Edited by Henry Sussman

Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 2

    9. Bare Life

    One of the most important new concepts introduced in contemporary theory is Georgio Agamben’s notion of bare life. Agamben’s crucial contribution allows us not only to revise the Foucauldian theory of biopower, but also to rethink the political contradictions of modernity. Despite its importance, Agamben’s theory of bare life does not, however, sufficiently address two crucial questions: the problem of resistance and the negative differentiation of bare life with respect to racial and gender differences. Thanks to Agamben’s revision of biopolitics, it becomes clear that resistance cannot be limited to the contestation of the law or power structures; in fact, one of the most pressing political questions raised by Homo Sacer is whether bare life itself can be mobilized by emancipatory movements. The second issue we need to reconsider is the way bare life is implicated in gendered, class, colonial and racist configurations of the political and, because of this implication, suffers different forms of violence. [1] The central paradox bare life presents for political analysis is not only the erasure of political distinctions but also the negative differentiation, or privation, such erasure produces with respect to differences that used to characterize a form of life that was destroyed.

    To develop the paradoxes of bare life, let us begin with Agamben’s definition of this concept. Reworking Aristotle’s [2] and Hannah Arendt’s [3] distinctions between biological existence (zoe) and the political life of speech and action (bios), between mere life and a good life, Agamben introduces in Homo Sacer his own interpretation and his own necessarily selective genealogy of “bare life” from antiquity to modernity. Stripped from political significance and exposed to murderous violence, bare life is both the counterpart of the sovereign decision on the state of exception and the target of sovereign violence. To avoid misunderstanding, I would like to stress the point that is made sometimes only implicitly in Agamben’s work and not always sufficiently stressed by his commentators: namely, the fact that bare life, wounded, expendable, and endangered, is not the same as biological zoe, but rather the remainder of the destroyed political bios. As Agamben puts it in his critique of Hobbes’ state of nature, mere life “is not simply natural reproductive life, the zoe of the Greeks, nor bios” but rather “a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast” (1998, 109). More emphatically, the conclusion of Homo Sacer stresses the fact that “[e]very attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoe and bios” (187). To evoke Theodor Adorno, we could say that bare life, not only the referent but also the effect of sovereign violence, is damaged life, stripped of its political significance, of its specific form of life.

    For Agamben, bare life constitutes the original but “concealed nucleus” of Western biopolitics in so far as its exclusion founds the political realm. Bare life is always already captured by the political in a double way: first, in the form of the exclusion from the polis—it is included in the political in the form of exclusion—and, second, in the form of the unlimited exposure to violation, which does not count as a crime. Thus, the most fundamental categories of Western politics are not the social contract, or the friend and the enemy, but bare life and sovereign power (7–8). As Agamben’s broad outline of the political genealogy suggests, the position and the political function of bare life changes historically. This genealogy begins with the most distant memory and the first figuration of bare life expressed in ancient Roman law by the obscure notion of homo sacer—that is, the notion of the banned man who can be killed with impunity by all but is unworthy of either juridical punishment or religious sacrifice. Neither the condemned criminal nor the sacrificial scapegoat, and thus outside the human and divine law, homo sacer is the target of sovereign violence exceeding the force of law and yet anticipated and authorized by that law. Banished from collectivity, he is the referent of the sovereign decision on the state of exception, which both confirms and suspends the normal operation of the law. In Agamben’s genealogy, the major shift in the politicization of bare life occurs in modernity. With the mutation of sovereignty into biopower, bare life ceases to be the excluded outside of the political but in fact becomes its inner hidden norm: bare life “gradually begins to coincide with the political realm” (9). However, this inclusion and distribution of bare life within the political does not mean its integration with political existence; rather, it is a disjunctive inclusion of the inassimilable remnant, which still remains the target of sovereign violence. As Agamben argues, “Western politics has not succeeded in constructing the link between zoe and bios” (11).

    In contrast to the ancient ban, or the inclusive exclusion from the political, a new form of disjunctive inclusion of bare life within the polis emerges with modern democracies. In democratic regimes this hidden incorporation of bare life both into the political realm and into the structure of citizenship manifests itself, according to Agamben, as the inscription of “birth” within human rights—an inscription that establishes a dangerous link between citizenship, nation, and biological kinship. As the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaims, men do not become equal by virtue of their political association but are “born and remain” equal. Democratic citizens are thus bearers of both bare life and human rights, they are at the same time the targets of disciplinary power and free democratic subjects. In a political revision of Foucault’s formulation of modern subjectivity as “empirico-transcendental” doublet, [4] Agamben argues that the modern citizen is “a two-faced being, the bearer both of subjection to sovereign power and of individual liberties (Agamben, 1998, 125). The democratic subject of rights is thus characterized by the aporia between political freedom and the subjection of mere life, without a clear distinction, mediation, or reconciliation between them.

    Since bare life is included within Western democracies as their hidden inner ground and as such cannot mark their borders, modern politics is about the search for new racialized and gendered targets of exclusion, for the new living dead (130). In our own times, such targets multiply with astonishing speed and infiltrate bodies down to the cellular level: from refugees, illegal immigrants, inmates on death row subject to suicide watch, comatose patients on life support, to organ transplants and fetal stem cells. For Agamben, this inclusion of bare life within the bodies of each citizen becomes catastrophically apparent with the reversal of the democratic state into totalitarian regimes at the beginning of the 20th century. As the disasters of fascism and soviet totalitarianism demonstrate, and as the continuous histories of genocide show, by suspending political forms of life, totalitarian regimes can reduce whole populations to disposable bare life that could be destroyed with impunity. This is what according to Agamben constitutes the unprecedented horror of Nazi concentration camps: the extreme destitution and degradation of human life to bare life subject to mass extermination: “Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp was also the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation” (171). If Agamben controversially claims that camps are not just the extreme aberration of modernity but its “fundamental biopolitical paradigm” (181), which shows the “thanatopolitical face”of power (142, 150), it is because concentration camps for the first time actualize the danger implicit in Western politics, namely, the total genocide made possible by the reversal of the exception signified by homo sacer into a new thanato-political norm. Such collapse of the distinction between exception and norm, such transformation of the temporal exception into material space, together with the “absolute” and unmediated subjection of life to death, constitutes the “supreme” political principle of genocide.

    The most compelling force of Agamben’s work is his diagnosis of the ways the aporia of the bare life/life opposition in Western politics gives rise to new forms of domination and to the reversal of democracy into fascism. Nonetheless, Agamben’s analysis of this aporia from antiquity to modernity misses two crucial issues: the question of resistance and the negative differentiation of bare life along racial, ethic, and gender lines. First of all, as several commentators and critics, most notably Ernesto Laclau, argue, what is lacking in Agamben’s work is a theory of the “emancipatory possibilities” of modernity. [5] Yet if we were to reconstruct such a theory in terms of Agamben’s philosophy, then the task of conceptualizing resistance could not be limited to the contestation of the law or power structures; in fact, one of the most important political questions is whether bare life itself can be mobilized by oppositional movements. By focusing on the way bare life functions as the referent of the sovereign decision, Agamben, unfortunately, answers this question in the negative: “The ‘body’ is always already a biopolitical body and bare life, and nothing in it … seems to allow us to find solid ground on which to oppose the demands of sovereign power” (187, emphasis added). The second problem Agamben ignores is the way bare life is implicated in the gendered, sexist, colonial and racist configurations of biopolitics. If we argue that bare life emerges as the after-effect of the destruction of the symbolic differences of gender, ethnicity, race or class—differences which constitute political forms of life—this means that bare life is still negatively determined by the destruction of a historically specific way of life. Thus another paradox of bare life is the simultaneous erasure of the political distinctions and the negative differentiation retrospectively produced by such erasure.

    Let us consider these two issues—the differentiation of bare life and its role in emancipatory movements—in turn. Although Agamben’s heterogenous examples of bare life—for instance, the father/ son relation in antiquity, Nazi euthanasia programs for the mentally ill, refugee camps, the ethnic rape camps in the former Yugoslavia, the comatose body on life support, and especially the most extreme case of the Muselmann—are always diversified according to racist, gendered, and ethnic and historical distinctions, his conceptual analysis does not follow the implications of such diversification. Consider for instance Agamben’s brief comment about the difference between ethnic rape camps and Nazi camps: “If the Nazis never thought of effecting the Final Solution by making Jewish women pregnant, it is because the principle of birth that assured the inscription of life in the order of the nation-state was still—if in a profoundly transformed sense—in operation. This principle has now entered into a process of decay” (176). Needless to say, the sexually and racially marked difference between these two forms of sovereign violence—killing and rape—cannot be reduced to the principle of birth alone. Agamben refrains from any further explorations of rape as a sexual political violence because such an analysis would complicate his very concept of bare life, always defined as a life that can be killed, but not as life that can be raped or subjected to sexual violence.

    To show the necessity of supplementing Agamben’s conceptualization of bare life, I would like to consider briefly Aristotle’s and Orlando Patterson’s discussion of slavery, on the one hand, and the modern uses of the hunger strike, on the other. In terms of Agamben’s genealogy of bare life, slavery is an important case to consider because its ancient and modern, racialized forms represent instances of bare life co-extensive with both the Greek polis and modern democracy and yet irreducible to the category of either homo sacer or the camp. Let us begin the exploration of bare life and slavery with the text that is foundational to Agamben’s political theory—with Aristotle’s Politics. As soon as Aristotle introduces the crucial distinctions between zoe and bios, oikos (home) and polis, he is confronted with the localization and legitimation of enslaved life, which does not seem to fit easily into these distinctions. Thus, it is not only the case that, as Thomas Wall argues, in the Greek polis bare life “was abandoned to the home, the oikos” (39). There is also the more fundamental problem that Aristotle’s defense of slavery creates a conceptual aporia undermining his definition of slavery as an “animate instrument” belonging to the household. Implicated in the network of differences fundamental to the differentiation of the public space of the city—such as the differences between the body and the soul, the male and the female, the human and the animal, passion and reason—enslaved life, defined by Aristotle as property, does not have a “proper” place. In his apologia, Aristotle writes the following: “The soul rules the body with the authority of a master: reason rules the appetite with the authority of the a statesman… .The same principle is true of the relation of man to other animals… . Again, the relation of male to female is naturally that of the superior to the inferior… . We may thus conclude that all men who differ from others as much as the body differs from the soul, or an animal from a man … are by nature slaves” (Aristotle, 1254b, 16). As these multiple analogies show, the political subjection and exclusion of femininity and slavery is “like” the subjection of the body to reason and animality to humanity. Perhaps bearing witness to the threat of enslavement in war, this analogy potentially makes the body of each Greek citizen “like” the enslaved or inhuman body. And conversely the enslaved body blurs the distinction between the human and the animal, the household and the city. Because of its in-between position on the “threshold” (to use Agamben’s apt term), slavery in Aristotle’s text begins to haunt the Greek polis from within and from without, making the Greek citizen, prior to its modern counterpart, already “a two-faced being, the bearer of bodily” enslavement to reason and a political being among equals.

    Although subjected to the violence of the master rather than to sovereign banishment, enslaved life in Aristotle’s Politics, like the obscure figure of “homo sacer” in Roman law, blurs the boundaries between the inside and the outside of the political. It is Orlando Patterson’s influential study of slavery from antiquity to modernity that gives a full account of the liminality of the slave’s paradoxical position in the social order. In his seminal work Slavery and Social Death, Patterson argues that the enigma of slavery exceeds both the juridical and the economic categories of law, production, exchange, or property. What all these categories fail to explicate is both the “total” domination of the enslaved life and the liminality of slaves’ position. Like the indistinction, or the threshold, between the inside and outside marked by homo sacer, slave’s liminality (Patterson 42, 44) collapses both the political and the ontological differences between the human and the inhuman, monstrosity and normality, anomaly and norm, life and death, cosmos and chaos, being and “nonbeing.” In one of the most suggestive passages devoted to the interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon representation of slavery/servitude in Beowulf, Patterson writes: “It was precisely because he was marginal, neither human nor inhuman, neither man nor beast, neither dead nor alive, the enemy within who was neither member nor true alien, that the slave could lead Beowulf and his men across the deadly margin that separated the social order above from the terror and chaos of the underground” (48).

    What is then the relation between these two different expressions of subjugation and liminality represented, on the one hand, by homo sacer and, on the other hand, by enslaved life? The key link between bare life/sovereignty and the master/ slave dialectic is the substitutability of slavery for death: either for the death of the external enemy or the death of the internal “fallen” member of the community. According to Patterson, this substitution of enslavement for death is echoed in the “archetypal” meaning of slavery as social death (26). Such substitution of enslavement for death does not give pardon but, on the contrary, creates the anomaly of the socially dead but biologically alive and economically exploited being. Because the expropriation of the slave’s life constitutes him or her as a non-person, or a socially dead person, it produces another instance of bare life, violently stripped of genealogy, cultural memory, social distinction, name and native language, that is, of all the elements of Aristotle’s bios. Akin to the “secular excommunication,” slavery in all its different historical formations from antiquity to modernity was institutionalized as the extreme destruction of the socio-symbolic formation of subjectivity. This extreme mode of deracination and exclusion from symbolization, the polis, and kinship, reconstituted enslaved life as a nameless, invisible nonbeing—as pro nullo (40).

    The notion of slavery a substitute for death complicates Agamben’s central thesis that sovereign decision/bare life constitutes the foundational political paradigm in the West. Although the extreme delegitimation and the nullity of enslaved life makes it another instantiation of bare life, the very fact that such life undergoes substitutions of one form of destruction for another undermines from the start the centrality of just one paradigm of politics. In fact, as Hortense Spillers, Sadiya Hartman, and Alexander Weheliye in different ways argue, the institution of slavery as social death is not merely a historical phenomenon, but the continuous unfolding of suffering and dispossession that on the one hand, “engenders the black subject in the Americas” (Hartman 51) and on the other hand engenders a matrix of Western political modernity. According to Weheliye, “as opposed to being confined to a particular historical period, echoes of new world slavery rest in many contemporary spaces” (66). Second, slavery raises the question whether the destruction of the historically specific form of life is a ‘condition’ of exchangeability as such. As Patterson argues, the destruction of the political forms of life turned human beings into “the ideal human tool… perfectly flexible, unattached, and deracinated” (337). Because of its fungibility, such a “disposable,” “ultimate human tool” (7) is also a perfect commodity; and indeed, Patterson notes instances where slavery functioned as money. We can argue, therefore, that the violent production of social death functions as a hidden ground not only of politics but also of commodity exchange. Consequently, the substitution of social death for biological death indicates a possible transformation of the sovereign ban into ownership and exchange.

    The biopolitics of substitution inscribed in the power relations of slavery changes the character of both death and birth. Deprived of its finitude, the anomaly of social death denotes a spectral duration of non-being beyond the categories of absence and presence, potentiality and actuality. On the one hand, the spectrality of social death constitutes a permanent threat of anomaly and aberration; on the other hand, it is continually put to work in order to produce profit, and as such is the lynchpin of biopolitics and economics. This spectral character of social death, which continues to endure in the form of nonbeing, also destroys the principle of natality, understood in the most broad terms, not only as the biological birth, but also as the claims of genealogy, the principle of a new beginning (Arendt 7–11 ).

    What both slavery and homo sacer have in common is the production of bare life stripped of its historically specific form of life, yet what distinguishes them is the contrast between sovereign ban and the marginal inclusion of enslaved life. If the sovereign decision on the state of exception captures bare life in order to exclude it, the biopolitics of slavery is confronted with the profitable inclusion of the socially dead beings. Hence, Patterson argues that after the stage of violent depersonalization, the next stage of enslavement introduces “the slave into the community of his master, but it involves the paradox of introducing him as a nonbeing” (38). Since, unlike homo sacer, the socially dead being has to be included within and made profitable, this second stage of the biopolitics of slavery poses the dilemma of “liminal incorporation” (45). The paradox of liminal incorporation is the opposite of the sovereign ban, even though it creates similar effects of indistinction. In place of a sovereign decision on the state of exception, we have institutionalized containment within the law of a permanent anomaly, which confounds the differences between life and death, destruction and profit.

    The difference between the sovereign will and the slaveholder’s domination is most evident in the latter’s destructive dependence on enslaved bare life. Patterson stresses the reversal of the slaveholder’s absolute domination into parasitical dependence. In so doing, he rewrites the Hegelian master slave dialectic—which explains such dependence in terms of the desire for recognition—as “human parasitism.” In fact “the parasitism of slavery” supplements both Agamben’s and Hegel’s philosophies: what it adds to Agamben’s theory of sovereignty is the parasitical dependence of the absolute power; the novelty it introduces to the Hegelian struggle for recognition is the “biopolitics”of the body—the consumption of bare life by the exploiting parasitical master (Paterson 46, 336): “the dominator, in the process of dominating and making another individual dependent, also makes himself (the dominator) dependent… . On this intersubjective level the slaveholder fed on the slave to gain the very direct satisfactions of power over another” (336–337). As the other side of absolute mastery, the parasitical dependence of power on bare life is precisely what escapes both Agamben’s biopolitical paradigm of sovereign will and Hegel’s paradigm of recognition. Like a reversed figure of the vampire sucking the blood of the living, the parasitical side of absolute power suggests that perhaps sovereignty is one of the most powerful political fantasies, masking power’s dependence on bare life that is already dead and yet continues to threaten and provide satisfaction.

    The reversal of domination into parasitical dependence has another crucial consequence that is downplayed in Agamben’s theory of sovereignty: such dependence provides a new ground to theorize the possibility of resistance and emancipation. The emphasis on resistance, which negates a prior destruction of human forms of life and calls for the creation of new forms, culminates in Patterson’s claim that the most important political discovery of enslaved peoples is that of freedom: “The first men and women to struggle for freedom, the first to think of themselves as free… were freedmen. And without slavery there would have been no freedmen” (342). Although Patterson is deeply troubled by making enslavement even a contingent condition of freedom, nonetheless his insistence on the ongoing struggle for liberation by the dominated peoples points to another legacy of modernity Agamben sidesteps in his analysis: the legacy of revolutionary and emancipatory movements.

    Agamben is right that the praxis of liberation calls for an ontology of potentiality. Yet he never considers potentiality from the perspective of bare life—that is, from the perspective of the impossible—focusing instead on the often obliterated difference between potentiality and sovereign power. What makes it especially difficult for him to theorize emancipation in greater detail are the parallels he establishes all too quickly between potentiality, event, the excess of the constituting power and sovereign exception. Consider Agamben’s characteristic response to Antonio Negri, [6] who defends the political possibility of resistance and creative praxis. In his polemic, Agamben claims that there are in fact no grounds to distinguish between revolutionary praxis and sovereign exception:

    The problem of the difference between constituting power and sovereign power is, certainly, essential. Yet the fact that constituting power neither derives from the constituted order nor limits itself to instituting it—being, rather free praxis—still says nothing as to constituting power’s alterity with respect to sovereign power. (43)

    Perhaps Agamben does not see any criterion by which to distinguish transformative praxis from sovereign violence because he is primarily concerned with the topological excess of sovereign violence vis-à-vis the political order. As he admits, “the question ‘Where?’ is the essential one once neither the constituting power nor the sovereign can be situated wholly inside or altogether outside the constituted order” (Agamben 42). However, if we switch the terms of the analysis from “where” to “how”—that is, from Agamben’s topology to the most important Foucauldian lesson about techniques and modalities of power—then the difference between transformative praxis and sovereign violence becomes more apparent. Although both types of power exceed the constituted order, their mode of operation is different. The excess of sovereign power manifests itself as a suspension of the law, as the exclusion of bare life, as a state of exception that either confirms the norm, or, in extreme cases, collapses the distinction between the exception and the norm. The mode of operation of the transformative power, however, is not the decision on the exception but the negation of existing exclusions from the political followed by the unpredictable and open-ended process of creating new forms of collective life—a process that resembles in certain respects more an aesthetic experiment “without truth” (Agamben, 1999, 259) than an instrumental action.

    As I have suggested, another reason Agamben does not consider the practice of liberation in greater depth is that his ontology of potentiality is developed to undermine sovereign will and not to transform bare life into a site of contestation and political possibility. To theorize the notion of bare life as a contested terrain I would like to turn now to a different, far more recent, political case—the case of the hunger strike, in particular, the British suffragettes’ use of hunger strike in the struggle for women’s voting rights at the beginning of the twentieth century. The hunger strike reveals once again three interrelated aspects of bare life: first, its negative differentiation with respect to the politics of race and gender; second, its subjection to different forms of violence; and finally, its role in multiple emancipatory movements. Let me begin with the facts that tend to be all too easily taken for granted: at the turn of the 20th century, racialized and gendered subjectivities still occupied liminal positions in Western democracies, and as such were associated in the political imaginary with the inclusive exclusion of bare life. And yet these subjectivities were also the “bearers” and creators of a very different legacy of modernity—the legacy of multiple liberation movements. In this context, the hunger strike can be regarded as an invention of a new mode of political contestation, which mobilizes bare life for emancipatory struggle. Consequently, this case allows us to supplement Agamben’s analysis in a crucial way: the hunger strike not only reveals the hidden aporia of democracy—the aporia between the politicization of bare life as the object of biopower and political freedom guaranteed by human rights—but also shows how this aporia can enable revolutionary transformation.

    Although the history of the hunger strike is often obscure, it was practiced in ancient Rome, medieval Ireland, and India as means of protest, usually, to force a debtor to return his debt or to exert moral pressure. [7] After the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland, the hunger strike tactic was by adopted by the Irish struggle for independence (1917) [8] and, most famously, by Mohandas Ghandi (Sharp 637). Nonetheless, it was British militant suffragettes who in 1909 revived and redefined the hunger strike as the modern political weapon of an organized movement by linking it for the first time with the discourse of human rights.

    Although one of the most dramatic episodes in the struggle for women’s suffrage, [9] hunger striking and the political reprisals of forcible feeding are, like the hunger strike in general, still under-theorized means of democratic protest. In his study of nonviolent political action, Sharp classifies the hunger strike as a means of political intervention demanding a transformation of power relations and a redress for injustice (359). For Kyria Landzelius, the hunger strike is a “corporeal challenge” to “the discursive practices of power” (1999, 83). The hunger strike is both a protest and a demand for new freedoms, an appeal articulated through the double, sharply disjoined medium of publicly circulating letters and the starving body secluded in prison and barred from public appearance. The “violence” of hunger strike seems paradoxical: such violence, inflicted on the self as a substitute target for the political enemy, acts by refusing to act; it collapses clear distinctions between passivity and activity, actuality and potentiality, subjugation and resistance. On one hand, the hunger strike repeats, usurps and exposes in public the hidden irrational violence of the sovereign state against women’s bodies. On the other hand, by usurping the state’s power over bare life, “the non-act” of self-starvation negates women’s exclusion and calls for the transformation of the law. By usurping sovereign power over bare life, hunger striking women occupy both of these positions—the sovereign and homo sacer—at the same time; and this is what distinguishes their status from comatose patients and the inmates of concentration camps, that is, from all those beings who, in extreme destitution, are reduced to bare life alone. What is thus performed in the hunger strike is the collapse of the distinctions between sovereignty and bare life, will and passivity, potentiality and actuality, the struggle for freedom and the risk of self-annihilation. Maud Ellmann rightly calls such a performance a “gamble with mortality” (21). And as the word “gamble” implies, at stake here is a transformation of the central opposition between the sovereign decision and bare life into radical contingency in political life. Although not analyzed by Agamben, the emphasis on the collective political struggle over bare life is an important element, which defines the hunger strike as a weapon against the political enemy.

    Hunger strikers’ usurpation of the sovereign decision over mere life in the struggle for political rights negates their exclusion and suspends the current law, at least on the symbolic level. Yet this act does not constitute a state of exception, which, through the act of exclusion, establishes the normal frame of reference or, as in the case of fascism, turns exception into a new norm. Rather, suffrage militancy represents a revolutionary call for a new law yet to come. As Kyria Landzelius argues, the hunger strike stages a political trial of the existing law and political authority. In this “meta-juridical trial” (220), the private act of starvation reverses the guilty verdict imposed on the militant suffragettes into a public condemnation of the government. Thus, the hunger strike “perverts” juridical punishment into the means of interrogation of the law itself and the contestation of the Government’s authority. By reversing the roles of the defendants and the accusers, the drama of the hunger strike publicly condemns the government, delegitimates the authority of the existing law, and calls for its transformation. The hunger strike performs, therefore, a double chiasmatic transfer between bare life and the law, between the present and the future: On the one hand, it transforms the private act of starvation into a collective contestation of the existing law; on the other hand, it summons the as yet non-existent authority of the new law by risking the physical life of the body. In a catachrestic movement, this gamble with mortality anticipates what is unpredictable and beyond anticipation: a new law and a new form of life of female bodies. In so doing, it transforms impossibility into the “potentiality” of transformation. It is thus a very different passage from the one Agamben analyzes—not the passage from potentiality to actuality, but from impossibility to possibility.

    As a counter to the sovereign decision, hunger strikers “seize hold” of their bare life, wrestle it away from sovereign decision, and transform it into the site of the constitution of a new form of life yet to come. Suffragettes’ public redefinition of the female body so that it no longer bears the repressed signification of bare life and acquires instead a political form not only challenges the sovereign decision over bare life, but in so doing calls for a new mediation of life and form outside the parameters of that decision. At stake here is a new type of link between bare life and political form that would be generated from below, as it were, rather than imposed by a sovereign decision. As Thomas Wall argues, it is the absence of the relation between bare life and its politically qualified ways of life that calls for sovereign decision: “Bare life is nonrelational and thus invites decision. It is the very space of decision … and, as such, is perpetually au hasard” (39). By contesting sovereign decision on bare life, the new link between bare life and forms of living cannot be confused either with a dialectical reconciliation or a celebration of prepolitical life. At the end of Homo Sacer, Agamben only hints at what this new form of “mediation” supplanting sovereign decision might look like:

    This biopolitical body that is bare life must itself instead be transformed into the site for the constitution and installation of a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe … we give the name form-of-life to this being that is only its own bare existence and to this life that, being its own form, remains inseparable from it. (188)

    In this difficult passage Agamben only hints at what this new form of “mediation” supplanting sovereign decision might look like. It seems to me that a key point here is the interconnection and yet nonidentity between form and life, human and inhuman, [10] which makes their separation and unification equally impossible. Such a politicization, or the conflicting creation of form for bare life, takes us beyond the usual three alternatives that govern the discussion of the body in politics: the paradigm of biopolitics, the nostalgic return to the remains of the natural body, or the equally naive social construction of a new technological body.

    I hope that this essay makes abundantly clear that the notion of “bare life” can open new possibilities of interpretation of the biopolitics of race and gender for contemporary political philosophy, feminist thought, and critical race studies. Yet, as my discussion also shows, such reconsideration of “bare life” in the context of racial and sexual politics calls for some fundamental revisions of that concept. First of all, as we have seen, bare life cannot be regarded in a complete separation from all cultural/political characteristics. If bare life emerges as the remnant of a destroyed human form of life, then, according to Agamben’s own emphasis on its inclusive exclusion in the political, its formulation has to refer, in a negative way, to the racial/sexual/ethnic/class differences that used to characterize its form of life. In other words, bare life has to be defined as the remnant of a specific form of life that it not yet, or no longer, is. Furthermore, bare life cannot be always be considered as the exclusive referent of the sovereign decision, but has to be reconceptualized as a more complex, contested terrain where new forms of domination, dependence, and emancipatory struggle can emerge. By analyzing bare life as the target of sovereign violence, Agamben allows us to diagnose new forms of domination and political dangers in modernity. Although any praxis of freedom is dependent on such a diagnosis, such praxis at the same time exceeds the constituted forms of power and requires reflection on the often occluded role of bare life in another paradigm of democratic modernity—that of the revolutionary tradition. In the context of the revolutionary paradigm, the excess of bare life over the constituted forms of life not only does not authorize the sovereign decision on the state of exception but in fact marks openness to what is yet to come—a possibility of political transformation, a creation of new forms of life, an arrival of a more expansive conception of freedom and justice. In so doing, it transforms impossibility into contingency in political life.

    Works Cited

    • Agamben, Georgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books, 1999. Print.
    • ---. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.
    • Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd Edition. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1998. Print.
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    1. Catherine Mills is one of the very few Agamben interpreters to raise the question of sexuality and sexual embodiment, but in the context of Agamben’s theory of testimony rather than his theory of bare life (215–218). For the most extensive discussion of sexuality and bare life in the context of slavery, see Alexander Weheliye (65–81) and Ziarek (2008, 89–105) Diane Enns’ careful analysis of the ambiguities of the revolt of occupied bodies reduced to bare life is another crucial extension of Agamben’s work in colonial contexts. See also Andrew Benjamin, “Particularity and Exception: On Jews and Animals,” 71–88.return to text
    2. In Politics, Aristotle makes a famous distinction between mere life and a good life to define the function of polis: “while it comes into existence for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of a good life” (1252 b 27, 10)return to text
    3. Arendt follows the Aristotelian distinction between zoe and bios in a number of her texts, most notably in The Human Condition, where she identifies the political life not only with speech and action but most importantly with the condition of human plurality (7).return to text
    4. See Foucault’s discussion of “the empirical and the transcendental” in Order of Things, (318–321).return to text
    5. According to Laclau, the absence of the theory of resistance is intertwined with the lack of the theory of hegemony. Laclau argues that Agamben fails to distinguish between totalitarian and the democratic sovereignty emerging from the hegemony of democratic movements (9). For a different critique of the lack of attention to resistance in the context of the body and the contingency of political struggles, see Kalyvas, 112–113.return to text
    6. In response, Negri claims that “there are in fact two Agambens.” The first one undermines the creative ontology of potentiality that the second espouses (1–2). I am grateful to Diane Enns for this reference.return to text
    7. For a brief discussion of the history of the hunger strike, see Sharp (363–367).return to text
    8. Maud Ellmann argues that the Irish nationalists might have been inspired by suffrage, yet in order to conceal this debt, appealed to the medieval practice of fasting against debtors to compel them to repay a debt (11–12).return to text
    9. According to Jane Marcus, it is “perhaps the primary image in the public imagination regarding the ‘meaning’ of the suffrage movement” (2).return to text
    10. In the context of his discussion of the survivors’ testimonies in Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben defines such a link between the damaged life and the human as the aporetic task of witnessing to the inhuman. The ethics of such witnessing neither abandons nor assimilates it to the human. For my further discussion of the ethical structure of the survivors’ testimony in Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, see Ziarek (2003, 201–203).return to text