Georgatos, Dionysis. 2003. “To Syrma tes Apomonoses” (The Wire of Solitary Confinement). In Makrónisos Historikos Topos (Makrónisos, A Historical Place), Vol. 2: 44-47. Athens: Syghrone Epoche.
Chapter 5. 1946–1949: Emphýlios
A riveting and disturbing question shadows Agamben's Homo Sacer: Why does the Foucauldian formulation of biopolitics and governmentality not extend to the concentration camp? Why does Foucault look at the prison, the school, and the hospital, but not the place of containment that holds not dear but sacred life, in its barest form: life that does not deserve to be appropriated by the state (and thus executed) or the church (and thus sacrificed), but can be killed with impunity? One could extend this question even further, as Jehanne Gheith has done, to ask: Why, in the context of the concentration camp, do the camps of the Reich (and the Holocaust) “preoccupy the Western imagination and why does the Gulag [or so many other camps, I would add] barely inhabit it?” (2007: 159).
A central question is thus raised about the liberal state in a time of crisis or a state of emergency (such as Greece between 1936 and 1974): How does human life get constituted and instituted as existing as if in a prelegal space (in the Hobbesian state of nature), while being securely within the parameters of the law? In other words, what is the rupture in the law, the fragmentation in its very constitution that allows for the suspension of life during a case of emergency? Agamben locates this in the “happening” (in a sense, in the “Becoming”) of the concentration camp, but I would like to argue that it takes place primarily in the space of the rehabilitation camp.
Agamben invokes the moment of non-Kantian ethics in the gesture made by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche in a pamphlet entitled Authorization for the Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Being Lived, published in Leipzig in 1920 by the distinguished publisher Felix Meiner. (Binding was a specialist in penal law and Hoche a professor of medicine interested in medical ethics.) Binding and Hoche separate the act of suicide from the discourse of ethics and place it within a legal discourse of rights. Binding argues that suicide is the expression of the individual's sovereignty over his own existence. Agamben writes, following Binding, “suicide… cannot be understood as a crime (for example, as a violation of a duty toward oneself) yet also cannot be considered as a matter of indifference to the law” (1998: 136). Indeed, “the law has no other option than to consider living man as sovereign over his own existence” (ibid.). It is only when human sovereignty can be handed to the citizen in the specter of the law that this sovereignty can be taken away by the law. It is only through the annunciation of sovereignty, this solipsistic representation, that sovereignty and its annunciation can be constituted as existing, as Being, that they can then be questioned and become political objects of the legal state. Only when the citizen can announce, in the context of the law, “I am a legal subject” can her sovereignty over herself-as-being be questioned by the law and retained or revoked. It was decided in the Weimar Republic that suicide was not against the law.
The gesture that the Weimar Republic was so reluctant to make—the announcement that suicide is illegal—was made by Antonios Vassilopoulos, the military director of Makrónisos, on March 6, 1948. The massacre on February 28 and March 1 had been followed by a wave of suicides. On March 6, Vassilopoulos issued a memo to his subordinates (members of the Military Police who had participated in the massacre). In it he declared:
A wave of suicides has occurred in the battalion under my command. Those attempting suicide are misled if they believe that they can dispose of their selves as they wish. From now on, it is decreed that a sworn interrogation will take place concerning any and all who attempt suicide, the results of which will be submitted to me immediately, along with the necessary suit for the indictment to special court-martial. (In Georgatos 2003: 45)
“It is forbidden for soldiers to commit suicide,” concludes Yiannopoulos, who survived the massacre (2001: 80). Despite the difference in context, such statements in Nazi Germany and civil-war Greek camps are no more chilling than recent events in Guantánamo Bay. On June 10, 2006, Guantánamo officials announced the first successful suicides at the camp. Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris told reporters about the men who had committed suicide: “They have no regard for human life. Neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us” (BBC News, June 11, 2006, “Guantánamo Suicides a PR Move”; my emphasis). If this gesture is interpreted by the military and Bush administration officials as an “act of asymmetric warfare,” then one would have to conclude that, had the three men survived the attempts, the military would have the right to kill them as if in combat, albeit an asymmetrical one.
In the conceptualization of “life that does not deserve to live,” Agamben recognizes a pivotal moment in the construction of an ideology of biopolitics: it leads from the examination of suicide as a possible breach of the legal system in Germany through the institutionalization of euthanasia as a humanistic and compassionate practice, to the emergence of a discursive and legal system that made possible the extermination of dangerous and polluting life (that of Leftists, homosexuals, Jews, Gypsies, and those perceived to be mentally ill or of lower intelligence). Discussing the pamphlet by Binding and Hoche, Agamben rightly points out that they elide the distinction “between exteriority and interiority, which the juridical order can therefore neither exclude nor include, neither forbid not permit… like the sovereign decision on the state of exception” (1998: 136–37). The discussion concerning suicide would not, on its own, have acquired significance had it not rested upon the crushing structure of “euthanasia” within the program of German eugenics. So far so good. We are still only talking about bodies; we are still in the 1920s.
Officials at Guantánamo Bay have reported forty-one unsuccessful suicide attempts by twenty-five detainees since the United States opened the concentration camp there in January 2002. The numbers are telling: the same detainees must have attempted suicide more than once.
One needs to keep in mind, however, that in a note to a paper on strategy that she was writing in Stammheim Prison in 1976, a few months before her death, Ulrike Meinhof observed that “suicide is the last act of rebellion” (Aust 1987: 347). Meinhof wrote this note as an elaboration on strategy, but it was later used by the West German authorities to claim that her death was a suicide (when all evidence points to murder).