Oct 24, 2011

Bare life and animal life

I'm currently reading Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life carefully for the first time and I'm having a hard time separating the many thematic strands that comprise such issues as the homo sacer itself, bare life and sovereignty. Let me just also add that I'm also currently reading (i.e. haven't finished) the 1st volume of Derrida's The Beast and the Sovereign and Ludueña-Romandini La comunidad de los espectros: Antropotecnia ("The community of specters: Anthropothecnics"), and both can be said to be responses to Agamben, so they may still hold answers to me.

First, I'm having trouble pinpointing exactly what the homo sacer is. I know it is a life which can be killed with impunity but not sacrificed in a religious rite, what kind of life is that exactly? I guess I'm trying to establish the frame-of-mind/rationalization behind the granting of the homo sacer status, but it's hard. Let's see what I could gather so far:

As far as I can tell, Agamben states that the homo sacer is a crucial element for the establishment of sovereign political power and vice-versa (politics as opposed to religious law and the state of nature). As I understand it, the homo sacer is the object of a monopolization of power that determines politics. All power needs to stay in a relation of exception (inclusive exclusion) with life. Well, in order for sovereign political power to be different and above the "law" of nature and religious/divine law, it must mark off its subject, its subjected life, as unattainable to both divine right and the law of nature and/or culture. It does that first by establishing that it can be killed. Its "killability" is a way of determining that no power could ever be superior to the sovereign, who is in fact the most interested in having such a fatal power over such a life. If the homo sacer's death can be brought upon with impunity, it means that the sovereign political power can exercise its power over it at will, completely superior to any other right.

In a way, the fact that the homo sacer cannot be sacrificed seems to me to be much more important. As Agamben himself states, almost all acts in Antiquity which we today would call capital punishment were actually forms of religious rites of purification and/or consecration. As such, the sovereign makes sure that the sacred life is subjected only to him, it is his subject, his source of power and marks off his sphere as politics, as opposed to divine law.

As such, the homo sacer is different from animal life (zoé), which can always be sacrificed to the gods, and from human life (bíos), which can not be killed with impunity (and can also be sacrificed). And so it is the best subject to the kind of political power which wished to separate from godly law and religious norms.

But Wikipedia, although not the best source, states quite emphatically that the homo sacer was essentially a religious concept: sacred/accursed (sacer) was the life of a person who had broken an oath. This life now belonged to the god which had been invoked in the oath, and as such could be killed (for such death would be considered to be a heavenly fated punishment, and not a true criminal act) but not sacrificed to any gods (since it already belonged to one).

Did Agamben just twist this concept to fit his idea of a secular political power? Or did sovereignty perhaps actually exploit this religious concept in order to create its necessary bare life? Or does that infringe upon Agamben's definition that the homo sacer and the sovereign must have originated side by side?

Ludueña's main contention with Agamben (and it's a big one) is that the homo sacer cannot be the originary from of political relation because it is essentially a penal institution and as such cannot apply to all kinds of situations. More than that, he says the homo sacer cannot answer to how biopolitics manages life, only death. To Agamben's concept, Ludueña opposed the ius exponendi, which was the law that stated that the father could decide to expose a child - that is, to abandon it in order for it to die, thereby deciding what life is worthy of living and what is the human. This process of eliminating animality from the human is what Ludueña defends to be at the origin of politics, which he calls zoopolitics. Thus, what he is in a way saying is that the life of the newborn is essentially an animal, biological life, and this life is the subject of sovereign political power.

Which leads me to the question: what is the difference between bare life and animal life? Apparently in my initial reading of Agamben, they differ in regards to the latter's sacrificability, but many, many people seem to be creating whole systems of thought based on the assumption that animal life is bare life. And I wonder if sovereign power as Agamben describes could work equally well in relation to animal life in general. And then I wonder if Ludueña is right. And after that I wonder if maybe the homo sacer and the ius exponendi are the same thing!

Also, I tend to think that the homo sacer simply names a life which has no value (thus utterly different from what we moderns understand by sacred life). Its unsacrificability only answers to the fact that it has no currency with gods or religious rites (and Adorno already defended the overtly economical nature of sacrifice, and Derrida, too, implicitly defended it): it cannot serve as payment to connect with god.

I tend to like Ludueña's position for two reasons, well, three actually: one, his writing is clearer; two, he stresses the essentially zoopolitical process of deciding on the humanity of the homo sapiens; and three, his reading of the ius exponendi bring him incredibly close to Derrida. In his treatment of the sovereign power which essentially springs from the father, he comes very close to Derrida's reading of the father/son relationship in Plato's Pharmacy. And that is awesome.

Due to Derrida, I tend to believe that all religious thought is a way of dealing with a problem which is essentially grammatological. The existence of God; the origin of technique; the connections between speech/writing, origin/derivation, father/son, and human/animal; messianic doctrine (etc. etc.) are all attempts of countering the violence and force of the grammé, of the pharmakon, of writing, of supplementarity as the truth of life. If political power is born with the father, that means it is also derived from the very grammatological (speech/writing) father/son dichotomy.

Anyways, that said, I still have many questions. I have found some amazingly interesting articles online and I believe I'll find some answers after I read them (and finish the books I'm mentioning here!). But here are my questions:
  1. Is there a difference between bare life and animal life? What is this difference, if any?
  2. According to Agamben, our modern concept of the sacredness of life, which we tend to oppose to any political power, is the same as the homo sacer. How is it possible, if the homo sacer is not sacred by any modern, common sense standards and therefore can be freely killed?
  3. Is there the possibility of bare life independent of a sovereign power? Or does sovereignty create it only to exercise its power over it? 
  4. Considering that bare life and animal life are different things, over which does the ius exponendi exercise power? That is, is the baby's life animal life or bare life? And is this power indeed sovereign and political, as Agamben defines these terms? Is it really different from the homo sacer?
  5. Is the homo sacer a genuine problem that Agamben has diagnosed, and its paradoxes are due to the complexities of sovereignty? Or do things not fit because, in the end, the homo sacer is only a very complex, aporetic riddle invented by Agamben?
Any answers are welcome!


  1. I'm going to try and answer some of this questions later (or help answer), but here is my thought:
    You should translate Ludueña-Romandini's book. It looks awesome.

  2. (1) Okay, first on bios and Zoe (for Agamben, see Derrida as one of many critiques about if such a clear cut distinction between bios and zoe exists in Greek). Bios is qualified life, the particulars of a life that gives you a particular form of life. Human life, to be more specific (though I guess the gods could also have a bios particular to gods?). Zoe is the life in common to animals, humans, and the gods. For Agamben's reading, there is no bios for animals, they only have zoe.
    So, bare life is when bios (so, basically humans) become confused with zoe (life in general, life that has no particularities). Many people read there being no distinction between bare life and zoe. I'd say they were wrong, on this. Functionally, that matters because for Agamben bare life is a concept that can only exist for humans.

    (2) This one is a bit more harder to explain. Agamben is drawing heavily on the tradition of sacred sociology. The sacred is fundamentally ambiguous--it is both that which has to be protected and that which can be sacrificed (so destroyed). Agamben isn't really addressing what people mean when they something is sacred, as much as the way that the sacred and the profane work as structuring elements in modern society. I don't know if that helps.

    (3) I don't understand this question.

    (4) I don't know what ius exponendi is, and I think that I can't help with this question because I haven't read one of the books at hand (the one you should translate and publish).

    (5) Eh.

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