The likelihood of there being among us any individual unaware of the horrors of the Holocaust is unfathomable. What is equally unfathomable is how humanity allowed such horrific crimes to be committed as they stood by mute, horrified, paralysed by fear OR determined, complacent and resigned to the idea of a greater good.
Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher who has attempted to make sense of this inexplicable acceptance of crime. Rather, he emphasises the need to understand the structure, which allowed the creation of Nazi camps where horrific acts were carried out without being deemed as punishable by law. We, the poor sedulous apes, like millions before us, try to analyse the crimes committed in the camps but Agamben in his phenomenal work, Homo Sacer (1995), insists that to make any sense of what happened, we must shift our focus to the structure that slowly, steadily and openly allowed the creation of these camps, such that their portrayal as a social necessity was never questioned.
The tool used was ‘Biopolitics’ and in a way that it became a weapon that stripped away every dignity and every necessity of a human being, to turn him into an object, whose survival or death became an objective matter of value. In Homo Sacer, Agamben demonstrates that biopolitics is a system that has to be understood because it could be manipulated to satisfy any objective, be it survival or death. He argues, biopolitics was used to translate the concept of exclusion into a space that became the Nazi camps.
Simply put, Biopolitics is the process by which society and political philosophies begin to have power over our life. One might argue that society and politics have always had influence over our life but so much so that it could manipulate us to achieve the objective of genocide?
The process begins, according to Agamben’s theory, by the process of transformation of an individual to a ‘bare life’. This is exactly the transformation readers witness while reading Primo Levi’s moving memoir, If This is a Man. What is interesting is that it is not a story about death but rather Levi’s story of his survival in Auschwitz. Another hauntingly beautiful depiction of a similar story of survival is Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film, Life is Beautiful.
Where in If This is a Man, Levi downplays the horrors of the Holocaust, in Life is Beautiful, Benigni uses humour to depict life in the camp. Like Agamben insists, these works steer away from the crimes committed in the camps to the structure of biopolitics that created it. But at the same time, they also manipulate it, that is use biopolitics to achieve their objective of survival. The intention in both these works seems to be to focus on generating a life affirming view of biopolitics – a tool used as a weapon of survival.
- Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp.71-105.
- Levi, Primo. If This is a Man. Translated by Stuart Woolf, The Orion Press, 1959.
- Life is Beautiful. Directed by Roberto Benigni, performances by Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarni, Melampo Cinematografica, 1997.