Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bare life isn't animal life

I almost feel like I post on Agamben, and Agambenian themes, too much. Oh well.

Bare life is not animal life. I don't mean that Agamben feels this is true, I am unsure in my readings of him on this stance on this issue (my guess is that he will agree with that statement). Many commentators have assumed that bare life is the same thing as bare life. I can understand the confusion. Bios is opposed to zoe, and zoe is often understood as animal life. Furthermore, what does a human have left after all the things that makes that being a human have been stripped from them? One might thing the answer to that is simply its animality. Indeed, there seems to be a confusion here between the animal and the biological. That confusion needs to be resisted.

Let us take the paradigmatic example of bare life in Agamben, the musselman. By all descriptions, the musselman barely reacts when attacked, has little understanding of the world around him/herself, stumbles around like the living dead. Animals don't act that way. They react when attacked, they experience pleasures and joy, they have complex social interactions, in short, animals have a whole series of capacities that make them who they are outside of a mere, biological existence. Animal life is not bare life, unless it is made into bare life. Take the example of tail docking. Pigs in factory farms are lined up in rows, with no room to move side to side or turn around. The pigs become so stressed they start suckling and biting the tails of the pigs in front of them. Normally, the pigs would fight off the biting pig, but they have become so depressed in a factory farm they don't fight off the other pig. Infections are common, so the factory farm has started cutting off part of the tails of pigs, so the pain is so much it produces responses from the pig. This is just one of countless examples by which animal life is reduced to bare life. But, for us to understand that, we have to first realize that animal life is not the same thing as bare life.