Thursday, April 1, 2010

Islamophobia and Biopolitics in the Age of Empire

Text of a lecture I gave back in November at SOAS:


We live in the age of Empire, of clashes of power and identity politics, of self-affirmations and subjugations, and above all in an age marked by the most violent forms of othering, manipulating and controlling lives through the violence of our actions and our words. If politics is the management of conflict but ultimately of war by ‘other means’, then its most extreme form is biopolitics, governmental and power-dominated forms of total imposition on humans reducing them to their ‘bare life’, stripping them of their rational and political agency and advocating the precariousness of their passivity. The late Michel Foucault, who did much to advocate a new style of politics by diagnosing and excavating the modern problem of the self located in its bare zoology, famously inverted the Aristotelian maxim in his magisterial History of Sexuality:

For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question [Foucault 1976: 188].

Biopolitics and the exercise of biopower is the critical context within which to place any understanding of the twin phenomena of radical and violent othering that we call Islamophobia and Anti-semitism, as forms of subjugating the bare lives of Jews and Muslims. As such, it is not of primary theological concern with apologies for the title of this panel and indeed to my colleagues here. But then as the late Jacques Derrida and others have noticed, contemporary intellectual life does not compartmentalise theology to the sole concern of religious studies but to forms of inquiry that have critical relevance to philosophy and indeed politics [de Vries 1999]. Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-semitism should therefore be about confronting biopolitics and seeking means for a reinvigoration of active politics which promotes human agency. Today, I propose to do precisely that by analysing the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s use of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics in the construction of his own theory of the bare life of humans and the state of exception which defines the normativity of political life, one in which crucially the concentration camp, the most extreme reality of Anti-semitism and symbol of Islamophobia is no longer the exception. In particular, I will analyse his groundbreaking study Remnants of Auschwitz, his notion of radical agency that derives from the examination of the notion of the ‘Muselmann’ in the camps, and his concept of the witness and memory of the events. Overcoming radical discrimination is entangled with the need for communities to bear witness to their histories and to carry their voices and silences across generations. Islamophobia and anti-semitism are challenges and problems for political thinkers and it is in that context that I want to examine these phenomena.


But before we move on with Agamben, we need to return to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and sovereignty to understand the philosophical context. Although Agamben draws upon Foucault’s notions of biopolitics and biopower, Foucault’s own rejection of sovereignty is quite significant. He wishes to transcend traditional notions of sovereignty that are implicated in the concept of European monarchies and the nation-state, in which sovereignty defines legitimacy, acts as arbitration above points of conflict and embodies law and standpoints of judgement [Joseph Rouse in Gutting (ed) 1994: 100–101]. Foucault’s concern as articulated in his History of Sexuality is that ‘in thought and political analysis, we have still not cut off the head of the king’ because the theory of sovereignty remained central as an ideology of right and as the organisation of jurisprudence [Foucault 2003: 36]. Power is exercised on the dual foundation of sovereignty and the mechanics of discipline [Foucault 2003: 38]. Sovereignty cannot deal with multiplicity of powers but seeks unity [Foucault 2003: 43]. Later on, once his rejection of sovereignty was complete, he became more interested in domination than sovereignty and questions of legitimacy [Foucault 2003: 46]. The politics of domination and bare life raises the issue of civilizational struggles, about which we hear so much these days.
Biopower for Foucault is central to the exercise of the state’s sovereign power:

The very essence of the right of life and death is actually the right to kill: it is at the moment when the sovereign can kill that he exercises his right over life. [Foucault 2003: 240].

It was critically in the 18th century that we saw a shift from the right to take life or let someone live to one of ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die because of the nature of the social contract and the rise of modes of political techniques of control [Foucault 1976: 186; Sublon 2005: 153; cf. Agamben 1999b: 159].
Biopolitics is therefore a discipline and power to reduce humans to mere life and biological processes and statistics.

Now that power is decreasingly the power of the right to take life, and increasingly the right to intervene to make live or once power begins to intervene mainly at this level in order to improve life by eliminating accidents, the random element, and deficiencies, death becomes, insofar as it is the end of life, the term, the limit, or the end of power too. [Foucault 2003: 248]

Foucault’s main point fits this within his notion that sovereignty is increasingly dead as a concept of legitimacy and is being replaced by discipline and regulatory power. Biopolitics draws upon the Greek distinction between two terms to render life: zoē and bios, the former denotes unqualified bare life, while the latter is the life of the citizen in the polis [Agamben 2000: 2].
This distinction lies at the heart of Western political thought for Agamben. He rejects Foucault historical genealogy of sovereignty and politics. He sees the world especially in the post-9/11 period as a permanent state of exception in which draconian anti-terrorism laws have reduced humans to their bare life, their zoē, devoid of agency and in which the sovereign power of the state is exercised and defined by its ability, drawing upon Carl Schmitt, to decide on the ‘state of exception’ [Agamben 2005a: 1]. Necessity, contingency, emergency powers, the Patriot Act and so forth are mere names for what classical jurists called the state of exception. The modern nation state, thus, has a biopolitical ‘vocation’. At the heart of his theory is the notion of the homo sacer, the Roman legal notion of human life which is included in the juridical order ‘solely in the form of its exclusion, that is, of its capacity to be killed’ [Agamben 1998: 8]. The paradox of life in modern states converges upon an ambiguity between the good life and the not-good life of Aristotelian politics, of recognising the freedom and happiness of citizens in their very subjugation. It is the nature of the modern even democratic nation state that:

the fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare life as the originary political element and threshold of articulation between nature and culture [Agamben 1998: 181].

It was already in Homo Sacer that Agamben introduced the relationship between his theory of biopolitics and the concentration camp as the biopolitical paradigm of modernity and as the nomos of biopolitical space in the world [Agamben 1998: 119–88]. Significantly, Agamben argues that:

What happened in the camps so exceeds the juridical concept of crime that the specific juridico-political structure in which those events took place is often simply omitted from consideration. The camp is merely the place in which the most absolute conditio inhumana that has ever existed on earth was realized [Agamben 1998: 166]

His interest therefore lies in the political structures that produce such a phenomenon and the types of agency and passivity expressed in that space. It is therefore to the camp that we now turn.


One of Agamben’s most interesting and disturbing works is Remnants of Auschwitz. It is an extended commentary on the notion of testimony and the liminal region between humanity and inhumanity. The concentration camp expresses for Agamben a ‘space of exception’, a structure within which the state of exception (defined in terms of his understanding of sovereignty) is permanently realized. For Agamben, the camp is therefore the ultimate symbol and manifestation of biopolitics that reduces humans to their bare life:

Inasmuch as its inhabitants have been stripped of every political status and reduced completely to bare life, the camp is also the most absolute biopolitical space that has ever been realized – a space in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation [Agamben 2000: 40]

Any structure, therefore, that replicates such biopolitical objectification of humans is at the very least a virtual concentration camp. Some of his earliest notes on this topic were written in the early 1990s when camps did in fact reappear in the former Yugoslavia populated by, of course significantly, Muslims, humans stripped of every political status and indeed cultural affiliation except for their biological state and indeed their objectification as Muslim.
A number of theorists, following Heidegger, have commented upon the tendency within modernity, within the modern subject and its quest for technology and an interventionist notion of sovereign power to slide towards the limit of mechanised and planned violence that is genocide. During the furore over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Muslim intellectual and critic Shabbir Akhtar commented upon liberal modernity’s quest to dissolve difference by seeking scapegoats, comparing the image of the Jew in the Holocaust to the Muslim in contemporary Europe. He famously quipped, ‘The next time we see gas chambers in Europe, it will be no surprise to find Muslims in them’. This is a theme upon the notion of the experience of Muslims in Europe who find themselves within a police state, Nazi Germany being the limit of such a case.
It is, therefore, striking that in the work, Agamben’s hero in the quest for an ethics seeking the survival of memory and language is paradoxically the figure of the Muselmann in the camp. Drawing among the testimony of Primo Levi among others, the term Muselmann (Muslim) was used at Auschwitz to denote a passive prisoner who had given up, had no consciousness or conscience, was despised and not an object of sympathy, and was a mere staggering corpse, a bundle of physicality of no consequence [Agamben 1999b: 41–43]. More importantly, he had no agency, no dignity, and was not a survivor who could testify as he was devoid of his humanity. This state of being the Muslim is the limit case, the exception, the Orientalised and objectified Other. Survivors and witnesses speak for the inhuman Muselmann and resent it [Agamben 1999b: 120]. Following Foucault, Agamben argues that racism is the process by which biopower intervenes and marks breaks within the biological continuum of humanity and reintroduces the principle of war into the system of ‘making live’ [Agamben 1999b: 84]. Yet drawing on Levi, it is only the Muselmann as the inhuman who is truly human, a paradox as the witnesses are the mere remnants; at the same time, it is the human being who can survive being a human being [Agamben 1999b: 133]. In this sense, witnesses ‘were’ Muselmanner. Thomas Carl Wall has commented on the central concern of Agamben with inverting passivity; for example, an ontological paradox for Agamben is that a thing is simultaneously itself and its qualities without being the same thing as its qualities [Agamben 1993b: 97–8; Wall 1999: 19]; similarly presence and absence, image and reality [Wall 1999: 153]. The Muselmann is therefore despised and honoured, passive yet active. While all strove to remain human, the Muselmann was seen as having abdicated humanity and dignity. In the fracturing of humanity and subjectivity, he emerges as a figure that is fully human and in control of his subjectivity. Dignity and autonomy were not critical for the retention of humanity; as Agamben says,

Auschwitz marks the end and the ruin of every ethics of dignity and conformity to a norm. The bare life to which human beings were reduced neither demands nor conforms to anything. It itself is the only norm; it is absolutely immanent. And the ‘ultimate sentiment of belonging to the species’ cannot in any sense be a kind of dignity [Agamben 1999b: 69].

It was a state of wretchedness, a final one of complete dehumanisation. And yet because of its existence, a clear and key testimony and articulation of humanity in the face of complete dehumanisation.
But what kind of testimony or witness does the Muselmann represent? For Agamben, testimony is the relation between the sayable and unsayable, but ‘archive’, to which it is juxtaposed, is a system of relations between the said and unsaid [Agamben 1999b: 145]; this is analogous to the radical binaries that Agamben establishes in which the gap between the said and unsaid or rather between voice and language, and between the unwritten and the preface are articulated as key to understanding what we normally understand as philosophy of language or the politics of expression [Agamben 1993a: 6–8]. It also expresses a key feature of Agamben’s philosophy: the primacy and ambiguity of experience over its expression, of infancy over history, the ‘thing itself’ (in Platonic terms – see especially Agamben 1999c, chapter 1) over the manifest object, the deus absconditus over the deus revelatus, and of course of potentiality over actuality. Testimony is normally associated with survival, the ability to live to tell the tale, something which was not the privilege of the Muselmann. However, the Muselmann do the ultimate limit experience; it was his experience of inhumanity that provided the complete witness. On this point, Agamben quotes Primo Levi:

I must repeat: we, the survivors are not the true witnesses…We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority; we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch the bottom. Those who did…have not returned to tell about it, or have returned mute, but they are the Muslims, the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception [Agamben 1999b: 33].

Testimony therefore comes from the eye of the experience, not from the margins or even the outside. It concerns what can be said and what must be said.


There is little doubt that Agamben’s thesis of the state of exception and the homo sacer, and indeed his assertion of the camp as the nomos of a biopolitical world is a hyperbole, indeed a distasteful one to some. We may also disagree vehemently with his post-humanism. I am not arguing that we need to accept it at face value; there are far too many undetermined and unexplained assumptions and wild assertions to consider his argument to be apodictical to use an Aristotelian term. However, the events of the last few years and the responses of states and indeed of those reacting against states in their own form of biopolitics by using their bodies as their only means of agency forces us to consider whether the shift in emphasis in politics away from subjectivity and democracy and towards objectification and the dehumanisations of citizens does require serious attention. Agamben cautions us against thinking that notions of sovereignty are obsolete, that we have moved beyond politics as power that objectifies and controls humans. I have tried to argue that confronting radical forms of subjugation, discipline and order and ultimately othering inherent in the forms of discrimination which we confront in these times and in the idiom of this conference necessitates a serious consideration of the political context in which we live, a consideration that means we not only think about our context and what it means for it to be political but also what it means for us to ‘live’ in the societies in which we live. What is the nature of our life, our power and ability to manipulate ourselves? How can we transcend processes of othering that force us to subjugate and control the other? If anything, Agamben shows us the most pessimistic image of a mirror placed before ourselves. It is the work of political theorists and indeed theologians to replace the mirror of pessimism with a more optimistic one that shows human realization and aspiration at its best, a mirror that allows us to see ourselves in others and realize a co-operative common humanity that defeats the violence of othering.

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