Readers of Michel Foucault will know that when he turned to Greek and (especially) Roman antiquity in his genealogical investigation of human sexuality, he found there admirable personal ethical practices, conducive to a high degree of autonomy under the rubric of “the care of the self”. In earlier genealogical studies, however, the picture that emerged of the modern world in Discipline and Punish, as well as in Volume I of The History of Sexuality, was indeed bleak.

In the former work, on the history of modes of punishment — where the spectacular punitive practices of pre-modernity are contrasted with the “gentler” (but more effective) punishments of modernity — Foucault uncovered a prison-like world (ours) in which individuals are reduced to “docile bodies” through various disciplinary techniques. In the first volume on sexuality he amplified this austere social landscape by detailing the inescapable hold that “bio-power” has on individuals and populations through strategies of what he called the “anatomo-politics of the body” (for example the pedagogical control of children’s sex, and the social control of reproduction — both of which are well-known to us) and the “bio-politics of populations” (for example population control).

Confirming Foucault’s diagnosis of “modern societies of control” (a phrase used by Gilles Deleuze), Giorgio Agamben (in the Introduction to Homo Sacer, Stanford University Press, 1998) remarked that the development of capitalism, in particular, would not have been possible without the “disciplinary control” achieved by the advent of bio-power, which was responsible for the creation of the requisite “docile bodies” by means of a range of appropriate technologies. Not content to leave Foucault’s work at that, Agamben went further along a similar path of investigation, and produced what must surely count as an even more sobering, appalling, or shocking ( all of which are understatements) account of modern society than Foucault’s — one that unmasks it by means of the heuristic of the paradoxical (and puzzling) determination, in Roman law, that someone condemned to death was “sacred” and could not be sacrificed, although such a person could be killed or executed.

In Agamben’s words (in Homo Sacer):

“The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred life — that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed — is the life that has been captured in this sphere.”

The meaning of “sacrifice” in the context of religious ritual is all-important here, and can easily be overlooked — if a “sacred” person could be killed but not sacrificed, it means, firstly, that the epithet “sacred” has to be attached to someone to be able to justify, ironically, his or her exclusion from religious ritual sacrifice (which would presumably conflict with the reasons for that person’s death sentence; hence the supposed “sacredness” precludes participation in the ritual). In other words, it is merely a ruse to justify treating him or her as “bare life”, which may then be terminated by execution — something that enacted itself on an unprecedented scale in the Holocaust, with Hitler ordering the extermination of Jews “like lice”.

The upshot of Agamben’s inquiry is that the realm of “sacred life” has grown immensely since ancient times, with dire consequences for the biopolitical programmes and interventions that the state — and not only the Nazi state — has been capable of executing or performing. In short, the state has the task of producing “bare life” and although it has no “jurisdiction” over it because of the “state of exception” from human and divine law, nevertheless wields the power of (ex-)termination over it.

Obscure as it may be, Agamben’s tracing of this motif of “exception” through history to the 20th century, is illuminating regarding contemporary state practices of a “bio-political” nature. Agamben summarises the dismal implications of Foucault’s later work by pointing out that, in effect, the latter had demonstrated the modern western state to have integrated “techniques of subjective individualisation” and “procedures of objective totalisation” to an “unprecedented” degree.

Unfortunately I cannot here give an adequate account of Agamben’s truly horrifying exposé of the present “state of exception” (actually, going back to a “double exception”, from both human and divine law, while still being included in the community in so far as killing is concerned) the roots of which may be traced back to antiquity (as pointed out above) but I can say that his book shows those deluded souls who believe that we are living in an age of “progress” (or, more ludicrously, “enlightenment”) to be sorely mistaken. In fact, it will take a superhuman, collective effort to overcome the state of affairs he uncovers, which is unlikely to happen, albeit not impossible — all social, political and economic conditions are of contingent historical provenance, and can therefore be reversed, whatever the price.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Agamben’s very erudite and intricately argued, historically informed, diagnosis of the connections between the condition of “sovereignty”, the “sacred” and the sentencing of someone to death (among other things) leads to the realisation that what the 20th century produced in the guise of the concentration camp is the paradigm of modern “bio-politics”, which fuses the question of sovereign rule with the power over life, and results in “the politicisation of life” (and death). He credits Foucault with the founding insight that leads to this unavoidable conclusion.

The concentration camp exemplifies the practice of denuding individuals of what the ancient Greeks thought of as human “bios”, or the distinctively human, political way of life, leaving only their “bare, unqualified life” or what the Greeks called “zoë”. This has paved the way for virtually unthinkable atrocities, minus what one might expect to be accountability, regarding what remained of human individuals, namely denuded bodies, or “bare life” — mere living beings. Recall the skeletal creatures discovered in German concentration camps at the end of WWII.

This historical development formed the basis for the now widespread practice of paradoxically exercising the power of the law outside of the law. Agamben argues that the space of the (concentration) camp becomes pervasive when the “state of exception” becomes the rule, rather than the exception. Needless to say, the widespread practice, globally, of excluding people from the realm of the law, to be able to deal with them as bare life in a manner required by biopolitical exigencies, should be understood against this background.

Agamben discusses instances of biopolitical intervention ranging from the “case” of Karen Quinlan to what he calls (paradoxical) “military interventions on humanitarian grounds”, but the list far exceeds his examples. In South Africa “Marikana” would seem to me to qualify as one of these “uncertain and nameless terrains” where the indefinite prolongation of mere, “bare life” (Quinlan), or brute killing, can happen without legal consequence, because the victims have already been excluded from the domain of the law. These are just some of the manifestations of the hidden “biopolitical paradigm of the modern” — the (concentration) camp, where one is reduced to “bare life”.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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