In March when the Coronavirus started to swarm into Italy, a number of eminent philosophers published their immediate reflections on the situation in a debate curated by Antinomie and archived by European Journal of Psychoanalysis. Leading that debate as a prelude was an excerpt from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison about the measures taken in the age of plague.
One major issue emerged in the debate was around biopolitics, brought about by the strict spatial partitioning not too different from the 17th Century, which for Agamben was disproportionate based on his interpretation of the official report at the time which described the situation mildly. The underestimation of the virus in the report became apparent in the following month with the tone being modified again and again as many other countries around the world were also affected following China and Italy. Despite the limited knowledge about the virus the society had back then, Agamben was in a rush to criticize the government’s usage of “a state of exception as a normal paradigm” by “do[ing] their utmost to spread a state of panic”.
When looking at the “exceptional” regulation of the bodies today, it’s important to note that, as Jean-Luc Nancy said, “the exception is indeed becoming the rule”. Today’s political/economic/cultural world is built upon the normality of people’s nomadism or dislocation, from domestic and border-crossing migration to long-term and short-term travels. More people than ever now move around and live in different temporalities, which puts them in a fundamental state of separation from their friends and families, while abstract and symbolic social connections increase. If the premise of being able to see their loved ones whenever they can doesn’t stand anymore, how is staying home more exceptional than being constantly on the move? It is possible, although not ideal, for such a situation to bring people together in return, as while we are freed from the daily routine, we once again start to notice each other’s existence because we start to notice our own. We want to know whether the strangers across the street or state border are safe and healthy, precisely because our own well-being is relying on that of the others. (Sadly, there are still plenty of people find their well-being up to the sacrifice of others.)
Roberto Esposito points out that we are living in a time when biology and politics knot ever tightly. But what’s missing in the debate is that such biopolitics have become way less static but mobile, less physical but temporal, due to the economic/Capitalist factor playing an equally, if not more, significant role in this. That is to say, the discipline we experience today is one that makes sure everyone produces and consumes as much as they should no matter where they are, rather than one that ties everyone to an isolated location. To carry out the discipline more progressively, the media and authorities should have intentionally omitted all mention of the virus situation so that most of the society could continue to do what they are expected to do, that is to live the normal life.
Politics is a fundamentally human issue, but the virus reminds us that we are also a vulnerable species, and the mysteries of nature should be respected and feared by all means. Agamben quoted the National Research Council report as if it were the truth, but it’s actually nothing more than the human being’s momentary understanding of the nature which we might never fully understand. The debate is pretty much constructed in a human context, except for Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan who putthe human back in the context of nature. The virus we encounter this time, like all the other beings and non-beings we encountered and will encounter, reiterates the urge for a post-human (or pre-human in this sense) thinking. Instead of thinking about the punishment we receive or the human conspiracies, we need to jump out of the human circle and realize that the existence virus can’t be more natural, just like ourselves. In the movie War of Worlds, the invincible aliens are defeated by a kind of microorganism that human have become immune to. A large part of the audience complained about the abrupt ending, but that scenario is very likely as a matter of fact. Forget about the heroic human, all that we can do is to run and scream for long enough for nature to do its magic.
What War of Worlds didn’t teach us is how to live during and after the crisis, neither did any other disaster title. There will be only one end to the human world and this is apparently not it, then how do we maintain a sense of daily life, coping with the risks, and how do we return to society after the crisis? If temporarily suspending the human world can save the more vulnerable ones among us, we should. What about afterwards when the world return to normal and we are once again on our own?