& the Coronavirus

Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, 

& Roberto Esposito exchange letters. 

Giorgio Agamben

The Invention of an Epidemic

(Published in Italian on Quodlibet, 02/26/2020)


Faced with the frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded emergency measures adopted against an alleged epidemic of coronavirus, we should begin from the declaration issued by the National Research Council (CNR), which states not only that “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy”, but also that “the infection, according to the epidemiologic data available as of today and based on tens of thousands of cases, causes mild/moderate symptoms (a sort of influenza) in 80-90% of cases. In 10-15% of cases a pneumonia may develop, but one with a benign outcome in the large majority of cases. It has been estimated that only 4% of patients require intensive therapy”.

If this is the real situation, why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to spread a state of panic, thus provoking an authentic state of exception with serious limitations on movement and a suspension of daily life in entire regions?

Two factors can help explain such a disproportionate response. First and foremost, what is once again manifest is the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government. The legislative decree immediately approved by the government “for hygiene and public safety reasons” actually produces an authentic militarization “of the municipalities and areas with the presence of at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of transmission is unknown, or in which there is at least one case that is not ascribable to a person who recently returned from an area already affected by the virus”. Such a vague and undetermined definition will make it possible to rapidly extend the state of exception to all regions, as it’s almost impossible that other such cases will not appear elsewhere. Let’s consider the serious limitations of freedom the decree contains: a) a prohibition against any individuals leaving the affected municipality or area; b) a prohibition against anyone from outside accessing the affected municipality or area; c) the suspension of events or initiatives of any nature and of any form of gatherings in public or private places, including those of a cultural, recreational, sporting and religious nature, including enclosed spaces if they are open to the public; d) the closure of kindergartens, childcare services and schools of all levels, as well as the attendance of school, higher education activities and professional courses, except for distance learning; e) the closure to the public of museums and other cultural institutions and spaces as listed in article 101 of the code of cultural and landscape heritage, pursuant to Legislative Decree 22 January 2004, no. 42. All regulations on free access to those institutions and spaces are also suspended; f) suspension of all educational trips both in Italy and abroad; g) suspension of all public examination procedures and all activities of public offices, without prejudice to the provision of essential and public utility services; h) the enforcement of quarantine measures and active surveillance of individuals who have had close contacts with confirmed cases of infection.

The disproportionate reaction to what according to the CNR is something not too different from the normal flus that affect us every year is quite blatant. It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.The other no less disturbing factor is the state of fear that in recent years has evidently spread among individual consciences and that translates into an authentic need for situations of collective panic for which the epidemic provides once again the ideal pretext. Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.



Jean-Luc Nancy

Viral Exception

(Published in Italian on “Antinomie”, 02/27/2020).

Giorgio Agamben, an old friend, argues that the coronavirus is hardly different from a normal flu. He forgets that for the “normal” flu there is a vaccine that has been proven effective. And even that needs to be readapted to viral mutations year after year. Despite this, the “normal” flu always kills several people, while coronavirus, against which there is no vaccine, is evidently capable of causing far higher levels of mortality. The difference (according to sources of the same type as those Agamben uses) is about 1 to 30: it does not seem an insignificant difference to me.

Giorgio states that governments take advantage of all sorts of pretexts to continuously establish states of exception. But he fails to note that the exception is indeed becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds (movement, transfers of every type, impregnation or spread of substances, and so on) are reaching a hitherto unknown intensity that is growing at the same rate as the population. Even in rich countries this increase in population entails a longer life expectancy, hence an increase in the number of elderly people and, in general, of people at risk.

We must be careful not to hit the wrong target: an entire civilization is in question, there is no doubt about it. There is a sort of viral exception – biological, computer-scientific, cultural – which is pandemic. Governments are nothing more than grim executioners, and taking it out on them seems more like a diversionary manoeuvre than a political reflection.

I mentioned that Giorgio is an old friend. And I apologize for bringing up a personal recollection, but I am not abandoning a register of general reflection by doing so. Almost thirty years ago doctors decided I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice, I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake. Giorgio is nevertheless a spirit of such finesse and kindness that one may define him –without the slightest irony – as exceptional



Roberto Esposito

Cured to the Bitter End

(Published in Italian on Antinomie,  02/28/2020

In this text by Nancy I find all the traits that have always characterized him – in particular an intellectual generosity I was personally effected by in the past, drawing immense inspiration from his thinking, especially in my work on communities. What interrupted our dialogue at one point was Nancy’s sharp opposition to the paradigm of biopolitics, to which he has always opposed, as in this text, the relevance of technological apparatus – as if the two things were necessarily in contrast. While in fact even the term “viral” itself points to a biopolitical contamination between different languages – political, social, medical and technological – united by the same immune syndrome, meant as a polarity semantically opposed to the lexicon of communitas. Though Derrida himself used the category of immunisation extensively, Nancy’s refusal to confront himself with the paradigm of biopolitics was probably influenced by the dystonia with regard to Foucault that he inherited from Derrida. In any case, we are talking about three of the most important contemporary philosophers.

It remains a fact that anyone with eyes to see cannot deny the constant deployment of biopolitics. From the intervention of biotechnology on domains that were once considered exclusively natural, like birth and death, to bioterrorism, the management of immigration and more or less serious epidemics, all political conflicts today have the relation between politics and biological life at their core. But this reference to Foucault in itself should lead us to not losing sight of the historically differentiated character of biopolitical phenomena. One thing is claiming, as Foucault does, that in the last two and half centuries politics and biology have progressively formed an ever tighter knot, with problematic and sometimes tragic results. Another is to assimilate incomparable incidents and experiences. I would personally avoid making any sort of comparison between maximum security prisons and a two-week quarantine in the Po Lowlands. From the legal point of view, of course, emergency decreeing, long since applied even to cases like this one, in which it is not absolutely necessary, pushes politics towards procedures of exception that may in the long run undermine the balance of power in favour of the executive branch. But to talk of risks to democracy in this case seems to me an exaggeration to say the least. I think that we should try to separate levels and distinguish between long-running processes and recent events. With regard to the former, politics and medicine have been tied in mutual implications for at least three centuries, something that has ultimately transformed both. On the one hand this has led to a process of medicalization of politics, which, seemingly unburdened of any ideological limitations, shows itself as more and more dedicated to “curing” its citizens from risks it is often responsible for emphasizing. On the other we witness a politicization of medicine, invested with tasks of social control that do not belong to it – which explains the extremely heterogeneous assessments virologists are making on the nature and gravity of the coronavirus. Both these tendencies deform politics compared to its classic profile. Also because its objectives no longer comprehend single individuals or social classes, but segments of population differentiated according to health, age, gender or even ethnic group.

But once again, with regard to absolutely legitimate concerns, it is necessary not to lose our sense of proportion. It seems to me that what is happening in Italy today, with the chaotic and rather grotesque overlapping of national and regional prerogatives, has more the character of a breakdown of public authorities than that of a dramatic totalitarian grip.