Thomas Lemke “A Zone of Indistinction”

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Lemke, Thomas 2005. “A Zone of Indistinction” – A Critique of Giorgio Agamben’s Concept of Biopolitics. Outlines (7)1: 3–13.

Foucault shows that sovereign power is by no means sovereign, since its legitimacy and efficiency depends on a “microphysics of power”, whereas in Agamben’s work sovereignty produces and dominates bare life. For Agamben “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power” (1998: 6; emphasis in orig.). The binary confrontation of bíos and zoé, political existence and bare life, rule and exception points exactly to the very juridical model of power that Foucault has criticized so convincingly. Agamben pursues a concept of power that is grounded in categories of repression, reproduction and reduction, without taking into account the relational, decentralised and productive aspect of power. In that it remains inside the horizon of law, Agamben’s analysis is more indebted to Carl Schmitt (1932) than to Michel Foucault. For Schmitt, the sovereign is visible in the decision about the state of exception, in the suspension of the law, while for Foucault the normal state that operates beneath, alongside, or against juridical mechanisms is more important. While the former concentrates on how the norm is suspended, the latter focuses on the production of normality. Schmitt takes as the point of departure the very sovereignty, that signifies, for Foucault, the endpoint and result of complex social processes, which concentrate the forces inside the social body in such a way as to produce the impression that there is an autonomous centre, or a sovereign source of power. (9)

Our reading of Agamben leads to a surprising result. Following a binary code and a logic of subsumption that does not allow for differentiations, his argument remains committed to exactly the juridical perspective that he so vividly criticizes. He reduces the “ambiguous terrain” (1998: 143) of biopolitics by operating with a notion of politics that is at once too broad in its explanatory scope and too narrow in empirical complexity. On the one hand Agamben conceptualises the political as a sovereign instance that does not allow for an outside that would be more than an “inner outside” and an “exception”. On the other hand his presentation of sovereignty is completely limited to the decision on the state of exception and the killing of bare life. (10)


Steven DeCaroli “Giorgio Agamben and the Field of Sovereignty”

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

DeCaroli, Steven 2007. Giorgio Agamben and the Field of Sovereignty. In: Calarco, Matthew; DeCaroli, Steven (eds). Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 43–69.

Instead of treating sovereignty as a foregone socio-political fact, the moderns would come to see sovereignty as a problem, so much so that the question of politics becomes largely indistinguishable from the question of sovereign authority. (44)

By situating politics squarely within an ontology of the subject and by refusing any absolute separation between political life and life-as-such, Agamben underscores rhe convergence of power and subjectivity that has, since the earliest appearance of the sovereign command, quietly materialized beneath the political mythologies sanctifying the “right to rule.” It is, then, at the intersection of the juridical model of
power (What legitimates sovereignty?) with the biopolitical model (What is the subject?) that Agamben’s work resides. (45)

Te classic typology of authority, defined as power that is recognized as legitimate not only by those holding positions of privilege but also by subordinates, all too easily envisions authority as a power distinct from those who are affected by it, namely, those individuals whose recognition, support, and obedience constitute the legitimacy authority enjoys. For this reason, it is altogether more helpful to engage the question of authority from the site of this obedience itself, rather than from within the confines of a conceptual debate that seeks to ascertain what constituent aurhoriry is apart from, or prior to, the social environment in which it is exercised. Te point here is that authority, of which sovereignty is the most extreme form, is a context-dependent concept, and to overlook this fact is to treat the authority embodied by sovereignty as a force existing independent of the field in which it is deployed. (48)

Sovereignty is the embeddedness of authority within a field of application-comprised of both a space and a multitude, a territory and a citizenry-and it is this legitimized connection between authority and territory that warrants further attention, because if politics is to be placed on a new footing it must do so by reformulating this relation. (48)

Te study of sovereignty must therefore begin with a study of those seemingly mundane forms of political life that are caught up in relations of power and self-recognition, rather than with the political logic of the state and its rulers. Te conditions for obedience are, therefore, not legal, nor are they, temporally speaking, merely pre-legal. Rather, the stabilization of the sovereign field is an ongoing, immanent process that subtends all activity within a jurisdiction, ordering all of its social actors, including he who wears the crown, as well as those who envision themselves as oppositional. (50)

Obedience comes before the law; it is the ground of the law and literally makes the law plausible. This is what Schmitt has in mind when he writes that there is no law applicable to chaos, and when in the course of this analysis, I speak of territory, or of jurisdiction, or of field, this fundamental preparedness is what I am referring to. (51)

[…] the political distinction between inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, structures the basic logic of sovereignty itself, insofar as sovereignty maintains a boundary not between the legal and the illegal, both of which participate fully in the logic of legality, but between the legal and the non-legal, that is, between the lawful and the outlaw, between the citizen and the exile. (51)

The ability of sovereignty to simultaneously gencrate both a “state of exception” and juridico-political order provides Homo Sacer with its central theme, and it is in reference to this double movement that Agamben concludes that the “exception” (l’eccezione) refers to what is “taken outside (ex-capere), and nor simply excluded” (HS, r8). (52)

Reduced to this state, the occupants of the camp unmediated by traditional forms of political belonging, ordinarily expressed in the form of rights-encounter juridico-political power from a condition of comprehensive political abandonment. 1he camp is, for Agamben, an absolute biopolitical space in which power is exercised not against juridical subjects but against biological bodies. (53)

[…] the bare life that exists within the state, a the state’s internal exception, constitutes the field of obedience that enables the judicial machinery of the state to function. Bare life, then, the object of biopolitics, is precisely that which, within the state, is made obedient prior to the law. When, on occasion, the contingency of this obedience is brought to light-for instance, in the case of political anarchy, or in the event of natural, economic, or military crises sovereignty responds rapidly. (54)

Under ancient Roman law, persona referred co anyone or anything capable of bearing rights, and the technical term for the position of any individual regarded as a persona was status. In the Institutes of Justinian (535 c.E.), we have the definitive explication: “Te status of a Roman citizen was composed of three elements: libertatem, civitatem, familiam [freedom, citizenship, and family] .”14 First, status entailed liberty. A persona was free and, unlike a slave, could bear rights. Secondly, status consisted of citizenship. For the Romans, the state was a privileged body separated from the rest of the world by the exclusive possession of certain public and private rights that were granted to its citizenry. It was an essential part of the status of a Roman citizens that they possess citizenship in the state, beyond which were the citizens of other states and the barbari. Finally, status involved membership in a family. In Rome, family ties were established not through blood but through a system of legal privileges that granted to the head of the family alone, usually the father, an independent will (sui juris). Te head of the family held absolute authority over all other members through the exercise of patria potestas, and since persons under the power of another could not hold property, the father was sole property owner of the family and, accordingly, what the son acquired was de facto acquired for the father. Moreover, the son himself was a real possession of the father and in some cases could be killed by the father without it being considered legal homicide. (59)

By simply refusing to rule, the Roman judiciary brought about the desired end without ever commanding it. Indeed, in the case of those subject to the interdictio, as opposed to the forceful banishment to, for instance, an island, it was the individuals themselves who bore ultimate
responsibility for their own exile. Te law, by refusing to rule over certain individuals, by deciding not to include them within the sovereign field,
effectively placed the fate of each individual into his or her own hands. A was the case for Aristotle, banishment is here the consequence of a refusal to rule, a withdrawal of the state from an individual. (62)


William E. Connolly “The Complexities of Sovereignty”

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Connolly, William E. 2007. The Complexities of Sovereignty. In: Calarco, Matthew; DeCaroli, Steven (eds). Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 23–42.

Agamben’s attempt to fold a double sense into the logic of the sacred should be rejected in favor of the conventional rendering he seeks to overturn. The sacred is that which is to be approached with awe. There might well be ambivalence in people’s orientation to the sacred, one they do not themselves acknowledge because of the fear of divine or human retribution. Those most punitive toward others who criticize or “defile” what they consider to be sacred often enough harbor such ambivalence. (29)

Agamben contends that biopolitics has become intensified today. This intensification translates the paradox of sovereignty into a potential disaster. The analysis that he offers at this point seems not so much wrong to me as overly formal. It reflects a classical liberal and Arendtian assumption that there was once a time when politics was restricted to public life and biocultural life was kept in the private realm. What a joke. Every way of life involves the infusion of norms, judgments, and standards into the affective life of participants at both private and public levels. Every way of life is biocultural and biopolitical. (29)

Agamben rends to describe the state as the “nation-state.” He does not ask whether disturbing developments in the logic of sovereignty are bound, not merely to a conjunction between biopolitics and sovereignty, but to a conjunction between them and renewed attempts to consolidate the spirituality of the nation during a time when it is ever more difficult to do so. A the reactive drive to restore the fictive unity of a nation is relaxed, it becomes more possible to negotiate a generous ethos of pluralism that copes in more inclusive ways with the nexus between biology, politics, and sovereignty. More than anything else, the dubious drive to translate deep plurality into nationhood translates sovereignty into a punitive, corrective, exclusionary, and marginalizing practice. (30)

I doubt, however, that politics or culture possesses as tight a logic as Agamben delineates. If I am right, biocultural life displays neither the close coherence chat many theorists seek nor the tight paradox that Agamben and others discern. Biocultural life exceeds any textbook logic because of the nonlogical character of its materiality. It is more messy, layered, and complex than any logical analysis can capture. Te very illogicalness of its materiality ensures that it corresponds entirely to no design, no simple causal pattern, no simple set of paradoxes. Agamben displays the hubris of academic intellectualism when he encloses political culture within a tightly defined logic. (31)

Bob Simpson and Rachel Douglas-Jones “New Immortalities”

Simpson, Bob; Douglas-Jones, Rachel 2017. New Immortalities: Death, donation, and dedication in the twenty-first century. Medicine Anthropology Theory 4(4): 1–21.

Given the range of therapeutic, educational, and research purposes to which cadaveric tissue might now be put, there is little that cannot now be meaningfully recovered from a body at the point of death or shortly thereafter. Death as closure and finality might now be combined with death as opportunity. (2)

The new immortalities agenda explores how the materiality of death is incorporated into the value regimes of the living, and how it brings into view the idioms of immortality that are used to give a sense of ‘living on’ in others, whether through the growing repertoires of tissue utility, embodied knowledge, or public spectacle. (4)

[…] it is useful to then think about the different temporalities they are involved in when cadaveric donation is contemplated. First, there is the expressed intentionality of the dead made evident on donor cards, pledges, and living wills; there is a host of ways that people are now exhorted to take responsibility for what will happen to their corpses. All of these actions signify novel ways in which the agency of the dead can be seen to operate. Moreover, they become interwoven with ideas of immortality as expressed through acts of celebration, memoriam, and dedication. But for the dead, time stops and as Marcel Duchamp famously had inscribed on his gravestone: ‘Besides, it’s always other people who die’. In most cases, family and community members carry out the will of the dead and do so at the same time they address their own grief. For them, time goes on, and, in Durkheimian terms, there must be a repair of the social fabric that death has momentarily torn and left gaping. Here, cadaveric donation opens new possibilities to express the sociality engendered by death. Finally, there is biomedical time: a secular and logistical world of parts in transit and in storage, waiting to bring life to others. This might occur directly as organs or tissues transplanted into the body of another or indirectly in research that will advance medical science or in medical education that will train doctors who will relieve suffering in the future. This is a time that never stopped or started but into which the corpse must be passed and out of which come new forms of immortalisation and memorialisation made posible by the munificence of the dead. (8)

[…] the sites of value transformation necessitated by the utility of cadaveric materials are key to thinking about the moralities and practicalities of cadaveric donation. In these transformations, tensions arise between (what are cast as) intrinsic and instrumental values of cadaveric tissue; these values become visible through ethnographic attention to the workings of the economic aspects of donation in practice. (9)

[…] in biomedical terms, the preservation and enhancement of life is also intimately bound up with death and its management. What if, starting from the range of ways that attention to the management of life has expanded our analytical repertoire, we were to seek a mirror of these analytical routes, not through the ‘bio’ but through the ‘thanato’? (10)

Within the biopolitical project, death is just as elusive as life. Indeed, the contributions we bring together here suggest that alongside the ‘politics of life itself’ (Rose 2006) we might also need to consider the ‘politics of death itself’ (Vincent 2006), that is, an analytical frame that draws attention explicitly to the management and administration of death and, indeed, the ways that these are being shaped on a mundane level in contemporary society; these are the ‘new immortalities’ of our title.  (13)

In his discussion of the evasion of ageing, Vincent (2006) considers each of five shifts in the understanding of ‘life itself’ as identified by Rose: anatomization of life into complex molecules, life as optimization, life as management and responsibilization, the policing of life through expertise, and the ‘economics of vitality’. Each of these he  reads through the lens of mortality, stating that ‘if life has been biologised, fragmented, reduced to a bio-chemical essence and rendered political by new potentialities for control, then so too has death’. (13)

[…] we are keen to shift our analytic gaze to how death is lived as part of life. Specifically, we are interested in the ways that death is being colonized by the therapeutic and educational needs of contemporary biomedicine. Here we might extend Foucault’s original aphorism to: ‘make live and let die and make live’. (13)

Leonard Lawlor “The Implications of Immanence”

Lawlor, Leonard 2006. The Implications of Immanence. Towards a New Concept of Life. New York: Fordham University Press.

  1. Metaphysics and Powerlessness

[…] let me summarize the four similarities between Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s will to power and Foucault’s bio-power. First, both conceptions occur in the modern epoch, which is the epoch of anti-Platonism. Second, both conceptions, being modern, imply a transformation of vision into positing and constant presence. Third, bio-power and will to power are commanding, meaning that the will in each conception super-enhances the power that it already has; bio-will to power is the will to more and more power (super-abundant life). Finally, fourth, both Heidegger and Foucault associate the phenomenological concept of Erlebnis with bio-will to power. (127)

According to Foucault, man is finite in two ways. As an object of knowledge (say, in the human sciences), man is finite insofar as he is subjected to life, language, and work. But as a subject of knowledge man is also finite, since the forms in which he knows life, language, and work are finite. Again, man is finite in two ways, but the two are the same. As is well known, the sameness of finitude means that ‘‘man’’ is in the middle of a series of doubles: the foundation and the founded; the empirical and the transcendental; the thought and the unthought; and the return and retreat of the origin. The doubling (as in a mirror image) implies that we can say, according to Foucault, that I am this life since I sense it deep within me, but also I can say that I am not it since it envelops me and grows toward the imminent moment of death (MC 335 / 324–25). (128)

This nicht ko ¨nnen, this ‘‘cannot,’’ brings us to the essential feature of fundamental anxiety; fundamental anxiety is essentially an experience of impotence (Ohnmacht) (GA9, 113 / 90). Therefore, what Heidegger says in the lecture course about profound boredom holds for fundamental anxiety: ‘‘The ‘it is boring for one’ has already transposed us into a realm of power [einen Machtbereich] over which the singular person, the public individual subject, no longer has any power’’ (GA29/30, 205–6 / 136). To say this again, the essential feature of fundamental anxiety is powerlessness. This powerlessness is how the nothing becomes manifest (offenbar). (133)

Verendlichung implies, first, that death is not an absolute limit; rather, as becoming-finite, death is a relative limit. The limit has been distributed throughout existence. Second, death is not the end—in Being and Time, Heidegger seems to continue to conceive death as an end, ‘‘the end of Dasein’’—rather, as becoming-finite, death has become multiple, has been multiplied indefinitely. We have become the place where ends, where ‘‘de-limitation,’’ Ver-endlichung happens indefinitely. Third, death is not a possibility of no longer existing but rather, as becoming-finite, death is actually life itself. Indeed, with this Verendlichung, we have reached the place of the subrepresentational and the in-formal. In his book on Foucault, Deleuze creates a phrase that we can apply to this place outside of representation and form: ‘‘Bichat’s zone.’’ (137)

According to Foucault, we reach modern biology when the classifiable characteristics of the
living come to be ‘‘based upon a principle alien to the domain of the visible’’ (MC 239 / 227). While the classifications involved in classical natural history related visible form to visible form—for example, the visible form of a bird to the visible characteristic of wings—modern biology relates visible form to the functions essential to the living, functions that are themselves buried deeply within the body of the living. (137)

Bichat realized that at the moment of death one is able to observe the final symptom in a series of symptoms—the final point in the series is still visible—and, in the autopsy opening the body, one is also able to observe the series of lesions, a series that, prior to death, had been hidden in the patient’s body, invisible. In other words, by means of the immediate autopsy, Bichat was able to look at the ‘‘principle alien to the domain of the visible.’’ Bichat made what was invisible when alive visible through the autopsy, through death. This is, for Foucault, Bichat’s first great innovation: the perception of death allowed Bichat to give a more rigorous and therefore instrumental definition of death (NC 143 / 141, 149 / 146). (138)

For Foucault, this idea of a ‘‘moving death’’ is Bichat’s second great innovation in regard to the concept of life. These processes indicate the permeability of life by death. Foucault says, ‘‘Death is therefore multiple, and dispersed in time: it is not the absolute, privileged point at which time stops and moves back; like disease itself, death has a teeming presence’’ (NC 144 / 142). (139)

Thanks to the great white eye of death—the autopsy—disease has, Foucault says, ‘‘a mappable land’’ or ‘‘place’’ (NC 151 / 149). The living is defined by the spacing of disease as a ‘‘great organic vegetation’’ with ‘‘a nervure,’’ with ‘‘its own forms of sprouting, its own way of taking root, and its privileged regions of growth’’ (NC 155 / 152–53). Spatialized in this way, pathological phenomena take on the appearance of living processes. That disease is a living process means that it is inseparable from life; it is no longer an event or nature imported from the exterior of life. (139)

For Foucault, with the idea that life is the ground of disease, we have Bichat’s third innovation, his definition of life as the set of functions that resist death. For Bichat, life ‘‘is not a set of characteristics that are distinguished from the inorganic, but the background against which the opposition between the organism and the non-living may be perceived, situated, and laden with all the positive values of conflict’’ (NC 157 / 154). Defining life as a conflict with the nonliving means that life, being a process of degeneration, is at the limit auto-destruction, and not preservative (NC 160–61 / 157); the degeneration of life always moves toward death. Wear and tear (l’usure), Foucault says, ‘‘is the form of degeneration that accompanies life, and throughout its entire duration, defines its confrontation with death’’ (NC 161 / 158). Therefore, for Foucault—this claim is really Bichat’s third innovation—death is co-extensive with life. The co-extensivity of death with life is why Foucault says that ‘‘vitalism appears against the background of ‘mortalism’ ’’ (NC 148 / 145). (139)

Foucault stresses that it is not the case that disease is the source of death; rather, death, in life, has always already begun; there is always already a process of mortification, in which diseases are virtual. The reversal of what we normally think about the relation between life, disease, and death defines mortalism; mortalism is the virtuality, in life, of dying (finitization). The virtuality of dying, however, means that life, or better, ‘‘a life,’’ is always potentially a multiplicity of diseases, which, as we have already seen,
are themselves modeled on a living individual, on a life: there is a life of cancer. Multiplicity, being the ground of many lives of diseases, contains virtually singularities (NC 159 / 156). (140)

With the project, however, of the overcoming of Platonism, the concept of life itself becomes the background or ground for all other oppositions. This shift to the level of ground implies that the traditional (pre-nineteenth-century) problems associated with the concept of life are pushed to the side, problems such as the unity of life (vegetative versus cognitive), the specificity of life (organic versus inorganic), the opposition between finalism and mechanism, the conceptions of evolution. Instead, replacing being as well as nature, life becomes ultra-transcendental.61 The ultra-transcendental concept of life is auto-affection. What distinguishes the twentiethcentury concept of auto-affection from all previous ones is that now auto-affection takes place across a limit, across a difference,62 across a minuscule but invincible hiatus, across a spacing. Due to the limit, auto-affection is finite; or, since life as auto-affection is fundamental, life is ‘‘originary finitude.’’63 To put this idea another way, below ‘‘life-ism’’ is ‘‘mortalism’’ (NC 148 / 145). The limit in the middle of auto-affection is death. Yet, death is not an absolute limit opposed to life; it is not an end. Rather, death is mobile, a ‘‘teeming presence’’: life, then, is ‘‘finitization.’’ (141)

Finitization means that the power of life rests on a powerlessness.64 The teeming presence of death means that, within the sensingsensed relation, there is always the nonsensible. If the living is defined by self-relation, then wherever there is this relation, there must be a gap between the active and passive poles of the relation in order that there might be two poles at all. The ‘‘auto,’’ then, is always, necessarily, out of joint. (142)

Conclusion: The Followers

Foucault showed in both Words and Things and The Birth of the Clinic that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bichat’s name is the index of the rupture that opened the modern epoch. When Bichat developed his definition of life, he placed life at a deeper level; he replaced nature with life as the ontological foundation. Life itself becomes the background or ground for all other oppositions. This shift to the level of ground implies that the traditional problems associated with the concept of life are pushed to the side, problems such as the unity of life (vegetative versus cognitive), the specificity of life (organic versus inorganic), the opposition between finalism and mechanism, the conceptions of evolution. Instead, replacing being as well as nature, life becomes ultra-transcendental. Vitalism, therefore, is an idea that does not belong to our present. We can assemble the characteristics that define the new concept of life. It would not be biological in a strictly material sense; it is not natural life (zoo ¯n). Instead, this life, the living, is spiritual. To call life spirit (as opposed to matter) implies conceptualization, information, the virtual, memory. Memory means that language is in life. (144)

As soon as we are born, we are ready to die. That’s life. There is a powerlessness—originary finitude or finitization—within the ‘‘I can’’ of the flesh. This powerlessness puts blindness right in the middle of vision; it puts forgetfulness right in the middle of memory. The eye of representation, the ‘‘eye’’ of recognition, is gouged out. The powerless of vision, the powerless of memory, requires prosthetics, such as spectacles and writing. At the origin of life, we are always able to find technology; nature is always contaminated with culture (language again). Life is always out of joint. (146)

Paul Veyne “The Final Foucault and His Ethics”

Veyne, Paul 1993. The Final Foucault and His Ethics. Critical Inquiry 20(1): 1–9.

Foucault’s books are, strictly speaking, the works of a historian, at least in the eyes of those who have acknowledged that all history is interpretative; but Foucault would not have written all the historians’ books. For the interpretation that is history has as its second agenda the project of being a complete inventory, whereas Foucault played the part of historian only with respect to points where the past masks the genealogy of our present. (3)

[…] in thinking they are seeking the truth of things, people succeed only in establishing the rules according to which they will be said to be speaking truly or falsely. In this sense, knowledge is not only linked to the powers that be, it is not only a weapon of power, it is not even power at the same time that it is knowledge; knowledge is only power, radically, for one can only speak truly by virtue of the force of the rules imposed at one time or another by a history whose individuals are at once, and mutually, actors and victims. Thus by truths we do not mean true propositions to be discovered or accepted but the set of rules that make it possible to utter and to recognize those propositions held as true. (3)

[…] the aim of Foucault the philosopher was not to claim that, for example, the modern state is characterized by a grand act of setting aside, of exclusion rather than of integration, which would obviously be  exciting to discuss; his aim was to show that every gesture, without exception, at the level of the state or not, always fails to fulfill the universalism of a reason and always leaves emptiness outside, even if the gesture is one of inclusion and integration. Similarly, when Kant spoke of the transcendental constitution of space and time, he was not inviting us to proceed with it: the difficult point would rather be that without knowing it we have not been proceeding with it. (5)

The other generous misunderstanding had to do with the famous void; people imagined that the finitude of every discursive practice was only empirical, to such an extent that the metaphorical void became, for some, a real space, inhabited by all the outcasts, rejects, and lepers and buzzing with all the forbidden or repressed words. The historical task was then to allow them to be heard: a rational account of the negativity of contradictories finally reestablished an encouraging philosophy that based our good feelings on reason. And yet, if there is one thing that distinguishes Foucault’s thought from that of some others, it is the firm resolve not to serve a dual function, not to reduplicate our illusions, no to establish as finally true what everyone would like to believe, not to prove that what is or ought to be has every reason to be. The rarest of phenomena, here is a philosophy without a happy end. Not that it end badly: nothing can “end,” since there is no end point any more than the is an origin. Foucault’s originality among the great thinkers of our century lay in his refusal to convert our finitude into the basis for new certainties. (5)

To be a philosopher is to make a diagnosis of present possibilities and to draw up a strategic map – with the secret hope of influencing the choice of combats. Enclosed in his own finitude, in his own time, man cannot think just anything at any time. (6)

Andreas Schönle “Social Power and Individual Agency: The Self in Greenblatt and Lotman”

February 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Schönle, Andreas 2001. Social Power and Individual Agency: The Self in Greenblatt and Lotman. The Slavic and East European Journal 45(1): 61–79.

Both writers treat culture as a field of discourses – Lotman would call them codes – which at once enable and constrict behavior. Both seek to conceptualize agency and creativity. Unlike hard-core Foucaultians, Lotman and Greenblatt allow for individuality and originality, yet without lapsing into the Romantic myth of inspired creativity. The self, in their account, is not entirely a product of social discourses, even though it is subject to intense pressures and faces drastic limitations in the range of its choices. (62)

If both Lotman and Greenblatt emphasize that power seeks to impose semiotic homogeneity, the former thinks of power as a concrete, unified, albeit unpredictable agent, while the latter posits more abstract, yet plural sources of authority. […] the main difference between Lotman and Greenblatt lies in the ways in which they think of the strategies for autonomy available to the individual self. For Greenblatt, the self achieves some degree of independence from social and discursive practices by cultivating the illusion of its freedom. In contrast, for Lotman, the quest for autonomy entails puncturing illusions and withdrawing from the social circuit. (63)

Lotman proposes a semiotic theory of the self which consists of two parts: one dealing with the ways the self constitutes and changes its identity for itself, and the other with interactions between this self and social codes. The self develops its subjective identity by absorbing a message coming from outside and projecting it upon a supplementary code coming from within (Universe of the Mind, 22). To keep it simple, suffice it to say that the self is endowed with an ability to recode messages it receives and to restructure its own identity in the process. This restructuring results from the creative intersection between two non-homologous codes. A diary would be an example of this restructuring, in which discourses from everyday life are being introjected and refashioned according to the rhythms, inflections, and nuances of first person narration.  (73)

The actual notion of ‘individuality’, Lotman maintains, “is not primary or self-evident but depends on the means of encoding” (234). (73)