Nitzan Lebovic — Biopolitical Times: The Plague and the Plea

Roee Rosen, The Blind Merchant, Act 4, Scene 1, 01, a page from an artists book, 1989-1991, collection of Centre Pompidou.

This essay is a part of the COVID-19 dossier, edited by the b2o editorial staff. 

by Nitzan Lebovic

Related article: Christian Haines — A Lyric Intensity of Thought: On the Potentiality and Limits of Giorgio Agamben’s “Homo Sacer” Project

“Nous savions alors que notre séparation était destinée à durer et que
nous devions essayer de nous arranger avec le temps.” (Camus, Le Peste)


Addressing coronavirus disease 2019 is a struggle against time, perhaps the first warning of a future world, or the last our species is going to get before losing to global warming. It is a lesson that is meant to teach us the importance of time, how we’re running out of it.

The spread of the virus and the global response have illustrated how growth and reduction, acceleration and slowing down, belong to the post-postmodern world. From the jet-speed global spread of the virus, with its exponential expansion, to the governmental and local top-down response—a coordinated effort to slow it down, defer its full effects, and stop it—both problem and solution seemed to move to the rhythm of industrialization and globalization. The attempts to contain this catastrophe resonate with biopolitical control: individual isolation, social separation, governmental control, police and medical surveillance. In short, we are living in a new age of catastrophes. Unlike catastrophic world wars caused by late industrialization and mass mobilization, now we experience the catastrophe brought by profit-based consumption and the destruction of our environment and our world, an existential threat imperiling the very idea of human time.

A recent analysis by Tomas Pueyo gave a name to the desperate need for more time: by comparing different instances of the spread of the coronavirus and the effectiveness of the response, Pueyo showed that the single most important factor is the time between what he calls “the Hammer” of forceful suppression of the spread and the creation of an effective vaccine. He calls this interim period “the dance of R” and concludes: “What,” he asks, “is the one thing that matters now?” His answer: “Time.

Pueyo’s analysis emphasizes time because it looks, first and foremost, at life. Ironically, the philosopher of “bare life” (Zoë), Giorgio Agamben, disagrees with such estimates. A panel of experts headed by Agamben recently scrutinized the national emergencies (in Agambenian terms, the “states of exception”) declared by many governments in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. (For a better translation of Agamben’s “clarifications” see  here) In his remarks on the situation, published on February 26, Agamben chose to declare quite dogmatically that any state of emergency, even with lives at stake, was a violation of individual autonomy and the fundamental principles of civil society. After comparing COVID-19 to the flu, he argued that Italians were “faced with the frenetic, irrational, and entirely unfounded emergency measures adopted against an alleged epidemic of coronavirus” and that the “disproportionate response” grew out of “the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government” as well as a “general state of fear” encouraged by Western governments for populist and capitalist reasons. Agamben’s remarks were followed on March 17 by “Clarifications” that made explicit his assumption that “our society no longer believes in anything but naked life.”

These admonitions are not unfounded; populist regimes, from Orbán to Netanyahu and Modi, have already taken to the emergency declarations in order to tighten the screws of control and anti-democratic measures. Yet, Agamben’s two statements also bring to light an unfortunate structural element that is embedded in his theory: a focus on bare life misses the temporality of life. After all, as Schmitt and Agamben have acknowledged, our understanding of bare life assumes the suspension in toto of democratic constitutions (Homo Sacer, 15. Emphasis in the original). Agamben’s recent attack on nuanced analyses such as Pueyo’s “dance of R” proves that his resistance to the idea of sovereignty has blotted out all consideration for life and politics, incidentally identifying an inherent blind spot within his theory. I mean the absence of temporality, or the lack of interest in living time as such. Without a temporal understanding of the biopolitical apparatus, we cannot estimate the dynamics of management and enforcement. We cannot separate a Merkel from a Modi. More specifically, without a temporal analysis of our reality, we have no way to estimate either the spread or the response of the virus. Furthermore, ignoring the temporal dimension causes Agamben to miss a crucial element for contemporary biopolitical critique: the fact that as we run out of time in our search for a better politea we tend to lose sight of our duty as a species to bring our temporal existence—as individuals and as a political community—in line with the planet, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has shown (in History & Theory and Critical Inquiry).

Let me explain this by the use of a political and a historical case. The history of plagues is convincingly theorized, in a biopolitical vein, by the political philosopher Adi Ophir—an English version of its first half is expected next year from Fordham University Press. Ophir believes that disasters have gradually been secularized and biopoliticized. While the first half of the book engages with biblical disasters, the second half traces the modern biopolitical mechanisms accompanying crises such as bubonic plagues. Ophir goes back to Daniel Defoe’s Due Preparations for the Plague, as Well for Soul as Body (1722) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Jean-Pierre Papon’s De la peste, ou Époques mémorables de ce fléau et les moyens de s’en préserver (The plague, or Memorable times of this pestilence and the means to prevent it, 1799). The texts are well known to historians of science and intellectual historians, who have used them to show a growing pressure to regulate the means of prevention. What is new in Ophir’s analysis is the attention he gives to the biopolitical means as a form of secularization. For him, plagues are a typical case of the secularization of divine authority, something quite different from the liberal presentation of the evolution of the state as a necessary, positive development. (This is in line with Walter Benjamin’s thinking about “divine violence.”) From this perspective, Defoe and Papon demonstrate that political authorities must rely on emergency decrees and a swift enforcement of isolation to manage and contain the spread of highly infectious diseases. Yet during the eighteenth century any effort of that kind triggered the flight of elites from infected areas, with the concomitant surrender of position and authority to the middle class, a power reclaimed once the danger passed. Ophir, following Michel Foucault’s analysis in Security, Territory, Population and Agamben’s in Homo Sacer and State of Exception, presents the typical management of a national population in troubled times as a coupling of governmental carelessness and abuse of power, usually in the service of the economic interests of the elites and the divine legitimacy of the ruler. As the evolution of such state institutions shows, it is often difficult to separate incompetence from abuse and procedural authority from divine one; both grew out of the abandonment and consolidation of power by emergency decrees. How does it help us understand the politics of the plague better? Looking at such governmental mechanisms from a nonliberal, nonprogressive point of view, one cannot help but note the practical importance of intervening to slow the spread of a dangerous virus by implementing “systematic territorialization.” Seclusion, closure, isolation, and surveillance in times of troubles enabled the court—operating from a safe distance—to save lives. From a different angle, the operative question asked by governments—these troubled Defoe and Papon in the eighteenth century—related to “proper abandonment.” “From the perspective of the state, it is clear,” writes Ophir, echoing those early plague chroniclers, “abandonment is a form of containment, and the seclusion of infected areas is . . . temporary and partial, an urgent need of the hour and aimed at saving the state as a whole.” The measures, in simple words, may help saving lives, but the we must be able to block emergency measures and divine-like authority from becoming the rule, once the elite decides it’s time to come back home.

Back to the present, back to Agamben and the problem of leaving out temporality. If the most important question in the present moment is that of gaining time (vis-à-vis both earthly plagues and the environmental apocalypse), then a structural analysis of emergencies cannot suffice. A dogmatic insistence on bare life misses the need to take emergency situations seriously; at certain moment, the Hammer needs to fall, for the benefit of the public. Agamben misses, I believe, the real political point of this situation, which is the critique of proper abandonment” and the temporary use of biopolitical measures. Simply put, our struggle should not be about an affirmation or a negation of the state of emergency as such, but an attempt to realize when such decrees diverge from the temporality of life, rejecting the temporal democratic principles that follow the logic of the public in toto (demos and ochlos, rather than a separation between the two). This need not be about sovereign territorialization, economic interest, or bare life. Yes, such analysis requires a history and an understanding of procedural processes, but where would we be if not for Foucault’s emphasis on the gradual shaping of the biopolitical apparatus? Without time, we are left with nothing but bare life.

Nitzan Lebovic is an associate professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University. He is the author of The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics (2013) and Zionism and Melancholy: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (2019) and the coeditor of The Politics of Nihilism (2014) and Catastrophe: A History and Theory of an Operative Concept (2014) as well as the editor of special issues of Rethinking History (Nihilism), Zmanim: Tel-Aviv University Journal of History (Religion and Power), The New German Critique (Political Theology), Comparative Literature and Culture (Complicity and Dissent), and Political Theology (Prophetic Politics).


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