In his last courses at the Collège de France, Foucault insisted more and more strongly on a Greek concept that, in fact, designated a way of life: parrhesía. This vocable can be translated as frank or true-speaking. Initially conceptualized as a form of subjectification typical of Hellenistic philosophy, that notion demanded masters to be frank with their disciples and with themselves in the exhibition and dissection of their vices. Nonetheless, Foucault takes a step back in time by radicalizing the idea of the parresiastic gesture in order to retrieve it in classical Greece. In doing so, he realizes that some people, in order to enable themselves to speak, were obliged to take personal risks, such as a slave who dared to speak the truth to his master. He also realizes that the truth of a life could fully coincide with its form, offering itself in a scandalous, brutal, quintessential and undisguised manner, such as seen in the experience of cynical life, handled in clear rupture with the current customs. From then on, within the relationship between truth and subject, parrhesía came to be seen as a technique of the self, and became a guarantee for truth. The subject who speaks the truth and takes risks, commits his own life as a guarantor of his truth. Thus, life and truth enter in a field of indeterminacy and contagion that could solely be named philosophy. Parrhesía is about the truth of the subject who has the courage to speak his mind against an entire community of lies. Someone who personally ventures to support not his particular truth, but the truth that, paradoxically and precisely for the reason it is true, manifests its contingency.
Plunged in the risk of this contingency, it would be crucial to examine the roles that philosophy has played in the coronavirus pandemic. Virtually everything that intellectuals have written misses the mark by subjecting the event to a series of ready-made schemes of thought: the state of exception and bare life, by Agamben; puppet-show communism, by Žižek; precariousness, by Butler; the immunitarian paradigm, by Esposito; the viral exception that exceeds governments, by Jean-Luc Nancy; the threat of biopsychopolitical digital control drawn by Byung-Chul Han etc. This does not prevent these, among other contemporary intellectuals, from continuing to express precise and urgent issues: the escalation of ongoing security controls, the voluntary internalization of biopower, the unequal sharing of vulnerabilities in capitalism, the centrality of neo-feudal states in the management of a global pandemic, etc. However, these problems stem from stable conceptual schemes, which their authors have personified for decades, and of which their ability to think seems to have become a hostage. The coronavirus pandemic requires that we step outside these paradigms and make an extra effort if we really want to think beyond the given and the inherited ideas, which have always been the most appropriate – and therefore unbearable – gesture of the philosophy. The failure of philosophers to be astonished by the pandemic leaves the vivid impression that it is the configuration of our epoch itself, which gives birth to these homeostatic models and their critical concepts, that the virus defies. From all points of view, the viral emergency no longer takes place within paradigms that are, in some way, already made. Unthinkable in their terms, the virus unhinges and installs the new conditions of the thinkable.
Thinking about coronavirus is thinking beyond life and death. It may be offensive to speak in that way about a pandemic that has killed thousands of people, and that could reach the millions of dead. But the very existence of the virus is a challenge to the difference between living and non-living – a difference within which the Western philosophical tradition has based a series of others, through successive articulations. Among microbiologists, there is no consensus on whether viruses are living beings or not. What is known is that viruses are intrusive and parasitic. They are protein bodies surrounded by lipid layers, minimal and discrete, sized to the order of tenths of micrometers. Its “life” is to silently intrude into a host cell, which the virus infects to reproduce, spreading through the neighbouring cells of the contaminated organism. Just like “Gaia” described by Isabelle Stengers, the virus intrudes blindly and indifferently to the damage it causes, “like everything that is intrusive”. It installs itself beyond any measure scales, indifferent to all responsibility and, as Laurent de Sutter pointed out, it suspends all possible guilt for the reason it immediately places us before an entirely human cosmology. Not because humans are a virus, but because the virus comes to us through the constitutive networks of a world that is, at heart, entirely human. There is nothing to celebrate or deplore in an intrusive encounter between bodies – but to ethically estimate their effects, be them constructive or destructive, beyond any thinkable moral dualism. A viral intrusion reminds us that life, in its immanent and indeterminate dimension, is first of all potency, that is to say, the capacity to create, to transform, to spread. The biopotency designates this special explosive and mutating features of life, which recognizes no limits and, therefore, always tends to exceed life itself. In addition to life and death, the intrusive virus, parasitic and blind to the destruction it causes, no longer admits any innocent and eugenic vitalism or celebration of the “strength of the living”. Derrida made it clear that the hidden bottom of any life is death, which is why the notion of life-death is recurrent in his texts. Long before Derrida, Bichat defined life as the set of physiological functions of nutrition and excretion that resist death. But it is precisely the thoughtfulness of these relationships of figure-ground, insistence-resistance and the irreducibility of life to inert matter that the body-to-body of a virus with our organisms makes obsolete. It is possible that this is the first of the symptoms, occurred in the realm of thought, of the end of a world. Virus intrusion means the extrusion of a world.
A certain moral judgment would like to assume that humans are viruses. We only exist and spread due to a series of networks, strands, relationships and communications that our species created and that determine the capitalist political-economic structure. We live in a host taking it to the limit, overheating it with the emissions from our feverish machines, multiplying us like intrusive guests in a balanced body, and we draw everything without giving anything in return. The ontological challenge of our species seems similar enough to be confused with that of the virus: to radically explore the host while maintaining a certain equilibrium with it, in order to multiply ourselves without suppressing it, given our parasitic co-dependency. In a vertiginous reversal of this judgment, Laurent de Sutter showed that far from humans being viruses, as agent Smith of the Matrix would wish, viruses are indeed humans, and pandemics spread through anthropic logistical systems that configure a world. Viral intrusion also seems to make the division between nature and culture obsolete. It is categorically impossible to know whether viral intrusion is a natural fact or a product of culture. Just as the virus escapes life-death determination, it also evades natural-cultural predication and, ultimately, human-inhuman classification. It is impossible to say whether the virus would be a purely natural emission, when the conditions for its spread occur in the circuits of the all too human cosmos that humans build in cohabitation with viruses. It is impossible to say that the virus is uniquely human, because it is common for them to reach us through a transit between animals. The virus is a parasite immune to philosophy – especially one that is unable to break free from its inherited schemes. But at the same time, there is nothing more philosophical than a virus. Its intrusion induces astonishment without inventing any concept, pulls philosophy out of its acquired habits and pushes the alternatives that emerged as the divergences of the canon itself with all its strength into the real.
End of a world
Many know Fredric Jameson’s boutade according to which it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The capital’s regime, which is nothing more than a cultural monotheistic religion, does not allow to dimension the worlds that came before and the worlds that shall follow it. One of the most curious tenets of Christianity is that God did not begin and will not end. The same scheme is appropriated by capitalism, which hides its historical and social origins, claiming to have always been here, to the point of being confused with the very human nature. Thereby, capitalism makes us accept its infinity, so that there is nothing on the horizon of the possible but the self-reproduction of capital and its political-legal-economic apparatuses: territorial states, political representation, unified people, rights, detached power from the social field, political parties, individual property, identity, etc. This configuration seems inevitable, and it is through this lens that many philosophers have read the pandemic. In some cases, they have understood it as a symptom of the unsustainability of capitalism; in others, as an element used to reinforce the totalitarian and disciplinary character that goes along with it. But if we think in terms of potency and bio-emergence – that is, the emergence of the absolutely new and unexpected –, we will see that the coronavirus acts much more like an intrusive event. That is, something that abruptly interrupts the homeostatic balance of things, promising the end of a world at the price of having enough strength to get rid of it. The intrusion of a virus does not produce any revolution, but it reminds us of the political urgency of extruding a world.
Franco Bifo Berardi stated that the virus causes panic because it escapes our knowledge, and the unknown suddenly shuts down the machine – or at least makes it gag. It is in the contingency of their intrusive indeterminacy that the cards are laid. Facing the unknown, it is impossible to predict the future; but that does not prevent us from preparing, immediately, its posterity. The necessary isolation and quarantine measures cause a relational shutdown, canalize the social relations to the digital platforms and put their biophysical infrastructures under permanent tension. Curfews and restrictions on the freedom to come and go, where possible, intensify the mobility of precarious workers who continue to circulate unprotected. The risk of contagion is unevenly distributed among highly sanitized and controlled regions, and extensive areas of misery in which the virus is just another widespread necroagent, alongside the governing police forces and militias. Panic levels fluctuate on stock markets, at Central Banks in a state of monetary emergency, in recessionary government planning, in medical statistics that globally reach thousands of deaths, denoting that the controls can escalate to an even greater level, strangulating the residual collective freedom. We don’t have to agree on the virus being a “revolution without subjectivity”, as Berardi stated. But it does provide the opportunity to prepare the missing subjectivities for the biopolitical struggles to come: autonomous affinity groups focused on security and care, decentralized networks of mutual protection, egalitarian sensitivities about ethical and economic distribution of risks in our societies, impulses to democratize qualified information, the global demand for universal guaranteed basic income mechanisms, etc. Viral intrusion makes transparent many antagonisms, which would appear to be lax and natural under normal conditions. Isolation gives us the chance to establish a relationship with ourselves, favouring the overcoming of the “know yourself” logic, as well as the effective emergence of an ethics and an aesthetics similar to those of stoics and cynics, much more concerned with care than with abstract knowledge in general. If the problem is that we are not able to know the virus to the point of making it another apparatus of any system, perhaps the displacement from the almighty gnôthi seautón (“know yourself”) to the epiméleia heautoû (“care of itself ”) may be a powerful strategy. But the virus does not cause panic just because it escapes knowledge, but for its resistance to cohabiting in a world that is reluctant to come to an end. The virus shows us that panic is actually the atmosphere of the world that its intrusion invites us to leave behind. And yet, the virus does not invent anything. But its contingency forces our ways of life towards minor truths, already outlined by those who sang the possibilities of other new worlds, which would otherwise remain inaudible. These are the intrusive conditions of a virus that allow us to imagine what are the required extrusions to have done with this world, thus preparing the future of its posterity. Who said that parasites offer nothing in return?
Andityas Matos is Professor of Philosophy of Law at UFMG, Brazil. Read more: https://ufmg.academia.edu/AndityasSoares
Murilo Corrêa is Professor of Political Theory at UEPG, Brazil. Read more: https://uepg.academia.edu/MuriloCorrêa