D. Alan Dean
12 min readMar 17, 2020

Clarifications (Giorgio Agamben); Ivan Illich on the Neighbor; Charles Taylor on Ivan Illich

Final update: This is now a three-part post on some philosophical issues raised by the Coronavirus epidemic and official responses to it. Part one is a translation of a short post that appeared on Giorgio Agamben’s blog at Quodlibet. Although Agamben’s text can be read on its own, it’s helpful to know that it is the latest in a series of posts (and ripostes) that were collected here by the European Journal of Psychoanalysis.

Part two, following a suggestion in Agamben’s short essay, discusses Ivan Illich on the “neighbor” and Illich’s well-known interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. I don’t know whether Agamben had Illich in mind when he wrote “Clarifications” (“The neighbor has been erased, and it is curious that churches are silent about this,” Agamben writes), but Illich’s thinking is both relevant and important here. I tend to agree with those who have said that Illich’s ideas are not only growing more “legible” with time — as Agamben himself once noted — but also more topical and even urgent.

Finally, I include a long quotation from Charles Taylor, who has made that case in his own way in a number of places. Addressing a topic important for all three philosophers, Taylor writes, “Ours is a civilization concerned to relieve suffering and enhance human well-being, on a universal scale unprecedented in history…” And yet, he says, this concern “at the same time threatens to imprison us in forms that can turn alien and dehumanizing.”

The European Journal of Psychoanalysis presented material from Foucault as background to the recent public exchanges that were initiated by Agamben on his blog. All I would like to do here, in addition to providing a translation of Agamben’s newest and most striking blog post on the epidemic, is to point to an “Illichian” background or frame for understanding both the debates and the ongoing crisis.

Giorgio Agamben: Clarifications

Recently an Italian journalist applied himself, in the usual way of his profession, to publishing distortions and falsifications of my thoughts regarding the ethical confusion into which the epidemic has thrown this country, where there is no longer any regard even for the dead. It would be no more worthwhile to name the writer than it would be to address in detail the misrepresentations. All those who so desire can read the text of “Contagion” for themselves on the website of Quodlibet. Here, instead, I would like to publish some additional reflections — which, despite their clarity, will no doubt also be misrepresented.

Fear is a bad counselor, but it is revealing many things to which people have turned a blind eye. The first thing clearly shown by this wave of panic that has paralyzed the country is that our society no longer believes in anything except bare life. It is clear that Italians are willing to sacrifice practically everything — normal living conditions, social relations, work, and even friendships, affections, and their religious and political beliefs — when confronted with the danger of getting sick. Bare life, and the fear of losing it, is not something that unites men. Instead, it blinds and separates them. Other human beings, as in the plague described by Manzoni, are now seen only as possible carriers or vectors, to be avoided at all costs and kept at least one meter away. The dead — our dead — no longer have the right to a funeral; it is unclear what is happening to the corpses of our loved ones. The neighbor has been erased, and it is curious that churches are silent about this. What happens to human relationships in a country that becomes accustomed to living this way, not knowing for how long? What is a society that has no other value than survival?

The second thing that the epidemic clearly shows, no less disturbing than the first, is that the state of exception, to which governments have long made us accustomed, has truly become the normal condition. In the past, there have been more serious epidemics, yet no one thought to declare a state of emergency, as in the present case, such that we are prevented even from moving about. We have become so accustomed to living in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that we do not seem to notice that life is being reduced to a purely biological condition in which the social and political — even the human and emotional — dimensions are lost. A society that lives in a permanent state of emergency is no longer a free society. Indeed, our society, having sacrificed freedom for the sake of so-called “security concerns,” has condemned itself to a perennial state of insecurity and fear.

It isn’t surprising that the virus is talked about in terms of war. Indeed, the emergency measures are effectively forcing us to live in curfew conditions. But a war with an invisible enemy, one that can lurk within every other man or woman, is the most absurd of wars. It is, in truth, a civil war, and the enemy is not somewhere outside, but within us.

The concern is not — or not only — for the present but for what comes after. Just as wars have bequeathed to peace a series of harmful technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is very likely that, even after the emergency ends, various experiments now begun (ones that governments have failed to carry out in the past) will continue: the closure of universities and schools and the move to online classes; putting a stop, once and for all, to gatherings and personal discussions about political and cultural concerns and moving those conversations to digital means; and the introduction of machines wherever possible to replace every contact — every “contagion” — among human beings.

— 17 March 2020

“The neighbor has been erased.” But isn’t the goal of “flattening the curve,” which requires radically cutting off personal and individual contact, forbidding funerals and other measures, not also an expression of neighborly love? These strategies are intended to protect the weak, the sick, and the elderly. Isn’t the imperative to care for human life or lives — albeit conceived on the social and political plane, directed by trained professionals and other authorities, and recognizable in our “public health” approach — synonymous with love for the neighbor?

We have only to look at the parable of the Good Samaritan, with which the discourse of “neighborly love” originates, to find details that at least complicate that view. In the parable, agape is exemplified by a solitary individual, a Samaritan, who picks up the dirty body of a wounded, sick traveler — a Jew — found by the side of the road. The Samaritan washes the body of the traveler, carries him to an inn and feeds and cares for him. There was no particular responsibility or demand to aid a member of an out-group in this way — one of the points of the parable, according to Ivan Illich. The Samaritan was moved from within to take a risk rather than to minimize risk. The Samaritan did not, on feeling concern, report the problem to someone else, a local authority. The parable says that a priest and a Levite had both passed the dying stranger before the Samaritan did. There’s no reason to think that they didn’t feel appropriately bad about what they saw — or make the appropriate phone calls, so to speak. The Samaritan was moved to overstep injunctions, norms, and expectations, including expectations of “social distance,” in order to make an extraordinarily intimate and irreducibly personal contact with the stranger.

The difference between the two paradigms is significant. What are we to make of the fact that their logics work so differently and seem to lead to different judgments, decisions, or, at least, areas of concern, such as whether or not to prohibit all funerals, as has apparently been decreed in Italy. And what to make of their apparent connection? As I understand it, these questions are part and parcel to the “ethical confusion” to which Agamben refers.

Ivan Illich suggested a precise historical origin for the confusion. It arose, he suggested, in the Middle Ages when the Church began institutionalizing agape, with the founding of hospitals and so on. The effort to realize the love ethic without the corresponding Christian emphasis on radical powerlessness resulted in powerful institutions — the Church, and later, modern institutions and an entire professional and managerial class— exercising social and political power under the auspices of agape, and on behalf of the powerless. Obvious modern enormities like “servant leadership” are the inevitable result of this: all of the contradictory discourses and the contradictory outcomes with which we are familiar.

In lieu of more of my own words, here is an except from a passage from Charles Taylor about Illich. Taylor writes, “Illich, in his overall vision and in the penetrating historical detail of his arguments, offers a new road map, a way of coming to understand what has been jeopardized in our decentered, objectifying, discarnate way of remaking ourselves, and he does so without simply falling into the clichés of anti-modernism.”

Charles Taylor: from the introduction to The Rivers North of the Future

In Latin Christendom, the attempt was made to impose on everyone a more individually committed and Christocentric religion of devotion and action, and to suppress or even abolish older, supposedly ‘magical’ or ‘superstitious’ forms of collective ritual practice.

Allied with a neo-Stoic outlook, this became the charter for a series of attempts to establish new forms of social order. These helped to reduce violence and disorder and to create populations of relatively pacific and productive artisans and peasants who were more and more induced/forced into the new forms of devotional practice and moral behavior, be this in Protestant England, Holland, or later the American colonies, or in Counter-Reformation France, or in the Germany of the Polizeistaat.

This creation of a new, civilized, ‘polite’ order succeeded beyond what its first originators could have hoped for, and this in turn led to a new reading of what a Christian order might be, one which was seen more and more in ‘immanent’ terms. (The polite, civilized order is the Christian order.) This version of Christianity was shorn of much of its ‘transcendent’ content, and was thus open to a new departure, in which the understanding of good order — could be embraced outside of the original theological, Providential framework, and in certain cases even against it (as by Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and in another way David Hume).

The secularization of Western culture and, indeed, widespread disbelief in God have arisen in close symbiosis with this belief in a moral order of rights’ bearing individuals who are destined (by God or Nature ) to act for mutual benefit. Such an order thus rejects the earlier honor ethic which exalted the warrior, just as the new order also tends to occlude any transcendent horizon. (We see one good formulation of this notion of order in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, in which he argued for a human origin of the authority to rule.) This understanding or order has profoundly shaped the modern West’s dominant forms of social imaginary: the market economy, the public sphere, the sovereign ‘people.’

This, in bare outline, is my account of secularization, one in which I think Illich basically concurs. But he describes it as the corrupting of Christianity. To illustrate he draws, again and again, on the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ story about an outsider who helps a wounded Jew. For Illich this story represents the possibility of mutual belonging between two strangers. Jesus points to a new kind of fittingness, belonging together, between the Samaritan and the wounded man. They are fitted together in a proportionality which comes from God, which is that of agape, and which became possible because God became flesh. The enfleshment of God extends outward, through such new links as the Samaritan makes with the Jew, into a network which we call the Church. But this is a network ,not a categorical grouping; that is, it is a skein of relations which link particular, unique, enfleshed people to each other, rather than a grouping of people together on the grounds of their sharing some important property. Corruption occurs when the Church begins to respond to the failure and inadequacy of a motivation grounded in a sense of mutual belonging by erecting a system. This system incorporates a code or set of rules, a set of disciplines to make us internalize these rules, and a system of rationally constructed organizations — private and public bureaucracies, universities, schools — to make sure we carry out what the rules demand. All these become second nature to us. We grow accustomed to decentering ourselves from our lived, embodied experience in order to become disciplined, rational, disengaged subjects. From within this perspective, the significance of the Good Samaritan story appears obvious; it is a stage on the road to a universal morality of rules.

Modern ethics illustrates this fetishism of rules and norms… Not just law but ethics is seen in terms of rules — as by Immanuel Kant, for example. The spirit of the law is important, where it is so, because it too expresses some general principle. For Kant the principle is that we should put regulation by reason, or humanity as rational agency, first. In contrast, we have seen, the network of agape puts first the gut-driven response to a particular person. This response cannot be reduced to a general rule. Because we cannot live up to this — ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts’ — we need rules. It is not that we could just abolish them, but modern liberal civilization fetishizes them. We think we have to find the right system of rules, of norms, and then follow them through unfailingly. We cannot see any more the awkward way these rules fit enfleshed human beings, we fail to notice the dilemmas they have to sweep under the carpet: for instance, justice versus mercy; or justice versus a renewed relation, as we saw in South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a shining attempt to get beyond the existing codes of retribution.

With this perspective, something crucial in the Good Samaritan story gets lost. A world ordered by this system of rules, disciplines, and organizations can only see contingency as an obstacle, even en enemy and a threat. The ideal is to master it, to extend the web of control so that contingency is reduced to a minimum. By contrast, contingency is an essential feature of the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the question that prompted it. Who is my neighbor? The one you happen across, stumble across, who is wounded there in the road. Sheer accident also has a hand in shaping the proportionate, the appropriate response. It is telling us something, answering our deepest questions: this is your neighbor. But in order to hear this, we have to escape from the monomaniacal perspective in which contingency can only be an adversary requiring control. Illich develops this theme profoundly…

This is why Illich’s work is so important to us today. I have found it more than useful, even inspiring, because I have been working over many years to find a nuanced understanding of Western modernity. This would be one which would both give a convincing account of how modernity arose and allow for a balanced account of what is good, even great I, in it, and of what is less good, even dangerous and destructive. Illich’s understanding of our modern condition as a spinoff from a ‘corrupted’ Christianity captures one of the important historical vectors that brought about the modern age and allows us to see how good and bad are closely interwoven in it. Ours is a civilization concerned to relieve suffering and enhance human well-being, on a universal scale unprecedented in history, and which at the same time threatens to imprison us in forms that can turn alien and dehumanizing. This should take us beyond the facile and noisy debate between the boosters and knockers of modernity for the ‘Enlightenment project.’

Illich, in his overall vision and in the penetrating historical detail of his arguments, offers a new road map, a way of coming to understand what has been jeopardized in our decentered, objectifying, discarnate way of remaking ourselves, and he does so without simply falling into the clichés of anti-modernism.

Codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps that tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich reminds us not to become totally invested in the code — even the best code of peace-loving, egalitarian variety — of liberalism. We should find the center of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from to time subvert it. This message comes out of a certain theology, but it should be heard by everybody.

— Charles Taylor

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D. Alan Dean

Studied English literature in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins. I work freelance in publishing, and I currently live in the Balkans.