Homo Sacer, Part 3: §1-5

This is the reading for Saturday, July 30.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In parts one and two, we saw Agamben’s argument that sovereign power is founded on a relation of ban, rather than something like a social contract.  The foundation of sovereign power is the capacity to decide who is outside politics, and therefore killable: the homo sacer.  

Part three applies this framework to the twentieth century, examining both totalitarian and democratic governments, and argues that this power to decide who is killable is common to both styles of government.  Further, this power is no longer limited to a traditional political sovereign, but is now also in the hands of doctors and scientists.

1. The Politicization of Life

Towards the end of his life, Foucault began working on biopolitics, which he defined as the inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms of power.  He said, “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question.”  However, he never really discussed the “exemplary place” of biopolitics, the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.  He researched prisons and hospitals, but not camps.

On the other hand, Hannah Arendt did a great deal of work on totalitarianism, but never really linked that phenomena to biopolitics.  She did note the link between totalitarianism and life in camps: “The supreme goal of all totalitarian states is not only the freely admitted and immediately realized attempt at total domination.  The concentration camps are the laboratories in the experiment of total dominant, for human nature being what it is, this goal can be achieved only under the extreme circumstances of human made hell.”  What Arendt missed is that the process is actually the inverse: it was the transformation of politics into biopolitics that legitimated total domination.

Agamben thinks we need to combine their views, and he will do it through the concept of bare life.

Karl Löwith was the first to define totalitarianism as a politicization of life, and he saw the connection between democracy and totalitarianism:

“Since the emancipation of the third estate, the formation of bourgeois democracy and its transformation into mass industrial democracy, the neutralization of politically relevant differences and the postponement of a decision about them has developed to the point of turning into its opposite: a total politicization of everything, even of seemingly neutral domains of life.  Thus in Marxist Russia there emerged a worker-state that was ‘more intensively state-oriented than any absolute monarchy’; in fascist Italy, a corporate state normatively regulating not only national work, but also ‘after-work’ and all spiritual life; and, in National Socialist Germany, a wholly integrated state, which, by means of racial laws and so forth, politicizes even the life that had until then been private.”

That connection is not a sudden one; the biopolitical background of western politics has been a continuous one.  Every victory, such as the liberties and rights won by individuals, also “prepared a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order, thus offering a new and more dreadful foundation for the very sovereign power from which they wanted to liberate themselves” (121). The affirmation of bare life in bourgeois democracy leads to a primacy of the private over the public and of individual liberties over collective obligations, but at the same time in totalitarian states, becomes the primary politic criterion and the realm of sovereign decisions.  It is only because biological life and its needs became the politically decisive fact that it is possible to understand why twentieth century democracies were so quickly transformed in totalitarian states, and why totalitarian states were so quickly able to revert to democratic states.  In both cases, politics was already biopolitics, and it was only a question of which framework “would be best suited to the task of assuring the care, control, and use of bare life” (122).  Once the basic referent becomes bare life, traditional political distinctions such as Right and Left lose their intelligibility: “The ex-communist ruling classes’ unexpected fall into the most extreme racism (as in the Serbian program of ‘ethnic cleansing’) and the rebirth of new forms of fascism in Europe also have their roots here” (122).

The place of bare life in politics has gradually grown, so that it no longer only connects the sovereign to the legal system, but also to the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest; “From this perspective, the camp—as the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space (insofar as it is founded solely on the state of exception)—will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity, whose metamorphoses and disguises we will have to learn to recognize” (123).

The first explicit appearance of bare life as the new political subject was in the 1679 write of habeas corpus.  Importantly, its concern was not with the subject of feudal relations or the future citizen of the Republic, but a simply body. The law read, “We command that you have before us to show, at Westminster, that body X, but whatsoever name he may be called therein, which is held in your custody, as it is said, as well as the cause of the arrest and the detention.”  This formula clearly shows the distinction between medieval and modern freedom: “It is not the free man and his statutes and prerogatives, nor even simply homo, but rather corpus that is the new subject of politics” (124).  At its origins, modern democracy’s battle against absolutism did not centre on bios, but instead zoe.  This is both modern democracy’s strength and contradiction; it does not abolish bare life, but spreads it into every individual body. An important Hobbes quote: “And those who can do the supreme thing—that is, kill—are by nature equal among themselves.” In other words, the capacity to be killed founds the natural equality of men and the necessity of the Commonwealth; it is the political body of the West.

2. Biopolitics and the Rights of Man

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt implicitly linked the fates of rights and nation-states.  The paradox she points out is that the very people who should have been the ultimate figure of rights—refugees—instead represented a crisis in the concept.  She said, “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to belief in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human.”  The so-called inalienable rights provided no protection to those who were not citizens of a state.  This is actually implicit in the title of the French Declaration of the Rights and Man and Citizen; it is not clear whether “man” and “citizen” are different, or if the first is always included in the second.

We can no longer see declarations of rights—from whatever source—as “proclamations of eternal, metajuridical values binding the legislator (in fact, without much success) to respect eternal ethical principles, and to begin to consider them according to their real historical function in the modern nation-state” (127).  Declarations of rights are the basic way in which bare life is inscribed into the nation-state: “The same bare life that in the [ancient regime] was politically neutral and belonged to God as creaturely life and in the classical world was (at least apparently) clearly distinguished as zoe from political life (bios) now fully enters into the structure of the state and even becomes the earthly foundation of the state’s legitimacy and sovereignty” (127).

So, declarations of rights are where the passage from royal sovereignty to national sovereignty is accomplished.  In this process, the “subject” becomes a “citizen,” who by birth is the bearer of sovereignty.  Birth and sovereignty are united in the citizen, whereas before, they were separated—birth only made you a subject of the King.  “It is not possible to understand the ‘national’ and biopolitical development and vocation of the modern state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries if one forgets that what lies at its basis is not man as a free and conscious political subject but, above all, man’s bare life, the simple birth that as such is, in the passage from subject to citizen, invested with the principle of sovereignty” (128).  The connection between birth and sovereignty is most obvious in the Nazi slogan, “blood and soil.”  This formula, as sinister as it sounds today, had an innocuous origin: it was the concise expression of the original criteria of Roman citizenship: birth in a certain territory, and birth from certain parents.  The word “citizen” hides this relation between birth and national sovereignty.

Questions like “What is French” and “What is German” became increasingly key political questions, whereas before they were anthropological curiosities.

This tie between rights and sovereignty helps explain something strange about the French Revolution: in the same moment that rights were declared to be inalienable, some were also declared to be “passive” and some “active”; passive rights were those for which the state is formed to protect, and active rights are those by which the state is formed.  Men had both active and passive rights; women, children, and foreigners only had passive rights. This was not simply a crass contradiction of the spirit of universal rights; it flows directly from biopolitics.  One of the key concerns of biopolitics is the need to redefine the threshold that distinguishes the inside from the outside.  Once zoe is politicized by declarations of rights, the distinctions that make it possible to isolate bare life need to be redrawn.

The reason refugees are so troubling for nation states is that they break the link between birth (nativity) and nationality, bringing to light the hidden presupposition of bare life, and so put the “originary fiction” of modern sovereignty in question.  Since WWI, the birth-nation link has increasingly be weakened in two ways.  First, by large numbers of displaced people, and second, by the way European nations denationalized large numbers of their own people (even the Nazis would not send Jews to camps without first fully stripping them of citizenship).

Two contradictory processes hit their peak in the twentieth century.  First, nation states became increasingly concerned with natural life, making a distinction between “authentic life” and life without political value.  Second, rights that were once the rights of citizens were separated from the context of citizenship for the sake of a bare life that was driven to the margins of the nation state, ultimately to be encoded in a new national identity (he seems to be referring to the creation of new states in eastern Europe).  This confusion is one reason why the responses of the League of Nations and the UN to refugee crises were so weak; their projects were declared to be humanitarian, not political.

The separation of humanitarianism and politics is the extreme phase of the separation of the rights of man and the rights of citizens.  Humanitarian organizations can only grasp human life as bare life, and so maintain a connection to the very powers they ought to fight.  Consider campaigns for funds for refugees from Rwanda: their lives are exclusively considered as bare life, and are only objects of aid and protection.  

The refugee must be seen for what he is: a limit concept that calls into question the basic category of the nation state, from the birth-nation link 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” (134).

3. Life That Does Not Deserve to Live

In 1920, a legal scholar named Karl Binding published a book called Authorization for the Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Being Lived.  There are two reasons this book is important.  First, in order to explain the unpunishability of suicide, Binding describes it as the expression of man’s sovereignty over his own existence.  Second, and more importantly, it is more than an especially creepy way of describing euthanasia: it is the first time that the idea of “life unworthy of being lived” appears in a European legal context.

For Binding, the idea of “life unworthy of being lived” is important because it helps answer his main question: “Must the unpunishability of the killing of life remain limited to suicide, as it is in contemporary law (with the exception of the state of emergency), or must it be extended to the killing of third parties?”  Binding says the solution depends on the answer to this question: “Are there human lives that have so lost the quality of legal good that their very existence no longer has any value, either for the person leading such a life or for society?”

The concept of “live unworthy of being lived” first applies to individuals who are “incurably lost” following an illness or accident, even when they are conscious of their decision and desire “redemption” (Binding uses the word erlösung, which has the religious connotation of redemption).  It also applies to “incurable idiots”, or those with progressive paralysis.  Binding says they have neither the will to live nor the will to die: while there is no consent to die, there is no will to live that killing would violate.

Agamben is not trying to take a position on euthanasia, which remains a difficult ethical problem.  Neither is the point Binding’s enthusiasm for it.  Rather, the point is that man’s sovereignty over his own life is immediately connected to the determination of the line beyond which life has any legal value, and so can be killed; it is exactly the homo sacer: “It is as if every valourization and every ‘politicization’ of life. . . necessarily implies a new decision concerning the threshold beyond which life ceases to be politically relevant, becomes only ‘sacred life,’ and can as such be eliminated without punishment.  Every society sets this limit; every society—even the most modern—decides who its ‘sacred men’ will be” (139).  In Western history, this limit has done nothing but grow, and has now “moved inside every human life and every citizen” (140).

The phrase “life unworthy of being lived” appeared in 1940 in the Nazi plans for euthanasia; it eventually became the plan for mass extermination. The program was initially quite unpopular among Germans, and was a significant organization border during wartime.  So why did Hitler want it put into practice at all costs? The program, in the guise of a humanitarian concern, was an exercise of the sovereign power to decide on bare life.  “The concept of ‘life unworthy of being lived’ is clearly not an ethical one, which would involve the expectations and legitimate desires of the individual” (142).  Instead, it was a political concept involving the bare life upon which sovereign power is founded.  In euthanasia, one man is in the position of separating the bios and zoe of another so that he may be killed.  In modern biopolitics, euthanasia is the intersection of the sovereign decision on life and the “assumption of the care of the nation’s biological body” (142).  I tis the point at which biopolitics turns into “thanatopolitics”. In modern biopolitics, the decision on who may be killed ceases to be an exception; the decision becomes the power to decide who is politically relevant.   

One key issue is the role of doctors in deciding who will be euthanized; there was an increasing connection between medicine and politics; the sovereign decision on bare life becomes displaced from purely political motivations and becomes more ambiguous, a context in which the doctor and the sovereign seem to exchange roles.

4. ‘Politics, or Giving Form to the Life of a People’

In 1942, a French publisher circulated a pamphlet which promoted the merits of Naziism in matters of health and eugenics, called State and Health.  It argued that the population of a nation is analogous to currency, and is a “living wealth.”  According to [the pamphlet], the great novelty of National Socialism lies in the fact that this living wealth now enters the foreground of the Reich’s interests and calculations, founding a new politics” (145).  This politics involved the establishment of a “budget to take account of the living value of people” and to take care of the “biological body of the nation.”  It said, “We are approaching a logical synthesis of biology and economy. . . . Politics will more and more have to be capable of achieving this synthesis, which may only be in its first stages today, but which still allows one to recognize the interdependence of the forces of biology and economy as an inevitable fact.”

The concern with forces of biology was related to eugenics.  This was not a simply racist twisting of science; in fact, in Main Kampf, Hitler recognized the near impossibility of identifying a pure race.  In short, “racism” is not the most correct term for the biopolitics of the Nazis; rather, it is a “horizon in which the ‘care of life’ inherited from eighteenth century police science is, in now being founded on properly eugenic concerns, absolutized” (147).  In nineteenth century theories of police and politics, politics had a negative task: to fight against enemies of the state, while police had a positive task: the care and growth of the citizen’s life.  Agamben says, “National Socialist biopolitics–and along with it, a good part of modern politics even outside the Third Reich–cannot be grasped if it is not understood as necessarily implying the disappearance of the difference between the two terms: the police now becomes politics, and the care of life coincides with the fight against the enemy” (147).

Another Nazi booklet said, “‘The new State knows no other task than the fulfillment of the conditions necessary for the preservation of the people.’  These words of the Fuhrer mean that every political act of the National Socialist state serves the life of the people. . . . We know today that the life of the people is only secured if the racial traits and hereditary health of the body of the people are preserved.” The link between politics and life in these words is not just pragmatic and instrumental, which would imply that race was a given that just had to be protected.  

Rather, “The novelty of modern biopolitics lies in the fact that the biological given is as such immediately political, and the political is as such immediately the biological given” (148).  Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a biologist and eugenicist, said politics was a “giving form to the life of the people.”  The life that, with declarations of rights, became the ground of sovereignty now becomes the subject-object of the state (which increasingly appears as a form of policing).  “But only a state essentially founded on the very life of the nation could identity its own principal vocation as the formation and care of the ‘body of the people’” (148).

So there is a seeming contradiction here: a natural given presents itself as a political task.  Verschuer continues, “Biological heredity is certainly a destiny, and accordingly, we prove ourselves masters of this destiny insofar as we take biological heredity to be the task that has been assigned to us and which we must fulfill.”  Agamben says,

“The paradox of Nazi biopolitics and the necessity by which it was bound to submit life itself to an incessant political mobilization could not be expressed better than by this transformation of natural heredity into a political task.  The totalitarianism of our century has its ground in this dynamic of life and politics, without which it remains incomprehensible. . . . When life and politics—originally divided, and linked together by means of the no-man’s-land of the state of exception that is inhabited by bare life—being to become one, all life becomes sacred and all politics becomes the exception.” (148)

This is why eugenics laws were among the first the Nazis instituted.  They began by fighting hereditary diseases through sterilization and banning marriages for anyone with heritable problems.   

It is important to keep in mind that this was not a quasi-utilitarian, purely pragmatic program: it was immediately political, and were inseparable from the Nuremberg laws concerning citizenship and the protection of German blood and honour, which transformed Jews into second class citizens.

5. VP

In 1941, a Nazi doctor named Roscher asked Himmler for “two or three professional criminals” to act as Versuchspersonen, or VPs, human guinea pigs, in his research on high altitude pilot rescue.  They were used in a variety of terrifying pressure tank experiments.  VPs were used in a wide array of gruesome experiments, such as limb transplants.

It might be easy to write off these experiments as purely sadistic acts with no scientific value, but at least some of the doctors involved were respected by the scientific community.  For example, the professors who designed experiments concerning the potability of salt water were defended by an international petition that they “might not be confused with other criminal physicians sentenced in Nuremberg.”  A non-nazi German professor said “from the scientific point of view, the preparation of these experiments was splendid,” which is a strange way to describe an experiment that resulted in the victims trying to suck fresh water from rags on the floor.

These sorts of experiments were not limited to Nazi Germany—many similar ones took place in the United States.  In the 1920s, 800 American prisons were infected with malaria as part of research for a cure. On other occasions, death row inmates were promises pardon if they survived the experimentation. Such cases were presented to the judges at Nuremberg, and so they had to decide when experiments on VPs were acceptable.  The final criterion accepted was consent, in the form of long, complicated legal waivers.  However, “The obvious hypocrisy of such documents cannot fail to leave one perplexed.  To speak of free will and consent in the case of a person sentenced to death or of a detained person who must pay serious penalties is, at the very least, questionable.  And it is certain that even if similar declarations had been signed by the people detained in the camps, the experiments that took place would not have been ethically permissible” (157).  The idea of consent or free will for an inmate of Dachau is meaningless; “From this point of view, the inhumanity of the experiments in the United States and in the camps is, therefore, substantially equivalent” (158).

What both the camp inmates and the American test subjects had in common was their status as VPs: they were either death row inmates or camp inmates, and as such were excluded from the political community.  They were lacking all the rights we usually attribute to human experience, and were no longer anything but bare life.  The conclusion is that the doctor and the scientist can now move into the no-man’s-land which once, only the sovereign could penetrate.


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