Clarifications

Giorgio Agamben

First published on Quodlibet, 17 March 2020

In keeping with the customary practices of his profession, an Italian journalist recently attempted to distort and falsify my recent statement about the ethical confusion into which the present epidemic is throwing the country, and in which no regard is shown even for the dead. Since he did not even bother signing his name, it is not worth the trouble to correct the obvious manipulations. Anyone who wants to read my piece, “Contagion,” can find it on the website of the Quodlibet publishing house. Instead, I will add a few additional reflections, which, despite their clarity, will presumably also be falsified.

Fear is a bad counselor, but it does tend to draw out certain things that we otherwise pretend not to see. The first thing that the current wave of panic paralyzing this country displays clearly is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. What is evident is that Italians will sacrifice practically everything, normal living conditions, social relations, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political beliefs, rather than risk falling ill. Bare life – and the fear of losing it – is not something that unites men, but blinds and separates them. As in the pestilence described by Manzoni, other people  are now seen only as potential plague-bearers that must be avoided at all costs, and from which one must keep a distance of at least one meter. The dead – our dead – have no right to a funeral, and it is not clear what happens to the corpses of the people dear to us. Our neighbor has been cancelled, and it is strange that the churches are so silent on the matter. What becomes of human relations in a country that grows accustomed to living in this way for who one knows how long? What is a society that cleaves to no value other than that of survival?

The second and no less disturbing thing the epidemic makes clear is that the state of exception, to which our governments have sought for some time to accustom us, has truly become the normal situation. While there have been more serious epidemics in the past, no one ever dreamt of declaring a state of emergency such as the one we see today, which prevents us even from moving. Humans have become so accustomed to living under conditions of perennial crisis and emergency that they do not seem to realize that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has been stripped not only of all social and political dimensions, but likewise of its human and affective dimensions. A society living in a perpetual state of emergency cannot be a free society. In fact, we live in a society that has sacrificed freedom for so-called “security reasons” and has condemned itself to living in a perpetual state of fear and insecurity.

It is no wonder that we speak of the virus in terms of war. The emergency measures effectively force us to live under curfew conditions. But a war with an invisible enemy, an enemy lurking in every other man, is the most absurd of wars. It is, in truth, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, but inside each of us.

What is worrisome is not so much or not merely the present, but what comes after. Just as wars bequeathed to peace a plethora of harmful technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is likely that, even after the health emergency subsides, some will try to continue the experiments that governments had failed to carry out before, that universities and schools will close, all lectures to be given online, that we will stop meeting and discussing for political or cultural reasons and only exchange digital messages, and that, wherever possible, machines will replace every contact – every contagion – between human beings. 

17 March 2020

Italian original here.

Translated by Ill Will Editions. 

Note: after completing this translation, we noticed another translation online; we would add that the latter omits the first paragraph of the article, while seemingly introducing a sentence into the second that isn’t in the Quodlibet edition.