The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.
That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.
I find this convergence quite interesting, and wish I had the time to trace the intellectual genealogy that led a post-Heideggerian, quasi-Foucauldian continental philosopher and a traditionalist Catholic to make precisely the same argument. Reno’s contemptuous dismissal of the value of “physical life” echoes Agamben’s “purely biological condition,” his famous concept of “bare life,” while Reno’s attack on “a perennial state of fear and insecurity” echoes Agamben’s “perennial crisis and perennial emergency,” his equally famous “state of exception.” (One common ancestor, I think: Carl Schmitt.)
But for now I’ll just note that perhaps the strongest obvious link between them is indifference to the truth of their historical claims. What Reno got wrong about the American response to the Spanish flu I mentioned in an earlier post; for a refutation of Agamben’s claim that a sense of emergency in plague time is a new phenomenon, see, for instance, this post by my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins, and Anastasia Berg’s critique. When the facts get in the way of the narrative, print the narrative.
UPDATE: One brief thought: We see here an excellent example of what happens when you over-extend a plausible thesis. For both Agamben and Reno technocratic modernity is really really Bad — that’s the plausible thesis! — so when they see uncomfortable social constraints occurring in the reign of technocratic modernity they think that technocratic modernity must, perforce, be the cause of those uncomfortable social constraints. So they instantly assume that earlier societies did not respond to plagues in the way that we do. But, it turns out, the primary factor shaping social behavior in time of plague is not technocratic modernity but rather the actual transmission of infectious disease. Imagine that: human behavior shaped not by ideology but by plain old, unavoidable old, biology.