Australian historian Warwick Anderson has had two essays published on the Somatosphere website, which advertises itself as “A collaborative website covering the intersections of medical anthropology, science and technology studies, cultural psychiatry, psychology and bioethics.” They are running a series of essays called ‘Dispatches from the Pandemic’. Wesley Anderson, both medical doctor and PhD, is Professor of Politics, Governance, and Ethics in the Department of History and the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney. He is a historian of science, medicine and public health. His book Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity won the NSW Premier’s General History Prize in 2015.
In the first essay Not on the Beach, or Death in Bondi? he looks at the recent closure of ‘iconic’ Sydney beaches after a weekend of crowded sands. He juxtaposes that scene of people crowded on the beach on a hot day with the other sight, occurring only a few short months ago, of people huddled on the Mallacoota beach under the violent red skies of bushfire. He picks up on the place of the beach in the Australian imagination (and I find it strange that he didn’t pick up on Greg Dening’s work on beaches), and as an unstable, ambiguous space that signals freedom and yet is surrounded by prohibition in the form of flags, signs and regulations.
The second essay Epidemic Philosophy he examines the pronouncements of various present-day European philosophers (all of venerable years as he points out in parentheses) on the coronavirus pandemic. He starts with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who in February 2020 proclaimed that it was no worse than seasonal influenza and that social distancing was a deep state conspiracy. Agamben has since moderated his views. A number of his European colleagues distanced themselves from his stance, with varying degrees of optimism/pessimism over the post-COVID world. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of any of these philosophers, but I guess that philosophy is not my field of expertise. Anderson finishes his essay by observing that perhaps the habit of philosophers to sit quietly before coming to a position is the wisest course to adopt.