Marginal Notes on the Epidemic as Politics

Flavio Luzi

Other languages: Italiano

To love, painfully, what you don’t love from the time the smoke began to kill, now that’s obedience.

Patrizia Cavalli 

1. Nemo Propheta Acceptus Est in Patria Sua

“It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” It was with these words that a laughing Michel Foucault replied to the positions of his opponent, Noam Chomsky, in a televised debate held in Eindhoven in 1971. The French philosopher was referring to all those institutions (universities, education, psychiatry) that, unlike the army, the police, and the prison, present themselves in an apparently neutral way, free from the obvious circulation (exertion and submission) of political power. Behind functions such as the distribution of knowledge, the promotion of free research, the treatment of mental disorders, or the administration of law, these institutions—or, if you prefer, these epistemic-social apparatuses—conceal the political violence that they continuously exercise on the bodies of individuals, disciplining and subjectivizing them into students, the abnormal, or the guilty. In this sense, from Foucault’s point of view, there is no reason to believe that the institutions of health, and medical knowledge more generally, should be exempt from this sort of mystification, proving to be sincerely neutral, unrelated to any ideology, power or political violence. On the contrary: the more neutral and independent they appear to us, the more effectively political violence courses through them. The task of the critic, therefore, should not be to denounce the violence that contingently manifests itself in the field of medicine or health at certain moments of corruption (preferential treatment of friends and family members), or in the abuses of white coats (the phenomena of killer health workers, or sexual violence against patients in a vegetative state), but rather to reveal the violence inherent in the normal, everyday, and apparently innocuous functioning of the medical-healthcare administration in its intimate familiarity with political technologies. Foucault knew this well in his time, and explicitly called attention to it in the pages dedicated to the management of epidemics (leprosy, plague, pox) in the first days of his lecture course, Security, Territory, Population: to  the various legal, disciplinary, and securitarian technologies and rationalities of government correspond distinct techniques and ways of dealing with an epidemiological phenomenon (exclusion, quarantine, inoculation). For whereas the spread of a virus is a natural fact (as it has been said), contagion and epidemics are, on the other hand, cultural categories whose management and administration is always the result of a determinate, albeit transitory, political rationality.

It is this same task that seems to have been forgotten today by the scandalized chorus raised against Giorgio Agamben’s recent statements about the Covid-19 emergency 1. But what does it mean to take up the task of critique in an epoch that has sought to abolish any distinction between criticism and conspiracy, between doubt and suspicion? And to do so in a country that has allowed the vacant seat of the critic to be watched over (in its emptiness) by conformists, or else unduly occupied by professional conspiracy theorists? The paradoxically counter-revolutionary function of dietrology is among the most burdensome legacies of that political laboratory into which Italy was transformed between the Piazza Fontana Bombing and the Capaci and Via D’Amelio Bombings 2. As a result, “to criticize” now means that we assume the position of the prophet who, turning in a moment of danger toward the darkness of his time, accepts that his speech is heavily invested by the same darkness. For this reason, his speech — philosophical, poetic and political at once — cannot help but be incomprehensible, addressing itself to someone, to a people, “who by definition will not be able to hear it” 3. If Agamben’s writings seek to illuminate the socio-political situation into which we collectively sank long before this past year (following upon Walter Benjamin’s work, for whom the exception is the rule of history, he insists that, “the plague was already there,” Reflections on the Plague; and, “How long has the house been burning? Certainly a century ago, between 1914 and 1918 […]; then again thirty years later […]. But maybe the fires began much earlier,” When the House is on Fire), they do so only at the price of being trivialized, simplified, and reduced by public opinion to an embarrassing obscurantist manifesto, or to an erudite version of a folkloristic call to arms by some grotesque general. But unless we are content to agree either with his neoliberal readers (whether progressive or conservative) or with the fellow travellers of the radical right — the two poles of that parliamentary dialectic that has paralyzed the Western political debate in recent years — then some clarifications are needed. We must restore to Agamben’s statements their complex radicality, without forgetting that, for certain political groups, the denunciation of the authoritarian and repressive measures of democratic states can often be merely an instrumental pretext for establishing equally brutal and frightening forms of state domination, albeit under an openly fascist sign directly its opposite.

To do so, demands a threefold operation. First, we must dwell as much on the content as on the form, or rather, on the style of Agamben’s interventions—an exercise we are no longer accustomed to doing, ever ever since journalism, informatics, and the communications edifice rendered such considerations obsolete. Second, in order to appreciate the profound coherence of his reflections, we must connect these statements to their author’s wider oeuvre. Finally, we must dwell on the references to other thinkers, whether explicit or implicit, rather than treating them simply as academic exercises of the sort that Agamben is neither accustomed to, nor particularly fond of. 

For all these reasons, the present article has been conceived in the form of a marginal gloss—that is, a brief note only intended as an accompaniment and commentary upon another text. Lacking any self-sufficiency or substantiality, such a gloss has no other aspiration than that of a comment situated at its margins. On the other hand, if prophecy immediately coincides with the Kingdom it announces, the gloss  — owing precisely to its constitutive incompleteness and ineptitude — presents itself to the reader as an intermediate entity, not unlike the clumsy helpers in Kafka’s novels, from whom it is never quite clear what help they have to offer.

2. The Epidemic Not-Is There

For those who do not read them in bad faith, there is nothing in Agamben’s interventions to suggest a firm denial of the existence of the virus. What is at stake here goes beyond even the legitimacy of the infamous charge of “denialism” levied against anyone who expresses doubts about the pandemic or its management (Due vocaboli infami). Since February 26, Agamben’s reflection has not been aimed at supporting or refuting the reality of the virus, a question in itself irrelevant to philosophical discourse, but rather at allowing the contradictions contained in the official narrative to emerge, tactically putting the latter in tension with itself so as to be able to raise questions about the management and political administration of the epidemic. If the virus is as dangerous as the media report, why is it that the official expert data does not seem, paradoxically, to confirm it? (See: Invention of an Epidemic; New reflections; Some data) It is hardly possible to forget that it was only on February 18th, 2020 that the W.H.O. raged against “unnecessary alarmism and disproportionate measures,” and that it was on February 26th that Italy’s main progressive party organized a public aperitif in Milan “against the fear of contagion” by Covid-19. It is in this context that the initial use of expressions such as “invention of an epidemic,” “supposed epidemic,” “[w]hether this is the real situation,” “so-called epidemic”—which tend to gradually diminish in the course of Agamben’s statements until they eventually disappear altogether—must be situated. The same goes for Agamben’s polemical recourse to the data of the CNR or the declarations of the president of the ISTAT against the front pages of newspapers and government measures. It is not a matter of denying or confirming the existence and spread of the microorganism SARS-Cov-2  (as some have superficially inferred) — Agamben repeatedly admits that he does not have the expertise, that he is “neither a virologist nor a doctor,” limiting himself to “quoting verbatim” what, in some given moments, were the official opinions of the National Research Council, of Dr. Gian Carlo Blangiardo—but of considering the function that such denial and verification can play within the strategies of power, and therefore, what  effects these engender. “Function is here the edge of knowability of essence” 4. It is from this orientation that a passage such as the following must be considered: “[T]he powers that govern this world have decided to seize upon the pretext of a pandemic — whether real or simulated does not matter at this point — to transform the paradigm of the government of men and things from top to bottom.” Whether the epidemic is real or simulated makes no difference. In any case, it can be used by power as a pretext, leading to social consequences and performing a function that is primarily a political function. In this sense, the epidemic not-is there [ci non-è]. But what does that mean? It does not mean, of course, to prefer neoliberal solutions to totalitarian ones, to prefer control to the disciplines, or disease to imprisonment. Rather, it means assuming an offensive position that does not give in reactionary traps by allowing oneself to be forced into a bottleneck, into the false alternatives of what already exists (either the United States of America or China), thereby depriving actuality of its potentiality, and reality of its possibilities: 

It means, of course, to stay at home, but also not to panic […] It means, of course, to stay at home, but also to remain lucid and ask ourselves whether the militarized emergency proclaimed in this country might not be, among other things, a way to unload on citizens the serious responsibilities that governments have incurred by dismantling the health system. It means, of course, to stay at home, but also to make one’s voice heard […] It means, finally, to ask oneself what we are going to do… 5

This requires that we deactivate the opposition between the two contrasting hypotheses concerning the existence or non-existence of the virus, so as to preserve both by means of a model that affirms, at one and the same time, the “efficient existence” and the “efficient non-existence” of the epidemic 6. Otherwise, the adoption (first of all in Italy and, subsequently, in Europe) of para-totalitarian measures within neoliberal economic systems (which have long since taken on an increasingly authoritarian face) could dangerously lead to a singular hybrid, “communist capitalism,” a sort of Debordian biopolitical society of the “integrated spectacle 2.0” combining the most violent aspects of the global market with the most repressive aspects of the state, the most “extreme alienation of relations between people with unprecedented social control.”

3. Metaphysics of the Generalized Secret

If there is one Agamben text whose stylistic and argumentative themes most closely resemble his recent Quodlibet interventions, it is undoubtedly Means Without End, a book dedicated to the memory of Guy Debord. How can we fail to recognize the presence of the situationist theorist in a text like “Sul vero e sul falso”? Agamben’s denunciation of the prevailing veridictional mechanism (“Humanity is entering a phase of its history in which truth is reduced to a moment in the movement of the false. True is that false discourse which must be held to be true even when its untruth is demonstrated”) is almost a verbatim citation of the line from Society of the Spectacle: “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false” 7. The meaning of the line was clarified a few years later in Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, where he introduced the theory of generalized secrecy — that is, of what “stands behind the spectacle, as the decisive complement of all it displays and, in the last analysis, as its most vital operation” 8. Here what distinguishes the traditional lie from the more recent regime of disinformation is the latter’s need to contain within itself a certain quantum of truth, even if it might be deliberately manipulated, disfigured or rendered unrecognizable. From a certain point of view, the integrated spectacle — the domain of advertising — is nothing but a situation of unchallenged hegemony of disinformation: a world in which disinformation has definitively replaced information, where the noise of the media has forced people into a peculiar aphonia, making them passive listeners or spectators of counterfeit words.

It must be remembered that, in Italy, the first impetuous reaction to the discovery of the virus took place in newspapers and media networks. The first positive cases of the virus were recorded in the city of Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019, before progressively surfacing in numerous countries linked by trade relations, such as the United States of America (January 13th), France (January 24th) and Germany (January 28th). Italian infections were confirmed only on January 30th, 2020, the same date on which the W.H.O. officially declared the virus a danger to global public health: they were two Chinese tourists on vacation in Rome. The next morning, the newspapers’ headlines were sensational: “Virus Hits Italy,” “Coronavirus First Cases. Two Chinese Hospitalized in Rome: Emergency,” “W.H.O.: ‘This is a Global Emergency.’” At the same time, the Council of Ministers declared a six month state of emergency, “as a result of health risks related to the emergence of disease resulting from transmissible viral agents”. Thus did Italy become the first European country to legally resort to emergency measures. On February 1st, the newspaper headlines read, “Virus: a state of emergency,” “Government infected,” “Coronavirus as Cholera,” inaugurating a month of continuous oscillation between alarmism and appeals to common sense. Contrary to the apocalyptic scenarios conjured up by the media, there were to be no epidemic consequences of the clinical condition of the two Chinese citizens visiting Rome who tested positive for SARS- CoV-2, nor of the Emilian student who returned from Wuhan and was certified positive on February 7th. In fact, no other positive cases were confirmed until February 21st, when the outbreak occurred in Castiglione d’Adda-Codogno, in the Lodi area, and even here the number of people involved could not justify the use of the term “epidemic.” On several occasions, the newspapers featured alarmist and sensationalist headlines (between February 22nd and 23rd: “Virus, the North in fear”; “Italy infected”; “The North, Paralyzed by Virus”; “Virus: Italy Arms Itself”; “The North is Closed”; “Intensive Care,” “Technical Evidence of a Massacre”, etc.). Such headlines progressively generated an immediate reaction of fear in the population (throughout the country, and not only in the affected areas) appropriate and proportionate to the propagandized atmosphere, only to subsequently retract everything in an attempt to dilute the incandescent atmosphere so that the panic did not turn into real despair, to slow down the panic buying of basic staples that could lead to the looting of supermarkets and pharmacies, curb the massive exodus from the most affected regions, and legitimize the violent repression of prison riots (e.g. February 27th: “W.H.O.: ‘Italy is Good, Panic Suffices’”; “Enough with Alarmism”; “Virus: Now Exaggerated”). The media have alternated between fanning, dousing, and redirecting the flames, soliciting a willing population to accept an authoritarian and police management of the situation. Only in this way was it possible to make the emptying of our streets bearable — something that can appear as “order” only to a highly distorted perspective — a desertification only made possible by militarization measures authorizing a police-like exhibition of weapons to become a feature of everyday life, until the exposure of sovereign violence gradually coincided with normality 9. There is, of course, nothing new in this:

One of the not-so-secret laws of the spectacular-democratic society in which we live wills it that, whenever power is seriously in crisis, the media establishment apparently dissociates itself from the regime of which it is an integral part so as to govern and direct the general discontent lest it turn itself into revolution. It is not always necessary to simulate an event, as happened in Timisoara; it suffices to anticipate not only facts (by declaring, for example, as many newspapers have been doing for months, that the revolution has already happened), but also citizens’ sentiments by giving them expression on the front page of newspapers before they turn into gesture and discourse, and hence circulate and grow through daily conversations and exchanges of opinion 10.

The indiscriminate accusations of being a “conspiracy theorist” leveled these days against anyone who even attempts to elaborate a critical position are disturbing, particularly when one places them side by side with the measures announced by AGCOM on March 19th, 2020 to counter the “dissemination of false or otherwise incorrect information.” Interestingly, this potentially punishable (mis-)information often came from sources that had been regarded as authoritative until the day before they made their statements concerning Covid-19. In any case, instead of restoring to people their ability to discern the true from the false, to distinguish real news from the fake news, our institutions propose once again to preserve and authoritatively intensify the linguistic alienation shored-up by entertainment and social networks. In the world truly standing on its head, disinformation appears under the guise of information and vice versa, in a “globalisation of the false” that coincides with “the falsification of the globe.”

4. The Prince’s Consigliere 

Considering the recalcitrant obstinacy Italians display towards anti-smoking laws, routine vaccinations, or even the most basic of environmental protections, it has been a curious thing to witness their meekness and docility toward the anti-Covid decrees and the lockdown, at least during the first two phases of the pandemic. It has since taken the possibility of full blown economic collapse to trigger some timid resistance. The whole affair has been quite illuminating as to the life conditions to which we have long been consigned: a life in which neither love, nor affections, nor principles play the deciding role, since we are forced instead to choose between lousy alternatives that pit our need for money against the maintenance of our failing health. Such a state of confusion might be seen as an index of the extent of capitalism’s expropriation of human language (the spectacle) and the expropriation of health from human beings by their own health systems (iatrocracy).

Ivan Illich is without a doubt the most merciless critic of modern institutions, and of medical health institutions in particular. In his important polemic, Medical Nemesis, he writes that,

A professional and physician-based health-care system that has grown beyond critical bounds is sickening for three reasons: it must produce clinical damage that outweighs its potential benefits; it cannot but enhance even as it obscures the political conditions that render society unhealthy; and it tends to mystify and to expropriate the power of the individual to heal himself and to shape his environment. Contemporary health care systems have outgrown these tolerable bounds. The medical and paramedical monopoly over hygienic methodology and technology is a glaring example of the political misuse of scientific achievement to strengthen industrial rather than personal growth 11.

As he reiterates in an appendix to the text written twelve years later, Illich’s hypothesis is that the main pathogenic factor in our society is located in the pursuit of ideal health. This position was recently resurrected — without triggering any big scandal or controversy — by the Invisible Committee, as one piece of a broader critique of institutions: 

The purpose of the medical institution is not to care for people’s health, but to produce the patients that justify its existence and a corresponding definition of health. Nothing new on this subject since Ivan Illich and his Medical Nemesis. It’s not the failure of the health institutions that we are now living in a world that is toxic through and through and that makes everyone sick. On the contrary, we’ve seen their triumph. Quite often, the apparent failure of the institutions is their real function 12.

Illich is referenced by name in Agamben’s intervention from April 13th, entitled A Question — in which the philosopher argues that post-Cartesian medicine is responsible for introducing a split in our singular experience between the corporeal or biological sphere, and the spiritual or cultural one — as well as in a handful interviews (La nuda vita; Polemos epidemios). Moreover, an attentive reader can easily sense Illich’s silent presence subtly scattered here and there, like a tone or an intensity, throughout many of Agamben’s recent statements. Something similar can perhaps be said for his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Few have noticed or expanded on the echo of Illich’s thought within that text, particularly in the third part of the book, dedicated to the camp as the biopolitical paradigm of modernity. Strangely enough, in 1995, no one found anything in that discussion worthy of objection, and the criticism of the book focused on other aspects of Agamben’s argument, in particular on the adoption of the camp as a paradigm, which was reiterated later in Remnants of Auschwitz. Yet there are numerous passages in Homo Sacer Vol. 1 that cast the medical institution in a sinister light. Perhaps many readers stopped at Agamben’s historicist observation that single individuals belonging to the medical category were complicit with a totalitarian power, effectively bypassing the question of the contribution and responsibility of medicine and scientific research towards the atrocities perpetrated by National Socialism, which include their various ignoble experiments. But it was really a matter of pointing out that, almost at the same time, equally cruel experiments were being carried out by U.S. doctors and researchers on inmates of death row and their own prisons:

If it was theoretically comprehensible that such experiments would not raise ethical problems for officials and researchers inside a totalitarian regime that moved in an openly biopolitical horizon, how could experiments that were, in a certain sense, analogous have been conducted in a democratic country? 13

In the light of the secret continuity between totalitarianism and democracy, the stakes of the chapter on Versuchepersonen, or human guinea pigs, are that, within the biopolitical horizon that characterizes modernity, the doctor and the scientist each move in that no-man’s land between death and life, between exception and norm, that was once the exclusive prerogative of the sovereign decision.

Placed within this trajectory of study, and enriched by the perspectives of David Cayley and Patrick Zylberman, Agamben’s interventions regarding the political epidemic are little more than a reconfiguration of the role of medicine and science in the light of the economic and political situation of recent decades. To understand the role of the sciences today, it is first necessary to situate them at the intersection of the state of exception, the religion of capitalism, and the development of securitarian apparatuses of control. Agamben’s hypothesis is that, as a mere pragmatics lacking its own conceptual rigor, medicine has replaced or complemented capitalism as a cultic religion devoid of any special dogmatics. He thus recognizes in medicine those fundamental characteristics Walter Benjamin identified in capitalism (Medicine as Religion). This point of convergence has been called by Agamben “biosecurity” (Biosecurity and Politics): the doctor, continually suspended between priestly vaticinium [prophecy] and clinical decision, between eschatological instance and therapeutic Manichaeism, now rises, after an exhausting virological-religious dispute, to the role of personal advisor of the Prince. Distrust of consiglieri is not always misplaced, however; the potential for fraudulent council and shadow governments is always lurking. To invoke Illich’s words one more time: “The uncritical acceptance by the people of the omniscience and omnipotence of professionals may result in authoritarian political doctrines (with possible new forms of fascism) or in a further explosion of neo-prometic but essentially ephemeral follies” 14. What else, really, is signified by the recently introduced expression, “second order governance” [governance di secondo grado]? Medicine does not have as its task to legislate or to arrange the application of rules, but to treat the sick according to those principles that, for centuries, “the Hippocratic oath irrevocably sanctions” 15. The history of mankind has gone through various illegitimate forms of political power introduced by social figures (priests, judges, colonels, economists) who have suddenly concentrated sovereignty in themselves, reconfiguring it from time to time through the knowledge characteristic of their functions. Only a few years ago, at the time of the economic crisis, the technocratic turn that was sweeping Western democracies was variously denounced and contested. It is unclear why a similar reservation cannot be legitimately expressed with respect to an increasingly concrete iatrocratic appendage.

5. Archons of This Century

What does the scenario that world politics sets before us look like in the twilight of the Agamben’s interventions? Spectacular domination by mass media, iatrocracy of doctor-priests, sovereign policing controlling the streets: this is the image of a world in which the means — conceived as respective exclusive monopolies: monopoly of language, monopoly of health, monopoly of violence — now assert themselves as ends unto themselves. In fact, the spectacle is nothing but a stage of capitalism in which our linguistic nature, which has now attained its extreme alienation, advances menacingly towards us, radically inverted. The same is true of our conception of health care and policing, where our specifically human capacities for healing and violence, long since alienated, now loom over us as dangers. Thus, our muteness encounters language through the words of the media, our illness meets health through the health meted out by doctors, and our powerlessness encounters violence through the violence of uniformed men. Our singularity everywhere encounters its own natural capacities in forms that are alienated, separated, and hypostatized: in the media, medical institutions, and the police. 

This is the world of economic-theology, wherein — according to the model described by Nicolas Malebranche in his Traité de la nature et de la grâce — from out of a state of exception (the miracle) a general law confers on executive power (the angels) special powers of government, including legislative power (divine sovereignty), and fragments it into a hierarchy of ministries, a bureaucracy of officials and offices. Providence, the governance of the world, thus becomes a self-sufficient sphere with respect to mediately or immediately sovereign organs, establishing itself as the relative locus of sovereignty 16. A curious characteristic of our institutions is that, today more than ever, secularized theological concepts secretly operate in them. A strange clue in this regard is offered to us more or less consciously by the notion of the patron saint, or protector, which belongs to some Christian denominations. As is well known, the patron saints of law enforcement, health care workers (pharmacists, nurses, doctors) and those who work in communications are the Angels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, respectively. This is not just a coincidence or mere convention, but a consequence of the parallelism that, in theological circles, at least from Athenagoras onwards, and with an increasing consensus, affirms the structural analogy between heavenly bureaucracy and earthly bureaucracy — in the words of Thomas Aquinas, “sacred rule, which is what the term ‘hierarchy’ means, exists among men and among angels” (S. Th., q. 108, a. I, arg. 3). Indeed, we must attend to the theophoric names of the three angels: Michael comes from the Hebrew Mi-ka-El, meaning “Who is like God?,” Raphael from Rafa-El, meaning “God heals,” and Gabriel from Gavri-El, meaning “Mighty God” or, also, “Wonderful Advisor.” The first is responsible for leading the heavenly armies in the war against the fallen angels, the second for bringing healing and health, and the third for delivering the divine announcement. Each of them, in his celestial function, recalled by the theophoric name, is opposed to a specific fallen angel: Michael to Satan (the original angelic couple), whose sin is precisely to have rebelled by equating himself to God; Raphael to Asmodeus, to “he who causes to perish”; Gabriel to Mammon, that is, to money and wealth. If, however, the observation of George B. Caird is correct, if the demonic is nothing more than the isolation and exaltation of angelic and legalistic power in an independent religious system (the angelic fall), it is possible to affirm that Satan, Asmodeus and Mammon are not separate entities but only the other face of Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, that is, the danger into which violence, medicine and divine communication are always on the verge of slipping by absolutizing themselves, erasing their relationship with the sovereign and transcendent dimension, considering themselves self-sufficient. In other words, the devil is the ownmost possibility of the angelic being. If the gubernatio mundi of the angels (mal’akim, messengers) is affirmed as the absolute and eternal locus of sovereignty, or as an end in itself — if the messenger is affirmed as the message itself (or in the words of the critic Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”) — its eminently infernal face is revealed. In other words, to angels there belongs a constitutive ambiguity, and the familiarity between angelology and theories of power is here reversed into the familiarity between  theories of power and demonology. This means that a ministerial, police, sanitary, or media power, which absolutizes itself as its own end, severing every link of “service” (ministerium) with the organs of direct or indirect sovereignty, is nothing but a demonic power and, as such, illegitimate, whose goal is to subdue the population through fear, abolishing in it the memory and the exercise of any legitimate mediality (Che cos’è la paura?; Si è abolito l’amore). Such a power therefore seeks “at all costs to seize hold of the bare life it produces, and yet, no matter how hard it tries to appropriate and control it by means of every available apparatus — no longer simply those of policing but also those of medicine and technology — this life always escapes its grasp, because it is by definition ungraspable” (When the house is on fire). Only absolute immanence, the being of all in all, to which bare life is now irreparably consigned, enables bare life to become its own unique form, the ungovernable that tirelessly escapes capture by every  economic-governmental strategy of power. 

It is within this image that the messianic aspect of Agamben’s interventions must be grasped (Sul tempo che viene). Messianism is, in fact, the area par excellence in terms of which monotheisms have attempted to come to terms with the problem of Law, angelic power and earthly power. The Messiah introduces the end, hic et nunc, by ridding the world of government, reducing “to nothingness every principality and every power and might” (1 Cor., 15, 24)—rendering them inoperative, destituting them. As Benjamin writes in the “Theological Political Fragment,” what is at stake in messianism is the nihilistic political task of restoring to its relativity and historical-natural finitude, to its pure mediality, all that has been regarded (and misunderstood) as a self-sufficient and eternal end in itself. The “biosecuritarian” condition determined by these angelic-demonic figures is that of a world that has reached its conclusion, where the attempt to providentially renew, once again, the profane in a crystal of unhappiness, continuing to occlude (or conceal) the entrance to the Garden in which it has always lived, becomes ever more desperate and aggressive. Once again, this means that the problem is not sovereignty, but government; it is not God, but angels; it is not the king, but ministers. We can no longer accept any further subjectification, we cannot allow the governmental machine to continue its motion. The messianic call not to wait “either for a new god or a new man,” but to look instead “here and now, among the ruins that surround us, for a humble, simpler form of life, which is not a mirage, because we have memory and experience of it, even if, in us and outside us, adverse powers [the powers that govern the world] repel it every time into oblivion” (Sul tempo che viene) coincides perfectly and without remainder with the political call to elaborate “new forms of resistance, to which those who do not give up thinking the coming politics, which will have neither the obsolete form of bourgeois democracies nor that of the technological-sanitary despotism currently replacing them, will have to commit themselves without reserve” 17. Far from any conservative resignation or reformist hope, the prophecy that announces what is to come “is the destituent power that, in every sphere, deposes the powers and institutions, including those, churches or parties, that claim to represent it.” What remains is happiness, the inoperativity of government, the hacking of cybernetics. 

We must try not to forget the poet’s words, according to which “where danger is, grows the saving power also”—or, if you prefer, those of their Pulcinellian reformulation: “Ubi fracassorium, ibi fuggitorium”: 

Where there is catastrophe, there is also an escape route.

December 2020

First published at Laboratorio Archeologia Filosofica. Translated by Ill Will, with assistance from Rosanna Warren and the author.


1. Giorgio Agamben’s remarks on the COVID pandemic have primarily been published on the website of Quodlibet, a collection of which appeared recently in the volume A che punto siamo? L’epidemia come politica. These were followed a few months later by Giometti & Antonello’s publication of Quando la casa brucia [When the House is on Fire], which included the eponymous intervention of October 5, 2020. 

2. The Piazza Fontana massacre occurred on December 12th, 1969, when a bomb exploded at the headquarters of Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Milan, killing 17 people and wounding 88. Initially, anarchists were accused of carrying out the massacre, although they were in reality innocent. The anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli died after falling from the fourth-floor window of the police station where he was being held. The Piazza Fontana massacre is considered the beginning of the Years of Lead. The Capaci and Via D’Amelio bombings were two terrorist attacks against judges (Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino), both carried out by the mafia. Many investigations have indicated that all three bombings were commissioned by the Italian secret services and executed by neo-fascists (Ordine nuovo) and mafia. [“Dietrologia” is an Italian term referring to the study of that which is hidden, as in, when people hear of corruption, everyone believes there’s a secret, other story not being told. Dietrologia is commonly regarded as the fundamental attitude of conspiracy theories. It is not the conspiracy itself in question here, but its recent counter-revolutionary function. -Trans.]

3. Giorgio Agamben, Lezione nelle tenebre, in ID., Quando la casa brucia, Giometti & Antonello, Macerata 2020, p. 38. 

4. Furio Jesi, I recessi infiniti di Mutterrecht, in Johann Jakob Bachofen, Il matriarcato, Einaudi, Torino 1988, p. XIX. 

5. Giorgio Agamben, “A che punto siamo?”, in ID., A che punto siamo?, Quodlibet, Macerata 2020, pp. 29-30.

6. Furio Jesi, “Knowability of the Festival”, in ID. Time and Festivity, Seagull Books, 2021.

7. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press, p. 9. 

8. Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, p. 7. 

9. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End. Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, pp. 102-106.

10. Ibid, p. 124.

11. Ivan Illich, “Introduction”, in Limits to Medicine, Pantheon, 1976. 

12. The Invisible Committee, Now, Semiotext(e), 2017, pp. 73-74. An alternative version is available at Now, Ill Will Editions, 2017, pp. 43-44.

13. Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, p. 159.

14. Ivan Illich, “Disabling Professions”, in ID. et al., Disabling Professions, Marion Boyars, London 1977, pp. 11-12.

15. Giorgio Agamben, “Il diritto e la vita”, in ID., A che punto siamo?, op. cit., p. 106.

16. On these questions, see Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory. For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, Stanford University Press, 2011.

17. Giorgio Agamben, “Avvertenza”, in ID., A che punto siamo?, op. cit., p. 15.