restricted access Bare Life and the Occupied Body
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Bare Life and the Occupied Body

In 1940 Walter Benjamin wrote: “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 is in keeping with this insight.”1 These words have lost none of their relevancy, according to Giorgio Agamben, who suggests that power no longer has any form of legitimization other than emergency. In fact, not only does power appeal to emergency but labors secretly to produce it. We have only to think here of the U.S. government’s post-9/11 warnings of the imminence of terrorist attacks, whether provoked by actual or fabricated threats, for the express purpose of maintaining public support for its foreign policies and goading other nations into a war on terror.

Agamben warns that we currently face the most extreme and dangerous developments of the paradigm of security in the name of a state of emergency. Rapidly imposing itself as the basic principle of state activity, security, he argues, is becoming the sole criterion of political legitimization while traditional tasks of the state surrender to a gradual neutralization of politics.2 Ironically, the more security reasoning is promoted, the more vulnerable we become. This is the ultimate risk. Security and terrorism have become a single deadly system in which they legitimate and justify each other’s actions. The risk is twofold according to Agamben: not only does the paradigm of security develop a “clandestine complicity of opponents” in which resistance and power are locked together in a mutually reinforcing relationship, but it also leads to “a worldwide civil war which destroys all civil coexistence.”3 This is the result of the dependency of security measures on maintaining a state of emergency.

Nearly three decades ago, Michel Foucault remarked that the question of power was raised anew around 1955, against the background of what he calls the “two gigantic shadows” created by the “black heritages” of fascism and Stalinism.4 Today, we must revisit the question again, under the new shadows that darken our world: these metamorphosed modalities of power and resistance that are escalating with frightening rapidity on a global scale. In the desperate cycle of state terror and insurrectionary terrorism that has gripped the world we need more than ever to understand power both in its repressive and resistant forms.

In the following reflections I wish to revisit Foucault’s ideas on power to highlight what I argue is a failure to adequately account for the power of resistance. I address this via an excursion into Agamben, who takes up Foucault’s question concerning power over natural life: a biopolitics in which living itself is at stake. Despite Foucault’s argument that resistance and power are inseparable — since one can never escape power relations — dominating power proves to be an intriguing exception. Collective revolutionary struggles appear to remain an enigma for him. The implications of this problematic will be drawn out with reference to the occupied body: the individual stripped of political and human rights, reduced to a bare existence, who sometimes turns to self-sacrifice in the name of revolt against the occupiers. In what sense can this body be said to be resisting power? In what sense complicit? What hope is there for resisting repressive regimes if the contemporary paradigms of security and terror recuperate into their violent vortex all modes of struggle?

The enigma of revolt

In March of 1968, two months before Parisian students and laborers would riot in the streets surrounding the Sorbonne, Foucault witnessed the revolts of their counterparts in Tunisia. He discusses this experience ten years later, asking the question: “[W]hat on earth is it that can set off in an individual the desire, the capacity, and the possibility of an absolute sacrifice without our being able to recognize or suspect the slightest ambition or desire for power and profit?”5 In comparing the two events Foucault expresses an attraction to the commitment of the Tunisians, but bitter disappointment with the “muttering of political speeches” in France. Beyond “all those cold, academic debates on Marxism” in Paris, he...