Giorgio Agamben: Social Distancing

From the online site, Quodlibet …

Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve.

Michel de Montaigne

Since history teaches us that every social phenomenon has or may have political implications, it is appropriate to carefully record the new concept that recently made its entry into the political lexicon of the West: “social distancing”. Although the term was probably produced as a euphemism to substitute for the crudeness of the term “confinement” used so far, one must ask oneself what a political order based on it could be. This is all the more urgent, as it concerns not only a theoretical hypothesis. And, if it is true, as many are saying, that the current health emergency can be considered as the laboratory in which new political and social structures that await humanity are being prepared.

Although there are, as always, fools who suggest that such a situation can certainly be considered positive and that the new digital technologies have long allowed people to happily communicate from a distance, I do not believe that a community founded on “social distancing” is humanly and politically viable. In any case, whatever the perspective, it seems to me that it is on this issue that we should reflect.

A first consideration concerns the truly singular nature of the phenomenon that the measures of “social distancing” have produced. In Elias Canetti’s masterpiece Crowds and Power, he defines the crowd or the mass on which power is based as the inversion of the fear of being touched. While men usually fear being touched by the stranger and all the distances that men establish around themselves arise from this fear, the mass is the only situation in which this fear is overturned to become its opposite. “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. … As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. … The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. … This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest.”

I do not know what Canetti would have thought of the new phenomenology of the mass that we have before us: what the measures of social distancing and panic have created is certainly a mass – but an inverted mass, so to speak, made up of individuals who at all costs keep each other at distance. A mass therefore that lacks density, that is rarefied and which, however, is still a mass, if this, as Canetti clarifies shortly after, is defined by its compactness and its passivity, in the sense that “it is impossible for it to move really freely. … it waits. It waits for a head [or a leader] to be shown it”.

A few pages later, Canetti describes the mass that is formed by a refusal, a prohibition, in which “a large number of people together refuse to continue to do what, till then, they had done singly. They obey a prohibition, and this prohibition is sudden and self-imposed. … in any case, it strikes with enormous power. It is as absolute as a command, but what is decisive about it is its negative character.”

It is important not to overlook that a community founded on social distancing would not be one, as could be naively believed, characterised by an extreme individualism: it would be, precisely on the contrary, like the one we see today around us, a rarefied mass based on a prohibition, but, precisely for this reason, particularly compact and passive.

April 6, 2020

Giorgio Agamben

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