Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Giorgio Agamben, _Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life_

PART OF MY summer catch-up-with-theory program--Zizek mentioned this, so it seemed a good place to go next. It is not that new--published in Italian in 1995, in English in 1998.  Both Agamben and Zizek, I was interested to note, bring into their discussions Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," which was Derrida's subject the one and only time I heard him, in 1990. I ought to find out where that was published; I understood about a third of it at the time, and these days I might be up to understanding half of it or more.

Homo Sacer is an astonishing, revelatory book which will severely tax and ultimately, I suspect, defeat my powers of summary. Helpfully, Agamben summarizes some of his key theses in the book's final chapter. First, "the original political relation is the ban." Following Schmitt, he sees the primal moment of sovereignty not as a contract somehow arrived at between ruler and ruled, but as the ruler being able to say who (or what) is in and okay and who (or what) is out and not okay, and make those pronouncements stick. To enforce its pronouncements, authority makes itself exempt from them; it enforces laws against violence by committing violence against those who commit violence.

Authority also can make exceptions of certain individuals.  The book's title comes from an ancient Roman law: someone who committed a crime was declared homo sacer ("sacred man," in a way, but the meaning of "sacer" is a discussion all of its own), which meant that (a) he could be killed with impunity and (b) he could not be used as a sacrifice. The homo sacer is thus excluded from the civil polity and the religious polity.  He's one of us that is not one of us. Killing him is not murder. His is a life that is life and life only (to inappositely quote Dylan); he is human, but stripped of all protections and privileges that go with being in the community.  He is "bare life."

The "production of bare life as originary political element and as a threshold of articulation between nature and culture" is "the fundamental activity of sovereign power," claims Agamben's second thesis.  In one intriguing chapter, Agamben aligns homo sacer, bare life, with the werewolf: too animal to be part of the community, too human to be allowed loose like an animal, he has to be isolated and killed.

Along come the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions and the idea that even "bare life" may have rights--that is, simply by being human, prior to any belonging to a community, you have some rights. Sounds promising, but Agamben goes on to note that these turn out to be slippery to define. Once we are in the process of defining "human rights," human life itself comes within the purview of the state, we have all the familiar Foucauldian developments--the human sciences, norms, surveillance of the body, biopolitics--and the Enlightenment turns out to have merely done the spadework for the totalitarian regime, and the homo sacer has matured into the concentration/extermination camp. Agamben's third thesis: "Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm."

A crude and inadequate summary, but this is a powerful book, worthwhile reading especially in this US election year when so many of the buzziest issues--health care, abortion and contraception, immigration, gay marriage--have to do with bodily life and drawing lines, with what bodies the state "sees," recognizes, chooses to protect, and what bodies it simply subjects to its power.

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