Begin from the Beginning: Revisiting Agamben (Critique in times of Corona)

by | 9 Apr 2020

The overcharged attacks on Agamben don’t come as a surprise. Since we are amidst a pandemic, there is an urgency palpable in people’s writings. For a reader of Agamben, it should be clear not to place an unfair burden on a philosopher who primarily deals with metaphysics to be read as offering a political program. Yet, commentators are more concerned with his apparent ‘undermining’ of the present crisis save for a few. There was much outrage about how he called the State’s response to contain the virus, an ‘overreaction,’ as if his guilt lies only in his short-sightedness and is just wrong due to his denial and refusal to seriously condemn the state we are all in.

Anyone familiar with his work knows that in Agamben’s thought, “the political realm is originally biopolitical,” so it is unsurprising to hear him repeat that the virus could serve as a pretext to close in on the limit between an exception and norm, as it is predisposed for sovereign power to produce bare life in his framework. In doing so, Agamben is flagging this as an emergent future that is not a distant reality represents something that’s already in motion, that’s always already immanent – a movement towards bare life – mediated by greater state surveillance. This immanent exception manifests in the form of a transformation into a global data-based economy. In Agamben if we search for answers to settle political contradictions in society we will search in vain. On the contrary, what is needed is to extent the conceptual categories that resonate widely, “zone of indistinction,” “state of exception,” the notion of “bare life.” Therefore, when I say that the conversation on Agamben needs to be re-opened, I mean that we need to not entirely dismiss his observations but fault his diagnosis which seeks closure by relying on an onto-theological paradigm of sovereign power that traces itself to a mythical and originary biopolitical instance. Therefore, I am looking at the possibility of not finding any reconciliation within his framework rather propose a need to locate it in our historical context.

Yet, the response has been polarized with people’s focus centered on the degree of ‘misplacement of his estimation,’ insisting on the irrational and baseless nature of his claims. He may be wrong is his appraisal of the virus, but he isn’t nearly off the mark about the scaling up of security apparatus. A more important conversation on rethinking bio-politics is yet to take place, so “Must society be defended from Agamben,” might be a hasty obituary which bypasses the fundamental limits of the structure of his thought and confines itself to falsifying the misplaced denial while also holding true that the measures that various states are invoking to fight are of a necessarily disproportionate scale.[1]

The urgent dismissal of Agamben reveals a different kind of disavowal which is expressed in the discomfort to discuss the possibility of reinvigorated surveillance capitalist society or indeed a post-surveillance society without letting it play into nihilist fantasies of technologically enabled overlords. The mere recognition of such a possibility seems to suggest a foreclosing of a radical opening for structural transformation acknowledge that it is difficult to imagine a future from where we stand today and any attempt at discussing the future could well be characterized as utopias or dystopias, suppressing the immediacy of the present. Any exercise in abstraction can easily be collapsed into a futile exercise in power! That is the blinding against which Agamben warns against, a blinding that emanates from fear and urgency. The response to Agamben actually seems to be suffering from that blindness, thus revealing more about our condition which presents itself as a crisis creating a perverse need for valorisation of our collective victimhood. It seems then that the ‘beautiful souls’ recognise vulnerability and the seriousness of the virus against Agamben who undermines the existential threat involved only to present a ‘distorted dystopian’ reality of political control. Yet, we all accept that if the response to the virus is not exaggerated so too are the concerns over security that the moment of emergency normalizes. So where is this conversation headed, toward or away from Agamben’s tongue-in-cheek remark?

Sacred Life and Pardonable Death

Today, at the outset all life is sacred – principally, worth preserving – but the virus is of a catastrophic proportion. Death-by-disease forms the background as an inevitable truth on which a borrowed life stands as a fragile promise. Thus rendering people as permanent suspects and potentially, expendable. Bare life is more than a metaphor for the sovereign exception which signifies a relation of abandonment which results in a relation that is founded on separation or withdrawal. So life, itself, is constituted by a presupposed exclusion. We can see that manifest in the spectrum of life resting on the choices between non-choices – death by policing, vigilantism, destitution, disease, starvation or despondency. This is what necessitates a fight but against what? (We will come to it later)

It is important to bring in Agamben’s mythological understanding of Roman Law, where God won’t accept the sacred man’s consecration, nor have them as sacrifice nor sanction their killing. They belong neither to the sphere of the divine nor of the profane. Therefore, in reminding ourselves that each life is invaluable and precious and yet, not all lives can be saved – the sacredness of human life is being preserved while also tacitly making it licit to let go of some. By presuming death, we offer its self-justification and therefore death by negligence, mismanagement, bad policy decisions, lack of resources, lack of access to resource are all ‘collateral damage’ against the effort towards preservation of life. Thus implicating bare life within a state where lines will be redrawn, vulnerable to being marked as inside or outside and yet, being either already means to be inhered in an excepting logic.

So, a main take away from Agamben can be this idea that the loss of life during plague and epidemics isn’t, then, killing – a ritual killing, which is about enacting purification and involves an implicit sanction or approval by law, such as the killing of the condemned or the sanctioned killings of ‘terrorists,’ whose exclusion is explicitly stated and marked other. Today the right thing is self-exclusion, self-enclosure and self-isolation and so, paradoxically, our inclusion into the realm of life depends on not exposing or being exposed to disease. We are outlawed until we become legible and legitimate subjects again, with States considering providing immunity certificates to people. We are all simultaneously, albeit, disproportionately abandoned and subjected to the law and system which has pushed us into this situation. The risks of the threat vary from being more immediate for some and abstract for others.

An Invisible War?

US President Donald Trump has spoken about “our war against the Chinese virus”; UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced, “We must act like any wartime government”; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the “war against an invisible enemy” ‘We are in a war’ in which ‘nothing should divert us’ from fighting an ‘invisible enemy’, as French President Macron put it in a televised address.  Interestingly, Agamben too points out that the war with an invisible enemy but as a spectral enemy, “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.” Yet, he misses the point entirely because that is precisely what the function of ideology is, to make us believe that the war in inside us – it’s this ‘narrow’ survivalism, which he laments due to a fundamental misrecognition. In deed civil war like conditions are possible but not for the reasons, he points out, but because of people scrambling for resources to fight destitution and death.

Against the widespread condemnation of Agamben which posits his mistake as one of him not buckling under the moral pressure to fly without questioning for asking, “Is this flight really necessary?” We need to begin this conversation again without forfeiting the actual fear and desperation which articulates itself as a desire for control. Fear animates our political field, where people are willing to trade their personal liberties for security. There are new ‘zones of indistinction’ that manifest in the morphing of experience of homelessness into the language of immunology, of survival into idioms of war and nationalism, of using illness as metaphor  for violence, of a constructed need for protection. What we are experiencing is a blurring of hitherto distinguishable coordinates of our symbolic order and are at once, in the midst of a crash in the usual relations of sociality (social distancing) and production (a la lockdown). What Agamben imagines as a natural predisposition of the State to be able to optimize this moment to further its ends through us, obscures the more crucial question on how it will be able to do so!  The question is not only if we would have stomached such government measures without the common goal of a ‘war’ against the virus, to win? But what would ‘freedom,’ going to look like from here-on? Would it be a defense against surveillance and passivity or can freedom be based on equality, not abstract equality of shared atomization, or self-isolation?

Agamben does implore us to consider what a socially distanced life would look like and again falls short in finding comfort in finding ‘no value to social relations’ based on ‘survival alone.’ This itself conceals the process of value generation between social relations and serves to further the ideological apparatus of a frail capitalistic order. Following Marx, we should ask him if this new form of distancing is not a visibilisation of hitherto, disguised forms of exploitation? The notion of freedom, then, is not purely disposed to a negative spiral as Agamben constructs it to be. Of course, he is not saying that we will necessarily be in a purely(lest, we close off the space for politics which lies between purities) dystopian society of control but sees this moment as an extension or a re-drawing of the limits of control. I don’t think Agamben would mind giving room to a renewed struggle for freedom in a moment of chaos that can be liberating from the confines of an erstwhile order of social reality, except he can’t imagine it to be that way. In a particularly grim reality, where workers are locked-out as the city observes a ‘lock-down,’ while staying home has become a patriotic gesture against the movement of abandoned workers who are falling off the frames of the nation as wartime casualties, it can be difficult to do so.

Surviving the Doom and Struggling its Apparent Inevitability!

We shouldn’t let his provocation place our hope on an unfounded optimism. Sotiris, while writing against Agamben, has proposed a “biopolitics from below,” where:

“from simple discipline we move to responsibility, in regards to others and then ourselves, and from suspending sociality to consciously transforming it. In such a condition, instead of a permanent individualized fear, which can break down any sense of social cohesion, we move to the idea of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions.”

This simple inversion of surveillance into an opportunity seems naïve, even if well-meaning. We are supposed to see disciplining as an opportunity for becoming more responsible, see social isolation as a platform for social cohesion fostered by community feelings. Clearly, exposing the limits of understanding power as immanent and not, based in materiality! A questioning of Agamben without interrogating the framework of biopolitics seems as tautologically abstract as Agamben’s self-referential notions of bare life, if not more.

Sotiris further writes:

“In such a condition, instead of a permanent individualized fear, which can break down any sense of social cohesion, we move to the idea of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions.”

To place the virus as a unifier, if not a leveler, comes dangerously close to statist discourses that rely on overcompensating for the obvious lack of public welfare by rousing sentiments to boost public morale and forge unity through the idiom of war, patience and sacrifice.  As if, the only barrier to “horizontality” has been people’s unwillingness to spend time with each other. Such analysis relies on the understanding of ideology as mere false consciousness.

Yes, the virus, by stopping the lock, provides that opportunity for infinite possibilities to emerge, but they would not simply emerge by itself without political intervention – with international solidarity seeming far from sight, one cannot just move “from simple discipline to responsibility, in regards to others and then ourselves, and from suspending sociality to consciously transforming it.” Elsewhere I explain why a purely consciousness-based idea of collective responsibility does little more than preserving individual interest, writ large. Surely, engaging in actions that could once have been replaced by consumerist ethics does reconfigure the field of social relations differently, and also becomes ripe for the birth of a different work-regime. Yet, what does that concretely do the existing social relations which are embedded along the verticality of labour and surplus? That is what indeed is in disorder today accrued by a crisis within the ruling classes, shifting of power centers, the crash of capitalism and the decay of neoliberalism. Therefore the virus does create a situation for a radical rupture in politics but to what end if collectivity, social cohesion and solidarity are to be celebrated just in the form of its appearance? The mutation by the virus that we are witnessing has in fact persisted in other forms throughout history, except in the case of the pandemic it engulfs potentially everyone than just the people on the margins. Foregrounding the logical need for one to remain safe, everyone has to be safe. This visibilised against commodity fetishism, a system of relationality between people and captures the internal contradictions of life and abandonment. It also makes visible the conditions of injustice, inequalities.

Speaking from the belly of the monster, albeit, in a self-serving way, the situation at the detention camps in the USA, in prisons, border camps have become a common concern for all.  Across classes, there is a fear  which gets articulated as a risk of transmission or contagion and justifies the use of force against ‘violators’ of lockdown, no matter who they are – even if they are migrant labourers who have been suddenly displaced by measures they didn’t foresee. Indeed there is a discontinuity that the virus has caused to the flow of capital. One would imagine that against the delusions of individualism the comfortable class, globally, is forced to take stock of the system of relationalities which aren’t always apparent. Yet, paradoxically, when the margins have become stark blurred into the centre of polity, it further exacerbates their marginalisation.

A shared political moment is possible precisely based on a shared negativity – a universal can be forged across and along social antagonisms against privileges that were considered immutable and timeless but whether it will be horizontal, bottom-up biopolitics of the people, I am doubtful.

Life and Death have Become Indistinguishable

The virus is a breeding ground that reactivates what already exists in society and has allowed for ideology to function more starkly thus exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. When a society, as a whole has been put on a boil, the existential fear and threats are also inflated, it amplifies the right-wing logic of protection against the ‘other.’ The risk of being host to the virus could fall upon anyone and yet, the other is always at a remove. This paves the way for fascism of all kinds to take hold — from the micro to the molar scale! The racial profiling of people from the North East of India, the increased instances of domestic abuse, denying doctors and flight staff being forced out of their homes, the everyday attacks on people on the streets/delivery persons by a baton wielding police force, the laughter of those behind the screen recording the violence, the online abuse of the Chinese are all testament to it. These are also utterances of securitization, from the ‘bottom.’ Demand for digital surveillance too can be placed on this continuum, which has become ‘necessary’ and has been accelerated, in the absence of alternative and sustainable means to fight the crisis as we extend our deferential palms to be governed, the overriding logic is that we will live today and fight tomorrow!

The obligatory contrition is enforced on nation-states by the immediate as well as international community to “stop the pandemic!” Stop it, anyhow, even if just at the level of appearance through data manipulation of death tolls. It is precisely because and not despite the ubiquity of bourgeois ideology that people respond positively to security-based solutions and surveillance than fighting it, at a time when they are frozen in a moment of ‘no tomorrow.’ Such a notion of horizontality, thus, risks obscuring the field that organises caste, class, and gender relations – which does not simply get re-constituted by a political will to knowledge rather is rooted in the material and ideological  relations which produce it.

What the state of exception then helps us see is the blurring of these distinctions between life and death which suspends our ability to differentiate between the necessary from the authoritarian ways of intervention by adjustment and reconciliation but fails to account for the reasons for its internalisation. Agamben claims that the modern state is not primarily based on citizens as free and conscious subjects, but on citizens as bare life. Yet he attributes infinite power to an invisible sovereign logic that he cannot concretely account for people’s complicity in the different forms and articulations of such a need for securitization, thus obfuscating the sublime work of material-ideology. It is no wonder that his estimation of the scale of the pandemic was off the mark against his temptation to define the moment as nothing but the repetition of the same.


Giergio Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1995

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1975

[1] Example: Orban consolidating power in Hungary, with the storm-troopers of Duterte engaging in vigilantism, with colonial laws being invoked in India with a heightened legitimacy. The house is in disorder and the State is tightening its control.



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