The Figure of This World by Mathew Abbott
Since the start of the current Pandemic, I was becoming increasingly obsessed by Giorgio Agamben and his provocative declarations concerning the state of emergency or the state of exception under the Covid-19 restrictions. An Italian friend of mine, philosopher scientist and academic had told me that the current rumors in Italy say that the old philosopher has lost his mind. But my philosophical intuition, always prone to search for truths in the most unlikely and unnatural places would not let me rest content with such sweeping dismissals. This is my humble invitation to you. Let’s dig deeper and find out what lies behind Agamben’s “madness” and whether there is a method to it after all. But be warned: When I delve into a text and begin to write, I never know where the research will take me. I cannot make any promises. It may turn out that we won’t even have any room to address the Covid-19 crisis directly, not yet at least. The Figure of this World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology is a book written about Agamben by Mathew Abbott a senior lecturer of Social Sciences and Humanities at Federation University. I will try to provide a brief overview of the text and hopefully shed some light on Agamben’s lifelong project(s), allowing you, the reader, to make all the relevant connections concerning the importance of Agamben’s work today, for yourself.
In the opening pages, Abbott takes care to clarify his goal: The aim of the book is an in-depth exposition of Agamben’s political philosophy, which aims to forecast the future of politics. Drawing on Heidegger, Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, the book seeks to place Agamben’s work in a historical perspective within the tradition of continental philosophy.
The first “move” is to prevent ourselves from the most tempting philosophical inclination toward metaphysical speculation and abstract generality. The search for absolute foundations and certainty must be abandoned in favour of posing the concrete and existential question of being. That is, “how we are” in our regular everydayness and how this state of everydayness, in fact, conceals multiple levels of complex ways of being. These are simultaneously obscured from ourselves by ourselves as well as by those institutions which seek to exert power upon them.
The term political ontology is pivotal for Abbott, as it captures both sides of thinking the question of being. That is, both thinking and being, both theory and practice; both the abstract and the concrete.
“Political ontology is the study of the political stakes of the question of being”
The groundless nature of being is particularly evident in politics where power operates without a foundation or grounding. Politics is the arena of temporary alliances, petty dominations and sudden shifts of perspectives and paradigms. A space of risk, violent perturbations and sudden upheavals. Especially today, power is completely decentered, it operates like a market trend with no clear overarching finality or goal. Despite its amorphous nature, it would be ridiculous to state that power is ineffective. Causing change is not the same as having a consistent outcome. It is precisely the unintended effects of human action that bring about the most significant transformations.
This concretization or destruction of the classical Western Platonic equation of being with the Idea is what paves the way for Abbott’s (and Agamben’s) post-metaphysical political ontology. This way, philosophical speculation becomes politically and existentially relevant. It is precisely through the clarification of the notion of political ontology, a necessary preliminary to understanding Agamben’s work, that Abbott seeks to bring the more central concepts to a finer relief.
One of these, is the inclusive-exclusion of human life within the domain of sovereignty. “In this aporia, the natural life of human subjects is excluded from the city as something extraneous to political life, and yet constitutive of the city as that which must be presupposed for the construction of political life to be possible” writes Abbott on page 17. This is the paradox of the necessary exclusion, that is, an exclusion that serves as the condition for the existence of political life. Politics is dependent upon the existence of an apolitical domain. The distinction between the realm of non-political, that is bare life is denoted by the term zoe, whereas the active life of the citizen is referred to as the bios. In this sense there is an apparently contradictory mutual exclusion and dependence between bios and zoe where the existence of the first is contingent upon the (excluded) existence of the latter.
In many ways, it is precisely zoe or biological life that refers to the concrete question of being mentioned before. An ontological question rooted in Heideggerian thinking. Today, bare life has emerged again and returned to the sphere of politics, thereby initiating a new movement in contemporary thought: Biopolitics. Biopolitics is precisely what we witness today with the ongoing limitations imposed on us in the name of an abstract, yet specifically biological notion of the health of the population. The biological well-being of human life has become the new sovereign, the final paradigm of governance.
The problem of the biopoliticization of human life, or the reduction of civil rights to the scientific problem of securing bare life, is both epistemological and ethical. It matters little whether our freedoms are annexed in the name of health, economic growth, a King or a God; whether this occurs through cheap rhetoric, mythological thinking, religious appeals to the sacred, or well established and “fact-based” scientific discourse. What does matter, is that an emergency situation, a crisis is used to foster a state of exception, where biosecurity begins to operate as paradigm for governance. Put simply: If the danger is significant enough, the state has a right to use totalitarian means to justify its ends; be it “flattening the curve”, “reducing contagion” or otherwise managing the spread of (in this case) a virus.
The epistemological problem is that human life can never be reduced to its biological substratum. The residue of idiosyncrasy, the unique gestures of the body, the physiognomy of (still) material being. There is always an excess of life that evades the biological or biomedical gaze. We are never fully within the zoe. This shows once again, that public health is never just a scientific problem and it is therefore unconstitutional to pose the problem of managing the crisis as a technical question and relegate our lives to a group of anonymous experts.