- Feminine 'I can':On Possibility and Praxis in Agamben's Work
At the end of Homo Sacer, Agamben suggests that the question of potentiality is intertwined with a (non-dialectical) mediation of bare life and political forms of living outside the parameters of the sovereign decision. In this essay I attempt to develop a new type of interaction between bare life and forms of life by examining Agamben's philosophy of potentiality in the context of his earlier writings on community and Irigaray's theories of sexual difference. Such a feminist interpretation of Agamben's work raises the question about the sexed and gendered character of community and potentiality itself. Although Agamben does not investigate this question directly, it is nonetheless implied in his work through the contrast between the two different figures of potentiality: Anna Akhmatova's "I can" and Bartelby's "I prefer not to." By focusing on the paradigm of potentiality routinely ignored in discussions of Agamben's work, namely, on the Russian poet's "I can," which opens his famous essay "On Potentiality,"1 I reflect on the intersubjective mode of potentiality, its relation to language, politics, and sexual difference.
Agamben's reframing of biopolitics in the context of bare life has provoked a significant debate about the status of bare life - is it a natural life, is it a life in the state of immediacy, or is it a politically mediated life?2 What is at stake in this debate is a shift in the understanding of power in biopolitics. In the wake of Foucault's work, biopolitics, both in its methodology and in the object of its meticulous historical analysis, has become synonymous with the specific micro operations of power, discipline, and normalization of bodies. By associating biopower with sovereignty, Agamben foregrounds instead the limit of normalization and confronts us with the exception of the damaged body stripped from its cultural signification, that is, with the abject body expelled from symbolic and political universe. Reworking Aristotle's distinction between biological existence (zoē) and the political life of speech and action (bios), Agamben's "bare life" refers to damaged life stripped of its political significance and exposed to violence, which does not count as crime. What is the status of this exception of damaged flesh stripped from its cultural and political signification, of the abject body expelled from the symbolic and political universe? As I have argued elsewhere, the political determination in the case of bare life does not mean the constitution or disciplinary regulation of the body, but rather what precedes and enables such regulation - the possibility of the severance of bare life from its forms-of-life.3 Consequently, the biopolitics of sovereignty, like the abstraction of the exchange value from any particularity of the object, time and labor, is based in the last instance on the possibility of separation of the naked disposable life from diverse socio-political forms/contexts/and modalities of living (bios). Bare life is included only as the excluded outside of politics and signification. Political determination in this case does not mean the constitution or disciplinary regulation of the body, but on the contrary, its extreme destitution - for instance, the comatose patient on life support - which marks the boundary of the inclusion/exclusion from the political.
At stake in the operation of sovereignty is the separation and destruction of a form of life, a destruction which reduces beings to bare life. This possibility of the expulsion of bare life is, therefore, the correlative of the sovereign decision on what constitutes embodied, viable forms of life and on what can no longer, or not yet, be considered as such forms. Implicated in other divisions structuring Western politics, anthropology, and even aesthetics - such divisions as the human and the inhuman, the human and the animal, the individual and the common, the particular and the universal, means and ends, will and taste - the severance between bare life and political forms also enables a retrospective recodification of the diverse forms of living as abstract juridical categories, as a voter, the population and so on.4
To provide an alternative to biopolitics, Agamben calls for a rethinking...