Recommended Reading

Yesterday I received the new issue of the New Left Review in the mail. NLR is one of my favorite journals and its arrival in my mailbox is always eagerly welcomed. One article immediately struck me; a short piece by Susan Willis titled “Guantanamo’s Symbolic Economy.” The article is empirically horrifying as it is theoretically compelling. Since authoritarianism and totalitarianism are subjects of concern on this blog, I thought I would point readers to it.

Unfortunately, the article is only available to subscribers. I urge readers to get their hands on it. In the meantime here is a short excerpt:

A lawyer representing some of the Guantanamo detainees has argued that, in conjuring the category of ‘illegal enemy combatant’, the US Administration cast the detainees ‘outside the law’. But is the terrorist suspect really outside the law or is he, as Giorgio Agamben defines it, homo sacer: he ‘who may be killed and yet not sacrificed’; a being whose exclusion from the law is the very means by which the law constitutes itself? At stake here is an idea of sovereignty founded on distinguishing the simple fact of life—‘bare life’ itself—from the polis. But the act of making bare life into the state of exception that grounds all law also incorporates it into the political order. Was not Dilawar rendered homo sacer by reason of the state of exceptionality that shrouds Bagram? Agamben’s historical referent is the Nazi concentration camp, but he might have had Guant?namo in mind in distinguishing the camp from a prison: ‘while prison law only constitutes a particular sphere of penal law and is not outside the normal order, the juridical constellation that guides the camp is . . . martial law and the state of siege.’ Among the bleakest effects of Patriot Acts I and II is the way they serve to cast terrorist suspects into the legal limbo of the banned. As Agamben puts it, ‘he who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather “abandoned” by it.’[1] Certainly, the detainee, bound in a foetal position, would have to feel that life and law had become indistinguishable, if not indifferent.

The United States, it seems, is becoming the nation of the foetus—both the sacred and the banned. Besides those that pro-lifers carry about in jars at anti-abortion rallies, may we not also consider the brain-dead Terri Schiavo to be in some sense a foetus? ‘Better to err on the side of life’, was George Bush’s pronouncement over Schiavo’s inert body. For the Christian right, Schiavo was a sacred foetus, whose death would be forever remembered as a sacrifice; a martyr in the holy war against abortion. For others—including, it seems, her husband—she was simply a body whose organs continued to function. The Schiavo case dramatized the polarization of America with respect to definitions of life and death. But her status as a sacred foetus has fast been superseded in the American psyche by the mass production of microscopic foetuses produced in fertility clinics. Homo sacer has migrated into genomics. Are embryos now to be killed by the thousands in the attempt to develop remedies for the elderly? Or is each cluster of cells a being whose murder will reverberate throughout the nano-sphere as a crime and a sacrifice?

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford 1990.

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