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Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

Agamben’s Errors

Giorgio Agamben’s two treatises Homo Sacer (1998) and State of Exception (2005) have been popping up in many other texts I have been reading of late. So, I have been reading Agamben (in what little spare time I have). While reading Agamben is thought provoking, in this post I dwell on a few interrelated errors in his argument; places where I think he is simply wrong.

The following passage from Homo Sacer is where I focus my attention. In his final chapter (Threshold), he summarizes three provisional conclusions to his inquiry, the first of which is:

“(1) The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).”

This conclusion, Agamben argues,  “calls into question every theory of the contractual origin of state power and along with it, every attempt to ground political communities in something like ‘belonging,’ whether it be founded on popular, national, religious or any other identity.”

Agamben’s extended treatise on “the ban” and “bare life” are valuable contributions to social and political theory. But the argument state above is confused and problematic.

First, as an argument about “origins” it implies some sort of historical sequence. If that is the case, then to say that the ban precedes the (contracted) social or political community seems nonsense. I would be willing to grant either that they come into existence at the same moment, or (perhaps better) that knowledge of the contracted social-political body is brought to consciousness through the ban. In other words, we know what it (the community) is by what it excludes. However, to place the origin of the polis (the political community) in the ban and in so doing to exclude the contractual (relational) from that same origin is a discursive sleight of hand that ultimately makes no sense. We can accept Agamben’s argument that the political community requires the ban as origin of its existence (or knowledge of its existence). But Agamben seems to go further, to deny the pre-existence of some sort of social-political “contract” (relationship) prior to the ban. My question is: how does the ban take place if there is nothing to be banned from?

Second, and related, Agamben is crucially confusing and conflating a fundamental distinction between the communal (community, and here I would say polis) with the social (including but not limited to contracted relationship). The communal or community, in the way Agamben uses is, is clearly a matter of identity – of “belonging” – and a matter of ideational boundaries on who is included and who is excluded (banned). In this respect it is very much the sort of “imagined community” of Anderson’s influential writings. Community, however, is not the same thing as society – in the strict sense interconnected (networks) of social relationships. Sociality’s defining feature are relationships (of exchange). Society is stitched together through relational, exchange practices embodied in gifts (which also can be come fetishes – particularly in the form of the commodity fetish). Community, as I (and Agamben) are using it, has to do with identity and belief about belonging (and exclusion).

Therefore, the social (social contract, if you like) can and does exist as a pre-existing condition to the community (communal or in political terms, polis). The polis and the ban may have their origins in the same moment, but both are preceded by the social (society, social relations).

Update to this post: The critique of Agamben that I highlight above seems, to me, very close to Esposito’s critique in Communitas, which is currently on my bedside stand.

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November 18, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Society Reconsidered…

(Note: I’m cross posting this here and on the Sociology blog Singapore)

 “Understanding Singapore solely in terms of its citizen population is an unwarranted sociological fiction.”

 A couple days ago, I got back a first round of edits to proof for book chapter coauthored by myself and Zhang Juan (who completed her MA at NUS a couple years ago and is now doing a PhD based in Australia).

The chapter is: “Navigating Transnationalism: Immigration and Reconfigured Ethnicity” In: Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, Bridget Welsh, James Chin, Arun Mahiznan, and Tan Tarn How, eds. Singapore: NUS Press (forthcoming, January 2009)

The quote above, from the chapter, reflects one reason why I think Singapore is a great place from which to do sociology (and anthropology) and thinking about society and culture generally.

Last time I looked (admittedly, about 5 years ago now) I came across statements in introductions to Sociology describing different levels of society, in which “the nation” was described as the highest level or largest form of social organization. IMHO, this is an untenable, deeply culture-bound theory of “society”.

That idea comes from Euro-American folk-theories of “nation”.

If we understand “society” to be defined by “social relationships” (relationships of reciprocity, exchange, interaction, etc.) then I would contend that any attempt to understand “society” in the context of Singapore will be extraordinarily incomplete if defined by the territorial borders of Singapore-as-nation-state.

The challenge (and opportunity) of doing sociology in Singapore (as our place/position from which to think about the world) is that this and many other sociological constructs developed in Europe and America do not fit the context we live in. Understanding Singapore also means that we need to think seriously about some common, oft-repeated, yet questionnable cliches about Singapore. For example, that “Singapore does not have a hinterland”. If by a hinterland, we mean those places outside of urban areas on which cities depend for labor and commerce, then this cliche is simply not accurate. Rather, the interesting point is that Singapore’s hinterland lies beyond the territorial boundaries of the nation-state (and it is worth thinking seriously about all the consequences this entails). Of course, I’m far from the first to think about this – many social researchers in FASS @ NUS have been addressing this and similar issues for sometime. But the idea remains a common one in Singapore generally (e.g. in some great discussion on the Anthropology and the Human Condition Wiki).

The point of raising this in the Sociology blog Singapore is to challenge all of us doing sociology and anthropology in Singapore to use our research to challenge (and we hope improve on) traditional sociological concepts – not just adopt them and try to squeeze the social realities of Singapore and Asia more generally into them.  (Yes – this means you, our intrepid grad students 🙂 ).

FYI a draft of the chapter is attached (that is if I can get the linking function to work…). (But later, please go out and buy the book!)

Navigating Transnationalism

August 23, 2008 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , | 1 Comment