Benjamin Bratton, The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World

The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-pandemic WorldThe Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-pandemic World by Benjamin H. Bratton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On the first of August, liberal journalist, Vox co-founder, and influential policy wonk Matthew Yglesias Tweeted the following: “Absent politics my policy would be you either get jabbed voluntarily within the next X weeks and get $50 or else you get jabbed later while someone holds you down and you get $0.” Even advocates of widespread vaccine business mandates found this fantasy of forced penetration unseemly, yet its like isn’t without precedent in Yglesias’s work. In a blog post from early 2002, he waved away fears of Middle Eastern backlash to the looming Iraq War: “Why would the Muslims of the world even try to take us on? Maybe they’re just that crazy—I personally don’t think so—but if they all want to kill us, then we’ll just have to kill them all.”

Confronting these genocidal remarks, it’s difficult to remember, after a media- and state-driven panic passes and reasoned deliberation resumes, what it actually felt like to live in the eye of the moral hurricane. Readers under a certain age won’t remember the atmosphere in the years immediately after 9/11—and many readers of a certain age might like to forget. The Bush administration claimed an expansive mandate to wage what it called Global War on Terror (and what some of its apologists styled World War IV), first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, with a further implication that at least the rest of the “axis of evil” (Iran, North Korea) would have to be taken out and that previously proscribed “defensive” methods like torture of prisoners, indefinite extrajudicial confinement, and routine surveillance of citizens (e.g., their library records) would have to be introduced.

Skepticism about this military adventurism and abrogation of civil liberties would often be met with passionate moral and sentimental rhetoric disputing the citizen’s right even to ask questions at all in a time of unprecedented crisis. Do you deny the threat of terrorism? Do you want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud? Do you want it to happen again? What if it was someone you loved? How can you disrespect the memory of the victims of 9/11? Are you an appeaser, an America-hater, a conspiracy theorist? Because the enemy was analogized to the Nazis—the 9/11 hijackers were labeled “Islamofascists” while Saddam Hussein and the leaders of Iran were likened to Hitler himself—it was not uncommon, even where it made little sense, for critics of the War on Terror to be accused of anti-Semitism and “America First” isolationism, with many commentators comparing Democrats who questioned Bush’s authority to Neville Chamberlain or the Vichy government. That Yglesias displays the same violent knee-jerk reaction in the present crisis as he did in the earlier one, though, suggests something more than the continuity of his character from youth to middle age.

One intellectual who forcefully questioned the War on Terror was Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. I am no expert in his recondite work, which draws on studies of ancient Roman law and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but I did read some of his texts in graduate school in the mid-2000s, when demoralized academic leftists found solace in his theoretical challenge to the new war powers claimed by Bush and allied powers. Agamben applied to the War on Terror the concepts of biopolitics—or government sovereignty over the bodies of its citizens, residents, and enemies—and the state of exception—during which governments declare an emergency to abridge or eliminate civil liberties—both of which Agamben saw culminating in the Third Reich and operative during the early and middle 2000s. For Agamben, as for theorists like Adorno and Arendt, the Nazi camps, in their brutal rationalization of marked bodies, offered not so much an exception to business as usual, but rather the paradigm of modern governmental power. Agamben updated these theses for the pandemic era beginning early in 2020, with a series of controversial articles viewing this new state of emergency as yet another state of exception—an excuse for unprecedented exercises of biopolitical sovereignty over the populace. This time, Agamben’s former academic champions rebuked and disavowed the thinker; I too demurred at what I took to be his inflammatory rhetoric at the height of the suffering in his native Italy.

Now, though, a year and a half later, when rhetoric like Yglesias’s is common among the educated upper classes who endured the least economic hardship or exposure to illness during the lockdowns and mandates; when dissent within the scientific community about how to proceed is expunged from the public sphere in favor of ever-shifting recommendations carrying at every discrete moment an imprimatur of indubitable truth; and when citizens’ questions about the necessity or wisdom or even the pragmatic temporal limit of onerous measures for dealing with a likely endemic and preponderantly non-fatal illness are met with wildly emotive accusations and bizarrely inapplicable analogies (“If you’ll put your toddlers in a car seat for a short drive, why won’t you allow their entire early education to take place in a mask? Or do you want to murder the vulnerable, you Trump-loving Nazi?” etc.)—then I believe Agamben deserves another hearing.

The academic left will not help us now, however. They’ve lost their appetite for querying state and corporate power, and no wonder, given the barely-extant condition of the professoriate. Among the tenurati left standing, though, are the heirs to a scientistic turn that began in the late ’90s and included thinkers as temperamentally diverse as Eve Kosofsky Sedgick, Bruno Latour, and Franco Moretti. The academic humanities today is likelier to assist the state’s biopolitical endeavors than to call them into question. A typical production of the contemporary humanities is Benjamin Bratton’s The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World. Animated by an ill-mannered polemic against Agamben and related thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Ivan Illich) who, as representatives of philosophy, “failed the pandemic,” Bratton mocks what he sees as the paranoia about governance instilled by “Boomer Theory”—a characteristic Twitter-level insult—and instead calls for “positive biopolitics.”

According to Bratton, the pandemic, with the objectifying “epidemiological view” it’s trained us to take of humanity, has taught us that we must stop thinking of ourselves as individuals with rich inner lives vulnerable to trespass by power and learn instead to live as objects in a biome, as “a medium through which the physical world signifies itself” with all its virions and bacteria, which must be modeled and managed by scientific intelligence for the total health of the whole. It’s worth recalling that the English literary critic John Carey, no abstruse Continental theorist, describes in his 1992 classic The Intellectuals and the Masses how an epidemiological view of society, based on Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria, inspired, yes, the Nazi regime’s social modeling, a development also notably discussed alongside other examples by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor. Yglesias’s coercive and genocidal rhetoric above lends credence to this view—and to Agamben’s warning of the murderous potential latent in biopolitics per se. Bratton further contrasts his favored form of government with the populist performances of leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro:

[T]his epidemiological mode shifts the final authority from the declaration of the sovereign to the expert administration of life and death, now credentialized by a quite different and more secular authority.

Much as we all enjoy another round of Trump-bashing, I’m sure, this thesis strikes through the offensive person of Trump to delegitimize popular sovereignty itself in favor of experts authorized to rule not by public consent but by extra-democratic institutional credentials. Bratton dismisses Bush- and Obama-era anxiety about “surveillance” as naive, insisting that “surveillance is not the right word”; he prefers “sensing” and pleads with us to forego a “pre-Darwinian” or Romantic or Christian concept of the sacred human person and instead give ourselves up as legible organisms to the “sensing layer” of state and corporate authority—from contact-tracing apps to medical diagnostics—so that it, as the embodiment of sovereign human “sapience,” may more salubriously order our lives: “In addition to the right to reasonable privacy there is also a right and responsibility to be counted.”

Finally, this desired biopolitical state he conceives as global rather than national and derides attempts to contain contagion by sealing borders as implicitly racist. As he further explains, these ideas require a maturer politics than what prevails today on the left; he rebukes, for example, the anarchism of CHAZ and other experiments during the Black Lives Matter “social explosion” of 2020 as “more planless emergence,” fruitless as ever. In the chapter titled “The Problem Is Individuation Itself,” he casually derides “the sentimental language of ‘ethics,'” two phrases that may not inspire confidence in all readers. He likewise understands masks as welcome anti-individualist symbols about which only benighted “Karen”—he analyzes this meme-figure at length—could complain. He displaces the individual with

a view of politics shifting from law to biology, from voice to organism. For example, the various national and regional Green New Deals all imply a shift in the role of what governance sees, knows, does, and is for. Instead of just reflecting the general will or popular voice, the function of governance is now also the direct management of ecosystems, understood as inclusive of human society.

Given Bratton’s eagle eye for similarities between left-anarchism and right-populism, he seems ironically insensible to his theory’s echoes of the neoreactionary movement, with its biological conception of humanity and contempt for democratic “voice.”

Bratton says little about who will effect our transition to positive biopolitics, since as a leftist he’s unhappy with the likes of Trump or Biden, Johnson or Macron, doing it. Where the new personnel of our global government will come from, he cannot say. Yet he scolds readers who have any fears about extant corporate and government powers as “conspiracy theorists”:

I am no apologist for monopolist digital monoculture and have spent the better part of a decade formulating alternative models to it, but one cannot avoid being slightly queasy when the press and the academy, for example, reflexively demonize “Bill Gates,” “Google,” and the more overtly Jewish “Zuckerberg” and “Sergey Brin” as part of a New World Order–type incursion into the physical and mental purity of nations and peoples.

Yet, as he offers no “real” alternative despite his book’s title, he gives no real evidence that he’s not an apologist for the status quo in the guise of a utopian futurist. Bill Gates, for example, is not only not overtly Jewish but not Jewish at all; he descends instead from this country’s “founding stock” and moreover should give any sentient—let alone sapient—leftist plenty of grounds for critique:

The Gates Foundation talks about health but facilitates the roll-out of a toxic form of agriculture whose agrochemicals cause immense damage. It talks of alleviating poverty and malnutrition and tackling food insecurity but it bolsters an inherently unjust global food regime which is responsible for perpetuating food insecurity, population displacement, land dispossession, privatisation of the commons and neoliberal policies that remove support from the vulnerable and marginalised, while providing lavish subsidies to corporations.

Yet Bratton spares Gates and his ilk (other suspicious—and non-Jewish!—mavens like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, more beloved on the right than the left, come to mind) because who else will staff and service positive biopolitics’s sense and control layers? Where is Bratton’s theory of social and political change?

Instead of developing so crucial an element of his philosophy, he trains his fire instead on the “Boomer Theorist,” of whom Agamben (not strictly a Boomer) is exemplary. During the War on Terror, Agamben was correct to challenge a then-lockstep and panic-driven moral consensus about the need for exceptional state and private coercion—but this gives the thinker no credit with Bratton, who knows as a matter of scientific rationality that Agamben must be wrong this time. Instead of arguing against him, he belittles him as equivalent to Trumpist populism in his suspicion of scientific rationality and his pre-Darwinian “magical thinking”:

If you were to imagine Alex Jones not as a Texas good ol’ boy, but rather as a Heideggerian seminary student, you would have a sense of how Agamben approached the requests for public comment on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I too hesitate at Agamben’s theories, in general and in particular. Is the Nazi concentration camp the paradigm of modern governance or is this an exaggeration? Much as I want to suspect the latter, the famous injunction “never again” seems to require the vigilance urged by the former. Likewise, Agamben surely goes too far when he refers to the pandemic as an “invention”—yet a mainstream source as unimpeachable as The Washington Post has begun to report on the possible American role in dangerous experimentation that might have left to our present predicament, which at least puts the “conspiracy theorist” in a slightly more forgiving light.

When Agamben complains of “facial cancellation” and “social distance” as abolishing the political, as destroying the very possibility of democratic convocation and deliberation, I believe one would have to be totally stunned by mediated panic not at least to consider the argument, especially since it’s doubtful this disease will ever leave us (another War on Terror echo: #zerocovid policies as a reprise of Bush speechwriter and current Biden supporter David Frum’s ambitious war-cry for “an end to evil”). Bratton, by contrast, judges these concerns trivial; he disparages Agamben’s nostalgia for human visage and touch as merely “ritual,” a word presumably chosen to connote to the scientific intellect the irrational gestures of ignorant faith or perhaps, in a more aptly “diagnostic” register, the helpless tics of a person with OCD. There is an eliminationist New Atheism belligerence to this polemic, one for which no metaphysical conception of humanity, not even the responsively modern spirituality of the Romantics, can co-exist—except disastrously—with 21st-century life.

Bratton’s crude ad hominem attack on the maverick priest Ivan Illich, who presciently analyzed widespread iatrogenesis (doctor-caused illness or injury) even before it became America’s third leading cause of death, brings his book its emotional climax, or lack thereof:

Agamben recently wrote a glowingly appreciative introduction to the work of Ivan Illich, an anarchist priest known for his extreme condemnations of “modern medicine,” implying that it literally invents diseases so that it can capture people to cure. In a cruel irony, Illich died from a horribly disfiguring facial tumor that he refused to have treated as doctors suggested.

For some, Illich’s unnecessary suffering only added to his “saintly” bona fides. The author of his obituary in the Guardian could barely prevent their stimulation from spilling onto the page: “His charisma, brilliance and spirituality were clear to anyone who encountered him; these qualities sustained him in a heroic level of activity over the last ten years in the context of terrible suffering caused by a disfiguring cancer. Following the thesis of Medical Nemesis, he administered his own medication against the advice of doctors, who proposed a largely sedative treatment which would have rendered his work impossible.

What gives Bratton the imperious right to judge how a man with an apparently incurable illness chooses to treat himself? Death and suffering are inevitable, Illich often argued, and his choice of painful lucidity over analgesic insensibility for his remaining years is one any writer might make. What other private medical decisions will Bratton mock and deride? I’m only surprised we weren’t given another round of “Foucault in the bathhouse” imagery. But Bratton’s obscene lapse in decorum here is not incidental; it demonstrates the rot at the heart of his project and the similar ethical decay in our ongoing state of emergency. He dispatches as nonsense the two definitions of life Agamben borrows from Greek philosophy:

Bios is a life “qualified” by political agency and participation, self-composition of the good life, citizenship, and individual articulation, whereas zoe is “bare life” defined by the animalian status of an organism without reason, without character, and, ultimately, without divinity.

But it requires only experience, not a faith in or a theory of divinity, to grasp the difference between mere subsistence and a life worth living—experience of a loved one’s deathbed decisions will demonstrate the concept neatly, if painfully. When Bratton strips humanity to an insectoid system mysteriously infused with consciously reflexive “sapience” (no less metaphysical a concept in the end than any of Agamben’s), he withdraws this experiential distinction, as do governments and their corporate collaborators when they declare a limitless state of emergency legitimating almost any intrusion into our minds and bodies.

Philosophy fails not when it reminds us of these dilemmas, but when it urges us to forget them and prostrate ourselves instead before the idols of the age—idols all the more insulting to the intellect when they pose as transparent, neutral, scientific, and non-negotiable moral truths to which no reasonable person, neither the non-consenting medical subject nor the slaughtered Muslim, could possibly object.