Understanding a bare life
Survival is the most important concept of Spinoza. For him, it is associated with duration and life, as the ability to preserve one’s identity for a certain period. Ability = strength. Further, Deleuze, reflecting on Nietzsche, force = life. Survival is persistence in durability, perseverance. The will to last. Survivalism is a lifestyle aimed at only one thing – survival, which means, life for the sake of life, strength for the sake of strength.
Agamben, analyzing Schmitt’s concept of the “state of emergency” (Ernstfall), comes to the concept of “bare life”. This is the object over which the absolute domination is established by the absolute will to power, which has reached the utmost purity of its sovereignty. Agamben sees a prime example of this in the concentration camp population. There, everyone has only one goal – survival. This is “bare life” – without any vertical ambitions, which are completely stopped by the crystal of sovereignty. Life for a sake of life. To live in order to live. To last with the aim – to last. Is that all? Yes.
But here’s what’s interesting. “Bare life” – in a concentration camp, softer, in a totalitarian society, even softer, in any society – there is pure duration. But what should last? If life were not “bare”, then this will would dress up in costumes and masks of value – I will be this and that, I live for this and that, I will do this and that ... But when we are placed in Mauthausen or GULAG (or Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo), values are abolished, ties are broken, persons are erased. There is no longer one who lives. There is only life itself with a constant 24 hours per day opportunity to instantly lose it. It is not a person who lives in the face of death. The person is there no more. There is only “bare life”, it is it – and not “a man” – that wants to survive.
In this case, life itself looks for ways to last. The person no longer makes decisions. Now nothing depends on him. And here the most important thing: what if you have to change in order to survive? Stop being yourself, become a different person or not person at all. For classical identity, this is tantamount to death itself – to die as “I” means to stop living as person, as someone. But for “bare life” this is not the case. What matters is not who lives, but to live or not or live – and it is no longer important – who lives and how he/she/it lives . If the essence of life is survival, then the ontological status of the subject – of human – is just one of the endless strategies of life.
To survive, “bare life” will be able to abandon the old human identity and crawl further as a snake.
That is why Spinoza is so valuable for postmodernists – his naturalist metaphysics does not open Modernity, it rather closes it, because it already deliberately designates the horizon of posthuman mutations.
The theory of evolution is the theory of “bare life”. Adaptation, natural selection, species mutation are examples of these dynamics. To escape or just get additional comfort, the fish is ready to stop being a fish, to crawl ashore and to become a lizard. The bird is ready to drown itself and to become an octopus. A monkey can choose tools, laughter and risk, and thus to become human. Or maybe not. This is the arbitrariness of “bare life”. This is a standalone duration logic.
There is nothing more inhuman than survival.
As soon as we turn to this argument, we are no longer what we used to be. Not humans. No more… We immediately disappear as people, and become only carriers of “bare life”. A real person, even in a concentration camp in a most critical situation, is able to make a choice between life and death – life and death of himself as a person. Bare life has already made its choice. To live for the sake of living. At any – at ANY -- price. And it is desirable to live well – but to live as whoever and whatever it happen to be. Only one condition – to live.
With the pandemic, vaccinations, total medical and police control, with the ubiquitous electronic surveillance and storage of all data about us in unified information centers, we are entering transparent prison of “bare life”(panopticon of Michel Foucault/ Jeremy Bentham). This means that right now – as in the radical severe situations -- we still have a choice – to be or to be someone, to be or to be human.
Once we choose to survive, we are finished. Not just because someone will rule us – we are always ruled by someone, someone commands, someone humiliates us – even by the simple fact of his greatness and superiority of power. But if we live, then we can fight and defend our being as the being of person, of human, of man. Any struggle is a risk, but to live is to live at risk.
Being human is a terrible risk. By choosing a bare life, we release this tension.