Social Distancing

Giorgio Agamben

“We do not know where death awaits us; let us look for him everywhere. Meditation on death is meditation on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. To know how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.” — Michel de Montaigne

Because history teaches us that every social phenomenon has or may have political implications, it is appropriate that we register carefully this new concept that has entered the political lexicon of the West: “social distancing.” While the term probably arose merely as a euphemism for the cruder term “confinement,” it must be asked what would a political order that is based upon it be like? This is all the more urgent, given that it is not a purely theoretical question — if, as many are saying, the current health emergency should be seen as a laboratory in which new political and social frameworks are being developed for humanity. 

Although as always, there are foolish people suggesting that the situation can without a doubt be considered in a positive light, that new digital technologies allow people to communicate happily from a distance, I do not believe that a community founded upon “social distancing” is either humanly or politically viable. In any case, whatever the perspective, it seems to me that this is the issue upon which we ought to reflect.

A first consideration concerns the truly singular nature of the phenomenon that these measures of “social distancing” have produced. Elias Canetti, in that masterpiece called Crowds and Power (in German, Masse und Macht), understands the crowd upon which power is founded through an inversion of the fear of being touched. While man typically fears being touched by the stranger, and all of the distances that men create around themselves arise from this fear, the crowd is the only situation in which this fear transforms into its opposite. “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched…. 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 the greatest.”

I do not know what Canetti would have thought of the new phenomenology of the crowd that we are facing. What social distancing measures and panic have certainly created is a crowd, but an inverted crowd, so to speak, made up of individuals who are maintaining at any cost their distance from one another. Not a dense crowd, then, but a rarefied one, which is still a crowd, if this, as Canetti specifies later, is defined by its compactness and its passivity, in the sense that “it is impossible for it to move freely… it waits. It waits for a leader to be shown it…”

A few pages later, Canetti describes the type of crowd that is formed through 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.… But, in any case, it strikes with enormous power. It is an absolute command, but what is decisive about it is its negative character. Contrary to appearances, it never really comes from outside, but always originates in some need in those it affects.”

It is important not to miss that a community founded upon social distancing would not be based, as one might naively believe, on an individualism pushed to its extreme. Quite the contrary, it would be just like what we see around us today: a rarefied crowd founded upon a prohibition, yet particularly compact and passive precisely for that reason.

Translated by D. Alan Dean.  

Excerpts from Crowds and Power follow the English translation by Carol Stewart (1962), with minor modifications.