Bare Life and the Vaccine (Giorgio Agamben)

A translation of Agamben’s post La nuda vita e il vaccino from his blog at Quodlibet.it.

In my earlier interventions I have evoked many times the figure of bare life. In fact, it seems to me that the epidemic has shown, beyond any possible doubt, that humanity no longer believes in anything but bare existence, to be preserved as such at any cost. The Christian religion, with its works of love and mercy and its faith to the point of martyrdom; political ideology, with the ethos of unconditional solidarity; even belief in work and money — these all seem to have taken second place as soon as bare life came under threat, albeit in the form of a risk whose statistical extent was labile and deliberately indeterminate.

The time has come for me 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. Instead, it is the site of a historic decision, one that is always being updated, fixing the boundary separating man from animal, what is human in a man from what, both inside and outside, is non-human. When Linnaeus devised his system of classification, he looked for a distinguishing feature that separated man from the other primates; he confessed to not knowing one, and he appended sapiens to the generic name homo only because of the old philosophical adage about “knowing thyself.” The meaning of the term sapiens that Linnaeus added to the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae is this: man is the animal that must recognize himself as human in order to be human. He is the animal that divides — or rather, decides — what is human and what is not.

We can call the mechanism by which this decision is realized in history, the anthropological machine. The machine works by excluding from man whatever is animal life and, through this exclusion, producing the human. But for the machine to work, the exclusion must also be an inclusion; between the two poles — the animal and the human — there must be a joint or some kind of threshold that both divides and connects them. This joint is bare life — that is, a life that is neither properly animal nor truly human, where the decision between the human and non-human is made. This threshold, which passes through the interiority of man separating biological life from social life, is an abstraction and a virtuality, but an abstraction that becomes real by embodying itself invariably in concrete and politically determined historical figures: the slave, the barbarian, or the homo sacer, whom anyone can kill without committing a crime in the ancient world; the enfant-sauvage, the wolf-man, or the so-called homo alalus, the missing link between ape and man in the Enlightenment and in the nineteenth century; the citizen in the state of exception, the Jew in the Lager, the overcomatose person in the resuscitation room, or the body that is preserved for its organs in the twentieth century.

Where is the figure of bare life today in question in the handling of the pandemic? It is not so much the sick person, who is isolated and treated as never before in the history of medicine; rather, it is the infected one, or more particularly the asymptomatic unwell [il malato asintomatico], as he has come to be called in a contradictory expression — something that any man is, virtually, and without knowing it. At issue is not so much health, but a life that is neither healthy nor sick, which, as such and as potentially pathogenic, can be deprived of its freedoms and subjected to prohibitions and controls of all kinds. All men are virtually asymptomatic patients in this sense. The only identity of this life, fluctuating between sickness and health, is as the recipient of swabs and vaccines, which, like baptism for a new religion, define the inverted figure of what was once called citizenship. This baptism isn’t indelible, but necessarily provisional and renewable; the new citizen, always required to present his health certification, will no longer have inalienable, inseparable rights [inalienabili e indecidibili], only obligations that must be constantly decided and updated.

Translated from Giorgio Agamben’s blog.

The ‘anthropological machine’ is discussed in chapter nine of The Open: Man and Animal (trans. Kevin Attell, Stanford University Press, 2004). ‘Bare life’ is a key concept in a series of works beginning with Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford UP, 1998). ‘Decision’ and ‘decide’ are from Latin decisionem and decidere, respectively, from de “off”+ caedere “to cut or strike.” Thus the relation to dividing.

My posts including translations are always non-monetized, offered freely, and, to quote Kierkegaard, without authority.