David L. Clark
We can think abstractly about the world only to the degree to which the world itself has already become abstract.
–Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious.1
The current deadly pandemic demands a radical reconsideration of all forms of critical investigation—not only immunology, demography, epidemiology, and health studies, but also practices of knowledge that address the braided futures of racial justice, global capital, climate change, and the public good amid the predations of fast and slow violence. As I teach my classes through the aperture of a tiny camera, the future of the humanities and of speculative thinking and critique—or “theory”—also feels profoundly at stake. Yet as a researcher and educator whose focus is the inexhaustible legacy of literature, culture, philosophy, and theory around 1800, I often feel strangely immobilized. As I have admitted to my struggling and alienated students, on screen I may look like I know what I am doing, but it only appears that way. I am mostly groping in the dark, to recall something Freud says when he thinks about the death-drive, reminding us that making little or no headway may be the only way to do justice to certain intense and difficult questions, especially questions concerning la vie la mort.2 Never have I more acutely felt the disorderly torsions rippling through Jacques Derrida’s injunction, “Take your time, but be quick about it because you do not know what awaits you”.3 Yet I am also learning something from this mood of expectant stasis, and to recognize what an unearned gift it is to be in a position to shelter a space for a form of thinking whose indolence, despondence, and désoeuvrement I recognize to be paradigmatically Romantic. To be sure, different communities are differently enduring conditions of extraordinary agony, loss, and uncertainty, but my hope is that this wounding precariousness doesn’t mean that colleagues react to the current conditions by reaching too quickly for certitude, thereby abandoning a Romantic predilection for not-knowing and non-knowledge that is inseparable from the open-ended labor of professing the humanities.
Arundhati Roy tells us that the COVID-19 moment is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”4 One hardly needs to add that, as Achille Mbembe notes, “many will not pass through the eye of the needle”—not while just 20.4% of people living in Africa have received at least one dose of the vaccine.5 And let us not forget that those who make the journey—whose path or outcome remains unclear while we determine what endemic COVID and long-term COVID survival looks like—do so not alongside others who die, but because they die, passing through and passing away now such deeply adjacent phenomena, the privilege of immunized life so entangled with preventable death and with the lives of those who have been left to die. But I embrace Roy’s claim because it is as much an invitation to consider the possibilities of the threshold as it is a summons to make the crossing. In that spirit, let us resist the temptation as thinkers dedicated to the exploratory energies of critique to traverse this verge too hurriedly, as if claiming to know in advance what lies or should lie on the other side. I say this while also fully acknowledging the importance of never losing sight of what must await us on the far shore. If there is to be a world-to-come, let there be health, yes, and an alleviation of the myriad forms of suffering that the virus has unevenly inflicted; let there be the abolition of the cruel racisms and structural inequalities that the pandemic exacerbates but whose miserable origins lie in the global system of slavery that was perfected during the time of William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft and Olaudah Equiano. Let there be an end to the world—that is, an end to the unsustainable and unsustaining illusion of living and dying in a single world that provides so little to so many. Let there be an end to every end of history.
But what a theoretically inflected humanities will look like once it has made this perilous passage—assuming that it makes it at all—is for me much less certain and may in fact be surprisingly indifferent to certainty. In the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—which remains a pressing concern, with well more than thirty million deaths to date—Paula A. Treichler’s How to Have Theory in an Epidemic (1999) was taken up as an exemplary defense of thinking critically about the experiences, representations, and understandings of HIV and AIDS.6 To this genre of interventions that unapologetically affirm the irrepressible importance of theory in an epidemic, I could add, just to cite two remarkable examples, William Haver’s The Body of This Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS (1997) and Alexander García Düttmann’s At Odds With Aids: Thinking and Talking About a Virus (1996).7 These texts insist, each in their own way, that life and death in the epidemic is what Paul de Man would call an “allegory.” That is to say, they begin with the assumption that the pandemic is already and inexhaustibly the site of excesses and self-differences that call for all kinds of thinking and talking. Will books like these be written about COVID-19? I certainly hope so. And there are promising signs, including searching remarks by, for example, Robert Esposito, Meghan Sutherland, and Jean Paul Ricco, thinkers writing from across a very wide range of critical frameworks whose shared intellectual generosity stands in sharp contrast to the desire to smother certain practices of thought so that others might flourish. My point is that if theory and critique have a chance, it will happen at least partly against the winds of an extant phobia about speculative thought, thought unencumbered by the need to prove its worth before the court of theory’s putative antithesis—namely, “practice.” For thinkers like Haver and Düttmann, the secreted deaths and ungrieved losses of the other pandemic, not to mention what Treichler so memorably calls “the epidemic of signification” thrown off by HIV/AIDS, makes sustained critique and thinking disentangled from instrumentalism a mandatory part of learning to live with a virus for which, after all, there is still—after almost forty years—no vaccine and that has always disproportionately affected marginalized communities. Contrast that avowal of theory with some of the vocal disavowals of critique heard now, when we see a surge in a summary decisionism that denounces what is called “theory” to be useless and distracting, if not dangerous. How not to have theory in a pandemic is too often the order of the day. Ground zero for this denegating gesture is the reaction to Giorgio Agamben’s brief, programmatic, and journalistic remarks about the crisis, now already collected and translated in a volume entitled Where are we now? The Epidemic and Politics.8 What can it mean, he asks, if in his own impatient, brittle, and anxious way, to survive for more—or other—than survival’s stake?
What interests me here is less the questionable persuasiveness of some of Agamben’s claims—including his criticism of the Italian government’s “techno-medical-despotism,” and his unapologetic dismay that the requirements of the lock-down augured either a new state of exception or the intensification of an already existing one. As Esposito remarks:
One thing is claiming, as Foucault does, that over the last two-hundred and fifty centuries, politics and biology have progressively formed an ever tighter knot, with problematic and sometimes tragic results. Another is to assimilate incommensurable incidents and experiences. I would personally avoid making any sort of comparison between maximum security prisons and a two-week quarantine in the Po Lowlands.9
But not everyone is as judicious as Esposito. Consider the Schadenfreude and the level of theatricalized outrage that Agamben’s observations have also often triggered, up to and including the denunciation of his entire biopolitical project. A robust critique of the biopolitical and of the limits of its explanatory power we surely need, but Agamben getting COVID-19 “wrong” isn’t it. “Forget about Agamben,” Sergio Benvenuto nevertheless proclaims, perhaps recalling the manly bluster of Baudrillard’s command, made many years ago, to no avail, to “Forget Foucault.”10 Daniel Lorenzini makes a helpful point when he calls for thinkers to refuse what he calls—choosing instead to remember Foucault—“the blackmail of biopolitics.”11 “We do not have to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ it (whatever that would mean),” Lorenzini argues, “but address it as a historical event that still defines, at least in part, the way in which we are governed, the way in which we think about politics and ourselves.” In that spirit, I might ask then why Agamben has so rapidly become a metonym for the putative failings of theory, why we find ourselves being told to choose not only between biopolitics or not, but also between what is too quickly glossed as “theory” or not. Agamben’s “coronavirus cluelessness,” Anastasia Berg says in the Chronicle, is “symptomatic of theory’s collapse into paranoia.”12 “Stop fucking around with theory,” Joshua Clover announces with virile confidence in the pages of Critical Inquiry, no less, preferring, from a position of considerable professional authority, to compel rather than invite consent.13 This immune or perhaps autoimmune gesture has spread virally through elements of the scholarly community, leading thinkers to disavow tout court the risky gesture of thinking and talking aloud about the topical as an always already abstractable matter of debate rather than as an ethical substratum beyond which no further contemplation is required or permissible: “It would be obscene and unethical to theorize about the epidemiological catastrophe that is unfolding under our very eyes,” Rosi Braidotti declares; “This is not a time for grandiose theorizing.”14 Professing cultural critique was once treated as “the weak link” in the war on terror; now it is characterized as the chink in the armor in the war against the virus.
Whence comes this moralizing panic regarding the putative immodesty of theory, its embarrassing untimeliness and inertness? Of what contagion is this reaction a neuralgic symptom? Why do “practitioners,” or whoever is imagined to be the antithesis of “theorists,” assume that theory is theirs to know and claim with such confidence? And who but the more vulnerable members of the profession—graduate students, new or precariously employed scholars—most feel the force of this kind of authorized interdiction, this distribution of the sensible? The felt vehemence of these sorts of remarks suggest that they allegorically register and obscure the ferocious operation of an other scene, one with much higher stakes: perhaps these prohibitions express frustration and anger in the face of the inability and inactions of the biosecurity state, which, after all, knew plenty about the sharply increased prospect of the appearance of novel viruses and zoonotic organisms in a fast warming planet, and which had run multiple simulations to test the robustness of public health policies and practices. And yet the liberal democratic state proved unable to act credibly and competently on that knowledge in a way that mitigated much more of the suffering and death now taking place all around us. Unless, of course, the problem in this instance is not the inability to translate theory into action, but the unwillingness of the biosecurity state to abolish its commitments to racialized violence and the letting-die of those deemed not to matter. The peculiar novelty of the novel virus is that we knew it was coming and yet it arrived as a cruel and overwhelming surprise. My point is that this crisis of the relationship between thought and action, knowing and doing, may be expressing itself in the words of our impatient and exasperated colleagues: their astringent securitization of theory, in other words, is a symptom of the frustration of living in a world in which the connection between public health knowledge and the state apparatuses, as between theory and practice, is hopelessly and lethally sundered. It simply never occurs to those who banish speculative thinking that the antithesis of “theory” and “practice” upon which their policing gestures rest is in fact not the solution to life and death on an infected planet, but part of the problem.
Must we always obey what Anne-Lise François calls “the Enlightenment imperative that we act in light of what we know”?15 Under what normative regime is action and actionability made into the measure of person’s thoughts? A sure sign of the bossy alactrity with which thinkers disavow thought that is untethered to action is their decision to refuse to engage the wide range of sophisticated social and political theorists who have questioned the supremacy of what is imagined to be “practice.” In addition to Adorno, Derrida, and others, these certainly include the late Leo Bersani, who argued for the necessity of inhabiting “a kind of speculative, rather than non-immediately-politically-viable stage of reflection.”16 In the wake of the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., Bersani wisely called for drawing on the insurgent powers of introspection.17 His lesson for us today: existential crises should not be made into an excuse to rush to instrumentalize thought. As Mikko Tuhkanen puts it, paraphrasing Bersani, “Only by withdrawing from the constituted world can we radically reimagine the political.”18 And of course Agamben has staked a large part of his project on the energetically disruptive possibilities that flow from inoperativity and désoeuvrement in a social and political context that fetishizes productivity, viability, effectivity—in short, legible outcomes. It may well be that some of the fierceness of the denunciation of Agamben today is a kind of revenge taken against his earlier and highly developed case for worklessness: dismissing his relatively undeveloped case against COVID measures functions as a screen for a deeper impatience with the audacity of his argument for worklessness in a world devoted to virile displays of proficiency.
Questions about the obscenity and unethicality of theory all sound uncannily familiar because, since long before the pandemic, speculative thinking has been the subject of scolding disciplinary measures—always too foreign, somehow at once scarily communicable and maddeningly incommunicable, both catching and perversely out of touch. To a Romanticist like myself, jettisoning theory in favour of the unassailability of practice feels like déjà vu all over again, as if the labor of slandering Percy Bysshe Shelley (the infamous “ineffectual angel”), and with him, all that is deemed to be self-indulgent and profligate, or the compulsion to disavow the impractical and careless theoreticism of the French Revolution, is never complete. In the opening lecture of his 1802 lectures on academic studies (published in 1803), Friedrich Schelling identifies a threat to the productivity of the university’s social system:
Whatever cannot be incorporated into this active, living whole [i.e., the “healthy” university] is dead matter to be eliminated sooner or later–such is the law of all living organisms. The fact is, there are too many sexless bees in the hive of the sciences, and since they cannot be productive, they merely keep reproducing their own spiritual barrenness in the form of inorganic excretions.19
Schelling’s lurid figures, bordering on the histrionic, point to a workless danger that he takes great pleasure in avowing if only in the form of its disavowal. After Romanticism, it seems, there is no having done with theory, but there is no having done with the refined rapture of having-done either. Charging theory with the crime of abstraction, wastefulness, witlessness, and immorality has had a storied career, extending through the 1980s, when the name “Paul de Man” was weaponized as metonym for all that was wrong with a “deconstructionism” whose roots and collaborators, it was suspected, lay, respectively, in Romanticism and with Romanticists. When the previous President of the MLA went so far as to blame Trumpism on the pernicious influence of de Man, you start to understand that the origins of the animus towards critique lie too deep for tears.20 Academics who, we must assume, are committed to denouncing what Mbembe calls the necropolitical “scission of humanity into ‘useful’ and ‘useless’” nevertheless enjoy identifying thinkers who they deem to be mere “excess” or “superfluity”.21 My point is that if the humanities are indeed passing through a portal, then among the many things to be changed in medias res is the anxiously reiterative sifting of theory from its supposedly more practical and productive and less obscene others. Adorno forcefully makes this very point in 1969, another historical flexion point, in a programmatic piece entitled “Resignation.” Adorno’s essay is bracing to read today: his unapologetic call for what he describes as “untrammelled thought” and for “open thinking [that] points beyond itself;” his observation that the quarantining of thought or what he calls “the malicious derision of critical critique” in the name of protecting “the primacy of practice” springs mainly from an “anxiety” of confinement: “People locked in desperately want to get out,” he writes, creating the fiction of an outside whose name is “practice.” Adorno points out that, in any case, speculative thinking has a habit of haunting those who would conjure it away: “Something of it survives,” he writes, sounding positively Derridean: “Its return is that of a ghost”.22 No wonder practitioners are so vehement, as if the sheer force of the spell of their words could exorcize the specter of theory. It’s worth noting that Adorno’s call for more circumspection regarding the nexus of critique and action is written in the tradition of Kant’s snappy essay, “On the common saying: That may be correct in theory but it is of no use in practice,”23 published in 1793, the year of the start of the Reign of Terror. It is also the year of the “American plague,” as it was then called—that is, the deadly outbreak of “yellow fever” in Philadelphia that claimed one in ten of the city’s denizens, disproportionately persons of color. The Prussian philosopher—who, interestingly, opposed inoculations–knew a thing or two about the perilous position of theory and critique under duress and amid the emergency measures for which wartime in particular calls or is said to call. Late in his career, Kant jokes that his “ineffectual ideas” about peaceableness will be easily dismissed as so much dreamy and unworkable nonsense.24 Writing in the mode of a perpetual peace project, he deliberately adopts the genre that was in his day most closely associated with the clueless irrelevance of philosophy, especially philosophy that gave itself to think untrammelled thoughts that are not sutured to things as they are and to what we know or will know. But Kant is winking at his readership: it was the “sorry comforters” preaching realpolitik who were in fact the dreamers, nourishing fantasies of a completely administered world, and legitimizing what Adorno calls “the repressive intolerance to thought that is not immediately accompanied by instructions for action”.25
My question after Kant is whether or in what way will theory survive the current war. Is it to be barred passage through the portal of the present because deemed to be an unwanted parasite on what is proclaimed to be “real,” “practical,” and thus irrefutably true? If theory is meant to survive, I would argue, it will be in the mode of survivance, a living-on that is in the service of neither death nor life (including the demise or flourishing of a scholarly field, Romanticism, for example), i.e., suspended between worlds rather than compelled to perish in one world or thrive only as praxis in the next.26 A ghost, after all, is not nothing, especially not in lands as deeply haunted as ours. More: It is not the impracticality of theory that is the true source of its inextinguishable trouble, but the deeper scandal of a worklessness, or, as I argue elsewhere, “scarcity,” that is irreducible to either theory or practice, a thinking beside itself that remains otherwise illegible as long as we continue to allow the dyad of theory and practice to police our conversations and to determine ahead of time—as medical anthropologist Martha Lincoln says—“what we are going to remember and what we are going to forget” of COVID-19.27 We might consider, for example, the telling ways in which discussions of COVID-19 can often repress discussions of the concurrent and historical HIV/AIDS pandemic, preferring instead to refer to the influenza pandemic of 1918, SARS, and polio as disease precedents of concern. (I use the word, “repress,” advisedly, meaning remembering but in the positive mode of forgetting, i.e., the relegation and protective isolation of a memory to the non-place of obliviousness and inconsequentiality. Is it possible that, discursively speaking, optimizing one pandemic, making it “live,” is coupled to the letting die of another? The unruly, finite, and always irreducibly singular AIDS body is made to fade into a “nothing” or “nothingness” from the commanding perspective of a planet reconsolidated as “the world”—rather than, at best, “a world”—in which no place is untouched by COVID-19.) Indeed, it seems more likely for some thinkers to refer to the Black Death or even the plague that befell classical Athens than to remember the proximity of the past and present of HIV and AIDS. The reasons for this amnesia are undoubtedly legion—a forgetting that obscures not only the “other” pandemic’s grievous and grossly uneven toll on particular communities but also the myriad ways in which HIV+ individuals and persons with AIDS formed solidarities, invented novel kinds of activism, and developed practices of care of the self that were unique to the pandemic and yet form a palimpsestic screen through which to parse the current “epidemic of signification”—the object being not to “know” the two catastrophes but to read them and to read them through each other and as theories of each other. Briefly, what I think is happening in the forgetting of HIV/AIDS amid COVID-19 is the cancellation of the possibilities of thinking the solitude of the two pandemics (which in truth are many more than two) together. What I think is troubling is that we are in fact differently living both pandemics in one variegated time, but not necessarily making or taking time for thinking theoretically about the “thatness” of that turbulent and still-unfolding and never-to-be-resolved co-existence. Erasing HIV/AIDS is not forgetting the earlier and ongoing pandemic, although that is also certainly happening, as is the disproportionate vulnerability of HIV+ individuals, along with other immune-compromised individuals, to COVID-19, but the dissolution of any chance for thinking the rapport between the pandemics, i.e., tarrying speculatively—meaning, without irritably reaching after comparisons and analogies, especially comparisons and analogies that render one pandemic illegible and the other worthy of legibility—with what John Paul Ricco calls “the space of separation” that at once joins and divides one thought of the virus from the other. It is that space and the singularity of each pandemic, the ways in which they must co-exist that is missing when we do not talk and think theoretically today about HIV/AIDS. In other words, what remains forgotten is not or not only HIV/AIDS but the relation without relation that holds these phenomena apart and that affixes them in their shared apartness. As Ricco has argued, we hardly allow ourselves to think the inappropriable space of separation that is the condition of the possibility of the ethical amid the pressures of COVID-19 to optimize and to shelter life and to think of the human as reducible to that optimized life—i.e., as administrable, reparable, and legible to power. So it stands to reason that tarrying with an ethical opening that honors the exposed singularity and the being-in-common of the two pandemics can be made to feel like a bridge too far. It is this impotentiality or inoperativity that is perhaps most difficult to think and to endure, and never more so in an environment in which the call to operativity and to action is loudest. HIV/AIDS is in some sense imagined to have ended so that the “next” pandemic could take its place and assume the crown of diseases (“corona” is of course Latin for “crown”). Abolishing the chance of tarrying with the uncertainty of the virus, which would include pausing the very idea of “before” and “after,” a certain sovereign “human” reasserts itself as “he” who decides when we exit and enter viral worlds, and on what terms, eschewing the possibility of dwelling in the inoperative inter-mundia that rejects the very possibility of a world, much less one world following another, shedding useless and immature theory so that an ethical and worldly practice can blossom.28 One would like to think that the sheer interruptive force of a global pandemic, much less several, layered global pandemics, would teach us to be much more circumspect about confidently embracing narratives of development and announcing one’s grown-up place in that suspiciously happy story. Practice is no more the cure for theory than adulthood is the solution for childhood.29 Perhaps now more than ever, amid an academic world that has internalized the hyper-kinetic demands of the sped-up marketplace, one sign of which are the pronouncements of colleagues who cannot and will not suffer the indignity of in-action, we who profess the humanities should shelter a place for worklessness, ruination, not-knowing, and teachers of slow reading. No time for all that, we are told; we must act and be seen to be acting now. There’s no time for theorizing, and certainly no time for conducting one’s education in public, as Agamben appears to be doing regarding COVID-19, even though, as Ricco points out, the pandemic reminds us that the only time that exists and that has ever existed is the time that remains.30 Alain Badiou argues that the pandemic demands “new figures of politics.”31 Those figures include gestures that are, like Kant’s reflective judgment, not in possession of their own concept and that refuse the imperative for thinking always and everywhere to be productive, complete, actionable, resigned, or salvific. These would be Romantic figures, in other words, and new in the sense of never getting old. For if Romanticism has taught me anything it is that we do not know what a body of theory can do.32
Parts of this paper were previously published in Romantic Circles Unbound, as part of its “aftermaths” blog for Romantic Circles. I am grateful to the editors for their permission to reproduce that material here. Versions of this paper were presented at the 2021 meeting of the Modern Language Association and the American Comparative Literature Association. I thank Matthew Senior and John Paul Ricco, respectively, for giving me the opportunity to develop this work for those venues.
David L. Clark is Professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, where he is also Associate Member of the Department of Health, Aging, and Society and a member of the Council of Instructors in the Arts and Science program. He has published on a wide range to topics, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Francisco de Goya’s engravings to the state of the contemporary university, and from British and German Romanticism to the work of Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas.