I frequently want to write reviews of the books I have read on my blog, but almost never do. This post began as a much overdue review of Reviel Netz's book Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. This is simply the best book I've read in a long time (and like most of you, I read a lot of books in a short time). But as I read the book, and as I was trying to think how to review the book, I kept asking the same question: Why isn't this what Agamben wrote instead of Homo Sacer? Answering this question is fairly short, when I figured it out, but framing the question is slightly longer.
Netz's book (which I have to thank my brother for suggesting) is without a doubt a labor of love. He is a historian, trained in the classics, who writes about Archimedes. I don't think Archimedes was mentioned once in Barbed Wire. Barbed Wire's form is fairly simple, in a way. It is designed to give us a history (one might say a non-anthropocentric materialist genealogy, but Netz certainly would never say a phrase like that!) of barbed wire through its major historical usages: the American midwest, military applications during WWI, and the concentration camp. In this form, it resembles Olivier Razac's much shorter, Barbed Wire: A Political History. More overly, the book is concerned with a typology of control. Anything that moves is an actor in Netz's history, and anything that causes friction, changes motion, or stops motion is also an actor. This is, in short, what Netz refers to as ecology. This is what allows Netz to say that "Marxism was lacking not merely in the understanding of agriculture but in the understanding of ecology and therefore of history itself" (p. 180). Netz obviously means something strange both by the term ecology (usually not understand as history) and history (usually not understood as ecology). Netz work demands this thought of ecology and history together.
Netz's history of barbed wire is therefore firmly non-anthropocentric, being as concerned as about animals as about humans. And his understanding of interactions taking into account the possibility of interactions completely outside of the human sphere. It is also an amazing genealogy of the concentration camp (the camp being the not just the end of the book, but the fulfillment of the argument of the book). In exploring the camp Netz spends time looking at the materials used to make camps, the colonial history of the camp, the history of the prisoner of war camp and the 'enemy civilian' camp, the Gulag. The interactions of things like railroads, barbed wire fencing, machine guns, tractors and tanks, and more. Several diagrams of various Nazi death camps and gulags and early american midwest farms were supplied. And though Netz never mentions Agamben (and quite possibly might not have read Homo Sacer), in some ways his book is proving the argument that in modernity the camp is the nomos of the earth. Nomos here means something quite closer to what Schmitt means by the term then how it was ever deployed by Agamben: nomos as the concrete spatial organization of society. In Netz, we have a material understanding of how "[i]n the premodern world, control reached to points and to lines connecting them; there simply was not enough prevention of motion to go around to cover an entire plane and bring it all under control. In the modern world, this changed, and the typology was inverted: control reached everywhere, and only isolated points were left for motion, that is, not controlled from a center" (pp. 229-230, italics in original). In Agamben, we are given nothing like this. In reading Homo Sacer one would almost feel as if the Lager appeared out of nowhere (or if appeared out of anywhere, out of Roman jurisprudence and Greek etymologies). How, in Agamben, can the Lager both the most important and central reality of the present global catastrophe and at the same time have the reality of the Lager almost never talked about? This is what I meant by my question earlier, that started this post.
This post, in many ways inverts the popular criticism against Agamben's treatment of the camp. In you have read Durantaye's excellent book Giorgio Agamben (another book I have been meaning to write a review of) then you are well aware that the common criticism is that Agamben abstracts from the camp too much. He doesn't spend enough time following the specific lives of those in the camp. The camp is treated, in Agamben's terminology, as a paradigm (like the panopticon in a paradigm for Foucault). This leads Durantaye's claim that the English translation of Homo Sacer has the perfect cover, a diagram of Auschwitz. I would disagree, because a diagram of Auschwitz matters not at all for Agamben. It is not that a history of the Lager is never done, but rather that the history remains an intellectual history. It remains a history of law, theology, and philosophy. Agamben is concerned, not with a Schmittian notion of nomos as spatial organization, but with the camp as a paradigm of the legal and ontological present moment.