Biopolitics, Bare Life, and The Reimagining of The Camp

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Linacre College, Oxford

 

Formulated and understood by French philosopher Michel Foucault as the power over life, or the ‘right to make live and let die’, the notion of biopower is an important concept in Geography that helps us realise how certain populations are controlled and oppressed by the state. Traditional conceptualisations of biopower are however increasingly making way for a new biopolitics of ‘bare life’. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues there is a new space of contemporary politics in which individuals are no longer viewed as citizens but are now seen as inmates, stripped of everything, including their right to live. Agamben labels this space the ‘camp’, whereby inmates are isolated from the rest of society.


This biopolitics of disposability is witnessed through ‘spaces of exception’ where the suspension of laws aiming to protect citizens allows for a reduction of the individual to fear and punishment. In this essay, I will argue the ‘concentration camp’ to be a widely employed technology for dealing with detained individuals. I will extend a biopolitical analysis into a necropolitical analysis of Israel’s occupation of Palestine to demonstrate how when the exception is normalised, it is not just for the purposes of ‘letting die’ but actively killing. Finally, using a critical race perspective, I will argue that bare life synonymous to that of the ‘camp’ is found not just at points of exception, but is the lived reality for Black individuals and communities.


The realities of bare life, where sovereign power does not extend to protect individuals, is pervasive at the site of the detention centre of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Exploring how the detention centre acts as a space of exception, Guantanamo is enmeshed in complex frameworks of law that have allowed much of what has transpired such as violence and forced detention to take place legally. Guantanamo remains outside of the United States in order to foreclose habeas corpus petitions from prisoners held there and inside the United States in order to forestall prosecutions for torturing them, thus forming a space where bodies are treated as unworthy of protecting simply because of their status as inmates. This normalisation of the exception to these individuals thus allows for bare life to find hold in the camp, bringing together biopolitics and space.


Using Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s theory of necropolitics, the Israeli occupation of Palestine demonstrates how the life is not restricted to becoming bare and ‘letting die’ but is vulnerable to being legally killed. The impunity of Israeli soldiers and corruption of legal and juridical systems that allow fatal power to be exercised by the Israeli military demonstrate how Foucault’s biopolitics and Agamben’s ‘bare life’ should be forced further into recognising the active necropolitics of disposability. These spaces of exception encourage not just the formation of camps, but the active elimination of those within them.


Using a critical race perspective, the ‘bare life’ found in spaces of exception as argued by Agamben is not just restricted to exceptions. Looking to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the deaths of over one thousand racial minorities neoliberal state proved its complicity in the biopolitical project of not only letting die, but of actively disposing what it had redlined as value-less portions of the U.S. population. Knowingly rendering already-marginalized groups vulnerable to natural disasters like Katrina, which were expected to hit and devastate the gulf region of the U.S demonstrates how the bare life found in Agamben’s camps are not just limited to spaces of exception, but are embodied everyday by Black, minority, and low-income communities in New Orleans.


Through employing the concept of the camp, the way certain populations are rendered as ‘bare life’ becomes highlighted; however, it is vital to recognise that these camps occur not just as spaces of exception, but increasingly are being normalised as part of everyday life experiences for certain communities that the state invests in oppressing.


Further reading:

  1. Agamben, G., 2005. The state of exception (pp. 284-298). Duke University Press.

  2. Kristensen, K., 2013. Michel Foucault on Bio-power and biopolitics.

  3. Mbembe, A., 2008. Necropolitics. In Foucault in an Age of Terror (pp. 152-182). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

  4. Minca, C., 2015. Geographies of the camp. Political Geography, 49, pp.74-83.