Agamben: Homo Sacer: The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern

This was rather a long section, so I’m not going to write up a ton of details on absolutely everything. And I am assuming that when we go over the intro we’ll go over info on Agamben.

Homo Sacer brings together and builds on work by Arendt and Foucault which we’ve now read. The main concept in this third section of the book, “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern,” is what that title would suggest. As Agamben summarizes in the conclusion, “Threshold” (181), this section posits that “Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West.”

1) The Politicization of Life: Agamben starts by defining his sense of biopolitics, describing Foucault and Arendt’s work and critiquing the points where they miss each other. Foucault talks about biopolitics and subjectivity but not totalitarian states and concentration camps. Arendt lacks a biological perspective in talking about totalitarianism. Agamben brings these points together through the concept of bare life, which was defined in the intro as “that which may be killed yet not sacrificed.” For more detail on this distinction, I found p.165 in this section helpful: it’s life that can be killed without it being homicide, yet can’t be sacrificed in the sense of being put to death following a death sentence — a death sentence seems to imply that one is still being treated (in some respects) as a citizen, not quite bare life, I think? The camp is founded on this state of exception which is associated with bare life. Here there is the absolute capacity of the subject’s body to be killed.

2) Biopolitics and the Rights of Man: Here he talks about the figure of the refugee, which as Arendt argues, should exemplify the rights of man, but doesn’t. He talks about these specific birth-nation and man-citizen links which have been established historically, and that the refugee calls these links into question. One thing I’m particularly interested in: I’m uncertain exactly what he’s saying about sadomasochism (134-5) and what I think about it.

3) Life That Does Not Deserve to Live: Talking about the development of this concept of life without value, originating in a paper written arguing for euthanasia. Every society sets its own limit for where it places this line of value/not value, for defining its homo sacer (139). Agamben brings up a Nazi euthanasia program of mentally ill people which he says can’t be explained through eugenics, but only as an exercise in sovereign power to decide on bare life (141-2).  Here the “integration of medicine and politics began to assume its final form” (143).

4) Politics, or Giving Form to the Life of a People: Talks about the synthesis of biology and economy within Nazism (145). Nazi science wasn’t created by Nazi politics, there were moves both ways and the science also helped shape much of the politics. In this final synthesis of biology and economy, “police and politics, eugenic motives and ideological motives, the care of health and the fight against the enemy become absolutely indistinguishable” (147); “all life becomes sacred and all politics becomes the exception” (148).

5) VP: Discusses scientific experiments performed on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, but establishes this as a pattern which has occurred elsewhere (including in the U.S. and Manila), not as a fluke occurrence. This, like we talked about before, is an example of  simultaneously “disposing” of people whose lives are defined as devoid of value, while “bolstering” the value of the body politic that ~is~ defined as having value. Raises the question of who can “voluntarily consent” in such a condition (158). Examples of this occurring elsewhere were ignored in trials because it throws “a sinister shadow on common practices in the medical profession” (158).

6) Politicizing Death: How to define death. The emergence of the concept of “brain death” (162). Paradoxically, brain death being cited as ~leading~ to death (163). Then the argument that brain death is the criteria b/c “it is the one organ that can’t be transplanted” (163), leading to the thought that if we could transplant the brain, death might be said not to exist at all.

7) The Camp as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern: “The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule” (168-9). “The camp is thus the structure in which the state of exception is realized normally” (170). It is a hybrid of rule of law and fact where they become indistinguishable. Cites Schmitt in talking about the role of race in allowing this to occur (172). The camp is a dislocating localization (175). This whole defining of a “people” means that this biological body has to be constantly purified — “only a politics” taking this into account wil be able to stop this oscillation and put end to civil war that divides people (180).

Threshold (this is basically the conclusion to the whole book summarizing things): Lists the three main theses of the book, one from each section (181). Runs through a “brief series of lives” as example cases. Proposes further investigation of fields infused with/in biopolitics.


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