The proletariat are all those who are denied the collective faculty of imagination: An interview with Divya Dwivedi

Divya Dwivedi is a philosopher and author based in India. She is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. She co-authored Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics with philosopher Shaj Mohan.

The outbreak of the corona epidemic has put the working class in a new crisis. We now see that the proletariat is devoid of economic minimums and must actually fight for its survival. In this situation, what can be done to revive the working class?

Dwivedi: There is the “demos” in an epi-demic, which indicates that something terrible has befallen the people. But the “demos” are always distributed unequally. Both epidemics and health flow through the channels which already exist, that is, there is no sickness which is in itself able to determine its pathways. Therefore, there is no sickness-in-itself, no suffero noumenon.

The question of the “proletariat” has to be posed again, anew, under these new conditions—of the pandemic and of technological exuberance—where the concept designated by this term might appear to be a stranger to us. Once upon a time the proletariat meant those who have no belongings other than their biological progenies. But this meaning was radically transformed by Marx to mean that the proletariat were the people who worked in the peripheries of machines and political systems, and they were not allowed by their material conditions to imagine a future beyond their wages. That is, the proletariat are all those who are denied the collective faculty of imagination. I would like to be precise here about imagination; imagination is not fantasizing about an uprising against a regime or a sudden beneficent collapse of a repressive order. Imagination is the making of a precise bauplan for the future which can materialize from the here and now.

For this reason, the link between the pandemic and the conditions of the proletariat—those who are denied the power to imagine—is augmenting an older process in our times. The people had already been denied any right to determine those processes which develop into the conditions in which their interests manifest through a subversion of nationalized democracies. This subversibility is of course the inner possibility of any regional politics. As you know there is global agreement when it comes to most economic processes, technological protocols and standards, and there are global institutions dictating terms to national governments. Nobody took our votes on IPv6 or Goods and Services Tax.

This is the reason we find that the far right and what is often called the left are in agreement when it comes to regional containments of the people; they seek to confine the imagination of the people to birth and soil. So, to answer your question regarding the 1st of May which is also the month that gives another name — May 68 —  towards a moment of proliferating uprisings all over the world : We have to make imagination available as a power again so that the proletariat are able to raise progenies who will be conceptual and organizational monsters from the point of view of their oppressors. In other words, uprisings around the world will not count, instead the world must now rise up together.

Many leftist thinkers see the current situation as a sign of the crisis in capitalism. Throughout history, however, capitalism has shown that it can use crises to reproduce itself. Does the current situation give the Left a chance to reorganize or all remains would be a more brutal capitalism?

Dwivedi: Of course, the end of capitalism has always been around the corner as we take turns in its spiral! The way you have posed this question contains something important. It is the question: is the Left capable of crisis?

Here I must say, with all the possible meanings, Lenin was once the crisis of Marxism, with whom, simultaneously, the capability for crisis was exiled into the enclosure of the soviet empire. Crisis is the experience within a system that it has reached the limits of relations and reciprocal tolerances of its components; for example, a combustion engine that is overheating. What comes over the crisis is always another system which picks up the components left over by the crisis and sets them in new relations with each other, and with new components.In most instances what we call the left suffers from what the philosopher Shaj Mohan called an idyllic a priori. That is, it thinks from the idylls of someone or some select people and then sets up this idyll as the impossible teleology. One can find Marxist activists in the subcontinent who think and act on the basis of the material conditions of the 19th century Germany. Can we have any such telos today? We must, each and everyone of us, at first experience the fact that we are the forsaken by any transcendent ends.

Instead, if there is to be a Left—those who are capable of collective imagination—they must also be capable of suffering a collective crisis. Such a left will be able to gather from the present stasis, with the shared experience of forsakenness, to be the community of the forsaken. This community of the forsaken will then be able to raise itself from the present stasis, which is properly anastasis. One is tempted to give outlines of how this could begin, but it must be the work of a collective imagination.

In 1845, Friedrich Engels said that the Left’s understanding of the real conditions of proletarian life was very limited. Today, the proletariat has a much more complex concept than what Marx and Engels had in mind and consists of day laborers, farmers, industrial workers and different forms of blue collars. Do you think the leftist understanding of the working class situation improved?

Dwivedi: These misunderstandings of the workers are not the same everywhere. The left, rather the party left as I can see in my surroundings in the subcontinent has been seeing the proletariat from their upper caste feudal idyllic a priori. I do have a certain intimacy with the party left. My parents were members of the communist parties at the extreme left who undertook unarmed direct action, and went to prison. I grew up traveling with them from village to village.

In India the party left, and whatever is left of it, deliberately refused to understand something fundamental: The racial social order of caste is the regular form of all divisions of labour in the subcontinent. The upper caste leaders of the communist parties organizing and leading the lower caste labourers to their infinitely deferred liberation is the very repetition of the caste order. Unless, as Lenin could do in Russia, the left imagines the proletariat in both their specific forms of poverties and their powers while gathering in the singular human experience of belonging to the community of the forsaken, any leftist politics will be a minor disaster within the crises which are upon us.

Today workers are more and more either the peripheral components of the technological systems, or they are being displaced by the technical apparatuses, or they merely polish the machine. Let me be provocative here: to conceive a worker properly in this time is to think of workers abandoned by work. I am not joking, we do see the emergence of universal basic income as a transitory response to this situation which is the automation of all work. This is a radically new scenario for left politics because the machine cannot be called a proletariat as it does not have progenies in any sense, and a man without work is not a man who has broken his chains. I have dealt with the conceptual crisis of the possibilities of machines having progenies and its relation to the proletariat in my book on Gandhi.

“People who are at the top cannot anymore govern, this is true; but people who are at the bottom — workers, peasants, intellectuals, etc — are still able to support the existing regime; they still support it”, Louis Althusser said once. It seems that this logic still holds true. Today, one of the problems of the left is that in many ways the working class is still reluctant to fight and break free from its chains. How is this awareness achieved? What is the way out of this deadlock?

Dwivedi: For my generation Marx was primarily mediated through Althusser and the Althusser circle. The brilliance in Althusser was about a certain directness of thought which revealed the stasis of Marxist thought with elegance. I know this interview that you have cited, which is intriguing for another reason. In it Althusser said something like he was catholic—which possibly meant someone who experienced the common—and therefore a communist.

But in the university I encountered the works of Jean-Luc Nancy where he was often discussed as the left Heideggerian. But I found in Nancy a new founding of “the common” because he had seized philosophy as the activity that is capable of crisis; the crisis of having arrived at the end of all determinations of transcendent ends. This new experience of the common revealed the conditions to imagine first of all what can be called a philosopher’s communism. This was important to me because in most versions of communism one finds that the end of philosophizing is the prelude, starting with Marx’s 11th thesis. As I had noted earlier, philosophy as the creation of freedom must necessarily accompany a left that is capable of crisis.  

This logic of Althusser, at the level of analogy, may hold true for all the times in which a political arrangement is in stasis. But the processes of our stasis are rather different. Today the left and the right both agree on regionalization of politics where, in some cases, shared Fascist tendencies are apparent. As you may know Agamben recently gave an interview to a far right journal on the coronavirus pandemic. If one looks closely at the responses of many leftist writers from across the world their responses to the pandemic sound very similar to Trump’s conspiracy theories and denials.

There is a reason, or if you prefer a homology, which has ordered the matters of politics in this way. As I mentioned earlier, nationalized democratic forms do not have any sovereignty when it comes to economic and technological matters, where they obey a global system of control. Then, the only choices left for the people is to choose their local monopolist capitalist; then divide amongst each other on basis of ethno-nationalistic and racial criteria; and then fight each other so that the global processes of techno-economic integration can take place over them without a fuss. This is why everywhere we see the anti-politics—the collective rejection of freedom—in the form of racial and ethno-politics.  

If politics is to be the fight for freedom then it must be capable of the seizing of the conditions of action, which are more and more global today. If anyone gives you the pill of regional autonomy they are trying to sedate you and confine you to a region determined by a developing techno-economic world order. Instead, we must begin to recognize this: national forms of politics are the locus of the real crisis, and democracy can now be secured only through the assertion that the world belongs to all. A left worthy of its name today shall have the courage to refuse the regional power deals from snake oil salesmen of anti-politics, who roam India in the garb of subaltern and postcolonial historians. Such a left will have the courage to imagine collectively and arrive at bauplan of a world democracy. It will have the courage to be infinitely open in order to gather the people of the world as the people of the world. The only thing left then is ana-stasis.

Interview by Kamran Baradaran

The English translation of these texts first appeared in “The Philosophical Salon” at the LA Review of Books on April 13, 2020 “.


Jean-Luc Nancy

An Indian friend tells me that at his place people talk about the communovirus. How come no one thought of it before? It’s obvious! And what an admirable and utter ambivalence: the virus that comes from communism, this virus that communises us. Here is something much more fecund than the ridiculous “corona” (crown) which evokes old royal or imperial histories. For that matter, one should dethrone, if not behead the corona if one wants to use the communo.

This is what seems to be happening, according to its initial sense, since it in effect comes from the biggest country in the world whose regime is officially communist. And it is not  so only in the official title: as president Xi Jinping declared, the management of the viral epidemic demonstrates the superiority of the “social system with Chinese characteristics”. Indeed, if communism consists essentially in the abolition of private property, Chinese communism consists – and for a dozens of years now – in a meticulous combination of collective property (or State property) and of individual property (which, however, excludes land property). This combination has allowed, as everyone knows, a remarkable growth of economic and technic capabilities of China, as well as its role in the world.

It is still too early to know how to designate the society produced by such a combination: in what sense is it communist and in what sense did it introduce into itself the virus of the individual competition, if not of its ultra-liberal escalation? For now, the virus covid-19 has allowed it to demonstrate the efficiency of the collective and of the state aspect of the system. This efficiency is claimed so loud and clear that China comes to the aid of Italy and France.

Of course, one also does not miss any opportunity of holding forth on the new lease of authoritative power that the Chinese State is enjoying at the moment. Indeed, everything happens as if the virus came at just the right moment to reinforce official communism. What is troublesome is that the content of the word “communism” keeps getting more and more vague – even though it was already uncertain.

Marx wrote in a very precise manner that with private property, collective property should disappear and should be replaced by what he calls “individual property”. By that he did not mean the goods owned by the individual (in other words private property) but the possibility for the individual to become properly himself. One could say: to realise oneself. Marx had neither the time nor the means to go further with this thought. At least we can recognize that it alone opens a compelling perspective – even though a very indeterminate one – to a “communist” theory. “To realise oneself” is not to acquire material or symbolic goods: it means becoming real, effective, it means existing in a unique way.

It is therefore the second meaning of communovirus that should hold us. De facto, the virus communises us. It sets us all on an equal footing (to put it quickly) and gathers us in the need to make a stand together. That this has to happen through the isolation each of us is only a paradoxical way of giving us to experience our community. One can only be unique among all. It is this that makes our most intimate community: the shared sense of our uniqueness.

Today, in every way, co-belonging, interdependence and solidarity recall themselves to us. Testimonies and initiatives in this direction arise from every place. Adding to this the reduction of atmospheric pollution due to the decrease of transportation and industries, we even have the anticipatory rapture of those who believe that the overthrow of techno-capitalism is already here. Let’s not sulk over some fragile euphoria – but let’s ask ourselves how much deeper we fathom the essence of our community.

One calls upon solidarities, one stimulates more than one, but overall it is the awaiting of the state providence – the very one that M. Macron took the opportunity to celebrate – that dominates the media scene. Instead of confining ourselves we first feel confined by force, though it were providential. We feel isolation as a privation when it is only a protection.

In a sense, this is an excellent refresher course: it is true that we are not solitary animals. It is true that we need to meet each other, to share a drink, to drop in. Besides, the sudden increase of phone calls, emails and other social media evinces some pressing needs, a fear of losing touch.

Are we, for all that, better at thinking this community? There is a danger that the main representative left is the virus. There is a danger that between the surveillance model or the providential one, we are left to the virus as our only common good.

Therefore, we will not progress in understanding that which could be the surpassing of properties, as well collective as private. That is to say the surpassing of property in general or of anything that refers to the possessing of an object by a subject. The very nature of the “individual” as Marx would say, is to be incomparable, immeasurable and unassimilable, even for itself. It is not about owning “goods”. It is to be a possibility of unique and exclusive realisation, whose exclusive uniqueness can only be assessed, by definition, among everyone and with everyone — against or despite everyone — but always in relation to and in exchange (communication). It has to do with a “value” that is neither that of general equivalence (money) nor that of an extorted “surplus” but a value that is on no basis measurable.

Are we capable of thinking in such a difficult – even dizzying – way? It is good that the communovirus forces us to question ourselves thus. Because it is only on this condition that it is worth, ultimately, that we strive to eradicate it. If not, then we will find ourselves back in the same place. We will be relieved, but we can prepare ourselves for other pandemics.

Translated by Victoria Derrien



Shaj Mohan

In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important. ­– Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Implicitly we are asking in these discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic[1] is there a norm for man? Earlier it was philosophy that had the task of constituting the systems under which the limits, and also as yet unknown thresholds, for actions were given. Aristotle wrote in The Politics:

“A ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing”[2]

These restrictions pertain to nature too; there is a critical weight beneath which nature had to restrict the construction of birds with flight due to the problem of taking off. Once we have the system which denotes the ranges of each element—wingspan, weight, tissue strengths—then their possible ranges in relation to each other can be found. Following the system, or critique in the Kantian sense, we get to criteria or a few parameters which make up the “norm”. Critics use them to make judgments. A popular music critic with the latest criteria may then say that a certain pop song has too many chord progressions.

In the same text, Aristotle set the criteria for cities, especially the ideal distance between the well governed city and the seas. It would appear that the further the seas the better. Even today, the threat posed by the sea is of the unfamiliar, the obscure, the strangers, the refugees and the degenerates. For these very reasons which provoke distaste in most of us today, the criteria of the Greek cartel with a constitution, run by a few men and excluding women and slaves from their “democracy”, cannot be our criteria for politics.

We assume from the common uses of the terms “natural” and “normal” that nature is a set of norms. A principle of this misleading thought is Spinoza’s conatus—the tendency in all beings to conserve in their own being. However, if there is a tendency in everything (in so far as things are) it is to prolong itself sufficiently in a “milieu” in order to enjoy being-other-than-oneself, and to be elsewhere. These changes vary in their temporalities across living systems and within each living system. Most cells in our body renew themselves in weeks, immunities are acquired, and mutations are undergone. Homeostasis refers to the relative stability as a species characteristic, while speciation exchanges a previous set of powers for a new set of powers. Darwin was concerned with the ratio holding between the external and internal milieus of living forms; we can understand it as the reciprocal adjustment of internal and external forms. Nature is hardly normal. That is, form in living form is not Platonic form, but it is something akin to the clinch of the wrestlers appearing to be indistinguishable from a tight embrace.

The being which is challenging us, the virus, is somewhere between our concept of living and non-living. Guido Pontecorvo, the geneticist born in Pisa, made certain predictions about viral pandemics in 1948, suggesting that two non-virulent forms of viruses infecting the same host may produce a new form which will then result in pandemics of the type we are undergoing. The idea underlying this prediction was that viruses sexually reproduce, which violates our most familiar “norm” of life. The “normalized” concept of sexual reproduction involves the presence of specialized organs for the exchange of genetic material. But in fact, any mechanism through which genetic recombination takes place is sexual reproduction[3].

We have been, especially in recent years, attributing norms to ourselves and to what is called nature. These attributions have a general principle—hypophysics—which takes nature to coincide with the good; a thing is good when it is proximate to its nature, and is evil when it departs from that nature. The moralization of the earth system and animals is easily recognizable. Norms have been prescribed for the human animal as well. For example, “normal conditions of life” as that which is natural to man from which every deviation is viewed with suspicion. For Gandhi this norm was the idyllic life of the affluent upper caste man in an Indian village. Giorgio Agamben’s norm is “the normal conditions” surrounded by culture in an idyllic town where the churches continue to prescribe[4]. We know that it has always been the living conditions of a privileged few that became cultural norms; that a majority had to be denied these very norms to achieve them; and that “bourgeois thinkers” theorize to conserve in their own being.

In this series of thinkers Pierre Clastres stands out, for he too had a norm, albeit not of his own milieu but of what he called “primitive society”. The deviation from the norm in a primitive society makes “the state” appear, and this is the very instant in which man is de-natured. Clastres sought the archeology of the state in primitive societies. But all he could find was that when something, such as a metal axe, enters the primitive society from the outside (the modern world) their conatus collapses. We must see in his own words the perfect picture of human norm, or conatus:

Primitive society, then, is a society from which nothing escapes, which lets nothing get outside itself, for all the exits are blocked. It is a society, therefore, that ought to reproduce itself perpetually without anything affecting it throughout time.[5]

Let us call the theories of all these proposed norms idyllic a priori, following from the example set by Foucault. Idyllic a priori are derivative of hypophysics; that is, a moment in the history of a few is interpreted as the natural way of being because this is the “normal conditions of life”. Behind the many phenomena of “bio-politics” lie their respective idyllic a priori.

Until the last century the task of fixing norms for man belonged to metaphysics. Metaphysics fixed these norms by taking “being” as the fundamental differentiable. In the differentiable “programming languages” we find the difference between “assembly languages” and “compiled languages”. The differentiated are not predicable of the differentiable; that is, we never say that “function is linear equation”. In metaphysics these operations created the series of differences such as that between Idea and things, God and creatures, and so on. Of these pairs the first term is the higher being which then grounds the norms for man. Heidegger would produce a remarkable new division, that between being and beings, which is without a differentiable, and would call it the ontico-ontological difference. This strange difference—if it makes sense it is not understood—brought metaphysics to suspension. Jean-Luc Nancy brought this agony to the end when he wrote “existence precedes and succeeds on itself”[6].

These thoughts, which form their own series, show us that nature is not natural and indicate that each and everything befalls us not without reason, rather everything drives us to give them reason. In fact, we know that we can anticipate the coursing of one thing into the next, or the transition from one state to the next. Even this pandemic was anticipated several times in the past. When the anticipation meets with the objective there is satisfaction, for example, every August we anticipate the Perseids meteor shower and it doesn’t disappoint us. When anticipation is not satisfied in experience there is either surprise or disappointment. In spite of all the anticipations regarding various calamities of the world we proceed with an absolute certainty that this world itself will not withdraw, that it will not disappoint, although we cannot give a reason for it, for there is no reason[7] why it should not withdraw in this very instant. Reason drives us towards this experience just as we are drawn to it. Logically we can accommodate this experience—which is the most shared and even mundane experience of our humankind—by saying that the end of the world is not an event in the world, and therefore it is not an event.[8] For now, let us mark it as the obscure experience.

For the present occasion, something else follows from this obscure experience. As later Wittgenstein discovered, experiences are given on the condition that they are shared in communities, in public language. The impossibility of writing down an absolutely private experience implies that one cannot oneself understand the said experience. Wittgenstein’s argument eliminates the authority of all mysticisms. Instead, we are left with this shared mundane mystery which cannot be encoded in reason although it surrounds reason. This common place experience—the absolute certitude that the world will persist—does not institute any norm, for it is obscure. Instead, it makes a demand that we do not ‘play’ politics in such a way that it—the most shared of all experiences—is surrendered to either an idyllic a priori or to technological exuberance.

It is time to think again of our relation to technology, both bio-techniques and computational techniques, and their growing proximity. Some radical shifts in our humankind began in the 19th century when Simmelweis introduced through the technique of hand-washing a barrier between us and microbes. Further, through Koch, Pasture and several others we began to take charge of our “immune systems” and direct it according to our interests using vaccines, antivirals, and immunosuppressive medicines. The eventual arrival of nano-machines (atomic scale engineering is already a reality[9]), which will course through our circulatory system such that our immune systems are completely externalized, will complete our new speciation.

We are also the species which drew a circulatory system upon the earth. When “we” began to wander the earth, nearly 50,000 years ago, we already begun the processes of inter-connecting the regions of the earth, which resulted in the silk roads and the internet. There are many instances in which we can see that the externalized immune system and, the global circulatory system of internet and commodities are conjoined. For example, the very medicines which regulate the immune system are produced in Asia and then travel to the rest of the world. Bio-medical systems can be remotely managed through the internet. Together we are coming to be a singular organism of our own making on earth.

Then what of the earth? Although it might seem an abhorrent thought, “the earth” too is already implicated in this circulatory system, which began at least with agriculture. The global circulatory system will suffer the traumas of the two kinds of viral infections again. As Mohammed and Sandberg argue, the virulence of both the computer virus and the organic virus will be a function of the rate of integration of the global circulatory system, and they show that the organic virus too will soon be engineered[10].

Today, nationalisms and various ethno-centric proclivities stand in the way of the well-being of the global circulatory system. Due to potential bio-cyber wars between nation states the global circulatory system itself is under threat. Eventually the components of these older orders of the world will be comprehended by a new set of laws. However, now is the time and the occasion (when this flu is being experienced in the global circulatory system) for us to think together about the future forms of our being together as those who are shared by the commonplace and yet obscure experience. This way we return to the beginning: Unless we as everyone, everywhere, understand that this world is the co-belonging equally of everyone in sharing the mysterious but absolute certainty of its persistence, and create political concepts and new institutions, this ship might become either too small or too large to set sail ever again.

[1] See

[2] 1326b1, Book 7, Politics, The Complete Works of Aristotle, Ed. Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, 1984

[3] See “Origin of Sex”, Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 110, Issue 3, 7 October 1984, Pages 323-351

[4] See Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us.”

[5] P 212, Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, Tr. Robert Hurley, Zone Books, New York, (Reprint) 2007

[6] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Sense of the World, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): p. 34

[7] In the restricted uses of reason

[8] This thought can only be suggested here. For more see “What Carries Us On” in and

[9] See

[10] Working paper titled “Hybrid Risk: Cyber-Bio Risks” shared kindly by Anish Mohammed and Anders Sandberg

Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao and one of the best known poets of the late Han/Three Kingdoms period, wrote this piece about a plague.

The Plague Airs 
Cao Zhi (192-232 CE)

In 216, the 22nd year of Establishing Peace, the contagion spread, bringing sorrows over corpses in every family, tears of lament in each abode. They died behind shuttered doors or perished by the clan. Some said this was the work of ghosts or spirits. Yet the fallen were the rag-wearers and bark-eaters, in hovels of bramble and sedge. Among those who dwelt in great halls and supped from bronze cauldrons, cloaked in marten fur, on plush cushions… it was rare. The cosmic forces were out of balance; winter and summer had turned around: this was its cause. Some tried to drive it away with far-fetched spells. That was laughable too.


建安二十二年,疠气流行。家家有僵尸之痛,室室有号泣之哀。 或阖门而殪, 或覆族而 丧。或以为疫者,鬼神所作。人罹此者,悉被褐茹藿之子,荆室蓬户之人耳!若夫殿处鼎 食之家,重貂累蓐之门,若是者鲜焉。此乃阴阳失位,寒暑错时,是故生疫。而愚民悬符 厌z之,亦可笑也。

Translated by Chris Connery

Giorgio Agamben tries to never let us forget that keeping alive is not quite the same as living. [1] And whilst he was widely derided for equating the novel coronavirus to a common flu, his point that there is a difference between living and merely staying alive should not be cast aside. For, even as contagiousness of the coronavirus means that our lives have had to radically change in order to potentially survive, the fact that social distancing has become the order of the day and we have had to give up many of our social rituals suggests that — since our habitus is shaped by, formed out of, our habits — it might well be changing, re-shaping, what it means to be human. 

In that sense, even as Slavoj Žižek seems to be critiquing Agamben — “not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity” [2] — it would be an error to read it as being an antonymous claim. 

For, we should also bear in mind the beautiful reminder of Jean-Luc Nancy that it is space that is first needed for touch.

Not too far, but also not too close:and where perhaps what we need to do is to create the proper distance between us that is needed.

For, as the late, great, Anne Dufourmantelle continues to teach us: “being completely alive is a task, it’s not at all a given thing. It’s not just about being present to the world, it’s being present to yourself, reaching an intensity that is in itself a way of being reborn.” [3]

And, where perhaps the very task at hand is to discover how to maintain the social — bring forth the ‘us’ — whilst remaining physically distant.




[3] Anne Dufourmantelle, ‘The Ideology of Security’, public lecture at The European Graduate School, (August 2011):


Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School, and a Lecturer & Fellow of Tembusu College at The National University of Singapore. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, media, and the arts.

This is Shaj Mohan’s contributions to the debate on Coronavirus and the state of exception sparkled by Agamben’s contribution. It was originally published in the European Journal of Philosophy together with pieces by Agamben, Nancy, Esposito, Benvenuto, Dwivedi,  Ronchi, and de Carolis.

It is frightfully sublime in part because of its obscurity. – Immanuel Kant

Implicit within the debate on Coronavirus curated by Antinomie and archived by Sergio Benvenuto[i] is the question—for what must we carry on?  That is, do we—humanity, which has been reckoned by many thinkers as the error in nature—carry on for the sake of carrying on?  Or, should we, following Thomas Taylor, M. K. Gandhi, Pierre Clastres, and several others, proceed with a project of returning towards a moment in history that, for Agamben, is “the normal conditions of life”>[ii].  Is not Agamben’s notion of normal life none other than a mythical European bourgeois idyll where “the churches” do not “remain silent”?  Should we continue to evaluate everything in our present with these “normal conditions of life”?

These conversations have been happening in America too, where “the boomers”—those few of a post-war generation who enjoyed prosperity and relatively stable conditions of life—evaluates the lives of “millennials” on the basis of its own myths and idylls. Wittgenstein distinguished the philosopher from the bourgeois thinker who thinks “with the aim of clearing up the affairs of some particular community”.  It is impossible to avoid the fact that the “normal conditions of life” to be guarded from “biopolitics” were, and are, dependent on colonial, capitalistic, and other exploitative processes which all these families of thoughts including the theory of “bio-politics” seek to criticise.  Since the notions of “normalcy” and “biopolitics” held by Agamben, and derived from Michel Foucault, have been exported through analogy over regions of the world and of thought that are homologically distinct, a certain “bourgeois thinking” has become the universal today.  In many parts of the world these theories provide the experience of a conspiratorial spirit in history determining its course, leaving humans to merely lament, which is our sense of “resistance” today.

The terror before this question—for what must we carry on?—was always understood and it is not limited to any epoch or region.  The closing off of this question has been mostly the work of what we call “religions”.  However, it began to acquire an urgency with Nietzsche’s destruction of all values towards a revaluation of all values.  Nietzsche pointed to an obscure object of thought as the reference for the revaluation of all values—eternal return of the same.  Martin Heidegger would execute a certain act in philosophy in 1934 which would then suppress the import of the question for what must we carry on in a lecture course titled “Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language”.  In this lecture, long before Foucault and Agamben, Heidegger specified a certain form of politics—“population politics”—which considers people with indifference to their blood-lines and ‘tongue-lines’.  He wrote,

In a census, the Volk is counted in the sense of the population, the population, in so far as it constitutes the body of the Volk, the inhabitants of the land.  At the same time, it is to be considered that in a governmental order of the census a certain part of the Volk is included, namely the part that dwells within the State’s borders.  The German nationals living abroad are not included in the count, [they] do not belong in this sense to the Volk.  On the other hand, those can also be included in the count, those who, taken racially, are of alien breed, do not belong to the Volk.[iii]

Here, population refers to something of a “motley crew”, whereas the ideal type for “a people” are those dwellers of the soil who once enjoyed a mythic unity with one another.  Here is a German bourgeois thinker.

If we assume that this tendency of the last century is “Eurocentric” it will be a grave error. In fact, its most profound and startling expression can be found in the subcontinent.  M. K. Gandhi too conceived an Indian village idyll and contrasted it with “western civilization”.  Gandhi’s idyll is the village of the privileged upper caste Indian under whom the racial hierarchies and exploitations of the majority lower caste people carry on, but without an ounce of resentment on part of the exploited.  The logic of surrendering to the caste order without resentment in the subcontinent is called “Karman”[iv].  Gandhi understood that this ideal was never realised in history, and never will be.

However, Gandhi’s evaluation of mankind was not founded on the ideal village as the “normal conditions”.  Instead, the village itself was founded on the principles of hypophysics, according to which nature is the good.  We had called this mode of thinking hypophysics following Kant’s taxonomy of moral thought[v].  The ideal Indian village is the home of hypophysics where all things are retained at their original value, that is, a place where nature was never de-natured.  The ideal village conservers the “normal conditions” in spite of the presence of man.  Gandhi’s verdict was that man was infected with a range of faculties that allowed him to explore all the milieus given in nature and also propelled him to discover the milieus unknown to nature.  The being without an appropriate milieu is the effervescent error in nature.  If a being cannot be given a fixed milieu then what is good and bad for it are also indefinable.  That is, action in the moral sense is impossible for such a being, who must therefore seek its own dissolution in nature.

As we know Gandhi’s goal in life was to reduce himself to “zero”, a point at which no action was required.  As with all rigorous thinkers, he sought the same end for humankind itself—we must not carry on.  Gandhi’s advice to Martin Buber on the fate of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany came from his interpretation of “for what must we carry on”.  When Gandhi was requested by Buber to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people using his considerable moral standing in the world, he responded:

The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities.  But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.  For to the godfearing, death has no terror.[vi]

The schema of this response, shocking as it is, continues to reign over our time.  What holds the schema together is hypophysics, and the theory of “bio-politics” is itself a species of hypophysics.

Today, the dominance of this tendency—hypophysics—is not to be scorned upon without understanding the conditions in which it arose.  Hypophysics came to be dominant when metaphysics became impossible; that is, instead of referring to another domain for values we began to find the Ideal within our preferred socio-economic milieus and in the calamitous misunderstandings of nature.  We became acutely aware of the absence of “value” and hence a certain inability to distinguish between good and evil in the last century.  We must note that this aversion of the eye from the absence of value, which makes one hold fast to the nearest ideal or idyll, is still a caring thought.

The formalisation of the experience of being without value, without an orientation in the face of the question “for what must we carry on”, is most acutely found in the schema of Heidegger’s early works[vii].  In philosophy, difference is found in something which is differentiable.  For example, we say that “1” and “a” differ in the differentiable “written characters”.  Duns Scotus’ theology relies on thinking being as the ultimate differentiable in which God was the infinite being and creatures the finite beings.  This gives us something akin to infinite man and finite gods to work with.  Being, in which the difference is made, gives man his orientation in God.  The similarity between the logic of this division in being and the theory of Idea in Plato’s middle period made Nietzsche remark that Christianity was Platonism for the masses.

Heidegger would propose a new kind of difference without precedence—ontico-ontological difference or the difference between being and beings—for which there is no differentiable.  From this moment, being could not be thought as something that is the primary differentiable, nor could it be thought as the place holder for the higher beings—Idea, Subject, Will—for there is no primary differentiable.  Heidegger’s unthinkable logic would open the mystery of being itself and at the same time keep in abeyance the unthinkable through the narrative of the decline in the history of the difference between being and beings.  In this narrative, there once was an ideal village in Greece where “normal conditions of living” were available.

Jean-Luc Nancy pursued and revealed the limits of this thought when he wrote the obscure proposition “existence precedes and succeeds upon itself[viii].  It stands outside the family of propositions such as “existence precedes essence” and “essence precedes existence”, and it implies at least two things.  First, reason can be given for the succession of each thing upon itself and of a thing upon another thing.  However, there is no reason, under any other names, for the persistence of existence.  Second, we can determine our actions, or our movement from moment to moment, through reason which drives this movement in spite of us.  However, we are abandoned in the face of the moment itself, which does not submit to reason.  That is, the duratio noumenon is properly obscure.  The world wraps around us with its intrigues of reason while at the same time reason itself drives us towards the absence of itself in the fact of reason, a seizure from which one cannot shake free.  

In a series of proper names—Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy—and through different logics and systematicities, we have come to an acute understanding of this fact: that we are forsaken.  But what does it imply, especially now when we are seeking an orientation in the face of an epidemic, and then other calamities?  In a short text with the least formal steps something can still be indicated and shared.  Anticipation is when we say that “there is lighting, and thunder is set to follow”.  When several elements are involved in the constitution of a phenomenon our anticipations are likely to meet with disappointment or surprise; for example, a concert may be cancelled due to an earthquake.  The moments, and the relation between the moments, which we can account for through reason can fall within the experience of anticipation; that is, everything in the world.  However, there is something outside anticipation—the persistence of the world—which we embrace with the absolute certainty that its disappearance with us in it is never a concern, although we know that “a world” of a “someone” will withdraw, including our own.  In each step of anticipations and disappointments we are surprised by this disorienting certitude.  If we bring Kant and Wittgenstein together the end of the world is not an event, for it is not an event in the world.

This absolute certitude is the most obscure experience, while also being the most distinct. Like a membrane it envelops everything while penetrating everything as we look into everything.  Early Wittgenstein’s experience of this mystery was that of the individual who in his solitude experienced the sense of the world lying outside it while the being of the world itself was for that very reason obscure.  But what we can say, for now, is that this experience of the obscure—the assurance of an absolute persistence—is possible on the condition that we are able to speak with one another in sharing our reasons and responsibilities.  Later Wittgenstein would argue that the possibility of each experience is public, for there is no private language.  Then, each one of us, without knowing the whence and whither of it, share the obscure because we can share words, cultures, love, cautions and tragedies.

From the experience of the obscure we should think of the other side of hypophysics, which is technological determinism.  It is the same aversion from the obscure experience that turns us towards technological exuberance where a new god is being founded—the hyper-machines that will make machines which humans can neither build nor comprehend.  It will be these machines that will then give ends to man.  Bio-politics and other theories are rendering us immobile and resigned like animals who are caught in the headlights, but of our own rushing technical exuberance. 

Tonight we should rest a while in our shared solitude (the only kind of solitude as we can see) with the thought that the mystery is not that the world is, but that it is mysterious to us making of us the mystery, the obscure “mysterium tremendum”.  In the words of the poet tonight we are “Alive in the Superunknown”.

[i] See “Coronavirus and Philosophers”

[ii] See Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us.”

[iii] Heidegger, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language (Buffalo: SUNY Press, 2009): p. 56, emphases added. 

[iv] See Giorgio Agamben, Karman: A Brief Treatise on Action, Guilt, and Gesture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[v] See Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge, 1922) arrived at the absence of any kind of “for what” for us to “carry on” before Heidegger came into the scene, but it did so through a different logic.

[viii] Jean-Luc Nancy, Sense of the World, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): p. 34.

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