Anonymous. 1937. Ho Kommounismos sten Hellada (Communism in Greece). Athens: Ekdoseis “Ethnikēs Hetaireias.”.
Chapter 5. 1946–1949: Emphýlios
A Life (Not) to Be Lived
Agamben has argued that “naked life” (or “bare life”) is what life became in the concentration camps of the Third Reich. It is, he argues, life stripped of any value, any desire, any signification as life. Agamben opens his argument concerning naked life by producing a circuitous genealogy of the notion of life through “the ancient Greeks [who] did not have only one term to express what we mean by the word life. They used two semantically and morphologically distinct terms: zoē, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, humans, or gods), and bios, which signified the form or manner of living peculiar to a single animal or group. In modern languages this opposition has gradually disappeared from the lexicon” (2000: 2). Naked life, Agamben argues, is the life of the animal, life that is devoid of political meaning, life that belongs to the sovereign while being devoid of any sovereignty of its own. It is a life that contains no bios, and it is the life that belongs to Homo sacer, the sacred man, he who cannot be executed or sacrificed (thus falling outside of the provenance of both the Law and the Church) but can be killed with impunity.
Agamben takes a certain license with ancient Greek terminology, and this could potentially undermine his argument. Is ancient Greece the index of all humanity, so that the ancient Greek distinction between zoē and bios can acquire significance for the totality of human experience? Is there an uncomplicated kinship line between this undifferentiated we (“we mean by the word life”) and the ancient Greeks? Who are these we? The subjects of the modern State? Europeans? Moderns? And which are these “modern languages” out of whose lexicon the “opposition has gradually disappeared?” (my emphasis). Which languages other than Greek ever contained this opposition, so that “we” can now lament its elision? Who is “we”? Who counts with whom? What is the economy of the “same” and the economy of the “other,” the economy of the “friend” and the economy of the “enemy”?
Technologies of alterity are fundamentally technologies for inaugurating a self. Processes of recognizing alterity in the presence and existence of the self constitute this inaugural moment in the technology of alterity. Bodies—total, intact, contained—submit to the facticity of representation: they are whole bodies, healthy bodies, desirable bodies. Pestilent bodies are only fragmentarily represented, fragmentarily received, providing textual fragments obliterated by the erasure of any possibility of the recognition of an intersubjectivity. The question raised here, reading Agamben, becomes pressing: since racialism, racism, and eugenics provide the framework of alterity for Hannah Arendt's “banality of evil,” what is the ideological structure that participates in and facilitates the separation of self from same? If metaphors of pestilence (lice, nits, pests) provide the trope for the extermination of the one who is situated outside of the circle of interiority of the national body, what allows the sovereign to articulate a logos introducing metaphors of biomedicine (miasma, the plague, cancer), in the process of exterminating the Communist? What allows the sovereign, not the law, to announce the need of a “purging 'pharmakon,' one that will cure the organism of all those who, out of lightness, ignorance, weakness, emotionality, ideology, or silly calculation, have been infected by the communist microbe?” (Anonymous 1937: 4).
In Homo Sacer the ancients have been ascribed a specific name: Agamben attributes the distinction to Aristotle.
Athena Athanasiou (2005) has shown brilliantly how the questions of humanity, animality, and the notion of bare life intersect in the biopolitical project that Agamben critiques.
Derrida was the first to point out that the distinction Agamben makes between zoē and bios is not as rigid in Plato and Aristotle as Agamben makes it out to be. He notes: “the distinction between bios and zoē—or zēn—is more tricky and precarious; in no way does it correspond to the strict opposition on which Agamben bases the quasi totality of his argument about sovereignty and the biopolitical in Homo Sacer (but let's leave that for another time)” (Derrida 2005: 24).
Lady Amalia Fleming, the Greek wife of the Nobel Prizewinner Sir Alexander Fleming, who has been credited with the invention of penicillin, was arrested by the Greek junta and accused of having participated in the escape attempt of one of the political prisoners, the soldier Alekos Panagoulis. Fleming says in her memoir that during interrogation by the chief interrogator of the Military Police, Theophiloyiannakos (an interrogation that did not involve physical torture, because the junta could not afford to run the risk of international outcry for having tortured Lady Fleming), the discussion came around to the topic of discipline. Theophiloyiannakos said to Lady Fleming that she needed to be disciplined and punished for having strayed from the right path, not because she was a bad person, but just like his “own [two-and-a-half-year-old] daughter. If she does something wrong, she has to be punished” (Fleming 1973: 175). When Lady Fleming said to him that no child under the age of six should ever be punished, but that children at such a young age should be comforted and must be made to feel “that you love her,” Theophiloyiannakos looked at Lady Fleming with “a pitiful expression” and told her, “But I do love my daughter.” Lady Fleming found this to be the utmost banality, so much so that she said “this again is one of the reasons why I could not hate this man. When I have repeated this conversation I have been told 'So what? Even tigresses love their children' ” only to respond by drawing the line between animal and human that torturers cross, “Yes… but they do not torture” (ibid.: 176).