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Diacritics 30.4 (2000) 38-58

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Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead

Andrew Norris

Death is most frightening, since it is a boundary.

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

And as the same thing there exists in us living and dead and the waking and the sleeping and young and old: for these things having changed round are those, and those having changed round are these.

—Heraclitus, Fragment 88

What is politics today? What is its relationship to the tradition from which it emerges? The questions are difficult ones to answer in part because contemporary politics seems so schizophrenic. In affluent Western countries politics is increasingly a matter of spectacle on the one hand and managed economies on the other. Hannah Arendt seems quite confirmed in her claim that the once-glorious public realm of appearance is fundamentally degraded when it is overrun by concerns more appropriate to the private realm, such as household management and gossip. If this "unnatural growth of the natural" [47] inclines us to nostalgia for a time when the two realms were more decisively separated, such nostalgia is likely intensified by the "ethnic cleansing," rape camps, and genocide that we now associate with names such as "Yugoslavia" and "Rwanda." But as improbable as any flight to the past may be, it is even less likely that the politics of that past could help us navigate the treacherous waters of our current technological society. I have in mind not only the familiar claim that the attempted genocides of our time are only made possible by quite modern forms of technology, organization, and experience, 1 but also recent scientific and "medical" advances. Consider just two: first, the corporate driven and controlled development of biotechnologies, in which huge multinationals are acquiring patents to genetic "information" such as "all human blood cells that have come from the umbilical cord of [any] newborn child." If there is any doubt that such developments will lead us to redefine the human being, these may be laid to rest by the case of John Moore, an Alaskan businessman who found his own body parts had been patented, without his knowledge, by the University of California at Los Angeles and licensed to the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Corporation [Rifkin 60-61]. So much for Locke's attempt to ground the institution of private property in the fact that "every Man has a Property in his own Person"! 2 In its place we seem to be moving [End Page 38] toward something more like the "logical synthesis of biology and economy" called for by the National Socialist Institut allemand in Paris in 1942 [Agamben, Homo Sacer 145]. A similar process of redefinition is already underway in the field of death, a phenomenon that scientists and lawyers are having a harder and harder time pinning down. Where once death was defined by the cessation of the movement of the heart and lungs, recent life support technologies have forced scientists to define death in terms of such technologies. Witness Doctor Norman Shumway's defense of the definition of death as brain death: "I'm saying that anyone whose brain is dead is dead. It is the one determinant that would be universally applicable, because the brain is the one organ that can't be transplanted" [163]. By implication, if and when technology is developed that allows for brain transplants, even those whose brains are "dead" will be brought back to some kind of life, perhaps as organ farms for others who are less ambiguously alive.

Giorgio Agamben, from whose book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life I take both this last grisly example and its analysis, argues that, contrary to appearances, such developments do not represent a radical break with the tradition. His analysis both builds upon and corrects Michel Foucault's claim that politics in our time is constituted by disciplines of normalization and subjectification that Foucault labels "bio-power." For Foucault, biopower is fundamentally modern. "What might be called a society's 'threshold of modernity,'" he writes, "has been reached when the life of the species is wagered...


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