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Giorgio Agamben: Social Distancing

Been turned around till I’m upside down

Been all at sea until I’ve drowned

And I’ve felt torture, I’ve felt pain

Just like that film with Michael Caine

The Godfathers

The flu is more dangerous, Robert Koch Institute [1] relativizing danger of coronavirus. (27.01.2020). Nobody plans to impose a curfew, it is fake news, the Federal Ministry of Health (14.03.2020). Germany is not planning to impose a mask compulsory at present, Federal Minister of Health Spahn (31.03.2020).

War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!

Introduction submitted to Enough 14. Text by Giorgio Agamben originally published by Quodlibet. Introduction by Sebastian Lotzer. Introduction translated by Enough 14. Text by Giorgio Agamben translated by Autonomies.

It doesn’t matter how big the lies are that are being told, how blatantly manipulated. The masses in panic mode, the left in front. Deaths, deaths, deaths everywhere.

“In order to achieve the desired shock effect, the concrete effects of a holoendemic [2] on human society must be made clear.” … “Children will be easily infected, even if there are ‘going out’ limitations, e.g. with the neighbour children. If they then infect their parents, and one of them dies at home in agony, and they feel that they are to blame for it, for example because they forgot to wash their hands after they were playing, it is the most terrible thing a child can ever experience.” (How we get COVID-19 under control – Strategy paper of the German Federal Ministry of Interior)

The Robert Koch Institute presented an app today that is designed to measure sleep in terms of restlessness and body temperature and transmit this information directly to the state health authorities. There is no outcry across the country, all media (with a few exceptions, and they are not called taz [3] or ND [4]) have been brought into line in a way that this country has not experienced since the kidnapping of an employer president and previous SS Hauptsturmführer [5].

It seems completely hopeless to imagine a basic, antagonistic opposition after the experiences of the last few weeks in this country. The remains of the post-autonomous, pseudo-anarchist, otherwise left-wing groups and contexts have sunk too low. Active dissident are only the smallest groups and individuals, who produce texts and translations with a big effort or undertake nightly actions under the most difficult circumstances.

1977 [6] was a turning point, after which there was silence and helplessness. Until the beginning of the 80s, when a young generation set the cities on fire out of nowhere, appropriated houses and youth centres, and devastated city centres. It will require a fundamental break with all those who have set the tone here in recent years. Below that it will not work.

Far more dreadful are social milieus, with their supple texture, their gossip, and their informal hierarchies. Flee all milieus. Each and every milieu is orientated towards the neutralization of some truth.

Another translation from Italy, dedicated to all those who are still seeking allies in the insurgent process with a trembling heart.

Giorgio Agamben: Social Distancing

Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve.

Michel de Montaigne

Since history teaches us that every social phenomenon has or may have political implications, it is appropriate to carefully record the new concept that recently made its entry into the political lexicon of the West: “social distancing”. Although the term was probably produced as a euphemism to substitute for the crudeness of the term “confinement” used so far, one must ask oneself what a political order based on it could be. This is all the more urgent, as it concerns not only a theoretical hypothesis. And, if it is true, as many are saying, that the current health emergency can be considered as the laboratory in which new political and social structures that await humanity are being prepared.

Although there are, as always, fools who suggest that such a situation can certainly be considered positive and that the new digital technologies have long allowed people to happily communicate from a distance, I do not believe that a community founded on “social distancing” is humanly and politically viable. In any case, whatever the perspective, it seems to me that it is on this issue that we should reflect.

A first consideration concerns the truly singular nature of the phenomenon that the measures of “social distancing” have produced. In Elias Canetti’s masterpiece Crowds and Power, he defines the crowd or the mass on which power is based as the inversion of the fear of being touched. While men usually fear being touched by the stranger and all the distances that men establish around themselves arise from this fear, the mass is the only situation in which this fear is overturned to become its opposite. “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. … As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. … The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. … This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest.”

I do not know what Canetti would have thought of the new phenomenology of the mass that we have before us: what the measures of social distancing and panic have created is certainly a mass – but an inverted mass, so to speak, made up of individuals who at all costs keep each other at distance. A mass therefore that lacks density, that is rarefied and which, however, is still a mass, if this, as Canetti clarifies shortly after, is defined by its compactness and its passivity, in the sense that “it is impossible for it to move really freely. … it waits. It waits for a head [or a leader] to be shown it”.

A few pages later, Canetti describes the mass that is formed by a refusal, a prohibition, in which “a large number of people together refuse to continue to do what, till then, they had done singly. They obey a prohibition, and this prohibition is sudden and self-imposed. … in any case, it strikes with enormous power. It is as absolute as a command, but what is decisive about it is its negative character.”

It is important not to overlook that a community founded on social distancing would not be one, as could be naively believed, characterised by an extreme individualism: it would be, precisely on the contrary, like the one we see today around us, a rarefied mass based on a prohibition, but, precisely for this reason, particularly compact and passive.

Giorgio Agamben, April 6, 2020

Further pieces by Giorgio Agamben:


[1] The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) is a German federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention.

[2] A disease is holoendemic when essentially every individual in a population is infected.

[3] Die Tageszeitung, (“The Daily Newspaper”), stylized as die tageszeitung and commonly referred to as taz, is a cooperative-owned German daily newspaper administrated by its employees.

[4] Neues Deutschland (nd) (English: New Germany) is a German daily newspaper, currently headquartered in Berlin. For 43 years it was the official party newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which governed East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic).

[5] Hauptsturmführer (“head storm leader”) was a Nazi Party paramilitary rank that was used in several Nazi organizations such as the SS, NSKK and the NSFK.

[6] The German Autumn (GermanDeutscher Herbst) was a series of events in Germany in late 1977 associated with the kidnapping and murder of industrialist and businessman Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) and the Federation of German Industries (BDI), by the Red Army Faction (RAF).

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1 thought on “Giorgio Agamben: Social Distancing

  1. […] Social Distancing again has an introduction by Lotzer. It begins by suggesting that panic overrides concern about the […]

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