Agamben, biopolitcs and a connection to literature

During this week’s class discussion we talked about how Giorgio Agamben sees the Holocaust as the central reference point for all biopolitical thought. The term “zoe,” or the reduction of life to “bios” is one of the main threads in Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Most importantly, if one is reduced to “bare life” that person is deprived of any rights. Like some of my peers have mentioned, with this weeks’ discussion I was able to see the larger concept that biopolitics encompasses.

I couldn’t help but make a connection to my Literature of the Holocaust class I am currently taking. A totalitarian state is when a political system is in place and where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life. Agamben provides examples of some European states in which they allowed mass denaturalization and denationalization of large portions of their own populations (p.132). The example that hits closest to home is the example of Germany and how the Nuremberg laws on “citizenship of the Reich” and the “protection of German blood and honor” were the most extreme. To restore Germany to its former greatness, Adolf Hitler believed that all those deemed “undesirable” by the state (including Jews, homosexuals, criminals, Communists, the mentally ill, handicapped, political prisoners, Poles, Gypsies, Soviet Prisoners of War, and Jehovah’s Witnesses) had to be purged from the political and public life of the German nation and removed from all positions of political, social and cultural influence.

Agamben brings an interesting point of argument when he asks how was it possible that there were no protests on the part of medical organizations when the doctors at concentration camps were put on trial (p. 143) The Hippocratic oath says that the doctor will always do the best in his or her ability to help and heal their patients, and “I will not give any man a fatal poison, even if he asks me for it.” In this case, Agamben makes his clam that here is where medicine and politics came together.

A connection to literature

With this notion in mind, I made a connection to a passage in one of the books I recently finished, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski. In this particular passage, he explains how, even though he was still alive, there was no connection between his mind and his body. “I stared into the night, numb, speechless, frozen with horror. My entire body trembled and rebelled, somehow even without participation. I no longer controlled my body, although I could feel its every tremor. My mind was completely calm, only the body seemed to revolt” (p. 65). Another example, is in Elie Wiesel’s Night, in the last passage of the memoir, he states: “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me” (p. 115). These two comments by two Holocaust survivors, I see how biopoltics went beyond the camp and its functionality. The purpose of the camp was to dehumanize its prisoners and take away from them their rights, their faith, their beliefs, etc. They were extremely lost, feeling even separated from their own bodies. Because even though they survived the camps, everything that made them who they were was taken away from them so they couldn’t identify as a living human being anymore.

– Maria Florencia Serra


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