Saturday, February 04, 2006

Giorgio Agamben's Natural Good-Time Family Ban Solution


As many of you may know I am a big fan of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer. In it Agamben proposes a number of theories about the nature of the state that at first seem really interesting and cool and then after a little while start to seem ridiculous – here’s his short list:

1. The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).

2. The fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare life as originary political elements and as threshold of articulation between nature and culture, zoē and bios.

3. Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West.

(Agamben, 1995: 181)

The Homo sacer, Agamben explains, is a concept from ancient Roman law, in which a person is pushed out of the polity but is not actually executed; furthermore, it becomes licit to kill a sacred man, since he has already been removed from the realm of the living (and from human law) and placed under the purview of the gods. Agamben describes the life of the sacred man as zo­ē, the Greek concept meaning biological life. Zo­ē opposes bios, life within a meaningful system (for instance, a political system); zo­ē is life that is alive and JUST alive – Agamben pairs zo­ē with life in the death camps, life that the polity does not kill but does not really allow to live either: “bare life” in his words. Agamben goes on to argue that the fundamental goal of government is to produce as much bare life as possible, to generate killable, barely living bodies.

As I said above this seems very coherent and persuasive at first, then more and more ridiculous. Our very own ridiculous government is making Agamben’s theories look much more persuasive, if not any less chilling. If we think back to the furor over Terri Schiavo, for instance, Agamben’s theories look less lurid and more descriptive – for the Bush regime, Terri Schiavo is the ideal citizen, a body that lives but does nothing else and has no political aspirations or opinions except the ones assigned to her.

Bush’s recent State of the Union address also got me thinking back to Agamben. In it he mentioned animal-human hybrids, something that puzzled a lot of viewers who were not part of his ultra-conservative fundamentalist base. He was in fact referring to laboratory animals who had been partially hybridized (genetically altered to have human-like blood, for instance). “Human life is a gift from our Creator,” he explained.

The problem with this kind of reasoning (other than the fact that it prefers superstition, interpreted in a politically convenient way, to empirical science, which is a pretty big problem) is that it actually licenses surprising cruelties and abuses. Declaring human life sacred places it out of bounds – bans it. Agamben (drawing on Benveniste) observes that arguments about the sacredness of life in fact allow its destruction. If life is sacred, it is outside the responsibility of the political state and must live and (preferably) die on its own. This begins to explain the special congressional session to preserve the corpse of Terri Schiavo, Republican media’s venomous reaction to the idea of national health care (life is too sacred to be trusted to the government), and the Bush organization’s vicious war on science. This may draw its inspiration from fundamentalist religious beliefs, but it has the effect of creating an excuse for the government to produce docile, killable bodies for whatever purpose it desires. I wanted to draw an analogy between the Bush government’s media offensive against science and the bloodthirsty reaction to these now-infamous Danish political cartoons in the Muslim world – we have a government that uses religious reasoning to suppress the pursuit of life-saving science, the Muslim world has a political-media complex that calls for the death of anyone who satirizes their central religious figures. Is this a difference of degree or kind? All of these people need to grow the fuck up.

1 comment:

Boots said...

I think you mean "Homo Saussure." I also think that you should come back to Princeton so we can see "V for Vendetta." Also, what would President Bartlet of the West Wing (who I like to think of as my "real" president) say if he knew he named his daughter after "bare life?" Oh well, she was always the ugmo one. Also, I think that you're right, and I give this post 9 thumbs up.

At least you should change your location to Brookfield, Connecticut cause that's where you seem to be most of the time.

ALSO WE HAVE MUCH TO DISCUSS.