Quarantine Letter #1: Destitution, Interrupted
August & Kora
The first in what we hope will be an ongoing epistolary exchange between comrades living through conditions of quarantine.
The theorists have agreed: the current interruption is the outcome of well-established logics of capital, crisis governance, and alienation. Giorgio Agamben writes, “humans have become so accustomed to living under conditions of perennial crisis and emergency that they do not seem to realize that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition stripped not only of all social and political dimensions, but likewise of its human and affective dimensions.” An article in Lundi matin on March 19 insisted that “the economy is the devastation”, but whereas this was “a theory before last month…now it is a fact.” Another article from the same issue reminded us that “the catastrophe is always already here”—from the floods and fires of California, to the atmospheric asphyxiation of non-human life, to the warming oceans and melting icecaps—and, if there is a difference today, it is only that “we are now obliged to open our eyes.” Finally, as if to carry this logic to its outer limits, a recent letter from Jacques Camatte proposed that “what we are now witnessing is the outcome of [a] vast phenomenon that has developed over thousands of years, stretched between the two great moments during which the threat of extinction asserted itself.”1 The Coronavirus, it would seem, is nothing other than the protracted outcome of civilization itself.
While it is certainly right to insist that conditions of the present are an extension of the conditions of the past, this chorus of continuity misses something essential. Our world is certainly decomposing, but the song is not exactly the same.
Two years ago, a friend stated that, “the constitutive heterogeneity of the real is given to us under the mask of unity, homogeneous unity. To superficial perception, the mask is the real itself. To allow the mask to falter, is therefore to risk vertigo.”2 In January, this mask still resembled the form it had assumed in recent years: a tumultuous but for the most part intelligible field of global political polarizations. The world, and our place within it, still felt within reach.
By March, the ruling institutions had been forced into a roundly reactive posture. It is by no means clear that the Coronavirus can be compared to a typical economic crisis or natural disaster, nor has the response been limited to an ordinary state of exception. After all, at least for a moment, rulers and ruled alike were pushed on to the back foot, their certainties shaken, as the virus usurped the position of global antagonist. Institutions on which the reproduction of this world depends have been perfunctorily suspended: employment, imprisonment for misdemeanors, evictions; even the DOW Jones seems up for grabs.
The dislocation of the social fabric has been far deeper than anything we have known. The veneer of normalcy fell away at a shocking speed. Actions that were once the very substance of normalcy now feel like experiments. And if we are honest, the ethical and political lines are not exactly what they used to be.
Three months ago, what concerned us and much of the world was the tally of forty-seven countries: the newspapers announced “a new global wave of revolt.” From France to Hong Kong, riots, occupations and blockades erupted with a ferocity and longevity unknown in living memory.
Successful revolts do not only undermine existing powers— they also allow their participants a capacity to participate more fully in the world. If we have come to think of revolt as a destituent force, this is not only because revolt splinters and fragments the social fabric into asymmetrical camps, but also because it returns us to earth, placing us in contact with reality. Destitution is rightly thought of either as a double movement or as a single process with two sides. On the one hand, it refers to the emptying-out of the fictions of government (its claim to universality, impartiality, legality, consensus); on the other hand, a restoration of the positivity and fullness of experience. The two processes are linked like the alternating sides of a Möbius strip: wherever those usually consigned to existing as spectators upon the world (the excluded, the powerless) instead suddenly become party to their situation, active participants in an ethical polarization, the ruling class is invariably drawn into the polarization and cannot avoid exhibiting its partisan character. The police become one more gang among gangs.
Needless to say, our situation today is different. We are living through a halfway destitution, a destitution interrupted. Every party has returned to earth– yet without entering a world. The advent of COVID-19 has drained standard narratives and roles of their force. The logics holding this world together have been revealed as the arbitrary and mechanical operations that they are. Yet because it was neither “we” nor “they” who pulled the e-brake, but a perfectly inhuman virus, the standstill of historical time lacks the festival that usually accompanies it— the collective intelligence and confidence that comes with being the agent plunging normal time into disorder. In the absence of an agent, the truth of this moment remains stubbornly negative: our lives materially prostrate to supply chains as far flung as they are brittle, our world a conduit of reciprocally perilous immunity and disease.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, participants in political events are never solely agents, but always also patients at the same time—we affect and are affected, we are changed by what we do and what is done to us, whether by police or one another. To have an active hand in our own deposition, to become anyone by participating in a common power with no name, is the mark of those movements and moments of eruption we’ve felt close to over recent years.
By contrast, our one-sided passivity in the face of this global event generates a vertiginous sense of being outpaced by the change around us. To be patients but not agents has meant that the dislocation of social life has occurred at a speed that makes it all but impossible to metabolize.
In their 1956 text, “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” Debord and Wolman observe that the subversive power of a détournement is “directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements.” This dependency of subversion on the memory of the subverted is not limited to the case of art but is, they argue, merely “a particular case of a general law” applicable to all action upon the world.
If the radical interruption of normal life we are undergoing has been so disorienting, this is because it is unfolding like a botched détournement, one whose force or potential is neutralized by its very radicality. We are swept into the new with such disarming speed that we cannot recall what preceded it. The tissue of normal life has been punctured, yet the cancellation was so rapid that we have been unable to register the distance traveled between the “original contents” of normal life and the world we now inhabit: a violence too sudden, too terrible even to be liberating, numbs us to the subversive effects it nevertheless carries out. The upending of the world becomes a strangely pacified process, reduced to a disorienting and disempowering experience: an inhuman velocity, less an event than a jump-cut, an excision of memory, a vertical severing of time itself.
In the long run, the vertigo will settle into more acute polarization. When it does, our inability to recalibrate will play to the benefit of the ruling powers. It insulates them against the subversive shock of what the virus has compelled them to do—less by the so-called “Corona socialism” than by the radical demobilization of the labor force that has accompanied it. Meanwhile, we float in an empty time; unable to seize upon and decide it, we wait for the suspension of history to reach its conclusion.
However, as Furio Jesi understood well, suspended time often requires a “cruel sacrifice” before it can conclude itself.3 If our only experience of this event is as a “blip” of confusion and panic amidst an unbroken chain of administered life, when the time finally comes for an imperial reboot, the reversion to normalcy (or worse) will find no argument or exteriority to oppose it. That we remain dazed and out of step with the world gives our enemies free reign to reintroduce historical time on terms amenable uniquely to them, as the recent murders of activists during the quarantine lockdown in Columbia have already begun to attest.4
For now— at least for a moment—we are all here on earth, in the desert solitude of collective uncertainty:
To have been on earth just once —that’s irrevocable. / And so we keep on going and try to realize it, try to hold it in our simple hands, in our overcrowded eyes, and in our speechless heart. (Rilke)
However paradoxical, perhaps our task over the coming weeks is to slow down the pace of change, to impose a rhythm allowing us to participate once again in the subversion and reinvention of the world on our own terms.
-August and Kora
Chicago, March 24, 2020
1. Giorgio Agamben, “Clarifications,” published on the column Una voce, on Quodlibet.it website; (Anonymous), “Coronavirus: Apocalypse and Redemption,” Lundimatin #234, March 19, 2020; Anonymous, “What the Virus Said,” Lundimatin #234, March 19, 2020; Jacques Camatte, “Letter to a Friend in the North,” 3.20.2020. ↰
2. Moses Debruska, “Preface,” in Josep Raffanel i Ora, Fragmenter le monde (Paris: Divergences, 2018), 19. Our translation.↰
3. “Every true change in the experience of time is a ritual that demands…a determinate cruel sacrifice.” Furio Jesi, Spartakus. The Symbology of Revolt, Trans. Alberto Toscano (Seagull, 2014), 61-63. ↰
4. “Colombian death squads exploiting coronavirus lockdown to kill activists." Online here. ↰