Remnant Communities and the Trauma of Sovereignty


Today’s brief entry from my philosophical journal, an entry which I first wrote last May, concerns once again the thought  of Jenny Edkins, whose field is international relations, and about whom I have written before in this blog.  What is at issue in the entry below, as it is at issue in the essay by Edkins I address, is a question raised by the work of contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben on the concept of sovereignty.  Agamben argues that modern sovereignty grows from a seed planted long before modernity by the ancient Greeks when they distinguished–in Aristotle’s thought especially–between bios, or life in the fully human sense, such as can be captured in “biographies,” which literally means “life-writings,” on the one hand, and zoe, or life in the purely “zoological” sense, on the other.  

Following Carl Schmitt, the right-wing political theorist who eventually used his thought to provide the Nazi state with legal justification, Agamben defines modern sovereignty as that power that draws the line between supposedly fully human life and what Agamben calls “bare life.”  Agamben goes on to argue that the emergence under the Nazis of the concentration camp system, above all the death-camps where the Nazis carried out the “extermination” of the Jews, was the culmination and flowering of sovereignty, so defined.  What is more, he argues that insofar as everyone today is subject to  such sovereignty everyone today is at least potentially, by virtue of the decisions of whoever holds the position of sovereign over one–the position of being “the decider,’ as George W. Bush notoriously identified himself in his role as President–an inmate in “the camps.”

The question that Professor Edkins raises in the article I am considering in the entry below is, in short, that of the form that resistance to such sovereignty can take.  If resistance to sovereignty, as Agamben analyzes sovereignty, is still possible at all, then just how might we make our resistance effective?  Or are we in fact doomed henceforth to trying merely to continue surviving, eking out as best we can one day at a time the “bare life,” as Agamben names it,  to which sovereignty reduces life in “Auschwitz,” “the camps”?

My own very brief remarks interspersed below within and between citations from Edkins point toward what I have come to call “remnant communities” as places where such effective resistance may occur.  My selection of that name is indebted to Agamben, Franz Rosenzweig, and German and Jewish studies scholar Eric L. Santner, each of whom makes use of the term remnant in a way that has become important for me in my own thought.

One of the  key books in which Agamben himself works his thought of sovereignty and “bare life” is tellingly called Remnants of Auschwitz.  Not only were the inmates of Auschwitz remnants–cast off by-products, as it were–of the Nazi state, but all we have for testimony from those inmates themselves are remnants of what would constitute full testimony to the horror in which so many perished, a testimony that could only be made by those who so perished themselves, but who in being exterminated were denied any possibility of bear their own witness.

Then in The Psychotheology of Everyday Life:  Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (University of Chicago Press, 2001) Santner makes central use of the idea of the “remnant,” the “useless,” “good for nothing” cast-off remainder of the processes wherein we establish our “identity.”   It is only as such remnants, or at that level of ourselves where each of us is just such a good-for-nothing, ready-to-be-discarded remnant, that we can be encountered in our pure singularity, our “ipseity” as Santner calls it, to distinguish it from our “identity,” which is always a matter of social construction and what he calls “symbolic investiture” (for example, such investitures as establish my own  identity as a philosophy professor, father, husband, etc.). 

Santner’s use of the idea of the remnant is itself based in part on Agamben’s just mentioned text.  Even more crucially however, Santner’s thought and terminology is grounded in Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption.  In that work Rosenzweig traces what he argues is an essential connection between Judaism and the  idea of “the remnant.” For him, the Jewish diaspora community is just a “remnant community” as I have in mind:  a community alongside and within the dominant–we can say the “sovereign”–society, one which does not set itself up as any alternative to that society, any competitor for sovereign power, but which instead lives out its own rich life as a community without reference, we might say, to that environing, dominant,  sovereign society, outside its laws, in that sense, though the individual members of that remnant community continue to play their various roles in that same sovereign society. 

Another model of a “remnant” community is provided by Benedictine monasticism, which is an insistently “cenobitic” form of monasticism–that is, the monastic life lived out in communities of monks, which is to say communities of solitaries, who live “alone together,” to use a formulation I find helpful.  Each Benedictine monastic community lives out its communal life in a certain, definite “withdrawal” from “the world,” yet a withdrawal in which the monastery–in the sense of the monastic community as such–always remains connected to, and interactive with, that same “world” in various complex ways.  The monastery is a community “in the world, but not of the world,” as one common formulation has it.  It is a place where the irrelevancy of what in medieval Christian discourse is called “the world” is made known, simply by the fact of communal  life being lived at such a place “outside” yet “in” that same “world.”

Yet a third example of what I would call  a “remnant community,” providing yet a third model of the formation and continuance of such a community, would be a “Twelve Step fellowship,” such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as I suggest at the end of the entry below.  Interested readers might wish to refer back to some of my earlier posts, in which I offer further remarks, all relevant to the topic of today’s post, about AA and other such fellowships.

 This is a topic that, in one way or another, will occupy me in many of the entries I will be posting here in the future.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Jenny Edkins, “Whatever Politics,” in Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli, editors, Giorgio Agamben:  Sovereignty and Life (Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 70-91.  Page 73:  “Sovereign distinctions [especially between bios and zoe] do not hold; to refuse them, and to demonstrate being in common, is  not to make a new move but only, yet most importantly, to embrace that insight [namely, the insight that such sovereign distinctions do not hold], and to call sovereignty’s bluff.”  Then, page 76:  “Sovereign power is happy to negotiate the boundaries of the distinctions that it makes; what it could  not tolerate would be the refusal to  make any distinctions of this sort.”

Compare [Alain] Badiou’s summation of the truth that comes to pass/takes place as the Sparticist uprising [in ancient Rome–which Badiou discusses in Logiques des mondes]:  [the simple but incontrovertible truth–incontrovertible even by the eventual rout of the Sparticist troops by the Roman legions sent against them, and the crucifixion of Sparticist and his followers–that, as Spartacus was just the first among the slaves of Rome to realize,] “We can go home.”

Compare, also, Yossarian in [Joseph Heller’s novel] Catch 22 [who finally just does “go home,” which in his  case means to check out of the insanity of the World War II Allied war enterprise by deserting to a neutral country].

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