Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Bare Life, Interstices, and the Third Space of Citizenship

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Bare Life, Interstices, and the Third Space of Citizenship

Article excerpt

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben s enigmatic treatise on the intricacy of sovereign power and the state of exception in his Homo Sacer has received wide critical attention from political and social theorists in the past decade. In gesturing to the condition of the modern concentration camp as a paradigmatic case of what he calls "bare life" - human subjects reduced to a naked depoliticized state without official status and juridical rights - Agamben identifies a similar form of totalitarian power operating in the juridical realm of contemporary liberal democracies (Agamben 1998). Extending upon Agamben, critical migration scholars have recently taken up his conception of bare life to delineate the plight of refugees and unauthorized migrants floating in the global economy, who live in an indefinite and suspended state of noncitizenship (Rajaram and GrundyWarr 2004; Salter 2008). The move in paralleling Homo Sacer s caricature of the jurídico -political space of "camp" with the geopolitical condition of undocumented migration corresponds with Agamben s call to examine the ways in which citizen-subjects of our age have all "appear [ed] virtually as hominess sacri" (Agamben 1998, 111).

Agambens transhistorical call notwithstanding, to what extent is the space of "camp" (and by implication, the largely suppressed agency of bare life caught within the camp) an adequate depiction of the social condition of undocumented migrants? Examining the workspace of private households where female migrants work as domestic workers and where labor laws and regulations are indefinitely suspended, in this essay I argue that, while these laboring spaces relate to camp as the undocumented workers are stripped of juridico -political rights and reduced to a state of exploited bare life, the conception of camp lacks a dynamic account of power relations to address the complex agency of migrant subjects as they negotiate their daily workspace. Significantly what begins for Agamben as a space of interstitiality posited in camp - a zone between life and death; inside and outside - ultimately slides into an immobile binary between the political beings of citizens and the excluded bodies of bare life. Yet if the space of camp is interstitial in nature, what preempts the possibility of the abject manifesting an agency that is also interstitial in character? If the sovereign power occupies a space that is simultaneously inside and outside the juridical order, so does the undocumented in navigating a terrain of resistance/negotiation inside and outside the normative arrangement of citizenship. As I will argue, this negotiated resistance does not fundamentally alter the structured materiality of modern liberal juridical order and the political economy of irregular migration that Agamben and his migration studies followers so powerfully portray. However, at the point when Agamben declares the death of citizenship life for the bare subjects, he omits a crucial spectrum of ambiguous and interstitial practices mounted by the abject - mediating between the two extreme ends of political and nonpolitical - that actually extends and reanimates the life of citizenship from the very margins of abjection.

In the following, I will first address the relevance of Agamben s work for studies of undocumented migration. Two elements in his conception of camp are particularly compelling for the condition of refugees and undocumented migrants: the immanence of interstitiality and the depoliticized state of bare life.1 In turn, I look at how critics have problematized Agamben s thesis and its connection to unauthorized migration by raising issues such as location and agency in an effort to "resurrect the political" for the abject. In particular, they point to acts of refugee antideportation campaigns and undocumented-worker protests as counterexamples of "acts of citizenship" or "noncitizen citizenship" that defy the image of camp as bodies of victims. Yet while chronicling such resistant acts constitutes an urgent political intervention that counters the state of abjection, by understanding citizenship as solely visible and audible political acts, this line of critique actually falls into Agamben s rigid binary that divides humanity into political life (citizenship) and bare life (no rights, nonparticipation) - with the only difference being that the latter, byway of her citizen-like political acts, can now transform and elevate into the position of the former. …

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