Giorgio Agamben: Reflections on the pest

From the online site, Quodlibet

The following thoughts are not about the epidemic, but about what we can understand from the reactions it causes in men. It is therefore a question of reflecting on how easily an entire society has accepted to feel itself contaminated by a plague, to isolate itself at home and to suspend its normal conditions of life, its bonds of work, of friendship, of love, and even its religious and political convictions. Why have there not been, as was nevertheless imaginable and as usually happens in such cases, protests and opposition? The hypothesis I would like to suggest is that, in some way, and yet unconsciously, the plague was already there, that obviously the living conditions of people had become such that a sudden sign was enough for them to appear for what they were – that is, intolerable, just like a plague. And that, in a way, is the only positive thing we can take from the present situation: it is possible that, later on, people will start to wonder if the way of life they had was good.

And what no less needs to be thought about is the need for religion that the situation reveals. In the pounding discourse of the media, terminology borrowed from eschatological vocabulary to describe the phenomenon recurs obsessively to, above all in the American press, the word “apocalypse” and often explicitly evokes the end of the world. It is as if the religious need, which the Church is no longer able to satisfy, groped about for another place to reside and found it in what has become the religion of our time: science. This, like any religion, can produce superstition and fear or, at least, be used to spread it. Never before have we witnessed the spectacle, typical of religions in times of crisis, of different and contradictory opinions and prescriptions, ranging from the minority heretical position (nevertheless represented by prestigious scientists) of those who deny the gravity of the phenomenon to the dominant orthodox discourse that affirms it and, however, often diverges radically as to how to deal with it. And, as always in such cases, some experts or self-styled ones manage to secure the favor of the monarch, who, as in the time of the religious disputes that divided Christianity, takes sides with one current or another and imposes his measures according to his interests.

Another thing that gives cause for reflection is the evident collapse of every common conviction and belief. One would say that men no longer believe in anything – except in bare biological existence that must be saved at all costs. But only a tyranny can be founded on the fear of losing one’s life, only the monstrous Leviathan with his drawn sword.

For this reason – once the emergency, the plague, is declared over, if it will be – I do not believe that, at least for those who have preserved a minimum of clarity, it will be possible to go back to living as before. And this is perhaps the most desperate thing today – even if, as has been said, “only for those who no longer have hope has hope been given”.

March 27, 2020

Giorgio Agamben

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