Border erosion

March 18, 2011

Giorgio Agamben’s essays Form of life and Beyond human rights cover a number of key concepts he has developed and theorised upon. He outlines historically, two separate types of human existence; a biological type (zoē) and a political type (bios). According to Roman law, a person could be stripped of their citizenry, ie. of their bios, and still exist within society as zoē, without rights or acknowledgement. This person, existing within the borders of a state, though politically excluded, was called Homo Sacer (through the vicissitudes of language, the term has lost its connotation of ‘set apart’ and is associated with ‘sacred’). In contemporary politics, bios and zoē have been merged and are no longer acknowledged as individual entities, the citizen is not seen as possessing both.

The other important concept to note is the ‘state of exception.’ Historically, a sovereign power had/has the right, during a state of emergency, or when threatened, to pass laws in self interest and preservation. Agamben draws upon Walter Benjamin’s assertion that this is no longer the exception but the rule; governments position themselves are in a permanent state of exception. This has been seen in recent pre-emptive political acts such as the US Patriot Act and Israeli incursions into disputed territory with Palestine, justified by each for the protection of their citizenry. The first and lengthiest state of exception was enacted by the Nazi government to expel any number of minorities, most notably the Jews. German Jewry found themselves to be Homo Sacer, existing within the state but with no rights at all.

Hannah Arendt’s We Refugees is inextricably linked to Agamben’s essays and is a deeply personal reflection on the quagmire of being a stateless refugee, a modern homo sacer. After the Jews were systematically ghettoised and removed from many European states, Arendt desires a freedom to express cultural and personal identity, without having to be naturalised or expatriated regardless of which border she crosses.

One of the arguments that can be drawn from it is that even though a government/sovereignty may agree to the naturalising of or protection of a refugee, the acceptance by the populace is another matter entirely. The ‘optimistic facade’ that the itinerant German Jewry repeatedly had to apply to themselves to assimilate smothered their real identity.

Like Arendt, Agamben presents a polemical and utopian claim for each citizen to be be free to move through the “…spaces of states [that] have been thus perforated and topologically deformed and in which the citizen has been able to recognise the refugee that he or she is.” Of course, he has the luxury of not having to be concerned so much with praxis, however, in a fashion, changes have started to occur in the form of the European Union and the agreements between democratic countries involved.

The Schengen agreement was first signed in 1985 by France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to allow internal access through their internal borders. The number of signatories since then include most of the European Union(EU). This is in addition to union citizens’ rights to freely move and reside throughout the EU. This extra freedom of movement has come with a heightened level of surveillance though I think this is more symptomatic of information collection and exchange worldwide rather than being specific to the situation.

Seemingly, Agamben’s call for a topological deformation of borders may not have to be as dramatically spatial or physical as first imagined, becoming little more than a cartographic abstraction. Like the proverbial band-aid, the quicker one tears if off, the less distress it causes.

Ash Mackey.


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