prejudice to the provision of essential and public utility services; h) the enforcement of quarantine measures and active surveillance of individuals who have had close contacts with confirmed cases of infection.

The disproportionate reaction to what according to the CNR is something not too different from the normal flus that affect us every year is quite blatant. It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.

The other no less disturbing factor is the state of fear that in recent years has evidently spread among individual consciences and that translates into an authentic need for situations of collective panic for which the epidemic provides once again the ideal pretext. Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.


11 March 2020.

In Italian: https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-contagio

The infector! get him! get him! get the infector!
Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed]

One of the most inhuman consequences of the panic that they are attempting to spread in Italy, on the occasion of the so-called coronavirus epidemic, is the idea of contagion itself, which is what grounds the exceptional emergency measures that have been adopted by the government. The idea, which was extraneous to Hippocratic medicine, has its first unwitting precursor in the context of the pestilences that devastated some Italian cities between 1500 and 1600. This is the figure of the infector, immortalized by Manzoni both in his novel [The Betrothed] and in the essay on the Storia della Colonna Infame. A Milanese “announcement”, published during the 1576 plague, describes them in this way, inviting citizens to report them:

“Having heard from the governor that some people — guided by a fake zeal of charity, and with the aim of terrorizing and frightening the people and inhabitants of our city of Milan and to excite them to some turmoil — are anointing with ants (which they say are pestiferous and contagious) both people and the doors and bolts of the houses and the corners of the districts of this city and other places in the state, under the pretext of bringing the plague to the private and public, something which results in many inconveniences, as well as significant alteration among the people, mostly among those who they are easily persuaded, it is decreed that any person of any status and condition who, within forty days from this announcement will denounce the person or persons who have favored, helped, or known about this insolence, will be awarded five hundred scuti … ”

Mutatis mutandis, the recent provisions (taken by the Italian government with decrees that we would like to hope –although this is nothing but an illusion – will not confirmed by parliament, and turned into laws) actually transform every individual into a potential infector, exactly as the laws on terrorism considered, de facto and de jure, every citizen to be a potential terrorist. The analogy is indeed so clear that the potential infector who does not comply with the prescriptions will be punished with prison. The figure of the healthy or unwitting carrier — who infects a multiplicity of individuals, unable to defend themselves from him, as one would defend oneself from the infector — is presented as being extremely sinister.

Even sadder than the curtailing of freedom implied by these measures is, in my opinion, the degeneration of the relationships between men engendered by them. The other, whoever he may be, even a loved one, must not be approached or touched — and indeed a distance must be put between us and him. According to some this should be one meter, but according to the latest suggestions of the so-called experts it should be 4.5 meters (those fifty centimetres are interesting!). Our neighbour has been abolished. It is possible, given the ethical inconsistency of our political leaders, that these provisions may derive, in the minds of those who took them, from the same fear that they intend to provoke. But it is difficult not to think that the situation they end up creating is exactly that which our leaders have often tried to achieve: to finally close universities and schools and transfer all lessons online, to make sure we stop encountering each other and to speak about politics or culture, pushing us to the mere exchange of digital messages so that, wherever possible, machines may replace every contact — every contagion — between human beings.


In Italian: https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-chiarimenti

17 March 2020

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 technology, 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.