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Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

This is totally an aside, but there is something in me that increasingly rebels at a philosophical or theoretical exploration that begins (inevitably, almost) with what the Greeks thought, only to conclude that what the Greeks thought is not the progenitor of a long lineage of thinking but instead to some extent another episteme, that modernity is alien or unthinkable within a classical Greek way of thought–that the Greeks are used as a way to have another possibility than the modern, but one with sufficient complexity (in part so the philosopher and theorist can show themselves adequately credentialed to do intellectual work) and without the presumed dilemmas of alterity that non-Western examples present.

Biopolitics, explored via Foucault, re: its possible extensions and further intellectual development. Liberation from power that derives out of sovereignty, to power that is a property or a field that permeates social relations, institutionalizations of all kinds, etc. Agamben wants to explore relation between biopower and sovereign power. “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”. p. 6

“The protagonist of this book is bare life, that is, the life of homer sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert.” p. 8

“Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion.” p. 11

Agamben is partly trying to initiate an account of Marxist/anarchist inability to understand the state–I’m not entirely sure what the inadequacy of a simpler, more classically liberal or libertarian analysis is in that respect, that many radicals underestimate the state because they regard it as simply subordinate to or sheltering capital. But this does take the thought further: what kinds of power might be distinctive to sovereignty, and what kinds of personhood and practices do they produce?

Now familiar, derived in part from Schmitt, proposition of the exception–that the sovereign is inside and outside of law or juridical power all at once. This is where “natural law” proponents come in and are pretty much dismissed out of hand–their insistence that there is some limit to the sovereign in human nature, in God, in some principle outside and beyond the sovereign (as opposed to some material or practical limit) just can’t stand up given that these limits do not function unless the sovereign describes, accepts and interprets them. E.g., the sovereign uses the juridical to describe what the juridical does not address. “Inalienable rights”, but if they were, we should not need a Constitution to specify them or identify their existence. If I set the rule that prohibits me from acting, then I can unset the rule: the rule does not exist before nor will not persist after my willingness to set it. If the protection of the citizen from the sovereign is by the magnaminous consent of the sovereign, then it is no protection at all.

I wonder a bit if this underrates the materiality of history. Take a similar position: identity is constructed. But this does not mean that one can at will unconstruct it, adopt any other identity, etc.: the history and structure of identity has a kind of materiality in the present that’s important.

For our course, it is Ch. 3, Sacred Life, that is the biggest payoff–it explains why the elaborated ritual or ceremonial setting aside of a particular kind of “exception”–essentially, why the state is not a murderer, why the sovereign is entitled to the exception. “Life exposed to death” is “the originary political element”.

“The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule”. p. 168-169

As always in this sort of work, there is a kind of presumption of descriptive universality out of the specificity of Western history–I wonder for example how highly organized stateless societies (Igbo) would work in relationship to this description.

Certainly to re-read this after 2001 is to have an interesting new understanding of al-Qaeda and “stateless actors”, especially Ch. 5 Threshold–very much explains why so many cited or turned to Agamben at that point. Osama bin Laden as the “bandit” of bare life? The exception becoming the rule in a new and different way, the world as “camp” which the sovereign can strike at will from no particular place?

James C. McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land

Ch. 3 Environment and History in Africa

State formation and environment taken as a defining or canonical example of environmental historiography distinctive to African studies

McCann frames George Brooks & others as representatives of “environmental determinism” but this is already several jumps away from the kind of ‘hard’ determinism in Diamond, Reader and various “big histories”. E.g., Brooks is not a comparativist or world history applying environmental determinism “into” some African cases, but an Africanist who is using environmental data to structure an interpretation of precolonial history, somewhat in the mode of the Annalistes.

McCann sees Diamond, Webb, etc. using empirical data about the history of environment to construct hard limits to what African societies in West Africa could have been and done, and to formalize arguments about the connections between and within states and processes of state formation. What’s interesting is that McCann chooses to see some of this approach as “determinism” and to loosen its grip. He loosens it in several ways: that the data is not “clear and precise” enough to “neatly package” or structure precolonial history (pointing out that it contradicts other data, or that it doesn’t consistently predict or account for everything that it could or should account for). p. 29

Argues instead for “more subtle, nuanced view of how environmental conditions set a context”. I think Brooks and Nicholson would likely argue that this is exactly what they’re doing: the line is being cut pretty fine here, and it would probably be better if McCann was clearer that there’s an epistemological or even philosophical point at stake (centered on a view of agency and subjectivity) than to cast this as being about Diamond, Webb, Nicholson’s data–which implies that if somehow the data were more granular it might be fine to say that environment is setting hard deterministic limits on human action and state formation.

McCann is ultimately making an “inclusionist” argument: that environmental and ecological dimensions need inclusion into a holistic or synthetic account of West African state formation. “Influence” is set here as the alternative to “determinism”. It’s a sensible alternate but again I’m not sure if it ends up being that different *if* the scholarship chooses to emphasize an account of this particular influence.

Great Zimbabwe: look at the account being summarized here. Demand for gold = ‘building up’ local capacity for labor, food and elite; ecology makes it possible (rainfall + grazing land free of tsetse). Decline = ‘Malthusian’ argument. McCann sees the Malthusian argument as “emphasizing human perfidy”; McCann suggests instead either that they couldn’t mine gold any longer w/available technology or that the climate was unstable whereas GZ required stability.

Aksum: prosperity as requiring an environmental explanation. Here the agency argument kicks in way harder: that the farmers deserve credit for distinctive inventions, practices, etc. that allowed highlands to be highly productive. Note the uncomfortable flip side of this, though: that where there appears to be precolonial poverty, is that a lack of invention? Here the valorization of agency by Africanists really is a problem–Africans deserve agentive credit for all good things; all bad things are both misrepresented and not their fault anyway.

Note the assumption that water management strategies must have existed: again, reasoned backward out of an assessment of the limits and conditions of environment. “Aksumite achievements in water management must also have included field systems on the vertisol plain”. Notice the must. Notice also the use of deduction–that if later farmers elsewhere in Ethiopia used a particular technique (raised beds), then maybe that’s what they used in Aksum.

Relating different times scales to the possibilities of agency, but also using them to contest big or sweeping generalizations

McCann clarifies: the determinism/influence discussion is a CAUSAL discussion; there are other discussions to be had (landscape history and aesthetics). “The role of climate, biodiversity, and the action of soils, as well as the overall appearance of landscapes, should be both a subject of Africa’s history and a central component of how we reconstruct and define it”. p. 48

Chapter 5

Deforestation in Ethiopia

the problem here is made out to be a representation that there was forest, that people degraded the resource of forest, that in degrading it, they caused a tight feedback loop that led to later disasters. Environmental action as original sin, pinned on the poor/backward, turned into “didactic wisdom for policy makers”.

McCann undoes this via tracing back the sourcing for the claim of deforestation. Goes like this:

1961 FAO publication says that in 1900 40 percent cover down to 4 percent. No source. Maybe personal communication from…

Von Breitanbach, who estimated forest cover from climatic potential for forest cover, based on rainfall, no physical or field surveys.

But more:

“Development narratives often take root within developing nations themselves”: e.g., that experts who ‘learned’ from the FAO publication cited the fact of deforestation back to Ethiopians themselves, who took it to heart and started reciting it themselves as a part of their history.

Why such power? McCann says:

1. Resource exhaustion seems a credible explanation for declension or decline: e.g., if there is evidence of prosperity in the past and poverty today, the environmental provision that made prosperity possible must be gone

2. Deforestation seems a credible type of resource exhaustion, in specific to European/Western observers

3. The history of imagining Ethiopia as “forested” is rooted in colonial-era travel accounts that were ultimately about landscape aesthetics, but if you actually read them carefully, they make clear that there were never forests there at all, and that as it looks now is largely as it looked then

4. So! If you want to understand how Ethiopians worked the land then, you have to do it in the environment they actually lived in–and if you want to understand rural poverty now, you’ll need something besides a generic narrative of environmental declension

5. And by the way, this is a case where contemporary knowledges, both expert and indigenous, are not to be trusted: e.g., it is a history of how what we know about environments is very likely to be wrong