Epidemic Philosophy

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Can a virus ever prompt good philosophy? Within weeks of its emergence, SARS-CoV-2 was galvanizing celebrity European philosophers and social theorists, most of them men in a vulnerable age demographic, to reflect publicly and plentifully on the meaning of the pandemic. These days, it seems, an epidemic demands urgent philosophical inquiry, and lots of it—personal protective equipment for the mind, perhaps. But like much rushed PPE, it can turn out shoddy and defective. 

Past epidemics frequently forced philosophers into productive, quiet self-isolation; some sickened, and a few even died. But in modern times, the disease outbreak itself has become raw material for metaphysical speculation. Leaping barriers between the sciences and the humanities, epidemics increasingly have come to offer a rich vocabulary and an attractive conceptual framework for elevated discussion of human identity and sociality. Accordingly, some cultural studies scholars regarded AIDS as an ‘epidemic of signification’, generating all sorts of theoretical insight in the humanities.[1] Sometimes the process has involved creative misreading of science. Thus, Jacques Derrida avidly took up notions of autoimmunity, having initially mistaken this as the cause of AIDS. ‘We feel ourselves authorized to speak of a sort of general logic of autoimmunization’, the philosopher declared in 1996. ‘It seems indispensable to us today for thinking the relations between faith and knowledge, religion and science, as well as the duplicity of sources in general.’[2] Indeed, Derrida believed autoimmunity should substitute for ‘deconstruction’.[3]

Almost from the start, Covid-19 has been providing grist to the philosophical mill. In late February 2020, distinguished Italian social theorist Giorgio Agamben (aged 77) publicly condemned the ‘frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded emergency measures adopted against an alleged epidemic of coronavirus’. With the authority of Donald Trump, he argued that the Covid-19 epidemic was no worse than seasonal influenza, and social distancing was a deep state conspiracy. The supposed pandemic was an excuse for the government to impose a ‘state of exception’ on everyone, reducing lives to a purely biological condition, lacking any social, political, and emotional dimensions. By mid-March, Agamben was less sceptical about the gravity of the disease outbreak, but even more concerned about what might become of human relations. He regretted that Italian society ‘no longer believes in anything but naked life’; other humans had been reduced to ‘potential contaminators to be avoided at all costs’. Last I heard, Agamben is self-isolating.

Other Continental philosophers have been quick to distance themselves from the Italian sage’s paranoia and pessimism. His compatriot Roberto Esposito (aged 69) told followers that Covid-19 was demonstrating again the contemporary validity of Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘biopolitics’, the necessary co-constitution of the biological and the political. But unlike Agamben, Esposito believed the pandemic was leading to the loosening of public authority rather than the tightening of a totalitarian grip. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (aged 79) chided his ‘friend’ Agamben for epidemic denial; he went on to suggest that pandemic responses were as likely to generate new social solidarities as to make us mere isolates of bare life. ‘The viral magnifying glass’, he mused enigmatically, ‘enlarges the characteristics of our contradictions and our limitations.’ 

Never to be outdone, the wild man of European philosophy, Slovenian Slavoj Zizek (aged 71) pondered what world order might emerge after the pandemic. It was causing him sleepless nights. He feared ‘barbarism with a human face—ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions’. Yet he also hoped, like Nancy, that new forms of social connection might rise Phoenix-like from the ashes, maybe even a fresh version of communism. To no one’s surprise, his Covid-19-inspired book will be released soon.

For Bruno Latour (aged 72), in contrast to Esposito, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the impoverished humanistic logic of biopolitics. ‘We are collectively playing’, he wrote in Le Monde on March 25, 2020, ‘a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture.’ Clearly this was not meant as a compliment. Latour called for a more thoroughly ecological analysis of the outbreak, one less focussed on contagion. That way, he hoped, ‘the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change’.

‘It seems that the challenge of the epidemic is everywhere dissipating the intrinsic activity of Reason’, observed philosopher Alain Badiou (aged 83) late in March 2020, ‘obliging subjects to return to those sad effects—mysticism, fabulation, prayer, prophecy and malediction—that were customary in the Middle Ages when plague swept the land.’ No doubt many contemporary philosophers in a time of plague have felt an urgent need to clarify our thinking, to offer a philosophical diagnosis and prognosis of our current predicament. But in the haste to manufacture mental personal protective equipment against the Coronascene, it is all too easy to make mistakes, to mass produce instead fatuity, guesswork, and irrelevance. Perhaps those previous generations of less entitled, less celebrated, philosophers were prudent to sit out their epidemics, and to reflect in tranquillity. As the late, great Ludwig Wittgenstein said: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’[4]

Warwick Anderson is Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance, and Ethics in the Department of History and the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney. He’s currently studying the emergence of disease ecology and “planetary health,” when he isn’t trying to work out how best to have theory in an epidemic.

[1]Treichler P. AIDS, homophobia and biomedical discourse: An epidemic of signification. Cultural Studies1987;1:263-305.

[2]Derrida J. Faith and knowledge: Two sources of ‘religion’ at the limits of reason alone [1996]. In Religion, edited by J Derrida and G Vattimo, 1-17. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.

[3]Anderson W, Mackay I. Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

[4]Wittgenstein L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922.

6 replies on “Epidemic Philosophy”

that’s not what Wittgenstein meant by that, but leaving that aside I seen no evidence that more time/research will lead to these folks to do anything but find more ‘evidence’ that their pet theories were right all along, as long as philosophy gives into the desire to generalize (to erase heterogeneity/particularity/etc) I don’t see a cure for this ill of reification.

Very amusing, though a bit harsh on Latour I thought. There is an ecological dimension that worldwide government responses do not acknowledge. But what do I know — I too suffer from kids at home “dissipating the intrinsic activity of Reason”.

fatuous summaries of everyone’s views do not a higher plane make. agamben raised perfectly important questions about sacrifice, risk, & tradeoffs in defining human value, none of which redound to his epidemiological mistakes. why bother writing if you’re not going to be serious?

Careful not to be glib – fluent and fast-talking – when using Derrida as a source, because as he tried to show, that is precisely where “mysticism, fabulation, prayer, prophecy and malediction” may happen, that is, where “it is all too easy to make [certain kinds of over-productive] mistakes, to mass produce instead [a certain kind of] fatuity, guesswork, and irrelevance”. Silent we cannot remain – we must speak even if impossible. How do you do that? By ‘taking your time and being quick about it’? Not yet ready to take the leap of faith re writing, I enjoyed being quick about taking my time to read at leisure. Here are two of my favorites:
Viro de Graphe-Matician’s (February 8, 2011) “On Jacques Derrida’s Parasitology” @ .
Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, & Roberto Esposito exchange letters @

We remain in dis-ease, sometimes just more so than at other times – “shi(f)t happens”. I liked the concluding words of Treichler’s article, which I also read as follows: “”[…] We have to prevent and treat one disease, […], to prevent another, […].””

A year into the pandemic the task of responding meaningfully to the pandemic is no less important. I could not agree more with the assessment and the call here. I am therefore very curious to know why it is that while Warwick Anderson names all but one of the septuagenarian theorists he cites with a name. Paula Treichler is collectivized as “some cultural studies scholars” for her specific contribution of ‘epidemic of signification.’ Admittedly, the concept has been subject to genericide. But so has biopolitics, which is here carefully attributed to MF full spell. The masked Treichler is followed by a backhand to humanities theorists for their “all sorts of theoretical insight” (sic). Given that Treichler is a social scientist (a linguistics PhD appointed, until her retirement, in a medical school anthropology PhD program and a communication department), who is being dissed here? Most universities consider philosophy and history humanities discipline. Could this be self-directed at the “all sorts” of white male humanities theorists cited? A shame that Treichler, now 79, the author of How to Have Theory in an Epidemic (the vastly cited essay and book title on which this essay riffs), will soon age out of qualifying for inclusion.

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