The following is still a rough draft, but I thought I would publish it on my blog and see if it gets any comments. I intend to revise it over the next few days, possibly quite a lot. Agamben's work informed my choice of name for this blog. If the powers that be have their way, the space that remains shall be greatly diminished forever. I consider it worth thinking through some of these issues.
Giorgio Agamben's latest work, "Where Are We Now?" is subtitled "The Epidemic As Politics." This tells the reader quite a lot of what to expect. It is rather different to most of his works as it is a response to a current situation, like State of Exception, but unlike that previous volume, it is a series of very short articles, often written for newspapers, and brief interviews. The chapters are in chronological order, so we can see the development and gradual focusing of Agamben's thoughts on the subject.
It starts a little unpromisingly as he doubts the seriousness of the epidemic, and more than once he seems peevish at being misrepresented by a journalist or complaining that newspapers refuse to publish an article, also, one might be a little startled at the claim on the first page of the Foreword where he says "it's irrelevant whether it (the pandemic) is real or simulated" however, Agamben has definitely not joined the tin foil hat brigade and, as he starts to articulate his thoughts on the crisis more clearly, we can see a lot of things that have happened in Italy that apply to most countries, and are certainly familiar to anybody living in the UK.
The sense in which it doesn't matter whether the pandemic is real or not is the way it is being used by the rulers of this world. If, instead of fantasising about reptilian overlords or Illuminati or fiendishly clever criminal conspiracies, we see the shifty, somewhat inept, but power-hungry actual rulers tempted by opportunities to extend their power.little by little, in the long term, while getting our agreement to go along with a "state of exception" in which most of our rights and freedoms are abrogated. We have to ask, just how much of our accustomed freedom will be returned to us?
But who, in the short term, is not willing to set aside freedoms and intimacy, for the common good, when it is genuinely an exception? The point is, as Agamben puts it, the state of exception has become the rule.
As I write, many are increasingly worried about Priti Patel's plans to limit the right to protest. (See here: https://www.politics.co.uk/comment/2021/03/11/silencing-black-lives-matter-priti-patels-anti-protest-law/?cmpredirect). This is not the only example, and I'm sure anybody who bothers to read this can think of other examples on an international scale.
Where Are We Now? can be seen as a codicil to Agamben's Homo Sacer project which in turn founds itself on the basis of Foucault's considerations of biopolitics and 'bare life'. In the current work, bare life is the insistence on continuing to live, no matter what, despite the loss of the public sphere, social intercourse, intimacy. This loss renders us helpless, fed by supermarket deliveries and Amazon. Everybody is now unfamiliar, masked and distanced, and an alienated society becomes more, even more, alienated thane we might ever have imagined.
For Agamben, and I absolutely agree with him here, we simply can not just return to normal, the normality of borgeois democracy is broken and we must not accept tyranny by stealth, the breaking of the intimate bonds of society, all real intersubjective communication, living out endlessly miserable and afraid, alienated, socially distanced lives. We shall have to reclaim the public realm for ourselves and find new ways to live. That is the most essential message of this fascinating, but imperfect book, and a demand on us to reclaim our freedom.
We know that the pandemic is real enough, I know people who have been very seriously affected by it, and it is clear that the government, like many governments, has mishandled it disasterously. But all this is more than the pandemic itself, it is a symptom of a world dying before our eyes. It is always up to us, collectively, to determine what sort of world we shall live in.
Agamben, Giorgio (2021) Where Are We Now? The Epidemic As Politics. Translated by Valeria Dani. London. Eris.