“Giorgio Agamben and the Coronavirus: An Imaginary Dialogue with Giorgio Agamben During COVID 19 times” by Raj Ayyar
Care Consciously! # DEFEAT CORONA

Series’s Editor’s Note:

Since the inception of COVID 19, there has been considerable debate on the nature of the pandemic. While the majority of the people acknowledge it as an unprecedented state of havoc which requires entirely new measures and approach, there are still some thinkers who think that the pandemic has/will result in the curtailment of individual freedom, increasing surveillance and the loss of embodied interactions. The famous Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben is foremost among them. Famous for his terms like Homosacer, State of Exception and Bare life, Agamben is one of the growing number of philosophers who shared his opinion on COVID 19 since its break out.

Raj Ayyar has entered into an interesting imaginal dialogue with Agamben, mainly based on his views shared in European Journal of Psychoanalysis regarding the nature of pandemic and the State’s response to it.  The dialogue is interspersed with Agamben’s larger view that how the exceptional situation such as a pandemic enables modern states to suspend the autonomy of the individual. Hence, along with life, a pandemic also poses a grave threat for democratic values.

In continuity with our ongoing series on imaginary dialogue with philosophers, poets and thinkers with our peers outside NIAS, I today present the conversation written and imagined by Prof. Raj Ayyar with the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

– Dr. Saurabh Todariya

I was really excited at the thought of conversing with one of the most significant European philosophers of our time and one who has been hailed as one of the leading inheritors of Michel Foucault’s legacy. After a few buzzes and crackles, the Skype screen settled and there was Giorgio twinkling at me from the other end of the world.

GA: Raj, it is such a pleasure to see you.

RA: Likewise, Giorgio. I have been meaning to set up this conference ever since I got pulled into that web of philosophical discussion about the coronavirus.

GA: Ah, yes. You mean the little pieces that appeared in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis?

RA: Yes. There was a flurry of philosophical activity – blogs and counter blogs on the corona pandemic ever since it became an issue in March 2020.

Well into his 70s, Agamben is a handsome man with intense, piercingly skeptical eyes.

RA: Before all else. I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your performance as the hunky apostle Philip in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

GA: (Chuckling) Aha, you remember that, do you?

RA: I know you’re a super busy guy, so let’s cut to the chase here. I have been following the trail of exchanges and solo pieces on the corona virus by you, Nancy, Baross, Kristeva, Divya Dwivedi, Shaj Mohan and others in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis. In one of your early reflections in this conversation, you point out that the Covid-19 crisis is a ‘constructed’ pandemic.

GA: Let me explain what I meant by that, I’m certainly not implying some kind of a cheap conspiracy theory. There may be a ‘pandemic’ but it’s not better or worse than a common cold pandemic. (His eyes bored right into mine through the screen). Would it have been any different if there were a common cold pandemic originating in Wuhan, China and migrating via Italy to the rest of the world?

RA: I’m sure there are many common cold pandemics happening throughout every year.

GA:    Quite so. Yet, this crisis has been used by right wing autocrats as a ‘state of exception’ that justifies the promulgation of Emergency-style laws. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán declared a state of emergency until the end of May. In India and elsewhere, there has been a suspension of ‘normal’ parliamentary proceedings.

My fear is: declaring a state of exception in any crisis is dangerous, because the tendency is to regularize it, make it the norm to where the exception slowly becomes the long-standing rule.

RA: Off hand, I can think of one such state of exception that did become the rule. Consider the new airport security precautions that came into force after 9/11-

GA: (Interrupting) I am so glad you brought that up!

RA: (Continuing) I remember a time when one could walk up to the tarmac to greet incoming passengers.

Today, there is a formidable array of security checks, body searches, semi-harassing fondling of private parts, and high levels of verbal harassment which includes intensely personal, prying questions. The only reason we don’t invoke #metoo for this kind of behaviour is out of intense, irrational paranoia about terrorists lurking behind every flower pot at international airports.

GA: I certainly think that this disease, whatever its level of seriousness, has given autocrats an easy excuse to declare a state of exception. That is also likely to petrify into the regular long-term norm.

RA: I would like to make a mischievous suggestion. You ask in that long conversation, involving you, the ghost of Foucault, and the presence of Esposito, Nancy, and my friends Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, “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?” (Leaning forward mischievously). Do you think one reason why this disease has inspired such worldwide panic is because it affected the affluent white ‘western’ bastions of capitalism?

GA: (Laughing) Of course. Let’s also remember that I said in the same piece, it is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for creating new states of exception. The corona crisis is being used as an excuse for invoking states of exception including long term lockdowns with complete paralysis of economic and human activity, unprecedented restrictions on travel and movement, within and outside countries, rules for masking and concealing the human body, etc.

RA: You seem to find it pathetic that behind much of the panic is a clinging to ‘bare life’.

GA: (Sombrely) Yes, it’s almost as if the panic-stricken sheeple are following all the different pandemic protocols, because they are terrified of dying. This is a good example of what I call ‘bare life’. To live fully implies to take delight in one’s capacities and potentials, and to express all sides of one’s personality fully. That is what the Greeks called bios as opposed to Zoe.

RA: This takes us back to Aristotle, doesn’t it? After all, eudaimonia implies much more than ‘mere pleasure’ or ‘happiness’. It is a state of flourishing, of living richly and abundantly in all areas of life.

GA: Yes, ’bare life’ is a state of surviving and clawing to survive. Bios on the other hand is very similar to Aristotle’s sense of flourishing.

RA: Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, I would like to suggest that however dismal a scared clinging to bare life may be, bare life is a necessary condition for higher states of fulfilment, i.e. bios.

After all, if you are gasping for breath, hooked up to ventilators in the ICU, it can hardly be said that you are capable of any kind of flourishing!

Let’s go back to the ‘state of exception’ for a minute. In your little book called State of Exception which deals with the subject, you suggest that the problem with the sovereign invoking a state of exception (national emergencies, pandemic, war, or siege) as an excuse for assuming extra-constitutional privileges and authority is that it tends to get regularized. We seldom go back to things as they were before the state of exception or the emergency was declared.

GA: That’s right – that is the tragic danger of declaring any kind of state of exception.

RA: In many ways, your imaging of scared people allowing the sovereign an excess of authority during a state of exception, reminds me powerfully of the 17th century British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ subjects cling to security at all costs; their rationality in the state of nature is intimately tied with the need for security. This is why they’re willing to give up their powers and freedoms – in return for the privilege of sleeping safely in their beds. That, if you like, is a clinging to bare life.

GA: I think Hobbes has a great deal to offer today if you strip his texts of the mechanistic materialism of the 17th century, not to mention some of his quaint pronouncements on the State of Nature. However, I pointed out many years ago in an article in the Stasis Journal, that the security afforded by the Hobbesian sovereign is bogus. I think the subjects of that sovereign are doomed to lives of perpetual insecurity.

RA: You have said recently that governments are likely to normalize the state of exception as has been done before. You say that the ban on large gatherings, especially of protesters, activists and dissenters is likely to continue, even after a viable vaccine/treatment for the disease is found. People are still going to be encouraged to work from home and avoid physical contact whenever possible. To me, this is a terrifyingly dystopian vision. Is there no way of escaping what I call ‘the new abnormal’ and return to the old normal with all its limitations and its messiness?

GA: (wryly) I also point out that “hope is given only to those who no longer hope”. I have no doubt that some aspects of the old normal will return, should a vaccine be discovered, or some other method of alleviating the pandemic of panic surrounding this disease. On the other hand, I think governments are going to be reluctant to give up the privilege of banning large oppositional protest gatherings, thereby normalizing the state of exception, using the ever-present health security risks of other viruses, or mutant versions of the corona virus as an excuse.

RA:    During the first flurry of exchanges printed or reprinted in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, you seem very dismissive of Covid-19 as little different from the common flu. I think that’s one reason Jean Luc Nancy reacted so strongly to your piece.

GA: (laughs) Quite so. As the disease spread and it became clear that we were dealing with a ‘pandemic’ in some sense, I revised my view – somewhat. If you notice, I began to call it (not without irony) a new ‘plague’ or even the new ‘apocalypse’.

In some sense, I believe that many people were ready for the plague. The world before the coronavirus (BC) was a world filled with fearful people just drifting without purpose but dreading what lay in the shadows. As I point out, in “Reflections on the Plague”, corona was just the apocalypse, just the catastrophe the people were looking for at an unconscious level.

RA: At another level, it seems to me that we are dealing with clear instances of ‘bio power’. In other words, as you and Foucault have pointed out, the aim of the disciplinary protocols surrounding lockdown, mask-wearing rules, social distancing, etc. can be seen as the creation of ‘docile bodies’.

GA: I tend to agree with that. One major difference between Foucault and myself, is that he tends to emphasize the lateral diffusion of power in power discourses. I, on the other hand, am also interested in vertical power structures of sovereignty from top to bottom.

It seems to me that Foucault does not clarify exactly when vertical sovereignty was given up in favour of lateral discourses of power.

RA: Aside from bio power, I would like to focus for a minute on the lived body. It seems to me that the phenomenological sense of the ‘lived body’ has shrunk dramatically thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. My body and the body of the other are seen as potential sites of disease, and therefore of danger. Expressing myself or relating to the other is permitted only through a mask or face-shield, or using digital mediation (e.g. a Skype call like this).

GA: Yes, for me, the loss of the functions of the lived body is a subset of biopolitics. The body is inscribed in restrictive ways by the pandemic and its new protocols.

Recently, I wrote in the Tribune:

“Even sadder than the limitations on freedom implicit in the provisions is the degeneration of human relations that they can generate. The other, whoever he may be, even a loved one, must not be approached or touched, and indeed it is necessary to keep a specific distance from him, which according to some should be of one metre, but according to the latest recommendations by experts should be of 4.5 metres (interesting to note those extra fifty centimetres!)

Our fellow man has been abolished.”

RA: Interestingly, Sergio Benvenuto wrote a piece called “Forget About Agamben” in March 2020. He quotes this very passage and says:

“It is difficult to imagine an equally superficial reaction. In fact the epidemic overturns the cliché that if I love my fellow men or women I should hug them, kiss them or stick to them like sardines … today I display my love for the other by keeping her or him at a distance.”

I find this profoundly unsatisfactory. I do not think keeping the other at a distance is a display of love. Love is touchy-feely and (to some extent) does involve sticking to each other like sardines. I do not think a detached Zoom or Skype “love relationship” is really “love” in any sense of the ambiguous word.

RA: What do you think of this new, sanitized, digitally mediated communication?

GA: (Emotionally) Raj, I would much rather be sitting next to you, hugging you, or across from you at a café table, spitting on the ground, gesticulating in the air, putting an arm on your shoulder to emphasize a point, acting in very stereotypically Latin ways, than sitting in front of this camera, talking to you long distance from Switzerland to India.

The intimacy of physical closeness in interaction is part of what I mean by bios, the art of living fully, as opposed to just getting by hanging on to bare existence, which I call zoe.

In fact, I worry, that even after this pandemic disappears, its effects are going to continue. We may see distance learning privileged over classroom learning: we may even be encouraged to. I said in a recent piece:

“Many universities and schools may remain shut, with lessons and lectures taking place online, there may be an end put once and for all to meetings and gathering to talk about political and cultural questions. Maybe we will be in a state where we only exchange digital messages, and wherever possible, machines replace any contact – any contagion – between human beings.”

RA: You know, Giorgio, in some ways, one is tempted to compare this pandemic with an earlier one, with another stigmatized pandemic, namely the HIV disease. In the 1980s, the latter was viewed with righteous horror by the puritanical middle classes of various countries. It was seen as an unfortunate legacy of wicked ‘deviant sexual practices’. More importantly sex itself was seen as potentially threatening and the equation sex=death was made in many people’s minds.

GA: Raj, I see the analogy. And yet, we are going much further with this disease than with AIDS. ‘Contact=contagion/death’ replaces ‘sex=contagion/death’. You were speaking of the lived body. We are looking at a very powerful threat to the lived body – a threat that has the dangerous potential of cutting us off from physically situated communication and interaction.

And yet, as I point out, in my little piece “Reflections on the Plague” published on the Quodlibet website in March 2020, we willingly embrace our loneliness, our impoverished loves and relationships, and our impoverished sense of living in our bodies.

The tragedy is that all that people seem to be looking for in their paranoid fearfulness – is bare life, and clinging to it. All sense of value, spirituality, joie de vivre – in other words of bios – as a life lived fully.

RA:    Giorgio, the pathos of this comes out very clearly in some people actually seeing virtual digital reality as superior to physical reality: the new forced retreat into digital loneliness, rationalizing it as somehow superior to the old, bad ways of being stuck in office time, dressing up to go to work, being exposed to the physical, emotional and spiritual contagions of other people.

There is a new class of eco-romantics who go on and on about how they can see the Himalayas from the Indian city of Jalandhar and how the earth is breathing again, now that there are very few cars and buses on the roads.

My friend, the young Indian philosopher Shaj Mohan, describes this as the ‘a priori idyllic’.

A day spent in working on one’s iPad at one’s own convenience, lounging around in pyjamas, bathing once every three days (a sure sign of depression), spending the rest of the day watching movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime, reading the latest corona disaster news, and indulging in virtual sex around midnight; many claim that they have never felt so happy and peaceful in all their lives as I gaze at them blankly.

GA: (smiling) ‘Eco-romantic’ – I like that.

Do you think that there were many introverts even before the plague who clung to digital media as a way of escaping the stresses of interacting with the other in real, juicy, smelly, unpredictable, physical face-to-face interaction?

RA:    Last year, I spoke of ‘digital solipsism’ at a conference on Philosophy and Information Technology. Many philosophers, psychologists, and social critics point out the impoverishment of live communication in the age of smart bots and social media. I think many morbidly chose the path of becoming digital solipsists (you can see this very clearly with video game addicts) such that I and the flickering images on my screen are the only things that exist. The flickering images can be manipulated (e. g. in video games). Such individuals are often isolated to the point of being psychopathic.

When education, banking, shopping, sex, my job, ordering my food, and so many other activities can be performed online – why step into the real word out there?

GA: ‘Going outside is highly overrated’, ‘I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal’ – this is from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel critically acclaimed by many video gamers.

What is scary is that a whole introverted lifestyle for many that was set in motion since the early 2000s has now become normative, almost a moral imperative in the age of the coronavirus. It is almost as if there is a chorus of doctors, nurses, and epidemiologists screaming that we should stay at home, that we should be fully absorbed in our digital screens; that we should not physically go out, or seek the physical company of others. All these ‘should’s’ have elevated pathological isolation to the level of a cardinal virtue.

RA: Surely, this is an instance of what my friends Divya Dwivedi of IIT Delhi and Shaj Mohan call ‘hypophysics’, the conflation of fact and value.

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago Sherry Turkle (of MIT fame) was arguing forcefully in her books “Alone Together” and “The Art of Reclaiming Conversation” about the imperative need to find time in one’s life for ‘real face-to-face communication and interaction’.

Switching to a different topic, I am very glad that you debunk one of the current sacred cows of disease prevention, namely, ‘social distancing’.

GA: Yes. As you pointed out we need that touchy-feely sense of physical closeness and intimacy restored to us once again. I do not think any culture based on ‘social distancing’ will be operational for very long.

RA: I’m afraid I disagree with you, Giorgio. Hierarchical societies – casteist cultures like India, colonial hierarchies around the world, flourish on the basis of social distancing. There are intricate and convoluted rules separating sub-castes from each other, appropriate rules of genuflection, and the rules allowing or prohibiting eye contact, physical contact, inter-marriage, social intermingling of any kind, etc. in these cultures.

One could also argue that racist hierarchies in a supposedly egalitarian culture like that of the US, are revealed in their socially-distanced ugliness – in the growing number of instances of police brutality or white societal oppression of African Americans. Before and since George Floyd, there have  many, many instances of majoritarian racial hatred towards minorities, now fanned by the Trump administration.

GA:    Yet the medical protocols for preventing Covid-19 do tend to involve some kind of social distancing rules.

RA: I suggest we replace the phrase ‘social distancing’ with ‘physical distancing’. One of the standard ways to avoid a highly contagious virus is to keep that boundary of physical distance between individuals. We do not need to resort to the loaded terminology of ‘social distancing’.

GA: I would like to address the view expressed by Jean Luc Nancy and your friends Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi about the coronavirus as a communovirus. Certainly, if one looks at the situation through an abstract normative lens, let’s say a Kantian one, it is tempting to say that this is everybody’s problem, and eradicating this virus needs to be an egalitarian, international community effort. However, far from being a communovirus, this virus has divided us like never before. New walls of ethnocentric and xenophobic mistrust and stereotyping have risen.

RA: Including the many racist perceptions of Chinese involvement in creating the virus.

GA: Yes.

RA: Additionally, far from the community accepting this as everybody’s problem, there are now sharp distinctions between those who have the plague and those who do not. In other words, the infected ones are viewed with righteous horror by the so-called community outside: neighbours, friends, family, etc. In India, there are tragic accounts of municipal authorities boarding up Covid-19 patients’ homes with tin sheets; many undertakers and mourners are reluctant to bury or cremate according to appropriate last rites. Priests of every religious denomination shy away from facilitating and presiding over funerals of diagnosed or suspected Covid-19 patients.

GA: That is tragic. I agree with you that this pandemic has unleashed a flood of prejudice, stereotyping, misunderstanding, and walls of division and fear.

We are very far from regarding this health challenge as one posed by a communovirus.

RA: Yet, the sad paradox is that unless we do switch to a communovirus paradigm, we may not be able to find a long-term solution to the pandemic. Unfortunately, we are running out of time, and cannot discuss this further. This has been a real pleasure, Giorgio.

GA: Likewise, Raj. I have enjoyed our conversation.

(Prof. Raj Ayyar is a philosopher based in Bangalore and has taught philosophy at various prestigious universities and institutes in India and the US, most recently at IIIT-Delhi.)

(Dr Saurabh Todariya is PhD in Philosophy from JNU and is currently exploring the intersections between  Phenomenology and Kashmiri Shaivism in NIAS-CSP)

Care Consciously! #DefeatCorona !

Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.