Thanks for everyone last week who came out for time. Sorry for the late email this week. Charles and Brendan are responsible for this week's topic, which is below. We'll be meeting at 7:30 in Connelly for Rides, and 8:00 at Yeats. I hope to see you all there!
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From: Charles P Myers
Date: Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 5:55 PM
Subject: Tapping This Week
To: Francis Prior
Bach and I were talking and this relatively short essay by Giorgio Agamben looks like it could provide a fair amount of discussion fodder.
GERMAN LAW JOURNAL Vol. 05 No. 02
Bodies Without Words: Against the Biopolitical Tatoo
By Giorgio Agamben*
I have read in the newspapers that foreign citizens, when travelling to the United
States on a Visa, will undergo a data registration and have their fingerprints taken.
Not willing to submit myself to this treatment, I decided therefore to cancel my
guest lectures at New York University for March 2004. At this time, I would like to
provide reasons for my decision – a decision that I find necessary and unavoidable
in spite of my sympathies for American students and professors with whom I have
for many years felt connected both in friendship and professional life. This is a
decision that I would hope to be adopted also by other European Intellectuals and
In fact, we are not concerned here solely with the sensitivity of an individual in the
face of a procedure that for many years was imposed upon those who found
themselves under suspicion for an alleged crime or who were suffering political
persecution. If it were only that, one could even imagine facing these degrading
conditions, if only out of solidarity with those that find themselves otherwise
subjected to them. But, the problem before us goes far beyond individual
sensitivity. This problem concerns nothing less than the normal, legal-political
(better: biopolitical) status of citizens in the so-called democratic states in which we
For many years now, at first only occasionally and barely perceptibly, then
increasingly more openly and persistently, there has been an attempt to accustom
citizens to supposedly normal and humane procedures and practices that had
always been considered to be exceptional and inhumane. Today’s electronically
enhanced possibilities of the state to exercise control over its citizens through credit
cards or cellular phones were unimaginable in the past. But there is one threshold
in the control and manipulation of bodies, the transgression of which would signify
a new global political condition. It would equal a next step towards what Foucault
has referred to as the progressive animalization of man through extremely refined
techniques. The electronic registration of finger prints, the subcutaneous tatoo and
other such practices must be located on that threshold.
We ought not to be confused by the security reasons that are being put forward as
their justification. Experience has taught us that practices, at first only applied to
foreigners, were gradually applied to everyone. The question we are concerned
with concerns this new “normal” biopolitical relationship between the citizen and
the state. What we are witnessing is no longer the free and active participation on
the political level, but the appropriation and registration of the most private and
unsheltered element, that is the biological life of bodies. Media installations
controlling and manipulating public speech equal those technological instruments
that identify and appropriate bare life.
In between these two extremes – a word without body and a body without word –
the room that was referred to as politics is increasingly becoming scarce and
narrow. Paradoxically, the citizen is thus rendered a suspect all along, a suspect
against which all those techniques and installations need to be mounted that had
orginally been conceived of only for the most dangerous individuals. Per
definitionem, mankind has been declared the most dangerous of all classes.
A few years ago, I wrote that the city had ceased to be the founding political image
of the West and that it had been replaced by the concentration camp – not Athens,
but Auschwitz. Certainly, this was a philosphical, not a historical thesis. We are not
concerned with the amalgam of phenomena that need to be kept separate. Yet, I
want to call to memory that the practice of tatooing the inmates in Auschwitz was
possibly regarded as a “normal” and economical form of regulating the
incorporation of the deported ones into the camp. The biopolitical tatoo imposed
upon us today when we want to travel into the United States is the baton of what
we might accept tomorrow as the normal way of registering into the mechanism
and the transmission of the state if we want to be identified as good citizens.
How about this:
In the attached essay by Giorgio Agamben, Agamben observes that, "the citizen is thus rendered a suspect all along, a suspect against which all those techniques and installations need to be mounted that had orginally been conceived of only for the most dangerous individuals." Certainly, following the terrorist attacks, this has been the case. But is it a justifiable course of action? Is the state, in treating citizens as suspects only revealing its own impotence when it comes to defending them? Without the ability to guarantee the safety of those under it, can the modern state retain its legitimacy; and, if so, how?