Coronavirus, Apocalypse, and Redemption


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The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a concep­tion of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency. —Walter Benjamin

Paul writes in his Epistle to the Thessalonians that the Roman Empire acts as a katechon, that is, as a power that masks the effective reality of the apocalypse. However, according to him the apocalypse is at the same time the parousia, the second coming of Christ. The collapse of Empire is the apocalypse, but it is also the revelation of redemption.

The unprecedented health crisis that the world is currently undergoing is a curtain-raiser. The immanent catastrophe in which we have been living for several decades now – punctuated by floods, fires, the slow death of non-human life – today reveals its currency. The catastrophe is always already here, and we are now obliged to open our eyes.

The eternal return of the same one in which we have bathed, amorphously, for far too long, is shattered by the exceptional event represented by the epidemic. The absolutely new falls upon us like a stone, without warning. Time has broken in half.

This event is apocalyptic in nature. It is terrible, of course, and the most precarious populations are also the most threatened. But it also offers a possibility of redemption. There is no question here of blindly glorifying the “purgative” character of a catastrophe, which will hit the elderly, the most fragile, and the poorest people hardest. We must resist any simplistic idea that illness is a godsend because it opens a breach in this world that we hate so much.

What we must try to perceive, on the other hand, is the kairos that is opening up as of now. The disaster is here. Let us turn it into an opportunity to change the course of our lives.

“We are at war,” Emmanuel Macron declared in his speech on Monday, March 16. As Carl Schmitt saw clearly, war is the paradigm that has always guided liberal governmentality. We are at war, yes, but the situation is nothing new, and the theatre of operations is our bodies, our minds.

Yes, we are at war. But our enemy is also clearly visible. It sports the garb of a power that willingly destroyed our worlds and our forms of life for far too long. It was on their ashes that capitalism was built.

And it is because of the nothingness that the latter installed everywhere, that disaster is now the natural environment in which we move; the coronavirus epidemic is in the end only the inevitable offspring of Empire. This epidemic is just one more reminder of what we already know: it is high time that we stopped the frantic march of this hateful world that promises us nothing but ruin, death and desolation.

By the yardstick of the apocalyptic event, Paul writes again, our ways of being in the world are rendered obsolete. It is up to us, my friends, to transform this critical moment into a formidable opportunity to rethink the identities we think we embody, to recompose the affective relationships that bind us, to imagine together the world we wish to inhabit.

Against the permanent state of exception that governs our lives, let us build the true state of exception in which the mystery of anomie is revealed. Let us replace the deadly government of the economy with the joyful power of complicity, mutual aid, and love. For this, we need not wish for chaos to set in permanently. Indeed, as a Kabbalistic parable says, “in order to establish the reign of peace, there is no need to destroy everything and give birth to a totally new world; it is enough to barely move that cup or that shrub or that stone, and to do the same for every other thing too.”

—H. L.

First published in Lundi matin#234, March 21st, 2020.

Translated by Ill Will.