Several times in my previous interventions I have evoked the figure of bare life. In fact, it seems to me that the epidemic shows beyond any possible doubt that humanity no longer believes in anything except in the bare existence to be preserved as such at any price.
The Christian religion with its works of love and mercy and with its faith to the point of martyrdom, political ideology with its unconditional solidarity, even trust in work and money seem to take second place as soon as bare life it is threatened, albeit in the form of a risk whose statistical entity is fleeting and deliberately indeterminate.
The time has come to clarify the meaning and origin of this concept.
For this it is necessary to remember that the human is not something that can be defined once and for all.
It is rather the place of an incessantly updated historical decision, which each time fixes the boundary that separates man from animal, what is human in man from what is not human in him and outside him.
When Linnaeus searches for a characteristic note for his classifications that separates man from primates, he must confess that he does not know it and ends up putting next to the generic name homo only the old philosophical adage: nosce te ipsum, know yourself. This is the meaning of the term sapiens that Linnaeus will add in the tenth edition of his system of nature: man is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human and must therefore divide – decide – the human from what is not.
The device through which this decision takes place historically can be called an anthropological machine.
The machine works by excluding animal life from man and producing the human through this exclusion.
But for the machine to work, exclusion must also be an inclusion, that between the two poles – the animal and the human – there is an articulation and a threshold that divides and joins them together.
This articulation is bare life, that is, a life that is neither properly animal nor truly human, but in which the decision between the human and the non-human takes place every time.
This threshold, which necessarily passes inside man, separating biological from social life in him, is an abstraction and a virtuality, but an abstraction that becomes real by embodying itself each time in concrete and politically determined historical figures: slave, the barbarian, the homo sacer, whom anyone can kill without committing a crime, in the ancient world; the enfant-sauvage, the wolf-man and homo alalus as the missing link between the monkey and man between the Enlightenment and the century XIX; the citizen in the state of exception, the Jew in the Lager, the overcomatous in the resuscitation room and the body preserved for the removal of organs in the century XX.
What is the figure of [a] bare life that is in question today in the management of the pandemic?
It is not so much the [figure of a…] patient who is isolated and treated as a patient [who] has never been treated [in this way] in the [whole] history of medicine; rather, it is the infected or – as it is defined with a contradictory formula – the asymptomatic patient, [that is…] something that every man is virtually, even without knowing it.
In question is not so much [about] health, but rather [about] a life that is neither healthy nor sick, which, as such, as potentially pathogenic, can be deprived of its freedoms and subjected to prohibitions and controls of all kinds.
All men are, in this sense, virtually asymptomatic sufferers.
The only identity of this life fluctuating between illness and health is that of [a] being [,] the recipient of the tampon and the vaccine, which, like the baptism of a new religion, define the inverted figure of what was once called citizenship.
[The] Baptism is no longer indelible, but necessarily provisional and renewable, because the new citizen, who must always show the certificate, no longer has inalienable and undecidable rights, but only obligations that must be incessantly decided and updated.
Source: Giorgio Agamben – QUODLIBET