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Nicholas Heron “The Ungovernable”

Heron, Nicholas 2011. The Ungovernable. Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 16 (2): 159-174.[…] for him [Agamben] the term dispositif serves simply as the general designation for a particular modality of power, assuming many and varied forms, generating many and varied effects, which has accompanied the appearance of living beings since time immemorial – but whose distinct orientation is nonetheless always specific, always practical (‘‘economic’’ in the precise sense that Aristotle gives to this term). (161)

So we have, according to Agamben, two great groups or classes, as it were separated by a massive partition: on the one side, living beings (or substances), and on the other, the dispositifs in which they are incessantly captured. […] he decisively complicates this schema through the implication of a third element, ‘‘between the two’’; what he terms precisely the ‘‘subject.’’ It is at this point that he advances his second conceptual definition. ‘‘I call subject,’’ he writes, ‘‘what results from the relation and, so to speak, from the struggle [ corpo a corpo : literally, ‘‘body to body’’; in the corresponding English phrasing, ‘‘hand to hand’’] between living beings and dispositifs .’’ (161)

The dispositif is not an external mechanism, intervening as it were from without, entirely separate from the living beings whose conduct it would seek to administer. It is nothing other than its effects, and has no consistency outside of them. The dispositif functions, that is to say, as an index of the living being’s governability : it names both the being disposed (the being ordered) and the disposition itself (the order itself). The first operation of the governmental dispositif, of every governmental dispositif , thus consists in making the living being governable – which is to say, by transform-ing it into a subject . In this sense, the governmental paradigm not only presupposes but also effectively procures – precisely through the attribution of the predicate – the freedom of the governed. (166)

Being a subject thus constitutes the living being’s mode of being in the mesh of whatever dispositif. And the modal category to which it corresponds is contingency. If there is no constituent subject, but only a living being which becomes the subject of this or that dispositif, then the subject is, by definition, a being that can both be and not be; it is a contingent being . The occurrence of a subject, in so far as it can both be and not be, marks the occurrence of a contingency. (166)

In order to perform and to fulfil its function, in order to operate as a mechanism of governance, the grafting of each and every dispositif , according to Agamben, must always involve a concomitant process of subjectivation (in the absence of which, he writes, it risks being reduced to a mere exercise of violence). (168)

[…] the dispositif itself has no separate existence outside of the contingent of subjects which manifest its functioning; by virtue of what is only apparently a tautology, its end is immanent to the subjects it governs precisely in so far as it governs them. The subject is thus the mode that living beings assume in the mesh of this or that governmental dispositif (in so far, that is to say, as they are nothing other than this mesh). (168)

Properly contingent, according to Agamben, are those events that could not have happened, could not have taken place, precisely at the moment in which they did happen, in which they did take place. A contingency is a potentiality that exists: it names the condition according to which a potentiality – that ‘‘amphi-bolous’’ being which, even in actuality, following Aristotle’s definition, preserves its own capacity not to be – can realise itself. The subject, for Agamben, is precisely what marks this taking place of a potentiality as the event – contingit – of a contingency. (168-169)

To be subject means, in this sense, to be the subject of this activity, this praxis; it means to have this activity, this praxis, within one’s capacity . But with this important caveat: that the subject is wholly determined as this capacity and cannot be said in any sense to pre-exist it. Such is, according to Agamben, the operation conducted by the governmental dispositif : the tracing of a caesura in the living being, which separates out in it a capacity to and a capacity not to – which makes of it, precisely, a subject. (169)

Power, in its governmental form, does not therefore merely presuppose the freedom of the subjects it governs, as Foucault had main-tained; rather, as we have sought to demonstrate, it effectively produces it, each and every time, in and through the act of governance itself. But for precisely this reason freedom is not something outside of the subject, like a property, which it may be said to possess or not possess: qua subject it is inscribed in its very being. (169)

Only if the subject could (also) not be, could (also) not take place – only there, according to Agamben, is there a subject. In its very being, the subject thus ‘‘attests’’ to its contingency; it ‘‘bears witness’’ to its being able not to be. (169)

What is a living being? We can now answer with some precision: it is that which receives definition only on account of its inclusion – only on account of its capture – in a governmental dispositif. (169)

The living being is thus included in a dispositif through its very exclusion – which is to say, through its becoming a subject. The subject is the necessarily contingent result of this capture: it is what appears as such when the living being disappears as such. The inclusive exclusion of the living being in a governmental dispositif is what grounds the possibility of a subject. (169)

If it is true, according to Foucault’s inversion of the Aristotelian formula, which Agamben has adopted for his own purposes, that ‘‘modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question’’ 67 and that, henceforth, all politics is biopolitics, we cannot fail to register the follow-ing, drastic consequence: once the oikonomia of bare life itself is installed as the ultimate political task, once bare life itself becomes, so to speak, the subject of politics, this means the impossibility not only of politics (which now subsists as a decision on the ‘‘impolitical’’) but also of a subject in the strict sense. (169-170)

The Ungovernable: it is the beginning, the starting place, the source of every politics, as we have seen, because it is precisely what the governmental dispositif must presuppose, what it must capture at its centre, in order to be able to operate, in order to be able to function. It is the vanishing point, because the task of its exposition is not something that may be accomplished once and for all, is not a state that may be ultimately achieved. Precisely because the living, human being as such is an ungovernable, ‘‘inoperative’’ being, precisely because its existence is without purpose, in vain – this is what triggers, sustains and, indeed, necessitates the incessant activity of the governmental machine. But for this very reason it is also always that which can be retroactively affirmed in order to interrupt its functioning. (170)

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