segunda-feira, 10 de agosto de 2009

Agamben e a cidade

Giorgio Agamben*
Many years ago I was having a conversation with Guy (Debord) which I believed to
be about political philosophy, until at some point Guy interrupted me and said:
'Look, I am not a philosopher, I am a strategist'. This statement struck me because I
used to see him as a philosopher as I saw myself as one, but I think that what he
meant to say was that every thought, however 'pure', general or abstract it tries to
be, is always marked by historical and temporal signs and thus captured and
somehow engaged in a strategy and urgency. I say this because my reflections will
clearly be general and I won't enter into the specific theme of conflicts but I hope
that they will bear the marks of a strategy.
I would like to start from a banal consideration on the etymology of the word
metropolis. As you know, in Greek metropolis means Mother City and refers to the
relationship between cities and colonies.The citizens of a polis who left to found a
colony were curiously called en apoikia: distancing/drifting away from home and
from the city, which then took on, in relation to the colony, the character of
Mother City, Metropolis(1). As you know this meaning of the word is still current and
today used to express the relationship of the metropolitan territory of the home to
the colonies. The first instructive observation suggested by the etymology is that
the word metropolis has a strong connotation of maximum dislocation and spatial
and political dishomogeneity, as that which defines the relationship between the
state, or the city, and colonies. And this raises a series of doubts about the current
idea of the metropolis as a urban, continuum and relatively homogeneous fabric (2).
This is the first consideraton: the isonomy that defines the Greek polis as a model
of political city is excluded from the relation between metropolis and colony, and
therefore the term metropolis, when transposed to describe a urban fabric, carries
this fundamental dishomogeneity with it. So I propose that we keep the term
metropolis for something substantially other from the city, in the traditional
conception of the polis, i.e. something politically and spatially isonomic. I suggest
to use this term, metropolis, to designate the new urban fabric that emerges in
parallel with the processes of transformation that Michel Foucault defined as the
shift from the territorial power of the ancient regime, of sovereignty, to modern
biopower, that is in its essence governmental.
This means that to understand what a metropolis is one needs to understand the
process whereby power progressively takes on the character of government of
things and the living, or if you like of an economy. Economy means nothing but
government, in the 18th century, the government of the living and things. The city
of the feudal system of the ancient regime was always in a situation of exception in
relation to the large territorial powers, it was the citta franca, relatively
autonomous from the great territorial powers (3). So I would say that the
metropolis is the dispositif or group of dispositifs that replaces the city when power
becomes the government of the living and of things.
We cannot go into the complexity of the transformation of power into government.
Government is not dominion and violence, it is a more compolecx configuration that
traverses the very nature of the governed thus implying their fredom, it is a power
that is not transcendental but immanent, its essential character is that it always is,
in its specific manifestation, a collateral effect, something that originates in a
general economy and falls onto the particular (4). When the US strategists speak of
collateral damage they have to be taken literally: government always has this
schema of a general economy, with collateral effects on the particulars, on the
Going back to the metropolis, my idea is that we are not facing a process of
development and growth of the old city, but the institution of a new paradigm
whose character needs to be analysed. Undoubtedly one of its main traits is that
there is a shift form the model of the polis founded on a centre, that is, a public
centre or agora, to a new metropolitan spatialisation that is certainly invested in a
process of de-politicisation, which results in a strange zone where it is impossible to
decide what is private and what is public.
Michel Foucault tried to define some of the essential characters of this urban space
in relation to governmentality. According to him, there is a convergence of two
paradigms that were hitherto distinct: leprosy and the plague. The paradigm of
leprosy was clearly based on exclusion, it required that the lepers were 'placed
outside' the city. In this model, the pure city keeps the stranger outside, the grand
enfermement: close up and exclude (5). The model of the plague is completely
different and gives rise to another paradigm. When the city is plagued it is
impossible to move the plague victims outside. On the contrary, it is a case of
creating a model of surveillance, control, and articulation of urban spaces. These
are divided into sections, within each section each road is made autonomous and
placed under the surveillance of an intendent; nobody can go out of the house but
every day the houses are checked, each inhabitant controlled, how many are there,
are they dead etc. It is a quadrillage of urban territory surveilled by intendents,
doctors and soldiers. So whilst the leper was rejected by an apparatus of exclusion,
the plague victim is encased, surveilled, controlled and cured through a complex
web of dispositifs that divide and individualise, and in so doing also articulate the
efficiency of control and of power.
Thus whereas leprosy is a paradigm of exclusive society, the plague is a paradigm of
disciplinary techniques, technologies that will take society through the transition
from the ancient regime to the disciplinary paradigm. According to Foucault, the
political space of modernity is the result of these two paradigms: at some point the
leper starts being treated like a plague victim, and viceversa. In other words, there
emerges a projection onto the framework of exclusion and separation of leprosy, of
the arrangement of surveillance, control, individualisation and the articulation of
disciplinary power, so that it becomes a case of individualising, subjectivating and
correcting the leper by treating him like a plague victim. So there is a double
capture: on the one hand the simple binary opposition of diseased/healthy,
mad/normal etc. and on the other hand there is a whole complicated series of
differentiating dispositions of technologies and dispositifs that subjectify
individuate and control subjects. This is a first useful framework for a general
definition of metropolitan space today and it also explains the very interesting
things you were talking about here: the impossibility of univocally defining borders,
walls, spatialisation, because they are the result of the action of this different
paradigm: no longer a simple binary division but the projection on this division of a
complex series of articulating and individuating processes and technologies.
I remember Genoa 2001: I thought it was an experiment to treat the historical
centre of an old city, still characterised by an ancient architectural structure, to
see how in this centre one could suddenly create walls, gates that not only had the
function of excluding and separating but were also there to articulate different
spaces and individualise spaces and subjects. This analysis that Foucault summarily
sketches out can be further developed and deepened. But now I want to end on a
different note and concentrate on a different point.
I said that the city is a dispositif, or a group of dispositifs. The theory that you
referred to earlier was the summary idea that one could divide reality into, on the
one hand, humans and living beings, and, on the other, the dispositifs that
continuously capture and take hold of them. However, the third fundamental
element that defines a dispositif, for Foucault too I think, is the series of processes
of subjectivation that result from the relation, the corpo a corpo, between
individuals and dispositifs (6). There is no dispositif without a process of
subjectivation, to talk of dispositif one has to see a process of subjectivation.
Subject means two things: what leads an individual to assume and become attached
to an individuality and singularity, but also subjugation to an external power (7).
There is no process of subjectivation without both these aspects.
What is often lacking, also in the movements, is the consciousness of this relation,
the awareness that every time one takes on an identity one is also subjugated.
Obviously this is also complicated by the fact that modern dispositifs not only entail
the creation of a subjectivity but also and equally processes of de-subjectification.
This might have always been the case, think about confession, which shaped
Western subjectivity (the formal confession of sins), or juridical confession, which
we still experience today. Confession always entailed in the creation of a subject
also the negation of a subject, for instance in the figure of the sinner and
confessor, it is clear that the assumption of a subjectivity goes together with a
process of de-subjectivation. So the point today is that dispositifs are increasingly
de-subjectifying so it is difficult to identify the processes of suvbjectivation that
they create. But the metropolis is also a space where a huge process of creation of
subjectivity is taking place. About this we don't know enough. When I say that we
need to know these processes, I am not just referring to the sociological or
economic and social analysis; I am referring to the ontological level or Spinozian
level that puts under question the subjects' ability/power to act; i.e. what, in the
processes whereby a subject somehow becomes acttached to a subjective identity,
leads to a change, an increase or decrease of his/her power to act (8). We lack this
knowledge and this perhaps makes the metropolitan conflicts we witness today
rather opaque.
I think that a confrontation with metropolitan dispositifs will only be possible when
we penetrate the processes of subjectivation that the metropolis entails in a more
articulated way, deeper. Because I think that the outcome of conflicts depends on
this: on the power to act and intervene on processes of subjectivation, in order to
reach that stage that I would call a point of ungovernability. The ungovernable
where power can shipwreck in its figure of government, the ungovernable that I
think is always the beginning and the line of flight of all politics.
*Transcribed and translated by Arianna Bove from audio files available here.
Thanks to global project, Uninomade e Marcello Tari for pointing it out.
Translator's notes: (1) allontanarsi is the verb used in the original; (2) tessuto: material, cloth,
woven fabric; (3) citta franca is so called because it is exempt from feudal tax (franca = free, nice
idiom: farla franca, 'getting away with it'); (4) ricade sul particolare: falls onto but also hangs and
incumbs on; (5) These reflections can be found in Michel Foucault's Lectures on Les Anormaux,
given at the College de France in 1975, specifically this issue is treated on 15th January, Lecture II.
The 1975 lectures are published in English by Verso as The Abnormals (London: 2003), in French
by Gallimard (Paris: 1999) and in Italian by Feltrinelli (Milan: 2000). Excellent stuff; (6) Funny how
in English there is head to head and face to face, but no body to body. The Leviathan; (7)
assoggettamento; (8) the usual conundrum: capacita' in Italian.

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