A Foucauldian enquiry in the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic management (Critique in Times of Coronavirus)

Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898, Kunstmuseum Basel

Is the substantially global management of the coronavirus pandemic a novelty or would it be possible to trace its origin in an earlier order of things? Could the specific model selected for the governance of the ongoing pandemic be subjected to a certain genealogy? According to the text on “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1971), Michel Foucault defines genealogy, or otherwise “effective” history, as a method of analysis of the descent, or the emergence of a specific practice.1Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, trans. Donald F. Bouchard & Sherry Simon, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, London: Penguin, 1991, pp. 81, 83. Referring to descent in the context of Foucauldian genealogy entails analysing the nexus of complex, multiple and multiform relations of power and knowledge at the origin of a given practice.

In his lecture on January 15th, 1979, which is included in the volume Abnormal. Lectures at the Collége de France 1974-1975,2Michel Foucault, Abnormal. Lectures at the Collége de France 1974-1975, trans. Graham Burchell, London & New York: Verso, 2003 (henceforth: A). as well as in the chapter entitled “Panopticism” in Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975),3Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books, 1977 (henceforth: DP). Foucault seems to offer us, in an exceptionally illuminating way, a perspective on the conception of the ongoing management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is, in fact, the management model of the plague. Αt the beginning of the 18th century, the “model of the inclusion of plague victims” as he named it, superseded the “model of the exclusion of the lepers” (A, 44). Contrary to the management of leprosy, which required the leper’s exclusion from society for putting everyone in danger, the management of the plague placed in the centre of a disciplinary mechanism not only the plague victim but the general population in its totality. The purpose of this disciplinary mechanism was to prevent the spread of the contagious disease by imposing a strict control on the circulation of bodies.

What characterized leprosy was its rarity; the fact that it was subject to a slow development and was not highly contagious, while its external traits were obviously noticeable, making the diagnosis of the disease easily performed by common people or the priests. On the contrary, the plague, like COVID-19 today, is highly and rapidly contagious, via direct or indirect contact, thus affecting the entire populations in a short period of time. This made the plague impossible to control simply by shutting those carrying the disease out of the confines of the town, especially as their detection was a difficult task. The particular traits of the disease required the transformation of its management: Contrary to leprosy, the simple binary division of the population between the healthy and diseased, and the consequent expulsion of the latter was not effective any longer.

A specific distinction of an epidemic or a pandemic, is its dissemination from one body to the next, its circulation or flow among a multiplicity of bodies. An epidemic or pandemic disease circulates through the everyday circulation of bodies per se. What accelerates the spread of the disease is not only its transmissibility, but also the vehicles for its transmission (from animals to humans, from one individual to the next, from one city to the next, from one port or airport to the next). In fact, the denser and broader the circulation of bodies is, the more efficient the networks for the circulation are, the easier the virus’s circulation becomes. As Eugene Thacker notes, “An epidemic could only be an epidemic – and not simply ‘endemic’ – if all circulations are flowing, if the networks of trade and travel are functioning correctly.”4Eugene Thacker, “The Shadows of Atheology: Epidemics, Power and Life after Foucault”, Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 26, no. 6, 2009, p. 149. Therefore, what marked the management of the pandemic plague was the attempt to handle the circulation of the disease through the control of the circulation of bodies. Controlling the disease entailed the articulation of a topology, within which intervention and selective obstruction of a network, or a form of circulation was possible.

In contrast to the management of leprosy, which mobilized “rituals of exclusion”, the management of the plague “gave rise to disciplinary projects” (DP, 198). In the case of the plague, the “massive, binary” division of the diseased versus the healthy, as well as the subsequent expulsion of the former from the town has been proven impossible. On the contrary, the management of the plague requires multiple separations of the populations and spaces, for “individualizing distributions” of spaces – that is, everyone has to be exactly where they are required to be – as well as “an organization in depth of surveillance and control” of these divisions and separations. For Foucault, all this led to “an intensification and a ramification of power” (ibid).

The management of the pandemic introduces the individual bodies to a specific network of disciplinary relations. The plague as a form of disorder, real or imaginary, has discipline “as its medical political correlative” (ibid). According to Foucault, “[t]he plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together” (DP, 197). The regulation and control of maintaining order penetrate “even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary function of power” (DP, 198).

The restrictions placed upon the circulation of bodies, means that they ought to have a spatial positioning determined in advance. Their movement is determined by a strict framework whose breach entails punishment. A “small penal mechanism” is situated at the centre of every modern disciplinary control, which Foucault terms as “normalizing judgement” (DP, 177), and which punishes a set of behaviours deviating from what the mechanism determines as permitted. Its purpose is the creation of a docile body specific to the condition of the pandemic through the fear of the penalty, which in current days assumes the form of a fine or even imprisonment. Besides the penalty of conduct, what is at stake is also the moralization of conduct. The “carefree” circulation of bodies is not only a criminal offense but a moral one too. Hence, the disobedient body is labelled as “irresponsible”, in contrast to the obedient body of the “responsible” citizen. Irresponsible institutions may not exist, but irresponsible citizens certainly do! The individualistic ethics of neoliberalism require social responsibility on behalf of the individual. Nonetheless, at the same time, neoliberalism undermines any notion of social sensitivity and responsibility when, for instance, it dismantles the welfare state, or refuses access to decent life conditions to a number of persons.

The movement of bodies is constantly and continually monitored. The body is monitored in order to curtail the dangerous communication channels. This is achieved through an individualized “spatial partitioning”. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the disciplinary strategy of “partitioning” as the strict delimitation of a given space, in which each individual has their own position, so as to exclude the possibility of the individual’s pointless move, their disappearance or the futile and dangerous interaction with others. The disciplinary space tends to be divided into as many parts as the bodies or elements it is meant to separate: “Particular places were defined to correspond […] to the need to supervise, to break dangerous communications” (DP, 143-144). The aim is the elimination of diffuse circulation of individuals, “their unusable and dangerous coagulations”, as well as the decomposition of “massive or transient pluralities” (DP, 143). The partitioned, enclosed space enables the interruption of any dangerous communication, as well as the evaluation of everyone’s behaviour and the possible sanctions in the case of misbehaviour.

Inside such topography of bodies, everyone “is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment” (DP, 195). The “hierarchical observation” (DP, 170) of bodies work relentlessly. The gaze is always vigilant. Controlling the movement of the bodies and disciplining them is achieved through their surveillance. Hence, while “leprosy calls for distance”, the plague, like the coronavirus, “implies an always finer approximation of power to individuals, an ever more constant and insistent observation” (A, 46).

The exile of the leper and the containment of the plague do not belong to the same “political dream”. The political dream lurking behind the management of leprosy is the dream of a “pure community”. On the contrary, what lurks behind the management of the plague is the dream of a “disciplined society”. It is the “dream” of a power, which, in the name of containment of the infectious virus threatening the population, is exercised in an exhausting and total manner upon the society as a whole – thus, making each of the subject upon which it is exercised entirely transparent. In a sense, the political dream of the plague-stricken town represents the obliteration of politics itself. The plague-stricken town, as Foucault noted, expresses the “utopia of the perfectly governed city”. It is a town “traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies” (DP, 198). The epidemic of the plague, “envisaged as a possibility at least”, constitutes, as Foucault maintains, a laboratory to test an “ideal” way for disciplinary power to be exercised. Like the jurists, who “placed themselves in imagination in a state of nature” in order to “make rights and laws function according to pure theory”, the rulers were dreaming of the plague condition as an opportunity “in order to see perfect disciplines functioning” (DP, 199).

The replacement of the leprosy model by the plague model, corresponds to a particularly significant historical process, which Foucault terms as “the invention of positive technologies of power”. The response to leprosy is “a negative reaction”, that is, “a reaction of rejection, exclusion, and so on”. On the contrary, the response to the plague, or to the coronavirus today, is “a positive reaction”. It is a reaction which includes confinement, observation, production of knowledge and, eventually, the multiplication of the effects of power through the accumulation of observation and knowledge. As Foucault maintains, it constitutes the pass “from a technology of power that drives out, excludes, banishes, marginalizes, and represses, to a fundamentally positive power that fashions, observes, knows, and multiplies itself on the basis of its own effects.” (A, 48).

It is the contention of this short intervention attempted here, that the management of the plague during the 18th century, similarly to the management of COVID-19 today, carries within it the two basic forms of biopower that is the power over life, which according to Foucault, was developed from the 17th century onward. Biopower is compared to sovereign power, which predominated in pre-modern societies, where the monarch had a “right of life and death” over his subjects. The concept of biopower is addressed mainly in the last chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976),5Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, London: Penguin Books, 1990. entitled “Right of Death and Power over Life”, as well as in the lecture of March 17th, 1976, which is included in the book/volume Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-76.6Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-76, trans.  David Macey, New York: Picador, 2003. Foucault defines biopower as the “explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations”.7Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, op. cit., p. 140. In particular, power over life was developed in two basic forms. The one which seems to have developed first was termed by Foucault as the “anatomopolitics of the human body”;8Ibid. p. 139. it revolves around and centers on the disciplines of the body, that is around systems of control, aiming at producing docile bodies. An example of such form of power is the plague management model which emerged at the end of the 17th century, as mentioned above. The second form assumed by biopower is the one of the “biopolitics of the population”; it revolves around interventions and regulatory controls aiming not at individual bodies but at the management of population.9To be sure, in the series of lectures given by Foucault at the Collége de France during 1978-1979, entitled The Birth of Biopolitics, power over life is examined within the context of a technology of government, which incidentally marks the shift of his interest from biopolitics to governmentality.  The constant disciplinary control, as a way of managing the pandemic, according to Foucault, is constitutive of “an attempt to maximize the health, life, longevity, and strength of individuals. Essentially, it is a question of producing a healthy population” (A, 46). Similarly, what is witnessed during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the enormous increase of disciplinary power, which, in the name of the population and the development of specific strategies, controls, excludes and limits the human body. The aim of the political “dream” of power during the management of the ongoing pandemic is the production of docile, disciplined bodies, in the name of life preservation and death prevention. Therefore, what becomes clear in the kind of management put in place, is that we are still living under the system of power which was inaugurated at the advent of modernity by the political and medical management of the plague, and which is found in the diptych of life and discipline.

According to the lecture “What is Critique?” delivered at Société française de philosophie on May 27th, 1978, Foucault upholds that the “governmentalization” of Western societies from the 16th century onward cannot be separated from the question of “how not to be governed?”. Foucault explains this question in the following way: “‘how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them.’”10Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” trans. Lysa Hochroth, in The Politics of Truth, edited by Sylvère Lotringer, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007, p. 44. Therefore, along with the “veritable explosion of the art of governing men (sic)”, “a kind of general cultural form, both a political and moral attitude, a way of thinking, etc.”, is born, which Foucault names as “the art of not being governed or better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost.”.11Ibid., pp. 43, 45.

Consequently, would it be possible to argue for a different management of the pandemic, one which would not aim at the subjection of bodies and would not end in the implementation and strict compliance to a set of disciplinary measures – designed to make up for the reluctance or inability to practically protect life, especially of those living under conditions of increasing precariousness – as dictated by the neoliberal governing of the pandemic? In other words, would it be possible for “an alternative politics of bios”, to emerge, as Panagiotis Sotiris asked in his article “Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?”, a different biopolitics which “combines individual and collective care in non coercive ways.”? In his view, that would involve “the decisions for the reduction of movement and for social distancing in times of epidemics, […] would be the result of democratically discussed collective decisions.” Fear, passivity and the discipline of citizens could be replaced by collective effort, mutual support and aid, solidarity and care.12I would like to thank Dr Rosa Vasilaki for his invaluable help.

Gerasimos Kakoliris is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece (gkakoliris@philosophy.uoa.gr)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.