Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte
The Gentle Art of Making “Un-Decisions”
What can the concept of crisis teach us about the COVID-19 pandemic? And what can this pandemic teach us about our understanding of the concept of crisis as it has become ever more associated with the qualifier of “perennial” or “everlasting”? This article analyzes the co-dependence of these two questions by investigating one of the two fundamental features of the concept of crisis: deciding. Four concrete examples of “un-deciding” during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis will be our main guides. Some final considerations will be dedicated to the concept and the function of the pharmakon.
WE don’t know whether Hippocrates ever existed.1 We do know the Hippocratic tradition created a solid connection between the concept of crisis and the field of medicine, so much so that when one is working on (thinking about, dealing with) the concept of crisis, the medical field is never far away. This is not only because we have succumbed to the imperialism of the medical profession or become medicalized, as respectively Ivan Illich2 and Peter Conrad3 already denounced. No. It is so, first of all, historically, but probably also merely conceptually. For as much as the concept of crisis belonged to the fundamental concepts of the Greek language, “potentially registered all the decision situations of inner and outer life, of individual humans and their communities,”4 and it featured in a variety of fields (politics, theology, the theory of warfare), it was in the field of medicine that it featured prevalently. In fact, the pervasiveness of the concept in the field of medicine was so evident that it was not only considered to be one of the core concepts of the medical field, but it was the medical meaning and understanding of crisis that shaped the usage of the word in various other fields in history.5
That this medical understanding of the concept of crisis is still important today was evident to me years ago when I published my book on Limbo and crisis.6 That it is still so predominant, and so violently operative, as is becoming increasingly clear since we entered our present COVID-19 pandemic crisis, surprised me. This discovery was still dawning on me when we recorded the 8th podcast of the PICT Voices series that found me discussing the Limboic times of modernity.7 As I was trying to tie some aspects of my research to the pandemic regime that was (and still is) being imposed on almost all of us, two of those connections became so firm that it is necessary to further hold still with them. The first connection regards “non-deciding,” and the second is related to the function of the pharmakon.8
Before I venture into the discussion of these two aspects, it is necessary to stress that I am no medical doctor and that I will not utter any medical claim. That I will not touch upon medical issues while talking about the remaining medical nature of crisis language during an epi/pandemic should not be considered as limiting. As epidemiologist Philip Alcabes (who also featured on PICT Voices and features in this volume as well, and whose contribution has been fundamental in rendering more concrete my more theoretical points) wrote, there are three diverse and equally important categories involved in the understanding of and dealing with an epi/pandemic. While these categories are profoundly and intricately related, they play themselves out on different fields. They are:
- The physical and biological event of the disease.
- The social implications (the social crisis) caused by the biological event.
- The narration of the epi/pandemic (the storyline of the unfolding of the events that allows people to make sense of what happens/happened).9
Thus, my contribution should be considered as a critical incursion into the narrative field opened by this pandemic and then written by today’s various policymakers.
As already indicated, the concept of crisis was a fundamental concept of the ancient Greek language, and as such it featured in a variety of fields. The Greek word from which our word “crisis” derives was krinō, which originated from the Proto-Indo-European root krei. Avoiding the simplistic and even obscene thoughts of original linguistic purity, we need to acknowledge that both the Proto-Indo-European root krei and the Greek word krinō had multiple meanings. The root krei meant to sieve, to discriminate, or to distinguish, and krinō meant to separate, to decide, to cut, to judge, or to select. However, for as much as we have a plurality of different meanings and usages, all lead to a singular operation. It is because of this non-paradoxical duplicity that translocating Jean-Luc Nancy’s binomial of “singular plural”10 from an ontological to a linguistic context is particularly appropriate.
Considering the concept of crisis thus as a “singular plural,” or, more accurately in this linguistical/conceptual context, as a “plural singularity,” allows us to acknowledge, besides the already mentioned (plural) meanings, also the (singular) operativity of crisis. And this singular operativity of crisis is that of a discrimination, of a discernment, a distinction between (strict) alternatives that allow for no revision whatsoever. A crisis necessarily implies a neat and clear judgement, a decision, a separation between strict alternatives (in an equally necessary strict and limited temporal dimension). What is fundamental to realize and keep in mind is that this essential discerning, deciding and discriminating operativity of the crisis aims at overcoming this same crisis (and that is also why it is fundamental that a crisis, this separating and judging factor, plays itself out in a strictly limited time). Thus, the scope of a crisis is to overcome itself, or to be overcome. Refusing to decide, or disallowing decisions to be taken (or endlessly prolonging the limited temporal dimension of the crisis through endless procrastinations), will see to it that the crisis’ resolution is (endlessly) deferred.
One thing that our current COVID-19 pandemic has rendered more than evident, although it might seem counterintuitive on a superficial level, is that the whole practice of decision-making—something that should be of absolute priority in this crisis situation (and which should have been facilitated by the various state of emergency declarations, which are nothing but the apex of decisionist political theory)—has taken a back seat. This does not mean that no decisions were taken; not deciding is also making a decision. No, decisions were obviously taken. The point I intend to establish is that notwithstanding the fact that decisions were taken, the final aim of these decisions was to not decide, or to let the decision that had to be taken be the least decisional possible (even to the point of rendering it completely indecisive). The ambiguity of the act of deciding often allows for a smokescreen and permits non-decisions to be covered by the veil of deciding. Thus, it is for us to read carefully and unveil the fiction of these non-decisions.
A substantial number of real and troublesome examples can be given here to prove my point. Strictly for reasons of space, I will have to limit myself to four.11 A first concrete demonstration of this abdication of the practice of decision-making relates to the number of individual rulings—and then the rewritings of and changes imposed upon these same individual rulings—that have been made by most of the world’s governments. Italy, to give one paradigmatic example, a country that was famous for having an extremely low level of parliamentary activity and an even lower grade of activity in normal lawmaking (it almost exclusively relies on decrees and so-called trust votes—but they too can easily be counted on two hands in one year), has become incredibly active in its rule-making.
If one takes a superficial look at the frenetic activity of Italian policymakers, one could mistakenly deduct that the government is making important decisions to keep the pandemic and all the health and socio-economic problems attached to it under control. A closer look reveals that in the 10 months of the pandemic12 the Italian government has issued a total of 25 so-called law-decrees (“laws” that become effective immediately, but that have to be converted into “real” laws within 60 days—something which hardly ever happens), 26 so-called DPCM (decreto del presidente del consiglio dei ministri) decrees emanated by the prime minister, 60 ministerial decrees, 116 ordinances, and 125 circulars.13 All these governmental outputs treat very similar issues (at times even re-writing or slightly changing the same rule over and again), and are all pretty shady as toward their legal effects (what is the neat frontier between administrative guidelines and legal procedures?). One should seriously doubt not just the effectiveness of these “decisions,” but even more so their pure decisional nature. Writing eight DPCMs in one month, as was the case in March, oftentimes treating the same topic repetitively and in multiple DPCMs while constantly changing the requirements,14 can hardly be considered an example of decisiveness. If anything, these “decisions” seem weak attempts at hiding the desire to not decide.
The second example regards something we already quickly referred to: the shadiness and ambiguity toward the legal effects of most of the “decisions” taken. Besides the already mentioned ambiguity between administrative guidelines and legal procedures, there is another, and, I believe, even more troublesome ambiguity at play. This time I will not refer to the Italian situation,15 but to Switzerland and Belgium.
Let me begin in Belgium, or more precisely in Charleroi. It is the end of September (eight months into the COVID-19 crisis). At the local police tribunal, a judge needs to decide whether a person is obliged to pay the administrative fines (so-called GAS-fines; Gemeentelijke administratieve sancties, communal administrative sanctions) he (as it was a male in this particular situation) has incurred because of not respecting rulings related to the COVID-19 health situation. Interestingly enough, the judge declares the charges null. The COVID-19 rulings of the Belgian state, so the judge explicitly states, are unconstitutional. The law on which the Belgian (still technical) government16 thought it could base its rulings does, according to this judge, simply not suffice. This judgement implies that there is no sufficient legal basis for the decisions taken by the Belgian government.17
Turning now to Switzerland: here too, it is the end of September, and the scenario is similar to the Belgian one. But that changes on September 25, when the Swiss parliament passes the Federal COVID-19 Act. This act, as the government itself declares, creates a legal basis allowing the Federal Assembly to maintain the emergency decree measures it still deems necessary to manage the COVID-19 epidemic.18 For as much as this might be considered a good thing, the fact remains that, just like Belgium (and many other European countries), Switzerland does not have a legal base for the rules it imposed on its citizens through this act.19 What kind of decisions are being made without a legal base? Can’t these decisions be considered as mere pretexts for not deciding anything at all?
The quantity of rulings, the frequency of overlaps, the numerous rewritings of rules, and the still often lacking general legal framework for the COVID-19 legislations are not the only problematics that allow one to pose the question about the desired nature of the decisions taken by the various policymakers. A series of other minor problematics can also be listed—leaks to the press20 and largely anticipated announcements of new “decisions,” to name just two—that again could be understood as undermining the decisionist nature of these rulings.
But let me turn to two final and bigger problematics, beginning with the one “caused” by federalism. Federalism itself is, obviously, not a problem regarding the making of decisions. In fact, federalism is supposed to give more (and quicker) deciding power to those who have a more direct take and impact on certain aspects of public life. With the exception of a few European and some more centralist Eastern countries, most countries who constitute or model themselves after the Occidental example are highly federalized. And that which is almost always federalized in such cases is public health. As can be expected, and as has happened, this has caused some serious organizational problems. The declaration of the state of emergency, as occurred in one way or another in almost all European countries during the so-called first wave of this pandemic, was supposed to overcome these problems. Or was it? If one takes a closer look at how these federalism-related problems have been framed, rather than result-orientation, we have witnessed a blame game between national and regional governments. If anything, federalism has given all parties involved the chance to imitate Pontius Pilate. Because, unfortunately for all of us involved in this abominable show, what was at stake was never the desire to take credit (or accept blame) for any decision. And without there being any need for specific examples, it has been perfectly evident that the only credit that was sought was that of not being the one(s) who had taken the decision about this or that rule.
The final problematic I want to refer to is not a new one (but one that has been abused as never before).21 It regards the so-called “following-the-science” invocation. Already Max Weber wrote about an increased interaction between science and politics and understood that this would form one of the basic pillars of bureaucratic domination. But it was Jürgen Habermas who first understood that this bureaucratic peril also comported a risk to the nature of decision-making.22 Whereas this was merely a hypothetical situation for Habermas, we can now safely say that the hypothesis has become reality. The further intensification of interaction between science and politics did, however, not develop in a context of competition between the two fields, as Habermas thought. In fact, the assertion of the specialist’s knowledge over the political leader’s decisions is not being contested. If anything, it is welcomed, especially by the political leader as, once again, it removes the decisionist nature of the decisions s/he has to make.
Not only has this co-option led to similar passing-the-buck shenanigans between scientific bureaucrats and governmental leaders as the ones we discussed above between regional and national policymakers; it has gone so far that some scientists have started to call the collective bluff. To give just one example, microbiologist Hugh Pennington, professor at Aberdeen University and—for the series of funny ironies in history—part of the research team that discovered the original coronavirus in the 1960s, has come out publicly to denounce this “following the science” mantra. As Pennington asserted, the affirmation that one is “following the science” is meaningless, as the advice offered by many scientists is in conflict with advice offered by other scientists. It is simply impossible to follow the science. Secondly, it is also a clear attempt at avoiding any sort of blame or accountability for “their” decisions.23 What is buried underneath the veil of “decisions” that hide behind the “following the science” motto is simply the pretentious (also in the sense of mere pretense) transferal of responsibility that has as its only scope the liberation from the burden of decision-making and accountability.
Before attempting to phrase a conclusion, I also need to say something on the topic of the pharmakon. I referred to this Greek term in my book,24 and even though the reference I made to the pharmakon had to do with Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato’s considerations regarding writing as a pharmakon (and not with any particular medicinal treatment), the fact that I had earlier described the working of crisis as a disease, as a virus, rendered it, I believe, more than natural to make this connection. The connection made is even more fortunate because the Greek pharmakon is not just a term that refers to any medicine or drug. No. The pharmakon is a remedy and a poison at the same time. Thus, the pharmakon is what we understand as a vaccine. And today, with the world considering a vaccine to be the solution for the COVID-19 pandemic, some critical ponderings on the workings of the narrative behind the pharmakon/vaccine are of necessity. I will keep my considerations limited to two short, correlated points.
As Derrida correctly emphasized, Plato was highly suspicious of the pharmakon.25 Being both remedy and poison, it is never simply beneficial. But what was even more troublesome to Plato was that the pharmakon was something artificial that intended to disturb the normal development of the disease. Only in extreme emergencies should one take recourse to the pharmakon. Few would doubt that our COVID-19 pandemic can be considered as one of these extreme cases where a pharmakon, a vaccine, is required. There is, however, one more aspect that comes along with the pharmakon, an aspect that is of greater importance than the fact that the pharmakon/vaccine is an interruptive artificiality. This aspect is that the pharmakon/vaccine carries the peril of merely curing the symptoms of the disease.26
The meaning of this danger can be read two ways. On one hand, there is the medical danger that the vaccine will only cure the symptoms of the virus and that people will remain contagious and thus capable of infecting other people. Although some voices are starting to be heard that hold to this danger, this is not what is of interest to me. As I said earlier, my interest is not in medical statements, but in the narrative related to the medical statements. Considering the (threatened) collapse of our public healthcare, the crumbling of our social and political structures, the extreme forms of non-deciding, and the attempts to avoid all forms of accountability we have denounced here, if a vaccine were only to cure the symptoms of our severely hurt and destitute society, what lies ahead of us would truly be bleak.
That this purely cosmetic/symptomatic reconstruction is a real threat can be related to one more connotation of the pharmakon. The pharmakon is, in fact, not only the artificial poisonous interruptive remedy that possibly only cures symptoms, it is also always the potential pharmakos: the scapegoat. If the scapegoat, that fictitious or real sacrificial and innocent victim that serves a purifying function, indeed becomes identifiable as the pharmakon/vaccine, then that would allow the purely cosmetic curing of symptoms to become the equally fictitious purification of the still profoundly infected and hurt society. It was the late Bernard Stiegler who warned us of this peril of the pharmakon also becoming the pharmakos,27 but it was René Girard who most clearly stated who would be behind the success of this extremely perilous operation: an “omnipotent manipulator.”28 This “manipulator” does not have to be someone; the mere lie that all problems will have been resolved would perfectly fulfill this function as well.
Withholding judgement or upholding one’s patience in the absence of the information or evidence necessary to reach a decision is one of the greatest virtues we possess. Discriminating, judging, and deciding based on pre-judice creates an unjust society. The basic understanding of a crisis as one of a discrimination, of a discernment, a distinction between strict alternatives that allows for no revision whatsoever, and where these alternatives are simply life or death, makes it clear that the stakes are high. In this context, maintaining the status quo—as if freezing the moment before that excruciating instant of a new life or everlasting death—as the greatest “value” might seem an alluring, even tempting goal. Although we generally live in that “moment before,” we aren’t always offered that luxury. Sometimes it is already in the past and we find ourselves facing that excruciating instant of crisis. And even if non-deciding might seem the safest option going forward—security-driven as we are, and ever more prone to attract as little deadly responsibility as possible—this desire for safe non-deciding is not a mere ruse. It is a pure decision for evil.
Although I was tempted to conclude along the lines of the former Italian constitutional judge Sabino Cassese who cynically considered the addition of a new circle in Dante’s Inferno for today’s governmental policymakers,29 I have decided to refrain from doing so. Not that I think that would be wrong. No. I simply fear the profundity of the warning would get lost. So I will stick with the following thought for those who have attempted to guide us through this crisis, and who are trying to convince themselves they did all they could. Well, … you haven’t convinced anyone, you scared, trivial (mainly white), and insignificant little (wo)men. And this is also how you will be remembered in your adored historical annals.
KRISTOF K.P. VANHOUTTE is a core faculty member at the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking (PICT) and Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the University of the Free State. His most recent books are Saramago’s Philosophical Heritage (2018), co-edited with Carlo Salzani, and Limbo Reapplied: On Living in Perennial Crisis and the Immanent Afterlife (2018).
dePICTions volume 1 (2021): Pandemic Times
1. As W.H.S. Jones remarked, the Hippocratic corpus has little in common. Like many other ancient authors, Hippocrates probably represents a collective name and not a proper one; cf. Hippocrates, Ancient Medicine, volume 1, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library), 1923, xxviii.↑
2. Cf. Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health, New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.↑
3. Cf. Peter Conrad, The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.↑
4. Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, 237.↑
5. Cf. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 240.↑
6. Cf. Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Limbo Reapplied: On Living in Perennial Crisis and the Immanent Afterlife, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.↑
7. Cf. Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, “Living in Limbo,” PICT Voices episode 8, May 14, 2020 [16 February 2021].↑
8. The context of this text and the examples used are primarily European. This Euro-centrality has nothing to do with any desire for prevalence. If anything, it has to do with the personal limits of the author (and, by coincidence, Europe’s centrality is also related to it being one of the main hotbeds of this virus).↑
9. Philip Alcabes, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu, New York: Public Affairs, 2009, 5.↑
10. Cf. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, 1-99.↑
11. Although I admit that not all countries or governments have run into the problems I intend to list, some have been able to incur all of them.↑
12. I am writing these lines in December 2020.↑
13. The data to which I refer is available here [16 February 2021].↑
14. For example, what documents are needed to leave one’s house in a regime of complete lockdown.↑
15. Italy “resolved” this problem by remaining in an “exceptional” regime—the state of emergency was declared on 31 January 2020, and Italy is now, 11 months later, still in a state of emergency—which obviously causes problems too; can an emergency last for 11 months? And what to do about the autonomous powers of the regions? We will, however, return to this problematic later.↑
16. The two years since the last election and eight months since the COVID-19 outbreak have not encouraged the various Belgian political parties to form a government.↑
17. The prosecution did appeal, but no final decision on this situation has been taken.↑
18. Cf. the so-called “COVID-19 Act” [16 February 2021]↑
19. The UK and France already have an operative legal base for their COVID-19 crisis rulings, while the Netherlands is working on it.↑
20. Who can forget the images of the overcrowded stations in Milan or Paris hours before those cities went into lockdown?↑
21. That it is not new, thus not strictly COVID-19-related, demonstrates also that this peril of non-deciding is a more structural problem of our society.↑
22. “Today,” Habermas wrote, “we are confronted with the question whether the decisionistic model is valid for the second stage of the rationalization of domination. Systems analysis and especially decision theory do not merely make new technologies available, thus improving traditional instruments; they also rationalize choice as such by means of calculated strategies and automatic decision procedures. To this extent the objective necessity disclosed by the specialists seems to assert itself over the leaders’ decisions.” Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989, 63.↑
23. Emer Scully, “Microbiologist accuses politicians of hiding behind ‘follow the science’ mantra to avoid taking the blame once pandemic is over,” MailOnline, 26 April 2020 [16 February 2021].↑
24. Cf. Vanhoutte, Limbo Reapplied, 148-151.↑
25. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, London: The Athlone Press, 1981, 99.↑
26. Cf. Derrida, Dissemination, 110.↑
27. Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living?, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013, 20.↑
28. René Girard, The Scapegoat, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, 46.↑
29. Cf. “Sabino Cassese manda Conte e Casalino ‘all’inferno’: ‘Orrori giuridici non previsti dalla Costituzione’,” Libero Quotidiano, 20 December 2020 [16 March 2021].↑