|NO TO BIO-POLITICAL TATTOOING
Le Monde 10 January 2004
The newspapers leave no doubt: from now on whoever wants to go to the
United States with a visa will be put on file and will have to leave
their fingerprints when they enter the country. Personally, I have no
intention of submitting myself to such procedures and that's why I
didn't wait to cancel the course I was supposed to teach at New York
University in March.
I would like to explain the reasons for this refusal here, that is,
why, in spite of the sympathy that has connected me to my American
colleagues and their students for many years, I consider that this
decision is at once necessary and without appeal and would hope that
it will be shared by other European intellectuals and teachers.
It's not only the immediate superficial reaction to a procedure that
has long been imposed on criminals and political defendants. If it
were only that, we would certainly be morally able to share, in
solidarity, the humiliating conditions to which so many human beings
The essential does not lie there. The problem exceeds the limits of
personal sensitivity and simply concerns the juridical-political
status (it would be simpler, perhaps, to say bio-political) of
citizens of the so-called democratic states where we live.
There has been an attempt the last few years to convince us to accept
as the humane and normal dimensions of our existence, practices of
control that had always been properly considered inhumane and
Thus, no one is unaware that the control exercised by the state
through the usage of electronic devices, such as credit cards or cell
phones, has reached previously unimaginable levels.
All the same, it wouldn't be possible to cross certain thresholds in
the control and manipulation of bodies without entering a new
bio-political era, without going one step further in what Michel
Foucault called the progressive animalisation of man which is
established through the most sophisticated techniques.
Electronic filing of finger and retina prints, subcutaneous
tattooing, as well as other practices of the same type, are elements
that contribute towards defining this threshold. The security reasons
that are invoked to justify these measures should not impress us:
they have nothing to do with it. History teaches us how practices
first reserved for foreigners find themselves applied later to the
rest of the citizenry.
What is at stake here is nothing less than the new "normal"
bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This
relation no longer has anything to do with free and active
participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrolment and
the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of
subjectivity: I mean the body's biological life.
These technological devices that register and identify naked life
correspond to the media devices that control and manipulate public
speech: between these two extremes of a body without words and words
without a body, the space we once upon a time called politics is ever
more scaled-down and tiny.
Thus, by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the
dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such,
states, which should constitute the precise space of political life,
have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it's
humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.
Some years ago, I had written that the West's political paradigm was
no longer the city state, but the concentration camp, and that we had
passed from Athens to Auschwitz. It was obviously a philosophical
thesis, and not historic recital, because one could not confuse
phenomena that it is proper, on the contrary, to distinguish.
I would have liked to suggest that tattooing at Auschwitz undoubtedly
seemed the most normal and economic way to regulate the enrolment and
registration of deported persons into concentration camps. The
bio-political tattooing the United States imposes now to enter its
territory could well be the precursor to what we will be asked to
accept later as the normal identity registration of a good citizen in
the state's gears and mechanisms. That's why we must oppose it.
Giorgio Agamben is a philosopher and professor at the University of
Venice and New York University.