The State of Exception Becomes the Norm

March 13, 2020 — The Big Picture

In Homo Sacer, the Italian philosopher writes of the repression which occurs when a state of exception exists; people’s lives are reduced to a biological minimum, as in the Nazi concentration camps. But this reduction can persist once the exceptional conditions pass. The sociologist Alain Touraine long ago showed how war-time conditions legitimated state regulation of people’s lives, long after the Second World War ended. Power structures exploit crises, use the crise to legitimate expanded control.

Panic allows the exploitation of crises. Few younger people in rich countries today have the experience of military discipline whose guiding principle was that soldiers keep their heads under fire; panic in a warzone almost guarantees getting killed. But the media today are drunk on panic, representing the extremes of illness and death as an inevitable fate. When good news appears, as in the Chinese diminution of the disease, it is now longer equal in the media to the excitement of comparing the Corona-19 pandemic to the Black Death of the 14th Century – absurd but the comparison excites. In this way media power serves the state in its normalizing project.

I’m not at all minimizing the present pandemic, just saying that it has to be addressed without panicking, and that it presents an “opportunity,” if that is the right word, for exploitation.

This is the just prospect cities face today: rules of control of cities will outlast the pandemic; in particular, rules regulating public space, dictating social distance, dispersing crowds, they will persist even after we have the medical means to suppress the disease. We have a near historic reminder. After 9/11 regulation regulating public gatherings, controlling access to buildings, and the specification of how bomb-proof buildings should be constructed stayed on the statute books. “Social distancing,” which is necessary during the current crisis, threatens to become a norm, enforced by the government, even after people, thanks to an effective vaccine, no longer have a compelling reason to fear proximity to others.

The pandemic challenges us to think about issues in the city, however, which will outlast the pandemic. The first of these is social isolation, the grim cousin of social distancing. The pandemic – particularly in Europe, where I’m writing from London – has raised in people’s minds the problem of how to deal with the large number of elderly people living alone. In London, 40% of the elderly live alone, in Paris 68%. They are already experiencing social distancing; loneliness does nothing positive for either their physical or their mental health. Governments, in my judgement, are incapable of writing laws which overcome the loneliness which the imposition of social distancing creates. This is a challenge instead for urban civil society, one for which we are going to need new concepts about community.

The pandemic also challenges urbanists to rethink the architecture of density. Density is the rationale for cities; concentration of activities in a city stimulates economic activity [e.g. the “agglomeration effect”]; concentration of people is a good ecological principle in dealing with climate change, by saving on infrastructure resources; and it is a good thing socially, people being exposed to others unlike themselves in a dense, diverse city. Yet to prevent or inhibit future pandemics, we may need to find different physical forms for density, permitting people to communicate, to see neighbors, to participate in street life even as they temporarily separate. Chinese urbanists long ago found such a flexible form in the shikumen courtyard; architects and planners need to find its contemporary equivalent.

The pandemic may, finally, humanize the use of high tech in cities. The “smart city” models of a generation ago were all about regulation and control – the state online. What’s emerging in this pandemic are good programmes and protocols which create community. I’m particularly impressed in London by the number of mutual care networks which are springing up in communities like me, one which resembles West Harlem in New York, full of diversity but before not endowed with much community. On-line communication has in the last week changed all that.

In sum, this is a time to fear the opportunity the pandemic offers the ruling powers, to reject the theatre of panic staged in the media, and to affirm the power of civil society in the city.

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