Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Theorising – Praise of Biopolitics? The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Will for Self-Preservation

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Jörn Ahrens, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Germany

When the Covid-19 pandemic started spreading in Germany, when people started to stay at home and to communicate in public at a distance of 1 to 2 metres from each other, when the government began to enforce formal restrictions on public behavior that came with massive limitations of civil rights, I was reminded of two things.

One was the long-established strand of critique of modern biopolitics in the humanities represented by authors like Michel Foucault, Roberto Esposito, and Giorgio Agamben. The second was Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion from 2011 [1], in which the director unfolds the scenario of a global flu that evolves into a pandemic. Soderbergh’s film can be seen as a “thought experiment” [2] where he traces how quickly the effects of such a plague impair the functionality of social institutions, how it leads to the lockdown of whole societies -in the film’s case, the USA - and how the military is deployed against its own people to enforce curfews and the cordoning of whole cities like Chicago.

Almost ten years after the film’s release the world of today is haunted by a pandemic that seems to be scripted after Soderbergh’s film. The origin of the flu in question lies in China, and its origin has been traced back to food that was somehow infected by bats, it rapidly spreads on a global scale with rather high levels of fatalities. In his close description of what is happening, how insensitive, slow, and reluctant to act the government is when the virus is there already, but does not seem to be fatal yet, how people respond to the virus, how they die - alone and in sport stadiums transformed into improvised hospitals - Soderbergh is uncannily anticipating the worldwide 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. He is also mapping the biopolitical agenda applied in such a situation, its measures, rationale, and approach. In an extremely sober manner, Soderbergh shows how biopolitical measures are applied, and how society turns into a biopolitical regime close to Agamben’s reading of the ‘state of exception’ [3].

Two aspects are, in my view, remarkable here. First, there must have been comparable scenarios available ten years ago already. It is rather unlikely that Soderbergh and his scriptwriters would have conceived the whole plot by themselves. Obviously, they were working with very well-informed specialists and scientists, who had been anticipating such a virus ten years ago already, who knew what the most likely safety hazard was, and how such a virus would then spread across the globe. Viewed from this angle, what has happened is much less surprising, much less a sudden viral attack, but something that experts were already expecting to befall us eventually.

Agamben has always doubted the sustainability of citizen rights, human rights, and of the functionality of modern societies in general. In his works, from Homo Sacer [4] onwards, he analyses the fragility of civil institutions, and their constant tendency to change into a governmental regime of suppression turned against the individual and, most of all, turned against the acknowledgment of humaneness. Naturally, humaneness itself is a term Agamben would not make use of, or only as a cynical gesture, because in his view humaneness and its political offspring, the Rights of Man, are the invention of a nation-state that imposes itself on its citizens with absolute power and de facto deprives them of their rights [5]. Recently Agamben made his standpoint clear in an article about the Corona virus, in which he describes the media and the authorities as doing ‘their utmost to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a true state of exception, with severe limitations on movement and the suspension of daily life and work activities for entire regions’ [6]. In his sense, such a ‘limitation of freedom imposed by governments is accepted in the name of a desire for safety, which has been created by the same governments who now intervene to satisfy it’ [7]. The desire for safety then leads whole societies to give up their freedoms, their rights, and, not least, self-esteem too. In Soderbergh’s film, not everybody agrees to this policy. When society collapses, people go on a rampage by looting shops and vandalising the public realm.

But they are both wrong. What neither Soderbergh nor Agamben were anticipating was that, at least in a country like Germany, which at this point in time (late March 2020) is not tragically affected by the virus, unlike Agamben’s Italy, almost everybody was and is perfectly complying with the new rules. The new, biopolitical order of things is broadly accepted by almost everybody. Corona parties by ill-advised youths were the most militant response to the biopolitical shutdown of society. Thus far, the most serious effect of the pandemic is the rise of boredom while people are stuck in their homes. The state of emergency does not come as a coup d’état, it does not come like a blow by the government and its militias against the citizens. In fact, it comes as ennui, when the greatest concern is that Netflix could collapse. Whether it may be permanent or not, whether it may have become the new normality already or not, what the state of exception definitely does not evoke today is shock and suppression. It realises itself merely as a contemporary form of being bored, due to the social environment and its totalising needs.

Simultaneously, such broad acceptance of highly restrictive measures, that are not only pushing civil rights to the brink of collapse, but that will ruin the economy on a long-term basis, with many people likely being broke once the plague has gone its way, is indeed remarkable. We might figure that this is probably the effect of exactly those biopolitical practices that have been under scrutiny by the humanities for at least 30 years, starting with the groundbreaking works of Foucault about the strategies of letting die and making live [8] and the origin of biopolitics [9]. For maybe 20 years we have now been observing a decisive valorisation of health with regard to strategies for sociation, but especially in connection to contemporary concepts of the self. The healthy self is one of most crucial inventions of the present, and much has been written about the internalisation and incorporation of social norms, habits and values by the individual self. The current self is not thinkable without a massive discourse about its state of physical and mental health, a discourse that primarily focuses on ever new practices of self-responsibility and new techniques which the self seeks to apply on itself, from diets to sporting activities to eco-awareness. All these practices are, in a way, the expression of a contemporary ideology to govern the self as a technique of shaping the self [10]. Such practices have been criticised as sublime colonisation of the self by the sovereign, as alienation, and as commodification – and it is by no means my intention to reject this critique. But what we are experiencing today is that the biopolitical ideology of self-responsibility turns out to be highly effective. Thus, the question in the given situation is whether the whole approach of a critique of biopolitics must be reformulated, and whether there is a dearth of new research on the possible qualities, capabilities, and civilising effects of biopolitics.

Of course, the current behaviour is propelled by a priority focus on self-preservation. The individual wish for survival definitely seems to dominate any other aspect of human cultural, social, and political life. Here Agamben is absolutely right: self-preservation gains absolute anthropological and social primacy. However, it turns out that it certainly need not turn anti-social, but it might come with rather mutually attentive qualities. The current agenda of social distancing, for example, which is both a preventative strategy for individual self-preservation and also a biopolitical strategy to govern the virus’s mobility, turns out to be an act of respect of the Other and, therefore, of caring. Today, the humane face of the Other, to apply a Lévinas-like terminology, is first and foremost acknowledged as an ethical encounter from a distance.

[1] Soderbergh, Steven (2011): Contagion, UAE/USA: Warner Bros. et al.
[2] Ahrens, Jörn (2017): Einbildung und Gewalt. Film als Medium gesellschaftlicher Konfliktbearbeitung, Berlin: Bertz+Fischer
[3] Agamben, Giorgio (2004): State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
[4] Agamben, Giorgio (1998): Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
[5] Agamben, Giorgio (2001): Mittel ohne Zweck. Noten zur Politik, Freiburg/Berlin: Diaphanes, 27ff.
[6] Agamben, Giorgio (2020): The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency, URL: http://positionswebsite.org/giorgio-agamben-the-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/ (last access March 23, 2020)
[7] Ibid.
[8] Foucault, Michel (1999): In Verteidigung der Gesellschaft. Vorlesungen am Collège de France, 1975-1976, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp
[9] Foucault, Michel (2010): The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, New York: Picador
[10] Rose, Nikolas (1999): Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, London/New York: Free Association Books

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