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The coronavirus pandemic is an unusual period for all of us. We are facing fear and uncertainty about our and our close ones’ health, about the job and the future. Some of us are facing loss of our loved ones. We had to change our daily routines, reorganise our work, learning and looking after children. We do not know when everything comes back to normal or whether this ‘normal’ that we used to know will ever come back. We are not able to predict how the situation will develop.
In these difficult times, we have asked the scientists from the University of Wrocław to share with us how they look at the situation from their scientific perspective. Below, we present the feuilleton by Dr Jakub Fereński from the Institute of Cultural Studies at the UWr.

Among many, more or less true, stories about Michel Foucault, one of the most intriguing is the one talking about his suspicion towards the governmental institutions and about his medical practices. Nearly whole his life, he remained sceptical of the existence of the HIV virus (although he was afraid that he might have infected his partner). At that time, he resided at the San Francisco Bay, spending his days in the Berkeley University Library and his nights in gay clubs. He kept off alcohol but not opioids. He allegedly thought that AIDS was too ideal illustration of his theses to be true. As he believed, the American puritans ‘invented’ it to mark black people, drug addicts and gays. This invention was closely connected with the birth of the new relations of power.

Fear of the virus and stigmatisation of the society were used to control the groups that the conservative regarded as damaging. They faulted him for knowingly ignoring the risk of spreading HIV. A French historian was the first public figure who died from AIDS. Of course, it does not mean that, from the perspective of cultural studies, relationship between the health condition described as different than normal and the authorities’ practise is not one of the most important matters of concern. It is not about the individual cases but about the society as a whole. It can be said that, on one hand, there is a fear of something invisible and connected with it myths and legends (Jewish water polluters that have been accused of the Black Death since the Middle Ages) and the political circles that try to harness these fears, and on the other hand there are ideas by Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Bruno Latour, and many others.

To the Italian philosopher Agamben, who follows different forms of exclusions in the political space, camp and quarantine are these figures through which our present may be described most adequately.  One of the political tools characterising it is the institution of ‘state of emergency,’ thanks to which it is possible to rule the country in a sovereign way. Ruling is no longer based on the law but rather on this institution itself. Decrees are of no use any more. In extreme cases (e.g. shooting at the refugees on the shores of Greece), these mechanisms may lead to the pure violence. With regard to the coronavirus, many of the critically oriented researchers in culture and politics see bigger threat to the freedom, law and democracy than to the health and safety. Are the authorities in countries (both in the Far East and the West) really using every possible reason to suspend our privileges and prerogatives? Jean-Luc Nancy, a French philosopher, joined the discussion with Agamben. According to him, Agamben “does not see that in the world where various technical interconnections (relocations, all sorts of transfers, saturation or diffusion of substances etc.) reach unknown as yet intensity which grows with the population, the exception becomes the rule. Proliferation of population, also in rich countries, is connected with an increase of life expectancy and of the number of elderly people and, more generally, those more liable. We must not miss the goal: there is no doubt that the coronavirus is a challenge for the whole civilisation. […]” At the beginning of this text titled Antinomie. Scitture e immagini (27 February 2020), Nancy calls Agamben “an old friend.” This personal tone is not accidental. As he mentions, three decades ago he was diagnosed with a need for heart transplantation. ‘Un vecchio amico’ was one of few people who advised him against listening to doctors. Had he listened to this advice, he would have long been dead, as he claims. Having accepted that the central part of the cardiovascular system deviated from what was considered as normal let the operation to be conducted and bring the body to the normal state. However, is Nancy’s argumentation telling us anything about the health of the rule of law? It is not easy to accept the vision of a disease or an epidemic.

In the novel ‘The betrothed’ by Alessandro Manzoni, we find the following sentence referring to the source of the Great Plague that started in Mediolan in 1630: “The tenacity in denying the existence of the plague began to slightly disappear with the spread of the disease, when it started to attack well-known people.” The story about Michel Foucault, who was the first public victim of AIDS in France, certainly changed the perception of this disease. It is different, however, with a country and the state of emergency. The latter transforms into a norm what is beyond legal action. It does not “attack” well-known people but, through exposing their cases/examples, it tries to reach everyone with rules and responsibilities. Introducing an emergency state is not a transplantation that is supposed to bring the system back to normal. It is rather an invisible diversion of freedom and democracy. We have to remember it during the time of societal or national quarantine.

Dr Piotr Jakub Fereński

Published by: Dariusz Tomaszczyk

10 Apr 2020

last modification: 23 Jun 2020