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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)

Book Review: Strip It Bare – Agamben’s Message For A More Hopeful World.

Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino). Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. (Tranlated by Kevin Attell). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Dr. Tony Simoes da Silva
(School of English, University of Exeter, United Kingdom).
 

            Giorgio Agamben is currently professor of aesthetics at the University of Verona, in Italy, but the Italian philosopher known for works such as Language and Death, Stanzas, and the Coming Community1 has previously taught and lectured at a number of institutions around the world. As the broad thematic foci of his works implies, moreover, Agamben is most at ease within interdisciplinary work. If you pardon the cliché, his concerns are with “LIFE,” all capitals, too. As the Translators’ note to Means Without End: Notes on Politics2 points out, Agamben’s work is “naked life” (la nuda vita), and more specifically the way the self slips in and out of contemporary power formations. In Means Without End Agamben writes that “power no longer has today any form of legitimation other than emergency, and because power everywhere and continuously refers and appeals to emergency as well as labouring secretly to produce it”.3 Drawing on a Foucauldian approach, the work is especially strong at the level of a genealogy it establishes for its methodological and conceptual framework. 

            In the essays that comprise Means Without End: Notes on Politics Agamben undertakes a “rethinking of categories of politics” that is nothing short of ambitious, and, as with so much of his writings, remarkable for its prescience. Some of the essays date from as early as 1990, yet they could not be more in tune with the political paranoia instituted post-September 11 2001. In work of uncanny analytical foresight, the essays treat some of the issues that have since come to dominate completely all political discourse, such as the use of concentration camps to seek to remove the social self beyond the reach of the very state laws whose breach is invoked as the reason for the creation of the camp, and of the politics of gesture that now epitomise political practice in the West.4 In this way, then, although I was puzzled by the silence over the conditions experienced by millions of people in Africa, South America and Asia, where concepts such state of exception have been almost ‘nationalised’, this comes across not as an oversight, intentional or otherwise. Rather, it may be read as a subtle nod to the obvious links between the political systems in such places and their “template condition,” the conceptual political paradigm he examines. 

            To this extent State of Exception actually builds on the earlier text, and reveals Agamben’s formidable powers in an analysis of politico-juridical frameworks that have allowed successive state governments to create and apply the necessary conditions for the existence of the phenomenon that is Guantanamo in the present moment. Astonishingly, as he shows so persuasively, the roots of such discursive strategies have a far more “respectable” genealogy than most criticism of the contemporary American administration would have us believe. Indeed, although he makes no such generalisations, it is not possible to read Agamben’s powerful analysis of the state of exception without seeking out the parallel with the treatment of otherness of European colonialism.5 States of exception are in this sense hardly anything new. What has changed, as Agamben proposes via Walter Benjamin is that it is precisely through their ability to persuade their citizens that these conditions are indispensable to the recovery of a golden age when the state of exception truly was the exception that governments such as those of the USA and the UK are able to perpetuate a growing erosion of public liberties.

            Significantly, moreover, and despite the obvious echoes between their thinking, Agamben is less interested in writing the kind of exuberant j’accuse of a Slavoj Zizek, or the modishly cutting-edge work of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in Empire and Multitude6 than in a patient attempt at understanding the way politics, self and power relate in the West. Agamben concludes most of the pieces I have read with some kind of exhortation, a call to arms that hails people into picking up where he, the intellectual, left off. Perhaps this is the shape “organic intellectualism” has in the 21st century, and a recognition of the way intellectual debates too have been hijacked by the extreme right; “the people,” not the intellectuals, will lead the revolution. All, however, are for the time being otherwise engaged. The call to action these works articulate is thus something between a manifesto and “a dreaming,” and I came to read him more in line with such a framework.

            The “dreaming” that I identify in Agamben is one that stems almost straight out of Benjamin’s work, most notably the ten theses on the history of philosophy. The Benjaminian words he cites early in Means Without End, are in a very real sense the guiding principle in both this text and in State of Exception: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that this in keeping with this insight”.7 Agamben then remarks: “Benjamin’s diagnosis, which is by now more than fifty years old, has lost none of its relevance”.8 His point is plain: with politicians in the most influential Western democracies behaving increasingly rather like the tin pot dictators whom they purport to oppose, political discourse has been hijacked by those it put in power. Curiously, although Noam Chomsky’s name does not even make it into the Index of either work, it is hard not to read Means Without End without relating it to the earlier writing on democracy in Manufacturing Consent, or the more recent Hegemony or Survival.9

            It is the Benjaminian echo that most closely informs the work, though; in one of the most provocative essays in Means Without End Agamben draws on the figure of the refugee to examine a range of concerns with the nation, nationalism and the right of asylum. As with State of Exception, with its rigorous and thorough examination of the Benjaminian thesis quoted earlier, there can hardly be a more relevant issue at present, wherever we may choose to settle our eyes. Ironically the essay also illustrates the difficulty in discussing issues such as these without immediately getting caught up in the vocabulary of mass hysteria that produces them. Writing in a reference to the debates on migration and nationalism in Western Europe of the “estimated twenty immigrants from Central Europe”10 who will in the near future find their way into the European Union, Agamben unconsciously draws on the very rhetoric adopted by extreme right and conservative parties throughout Europe.

            That, of course, is not his position, as the analysis he develops of the refugee as a political concept in contemporary Western discourse shows, and the solution he proposes for the crisis of belonging fuelled by the mass movements of people across Europe confirms. Deconstructing accepted notions of “resident” and “citizen” status as inextricable from birthright, he imagines instead a fluid relationship between self and place, subject and object; states of belonging become contingent. The example he chooses, that of a Jerusalem faced with the conflicting demands and impositions of two separate ethnic groups, Jews and Palestinians, leads Agamben to speak of imagining “two political communities insisting on the same region and in a condition of exodus from each other – communities that would articulate each other via a series of reciprocal extraterritorialities in which the guiding concept would no longer be the ius (right) of the citizen but rather the refugium (refuge) of the singular”.11

            This paradigm, which as noted is developed with reference to the place, and indeed function of Jerusalem as “the capital of two different states”,12 is then transposed to the space of contemporary Europe. As he puts it:

In an analogous way, we could conceive of Europe not as an impossible ‘Europe of the nations’, whose catastrophe one can already foresee in the short run, but rather as an aterritorial or extraterritorial space in which all the (citizen or non-citizen) residents of the European states would be in a position of exodus or refuge; the status of the European would then mean the being-in-exodus of the citizen (a condition that obviously could also be one of immobility”.13

Sage words indeed, but I wonder if the desire of dreaming the dream of a better tomorrow clouds Agamben’s view somewhat. As a multinational resident of the UK who also has the rights of citizen in Australia, South Africa and any country within the EU, this seems to me pretty much the way I live my condition of self-styled exile or refugee. That is pretty much the case for Agamben himself; even if he were entitled to reside nowhere else but within the EU, he would be in a comfortable position; but as a world-renowned scholar he is actually free to travel very much as he pleases. In other words, the model he offers is ideally suited to his position, and mine; in its sheer flexibility I can think of few more apt attempts at making sense of the condition of cross-cultural postmodernity that takes the nation as always already the multination. But that’s long been known to McDonalds, Starbucks and Ikea.

            Yet, how useful is it when we place ourselves in the shoes – yes, a worn and tired metaphor – of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants? At the risk of engaging in a rather crude trade in degrees of suffering and oppression, I think that their angst-ridden existences pale in comparison to those of most contemporary Palestinians. For even in European states where the political far right has made some ground towards controlling the inward flow of peoples and expelling those it deems undesirable, it has not erased hope. In marked contrast, one need not be too melodramatic to suggest that this is hardly the case in the Occupied Territories. Agamben concludes the essay thus: “Only in a world in which the spaces of states have been thus perforated and topologically deformed and in which the citizen has been able to recognise the refugee that he or she is – only in such a world is the political survival of humankind today thinkable”.14 These are commendable sentiments; it is hard not to wish to dream this dream, or, as the Japanese allegedly voice it, to see this dream. Yet, I could not help recalling the soppy words of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams: “It’s too bad that all these things, can only happen in my dreams – Only in dreams in beautiful dreams”.15

            The presumption Agamben draws on here – that the nation as a political concept is redundant, let us do away with it – I am at home in Prague as in Paris, in Vienna as in Vilnius, in Lisbon as in London – is not a new one; but even more so it is one that I think few Palestinians would be likely to take up. When he writes that “[i]n this new space, European cities would rediscover their ancient vocation as cities of the world by entering into a relation of reciprocal extraterritoriality”,16  one is reminded that these cities have always functioned in these exact terms, whatever qualifications we may wish to apply. Some, such as London and Lisbon, because of their place at the centre vast and powerful colonial empires; others by virtue of their place as centres of forms of knowing that were at the heart of the epistemological project we know as the Enlightenment, and without wanting to be reductive, of its undeniable function at the heart of the mission civilisatrice.

            Other essays are less problematic, and it is impossible not to be dazzled by Agamben’s ability to see into the future, something that so many of his essays illustrate. “What’s a Camp?” (1994) again epitomises this prophetic quality with disturbing insight; in the context of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Bellmarsh and Woomera, “the camp intended as a dislocating localization is the hidden matrix of the politics in which we still live, and we must learn to recognise it in all its metamorphoses”.17 Tracing its history to the Spanish-dominated Cuba of 1896 and the Anglo-Boer War, Agamben shows why the camp has become such a crucial political category, and insists that we understand its function as the pre-eminent political categories in the exercise of power today. Once upon a time a place of exclusion only minimally adopted, “The camp, which is now fairly settled inside [the modern city], is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet”.18 Here as in all of his other essays, Agamben shows how a careful understanding of past political structures neatly proves the point that those who do not understand history are bound to repeat its mistakes.

            These ideas are then taken up in “Marginal Notes on the Society of the Spectacle”,19 an essay that explores the work of the iconoclastic author of what remains perhaps one of the most provocative analyses of contemporary capitalism, Guy Debord. While Agamben does not say it, Debord’s work anticipates that of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt by a period of decades.20 As he notes, Debord’s “books constitute the clearest and most serene analysis of the mysteries and slavery of a society that by now has extended its dominion over the whole planet – that is to say, the society of the spectacle in which we live”.21 The obvious link to the changing nature of the gesture shows how most of these essays cohere to provide a full and subtle insight into Agamben’s philosophical thought. Of Debord, he concludes: “Probably the most disquieting aspect of Debord’s books is the fact that history seems to have committed itself to relentlessly confirm their analysis”.22 For Agamben, the increasing growth in the re-enactment of the perceived real – a represencing of absence that in the case he uses to illustrate his argument involves the exhumation and (re)torture of (dead) bodies for the television cameras, in Timisoara, Romania, but which most of us experience at the level of Reality TV. In an eerie realisation of the prophecies he repeatedly finds in history, life, both in its “bare” and in its “dressed” forms, consists then of the performance of performance. In this process the horror of the massacres at Timisoara becomes the “HORROR” of tabloid headlines or infotainment. Death, too, has to be died again and again if it is to be real. For Agamben, “Timisoara is, in this sense, the Auschwitz of the age of the spectacle: and in the same way in which it has been said that after Auschwitz it is impossible to write and think as before, it will be no longer possible to watch television in the same way”.23

            How can one disagree? And yet, why it is that only when life (or death, in this case) takes place somewhere in Europe, no matter how obscure its location, does it impact on the way we consume it? In the context of Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Haiti, Myanmar, Uzbekistan (where do we stop…?), and to stick with Agamben’s focus on the language of the society of the spectacle, the world outside of Europe and the new natural centre of the Universe, the USA, rarely if ever provides the kind of blockbuster production that Agamben has in mind here. In this sense, if you forgive the repetition, he proves through practice the very thesis he expounds on language and meaning in the contemporary – that it “no longer reveals anything at all – or better yet, it reveals the nothingness of all things”.24 Faced with the contemporary political theatre of the USA and the way it uses the world as its playground, perhaps Agamben need only focus on what is closest to him. After all, as he writes: “Contemporary politics is precisely this devastating experimentum linguae that disarticulates and empties, all over the planet, traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities”.25 

            Much of what Means Without End rehearses with such intensity is taken up in State of Exception. Interestingly, while the first work took five years to appear in English, the translation of State of Exception appeared two years after the Italian original. While the vagaries of book publishing are much too dense to be summarised in a sentence, I wonder to what extent this reflects both a growing popularity of Agamben’s work and the increasing topicality of his work in a world now under the spell of “9/11.” Be that as it may, State of Exception is an impressive and disquieting meditation on the state of the democratic institutions by which political power is organised in the West. Written in a simple and lucid language, this is an erudite, meticulous and precise examination of the long and complex history of the ideological framework underpinning the present obsession with the state of exception as the “new form-of-state” as it obtains at least in the USA and UK. In his words, the book undertakes:

An examination of how the state of exception is situated in the legal traditions of the Western states reveals a division between …orders that regulate the state of exception in the text of the constitution or by a law and those that prefer not to regulate the problem explicitly.26

 

            Agamben then takes the reader through the genealogy of “the state of exception”, noting that “in Western states it not only appears increasingly as a technique of government rather than an exceptional measure, but it also lets its own nature as the constitutive paradigm of the juridical order come to light”.27 In this terrified new world, “protected democracy [has become] the norm”.28 The irony, of course, is that it is precisely in the dark and convoluted sphere of Western juridical discourses that some of the present and recent dictators of Africa, Asia and South America have learned their craft. “State of exception,” with its seemingly limitless elasticity, seems almost perversely designed for the very exercise of power as it obtains at present in most parts of the globe. There is considerable irony in this return of the repressed, as it were, insofar as the political processes Agamben identifies here are the very sort once exported by Europe to Algeria, to Cape Verde or Madagascar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this work is that Agamben demonstrates that, pace those for whom the incumbent American president represents the epitome of the state of exception, it is in effect working within a long and well established juridico-political tradition of abuses of power.

            By avoiding the sanctimonious tone adopted by European coffee society when dealing with America, Agamben leaves open a position in which his work constitutes a genuine intervention in the re-evaluation of the exercise of power in the present moment. Rather than engaging in the demonization of the present US administration that is de rigueur in the work of other philosophers and political theorists for whom the issue of biopolitics contains the secret for a better tomorrow, Agamben seeks to explain where it draws its inspiration. And the truth, when it comes out, ain’t nice at all. Here too he owes a debt to Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt, but most of all to German jurist Carl Schmitt.29 To the latter’s bleaker outlook on life and politics the book owes what I think is a much more balanced tone than that found in the earlier essays. Although an optimist by temperament, Agamben concludes State of Exception with the kind of political move typical of Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophies. As he puts it:

Life and law, anomie and nomos, auctiritas and potestas, result from the fracture of something to which we have no other access than through the fiction of their articulation and the patient work that, by unmasking this fiction, separates what it had claimed to unite. But disenchantment does not restore the enchanted thing to its original state: According to the principle that purity never lies at the origin, disenchantment gives it only the possibility of reaching a new condition.30

 

And at the conclusion of “The Face” he writes: “Be your only face. Go to the threshold. Do not remain the subject of your properties of faculties, do not stay beneath them: rather, go with them, in them, beyond them.”31

            It is not always easy to reconcile this kind of injunction, with its biblical overtones (“Go forth and multiply!”) and more than a hint of Kahlil Gibran’s messianic tone with the text’s insistence on the hegemonic nature of a form-of-state, and of the political formations it examines; but perhaps like Foucault he is less interested in offering solutions than in exposing the bankruptcy of political power and morality in the West. Besides, in common with so many other political theorists and philosophers, for Agamben too the West remains the centre of the world, and the teleological “end of history” he presents in the last essay of Means Without End, “In This Exile (Italian Diary, 1992 – 1994)” is typical of this view.

Every people has had its particular way of going bankrupt, and certainly it does make a difference that for the Germans it meant Hitler and Auschwitz, for the Spanish it meant a civil war, for the French it meant Vichy, for other people, instead, it meant the quiet and atrocious 1950s, and for the Serbs it meant the rapes of Omarska; in the end, what is crucial for us is only the new task that such a failure has bequeathed us.32

For Agamben, a rigorous examination of the machinery of power – in this text the political concepts through which power is organised – will hopefully serve as a call to arms to his readers to take up the challenge and rescue the state and its power back to “the people” (a rather messy term, as one of the essay attests to). Alas, perhaps too that caught up among the dense fumes of over-polluted Europe, or the deafening postmodernity of the American experience he seems to have thought it best to leave slavery, colonialism and racism to others he may deem better equipped for the task.


Endnotes

1 See Giorgio Agamben: Language and Death (1991);  Stanzas (1992); and The Coming Community (1993). All published by University of Minnesota Press.

2 Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino). Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

3 Ibid.:6 

4 I am conscious that reference to “the West” here risks coming across as genuflecting of a kind, insofar as it implies that politics elsewhere – “outside the political West” – are not in quite the same state of crisis. That is not my intention; quite the opposite – looking out to the Middle East, to Africa and Asia, there is no shortage of examples of the kind of empty, gestural politics Agamben identifies, and almost always with far graver consequences than the theatricalisation of the political space that we witness in the USA, in the UK, in Russia, Italy, etc.. The same applies to the use of concentration camps as a way of containing through exclusion.

5 As is the case in societies such as the USA (Afro-Americans and Native Indians), Australia (Aborigines) and New Zealand (Maoris), where the desire to control the political power of indigenous minorities has provided the imaginative catalyst for some of the most absurd legal systems in the West.

6 See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2001; and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Multitude. New York: Penguin, 2004.

7 Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. (Tranlated by Kevin Attell). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005:6.

8 Ibid.

9 See Noam Chomsky. Hegemony or Survival. New York: Holt, 2003; and Noam Chomsky. The Manufacture of Consent. New York: Pantheon, 2002.

10 Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino). Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001:23.

11 Ibid.:24.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.:24-25.

14 Ibid.:26.

15 Roy Orbison.  “In Dreams” Audio CD: Black and White Nights. Orbison Records. ASIN: B00003TL18 (February 3, 1998).

16 Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino). Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001:25. 

17 Ibid.:44. These are perhaps among the best-known camps in set up by Western nations to deal with the perceived threat of unchecked migration and terrorism. From Guantanamo, set up by the USA on territory juridically outside national American space, to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Belmarsh in the United Kingdom and Woomera in Australia, they all share in common Agamben’s view that such spaces constitute the last – the latest? – manifestation of a bare or naked life. Here, Agamben would propose, the self is wholly alone, outside of and yet not beyond all-powerful political and legal discourse. The irony, of course, and that is the essence of his argument, is that it is in the very act of safe guarding the state and the subject that the camp becomes conclusive proof that the state has become the state of exception par excellence. 

18 Ibid.:45.

19 Ibid.:73.

20 See endnote 6.

21 Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino). Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001:74.

22 Ibid.:80.

23 Ibid.:82.

24 Ibid.:84.

25 Ibid.:85.

26 Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. (Tranlated by Kevin Attell). Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press, 2005:9.

27 Ibid.:6-7.

28 Ibid.:16.

29 Ibid.:33, 37.

30 Ibid.:88.

31 Ibid.:100.

32 Ibid.:142.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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