Monday, 17 September 2007


When Agamben talks about homo sacer (in interviews and such) he often reverts to the figure of the prisoner. If the state of exception is the determining socio-political environment for homo sacer, then prisons are the clearest manifestation of the state of exception. So, for example, he says: “we can no longer differentiate between what is private and what public … both sides of the classical opposition appear to be losing their reality. And the detention camp at Guantánamo is the locus par excellence of this impossibility. The state of exception consists, not least, in the neutralization of this distinction. ”

Andonis Tsonis says:

A most striking space where we can locate this phenomenon is the prison camp. Inside the prison camp, law and punishment, zoe [ie Agamben's 'biological life'] and bios [political life], and exclusion and inclusion indeed enter a zone of indistinction. The prison camp is that tangible space where law has everywhere suspended itself in favour of the exception.

But there’s something peculiar about this. The economics of it is all screwy. The comparison between the Nazi death camps and Guantánamo, whilst manifesting an attractive polemical thrust, is inexact: the death camps were, mostly, labour camps, where prisoners were worked—to death, some of them, or until such time as they could be murdered. This work was economically productive for the oppressive regime. Prisons in the US or UK, on the other hand, are unproductive and enormously expensive—it costs less to send a boy to Eton for a year than to hold a man in custody in a UK prison. If prisoners truly existed in a state of exception, wouldn’t the power that holds them make the most of their imprisonment, on its own terms? Force them to labour, or else simply exterminate them to keep their costs down? In fact, if somebody dies in prison it costs the government much more, in time and money, than it does if (say) a homeless person freezes to death, unnoticed, in the street.

The answer, I suspect, is that labour itself has undergone a paradigm shift. The Nazi Death Camps were, whilst they operated, kept secret; but the whole point of Guantánamo is display. The only reason we don't have a 24-webcam feed from the camp is that, by invoking the rubric of secrecy, the powers-that-be understand that they act to increase interest in the place. Nevertheless, its inmates work for the US government as performers, acting out for the world’s gaze (whether approving or—much more commonly—outraged) US power, as a deterrent, and US carelessness of world opinion, as a signifier of strength. But that's not exceptional; that's vanilla flavour alpha-male social interaction. That's the norm.

1 comment:

Aaron Trujillo said...

May someone tell me where I can find Andonis Tsonis's paper The Refugee & the Decline of the Nation State, the website changed and I have no idea where the paper is now?