(homo sacer, Agamben, violence against women)
“We are the just and upright, we maintain.
Hold out your hands if they are clean
no fury of ours will stalk you,
you will go through life unscathed.
But show us the guilty – one like this
who hides his reeking hands,
and up from the outraged dead we rise,
witness bound to avenge their blood
we rise in flames against him to the end!”
(Lines 310 -320 ) The chorus of the Furies in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.
If blood is no evidence, then justice is no guide, and we proliferate within an order which we have yet to come to know.
On May 23rd, 2014, Rodger Elliot took up arms against women. Women were hunted as a class of people, as a subgroup, made particular by their collective deserving to be killed. Elliot killed men. Elliot killed men for their perceived dominion over women.
In the deluge that followed, one is easily lost. (Orestes, acquitted? “Look, not a stain on the hands that touch your idol”. (Line 459) Orestes to Athena in Eumenides, Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.)
(“Can a son spill his mother’s blood on the ground then settle into his father’s halls in Argos? Where are the public altars he can use?
CAN THE KINSMEN’S HOLY WATER TOUCH HIS HANDS?” (Lines 661-662) in Eumenides, Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.
– The Furies to whoever of the court will listen)
We are speechless before whoever will listen, Apollo, Orestes, the digital tempest. Lost in the great welter of myths and analytics – the stuff of two centuries of (modern) sociological, psychological and political inquiry – a repository of rubble and constructs – our premier conceptual instruments inevitably lie next to those we wished to render obsolete. They lie next to each other, coterminous. Depressingly and in fact, they are known to us by their stark similarity, their structural homology.
If one were to extricate one concept from the next, and if one were to then set these – our denuded archetypes and theoretical devices – on the wall, and if they were placed separately, they would be revealed as they are: no arms to speak of, no guardians against chaos.
“Our quarry’s slipped from our nets,
Our quarry’s lost and gone” (Line 148) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. The Furies, upon waking.
Events like the Isla Vista murders, the massacre at the École Polytechnique, 1989- and others – there are so many others – there are others every day – take the crystalline and exquisite questions of the academy and break them. On the floor of a tiled room where the disciplines reconcile with themselves, there are – there can be found in the aftermath – a carpet of irreducible fragments.
“Answer count for count, charge for charge, First tell us, did you kill your mother?” The furies to Orestes at his trial for matricide (Line 593) in Eumenides, trans. Robert Fagles.
“I killed her. There’s no denying that.” (Line 594) Orestes’ response. Eumenides , trans. Robert Fagles.
There is no explaining violence against women. In this context, when speaking of this violence – this unpunishable violence – staggering in past evidence of endlessness – ‘to explain’ is, inevitably, to exculpate Orestes again and again. To ‘explain’ does not only cheapen the blood on the ground, it is to – CULTURE! PSYCHODRAMA! WESTERN EXCESS! MASCULINITY! WHITENESS! GUNS! GUNS! GUNS! – contribute to the ever-amplifying din, distracting from the only work that can be done. Explanations, in this case, as they are often, are barbiturates, designed to stupefy and to silence. (Culture is gossamer stuff – no less real in its difficulty to understand – but, if an argument posits ‘culture’, at the center and culture is, seemingly, up there in the ether, there is no recourse. There is no action. One is left staring upwards at the very gods you seek to overthrow.)
Some arguments inscribe his actions, his words, his hatred, into a given sphere of meanings – disordered narcissism, sexism, racism, capitalism – and in naming these undercurrents, in highlighting their virulence, such arguments point the way forward. It remains that there are other questions to be asking.
There is a charge towards the end of “Precarious Life”: the Humanities, if the discipline has a future, must “return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty, and at the limits of its capacity to make sense .” To situate humanness within understanding, to, in essence, be returned to what we are, to stumble upon ourselves even and especially in the wake of the Isla Vista killings, the questions that itch are more primary. These questions bear on ontological concerns and how bloodshed differs from the crushing of an alabaster breast.
(“The blood sleeps, it is fading on my hands, the stain of mother’s murder, washing clean” (Line 279) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. Orestes at Athena’s temple )
The Homo Sacer is the figure that can be killed but never sacrificed. (71)
As offered by Giorgio Agamben, as a vagary of Roman law, “homo sacer belongs to God in the form of unsacrificeability and is included in the community in the form of being able to be killed” (82). The homo sacer exercises membership in political life to the extent that it can be cleanly excised from it.
The homo sacer persists – when she does – in the interstitial space that blurs homicide and sacrifice (82) “a zone of indistinction” (83) between the ritualized killing of a votive offering and murder (82).
The killing of the homo sacer is sanctioned by law and to kill her is unpunishable. Her formal relationship to juridical order is involuted – it literally folds back upon itself – existing within the penumbra of the law, she is forever banned, always and forever inside and outside of its the sovereign’s limitless protection.
Agamben employs the homo sacer as a fact of bare life – not metaphor – as a cipher, to make sense of the originary political structure of sovereignty, (sovereignty) as responsible for structuring the aporias that today plague metaphysics.
Though he steps lightly, the subject of his book is less sovereignty, less the sacred-profane paradox, than it is Being, and it’s true, his goal is to save Being from us, or more precisely, the Heidiggerian task of salvaging Being from thinking being, to think Being beyond the form of relation to beings. He draws a parallel to Heidigger’s discussion of the problem of Seinsverlassenheit, or the Being’s abandonment of a world that we are indebted to Being in the first order for revealing:
Agamben: “What is at issue in this abandonment is not something (Being) that dismisses and discharges something else (the being). On the contrary: here Being is nothing other than the being’s being abandoned and remitted to itself; here Being is nothing other than the ban of the being. (59)
Being, as an activity, becomes the damned activity of not seeking Being when it won’t be found. Tantalus, veiny arms taught, yearning and falling before the fruit trees, but now, Tantalus aware of hunger but unaware of fruit; moreover, in the abandonment, it becomes impossible, as noted by S.L. Bartky as published in Inquiry, to distinguish between Being and beings (82 2008) . We are benighted:
(The crisis of the age is a forgetting of Being, or more specifically, a forgetting of the mystery or secret of Being, which is the ontological difference between Being and beings i.e. between the concrete revelation of a world and the conditions which make possible any revelation whatsoever) S. L. Bartky
Some kind of blind awareness of light elsewhere.
“Girls and mothers, dress our Furies now in blood-red robes.” (Line 1039) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles. Athena to the women of Athens.
Agamben wrangles with this metaphysical horizon in the context of modern political life, and specifically within its juridical order. Like language (Agamben 50) , the laws of any given sovereign presuppose themselves in the unutterable, in what is anterior to law, which is in this case bare life. Hobbes construed ‘bare life’ as the state of nature, the ghost of which mellifluously whispers it’s awareness under the coding of every statute, for it is bare life, which constitutes the modern political order, and us, shackled within it.
Agamben: “In Western politics, bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men”.
Bare life, in this way is the exception that never was. The laws of the sovereign are before, beyond and behind you, even when they weren’t. Even when your city was a pile of scree on the Palatine hill. The law is fortified, it is sustained by what preceded the city and by what now stalks the woods, the encroaching woods beyond the gates:
“What happened and is still happening before our eyes is that “juridically empty” space of the state of exception ( in which law is in force in the figure of its own dissolution, and in which everything that the the sovereign deemed de facto necessary could happen) has transgressed its spatiotemporal boundaries and now, overflowing outside them is starting to coincide with the normal order, in which everything again becomes possible.” (38)
Manifest in any given number of police states over the last two centuries, the “juridically empty” space that constitutes sovereign power is a space of horrific and unqualified violence. The state of exception, through which sovereignty is forever becoming – elastically constituting and reconstituting – in its subjugation of all bare life, renders bare life susceptible to its violence.
Under Roman law, all men (all those who could) took shelter under the aegis of the law; thus, they were consecrated, homo sacri – that“ originary exception in which human life is included in the political order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed” (85). Agamben refers to this making-precarious, making-killable but also making-sacred (cannot be sacrificed), which occurs in effect though not in name, as the payment levied for participation in political life (90).
And now, according to Agamben, by virtue of ‘natural rights’, morsels of right, which are parceled, doled out by whichever – often democratic – nomos presides, all – all citizens – often ‘inalienably’, participate in their own divestment. In his protection under the law, every subject is also stripped of what might have protected him from “an unconditional subjection to a power of death” (90). His wilderness is forever lost to him, though (now) it was never his.
It may be that, proliferating within this specific political order, all life is bare life and all life – all life under the sovereign – exists precariously under the threat of sovereign violence, but women do not live and they do die on margins of even this order.
“There is no clearer way to say that the first foundation of political life is a life that may be killed which is politicized through its very capacity to be killed” (89).
Its very capacity – its limitless capacity, is what gives this figure – is what gives her – her dimensions, her form for her future, and ultimately, for her use. Within this violence – this sempiternal violence – how many elegies? how many? And the incantations still resound somewhere – Within this violence, sovereign power recognizes itself. Violence against women and sovereign violence are like kinds; moreover, they are fractals of the same order. Violence against women is mimetic of if not the same as the violence of the nation state, and if this is a war, it doesn’t have a name. The examples are so legion and so sickening, they’re not worth listing here. I speak of the instances when the deaths of women are no deaths to speak of.
“I will cast my lot for you. No mother gave me birth.
Yes, with all my heart, I am my father’s child. I cannot set more store by the woman’s death – she killed her husband guardian of their house.
Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins” – The verdict offered by Athena (Lines 750-756) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.
Even if the vote is equal.
Women, by their very being alive, lead political lives as such, Walking memento moris and with stigmata tattooed over fleshy tissue where blood does run, forced to bitterly wonder: how does one comport oneself – oneself, one’s status “unconditional subjection to the power of death” as homo sacri – among the living? praying that some sovereign does not toss them into darkness, on this day, during this long night?
“The watchman must stand guard upon the heart.
It helps, at times to suffer into truth
Is there a man who knows no fear
in the brightness of his heart, or a man’s city, both are one,
that still reveres the rights?” (Lines 531 – 535) in Eumenides , Aeshchylus, trans. Robert Fagles.