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Lazzarone

AGAMBEN on the European Migrant Crisis

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In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Part III: The Camp As Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern - Chapter 2, Sections 3 & 4, pages 131-4:

 

2.3. If refugees (whose number has continued to grow in our century, to the point of including a significant part of humanity today) represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state, this is above all because by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality, they put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis. Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain - bare life - to appear for an instant within that domain. In this sense, the refugee is truly "the man of rights," as Arendt suggests, the first and only real appearance of rights outside the fiction of the citizen that always covers them over. Yet this is precisely what makes the figure of the refugee so hard to define politically.

 

Since the First World War, the birth-nation link has no longer been capable of performing its legitimating function inside the nation-state, and the two terms have begun to show themselves to be irreparably loosened from each other. From this perspective, the immense increase of refugees and stateless persons in Europe (in a short span of time 1,500,000 White Russians, 700,000 Armenians, 500,000 Bulgarians, 1,000,000 Greeks, and hundreds of thousands of Germans, Hungarians, and Rumanians were displaced from their countries) is one of the two most significant phenomena. The other is the contemporaneous institution by many European states of juridical measures allowing for the mass denaturalization and denationalization of large portions of their own populations. The first introduction of such rules into the juridical order took place in France in 1915 with respect to naturalized citizens of "enemy" origin; in 1922, Belgium followed the French example and revoked the naturalization of citizens who had committed "antinational" acts during war; in 1926, the fascist regime issued an analogous law with respect to citizens who had shown themselves to be "unworthy of Italian citizenship"; in 1933, it was Austria's turn; and so it continued until the Nuremberg laws on "citizenship in the Reich" and the "protection of German blood and honor" brought this process to the most extreme point of its development, introducing the principle according to which citizenship was something of which one had to prove oneself worthy and which could therefore always be called into question. And one of the few rules to which Nazis constantly adhered during the course of the "Final Solution" was that Jews could be sent to the extermination camps only after they had been fully denationalized (stripped even of the residual citizenship left to them after the Nuremberg laws).

 

These two phenomena - which are, after all, absolutely correlative - show that the birth-nation link, on which the declaration of 1789 had founded national sovereignty, had already lost its mechanical force and power of self-regulation by the time of the First World War. On the one hand, the nation-states become greatly concerned with natural life, discriminating within it between a so-to-speak authentic life and a life lacking every political value. (Nazi racism and eugenics are only comprehensible if they are brought back to this context.) On the other hand, the very rights of man that once made sense as the presupposition of the rights of the citizen are now progressively separated from and used outside the context of citizenship, for the sake of the supposed representation and protection of a bare life that is more and more driven to the margins of the nation-states, ultimately to be recodified into a new national identity. The contradictory character of these processes is certainly one of the reasons for the failure of the attempts of the various committees and organizations by which states, the League of Nations, and, later, the United Nations confronted the problem of refugees and the protection of human rights, from the Bureau Nansen (1922) to the contemporary High Commission for Refugees (1951), whose actions, according to statue, are to have not a political but rather a "solely humanitarian and social" mission. What is essential is that, every time refugees represent not individual cases but - as happens more and more often today - a mass phenomenon, both these organizations and individual states prove themselves, despite their solemn invocations of the "sacred and inalienable" rights of man, absolutely incapable of resolving the problem and even of confronting it adequately.

 

2.4. The separation between humanitarianism and politics that we are experiencing today is the extreme phase of the separation of the rights of man from the rights of the citizen. In the final analysis, however, humanitarian organizations - which today are more and more supported by international commissions - can only grasp human life in the figure of bare or sacred life, and therefore, despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight. It takes only a glance at the recent publicity campaigns to gather funds for refugees from Rwanda to realize that here human life is exclusively considered (and there are certainly good reasons for this) as sacred life - which is to say, as life that can be killed but not sacrificed - and that only as such is it made into the object of aid and protection. The "imploring eyes" of the Rwandan child, whose photograph is shown to obtain money but who "is now becoming more and more difficult to find alive," may well be the most telling contemporary cipher of the bare life that humanitarian organizations, in perfect symmetry with state power, need. A humanitarianism separated from politics cannot fail to reproduce the isolation of sacred life at the basis of sovereignty, and the camp - which is to say, the pure space of exception - is the biopolitical paradigm that it cannot master.

 

The concept of the refugee (and the figure of life that is concept represents) must be resolutely separated from the concept of the rights of man, and we must seriously consider Arendt's claim that the fates of human rights and the nation-state are bound together such that the decline and crisis of the one necessarily implies the end of the other. The refugee must be considered for what he is: nothing less than a limit concept that radically calls into question the fundamental categories of the nation-state, from the birth-nation to the man-citizen link, and that thereby makes it possible to clear the way for a long-overdue renewal of categories in the service of a politics in which bare life is no longer separated and excepted, either in the state order or in the figure of human rights.

 

At bare minimum we can say Agamben, writing 20 years ago, was prescient.

Edited by Lazzarone
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Relate the above with Foucault, writing 40 years ago, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), translated by Alan Sheridan, Part III: Discipline, Section 3: Panopticism, pages 222-224:

 

Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. And although, in a formal way, the representative regime makes it possible, directly or indirectly, with or without relays, for the will of all to form the fundamental authority of sovereignty, the disciplines provide, at the base, a guarantee of the submission of forces and bodies. The real, corporal disciplines constituted the foundation of the formal, juridical liberties. The contract may have been regarded as the ideal foundation of law and political power; panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion. It continued to make the effective mechanisms of power function in opposition to the formal framework that it had acquired. The 'Enlightenment', which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.

 

In appearance, the disciplines constitute nothing more than an infra-law. They seem to extend the general forms defined by law to the infinitesimal level of individual lives; or they appear as methods of training that enable individuals to become integrated into these general demands. They seem to constitute the same type of law on a different scale, thereby making it more meticulous and more indulgent. The disciplines should be regarded as a sort of counter-law. They have the precise role of introducing insuperable asymmetries and excluding reciprocities. First, because discipline creates between individuals a 'private' link, which is a relation of constraints entirely different from contractual obligation; the acceptance of a discipline may by underwritten by contract; the way in which it is imposed, the mechanisms it brings into play, the non-reversible subordination of one group of people by another, the 'surplus' power that is always fixed on the same side, the inequality of position of the different 'partners' in relation to the common regulation, all these distinguish the disciplinary link from the contractual link, and make it possible to distort the contractual link systematically from the moment it has as its content a mechanism of discipline. We know, for example, how many real procedures undermine the legal fiction of the work contract: workshop discipline is not the least important. Moreover, whereas the juridical systems define juridical subjects according to universal norms, the disciplines characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate. In any case, in the space and during the time in which they exercise their control and bring into play the asymmetries of their power, they effect a suspension of the law that is never total, but is never annulled either. Regular and institutional as it may be, the discipline, in its mechanism, is a 'counter-law'. And, although the universal juridicism of modern society seems to fix limits on the exercise of power, its universally widespread panopticism enables it to operate, on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiples the asymmetry of power and undermines the limits that are traced around the law. The minute disciplines, the panopticisms of every day may well be below the level of the emergence of the great apparatuses and the great political struggles. But, in the genealogy of modern society, they have been, with the class domination that traverses it, the political counterpart of the juridical norms according to which power was redistributed. Hence, no doubt, the importance that has been given for so long to the small techniques of disciplines, to those apparently insignificant tricks that it has invented, and even to those 'sciences' that give it a respectable face; hence the fear of abandoning them if one cannot find any substitute; hence the affirmation that they are at the very foundation of society, and an element in its equilibrium, whereas they are a series of mechanisms for unbalancing power relations definitively and everywhere; hence the persistence in regarding them as the humble, but concrete form of every morality, whereas they are a set of physico-political techniques.

 

Foucault writes about "physico-political techniques" because he hadn't yet invented the term "biopolitical" later taken up by Agamben. We can draw a parallel between modern society's "dark side" of "widespread panopticism" and modern sovereignty's "secret presupposition" of "bare life". The former undermines civil rights in the context of representative democracy while the later undermines human rights in the context of international law. In both instances, however, Foucault and Agamben do not critique universal rights per se, but instead argue that their universality does not actually get down to us. Underneath the abstract Enlightenment ideals, we face the concrete historical realities of "class domination" and "state power" - exemplified historically by "workshop discipline" and "mass denationalization", exposing "the legal fiction of the work contract" and "the fiction of the citizen" respectively. Despite appearances, "apparently insignificant [disciplinary] tricks" are really "counter-law" and "publicity campaigns to gather funds for refugees" are really in "secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight" - evidence of the failure of egalitarian principles domestically and humanitarian missions abroad. Foucault's impact here is "coercion" while Agamben's is "extermination". That's because Foucault investigates a "suspension of the law that is never total but is never annulled either" while Agamben focuses in on just such total suspensions: "the pure space of exception" that is the concentration camp. If Marx's paradigm case of asymmetrical power-relations was The Factory and Foucault's was The Panopticon, Agamben's is most certainly The Camp.

Edited by Lazzarone
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In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Part III: The Camp As Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern - Chapter 2, Sections 3 & 4, pages 131-4:

 

 

At bare minimum we can say Agamben, writing 20 years ago, was prescient.

 

Prescient, or perhaps Europe's treatment of migrants hasn't improved a whole lot over the years? 1995 would have been right after the Bosnian war, for instance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosnian_War

 

It does seem that Europe's political climate has certainly been drawing upon some older themes recently, particularly in places like Greece with the Golden Dawn. 

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Agamben in his own words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skJueZ52948.

 

I'd reply that the problems of "biopolitics" and "state of exception" were already linked in Foucault's work too. After all, he begins the chapter on 'Panopticism' in Discipline & Punish with the emergency measures taken after a plague hits a town - the declaration of martial law, the sanctioning of instantaneous extrajudicial killing, etc. (Compare Foucault's "utopia of the perfectly governed city" with Agamben's "biopolitical paradigm of the camp" and Foucault's 'lepers as plague victims' with Agamben's 'refugees as homo sacer'.) Then Foucault says "the plague-stricken town" and "the panoptic establishment" are both abstract diagrams of power, concluding on page 209: "These disciplines, which the classical age had elaborated in specific, relatively enclosed places - barracks, schools, workshops - and whose total implementation had been imagined only at the limited and temporary scale of a plague-stricken town, Bentham dreamt of transforming into a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time." In Agamben's words, 'the state of exception becomes the rule'. (This also lines up with Deleuze's reading of Foucault, as disciplinary enclosures diffuse into broader "societies of control".)

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Agamben completed the ninth and final volume of his Homo Sacer-series, and Adam Kotsko's translation appeared in March. Lorenzo Chiesa writes:

 

Here, one must first and foremost acknowledge and praise the tenacious determination needed to carry out a twenty-year project, a monumental enterprise that now displays a rare level of consistency. Agamben is all too often revered—and vainly emulated—for the supposed irreverence of his impressionistic, quasi-aphoristic, and circumlocutory style. This is very misleading, especially when one retroactively considers the Homo Sacer series as a whole. Agamben stands out as one of the most systematic thinkers of our time.
Edited by Lazzarone

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The above excerpt from historian Peter Hayes' lecture on the Nazi death camps reminded me of this passage in 'Homo Sacer':
 
What confronts us today is a life that as such is exposed to a violence without precedent precisely in the most profane and banal ways. ... The wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term "Holocaust" was, from this perspective, an irresponsible historiographical blindness. The Jew living under Nazism is the privileged negative referent of the new biopolitical sovereignty and is, as such, a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed. His killing therefore constitute neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere "capacity to be killed" inherent in the condition of the Jew as such. The truth - which is difficult for the victims to face, but which we must have the courage not to cover with sacrificial veils - is that the Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, "as lice," which is to say, as bare life. The dimension in which the extermination took place is neither religion nor law, but biopolitics.
Edited by Lazzarone

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