Today, we are in an intervallic period in which the great majority of people do not have a name. The only name available is ‘excluded’, which is the name of those who have no name. 1
Alain Badiou, ‘The Caesura of Nihilism’
And so I must carry with me, through the course Of pale imaginings that leave no trace , This broken, idle mill-wheel, and the force Of circumstance that still protects the place. 2 J H Prynne, ‘Force of Circumstance’
Lives lived on the margins of social, political, cultural, economic and geographical borders are lives half lived. Denied access to legal, economic and political redress, these lives exist in a limbo-like state that is largely preoccupied with acquiring and sustaining the bare essentials of life. The refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the ‘ghost detainee’, the victim of torture, the dispossessed, the silenced, all have been excluded, to different degrees, from the fraternity of the social sphere, appeal to the safety net of the nation state, and recourse to international law. They have been out -lawed, so to speak: placed beyond recourse to law and yet still occupying a more oftenthan-not precarious relationship to the law. Although there is a signiﬁ cant degree of familiarity to be found in these sentiments, there is an increasingly notable move both in the political sciences and in cultural studies to view such subject positions not as the exception to modernity but its exempliﬁ cation. Which brings us to a far more radical proposal: what if the fact of discrimination, in all its injustice and strategic forms of exclusion, is the point at which we ﬁ nd not so much an imperfect modern subject — a subject existing in a ‘sub-modern’ phase that has yet to realize its full potential — as we do the sine qua non of modernity; its prerequisite as opposed to anomalous subject? What if the refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the ‘ghost detainee’, and the dispossessed are not only
In suggesting that modernity’s exceptions predicate its social structure and political reasoning, I am alluding here to Giorgio Agamben’s theory of marginalization inasmuch as it suggests ways of thinking beyond the distinctions to be had in dichotomies such as inside/outside, centre/margins, or inclusion/exclusion. In albeit abbreviated terms, Agamben is interested in lives lived on the margins of social, political, juridical, medical, and biological representation, not for their exceptional qualities but for their exemplary status: the manner, that is, in which they are both representative of modernity and an admonitory warning to the ontological status of the modern political subject. The exemplary ﬁ gure of that exceptionalism in historical terms is homo sacer , an obscure ﬁ gure of Roman law who, although once a citizen, is reduced to ‘bare life’ by sovereign decree and deprived of basic rights before the law. 3 Homo sacer , the sacred and therefore separate man — he who is set apart from others by law — is, for Agamben, the increasingly nascent ﬁ gure of our times; a time in which we are witnessing the effective re-emergence of largely unaccountable, sovereign forms of power. 4 In focusing on margins and thresholds, Agamben is not proposing a discrete topology of victimhood, and this is what draws me to his work here: he is, on the contrary, suggesting that the potentiality to be victimized — the discretionary ability of the sovereign/state to bring the weight of its unmediated power to bear upon the body of its subjects — is an inherent part of living in a democracy. In Agamben’s thesis, we are all potentially homines sacri.