Giorgio Agamben in City of God

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Agamben is a European philosopher who is suspicious of science, which, in the past, has had its Nazi version. Agamben is also suspicious of science as the one that holds the truth about politics and life and has reasons to understand it that way.

Yara Frateschi published the article “Agamben being Agamben”, criticizing the position of the Italian philosopher in recent months on the current crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. Among other criticisms, he says that, despite maintaining fidelity to his own philosophical categories, Giorgio Agamben would incur an inability to understand the “factual truth” due to the limitation of his own theories, and, with this, he accuses him of being neoliberal and of being away from the “city” and its singularities. Thus, in this essay, I comment on Frateschi's opinion and make some criticisms of his text, in an attempt to show another Agamben, in some points.

On your blog at, Agamben rushed and continued throwing himself over the precipice of trying to divine the future - something forbidden to Jews. Along with Roberto Esposito, he thinks that mere emergency measures in this current Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis are different from the measures of a state of exception, real or fictitious. In addition, Agamben ended up putting himself at risk of being easily used by the alt-right, as Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo did when he wrote his article “Comunavirus has arrived". But I want to propose here to give another view on Agamben. Yes, make some comments and ask other questions.

I prefer to understand Agamben as a provocateur of questions that seem to be patent, well accepted by academic common sense. But perhaps it was too early to talk about the present. There was more time left for the Owl of Minerva to fly. There is no way of knowing whether the exceptional measures and control and surveillance devices will remain after the end of the pandemic. This is a speculative work, although important for generating debate, reflection and an opportunity to test the limits of a theory and its categories.

Despite everything, Agamben is right in dealing with the danger of the possibility of continuing surveillance after the epidemic, in the face of so many signs. In the same way that Frateschi speaks of a “factual truth”, he would say that Agamben is right when he perceives in this same “factual truth”: a) the existence of strategies already in force for camera control; b) the use of cell phone applications to monitor the location of infected people; c) the bioethical and biolegal problem regarding the “sofia's choice” in the use of beds and respirators; d) consolidation of distance education. All real and urgent, “factual”, “in the city” problems. These “facts” are not mere paranoid “interpretations”.

It is also necessary to understand that Agamben's mistrust of science does not come from a Bolsonarist irrationalism, nor from a fear for the good of the economy, of the market. These positions are the justifications of the Government of Jair Bolsonaro for the strategy of “group immunity”, and not of Agamben. It's because?

Agamben is a European philosopher who is suspicious of science, which, in the past, has had its Nazi version. Agamben is also suspicious of science as the one that holds the truth about politics and life and has reasons to understand it that way. Here, he aligns himself with post-war thinkers and their traumas, such as the critique of instrumental reason by the Frankfurtians, with Hans Jonas's heuristic of fear, and, especially, with the distrust that brings with it the distrust of knowledge-power of the medical discourse that becomes natural (Michel Foucault).

Another point: Frateschi unfairly places Agamben as a neoliberal because he would supposedly be against state measures of exception, placing the figure of the state as an enemy, without realizing its protective potential in relation to the poorest population. In summary, Frateschi believes that Agamben does not consider the “positive” potential of the state, as a legitimate entity and guarantor of social rights, especially in times of a pandemic, regarding the most vulnerable. Well, this, about Agamben's supposed neoliberalism, is wrong for the following reasons:

1 – Being against such measures does not make Agamben a liberal because he is precisely the one who tells us and shows that the state of exception comes precisely from the liberal-revolutionary and natural law tradition, and that it is used as a resource by this same tradition — as Karl Marx had already shown in 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852);

2 – Bolsonaro defends “group immunity” because it will cause less damage, according to his neoliberal calculation. Now, where did Agamben defend the health of the financial market? When did Agamben defend the relaxation of exceptional measures in this pandemic to save trade and industry? Is this factually-truly a concern of his?;

3 – In fact, neoliberalism may well be an ally of military authoritarianism and exceptional measures, which restrict conquered rights; just remember the Latin American experience with Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his Chicago Boys, in addition to the fact that neoliberalism produces a “permanent economic state of exception” (Gilberto Bercovici), with cuts in public services, fiscal austerity and a decrease in infrastructure investments, in addition to the relaxation of labor and social security laws;

4 – Even in the distinction that Foucault makes between liberalism and neoliberalism, Agamben cannot be labeled as such, in either of the two. “god of money”, in addition to the question of the inscription of life in oikonomia — here I remember Bolsonaro’s recent phrase, “the economy is also life”. Agamben distrusts the state, the law, the institutions of control, and this puts him closer to a revolutionary anti-capitalist thought, which preaches a way of life “that comes”, with another use of law, or after law and its state, and not a minarchism or anarcho-capitalism of Ayn Rand, or of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek etc;

5 – Agamben does not want the end of the State to leave the economy free. It's not about this. In fact, as I said, Agamben talks about “deposing” the law, which, since Hans Kelsen — this liberal one, and friend of Mises — has been confused with the state. So, I ask, if wanting to “depose” the bourgeois rule of law, when distrusting its exceptional devices, is being neoliberal, then who is Marx? A philosopher of the Austrian School? Certainly not;

And the measures of social isolation by WHO pose an anthropological and epistemological question: the WHO scientific model and the economic model for living in isolation may not serve the ways of life of traditional indigenous peoples, as feminist philosopher Maria Galindo warns us. , in defending that the model to be copied may not serve to protect against the contagion of Bolivian indigenous people, in addition to depriving them of their means of subsistence.

That is, adhering to the WHO guidelines is correct because they are credible, it is in the paradigmatic horizon (Thomas Kuhn) of what we understand as scientific knowledge. Therefore, for this very reason it cannot be seen as a dogma.

It is clear that the WHO cannot be rejected in the name of the functioning of the market and in spite of thousands of lives. In fact, at least in the Brazilian case, the WHO is one of the most credible bodies amid Bolsonaro's denialism and so many fake news on the social networks. WHO is our parameter of possible truth. But why? Why is it a global organization that holds the truth, as science would be the only possible safe knowledge? The answer to this question is positive. But it is only so because legitimately scientific knowledge is liable to be falsified (Karl Popper). The apparent paradox lies in the necessary reminder of the rhetorical status of science and its bioethical, biojuridical and, obviously, biopolitical limits.

As an example of how one cannot necessarily adhere to the WHO guidelines, due to their supposed “factual truth” or because this would be the path that would take us away from Bolsonaro’s denialism, it is necessary to remember 2 facts: that this The same WHO removed homosexuality, and less than a year ago transsexuality, from its list of pathologies only 30 years ago. Thus, if the precariousness of scientific factuality is not accepted, then, until changes in the WHO list of pathologies, would homosexuality and transsexuality be “diseases” of that same “factual truth”? The answer is no. But then what changed? This reality, the facts, or their “interpretation”? Is questioning this being postmodern? Or would it not be, rather, precisely epistemologically rigorous to assume that it is not the reality of the facts that changes, but the methods and new understandings about what goes beyond scientific objects, and enters their unscientific assumptions, since it would already be in the phenomenological field?

Bioethical and biopolitical decisions during this pandemic can never go unnoticed by so-called left-wing or progressive thinking. This cannot be trivialized, naturalized in the name of a (bio)political consensus. That's why Agamben is right at least for raising the issues and for putting this alert on the agenda, if only because of the controversy, generating discussions like the one we are having now, here.

However, the criticisms of Agamben do not work from the Latin American point of view. Here, neoliberalism is denialist and anti-scientificist, at the same time that it makes an apology for military dictatorships — while Agamben rightly fears, due to the trauma of the Shoah, the “Angel of Death” as was Josef Mengele and his science, we Latinos Americans, we fear the “Angel of History”, of colonialism and neoliberal progress, of its shards of barbarism left behind, along with bodies buried in ditches, without wake in Manaus. On that point, my point is: Agamben is not against isolation in the name of the economy. Obvious. Therefore, associating him with Bolsonarism is very unfair. Agamben is against isolation for other reasons. Of course, such other motives may be questionable, but they certainly are not for lack of “empathy”, “humanity” or compassion and respect for the mourning of the thousands of Italians who died and will die with this crisis. It's because?

These criticisms of Agamben are based on the assumption that the critics themselves fall, when demanding what they do: they want a solution from Agamben or that he endorses the majority of the world's progressive view of the pandemic. This is a wrong view of the role of the intellectual. The task is precisely to disturb, to state what your colleagues do not agree with or do not want to hear and to show that the situation, as it is, can have undesired consequences, and raise questions that still have no obvious solution.

On the other hand, I also agree that the Agamben lacks clarity regarding an important issue: so, without a vaccine yet developed, what to do? Let it die by group immunization? Agamben has what way out? Does he need to offer one? I think so. Yes, it is necessary to do more than criticize social isolation and the docility with which exceptional restrictive measures are accepted, when isolation is still the only or best “weapon” in this “world civil war” that has become the pandemic of COVID-19. It would be important and would alleviate the risks that Agamben incurs with his texts, if he indicated solutions without hermetic, crypto-anarchic phrases, going beyond merely establishing dangers and establishing what does not serve us to preserve our freedoms.

About the generalizing categories, which would not see the multiple of reality, Frateschi is right when calling Agamben to “reality”, to return “to the city”. But this is not entirely unfair to Agamben: the generality of the “bare life” category is not an insufficiency of her thinking. He doesn't do sociology or political science. Agamben is looking for the ontological meaning of political action, and he does so not by applying a universal to the particular. Frateschi could go beyond the volumes of the “Homo sacer” project, and see in "Signatura rerum” (2010), that these categories are particular that function as analogical paradigms to other particular situations. The relation is not deductive, universal-particular, but particular-particular. Thus, Agamben does not say that we still or again live in an extermination camp or that there are fields and exceptions everywhere, but that these categories would help us to understand reality.

Thus, the solo mother in the community of Cidade de Deus, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, cited by Frateschi, can have her particularity interpreted from the particular situation of bare life that the biopolitical machine produces, beyond a binary view, as if accuses Agamben of doing so. A possible reading key to understanding Agamben may be precisely to realize that between two boundary concepts there would always be a third, in an insoluble paradox. Thus, regarding the example of the Brazilian solo mother, Agamben's categories can function as tools to understand this Brazilian singularity: because this same state that implements social isolation is the same that operates in an indiscernible way in these communities with the militias of Rio de Janeiro .

Thus, in this same example, when the rule of law is confused, in Brazil, in a zone of indistinction between the militias and the state, represented by military police, who act violently, arbitrarily, extorting the residents of Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro, immediately, then I remember another God's city, that of St. Augustine, when he questions the difference between a Kingdom and a group of pirates, when “justice is banished” (Book I, IV, Chapter 4). A question that reaches us in contemporary times and that provokes us, like Agamben, to try to understand that, in addition to the binary model of the rule of law versus militias, one would have to think of justice, no longer as a “criterion of the ends or means of violence”, as Benjamin says, in For a critique of violence (1921), but as something that still “comes”, for another way of life, lived in a model far beyond liberal contractualism, nor neoliberal.

*Ricardo Evandro Martins is a professor of law at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA). author of Science of law and hermeneutics (Phi Ed.)

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