Following up on my remarks on Agamben, spurred by Ken‘s questions (thanks!). Sequentially, this comes before my other unfinished remarks on Agamben here. There’s more to write on this, of course.

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Agamben writes that “the production of bare life is the originary form of sovereignty” (HS 83.) Bare life results from a production – it is a product produced. It is artificial or artifactual, not natural in the sense of a given or self-producing starting point. Furthermore, bare life is not, in the sense of being actually bare in the sense of being only life-qua-life, life sans all qualities except the quality of being life. Bare life is a counting-as-bare-life.

Those who are counted as bare life are counted only insofar as they (merely) alive. Those who are counted as bare life still have other qualities than merely being alive, but the count-as-bare is indifferent to these other qualities. This counting-as acts upon a set of bodies which have a potential to be counted in this way. This is not trivially true. That the bodies counted as bare life have a potential to be so counted is connected to why bare life is a product, rather than a given and a necessity.

Potentiality, Agamben writes, “is not simply the potential to do this or that thing but potential to not-do, potential to not pass into actuality.” (Potentialities, 180.) Potential is always potential-to. Potential is also always potential-not-to, which is to say, in Agamben’s terms, potentiality is always also impotentiality. Agamben quotes Aristotle, “all potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same,” then adds that “[w]hat is potential is capable (…) both of being and of not being.” (Potentialities, 182.)

Various cuts of wood and an assortment of screws has the potential to become a bookshelf. It also has the potential to not become a bookshelf. Building a bookshelf is a process of the materials passing from the potential of being a bookshelf into the actuality of being a bookshelf. If the wood and screws did not have an impotential to be a table, they would be always-already a table, and there would be no process of production, no passage from potentiality to actuality.

Those who are counted as bare life have the potential to be counted in this way. They also have the impotential to be – or the potential not to be – counted in this way. The above has the following consequences which I will first list then expand.

1. Bare life or count as bare life is historically produced by practice.

2. Whether or not a count as bare life occurs, in any particular and historical situation, is a matter of conflict. The results of any such conflict are aleatory, in the sense of not being a foregone conclusion.

3. Any operation of a count as bare life, insofar as it is still productive of bare life rather than death, is aleatory in the sense of not guaranteed to continue to exist, that is, of being reversible or dissoluble.

To expand on these points:

1. Bare life or count as bare life is historically produced by practice. Life is (or rather, lives are) not always-already bare life. This is significant in relation to Carl Schmitt, a frequent source for Agamben. Schmitt makes politics an existential matter and makes politics a matter of sovereignty, thus making life and sovereignty coterminous. This is not the case. Life is prior to bare life. Sovereignty, for Agamben, produces bare life. Thus life is prior to sovereignty. This priority is both historical and logical. This means sovereignty could pass away within history without life passing away. A post-sovereign life is possible.

2. Whether or not a count as bare life occurs, in any particular and historical situation, is a matter of conflict. The results of any such conflict are aleatory, in the sense of not being a foregone conclusion.

Counting-as-bare-life occurs in history, when it occurs. Agamben writes [someplace, look it up] that in some cases where bare life is produced [camps? exception?] anything can happen. This is important, but reading Agamben can be unclear on this. Agamben’s “anything can happen” can easily be read to mean “the production of bare life will happen” such that the “anything” is fully contained within the production of bare life. That would be a mistake, as it would neglect Agamben’s discussion of (im)potentiality. “Can happen” contains both “potential to happen” and “potential to not happen.” That is, “can happen” is a phrase expressing (im)potentiality. Agamben is easy to read, though, as if “anything can happen” is not a statement of (im)potentiality but a statement of a necessary passage from potentiality to actuality. Such an understanding results from an overemphasis on law and sovereignty in such a way that other registers are eclipsed.

Consider Homo Sacer, Agamben’s figure of choice for bare life. Homo Sacer is the figure which can be killed but not sacrificed. This means that the sacrifice of homo sacer is impossible. It also means that homo sacer has the potential to be killed. But all life has the potential to be killed. Potential to be killed – or, potential to die – is part of what it is to be alive. Homo sacer is a legal figure in Roman law. What Agamben means, then, is that there is no legal obstacle to the killing of homo sacer. There is also no legal support to the continued life of homo sacer – law does not ‘prop up’ the life of homo sacer. In the case(s) of homo sacer, law does not intervene to act against life’s potential to die and to be killed.

Legal support for homo sacer’s life and absence of legal opposition to taking homo sacer’s life is not the only factor involved in homo sacer’s continuing to live or to die. When Agamben writes that sometimes anything can happen, this is so at the level of legality in that, with homo sacer, there is no legal support for life nor legal opposition toward taking life. But legality is not the only register involved in what can happen and what does happen with regard to life. Legality is not the only register in or at which (im)potentiality can pass into actuality and at which actuality can dissolve, nor is legal status a guarantee of outcomes.

One can still attempt to kill another who is legally protected, if one is willing to suffer the consequences (or believes one will not be caught) and if one is able to manage to overcome the life of the other, to kill them. The inverse is also true. One could attempt to kill another who was rendered homo sacer, but find oneself unable to overcome the life of the other, unable to kill them. The result in any of these situations, like the (non)occurrence of a count-as-bare life, is not predetermined but aleatory.

3. Any operation of a count as bare life, insofar as it is still productive of bare life rather than death, is aleatory in the sense of not guaranteed to continue to exist, that is, of being reversible or dissoluble. Not only is the genesis of the production of bare life not historically predetermined, but instances where bare life is produced, once they do exist, may dissolve. In many instances the most egregious forms and mechanisms of for producing bare life do pass away – states of exception, camps, etc. This passing away was the goal of antifascist partisans and those who aided refugees seeking to escape the count-as-bare-life in fascist countries. In addition, those who endure counting-as-bare-life and live can struggle to remake themselves in such a way that their experiences do not fully determine them. One can, so to speak, pass from being a victim to being a survivor. The count-as-bare-life is thus reversible or dissoluble in two senses. First, any particular apparatus and/or operation of counting-as-bare-life can be opposed and there is a chance of successfully abolishing this apparatus. Second, to be counted-as-bare-life, provided on does not die, does not mean that once is permanently consigned to a status as exhausted by the experience. One may be marked by the experience, surely, but one’s life – in the sense of being multiple and in the sense of being refashionable – is not reduced to nothing.

It also must be noted that the conditions for the production of bare life might cease. I said above that sovereignty could pass away within history. That is, sovereignty’s potential to be (actual) is also an impotential, a potential to not-be (actual). Against Schmitt, using Agamben sovereignty, as an actuality, is not necessary but contingent both in its historical origin and its historical persistence.

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