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The Obscure Experience

In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important.” ­– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Implicitly we are asking in these discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic [1]   is there a norm for man? Earlier it was philosophy that had the task of constituting the systems under which the limits and also the as yet unknown new thresholds for actions were given. Aristotle wrote in The Politics:

“A ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing” (Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, 1326b1).

These restrictions pertain to nature, too; there is a critical weight, beneath which nature had to restrict the constitution of birds capable of flying due to the problem of taking off. Once we have the system, which denotes the ranges of each elements—wingspan, weight, tissue strengths—, then their possible ranges in relation to each other can be found. Following the system, or critique in the Kantian sense, we get to criteria or a few parameters which make up the “norm”. Critics use them to make judgments. A popular music critic with the latest criteria may then say that a certain pop song has too many chord progressions.

In the same text, Aristotle set the criteria for the cities, especially the ideal distance between a well-governed city and the sea. It would appear that the further the sea, the better. Even today, the threat posed by the sea is of the unfamiliar, the obscure, strangers, refugees and degenerates. For these very reasons that provoke distaste in most of us today, the criteria of the Greek cartel with a constitution, run by a few men and excluding women and slaves from their democracy, cannot be our criteria for politics.

We assume from the common uses of the terms “natural” and “normal” that nature is a set of norms. The general principle of this misleading thought is Spinoza’s conatus—the tendency in all beings to conserve themselves in their own being. However, if there is a tendency in everything (insofar as things are), it is to prolong itself sufficiently in a “milieu” in order to enjoy being-other-than-oneself and to be elsewhere. These changes vary in their temporalities across living systems and within each living system. In our body, most cells renew themselves in weeks, immunities are acquired, and mutations are undergone. Homeostasis refers to relative stability as a species characteristic, while speciation exchanges a previous set of powers for a new set of powers. Darwin was concerned with the ratio between the external and internal milieus of living forms; we can understand it as the reciprocal adjustment of internal and external forms. Nature is hardly normal. That is, form in living form is not Platonic form, but it is something akin to the clinch of the wrestlers appearing to be indistinguishable from a tight embrace.

A being which is challenging us, the virus, is somewhere between our concept of living and non-living. Guido Pontecorvo, the geneticist born in Pisa, made certain predictions about viral pandemics in 1948, suggesting that two non-virulent forms of viruses infecting the same host may produce a new form which will then result in pandemics of the type we are undergoing. But the idea underlying this prediction was that viruses reproduce sexually, which violates our most familiar “norm” of life. The “normalized” concept of sexual reproduction involves the presence of specialized organs for the exchange of genetic material. But in fact, any mechanism through which genetic recombination takes place is sexual reproduction.[2]  

We have been, especially in recent years, attributing norms to ourselves and to what is called nature. These attributions have a general principle—hypophysics—which takes nature to coincide with the good; a thing is good when it is proximate to its nature and is evil when it departs from that nature. The moralization of the earth system and animals is easily recognizable here. Norms have been prescribed for the human animal, as well. For example, the “normal conditions of life” are posited as that which is natural to man and as that from which every deviation is viewed with suspicion. For Gandhi, this norm was the idyllic life of an affluent upper caste man in an Indian village. For Giorgio Agamben, the norm is “the normal conditions” surrounded by culture in an idyllic town where churches continue to prescribe a way of life.[3]   We know that it has always been the living conditions of a privileged few that became cultural norms; that a majority had to be denied these very norms for others to achieve them; and that “bourgeois thinkers” theorize to conserve their own being.

In this series of thinkers Pierre Clastres stands out, for he, too, had a norm, albeit not of his own milieu but of what he called “primitive society.” The deviation from the norm in a primitive society makes “the state” appear, and this is the very instant in which man is de-natured. Clastres sought the archaeology of the state in primitive societies. But all that he could find was that when something, such as a metal axe, comes into a primitive society from the outside (the modern world) their conatus collapses. We must see in his own words the perfect picture of human norm, or conatus:

Primitive society, then, is a society from which nothing escapes, which lets nothing get outside itself, for all the exits are blocked. It is a society, therefore, that ought to reproduce itself perpetually without anything affecting it throughout time.[4]

Let us call the theories of all these proposed norms idyllic a priori, following the example set by Foucault. Idyllic a priori is derivative of hypophysics; that is, a moment in the history of a few is interpreted as the natural way of being because it stands for the “normal conditions of life”. Behind the many phenomena of “bio-politics” lie their respective instances of idyllic a priori.

The task of fixing norms belonged to metaphysics until the last century. Metaphysics fixed these norms by taking “being” as the fundamental differentiable. In differentiable “programming languages” we find the difference between “assembly languages” and “compiled languages”. The differentiated are not predicable of the differentiable; that is, we never say that “function is linear equation.” In metaphysics these operations created a series of differences such as that between Idea and things, God and creatures, and so on. Of these pairs the first term is the higher being which then grounds the norms for man. Heidegger would produce a remarkable new division, that between being and beings, which is without a differentiable, and would call it ontico-ontolgical difference. This strange difference—if it makes sense, it is not understood—brought metaphysics to a point of suspension. Jean-Luc Nancy brought this agony to the end when he wrote “existence precedes and succeeds itself.”[5]

These thoughts, which form their own series, show us that nature is not natural and indicate that each and every thing befalls us not without reason; rather, everything drives us to give them reason. In fact, we know that we can anticipate the course of a succession from one thing to the next, or one state to the next. Even this pandemic was anticipated several times in the past. When anticipation meets with its objective there is satisfaction, for example: every August we anticipate the Perseids meteor shower and it doesn’t disappoint us. When anticipation is not satisfied in experience there is either surprise or disappointment. In spite of all the anticipations regarding various calamities of the world, we proceed with an absolute certainty that this world itself will not withdraw, that it will not disappoint, although we cannot give a reason for it, for there is no reason[6]   why it should not withdraw in this very instant. Reason drives us towards this experience just as we are drawn to it. Logically we can accommodate this experience—which is the most shared and even mundane experience of our humankind—by saying that the end of the world is not an event in the world, and therefore is not an event.[7]   For now, let us mark it as obscure experience.

For the present occasion, something else follows from this obscure experience. As later Wittgenstein discovered, experiences are given on the condition that they are shared in communities, in public language. The impossibility of writing down an absolutely private experience implies that one cannot, oneself, understand said experience. Wittgenstein’s argument eliminates the authority of all mysticisms. Instead, we are left with this shared mundane mystery which cannot be encoded in reason, though it surrounds reason. This commonplace experience—the absolute certitude that the world will persist—does not institute any norm, for it is obscureInstead, it makes a demand that we do not ‘play’ politics in such a way that it—the most shared of all experiences—is surrendered to either an idyllic a priori or to technological exuberance.

It is time to think again of our relation to technology, both bio-techniques and computational techniques, and their growing proximity. Some radical shifts in our humankind began in the 19th century when Simmelweis introduced through the technique of handwashing the notion of a barrier between us and microbes. Further, through Koch, Pasture and several others we began to take charge of our own “immune systems” and direct it according to our interests using vaccines, antivirals, and immunosuppressive medicines. The eventual arrival of nano-machines (atomic scale engineering is already a reality [8]  ) that will course through our circulatory system such that our immune systems are completely externalized will complete our new speciation.

We are also a species which drew a circulatory system upon the earth. When “we” began to wander the earth, nearly 50,000 years ago, we had already begun the processes of interconnecting regions of the earth, which resulted in silk roads and the Internet. There are many instances where we can see that the externalized immune system and the global circulatory system of the Internet and commodities are conjoined. For example, the very medicines that regulate the immune system are produced in Asia and then travel to the rest of the world. Biomedical systems can be remotely managed through the Internet. Together we are coming to be a singular organism of our own making on earth.

What, then, of the earth? Although it might seem an abhorrent thought, “the earth” too is already implicated in this circulatory system, which began at least with agriculture. The wellbeing of the global circulatory system will suffer the traumas of viruses again. As Mohammed and Sandberg argue, the virulence of both the computer virus and the organic virus will be a function of the rate of integration of the global circulatory system, and they show that the organic virus, too, will soon be engineered.[9]

Today, nationalisms and various ethnocentric proclivities stand in the way of the wellbeing of the global circulatory system. Due to their potential bio-cyber warfares, the global circulatory system itself is under threat. Eventually the components of these older orders of the world will be comprehended by a new set of laws. However, now is the time and the occasion (when this flu is being experienced in the global circulatory system) for us to think together about the future forms of our being together as those who are shared by the commonplace and yet obscure experience. This way we return to the beginning: unless we, as everyone, everywhere, understand that this world is the cobelonging equally of everyone in sharing the mysterious but absolute certainty of its persistence, and create political concepts and new institutions, this ship might become either too small or too large to set sail ever again.


[1]   See

[2]   See “Origin of Sex”, Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 110, Issue 3, 7 October 1984, Pages 323-351

[3]   See Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us.”

[4]   Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, Tr. Robert Hurley, Zone Books, New York, (Reprint) 2007, p. 212.

[5]   See Jean-Luc Nancy, Sense of the World, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): p. 34

[6]   In the restricted uses of reason

[7]   This thought can only be suggested here. For more see “What Carries Us On” in and

[8]   See

[9]   Working paper titled “Hybrid Risk: Cyber-Bio Risks” shared kindly by Anish Mohammed and Anders Sandberg

This text was part of joint publication under the title “Our Mysterious Being”. The english translation of these texts was first appeared in “The phlosophical Salon” at the LA Review of Books on April 13, 2020. 


Shaj Mohan is a philosopher based in the subcontinent. He is the co-author with Divya Dwivedi of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics (Bloomsbury UK, 2019), foreworded by Jean-Luc Nancy.

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