To Appear in Times of Pandemic

Hourya BentouhamiCovid-19

According to Hannah Arendt, if the inside of the body “were to appear, we would all look alike.”1 If we could see the insides of bodies, they would validate the claim that we are indistinguishable, since we are all subject to the same requirements for the maintenance of life and face the same exposure to disease and death. The philosopher makes this observation to explain that our being of the world cannot be understood as a simple being in the world, reduced to our organic nature or our status as biological bodies. For Arendt, and contrary to a popular belief in ethology, life is not only the external appearance of something interior, since surface effects (such as plumage) are much more differentiated than their internal, organic causes and therefore cannot be simply their secondary expression. Who, by contrast, could distinguish individuals from one another by examining their viscera? We would thus be indistinguishable, a “population,” by virtue of our organic interiority, whereas we become individuals through our expressive surfaces, our appearance, Arendt tells us.

But this is not yet to take into account the increasingly prevalent biologization of race in times of pandemic.2 Here appearance, and in particular the phenotype, becomes the site of an intensified production of “populations.” In other words, individuals are assimilated into populations due to their appearance, and internal, organic life becomes the site of differentiation between human communities, as is shown by the abnormally high morbidity rates in racialized people infected with COVID-19. Many studies have already shown how racism intervenes in biological life through structural overexposure to disease and premature death.3 Under conditions of pandemic and in a state of medical emergency, with a repressive arsenal deployed against the most vulnerable, we need to attend to the relationship between phenomenological racism (based on the interpretation of the face, gait, or appearance) and biological racism (evidenced by the ways in which unequal access to quality housing, healthcare, food, and air is literally embodied in the biological being of racialized groups and individuals). This is also a matter of understanding how the appearance of racialized people in public is both necessary for the maintenance of life and repressed, so that other appearances can be made virtually, that is, on digital platforms, through which one can care for and stylize one’s life.4

The care of the self and the love of life more generally have been associated with “advanced” civilizations and seen as proper to the citizens of Western states.5 To this we should respond, with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, that the love of life is not an ideal feeling in the metaphysical sense of the term, but an effect of the materiality of our existence: “We too, we love life if we find a way to it.”6 The effort to distinguish between “us” and “them” based on supposedly differential values socially accorded to life and death, adds to another difference, this one internal to Europe: in the beginning of the pandemic, the societies of the South, of the Mediterranean, and of Spain and Italy in particular seemed to be suspect precisely because they placed too much emphasis on the good life, promiscuity, tactile warmth, and extended family. In other words, civilizational boundaries are re-erected on the basis of the value supposedly granted to life in the cultural ethos of nations and in their societies. But more generally it is the privilege of innocence, of inattention to life and its ordinary modes of reproduction, the privilege of indifference to organic life, that is in a sense called into question—but not completely eliminated.

Henri Bergson defines the dream in terms that one might use to define health, that is, as a matter of distraction, of forgetting one’s body and therefore one’s environment. Who indeed can afford to be distracted in this way, to lose interest in their surroundings without endangering their life or their bodies, except precisely those with phenomenally “neutral” and economically powerful bodies? But under conditions of pandemic, it is hyper-vigilance and even paranoia that become the body’s defenses. This is a situation that minorities and migrants know all too well already, since they have long since learned to be the guardians of their bodies in a world that is hostile to them and where the slightest bodily flaw can be turned against them. But is this the end of the dream of European innocence? Today in the “advanced” industrial countries and in privileged social groups, freedom is thought of as the freedom to detach from the materiality of one’s conditions of appearance. This “freedom” is related to the social and economic possibility of ignoring the concrete conditions of one’s own reproduction as a being worthy of dignity and capable of enjoyment (conditions that include impingements on the natural environment to satisfy needs and desires, war predations, and manufacturing, but also care work in education, healthcare, childcare, and so on). In this sense, nothing is less certain than the supposed end of European innocence, as long as “freedom” entails the denial of the ordinary reproduction of life and is defined as the unlimited enjoyment of oneself and of technologies extracted from the bowels of the earth, technologies that racialized and gendered “others” continue to fabricate, deliver, and maintain.7

In an analysis of current border policy and the political situation in Europe during the pandemic, Robin Celikates shows how the European community reactivates the nation form to guard against the epidemiological danger that it seeks to expel. But the virus also seems to be the result of deforestation, of the destruction of habitats and forms of life, in the distant and familiar spaces of formerly colonized countries, the playgrounds of Europe and sites of the most brutal forms of value extraction. All of these foreign places have become more and more uninhabitable, unsustainable even while they are necessary to sustain the European way of life. How can Europe, founded on the nation form, constitute itself as a place of indemnity and immunity, as a kind of sacred space where life must be maintained at the cost of these “external” territories that are in fact interior even when they are far away, places hit hard both by the pandemic and by ordinary policies leading to the destruction of life? How can a politics that takes the conservation and enhancement of life as its objectives become a politics that perpetuates disease and death, not only as its effects but also as its conditions of possibility?

Under conditions of national sovereignty, which seeks the immunization of the national community, biopolitics constantly turns into thanato-politics. The reproductive metabolism of the nation requires the defense of the national body through the overexposure of those on whom the community depends: foreign agricultural laborers, factory and construction workers, and delivery and cleaning service workers, not to mention those who clean and bury dead bodies. These three metabolic functions—feeding, delivery, and cleaning—are largely performed by people who work in precarious conditions and whose administrative status is uncertain, often people who are also racialized and gendered. The indefinite extension of the state of emergency decreed throughout Europe reinforces the logic of premature death that disproportionately affects racialized and precarious populations. We are frequently told that we must avoid the logic of war medicine, which means prioritizing the lives of some patients over others (because this logic would not be in keeping with “our values”). But we should also note that this selection of lives is already there in the indifference to the status of migrants and precarious workers affected by the novel coronavirus (more than 50% of residents in the Île de France, that is, at the heart of the hexagonal France).8 The partial remedies found in social distancing, telecommunications, and food delivery are inseparable from the overexposure of precarious populations whose jobs are dedicated to fulfilling these metabolic needs (for feeding, delivery, and cleaning). They are also enabled by indifference to the exposure of “foreign bodies” in detention centers, shelters, and food banks.

The question then seems to me to be how a neoliberal economy and nationalist violence are converted into prophylaxes during a pandemic. How is this economy transformed into a necropolitical form of care, in which the healing gesture for some entails the risk of injury and death for others? What are the renewed possibilities for converting violence into health and immune protection?9 On November 21, 2020, in Paris, a Black music producer was beaten and called “dirty” by several police officers on his doorstep. The reason given was that the victim did not wear a mask. Thus the citizen as well as the so-called foreigner is all the more punishable for being a patient, a vector for disease, an anti-social element. The nation, in its responses to the pandemic, far from breaking with its genealogy, recovers its original self-idealization as a national body that protects its own and makes its citizens live both against and through others. Hence the form of racial melancholy that marks contemporary discourses of social defense, which continue to deny the unequal distribution of vulnerability and to glorify immune sovereignty and borders as cordons sanitaires, while downgrading lives and essential reproductive jobs such as agricultural work, care work, and delivery.

In Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), Frantz Fanon calls on us to leave this Europe: “Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.”10 In this call, we can also hear the voice of today’s migrants, who, arriving in Europe, unhinge it.11 Arriving in Europe by any possible means and even risking death to do so—isn’t this also leaving Europe in a certain way? That is, isn’t this also refusing Europe in its nation form, with its fantasized immune isolation, its distance from the global shipwreck and from the extreme violence of genocide, war, famine, and climate change? That there is disobedience at European borders reveals that what Europe represses (the morbid destruction within it, the devastation and the climatic disturbances at the global level) constantly returns in the form of fear and in an attack on its bodily integrity, whether fantasized (as in “migratory invasion”) or real (as in epidemics). Racial melancholy derives from this relentless impulse to erase what constitutes us, to disavow the foreigner both here and there, and to deny that all this beauty, all the comfort of our lives, rests on heaps of inassimilable toxic waste and on lives damaged by this waste to such an extent that the latter (waste) ends up characterizing the former (damaged lives) and washing up on European shores and sidewalks.

But the mere fact that there is life, which gives some the strength to migrate, to flee, and therefore to cross borders—this fact gives a new meaning to political courage and to the love of life even at the risk of death. Arendt says of the courageous person that he or she is not “one whose soul lacks [fear] or who can overcome it once and for all, but one who has decided that fear is not what he [or she] wants to show.”12 We should add that fear for his or her life is not what he or she wants to show, thus inverting the meaning of Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave (where it is initially the slave who finds himself wanting to hold onto his life even at the cost of his freedom). Here, in a forced, painful, and violent exile, there is certainly a tight knot, an inextricable entanglement, between the love of life (from the most organic form of life to the most spiritual) and freedom (from the most material form of freedom to the most existential). This question of the compatibility between the love of life and the need for freedom is more urgent than ever under conditions of pandemic, when the very people who support life are so often both deprived of the infrastructure necessary for the maintenance of their own health and constrained in their mobility. The fact remains, however, that their perseverance in crossing borders reveals a new sense of civility, that is, of collective being in the world.

About the Author

Hourya Bentouhami

Hourya Bentouhami is associate professor of Social and Political Philosophy at Université de Toulouse II, member of the Institut Universitaire de France, and member of a research project on the “Discretionary Power of the State at the Border” (DISPOW). Among her publications is Le dépôt des armes: Non-violence et désobéissance civile (2015).

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Boston: Mariner Books, 1981), 29. []
  2. By the “biologization of race,” I mean the way in which the social, political, and economic environment becomes biology, in the sense that it becomes a toxic substance that disrupts the normal functioning of the metabolism that regulates the body’s reproduction. []
  3. Gilbert C. Gee and Chandra L. Ford, “Structural Racism and Health Inequities: Old Issues, New Directions,” Du Bois Review (2011). []
  4. Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme (Paris: La découverte, 2020). For a revision of the Foucauldian concept of self-care for the era of digital self-presentation, see Corinne Weisgerber and Shannan H. Butler, “Curating the Soul,” Information, Communication and Society (2016). []
  5. Sara Bracke and Luis Manuel Hernández Aguilar, “‘They Love Death’: The ‘Muslim Question’ and the Biopolitics of Replacement,” The British Journal of Sociology (2020). []
  6. Mahmoud Darwish, “And We Love Life,” trans. Fady Joudah, The Nation, September 15, 2008. []
  7. David Chandler and Christian Fuchs, eds., Digital Objects, Digital Subjects: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Capitalism, Labour and Politics in the Age of Big Data (London: University of Westminster Press, 2019). []
  8. []
  9. Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011). []
  10. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 311. []
  11. Yolande Jansen, Robin Celikates, and Joost De Bloois, eds., The Irregularization of Migration in Contemporary Europe: Detention, Deportation, Drowning (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). []
  12. Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 36. []

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