By Lapo Lappin
I write these lines while balancing on the edge of the European Union, a rapidly expiring Italian passport waterlogged on my desk. Time, seemingly, ticks on. The world, frozen inside a virological enchantment, seemingly does not.
And for the first time in my life, I feel a strange kind of vulnerability. The precise anatomy of this feeling is hard put into words. Perhaps it is best described with the word nakedness.
In a handful of days, I will be outside the EU, with no valid documents, no way to travel home, or, for that matter, to get to the nearest embassy (which, even if I were to reach it, would not release any new documents in any event). For the first time, it feels as though I have stumbled outside of the world we usually live in – I am suddenly on the wrong side of the looking glass, just a stranger, peering in.
One small advantage of this vantage point is that I now seem to see what was previously invisible. The machinery of the state, the institutions of citizenship – all the intricacies of social existence that keep us suspended over oblivion by translucent webworks. While we are furled inside them, these filaments melt into the background unseen. The question that now haunts me, however, both on a practical and theoretical level, is this one: what if these threads were to unravel one by one?
I keep thinking that this question is crystallized in the ancient Greek distinction between the words zoe and bios. Zoe denotes biological life: the life of plants, of animals, of all that lives and breathes. Bios, on the other hand, refers to strictly human life, a form of life – ”political life”, if you will. Bios is the life of the citizen. At the very foundation of the state is the question of the relation between zoe and bios, between biological life and social life, the life ”outside” the law and that within it.
Human life, then, finds a torn home in this tension between biological life and political life. Bios always relates itself to zoe. Citizenship must always relate itself to what precedes it: life in the absence of citizenship, a life outside social life. That is to say: a naked life.
Perhaps this is one of the sprawling meanings of Western culture’s foundational myth. It is a ”fall” from zoe into bios, from the feral bliss of the Garden to the self-conscious toil of the Kingdom. Adam and Eve, at the dawn of civilization, engirded themselves with fig leaves in shame of their nudity: citizenship is a cloak, covering up the nakedness of biological life.
The contemporary thinker who has most thought about this question is undoubtedly the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. At the heart of his work is the concept of nuda vita. The term is often translated as ”bare life”, although a more literal (and faithful) rendering would be ”nude life”, ”naked life”. Its first elaboration is to be found in Agamben’s Homo sacer (1995). The main figure of the book is an obscure paragraph in archaic Roman law. The homo sacer, ”the sacred man” (or even ”cursed man”), was someone who had been placed outside of the law. Being no longer a legal subject, the homo sacer becomes both sacred and absolutely killable. No punishment can incur the killing of a homo sacer.
In the homo sacer, Agamben sees a paradigm example of the life outside the law. Agamben sees in this figure the glimmerings of the extra-judicial dehumanization of the camps, or, in later works, in the extra-judicial enhanced interrogations of Guantanamo bay. Persons are placed, by the law, outside the law, and thus reduced to their naked life, their nuda vita.
Agamben’s central idea is that citizenship can only be understood by understanding what it is citizenship excludes, by looking at those who no longer are citizens. A clue to understanding Agamben’s argument, I think, can be found in a footnote in homo sacer, where he likens his argument to a kind of ”negative theology”, a school of thought that claims that God, being incomprehensible, can only be described through negations. One can only say what God is not. Similarly, Agamben invites us to think about the non-citizen to approach what citizenship is. This is a necessary path to take, since citizenship is fundamentally based on the exclusion of bare life, the substitution of zoe with bios.
In the end, I think we should follow Agamben’s cue. Our reflections on citizenship need to go back to the very heart of the matter, to the tension between social life and its Other. This means going back to the very foundation of citizenship. Excavating foundations is no easy matter: they are often deeply buried, by nature elusive and arcane. At the same time, however, this foundation is ever-present, in all our dealings and experiences of citizenship. The commingling of bios and zoe follows us around like a silent golem. Not least in the biopolitics of the pandemic, but also conspicuously in the mass-migrations of this century, in those people denuded of citizenship, abandoned and reduced to ”floods” of pure zoe.
It is precisely the tussle between zoe and bios that is at the very heart of every question of citizenship. Including, in a small and insignificant way, my own paper-work shitshow.
By Lapo Lappin
Illustration: Gabriella Borg Bruchfeld