The distancing society: agoraphobia and demateriality

If the cultural climate of a moment, if the vision of a majority or hegemonic fraction were fertile ground, we would witness a botanical prodigy: that all the seeds that are sown there would give birth to the same plant. If they were a score, the events would perform the theme with each timbre, but always faithful to the part. There is a perfect symmetry between the illusion that facts shape civilizations and reality, that it is instead civilizations that produce facts and that they digest and tell them, invoke them and even fabricate them to dress their own visions. That, in short, events are "momentous" if they fulfill the expectations of an era.

I wrote here , here and more generally also here that the object of these months, a disease that would change the world, has itself become the change, the metaphor to which the world relies to tell itself about the direction taken, pretend it is necessary and thus avoid the fear of unmasking the dangers. With the words of medicine he writes his own refounding myth and does it in real time, without giving himself the time to distinguish the allegory from the thing.

"Social distancing" is at the same time one of the most radical, apparently unprecedented and revealing precepts of this sanitary transfiguration. The expression is already curious in its proposition as a rare example of inverse synecdoche , where the whole indicates a part. If in practice one intends to prescribe a small physical distance between people to avoid the transmission of a microbe, it is not clear how the relations of a society whose members already normally act among themselves must therefore be separated from faraway places and only in particular cases visu . The rhetorical license would be difficult to explain if not, in fact, assuming the will to bring the objectives of these measures from the domain of physiology to that of the organization of social relations.

To get rid of the misunderstanding, it should first of all be noted that physical proximity is not a part or a special way of relating, but is always its underlying matrix. Written, telephone or internet communications always allude to the entirety of the communicators and reproduce a part or function of them so that the recipient can imagine their entire presence by completing the missing representations with the imagination. So, for example, we guess the mimicry of the interlocutor on the phone, we reproduce with the mind the cadence of the writer, we get excited in front of people seen on a monitor, we imagine the scents and laughter of the partner in a chat.

The apparently modern idea that the conceived part can instead not only remain intact, but even more ennoble if emancipated from its sarcophagus ( σήμα ) of flesh ( σῶμα ), echoes the Platonic wound that has tempted the West for centuries and is perpetuated in the Gnostic promise of a soul that can and must shake off the chains of corrupt materiality. In its current declination it flows into the rituals of videoconferencing, remote teaching, smart work and, therefore, into the general norm of "social distancing" which is welded in perfect continuity with the previous precept of "dematerialization". Together, they boldly wage war on the demiurge Yaldabaoth of the sensitive world and its latest effigy in chronological order, a pneumonia virus. The parable traced – from the solid to the imponderable, from the real to the imagined, from the visible to the invisible – tends to its only possible goal: the progressive elimination of the human envelope and therefore of the human tout court , to pursue the dream of a pure intelligence free from the passions and decay of the limbs. Hence, from these ancient visions, the modern fairy tale of an " artificial intelligence " that claims to live without and despite its creators.


The annoyance of individual bodies produces the plural annoyance of the masses and from there, by short analogy, the annoyance of class. The poor crowd into suburbs and hovels, the middle class into offices, beaches and supermarkets. Only the very rich, rare nantes in vast gurgitis , preserve themselves and others by dispersing themselves in the healthy spaciousness of their mansions. The idea put forward by some governors, of translating virus positives into protected structures by public force, would apply only to those who do not have homes large enough to put them in isolation: that is, the poor. In decidedly more explicit terms, in the Corriere della Sera of 28 July last, a columnist shuddered at the thought of the "crowds ( sic ) of young people" who "from the unlivable suburbs, from the remote sleeping quarters, from the badly lit streets that end up in nothing" in the central streets of the movida almost moved, no less, than by the «murky intention of sowing contagion, of infecting the" good "society together with the places it inhabits. To destroy what they cannot have ». As in Phaedrus's fairy tale, the contagion goes up the stream from the basements to the attics: never in the opposite direction, never among the optimates themselves. In the few images that leaked from their meetings we saw a Maria Elena Boschi embraced to friends off the coast of Ischia without protection, or even a reception in the estate of a television journalist whose illustrious guests – including that same regional president who cursed the greasers of the spritz – crowded free from the mask. The only, macroscopic exception: the waiters, on whose faces he stood out like a caste mark.

The people-mass-disease connection is activated almost spontaneously in recalling the stereotypes of ancient plagues, third world slums and semi-bestial promiscuity. Writing about the "contempt of the people" ( Le mépris du peuple , Éditions Les Liens qui libèrent, 2015) that would allign more and more openly among contemporary political leaders, the French journalist Jack Dion commented already in 2015 that "this sick democracy has the people in quarantine ”, without imagining that soon he would do so literally. For the Canadian political scientist Francis Dupuis-Déri , the "fear of the people" of the Western elites ( La peur du peuple: Agoraphobie et agoraphilie politiques , Lux, 2016) would be a form of "agoraphobia", that is precisely "the fear and contempt of people gathered ( assemblée ) "in the agora to cultivate common interests. This last intuition reveals better than any other the political planning that becomes the screen of the sanitary and dematerial allegory.

Under any regime, politics is a collective activity because its object is collective. Alongside the institutional colleges there is the freedom of ordinary citizens to meet and associate (Const., Articles 17 and 18), a freedom whose compression is always the signal of an imbalance in an authoritarian sense and of a conflict that cannot otherwise be managed. between the base and the vertices. Historically, the union and emancipation of less represented citizens has matured precisely in the places that today we want to sterilize from "gatherings": factories, offices, squares, clubs, universities. And the concentration of one's own bodies, from ( secessio plebis ) or towards the space of the opposing order, was the last instrument of political struggle for those who did not have armies and assets. With a view to social control, it is therefore easy to apply the ancient maxim of the diviser pour régner to the expedient of the physical dispersion of a discontented and restless citizenry , all the more effective if it is inculcated in the recipients by educating them to the mutual disgust of their pestilential limbs. A disgust of oneself where everyone is given the thrill of standing up as an aristocrat – if not for wealth, at least for intelligence and civility – on the underlying rabble of the "irresponsible".

It is almost certain that even today such an extreme deconstruction of the civil agglomeration would not be tolerable without the anesthetic of a surrogate and immaterial relationality, such as that reproduced by modern remote communication technologies. This would explain, among other things, the obsessiveness with which they are promoted even where they obviously do not bring any advantage. Because this substitution, while offering a symbolic and mutilated relief valve with one hand, reinforces the control device with the other until it is total. A square in turmoil, a small group or a meeting behind closed doors do not go out with a click. Instead, it can be done with a website, a blog, a social network, an account or even the entire internet network, indeed it is already done, there is already the Chinese " great wall of fire " that would like to be replicated in Europe too. . Alternatively or in addition, the contents that travel on the network can be censored, repositioned or magnified, so as to set up in the virtual the script of a realistic public space but deformable as needed, to orient the actors. In all cases, the reductio ad digitum of each individual interaction or condition – activities, conversations, travel, purchases , income, tastes, affections, votes , health, etc. – it neatly stores the contents in a single jar to make them available for consultation by those who control the infrastructures, closes any glimmer of secrecy and transforms individuals into data streams to be subjected to the governance of algorithms, that is, of those who program them. Big data becomes imago hominum and men promise to dissolve mystery and arbitrariness by reducing them to the panoptic discipline of a database and the transparency of automata. To (re) discover the obvious: that without freedom there is no sin, without life there is no death.

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Il Pedante at the URL on Mon, 31 Aug 2020 01:10:21 PDT.