An Interrogation of Bare Life: Violence, Sacrifice, Sovereignty

Slavoj Zizek, in his work Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, speaks of three genres of violence: subjective, symbolic, and systemic. Contrary to how we typically speak of violence, Zizek argues that violence pervades even the most innocent of actions and inactions. The impetus to rally against subjective violence has obfuscated the equally problematic, yet less apparent objective violences that global capital has inflicted. I allude first to Zizek’s urgent call to recognize more “abstract” modes of violence so as to situate my investigation of an extraordinarily “subjectivized” biopolitical violence. Agamben’s notion of the homo sacer relies on a politicization of life, of bodies both exceptional and unexceptional. Undoubtedly, Agamben figures violence as inherent to the legal-juridical concept of the exception and by extension the facilitation of bare life. I am curious, however, about alternative possibilities for the concept of bare life, or perhaps a scaling back of the term’s ubiquity. What happens when we introduce homo sacer to a philosophy of ethics or when put into conversation with Derrida’s idea of sacrifice and the gift of death?

Agamben’s figuration of homo sacer and the biopolitics of bare life have been appropriated to explicate phenomena as varied as the concentration camp muselmann, the Guantanamo Bay internee, the AIDS afflicted and factory farmed animals. Mobilized in such a diverse way, one begins to wonder about the continued efficacy of the concept of bare life. Agamben writes that the “state of exception” is a political undertaking not an ethical one, to which I raise a strident opposition. Though the massive mobilizations of bare life have certainly served sovereign political purposes, the exceptionality of deviant bodies, including but not limited to children, presuppose also a racialized ethics. For example, the German relationship to and elimination of the Jewish Other cannot be limited to a biopolitical frame, but also must be reconciled with a desire operating outside of machinic logic, or as Levinas would argue, through a face-to-face encounter that presents an ethical dilemma. Continuing down the path that Levinas has set forth for us we find that, “the approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility…The face is not in front of me…but above me; it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death.”

If the face is “the other before death” it also wields a certain sovereignty over us in the very possibility of death. As Agamben argues, “In the case of both ritual sacrifice and individual excess, sovereign life is defined for Bataille through the instantaneous transgression of the prohibition on killing.” Like Levinas, Bataille recognizes an ethics in the dilemma that the prohibition seeks to inoculate against. While Agamben specifically argues that biopolitical access to sovereignty constructs a requisite homo sacer, could the desire for the other before death necessitate a more ethical treatment of bare life?

In espousing an ethics of exceptionality I also wonder about a responsibility that emerges from the call. The responsibility to the sacrifice that Derrida speaks of when glossing the exchange between God and Abraham is seemingly lost in Agamben’s Homo Sacer. The very means through which Abraham becomes exceptional is by submitting to the will of god, in answering the call to sacrifice his son that God charges him with. Could homo sacer, drained not only of life, but meaning in Agamben’s work espouse the very sacrifice that Derrida speaks of and that Agamben denies?

Baudrillard has argued that a prohibition on death has operated as a primary mode of social control. This is the importance of biopolitics in its relationality to bare life. The very foreclosure of the possibility of death and the purposeful maintenance of life, however bare, provides the biopolitical means to sovereignty. As Agamben says, “The concept of ‘life unworthy of being lived’ is…a political concept in which what is at issue is the extreme metamorphosis of sacred life – which may be killed but not sacrificed – on which sovereign power is founded.” Or to put it another way, sovereign power is codified by its very ability to decide who is worthy of life, or in fact who even constituted a human being.

Could it be that homo sacer can in fact be sacrificed, particularly sacrifice as a reinvestment of meaning, of subjectivity into bare life? If this is the case and one can “give” bios back to life through mourning as both excess and a means to sovereignty, then a politics of mourning of bare life could connect responsibility and the gift of death as absolute duty.

An example is appropriate to demonstrate both Baudrillard’s claim of hegemony through a prohibition on death and a possible recuperative politics of mourning. For the past 97 days prisoners at Guantánamo Bay prison camp have been conducting a hunger strike in an effort to shut down the prison and get proper trials. In response to this, the U.S. officials who run the facility have “offered [the prisoner] a hot meal or a liquid nutritional supplement, and, if they refuse, they are strapped into a chair. A nurse then passes a tube through their noses and down into their stomachs; for one to two hours, they are fed a drip of Ensure while a Navy corpsman watches.” The sovereign power wielded by U.S. officials in this scene is apparent. The internees are not even allowed to die of their own volition within the walls of the camp, the decision to mete out death is the sole prerogative of the United States and not of the prisoners. Seemingly, Agamben’s assertions are evidenced at Guantanamo, in which an exceptional space is harnessed to allocate bare life for “terrorist” subjects.

And yet, at the Washington Post article seems to imply, the hunger strike is in some sense working. The article states, “As the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are well aware, fasting and then enduring the procedure can also bring political advantage.” The article continues in asserting, “The strike has not only energized rights activists who have long campaigned for the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but also compelled the Obama administration to grapple with an issue that had been effectively abandoned.” While one could question the actual efficacy of the hunger strike in its relation to getting the prisoners released or trial dates set, there is a kind of mourning on display that questions both their status as homo sacer and the sovereign legitimacy of U.S. action.

One of the reasons why Guantanamo has proved so crucial to U.S. political identity and policy is precisely because of the dual exceptions that the U.S. itself wields. On the one hand, as Agamben argues, the U.S. has the ability to demarcate those exceptional bodies to which the law does not apply; effectively the sovereign right of choice. Additionally, however, is the ideal of U.S. itself as exception(al). American exceptionalism has “justified” imperialistic endeavors over the past 200 years, one could argue that it is a foundational ideology of the United States. The U.S. has set itself apart from the rest of the world, in both rhetoric and action, an ideology both sustained and challenged by the presence of Guantanamo Bay prison. Thus, the hunger strikes at the detention camp assault not only the legality of suspending habeas corpus, but undermine American exceptionalism as well. It is this second kind of exception that Agamben does not explore and that I believe merits more interrogation.





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