Bare Death: The Telos of the Modern Democratic Nation State

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”-Thomas Jefferson et. al

Bodies fell to the burst of musket fire, and democracy was born. The production of a systemic constellation of power, born in the flame and fervor of the American Revolution, left behind a notion of human rights built off the understanding of “Life” as a self-evident truth. But as cannons boomed, and men worked in cluttered spaces, quills in hand, what was the underlying motive consolidated into the climactic document of the Declaration of Independence? Putting pressure on the telos of this document, and the subsequent revolution and democratic nation state it initiated, the deceptively simple notion of “Life,” in the capitalized Jeffersonian understanding, is found at its core. Simple in the sense that “Life” provides a unified and digestible telos for war, society, and political objectives, the way in which it manifests itself however, can best be understood through the ancient Greek etymologies of zoē and bios. Unpacking the Grecian perceptions of “Life” not only allows for a more thorough understanding of modern democracy, but the troubled and paradoxical nature of its telos. Giorgio Agamben wrestles with the notions of zoē and bios in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, where a simple understanding of exactly what was declared in Jefferson’s document, quickly becomes a complicated and paradoxical answer. In an attempt to come to a fuller understanding of zoē and bios, implementing Agamben’s focus on the modern implications of their stake in democratic society, exposes a haunting conclusion that all efforts made to preserve and protect “Life” always already begin with death.

The line that echoes throughout the halls of history is the often quoted, “all men are created equal,” and that from this equality, men have the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Putting the patriarchal impetus imbedded in the language here on hold for a moment, the question of what version of “Life,” being evoked by Jefferson, can first be understood through the aforementioned equality that all men have via their creation. Zoē, as described by Agamben is, “the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods).”[1] The commonality of zoē is what at first, gives it extreme importance. An inherent and self-evident form of “Life,” zoē comes along seemingly gift-wrapped with one’s inherent existence. The raw and bare life that zoē represents, may be idealized in texts like the Declaration of Independence, and as philosopher Michel Foucault points out, venerated as the main telos of modern societies of control. But it is no gift. It is only in bare existence that one can be objectified and executed by sovereign rule.

Protection from state violence is offered only to those who fit the distinction of “Life” known as bios. Indicated by Agamben as the “form or way of living proper to an individual or group,”[2] bios seems to stand as the higher and civilized objective that the Revolutionary War was fought to achieve. Localizing self-evident existence around the idea of man as a naturally political being, Jeffersonian “Life” could very well be referring to the political life, bios, and the pursuit of happiness it will bring. Quoting Foucault however, Agamben accurately points out that bios is inevitably understood through its relationship to zoē. “Man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question.”[3] Furthering this distinction, Agamben claims that modern democracy, “is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē.”[4] Herein lies the localized attention of the Declaration of Independence.

In order to grasp the teleological objective of a political democracy attempting to place zoē at the heart of bios, the two forms of “Life” must first be understood in their historical context, specifically in their relation to subject and object. Before modern democracy, there existed the Foucauldian notion of a sovereign state in which all humans were objects, reduced to bare life, and thus subjected to the sovereign’s right over their life. Through the form of execution, a king exercised their right to kill, emphasizing a human’s objectivity. After the American Revolution, and the formation of a democracy, all objected humans became equal subjects.[5] Sovereignty was overthrown, much like the tea in Boston Harbor, and the right to kill was shattered and dispersed. One’s subjectivity was understood through bios, and for a time, man functioned as a political being.

Democracy however, cannot function upon bios alone, for the political sphere of the polis, is fundamentally grounded on an ongoing relationship with zoē. Historicizing the polis, Agamben tracks the Aristotelian notion of zoē and bios being in opposition, to the Foucauldian idea of zoē being included and operating as the telos of the polis.[6] Riffing on Foucault, Agamben takes the idea of inclusion to a radical new level, claiming that bios and zoē enter a “zone of irreducible indistinction.” Holding off on how democracy implements this coexistence, Jeffersonian “Life” is now once again consolidating into a singular telos, focused on zoē, but now complicated by the paradoxical irony hidden between the famous listed objectives of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One’s life, freedom, and the ability to pursue upward mobility, are all political actions of bios that are carried out in the polis. Pursuing happiness is the mark of a subject, one not objected as mere zoē. Agamben highlights the irony of modern democracy by its objective of wanting “to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place — “bare life” — that marked their subjection.”[7] Attempting to find the bios of zoē, and localizing the life of bios around zoē, humans are once again reduced to objects. What Agamben paradoxically highlights however, is that in the modern democratic nation state, these objects have the rights of subjects; bios and zoē combined.

The technology in which democracy navigates the now “irreducibly indistinct” blurring of subject and object, bios and zoē, is through what is known as the state of exception. Operating like a device, the state of exception is used to expel people from the polis and reduce them down to bare life. Bios is the only thing protecting one from the state of exception, in which one can be: executed, exiled, tortured, experimented on, any action of violence the nation state deems necessary. It is in the state of exception that the indistinct connection between bios and zoē is severed. What makes such state violence possible in a society where even objects have the rights of subjects is the conditionality in which those rights are given. Bios is only granted through the acceptance that one can be placed in a state of exception. If one is seen as a threat to bare life, understanding that Foucault was mostly right when he claimed that zoē is the telos of the state, bios can and will be stripped away, leaving one with only their objectivity and the horror that their subjective rights have vanished violently.

Here Agamben introduces his complex claim that “bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion.”[8] Zoē is included in bios due to the stipulation that the objectified subjects of modern democracy agree to forgo their subjectivity in a state of exception. Thus, Agamben concludes, zoē is “included solely through an exclusion.” Taking it a step further, Agamben radicalizes the stakes of this inclusive exclusion, describing the modern democratic nation state as one always in a state of exception. Articulating “the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule,”[9] Agamben demonstrates that even democracies built off the “unalienable rights” detailed in the Declaration of Independence, such nation states are actually fundamentally constituted by the ability and necessity to take rights away. In chilling tone, Agamben reveals that Jeffersonian “Life,” as understood in the modern democratic inclusive-exclusive placement of zoē in bios, is one solely focused on death. “Life will be given citizenship only either through blood and death or in the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it.”[10] The best reaction that can be gleaned from such a realization was that from a fellow classmate who aptly said, “zoē and bios are two sides of the same coin, and we need a different coin.”

Bibliography

Agamben, Giorgio. “Introduction to Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.” Biopolitics: A Reader. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, editors. Duke University Press: Durham and

London. 2013.

[1] Agamben, Giorgio. “Introduction to Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.” Biopolitics: A Reader. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, editors. Duke University Press: Durham and

London. 2013. Page 134.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Agamben implementing Foucault’s discussion of the Aristotelian notion of man’s political existence. Agamben 135.

[4] Agamben, 141.

[5] It is important to note here however, that the only humans now capable of subjectivity were those who had a political life, bios. Politics being a system solely run by men, women and children remained as zoē and were submitted to the original objectivity of sovereign rule. This manifested itself as the pater-familias role of the man in the household.

[6] Agamben 140.

[7] Agamben 141.

[8] Agamben 142.

[9] Agamben 140.

[10] Agamben 142.