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Virus, State of Exception, and Precarity: Reflections on the Contemporary Biopolitics

The Piazza Duca d’Aosta in Milan, Italy. The local government was using disinfectant compounds to sterilize the piazzas and streets, aiming to destroy coronavirus and other pathogens in the urban environment. Photo courtesy of TPG Images

After coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) rapidly spread across Europe from mid-February 2020 onwards, countries suffering from severe outbreaks of the pandemic, including Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and so on, implemented large-scale lockdown and other emergency measures, such as quarantine, temporary closure of schools and public facilities, as well as limitations on social activities. Meanwhile, world-renowned philosophers like Giorgio AGAMBEN, Jean-Luc NANCY, Roberto ESPOSITO, Slavoj ŽIŽEK, and David HARVEY all made critical remarks about the epidemic development and prevention measures of each country, which in turn led to heated debates. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the global escalation of COVID-19 pandemic over the past several months has resulted in excessive production of virus discourse. If we set aside the differences in their opinions, the focus (if any) of this great debate is on how the governments’ epidemic prevention measures have curtailed or even violated human rights, giving rise to mass panic, populism, and xenophobia. The purpose of this essay is to clarify the key points in the current discussions, and thereby reflects on the situation of contemporary biopolitics.

At the onset of COVID-19 outbreak across Europe (particularly Italy), Giorgio AGAMBEN, the most important contemporary Italian philosopher, published his comment in the Italian journal Quodlibet on February 26th. That article, soon translated into English under the title “The Invention of an Epidemic,” was extensively circulated and discussed via online media.1 In the article, AGAMBEN cited Italian official statistics, pointing out that only 10–15% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases would become severely ill. It remains debatable whether he had a solid grasp of objective facts regarding the disease and the subsequent epidemic situation in Italy as well as in the entire Europe. Generally, AGAMBEN believed that the Italian society as a whole overreacted to the outbreak. The government operated in a way barely different from the military. To guard against coronavirus infection, the Italian government allowed “the normalization of the state of exception” for health and safety reasons. Emergency measures that violated civil liberties, such as lockdown and closure of schools and public facilities, became parts of people’s quotidian existence. This is a common thread running through all AGAMBEN’s writings. For example, in his past works, he had argued that the concentration camp represents a common mode of governance in modern politics, as democracy and totalitarianism share secret ties. In the February article, he argued that the government’s pandemic emergency measures and public panic fed into each other, forming a vicious circle. Regrettably, AGAMBEN did not offer evidence in terms of how the government provoked public panic so as to legitimize its emergency measures.

The day after AGAMBEN’s comment was published online, French philosopher Jean-Luc NANCY responded him with the article “Eccezione virale.” Arguably having a deeper understanding of medical facts, NANCY opposed to AGAMBEN’s “normalization” of coronavirus as well as his stance that COVID-19 equals influenza in severity. After all, he pointed out, there was a notable lack of reliable vaccines against COVID-19, a disease presenting with protean symptoms that might cause irreversible damage to human organs and therefore much different from influenza. NANCY stressed in the article that infectious diseases and pandemic prevention involves multiple dimensions, such as biology, science, and culture. One should not reduce them to simple governmental policies, as AGAMBEN did. However, NANCY did not systematically analyze those intricate dimensions. What we can gather from his comment is that we should not ignore individual situations by applying any single theory to all the discussions on coronavirus and prevention measures, be it Michel FOUCAULT’s ideas about quarantine or AGAMBEN’s argument about “the normalization of the state of exception.”

Jean-Luc NANCY wrote “Eccezione virale” as a response to Giorgio AGAMBEN’s view on COVID-19 pandemic, which ignited intense debates among philosophers. Photo credit: Georges Seguin (Okki), CC BY-SA 3.0

Italian philosopher Roberto ESPOSITO then joined the debate. ESPOSITO regarded NANCY’s refusal to engage in biopolitics as unwise, and considered NANCY’s entirely negative understanding of biopolitics to be a misreading on NANCY’s part. For ESPOSITO, biopolitics has become ubiquitous and inescapable. Intervened by biological and genetic engineering, childbirth, death—both of which were traditionally recognized as natural processes of life—biochemical terrorism, immigration control, and infectious diseases are all biopolitical issues. Still, ESPOSITO emphasized on the importance of having a historical consciousness, asking us to pay attention to the individual operative modes of biopolitics in different historical periods, and to distinguish long-term processes from recent events. The politicization of medical science might be a general rule, but more corroborating evidence is required to prove how the current prevention measures contributed to social control through medical practice. At the end of his article, ESPOSITO pointed out that the severity of the pandemic situation in Italy reflected not so much the totalitarian restriction on civil liberties as the collapse of governmental authority. Such clarification undoubtedly reminds us not to over-extend AGAMBEN’s ideas of “the normalization of the state of exception” and “the secret ties between democracy and totalitarianism.” Should we not differentiate the eternal state of exception in concentration camps —where unimaginable crimes against humanity might occur anytime—from the ad-hoc, strategic, and negotiable state of exception?

Let us continue this line of inquiry: To what extent do these philosophical debates over COVID-19 pandemic deepen or alter our understanding of the current biopolitical situation, insofar as we get to enrich, revise, or even reshape the theoretical concepts and framework of biopolitics? Indian scholars Divya DWIVEDI and Shaj MOHAN have complicated our understanding of “the state of exception” from a macroscopic view of history, regarding human beings as “technical-exception-makers.” They argued that human interventions in the ecological system or the natural temporality, such as vaccination, can be deemed as states of exception, and the connections between Homo sapiens and other species tend to be overlooked in contemporary biopolitical discourses. As the countries around the world entered “the state of exception,” cities locked down and tourism curtailed due to the spread of COVID-19, essentially reducing human migration and production for the sake of self-protection against coronavirus infection, several hundred thousands of sea turtles laid eggs on the coast of India, and the Arctic ozone layer also gradually recovered. Even though the causal relationships require more scientific research, can we term these phenomena “exceptions of the state of exception”? In addition, how will the immense quantity of masks, protective clothing, alcohol-based sanitizers, hypochlorous acid solution, and other chemical products used for disinfection during the pandemic affect other species and the ecology worldwide? How can biopolitical measures, while aimed at human self-preservation, respond to the demand for survival from other species and the non-human natural environment? Should we consider an “ecological biopolitics beyond humanity”? To get at the root of the problem, is our way of thinking circumscribed by a rigid biopolitical framework?

At the beginning of his article “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus,” Daniele LORENZINI, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, pointed out that discourses on viral infections and quarantine increased steeply with the global spread of COVID-19, which (again) gave rise to a flurry of Foucauldian quotations rife with misinterpretation and misuse. LORENZINI clarified that in FOUCAULT’s view biopolitics is not necessarily evil in itself; it simply represents a biological life-based governance rationality. It sets the threshold of modernity, and highlights the differences in the operation modes of power between the contemporary society and the traditional one. LORENZINI emphatically argued that if we were to refuse the “blackmail” of biopolitics (as a theoretical framework), we must avoid falling into the thinking trap of either defending or opposing biopolitics. As a mode of governance, biopolitics operates both in a state of exception and in normality. Apart from being alert to how pandemic prevention measures of all stripes violates human rights, we should also pay attention to the more inconspicuous and automatic operation of power in normal circumstances. Moreover, from a Foucauldian view, LORENZINI gave prominence to the link between biopower and racism. Whether in a state of exception or in normality, such a link reveals that the biological continuum has been broken into a hierarchy of divergent ethnic groups; each group receives unequal medical care and is exposed to a different level of risk under biopolitical governance. This is what LORENZINI termed “differential vulnerability,” which, rather than being limited to race, also encompasses different professional groups; public transportation operators, delivery workers, and pharmacists are all subjected to higher-than-average risks in the pandemic. Can they be seen as “COVID-19 frontline workers,” or even “heroes in the pandemic prevention,” as well? If so, shouldn’t greater importance be placed on their rights to health care? At the end of his article, LORENZINI cautioned us against falling prisoners to the “grammar of crisis,” which compels us to seek out immediate, short-term solutions, instead of being open to changing our current ways of living, producing, and travelling.

The lockdown policy remains in effect in Italy as a means to curb the spread of COVID-19. This picture was taken in Venice on April 22nd, 2020, showing a storekeeper in front of his closed shop. Photo courtesy of TPG Images, Reuters.

Under and beyond current pandemic prevention measures, from lockdown to travel and social restrictions, what kinds of “technologies of the self” can we still possibly discuss, so as to expand the “exceptions of the state of exception”? Contemporary French philosopher Catherine MALABOU began her article “To Quarantine from Quarantine: ROUSSEAU, Robinson CRUSOE, and ‘I’” with an anecdote that Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU documented in his autobiography, Les Confessions. In 1743, ROUSSEAU traveled from Paris to Venice; at the time Messina on the island of Sicily, Italy, was suffering from a great plague, losing nearly 50,000 lives. Under the emergency order, he must put himself in quarantine for 21 days, and yet there were no basic commodities in the quarantine facility. ROUSSEAU was forced to draw on resources and materials at hand, creating necessities like seat cushions and bed sheets. He compared himself to Robinson CRUSOE, both of them improvising in extreme isolation.

MALABOU raised the issue of life choices from ROUSSEAU’s anecdote. What is the optimal option in an age of confinement: to be quarantined with other people, or alone? MALABOU seemed to believe that the preferable choice for an individual is to “quarantine within the quarantine and from it at the same time,” that is, to “clear a space where to be on one’s own” while in quarantine, thereby creating an isolated island from collective isolation, similar to that once inhabited by ROUSSEAU/CRUSOE. Here the term “quarantine from quarantine” refers to maintaining an autonomous, creative lifestyle in troubled times. Distance thus becomes a prerequisite for self-empowerment. MALABOU eventually came to the conclusion of “the social in the distance,” an alternative choice of being solitary while simultaneously co-existing with others. Quarantine and social restrictions under pandemic prevention measures, she argued, are not powerful enough to destroy this sociality. For her, “solitude” differs from “estrangement.” The former is integral to writing and other creative practices, a vital link in the chain of self-care and technologies of the self.

MALABOU’s reflection on pandemic prevention measures displays a notable degree of ethical universality. However, it’s worth further contemplation as to how “quarantine from quarantine,” in addition to using distance and solitude as “technologies of the self,” can become a meaningful and personal choice, distinguished from “self-management” which is part of the prevention measures or biopolitical management. If we delve into the current situation of biopolitics, we may find it difficult to tell the differences apart. AGAMBEN’s idea of “bare life,” or concentration camp as the schema of the sovereign exception, is inadequate to encompass (but not totally inapplicable to) the abilities of contemporary biopolitics in controlling, managing, and strengthening lives—instead of those in weakening, ending, and ignoring lives (Rose 3) —particularly when facing the risks of contagious diseases of all kinds.

Contemporary French philosopher Catherine MALABOU raised the issue of life choices from Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU’s anecdote. The image shows Robinson CRUSOE and his pets secluded from humanity on a remote island. Image credit: Public Domain. Prints and Photographs, the Library of Congress, the United States

MALABOU raised the issue of life choices from ROUSSEAU’s anecdote. What is the optimal option in an age of confinement: to be quarantined with other people, or alone?

From a historical point of view, health and hygiene have become the kernel of state governance since the 17th century—the early modern period—onwards, as they largely determined the productivity and strength of a regime. Most republican political philosophers, such as Thomas HOBBES, Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU, and MONTESQUIEU, accentuated the obligation of a republican regime to protect its people from being infected with pathogens. In biopolitics, the building of immunity is to maintain the geographical, ecological, species, and material boundaries. However, viruses and other infectious microorganisms render these demarcations precarious. Owing to globalization, the spread and evolution of viruses have become even more protean and elusive. Random connections between pathogens and hosts allow new symptoms of infectious diseases to multiply. In addition to the very real possibility that COVID-19 may develop into a chronic disease, other illnesses—like cancers, tumors, autoimmune diseases, and psychosomatic disorders—have also become more and more unpredictable, much harder to treat and cure. Ours is an era in which the “terminal stage” is nowhere in sight. We can never be free from our illnesses or symptoms. We have entered a new form of chronic diseases, in which the notion of “management” or “control” has replaced the logic of “cure.”

As a matter of fact, the precarity in contemporary biopolitics is not simply limited to diseases. Our unstable, fragile, and precarious ontological existence is also accentuated in financial investment and management, transportation, foodstuffs, population aging, employment, environmental pollution, terrorism, and violence in all its manifestations. However, with the rise of rentier capitalism, debt traps, moonlighting, contract work, and other types of atypical employment have become common occurrences in all walks of life. Precarity seems to have become an intrinsic part of neoliberal governance. In this light, how can we determine whether the so-called “technologies of the self” or “self-management” is a link in the chain of neoliberal biopolitics or not? How do we resist such logic of neoliberal governance? How can we draw a line between subjective belonging and empowerment? Is it worth it to live such a fragile life, or is this kind of existence simply unbearable?

Facing questions of such gravity, I cannot and will not offer instant answers. However, as Taiwan is being recognized globally for its success in COVID-19 prevention, most Taiwanese people swelling with unprecedented national pride, various restrictions are being gradually lifted. Every Taiwanese citizen longs to return to normality from the state of exception. Are we mistaking and misrecognizing problems as solutions? Does it imply turning a blind eye to an exploitative, oppressive governance structure?

Allow me to conclude this essay with a long-running joke in the psychoanalysis community. A patient registered at a psychiatric clinic. The psychiatrist asked his assistant whether the patient needed emergency care. The assistant replied: “No. the patient seems to be in a stable condition, conscious of reality without showing symptoms of behavior disorders.” The psychiatrist shouted at the top of his voice: “Oh, no! I’d better examine him right now!”

All the quotations and paraphrases in this essay that appear without citation of sources and page numbers came from the article, “Coronavirus and Philosophers”, in the online version of the journal, European Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Prince-Smith, Andrew T. Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology, and National Security in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.
Cazdyn, Eric. The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture and Illness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twentieth-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
HUANG Han-YuHUANG Han-Yu is a professor at the Department of English, National Taiwan Normal University. His research interests cover demonic possession, post-human, bio-politics, psychoanalysis, and horror literature. His recent publications include Cross-Border Thinking (2017) and Demonic Possession, Illness, and the Undead (2017).
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