We are assailed by news reports of rising deaths from Covid 19. Truly frightening, yes. But what appears even more frightening is the reportage of lower cases because of lower rates of testing. Data manipulation has never been so brazen, and in the midst of a global health crisis, the truth that we do not have more cases only because we are not testing for new cases suggests two things.
First, we as a public are zealously being kept from knowing, and this is now an accepted cultural practice. This wilful production of ignorance, or agnogenesis (from the term agnosis), has two principles working in tandem: ‘even if it didn’t happen, it is true’, and its converse, ‘even if it did happen, it isn’t true’.
Thus, the deaths from Covid, if they did indeed happen, it cannot be true and there would be other reasons for these deaths. The other response would be, we cannot be sure that people are not dying like flies everywhere, but we know it is true. This agnogenesis is partially the effect of an illusion: a belief in the validity of truth and an unwavering demand that it be restored to, and respected in, political life, argues the philosopher Adam Chmielewski.
What neoliberalism does is to slowly erode, first, the belief and the illusion in truth as a value and as a necessity in public and political life. We used to think that public figures, the state and its apparatuses ought not to mislead the citizens. However, under neoliberalism’s shift of emphasis from an emphasis on truth-value to affective belief- and meaning-making, it is enough to have convinced enough people to believe in what you are saying. It is the way of saying rather than what you are saying that produces willed ignorance around key domains. This leads to the now-established effect of a post-truth society, where it is not necessary to be truthful.
Second, agnogenesis is the manufacture of what Kevin Martin and Martin Bosman writing on risk society describe as ‘targeted ignorance’, in specific domains. Being kept in the dark – a symbol of ignorance – is very different from the wilful, crafted production of ignorance.
Currently the production of targeted ignorance is in the fields of Covid (impact, risk assessment, strategies for combatting), national security, the state of the economy, the state and future of vulnerable populations (which includes students now, for as the recent judgement puts it, we are witnessing the making of a digital apartheid when they wish to study) to name a few.
In the face of the pandemic-driven search for reliable knowledge – which, unfortunately, we do not always receive from the bodies meant to disseminate this: the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the various government-controlled organisations – the task of acting on whatever knowledge one comes by is daunting.
The digital world has made sharing of knowledge both easy and yet complicated. Fake news, manipulated opinions, anxiety- and panic-inducing (mis)information all make the response to received knowledge difficult at best. Yet, in the neoliberal frames of governance where the state is not exactly the helpful giver of reliable knowledge, the citizen must act.
Agnogenesis is accompanied, ironically, by the need and duty to act. Whether I undertake a Covid test or not, and what kind of test, is a question I have to find an answer for in the midst of contradictory and conflicting information coming at me. We live with the burden of agnogenesis and somatic responsibility. Aviad Raz, the sociologist, argues how ‘neo-liberal forms of bio-governmentality [are] shaping “somatic responsibility” among individuals who internalise and act upon self-normalizing medical expectations’.
Somatic responsibility is what has emerged out of, or perhaps because of, the nature of information, the insistence on personal responsibility and the production of ignorance. The individual needs to ensure the safety of her/himself, and that of others, by not only practising the necessary precautions but also by voluntarily getting tests done on her/his body. The individual body is the site of conflicted knowledges and is burdened by the need to respond responsibly.
Medicalisation of Family
Somatic responsibility is linked now all the more to the medicalisation of the family (a feature of the health discourses of the 18th century in Europe, as the philosopher Michel Foucault once pointed out). Moving beyond the soap/sanitiser/mask triad in which we all now fit, often uncomfortably, the necessity of safeguarding the family’s health in the face of individual and collective ignorance unleashed by the state’s evident withdrawal from offering reliable data or advice, has produced higher degrees of medicalisation. Somatic responsibility expands.
What results is ‘an entire ensemble of obligations, which were imposed at the same time on both parents and children: obligations of a physical order (care, contact, hygiene, cleanliness, attentive closeness)’ (Foucault). The household itself develops, enforces and periodically tightens modes of social control, hygiene and sanitation mechanisms and (medicalised) processes of care.
This medicalisation of the family produces, as a form of difference from and opposition to, the cultural production of ignorance, a situation of informal education about viruses, etiologies, symptoms and signs and related biomedical details. That is, the response to agnogenesis is the medicalisation of the family with information and data becoming commonplace.
But here one could expand the ‘family’ to include the social worlds we occupy in the age of the pandemic. Biosociality – where sociality hinges on the sharing of biomedical knowledge and information, including personal conditions of disease – may or may not be a wise idea when the information circulating is often unreliable, but it produces a kind of experiential knowledge as a response.
As agnogenesis races along and amplifies in the face of the government’s reluctance to vouchsafe the real state of affairs, the social order that demanded, once, accurate information to enable decision-making (since democracy is informational democracy), we see how the shift towards self-governance and somatic responsibility is our lot. Our knowledge, our-selves.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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