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A life that is not its own: A Reply

It is a tremendous pleasure to encounter unforeseen readers in the process of exploring unforeseen lines of thought. Such readers offer The Pandemic Perhaps the gift of a life that is not its own. The thoughtful comments assembled in this collection provide occasions for escape, which honor the book in the best possible way. They borrow ideas, extend words, gestures, and images in unexpected directions, and thus announce in the practice of reading the pleasure of the text. Generosity constitutes the gift as a given which demands no return. What follows is a reply; it simply recognizes, in the form of a response, that something has been received.

A key aim of writing The Pandemic Perhaps was to explore the multidimensional relationships between hegemonic regimes of scientific knowledge, historical processes of nation-state building, and compulsive structures of affective attachment. Analytically, the book departs from a constructivist concern with “intelligibility” and the correlated fantasy of performative efficacy. The Pandemic Perhaps troubles accounts, which assume that constructions work, demonstrating how styles of reasoning render things unintelligible. The irony is that such failure now constitutes a mode of operation. This has important implications not only for our analytics of power, but also for our ability to imagine alternative social formations.

As the comments in this forum capture so well, the book cares about the social, cultural, and historical specificity of pandemic influenza as a contemporary concern. It examines how a particular imagination of the pandemic threat is anchored in a configuration of temporal sensibilities and institutional anxieties that is characteristic for a specific historical moment. One might call this analytic move a strategy of provincializing preparedness; its goal is to work against the idea of globalizability as the hegemonic imaginary of our time.

Raad Fadaak’s research on the Global Health Security Agenda takes this imaginary as its ethnographic object. In his comments, Fadaak suggests that America’s geo-political vision of global health security is driven not by the belief in the coming plague, but by the presumption that something must be done to prevent the worst. The recurrent invocation of instrumental reason in the world of policy-making finds its legitimacy in a language of urgency. As the product of an emerging administrative-bureaucratic apparatus, the Global Health Security Agenda refers to a “number of rapidly shifting possibilities and projects.” Here, actors infer powerful forms of agency from security as an empty signifier.

Fadaak’s account of the strategic “as-if”—a mode of speaking that doesn’t mean what it says—indicates that scholars need to reconsider the notion of belief and examine the conditions under which an orientation to the future appears (or fails to appear) as a structure of belief. For such a project the work of Michel de Certeau seems crucial, precisely because it presents belief not as a form of defective knowledge, but as a “promise of action.” De Certeau reminds us that it was the tradition of the Enlightenment that made belief a question of epistemology, a question of knowing the world rather than being in the world. Belief, de Certeau insists, represents a promise of action; it is not, as philosophers of the Enlightenment claimed, an example of “as-if” knowledge. Building on this account, one might say that belief is what makes security run.

Ann Kelly’s reading of The Pandemic Perhaps adds another insight to the critical analysis of today’s imaginary of globalizability. What she terms the “power of engrossment” refers us to the politics of intensified attention and strategic awareness. Malaria eradication campaigns are no longer driven by the political dynamics of the Cold-War period. The disease owes its significance to the scientific and economic opportunities it offers to actors and institutions in the global North and the global South. Kelly points to the question of value, and how value is constituted by virtue of “urgency,” a measure of political relevance, moral significance, and economic opportunity. The language of urgency is a powerful language, one that depoliticizes and dehistorizes an emerging regime of technocratic governance increasingly driven by a focus on ever-shifting “targets of opportunity,” in Samuel Weber’s sense of the term.

Not surprisingly, the language of urgency invokes the idea of magic. The latter comes with the promise of immediacy, of making things happen instantly. In states of emergency, where action is said to be urgent, dramatic health interventions acquire an aura of magic bullets, which promise instant results. In so doing, they are liable to frustrations, which intensify the desire for a form of magic that works.

In her comments, Karen Jent extends this idea of magic as promise of fantastic efficacy to her own ethnographic research on regenerative medicine in Scotland. “With its spark of magic, regenerative medicine offers a vision of a better world with a capricious protagonist that is not threat, but hope; not death, but resurrection; not dystopia, but utopia.” The emphasis, in regenerative medicine, is on the salvational side of things. Yet the promise of salvation acquires significance only in relation to a certain prospect: the prospect of death and degeneration that is increasingly haunting aging societies, so-called. In that sense, one might say that regenerative medicine, despite its optimistic orientation to a healthy future, remains subject to the dialectics of threat and promise that so powerfully animates scientific interest and financial investment today.

Ghassan Hage observed that our notion of hope is based on a protestant ethic of deferred enjoyment “which fits in very much with the idea of saving and deferring gratification.” Jent’s work on the regenerative as a site of optimistic attachment is a challenge to think hope “on the side of life,” that is, hope beyond the economic, as hegemonic measure of being and becoming, and, instead, as the “affirmation of life as it emerges and in the transitions and movements of our everyday life and relationships.”

In Perig Pitrou’s comments we encounter a reading of The Pandemic Perhaps that presents the book as a contribution to the anthropology of life. Viruses are frequently imagined in relation to other bodies. The life of the microbe appears in Pitrou’s account as that which is contingent on someone else’s life. This notion of borrowed life animates The Pandemic Perhaps; it highlights a more general condition of existence, one that refuses fantasies of sovereignty and self-sufficiency. Borrowed life is an unstable mode of being that remains indebted to the other. Today’s biopolitics offers a dramatic contrast: it presents the image of a community founded on immunity, that is, on the isolation of the self and its separation from the other. Pitrou’s reading suggests that the world of microbial life is more complex than the one generated by the cultural industry and its endless proliferation of militarized contagion movies dramatizing states of immunity under threat. What forms of life could microbial life forms inspire? What would it mean to recognize the condition of borrowed life?

Christos Lynteris points to the paradox of emergence ontology and its obsession with the new. Influenza viruses change all the time, so what makes a virus new? It is this undecidability at the heart of microbiology that makes emergence ontology so generative. Proliferating alongside the compulsive concern with the new and correlated attempts to define it is a failure of the imagination: the failure to envision pandemic disaster “in any other way than in the form of a rupture of bourgeois values.” Today’s view of pandemic disaster frames alterity as inverted image of a normative account of everyday life. Joseph Masco argues that this view casts the suburban life of the white middle class as a mode of existence in need of protection. The pedagogical point of disaster fantasy (and there is no fantasy without a pedagogical point) is to make this mode of existence an object of desire.

As Michel Serres taught us, the penchant of the parasite is to interrupt dinner parties (“the good meal in good company” in Kant’s phrasing). The task of anthropology is to make room for the uninvited guest.



Barthes, R.  1975.  The Pleasure of the Text.  New York: Hill and Wang.

de Certeau, M. 1985. What We Do When We Believe, in: Marshall Blonsky: On Signs, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hage, G. 2002.  On the Side of Life. Joy and the Capacity of Being, in: Mary Zournazi. Hope. New Philosophies for Change, Melbourne: Pluto Press.

Kant, I. 2006. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Masco, J. 2014. The Theater of Operations. National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror, Durham: Duke University Press.

Serres, M.  2007. The Parasite. University of Minnesota Press.

Weber, S. 2005. Targets of Opportunity. On the Militarization of Thinking, New York: Fordham University Press.

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