- Intimacies of Exile. A review of Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies
At the close of The Use of Bodies, Giorgio Agamben describes a peculiar mode of thinking that is less concerned with any fixed outcome, goal, or particular purpose than it is with the purely formal dimension of its ponderings: a hiatus that thinking installs in the normal operation of the everyday, a fragmentation of the actual through which something (necessarily vague, shimmering at the threshold of possibility) might emerge. At stake in the style of such thought is not only the cogency and coherence of Agamben's massively influential Homo Sacer series, which The Use of Bodies attempts to conclude in a complex intertextual manner. Such a dimension of thinking also plays a pivotal role throughout Agamben's varied attempts to reanimate the potentialities of philosophy, politics, ethics, language, the body, nature, art, and love. After all, "Politics and art," as Agamben avers, "are not tasks nor simply 'works': rather, they name the dimension in which works . . . are deactivated and contemplated as such in order to liberate the inoperativity that has remained imprisoned in them" (278). But what does such contemplative deactivation look like, in what ways has "inoperativity" been fettered in the past, and how might this work of thinking ultimately free it from its chains? These are some of the most important questions that drive both the form and the content of The Use of Bodies.
Before we look at the movement of Agamben's thought across the three sections of his book, it might be helpful to return—as the author does on several occasions—to the central claim of the work that inaugurated his Homo Sacer series. Here we learned that the history of Western philosophy is rooted in a particular form of relation between two new dimensions of life, zoè and bios, that define for Aristotle in De anima the sphere of politics (196). In the same way that, in The Open, Agamben explores the movement of an "anthropological machine" that obsessively polices the threshold between animal life and its properly human form, we might say that politics in Homo Sacer names the machine that governs the relation between the mere, natural fact of living (zoè) and the particular, political form of life (bios) (29). This form of life can exist only insofar as it is distinguished from bare life; but at issue here is not simply a matter of formal classification and demarcation: what is peculiar and new (even modern) is the way that these two terms relate to each other. Instead of a simple, binary opposition between zoè and bios, Agamben argues that Aristotle relates these conceptual couples in the manner of what he (following Jean-Luc Nancy) calls the "ban." More akin to a state of exception than to utter indifference or unbridled otherness, "the relation of exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside" (28-29). Homo Sacer shows how this paradoxical form of sovereignty has continued to pattern our political destiny in the West, and most famously dwells on the ways in which of the "ban" is transformed by more recent, biopolitical accelerations, where the abandoned homo sacer no longer dwells along the exceptional outskirts of the polis but is instead included among its population. As such, Agamben's assessment of modern forms of community and politics mirrors the nomos of the concentration camp. Put more formally, then, the "ban is the simple positing of relation with the nonrelational" (29).
If Homo Sacer offers a genealogy of the ban and shows how it has foreclosed the potential for properly political forms of mobilization and resistance, in The Use of Bodies Agamben offers readers something that his originary text could only gesture toward: a critique...