Book Review: The Human

John Lechte, The Human: Bare Life and Ways of Life (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Reviewed by Claire Colebrook (Penn State University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

The Human is – as the title makes clear – not only about the broad problem of the general concept of the human in philosophy of the last century, but also about the distinction between bare (biological) life and (politically formed) ways of life. Perhaps most closely associated with the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben “bare life” is life stripped of the forms of meaning, value, relationality and temporality that define political existence. Lechte traces this idea through a series of thinkers, including Hannah Arendt (whose work influenced Agamben). For Arendt, political life begins when the needs of life are met, when biological or animal existence is no longer at issue, and when one can form oneself freely through relations with other deliberative and actively world-forming others. The “human condition” for Arendt is that of being at once bound to one’s animal existence – the demands of the body, of surviving or merely subsisting – while also having the capacity to be released from labor towards the political life of formation. One might, therefore, not be human if one is too bound to necessity. 

One strand of Lechte’s book is a clear and original genealogy of this concept of “bare life.” Not only does this concept feature in various forms in writers like Agamben, Foucault, Bataille and Arendt – who to a greater or lesser extent accept the distinction between a life that is nothing more than merely surviving, and a life liberated from subsistence for the sake of a freely formed human political being – it also provides the foundational model for freedom in modernity. Even though Lechte will tie the possibility of this distinction to the conceptual possibility of nature – and here he draws on both Foucault’s notion that “life” is produced through forms of modern scientific knowing and Latour’s definition of modernity as the great divorce between “nature” (which can be known objectively) and politics (which is the domain of freely formed human decision-making). From Kant onwards, through to Hegel, Marx and Heidegger, the human is not so much a natural kind as it is a capacity for a possibility of freedom to reflect upon and distance oneself from nature. Crucial to this claim are presuppositions regarding animality, death and statelessness. Arendt is a key figure in Lechte’s claim that the distinction between bare life (laboring and merely biological existence) and political being (free and formed existence) bestows the human only on those who exist in recognized polities, with Arendt maintaining the distinction between those who have the right to have rights versus the stateless. (Simone Weil – who was an important influence for Agamben – objected to human rights discourse for just this reason; when one responds to a suffering body it is not their rights one is protecting, but their being.)

The genealogical strand of The Human traces a sophisticated trajectory of the intertwined possibilities of humanity as freedom in its distinction from an animality of mere subsistence. There are two critical foils in this line of argument. First, in the earliest chapters of The Human Lechte draws upon Baudrillard for whom there is no distinctly animal, pre-human, merely subsisting life; all life is a form or way of life. Eating, sleeping, sex, hunting: at the supposedly pure material and biological level, these activities are relational, and already bound up with form and sense. Second, and later in The Human Lechte turns to Julia Kristeva, who argued that even though one can in theory distinguish between the informational and communicational dimensions of language (the Symbolic) there are also the gestural, guttural, tonal, affective and haptic forces in speech (the Semiotic). The body, or the “animal” dimension of human existence, is not some purely natural, ahistorical and unformed ground that needs to be set aside for the work and freedom of politics to begin. Not only, as Agamben has argued, is this supposedly bare life produced politically, when states create zones of nothing more than life (in death camps and detention centres, where bodies are deprived of political forms and relations), and not only (also following Agamben) does this life that is merely allowed to survive as some managerial substance controlled by political sovereignty become the dominant form of life in the twenty-first century, Lechte wants to argue that there is no such thing.

The history of ideas dimension of The Human is, in itself, a tour de force in its weaving together of a series of complex thinkers in relation to the concept and problem of the human. There is something remarkably alluring and persuasive in the idea of “bare life.” As Lechte’s journey through a range of thinkers from Rousseau to Stiegler demonstrates, the notion of a humanity that is not yet human but still bound up with the immediacy of animality and mere subsistence, enables various theorizations of the discontinuity of the political. Even when, as with Stiegler, this pre-human humanity is no longer some literal and fully present humanity of plenitude, Lechte argues that the same structure is in play. “The human” is defined through political being, with some literal or imagined state of “life” being posited as the preamble from which “the human” comes into existence. Language, technics, time, memory, freedom, politics and symbolism: all become moments of rupture that define the human against a life which is constantly posited as that which is left behind in the transition to humanity proper. The significance of this critical genealogy is three-fold. 

First, philosophically something is lost in the history of ideas, and with ways of thinking about the present, if it is assumed that there simply is something like subsisting life or necessity that must be met at the level of pure needs before one can engage in political action. Lechte argues that this way of thinking begins in modernity, and is then read back onto Ancient Greek thought. Agamben, here, is an ambivalent figure in The Human. One way of reading “bare life,” is not as some natural existence that exists prior to political being; instead, the distinction between zoe and bios is effected politically. Agamben’s example of homo sacer is drawn from Roman law but indicates a possibility of sovereignty in general. “Bare life” is not nature, but is that merely natural life produced outside of sovereignty. If modern life becomes increasingly biopolitical – as Agamben argues – this is because rather than governments negotiating and debating various forms of life, politics becomes nothing more than managing a population’s survival. This raises the question, not explored fully by Agamben, whether this “bare life” as such really exists. Agamben acknowledges that humanity’s supposed animality is effected through exclusion; “bare life” is produced, either in figures such as homo sacer or in the bodies of death camps and detention centres, where being placed outside the law gives sovereignty its zone of distinction, but also the possibility of suspension. In states of emergency, all life becomes bare life, as the law does nothing more than save life at all costs. Where Agamben will object to such measures for the sake of the forms of life that make life worth living, Lechte asks whether and how “bare life” exists. Here Agamben is somewhat obscure; while he acknowledges that an “anthropological machine” produces the political subject through the exclusion of an animality that then becomes so much abandoned and disposable matter, he appears to accept that the sovereign ban does indeed produce a life without qualities. One might leave to one side whether animal existence (if there is such a generic thing as “the animal”) does not possess some degree of form or style of life, but it is not the case – Lechte argues – that the same can be said of what is posited as mere subsistence. Life that, from the point of view of the polity, may be utterly void of form nevertheless manages subsistence and necessity in all sorts of stylized ways.

Second, if there is philosophical reason to doubt the existence of something like “bare life” there is even more reason to raise political questions. Is it right to argue, as Agamben does in Remnants of Auschwitz, that the Musselman really was nothing more than mere existence? Is it right to see stateless peoples as so bound to necessity and subsistence that they are not also living a form of life? Does not the positing of a prehuman-humanity that is governed by animality – especially when animality is deemed to be generically immediate and life-bound – dehumanize many forms of human existence? Lechte both draws attention to the failure to ask this question in many areas of animal studies, and raises the question of stateless and Indigenous peoples who are defined through this pre-human humanity. Here, his work resonates both with recent work on stateless societies and the assumption that state forms are inevitable, and with work in critical philosophies of race that tie animality to racialized others.  If one only becomes properly free once supposedly basic needs are met, then those who exist in this putative level of existence have no political being. 

Finally, and I think most significantly, Lechte looks at how the production of “bare life” has direct consequences even in those polities not deemed to be operating in the unfreedom of necessity and subsistence. Events that seem exceptional, such as the monitoring of the death sentence in the US’s capital punishment system, show the ways in which this notion of the merely biological/animal substrate of human life is both elusive and brutal. When bodies on life support or bodies sentenced to death are monitored by means of various technologies supposedly either to avoid “cruel and unusual” suffering or to determine the border between life and death, it becomes evident that “bare life” is produced through technologies of representation. The “instant” of death is manufactured, as is the supposed pure, mere, bare or animal life that forms the substrate of political humanity. In everyday life, one might think of the vast number of bodily surveillance technologies that tie the supposed “we” of political subjectivity to the monitoring of of “bare life”: smart watches with health, efficiency and fitness apps; the commodification of time and life in the labor market; DNA and personality services; “life coaching” to make us more efficient. 

Lechte’s book is a thoughtful genealogy that allows contemporary readers of Stiegler and Agamben to think about debts to Arendt, Bataille, Heidegger and phenomenology in general. It is also, more importantly, a new way of thinking critically about the conception of freedom that runs from Kant, through Marx and Hegel, to the present: only with the modern positing of mere subsistence can the norm of self-forming humanity be marked off from lives of the stateless, the pre-political and the not-yet human. Finally, by arguing that what is posited as bare life actually harbors the relationality and sense of ways and forms of life Lechte contributes to future thinking about human life beyond the state form.

Claire Colebrook is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English, Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at Penn State University. She has written books and articles on contemporary European philosophy, literary history, gender studies, queer theory, visual culture and feminist philosophy. Her most recent book is Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (co-authored with Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller).

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