The philosophical debate about biopolitics in times of CoVid-19

At the end of February, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben reacted to the measures taken by the Italian government to face the CoVid-19 pandemic. “[T]he invention of an epidemic”, he wrote, “could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation”[1] and thus reinforced his well-known thesis on the normalisation of the use of states of exception by governments in modern societies. This statement was then contested by Jean-Luc Nancy, who highlighted the risks of the pandemic in a globalised world. Following the evolution of the worldwide situation, the exchange between the two philosophers quickly turned to an international philosophical debate about the relevance of the concept of “biopolitics”. First coined by Michel Foucault in 1976, “biopolitics” originally referred to a form of power that attempts to preserve human life and its productivity through population-level measures on the health care system. The term also underlies Agamben’s theory about the state of exception as a paradigm of government. The European Journal of Psychoanalysis is engaged with following the philosophical debate and publishing many texts in English. The diverse publications gathered here show how thinkers throughout the world try to reflect on philosophical and political stakes in the midst of a global crisis:


February 28, 2020 – Italian:

In his response to Jean-Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito brings the problem of comparability into the discussion. There is not one biopolitics and there is not one state of emergency, but there are always many different biopolitics at work simultaneously. Espositio sees the concept of biopolitics as a way of understanding and analysing the diverse intertwining of different fields under the paradigm of life support, that is, the health not of individuals but of the population. It is precisely in the virus, in its spread as well as in its ‘combating’, that the intertwining of medical, political, technological, economic, social and psychological spheres under one paradigm, which was already prevalent before the pandemic, becomes apparent.


March 12, 2020 – English:

The Greek Marxist scholar and activist Panagiotis Sotiris relies on Foucault’s late work about the “care of the self” to envision democratic or communist biopolitics through collective care, effort, coordination and solidarity. From such a perspective, responsibility would replace discipline and sociality would be transformed rather than suspended:


March 17, 2020 – English

The website published not only the clarifications of Giorgio Agamben on some philosophical questions raised by the coronavirus epidemic, but also two official responses with thoughts from Ivan Illich and Charles Taylor to it.


March 24, 2020 – French:

Considering CoVid-19 a “communovirus”, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy ponders the official Chinese communism as well as Marx’s notion of individual property and self-realisation. By isolating us, the “communovirus” makes us experience the “shared sense of our uniqueness”, which, according to Nancy, reveals our “most intimate community”:


March 25, 2020 – German:

For the Swiss historian Philipp Sarasin, the inflated use of Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics” is not quite appropriate to describe the political measures induced by the spread of CoVid-19. On the basis of three infections (leprosy, the plague and smallpox) appearing in Foucault’s writings, he nevertheless distinguishes three hypotheses to approach forms of power and of governance operating throughout the world:


March 28, 2020 – French:

According to the political philosopher Soumaya Mestiri, the state of exception caused by the outbreak of the CoVid-19 pandemic gives way to new conditions of solidarity: it shifts the “public sphere”, both as a matter of space and of political responsibility, towards that of the “common”. Referring to Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Judith Butler, she calls upon “a new common ‘contract’ that is fundamentally horizontal because it takes charge of naked life, first and foremost.” In times of CoVid-19, to produce “common”, or to “common” (communer), thus becomes a duty.


April 9, 2020 – German:

Paul B. Preciado, a pioneer in the fields of queer studies and philosophy of the body, wrote a text on the political disease management of Covid-19 after he became infected with the coronavirus in mid-March. In this text he discusses the concept of immunity in its political and medical dimension and shows how the policies of exclusion are now being applied at the level of the individual body. He also notes a continuity and radicalization of Foucault’s theses on biopolitical surveillance in the disciplinary society in dealing with past epidemics. The text is a pre-publication which is included as a postscript in Preciado’s book “An Apartment on Uranus – Chronicles of a Transition”. The book will be published on 18 May 2020.