March 23, 2011

In “The Camp as the Nomos of the Modern”, Agamben again turns his attention to the employment of a “state of exception” by governments as a means to exercise complete power over their citizens, this time in relation to the concentration camp. According to Agamben, the concentration camp has been misunderstood by historians as an “anomaly belonging to the past” (Agamben, p167) that involves a redefinition of the old political system according to new requirements. Conversely, Agamben argues it is the ever-present “hidden matrix of politics” (Agamben, p175) that is produced by a rupture in the relationship between the State and its citizens: the creation of a zone entirely outside the rule of law. In this respect, the camp is a crimeless space, devoid of human rights, possessing endless possibilities and existing (largely latent) within our political system.

The camp physically becomes a “camp” when it is given a permanent spatial arrangement, however, its inception is more diffuse and insidious. According to Schmitt, its germination is traced to seeds of indeterminacy planted in legislation; the inclusion of concepts like “public initiative”, “important motive”, “public security and order” “states of danger” and “public necessity” which, as Agamben notes, refer not to a definable, quantitative rule, but to a subjective situation. The pairing of such ambiguous concepts with the abduction of fundamental civil liberties renders all juridical concepts indeterminate and subject to the whims of the State. The implicit message here is the importance of citizens’ active and critical engagement with the political sphere as a means of preventing governments from opportunistically disempowering its people.

Yet the tendancy to disempower and to reject is not an action confined to the sphere of government.  Human beings form alliances and oppositions, and exercise power relations continuously; many have argued it is an intrinsic part of the way we relate to one another. It is in the interests of both the government and citizenship alike that the people of one nation are undivided. The seemingly natural propensity of people to seek power at the expense of others and to engage in forms of conflict renders this singularly largely unrealized. According to Agamben “our age is nothing but the implacable and methodical attempt to overcome the division dividing the people, to eliminate the people that are excluded” (Agamben, 179). In the case of Nazi Germany, this attempt for a singular people involved the systematic extermination of those who were unable to conform to the ideal. According to Agamben, this is analogous to the West’s support of the development of the Third World, presumably as it involves the suspension of democracy and human rights as a “temporary” means to aid development.

Agamben argues that the way forward is the acceptance of the “fundamental biopolitical fracture of the West”, yet the implications of this are not clear. Should we accept multiplicity and the inherent fracture in human nature that produces class and racial conflict – then what? Are we condoning inequality if we do not act to reduce the “gaps”, should we “act” or “not act” when confronted with poverty or injustice?

_Marnie Morieson


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