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Rationality in times of crisis? With Jean-Luc Nancy, Galia Ackerman, Giorgio Agamben, Didier Fassin…

Last year’s release of the series Chernobyl reminded us of the tragic sequence that led to the explosion of the Ukrainian reactor and the months after the disaster. Its viewing leaves incredulous.

This same feeling of attending an event beyond all rationality seized us at the time of confinement. This led the specialist in the ex-Soviet world Galia Ackerman and the sociologist Frédérick Lemarchand to compare the two disasters, in a long text published by The Great Continent :

“The resemblance between the Chernobyl disaster and the Covid-19 epidemic goes far beyond a few iconic clichés. It is because Chernobyl was also experienced as a kind of pandemic. Not only by the populations around the Centrale , […] but more generally by a part of the world population which, by the famous “cloud” which circled the planet three times, was contaminated to varying degrees by radionuclides “.

The multiplication of pandemics

The authors note that, in recent decades, disasters of all types have taken the form of pandemics: “We could say that contemporary disasters (Chernobyl, mad cow crisis, asbestos, endocrine disruptors and now coronavirus) are all part of a common imagination at the center of which the same logic is at work: that of the epidemic “.

With globalization and the multiplication of exchanges, everything that arrives at a point on the planet arrives everywhere:

“In a book called End of an epidemic century, Isabelle Rieusset-Lemarié had attempted, at the beginning of the 90s, to show that an update of the epidemic model was carried out in a set of new phenomena, the most important of which was AIDS, but also in the development of the computer system knowingly created by man, himself soon confronted with the manifestation of the latter’s negative reversibility: computer viruses, which are very similar in their functioning to biological viruses “. The space has shrunk sharply in the global village, and the dangers are more difficult to put away. Technology, more powerful in all areas, spreads potential threats more widely.

For the authors, other points of comparison are possible between the Chernobyl disaster and the Covid-19 moment. We can for example make the link between the role of the liquidators of the plant and that of the caregivers, who will have consequences of exposure to the virus: “As the liquidators, even those who have recovered from this deadly disease will bear traces of it in their lungs and will have neurological damage, all of them are likely to suffer consequences from the inhuman stress they endured. They will not get away unscathed “.

The same goes for living conditions: “We know that the rehousing had serious consequences for the “Chernobyliens”, stripped of their goods and torn from their living environment: stress, depression, cardiovascular disease, alcoholism. We are starting to know that the stress of confinement notably causes domestic violence. […]

In addition to compulsory rehousing for part of the contaminated areas, the countermeasures applied to the inhabitants who remained there consisted of a long series of prohibitions on frequenting “natural” places such as forests or marshes, and normal economic and social practices : agricultural work, breeding, as well as fishing, hunting and gathering mushrooms, which enabled them to eat properly. It was already a kind of confinement.

The invisible evil

Another point of comparison between the two catastrophes: the evil to be fought against is invisible. It is everywhere and nowhere: “But the main problem facing us today, as it faced Europeans in 1986, is that of: Am I contaminated? My home, my garden are they? Can I eat garden produce? “

Basically, say the authors, what is happening to us was unthinkable, which is why we did not anticipate it. The last great epidemic in France was too distant to be remembered. There is no disaster education that would allow us to understand and predict them. And the authors conclude: “Perhaps the time has come to finally understand the message: we are not masters of nature and we have to make peace with it “.

The illusion of our power

In a common forum published in The world, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and the essayist Jean-François Bouthors also note the difficulty of recognizing that science and technology cannot protect us from everything: “While ignorance had been forced down from the middle of the 19th century under the effect of an acceleration of scientific knowledge in all fields, the virus, the pandemic and their consequences are the glaring and frightening illustration of limits of the power which this knowledge confers, whereas the progress of the technique which results from it could make us believe that the control of our personal and collective destiny was at hand “.

We entered a frightening stranger: “The future – in the sense of what we projected from the data of the present – now shies away to leave us facing the radical uncertainty of the future, which we do not have control over “.

The return of the religious

If technical progress abandons its promise of a less disturbing life, we have to look elsewhere for ways to reassure ourselves. The authors make the link between these uncertainties and the return of the religious fact: “The return of the religious, in fundamentalist, millennial, hysterical or pietist forms, in recent years has undoubtedly been the expression of widespread concern about a world whose complexity made the future elusive for many “.

Now, what they should rather do would be to accept the fundamental uncertainty of our being in the world: “which does not mean giving up thinking and knowing, but doing so in the awareness that if we take charge of our destiny, we cannot be totally in control of it, neither individually nor collectively. This risk-taking requires availability to the unknown who comes “.

And a certain degree of the unknown, they conclude, can only be accepted by democracies. It is their strength as their weakness, faced with authoritarian regimes that claim to always have the right answer in all circumstances.

Medicine as religion

But relying on belief rather than reason does not necessarily mean relying on a god. This return to religion may well take the paradoxical form of an absolute belief in medicine. The loop between irrational and rational is closed. This is what the philosopher emphasizes Giorgio Agamben in online publication Monday morning.

For him, medical hygiene is the new god: “We can see here how the two other religions of the West, the religion of Christ and the religion of money, yielded the primacy, apparently without fighting, to medicine and science […]

If we observe the state of exception that we are living in, it seems that the medical religion together combines the perpetual crisis of capitalism with the Christian idea of ​​a last time, of a eschaton […]. It is the religion of a world that feels at the end and yet is not in a position, like the Hippocratic doctor, to decide whether it will survive or die “.

Agamben concludes by calling to testify against this technical religion: “As has happened several times in the course of history, philosophers will again have to come into conflict with religion, which is no longer Christianity, but science or that part of science which has taken the form of a religion”.

Fiction to predict the future?

For humans, therefore, it is always a matter of trying to mentally stabilize an essentially unstable world. To try to understand what is happening is to synthesize the known and the unknown, the predictable rational and the impossible which, however, will not fail to happen. One of the ways to grasp this unpredictable is the so-called “scenario management“.

The health historian Patrick Zylberman speaks about it in Release. He notes that, for many years, futurologists have been developing scenarios to prepare for the worst, using methods that are science fiction. However, this technique has not helped, he stresses, to avoid the pandemic: “_It has been years that health authorities have been working on what the Americans call”The Big One“, The great epidemic that would shake everything up. But the problem is that such a scenario is not politically exploitable: if experts can think about a disaster, politicians cannot govern a population by telling them every day that it will soon be struck by disaster “_.

The scenario approach made it possible to prepare for unexpected events in many cases (only the company Shell, who had experienced it before 1973, had been able to prepare for the oil shock). But it also has drawbacks: “It shifts our perception: we are leaving the “risk society” to enter the world of threat. The new stranger is a transcendent and unpredictable event. This is the victory of subjective probabilities, stated with a wet finger, over “technical casuistry”, rational calculation “.

To each his rationality

Now the calculations “rational“are themselves highly variable with each other. This questions their rationality, says the anthropologist. Didier Fassin : “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading public health institution in the United States, has a dozen main models developed in as many North American and European research institutions. Their results, even at very short deadlines, are extraordinarily different, varying from simple to quadruple. In these conditions, for decision-makers and for those who advise them, the choice between these models is crucial, but opaque “.

Navigating between rational and irrational is therefore the challenge that confronts our leaders, but also each of us. Perhaps requiring less certainty from those who govern us would, paradoxically, be a salutary discipline.

Matthieu Garrigou-Lagrange, Laurence Jennepin and the Company of Works team

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