Who’s responsible? Between discipline and politics in times of coronavirus*

By Davide Casciano, PhD.

Italy under lockdown

Since mid-February 2020, measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy have involved domestic self-isolation, through increasingly restrictive measures. The movements have been limited to those considered ‘essential’: grocery shopping, or going to work in one of the few ‘crucial’ industries still open (without public debate on the matter), such as those linked to military production. It has been forbidden to move from home, even for a short time, to do outdoor activities, to meet in groups composed of strangers; for those who tested positive, it is completely forbidden to move from home. Tests are expensive, masks unavailable, and the public health system collapsing.

Reuters image

One of the first critics of these measures was Giorgio Agamben, with an article much criticized in the national debate. Agamben is notoriously skeptical about the initiatives of those sovereign states in which people, stripped of their legal status, are exposed to a state of exception, without rights. It is difficult to say, as some people seemed to read in Agamben, that the virus is an ‘invention’; but we should catch at least a provocation from him. We are living in extreme times. Indeed, the rhetoric of a state of exception has been spread through newspapers, with consequences that ethnography could grasp, in Italy and beyond.

War metaphors for extraordinary times

As I wrote elsewhere, among the metaphors and images most widely disseminated by the media were metaphors of war, the state of exception par excellence. While it is difficult to say that there is such a thing as ‘the State,’ against which Agamben directs much of his criticism, there are discursive practices (and social agents) that materialize it. These discourses remodeled people ethical dispositions in Italy, turning into abnormal, and to a public hunt what before was taken for granted – a run in the street, a hug. In trying to justify these epidemiological measures of containment, military discourses have depicted a united population, and also indicated transgressors. The war would have been non-existent without mentioning enemies, cowards, unwilling to discipline (and sacrifice themselves) for the homeland.

If it’s a war, who’s the enemy, and what would be after?

But there is another result, perhaps more dangerous, that emerges from the use of battle and discipline metaphors: the enemy is someone else than those who evoke it. After years of spending cuts towards public sectors not considered ‘strategic,’ including health, talking about war allows someone to get rid of public responsibilities concerning the gravity of the current situation, leaving someone else alone, apparently a victim of himself. And yet, no public intervention is really ‘neutral.’

Confronted with so many ‘hard science’ experts, anthropologists cannot fail to point out which health policies were wrong, and the possible errors in the management of this emergency in the time ahead. Besides providing knowledge instrumental to the guidelines for dealing with the crisis, anthropologists must have the courage to show the COVID-19 pandemic as a total social fact, and therefore also political. Now that the virus has proven humanity united in grief, we need the courage to imagine alternative futures.

“Davide Casciano, PhD Social Anthropology, worked on AIDS in Ibadan, armed groups and Pentecostalism in Port Harcourt and private security in Johannesburg. He is currently Teaching Assistant of Social Anthropology at the University of Bologna.”

*This contribution is an outline of a full article published in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology, titled “COVID-19, Discipline and Blame: From Italy with a Call for Alternative Futures”, available online.

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