Sunday, 20 March 2011

Homo S(F)acer

I've been thinking a little more about the discussion begun here; or more precisely, I have been thinking about one aspect of it.

In a recent LRB essay ‘I am the decider’, Hal Foster reviews the new translation of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign, and in doing so rehearses the recent theorising of ‘homo sacer’ via Agamben, Derrida himself and Eric Santner (via that old Nazi Carl Schmitt). Derrida:
At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures and have the same structure and are correlativeL the sovereign is the one with respetc to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.
It's interesting, especially the paragraps on Santner's On Creaturely Life (2006), a book I hadn't hitherto come across.
Creaturely life, as Santner defines it -- 'life abandoned to the state of exception/emergency, that paradoxical domain in which law has been suspended in the name of preserving law -- is close to bare life. But he adds two important touchstones of his own, Kafka and W.G.Sebald, some of whose characters, caught between human and nonhuman states, or stranded in the vertiginous space of exile, allow Santner to imagine bare life from the position of homo sacer, 'on the threshole where life takes on its secific biopolitical intensity, where it assumes the cringed posture of the creature.'
Not to go from the negative sublime to the ridiculous, but I'm interested in the 'exceptional' state of SF with respect to other genres of literature; the 'cringe' of embarassment it can't shake off, howsoever prouldy its adherants proclaim its princely supremacy. SF is the genre sacer, outside the law as a way for 'genre' itself to uphold the law.

This, I think, has to do with one of the elephants in the futuristic room of SF: its juvenility. That it is in many ways an adolescent mode of art seems to me not a thing to deplore or hide, still less a thing to be purged in the evolution of the genre into some notional full aesthetic 'maturity'. It seems to be precisely the ground of the genre's potential for true greatness. Alone amongst the genres of contemporary literature, SF understands that the energies informing contemporary life, its kinetic restlessness, its tech-facility, its cyclotropic moods, its to-the-bone fasciation with sex and violence, are precisely adolescent ones. At the same time this is the quantity about which contemporary thought and culture is most ashamed.

To bring in a parallel, this is what Foster says about 'my own field, modernist art': particular its pesistent fascination with the art of the child, the insane and the primitive. For the most part the [critical] inquiry into this has been conducted in terms of the unconscious and the other, that is, in the languages of psychoanalysis anthropology. This is not wrong as far as it goes, but might we not also view these identifications as creaturely expressions of a 'fissure in the soace of meaning' opened up by 'exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power'?
Mutatis mutandi, this comittment to a version of the 'the child, the insane and the primitive' defines SF too.

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