April 28, 2020
Over a span of just a few weeks, the force with which human species life has collided with governmentalities on a planetary scale cannot but yield a powerful biopolitical episteme. That the biological is urgently political now is without doubt. However, the problem I perceive is a blurring of what meaning “bio” or “politics” might carry in this contemporary collusion. Proposing a slight pause, I suggest, first, that the biopolitical deliberations that this pandemic is provoking are not about a pandemic as such, but about an interim. Second, I invite a deliberation on the social in this interim, calling for a bio-social alongside the biopolitical, with which there might yet be a speculation of the social that lies beyond.
I read this interim as a singular event, a Deleuzian singular that recognizes the formation of an event that autoscripts its own making. Linear temporality is suspended. In the current pandemic, there are no externalities, no archives or genealogies to help beyond the signs of recognition. History and geography serve as reference points and as reflective registers: the Spanish Flu of 1918, mid-fourteenth-century Pisa, or 1720 Marseilles, or the more recent Ebola, SARS or Zika episodes. All such events indicate that this virus outbreak is what Lorraine Daston calls “ground zero empiricism.” While news reports, medical arguments, philosophical debates, political strategies, and more are spread on various platforms like an intellectual pandemic, there is agreement about one fact: this is an unprecedented event in human history. Life and politics being at the forefront of this interim consciousness, much is written in engagement with the foundational Foucauldian biopolitical conceptualizations about the link between the human species life and political strategy. One significant instance of this debate is Agamben’s “The Invention of an Epidemic,” which elicited a range of responses in a largely Italian context. That discussion brings biopolitical terminology squarely into the conversation: states of exception, bare life, racialized biopower, exceptional bureaucratic power, governmentality, autoimmunity, and the proposition of the community. Elsewhere writers and critics have deployed the same conceptual architecture and lamented the fate of populations that are being governed until cure/care or death/immunity set them apart (famously phrased by Foucault as “making live and letting die”). Very few, though, find any reason in this interim to recalibrate those Foucauldian channels of biopower to the vectors of the contemporary, or to find deeper meaning in his overexposed phrases.
The fact that the interim is biopolitical will find little critique, and it will remain a truism that the pandemic will produce populations who will be profiled differentially with hierarchized access to sustained life. Yet, my sense is that both biology and politics have entered a new dimension in what we think of as the contemporary, especially in this interim. (Roberto Esposito acknowledges this in “Cured to the Bitter End,” his contribution to the collection “Corona Virus and Philosophers,” published by the European Journal of Psychoanalysis.) The change in dimension is the complex relationship between, on one side, the new alleged universal of the virus, and on the other, the usual particular of population politics. And as a necessary corollary, I would also suggest that in this contemporary heterogeneity of both politics and biology, the primacy of biomedical life is in an unprecedented universal convergence. But where the biopolitical paradigm falters the most is in its imagination of the social. I believe that political philosophy often strays in its understanding of the social, which is why that will be my starting point, much as it is the starting point of the current pandemic.
The social created by this virus is likely to be directed by a different life-biology and a different politics than what we are used to in our biopolitical analyses. With some outliers, the biomedical reaction to the pandemic has followed a single track in globally converging governmentality, which is social distancing. This, I reckon, is more of a bio-social technique—a phrase I outline more below—than a biopolitical one, and this is where the recalibration of the social to the biopolitical becomes fundamental. Succinctly put, the assumption is about a singular virus creating a homogenous population of human bodies that are globally equal in biomedical terms. Social distancing, or more appropriately, physical distancing is a bio-social strategy premised on a viral presence that allegedly equalizes all. There are speculations about how the virus might not affect all DNA population strains equally, or that it might have different effects on different biological profiles like age, gender, comorbidities etc. Lest we fall very quickly into a negative eugenics, I will abandon that line of thinking here. The wall we want to build is between us humans and the virus. Governmental techniques aimed at sequestering this “equal” human population with a bio-social strategy attuned to different jurisdictions might be the most efficient strategy while we await a vaccine or a readily available antibody test (but allow me to qualify this “efficiency” shortly).
It is likely that for the first time in human history—because of the conditions of possibility of human contact, mobility and density that the contemporary allows—one can imagine humanity unified under the threat of a single virus. The contrapuntal fact is that this unified human species population will have its own stratifications and inequities: the old versus the young, the medically vulnerable versus the strong, the asymptomatic versus the symptomatic. All of these categories will likely adhere to the uniform medical sense of “human life,” on one hand, while on the other hand, they will overlap with the categories of the poor, the marginalized, the racialized, the isolated, and the socially vulnerable. Despite this, what might we make of an interim in which a single virus produces a biopolitical population that covers all of humanity, all of life, all of who are under one single governmental strategy: social distancing? That in itself has a destabilizing effect on the conventional biopolitical notion that differing anatomical profiling will construct classified populations in the plural, which will be accompanied by strategically targeted governmentalities. That is the first recalibration.
Many engaged with the machinations of executive power in this pandemic have identified the quintessential product of sovereign biopower as bare life. Many have developed classifications of the various populations of real and potential bare life produced by the measures of social distancing and, in several jurisdictions, by complete lockdowns. Some write with insight, others with myopia. Yet almost all have argued about how governmental authorities might have/should have dealt with various populations before the variations of self-isolation, quarantine, and lockdown were implemented, or in some cases, were not implemented. I suspect that this judgment on politically abandoned life is a conceptual ordering that hinges on a past view of populations that was known through the diktats of sovereign power. The shift that is possibly in the making for some time to come is the possibility of sovereign power invested in a virus.
What we might need to consider on this cusp of the interim is a category of life like that of health professionals and others that are out there by executive decision, or personal responsibility, carrying on daily work in the face of this virus. They are at the frontline and they may be sacrificed to the cause, and perhaps be killed without proper protective gear or other necessary support—a situation reported from across the world. Or, those involved in retail delivery, or post office work, or many others who encounter risk in their labor because they have no choice but to be engaged in the only earning activity possible at this time. Are we to call these and other such lives bare life produced by the virus and its natural laws? In this interim, it is possible to imagine a near future when the governmentality of lockdowns and social isolation will be lifted by political and bureaucratic strategy or by socially and economically coerced choice. Without immunity, will the population of humans be bare life writ large, brought into being by the same sovereign power of a non-human, the Covid-19 virus? That is the second recalibration.
In India, where I write, since the lockdown our gaze has been turned toward the hundreds of thousands of migrant, urban, daily wage laborers in the informal spectrum, who are facing the prospect of earning nothing and thereby starvation, and are left with no choice but to walk home across state borders, sometimes hundreds of miles. They are, I imagine, just the tip of an iceberg of many millions, not just in India but everywhere—the refugees in or outside camps, the homeless, the undocumented—all of whom will be quickly abandoned by sovereign power, as they are subjected to the racialized hierarchy of life. The “efficiency” of executive decision and strategy comes into play here, where Indian bureaucratic triage at this juncture defers to the virus. The reasoning seems to be that spending a few days planning out the “right” strategies will allow the virus to wreak havoc in our overpopulated, dense, socially vulnerable, drastically resource-challenged urban environments. Thus, the preferred strategy is to control the biggest threat first and then attend to other pressing concerns. Is sovereign power, then, found in the virus and its resultant manifestation in statecraft?
Reversing the flow of the argument, it may not be wrong to suggest that, at least in the interim, the glaring visibility of the unequal and the especially vulnerable is an outcome of a virus in a way that no single crisis has made possible in an instant. In this interim of statecraft dictated by a cellular organism, many (though not all) who have been called bare life in the past might be pulled into a safety net, if nothing else, of critique, debate, and response. Meanwhile the virus may cause others that we did not expect—waiters, flight attendants, shopkeepers, athletes, teachers, students, performers, actors, artisans, lifestyle professionals, street vendors, day laborers—to veer on the edge of the biomedically induced economic precipice. In India, and possibly in some other regions, internet access, through which online education is expected to continue, is not equally available to all, throwing many routine aspirations into chaotic coping. Then again, what of our persistent caste dictum of untouchability, what traction of bare life will be achieved by this horrific practice in a secular world of governmental bio-social strategy? The popular enemy of Hindutva society makes its appearance in this interim as well, as the virus-carrying-and-spreading infected Muslim body. In March, a congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in a mosque in central Delhi was reported to have gathered hundreds of Muslim men from all over India and abroad. The “track and contain policy” of the Indian government linked a steep rise in reported cases of the infection in many parts of the country to this congregation. Not unlike the metaphysical deliberations of patient zero in Italy by Felice Cimatti, Hindutva metaphysics dwells gleefully on how the virus might yet be sourced to the Muslim male body, yet another crucible of bare life. Social vigilantism abounds, with many communal consequences. The social economies unleashed by the virus might find more classifications of those abandoned by the bio-social than by the biopolitical. But, recalibrating biopolitical conceptualizations is not my only intention here.
The crucibles of the social that this social distancing calls for is a home: an outside to be distant from and an inside to stay safe in, thus sustaining a way of life without physical contact. Human life is seemingly divided up into those who can comply with the above and those who cannot. From that stance, I presume that the social, rather than the purely biological, will be far more effective in producing populations in this interim, and ones that will be politicized in ways that we may not have predicted. Agamben writes in his “Clarifications” in the “Coronavirus and Philosophers” collection that social distancing and the society he sees around him in Italy upset him, where a society dedicated to survival is committed to keeping the one-meter distancing and to maintaining digital connectivity alone. And with that same gesture, “free” political society, sustained by contact and meeting, is destroyed.
I agree with his earlier notions of the cell phone apparatus and the ways it might have transformed our social and political lives. And indeed, in the interim, South Korea has adopted self-declared modes of tracking through cell phone connectivity, a surveillance strategy that might be adopted by many more ( India currently is experimenting with a similar cell-phone based app) . But, there is an undeniable pragmatic side to that apparatus. It is clear that in the interim, the social as a sphere of relationalities with ideas of intimacy, transactions, and connections will have to develop with these technologies in the spaces of the virtual and non-physical. Spaces that already exist in these realms of social media and screen dependency will assume new proportions. Work from home is just one facet of this. The only economy that is seemingly thriving in this interim is the economy of digital commercial platforms (Jeff Bezos of Amazon, of course, is reputedly much richer now). In the abrupt urgency of the interim, notions of work, community, society, freedom, liberty, duty, sovereign power, and responsibility on one hand, and on the other, body, self, intimacy, solitude, isolation, care, contact, risk, and survival might be reset and rebooted. We are rethinking mobility, space, and distance as much as reordering time, proximity, routine, and the everyday. The social as a realm of relationships is achieving a new kind of density, and a new kind of parsing, both of which will need more understanding.
Somewhere in this duration of the interim a new political form presents itself: the sovereign power of a virus, and in its stead, the power of universal life. How might this sovereignty be understood and what power does it command where the recrafting of the biopolitical as also the bio-social might find a foothold? Through this singularity of the interim emerges a question about a people and a politics yet to come, following Deleuze, to which I will add, life and the social yet to come. This is not because we have not known viruses in the past, or we have not seen pandemics, or we have not seen bio-political governmentality. What we may not yet have understood in the interim is the social in the social contract.
The virtual connectivity and visibility that are possible today were unheard of in the pandemics of the past. So far, virtual societies and communication technologies have apparently been substitutes for social relationships and economic transactions. Despite this, troubling questions that emerge are why, what, and how much of the social is threatened with physical distancing? Why is physical distancing such a threat and a trauma when we already have so much connectivity, so many virtual communities? It is clear that economies break down and cannot survive with virtual transactions alone. The problem adheres to an uncomfortable possibility, an “inconvenient truth” in this social-ecological catastrophe. Society or community cannot exist without physical and corporeal contact, defined by desire and inevitably, also by revulsion. Our touchable, proximal bodies are the medium for society to exist, for life to be sustained or annihilated, and for politics to happen. At this moment, the only acceptable intimacy is between doctor and patient, the health care saviors and the infected to be saved.
What I want to term bio-social governmentality in the interim is a change in the notion of the social contract where sovereign state power is intervening not between peoples, or between state and insurgents or enemies, but between people and a virus. In the interim, friends and enemies are on the same virtual side in the leviathan. A stranger that is yet to be classified and domesticated occupies the other side. The body of the leviathan is no longer the congealed sacrifice of individual will given over to sovereign power, it is a flesh-and-blood organism that will simply not cohere because bodies must not adhere in the interim. Hence my insistence on the bio-social, rather than the conventional biopolitical, where biology must interact with the social more than it does with the political, at least in the interim. This changes our understanding of and our relationship to the state of nature. In fact, it leads us to understand the social nature of this virus: how it infects and how it affects what is touchable within our desired proximities, our social. Life in the interim is bewildering because it is dictated by our reordering of the social. What remains now is an isolated insular, biological body of the individual that seeks immunity from the state of nature and seeks sustenance in a biologically governed social. We are a biological condition that unites us all as humans, as life, however stratified our access to humanity, but our human life must be experienced without mundane, unregulated physical contact.
In the end, our understanding of the social and social relationships as conduits and capillaries of power in a true biopolitical sense receives unprecedented strength and that is the looming crises as much as it is the potential for a politics of hope. On this side of the divide, when the virus is still on the other side, it might be social bodies poised with one another in conflict or in solidarity; with suspicion, fear, and competition; with optimism and a will to change; with risk, desire, and compassion, produced and sustained by the political economy of the social and not by governmental strategy. In the interim, when state power and governmentality are occupied with strategies that will keep nature away from human society by getting to the heart of the social, the social itself might generate populations with bodies that will find the potential of common life. Here, each life counts because of biological commonality. Following Agamben in The Coming Community:
The coming being is whatever being. . . . The common translation of this term as “whatever” (from the Latin quodlibet) in the sense of “it does not matter which, indifferently” is certainly correct, but in its form the Latin says exactly the opposite: Quodlibet ens is not “being, it does not matter which,” but rather, “being as such as it always matters.
But the future potential could also be the dystopia where bodies will be antagonistic because of their shared bio-physical risk and vulnerability, but separate sociality. Risk society holds another kind of dimension in this interim of fear and suspicion. Hence the potential of the bio-social.
The crucial recalibration here is not so much biopolitical phraseology but the question of the potential conduits of power in the bio-social. The more urgent question will be about how governmental power will redesign the social and what power the social itself will generate. Institutionalized “social” power in the shape of regulating risk, fear, and aversion will emanate from and be directed toward temples, churches, mosques, and their congregations. Class, race, and caste; profession and association; gender and age, to cite some generic illustrations, will be the sites where power will be exercised, mimicking a governmentality that will be social in its genesis. I should underline that this social classification, while reproduced from past hierarchies, is indeed not the same as in the past, hence the need to engage with the contemporary that constitutes this interim. Law, politics, and policy is subservient to biology, the social, and the economic. Conventional biopower is the consequence rather than the condition of governmentality. The virus as a living organism will adjust and mutate as time goes along and until it differentiates human life into biochemically differentiated populations, the choice of equalizing all humanity into a population remains the only one. Until then, the differential power of the virus is at the level of the bio-social rather than the biopolitical.
The species-knowledge that will now come to the forefront is not about a population that can be micromanaged in an individual exemplar—the typical anatomo-politics of biopower. Rather it will be the other way around. As individuals, each living body will be acutely aware of her own intimate biological self and her vulnerabilities. Her fear and risk will be engaged with social trust as the mechanism with which to guide interaction, rather than biological information about those with or without the infection. The untested asymptomatic carrier becomes a constituent of this ontology of trust. The docility that is now expected is the willing deference to personal biology, to a self-surveillance of us and a suspicion of others, and to a screening through social trust, all in the purpose of sustaining the supreme value of life. In the interim, protecting the shared burden and destiny of universal life embodied in our vulnerable biological selves is the protection and the vulnerability that we will allow in our socialized bodies in space. In that sense, governmentality might move away from the politically recognized or abandoned but find traction in the socially accepted and rejected revealing the potential of both social antagonism and solidarity that was always perhaps embedded in the phrase “civil war.” Side by side, the solidarities and toxicities of the screen dependent will continue to aid and abet all of the above.
In the past, I worked with forms of life in the social emerging at the threshold where life appears in the afterlife of death. That was in the contexts of mass violence. I understood the affective production of populations mired in the malevolent politics of identity as negative biopolitics —populations not produced by governmental technique alone. Affirmative biopolitics, if it may be called that, lay in those forms of life produced in the realms of compassion, citizenship, and justice. In the interim, I would once again like to think of what forms of death might we accept and what forms of life might we expect at this threshold,: ones that unfold in the realms of compassion and humor, community and collectivity, self and care, politics and law, biology and theology, risk and fear. As some write lyrically about loneliness, or offer comedy like cocaine, or visually capture cities without crowds, or share stories of selfishness, there are realms in the social that we are yet to know.