Definition through Exclusion

March 24, 2011

Agamben proposes in his book Homo Sacer that a state of emergency does not result gradually from normal judicial procedure (the regular means of a state mandating its rule over the population) but rather as a complete break from this. The resulting rule outside of this norm allows the State to define what it is not (through exclusion) to protect what it is. The exclusion of this ‘other’ removes the rights associated with a citizen and reduces them to what Agamben terms “bare life”. Because this is done in the name of protection, it is then easier to prolong this rule of exception until it becomes the norm, resulting in the formation of camps. This creates “a permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains outside the normal order”. Because the camp “operate[s] between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit” they become what Agamben terms an “absolute biopolitical space”. In the National Socialist State of Germany it was required for citizens to align themselves solely by race (the triad of nation, state and territory) rather than fact and law. Once this distinction was made between ‘our race’ (that of the ruling State) and ‘your race’ (the other), it was thus easy to enable the relegation of the other to “bare life”. This “permanent state of exception” is so dangerous because the State is able define the ‘other’ whilst simultaneously ruling judicially against them. Agamben notes that in this way the Fuhrer in Germany was “living law”. The camp is “a space in which bare life and the juridical rule enter into a threshold of indistinction”.

Agamben sets forward the proposition that the camp is not an abnormality of modern political space but is in fact a resultant of it. In modern political life there is a great discrepancy between the nation-state (birth and territory) and “bare life”, which results in a camp. Because the camp operates in this fission it shows the crumbling and ultimate failure of modern political states. The resulting “dislocating localization” means for Agamben there can never be a solution until “there will no longer be, strictly speaking, any people”, in this case people as defined by a nation. This internalization of nation to the singular is a hint at a particular alternative to the narrative Agamben sets out, however it is not clear what Agamben proposes beyond the vague assumption of a porous territory. If the camp has taken over the city as the dominant paradigm of the West, what does this mean for the built form?  If we are to become global nomads with no fixed sense of identity based on local place, do we no longer require any permanency in our urban fabric? How does this porosity manifest itself in buildings beyond the literal?

-Tim Brooks

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