“I respectfully disagree with Agamben” (Slavoj Žižek on Covid-19) – Aleksander Adamski
Some years ago, Slavoj Žižek was asked to discuss a shattering, traumatic event, an event widely believed to hold world-historic consequence. Žižek began with the following, general qualification:
“When one hears this phrase: ‘nothing will be the same,’ the first approach of a truly thinking person is simply to doubt this.”
The conclusion to be drawn from this remark is that although Pandemic!, the short book of reflections on the Covid crisis that Žižek published in May 2020, was obviously put together at speed, it is not an impulsive first approach. For Žižek, this time round, does think that change is inevitable, and will prove lasting. In wake of the pandemic, writes Žižek,
“We will have to change our entire stance to life, to our existence as living beings among other forms of life. In other words, if we understand “philosophy” as the name for our basic orientation in life, we will have to experience a true philosophical revolution.”
At first approach, and not just to the average ironically distanced philosopher, such a statement reads grossly overblown; in fact, there is nothing overwrought about Pandemic!, which is a serious, almost solemn pamphlet. The philosophical revolution it heralds amounts, of course, to the ethical position Žižek has been elaborating for years, namely a rigorous, conscientious, atheist Christianity. But there is nothing vindictive in Žižek’s delivery, no perceptible delectatio morosa in the fact that an epidemic has, in a number of ways, proven him right.
First and foremost, the pandemic validates Žižek’s appeals for communism. Perhaps to the dismay of his belligerent followers (though most of those have long forsaken him), Žižek takes communism to stand for an attempt to institutionalise (and enforce) basic human decency – and the broad definition needn’t be snubbed at. Pandemic! contains a number of simple — no other are needed — argument-examples for the sensibility of collective action (the virus spreads across jurisdictions) and the nonsense of market forces (that incite speculation on the rising price of protective equipment). The book notes how the reality of a situation which boils down to biological survival has bent (if not quite broken) some ideological fantasies and forced even the most reactionary governments to introduce at least tokens of universal income (USA) or nationalisation (UK):
“This is not a utopian Communist vision, it is a Communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. (…) As the saying goes: in a crisis we are all Socialists. (…) Trillions will be spent violating all conventional market rules.”
In short, Žižek believes there is a chance that the present predicament will cut across ideological distortions and lay bear the old, essential alternative: socialisme ou barbarie.
Second, the pandemic proves we need a strong, resolute state, something Žižek has long been arguing for (while, to a degree, making the case against ‘civil society’ – or what in reality may well be a reactionary, bigoted, anti-vaccine, homophobic ‘moral majority,’ from which the force of the state should protect us). In this context, the question of invigilation arises, and provokes the first disagreement with Agamben: in the form of a simple cui bono? Žižek dismisses a reading of the pandemic in the lines of a bio-political state of exception and overtly approves of military discipline in the face of crisis. The crucial work lies in maintaining a spirit of trust between the people and a (powerful) system of state:
“(…) the measures necessitated by the epidemic should not be automatically reduced to the usual paradigm of surveillance and control propagated by thinkers like Foucault. What I fear today more than the measures applied by China and Italy is that they apply these measures in a way that will not work and contain the epidemic, and that the authorities will manipulate and conceal the true data.”
Against Agamben and Foucault, Žižek recalls Kant’s injunction apropos the laws of the state: “Obey, but think, maintain the freedom of thought!” In practice, though, Žižek has to concede that some of those doing the thinking must at times make the choice to disobey; for such a contingency “(…) new activists following in the shoes of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are needed.”
Pandemic! takes issue with the preposition that an epidemic alleged to affect mostly the elderly invites a relapse into a ‘vitalist’ logic of survival of the fittest. While Žižek fully acknowledges the risk Agamben points out – in short: that decency, dignity, and religious convictions will be readily sacrificed for the preservation of ‘bare life’ – his own stance is surprisingly hopeful. Citing acts of solidarity and the massive engagement of volunteers, especially in Italy, Žižek points out that the threat of death actually can be a uniting force, or at least that the matter is ambiguous, and barbarity is not the only possible outcome. For Žižek, there isn’t a shadow of doubt that the proper ethical injunction is contra-vitalistic and anti-utilitarian, it amounts to the call ‘all hands on board:’
“(…) our first principle should be not to economize but to assist unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.”
The pandemic and the ensuing enforced isolation have had positive effects in terms of self-reflection. This is a point Žižek is at great pains to contextualist correctly, and Pandemic! not only acknowledges (at considerable length) the all too real suffering, but repeatedly stresses the entanglement of the migrant, race, and ecological crises with the epidemic. Žižek well understands the social stratifications behind the sort of work that can be done remotely and work we call ‘essential,’ he also touches on the danger of widespread, long-term challenges to mental health. Still, taking his cue from Catherine Malabou, Žižek ponders the ‘epoché’ effect of enforced solitude. At their simplest, the reflections of a meditative lock-down are readily accessible, practically irrefutable: what good is an economic system that collapses the moment we buy only what we really need? Of the vulgar indulgence proper to so-called cruise-ships, Žižek writes succinctly:
“We should not be afraid to note some potentially beneficial side effects of the epidemic. One of the lasting symbols of the epidemic is passengers trapped in quarantine on large cruise ships. Good riddance to the obscenity of such ships say I (…).”
This and other examples point to a simple conclusion: a pandemic epoché reveals that our past ‘normal’ was in fact a-normal throughout: “why do we want things to go back to normal, when in fact things have never been normal?” More still, the ‘dead time’ of withdrawal into lock-down may bring about — to the privileged few, Žižek acknowledges — the sort of ‘Gelassenheit’ that reveals, behind the hectic struggle of everyday life, the basic nonsense of our predicament.
The ‘absolute’ ethical stance of unconditional commitment, together with an epoché that undermines the edifice of symbolic (or ideological) meaning, are all proper to the sort of materialist Christian position that Slavoj Žižek has been putting forward for the past twenty years. Uncannily, the current discipline of so-called ‘social distancing’ chimes perfectly with Žižek’s ideal of an ethical community – one need only recall Žižek’s perhaps best-known formulation of this position, from an exchange with John Milbank published in 2011:
“This is where I stand — how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would be a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.” (emphasis mine)
Pandemic! recalls John 20:17, Christ’s answer to Mary Magdalene: do not touch me, noli me tangere. The point being that, for Žižek, solidarity appears at the point where we acknowledge that we are all alone – and only as such, are all together. Paradoxically, authentic community is brought about by isolation. This, an idea of Žižek’s voiced a decade ago, is yet another point of his thinking that the pandemic appears to vindicate.
An even more basic ‘Hegelian’ arching of opposites in an ‘infinite judgement’ occurs in how, as Žižek observes, the very lowest iteration of life, the blindly self-replicating virus, provokes the very highest, namely the ‘Holy Spirit’ of universal human communion in solidarity.
Renouncing the pose of philosophical distancing and facile scepticism, Slavoj Žižek chose, in his booklet of reflections on the pandemic, to voice hope. Giving the unfolding of events since May, the reader is left wondering whether this attitude can possibly hold. The anticipation his book provokes is certainly not lost on Žižek: granted the pandemic has proven him right on so many counts – will it not prove him wrong just now, on his grand bet on solidarity and change? The second part of Pandemic! is due for publishing in September.
 Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Žižek, 1 edition (Cambridge, UK : Malden, MA: Polity, 2003) p 157.
 Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World (Polity, 2020) p 78.
 Žižek-scholars have been wary of looming ‘functional conservatism’ in Žižek’s writings since the early 2000s, and especially in his rapprochement with Christianity. The ‘problem’ of Žižek’s conservatism is, to the mind of the present author, a paragon of warped tunnel vision endemic to the modern campus.
 Žižek (2020), pp 92, 93.
 Agamben’s much-publicised remarks on the pandemic are accessible in Italian: https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia and in English: http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/. Additional ‘clarifications’ added at a later date in Italian https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-chiarimenti and in Adam Kotsko’s translation https://itself.blog/2020/03/17/giorgio-agamben-clarifications/.
 Žižek (2020), p 76.
 Comp. Žižek (2020), pp 7, 66, 75.
 Žižek (2020), p 87.
 Malabou’s quarantine reflections (English): https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/23/to-quarantine-from-quarantine-rousseau-robinson-crusoe-and-i/
 Žižek (2020), p 45.
 Žižek (2020), p 57.
 Slavoj Žižek and others, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, ed. by Creston Davis, Reprint edition (Cambridge, Mass. London, England: The MIT Press, 2011) p 303.