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Giorgio Agamben: Reflections on the plague

Sebastian Lotzer

let’s start here. because everything else wouldn’t make sense. let’s talk about here. our powerlessness, our lack of perspective. our hollow words, our empty gestures. let’s talk about the smile that has disappeared from our faces, let’s talk about the gray that has eaten its way deep into our souls. let’s talk about the monotony of our political discussions. let’s talk about the fact that we don’t believe our own promises anymore. let’s talk about the fact that we can only somehow hold on without any prospect of change.

winter is coming – 2018

Originally published by Quodlibet. Written by Giorgio Agamben. Introduction by Sebastian Lotzer. Translated by Enough 14. Based on the German translation by Sebastian Lotzer. Image above: Portrait of Giorgio Agamben (Mural). Image by Thierry Ehrmann.


Actually, nothing has changed. Everything and nothing at the same time. Everybody longs for life to become bearable again, for normality to abolish the present state of emergency. Regardless of the question whether this will be possible at all, and when, if so, what nobody, really nobody can answer at the moment, the question still remains unanswered why life has to be something that would be bearable.

Or in other words, why everyone endures it. On the first weekend of April about 100 people in Berlin tried to meet the Empire’s requirements for demonstrative expressions of opinion under the state of emergency and to carry out a symbolic protest in “social distancing”, i.e. in the current prescribed mode of approach, in order to draw attention to the situation of refugees who are kept and interned at the external borders of the EU. Their actions were radically stopped by the cops, no different than in Hamburg or Frankfurt, where similar actions were attempted. Journalists were prevented from carrying out their work and physically attacked.

The problem is that any indignation about this event is not meaningful, in fact it is based on a deep misunderstanding. The rules of the bourgeois state are not basic rights, they are the expression of a balance of power. It has never been otherwise. And the current state of emergency should really convince the last naive people that they can be lifted at any time, that the contractual relationship between the upper and lower classes is only a form of truce that can be lifted at any time by an uprising or, as is the case now, by a state of emergency.

The question must be why so little has been done on our part in recent years to achieve anything in our favour in this balance of power. Why one sees the same pale faces, whether one takes the suburban train at rush hour or is attending a meeting of the radical left in Berlin. Why the opportunities to live life together and in large numbers are so rarely seized, why so rarely has powerlessness been collectively lifted. Why we have our backs to the wall, even before the pandemic, and why we have become so used to it.

In order to please the part that is annoyed by all the discussions on the meta-level, for justified or unjustified reasons, here is something concrete: We remember that it was just a few weeks ago that the situation of the refugees who are interned on the Greek islands and of those on the Greek-Turkish border came to a climax, and there were calls for nationwide actions. In Berlin about 4000-5000 people gathered at the Federal Chancellery and from there they moved through the government district towards the Greek consulate in Friedrichstraße. Initially, only one unit of the Berlin police accompanied them. Among the thousands, at least half of the Berlin “scene” was definitely present. So they passed by the institutions directly responsible for the misery of the refugees in the camps and at the external border of the EU, and far and wide there was no cop to be seen. But no paint found its way to the walls of power, no sprayed slogan proclaimed afterwards that something had happened here. To say nothing about other things.

All has been said about the reasons for that in recent years, there is nothing more to be added. Everyone knows how different an evening can feel, how the smile can return to the faces of our sad bunch. To build a bridge to today’s translation, one could say that the pandemic state of emergency only makes visible, brings to the surface what has been there all along anyway. In this respect, the situation of the radical left is no different from that of society, which it claims to change radically. The desire with which it largely submits to the dictates of the state and its experts (precisely those who only a few weeks ago expressed completely different views than they do now) to become the fervent supporter of the comprehensive quarantine can only be explained on a metaphysical level, beyond all materialistic conditions.

Sebastian Lotzer, April 6, 2020.

Giorgio Agamben: Reflections on the plague

The following considerations are not about this epidemic, but about what we should understand regarding the reactions that it causes in people. It is therefore a matter of reflecting on the ease with which an entire society has resigned itself to experiencing the pestilence, isolating themselves at home and suspending their normal living conditions, their working relationships, their friendship, their love and even their religious and political beliefs. Why was there no protest and resistance, as was conceivable and usual in such cases? The hypothesis I would like to propose is that the plague was, in some way, already present, but unconsciously, that people’s living conditions had obviously become so that it was enough for an improvised sign to make them appear what they were, namely unbearable, like a plague. In a way, this is the only positive fact that can be deduced from the present situation: It is possible that people will later start to ask themselves whether their way of life was the right one.

And what is no less worth reflecting on, is the fact that the situation clearly shows the need for religiousness. One indication of this can be found in the hammering discourse of the media: the terminology that has been borrowed from the end of times vocabulary, especially in the American media, which compulsively uses the word “apocalypse” to describe the phenomenon and often explicitly evokes the end of the world. It is as if the religious need, which the Church is no longer able to satisfy, is looking for another place to live and finds it in what has become the religion of our time: science.

This, like any religion, can cause superstition and fear, or at least be used to spread it. Never before have we been able to observe so clearly the typical spectacle of religions in moments of crisis: different and contradictory opinions and regulations, ranging from the heretical minority position (although represented by respected scientists), which denies the gravity of the phenomenon, to the dominant orthodox discourse, which affirms the phenomenon and yet radically deviates from the way it is dealt with. And, as always in such cases, some experts or so-called experts manage to secure the favour of the monarch, who, as in the times of religious disputes that divided Christianity, takes sides for one or the other tendency in accordance with his own interests and imposes his measures.

Another thought-provoking thing is the apparent collapse of all shared convictions and beliefs. It seems as if people no longer believe in anything – except the mere biological existence, which must be saved at all costs. But based on the fear of losing one’s life, one can only support a tyranny, a monstrous Leviathan with drawn sword.

That is why I do not believe that – if the emergency, the plague, is declared to be over, when it is over – it will be possible for those who have maintained a minimum of clarity to return to their former lives. And this is undoubtedly the most desperate thing, even if, as has already been said, “only to those who have lost hope, hope has been given”.

Since his statement on il manifesto on the social upheavals caused by the corona pandemic (English translation here), the theses of Giorgio Agamben have been an important point of reference in the discussions of the Italian and French left. In an interview with ‘Le Monde’ at the end of March 2020, he once again explained his basic considerations (English version here)

Further pieces by Giorgio Agamben:

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3 thoughts on “Giorgio Agamben: Reflections on the plague

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