Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Agamben emergency

I'm giving a paper at a workshop on 'Ancient and Modern Imperialisms' in a couple of weeks, called 'Terminal Man: Agamben's Homo Sacer and the end of the Aeneid'. It's an investigation of the links between Agamben's argument in Homo Sacer about sovereignty and biopolitics (Agamben argues that the sphere of politics 'captures' biopolitical bodies - bodies exposed to sovereign violence)and an incredibly strange, ambiguous, and dense scene at the end of the Aeneid which seems to assemble all the elements of Agamben's argument: Aeneas, a refugee from Troy who is fated to found Rome in Italy,* has now arrived in Italy and is at war with the indigenous inhabitants (the Latins). At the very end of the poem, Aeneas is in single combat with a Latin prince, Turnus. Turnus throws a boundary stone at him - moving a boundary stone is one of the things that makes you a homo sacer in Roman law -and Aeneas stabs him to death. The verb Vergil uses for 'stab' at this point is the same verb used for the foundation of a city.** So the end of the Aeneid foregrounds a relationship between city-foundation and a body exposed to sovereign violence through sacratio. Which is all very nice and Agambanien, and what I wanted to do next was take this forward via Agamben's consideration of life and death as a political boundary, together with Virilio's fantasy of 'terminal man' (a fully technicized human body in a new political space inaugurated by real-time communications technology: 'the witness's own body becomes the last urban frontier', says Virilio).

But - apart from the fact that Vergil very annoyingly put a big sign on Turnus's head at the end of the Aeneid saying NOT A HOMO SACER, KTHXBAI and thus buggers up my whole argument - it's occurring to me that I'm not entirely sure I know what Agamben's argument about life and death is at the very end of Homo Sacer. And it's important, because what's emerging for me from this rereading of the end of the Aeneid is a whole argument from Vergil about dead people as political agents. So... can any of you guys help me with this? Or pass this post on to someone who'd be interested in talking about it over the next couple of weeks?

Towards the end of Homo Sacer, Agamben talks about the 'overcomatose person', and points out that the current state of life-support technology and transplant techniques means that the decision on life and death can no longer be taken by the 'ancient criteria' (the stopping of the heartbeat and the cessation of breathing), so that now there is a 'no-man's-land' between life and death. He writes (p.164) that 'life and death are not properly scientific concepts but rather political concepts, which as such acquire a political meaning precisely only through a decision. The "frightful and incessantly deferred borders" [between life and death]... are moving borders because they are biopolitical borders'. And later, on p.187, he writes:

'In its extreme form, the biopolitical body of the West (this last incarnation of homo sacer) appears as a threshold of absolute indistinction between law and fact, juridical rule and biological life. In the person of the Fuhrer, bare life passes immediately into law, just as in the person of the camp inhabitant (or the neomort) law becomes indistinguishable from biological life.'

This is the bit that I get, or nearly get: that the problem of power, of sovereignty, is that it produces subjects/citizens/people as bare life (zoe), as purely biopolitical: there isn't a 'ground' into which bios or political life is inscribed, and which could therefore resist inscription, inscribe differently, etc. Life itself is what is captured in the sphere of the political. Yes? Is that right? But then... I guess my question is so what? How does the life/death border, as the border of the political, relate to, say, material borders, material spaces on the ground? How does this insight - that the life/death border is the site of the foundation of the political, if I'm right - transform the way we do (or think about) politics?

I thought this paper was going to be so easy, that I'd done all the thinking for it already. And I guess it's nice to find out that it's not, to be challenged to come to a new understanding of the material, but on the other hand I really have quite a lot of other stuff to do this week...

*remember? Eric Bana gives him the Sword of Troy? (JUST KIDDING)

**and, actually, the composition of a poem.


Una said...

I have SO MUCH I would like to say in response to this... not that I knew Agamben before you posted, and not that I know really anything about the Aeneid. But reading up Agamben, I found out that he has done work on Simone Weil, and this does not surprise me. Her short essay The Iliad or the Poem of Force has these themes in it: the reduction of life to the barest necessity as a result of being in the continuous presence of violence or threat of extinction (through war, through slavery).

The other thing that comes to mind is Orlando Paterson's Slavery and Social Death, a vast comparative anthropological study of the internal dynamics of slavery which shows how the slave is almost universally perceived as socially dead.

I am just about to scoot off and teach, but I can write something longer if you think it would be helpful. I have been thinking about these things a lot recently, with particular reference to the non-people constructed by our ever-regulated citizenship and borders: exiles, migrants, the trafficked, the imprisoned.

Ika said...

I'd love to hear more from you about this - it looks like you're thinking exactly about 'dead' political agents (or non-agents - the slave as socially dead), and about borders, which is the point of conjunction I'm worrying about at the moment... Agamben writes particularly about exiles, migrants, people in 'detention centres' etc, btw.

rakethezengarden said...

This is probably too late for your workshop, but anyway...

The mention of boundary stones made me think of the god Terminus, associated with boundary stones that were sacred to him.

Literally a 'terminal man' I suppose.

Did Turnus anger Terminus by using his sacred boundary stone as a weapon -- and thus Aeneas' was *justified* in killing in him i.e. Virgil is keen to find a noble cause behind the dirty business of war, as Aeneas is the ancestor of the Romans and cannot be portrayed as an anti-hero killing in cold blood.

Terminalia was celebrated at the end of the old Roman year, which at one level could be seen as the 'death' of the year, followed by the rebirth of the new year -- so death is not just linked to physical borders, but chronological boundaries too.

As an aside, one apocryphal tale states that the Red Hand of Ulster featured in Northern Irish heraldry symbolises an invading prince (i.e. the unnamed Irish counterpart of Aeneas) cutting his hand off and throwing it onto the shore as he disembarks as a claim of sovereignty.

The true origin of the symbol however is hazy.

It wouldn't surprise me if other European cultures had similar myth structures.

I guess that sacrifice is literally to make something sacred.

For the state to be founded and the boundaries asserted, blood of some kind must be shed for the Gods to be appeased. Your God wants steak.