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What Happened to Giorgio Agamben?

In February 2020, a hugely influential philosopher decided COVID lockdowns looked a lot like Nazi Germany. The fallout in academia and beyond has raged ever since.

A protester in a crowd holding a yellow star that reads "Not Vaccinated = Jew"
A demonstration in Milan on July 24. Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

The problem began, as a surprising number do, with a blog post. Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosophy giant who is a bit like the Jonathan Franzen of the field—the kind of towering yet idiosyncratic figure you feel you have to respond to, whether you like him or not—had long maintained a blog where he posts short pieces about current events and other musings. Sometimes he’d comment on Greta Thunberg; other times he’d write poetic meditations on social decline. This went largely unnoticed—until he made his first intervention into the debate about emergency measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus in February 2020.

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“The Invention of an Epidemic,” as the post was titled, began by calling the reaction to the virus “frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded,” and it didn’t stop there. The incendiary argument essentially accused state authorities of intentionally misleading the public about the threat of COVID-19, which Agamben, like many others to come, dismissed as no more dangerous than the flu. “It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures,” the English translation reads, “the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.” (Scroll down here to read the translation.) In other words, he claimed, the authorities sought to shore up their own crumbling legitimacy and try out new forms of social control. Even more disturbing than this power grab, he said, was the near-total lack of resistance. In a later piece addressing the Italian response, he claimed, “It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick.” In another post, he decried people’s willingness to accept a massive disruption of every aspect of their lives “solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify”—a phrase that he repeats like a mantra.

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The screed was a sensation. A flood of blog posts, interviews, and an address to the Italian Senate followed. Even as the months passed and the pandemic took hold in starker and starker terms, Agamben continually doubled down on his critique of the pandemic emergency measures. Ultimately, in the spring of 2021, he published a collection of several of his diatribes in a short book to enshrine them permanently.

This was not the work of some isolated obsessive. Agamben is a colossal intellectual figure whose range and erudition have made him a major influence in essentially all fields within the humanities and theoretically informed social sciences for the past two decades or more. Though his doctorate is in law, early in his career Agamben made his name primarily in philosophy and literary studies, partly on the strength of a fellowship at the University of London’s prestigious Warburg Institute and, more importantly, his participation in an exclusive seminar with Martin Heidegger, who is easily the most influential 20th century philosopher in continental Europe. For decades now, Agamben’s writings have been required reading across a range of humanities and social scientific disciplines, but he only became a true academic celebrity when he began working on politics in the late ’90s. Google Scholar lists some 24,000 citations for his most famous work, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), including engagement from top-tier scholars in multiple fields. Most academics are lucky to get citations in the 100s, much less grace the pages of the leading lights of several disciplines.

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Now those same ideas that have had such a huge impact are being used to advance conspiracy theories and decry the supposed persecution of anti-vaxxers. An author who is better known for teasing out the subtle nuances of Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek has come to sound disturbingly like a right-wing crank—to the point where an actual right-wing crank has praised his writings in the New York Times, very far-right politicians in his own country have invoked his considerable intellectual authority to argue for their cause, and online anti-vaxxers have made memes calling for him to become the president of Italy.

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As a professor in the humanities, I would be concerned to see any respected senior colleague’s career take such a turn. But my personal stake is much greater. I am a scholar and translator of Agamben’s work, which has deeply influenced my own. Though we are not personally close, we are in contact, and I first learned of his turn to COVID skepticism when he asked me to translate some of his blog posts. I agreed, hoping to present the best version of his argument while trying (and ultimately failing) to get him to reconsider his position. In the end, I regretted inserting myself into this embarrassing affair, and began to wonder whether his paranoid pandemic writings called the rest of his work into question. The more I waded into them, the darker my outlook became.

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Agamben’s new arguments about coronavirus restrictions are explicitly grounded in the book that made him most famous. In Homo Sacer, Agamben argues that political power in Western societies is founded on the decision to include some people within the protections of the law and exclude others, stripping them of their human privileges and reducing them to a state he designates as “bare life.” This is not a simple division between insiders and outsiders, as he conceives it. In this scheme, those who are reduced to bare life are not expelled from society, but included in it as a subhuman class that is excluded from the formal protections of the law but is nonetheless foundational to the social order.

Agamben’s primary example of the production of bare life is the Nazi Shoah, which stripped Jews and other victims of their citizenship to expose them to the limitless violence of the concentration camps. Though excluded from society in one way, through the loss of citizenship, these groups became the primary focus of the Nazis in another sense, as all of society was organized around carrying out the Final Solution.

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A man slightly smiling in front of marble steps
Giorgio Agamben in Rome in 2018. Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
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Agamben believes that Nazi Germany, far from being an exceptional deviation, was paradigmatic for modern politics. The supposedly “normal” operations of our legal institutions always carry with them the threat of turning, suddenly and without warning, into a new concentration camp. Part of his argument for this explosive claim is that everything that happened under the Nazis was, disturbingly enough, completely legal, in one sense. The Nazis legitimized their actions via Hitler’s declaration of a state of emergency that allowed him to suspend civil rights and normal legal processes.

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In his 2005 follow-up book, State of Exception (whose title is based on a more literal translation of the German word for “state of emergency”), Agamben argued that all the major Western nations have increasingly declined to govern by means of normal constitutional processes and have come to rely on emergency powers, even in response to seemingly workaday problems like economic downturns. To quote Agamben’s idol Walter Benjamin—a German Jewish intellectual who witnessed the rise of Hitler and ultimately died by suicide to escape deportation to a concentration camp—the “state of exception has become the norm.”

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At the time of its U.S. release, in the darkest days of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, State of Exception’s diagnosis seemed less hyperbolic than prophetic. As Agamben pointed out several times in the text itself, George W. Bush really was claiming expansive emergency powers, grounded both in laws like the Patriot Act and in claims about the intrinsic powers of the presidency. And he was using those powers to create a whole new class of human beings—the so-called enemy combatants, who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed via drone strike with little to no judicial oversight. In some cases, even U.S. citizens were assassinated on the executive’s sole say-so. In the ’90s, when Homo Sacer was originally published, Agamben’s argument that the Western powers were hard-wired to produce concentration camps could have been dismissed as extreme or absurd. But in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, it was alarmingly plausible.

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This argument about the relationship between sovereign emergency powers and the production of disposable “bare life” single-handedly launched Agamben to international academic fame. He became an unavoidable point of reference for academic analysis of the war on terrorism—most notably in Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life—and scholars took the idea and applied it to other sites of state violence, like prisons, borders, and refugee camps. Even critics of his thesis often accepted many of its premises. The Black studies scholar Alexander Weheliye argued in 2014, in Habeas Viscus, that Agamben’s focus was too Eurocentric, and that the slave plantation was actually a more suitable paradigm than the concentration camp—but he did not question the idea that ultraviolent dehumanization was foundational to Western power structures.

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Now this authoritative work has taken on a distorted new shape in Agamben’s own hands. In the past two years, anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown protesters have repeatedly abused the memory of the Holocaust by comparing their own situation to that of European Jews in the middle of the 20th century. Agamben’s recent writing on the pandemic represents the most deeply articulated, academically advanced version of this argument—and its influence has disquieted Agamben’s peers.

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Agamben’s academic fans might want to dissociate his pandemic writings from the work that made him famous. But it’s now clear that Agamben himself views the present situation as a radical confirmation of his thesis. Where previous states targeted specific groups, he argues, the pandemic measures embrace the entire population, reducing people to “bare life” by depriving them (at the peak of the lockdowns) of all their rights—political, economic, religious, even the right to bury their own dead—in the name of their sheer biological survival. And what’s worse, from Agamben’s perspective, is that everyone seems so eager to go along with it, submitting to a medicalized dictatorship and even claiming, like SS commander Adolf Eichmann, that cooperating with it is their moral duty.

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When Agamben asked me to translate the essay in which pandemic collaborators were likened to Eichmann, I prevailed upon him to let me exclude the inflammatory comparison from the English translation, though it remains unaltered in the Italian original. Even leaving aside the rhetorical excess of the Nazi comparison, I was disturbed by how much his pandemic critiques seemed to dumb down his insights from Homo Sacer, when he had spent the last two decades deepening and complicating his analysis of Western politics.

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Though the works of that period—many of which I translated for Stanford University Press and Seagull Books—have had less impact, they are in my view much more subtle and interesting. Where Homo Sacer focuses only on the most extreme situations, books like The Kingdom and the Glory or Opus Dei focus on how our everyday activities participating in the economy shore up destructive Western power structures. At first, I tried to locate that nuance in his new writings. I emailed Agamben to ask why his analysis of capitalism, for instance, was absent from his pandemic writings; I hoped that he might be spurred to reflect on the ways that demands for freedom from pandemic restrictions could serve to victimize workers who would be forced to expose themselves to the virus. He never wrote back, but the next essay I was asked to translate did discuss economics—only to claim that even capitalism has now submitted completely to the supposed “religion” of medicine. At that point, I stopped trying to change his mind, and he stopped asking me to translate his essays. (I approached Agamben for comment for this article. Initially he said he’d speak to me, but he ultimately stopped responding.)   

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When I wrote to ask some of my academic colleagues about Agamben’s most recent writings, all agreed that no one should have expected him to trust the motivations of politicians and public health authorities. Carlo Salzani, a researcher at the University of Vienna who published the first Italian-language study of Agamben (and helped me organize a multi-authored essay collection on his work), told me that Agamben has always been concerned with “the way governments and power more in general weaponize crises in order to tighten their grip on the lives of people.” But he lamented the way Agamben has let his “moral outrage” turn “his politico-philosophical analysis into a crusade.” Asked whether the philosopher’s pandemic writings are a natural outgrowth of Agamben’s previous work, Salzani replied, “Perhaps the way he sees the pandemic is a natural consequence of his previous analyses, but I believe he got stuck in a rigid and limiting pattern from which he’s unable (and unwilling) to escape.” Eric Santner, a professor at the University of Chicago who has drawn repeatedly on Agamben’s concepts in multiple works of literary criticism and political theory, offered a similar lament over this intellectual inflexibility: “I see Agamben’s statements about the pandemic as a transformation of his own work into a kind of ideology, something that makes him a much too easy target for his critics. More than anything else, this saddens me,” he said.

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People march in the street holding flags and anti-vax signs including one with a yellow star
A Dec. 5 rally in Brussels against the Belgian government’s anti-COVID measures and mandatory vaccination. Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images
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Most puzzling to me was Agamben’s failure to see the obvious difference between the Nazi regime, which aimed to exterminate life, and the pandemic measures that were aimed at saving it. But the politics of public health policy have long been fraught, and the profession’s track record can be difficult to celebrate wholeheartedly, as some of my colleagues noted. Penn State professor Claire Colebrook, co-author of a book on Agamben’s politics, said she views it as unfortunate that Agamben’s skepticism about science and medicine aligns him automatically with a right-wing position in the U.S. “It should be possible to question the particular forms of science that governments chose to pursue,” she told me, “especially when they neglected to maintain health care systems, as Agamben points out.” Andrew Kaplan, a graduate student at Emory University whose work connects Agamben to debates in Black studies, also values Agamben’s radical questioning, and said that “the conservative/libertarian protest against any intervention or regulation has monopolized the public discourse,” making it hard for anyone else to raise questions about the “overlooked implications of this state of emergency.”

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Agamben’s skepticism of medical authorities is a main point of continuity in his thought. When my bafflement at his position on the pandemic prompted me to look back at Homo Sacer, I noticed that—unlike the political examples that dominate State of Exception—most of his examples of the production of “bare life” were medical in nature. Alongside the concentration camp victim, Agamben includes the figure of a prisoner who is subjected to medical experimentation, or a brain-dead patient who is kept on life support indefinitely. Clearly he has long been deeply skeptical of any alliance between medicine and state power. “For Agamben, it would seem, as soon as health becomes public health,” as Santner put it, “we are for all intents and purposes caught in the snares of, captured and captivated by, a state of exception that has become the norm.”

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Agamben’s distrust of public health authorities has led him to dismiss official accounts of the pandemic’s severity and arguably spread disinformation. As mentioned above, in his first essay on the pandemic, written when Italy was suffering from a dramatic first wave of COVID infections, Agamben claimed that the novel coronavirus is essentially no different from a normal flu. When pushed on that point by an interviewer for le Monde that same month, he responded, “I’m not going to get into discussions between scientists about the epidemic. What interests me are the extremely serious ethical and political consequences that flow from it.” Nevertheless, he returned again and again to the idea that the severity of the pandemic has been exaggerated, claiming in April 2020 that “the data on the epidemic are furnished in a generic way and without any criterion of scientificity.” Later, in July 2021, he wondered aloud whether mass vaccination is leading us, lemminglike, to mass extinction—after all, he claimed baselessly, it could cause cancer or other illnesses.

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Clearly there is more than healthy skepticism at work here. Agamben seems to accord no trust to the medical establishment whatsoever. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy offered a startling revelation in a February 2020 response to his friend Agamben’s early pandemic writings: “Almost 30 years ago, doctors decided that I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice, I would have probably died soon enough.”

The fact that Agamben would offer such disastrous advice is surely surprising from a human perspective. But for his longtime readers, it is almost as shocking that he would offer any concrete advice at all. His work has historically been long on critique and short on political prescriptions. Whenever he ventures a position on what should be done, Agamben becomes notoriously unclear—by design. Readers of Homo Sacer and State of Exception probably assumed that the solution to overuse of emergency powers would be to return to “normal” political structures, but in those books, Agamben argues that those “normal” structures will always lead, inexorably, to Auschwitz. A more radical solution, he once wrote, is needed: a dissolution of the entire structure of law and power—a possibility that he usually evokes using literary or theological imagery, rather than concrete, actionable plans.

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But now, as Salzani pointed out to me, Agamben is calling us to resist “the emergency measures as a sort of intentional and planned scheme to destroy the ‘bourgeois democracies’ and curtail individual liberties.” In an October 2021 address to the Italian Senate, Agamben complained that the legislature had reduced itself to rubber-stamping executive actions. This concern with proper legislative procedure is, to put it lightly, unexpected from an author who has repeatedly called for us to radically rethink our relation to law, language, and even our own bodies. Where he is now calling for the Senate to assert itself against the executive, in State of Exception he had memorably suggested that we should respond to the destructive structure of the law by anticipating a future in which “humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good.” It is unclear what this playful new use for the law would look like in practice, but that is part of his point. We are so deeply formed by our culture’s power structure that a radical alternative is bound to sound vague and paradoxical to us—but if we want to escape, we must make the effort. In his pandemic writings, by contrast, it is as if Agamben has given up on finding any way out.

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As I contemplated this chapter of Agamben’s intellectual life, I realized that if there is any truth in his embarrassing pandemic screeds, it is one that we did not need to hear from him, and certainly not in the form his reflections took—namely, that there is more to life than sheer survival. The same insight is formulated more helpfully by Simone de Beauvoir, who writes in Ethics of Ambiguity, “Someone told a young invalid who wept because she had to leave her home, her occupations, and her whole past life, ‘Get cured. The rest has no importance.’ ‘But if nothing has any importance,’ she answered, ‘what good is it to get cured?’ ”

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The problem is that Agamben has offered no philosophical tools to formulate any collective answer to the question of what matters most to us. Agamben has always been a man of the left, albeit an idiosyncratic anti-Marxist anarchist, but his apparent overlap with the right wing in his pandemic writings is no accident. If any action by the state, including by state medical authorities, is always intrinsically oppressive, then we have no alternative but to fall back on our own individuality—exactly the libertarian position that the right wing has used for decades to cut off in advance any effort to challenge existing power structures.

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In Agamben’s case, excessive distrust of any state authority has blinded him to the ways that individualistic approaches to the pandemic have reinforced corporate power while exacerbating the pandemic. The so-called essential workers, along with so many others, have been reduced to disposable bare life, not by direct state intervention, but by policies that claim to set them free. Whatever isolated insights we might be able to glean from Agamben’s pandemic writings, a political thinker who can’t see the ways that Western structures of power victimize us through our very freedom is missing a great deal—in fact, nearly everything. Even here, though, you can make the case that he is failing to live up to his own insights. The idea that freedom can be a trap is one of the central ideas of my own work—and ironically, it is an idea that I drew in large part from a critical reading of Agamben’s post–Homo Sacer writings.

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Though Agamben declined to speak to me for this piece, we have continued to exchange occasional emails. I’ve noted that no new posts have appeared on his blog in several months, and the most recent pandemic-related entries are both transcripts of invited speeches, to the Italian Senate and a student group. Even as many countries in Europe roiled with protests over new restrictions to curb the omicron surge recently, Agamben was quiet. Perhaps, at last, he is leaving aside his disastrous and all-too-serious pandemic intervention and reconnecting with the childlike imagination that he has told us over and over again is our only hope. The question of how the past two years twist his legacy, and the legacy of his life-changing work, remains open.

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