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Giorgio Agamben: Contagion

What follows is a text by Giorgio Agamben about the the most inhuman consequences of the panic that they (the Italian state, Enough 14) are attempting to spread in Italy, on the occasion of the so-called coronavirus epidemic.

Originally published by Quodlibet. Translated by

Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher best known for his work investigating the concepts of the state of exception, form-of-life (borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein) and homo sacer. The concept of biopolitics (carried forth from the work of Michel Foucault) informs many of his writings.


The infector! get him! get him! get the infector!

Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed]

One of the most inhuman consequences of the panic that they are attempting to spread in Italy, on the occasion of the so-called coronavirus epidemic, is the idea of contagion itself, which is what grounds the exceptional emergency measures that have been adopted by the government. The idea, which was extraneous to Hippocratic medicine, has its first unwitting precursor in the context of the pestilences that devastated some Italian cities between 1500 and 1600. This is the figure of the infector, immortalized by Manzoni both in his novel [The Betrothed] and in the essay on the Storia della Colonna Infame. A Milanese “announcement”, published during the 1576 plague, describes them in this way, inviting citizens to report them:

“Having heard from the governor that some people — guided by a fake zeal of charity, and with the aim of terrorizing and frightening the people and inhabitants of our city of Milan and to excite them to some turmoil — are anointing with ants (which they say are pestiferous and contagious) both people and the doors and bolts of the houses and the corners of the districts of this city and other places in the state, under the pretext of bringing the plague to the private and public, something which results in many inconveniences, as well as significant alteration among the people, mostly among those who they are easily persuaded, it is decreed that any person of any status and condition who, within forty days from this announcement will denounce the person or persons who have favored, helped, or known about this insolence, will be awarded five hundred scuti … ”

Mutatis mutandis, the recent provisions (taken by the Italian government with decrees that we would like to hope –although this is nothing but an illusion – will not confirmed by parliament, and turned into laws) actually transform every individual into a potential infector, exactly as the laws on terrorism considered, de facto and de jure, every citizen to be a potential terrorist. The analogy is indeed so clear that the potential infector who does not comply with the prescriptions will be punished with prison. The figure of the healthy or unwitting carrier — who infects a multiplicity of individuals, unable to defend themselves from him, as one would defend oneself from the infector — is presented as being extremely sinister.

Even sadder than the curtailing of freedom implied by these measures is, in my opinion, the degeneration of the relationships between men engendered by them. The other, whoever he may be, even a loved one, must not be approached or touched — and indeed a distance must be put between us and him. According to some this should be one meter, but according to the latest suggestions of the so-called experts it should be 4.5 meters (those fifty centimetres are interesting!). Our neighbour has been abolished. It is possible, given the ethical inconsistency of our political leaders, that these provisions may derive, in the minds of those who took them, from the same fear that they intend to provoke. But it is difficult not to think that the situation they end up creating is exactly that which our leaders have often tried to achieve: to finally close universities and schools and transfer all lessons online, to make sure we stop encountering each other and to speak about politics or culture, pushing us to the mere exchange of digital messages so that, wherever possible, machines may replace every contact — every contagion — between human beings.

Giorgio Agamben, March 11, 2020.

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8 thoughts on “Giorgio Agamben: Contagion

  1. […] Contagiunea (11 martie 2020) […]

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  3. […] third stage of panic and lockdown. (This has been mirrored elsewhere). Agamben’s first piece, Contagion, was written during the second phase, when the government were giving mixed messages: draconian […]

  4. […] Philip Apostle in Pasolini’s 1964 movie The Gospel According to St Matthew) is known in Italy for having claimed that the “so-called pandemic” is in fact a normal flu, and that the number of coronavirus […]

  5. […] Philip Apostle in Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel Based on St Matthew) is understood in Italy for having claimed that the “so-called pandemic” is actually a standard flu, and that the variety of coronavirus […]

  6. […] Philip Apostle in Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel Based on St Matthew) is thought in Italy for having claimed that the “so-called pandemic” is the truth is a standard flu, and that the variety of […]

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