03/02/2010 17:11

Crisis of Antiquity: Arendt, Foucault, Agamben, and the Roots of Our Modern Crisis

Kyle Thomsen
Loyola University Chicago

Crisis of Antiquity: Arendt, Foucault, Agamben, and the Roots of Our Modern Crisis

A great deal has been said regarding the modern political sphere, and how we currently live in a time of peril. Two great thinkers, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, articulated in their own respective ways what this uniquely modern crisis is. For Arendt, it is defined by a shift in the vita activa. The modern era is one in which we have moved away from the vita activa of action. This is the only uniquely human activity, which causes us to reveal who our individuality to the world. Arendt claims that we largely have migrated towards the vita activa of labor, our bare biological processes. Modern politics is defined by the primacy of biological processes over political action. In addition, this stifling of human action is one of the prerequisites for what Arendt asserts is the uniquely modern form of government, totalitarianism. Clearly the political consequences of the shift away from action towards bare biological life are dire.

Foucault’s late writings regarding biopolitics (or biopower) offer us no more comfort. Put briefly, biopower is a modern technology of power which organizes the citizens of the state into the single body of humanity-as-species. The purpose of this organization is to track the biological trends in the population (birth rates, morbidity, etc.), and to establish safety mechanisms which maintain the established statistical norms. While this may sound comforting, it is important to keep in mind that this is a form of domination which can lead to atrocities. Nowhere is this more apparent than what Foucault calls the rise of state racism. In the process of maintaining the health of the population, biopolitical power structures will often separate a “healthy” section of the population from an “unhealthy” one. In order to maintain the health of the whole, those deemed unhealthy must be eliminated with the cold precision that a physician excises a tumor. Foucault mentions the Holocaust as a paradigm example of what he claims is a uniquely modern phenomenon.

A more contemporary commentator on the political crisis of bare biological life is Giorgio Agamben. Agamben’s work focuses on, among other things, the claim that the state of exception is the original political relation. The exception is a zone of indistinction between inside and outside, between law and chaos, which sits on the blurred edges of the juridical order. The sovereign (be it an individual or a group of individuals) who operates in this zone wields the power of law and violence absolutely and indiscriminately. In addition, the sovereign power that operates in this zone produces what Agamben refers to as “bare life”, a merely biological life that can be killed at any time without repercussion. The state of exception and bare life are not modern phenomena. They are the original political relation between sovereign and subject. Political power that is focused solely on biological life is, on this reading, as old as the western political tradition.

The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, an Agambenian reading of Foucault and Arendt will complicate the claim that political power’s focus on bare biological life is a uniquely modern crisis. This is not to say that Arendt’s and Foucault’s work has no merit, nor is it to say that we are not in a modern crisis. It is simply that our crisis is not uniquely modern. The second purpose is to demonstrate that, given Agamben’s reading, this moment of crisis cannot be avoided by taking a nostalgic position regarding past political systems. Nor can it be avoided by attempting to modify the existing political order. Any concept of “justice” that is worth the name will have to be found in a completely new juridical framework, one which does not have as its foundation a zone of indistinction between law and chaos, and one which does not reduce members of the population to bare biological life.