The Sacredness of this Nothingness

Agamben has written about a paradigm for governance emerging on the basis of biosecurity concerns “whose efficacy will exceed that of all forms of government known thus far in the political history of the West.” The question of how the security of bios, life, came to be a concern for governmental and other powers was (also) addressed in the thinking of Ivan Illich, and there are deep resonances of Illich in Agamben’s work, even if their respective relations to the same logos, their fundamental commitments, appear to differ. I don’t plan to say anything new here, only to gesture once more at Illich and, in particular, at his carefully articulated ideas on “life” from an interview with David Cayley from 1992.

First, for Illich, something religious inheres in the contemporary concept of “life.” This is apparent in certain “emblems,” he calls them, such as the famous photograph of the earth taken from space, or photographs of human zygotes and fetuses that likewise have powerful sacred “auras.” Illich — shattering the familiar sentimentality around these images — insists that they were created through extraordinarily violent technological interventions:

The most violent view ever obtained was that of the earth from the outside. Imagine how many tons of explosive went into separating a Hasselblad camera from the earth so that it could photograph the earth from the outside, and we now claim that we see the earth from there, where we only have a photograph of it.

It is only through these means and through these emblems that “life” manifests to us as an object and a concern, something for which we have a uniquely modern relation of “responsibility.” Further, it is an idol, he says, in that this “life” is a perversion of its originary appearance in Western culture — for Illich, its Christological significance. A modern sacral object, it is at the same time an object of technical manipulation through increasingly powerful apparatuses of medicine or state. Illich refers to “our total global management,” perhaps influenced by Jacques Ellul. Note that Ellul’s theologically-informed writing on the increasing efficiency of technique could likewise help to unpack the import of Agamben’s sense that an unprecedented “efficacy” in the apparatuses of government is to come, but that’s for another post.

The following is taken from “Life as Idol” (1992), an interview with Ivan Illich conducted by David Cayley at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Links to a full transcript of the interview and to the sound recording appear below the excerpt.

I’ll never forget when it struck me for the first time, several years ago, in a kitchen of an apartment where some six or seven graduate students lived together. On the icebox door there were only two pictures: one was the blue planet and one was the fertilized egg — two circles of roughly the same size, one bluish the other one pink. One of the students said to me, “These are our doorways to the understanding of life.” The term doorway struck me profoundly.

It stuck with me for quite a few months, until for some totally different reason I took out a book by Mircea Eliade, a teacher for many of us of religious science, of the study of myths, of the scientific study of religion. And, going through this book, I came to the conclusion that, better than anybody else whom I had studied, he brings out the concept of sacrum. Sacrum, the Latin noun corresponding to our sacred, has been used for a long time by religious scientists for a particular place in the topology of any culture. It refers to an object, a locality or a sign, which within that culture is believed to be — this young lady was right — a doorway.

I had always thought of it as a threshold, a threshold at which the ultimate appears; that which, within that society, is considered to be true otherness; that which, within a given society, is considered transcendent. And I began to reflect whether these two circles, the blue one and the red one, were not the sacrum of our time. They are different from other sacra, because they are pure science; they are not objects. They are, to speak with Cardinal Ratzinger, emblems for scientific facts, results of technological instruments. [Earlier: “The word life is so evidently rootless in science, the word a life is so patently deprived of any common-sense correlate, that it could not acquire power unless it were tied to some kind of emblem.”]

The most violent view ever obtained was that of the earth from the outside. Imagine how many tons of explosive went into separating a Hasselblad camera from the earth so that it could photograph the earth from the outside, and we now claim that we see the earth from there, where we only have a photograph of it. Imagine how much violence was done to women, how much shameless violence, in order to photograph the zygote. Remember in what a powerful way the traditional — and humanly probably necessary — division between the here and the there is abolished, both when we look at the earth from the outside and when we look at the unseen in pregnancy as something already visibly here.

These two coloured circles are results of this transformation of activities which are called “scientific,” so they can call for high funding, into images which can be used in propaganda and now become thresholds, doorways, to something which nobody sees, something which makes sense for nobody — a life pink, life in general blue, pink light, blue light — the ultimate for which any sacrifice can be justified. The term life, a life, as it is used today, constitutes the perversion of the statement by the incarnate God, “I am life,” and therefore belongs to hell, if there be one — and we would have to invent it if there weren’t, to say where it belongs. These two images are the threshold through which life gives a justification for our total global management. It’s justified because of the sacredness of this nothingness.

It is only within this Christian tradition with the death of that nature which lies contingently in God’s hands that the cultural space is created, through which then a life, as an object of management and perhaps as an object which can even be produced — for example, artificial intelligence — could come about. The social eclipse of Christian life, of the life of Christ, from culture — I’m not referring to churches — provided, if I’m not completely wrong, the empty space which almost called, or at least permitted the invasion of a life, of man taking charge of man and of the cosmos.

I, as mostly a reader of twelfth-and thirteenth-century documents, cannot avoid re-translating this into Latin as a cosmos contingent on man, a cosmos in the hands of man, and what formerly we called persons — beings of a kind I don’t know how to name — in the hands of man…

Audio of the complete interview and the transcript:

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Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. Studied English literature in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins. Questions or comments? Reach me at ddean3000@gmail.com.