Note: This week’s essay is being sent in two installments since Substack thinks it’s too long to be sent as one email. You can read it on one page here if you so desire.
A Terrible Beauty
It’s come to your attention that Virustan is fake newsing the COVID19 crisis. Virustan’s president for life isn’t importing masks and isn’t testing his population because he thinks it’s a hoax. Meanwhile Virustan’s citizens are posting videos on Instagram of their grandparents dying in isolation. Wait a minute…. they don’t have money to eat, but they have smartphones? You have no idea, my friend. There’s a hierarchy of deprivation: people with no money to eat buy Android while people who have enough for a daily meal flaunt iPhones.
Now that you’re suitably shocked, lemme ask you a question:
Would you support an invasion of Virustan for humanitarian reasons?
Of course you would. You’re a human rights campaigner at heart, even if you haven’t paid your maid for three months and those migrants deserve every beating they get. It’s time the planetary police set the house in order. Here’s the rub: who is going to lead the invasion?
Not the US, whose president has declared you’re better off injecting detergents. Not China, whose offer to do so will likely set off WW-III. Every country is pointing fingers at everyone else. Boris Johnson says it’s a continental attempt to end the British Empire, the continent thinks it’s caused by African immigrants, the Americans are blaming the Chinese and the Chinese are being told by their fearless leader that it was caused by Yankee devils.
Reminds me of Rashomon, the great Kurosawa movie in which the same event was experienced in different ways by everyone involved. Or to use an Indian metaphor, we are all like the seven blind men identifying the elephant variously as a systemic failure of capitalism, a Chinese lab experiment gone rogue, an attempt by the West to defeat the Middle Kingdom and if you are a real lateral thinker, preparation for aliens to make contact later this year.
I am tilting towards the last option; otherwise why is the U.S Navy releasing video after video of UFOs?
But the blind men weren’t wrong in thinking something big is in front of them — we are living in exceptional times with downstream consequences for years.
What terrible beauty is being born?
The State of Exception
In answering that question, we should start with the (unfortunately Nazi) political theorist Carl Schmitt’s idea of the ‘state of exception,’ which Wikipedia pithily describes as:
A state of exception (German: Ausnahmezustand) is a concept in the legal theory of Carl Schmitt, similar to a state of emergency (martial law), but based in the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good.
Schmitt’s ideas have been greatly expanded by the (decidedly non-Nazi) thinkers Giorgio Agamben and Achilles Mbembe. Agamben wrote a controversial essay about the exceptions created by the COVID19 crisis. Both are concerned with how the sovereign has the capacity to strip a person of their membership in a political society and turn them into ‘bare life’ (Agamben’s term) that can be extinguished on a whim. The slave plantation (for Mbembe), the concentration camp and the detention center (for Agamben) are archetypal ‘places of exception’ whose logic goes as:
Identify an ‘exceptional’ population.
Create a space — a ‘camp’ for isolating that ‘exceptional’ population
I am using ‘population’ and ‘camp’ in quotes because they are being used as technical terms. Nevertheless, today’s exception isn’t like the exceptions of the past; no specific population is being identified and only temporary camps are being created. We have a revolution in the history of exception which has escaped the confines of the detention center and occupied Main Street. The theory explaining today’s exception has to go beyond Agamben and Mbembe’s formulations.
I could try explaining Mbembe, Agamben and Schmitt’s ideas further for they are subtle thinkers well worth engaging but I am going to do something different instead: explain the logic of exception as a bug of political life. Or is it a feature? You decide.
Being with Others
Hamlet’s most famous lines appear in a soliloquy: ‘to be or not to be; that is the question.’ He’s talking to himself, and while Hamlet’s indecision drives the narrative forward, it’s the talking to himself that concerns me here.
Hamlet is the archetypal modern individual: living in the cave of his own mind first before engaging with the world. In that cave, all existential questions are directed at oneself and not at others — hence the soliloquy. For that individual, the most important decision is to take one’s life. Or not. Suicide is elevated to a matter of existential importance. Albert Camus gave that thought its fullest expression in the first line of the Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide
I used the phrase ‘cave of the mind’ with some intention, for it should remind you of Plato’s cave and its play of shadows. There’s no escaping that cave as long as you are trapped within yourself; it’s only in being with others that there’s the prospect of political freedom. Of course, if others can free you, they can also turn your life into an earthly hell.
There is a deep metaphysical question combining the paradoxes of self-reference and the nature of (human) beings: when I talk to myself, am I talking necessarily to the same person or is it just a matter of accident that I am talking to the same person and could easily be talking to someone else. The difference between the two choices:
‘I’, ‘me’ & ‘myself’ necessarily refer to the same person. I am always me.
‘I’, ‘me’ & ‘myself’ only accidentally refer to the same person and could easily refer to someone else.
In saying “I went to the grocery store earlier this morning” is the ‘I’ who is writing these words the same as the ‘I’ who went to the grocery store? What is the criterion of identity? These questions may seem like logical or linguistic quibbles but have enormous consequences for how we live — together or alone. To understand why, let’s go back to Hamlet. Or rather, another man caught in the web of indecision. I am, of course, referring to Arjuna at the brink of the great battle.
The Calm before the Storm
Unlike Hamlet, Arjuna is not alone; he’s with Krishna. He’s not in the cave of his own mind, but in a ‘moral commons,’ a space he shares with one other being, even if that being is Being itself if you are a believer. Arjuna doesn’t contemplate suicide. Instead he seeks the counsel of another being. If Hamlet runs the risk of alienation and isolation, Arjuna runs the risk of poor counsel or deception. Was Krishna right in advising Arjuna to fight? A war that started with 20 million combatants and ended with seven (yes, seven!) might strike the unbiased observer as disastrous for winner and loser alike.
Each mode of existence runs its own existential risk:
Solitude — alienation.
Sociality — deception.
The Buddha is still right: every mode of existence is radically impermanent, even if the form of impermanence switches from isolation to misinformation. Or to express it as two Shakespearean alternatives:
To be or not to be
To be is to be with
To not be (suicide) or to be with (politics): which one is it?