Agamben, Giorgio. 2000. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti, and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Chapter 1. 1963–2008: History, Microhistory, Metahistory, Ethnography
- » So, “What Is a Camp,” Indeed?
Chapter 1. 1963–2008: History, Microhistory, Metahistory, Ethnography
So, “What Is a Camp,” Indeed?
“What is a camp?” asks Giorgio Agamben, only to answer, “the camp is the place in which the most absolute condition inhumana ever to appear on Earth was realized: this is ultimately all that counts for the victims as well as for posterity” Agamben 2000: 37). But Agamben slips out of the historicity of the “camp,” which he himself constructs, by moving almost effortlessly from the Spanish camps in Cuba in 1896, to the British camps for the Boers at the turn of the twentieth century (without any mention of the camps in the Andaman Islands), to the Nazi camps, noting that in the Spanish and the British camps, within the context of a colonial war, “entire populations were placed under the state of exception” (38). Of course, we know that “entire populations” were not placed under the state of exception. This generalization in fact occludes the process of exception. When the Mau Mau insurgency (and subsequent civil war) broke out in Kenya in 1950, only the nonloyalist Kikuyu were placed in camps. The descriptions that we have of the camps in Kenya are disturbingly similar to those from Makrónisos and Yáros, perhaps not surprisingly, if we keep in mind that both sets of camps were set up by the same colonialist logic and technologies of oppression and exclusion. In Malaya, shortly after the establishment of the Makrónisos camp, we find the institution of similar camps from 1948 to 1960, where approximately six hundred Communist partisans were interned by the U.S. forces with the explicit aim of being re-educated. In the case of the Boers, the families of fighters were placed in the camps, not the fighters themselves. Even in the “final solution” under Nazism, a fine tuning of identity ascription took place, so that the Jews of the Reich would be separated from the rest of the arrested and interned Jewish population.
What needs to be exposed, then, is not the totalization of the experience of the camps but the process (legal, conceptual, administrative) by which a specific segment of a population can be exempted. The beginnings of this process of exception in Greece are narrated differently according to the political position of the narrators: each position produces the narrative of a different beginning. Nicos Poulantzas has noted that concentration camps are a particularly modern invention, since they concretize the same “spatial power matrix” as does national territory, thus making possible the notion of an “internal enemy” by internalizing “the frontiers of the national space at the heart of that space itself” (Poulantzas 2000: 105). Poulantzas correctly notes that concentration camps are constructed in order to hold “anti-nationals” within the national space.
For two well-documented accounts of the insurgency and the establishment of the camps in Kenya, see Anderson 2005 and Elkins 2005. For a review of both Anderson and Elkins that seeks to produce a nuanced and segmentary account of the dynamics among the various groups that participated in the Kenya uprising and a critique of the hegemonic position that the Kikuyu resistance has acquired, see Ogot 2005. For a review that seeks to produce a textured account of the British colonial involvement and the complexity of the historicity both of the insurgence and of the technologies of counter-insurgency employed against it, see Mamdani 2006. The Kenyan insurgency had been amply documented before this new wave of historiographic writings. Kenyata 1971 is one such account, severely critiqued by Ogot, since Kenyata managed to procure a leading political career for himself. For an indicative, but certainly not exhaustive, bibliography of such accounts by survivors, see Ogot 2005.
See Clutterbuck, 1963, 1966, and 1973.
Hitler was taken with the paradigm of the British camps for the Boers. In September 1920, he said: “In South Africa, England deported 76,000 Boer women and children to concentration camps, thus forcing the men to return to their homes” (Tuchel 1991: 36, quoting Jäckel and Kuhn 1980: 233, quoted in Marcuse 2001: 408n.8).
Poulantzas, Nicos. 2000 . State, Power, Socialism. , ed. Stuart Hall Verso. London: .
This is one of the most disturbing points made by Eichmann, if one can engage in such prioritizations. Wilhelm Kube, an old party member and Generalkommisar in occupied Russia, apparently wrote an outraged letter to Eichmann in December 1941, opposing the transport to Minsk of German Jews with the Iron Cross for “special treatment”: “I am certainly tough and I am ready to help solve the Jewish question but people who come from our own cultural milieu are certainly something else than the native animalized hordes.” Eichmann apparently admitted in court that he “knew that the Einsatzgrouppen had orders to kill but did not know that Jews from the Reich evacuated to the East were subject to the same treatment. This is what I did not know” (Arendt 1963: 96).
The camp at Goli Otok, in Yugoslavia, provides a sharp, even jagged, contrast to Agamben's position. Dr. Gojko Nikoliš, a retired general and former head of the army's Health Administration, has noted that what happened at Goli Otok was “much more amoral than the death penalty, more difficult to bear than a bullet or a guillotine blade. I am no pacifist; I am for the 'sword of the revolution'; let it cut where and when it is necessary. But I am a humanist and wish to remain one, at least to the extent of not being obliged to hold that the sharp edge of the sword ought to be exchanged for the systematic humiliation of people, in fact below the zero point.” To this, Ivo Banac points out, the defenders of the system respond that “if there had been no Goli Otok, the whole of Yugoslavia would have been a Goli Otok” (Banac 1989: 253). Matthew Mestrovic, in his Introduction to Venko Markovski's Goli Otok, The Island of Death: AA Diary in Letters, attributes this assessment to a commentator from Zagreb, Milika Sundic (Markovski, 1984: ix). This response, which seems to anticipate Agamben's position, is precisely what makes Agamben's totalization so much more problematic.