India has for long been full of exceptional peoples, making meaningless the notion of “state of exception” or of “extending” it. Brahmins are exceptional for they alone can command the rituals that run the social order and they cannot be touched by the lower caste peoples (let alone desired) for fear of ritualistic pollution. In modern times this involves separate public toilets for them, in some instances. The Dalits, the lowest castes peoples too cannot be touched by the upper castes, let alone desired, because they are considered the most ‘polluting’. As we can see, the exception of the Brahmin is unlike the exclusion of the Dalit. One of the Dalit castes named “Pariah” was turned into a ‘paradigm’ by Arendt, which unfortunately lightened the reality of their suffering. In 1896, when the bubonic plague entered Bombay, the British colonial administration tried to combat the spread of the disease using the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. However, caste barriers, including the demand by the upper castes to have separate hospitals and their refusal to receive medical assistance from the lower caste peoples among the medical personnel, added to causes of the deaths of more than ten million people in India.

The spread of coronavirus[1], which has infected more than 100,000 people according to official figures, reveals what we wonder about ourselves today—are we worth saving, and at what cost? On the one hand there are the conspiracy theories which include “bioweapons” and a global project to bring down migration. On the other hand, there are troublesome misunderstandings, including the belief that COVID-19 is something propagated through “corona beer”, and the racist commentaries on the Chinese people. But of an even greater concern is that, at this con-juncture of the death of god and birth of mechanical god, we have been persisting in a crisis about the “worth” of man. It can be seen in the responses to the crises of climate, technological ‘exuberance’, and coronavirus.

Earlier, man gained his worth through various theo-technologies. For example, one could imagine that the creator and creature were the determinations of something prior, say “being”, where the former was infinite and the latter finite. In such a division one could think of god as the infinite man and man as the finite god. In the name of the infinite man the finite gods gave the ends to themselves. Today, we are entrusting the machine with the determination of ends, so that its domain can be called techno-theology.

It is in this peculiar con-juncture that one must consider Giorgio Agamben’s recent remark that the containment measures against COVID-19 are being used as an “exception” to allow an extraordinary expansion of the governmental powers of imposing extraordinary restrictions on our freedoms. That is, the measures taken by most states and at considerable delay, to prevent the spread of a virus that can potentially kill at least one percent of the human population, could implement the next level of “exception”. Agamben asks us to choose between “the exception” and the regular while his concern is with the regularization of exception.[2] Jean-Luc Nancy has since responded to this objection by observing that there are only exceptions today, that is, everything we once considered regular is broken-through[1]. Deleuze in his final text would refer to that which calls to us at the end of all the games of regularities and exceptions as “a life”;[4] that is, one is seized by responsibility when one is confronted with an individual life which is in the seizure of death. Death and responsibility go together.

Then let us attend to the non-exceptionality of exceptions. Until the late 1800s, pregnant women admitted in hospitals tended to die in large numbers after giving birth due to puerperal fever, or post-partum infections. At a certain moment, an Austrian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis realized that it was because the hands of medical workers carried pathogens from one autopsy to the next patient, or from one woman’s womb to the next’s, causing infections and death. The solution proposed by Semmelweis was to wash hands after each contact.  For this he was treated as an exception and ostracized by the medical community. He died in a mental asylum suffering from septicemia, which resulted possibly from the beating of the guards. Indeed, there are unending senses of exceptions. In Semmelweis’ case, the very technique for combating infection was the exception. In Politics, Aristotle discussed the case of the exceptional man, such as the one who could sing better than the chorus, who would be ostracized for being a god amongst men.

There is not one paradigm of exception. The pathway of one microbial pathology is different from that of another. For example, the staphylococci live within human bodies without causing any difficulties, although they trigger infections when our immune system response is “excessive”. At the extreme of non-pathological relations, the chloroplasts in plant cells and the mitochondria in the cells of our bodies are ancient, well-settled cohabitations between different species. Above all, viruses and bacteria do not “intend” to kill their host, for it is not always in their “interest”[5] to destroy that through which alone they could survive. In the long term—of millions of years of nature’s time—”everything learns to live with each other”, or at least obtain equilibria with one another for long periods. This is the biologist’s sense of nature’s temporality.

In recent years, due in part to farming practices, micro-organisms which used to live apart came together and started exchanging genetic material, sometimes just fragments of DNA and RNA. When these organisms made the “jump” to human beings, disasters sometimes began for us. Our immune systems find these new entrants shocking and then tend to overplay their resources by developing inflammations and fevers which often kill both us and the micro-organisms. Etymologically “virus”[6] is related to poison. It is poison in the sense that by the time a certain new virus finds a negotiated settlement with human animals we will be long gone. That is, everything can be thought in the model of the “pharmakon” (both poison and cure) if we take nature’s time. However, the distinction between medicine and poison in most instances pertains to the time of humans, the uncanny animal. What is termed “biopolitics” takes a stand from the assumption of the nature’s temporality, and thus neglects what is disaster in the view of our interest in – our responsibility for – “a life”, that is, the lives of everyone in danger of dying from contracting the virus.

Here lies the crux of the problem: we have been able to determine the “interests” of our immune systems by constituting exceptions in nature, including through the Semmelweis method of hand washing and vaccinations. Our kind of animal does not have biological epochs at its disposal in order to perfect each intervention. Hence, we too, like nature, make coding errors and mutations in nature, responding to each and every exigency in ways we best can. As Nancy noted, man as this technical-exception-maker who is uncanny to himself was thought from very early on by Sophocles in his ode to man. Correspondingly, unlike nature’s time, humans are concerned with this moment, which must be led to the next moment with the feeling that we are the forsaken: those who are cursed to ask after “the why” of their being but without having the means to ask it. Or, as Nancy qualified it in a personal correspondence, “forsaken by nothing”. The power of this “forsakenness” is unlike the abandonments constituted by the absence of particular things with respect to each other. This forsakenness demands, as we found with Deleuze, that we attend to each life as precious, while knowing at the same time that in the communities of the forsaken we can experience the call of the forsaken individual life which we alone can attend to. Elsewhere, we have called the experience of this call of the forsaken, and the possible emergence of its community from out of metaphysics and hypophysics, “anastasis”.[7]   

[1] Coincidently, the name of the virus ‘corona’ means ‘crown’, the metonym of sovereignty.

[2] Which of course has been perceived as a non-choice by most governments since 2001 in order to securitize all social relations in the name of terrorism. The tendency notable in these cases is that the securitization of the state is proportionate to corporatization of nearly all state functions.

[3] See L’Intrus, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paris: Galilée, 2000.

[4] See “L’immanence: une vie”, Gilles Deleuze, in Philosophie 47 (1995).

[5] It is ridiculous to attribute an interest to a micro-organism, and the clarifications could take much more space than this intervention allows. At the same time, today it is impossible to determine the “interest of man”.

[6] We should note that “viruses” exist on the critical line between living and non-living.

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

2 Replies to “Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, The Community of the Forsaken: A Response to Agamben and Nancy”

  1. “ in the communities of the forsaken we can experience the call of the forsaken individual life which we alone can attend to. ” This is going to stick with me for a long time, concise and profound text punches through so much. The title kind of plays with the community debate that got started with Blanchot and Nancy. Syntax is different here that it must mean something like atheist common. The key takeaway is that time gets brought back to philosophy
    “ humans are concerned with this moment, which must be led to the next moment with the feeling that we are the forsake”. Forsaken is sort of biblical.

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