Review: The Use of Bodies: Homo Sacer IV, 2
Stanford University Press, 2015
In The Use of Bodies, Giorgio Agamben explores historical and modern engagement withthe problem of “life,” analyzing its specific deployment as an ontologico-political category. Is life, Agamben asks, a biological ground inhering in all human beings, a political dispositionavailed only to some, or an admixture generated of both biological and political elements? Andin light of the biopolitical turn, which for Agamben characterizes modernity, how ought one to formulate an ethics against the representative exclusionism practiced by Western political machinery? Addressing philosophical projects as diverse as Aristotelian ontology, Neoplatonism, and Franciscan monastic rule, Agamben concludes his twenty-year Homo Sacer series by advancing questions of politics in radical dissociation from much contemporary articulation. He contends that life remains inextricable from its various lived forms, by extension problematizing conceptual binarism and the status it has enjoyed as the sine qua non of Western metaphysics. Doing so allows Agamben to interrogate opposition as an ontological paradigm and equips him to re-evaluate the dominant logics within which subject formation has been posed throughout modernity.
As with other writings in the Homo Sacer sequence, Agamben maintains life in constant view of both politics and aesthetics, grounding issues of social and political identity in classical problematics of representation. Dovetailing scholarship on politics, aesthetics, and representation, Agamben argues to conceive the often-separated categories of biological “life” and political “living” in unity rather than in divorce. To that end, he offers the “form-of-life” as an alternative to the “inclusive exclusion”1 [ex-ceptio] by which biopolitical formulae allot individual subjects their social and political identity. Marking “form-of-life” as a political imperative, Agamben exhorts his readers to consider questions of life “with” rather than “in necessary opposition to” political living. Here, The Use of Bodies specifically asks us: what does it mean to be a political subject, and indeed, to be subject(ed) to political representation?
Agamben first characterizes “form-of-life” as a unity of both “life” and “living” by examining Aristotelian accounts of ontology. He charts a similar logic between bare life and politically-qualified living, what he terms zoè and bios, and Aristotle’s assessment of the relation of being to existence. Whereas biopolitical logic aims to divide life between biological facticity and political expression, for Aristotle, being emerges within and extends alongside existence in a social form that Agamben terms “being-said.”2 Agamben centers on Aristotle’s phrase “ti en einai,” which he translates as “being as it was,”3 to affirm life’s inseparability from its myriad meaningful forms, from the varying “said” contexts in which a subject lives his or her life. Just as being retains a fundamental unity with existence, life remains indivisible from the forms-of-life distinguishing it as being-said: “in happening, language excludes and separates from itself the non-linguistic, and in the same gesture, it includes and captures it as that with which it is already in relation.”4 For Agamben, being and existence permeate one another not only interstitially, but integrally.
Agamben goes on to interpret being’s co-emergence with being-said as a distinctive departure from classically “negative” ontologies. In a negative account of subject formation, he explains, bare life and political living, thoroughly separated as distinguishable constituents of a binary, materialize through “antagonistic” co-constitution. When situated in biopolitical logic, negative ontology establishes the “bare life” side of the binary as the constitutive limit for the “political living” side. If one re-imagines being as already being-said, however, bare life comes already to consist in political living.5 As Agamben puts it, being originarily includes being-said in its expression:
This means there is never anything like a bare life [in a form-of-life], a life without form that functions as a negative foundation for a superior and more perfect life: corporeal life is always already formed, is always already inseparable from a form.6
Likewise, political living emerges alongside bare life, not as its limit but as a mode of its selfexpression. Political subjectivity, therefore, becomes a form-of-life, the living proper to and coextended
in every instance of life.7
The notion of “use” remains central to what Agamben terms the “reciprocal immanence” conditioning life and political living as a co-extensive dyad rather than as a binary wrought of constitutive negation.8 Every instance of lived experience, Agamben argues, as mediated through social exchange and as definitive of one’s diverse forms-of-life, maintains pure self-relation as its starting point. As self-relating, “use” involves an originary relation-with-self in which first and foremost the subject disposes him or herself to take up the range of meanings that define political, aesthetic, or other forms-of-life.9 More specifically, “use” describes the nonsignifying potential [dynamis] in which a subject reposes in self-relation, as yet without relation to any idea or entity.
In “use,” which always entails a “use-of-self,” a subject stands at the brink of engaging the social contexts that would organize his or her experience as meaningful. Here, Agamben starkly contrasts, but indeed acknowledges the proximity of, “use” and “utilization.”10 On the one hand, utilization references a positive espousal of meaning, the act [energeia] a subject performs when assuming a form-of-life. On the other hand, use signifies a subject’s readiness for meaning, a dispositional “looking-towards” in which the subject has not yet self-identified with meaning. As “use” withholds from positing the subject as socially contextualized, Agamben locates it as a self-relation “beyond every teleology,” a relation which predates contact with externality.11 Prior to self-identification with any political, aesthetic, or ethical form-of-life, then, a subject primordially constitutes him or herself as “one who makes use”12 of the potential to identify.
Agamben recognizes the ethical implications “use” has for biopolitical logic to be at once dilemmatic and generative of a politics of disruption. Subjection to political representation remains inevitable, he asserts, because representative means such as language direct the subject(ed) to integrate particular, highly-structured identities as descriptive of subjectivity. The corollary to channelling potential into an act, in this case an act of claiming political identity, becomes a tacit ratification of meaning as a conceptual apparatus. Imagined partially or even conclusively to express subjectivity, such an act emplaces a subject in a relation to utilization rather than in a self-relational register of “use.” The process of claiming political subjectivity, if undertaken even to facilitate subjective cohesion, threatens to render a subject as mere equipment, as the result of a mere acting-out of being-said. For Agamben, the biopolitical move to separate bare life from political living enacts continually an a priori foreclosure upon one’s originary selfrelation, one’s “use-of-self,” by conceiving life as the ground for living.13 Politically-qualified living, Agamben elucidates, translates in biopolitics to an end-in-itself through which to operationalize bare life as the “preeminent object of politics,”14 an object availed to politicoideological management. Here Agamben converses with the intellectual projects of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, each of whom variously addresses identity as shaped in biopolitical representation. For these and other scholars, biopolitics effaces selfrelation in every instance one reiterates bare life and politically-qualified living as diametric components of the “life” binary.
Political representation, Agamben contends, engenders an interminable, almost Sisyphean praxis of pure acting in the capacity of equipment. Assuming political representation remains paradoxical, however, as in Agamben’s view it embodies the sole mode through which a subject can become intelligible. In terms of life and living, a subject must undertake a form-oflife not simply in order to cohere, but to challenge as his or her ethical task the inadequacies any form of coherence begets.15 Yet if political legibility requires embracing meaningful contexts as representative of subjectivity, how might one formulate a ethics of resistance against meaning itself: that is, if meaning must reduce one to representation? How, in other words, might a subject disrupt his or her relegation to being-said, to being mere equipment for signification? In answer, Agamben advocates enlisting representation to develop a politics of potential, of readiness for meaning through “use-of-oneself.”
A politics of potential maintains “inoperativity” as its modus operandi, a dynamic nonacting that would agitate acts of representation into incessant reconsideration. Agamben perceives the inoperative most prominently in the “working” of art, in the labor art performs from within representation to dismantle representative stasis:
The inoperative work, which results from this suspension of potential, exposes in the act the potential that has brought it into being: if it is a poem, it will expose in the poem the potential of language...if it is an action, it will expose in the act the potential of acting.16
For Agamben, a lasting potential leaves its footprint in the literary work when calcified through an act of writing. When a poet writes, for example, he or she employs language, which in the act of becoming poetic verse transforms potential into non-potential, into meaning. As Agamben argues, however, a poem nevertheless retains traces of its own inoperativity, of its access to open and continual “new use.”17 The “working” of art functions to illuminate the paradox of political representation in two specific ways. First, in art as in the case of political identity, representation solidifies meaning into an intelligible, static form. Second, and in manifest reversal, the very act of representation through which art, political identity, and forms-of-life become intelligible already capitulates to the potential underwriting its ability to represent.18 Agamben identifies the potential allowing for and vitiating all acts of representation as the “inappropriable,” as that which resists representation in and through representation.
Quite simply, the inappropriable refers to experience with which a subject stands in intimate familiarity. Agamben avoids describing “inappropriation” as an abstract function or subset of “alienation,” instead linking the inappropriable to the social contexuality structuring a subject’s contact with the everyday. Experience of one’s own body becomes one such instance that illustrates the inappropriable in its uncanny familiarity: experience which at once remains familiar but which eludes any conceptual totalization.19 Any conceptual appropriation of the body, Agamben explains, yields to a simultaneous representative dearth and excess such that the body appears only as inappropriable.20 That any experience-based formulation cannot totalize the body calls into question the possibility of conceptual immediacy other than as “use.” The only originary perspective, Agamben continues, whether of the body or of the language that formulates its borders, is that of the not-yet signified, the non-experienced potential for meaning in the self-reflexivity of use: “My body is given to me originarily as the most proper thing, only to the extent to which it reveals itself to be absolutely inappropriable.”21 The body, social and political identity, along with any conceptually-represented phenomena, “show” themselves only in their final inability to signify entirely.22
The weakness in representation, that of its thorough self-corruption in the potential that undergirds it, produces a specifically political strength. Potentiality avails politics of a horizon through which to formulate political identity, but a political identity that representation deprives of an immutable form. When applied to biopolitics in particular, Agamben argues, a politics of potential fractures static, binary formulations of life and compels a reassessment of bare life’s functional division from political living. In this capacity, a politics of potential labors to unveil “the ceaseless void that the machine of Western culture guards at its center,” that of the potential obscured through conceptual efforts to totalize life in relation to political identity.23 Representing political identity as inappropriable discloses a subject’s self-relational potential, his or her “useof- self,” a dynamism ultimately irreducible to mere utilization-of-self. Agamben would have us understand, then, that assuming political identity constitutively demands an ethics. Exposing the potential in identity encourages a displacement of any “new articulation” that would arrest and pacify a subject in representative stases.24 In this respect, a form-of-life becomes more than an act of self-identification with political meaning: a form-of-life entreats a subject to permit potentiality and its vertiginous sense of indistinction to mark his or her political representation.
Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies: Homo Sacer IV, 2, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Press, 2015), 264.
Ibid, 228; emphasis added.
Ibid, 30.br />
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller‐Roazen (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1998), 46‐47.
Agamben, The Use of Bodies, 225.