SARS and Multitudes, or European Multitudes?

I have tried writing this in French, and while it worked okay (with lots of
patience expected from the reader) it simply takes me too much time. Like
every other laborer, I am subject to the laws of time in relation to work,
and have already committed a huge amount of « temporal resources » to the
project of being minimally capable at a professional level in Chinese. I
mention this not only to excuse myself, but also because I insist that this
kind of linguistic effort–taking the conversation outside of the imperial
languages–is essential if the project of the multitudes is to avoid being
simply a pan-European synthesis. I should also mention–and this is
extremely problematic–that writing this letter in English also makes it
accessible to my Asian friends who, living under and contributing to the
historical hegemony of US super-sovereignty, easily read English but cannot
read French.

The spread of the SARS epidemic in Taiwan, as well as China, presents all
kinds of truly interesting problems for the consideration of the multitudes,
especially inasmuch as this concerns the possibility of articulating a
different vision of what today we can only call « rights » essentially tied to
the extremely compromised structures of State and Humanity–this at a time
when, as the « War on Terror » has shown, or again as Jacques Bidet writes,
the two categories are in the process of unprecendented identification. The
sort of theoretico-practical work that has been done by Yann Moulier Boutang
and others on this list, in and around the journal Multitudes, as well as in
other milieu, is unique in proposing a way, or at least a style, to make an
actual political project, one which can be communicated across boundaries,
out of the repressed historical differences associated with migration. From
this « point of view, » the opposition between migrants and nationals is
defeated, since everyone, within and against the logic of capital, desists
and persists in the diagonal illogic of exodus. Hence, the possibility of
history that is no loner national, indeed, not even « class » in the sense of
being a unified subject.

The SARS epidemic has raised all of these questions again for us, in a way
that ought to be as forceful and as far-reaching as the military operation
in Iraq. Indeed, it is impossible to avoid the framework that links these
events together. Yet what is so particularly interesting is the way in which
the two events command our attention in such different ways.

Once again, within the framework of this list, I would very much like to
articulate a point of view that is absolutely, intrinsically related to the
project of the multitudes, yet a project which only seems to appear on this
list in a very spectral, and somewhat predictably, almost dialectic form.
This point of view ought to be called something that is « non-European, »
provided we understand the prefix « non- » in the sense of « non-Euclidean
geometry »: certainly « Europe » is included. Within the Multitudes project,
both the theoretical articulation and the journal that takes this name,
there is a crucial–I would even say defining–moment that goes well
« beyond » Europe. Yet the actuality of the journal and the list serve shows
time and time again how precarious and indeed still-to-come this moment is.
More often than not, this list shows that the ‘cultural imaginary’ of the
multitudes is simply European. We are still a long way from actually being
able radically to replace the structure of « the West and its others » that
structures *both* the world and thought (la pensee).

Quite simply, I offer the following proscription: if the project of the
Multitudes ends up being simply European, then it will not be multitudinal
at all. It will be, simply and yet again–sadly, once again—just
nul-titudinal.

Let me turn here to the current situation in Taiwan for those who are not
familiar with it: The current situation in Taiwan might be summarized
according to these coordinates:

1) The logic of soveriegnty: Exclusion from the WHO. Perhaps at no time has
the structural limitation of the WHO been clearer: it, like the UN, is
essentially organized around the principle of national sovereignty. Hence,
given China’s opposition, Taiwan has been excluded. Within Taiwan, this
produces a uniform, ubiquitous desire for the normativity of sovereignty.
Hence, it is really up to the multitudes to articulate another possibility.
Surely there are, besides Taiwan, other populations that have been
essentially denied access to WHO resources and expertise. By the same token,
it is necessary to extend the analytic field within excluded populations,
such as in Taiwan, to distinguish between those, working citizens, who
benefit from national health care, and those others who do not–especially
the 100,000 or so foreign laborers who are not covered by the national
health plan. This distinction was dramatized recently by the death on April
30 of the first foreign laborer due to SARS. Normally, according to the
national health care benefits, a worker’s family or dependents in such
situation would gain monetary compensation. In the case of uninsured foreign
workers, however, the law is extremely ambiguous, and one still does not
know whether or not the government will extend benefits to the (foreign)
family of the worker.

2) The decline of the nation-state and the end of the rights of man:
Government officials and state intellectuals (are there any other kind?)
have repeated at numerous occasions that the in the face of the SARS
epidemic, there is no question of human rights. Essentially, rights do not
exist during the period of emergency. This is the same logic that has been
mobilized, in Taiwan and around the world, in the so-called « war on Terror »
which itself is merely symptomatic of the irrepressible global crisis of
sovereignty and the intense impasse created by this crisis. The most common,
indeed virtually exclusive, response to the impasse has always been the
politically reactionary logic of « return. » From the perspective of the
« non-European » imagination, it is impossible not to see the Franco-German
anti-war alliance as yet another « Treaty of Brest-Litovsk » that
essentially excludes the « other. » This time, it is not Poles and
Byelorussians, but non-Europeans in the crude, dialectical sense of the
term.

Nonetheless, « Europe » remains essentially important to us, multitudes,
europeans and others, with a « non-European » imagination, as the site where a
critique of the intrinsic relation between the logic of sovereignty and the
problem of human rights was first articulated, in a lineage whose names must
include but not be limited to Arendt, Balibar, Nancy, Agamben, Negri…and
perhaps many others whom I ignore. Here it is extremely important to qualify
what we mean by the historical experience that accrues, or accumulates, in
the *articulation*
of an historical experience, as opposed to the historical experience of
sovereignty’s articulation of experience through a surplus of normativity.
Indeed, the actual experience of the logic of sovereignty was made clear,
long before it became decipherable to the imperial center, in the protocols
of extra-territoriality that developed in various parts of the non-European
Empire, yet because of the injustice of the differend, the so-called
non-West has been perpetually unable to express that experience–except
through the dialectic of soveriegnty and its exception. Hence, the Chinese
exception AND the Chinese sovereign police.

The SARS epidemic show us once again that we are desperately in need of a
revamped concept of rights, a concept of rights–if we may still call them
that–whose theoretico-practical aspects are not dependent on the
exceptional logic that puts them into suspension every time there is a
situation of emergency.

3) Lines of flight: Significantly, in Taiwan, many people infected with the
SARS coronavirus, and others suspected of infection, have chosen to take
flight rather than present themselves to a hospital and the absolute « care »
of health authorities. Cases have even been reported of SARS victims who
were only diagnosed post mortem. By the same token, the government has taken
advantage of
the SARS epidemic to round-up homeless persons–many of whom have also
attempted to evade control by taking flight, as well as making checks on
foriegners and other social marginals.

Clearly, in the face of the epidemic, « flight » or « exodus » is an
ethically indefensible choice of action. Yet this medical exigency to limit
mobility has immediately and without problematization been taken as the
justification for a political regime of border controls (not just Taiwan)
and social controls. For this very reason, it is impingement upon thought to
prevent the lines of flight from being purely and systemically absorbed by
the juridico-institutional discourse of population control and reinscribe it
in a positive revaluation of diagonal mobility.

But is this not, ultimately, the major political issue that has been
emerging since the end of the Cold War? From our perspective, the Cold War
was simply a clever way for the fragmented imperial center to hide what the
twentieth century made irrevocably clear: the distinction between the West
and the non-West is completely untenable. The Left, however, has been unable
to implement this understanding according to any other framework than a
universalistic one. Unable, that is, until the advent of philosophies of
difference (Deleuzean and/or Derridean) that reinscribe the logic of the
particular-universal into the singular-multiple. Nevertheless, and quite
ironically, we have also arrived at an historical moment when radical
political « exchange » between the so-called « West » and its others has never
been more constrained by the very logic of particularism and universalism
that we set out to change.

The violent destruction of cultural relics following the looting of Iraq was
gravely damaging. Yet, I think time will show, another perhaps even greater
damage was inflicted by the looting and the war: once more, a so-called
non-Western people has been cornered into a complete, abject spatialization
of identity and the ahistorical essence or « substratum » this subjectivity
inevitably requires. Without a doubt, preserving the cultural identity of
the other has henceforth been identified as the key to preserving the
security of « the West » (this is indeed, for instance, the position of Ulrich
Beck in a recent essay).

Certainly the imperial dissension brought about the by the Franco-German
opposition to the war carries a certain productive potential for the
Multitudes. Yet we must not forget–euro-non-european multitudes must not
forget–that Turkey, exluded by the EU, had the only elected body of
representatives in the world that publicly opposed the war. Perhaps the real
point of mobilization for the anti-war movement in Europe ought to be around
the status of Turkey, rather than the Franco-German alliance.

Solomon Jon

Maître de conférences à Shanghai Jiaotong University. Il est le traducteur en chinois de La Communauté désœuvrée de Jean-Luc Nancy et le co-éditeur de Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference (Hong Kong University Press, 2006). Il est membre du comité de rédaction de plusieurs revues, dont Multitudes et Traces (États-Unis, Japon, Chine, Corée).