Reasonability is not a reproduction of universal laws declared from above: A conversation with Kilian Jörg

The end of February marks a year since the WHO warned the national governments, saying that COVID-19 is “literally knocking at the door” and that they might choose to activate pre-prepared “pandemic plans”. It has been a year since first deaths in Italy started an avalanche of panic (the virus was already killing people a few months earlier in Asia, but no one really cared) and it has been a year since infections in Europe were in hundreds, rather than millions. Uncertainty and even more uncertainty has flooded the past twelve months of lives of most people and the term “restrictions” has become part of daily news vocabulary.

Taking a position towards the way the pandemic is being handled by the national governments and knowing how to navigate through the chaos on a personal level has been difficult, particularly because of the widespread fear and a creeping judgemental gaze signifying that our society is developing a serious moral injury. The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma and therefore, cultural workers, artists, philosophers, anthropologists and other social and political scientists should have a voice alongside those from the medical and biological sciences on the key “what, how and for whom” regarding the pandemic.

The following conversation with Kilian Jörg, who works at the multimedial interfaces between philosophy and art (full bio below), elaborates on the tricky questions regarding ethical judgements, reasonability, differing positions of the leftists towards state-imposed restrictions and the necessity to think critically about generalisations such as “the health care system” and “responsibility”.

Kilian, you are a philosopher, artist and leftist activist and your PhD research in philosophy focuses on the concept of Reason and ecological epistemology. In relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic, “being reasonable” is associated with presenting sound arguments, and justifications based on figures, rather than emotions and intuitions. Could you elaborate on what “being reasonable” means on a practical level of daily realities of living in recurrent lockdowns and fear? Does being reasonable necessarily mean acting according to scientific advice and prognoses of epidemiologists in the name of a collective interest to eliminate the virus?

We are starting with a very large question and I am cautious to define “reasonability” in any general sense. In fact, I do believe that a problematic trait inherited from and embedded in occidental reasoning is a lack of reflection of what one would call an “ecology of abstractions”. By this, I mean that there is too little reflection on the constitutive situatedness from which any reasoning arises and to what extent it can be generalized into one “Reason” (with capital R). If something is reasonable in one specific situation this does not necessarily entail that it is universally reasonable everywhere and everywhen.

Much of my philosophical work is committed to undoing this unreflected universalization. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, I see a dangerous reproduction of this tendency in what I perceive as an almost complete lack of differentiation between risk and danger. Risk is an abstract calculation of a stochastic likelihood that doesn’t have much to do with the concrete situation you are living in. Danger, on the other hand, is a concrete threat your situated life is exposed to – when a car is approaching you very fast, for example. I believe that we are categorically confusing the two and are reacting to the risk as if it were a danger. This makes us prone to react to the risk of a COVID-19 infection in a very abstract and general manner without taking into account who is actually in danger and what their actual situation is. It will surely be reasonable for many people to minimize contacts, wear masks, etc. However, if this is declared as a general law (as in the Reason) we are completely missing out to differentiate between the specific social, immunological, political and health entanglements people find themselves in and to cater to their needs and worries on a more individual (and effective) level.

In your recent article (1), you questioned the argument that we all have to protect our health care systems that are collapsing under the COVID-19 pandemic by proposing that “affirmation of helplessness in the face of this crisis is more productive than hiding behind preconceived ideas”. You turn to Ivan Illich’s critique of the healthcare system apparatus (2) and call for “openness and uncertainty, from which spontaneous and creative thinking can sprout”. It seems that you believe that creative and critical thinking is more urgent than protecting our existing health care systems. Could you explain why?

First of all, I do not believe that this is an either-or question. I perceive no contradiction between thinking creatively and critically and – what you call – “protecting the health care system”. Secondly, only very few, regionally very limited parts of health care systems temporarily collapsed, whereas the large majority was never even close at risk – even if most politicians still make us fear the worst.

But to zoom out to the more general question behind it: Which health care system are we talking about? Is it the one that has undergone massive cuts during the last neoliberal decades and has – in many cases – become a biopolitical monstrosity that creates more problems than solutions? What do we want to protect in this one? Are we sure we want to keep it in its structural entirety?

I have the feeling that people only have a very vague idea of what exactly they want to protect, and this lack of concrete information makes people tend to seek shelter under general declarations such as “protecting the health care system”. It is not as if the health care system is one monolithic block: It is comprised of many different and contradicting agents and institutions – they are even more so contradicting during the pandemic since many critics of the hegemonial lock-down politics come from medical jobs. Certainly, some of them are much more beneficial than others for the future well-being of our society.

I think if you talk with people face to face most will all agree that many aspects of our health care systems are faulty and should not be maintained to the same degree (examples: the overabundant use of pharmaceutical drugs, an anti-holistic approach that fixes only the problem-reduced-to-an-object without taking into account the body in its entirety, the dogma of keeping people alive at all costs, the lack of preventive health interventions and a more general immunological care, the focus on individual symptoms instead of societal or environmental causes, etc.). However, in this general climate of fear, this differentiation seems to get lost in favour of general statements. What I find particularly worrying is that in this climate, critique and differentiation of such general statements are perceived by many as an active threat – as opposed to an honest attempt to productively think of good ways of dealing with this crisis. My call for “openness and uncertainty” is also directed towards these tendencies: Do not fall prey to the all-to-easy generalizations of “the health care system”, “responsibility” or even “solidarity” most politicians are using to maintain their authority. Reasonability emerges from uncertainty and an openness and willingness to think with the concrete situation – it is not a reproduction of universal laws declared from above.

In your previously published articles, you criticise the abstract notion of death in Western modern societies, where death is regarded as something unacceptable, something we have to prevent, something that is hidden from our sight. You argue that although death is horrible, we need to “abandon the idea of human supremacy on this planet – stepping down from the phantasma of full control over life, death and the fate of the Earth” and “learn to take leave of the belief that everything will always become better, longer, older, faster. And – finally – learn to accept dying as a part of living” (3). However, certain parts of the population, in the UK particularly people of black and south Asian ethnic background, have a greater risk of death from COVID-19 than white people (due to their living arrangements and jobs) (4), how does your proposition depart from the logics of eugenics and white supremacist necropolitics?

This is a very tricky question. I am very aware of the dangers you are addressing here. A thematization – and somewhat affirmation – of the necessity of dying can be very easily hijacked by eugenicist and supremacist logics – and many that are trying to do it in another way are immediately – and often unfairly – put in the same box. I am particularly thinking of Donna Haraway and her statement that we should work on becoming much less humans on this planet. However, I am inclined to stick with Haraway’s motto of Staying with the trouble. I think it is necessary to stick with the messy and difficult problems, those that are really controversial and painful. The instinct to withdraw from them is large but I am not at all convinced that this is the best way to deal with them because a) they might be completely claimed by the wrong people and b) the problems remain, whether we like it or not: We cannot deny that the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction” is happening and that it has a certain correlation with the exponential growth of human world population over the last century. I think it would be wrong to cede thinking about how this great dying of our times correlates with the – comparatively minor – dying of humans due to the COVID-19 pandemic (since humans, in contrast to many other earthly beings, are not dying out at the moment). It has been asserted by many that the pandemic is a symptom of the general ecological catastrophe (due to biodiversity loss, erosion of wildlife-habitats, accelerated global exchange, etc.) and we should regard it in that vein to develop effective and sustainable response-strategies to this (and other, coming) crises.
This is what the article you referred to in your question was about. As I have tried to elucidate in the previous question, such an ecological reasoning is one that opts for more differentiated attention and situation specific reasoning and acting: If certain communities (as those from black and south Asian ethic backgrounds in the UK) are more exposed to the danger of dying from or with COVID-19, they should not receive the same attention, care and help from the state or society, but more. They should be enabled to economically and socio-culturally improve their situation and better protect themselves. But this should not be applied as a general law of restriction and forced confinement (for this would only reproduce a structural racism already existing), but much rather as a politics of enabling self-care and self-protection in times of crisis such as a General Basic Income, a Right to Housing and legalization of all people would do.

Many people have lost their relatives and friends during the pandemic or have been experiencing long recovery periods from COVID-19. Others have suffered from precarious living arrangements, isolation, domestic violence, lost their jobs (and interactions with colleagues) and for those unemployed, it has become more difficult to find work. Transgressing the restrictions, for instance, gathering with friends and relatives can therefore be seen as an act of care by those, who require physical proximity of their loved ones to cope with mental health issues as well as an act of irresponsibility and ruthless individualist ignorance by those, who relate differently. How can ethical judgements be conveyed at this time of uncertainty, growing outrage and polarisation throughout the society?

I would argue that my take on the Corona-crises departs from this problem and returns to it: keeping a solid ethical standpoint of openness in times of crisis. I have the feeling that the growing (and very worrying) polarization and nervousness of society is also a result of not looking and differentiating carefully enough. We tend to put people into abstract boxes we took from elsewhere without looking at their personal histories, experiences, fears and motivations. Social media and social distancing accelerate this superficial mode of “social boxing” a lot.

If we would instead look and talk with them, we might understand their personal relation to this unprecedented time that is stressful to us all and makes us react in various chaotic and difficult manners. We might learn to understand that person A’s particular aversion towards state restrictions stems a lot from her traumas of a past totalitarian state she or her ancestors might have suffered under. Or that person B’s very strict obedience can – among other factors – also be explained as a certain rebellion against the “I don’t give a fuck” mentality of her closest relatives. Every position, situation and fear are understandable if we take care and time to trace them back to its specific ecology. Such a practice of differentiating and examining more carefully and closely is an ethical counter-practise to the current hegemony of too-quick generalizations and judgements.

In their recent essay published by e-flux, Sonali Gupta and H. Bolin (5) write that “the rapid expansion of state control further into the biopolitical sphere is only countered by fanatics who indulge in Covid-19 denialism, conspiracy theories, anti-mask rhetoric, and even austerity measures that are, in essence, eugenicist, as they choose simply to let people die.” They further elaborate that “the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has solidified a destabilization of the categories that uphold the Western political order, and the state-administered and popular responses reflect this destabilization in their confusion: right-wingers appear to carry the torch of freedom as they protest against lockdowns, while the left clings to rules and regulations and reacts to the right-wing”. As a leftist activist, how do you understand such a situation and, as we have witnessed, the growing polarisation of the left, because of differing views towards the state-imposed restrictions? Is there a leftist critique of the expanding state control? What are its premises?

To be honest, I am quite baffled and estranged by the political responses of many actors that I would have considered myself in political alliance with before the crisis. The most rampant example of this is the – self-ascribed – Leftist movement “Zero Covid”, in which I see a dangerous mix of authoritarianism and – I cannot put it differently – stupidity. A friend of mine recently made me aware of the work of Manes Sperber and how he defines fascism as a tendency to respond to a problem with a call for the complete annihilation of the problem. As almost any microbiologist would tell you, you do not and cannot eradicate a pandemic virus with the magnitude of COVID-19 – we will eventually assimilate it, integrate it into the large assemblage of many microbial beings we happen to call the “human body”.

But to eradicate the virus completely (as the Zero New Infection-goal of the movement demands) is not only stupid and completely unrealistic from a purely virological perspective. It is also highly dangerous from a pragmatic and political standpoint: What would you do with those growing numbers of people who do no longer obey the restrictions of lock-down politics? Would you, as a Leftist, then call for a strict police state and jail them? What are we doing with those people? How would we want to approach them and include them in a Leftist project?

But I might have gotten a bit side-tracked by my critique of Zero Covid. I can relate to their positively formulated, albeit very vague agenda (of a more egalitarian crisis politics) but believe that their catalogue of demands is catastrophically out of tune with the political and virological situation we are facing today. I think it is important to stress that “Zero Covid” is a phenomenon that largely sprouts in well-established, academic and urban Leftist environments: As I perceive it, it is mainly the well-off privileged “Leftists” or “Progressives” (for which it accumulates symbolic capital to have a public progressive persona) that do stand behind a Zero Covid politics. In this time of growing polarization, I see a tendency that certain traits (such as LGBTQI+-friendliness, a superficial anti-racist or ecological “consciousness”, or – in this case – “Corona strictness”) become a social and symbolic capital required to belong to a certain hip and urban bourgeoise. This is not in general a bad development – I actually believe it is necessary that this is happening, and you cannot sharply distinguish between “true intentions” and a more “opportunistic assimilation” – the two extremes work together in the processual becoming of any individual. But there is nonetheless a risk of superficiality when political ideology is much more a lifestyle accessory for a privileged class. I for my part prefer to define what is leftist or progressive politics from how I understand and estimate their consequences and less from who is publicly standing for them. “Left” for me – to give an impromptu working definition – would mean to trust people to think and act for themselves and provide (and fight for) the necessary material, social and cultural conditions that allow the most people to partake in this egalitarian thinking and acting. Furthermore, we have to mind that there is not one single “Left” – it is always a diversity of movements that do frequently disagree with each other – and that is a good thing! For sure there is a growing tendency of political confusion in these messy times, but I believe that this tendency is not exclusively happening on the Left: As I perceive it as an outside observer, the political right-wing is also struggling with positioning itself towards COVID-19. It is not the case that all right-wingers are Corona-sceptics. Let’s not forget that Kurz and Söder – the two most-right wing prime ministers of the Germanophone sphere – are also the proponents of the hardest lock-down politics. This time of ecological crises is – and will be way after COVID-19 – a time of political mess and confusion – and I think there is also a utopian moment in that for new alliances and understandings that might overcome very modern drenches of bifurcating the political into two oppositional fields.

As the last question, I would like to ask you how, as a philosopher, you see the temporality of the pandemic? Do you think there is such a thing as “after”?

I am afraid that much of the security apparatuses we saw emerging in the last year will stay and this will be accelerating the social exclusions of illegal migrants and many other precarious members of our societies to a degree I can hardly stand. Our capitalist nation-states were never really able to grasp the ecological catastrophe they got us in. Since this crisis is by now so tangible on so many levels, we can no longer completely ignore it. So now it seems that we tend to displace it. We mistake the symptoms (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) for the real crisis and react in a completely disoriented and confused manner, thus aggravating the roots of the problem: strengthening the nation-state, its biopolitical control, surveillance and border regimes while leaving capital almost completely untouched. I am afraid of what dead-ends this is leading us. But – to end on a positive note – maybe this also is a learning process of dealing and coping with a crisis we need to be going through as societies. We better take care that there will be enough freedom and space left after this crisis to actually transform in the radical manner needed.

Interview by Jaroslava Tomanová

(1) Jörg, Kilian, 2021, Krise des Gesundheitssystems? Was der Kult um Apparate über unser Verhältnis zu Komplexität sagt, https://berlinergazette.de/krise-gesundheitssystem-apparate-kritik/.

(2) Cayley, David, 2020, Questions About the Current Pandemic From the Point of View of Ivan Illich, http://www.davidcayley.com/blog/2020/4/8/questions-about-the-current-pandemic-from-the-point-of-view-of-ivan-illich-1; Illich, Ivan, 1976, Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis – The Expropriation of Health.

(3) Jörg, Kilian, 2020, Crowned Death – On good living and dying in times of Corona, https://skug.at/crowned-death-on-good-living-and-dying-in-times-of-corona/#_edn2 

(4) Davis, Nicola, 2020, Higher Covid deaths among BAME people ‘not driven by health issues’, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/16/bame-people-more-likely-to-die-from-covid-than-white-people-study 

(5) Gupta, Sonali and H. Bolin, 2021, Virality: Against a Standard Unit of Life, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/115/373014/virality-against-a-standard-unit-of-life/ 


Kilian Jörg (b. 1990 in Vienna, Austria) works at the multimedial interfaces between philosophy and art and is mainly active in Vienna, Berlin and Brussels. He is mainly interested in the effects (and narratives) of our ecological predicament and how its transformative powers can be best thought and acted with. For this he mostly employs the expression of text, performance and installation. He is founder of the performance-philosophy collective philosophy unbound and member of the performative research cluster Stoffwechsel – Ecologies of Collaboration and the artist’s initiative im_flieger. He has published in various formats such as e-flux Conversations, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, FM4, taz – die tageszeitung, Entkunstung, die Presse, engagée, The Trumpeter – Journal for Ecosophy, Journal for International Political Anthropology, Public Life of the Mind, malmoe, etc.

Books: with Jorinde Schulz: Die Clubmaschine (Berghain), Textem 2018; Backlash – Essays zur Resilienz der Moderne, Textem 2020. with Anna Lerchbaumer and al.: Toxic Temple. Edition Angewandte, De Gruyter (spring 2022)
kilianjoerg.blogspot.com

Jaroslava Tomanová (b. 1989 in Klatovy, Czech Republic) is a researcher and a writer based in Vienna. In the past she worked as Curatorial Assistant at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) and as International Collaborations Coordinator at Tanec Praha. Her university education has been primarily focused on the relation between the arts and the state, and her PhD research at the University of Leeds is a critical discourse analysis of neoliberal cultural policy based on post-structuralist and post-colonial perspectives. As a writer and art critic she has contributed to Corridor8, This Is Tomorrow and Freedom News. Since November 2020 she is a co-editor at Sumac Space – Art Practices of the Middle East.

Image by qupan, published under CC BY 2.0.