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Posts Tagged ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’

Žižek and Agamben’s Homo Sacer

In Arts & Letters, Books, Humanities, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“The problem with Rumsfeld’s blunt statement [that the American goal was to kill as many Taliban soldiers and al-Qaeda members as possible], as with other similar phenomena like the uncertain status of the Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, is that they seem to point directly to Agamben’s distinction between the full citizen and Homo sacer who, although he or she is alive as a human being, is not part of the political community.”

                   —Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Whatever else it is, Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy is anti-authoritarian and anti-totalitarianism.  Slavoj Žižek draws from Agamben to round out Welcome to the Desert of the Real.  Specifically, Žižek draws from Agamben’s theories about homo sacer and “the state of exception,” the latter of which Agamben borrows from the German jurisprudent Carl Schmitt.  In his book Homo Sacer, Agamben adopts Pompeius Festus’ definition of homo sacer as “the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime,” and the one who cannot be sacrificed, but can be killed without legal consequence.[1]

Agamben suggests that homo sacer is bound up with notions of sovereignty.  Sovereignty is determined by what is included and what is excluded from the jurisdiction of a sovereign.  Although a sovereign has the power to suspend the validity of law and, therefore, to stand outside the law, the sovereign may lose that privilege and become the sacred man who no longer has rights granted and secured by the polis, and who may be killed, but not sacrificed.  According to this paradigm, the sovereign is a man—a king or a monarch—who embodies statehood and sovereignty.  The body of this man is itself the site of law so long as the man remains the sovereign; as soon as the man is no longer sovereign, his body ceases to be the site of the law.

Žižek seems less concerned with the idea of sovereignty implicated by the term homo sacer.  He focuses, instead, on the “outsider,” “fugitive,” or “noncitizen” aspect of homo sacer.  He defines today’s homo sacer as “the privileged object of humanitarian biopolitics: the one who is deprived of his or her full humanity being taken care of in a very patronizing way.”  Žižek’s examples of today’s homo sacer include John Walker, the American who fought with the Taliban; the sans papers in France; the inhabitants of the favelas in Brazil; people in the African-American ghettos in the United States; an American war plane flying above Afghanistan; and others.  None of these examples describes groups or persons who once enjoyed the power of a sovereign.  All of these groups or persons have in common an ambiguous status in relation to the law of the polis.

Žižek shares with Agamben the notion that homo sacer is, or can be, the embodiment of the state of exception: the one who is excluded from the polis, who neither makes laws nor enjoys the protection of laws.  By sidestepping Agamben’s proposition that the sovereign body is the constitution of sovereignty—a move that might have to do with Žižek’s criticism of Agamben as wedded to the dialectics of the Enlightenment and to Foucault’s disciplinary power or biopower—Žižek is able to raise profound and troubling questions about the status of every one of us regarding homo sacer.  He asks, for instance, “What if the true problem is not the fragile status of the excluded but, rather, the fact that, on the most elementary level, we are all ‘excluded’ in the sense that our most elementary, ‘zero’ position is that of an object of biopolitics, and that possible political and citizenship rights are given to us as a secondary gesture, in accordance with biopolitical strategic considerations?”  Žižek does not answer this question, but the answer, disturbing as it is, seems implied in the question.


[1] Giorgio Agamben.  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.  Stanford University Press, 1995.  Pg. 71.

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Žižek’s Real Desert

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

In short, America should learn humbly to accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation—what we are getting instead is the forceful reassertion of the exceptional role of the USA as a global policeman, as if what causes resentment against the USA is not its excess of power, but its lack of it. 

                             —Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Žižek does not overload his writing with normative statements.  Here, however, he clearly puts forth an “ought.”  He recommends that America accept its vulnerability.  What is not said in this sentence, but what is abundantly clear throughout the second chapter of Welcome to the Desert of the Real, is that accepting vulnerability represents, for Žižek, an alternate way between “the dialectical category of totality.”

Against the prevailing rhetoric that deludes Americans and other Western peoples into thinking that they have two choices—between “Them” or “Us,” “Capitalism” or “The Other,” “Inside” or “Outside,” “First World” or “Third World”—Žižek attempts more than merely to reveal a third-way between competing totalities.  He seeks instead to interrogate the competing totalities and to show how they are narrativized to mask the symptoms of our own desires.  He demonstrates that “We” have constructed our own fundamentalisms that oppose—yet mirror—the fundamentalisms of “The Other.”  There is an evil to both sides of whatever lies beneath constructed dualities; only by searching for that evil can we place 9/11 in its proper context.  The totalities of “Them” versus “Us,” for example, can be redefined such that Bush and Bin Laden “are both ‘Them’ against Us.”  The point of this recasting is to suggest that 9/11 and its aftermath do not represent grand moral narratives leading inexorably to a clear choice: for or against terrorism.  Rather, 9/11 and its aftermath are what upset America’s perception of itself as “an island exempt from this kind of violence, witnessing it only from the safe distance of the TV screen.”  9/11 was a wake-up to reality, not to morality.

For this reason, 9/11 and its aftermath ought to blur any simple claims to moral superiority as well as any ideological interpretation of the deaths of the victims.  9/11 did not bring about ethical or ideological clarity.  “Far from offering a case apropos of which we can adopt a clear ethical stance,” Žižek asserts, “we encounter here the limit of moral reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime.”

But few people are innocent, at least if innocence means completely removed from any system that is complicit in the rise of violence and extremism; nearly everyone is implicated in some system or another that contributed (and contributes) to the rise of fundamentalism.  To construct a crude “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative is to create a false abstraction that validates the very behavior that generated the hostility motivating the crimes to begin with.  To construct that narrative is to placate personal guilt and to shield “Us” from identification with “The Problem.”

Because of these arguments, Welcome to the Desert of the Real disrupts the apparent unity of the dialectical categories that Americans and other Western peoples accept uncritically.  It challenges the images and stories that seem to have as their goal the legitimation of violence.  Whatever one thinks of Žižek—I am, for the record, not a fan—his arguments in this book deserve careful consideration.

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