Home > Uncategorized > Mitchell Dean “Four Theses on the Powers of Life and Death”

Mitchell Dean “Four Theses on the Powers of Life and Death”

Dean, Mitchell 2004. Four Theses on the Powers of Life and Death. Contretemps 5: 16-29.

First Thesis. The right of death is ancient. The power over life, by contrast, is quite new. Its emergence in the eighteenth century has brought the most devastating of consequences. (17)

Foucaultʼs peculiar contribution to the theory of sovereignty is the focus on the right of death. His genealogy here echoes Batailleʼs theme of sovereignty as linked to the denial of the sentiments that death controls. “Life beyond utility is the domain of sovereignty,” states Bataille.9 The implication of this is that sovereign existence is the capacity to live in the present moment beyond the concern for the needs to sustain life. The moral corollary is that “sovereignty requires the strength to violate the prohibition against killing.”10 Bataille claims his defnition of sovereignty has little to do with the sovereignty of states. This is a basic insight. Sovereignty—the power of killing—is today practiced in the biomedical domain by health professionals and administrators, by relatives and carers, and by prospective parents and mothers, all under the watchful guardianship of institutional ethical committees, legal regulation and therapeutic expertise. (18-19)

Second Thesis: It is not merely the succession or addition of the modern powers over life to the ancient right of death but their very combination within modern states that is of significance. How these powers are combined accounts for whether they are malign or benign. (20)

Pace Bauman, it is not simply the development of instrumental rationality in the form of modern bio-power, or a bureaucratic power applied to life that makes the Holocaust possible. It is the system of linkages, re-codings and re-inscriptions of sovereign notions of fatherland, territory, and blood within the new bio-political discourses of eugenics and racial hygiene that makes the unthinkable thinkable. (20)

On the one hand, the economic rationality that provides a limit to government refers before all else to the means of the sustenance of life. On the other, the sovereign individual has rights, especially in the era of international human rights, simply by virtue of merely living itself. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” reads the frst article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If there is optimism in Foucaultʼs approach, it is one that cannot rely on a movement that checks the powers over life. The more liberalism and modern rights movements seek to defend us from the dangers of bio-powers, it would seem, the more they make possible its extension. (21)

Third Thesis. The powers over life are as ancient as sovereign power and law themselves. We do not need to ask for a historical point of connection between the powers of life and death because they are  constitutive of the sacred character of political community. (22)

While Agamben, like Foucault, might reject a concern for who has power within the political order, he holds that it remains necessary to examine the role of sovereignty as constituting the threshold of the juridical-political order. Politics has always been about life, in so far as the good life might be the end of a political community, and questions of basic existence, once satisfed by human association, can be placed as outside properly political concerns. (23)

Where Foucault tends to identify a government of life and the living as a feature of distinctively modern political formations, Schmittʼs view of sovereignty already contains a notion of a power concerned with life. He writes that “Every general norm demands a normal, everyday frame of life to which it can be factually applied and which is subjected to its regulations… For a legal order to make sense, a normal order must exist, and he is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists.” Sovereignty thus is a structure that decides on what this normal everyday frame of life is and whether or not this normal frame of life is effective. (24)

The relation of exception is one of the ban: in abandoning individuals, the law does not merely put them in a sphere of indifference, but rather leaves them “exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable.” To be banned is to be placed outside the
juridical-political order that defnes the normal frame of life of a political community. But in the act of being placed outside this order, who or what is banned is included in the power that places he, she, them or it there. (24)

For Agamben, however, homo sacer is not just a fgure uncovered by legal philology of ancient Rome; it is subject to recurrent materialisations in history. These include its paradigmatic manifestation in the concentration camps, notions of universal human rights, the emergence of mass refugee movements from the early twentieth century, those on life-support systems, medical judgments on euthanasia, and in the Versuchspersonen or human guinea pigs of the Nazi doctors. Some might want to say that homo sacer can also be found in the myriad petri dishes, test-tubes and ante-natal clinics of our times. Bare life, is today found—at its most elemental—in the sequences of the letters A, G, C, T, that stand for the chemical bases, the purines and the prymidines, that make up the genetic code. Zoē has found a new representation in the colour-coded sequences of three billion letters of the genome. (26)

The positive side of Agambenʼs thesis is frst that it avoids the recurrent bipolar structure of Foucaultʼs attempts to investigate the character of modern politics and its relation to life. For Foucault, politics can only be approached as the articulation or displacement of the poles of a series of oppositions: the right of death and the power of life, sovereignty and bio-politics, the ʻcity-citizenʼand ʻshepherd-flockʼ games, individualizing and totalizing character of modern powers, techniques of government and techniques of self, reason of state and liberalism, etc. But the point at which they link, overlap, interact, or enter a zone of indistinction is diffcult to discern. Foucault proposes their relations are demonic, but cannot tell us why or how. Agamben proposes a possible topography of the state of exception in which the sovereign ban captures life in the political order but outside the political community, and zoē and bios enter into irreducible indistinction. (26)

Fourth thesis: Bio-politics captures life stripped naked (or the zoē that was the exception of sovereign power) and makes it a matter of political life (bios). Today, we seek the good life though the extension of the powers over bare life to the point at which they become indistinguishable. (27)

If we are to take Agamben seriously, this desire for inclusion may have the effect not simply of widening the sphere of the rule of law but also of hastening the point at which the sovereign exception enters into a zone of indistinction with the rule. Our societies would then have become truly demonic, not because of the re-inscription of sovereignty within bio-politics, but because bare life which constituted the sovereign exception begins to enter a zone of indistinction with our moral and political life and with the fundamental presuppositions of political community. In the achievement of inclusion in the name of universal human rights, all human life is stripped naked and becomes sacred. Perhaps in a very real sense we are all homo sacer. Perhaps what we have been in danger of missing is the way in which the sovereign violence that constitutes the exception of bare life—that which can be killed without committing homicide—is today entering into the very core of modern politics, ethics, and systems of justice. (28)

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