Posts Tagged ‘Giorgio Agamben’

Giorgio Agamben “The Sacrament of Language”

December 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Agamben, Giorgio 2011. The Sacrament of Language. An Archaeology of the Oath (Homo Sacer II, 3). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[…] the issue here, above all, is the question, What is an oath? What is at stake in it, if it defines and calls into question man himself as a political animal? If the oath is the sacrament of political power, what is it in its structure and its history that has made it possible for it to be invested with such a function? What anthropological level – a decisive one in every sense – is implicated in it, so that all of man, in life and death, can be called to account in it and by it? (2)

Benveniste, 1948: “[The oath] is a particular modality of assertion, which supports, guarantees, and demonstrates, but does not found anything. Individual or collective, the oath exists only by virtue of that which it reinforces and renders solemn: a pact, an agreement, a declaration. It prepares for or concludes a speech act which alone possesses meaningful content, but it expresses nothing by itself. It is in truth an oral rite, often completed by a manual rite whose form is variable. Its function consists not in the affirmation that it produces, but in the relation that it institutes between the word pronounced and the potency invoked.” (B, The Expression of the Oath in Ancient Greece, 81-82, 4)

All the sources and scholars seem to agree that the oath’s primary function, in its various forms, is that of guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language. (4)

It is possible […] not only that what was originally at issue in the oath was the guarantee of a promise or of the truthfulness of an affirmation but that the institution that we know today by that name contains the memory of a more archaic stage, in which it was concerned with the very consistency of human language and the very nature of humans as “speaking animals”. The “scourge” that it had to stem was not only the unreliability of men, incapable of staying true to their word, but a weakness pertaining to language itself, the capacity of words themselves to refer to things and the ability of men to make profession of their condition as speaking beings. (8)

The oath is, then, a verbal act that accomplishes a testimony – or a guarantee – independently by the very fact that it has taken place. The formula of Pindar cited above acquires here its full meaning: karteros horkos martys esto Zeus, “as a mighty oath, may Zeus be our witness”: Zeus is not a witness of the oath, but rather oath, witness, and god coincide in the utterance of the formula. As in Philo, the oath is a logos that is necessarily accomplished, and this is precisely the logos of God. The testimony is given by language itself and the god names a potentiality implicit in the very act of speech. The testimony that is in question in the oath must therefore be understood in a sense that has little to do with much of what we normally understand by this term. It concerns not the verification of a fact or an event but the very signifying power of language. (33)

Blasphemy presents us, then, with a phenomenon that is perfectly symmetrical to the oath, to understand which there is no need to drag in the biblical interdiction or the ambiguity of the sacred. Blasphemy is an oath, in which the name of a god is extracted from the assertorial or promissory context and is uttered in itself, in vain, independently of a semantic context. The name, which in the oath expresses and guarantees the connection between words and things and which defines the truthfulness and force of the logos, in blasphemy expresses the breakdown of this connection and the vanity of human language. The name of God, isolated and produced “in vain”, corresponds symmetrically to perjury, which separates words from things; oath and blasphemy, a bene-diction and male-diction, are co-originally implied in the very event of language. (40-41)

What the curse sanctions is the loosening of the correspondence between words and things that is in question in the oath. If the connection that unites language and the world is broken, the name of God, which expressed and guaranteed this connection based in blessing [bene-dicente], becomes the name of the curse [male-dizione], that is, of a word that has broken its truthful relation to things. (42)

If, in polytheism, the name assigned to the god named this or that event of language, this or that specific naming, this or that Sondergott, in monotheism God’s name names language itself. The potentially infinite dissemination of singular, divine events of naming gives way to the divinization of the logos as such, to the name of God as archi-event of language that takes place in names. (49)

It is a certainty, or better a “faith”, of this kind that is in question in the oath and in the name of God. The name of God names the name that is always and only true, that is, that experience of language that it is not possible to doubt. For man this experience is the oath. In this sense very name is an oath, and in every name a “faith” is in question, because the certainty of the name is not of an empirico-constative or logico-epistemic type but rather always puts in play the commitment and praxis of men. To speak is, above all, to swear, to believe in the name. (54)

It is precisely the status of the oath that we have sought so far to reconstruct that allows us, in fact, to understand in a new light the theory of performatives. They represent in language a remnant of a stage (or, rather, the co-originarity of a structure) in which the connection between words and things is not of a semantico-denotative type but performative, in the sense , as in the oath, the verbal act brings being into truth. This is not, as we have seen, a magico-religious stage but a structure antecedent to (or contemporaneous with) the distinction between sense and denotation, which is perhaps not, as we have been accustomed to believe, an original and eternal characteristic of human language but a historical product (which, as such, has not always existed and could one day cease to exist). (55)

[…] in the performative, language suspends its denotation precisely and solely to found its existential connection with things. (56)

Considered in this perspective, the ontological (or onto-theological) argument simply says that if speech exists, then God exists, and God is the expression of this metaphysical “performance”. (56)

[…] metaphysics, the science of pure being, is itself historical and coincides with the experience of the event of language to which man devotes himself in the oath. If the oath is declining, if the name of God is withdrawing from language – and this is what has happened beginning from the event that has been called the “death o f God” or, as one should put it more exactly, “of the name of God” – then metaphysics also reaches completion. (56)

Assertion and veridiction define, that is to say, the two co-originary aspects of the logos. While assertion has an essentially denotative value, meaning that its truth, in the moment of its formulation, is independent of the subject and is measured with logical and objective parameters (conditions of truth, noncontradiction, adequation between words and things), in veridiction the subject constitutes itself and puts itself in play as such by linking itself performatively to the truth of its own affirmation. (57)

Religion and law do not pre-exist the performative experience of language that is in question in the oath, but rather they were invented to guarantee the truth and trustworthiness of the logos through a series of apparatuses, among which the tecnicalization of the oath into a specific “sacrament” – the “sacrament of power” – occupies a central place. (59)

The interpretation of sacretas as an originary performance of power through the production of a killable and unsacrificeable bare life must be completed in the sense that, even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word. The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that takes place in the oath takes the technical form of the curse, of the politike ara that accompanies the proclamation of the law. Law is, in this sense, constitutively inked to the curse, and only a politics that has broken this original connection with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law. (66)

With a tenacious prejudice perhaps connected to their profession, scientists have always considered anthropogenesis to be a problem of an exclusively cognitive order, as if the becoming human of man were solely a question of intelligence and brain size and not also one of ethos, as if intelligence and language did not also and above all pose problems of an ethical and political order, as if Homo sapiens was not also, and of course precisely for that reason, a Homo iustus. (68)

[…] uniquely among living things, man is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among others that he is given but has made of it his specific potentiality; he has, that is to say, put his very nature at stake in language. (68)

Just as, in the words of Foucault, man “is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”, so also is he the living being whose language places his life in question. These two definitions are, in fact, inseparable and constitutively dependent on each other. The oath is situated at their intersection, understood as the anthropogenic operator by means of which the living being, who has discovered itself speaking, has decided to be responsible for his words and, devoting himself to the logos, to constitute himself as the “living being who has language”. In order for something like an oath to be able to take place, it is necessary, in fact, to be able above all to distinguish, and to articulate together in some way, life and language, actions and words – and this is precisely what the animal, for which language is still an integral part of its vital practice, cannot do. The first promise, the first – and, so to speak, transcendental – sacratio is produced by means of this division, in which man, opposing his language to his actions, can put himself at stake in language, can promise himself to the logos. (69)

On the one hand, there is the living being, more and more reduced to a purely biological reality and to bare life. On the other hand, there is the speaking being, artificially divided from the former, through a multiplicity of technico-mediatic apparatuses, in an experience of the word that grows ever more vain, for which it is impossible to be responsible and in which anything like a political experience becomes more and more precarious. When the ethical – and not simply cognitive – connection that unites words, things, and human actions is broken, this in fact promotes a spectacular and unprecedented proliferation of vain words on the one hand and, on the other, of legislative apparatuses that seek obstinately to legislate on every aspect of that life on which they seem no longer to have any hold. The age of the eclipse of the oath is also the age of blasphemy, in which the name of God breaks away from its living connection with language and can only be uttered “in vain”. (70-71)

The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker, in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak – that is to say, in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language. The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say “I”, must “take the word”, assume it and make it his own. (71)


Frédéric Keck “Les usages du biopolitique”

Keck, Frédéric 2008. Les usages du biopolitique. L’Homme 3: 295-314.

Si la politique porte sur la vie, alors tout peut devenir biopolitique : chaque phénomène social trouve immédiatement sa traduction en phénomène vital. (295)

L’hypothèse du biopouvoir est alors une façon de reposer le problème de l’apparition des sciences humaines, en cherchant l’explication du côté des techniques de pouvoir, et non d’un mystérieux basculement d’épistémè. (298)

Le terme de biopouvoir apparaît donc chez Foucault à la jonction entre deux réflexions sur la notion de sujet : d’une part, celle des Mots et les Choses, sur le sujet comme pôle de connaissance constitutif des sciences humaines, d’autre part, celle de l’Histoire de la sexualité, sur le sujet comme pôle d’activité et de passivité dans le rapport entre les corps. (299)

À travers ce que Foucault appelle une « biopolitique de la population », c’est l’État qui trouve dans les sciences sociales un outil permettant de se réfléchir comme organe de savoir. (299)

Un deuxième usage attribue au contraire la réflexivité aux individus en tant qu’ils sont des corps vivants – ce que Foucault appelle une « anatomo-politique du corps humain ». Dans le sillage des études de Foucault sur la discipline, il ne s’agit plus seulement de montrer en quoi les corps sont soumis à l’emprise d’un pouvoir qui les contrôle en les mesurant et en les redressant (Vigarello 2004), mais aussi de voir en quoi la réflexivité des sujets est nécessaire à l’établissement de ce contrôle. (299)

Un troisième type d’usage réflexif consiste à articuler l’hypothèse du biopouvoir avec l’analyse des sociétés libérales. Foucault rattache en effet la naissance de la biopolitique à la formation de la pensée libérale autour de la question : comment ne pas trop gouverner ? Si les individus d’un État sont des corps vivants dont il faut maximiser la production, le pouvoir doit leur laisser la plus grande liberté compatible avec la production en commun. Foucault appelle « gouvernementalité » cet art de ne pas trop gouverner, qui vise à suivre les mouvements des individus pour les laisser opérer. (300)

Ces trois types d’usage restent tributaires d’une hypothèse lourde de la pensée de Foucault : celle d’un basculement du pouvoir souverain au biopouvoir avec l’apparition des sciences de la vie et des sciences de l’homme. Poussé par une logique des conceptions du monde qui était déjà à l’œuvre dans Les Mots et les Choses, Foucault tend en effet à considérer la biopolitique comme une époque du pouvoir venant en remplacer une autre. C’est pourquoi on peut dire que ces usages sont davantage réflexifs que critiques : ils font retour sur les opérations des sciences humaines, découvrant ainsi de nouveaux objets et de nouvelles subjectivités, mais ils ne donnent pas de nouveaux appuis à la critique. Pour faire une critique de la biopolitique, il faut en effet partir d’une position d’extériorité par rapport à ce régime de pouvoir, rendue intenable par l’hypothèse généalogique. (300)

[…] Negri et Hardt modifient la conception foucaldienne du biopouvoir : ce que Foucault avait décrit comme discipline des corps individuels dans Surveiller et punir serait en fait de l’ordre du pouvoir souverain, alors que le biopouvoir serait seulement ce que Foucault appelait biopolitique des populations. Autrement dit, Foucault aurait conceptualisé le biopouvoir au moment où celui-ci était en train d’apparaître, raison pour laquelle il ne pouvait pas véritablement décrire la nouveauté de son mode de fonctionnement, et restait pris dans une grille de lecture structuraliste encore appliquée dans l’analyse du Panoptique de Surveiller et punir. C’est pourquoi Negri et Hardt se réfèrent finalement aux analyses de Deleuze sur les « sociétés de contrôle », gouvernées par les multiplicités organisées en rhizome dans des séries divergentes de flux temporels (Deleuze 1990). (301)

Le travail immatériel, c’est donc l’ensemble des rapports sociaux qui produisent de la substance vitale par le simple fait de communiquer et d’échanger des informations. (302)

[…] alors que le peuple est un ensemble d’individus unis dans le cadre d’un territoire sous un pouvoir souverain, et que la masse est une population animée par des désirs entièrement irrationnels et imprévisibles, la multitude est un ensemble d’individus dépourvus de frontières délimitées et pourtant unis par des affects et des concepts communs. (302)

On voit que l’analyse d’Agamben est radicalement inverse de celle de Negri : car au lieu de chercher une histoire générale du pouvoir dans la façon dont sont pensées des populations ou des multitudes, il en cherche la structure logique intemporelle dans le rapport entre le souverain et l’individu. Selon Agamben, en effet, la structure paradoxale de l’Homo Sacer illustre la logique du pouvoir souverain qui, comme l’a montré Schmitt, repose entièrement sur l’exclusion et l’exception : la règle énoncée par le pouvoir ne peut fonctionner que si elle pose à l’extérieur de son champ d’application une exception, ce geste d’exclusion constituant originairement le pouvoir dans une sphère délimitée. (304)

Agamben appelle « vie nue » cette forme d’être que le pouvoir souverain pose à l’extérieur de son ordre comme insacrifiable et pourtant tuable. Cette expression désigne un être qui n’a pas d’autre vie que biologique, parce qu’il ne fait pas partie de l’espace politique : c’est au sens propre un survivant, en état de vie végétative, que la mort guette à chaque instant parce qu’aucune instance politique ne le protège, donc un être sans droits, pas même celui de vivre. (305)

Tout se passe alors comme si Negri et Agamben exploraient deux axes inversés de la combinatoire construite par Foucault pour analyser le biopouvoir : Negri retient l’axe qui fait passer du pouvoir souverain à la biopolitique de la population par un ensemble de savoirs, selon un schéma horizontal de progrès situé sur le plan d’immanence, laissant ainsi dans l’ombre le mécanisme par lequel le pouvoir souverain se porte sur l’individu (ce que Foucault avait appelé la discipline, et que Negri rejette du côté d’un structuralisme obsolète) ; alors qu’Agamben explore précisément ces mécanismes structurels du pouvoir politique et juridique, selon l’axe vertical du sacrifice, insertion de la transcendance dans l’immanence, laissant alors de côté l’axe par lequel le pouvoir porte sur les populations en produisant un ensemble de savoirs, ce que Negri appelait travail immatériel. (306)

Agamben et Negri ont bien posé la question critique : celle du passage du pouvoir souverain à la biopolitique, par lequel le pouvoir acquiert une prise sur la vie. Mais ils ont échoué à répondre à cette question parce qu’ils visent une ontologie de la vie. Il leur manquait un champ d’expérience dans lequel les reconfigurations du biopouvoir puissent être analysées. (307)

À la suite de Paul Rabinow, on peut formuler l’hypothèse selon laquelle la biopolitique produit des sujets critiques parce qu’elle fait apparaître de nouveaux événements rendant inadéquates les formes de problématisation antérieures. L’articulation entre pouvoir souverain et biopouvoir se rejoue à chaque fois que des technologies introduisent dans le social de nouveaux êtres dont l’ambivalence pose problème. (309)

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

March 27, 2017 Leave a comment

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)

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

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

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)

Giorgio Agamben “Stasis”

January 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Agamben, Giorgio 2015. Stasis. Civil War as a Political Paradigm (Homo Sacer II, 2). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  1. Stasis

The ambivalence of the stasis, according to Loraux, is thus attributable to the ambiguity of the oikos, with which is it consubstantial. Civil war is the stasis emphylos; it is the conflict particular to the phylon, to blood kinship. It is to such an extent inherent to the family that the phrase ta emphylia (literally, ‘the things internal to the bloodline’) simply means ‘civil wars’. According to Loraux, the term denotes ‘the bloody relationship that the city, as a bloodline (and, as such, thought in its closure), maintains with itself’ (Loraux 1997, 29). At the same time, precisely because it is what lies at the origin of the stasis, the family is also what contains its possible remedy. (7)

Insofar as civil war is inherent to the family – insofar as it is, that is to say, an oikeios polemos, a ‘war within the household’ – it is, to the same extent – this is the thesis that Loraux seems to suggest here – inherent to the city, an integral part of the political life of the Greeks. (8)

Toward the end of her essay, Loraux analyses the case of a small Greek city in Sicily, Nakōnē, where, in the third century bce, the citizens decided to organise the reconciliation following a stasis in a particularly striking way. Tey drew the names of the citizens in lots, in order to then divide them into groups of five, who in this way became adelphoi hairetoi, ‘brothers by election’. Te natural family was neutralised, but this neutralisation was accomplished simultaneously through a symbol par excellence of kinship: fraternity. Te oikos, the origin of civil strife, is excluded from the city through the production of a false fraternity. Te inscription that has transmitted this information to us specifies that the neo-brothers were to have no family kinship between them: the purely political fraternity overrules blood kinship, and in this way frees the city from the stasis emphylos. With the same gesture, however, it reconstitutes kinship at the level of the polis: it turns the city into a family of a new kind. It was a ‘family’ paradigm of this kind that Plato had employed when suggesting that, in his ideal republic, once the natural family had been eliminated through the communism of women and goods, each person would see in the other ‘a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a son or a daughter’ (Rep., 463c). (9)

Let us attempt to summarise the fndings of Loraux’s essay in the form of theses:
1) In the frst place, stasis calls into question the commonplace that conceives Greek politics as the
defnitive overcoming of the oikos in the polis.
2) In its essence, stasis or civil war is a ‘war within the family’, which comes from the oikos and not from
outside. Precisely insofar as it is inherent to the family, the stasis acts as its revealer; it attests to its irreducible presence in the polis.
3) The oikos is essentially ambivalent: on the one hand, it is a factor of division and conflict; on the other, it is the paradigm that enables the reconciliation of what it has divided. (10-11)

What relations should we suppose between zōē and the oikos, on the one hand, and between the polis and political bios, on the other, if the former must be included in the latter through an exclusion? From this perspective, my investigations were perfectly consistent with Loraux’s invitation to call into question the commonplace ‘of an irresistible overcoming of the oikos on the part of the polis’. What is at issue is not an overcoming, but a complicated and unresolved attempt to capture an exteriority and to expel an intimacy. (12-13)

In the stasis, the killing of what is most intimate is indistinguishable from the killing of what is most foreign. This means, however, that the stasis does not have its place within the household, but constitutes
a threshold of indifference between the oikos and the polis, between blood kinship and citizenship. (14-15)

Te stasis – this is our hypothesis – takes place neither in the oikos nor in the polis, neither in the family nor in the city; rather, it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family and the political space of the city. In transgressing this threshold, the oikos is politicised; conversely, the polis is ‘economised’, that is, it is reduced to an oikos. Tis means that in the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicisation and depoliticisation, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticised in the family. (16)

Te document in question is Solon’s law, which punishes with atimia – which is to say, with the loss of civil rights – the citizen who had not fought for either one of the two sides in a civil war. As Aristotle bluntly expresses it, “whoever did not join sides [thētai ta opla, literally ‘provide the shield’] with either party when civil strife [stasiazousēs tēs poleōs] prevailed was to be held in dishonour [atimon einai] and no longer a member of the state [tēs poleōs mē metēchein].” (17)

Not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confned to the oikos, to
losing citizenship by being reduced to the unpolitical condition of a private person. Obviously this does not mean that the Greeks considered civil war to be a public good, but rather that the stasis functions
as a reactant which reveals the political element in the extreme instance as a threshold of politicisation that determines for itself the political or unpolitical character of a certain being. (17)

Te Athenian amnēstia is not simply a forgetting or a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory. Insofar as it constitutes a political paradigm inherent to the city, which marks the becoming-political of the unpolitical (the oikos) and the becoming-unpolitical of the political (the polis), the stasis is not something that can ever be forgotten or repressed; it is the unforgettable which must remain always possible in the city, yet which nonetheless must not be remembered through trials and resentments. Just the opposite, that is to say, of what civil war seems to be for the moderns: namely, something that one must seek to render impossible at every cost, yet that must always be remembered through trials and legal persecutions. (21-22)

Te form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. If the Foucauldian diagnosis of modern politics as biopolitics is correct, and if the genealogy that traces it back to an oikonomical-theological paradigm is equally correct, then
global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stakes of politics. Precisely when the polis appears in the reassuring fgure of an oikos – the ‘Common European Home’, or the world as the absolute space of global economic management – then stasis, which can no longer be situated in the threshold between the oikos and the polis, becomes the paradigm of every conflict and re-emerges in the form of terror. Terrorism is the ‘global civil war’ which time and again invests this or that zone of planetary space. It is no coincidence that the ‘terror’ should coincide with the moment in which life as such – the nation (which is to say, birth) – became the principle of sovereignty. Te sole form in which life as such can be politicised is its unconditioned exposure to death – that is, bare life.(24)

  1. Leviathan and Behemoth

What is decisive, in any case, beyond the opposition between land and sea, is the surprising fact that the  ‘mortal God’, ‘the Artifciall Man called Common-wealth or State’ (as Hobbes defines him in the introduction), does not dwell within the city, but outside it. His place is exterior not only with respect to the walls of the city, but also with respect to its territory, in a no-man’s-land or in the sea; in any case, not within the city. Te Commonwealth – the body political – does not coincide with the physical body of the city. (35, 37)

Te unifcation of the multitude of citizens in a single person is something like a perspectival illusion; political representation is only an optical representation (but no less effective on account of this). (41)

‘The people’, he writes, is something single [unum quid ], which has one will and to whom one action can be attributed. None of these can be said of the multitude. Te people reigns in every city [Populus in omni civitate regnat]; even in a monarchy the people commands, for the people wills by the will of one man. Te citizens, that is, the subjects, are the multitude. In a democracy and an aristocracy, the citizens are the multitude; but the council is the people [curia est populus]. And in a monarchy, the subjects are the multitude, and (although this is a paradox [quamquam paradoxum sit]), the king is the people [rex est populus]. Common men, and others who do not notice these things, always speak of a great number of men, that is, of the city [civitate], as the people; they say that the city rebels against the king (which is impossible), and that the people will and nill what troublesome and murmuring subjects will and nill; under the pretext of the people, they rouse the citizens against the city, that is, the multitude against the people. (Hobbes 1983, 190) (42)

Te people – the body political – exists only instantaneously at the point in which it appoints ‘one Man, or Assembly of men, to beare their Person’ (Hobbes 1996, 120); but this point coincides with its vanishing into a ‘dissolved multitude’. Te body political is thus an impossible concept, which lives only in the tension between the multitude and the populus-rex: it is always already in the act of dissolving itself in the constitution of the sovereign; the latter, on the other hand, is only an ‘Artifciall person’ (Hobbes 1996, 111), whose unity is the effect of an optical contraption or a mask. (44-45)

It is a commonplace that in Hobbes the multitude has no political significance; that it is what must disappear in order for the State to be able to exist. Yet if our reading of the paradox is correct – if the people, which has been constituted by a disunited multitude, dissolves itself again into a multitude – then the latter not only pre-exists the people-king, but (as a dissoluta multitudo) continues to exist after it. What disappears is instead the people, which is transposed into the figure of the sovereign and which thus ‘rules in every city’, yet without being able to live in it. Te multitude has no political significance; it is the unpolitical element upon whose exclusion the city is founded. And yet, in the city, there is only the multitude, since the people has always already vanished into the sovereign. As a ‘dissolved multitude’, it is nonetheless literally unrepresentable – or rather, it can be represented only indirectly, as happens in the emblem of the frontispiece. (47)

Te people, that is to say, is the absolutely present which, as such, can never be present and thus can only be represented. If we call ‘ademia’ (from dēmos, the Greek term for people) the absence of a people, then the Hobbesian State – like every State – lives in a condition of perennial ademia. (51)

Te state of nature, as Hobbes explains in the preface to De Cive, is what appears when one considers the city as if it were dissolved (civitas […] tanquam dissoluta consideretur […] ut qualis sit natura humana […] recte intelligatur) (Hobbes 1983, 79–80), which is to say, from the perspective of civil war. In other words, the state of nature is a mythological projection into the past of civil war; conversely, civil war is a projection of the state of nature into the city: it is what appears when one considers the city from the perspective of the state of nature. (53)

If our hypothesis is correct, the image from the frontispiece presents the relation between the Leviathan and the subjects as the profane counterpart of the relation between Christ and the ekklēsia. Yet this ‘cephalic’ image of the relation between Christ and the Church cannot be separated from the thesis of Pauline eschatology, according to which, at the end of time, when ‘the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him’, God ‘will be all in all [panta en pasin]’ (1 Cor. 15: 28). This apparently pantheistic thesis acquires its properly political sense if we read it together with the cephalic conception of the relationship between Christ and the ekklēsia. In the current state, Christ is the head of the body of the assembly; however, at the end of time, in the Kingdom of Heaven, there will no longer be any distinction between the head and the body, because God will be all in all. (62-63)

If we take seriously the Hobbesian assertion according to which the Kingdom of God should be understood not metaphorically but literally, this means that at the end of time the cephalic fiction of the Leviathan could be erased and the people discover its own body. The caesura that divides the body political – a body visible only in the optical fiction of the Leviathan, but in fact unreal – and the real, yet politically invisible multitude, will be bridged at the end in the perfect Church. But this also means that until then no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude and the Leviathan can only live together up until the end with Behemoth – with the possibility of civil war. (63)

Miguel Vatter “Eternal Life and Biopower”

March 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Vatter, Miguel 2010. Eternal Life and Biopower. CR: The New Centennial Review 10(3): 217-249.

In this essay I pursue the following hypothesis: if biopolitics can be transformed into thanatopolitics, this may derive from the fact that the life here produced, namely, a zoë entirely separate from a bios,is a life destined to die, a life that has death inscribed into it from the very beginning. Stated in a positive manner, my hypothesis is that an affi rmative conception of the power of life requires conceiving of life as eternal, a zoë aionios that is not destined to die, that stands over mythical fate itself. (218)

Both Spinoza and Aristotle see in the idea of eternal life an aporia. Eternal life corresponds to the life of the mind or the contemplative life, but the human being is both capable of this form of life, because, like God, it is endowed with reason, but at the same time it is incapable of sustaining this form of life, because, unlike God, it is also endowed with a body, or, better, with a zoë.Any attempt to think about eternal life must come to terms with this aporia. In this essay I suggest that, to traverse this aporia, philosophy as a form of life must give up the “ascetic ideal,” which understands the body and zoëas its “tomb,” and, to the contrary, must begin to understand how it is that the body and zoë also philosophize. (220)

For Heidegger, to exist is to care about how one is going to live, and such a care makes no sense other than within the horizon of one’s imminent death. Th  us it appears as if Heidegger’s thesis is that a “true life” is only a life that affi rms its beingtowards-death, a life that is not lived carelessly but resolutely. Existing, in this sense, is caring about one’s life, not in the sense of preserving this life in its desire to persevere in existence, but by giving it a horizon of sense that this life cannot develop on its own. For that reason animal life is said by Heidegger to be “poor in world,” where world refers to the horizon of sense disclosed by Dasein. (221)

Th is force is later designated as “life” (vita), and the thesis is that the life of each thing is the immanent cause of each thing; that is, life is that whereby each thing remains withinGod, and likewise, nothing that God causes stands apart from God. (This is how Spinoza explains how God is both cause of itself and cause of other without contradiction: what takes away the contradiction is life itself as conatus.) (222)

I shall therefore call Spinoza’s account of life “providential” insofar as the struggle to keep alive that characterizes the duration of every being rests on something other than itself, namely, on the eternal life that perseveres in it and through which it receives what it struggles to preserve. Spinoza distinguishes in this context between a general and a particular providence: the former is “that through which all things are produced and sustained insofar as they are parts of the whole of Nature”; the latter “is the striving of each thing separately to preserve its existence” (ch. 5). Thus each thing can be conceived according to either general or particular providence. (224)

God’s particular providence is to favor the virtuous (as opposed to the weak); that is, God favors those beings that cultivate their power or capacity. Here “virtue” defines the form of life, the bios, of a life (zoë) that is divine and eternal. (224)

What a being must do is to live; what it can do is only what it must, namely, find a way to keep on living. Th e “must” here is to live or to act; the “can” corresponds to the power to act: no being can avoid expressing all its power in every one of its actions. (225)

Death is not the possibility that what exists, Dasein, ceases to exist at some point in time. Death is not an impossibility for Dasein as if it were the simple negation of possibility-for-being (Sein können). Rather, death is an affi rmative power of existence: dying is a being-able, but what it is able to do in dying is nothing, nothing actual, no action. Thus dying is not the power not to have power ( for this is merely contradictory), but it is the power or ability to be nothing (“being-able-not-to-be-there”). This means that, considered as a possibility, dying gives “nothing” to Dasein’s capacityto-be: dying gives Dasein nothing to be. (231)

But the phrase “it is impossible to be nothing” should be understood affi rmatively. As such, and in a first sense, it can mean that Daseinhas only its Self to be; it does not have other selves or other things for it to be. In a second sense, death discloses that for such a Self “nothing is impossible.” In both senses, death as the possibility of an impossibility is the ultimate “enabler” of existence. (231)

[…] Agamben seems intent on giving a description of Aristotle’s ontology that is as close as possible to Heidegger’s doctrine of being-towards-death, understood as revealing not only Dasein’s most proper possibility but also the true structure of being as such (qua temporality). Not surprisingly, Agamben gives his account of potentiality the status of an “existential”: “other living beings are capable only of their specific potentiality; they can only do this or that. But human beings are the animals who are capable of their own impotentiality” (182). This replicates Heidegger’s claim that only human beings can die, whereas all other animals merely perish. (235)

Agamben rejects the common sense interpretation of this passage, namely, that if it is not impossible for someone to do X, then it is within their potential to do X. Instead he claims that the potentiality which will not remain impotential when the potentiality passes into action refers to the potential of not-acting (the adynamia) that shadows every potential of acting. Th  us, on his reading, every potential of doing something not only entails having the potential of not-doing something but, additionally, of “acting” out this potential of not-doing in the action itself. (236)

Th e important question in this context is why Agamben, following Deleuze, identifies the point where biological life touches and fuses into contemplative life in the phenomenonof metabolism, of nutrition, rather than in the phenomenon of perception (correspondingto animal life). My hypothesis is that metabolism and contemplation, which are apparently entirely opposed capacities, in reality coincide one with the other because both reflect the dependence of mortal life on God’s life, on the basis of which an eternal life is conceivable. Th  inking about life from the perspective of metabolism as the fundamental phenomenon of life is the essential feature of what I have been calling the “providential conception of life.” (238)

Th e point is here that in walking, it is not only I that am taking a walk, but—“at the same time” yet without any duration, and so virtually and sub species aeternitatis—it is the walking that has always already taken me along with it. Applied to the problem of immanence, this grammar suggests that, while God’s life is producing the essences with conatus,“at the same time” yet without duration and sub species aeternitatis or virtually, this life is also being taken along by its effects: they are in God to the extent that God is “immanentized” in them. (244)