Home > Uncategorized > Nick Vaughan-Williams “The Generalised Bio-Political Border?”

Nick Vaughan-Williams “The Generalised Bio-Political Border?”

Vaughan-Williams, Nick 2009. The Generalised Bio-Political Border? Re-conceptualising the limits of sovereign power. Review of International Studies 35(4): 729-749.

In the context of the theoretical lexicon of International Relations (IR), R. B. J. Walker has diagnosed a dominant spatial-temporal logic of inside/outside.9 Spatially, discourses of international relations presuppose a series of demarcations between inside and outside, here and there and us and them, in order to affirm the effect of the ‘presence’ of sovereign political community. Temporally, these demarcations work to secure a primary distinction between a realm of progress ‘inside’ and a realm of immutable violence, warfare and barbarism ‘outside’. On a preliminary reading, therefore, the concept of the border of the state conditions the possibility of thinking in the above terms and this border is taken to be located at the geographical outer-edge of sovereign territory. (730)

However, despite the imperiousness of the inside/outside model conditioned by the concept of the border of the state, a growing number of critical scholars concur with Balibar’s observation about the paradoxical and complex nature of borders in contemporary political life. Walker, for example, not only diagnoses the logic of inside/outside but also seems to call this logic into question throughout many of his texts. Hence, he argues that, ‘We have shifted rather quickly from the monstrous edifice of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the paradigm of a securitized territoriality, to a war on terrorism, and to forms of securitization, enacted anywhere.’ (731)

[…] the idea of the ‘generalised bio-political border’ as a re-conceptualisation of the limits of sovereign power: not
as fixed territorial borders located at the outer-edge of the territorial state, but infused through bodies and diffused across society and everyday life. (732-733)

[…] whereas Foucault reads the movement from politics to bio-politics as a historical transformation involving the inclusion of zoe ¯ in the realm of the polis, for Agamben the political realm is originally bio-political. On Agamben’s view, the West’s conception of politics has always been bio-political, but the nature of the relation between politics and life has become more exposed in the context of the modern state and its sovereign practices. (734)

To explain this paradoxical formulation he introduces a spatial-ontological device used by Jean-Luc Nancy: the ban. If someone is ‘banned’ from a political community he or she continues to have a relation with that group: there is still a connection precisely because they are outlawed. In this way, the figure of the banned person thus complicates the simplistic dichotomy between inclusion and exclusion. (734-735)

Importantly, bare life is neither what the Greeks referred to as zoe ¯ nor bios. Rather, it is a form of life that is produced in a zone of indistinction between the two. Agamben, therefore, argues that it is necessary to identify and analyse the way in which the classical distinction between zoe ¯ and bios is blurred in contemporary political life: ‘Living in the state of exception that has become the rule has [. . .] meant this: our private body has now become indistinguishable from our body politic’. (735)

Guards who stand watch over the detainees in Guantánamo confront a peculiar form of ‘human life’. Stripped of political and legal status, it bears no resemblance to Aristotle’s conception of man as politikon zoon in the public sphere or bios. Yet, importantly as far as the interpretation of Agamben advanced here is concerned, neither does this life in any simple way conform to what the Greeks would have called zoe ¯. Rather, the life confronted by the guards is a life that scrambles these Aristotelian co-ordinates: we no longer have any idea of the classical separation between zoe ¯ and bios in this context.72 It is a bare life produced by the sovereign practices of the camp that is caught in a zone of indistinction between zoe ¯ and bios: a life that is mute and undifferentiated. For Agamben, such a life belongs to homo sacer or sacred man: a figure in Roman law whose very existence is in a state of exception defined by the sovereign. The figure of homo sacer is sacred in the sense that it can be killed but not sacrificed and is both constituted by and constitutive of sovereign power. Moreover, as the state of exception is arguably less anomalous and more a permanent characteristic, according to Agamben we all run the risk of becoming bare life: ‘we are all (virtually) homines sacri’. (739)

Though highly indebted to Agamben, Butler argues that the universality implied by the claim that we are all ‘virtually homines sacri’ exposes an area of weakness in his understanding of political subjectivity. Butler’s chief criticism of  gamben is that he does not tell us how ‘power functions differentially’ among populations.74 Focusing on issues of race and ethnicity, Butler argues that the generality of Agamben’s treatment of the political subject fails to appreciate the ways in which ‘the systematic management and derealization of populations function to support and extend the claims of a sovereignty accountable to no law’. (740)

Connolly advances a similar critique to Butler’s of Agamben’s account of the logic of sovereignty.77 Connolly’s main objections are twofold. First, he argues that Agamben naively and problematically assumes that there once was a separation between zoe ¯ and bios: ‘What a joke [. . .] [e]very way of life involves the infusion of norms, judgments, and standards into the affective life of participants at both private and public levels’. (740)

On the one hand, with its seemingly universalistic pretensions, the notion of bare life might indeed appear too sweeping to allow for nuanced analyses of subjectivity. On the other hand, I want to suggest, the sting of this criticism is largely neutralised once the notion of bare life is untied from the concept of zoe ¯. If bare life is treated as precisely an indistinct form of subjectivity that is produced immanently by sovereign power for sovereign power then the true undecidability of the figure of homo sacer is brought into relief. This move allows for a more differentiated approach to the production of subjectivities under bio-political conditions because it does not fix bare life as some sort of pre-given outside sovereignty. On this reformulation, bare life can be interpreted as a form of subjectivity whose borders are always already rendered undecidable by sovereign power; a form of subjectivity whose identity is always in question. (741)

[…] Agamben draws attention to the way in which the production of zones of indistinction, where exceptional activities become the rule, is more and more widespread in global politics. Indeed, the notion of the generalised space of exception points to the way in which characteristics usually associated with the edges, margins, or outer-lying areas of sovereign space gradually blur with what is conventionally taken to be the ‘normality’ of that space. Whereas the space of the exception was once localised in spaces such as the camps, Agamben implies that in more recent times it has become increasingly generalised in contemporary political life: ‘the camp, which is now firmly settled inside [the nation-state], is the new bio-political nomos of the planet’. (746)

Instead of viewing the limits of sovereign power as spatially fixed at the outer-edge of the state, Agamben reconceptualises those limits in terms of a decision or speech act about whether certain life is worthy of living or life that is expendable. Such a decision performatively produces and secures the borders of sovereign community as the politically qualified life of the citizen is defined against the bare life of homo sacer. The concept of the border of the state is substituted by the sovereign decision to produce some life as bare life: it is precisely this dividing practice, one that can effectively happen anywhere, that constitutes the ‘original spatialisation of sovereign power’.118 Such a decision is very much a practice of security because the production of bare life shores up notions of who and what ‘we’ are. (746)

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