Homo sacer – bare life/political existence, zoē/bios, exclusion/inclusion

Agamben, p. 12

If this is true, it will be necessary to reconsider the sense of the Aristotelian definition of the polis as the opposition between life (zēn) and good life (eu zēn). The opposition is, in fact, at the same time an implication of the first in the second, of bare life in politically qualified life. What remains to be interrogated in the Aristotelian definition is not merely – as has been assumed until now – the sense, the modes, and the possible articulations of the “good life” as the telos of the political. We must instead ask why Western politics first constitutes itself through an exclusion (which is simultaneously an inclusion) of bare life. What is the relation between politics and life, if life presents itself as what is included by means of an exclusion? The structure of the exception delineated in the first part of this book appears from this perspective to be consubstantial with Western politics.

In Foucault’s statement according to which man was, for Aristotle, a “living animal with the additional capacity for political existence,” it is therefore precisely the meaning of this “additional capacity” that must be understood as problematic. The peculiar phrase “born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life” can be read not only as an implication of being born (ginomenē) in being (ousa) but also as an inclusive exclusion (an exceptio) of zoē in the polis, almost as if politics were the place in which life had to transform itself into good life and in which what had to be politicized were always already bare life. In Western politics, bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.It is not by chance, then, that a passage of the Politics situates the proper place of the polis in the transition from voice to language. The link between bare life and politics is the same link that the metaphysical definition of man as “the living being who has language” seeks in the relation between phonē and logos:

The question “In what way does the living being have language?” corresponds exactly to the question “In what way does bare life dwell in the polis?” The living being has logos by taking away and conserving its own voice in it, even as it dwells in the polis by letting its own bare life be excluded, as an exception, within it. Politics therefore appears as the truly fundamental structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized. In the “politicization” of bare life – the metaphysical task par excellence – the humanity of living man is decided. In assuming this task, modernity does nothing other than declare its own faithfulness to the essential structure of the metaphysical tradition. The fundamental categorial pair of Western politics is not that of friend/enemy but that of bare life/political existence, zoē/bios, exclusion/inclusion. There is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion.


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