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  • The Political Subjection of Bigger ThomasThe Gaze, Biopolitics, and The Court of Law in Richard Wright’s Native Son
  • Jack Taylor (bio)

Bare life is no longer confined to a particular place or a definite category. It now dwells in the biological body of every living being.

—Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

The camp as dislocating localization is the hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living, and it is thestructurefor the camp thatwemust learn to recognize in all its metamorphoses into the zone d’attentesofourairportsandcertainoutskirtsofourcities.

—Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights.

—Bigger’s attorney Max, Native Son [End Page 183]

In Black Boy Richard Wright retells a story of how an African American woman killed four white men from the lynch mob that killed her husband. The story taught Richard Wright the most crucial lesson he could learn as a black youth in the south: “I did not know if the story was factually true or not but it was emotionally true because I had already grown to feel that there existed men against whom I was powerless, men who could violate my life at will” (2006, 73).1 Wright’s acknowledgment that his life could be violated and taken at any moment explicitly aligns his understanding of the political conditions of blacks in the Jim Crow south with Giorgio Agamben’s formulation of sovereignty and the law in his analysis of homo sacer as Wright claims blacks are subjects without political rights who can be killed with impunity. Later in his narrative Wright would express this in language strikingly similar to the terms utilized by Agamben. Wright states, “I had now seen at close quarters the haughty white men who made the laws; I had seen how they acted, how they regarded black people, how they regarded me; and I no longer felt bound by the laws which white and black were supposed to obey in common. I was outside those laws; the white people had told me so” (2006, 200–201).2 According to Wright, blacks occupy a space outside of formal law. Wright’s declaration that he was outside of the law is an unambiguous alignment of Agamben’s notion of the exclusionary inclusion that provides the ontological ground for his political philosophy. For Agamben “the original political relation is the ban” (1998, 181). Wright evokes a similar political position when he argues he, and by extension blacks, are included in the political order precisely by being excluded, that is, by being outside of the law. Later in his autobiography his language and perspective hardens and leads him “to the conclusion it [the life of an illiterate black girl he knew] meant absolutely nothing. And neither did my life mean anything” (2006, 290).

The language Wright employs is remarkably similar to the language Agamben would later resort to in his formulation of the “Logic of Sovereignty” in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, invested as it is with the idea of the exclusionary inclusion. Agamben argues, “The fundamental categorical pair of Western politics is not that of the friend/enemy [Carl Schmitt] but that of bare life/political existence, zoe/bios [Aristotle], exclusion/inclusion” (1998, 8). He adds, “Here what is outside is included not simply by means of an [End Page 184] interdiction or an internment, but rather by means of the suspension of the juridical order’s validity—by letting the juridical order, that is, withdraw from the exception and abandon it” (1998, 18). Later in Homo Sacer Agamben uses language that is even more congruent with the language mobilized by Wright: “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” (1998, 28). Both Wright and Agamben formulate a constitutive...


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