Monday, March 30, 2009

Today in class, Walter Mignolo made a very interesting critique of Agamben's "bare life." He said, and I paraphrase, "Slavery is not bare life, in the sense that Jews were bare life; slaves are expendable life." The concept of bare life and homo sacer, drawn from Agamben's studies of Auschwitz, refers to a kind of magic circle, a necessary out-casting of individuals in society, the construction of the scapegoat, etc. It is about the phenomenon of internal exclusion. Slavery, on the other hand, was, first and foremost, about labor, about the appropriation of laboring bodies. Slaves are not bare life, they are chattel, completely expendable, not because the slaveholding west desires to annihilate them, but because it needs them to build up the foundations of mercantile capital and it cannot simultaneously admit their humanity. It is a mistake to conflate racial extermination policies and enslavement policies; they have completely opposite ends. The former is a means of mobilizing the "national" population against an internal/external enemy. The latter is more on a continuum with the wage slavery of the industrial revolution era, but with more brutality. Expendable life is not immoral, but amoral; it is life that serves not for sacrifice but for bodies, and it is really impossible to locate it outside the historical specificities of capitalism (perhaps this is why Agamben, with his intellectual history stemming from the Greeks, misses the point here). "Expendable life" is the kind of nullified life-forms that the institution of slavery produced, wholly constrained by plantation-based merchant capital.


traxus4420 said...

that's a good point.

doesn't agamben also treat 'bare life' as a kind of reduction to an essence rather than a produced/historical form of subjectivity? it's been a while since i read homo sacer but i remember that being one of my criticisms.

Alex Greenberg said...

Yeah, I didn't want to bring that up here, because it didn't fit well in my discussion. I wrote a sentence about that in my initial draft and then erased it. There's a certain romantic, ideological notion that life should be more than just bare life. This has its "resistant" and "conformist" moments. Resistant: bare life is life that is reduced to statistical knowledge and therefore controllable; we should resist this reduction. Conformist: bare life is a reduction of the multifarious aspects of "real" life that is so much more complex (and beautiful) than simple numbers; blame the statisticians for the failures of modernity and read Byron.