In search of a philosophical response

by Rezaul Karim Rony | Published: 00:00, Jun 02,2020


DURING a pandemic what is the role of philosophy? This question needs to be raised when we are all going through a nightmare. But unfortunately, while explaining the phenomenon of COVID-19, many of us have felt the urge to act immediately. It is true that we can hardly trust any act of the modern state for a basic structural response. But we need to keep in mind, Corona itself is the ‘subject’. It is well-known that the modern state prefers emergency situations. What is new here, in the time of COVID-19, is that we are observing the world state of emergency. Every state is in an emergency situation relative to their capacity, and therefore  reality is no longer real. A hyper-reality has emerged. Common perceptions about the state are at stake and we are moving towards a post-national (where the reality of every state is common and emergency has become a normal phenomenon) world.

The advancement of technology more or less prepared the world population for a condition of social distancing even before lockdown. Life has been reduced to food, cellphones, and individual entity. If we try to look at the relationship between technology and citizens, we can observe a condition of the regime of narcissism and the regime of despair. The ultra-individualist citizen falls into the trap of anti-democratic psychology. In the name of a false democracy, technology-based society offers us technofascism. Therefore, in the time of Corona, in addition to analysing the different states individually, we must consider the global common trends to understand the worldwide state of emergency.

In the worldwide state of emergency lockdown of any particular place or state is not seen to have any relation to people’s freedom. Agamben and many others have warned us that to control the bare life, the state actions will gain more acceptance than before. But two mistakes have been performed by them while reading Corona. The first one we all more or less have performed. We have presumed Corona as an outside object or enemy and analysed it in a deterministic way. Time and again, we have failed to discover the spirit of Corona. We could avoid the mistake if we could remember Hegel. Instead of looking at life directly, we have used media, institutions, and the state as the medium of seeing life.

From the mistake of determinism, we couldn’t read the phenomenon that had been controlling us. We could not stand against panic. We were so busy playing with scientific epistemology that we have failed to discover the truth. We have forgotten the ontological, more specifically existential, philosophers in this trying time.

Science has captured the field of epistemology and after Karl Popper, the philosophers couldn’t actively participate in this area. Popper, however, avoided the question: can science reach the truth? Rather, he advocated an evolutionary epistemological project and established a fort for science which is still uncontested. On the other side, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger, we find the question of our ontic being but as we are not interested, we tend to confront Corona with epistemology and therefore, we have failed to read human reality once again.

Agamben, while explaining the situation in the light of his theory of the state of exception, is right methodologically but his mistake is categorical. He would have differentiated between state of exception and, in the time of Corona, lockdown as a way of saving life. Despite this categorical mistake, the importance of his theory is more relevant than ever. The State of Exception referred to a universally unknown concept, completely removed from conceptual law or oversight. Agamben wrote that ‘the uncertainty of the concept is exactly matched by its technological inevitability.’ There is no basis in any law. Right now everything is an exception.

On March 21, Alain Badiou published a piece titled ‘On the epidemic situation’ where he considered Corona as a categorically old problem. His philosophical position on COVID-19 is categorically far better but his mistake is methodological. Among the living philosophers, there is no doubt about the importance of his thinking. The surprising fact of his thinking pattern is that we can fit him in neither a poststructuralist nor an analytical camp. In his book, Being and Event (1988), he is quite aware of ontological questions but as he sees philosophy as a form of praxis, a sense of activism is always there. But on the question of Corona, it has become ineffective as any kind of phenomenon including that Corona demands understanding before the act. Badiou, therefore, presents non-philosophical activism in the time of corona. At the same time, he couldn’t hide his Maoist fantasy in this piece of writing. He writes,

The complex thing about an epidemic is that it is always a point of articulation between natural determinations and social determinations. Its complete analysis is transversal: one must grasp the points where the two determinations cross each other, and from that draw the consequences.

The mistake here is that he has taken for granted the news that Corona spread from animals. He then sees the epidemic as a form of social and natural determinations. As he still considers revolution and communism (non-marxist) as relevant to the world, he couldn’t think of the relationship between technology and human beings beyond labour-capital-power. Even if we don’t consider China’s local reality, now the world state of emergency and the post-national world is the new reality we have to deal with. But with this methodological mistake, Badiou couldn’t offer any proposition to overcome the new reality.

We have to keep it in mind that, whatever the phenomenon is, as philosophers our basic point is the question of life. In the time of Corona, that demands a new theorisation and so far we have failed to think about it. From Badiou to Zizek, we are hearing a lot of things about the crisis of capitalism, the new communist reality and so on. For Badiou, truth is being controlled by science and therefore, he offers us a new political reality. But this has been debated thousands of times in the arena of philosophy from Thomas Khun to Karl Popper, and this debate is still going on. Even on the question of life, science couldn’t reach any truth although it has full control over life. Therefore, science and even philosophy can’t control the truth. Truth is being controlled by the truth itself. The mimicry of truth, not controlling it, is what science can do at best. So Badiou claims that truths that are controllable by science are simply depressing. Whatever they say from the vantage point of their Maoist obsession, Corona will not bring any revolutionary change to the political and economic structure of the world as we all know that capitalism evolves from the crisis within.

Today, in this crisis time when state, science and everything has failed, I recall Derrida’s famous quote ‘even if we’re in a state of hopelessness, a sense of expectation is an integral part of our relationship to time’ and it is a sense of hope that I feel. I recall Heidegger when I feel most challenged, but the most important act is still thinking. Unfortunately, we have forgotten that task in this troubled time. Could we ask people that if whatever they are doing to save their own life is destroying the rights of others? Do they even know the meaning of life? What is the use of life? What is the gift of death? We don’t even think about the relationship of life, time and death. In the name of science and technology, haven’t we turned our life utilitarian? Could we say only through death we can overcome the fear of it? Acknowledging the power and place of death is a part of life, rather than as our adversary, must be in our philosophical response to Corona.

The biggest mistake of the famous philosophers of our time is that they tend to find a solution in this trying time rather than considering the task of questioning what is important. The grip of ultra-scientific epistemology over our thought has created this hopeless situation. We should have concentrated on the question of ontic being. If we try to understand the COVID-19 phenomenon from ontological existentialism, we could see that even in this hyper age of scientism, philosophy clearly explains the reason for panic. Heidegger’s suggestion that only death is personal should have enabled us to formulate a deeper existential question. What is the meaning of being? Even in the time of mass death the importance of this question, what is the meaning of life, doesn’t disappear. Why are we so interested in death and the state instead of life? That proves we have a serious lack of meditation or poesy in our thought processes.

On the other hand, could we think beyond the binary of viruses and humans? How far can we go based on the current idea that science has a relationship with life and enmity with viruses? We are now struggling against a virus and hoping that science will come in the form of the messiah. The first philosophical mistake we have made is that we have tried to confront Corona with epistemology and avoided the question of being. We have taken it for granted that what is not visible can’t be considered as a subject. COVID-19 is a dangerous threat to our technological superego. As humans, our life and death has a relationship in every moment but the technological illusion keeps us far away from this truth and this is the reason behind our current panic.

In the time of Corona, our strong point is our own immunity. And for this, care is more important at this time than ever. Heidegger emphasised the word care several times in different ways but unfortunately that is forgotten. This care can save our life, can make Corona tolerable for us. Can’t we think of a world where we are tolerable for Corona and Corona is tolerable for us? Care doesn’t mean only self-care. It means caring for others. To care for one’s life means to care for one’s death as well. Death is the closest friend with whom we will meet once in life.

The first philosophical response in the time of Corona is to rethink the civilisational discourses which are the driving force of our current world as even human life is not safe here. And transcendental life is beyond imagination. Therefore, we need to rethink the philosophical base of this civilisation. If necessary, we have to start from the beginning again. The emergency now is to only think and think, and we need to keep it in mind that care is the practical form of thinking.

Rezaul Karim Rony is a poet and editor of Joban magazine.

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