Life and Humanity in Covid Times with Reference to Ivan Illich and Giorgio Agamben

[This piece accompanies an earlier text, ‘The Politics of Care: Rethinking Collective Being in the Wake of COVID-19’. Both texts were written for my friends at the Workers’ University/Front Slobode in Tuzla, Bosnia, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Society]

All photographs are mine, taken during the last 18 months

Our shared humanity has undergone a series of body-blows during the past few decades, as neoliberalism, technocracy and virtual life undermine many of the aspects of existence that make up a shared life – presence, connection, dialogue, sharing. Leaving aside the question of their overall usefulness (or not), the pandemic lockdowns adopted by many countries undoubtedly accelerated the diminution of these aspects of our shared life. There is no doubt, also, that, over the past nearly two years, fear was used explicitly by governments to control populations. In the UK, for example, in May 2021, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour admitted that ‘In March [2020] the Government was very worried about compliance and they thought people wouldn’t want to be locked down. There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance, and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear.’ The scientist continued: ‘The way we have used fear is dystopian … The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.’[i]

What does it mean when governments refuse to treat people as rational, feeling beings, but instead like herd-animals in need of being tricked and coerced into behaving in particular ways? What does it say about the mismatch between how one group of people belief that it is their right to manipulate an other, rather than, say, explain patiently to the population what, at that moment is currently understood, what is uncertain, what is unknown, what the best course of action might be, and what the risks are? Behind these question of ‘how politics ought to be done’ are larger questions about what politics is, in particular, what political philosophy is, and what underlies all attempts to imagine what political life is. It is no surprise, I think, that at the root of all political philosophy is an image of mankind, and that these differ depending on the political system in question.

The image of man that underlies the manipulation of people through fear is that man is at base nothing other than a fearful animal. This is one kind of image of man we could call Hobbesian, while doing some injustice to the subtlety of that great thinker’s thoughts. To imagine mankind as a frightened animal, afraid of illness and death and willing to do anything in order to avoid pain and suffering, is, quite clearly, a reductionist imposition. It tells you nothing about humanity’s desires, passions, loves, interests or its collective labours, concerns or cares. It tells you nothing, in other words, about life. What motivates my thinking is an on-going investigation into the meaning of human ‘life’: what life is, how we conceive of it, both as individuals and collectively, and what the parameters of a meaningful life look like.

There is no doubt that a life lived in fear is a life lived in perpetual relation to an uncertain and anxious present. A fearful life forsakes the present in the name of the distant promise of a different mode of existing. We all make calculations about not only what matters to us, but the risks we are prepared to take. This does not mean that we live recklessly, necessarily. On the contrary, when we understand what something means to us, whether that be another person, an idea or a way of life, we might do anything for the sake of this person, or thing, up to and including sacrificing ourselves. A way of life that does not contemplate the possibility of risk is not life by definition, which always involves some degree of risk. Of course it helps us understand what we can do if we have access to the most reliable information possible – not always easy when you have government agencies admitting to overweighing risks in order to control behaviour, or media outlets spinning things in a particular way to suit their own agenda. Sometimes you have to trust your own thoughts, and those around you. Against the ‘experts’ and governors, Philosophers (and by that I mean all thinkers prepared to question received wisdom on the basis of higher values) can also help to break the breaks on the feeling of madness and confusion that dominates.

Drawing on the work of Ivan Illich on health and institutions, but firstly the comments made by Giorgio Agamben regarding the centrality of the face to politics and our understanding of death, as well as other comments he has made in the past eighteen months, this paper will attempt to imagine a renewed understanding of community and care with reference to the real needs of people, particularly where these needs are in opposition to the demands of capital and the anti-human aspects of the state. At this crucial juncture we need more thinking, and more thinkers (of all kinds) willing to ask difficult questions.

Philosophers as Interrogators of the Pandemic

We have never needed philosophers more. As our technocracy rolls out yet more arcane rules, and epidemiologists are granted Emperor-status, our collective life becomes increasingly impoverished. Amidst all the science, statistics and surveillance, we are losing sight of fundamental questions. What makes life worth living? What are we losing after more than a year of on-off lockdowns? How might we think about our collective mortality? What is lost or destroyed when we cannot see each other face-to-face, or carry out important rituals together? What is technology doing to us?

Yet many of our great religious and philosophical thinkers have been silent, or acquiescent, over the past year-plus, accepting the rapidly-changing tightening of state regulation, hoping perhaps that things will soon return to ‘normal’. Not so Giorgio Agamben, the great Italian philosopher, now in his late 70s. Long known for his important contributions to political thought – his work on the ‘state of exception’, in particular, when constitutional rights are diminished in the name of an emergency (sound familiar?) – Agamben has been tireless from the start of the epidemic in questioning state responses and defending deeper aspects of existence than mere ‘safety’. For his efforts, he has been roundly denounced by large parts of the left, who, in their conformism, see in Agamben’s interventions a dangerous, or even denialist, contrarianism. In response to these critics, however, Agamben is clear, stating last July: ‘Defining anyone who seeks to know historical events for what they really are as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ is, however, plain defamation’. 

Agamben’s concerns are vital, and only more so as time goes on. In Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics, a collected translation of Agamben’s short newspaper articles, blog posts and interviews, published in, amongst other places, Il Manifesto and Le Monde from the last twelve months, including a piece commissioned and rejected by Corriere della Sera, the philosopher addresses the ethical and political dimensions of the epidemic, stating in the foreword that ‘the dominant powers of today have decided to pitilessly abandon the paradigm of bourgeois democracy—with its rights, its parliaments, and its constitutions— and replace it with new apparatuses whose contours we can barely glimpse.’ For Agamben, a huge political shift is underway, with the epidemic operating as a pretext for totalitarianism.

Describing the imposition of a ‘sanitation’ or ‘health’ terror and a ‘religion of health’, what Agamben also terms ‘biosecurity’, he makes the crucial point that once a threat to health is in place, ‘people are willing to accept limitations on their freedom that they would have theretofore never considered enduring—not even during the two world wars, nor under totalitarian dictatorships.’

What, indeed, have we accepted in the name of safety? Human relationships are relegated to the realm of the digital, and we are ‘to keep our distance’. ‘Our neighbour no longer exists,’ writes Agamben, starkly. Public space is destroyed beyond all recognition. Our faces are obscured by masks, now with the suggestion, seemed designed to humiliate, that we should wear two or three for extra ‘protection’. As philosopher Bettina Bergo points out, in her work on another philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas: ‘The face, in its nudity and defenselessness, signifies: “Do not kill me”.[ii] In ‘The Face and the Mask’ from October, Agamben speaks similarly: ‘what the face expresses is not only an individual’s emotional state but, first and foremost, their openness, their exposure, and their communication to others. This is why the face is the site of politics.’ How much easier it is to dehumanise people when we obscure their essential humanity.

‘The Invention of an Epidemic’ from late February last year, Agamben suggests that we are dealing with the ‘growing tendency to trigger a state of exception as the standard paradigm of governance’. Populations used to living ‘in these times of heightened security’ are already primed to be fearful, and to accept high levels of restrictions. In ‘Contagion’, Agamben extends the point: now every individual is regarded as ‘a potential plague-spreader, just as the orders against terrorism considered every citizen as a de facto and de jure potential terrorist.’

As we have seen, states are well-practised at designating portions of their people as the ‘enemy within’ whenever it is useful to do so. And an epidemic makes potential bioterrorists of us all. Suspicion of, snitching on, and reporting of fellow citizens has long been encouraged (shop a benefit ‘cheat’, for example), but now the opportunities for everyday authoritarianism are vast.

Agamben combines his critical vision of the state with a recognition of the most human losses that follow from the new regulations: ‘wherever possible machines can replace any contact any contagion—among human beings.’ Agamben is surely right to describe technology in this way: what would the last eighteen months have looked like without the internet? As parents and (largely) middle-class workers up and down the country have come to understand, Zoom and its ilk are poor and even quite disturbing substitutes for real interaction. Not only do screens increase alienation and depression, but they threaten to transform education, in particular, forever: classes can be pre-recorded and there need be no ‘site’ of discussion at all. The university paradigm, begun in around the 10th century, is perhaps finished for good. In ‘Requiem for the Students’ from May last year, Agamben makes one of his most striking claims on this topic:

The instructors who agree—as they have done en masse—to subject themselves to the new online dictatorship and to hold all their classes remotely are the exact equivalent of those university professors who, in 1931, pledged allegiance to the Fascist regime. As in that case, probably only fifteen out of a thousand will refuse to do so: their names, however, will certainly be remembered alongside the names of those who did not swear allegiance to Fascism.

As attendance at funerals, weddings and other important ceremonies are banned or heavily circumscribed, Agamben points out that the Church (‘now a handmaiden of science’) has abandoned its most essential principles. Why is the Pope not visiting the sick, he asks. What of the sacrifice of life in the name of faith? What has become of the spiritual?

In his previous work, Agamben has explored the idea of ‘bare life’, when life is understood only as minimal biological existence, rather than the way in which life is lived in all of its potentialities. The biosecurity state reduces its citizens to ‘bare life’, in turn convincing its population that this is all there is to being. In March, Agamben wrote:

It is now obvious that Italians are ready to sacrifice practically everything—their life conditions, their social relationships, their work, even their friendships, as well as their religious and political convictions—when faced with the risk of getting sick (a risk that, for now at least, is statistically not even that serious). Bare life, and the fear of losing it, is not something that unites people: rather, it blinds and separates them. 

Individuals all over the world are accepting, albeit with patches of resistance, a fearful, wholly minimised existence – but for how much longer? Fear makes thinking harder than ever – ‘fear precedes and forestalls knowledge and reflection’ – yet there is an urgent need to think, and to question every aspect of our current situation: where are we now, indeed? The philosopher, which Agamben truly embodies, is a figure that must be heeded. As he urges: 

It is legitimate to ask if such a society can still define itself as human, or if the loss of sensible relationships, of the face, of friendship, of love, can truly be compensated for by an abstract and presumably absolutely fictitious health security.[iii]

In a more recent text from April 30th, 2021, Agamben returns the theme of the face. In ‘The Face and Death’, he writes:

It seems that in the new planetary order that is gaining form two things, apparently unrelated to each other, are destined to be completely removed: the face and death. We will endeavour to inquire if they are not somehow connected and what the meaning of their elimination is.

This is a fascinating and alarming statement. The face is not only the face covered by a mask, it is also the face unseen, because people are separated, but also the face at a distance over computer screens, or the face of someone ostracised or cast out (an increasing phenomenon in the age of rapid internet denunciations where people do not talk to one another over perceived differences of opinion). How are the face and death connected for Agamben? Man is the animal who recognises his face in the mirror, but also in the face of the other: ‘The face is, in this sense, both the similitas [similarity, likeness] and the similarity of the simultas [rivalry, enmity], the being together of men. A faceless man is necessarily alone.’

The face is also, importantly, the place of politics. Man is not ‘information’, Agamben notes. We are not simply streams of text or replaceable by polls, tick-boxes or pie-charts. We must reason our way through collectively, which requires that we speak face-to-face. The face is also the site of our most moving emotional encounters, whether in private or public life. The face, Agamben says, again in proximity to the thought of Levinas, the site of ‘openness’, and in this way, ‘the face is the very condition of politics, that on which is grounded everything that men say and exchange’.

If we are faceless, we are without human connection, and we are without politics. We are more likely to be able to be governed because those that seek to control us will not have to look at us in our humanity. The disconnect between the people and those ruling elites, and the people and themselves, will be vast:

A country that decides to renounce its own face, to cover the faces of its own citizens with masks everywhere is, then, a country that has erased every political dimension from itself. In this empty space, subjected at every moment to limitless control, individuals now move in isolation from each other, they have lost the immediate and sensitive foundation of their community and can only exchange messages directed at a faceless name.

How does Agamben relate then his argument about the face with his argument concerning death? Agamben suggests that there is an intimate relation, not least because man is the ‘only animal’ that celebrates ‘the cult of the dead’. Noting that in Ancient Rome, the masks (imago) of the dead were kept in the atrium of the home, this form of ancestor worship also indicated the participation of the free man in political life:

These images were not only the subject of a private memory, but were the tangible sign of the alliance and solidarity between the living and the dead, between past and present, which was an integral part of the life of the city. This is why they played such an important part in public life, so much so that it has been possible to affirm that the right to images of the dead is the laboratory in which the right of the living is founded.

Agamben goes on to note that those who committed a serious public crime would lose their right to an image. When the dead lose their faces, that is one thing. When the living begin to lose theirs that is another. As Agamben puts it starkly:

If the living lose their face, the dead become only numbers, who, in so far as they had been reduced to their pure biological life, must die alone and without funerals. And if the face is the place where, before any discourse, we communicate with our fellow men, then even the living, deprived of their relationship with the face, are irreparably alone, however much they try to communicate with digital apparatuses.

Agamben, and he is not the only one, fears the coming of the algorithm, a government based entirely on the control of population through increasingly technological and homogenous means: ‘a faceless society, a society without a past and without physical contact, is a society of ghosts and as such doomed to a more or less rapid ruin’. [iv] It is imperative that we think with some urgency (though without falling into the traps of acceleration promoted by a permanently online and distracted society) about ways of resisting the elimination of humanity in the name of a technocratic, ‘safe’ society. We can find resources to do so in the work of the Catholic radical traditionalist thinker Ivan Illich, influential on Agamben, and whose work, particularly from the early 1970s bears striking relevance to the problems facing us today.

The Importance of Ivan Illich for Today

Ivan Illich was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house in Vienna. His father was from Dalmatia and his mother was from a family of converted German Jews. He was the eldest of three boys. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1950, and in 1968 he was subject to a formal inquisition in Rome, following his criticism of missionary activities in Latin America. In 1969 the Vatican put a ban on CIDOC (the Center for Intercultural Documentation), the institute that Illich directed in Mexico. After this, Illich withdrew from Church service and began his examination of education, medicine and the law – all the institutions of modernity that Illich argue derive from the Church.

Illich’s examination of institutions, could not be more timely in an era when trust in all major organisations, from government on down, has collapsed for millions of people. Illich’s lifelong dictum, corruption optimi quae est pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst. Illich understood that the Church is the west, only that something has gone terribly wrong. As he stated in a 1987 sermon: ‘[The] central reality of the West is…the historical progression in which God’s Incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out. I want to speak of the mysterious darkness that envelops our world, the demonic night paradoxically resulting from the world’s equally mysterious vocation to glory’. As David Cayley puts it in his Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey (2021): ‘The discrepancy between what the institution says it does and what it actually does leads to epidemic lying and disorientation, and this bad faith is characteristic of every major contemporary institution, not just schools and universities’.[v]

All institutions, from this Illichian standpoint, are questionable, and all resemble one another to some extent, as all are extensions of the Church in its inverted form. In Tools for Conviviality, Illich describes a ‘convivial’ society where ‘modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers’ and where people use ‘responsibly limited tools’. Simply put, do we use tools, or do they use us? Without limits, we live in a monstrous world. We for sure live in the realm of quantity – everything is measure, yet nothing has a value. And, as Agamben points out, when death and the face slide from view, politics and existence cease to have any meaning other than as something to be controlled and regulated. There is no ‘life’ left.

We should be careful of course – it is after all a word used by those who would seek to control it and diminish it as well as those who would seek to emancipate it. David Cayley has recently drawn upon Illich’s work in his own thinking about the pandemic, pointing out the ‘plasticity’ of the word life:

Illich regarded life as an idol – a man-made god in whose form we worship ourselves, while at the same time generating a sacred which mandates and justifies our manipulation of living. He claimed that life had become the object and anchor of “a new stage of religiosity” – a further perversion of the Biblical understanding of life as an implication of God’s breath. He thought that life had become a “substantive” – a stuff to be counted and conserved, a resource to be enhanced and administered. He held that the idea of each one as a person – a unrepeatable and inscrutable being pervaded by a “mysterious historicity” – was being replaced by system concepts in which individuality dissolves. And he believed finally that the word life had become the site of a fateful “conceptual collapse of the borderline” between “model and reality” and between “process and substance.” This collapse is expressed in our thinking that in becoming the protectors, champions and devotees of life we have touched life itself without remainder, reservation or detour.[vi] 

Life in the sense used by those who govern us is life in the context of risk, and more importantly, safety. It is not life lived in the sense of a mysterious gift, as an existential project. It is life as a measured, quantitative thing. It may be that ‘life’ is exhausted as a defensive concept, though I continue to believe we must defend ‘life’ as an open, poetic idea against those who would reduce it to an object to be administered and ‘protected’ (particularly when some measures adopted turn out to do more to harm people than to protect them).

In Medical Nemesis, Illich’s 1976 investigation of medical institutions, in a chapter entitled ‘The Medicalization of Life’, Illich notes that ‘Homo sapiens, who awoke to myth in a tribe and grew into politics as a citizen, is now trained as a lifelong inmate of an industrial world’.[vii] ‘Health’ is not the minimisation of intervention, or the encouragement of autonomous care for oneself and others, but rather something akin to a control mechanism, another form of incarceration and regulation. It is hard, whatever we think about their ‘efficacy’, not to think that the near global ‘lockdowns’ (a word previously used to describe prison situations), where millions of people were (and are) kept in their houses for an indeterminate amount of time, can be seen very clearly in this Illichian way as a potential ‘lifelong’ tactic of imprisonment.

To return to Agamben’s argument regarding the face and death, Illich too in this text suggests that ‘in every society the dominant image of death determines the prevalent concept of health’.[viii] If this is the case, we must ask: what is the dominant image of death today? The first word that comes to my mind at least is ‘hygenic’. This is to say that death today is thoroughly institutionalised, medicalised, depersonalised, detached, not visceral, not emotional, not personal but rather removed from sight, taken out of view, deritualised, almost omitted from everyday language. When death is no longer a part of life, our understanding of life too is changed.

Our finitude can only, however, be repressed. But this repression undoubtedly generates an inability to understand politics – that is to say, how we must work together to ensure that life is lived collectively in the most harmonious possible way. If the fantasy is that we will live ‘forever’, then anything that threatens this delusion of eternity must be buried. The delusion of eternity will ultimately cause far more devastation to the living than a culture that made central the rituals and myths and understanding of death. The hypermedicalisation of everyday life is, inadvertently or otherwise, the attempt to dehumanise people and make them into objects, which, after all, never die because they were never alive.

Conclusion

What is absent from the vast majority of thinking about the past eighteen months is an awareness and defence of all the aspects of existence that do not fall under the quantitative categorisation of life particular to our current regime. Illich was dystopian (‘People would be confined from birth to death in a world-wide school-house, treated in a world-wide hospital, surrounded by television screens, and the man-made environment would be distinguishable in name only from a world-wide prison’[ix]) and Agamben is too – apart from all the material covered here, Agamben along with Cacciari, has recently described the way in which any proposed ‘green pass’ (vaccine passport) runs the serious risk of creating a discriminated against category of ‘second-class citizens (how could it be otherwise?).[x]

What is needed – where Illich and Agamben are vital – is to hold on to what we used to know, not only as individuals and as living collectives, but also in relation to the history of humanity as such. All the things our ancestors used to know, all of the rituals that constitute our shared humanity. All the major concepts – life, death, suffering, health, meaning, love, emotion, value – must be constantly defended and discussed, against the incursions of machines of all kinds, and against the reduction of politics to management and control. As depressing as things are, there is resistance everywhere: many people have not forgotten what it means to be alive, and many people do not want comfort at the cost of the total elimination of meaning. The machine will not win. The trick is, in the first place, to understand where it operates and to remember that beneath all this, there is life, and the life of everything that breathes.


[i] Use of fear to control behaviour in Covid crisis was ‘totalitarian’, admit scientists: Members of Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour express regret about ‘unethical’ methods’, Gordon Rayner, The Telegraph, 14 May 2021. Available here:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/05/14/scientists-admit-totalitarian-use-fear-control-behaviour-covid/

[ii] Quoted in https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/levinas/

[iii] All Agamben quotes in this section are taken from Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Valeria Dani and published by ERIS (2021).

[iv] All Agamben quotes from ‘The Face and Death’, available here https://autonomies.org/2021/05/giorgio-agamben-on-the-government-of-the-faceless-and-the-deathless/

[v] David Cayley, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, p. 23.

[vi] https://www.davidcayley.com/blog/2021/6/11/concerning-life-1

[vii] Ivan Illich, Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (London: Pelican Books, 1977), p. 130.

[viii] Ibid., p. 179.

[ix] Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1973), p. 101.

[x] See https://www.iisf.it/index.php/progetti/diario-della-crisi/massimo-cacciari-giorgio-agamben-a-proposito-del-decreto-sul-green-pass.html

Published by Nina Power

Writer, Philosopher

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