Why Foucault would encourage us to criticise the Corona measures

by Nicki Günther

After about eight weeks of an ‘intelligent lockdown’, people in the Netherlands are looking forward to the first of June. Then, according to the press conference by the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on May 19th, restaurants, coffee shops, and cinemas may re-open for a maximum amount of thirty people at a time, excluding staff. Preconditions for being allowed to have a dinner at a restaurant, or to enjoy an ice cold beer on a sunny public terrace are that visitors make a reservation in advance and pass a pre-health check, which means that they declare to not have any symptoms which could be related to the corona-virus. Another precondition for the resumption of public life is by now so self-explanatory that it almost goes unmentioned; at all times, a minimum distance of 1.5 meter from each other must be maintained. If this is not possible, protective means such as mouth caps need to be used. Further regulations concern, among others, gatherings, sports and visiting old people’s homes (Rijksoverheid 19-5-2020).

© Paul Rapp. https://www.gelderlander.nl/nijmegen/bonnenregen-in-nijmegen-al-248-boetes-uitgedeeld-aan-corona-overtreders~afa0eba4/?referrer=https://www.google.com/. Accessed May 26, 2020.

Regulations and guide-lines that may sound clear in a press conference, create quite some ambiguities in practice. One ambiguous aspect was touched upon by Ulrich Beck long before the crisis. While politicians communicate the regulations by using terms such as ‘family’ and ‘household’, those concepts are no longer defined in a contemporary way (Wimmer and Quandt 2007). Cycling trough the city last week, I came across a group of four young people, discussing with two police officers about if they get a fine or not, for drinking beer together in front of a house. While the police defined this as a forbidden gathering, the boys explained that all four of them live together in a student house. As they would therefore count as a household, none of them had done anything wrong. I would have loved to hear the outcome of this discussion, but being aware of the prohibition of gathering, as an outsider to this conflict, I did not dare to stand still for too long and quickly cycled on when my eyes and the ones of the police man met.

Foto: Jaspar Moulijn. https://www.dvhn.nl/groningen/Studentenhuizen-en-corona-We-doen-elkaar-niet-in-bad-maar-voor-de-rest-zijn-we-een-huishouden. Accessed May 26, 2020.

This situation raises a number of interesting questions. The most obviously one, namely who is right, the police or the boys, confirms Beck’s claim that many societal concepts are no longer justifiable. However, much more interesting are the reasons why the boys did or did not stick to the rules, or why the Corona-crisis ensures that I suddenly no longer dare to stand still or move freely on sidewalks and cycling paths. Why do some people shout at you if you accidently cross their way on only one meter distance in the much too narrow supermarket aisles, while other do not seem to care too much about social-distancing measurements? An explanation can again be found in the writings of a philosopher, dating back way before the Corona-crisis.

Already in 1995, in his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault wrote about quarantine during the plague as a means of discipling people. Even though people were physically able to go outside, different to inmates of asylums or prisons, people stayed at home. The mechanisms which ensured that people did not leave their houses were surveillance and the threat of the disease (Foucault 1995). While elaborating on these disciplining mechanisms at the end of the last millennium, Foucault could not have foreseen that his theories would be so topical and relevant again today. Suddenly, the concept of ‘biopower’ is on everyone’s lips again (Clover 2020, Latour 2020). Foucault describes biopower as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (Foucault 1977-78, 16). This strategic implementation of power is exemplified in his analysis of states’ health care systems, through which states in the end decide who lives or dies (Foucault 1995). However, these power-structures are already noticeable far earlier. It begins with the fact that authorities such as doctors determine what is health and what is illness (Foucault 1988). Based upon their categorisation, the government, represented, for example, by the Dutch minister for public health, Hugo de Jonge, determine who may soon visit a restaurant, use public transfer or even leave the house for groceries.

“Lange rijen, volle karren en geen aardappelen meer in de Jumbo aan de Westduinweg.” © Frank Jansen. https://www.ad.nl/den-haag/lege-schappen-bij-supermarkten-het-is-idioot-dat-iedereen-maar-loopt-te-hamsteren

The reason why we (more or less) follow these rules lays in the fact that we, as a part of a society or population, form an active part of the dominant power-system we life in. “By means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the “value” of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy)” (Foucault 1982) we have internalised social behavioural measurements since childhood. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, Foucault stated that all of these norms and regulations are not grounded in one universal true rationality, instead, there are many different realities, dependent on the different dominant power systems (Rabinow & Rose 2006).

Just as little are the current corona-crisis approaches and related government measurements based upon one universal truth. That different power-systems go along with different regulations can be seen by comparing the crisis-related regulations of different countries. Therefore, this current crisis invites every one of us to critically question the current measurements and driving forces of current developments. With this, I am not implying in any way that we should ignore the government regulations and thereby endanger the lives of our fellow human beings. Especially older people or the ones with poor health definitely need special protection. However, what I am asking for is that every one of us needs to use his/her common sense by following or implementing the rules, and should criticise them were necessary. In his last press conference, Rutte explicitly invited the younger generations to engage in a dialogue and actively participate in shaping the future during and after Corona. We definitely should follow up his call, as not all current measurements make sense if adapted to the practice one by one. Many people spoke up during the last weeks, criticising the no-visit policy for old people’s homes. Again, we should not endanger the lives of others, however, if our 90-years-old grandmothers still live on their own, we should discuss with them directly, if suffering from Covid-19 would really be worse for them than suffering from loneliness. Even though, we are supposed to minimalize our social contacts and keep a distance, if a young and healthy friend of ours is really sad, the most reasonable, in my opinion, is to give him/her a hug anyway. If only focussing on our officially home addresses registered on our passports, my boyfriend and me do not form a household and would therefore be supposed to keep a 1,5 meter distance in public. Off course, we don’t do this. Yet, this is not a case of us breaking the rules, but of implying them by using our common sense, and realising that ‘household’ is not a fixed concept. Instead, such as the other concepts and measurements, this rule needs to be critically evaluated by every one of us.

Sources:

  • Clover, Joshua. 2020.The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour.” In Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/the-rise-and-fall-of-biopolitics-a-response-to-bruno-latour/. Accessed May 7, 2020.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” In Critical Inquiry (8) no. 4, 777-795.
  • Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78. Ed. Michel Senellart. Transl. Graham Burchell. London: Pelgrave Macmillan.
  • Latour, Bruno. 2020. “Is This a Dress Rehearsal?” In Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/is-this-a-dress-rehearsal/. Accessed May 7, 2020.
  • Rabinow, Paul, and Nikolas Rose. 2006. “Biopower Today”. In: Bio Societies (1), 195-217.
  • Rijksoverheid. “Videos persconferenties coronavirus: Persconferentie 19-5-2020.” https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-beeld-en-video/videos-persconferenties. Accessed May 21, 2020.
  • Wimmer,  Jeffrey, and Thorsten Quandt. 2006. “Living in the Risk Society: An Interview with Ulrich Beck.” In: Journalism Studies (7) no. 2, 336-347.

A Response to Slavoj Zizek’s “Global Communism”

Anonymous

In the article Slavoj Zizek: Coronavirus is ‘Kill Bill’-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism on RT.com, Zizek elaborates on phenomena people have experienced during this pandemic, which he believes is a fatal attack on not only the communist rule in China, but also and more importantly, on the capitalist system in the world, and he argues the necessity of a radical change – the reinvention of communism based on trust in the people and in science. Zizek sees this as an “ideological virus” that he wishes could “spread and infect us”. Related to the pandemic, Zizek brings up Fredric Jameson’s attention on cosmic catastrophes in the movies that always boost global solidarity. In order to avoid misunderstandings, he emphasizes it’s not that he enjoys the widespread sufferings, the point is that it’s sad that the solidarity doesn’t appear without a catastrophe. No matter the cause, Zizek makes it clear what is the result of these catastrophes: a global coordination (modeled after the World Health Organization) that should be given more executive power. In the following part of the article, Zizek doesn’t hide his opposition to capitalism. He criticizes the “capitalist animism” manifested during the pandemic and argues that the disturbed world market indicates an urgent need for a reorganization of the world economy. In the end he introduces Viktor Orban’s words: “There is no such thing as a liberal. A liberal is nothing more than a communist with a diploma” and advocates his ideal communism – liberals with a diploma.

It is valuable to hear different voices in a society, based on which Zizek’s idea is valuable in itself. But this utopian thinking is not solid enough to persuade. Let aside the discussion on whether it’s a good idea, it’s questionable whether the idea is even possible. In the article Zizek argues that it’s sad that the world needs a catastrophe to be really united, as if the global solidarity and coordination that he advocates can be achieved through a catastrophe, however sad it might be. However, the fact we currently see is even sadder, with this catastrophe – the global pandemic –  global solidarity and coordination seems to not even happening, if one takes a glance at the prevailing news on China and the US’s blaming each other, or Germany’s intercepting Switzerland’s masks. On the other hand, yes, liberals with diplomas sound promising, but in Zizek’s article it seems so urgent that we need to replace the capitalist system with this communism. The problem is, can the liberal population graduate and get their diploma in such a short time? Not even mentioning the segment of people who don’t even believe in liberalism. In addition, Zizek suggests a global healthcare network, but would all the participants abide by all the rules so that it’s fair for all participant states? It’s also a question if one takes a look on whether the Chinese Communist Party has abided by all the clauses negotiated and signed by themselves when China entered WTO.

Despite what’s mentioned above, the bigger question to ask is actually whether it is so urgent and correct that we need to replace capitalism with Zizek’s new communism. In the article Zizek doubts the smooth running of the world market which is true, but there’s no evidence that a powerful global executive power organized by human intelligence can run the market smoother in a time of crisis as this pandemic. What’s to be worried is the efficiency of a heavily burdened big government, global or national. Based on what’s shown in China, bigger executive power requires bigger organizational structure which diminishes the efficiency in action, so the question is how to build a global executive power big enough to handle worldwide urgent issue yet keep a high efficiency. In the end, an example about masks manifested in the pandemic tells a story that actually favors capitalism mechanism: back in the time when the corona virus started to spread in China, the market request of masks naturally raised, which needed to be fulfill through a higher mask productivity which can be achieved through higher profitability. However, in order to make sure the majority can afford a mask, the Chinese big government intervened in the market and set rules that limited mask prices, which led to a fact that, with a higher production cost (higher cost in labour, raw material, and freight) and un-raised price, many mask manufacturers went bankrupted or stopped producing masks to avoid bankruptcy. As one factory owner said, they want to help and would continue producing masks even if there’s zero profit, but the reality is they lose money every time they produce and sell a mask, so they had to stop because they can’t afford to help. This price limitation policy, with a good will, led to a phenomenon that the mask productivity significantly went down in a time that masks are hugely needed, which then made even those who wish to get a mask in a higher price can’t buy one. So, when China got hit by the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” and sat and went through the price limitation policy, would they reconsider to let the invisible hand freely run the market and let the price go up? Would the situation be better if they allow high prices that generate a high profitability that attracts more investment in the mask industry and drives all the mask manufacturers to conduct production in their full productivity? In this case, maybe capitalism is still working, even in a time of crisis as such, and communism can better be achieved through the development of productivity that takes time and goes natural than a political structure design motivated by urgent call.

Concepts of Crisis

By Louise Vanhee

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” — Milton Friedman

Reinhart Koselleck provides us with a historical and etymological reading of the word crisis. The word crisis finds its origin in ancient Greek with various meanings attached to it; to “separate” (part, divorce), to “choose,” to “judge,” to “decide”; as a means of “measuring oneself,” “to quarrel,” or “to fight” (1). In ancient Greece, it had a predominantly political meaning. Later on, it was used to describe military situations, illness, religious occurrences, economic events, etc. The vast amount of historical events that Koselleck describes in detail, pertaining to the use of the word crisis and its meaning in that specific event, leads us to believe that it’s often used in a different manner and with different connotations. He even sums up four interpretative possibilities; crisis can mean “a chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point at which action is required”, “a unique and final point, after which the quality of history will be changed forever”, “a permanent or conditional category pointing to a critical situation which may constantly recur or else to situations in which decisions have momentous consequences”, or “a historically immanent transitional phase”.

Looking at these four possibilities and returning back to the root(s) of the word crisis, the core concept of what makes something a crisis is quite clear. Crisis has to do with something that challenges us – or one person, or a specific group of people – and requires us to make a decision. It is not something that will resolve itself on its own. Sometimes this decision is made hastily and in an unconscious matter. Nevertheless, the decision – or multiple decisions – that ultimately resolves the crisis or attempts to, changes the situation drastically.

This is exactly what Noami Klein warns us about. We are now in the midst of a global crisis, and decisions have to be made – will be made, that is inevitable. Whether those will be ‘good’ decisions or ‘bad’ decisions, that is still undecided. The fortunate elite of the world will always be the first to gather knowledge about an upcoming crisis: “What causes the crisis? Who is at risk? How can we prevent it?” but also “How can we profit from it?” The corona crisis has made it abundantly clear that the schism between poor and rich is still very much intact, and much larger than we gave it credit for in certain places. Whilst homeless people in Las Vegas were ordered to sleep in the same parking lot, in freshly painted squares separating them from each other at the required 1,5 meters, the multimillion dollar corporations behind the casinos and hotels had other issues to deal with (2). Locks. The ‘24h-365 days a year’ Las Vegas strip has never in its history closed down and was now confronted with the issue of having to put locks on all the casinos and hotels.

Why not use one of the hundred now empty hotels to house these people in temporarily? Because that idea had never been ‘lying around’? According to Klein, times of crisis will be used to enhance the fortune of the richest corporations, and to politically make dubious decisions while the rest of the country is dazed and confused in the midst of the crisis. Remember that the rich always see it coming first? They are more informed and knowledgeable — and simply put, rich — and therefore able to adapt to the crisis much faster than normal people. They will attempt to push ideas that enhance their profit that previously seemed too outlandish, but now in a crisis atmosphere might pass. Klein argues that the same tactic should be used by others ­— those with ‘good’ intentions — as they also have a stack of ideas lying around that could now finally be implemented.

Are the only tools we have to fight a crisis really the ideas that are already ‘lying around’? Or can we create new ideas during the crisis, inspired by the crisis? I believe we can. Otherwise we have to believe that somebody once had an idea of putting a bunch of homeless people in imaginary boxes on a parking lot, and that this was the idea which was the most convenient and suitable to address this crisis — and that it was ‘lying around’. Just like Koselleck quoted Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls”, I strongly believe that this is true. We are being challenged, and decisions must be made. But a crisis sometimes confronts us with questions that don’t have answers yet. Occasionally, we might be able to adjust an old idea that was ‘lying around’ to provide the necessary solution. But often, we have to think quick on our feet and come up with something completely new. New ideas that surface during a crisis are not any less viable in my eyes. Perhaps they will take longer to be implemented than ‘old ones’, but they are no less important. California’s governor Gavin Newsom proved this when implementing ‘Project Roomkey’ at the end of April to house the homeless during the pandemic. In the five weeks since the start of the program, over 7000 people have been provided with temporary shelter (3). Unlike Las Vegas, California is not only using empty hotels to house the at-risk homeless population, but has also set up unsold trailers and RV’s to function as temporary housing. Many homeless advocates and state officials are now realizing the benefits of this setup and new ideas have sprung up that might allow this initiative to become permanent. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, argues that some hotels might go bankrupt due to the crisis and could easily be bought up by the government to allow the shelter to remain while at the same time giving the community an economic impulse (4).

I am not yet able to give you a list of all the questions that surround the arts and humanities during this crisis, nor am I able to provide any solutions either. But perhaps, after some contemplation, I will find an idea that was lying around. Or I’ll think of something completely new.


(1) Kosselleck, R. & Richter, M. W. (Apr., 2006). Crisis. In Journal of the History of Ideas, (Vol. 67, no. 2), pp. 357-400. University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30141882

(2) Koran, M. (March 31, 2020). Las Vegas parking lot turned into ‘homeless shelter’ with social distancing markers. The Guardian. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/las-vegas-parking-lot-homeless-shelter

(3) Palmer, P. (May 15, 2020). Project Roomkey: Can state program help resolve Los Angeles homelessness? Eyewitness News. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://abc7.com/los-angeles-homelessness-coronavirus-project-room-key-governor-gavin-newsom/6184507/

(4) Kim, C. (Apr 21, 2020). It took a pandemic for cities to finally address homelessness. Vox. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://www.vox.com/2020/4/21/21227629/coronavirus-homeless-covid-19-las-vegas-san-francisco

Arts and Humanities in Times of the Corona-crisis

During the coming weeks, this blog will publish posts written by students from the Master Arts & Culture and the Research Master Arts, Media and Literary Studies, which they wrote for the course ‘Arts and Humanities in Times of the Corona-crisis’.

In this course, students reflect on the consequences of the crisis for the field of the arts, as well as trying to make sense of the crisis from a humanities perspective by analyzing concepts such as ‘crisis’, ‘biopolitics’, and ‘precarity’.

Sara Strandvad

Thijs Lijster

Thijs Lijster: De grote vlucht inwaarts

Onlangs verscheen De grote vlucht inwaarts van de Groningse kunst- en cultuurfilosoof Thijs Lijster.

De wereld lijkt steeds complexer en onoverzichtelijker te worden. In de hedendaagse ‘netwerksamenleving’ kun je geen kop koffie drinken zonder je medeschuldig te maken aan uitbuiting en slavernij, en staat je baan op het spel omdat aan de andere kant van de wereld een bank omvalt. Hierdoor beschouwen we de wereld steeds vaker als iets gevaarlijks waarover we geen controle hebben en dus keren we de blik naar binnen en klampen we ons vast aan de dingen die we nog wél in de hand hebben. Het resultaat: collectief narcisme en een publieke sfeer waarin een scherpe mening meer waard is dan een weloverwogen oordeel.

De grote vlucht inwaarts

Met soepele pen en scherpe analyses biedt filosoof Thijs Lijster een caleidoscopische blik op de meest uiteenlopende culturele en maatschappelijke fenomenen, zoals design, de versnelling van het leven, de alomtegenwoordigheid van opiniepeilingen en de positie van illegale immigranten.

De grote vlucht inwaarts is een pleidooi voor tegendraads denken waarbij zelfs het meest onbeduidende detail beschouwd kan worden als betekenisvol.