Archive for the ‘Mathew Abbott’ Category

Mathew Abbott “No Life Is Bare”

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Abbott, Mathew 2012. No Life Is Bare, The Ordinary Is the Exceptional: Giorgio Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology. Parrhesia 14: 23-36.

[…] political ontology: We could give a preliminary definition of it as follows: the study of how our ontology—our conception of the world  as such—conditions what we take to be the ontic possibilities for human collectives. (23)

Political ontology, then, is already part of political philosophy (though it appears there with varying degrees of explicitness), and presupposed as part of the methodology of political theology, at least in its (arguably paradigmatic) Schmittian variant. (23-24)

But the task of political ontology is not just to insist on the contingency of ontological concepts, or to think new ones for the sake of opening up ontic political possibilities (as though by itself this would constitute anything more than melancholic and/or utopian speculation). It is to think the political through the exigency of the ontological question. (24)

This is the root of Heidegger’s history of being as metaphysics, under which the question of being cannot even pose itself as such. As Heidegger puts it in the third volume of his  Nietzsche, “within metaphysics there is nothing to being as such.” The history of being as metaphysics is a history of a blindness before the question of being, of representational understandings of truth repeatedly passing over its very status as a question. (25)

At this point, it should be clear that political ontology is (or is intended to be) post-metaphysical. This means that it will be concerned with thinking our political situation in terms of its metaphysical heritage, working from the premise that the blindness before the ontological question characteristic of metaphysics has real consequences for ontic politics. To engage in political ontology, then, means thinking from out of the idea that our conceptual systems have a deep and deeply problematic blind spot; that our representational models miss the fact of being because of a constitutive structural flaw. (25)

In this aporia, the natural life of human subjects is excluded from the city as something extraneous to political life, and yet constitutive of the city as that which must be presupposed for the construction of political life to be possible. (26)

Crucial here is a movement of presupposition, in which the fact of living is presupposed by the polis as its unthinkable ground. For Agamben, this exclusion, in which the political subject is divided from its non-political natural life, represents the original political relation. He finds, however, that the exclusion can never quite reach completion, because it was always an “implication… of bare life in politically qualified life.” (26)

When Heidegger claims there is nothing to being as such within metaphysics, then, Agamben takes him one step further to claim that there is nothing to life as such within our politics. Like Heidegger, Agamben finds something like an ontological law here: that which is presupposed and passed over by a system of thought will return to that system as its unthinkable (such that any exclusion of being/life is always already an inclusion). (27)

Agamben’s hyperbole, his tendency to pass over historical nuance (‘all societies and all cultures today’), is the result of his ontological method; hyperbole, we might say, is simply what becomes of ontological thought when it bleeds into the ontic. Sociologically (that is ontically), Agamben’s claims are exaggerations at best; ontologically however their status is yet to be properly grasped. Any fair analysis of them will have to take place on their proper ontological terrain. (27)

If we embark on such a resolutely ontological reading of Agamben, it will not only emerge that ‘bare life’ cannot function as a properly sociological category, but also that it could never be a concrete ontic potential for human beings. Instead, it is the unthought ground of the metaphysics underpinning our political systems, a presupposition that, after the failed attempt to exclude it in the classical world, has returned to haunt us in modernity. Bare life, in other words, is a metaphysical figure of (a failure of) thought, and not a category of ontic politics. This is to say that  no life is bare: that (and indeed despite some of Agamben’s own apparent suggestions to the contrary) no human form-of-life has ever been reduced to bare life. Bare life, like pure being, can never exist (has never existed). But this is not to say that it plays no role in ontic politics. On the contrary, this figure is a metaphysical condition of the possibility of those ontic spaces of domination that Agamben calls ‘camps,’ whether they be death camps, concentration camps, refugee camps, refugee ‘detention centres,’ Guantanamo Bay, or whatever. Ontically, these spaces are all very different; however they are ruled by the same metaphysical logic. The conditions of the possibility of the inclusive exclusion of the bare life of human beings are the same as those that allow for the presupposition of pure being in metaphysics. Cancelling these metaphysical conditions, then, will require a politicised rethinking of the ontological category of pure being, and a properly thinking politics. (27)

No life is bare in the ontic sense: rather, bare life is the figure of the return of a repressed metaphysical problem, a metaphysical image or even fantasy that haunts our politics. (28)

The claim ‘no life is bare’ does not imply a commitment to the idea that there is something irreducibly human or moral that remains alive in us even in the most extreme circumstances. The claim does not say humanity is indestructible; it says there is something inhuman in it that remains. It is not identity, which can be destroyed, but the impersonal core of singularity. (28)

A rough but useful way of framing the difference between Agamben and Foucault would be to say that while the latter is concerned with the ontic biopolitical field, and the myriad concrete practical problems that arise in it, Agamben is more primarily concerned with the historically contingent quasi-transcendental conditions of the biopolitical as such. (29)

Here Agamben attempts to think the conditions of a life that would escape the metaphysical image of bare life. The concept form-of-life, which is actually a strategic ontological intervention, designates a life that can never be separated from its form, a life that exists not as faceless bare life but rather as the intelligible singularity that makes each of us ourselves. (29)

The face of the individual is composed of properties (brown eyes, gold hair, large mouth, full lips, etc.), and can be constructed with an identikit in a police station. The face of form-of-life, on the other hand, is the face that the state can’t see (because it can’t represent it): it effects the dissolution of the face of the individual and the temporary shattering of its representational logic (it is the face of someone making a gesture, of someone laughing, or of someone at the point of orgasm). The concept form-of-life designates the impersonal (because it is pre-individual) and yet most intimate part of each of us (it is what surprises us when we surprise ourselves). If we follow Agamben in his claim that “political power as we know it always founds itself—in the last instance—on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of forms of life,”40 then the intended political import of this concept should be obvious: form-of-life is meant to function as a spanner in the works of the modern political machine, rendering inoperative every attempt to divide the human from its being. Form-of-life is unrepresentable (for it disrupts predicative logic) and yet intelligible (for we can get to know it, recognise it, and fall in love with it); it is a figure of pure equality (for it is impossible to judge or place in any hierarchy) that does not sublate difference (for it is singular, absolutely unrepeatable). The concept form-of-life, then, is designed to disrupt the metaphysical logic of presupposition, in which being as such can only appear as a brute, ‘bare’ presence. Form-of-life thus functions as a tool for bringing the intelligibility of pure being to light, for redeeming the object banished in the inclusive exclusion from the nothingness to which it was consigned. In this sense, form-of-life is an exemplary Agambenian concept, operating as it does in two registers at the same time, functioning to disrupt both the inclusive exclusion of bare life in metaphysical politics and the unthinkability of being as such within metaphysics. (29)

Agamben’s wager, and the wager of political ontology, is that these two operations are inseparable (which is not to say they are identical). (29-30)

The ontological question uproots all foundationalisms, precisely insofar as it doesn’t (can never) lead to an answer. It is the very gratuity of existence that makes it surprising, the fact that being emerges as unnecessary. This is what Nancy means when he refers to a “surprising generosity of being.” For Nancy, the ‘fact of freedom’ is nothing other than the fact of being itself, the very “freedom of being” that is being as such. When Nancy writes that “[t]he fact of freedom is this de-liverance of existence from every law and from itself as law…” and describes freedom as “the withdrawal of the cause in the thing,” then, we need to understand this in all its ontological radicalism: it is a claim about causality which, though left untouched at the ontic level (the level of billiard balls), can no longer be understood as ontologically necessary. (31)

Against Schmitt, then, the miracle is not a name for an exceptional event that contravenes the laws of nature, but rather a name for the very fact of being as that which is irreducible to any causal law. We must in other words generalise the Schmittian position on miracles, taking the very existing of the world to be miraculous, depending as it does on no law, no foundation. (31)

Political ontology shows that the real state of exception would be a state in which being as such is collectively lived as exceptional, which of course is logically identical to there being no exceptions (if being as such is exceptional, then nothing in particular is). Here we see how political ontology will require us to turn not to theorising the exceptional event a la Alain Badiou, but rather to the ordinary and the everyday, and in particular toward an idea of the exceptionality of the ordinary as a potential political achievement […] (31)

Gershom Scholem writes that “[m]etaphysics is a legitimate theory in the subjunctive form. This is the best definition I have found so far; it says everything.” Though Scholem uses the term ‘metaphysics’ here, exchanging it for ‘political ontology’ will see his point sit perfectly with this project. Political ontology is a mode of thought in which the distinction between fact and value collapses, such that what is shown to be valuable is the fact of existence itself. As such, a politics in-keeping with political ontology would be a subjunctive politics, a politics informed by an exigency. (32)