Lawful + Unlawful = Lawfully Unlawful

March 24, 2011

Bare-Life Makes Our Lives Even Fuller / A non-citizen prisoner made a political logo to unify a nation

(Original image taken from Albert Spear’s Welthauptstadt Germania)

Homo Sacer – Giorgio Agamben

Agamben’s essay ‘The Camp as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern’ discusses the Nazi death camps that were used as political instruments in the lead up and during the second world war, relating their conception to a permanent state of emergency. Agamben also considers the ‘lawfulness’ of the torture within the camps and the environment that created whereby such brutal treatment of human life is excepted as legitimate actions to protect a nation. By stripping the Jews of their German citizenship they were reduced to bare-life and as such ‘distinction between life and politics, between questions of fact and and of law, has literally no meaning’ (p172). By stripping the camps’ inhabitants of their citizenship and therefore the rights of German citizens the camps functioned in a twofold manner defining Jewish life as ‘life unworthy of living’ and German life as ‘full life’ (p173) in an attempt to strengthen the national identity. By linking the national identity to the direct removal of the rights of a group of individuals the camps became the most ‘absolute bio political space’ where pure power confronts bare life.

Agamben is keen to point out that these camps were not an isolated horror but rather grew from circumstances that are intrinsic to ideas of national sovereignty, ideas that are perhaps fostered by contemporary liberal democratic nations. The death camps were an extension of normal practise, a continuation of the previous government’s laws – a state of emergency that was left in place – meant to protect the rights of the greater German population by stripping the rights of certain individuals. This is a concept often excepted as normal within the ongoing international ‘War on Terror’ environment we now find ourselves, whereby new laws are created as reactions to events that restrict or monitor movement of individuals. Agamben also makes a distinction that by stripping the Jews of rights they weren’t just occupying a space ‘outside’ law but rather a space ‘taken outside’ and in this way they were ‘included through exclusion’ (p170), and in this way we must consider the ‘city’s interior, as the new nomos of the planet’.


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