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There is a fine line, in critiquing the institutions you thrive on, between nihilism and the injunction to think about them in radically different ways, especially when your critique is as far-reaching as Giorgio Agamben’s in Homo Sacer. I had an argument recently about whether or not Agamben’s book is political — I think it is. In fact, it seems absurd to say that he argues against politics entirely. He explicitly writes:

The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not…a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their history and their rivalry. Yet this idea must nevertheless be strongly maintained on a historico-philosophical level, since it alone will allow us to orient ourselves in relation to the new realities and unforseen convergences of the end of the millenium. This idea alone will make it possible to clear the way for the new politics, which remains largely to be invented.

Which is to say, of course, that Agamben knows he doesn’t have the answers, but rather that he thinks the answers are in the offing if we engage his analysis of the underlying ideological overlaps between liberal democracy and the totalitarian state. He is not implying that we should be apolitical (in fact, this should be an injunction to be political, just not the kind of political that is average or expected). His text is, I think, deeply political.

The implications of bowing to a nihilism that might grow out of the shared basis of both democracy and totalitarianism — that is, the nihilism that grows out of the realization that biopolitics underpins virtually all the politics of recorded Western history — are grave. If we accept this nihilism, we damn ourselves to the future we are building for ourselves in security checkpoints, terror warning levels, and even the refusal of a nationalized health care plan. We accept that there will be the kind of genocidal mass killing, ruthless dictatorship, and tactical abduction of political prisoners in the 21st century, as there has been in the 20th. These are all instruments of biopolitical control, but in order to solve the impasse between security and freedom, health and economy, debate and stability, Agamben writes that we must think beyond biopolitics.

To say that Agamben’s critique of biopolitics is a critique of political life is entirely absurd. This week (spring break!) I am going to explore the idea of political life beyond biopolitics, because I believe it is not only possible to think a politics that rejects biopolitics, it is also ultimately essential. Oh, and I also want to prove a point.

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