[a] question of how forgetting is avoided

Interesting aside here from Mark Carrigan, responding to (as he puts it) an “innocuous but in practice […] unsettling” observation in Nicholas Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow, which is a (surely rather premature?) analysis of the impact of coronavirus(es) on the way we live. Christakis observes that Covid-19 has sparked an awareness of public health challenges in the US in the same way that 9/11 sparked awareness of threats to national security. Cue Carrigan (emphases his own):

It’s certainly preferable that there’s not a post-Covid social amnesia about the risk of pandemics, as the accelerating emergence of infectious diseases means not only won’t this be the last pandemic but the next one might be sooner than we imagine. There has been a tendency for past pandemics to fade into obscurity after they have passed, as can be demonstrated by asking those who lived through the 1957 and 1968 pandemics whether they remember them.

However this leaves us with the question of how forgetting is avoided. This framing by Christakis makes it easy to imagine the war on pandemics as a successor to the war on terror: an ideological and institutional apparatus for hyper-securitisation which transforms everyday life, organisations, the state and the legal frameworks which connect them.

My immediate thought on reading this was “oh, hey—people are starting to find their own way to a position similar to Agamben’s“. The figure of the War on Terror makes the connection particularly clear, given that it was seen by Agamben at the time to be the cresting of the ubiquity of the state of exception, the point at which the Schmittean articulation of politics as a division of the world into friends and enemies has become hegemonic, and the sovereign decision is the only game in town.

Admittedly Agamben’s framing of his position on the pandemic was not well served by his couching it in the most extreme terms possible—as was perhaps inevitable, issuing as it did from a philosopher who has spent a lifetime thinking in very abstracted terms about the horrific teleology of totalising systems. But the twinge Carrigan seems to be feeling here looks to me like a flinch from the very real possibility of a revitalised nationalist biopolitics, which is not just accepted by but actively clamoured for by the middle classes… and that’s a flinch I’ve been having right since this whole business started up.

It is in no way necessary to be a “Covid denier”—an accusation which has been repeatedly levelled at Agamben with, so far as I can tell, no textual justification in anything he’s actually written on the topic, and furthermore levelled at him even by career-contrarian philosophical firebrands such as Žižek, who one would think might know better than to point that particular finger—to suggest that, without some rather clearer thinking about the properly long game of public health and social security—the long game which extends not only past the end of this pandemic, but into and beyond the next ones, and against the background of the even larger and metasystemic contextual hazard of climate change, which is the generative source of this and the subsequent pandemics—the popular demand for, and instigation of, a nationalist biopolitics of “bare life” is likely, if not actually inevitable. It’s genuinely surprising, and in many respects heartening, to see how much quality of life we’re willing to sacrifice to preserve its quantity; the open question is where (and when) that trade-off starts to look like a bad bargain, and whether the arrangements already made can then be adjusted back in the other direction.

Given the genuine threat to life from which it stems, and the fear thereof amplified by forms of media in which the metrics of optimality are instantaneity, sticky-clickworthiness, and alignment with already established partisan positions on the proper response, that demand is completely understandable. But given the prevalence of authoritarian and proto-fascist ideological apparatuses in the world at present, it is very fortunate that the libertarian thread of their ideological tapestry as currently constituted has thus far prevented them from seeing the terrible, powerful opportunity that the pandemic offers as the justification for a popular and permanent state of exception. My fear, and I think Agamben’s also, is that the appeal of a firm grip on authoritarian power will override their ideological objections very quickly indeed; after all, while it was far from the only factor, the socioeconomic impact of the 1918 flu played an important and largely overlooked role in the subsequent rise of fascism. Carrigan’s anxiety above is thus well-founded.

For the sake of absolute clarity: this is not an argument to the effect that “lockdowns will lead to fascism”, which would be as absurd as an argument to the effect that to advance any critique of lockdowns is tantamount to “wanting vulnerable people to die”. It is, however, an argument to the effect that the political polarisation of the discourse around lockdowns (as manifest in the ubiquitous presence of both of those above absurd arguments, and very few in between them), and the associated calculus of financialised risk in globalised systems of capital recirculation, are amplifying the sense of division and alienation that had already given rise to fascist precursors before the pandemic showed up.

(Just a few days of being back on the birdsite has been sufficient to make this very, very obvious. I had thought, naively and from a distance, that four years of Trump and Brexit might have taught us that shrieking and pointing fingers on social media is actively counterproductive, but it seems not.)

Given the ubiquitous popularity of martial metaphors (which, frankly, seems to me indicative of the issue at hand) perhaps I should put it this way: winning the battle at any cost might see you trapped in one more perpetual war against an abstract noun. The only victor in such a war would be Schmitt and those who follow him.

One thought on “[a] question of how forgetting is avoided”

  1. I enjoyed reading this, thanks & it’s a really apt interpretation of my reaction. After writing that post, I did walk away thinking “hmm maybe Agamben had a point after all and maybe the doxastic fury it provoked is a more complex phenomenon than it initially seemed”. Look forward to reading more of your blog.

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