Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Agamben 1 (week 5)


  1. I'm thinking through this question of whether you can agree with both Agamben and Foucault. From what I understand, the discrepancy is whether we can maintain, with Agamben, that sovereign power is at the heart of--or the necessary consequence of--biopolitics, when Foucault identifies biopolitics as a later stage in political development, after both sovereign and disciplinary power. Okay, from here on, this is me spitballing.

    Foucault has told us that these categories of power mechanisms (sovereign, disciplinary, biopolitical/governmental) aren't cleanly replaces by their subsequent. They overlap, so there are remnants, at least, of sovereign & disciplinary power-mechanisms at play even in a society governed through biopolitics. Maybe this gives us an inlet to think of sovereignty today, following Agamben.

    The big thing that originally kept me from buying Agamben's premise--that the camp is the model of modern politics, that all of us have been turned into homines sacri--was that I wanted to maintain a distinction between democracy and totalitarianism (as someone like Arendt definitely does). But Agamben wishes to show the contiguity between the two systems, which he does in saying that they both find their possibility of origination in the biopolitical turn exemplified in the 1679 writ of habeas corpus, where the body is what must be presented to the law--not the "free man." The two systems then develop out of that opened space of possibility--modern politics develops out of the exceptional state established when all people are reduced to bare life. But Agamben DOES show us differences between democracy and totalitarianism, even though he has shown they emerge out of the same originary model. Sovereign power is characterized differently in democracy: "[M]odern democracy does not abolish sacred life but rather shatters it and disseminates it into every individual body, making it into what is at stake in political conflict" (Homo Sacer 124). So in democracy, because everyone is homines sacri and because all of us have our bare life exposed to the world, it is the bare life of each of us which is at stake in our politics. We stake our lives on political participation (well, our lives are staked for us, necessarily, from birth). But something collective emerges out of this dissemination of sacred life: "If it is true that law needs a body in order to be in force, and if one can speak, in this sense, of 'law's desire to have a body,' democracy responds to this desire by compelling law to assume the care of this body" (124-5). Rights and liberties, then, become the bumper-constructions which keep each of us from exploiting the fact that our bare life is exposed. The incentive behind the creation of the law is that we don't want to die, but, theoretically, we each have sovereign power to kill each other because we are all both sovereigns and homines sacri.


  2. So how could Foucault fit in here? Foucault agrees roughly with Agamben in saying that characteristic to sovereign power is the capacity to decide life and death (Hist. of Sex. 135). But later biopolitics emerged out of the awareness that power had no hold on someone after death -- power shifts to enforcing life. I think democracy (liberal democracy) is precisely where we can find an interesting affinity between Foucault and Agamben, because perhaps it is in democracy where sovereign power (Agambenian biopolitics) and governmentality (which I understand to be the mechanism of Foucauldian biopolitics) interact with each other to create the lives we live. The individual sovereign/homo sacer seeks to join ranks with her peers because she wishes to avoid her death, as they do. (classic social contract--though I realize Agamben takes issue with the contract.) They create a sovereign body together--the political body of the whole (here, a nation)--in order mutually to protect and maintain the care of their bodies. Power, then,--at play in all their activity, their congregating, their constructing, their agonistics--tends toward the preservation of life. It does because individuals here are interested in their life. But in order to preserve life, power must increase control; in order to increase control, power must preserve life. Governmentality and security develop because the interest of the people and the sovereign body tends necessarily toward those mechanisms; they come into play then to regulate interest. Power (in this liberal-democratic system which emerges) creates freedoms to regulate the movement of the bodies of the sovereign/sacred. Your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins, and by this, individual interest and collective interest is balanced so that sovereignty (here the sovereignty of the plurally-constituted body) is preserved and limited. But it is within everyone's interest that certain freedoms are produced; the production of liberal freedoms maintains the health of the political body by allowing it the control to govern, encouraging certain movements toward certain norms, norms which then become codified as laws, following the collective interest for security.

    In summary, we want a liberal democracy because we are afraid to die yet have the power to kill each other. The logic of our mutually coming together in cooperation, then, is the same logic which tends toward maintaining the life of the whole. Power works according to this logic, because power is the force produced by our movements. Power, cycling always through this logic, creates institutional structures which control us in order to make us live in order to control us, and so on forever. Until we are all neither free nor not-free, neither living nor dead, amiright?

    (sorry, got typing and then couldn't stop.)

  3. I also approached this week by trying to make distinctions between Foucault and Agamben. Agamben himself points out a major distinction for us early on (5-6) when he criticizes Foucault for refusing to unify his analysis of political technologies and subjective technologies to the State sovereign power. Whereas Foucault wanted to cut off the kings head and move beyond state theory, Agamben believes he has discovered the foundational relationship of sovereignty in the form of the ban.

    A contrast of the two theorist’s discussions of contract theory, knowledge, and value might explain the above difference. Agamben argues that we have misunderstand Hobbes as a contract theorist. The state of nature was never an actual time prior to the formation of a political community, but rather has always been included in the juridical order. I believe this is a way to understand the inclusion-exclusion he so often speaks of (105, 109). In other words, the state of nature is actually the state of exception and the sovereign has the power to reduce a subject back to the state of nature/exception. In a most damning critique of rights discourse, Agamben then argues that the power of the sovereign can not be confronted by the declaration of more rights. It is, after all, when modernity linked the declaration of rights to the birth of the nation that bare life became politicized. I take Agamben to be saying that the declaration of rights resulted in a threshold being crossed that has helped contribute to the state of exception being indistinguishable from the state of law. But overall, we see Agamben address the contract theory by taking it back to law and sovereignty.

    On the other hand, in Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault cites Hume’s argument that “the legal subject who is constituted through the contract, is basically the subject of interest” (273). This is because one enters and obeys the contract out of the great advantages of entering into it. Foucault then says “the subject of right and the subject of interest are not governed by the same logic” (274). In short, the subject of right says ‘no’ to the sovereign because ‘I have rights’; while the subject of interest says ‘no’ because there is no way a sovereign has knowledge regarding the dynamics of the economy.

    I’m running up on the word limit so I’ll quickly finish up by noting how Foucault, especially in the two lectures, focuses heavily on the knowledge being developed in political economy, while Agamben only seems to speaks of the scientific knowledge of physicians and genetic scientists. When the question of the value of life arises, Agamben therefore sees the sovereign decision moving in the direction of the physician (143). For Foucault, I think we discussed this last week, I see him going more in the direction of the value of life being measured in how much life can be capitalized. This is why he spends so much time studying political economy in STP and neoliberalism in BOB. The concept of human capital, ch.9 of BOB, appears perfect for such an analysis. I know there have been attempts dating back to at least the beginning of the 20th century to measure the value of entire populations according to their economic value. And by the early 1970s, Michael Grossman wrote an influential dissertation about human capital and the ‘demand for health’. Grossman’s mathematical model assumes that an individual’s human capital reaches zero at death, meaning the person is clearly of no more value and incapable of being capitalized on.

  4. This is almost assuredly just one of my typical, tangential musings, but I’ll post it anyway. Basically, I want to wax a bit about style.

    Perhaps having Rhetoric of Women Writers until 9 on Tuesdays attunes me to movement and tone in a different way than I’m used to. Regardless of how I’m getting here, clearly, working through the fluid murmurs of Foucault for the past few weeks has affected my approach to Agamben. To be frank, I’m finding the difference in style and presentation to be jarring. (I'm saving you all from another discussion of passing, which is still too fuzzy to piece together in a comment.)

    Agamben is reading like clockwork to me. His writing is almost like a theoretical scalpel, slicing and dicing small quotations from a slew of thinkers in a way that establishes obnoxious levels of credibility. His pacing is slow and methodical, pointing out the constant reiteration of the same logic of exception through history. This X-Acto knife approach feels well suited, though—he is so concerned with rules themselves that his ability to trace the development of power’s enactment of the state of exception is no surprise. His writing mirrors the strategic, blunt rule bending of the sovereign and bare life. By being so purposive with his language (as opposed to the ‘Is it biopower… or maybe biopolitics? Eh.’ of Foucault), Agamben steers clear of the mythic for a more meticulous approach.

    Maybe I’m not giving him a fair shake, but Agamben seems to be performing his task as a rhetor with a tone and pacing that provides space for contemplation and repetition for those who aren’t catching onto the close knitting… myself included. This could be a super obvious thing note to make, but it’s where my brain is at tonight from a loosely, & I mean loosely, rhetorical perspective.

  5. I’m reading Homo Sacer in a more specific (direct) conversation with Foucault than I’ve encountered Agamben in the past, and now I’m actually really surprised how much the two resemble each other in many ways in terms of their working concerns regarding power—particularly the disassembling of death and reconstruction of death under the law, necessarily tied to life, to political significance. I agree with Chase, here, too though—their writing styles could not be more different. Foucault’s writing rejects a certain type of closure that feels integral to political and social reconsideration. When he is geneaological, it often claims a posture of re-situation. I don’t believe Foucault is interested in finding the origination of a concept with the same purpose as Agamben. Agamben, in stark contrast, is narrative and deliberate (“if this is true, then…)—linear (but kind of opaque at times.) Although he returns to his Greek, he really is most interested in finding an originary form of law that can be universalized—ultimately, he comes off like a historicist doing geneaology towards a totalizing theory of politics and law. He is, however (like Foucault), interested in what has been forgotten and what is leftover. He goes at a moment where something is born from the law, or actually—application of the law and the constitution of the law born out of mapping that law onto subjects. “3.1. According to both the original sources and the consensus of scholars, the structure of sacratio arises out of the conjunction of two traits: the unpunishability of killing and the exclusion from sacrifice.” (52) Integral to sovereign power is the ability to decide not just the law, but under what circumstances and to whom it may hold accountable (which reflects both vulnerability and protection in its subjecthood.) What Agamben is after in exception is its inherent place in law itself. From the sovereign ban ultimately develops the modern paradigm of biopolitics, suspended between inside and outside of legal protection.

  6. I think like most everyone else I read Agamben as in dialogue or in response to Foucault – I’m particularly inclined to agree with Foucault on most things so perhaps this colored my reading of Agamben. My biggest question regarding Agamben is the effect of centering the state apparatus as the major actor of distinction between bios and zoe. Agamben – if I am to understand correctly - places the power of the sovereign almost totally in the hands of the state as an exercise of legal power – it is the legal that separates bare life from the political social person. Is this not a direct contradiction to Foucault who insists that the juridico-discursive model of power is insufficient in analyzing biopower (History of Sexuality, 82-85)? Instead of separating the biopolitical from the sovereign, Agamben argues for a connection between the two – biopolitics is not a product of modernity but rather is part of the origin point – biopolitics has been a focal point of sovereign power. If biopolitics has always been a focal point of the sovereign power then how does Agamben mark distinctions between the totalitarian government, democracies, authoritarian states and so on? To say that they enact biopolitics in the same manner seems like a sweeping generalization. Agamben looks to establish commonalities between forms of governments (i.e. the creation of bios) but I think fails to explain how their differences impact this production of bios and zoe. Further, Agamben writes that “life is no longer confined to a particular place or a definite category. It now dwells in the biological body of every living being” (81). If every person has the possibility to slip from bare life to political life then there must be some sort of definition of what the borderline between the two is that exist outside of the state control.

  7. Thoughts on the Introduction:

    Goal: The development of a new political system.

    Requirement: The new politic “must no longer be founded on the exception of bare life” (p. 13).

    Possibility of change: (1) Change must take place within the biopolitical field (10); (2) modern democracy opens this possibility through presenting itself as the “bios of zoe,” the politically qualified life of bare life, which begins the task of transforming “bare life into a way of life” (13); (3) The structure of the state, no longer buttressed by the doctrines that sustained its form, has entered a state of emergence, which makes this the time “to place the problem of the originary structure and limits of the form of the State in new perspective” (p. 14).

    Summary: The biopolitical opens the space for change through directing the state toward the politically qualified life of bare life, which stretches the foundation of Western politics to its limit. In this liminal space, wrought through biopolitics, a new foundation structure can be made manifest.

    Requirement: Thus, we must find the point of intersection (which has become the zone of indistinction in the new biopolitical regime) the constitutes the “unitary center” from when the “political double bind, the individuation (technologies of the self) and “simultaneous totalization of structures of modern power” (political techniques) (p. 11; Foucault—The Subject and Power). Once the enemy’s political structure has been identified, political change becomes possibly, for revolutions can then stop identify with (and, hence, perpetuate) the foundation structure (the exception of bare life).

    Possibility of recognition: This recognition requires an extension and modification of the Foucauldian thesis, which identifies biopolitics as characterizing a contemporary politics. Modern politics is not characterized by the inclusion of bare life in politics (which marginal, this is ancient) and cannot be explained simply by noting how bare life enters political calculations. Modern politics is unique in that (1: Decisive Fact) “the realm of bare life begins to coincide with political life” (12) (the bios of zoe) and (2: Process) “the exception every where becomes the rule” (p. 12).


  8. Summary: Re-characterizing modern politics’ defining feature allows for the foundation structure and site for unifying the process of individuation and totlaization. With this site located, revolutions can recognize the foundational opposition that needs to be overcome in attaining a new political foundation.

    The Gordian Knot: Politics and metaphysics are indelibly linked.

    Proposition (1): Politics exists “because man is the living being (zoe) who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life” while “maintaining himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion” (p. 12).

    Proposition (2): The State of exception, once excludes bare life and captures it, which constitutes—in the very separation—“the hidden foundation on which the entire political system” rests (p. 12).

    Propositions (3): Politics provides the “fundamental structure of Western Metaphysics in so far as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized” (p. 12).

    Thus, man maintains himself in relation to zoe through an inclusive exclusion that arises from capturing voice and language. Thus, the relation to the self (the foundation principle of technologies of the self—individuation) emerges from an inclusive exclusion. This mode of relating to the self opens the space for politics. The state of exception (the foundation of political techniques—totalizing) mirrors this structure in the juridical order. Thus, the state of exception founds politics through (1) constituting the self’s mode of relating to itself in language and (2) becomes mirrored in the state. These systems re-enforce another, which makes breaking out of the state of the of exception and founding a new politic difficult. Modifying both requires some modification to propositions (1), which reconstitutes the field of political action.

    Thus, “The question ‘in what way the living being (zoe) have language? Corresponds exactly to the question “in what way does bare life dwell in the polis?

    Implication: To change the conditions of political existence, to move beyond a politic rooted in exception, requires that changing the conditions from whence politics stems. Thus, changing how the living being has language and maintains itself through language opens the space for a new politic. This must be coupled with changes in the state, for both (the state/polis and metaphysics) stem from the State of Exception.

    Looking for a Solution: The solution must, then, be sought in a new way of relating to the self (a new structuring principle to found technologies of the self) outside of the exception. This, then, would—if done within a biopolitical field—provides the possibility of having language in a different way. Having language in a different way, then, constitutes a new horizon (new potentialities) of politics. Here, the bios of zoe assumes now contours that promise the beautiful day of bare life outside the homogeneity of control society and the death wrought through totalitarianism.

  9. “Only a politics that will have learned to take the fundamental biopolitical fracture of the West into account will be able to stop this oscillation and to put an end to the civil war that divides the peoples and the cities of the earth.” (180)

    [Immediately preceding this quote, Agamben brings in Freud and the ego and the id. I have no excuse or direct explanation (at the moment) for what I’ve written below, but I imagine ego and id, bios and zoe, People and people, as stand ins for...either the dreamer and the listener, or the dreamer and the dream, or the dreamer and the desire to tell the dream... Although it may be more about bioplitical goals and the sense of purpose that biopolitics requires in order to lead to something like a concentration camp.]

    No one wants to hear about your dream unless they were in it, and even then they are only interested in case it reveals a hidden emotion or intention toward them that might slip out upon the telling. On the other hand, a novel or a film can be viewed as a space constructed for the reader or viewer to experience a dream. The main difference seems to be intention. We think the teller of the dream (since we no longer imbue dreams with a sense of prophecy or magic) is being selfish in dragging their mental wanderings out into daylight. We don’t equate the tale with that of a great novel because we assume a novel was meticulously constructed and edited while the writer was awake and alert, aware of the way the story must be structured in order to create the desired effect that the reader thinks they need in order to appreciate a story. Or, the listener might resent the expectation that they should help the dreamer parse the dream, halfheartedly combing through it for meaning that they don’t really believe exists. The novel, however, provides insight into their own life. It does not ask or require them to perform sympathetic, empathetic or analytic tasks in order to engage with it in a meaningful way. There is a wall of time between the reader and the novel, and it is in that safe and graciously emptied space that the reader can choose to project theirself, perhaps even lose theirself. The novel might help us become more realized people in some way, in intellect or stature or something else, while listening to the dream makes no promises, because it was not created with the listener in mind. And yet something compelled the dreamer to dream, and compelled the dreamer to relate the dream to a friend or loved one, even though the dreamer probably knows that the listener doesn’t appreciate being told their dream.

    To relieve some of this tension and resentment, the solution might be simple. The dreamer tells theirself the dream by writing it down afterward. They aren’t telling it to theirself, however, until time has passed and they come back to what they have written down and experience it again through the words on the paper, once the experience fades quickly away as dreams so often do. They remain interested in it all this time later because the words they scribbled down hastily bring to the surface that peculiar feeling of being reminded of one’s own dreams. The act of writing it down lent the act an intention, the intention of someday reading it again, and the time that goes by creates a space to inhabit that we associate with worthwhile novels and films—the ‘feeling’ of experiencing a piece of art.

    Over time, enough dreams are collected that an entire notebook is filled. The dreamer now has an alternative version of their life, one that they very much created without knowing how or why, exactly, other than the desire to further experience their own lives. Their feelings toward these odd stories rival the feelings they have about their memories, and in time the distinction between the two—because so few memories are practical to our everyday lives—begins to fade almost entirely. They show no one, tell no one, but go back to the notebook often, calling up that feeling that they are perfectly content to be felt by them alone.

  10. Upon rereading Homo Sacer, I get the sense that I treated Agamben's chapter on "Potentiality and Law" primarily as an introduction to the state of exception's Mobius-like topology. Because the chapter sets the story of sovereign power in a place where “the paradox of sovereignty show itself so fully as in the problem of constituting power and its relation to constituted power” (29), my initial impression was that many of his questions regarding internal (constituted) and external (constituting) power are largely configured to address “where” more than anything. The primary question being something like: where do we draw the line between constituting and constituted power so that we can a) begin to render the structure of sovereign power b) resist the tendency for modern democratic states to operate in totalitarian manners?

    But if all Agamben wished to accomplish was to sketch the location of power structures in our system of sovereignty, then a conversation on the relationship between constituted and constituting power would probably suffice. My questions coming out of this chapter is largely: What is the role potentiality plays in shaping this power structure? How does this role, the contingency of beings and events, shape sovereign law and relate these power structures? These are not elegant questions, as I am still getting a handle on Agamben’s references to Aristotle, but I increasingly think the question of what constitutes possibility and constituting impossibility, in terms of Being, is a cornerstone of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project.

    This rereading of the chapter comes from an inkling I had the first time around that Agamben’s telling of Homo Sacer, similar to Foucault’s telling of Discipline and Punish, is a story not of biopolitics’ successful hold over forms of life through a permanent state of exception, but a story concerning a perpetual failure or recognizing/redefining certain possibilities and impossibilities. In a cursory manner, I understand Agamben’s delineation that “sovereignty is always doable because Being, as potentiality, suspends itself, maintaining itself in a relation of ban (or abandonment) with itself in order to realize itself as absolute actuality (which thus presupposes nothing other than its own potentiality). At the limit, pure potentiality and pure actuality are indistinguishable, and the sovereign is precisely this zone of indistinction” (32-33). We begin to see Agamben’s thinking that sovereign power is derived from maintaining this zone of indistinction in which Being both is and might be. He stops here though I would like to have read an application of his deployment of potentiality. Partially because I think it is in this moment there is a real connection between Homo Sacer and the setting of biopolitics, and partially because it was in this chapter I found an explanation of Being very similar Graham Harman’s description of object-being in Prince of Networks.

  11. Hello everyone, just so you know I read your posts. Good work! Please keep it up. As I said, I won't really respond here but do read and, as before, I intend to find ways of addressing some of the issues you bring up in this space during class time. Best from Berlin. Marco