A little while ago, I listened to a podcast titled “Governing the dead – who has authority over death?”. A main theme of the podcast was, that the control over death and the dead is intimately linked with sovereignty and political power. Having just binge-read Agamben for the Unruly term paper, this rang a bell, and at the risk of venturing into a subject, that is too gloomy for a blog, I am going to reflect out loud on death and its unruly potential.
Can taking (back) control over (one’s own) death reveal the fragility and limits of the side of modern state power that aims to keep us alive for as long as possible? Or can it be a way of resisting the other side of state power that kills and loots as it pleases? I consider two very different perspectives.
My grandfather died five years ago. In the last years of his life, he had a very practical and factual way of going about his own forthcoming death. I remember talking to him on the phone one day a year or two before he died. It was early December and I asked him what he wanted for Christmas – a new sweater? a pair of woolen socks? “None of that”, he replied. “I have so many pairs of socks, and I don’t have enough days left to wear them before I die”. Such an otherwise rational statement was unsettling for my indoctrinated welfare-heart that regarded death as the ultimate taboo.
When his time came, my grandfather challenged the death-denying narrative of the welfare state in the way he insisted on controlling, to the extent possible, the timing of his own death. He stopped breathing in his own bed in his own house after weeks of having refused treatment and hospitalization. To him, all such measures were nonsense. He was ready to die, and nobody could convince him otherwise. Without knowing it, I think that by refusing the never-ending attempts of the state to optimize and extend life, my grandfather was unruly. Even though his resistance was against the stubborn and forceful solicitude of the state – and not against destructive state brutality, which is what we have most often discussed in our unruly politics class.
At the other end of the scale is a tragic story about a Pakistani asylum seeker who recently committed suicide by jumping of a hotel building in Leipzig, Germany. His asylum request had been rejected the day before. When I first heard about this, I thought that maybe this man’s decision to die because life was unbearable was powerful and meaningful because it sent a message. Because the man stepped out of the line of refugees and asylum seekers that are constantly being escorted, controlled and pushed back and forth by war and poverty and governments. He refused to be escorted any longer. Maybe this attempt of “according flesh instead of voice the means to establish one’s status as a speaking subject”, as Nyers and Rygiel put it, can strike a chord. However, giving it some more thought, I am not sure if such a definitive demonstration of voicelessness holds any power in today’s society.
Foucault thought that in modern society, power is not a relationship of domination by the sovereign over its subjects, instead, it is mainly productive and characterised by the presence of some measure of freedom. I buy that. And it is important that we are not naïve about this kind of power – because while it is productive it is certainly also dangerous, not least because it is often subtle or even invisible. However, while I agree that this form of power is still going strong, like the story about my grandfather reminds us, I also think that power more and more often turns into that old-fashioned form of sovereign domination. These days, the facade of the friendly state that, by all means possible, cares for life is crackling. Brute force is everywhere. Bodies are nothing but bodies that are thrown around by powerholders. Talk about bare life! Touché, Agamben.
I do realize that this is not new. Sovereign brutality is as old as the sovereign. What is new, I think, is the indifference with which the powerful can let it go on right in front of everyone’s eyes without any real objection. Agamben would say, that this is not surprising, because for citizens to understand themselves as such and to value their citizenship, they need to be able to see the non-citizen, the bare life. Essentially, then, we are never going to stop treating some people as subhuman. Trump is telling us that almost every day. Assad is telling us that. Putin is. Lars Løkke (the Danish Prime Minister) is.
While the authoritarian turn that seems to be happening in the USA and in Europe is unsettling on so many levels, I am going to suggest something positive about it: it is more contrasted and confrontational and therefore “easier” to attack – verbally at least. It is easier to criticize Trump than it was to criticize Obama – because Trump is serving his divisive, authoritarian bullshit to us on a silver platter. It is easier to take a stance on right and wrong (whichever stance one chooses) because what is being done to and said about women, refugees, people living in poverty or with a disability, is so unsubtle and so harsh that it cannot be misunderstood.
But there is also a danger, and that takes me back to the point about the Pakistani man’s suicide in Leipzig, that we are already adapting to this new ‘unsubtleness’ and are shrugging our shoulders at state-sanctioned atrocities at a pace that might lead to said shoulders being dislocated. When an asylum-seeker jumps off a hotel rooftop in Leipzig, do most people think: “this is what the world has come to, we must resist!” or “this is what the world has come to, but it is not really my problem” or “I feel sorry for the guy and all, but did he have to do it in front of everyone?”.
Agamben, G., 1995. Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life, part two. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. In H. Dreyfus, & P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault Power – Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 (pp. 208-226). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Nyers, P. and Rygiel, K., 2014. Citizenship, migrant activism and the politics of movement. London: Routledge.