【by Han-yu Cory Huang, June 2022】
When the outbreak of the COVID-19 started to shock Europe in February 2020, Giorgio Agamben launched a relentless attack on the Italian government’s emergent biopolitical measures as “normalization of states of exception.” Agamben’s article immediately received fervent critical feedbacks from Jean-Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito the next few days. Then, many others joined and expanded the warfare to a variety of controversies over, for example, how or whether the COVID-19 pandemic leads to reinforcement or decline of political authorities as well as irruption of mass panic and the consequent xenophobic sentiments. Some socialist-minded philosophers like Daniel Lorenzini catered to different social groups’ unequal access to medical treatments and resources and higher probability of infection. In a similar vein, Mike Davis in his republished book stressed “the co-morbidity of hunger and infection” (36); he argued that malnutrition, as coupled with poverty and shortage of food, would become deadly when coupled with viral infection, a problem still not seriously heeded, not to mentioned resolved, even till today.
I have no intention in this essay to dwell on the details of the aforementioned debates. Being a Taiwan-based scholar working in the field of biopolitics, I am somehow indetermined to identify as global or even universal the social and political realities under the impact of the pandemic from European philosophers’ biopolitical perspectives. My indetermination also pertains to how concepts like “state of exception,” “bare life,” “immunization,” “biopower” and so on shed light into or, on the contrary, blackmail our understanding and whether it is necessary to elaborate, revise or simply get rid of them.
To a great extent, biopolitics concerns a visualizing, spatializing and locating drive towards bodies, elements, materials, movements, activities and so on, human or nonhuman. This explains away why “surveillance capitalism” and “digital dictatorship” have almost become everyday-life vocabulary. However, much about the actual trajectory of viral transmission and infection as well as the variation of the coronavirus remains invisible to biopolitical tracking and archivizing. If biopolitical analysis is necessary, I believe it is, to our era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should take a molecularizing and materialist turn, which is absent in most current debates on the pandemic, in order to better understand the strange, paradoxical ontological and temporal logic at work and critically engage the tension between visibility and invisibility.
Though both have fever, dry cough and aching muscles as their common major symptoms, the COVID-19 pandemic is different from its mysterious predecessor, SARS, in the way that its viruses are equipped with tougher shells, more capable of adhering to human body tissues, saliva and other bodily fluids as well as objects outside human bodies and more resistant to the dissolution by antimicrobial enzymes. Put in biopolitical terms, they can dodge or tear down immune-biopolitical defense. As we have recently witnessed, the COVID-19 virus has taken on its Omicron shift and its symptoms become more and more flu-like. However, potential chronic diseases may be lurking in the infected people’s future life. And such post-infection chronic diseases are yet to be assessed.
The virus can penetrate human organisms through the transmission of air and materials; it dwells in them and keeps replicating itself as an indivisible remainder. The whole process of viral contagion and replication works to problematize the boundary between organic and inorganic, human and nonhuman, parasite and host, life and death, like the Neighbor that is intimate to but resists integration into the ontological order of human life. The virus also suspends and disturbs all linear temporal orders; it becomes the impossible object that takes hold of and frustrates human desire and immune-biopolitical measures. Especially in the time of the quarantine, time loses its familiar, recognizable contents and markers, and enters into a state of stagnation which is constantly disrupted by the escape velocity of the viral spread. The COVID-19 pandemic simply worsens the universal tendency of multiple chronic diseases suffered by patients all over the world. Such a tendency denies the logic of (total) cure and replaces it with logic of management. It also amounts to the chronic time: it is more and more difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the termination of the pandemic and its sequelae. Such chronic time of the pandemic becomes undead, and so are we who live in it.
In March and April, 2022, about one hundred million positive cases of the Omicron infection have been reported all over the world, a number exceeding that of the total positive cases in 2020. Owing to the quasi-flu tendency of the current COVID-19 pandemic, countries like the U. S., the UK, Germany, Denmark, South Korea, Singapore and so on have officially announced their entry into “the era of co-existing with the coronavirus.” And as Taiwan is still struggling with the rising number of positive cases by early May, the Taiwan government claims to be adopting a more moderate model of co-existing in question; its effects remain to be assessed. In spite of individual time tables and specificities among countries, such a tendency entails (quick or gradual) lifting of counter-pandemic measures, with the aim of returning to normality. It is also equal to preempting or overdrafting the post-pandemic time, or letting the future fall upon a present that remains uncertain and risky.
Calls to return to normality do not emerge overnight with the Omicron variant. Right-wing governments, like the U. S. government under Donald Trump’s presidency and Boris Johnson’s British government, either disavow the gravity of the viral infection or adopt laissez-faire, impassive or “Buddhist-style” counter-pandemic measures. Such a position perfectly conforms to a neoliberal endorsement of maintaining normal economic activities with governmental intervention as little as possible. On the other side of the political spectrum, Left-wing activists may appeal to basic human rights to condemn the alleged “normalization of the state of exception” and the policies on wearing masks, quarantines, lockdowns, vaccination and so on. They may glorify co-existing with the virus as manifestation of autonomy and political dissidence. Strange to say, the right and the left seem to reach a unanimous albeit uncanny agreement with coexisting with the virus. However, what we are supposed to co-exist with is our viral Neighbor, which is always already with us but never a good neighbor to us.
It is no less uncanny that even in a time of global viral contagion and chronic diseases, the post-pandemic discourses have already been circulating among governmental announcements, social media, commercial promotions and academic forums, covering a wide variety of issues on international relations, economic infrastructures, medical innovations, urban planning, tourism, artistic praxis, education and so on. Accordingly, such post-pandemic discourses unsettle the distinction between preemptive and deferred dispositif. Such “post-” temporality does not signal an endpoint of any period or sequence of time, as termination is out of the question in the viral or chronic time. Instead, it breaks free of any temporal totality and teleology, splitting on a molecular level into deferral, prolongation, detouring and dissemination along with the ongoing variation and replication of the COVID-19 coronavirus. This post-pandemic temporality is equal to an uncertain futurity falling upon a present that is no less uncertain, haunting us and forcing us to symptomatically imagine various futural horizons.
The more and more common tendency of light or zero-symptoms does not guarantee any good news, for the post-infection chronic diseases may deviate from politico-economic rationality and medical management. Besides, the vacillation between positive and negative results of testing and the penetration of the Omicron into human organisms after receiving the booster doses of the vaccine are by no means exceptional. Such facts return us to an equally uncanny chronic time as discussed above: co-existing with the virus entails blurred, if not collapsed, boundaries between exception and normality, as well as living with chronic diseases with no calculable or recognizable termination in view.
The uncanny, paradoxical logic of the virus confronts us with the need to rethink and revise immuno-biopolitical rhetorical figures and conceptual categories. The virus with which we claim to be co-existing can no longer be represented as “the invader”; it has fundamentally disrupted the spatio-temporal boundaries and trajectories posited by our immune-biopolitical thinking, calculation and action. The virus with its uncanny and paradoxical logic constitutes our ontological domain with its always-already-thereness. Accordingly, the immunological logic based on negation or binary oppositions does not work to capture the transmission and variation of the virus; disease control and prevention no longer means zero-sum battles. Does this, however, imply that an immuno-biopolitical system and individual agents which should be more flexible and sensitive to the environmental variants and are able to constantly readjust their behaviors, are what we need for our post-pandemic world? Will they simply replicate the neoliberal ideology that privileges such principles as flexibility, least cost and largest interest, reduction of risks and optimization of opportunities, everything considered beneficial as long as it contributes to clearing obstacles to the market?
The molecularizing, and materialist as well, linguistic and conceptual reflexivity that I am tackling here departs from all too macropolitical and anthropocentric horizons. The COVID-19 pandemic from its first outbreak to now has ignited wide and indiscriminate circulation of a variety of biopolitical terms and concepts, like “biopolitics,” “biopower,” “immunity,” “quarantine,” “state of exception” and “bare life,” to the degree of losing critical edges and, worse, occluding the specificities and complexities of situations. In their comment on the COVID-19 pandemic at its early “stage” in March 2020, “The Community of the Forsaken: A Response to Agamben and Nancy,” Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan insightfully carry “the state of exception” away from its Agambenian biopolitical context to cater to more ecological and ontological material complexities. From Divedi and Mohan’s critical perspective, humans are “technical exception maker[s],” and immune-biopolitical measures like vaccination are all human states of exception to ecological systems and natural temporality. They point to the absent concern for humans’ interconnection with other nonhuman forms of life in contemporary biopolitical discourses, including Agamben’s and Nancy’s. How will, as driven by the will to immune-biopolitical defense and human survival, the almost unlimited use of anti-viral face masks, protective clothing, alcohol or other chemical elements for the disinfecting purpose have impacts on nonhuman beings and the environment? How should biopolitical discourses respond to the ethical demand from other species? Should we look for the exception of (human) state of exception?
Definitely, mass panic is what should be avoided in the first place. The more panic-stricken our response to the pandemic is, the more symptomatically we appeal to “returning to normality” or post-pandemic imagination. The other thing to avoid is the cynical illusion that we don’t need to do anything except waiting for the collapse of the capitalist system by the pandemic run amok. Biopolitics is not essentially wrong or evil; blaming biopolitical administration for everything amounts to nothing but outmoded, irresponsible empty escapism, since medical treatments and care always demand efficient and financially-demanding deployments of human resources, materials, facilities, space and actions. If post-pandemic co-existing with the virus has any meaning other than rhetorical figures, it may lie in going beyond the structured distinction between normality and state of exception, possibility and impossibility, optimism and pessimism and in rethinking or even changing the ways we think, eat, produce, move, live and all the capitalist imperatives to consume, travel and enjoy. This is the exact task to complete yet in response to the uncanny logic of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Han-yu Huang, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan
 See “Coronavirus and Philosophers,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis (http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/)
“Coronavirus and Philosophers,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis. (http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/)
Davis, Mike. The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism. New York: OR Books, 2020.