When the House Burns: Giorgio Agamben on the Coronavirus Crisis

In February of this year the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, started writing short commentaries on the coronavirus crisis in Italy. Published online by Quodlibet, these drew widespread and almost universal condemnation from every quarter, not only by academics, psychologists and students but by his fellow philosophers. I have written about this attempt to silence Agamben’s dissenting voice (Giorgio Agamben and the Biopolitics of COVID-19), which has increased in authority as everything he initially wrote about the coronavirus crisis has been proven to be true, and his critics, in contrast, have been exposed as tools of the media campaign to censor those who dare to question our governments’ official account of the crisis.

In July, however, Agamben stopped his until then regular commentary, and for a while I thought he had either been bullied into submission or — which seemed far more likely — was engaged in writing a book about this crisis, the truth of which he is, perhaps, more qualified than any philosopher in the world to reveal to us. Then, on 5 October, after nearly three months’ hiatus, he published another text. Titled Quando la casa brucia, this is Agamben’s sixteenth text on the crisis, and differs considerably from the previous, shorter commentaries. I have quoted and learned from these writings throughout my own articles on the implementation of the UK biosecurity state, when it seems every other philosopher of international standing (Badiou, Nancy, Žižek) has either remained silent or given their consent to the measures that are transforming our already flawed democracies into constitutional dictatorships. As the reader will discover, it is an altogether more poetic text, though without lessening the philosophical rigour of Agamben’s understanding of this global revolution in capitalism, and what he announces, at its conclusion, as the long-heralded end of man. Indeed, it is this convergence of poetry and philosophy that is one of its main deliberations.

This text reads very much like a valedictory address, one looking back to what has been, and what may be salvaged from the burning wreck of the present; yet it is not so, as a mere three days later Agamben published another, shorter text, and I hope there will be many more to come. We cannot afford to lose any voice of dissent and resistance, least of all his. While once, everything Agamben published — even his first commentaries on the coronavirus — was immediately translated into English and read around the world, the enemies of reason have done their job, and Agamben, at least in the English-speaking world, has been consigned to the multilingual. I have chosen to translate this text, therefore, to the best of my abilities, adding footnotes to Agamben’s references where I have been able to identify them, and to publish it here: as a record of this moment, as a reminder of how we allowed it to happen, and in the hope that the future prepared for us by our masters can still be resisted by poets and philosophers alike. Above all, that we will not abandon to the flames the homeless whose numbers will increase as the full consequences of this moment of lies, cowardice and complicity are felt around the world.

— Simon Elmer

‘Everything I do makes no sense if the house burns’ Yet even as the house is burning, it is necessary to continue as always, to do everything with care and precision, perhaps even more studiously — even if no one should notice. It may be that life disappears from the earth, that no memory remains of what has been done, for better or for worse. But you continue as before, it is too late to change, there is no more time.

‘What’s happening around you / is no longer your business.’ Like the geography of a country that you have to leave forever. Yet how does it still affect you? Right now, when it’s no longer your business, when everything seems over, everything and every place appear in their truest guise, somehow touch you more closely, just as they are: splendour and misery.

Philosophy, a dead language. The language of poets is always a dead language . . . Curious to say: a dead language that is used to give more life to thought.’Maybe not a dead language, but a dialect. That philosophy and poetry speak in a language that is less than the language, this is the measure of their rank, of their special vitality. Weighing, judging the world by the measure of a dialect, of a language that is dead and yet springs anew, in which not even a comma can be changed. Keep speaking this dialect, now that the house is burning.

Which house is burning? The country where you live, or Europe, or the whole world? Perhaps the houses, the cities have already burned down — we do not know for how long — in a single huge funeral pyre, which we pretended not to see. In some, only fragments of the house remain, a frescoed wall, a fragment of the roof, some names — many names, already devoured by the fire. And yet we cover them so carefully with white plaster and false words that they seem to be intact. We live in houses, in cities, that are burning from bottom to top, as if they were still standing; people pretend to live there and go out into the street, masked among the ruins, as if they were still the familiar neighbourhoods of the past.

And now the flame has changed its shape and nature, having become digital, invisible and cold; but, precisely for this reason, it is even closer, it is upon us and surrounds us at every moment.

That a civilisation — a barbarism — collapses so as not to rise again: this has already happened, and historians are accustomed to marking and dating ruptures and ruins. But how can we bear witness to a world that is going to ruin with eyes blindfolded and face covered, to a republic that collapses without its sanity or pride, in abjection and fear? The blindness is all the more desperate because the survivors demand they govern their own ruin, and swear that everything can be controlled technically, that there is no need for a new god or a new sky — only regulations, experts and doctors. Panic and deceit.

What would a God be to whom neither prayers nor sacrifices were offered? And what would a law be that knew neither command nor execution? And what is a word that has neither meaning nor command, but is truly held ‘in the beginning’ — indeed before it?

A culture that in the end feels lifeless tries to govern its ruin as best it can through a state of permanent exception. The total mobilisation in which Ernst Jüngersaw the essential character of our time must be seen from this perspective. Men must be mobilised — must feel in a state of emergency at every moment, regulated in detail by those who have the power to declare it. But while mobilisation was in the past meant to bring men closer, now it aims to isolate and distance them from each other.

How long has the house been burning? How long has it been burning? Certainly a century ago, between 1914 and 1918, something happened in Europe that threw everything that appeared to still be intact and alive into the flames and madness; then once again, thirty years later, the fires broke out everywhere, and since then the house has never ceased to burn, without respite, subdued, and barely visible under the ashes. But perhaps the fire began much earlier, when humanity’s blind impulse towards salvation and progress joined the power of fire and machines. All this is known and need not be repeated. Instead, we need to ask ourselves how we could continue to live and think while everything burned, what somehow remained intact in the middle of the pyre or on its edges. How did we manage to breathe in the flames, what did we lose, and to what ruin — or to what imposture — did we cling? And now, when there are no more flames, but only numbers, figures and lies, we are certainly weaker and more alone, but without possible compromises, lucid as never before.

If the fundamental architectural problem only becomes visible when the house is in flames, then you can see now what is at stake in the history of the West, what it has tried at all costs to grasp, and why it could only fail.

It is as if power were trying to grasp, whatever the cost, the bare life it produced, and yet — no matter how hard it tries to appropriate and control that life with every possible device, no longer just the police but also medical and technological — bare life cannot but escape it, because it is by definition elusive. Governing bare life is the madness of our time. Men reduced to their pure biological existence, when the government of men and the government of things merge, are no longer human.

The other house, the one in which I will never be able to live but which is my real home; the other life, the one I did not live while I thought I was living it; the other language, which I spelled syllable by syllable without ever being able to speak it — so much mine that I can never have them . . .

When thought and language divide, one believes that one can speak while forgetting that one is speaking. Poetry and philosophy, when they speak, do not forget that they are speaking — they remember their language. If we remember our language, if we do not forget that we can speak, then we are freer, we are not forced into things and rules. Language is not a tool: it is our face, the openness in which we are.

The face is the most human of things. Man has a face and not simply a muzzle or a front, because he dwells in openness, because in his face he exposes himself and communicates. This is why the face is the place of politics. Our unpolitical time does not want to see its own face, it keeps it at a distance, masks and covers it. There must be no more faces, but only numbers and figures. The tyrant, too, is faceless.

Feeling alive: being affected by one’s own sensibilities, being delicately assigned to one’s gesture without being able either to assume or avoid it. Feeling myself alive makes life possible for me, even if I were locked in a cage. And nothing is as real as this possibility.

In the years to come, there will only be monks and criminals. And yet, it is not possible simply to step aside, to believe that one can scramble free of the rubble of the world that has collapsed around us. Because the collapse affects us and addresses us, because we too are rubble. And we will have to learn carefully how to work with them in a fairer way, without being noticed.

Ageing: ‘growing only in the roots, no longer in the branches’. Sink into the roots, no more flowers or leaves. Or, rather, like a drunken butterfly flying over what has been lived. There are still branches and flowers in the past. And you can still draw honey from them.

The face is in God, but the bones are atheist. Outside, everything pushes us towards God; inside, the stubborn, mocking atheism of the skeleton.

That the soul and the body are indissolubly linked — this is spiritual. The spirit is not a third between the soul and the body: it is only their helpless, wonderful coincidence. Biological life is an abstraction, and it is this abstraction that power claims to govern and cure.

For us, alone, there can be no salvation: there is salvation because there are others. And this is not for moral reasons, because I should act for their good. Only because I am not alone is there salvation: I can only save myself as one among many, as another among others. Alone — and this is the special truth of loneliness — I do not need salvation; indeed, I am truly unsavable. Salvation is the dimension that opens up because I am not alone, because there is plurality and multitude. God, incarnate, has ceased to be unique, has become one man among many. Because of this, Christianity has had to bind itself to history and follow its fate to the end; and when history, as appears to happen today, fades and rots, then Christianity too is approaching its sunset. Its irreversible contradiction is that Christianity sought, in history and through history, a salvation beyond history, and when that history ends the ground beneath its feet is missing. The Church was actually in solidarity not with salvation but with the history of salvation, and since it sought salvation through history it could only end in medicine. And when the time came, the Church did not hesitate to sacrifice salvation to medicine.

Salvation must be torn from its historical context, and a non-historical plurality must be found, a plurality as a way out of history.

Escaping a place or situation without entering other territories; leaving an identity and a name without adopting others.

We can only regress towards the present, while in the past we advanced in a straight line. What we call the past is merely our long regression to the present. Separating us from our past is the first resource of power.

What frees us from the burden is our breath. In our breath we are weightless, we are propelled as if in flight beyond the force of gravity.

We will have to learn again from the beginning how to judge, but with a judgement that neither punishes nor rewards, neither absolves nor condemns. An act without purpose, that removes existence from any purpose, necessarily unjust and false. Merely an interruption, an instant poised between time and eternity, in which the image of a life without end or projects, without name or memory — because it saves itself, not in eternity, but in a ‘kind of eternity’. A judgment without pre-established criteria, and yet precisely because of this political, because it restores life to its naturalness.

Feeling and to feel, sensation and self-affection, are contemporaries. In every sensation there is a feeling of feeling, in every sensation of oneself a feeling of otherness, a friendship and a face.

Reality is the veil through which we perceive what is possible, what we can or cannot do.

Knowing which of our childhood wishes have been fulfilled is not easy. Above all, if the part of the fulfilled that borders on what can’t be granted is enough to make us accept going on living. One is afraid of death because the part of the unfulfilled desires has grown without any possible measure.

‘Buffaloes and horses have four legs: that’s what I call Heaven. Haltering the horses, piercing the buffalo’s nostrils: that’s what I call human. This is why I say: take care that the human does not destroy Heaven within you, take care the intentional does not destroy the celestial.’

Language remains in the burning house. Not language, but the immemorial, prehistoric, weak forces that guard and remember it: philosophy and poetry. And what do they keep, what do they remember of language? Not this or that meaningful proposition, not this or that article of faith or bad faith. Rather, the very fact that there is language, that without a name we are open in the name, and that in this openness, in a gesture, in a face, we are unknowable and exposed.

Poetry: the word is the only thing we have left from when we still didn’t know how to speak, an obscure song within the language, a dialect or an idiom which we cannot fully understand, but to which we cannot help but listen — even if the house burns, even if in their burning language men continue to talk nonsense.

But is there a language of philosophy, just as there is a language of poetry? Like poetry, philosophy dwells in language as a part of it, and only the manner of this dwelling distinguishes it from poetry. Two tensions in the field of language, which intersect at one point and then tirelessly separate. And whoever says a right word, a simple word that springs anew, abides in this tension.

Whoever realises that the house is burning can be pushed to look with disdain and contempt at his fellow men, who appear not to notice. Yet is it not these men, who do not see and do not think, who will be the lemurs you will have to give an account to on the final day? Realising that the house is on fire does not raise you above the others; on the contrary, it is with them that you will have to exchange a last look as the flames get closer. What can you say to justify your claims of conscience to these men who are so unaware that they seem almost innocent?

In the burning house you continue to do what you did before — but you cannot help but see that the flames show you naked now. Something has changed, not in what you do, but in the way you let it go into the world. A poem written in the burning house is more just and true, because no one will be able to listen to it, because nothing guarantees that it will escape the flames. But if, by chance, it finds a reader, then he will in no way escape the address that calls him from that helpless, inexplicable, subdued shouting.

Only those who have no chance of being heard can tell the truth; only those who speak from a house relentlessly consumed by the flames surrounding them.

Man disappears today, like a face in the sand erased on the shore.But what takes its place no longer has a world, only a naked life, silent and without history, at the mercy of the calculations of power and science. But perhaps it is only starting from this destruction that something else may one day slowly or suddenly appear — not a god, of course, but not even another man — a new animal, perhaps, an otherwise living soul.

— Giorgio Agamben (5 October, 2020)4

1. Giovanni Pascoli, Pensieri scolastici (1896).

2. See Ernst Jünger, Die totale Mobilmachung (1930), ‘As
thinking, total mobilisation is merely an intimation
higher mobilisation
 the age is discharging upon us. Characteristic of 
 latter type 
is an 
inner lawfulness, to which human laws must correspond in order to be effective. Disregarding its much-diminished allowances for freedom and 
sociability, it
 is starting to rule nations in ways not
 from those 
of an absolutist regime. In 
cases, the humanitarian
 has almost
away, to be replaced
 a half‐grotesque,
fetishism of the machine, a naive cult of technology. Forms of
 torture are at work here; they are so
 that human beings welcome them joyfully.’

3. See Michel Foucault, in the famous last lines of Les Mots et les choses (1966): ‘As the archaeology of our thought shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements [of knowledge] were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility — without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises — were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did at the end of the Eighteenth Century — then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.’

4. After publishing this translation on 15 October, I was contacted by Carlo Rimassa, a native Italian-speaker who has translated texts from Italian into English before, and who offered to go over my text. I welcomed his offer, and a week later he sent me numerous excellent suggestions and corrections. I would like to thank Carlo for both his generosity and his attention to detail. Any remaining inaccuracies of grammar and infelicities of expression are, of course, my own.

10 thoughts on “When the House Burns: Giorgio Agamben on the Coronavirus Crisis

      1. The phrase in the original is: «Che filosofia e poesia parlino in una lingua che è più meno della lingua, questo dà la misura del loro rango, della loro speciale vitalità». Here translated as: That philosophy and poetry speak in a language that is less than the language, this is the measure of their rank, of their special vitality. The problem is that “più meno di/della/dello” isn’t grammatically correct in Italian. I wonder how you came to a comparative expression. I am not trying to split hairs: I am currently translating the text to Spanish and I would need to fully understand its right meaning. Could you please ask Carlo Rimassa what he thinks about this particular problem? Thanks

      2. Hello Mr. Draken, this is from Carlo Rimassa.

        You are correct: “piu’ meno” makes no sense in Italian. We have the expression “piu’ o meno”, which translates straight into ‘more or less’, but this is not the case here. I noticed the inconsistency, and my take is that this is simply a mistake. Which leaves us with four options as to what Agamben wanted to write, and which of the two words has been left behind by mistake:

        – una lingua che e’ piu’ della lingua (a language that is more than language)
        – una lingua che e’ meno della lingua (a language that is less than language)
        – una lingua che e’ molto meno della lingua (a language that is far less than language). Here the thinking is that originally ‘molto’ was used, and then somehow replaced with ” piu’ “, which is similar.
        – una lingua che e’ piu’ tenue/ ( language that is more ). Here the thinking is that he wrote first “a language softer/weaker than language”, then changed into ‘less than’ but forgot to remove the ” piu’ “.

        Only the first option seems inconsistent with the rest of the text, which I find encouraging. In the end, I went along with your version, which made more sense to me; it’s a small omission that I think can be tolerated. I hope this helps.

      3. Thank you very much for the trouble you have taken. The detailed comment from Carlo Rimassa is very, very useful and it confirms my suspicion of a typo. The French translation also understood it as “less than the language”.

  1. Thank you, Simon. It is brilliant. And it is true. The merit accumulated by Giorgio and yourself in writing these things and being mediums for offering access to them during a time of censorship by the Powers that Be and the money makers is incalculable. We are glad that we were able to make a small dana contribution to your work.

    We share these articles with any fellow Truth Seekers who we think might benefit from them in their efforts to awaken human beings to the seriousness of the current situation of humanity and the planet for which humanity is responsible.

    May you (and Giorgio) be protected in your valuable work from being drawn into and entangled by the escalating A vs B controversies which cause disheartenment and are fuelling the “Fire” on a massive scale everyday.

    1. Thank you. I recently watched The Social Dilemma, a film about the effects on us of social media and how AI algorithms feed us only what we want to hear, with the result that public debate on anything, whether it’s Brexit or a General Election or the coronavirus crisis, is split into two unlistening camps that are completely incapable of communicating with each other, and that regard each other as deluded, stupid and completely wrong.

      I must admit that, given the sheer weight of evidence against the lies being told by the Government and media about this manufactured crisis that has set fire to the house on whose ashes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is being built, that it’s difficult not to fall into that trap. For me, therefore, the most valuable part of Agamben’s extraordinary text is when he warns us, near the end, that just because we realise that the house is on fire does not raise us above those who appear almost innocent in their ignorance; that it is with them that we will have to exchange a last look as the flames get closer; and that it is to them that we will have to justify our claims of conscience.

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to translate this important piece. Before today I only read it through translation on Google, which is hardly ideal with a writer of such subtlety as Agamben. Even with that substandard conversion it hit me hard, it has such a sadness and finality to it. Agamben’s writing has had considerable influence on me since I first began reading him a decade ago, but I cannot recall another more tragic sounding piece. Perhaps it is true that the best we can hope for from political life now is a kind of palliative care, or to put it even more brutally, to make sure the wood around the stake is at least dry, so our suffering is not prolonged.
    I’ve only recently come across this site and I’m really enjoying and appreciating the work you are doing here. It’s heartening that even in this Great Black Time there are people who can think and write with such force and erudition. Many thanks.

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