Of Mites and Men: Animality, Bare Life and the

Culture Critique
March 2011 v 2 No 1
Of Mites and Men: Animality, Bare Life and the
Reperformance of the Human in The Open
By Rebekah Sinclair
Abstract: In his work, The Open: Man and Animal, Agamben argues that the constitutive
violence at the heart of sovereign power is the construction of the “human” through and
over the “animal.” He presents a genealogy of the onto-political grammar that has
produced the human against a backdrop of other life as less-than, other than, and always
edible. He names the ideological apparatus at the root of this production the
“anthropological machine,” and calls for its deconstruction. But I argue Agamben
remains anthropocentric (1) in his formulation of the terms and operations of the
machine, (2) in his failure to include or theorize the necessity of creaturely voices and
perspectives, and (3) in his reworked but still present idea that life outside the human is
bare and a-political. These remnants undermine his critique and re-perform the binary
violence he contests. Though Agamben is unable to spark the imagination necessary to
produce the radically new politics he calls for, I suggest we can find that imagination by
routing ourselves through the very perspectives he excludes.
Rebekah Sinclair is currently an independent scholar, recently graduated from Claremont
Graduate University with an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion. Her research seeks to
trouble the myriad ways discourses of species and animality author(ize) subjects and
violent ethical relations, and affirms alternative ways of writing and living with Others
beyond the politics imaginable by these discourses. Her areas of interest and publication
include contemporary continental philosophy, critical animal and eco-theory,
poststructuralist philosophy, and political and feminist theory.
culture critique, the online journal of the cultural studies program at CGU,
situates culture as a terrain of political and economic struggle. The journal
emphasizes the ideological dimension of cultural practices and politics, as
well as their radical potential in subverting the mechanisms of power and
money that colonize the life-world.
© 2011
Culture Critique
March 2011 v 2 No 1
The human/animal distinction is a central problem facing contemporary politics.
The construction of subjects as “human” or “animal,” whether through clandestine
metaphysics or scientific discourses of species, keeps in tact the social, economic,
material, political and linguistic mechanisms that violently build and exclude subjects. If
post-essentialist or posthuman ethico-politics hope to affirm novel alternatives to their
predecessors, they must remain vigilantly attentive to lingering human/animal divisions
and their consequences.
Given the necessity, but rarity, of such attention, Agamben’s 2004 publication,
The Open, marks one of his most original contributions to political theory. His previous
work argued that the founding operations of sovereign power lie in the organizing
principles by which it produces and conceals what counts as political life or a-political
life in the first instance. But in The Open, Agamben finds that this political/a-political
distinction is made possible by the discourses of the human and the inhuman. i At the
heart of sovereign power lies anthropocentrism—the network of onto-political grammars
that ceaselessly produce and exclude “animal life” from the political. The Open traces the
ways sovereign power has used the human/animal distinction to produce the categories of
bare life and homo sacer that allow for depoliticization and unchecked violation.
Agamben argues that in order to imagine alternatives to Statal, juridical, and sovereign
power, one must first jam this "anthropological machine."
My interest in Agamben is born of my respect for this important contribution to
political theory, and for his willingness to be critical of the anthropocentrism and
violence that acts as the locus of identity for “humans,” and perpetuate real violence
against real lives. And I agree that deconstructing human/animal distinctions is necessary
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if we are to takes seriously the consequences of a vulnerable and exposed subject, and
imagine new ethical possibilities and new ways of being-with. But unlike Agamben, who
is primarily and unapologetically attentive to the consequences of this binary on the
“human,” I am primarily, and with equal tenacity, attentive to the consequences on those
we call “animal.” From this perspective, I argue that Agamben reperforms the
anthropocentrism he contests. Since these remnants will stymie our mutual goal of
deconstruction, I offer the following criticisms from a place of camaraderie and a shared
hope for a radically less violent future.
In the following, I will draw on Agamben’s earlier readings of sovereign power,
the homo sacer, and bare life to trace his formulation of the anthropological machine and
its centrality in the creation and deconstruction of sovereign power. I then argue that
Agamben’s project remains anthropocentric in (1) its formulation of the terms and
operations of the machine, (2) its failure to include or theorize the necessity of creaturely
voices or perspectives, and (3) its retention of the idea that life outside the human is bare
and a-political. ii
I begin my critique by arguing that Agamben’s formulation of the
anthropological machine has (1) anthropocentric, (2) reductionist, (3) reperformative
political implications. Agamben’s deconstruction remains anthropocentric (in name and
deed) by failing to re-orient the subject to something other than animality. Further, the
machine, in its inherent unity and singularity, is a surprisingly totalizing metaphor. The
problems of this metaphor are mirrored in Agamben’s work, as he fuses fragmentary,
divergent, and irreducibly particular discourses under the assumption of a singular,
anthropocentric, unifying economy. By being primarily attentive to the ways the binary
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affects the human, Agamben misses the moment of reperformance, where the terms and
evidence he would use to disrupt the anthropocentric signifying economy reperform its
I then argue that Agamben’s method of deconstruction maintains
anthropocentrism’s founding gesture by failing to address the machine with adequate
attention to, or from the perspective of, the excluded creatures. Instead, Agamben is
primarily attentive to the ways the economy delimits human political possibilities and
vicissitudes. Even when animal Others do figure into his deconstruction, they serve as
what Guyatri Spivak might call “native informants”; they are interrogated through
experiment and observation, as though their answers might show the “real” behind the
veil of the binary. By not including or imagining the multiple voices and perspectives of
creatures other then the human—whose identity he contests—Agamben reperforms the
terms of the binary, the inside and outside, and perpetuates the fantasy of Otherness.
Finally, I will trouble Agamben’s claim that the death of the machine makes bare
life the center of politics. Agamben claims that to deconstruct the human and animal is
also to dismantle the tools the sovereign uses to politicize and depoliticize life. In a postmachine world, life itself becomes the sole object of politics. Agamben imagines an
irreparable and vulnerable community of bare life—life that no longer needs to be saved
by human political valuation and regulation. But I argue that his formulation of bare life
reasserts the anthropocentric assumption that life outside the human political is without
its own politics, intentionality, and value structures. He overlooks the possibility that
other lives already have complex ethics and politics, and that cultural signification
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happens across all micro- and macrocosms of existence. He therefore also misses
whatever radical political possibilities these Others might offer us.
Sovereign Power and the Making of the Machine
The resources for understanding both the framework of the anthropological
machine, and how animality comes to be the defining political problem for Agamben, can
be found in his earlier work, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. iii There,
Agamben traces the operations by which life is depoliticized through the four duplicitous
structures and manifestations of sovereign power.
According to Agamben, we have misconceived sovereignty as the violent
imposition of law upon pre-existing subjects and domains. In an important reversal, he
argues that the sovereign’s founding violence is the very creation, naturalization, and
exclusion of those subjects and domains. Indeed sovereign power juridically and
linguistically produces the subjects it chooses to defend, when it will defend, and the
limits of that defense. There is no subject or political identity prior to the constitutive
operations of the sovereign. The sovereign creates the political category. Following
Schmitt, Agamben suggests that this power is highlighted when the sovereign creates
exceptions to its operations – arbitrarily depoliticizing certain identities under certain
conditions. iv In order to create this exception, sovereign power must be simultaneously
upheld in its permanency and authority, and temporarily suspended. It becomes a “force
without significance,” and its subject, the citizen, is abandoned. v
The subject that exemplifies the sovereign’s power of exception and exclusion is
Agamben’s central political figure, the homo sacer, or “sacred man” of Roman law. vi The
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homo sacer was a citizen whose crimes merited a suspension of his citizenship. His life
was included in the juridical only in the form of exclusion. He was a constitutive figure
who was nevertheless foreclosed from the political. As such, he mirrors the duplicitous
structure of the sovereign, who stands within the law, as its primary figure, and outside
the law, able to create exceptions to it. Existing neither wholly inside nor outside the law,
the homo sacer occupied a space of indeterminacy possessing bare life (zoe, biological
existence) but no political standing (bios). Existing as an identity only through exception,
the homo sacer could be killed by anyone, but not murdered (according to the state/law)
or sacrificed (according to ritual/law).
But to depoliticize homo sacer in this way requires yet another delimiting operation
of the sovereign’s power: the separation between political life (bios), and a-political life
(zoe). The homo sacer can only be politically excluded if he has a biological life that
exists outside or before the political and the law. Through a reading of Aristotle,
Agamben suggests that political life (bios) is determined by the duplicitous inclusion and
exclusion of “bare life” (zoe, mere bodies). In yet a third manifestation of the duplicitous
structure of the sovereign, biological life is simultaneously set outside the domain of the
political, and implicated in it via its ongoing regulation and exclusion. Taking up and
radicalizing Foucault’s language of the biopolitical, Agamben claims, “the fundamental
categorical pair of Western politics is not that of friend/enemy (as Schmitt suggested), but
bare life/political existence, zoe/bios, exclusion/inclusion.” vii That is to say, Western
politics have always been biopolitics. viii Thus the heart of the sovereign’s power, and the
heart of politics, is the construction and regulation of a-political, bare life.
Finally, in The Open, Agamben argues that the sovereign’s depoliticization of bare
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life—the very possibility of the sovereign’s power—relies on the figure and the discourse
of the animal (the non- or inhuman). Agamben argues that the human has been defined by
(1) isolating the human species from animal species (marking the distinction between
bios and zoe) and (2) parsing out the distinctly human traits of the human, from the traits
it shares with animals (homo sacer from bare life). Following the duplicitous structure of
sovereign power yet again, Agamben claims that, "the caesura between the human and
the animal passes first of all within man." ix So the animal as pure, a-political zoe is the
constitutive element that is nevertheless foreclosed from the political sphere. Animality
(and its animals) must be excluded and also retained in its exclusion, residing in a zone
that is subject to sovereign power while yet unbound, and unrecognized, by any law. The
ceaseless process of defining the human via the (non)exclusion of the animal constitutes
the “anthropological machine'” of Western politics, and makes possible the exclusionary
operations of the sovereign. x
Importantly, the machine does not operate by uncovering distinctly human traits
that indicate an absolute, ontological break with the animal. Like every space of
exception, the center of the machine depends on establishing not difference, as one might
imagine or expect—but precisely indifference. What makes Agamben’s argument so
poignant is its statement that the human/animal distinction is a not ontological, but
political and ethical. That is, before the sovereign makes a distinction, there is no
difference. The figures of the human and the animal must first be onto-politically
indistinguishable, in order for the Sovereign to appropriate them through discursive
production. xi Thus the construction of the inhuman, the animal, grounds the discursive
possibility of depoliticized life; it makes possible the “bare life” and creates the
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conditions for biopolitics. xii
To disrupt the anthropological machine, Agamben suggests that we sit in the zone
of indifference at its heart. For if the machine remains in this state of suspension—the
state of ‘almost-realized’ and ‘not-yet’—it stalls. To explicate this state of suspension,
Agamben offers a brief meditation on two paintings by Titian, "Nymph and the
Shepherd" and "The Three Ages of Man." In these works, Agamben finds the power of
"a-knowledge," which he defines, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, as letting life be
“outside of being.” xiii In this a-knowledge, the animal and man bleed into one another
(and the metaphor of the flesh is not insignificant). Once we let go of the desire to mark
differences between the human and animal, we can also move into a posthuman politics
that transcends the desire to privilege the species-specific category of Homo sapiens.
Undoing the speciesed privilege, and undoing the distinctions, also undoes the categories
of the political and the a-political by which the Sovereign maintains its power. Politics
can then finally focus on being and life as such, and pursue more important questions of
how to exist in post-essentialist and post-sovereign communities. In a posthuman "zone
of indifference" that refuses discursive identity making, there is no need for human rights
or animal rights, but only the right to bare life.
Retaining, Reducing, and Reperforming the Human
The problems with the anthropological machine begin with the political
implications of Agamben’s terminology and formulation. The first dilemma arises from
his retention of animality and the inhuman as the center of all political operations.
“Anthropocentrism” implies a culture, an economy of individualism, and a means of
saying “I” that is—or has been since Aristotle, as Agamben argues—separate from
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“nature.” Agamben seeks the constructs that have discursively unified ideas of the
political and a-political throughout Western politics and civilization. Indeed he seeks the
constructs that make possible the very idea of the political sphere. What he finds are
discourses of the human and the animal. Though Agamben clearly intends for this
anthropological machine to be dismantled, by keeping the terminological opposition to
“nature,” I believe he smuggles in certain humanist and Enlightenment implications.
For example, one implication might be that we do not look here, in the machine, for
the human. There is an “elsewhere,” and it is there that we should look. Agamben claims
the human subject, and the political itself, have always been defined by one thing: the
comprehension of, separation from, and excising of animality. But isn’t the originary
claim of humanism that the human subject is always-already framed within the
relationship between “animality” and “humanity”? So what is different here?
Agamben claims that to un-work or jam the anthropological machine, we must
cease to belabor the human/animal binary at all. Here he advocates the “letting be.” This
necessary hiatus, or “Shabbat”—this nonworking, or a refusal to consider the
human/animal binary—requires that we let go of all attempts to redeem either/both the
human or the animal. Agamben does not want to “save” the human, but hopes that “the
inactivity and disavowing of the human and of the animal [might render] the supreme and
unsavable figure life [itself].” xiv
His critique is marked by a vestige of deeply ingrained metaphysical
presuppositions concerning the necessary role that “animality” plays in the understanding
of the “human.” His ability to name a machine relies on a unifying gesture that organizes
the historical consistency and frequency of these relations. That is, we cannot assume
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Agamben is objectively observing a unified machine in order to neutrally report on its
violations. In order to make a case for the machine’s existence, he must rely on the same
consistency and integrity of the machine’s anti-nature and anti-animal bias. Like in the
state of exception, “nature” here functions as the “outside that is inside,” that constructs
and maintains the integrity of the anthropological machine. So while the alternative to the
machine is to not-know the animal, or to become non-anthropocentric, Agamben must
partially validate the machine’s primary constructions in order to name or recognize the
machine in the first instance. To even have non-anthropocentrism as a goal retains
anthropocentrism as the definitive, if in verso, object of the new politics.
In this way, Agamben still gives priority to comprehending the human and human
history foremost in terms of its relation to animality, albeit through a new relationship of
“non-knowledge.” xv I believe that this critical gesture of letting go the human/animal
binary retains a trace of the priority of this relation, doing so under the guise of “nonknowledge.” The relation still exists, but is now figured as “non-working” rather than
working. Paradoxically, what is left working when the anthropological machine is no
longer operative is precisely (technically and ontologically) this same human/animal
(now-nonworking) bond. In this strange and unexpected way, Agamben’s reflection
remains metaphysical and anthropocentric (although a sort of neo-anthropocentrism, to
be sure), since it retains the perception that humanity’s primary relation is to animality by
presenting the relationship in reverse. xvi
The second problem with Agamben’s formulation of the machine follows from the
above dilemma. As I have already suggested, the machine is a surprisingly totalizing
metaphor, and here it highlights the problematic of an all-encompassing anthropocentric
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unity. It seems Agamben jumps too quickly from a helpful genealogy of the constructions
of the human, the animal, and bare life, to a totalizing gesture that mistakenly identifies
infinite, divergent discourses as singular. While Agamben distinguishes between a
modern and pre-modern manifestation of anthropocentrism, he sees them as two variants
of the same anthropological machine. xvii He problematically claims that from its
originary operations in Aristotle, to its contemporary manifestations, there has only been
this single, unified machine, always already operating against the inhuman.
This origin, this ‘against nature,’ is played through each of the twenty chapters in
almost exactly the same way, without attention to the ways that divergent, even
contradictory discourses have succeeded, failed, and operated entirely uniquely. In what
ways does Agamben construct and legitimize the anthropological machine by treating
anthropocentrism as a unified, overarching discourse? There is no doubt that those we
have Othered through discourses of animality and species have consistently been
bloodied for the maintenance of our politics and identity. But it does not follow that
anthropocentrism is the monolithic, metaphysical machine Agamben seems to suggest.
We must take care not to reproduce the terms of universalism or essentialism by treating
it as such.
The third problem of the machine is that by suggesting there is such a singular,
unified mechanism, Agamben covers over the performances that in fact produce the
machine as their effect, and keep its troubled discourses in tact. To explain how this
covering-over happens, let me briefly delineate the way I understand the operations of
power. Drawing largely from Foucault, I argue that (1) power always operates locally, (2)
the political significance of discourses is always relative and changing, (3) genealogies of
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power should abandon the juridical-political and metaphysical representations of
sovereignty and (4) power is enacted and relational—a constitutive exchange between
subjects, and not an imposition of disembodied authority. Yet contra this definition of
power, Agamben’s method in The Open introduces a history of an ontology that he
claims is absolute and omnipresent. xviii Rather than revealing the would-be-machine as a
series of disparate, contradictory mechanisms, as Foucault might suggest, Agamben treats
the machine here as the producer of the discourses. This mistakes the cause for the effect.
Agamben’s machine focuses on the figure of the sovereign and the question of
legitimation, rather than local manifestations of power. His method seems to suggest the
techniques and technologies of power are subservient to the ideological apparatuses that
support and instantiate them.
Because of his focus on a unified, ideological machine, he overlooks his own
reperformance, and the possibilities of a critique through power/knowledge. The
examples Agamben uses to contest the operations of the machine actually reperform the
very categories that give rise to the knowledge being used to supplant them. Oddly
enough, Agamben uses a number of examples from Science, Art, and Philosophy to show
how knowledge—something like “real” or “more accurate” knowledge—of the animal
reveals that there is no fundamental or metaphysical distinction.
For example, in his discussion on the tick, found in a chapter by the same name,
Agamben discusses how a particular scientific study problematized the notion of time
(traditionally associated with the human) and environment (traditionally associated with
the animal) through a series of experiments designed to discover what made the tick
tick. xix The experiment examines ticks in order to discover the kinds of relationships
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(instinctual or other) they have to their food, environment, offspring, etc. Agamben
claims, “The example of the tick clearly shows the general structure of the environment
proper to all animals…the tick is immediately united to [the elements of its survival] in
an intense and passionate relationship the likes of which we might never find in the
relations that bind man to his apparently richer world. The tick is this relationship.” xx He
then goes on to explain that this tick’s relations with her environment change if she is not
provided with certain necessary elements, such as food. One study showed that a tick
could live eighteen years if never presented with the opportunity to feed. xxi The tick is
open to the world in a way that confounds time, and that she can exist completely
independently from her environment for 18 years confounds the assumed naturalization
and conflation of animal and environment. So Agamben asks the question of the human,
what becomes of the relationship between creature and world if the world is removed?
How does this open our understanding of the relationship between subjects and
In another example, found in the chapter, “Taxonomies,” Agamben discusses the
work of Carolus Linnaeus, the founder of modern scientific taxonomy. Linnaeus placed
the human among the primates in taxonomic studies and was hesitant to claim other
primates lacked the faculties—such as souls—that made humanity unique. xxii Linnaeus
not only held scientific interest in the creatures, but also became very close to several of
the “apes” he studied, and kept them in a small zoo at his home. xxiii
Agamben uses the results of these experiments to problematize the metaphysical
foundations of the human/animal binary, showing the ruptures in the structure of the
anthropological machine. But he fails to address the performance of the binary inherent in
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the experimentation and discovery he uses as libratory “evidence.” The terms by which
the binary is to be destabilized actually enact the violation.
The human/animal distinction does not function primarily at the level of universal
ideology, but on these infinitesimal, and infinite levels of power. xxiv Indeed power
operates precisely so that subjects become subjects through their performances; it makes
possible the individuation and materialization of bodies, discourses, and knowledges. xxv
So, in a fundamental sense, it is the fact of the ape’s containment, and not the metaphysic
of Linnaeus, that constitutes and performs the binary violation. It is the fact of the
experimentation on the ticks, and not the discoveries from the experiments, that
constitutes distinction and sovereignty. Though performance and ontology are closely
related and intertwined, it is the fact of consumption, and not a prior ontological
proposition, that, via the future anterior—the “will have been”—constitutes beings as
I argue that that the binary is not produced by our knowledge or ideological
suppositions, but rather through performed acts of power that then, retroactively, claim to
generate that knowledge. While Agamben uses the ontological or epistemological
statements made of the tick and the ape to disrupt the machine, these statements are
already abstractions made possibly by concrete political operations. In other words, the
fact of the experiment and the fact of the cage produce the originary violation. To assume
the former produces the latter mistakes the effect for the cause. As an additional
consequence of privileging the propositions over the performance, Agamben naturalizes
the process of abstraction that made possible the machine in the first place. In other
words, he legitimizes the appropriation of particular, political operations in service of
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ontological or metaphysical abstractions (even if these abstractions are intended to
Moreover, Agamben’s use of paradigms of discovery and “evidence” pose
substantial problems for a post-essentialist politics. The evidence Agamben assumes is
disruptive of the human/animal binary, in fact requires the legitimacy of the binary in
order to be disruptive. Evidence is indeed unthinkable without the preexisting discursive
structures in whose service it functions. As I will elaborate momentarily in my discussion
of the native informant, the problem is that Agamben requires that the tick be Other in
order for her secrets tick to function in service of the deconstruction.
So by focusing strictly on the ideological apparatuses at the heart of the machine,
Agamben misses the performative aspects that function to create the binary. The genius
of his argument lies in his claim that the human/animal distinction is the result of the
discursive, political operations of the sovereign, and not metaphysical differences. But
precisely for this reason, I am troubled and disoriented by his consistent privileging of
ideological and metaphysical operations over the performance of power and sovereignty.
Native Informants or Irreducible Others
There is also a politics and a metaphysics involved in whose voices we let in to
our stories, our deconstructions, and the jamming of any proverbial machines. Here I
present something akin to a postcolonial critique of Agamben’s method. In a way, his
project could itself be considered postcolonial; he is attentive to the ways humans – as
philosophers, artists, and scientists – reflect and project the anthropocentric and
colonizing power of the sovereign on the rest of life. However, his project is recolonizing because he pays no attention to those the sovereign has constituted as Other.
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How can we be critical of discourses of Othering without any attention to the
perspectives of the Other? In the three following criticism, I want to explicitly address the
anthropocentrism that is performed by the lack of attention to, and even the exclusion of,
perspectives other than the human.
To begin with, while he investigates the consequences the human/animal
distinction has had on those constituted as human, he does not discuss the impact this has
had on the beings we have constituted as Other. How could one theorize the discourse of
exception and inclusion without mentioning what happens to the excluded? Agamben
spends large portions of Homo Sacer discussing the violence done to those who exist in
the state of exception (as bare life) by theorizing the Nazi death camps. The theory of the
camp is only significant insofar as it represents the series of violent operations and
foreclosures that make possible the uncontested, legal control and killing of lives.
So why does Agamben refuse to tell a single story of the creatures who have
occupied this state of exception? He is not a witness to anyone’s death or suffering or
crying or running or escaping or rebelling. He is not as attentive to the beings in this state
of exception as he is to those in the camps, even as apes in zoos and ticks in absolute
confinement (to say nothing of factory farms) present stark similarities to the camps. It is
clear that one cannot address mid-20th century German ideology without reference to its
manifestations in the death camps. That is, given the camps, this ideology can never be
simply another “interesting perspective” on monoculturalism. Similarly, it should not be
possible to discuss the history or machine of anthropocentrism without consistent and
unapologetic reference to the trillions of lives and bodies who have acted as its fuel.
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Second, whenever other-than-human stories or creatures are included in his texts,
they serve as native informants—offering ‘us’ a way through the binary, or a path to the
truth of our kinship. While Agamben states several times that his goal is not to access a
“real” of the animal, but rather to disrupt the category of the “animal” as such, we have
already seen that this goal appears secondary to the disruption of the “human.” Agamben
often appeals to moments when the discourses of the anthropological machine are
disrupted by the results of their own experiments, observations, and discoveries; in these
moments, a particular animal or species disrupts the pre-established ontological,
behavioral, and discursive categories of “animality.”
But while Agamben uses the examples of the tick and the ape to show the
disruptive effects new or non-knowledge can have discourse, the perspectives of the
creatures themselves (or even the fact that they might have a perspective) remain
unacknowledged. The irreducibility of the Other is deprivildeged for the sake of their
ability to inform.
I draw the term native informant from the work of Guyatri Spivak, who in turn
drew it from the discipline of ethnography. In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak
explains that in ethnography, the native informant is presumed to be a beacon or
concentration of cultural identity and Otherness, while simultaneously lacking a
colonially legitimized autobiography. xxvi The figure of the informant can provide neither
story nor novelty, but only data that must be interpreted by the colonizer, and therefore
cooperates with the colonizing discourse. xxvii The native informant does not disrupt the
legitimizing discourses of the colonizer, but is rather a source of information that
perpetuates it. The native figure does not function as a catachresis or aporia, permanently
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forestalling the possibility of knowledge and demanding a closer look at encounters with
radical particularity. Rather, it feeds the machine by acting as a unified representative of a
species, culture, race, and gender.
The creatures made available to the reader in Agamben’s text act as such
informants. From his discussion of the tick, to his reading of Heidegger on the openness
of animality, Agamben’s animals function structurally within his argument to inform,
enlighten, and explicate. But there is twist. Rather than acting as the confirmation of
difference, as the “traditional” native informant does, Agamben uses these informants to
enunciate non-difference, or in-difference. The informants confirm in-difference by
telling their disruptive secrets, by revealing that there is no firm boundary between the
human and the animal, and by acting as the backdrop against which Agamben can see the
failing of the anthropological machine. The irreducible, inappropriable perspectives and
autobiographies of the Other are covered over when they are appropriated as a
representative of the animal Other for the sake of a deconstruction. As informants, and as
Others, they are only offered a position in service of a disruption: either inside or outside,
excluded or included. xxviii
Third, while Agamben advocates that we stand back and defer any onto-political
distinctions between creatures and species, he reperforms the machines founding,
exclusionary gesture by not letting certain voices and certain types of stories into his
narrative of the anthropological machine. Without even one eye or ear to the creatures on
whose bodies this limit has been performed, the text is absolutely univocal. He only
allows the voice of the “human”—the very identity he contests. Because he does not
allow other voices into this work, he cannot acknowledge that the voices of Others are
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already among us – already acting to trouble and make meaning, and always already
undoing and contesting our sovereignty. By these failures, Agamben tacitly maintains
that any deconstruction of the anthropological machine is a “human” task, and always
already a result of the choices of beings constituted through human economies of
individualism and species. Agamben again performs the ethico-political, if not
ontological distinction between “human” and “animal” by constituting certain voices as
un-valuable for his deconstruction. Insofar as these perspectives remain outside
Agamben’s deconstruction, they will also constitute its limits.
What I mean when I suggest including the perspective of the Other is best
articulated by again referencing Spivak. In Death of a Discipline, she takes up Derrida’s
notion of teleopoiesis as an alternative to legitimizing reversals like the one I have argued
exists in Agamben (difference/in-difference or knowledge/non-knowledge). Teleopoiesis
is the risky political activity of allowing oneself to be imagined by the eyes the Other.
Spivak calls this a shock to the idea and structure of belonging. xxix Similar to Agamben’s
“letting be,” this imagining defers knowledge and identity. But this “letting be” is not
deferred because the human is, of his own accord, open to new possibility. That openness
merely reperforms human identity, privilege, and centrality to the deconstruction. In
Spivak’s formulation, the human is undone, and identity deferred, because we are first
attentive to the Other. Imagining what I am, the multiple things I am, in the eyes of Other
creatures is a political gesture that is non-prescriptive, occurring without guarantees, and
undoes my position as the center or constitutor of the political terms of operation. Instead
it moves me to the periphery, causing me to interrogate what I am rather than what the
Other is. Spivak speaks of this as “attempting to write the self at its othermost.” xxx
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Writing the self at its othermost is precisely what Agamben fails to do. Or perhaps
he perceives that the othermost is the identity of the animal, and thus attempts to
deconstruct the anthropological machine with a view toward this identity. But the
othermost is not the identity of the Other; it is the perspective of the Other. Identity still
hides particularity and singularity beneath umbrella identities like animal or species.
Perspective, on the other hand, highlights the irreducibility and the actual, lived
experience of the singular Other. What does this tick, or that ape, or this Other see when
she looks at me? No experiments, or discoveries, or reworking of our political is ever
going to give us that perspective. Yet it is precisely and only by privileging the Other in
this way—by recognizing that we are radically and permanently unable to access that
perspective—that we will be able to deconstruct Agamben’s anthropological machine.
A Critique of “Bare Life” And An Opening to Radical Politics
In closing, I again align myself with Agamben’s hope that getting rid of
human/animal distinctions will lead to a radically less violent future. Because of this
goal, I am troubled that his notion of bare life seems to possess hidden biologistic
tendencies that presuppose other forms of life—or what we construct as ‘Other’ forms of
life—do not already have a political sphere of operation, with ethics and novelty and
complexity beyond our understanding. He prescribes a notion of life that, if stripped bare
of human political meaning, becomes mere biological existence—life before and without
politics. But this is a problematic anthropocentric gesture.
Bare life functions in Agamben as both the necessary foundation for the existence
of sovereign politics, and that which politics takes as its object of control. But once the
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operations of the machine are undone by the non-difference between the human and the
animal, bare life is no longer produced by or under the domain of sovereign politics as
the alternative to political life. Bare life becomes the sole political concern. Since all
creatures, whatever else they share or do not share, share life, the object of post-machine
politics is life itself. He also notes that “life,” in each of its definitions, has political
implications, and thus “‘life’ can never be defined as such.” xxxi
Yet he proposes that through the depoliticization of human societies (through the
disruption of the anthropological machine and its discursive, exclusionary politics), we
might turn and take on biological life as “the supreme political (or rather impolitical)
task.” xxxii Agamben sees the end of the political animal and claims, “it is (now) a question
of taking on as a task the very factical existence of peoples, that is, in the last analysis,
their bare life.” xxxiii
Agamben’s notion of bare life appears to operate off of the limited assumption
that to live is the goal, or the question, or desire, or the need of all “life.” This reduces all
forms of life, including Agamben’s native informants and other animal Others, to raw, aethical mechanisms that only seek their own survival. Agamben assumes, in fact, that
life is named and recognized as such by its relationship to this desire. But in defining life
by its relationship to biological processes—processes Agamben sees as devoid of their
own cultural signification or intention—and by assuming that these processes are the sole
goal of creatures, Agamben implies that other lives lack their own cultural and discursive
paradigms, languages, and constructions etc. Because he assumes that getting rid of the
human, sovereign machinery will open space for communion with other lives, making
bare life the only goal of politics, he requires that these other lives be already in this state
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of bare-ness, and without their own discourses of power, lack, desire, etc. In this neoanthropocentric way, Agamben returns to the distinction between culture and biology,
political and a-political life.
I suggest that Agamben’s belief that “bare life” has no political significance—that
it is just breathing and shitting and eating and being part of some ‘eco-system,’—is a
construction and a total misrepresentation of the complicated ethical dimensions of interbeing in the more-than-human world. If the othermost in the question of the human and
animal is not the Other’s identity, but her radical alterity and a destabilizing perspective,
then there is no such thing as the raw life that is supposed to act as the heart of a new
So what if ethics, sacrifice, novelty, violation, disobedience, law, altruism, and
politics are already existent in other creatures, events, and processes? What if we are
already caught up in a political realm that is not ours and operates on a far more complex
set of questions than we have had the courage to imagine, or lost a long time ago? What
if we stepped toward a teleopoiesis—creatively imagining the impossible perspective of
the Other—and were asked to forsake the very notions of bare life by which Agamben
would reorient us? The possibilities for novel communities of creaturely life are indeed
before us. And if we allow ourselves to be imagined from the othermost, we might just be
taken up and shown an even more radical politics than we, or Agamben, could possibly
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Giorgio Agamben, "The Work of Man," in Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, ed.
Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).
I would generally prefer to use Derrida’s term, “carnophallogocentrism” over
“anthropocentrism” when criticizing the construction and privilege of the human. But
since using Agamben’s designated term highlight’s his reperformances, and since
introducing Derrida is never short work, I leave the former term here, as a footnote, and
an opening to further criticism of Agamben. Jacques Derrida, ""Eating Well": An
Interview," in Who Comes after the Subject, ed. Peter Connor Edwardo Cadava, Jean-Luc
Nancy (New York: Routledge, 1991).
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1995). 168.
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University
Press, Stanford, 1995). 18.
Giorgio Agamben, "The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter
Benjamin," in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1999).
Ibid. 70.
Ibid. 8.
Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2002). 80.
Ibid. 16.
Agamben borrows the term “anthropological machine” from Furio Jesi. Ibid. 26.
Ibid. 37.
Ibid. 37.
Idid. 91.
Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal. 87.
I am drawing this term “non-knowledge” from a quote by Furio Jesi that Agamben
cites on page 89: “Esotericism means: the articulation of modalities of non-knowledge.”
I believe that this criticism might be deepened by more thoroughly addressing
Heidegger’s attempt to leave behind the notion of “humanity” and “animality” in pursuit
of being. He suggests no longer vectoring humanity toward animality but being. While I
am not without criticisms of Heidegger’s anthropocentrism, I believe he could be really
helpful in solving my criticism of Agamben.
Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal. 38.
Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended : Lectures at the Collège De France,
1975-76, ed. Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, and François Ewald, trans. David
Macey (New York: Picador, 2003). 30
Ibid. 46.
Ibid. 46.
Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal. 47.
Ibid. 26.
Ibid. 25.
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended : Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76.
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Ibid. 31.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of
the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). 6.
Ibid. 49.
I draw this language of inclusion and exclusion from Agamben’s earlier work with
the state of exception in Homo Sacer. He pulls this though into The Open through his use
of the term “bare life.”
Guyatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (Columbia University Press,
2003). 30.
Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and
Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge,1993). 91.
Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal. 13.
Ibid. 76