Monday, June 16, 2008

On Agamben's The Open and biopolitics

This wasn't a formal essay, but some notes for myself, so I didn't cite as I should have. There are a few quotations from Agamben not turned into real quotations, and I depended heavily on Matthew Calarco's essay "Jamming the Anthropological Machine" (thanks to Spurlock for being the first one to point this essay out to me). Anyway, here is the collection of thoughts.

I’ve given a lot of thought as to how to present The Open. I’ll begin with some background, then move to the middle of The Open, use the middle to bring in the first part of The Open, and then move on to the second part and the conclusion after that. (There really aren’t any “parts” per se, these are sort of random distinctions made by my readings).

The Background:
Let’s randomly, again, sort of divide up Agamben’s works as pre-homo sacer , homo sacer/Remnants of Aushwitz, and The Open and State of Exception. Again, this division only makes sense if you are trying to chart a particular thought in Agamben (like his notion of life), if you were trying to map other concepts of Agamben different groupings would make sense.
In the pre-homo sacer group (including Infancy and History, The Idea of Prose, Language and Death, and “Potentiality”) Agamben seemed very invested in both trying to de-struckt the metaphysics of humanism while at the same time entailing a stronger anthropological divide. Take for example the distinction between human in-fancy and animal codes, the relationship of language and death as creating a non-essentialist finitude that still essentially defines the human (specifically in contrast with animals), etc.
The homo sacer series marks a very different move for Agamben. What is of interest here for Agamben is the state’s ability to divide up bare life from political life, to cut the zoe out of bios. In general, to enter a field of inclusive exclusion that allows us to treat some humans as non-humans. To include some humans into a political operation (like the creation of the camps) while at the same time excluding from any claim to a political life, leaving them with nothing but bare life/zoe. This operation of inclusive exclusion at the level of life is what Agamben will term the biopolitical (of course this term, from Foucault, is used in a very different way than Foucault used the term). The other operation of inclusive exclusion in which the law is suspended in order to create the law, Agamben will term sovereign. Perhaps in this way we can view his books The Open (published in the Italian in 2002) and State of Exception (published in the Italian in 2003) as the extensions of the ideas of biopower and sovereign power, respectively, originally found in homo sacer. But this sort of leaves a question, is the model/method of sovereign power is the state of exception, what is the model/method of biopower?

(One last aside, I use The Open as a provisional answer to this work. Agamben has promised to add to the Homo Sacer series a book on biopolitics/ Forms of Life, which still has not been written).

The Middle, The Beginning, and the Conclusion.

Agamben introduces in the middle of The Open a concept of the anthropological machine. The anthropological machine refers to various scientific, ontological, and political considerations about creating a fundamental caesurae between the human and the animal. This machine has both a modern/post-darwinian manifestation, and also a pre-modern/pre-darwinian manifestation. The modern anthropological machine is concerned with demarcating exactly what is human by animalizing certain parts of human life in order to declare those parts of human life that cannot be animalized as the definition of the human. Leading up to this understanding of the modern anthropological machine Agamben goes through various sections on arguments between Bataille and Kojeve, paleontology, and Linnaeus’ efforts at taxonomy (a word that Agamben doesn’t really get into, but whose etymology is the nomos of the taxis [arrangement]. As they say, you can escape everything but death and taxis). The pre-modern form of the anthropological machine is the inverse of the modern form of the anthropological machine. The pre-modern form (from Aristotle on) in which forms of animal life are humanized. Thus we see discourses of the infant savage, the werewolf (a figure we saw more of in Homo Sacer), the barbarian/slave, women, etc. Regardless of we are talking about the modern or pre-modern form, the anthropological machine has similar political effects: It generates the ability to create a non-human human. A monstrosity that we are allowed to do anything to. Agamben suggests that:
“. . . it is enough to move our field of research ahead a few decades, and instead of this innocuous paleontological find we will have the Jew, that is, the non-man produced within the man, or the nĂ©omort and the overcomatose person, that is, the animal separated within the human body itself.” (p. 37)
The second half of The Open has to do with a long reading of Heidegger’s understanding of the separation between the human and the animal. Most of this concentrates on Heidegger’s Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics. In short, Agamben traces Heidegger’s arguments about the animal as being poor in the world (and again, Agamben manages to both bring up the constant relations of the words Heidegger uses as being rooted in nehmen, but doesn’t then explore this connection to nomos. Weird miss again on the part of Agamben), and the human being world making. The human’s ability to be world-making has to do with the human’s ability to have access to the open. What is the open? In Agamben’s reading, we are all captivated by the world (both the animal and the human). However, humans have access to a profound boredom, which is the moment before captivation where we are able to know we are being captivated, this allows us (humans) the ability to therefore possible break from captivation, to apprehend the world as such. Profound boredom is, in Agamben’s reading, the Stimmung of Da-sein.
This reading still sets up a humanism, and therefore Agamben, as a conclusion, turns to another philosopher to think of a better relationship between the human and the animal. (I’ll give you exactly one guess to figure out who that other philosopher is).
In the conclusion Agamben becomes fascinated by two concepts of Benjamin: that of the “saved night” and “dialectic at a standstill.” The saved night refers to an understanding of the world, and all its inhabitants as fundamentally unsaveable, or irreparable in the language of Agamben. That is to say, that we therefore do not need a politics to change, shape, and control the world around us. This irreparability means that we can have a dialectic at a standstill. There are still distinctions between the human and the animal, but no longer a machine to create these differences and enforce them. That we can have a being outside of being, a suspension of suspension, a Shabbat of both animals and man, which will allow to simply leave animals alone.

This conclusion is vintage Agamben (including finding the limit of Heidegger's thought, and then parachuting Benjamin in at the end to set things right). Agamben describes the genealogy of a particular metaphysical machine (these machines are frequent in Agamben's Homo Sacer and beyond writings. A post should be given to finding and defining the machines in Agamben), it's function (all machines function is the same basic way, too, through a production of inclusive exclusions or exclusive inclusions), and then the solution is to render the working of the machine inoperative (though the word is strangely misspelled in both the English and Italian).