The Invisible Armada

Map showing the Air Defence Identification Zones of several countries in East Asia

Quarantine as soft prisoning (room 703)

By Alain Brossat

28 October 2021

I come out of a two weeks quarantine, "dry" and without alternative, condition of my return to Taiwan. In principle, those who arrive from abroad are required to stay alone in isolation in a hotel room, but I was able to get it done with my son who traveled in the same plane as me - his mother knew how to bend the health-police authority by asserting my condition of sickly senior, having to be the object, therefore, of a permanent accompaniment ... The hotel costs caused by these quarantines are the responsibility of the persons required to do so. About a thousand euros per person including food in an average quality hotel like the one we were staying in, in the good town of Hsinchu. Considerable amount for returnees with limited means, which explains, for example, that many foreign students enrolled in Taiwanese universities do not return. The quality of services naturally varies according to the category to which the hotel belongs, in which you find yourself placed in strict isolation during these two weeks. Considering what they were for us in the hotel where we were parked, I tremble to imagine what they are in the low end.

To get straight to the point, I would say that what immediately caught my attention in this experience (and convinced me to transform it into "field work" - we don't remake ourselves ...), is the confusion which permanently establishes itself, in the general operation of the quarantine system, between sanitary rationalities and the repressive or punitive “fold”.

Very quickly, I discerned in this overlap an issue going well beyond what relates to the precise context in which this device is part, to the time, therefore, of the endless Covid-19 pandemic. I quickly formed the hypothesis that what was at stake had both a diagnostic and a prognostic value, to speak like the old Kant revived by Foucault, and it is around this motif that the observations I have recorded and which I present in this article are wrapped.

God is my witness (since someone has to be so at a time when we can no longer count on anyone ...) that I am not an opponent of the rigor arising from sanitary rationalities, for with regard to the still ongoing pandemic. I have continuously professed the opposite, and often vehemently, of what is loudly stated by that fraction of opinion that cultivates skepticism in principle, disorientation, exasperation, and weariness regarding the strategies and tactics deployed in the fight against the pandemic. I have fought the cognitive nihilism and false spirit of resistance that thrives on the vaccination campaign. I have not changed my mind on these issues, I stand by my statement.

But this is another issue. When we have the opportunity to study from the inside the way in which a singular system is set up (even if its genealogy is immemorial - the quarantine) and this in a country whose authorities pride themselves on practicing sanitary rationalities with rigor, precision and competence, while promoting the democratic quality of the political regime which inspires and executes them[1] - What can really be seen, in this very fine grain and at this very practical level of the implementation of a contemporary biopolitics, in the face of a major test such as the pandemic? What is gradually discovered during the ordeal of this confinement (brief and in no way dramatic, it is not a question here of yelling at the Gulag, at the risk, predictably, of making a fool of yourself!), it is a rather disturbing object, especially, from the point of view of democratic normativity: as soon as you are locked up, by a decision of the authority, administrative decision here, you are not only hampered in your freedom of movement, assigned to an enclosed space - but it is your very condition which, in its most general scope, changes.

In principle, quarantine is a device inspired by purely health rationalities. People in solitary confinement are neither suspects nor culprits nor unwanted people. They are perfectly in order, they have complied, prior to their quarantine, to a multitude of formalities and tests (PCR tests, vaccinations ...), they obediently respond to all orders, if only because they know that this is the prerequisite for their admission to the territory of the island.

In particular, and it is here that the intrigue takes shape, upstream of the placement in solitary confinement, they have accepted that their mobile phone be, upon arrival at the airport, equipped with a SIM card which they have every reason to believe that it allows them to be geolocated - without this particular feature being the subject of specific information[2]. On this occasion a mutation is revealed which, to be surreptitious, is no less epoch-making: from now on it is impossible to be admitted to this territory if you do not have a mobile phone. This has become the obligatory prosthesis of identification, in addition to the passport, the resident card, etc. And therefore, people quarantined are quarantined according to a precautionary principle and a control mechanism falling, in principle, entirely to health considerations - blocking the virus by ensuring that travelers arriving do not contaminate local people[3].

But on this occasion, a major change occurs: the mobile phone becomes the duplicate and the necessary complement of the passport and the visa. Very quickly, the human subject placed under this regime of precaution and control discerns, from more or less salient indications, that the biopolitical rationalities here at work are themselves contaminated. The system leaks at many points, so much so that the constraint to which it is supposed to consent and contribute, since it is inspired by unquestionable motives, tends to take on a somewhat burdensome, even suspicious turn.

It is naturally everything that comes in excess of sanitary conditions that will cause the human subject confined in these conditions to be annoyed and upset. The mere fact that you are locked up under this regime produces, in all respects, a degradation of your condition deemed ordinary or normal as a human subject, in the current context of a liberal democracy. It starts with the hotel conditions: you pay, but you are far from benefiting from the services usually offered to the "king client": for two weeks, your sheets are not changed, you are royally provided with disposable tea towels instead of towels (by asking, we get some, however, as well as toilet paper); no staff are allowed to enter the room, you do not have any minimal equipment (not even a broom ...) to do your cleaning, and too bad if the room, over the days, turns into a nest dust. You cannot open the window, barely open it to ventilate, strong restriction locks are there to prevent you from breathing the outside air - two weeks, therefore, of continuous air conditioning, which is bad for your bronchi and lungs; you do not have the option of leaving your laundry to be washed outside[4] - the bedroom, therefore, quickly turns into a drying rack cluttered with clothes hanging on hangers.

You cannot pass anything on to those close to you, and you are not entitled to newspapers either. At the end of a few days, we discover a hole made under the cabinet where the inevitable TV occupies the place of honor, communicating with the adjoining room - which allows us to verify that it is unoccupied; after using it, it also turns out that water is seeping into the wall of the room adjoining the bathroom, at the expense of an old Kant and the very last Descola (The forms of the visible) , recently acquired at a high price, and which I had recklessly piled up along this wall - for lack of furniture intended for storing books.

The arrangement of the room, on the seventh floor of the building, makes that in two weeks, except for the short half-hour during which, on the penultimate day, we were escorted in a special taxi at the nearest hospital to perform yet another PCR[5] test, we did not see a single human face or profile (except each other, of course): from the window, only roofs and tree tops, in the mornings the rumor of the start of classes at the nearby school - but no human beings, the street itself remains invisible.

The implicit but perfectly distinct message conveyed to us by all these defects is this: badly screwed up as it is, this room will always be good enough for you, in your condition as potential carriers of the virus ... Moreover, rather ridiculously, the landline phone and the switches are covered in a piece of plastic like cling film – why not the door handles, etc.?

If we were normal customers, it was a long time ago that we would have firmly demanded to leave this room afflicted with all these quirks and inconveniences - but now, in our degraded condition of confined, no question of demanding anything. Three times a day, hotel employees equipped with protective clothing, and whose comings and goings we are reduced to watching through the eyecup, come and place our meals on a low table installed to the right of the door. The person on duty rings the bell and it is only after she has gone away that we can open the door, take our meal and then close it again. A camera is installed in the corridor and ensures that we do not linger there.

Meals consist mainly of bentos (bian dang in Chinese), that is to say trays comprising an assortment of rice, vegetables, and meat for those who have a taste for it. My vegetarian diet is respected. Sometimes a soup, a dessert. It's not great, quite monotonous (you have to like rice, but, after all, we are in Asia ...), but tolerable[6]. What is less so, ecologically speaking, is the debauchery of plastic that accompanies all this: no less than a hundred trays all through the duration of our stay, not to mention the double of disposable chopsticks, also plastic spoons, toothpicks, various cups, etc. We spend our time depositing, at the prescribed time, our bags of waste hermetically sealed in front of the door.

This mismanagement is the most perfect and banal expression that is of the universal "after me the flood" which remains the largely dominant regime under which is placed, in this island, the relationship with the environment - we no longer know where to store the waste, reprocessing is lagging behind - but whatever, as long as the plastics industry, the semiconductor industry, the concrete civilization, intensive fishing (etc) prosper... Our condition in this hotel specializing in quarantines (in view of the meals arranged on the small tables placed in front of the rooms, it would seem that our floor is entirely devoted to this use) is therefore that of sub-clients; hence it follows that the usual standards of comfort and even hygiene are constantly being dragged down. This verifies the immutable rule according to which the figure that overhangs all figures of confinement, whatever their forms and regime, is the cesspool.

I do not want to make idle comparisons, but it is clear, nevertheless how a continuum is established between camps where people are crammed under a more or less exterminating regime of terror (and of which the guards are convinced that if the conditions of hygiene are so deplorable there and if the prisoners die there like flies, it is primarily because of their negligence and their intrinsic condition of waste of humanity), the overcrowded and often dilapidated and unhealthy French prisons, refugees like those of Naxos and other islands located in the Aegean Sea, sinister improvised slums where rats swarm and infectious diseases thrive and, finally, at the other end of the chain, these places of hotel retention in which, quite naturally, everything is done to give the confined paying pig to understand that he-she is not there to be treated with respect; to the test of confinement will therefore have to be added these signs intended to make him understand that if he is required to comply with that, it is because he is, in some way, guilty - no clean sheets, therefore, no broom, no laundry, no real windows – not a real cesspool, to be sure, something in between the usual hotel room and an improvised squat.

It is obviously not, in all its chilling rigor, the figure drawn by Kafka in The Trial - if the law falls on you, it is no doubt that you are guilty of a crime, whatever it is - but it is the distant and euphemistic echo of it - if you are treated a little bit under the leg, in a place where, usually, those in charge are supposed to show all kinds of respect towards the place of the user, it's naturally that you have something to reproach yourself for and which is due, quite simply, to your automatic association with the virus, the epidemic, and death. Like a distant perfume of sacer, impure, abject ...

The same signs and indices of degradation can be found in our relations with the administration. Every morning, the mobile phone beeps twice then rings once and the maneuver must be carried out indicating that the confined person is there, vigilant and faithful to the post - no question of being in his-her bath or sleeping when summoned by the machine. Each person shut away is entrusted to the good care of a referent police officer or health service agent (depending on whether he-she is a foreigner or a national) to whom he-she must indicate his-her temperature every day and who, on occasion, calls him-her directly to ask if everything is going "normally"[7]. When this happens to me, once, my young or not so young and dashing English-speaking policeman apostrophises me with a "my friend", incongruous to say the least, the sense of hierarchies and social distinctions being what it is in the Chinese world - but a habit undoubtedly acquired in the course of his contacts with migrant workers looked down upon and treated as small fry...

But above all, what is not at all right here is the confusion of genres - health and the police: in a democracy that respects itself (a genre that is lost, if it ever existed ...), the police are not entitled to collect information on the state of health of populations. In the case of quarantines, that it ensures that these are respected from the point of view of public order, it is, precisely, in the order of things: therefore the cops monitor that we respect the instructions, that we don't sneak out, etc. - OK, no problem. But why should our temperature, taken daily, concern him? And why not our blood pressure, our sneezing, our intestinal transit, our nocturnal emissions ...? And what does the police do with this precious data? The intrusion of the police in the realm of health (issues) is here is a very bad omen, a disastrous confusion in terms of separation of powers - where the police become the guardian of the health of the human herd, the most dismal of dystopias prospers.

Now, the terrible thing in this case is that no one finds fault with it - this obvious abuse is written off as a benefit to health rationalities and it is certainly, in the minds of the promoters of this obvious abuse of power, for our own good, which is indissociable here from the effectiveness of the device, that the policewoman Winnie or Wendy asked every morning on Line what my thermometer was showing.

It only took us a few days, moreover, to get used to faking it, just for fun, Winnie or Wendy, not being (yet) able to verify in vivo the effectiveness of our temperature measurement. Some days, it went down (fictitiously) to around 34.5°, just to give her a little grain to grind ...[8]

It is therefore in a global as much as surreptitious process of downgrading that the confined is caught. The police clearly give him-her to understand that he-she is caught in the mesh of a very tight surveillance network, that he-she will be treated as a suspect. A prominent poster in the room tells him-her that he-she is liable to a massive fine - up to 100,000,000 Taiwan dollars, more than 30,000 euros - in the event of an offense. The owners who have been granted the approvals for the quarantines to be carried out in their hotels have made the necessary minimum adjustments and above all immediately perceived the message sent to them by the authorities: the confined persons are a kind of inmates, not really guilty, but lodgers who do not deserve any special consideration - they will be fed according to the rules, nothing more, and we are not here to worry about the comfort or discomfort of these plebs of the Covid, we are here above all to trying to compensate with this captive clientele for the shortfall we suffered throughout the months when the interminable pandemic disrupted our business.

We can clearly see here how the rigor of dry quarantines has as a background economic calculations and is based on easy solutions rather than on the concern to make them bearable to those who are required to do so - the herd of “quarantined” directly transported by special taxi from the airport to their detention hotel - this is the consolation prize granted by those in charge to the hotel business hit hard by the health crisis. As a result, the question of a minimum humanization of the device consisting in creating the conditions in which the detainees could benefit from a walk of one hour a day, separately and without being in close contact with anyone, without therefore constituting in any way a violation of the health regulations and the precautionary principle, does not arise.

However, if the quarantines were carried out differently, for example in these holiday centers which are generally empty outside of holiday periods and which abound in Taiwan, such an arrangement, which is infinitely beneficial, would be possible. Remember that in French prisons whose regime is not particularly liberal, to put it mildly, inmates are entitled to a walk of at least one hour a day.

Dry confinement, for two weeks, produces the most damaging physical and psychological effects: sluggishness, creeping depression, anxiety, irritability, headaches, muscle weakness, sleep disorders, therefore abuse of sleeping pills, tranquillizers, etc. When I did start walking again, at the end of these two weeks of confinement and inactivity, I suffered from contractures, cramps, tendinitis; I have shortness of breath. With the dry quarantine, the absolute prevalence of the interest and perspective of those who are the instigators and beneficiaries of the system over those who are the object of it, and whose feeling is often that they are its hostages, is displayed. For them, it necessarily takes a vexatious, repressive and punitive turn.

It is not for nothing that there is a whole rumour mill on the island, full of anecdotes about spectacular "breakdowns", spectacular "bumps in the sky", frantic escapes and other crises of psychic decompensation due to the continuous confinement ... There is also the whole problem of addictions: the more the quarantine is dry, without remission, the more detainees are tempted to lock themselves in their digital bubble, video games, series, Facebook, etc. - Jedem das Seine, as they used to say in other times and other places… I imagine that some, for want of being able to smoke - strictly forbidden - find consolation in alcohol, if a few bottles are smuggled - c 'is one of the only "rights" which are in fact granted to them: the confined can have food delivered, their relatives can leave at the reception, for them, various products - it does not seem that the packages are controlled, which allowed us to do a semblance of cleaning in our lair thanks to a micro-brush and a nano-shovel provided by the good fairy (my wife) anxious to lighten our hardships. When we were in the mood for a joke and the time to go out was approaching, we would say: here, despite everything, it is the corridor of life, as opposed to the row of death: in the first one, we count the days waiting for it to end; in the other, it's the opposite: we would like it to last a little longer, and even if possible, for a long time ... So, we are wrong to complain - and immediately, we started complaining again ...

Recently, Le Monde offered an apocalyptic description of the quarantines imposed by the Hong Kong authorities on arrivals in the territory. The subtext of this column could not be more obvious: in the context of the normalization underway in Hong Kong, imposed by the communist power, it is in the nature of things that quarantines take a totalitarian turn ... The problem is that, apart from a few details - but one can just as well, in the current climate of anti-Chinese hysteria, suspect the author of the article of having so little loaded the boat - I found in this evocation all the "fundamentals" of what I was experiencing in Taiwan ...

The local style may differ slightly, but the matrix is ​​the same - and the surreptitious opposition of the authoritarian or the totalitarian to the democratic which under-held the article a pure ideological construction. What is in question in quarantines, even if it takes place in a minor register, are the logics of confinement. Without being justified in entering into the skin of the victim, the one who experiences this mode of confinement (the experience of home confinement is significantly different) can quickly understand what is at stake in this microcosm. There are no “pure” sanitary rationalities, which are not infected by other calculations, tactics, by gestures and older devices, with which they form composite arrangements.

Biopolitics, as such, is always an assemblage of complex combinations in which we will see, among other things, immunity, as a paradigm be articulated on authoritarian grips, repressive turns drawn from the classic register of the production of order and control of populations - where the word “police” is still and always inscribed on the horizon of “make live” ...

Throughout our quarantine, we dealt mostly with cops and much less with agents of the health system. Cops who find it normal that it behooves them to look into our mental state during these two weeks and control our temperature curve, and who never wonder if they've really been trained for it, or what the hell will be the fate of the data thus collected ... Cops, therefore, who see, on the occasion of the pandemic, the base of their powers and their prerogatives widening. But cops who do not change their ways and who, therefore, can draw drafts on the leveling effects produced by quarantine and give "my friend" (with an optional pat on the back) to an old European dignified academic laundered under the harness (LOL) ...

As soon as you are locked up, you cease to be a full qualified life, even if it is necessary, under the benign conditions which are described here, to have the eye trained to perceive all the manifestations, sometimes tiny and sometimes more substantial, of this surreptitious transformation. It is in this sense and in this capacity that this fleeting experience and in the end infinitesimal beckons to other ordeals that are infinitely more afflicting and blunt.

Perhaps this is what Benjamin called "fire alarm".

PS: once the quarantine itself is over, whoever leaves it remains on probation - he-she cannot go to restaurants or any other public place with a high population density, use public transportation, etc - during an additional week. His-her phone continues to beep at regular intervals, just to remind him-her that he-she remains under surveillance ...

[1] By contrast and opposition, precisely, with the French conditions where, in the matter, what prevailed was the dilettantism and the inconsistency of the authority.

[2] During the previous quarantine that I experienced in Taiwan, in 2020, less restrictive in the sense that it was carried out at home, the mobile phone distinctly acted as an electronic bracelet: twice, the alert having been given due to some wrong operation on my part, the cops arrived at the house in the next quarter of an hour, particularly on edge and anxious to verify that I had not left the apartment. There is no reason to believe that since then this electronic surveillance device via the cell phone has changed - it does not arouse in this supposedly exemplary democracy any debate in relation to individual freedoms.

[3] The arrival at Taoyuan International Airport plunges the visitor into a dystopia: in the endless corridors equipped with conveyor belts, swarms of security agents, cops, medical personnel equipped as for chemical warfare stand in ambush at the various checkpoints, when they are not crisscrossing the aisles on silent and ultra-fast electric scooters. Entering the country is an endless journey and it is an uphill battle, the stages of which can only be taken on condition of having solid expertise in digital technologies. All this happening in an impressive silence, where, in a French airport, such a reception system would inevitably give rise to riot scenes ...

[4] We wonder what, on the side of sanitary rationalities is opposed to dirty laundry, locked in waterproof bags, going directly to the washing machine...

[5] Strangely, the PCR test which, during my last return to France, had cost me at the beginning of May 2021, the baggage of 8000 NT, about 230 euros, became, under the conditions of the return with quarantine, free - a small consolation ...

[6] The food, ordered by the hotel from a nearby restaurateur, usually reaches us lukewarm, however, and at hospital or prison times: 11:30 a.m. for lunch, before 6 p.m. for dinner ... It is too plentiful - which is left over goes to the trash. On his-her arrival, the confined was handed a bag filled to the brim with instant soups and cans, in case the meals served were not enough for him... Failing to really take care of him, he was crammed - retention being supposed feed bulimia - and too bad if, at the exit, he-she gained a few kilos ...

[7] This provision applies to foreign confined. For nationals, the referent is a health worker.

[8] I can't help but find, in petto, a little comical that the crafty ones who rule this country and find me good enough to initiate their offspring into the beauties and mysteries of European thought, of continental philosophy, including moral philosophy, and remunerate me royally for this purpose, treat me as a potential health delinquent when I enter the country. And when it turns out that in the same plane as me was traveling a small band of appointed French senator-lobbyists for Taiwan led by the former socialist defense minister Alain Richard and that they, before my eyes, having just left the plane are delivered directly to a pack of journalists, completely exempt from the obstacle course imposed on the vulgum pecus, I am inclined to become circumspect when I hear the country's political leaders advocating the rigor of their managment of the Covid-crisis... Obviously, whenever there is a need for it, the reason of State prevails without discussion on the sanitary reason.