Category: Biopower/Biopolitics

Arendt on Life (Continued)

At times Arendt appears to believe (desire?) that action be “pure” in the same exact way that Kant tries to disengage (in Critique of Judgment) the aesthetic from any “interest.”  Action would be unmotivated, a pursuit purely for its own sake, unproductive.  That stance can seem a form of vitalism (ironically returning us to the “life” that Arendt is trying to spurn.)  Action for its own sake, in an almost Nietzschean way, is the outflow of the energy of the living being.  Taken a bit less mechanically, a bit more Romantically, this outflow can be considered “expressive.”  It manifests (in the space of appearances) the being form which it emanates.  There is more than a little expressionism in Arendt on action.  After all, she tells us action is identity disclosing; even more, she suggests that action is identity creating.  Like a speaker who doesn’t know what she thinks or believes before the words are spoken, the agent in Arendt discovers who she is in the act of acting.  The “natality” that Arendt ties to the “miracle” of acting is, first and foremost, the appearance of a unique being in the world.  “Plurality” is Arendt’s name for this singularity, for the fact that every living human (perhaps every living being, although Arendt probably believes only humans are capable of action) is distinctive.  The “world” in Arendt is diminished, its plurality compromised, if any single human is denied the “freedom” that enables “action.”  That is the over-riding sin of totalitarianism, its hostility to plurality, its attempt to reduce all human singularity to “the same.”

Pursuing this logic, “meaning” is the product of “action” being taken up by the community, which tells “stories” about the actions of its members.  We can’t know the meaning of our actions in advance (just as the consequences of action are also unpredictable).  Meaning is a communal product, dependent on what J. L. Austin calls “uptake.”  A good example is saying something unintentionally funny.  The fact that I didn’t mean it to be funny is under-determinative of the meaning that my statement acquires.  No one owns or can control the meaning of an action or a statement.  Rather, meaning unfolds in the intersubjective exchanges between people located in the world, in the space of appearances.  Thus, action both constitutes that space of appearances (as described in the last post) and initiates the interchanges that create meaning.  Here again Arendt seems Hegelian; although she doesn’t use the language of “recognition,” she does seem to believe that action and identity only acquire substance—a meaning, even a reality—when witnessed by others and taken up by them through some kind of response (debate, agreement, and story are all modes of response that her work considers).  Love of the world, then, is partly love for (and care of) the enabling conditions of selfhood.  If each being strives to persist in being (Spinoza’s conatus), then the world is required for that persistence to register (as it were), for it to be perceived, experienced.  Self-consciousness—the ability to understand that one is enjoying “freedom”—depends on the existence of the self in communication with others, an interaction that creates, even as it requires, “the world,” the polis.

The paradox, then, is that life (“bare life”) does not require the polis—which is the source of Arendt’s worry that life-obsessed humans will not love the world, will pursue the swinish pleasures of satisfying the necessities of bodily persistence, and neglect striving for meaning, freedom, and identity.  This is the element of aristocratic hauteur in her thought—not to mention an implied boundary between humans (capable of freedom and the self-conscious attachment to the worldly, political conditions of its achievement) and non-humans (governed by the relentless, unthinking pursuit of life’s necessities).  The non-humans labor, humans act.  Which has the disturbing Aristotelean corollary that humans who only labor are best understood as sub-human.

Action, then, is the guarantee of humanness, so it does have a product: the very distinction between a free life and a life tied to necessities.  Judith Butler, rightly in my view, objects at precisely this point that Arendt “naturalizes” a distinction that should, rather, be understood as produced by power.  (A basic application of the Foucualdian notion of “productive power.”)  It is human social arrangements, established and maintained by coercive and discursive power, that relegates some to a life of labor and others to the enjoyment of freedom.  Furthermore, the very distinction between labor and action is produced discursively to denigrate one form of human behavior over the other.  Cooking food is not inherently (“naturally”) and for all time ‘meaningless.”  The foodie revolution of the past thirty years attests to the ways that the meaning of activities shifts radically over time and in different social contexts.  There is plenty to say about how the emergence of celebrity chefs introduces new insidious distinctions into a practice (cooking and eating) common to all humans, but there can be no denying that the meaning of those practices has been considerably altered.  The status of Arendtian labor is hardly fixed in the ways she seems to think it is.  Meanings are much more fluid that her triad of “labor, work, and action” indicates.  (Several Arendt scholars have called that triad “ontological,” and see it as establishing the fundamental grounding of her argument in The Human Condition).  Her mistake was taking the ground as fixed, as non-mutable.

Life in Arendt, then, can be seen as having two different drives: the first one is to sustain itself by securing the necessities (food, shelter) required to survive, the second if to secure meaning and freedom.  She is afraid pursuit of the first will overwhelm a desire to satisfy the second.  But she rather muddies the water by trying to describe the action that would secure meaning and freedom as unmotivated, taking freedom to mean something we are not compelled to do, but only do for its own sake.  Thus, she is 1) not clear about the motives that underlie “free action,” and 2) afraid that under- or un-motivated “action” will not be attractive enough, not be compelling enough, to insure that humans actually undertake it.

Finally, Arendt introduces yet another motive for love of the world.  The polis is not only a space of appearances that allows us to acquire a meaningful identity through the interaction with others, but also a form of “organized remembrance.”  It turns out that she believes we have a deep desire to leave a trace of our existence, that our response to a self-consciousness about death (suggesting, again, that knowing we will die distinguished humans from other living creatures) is to create a social structure that allows for (hardly guarantees) we will be remembered.  That drive for remembrance underwrites actions that aim to be memorable; in short, we crave fame.  We want to be the stuff of stories, to exist in the mouths of others.  We should love the world because only something that persists after our own lives are over can provide a means toward our being remembered after our deaths.  Machiavellian virtú, which Arendt associates with virtuosity, is the agonistic striving to be memorable, to be extraordinary, which is inevitably competitive and comparative.  Arendt appears to endorse the fierce competitiveness of the Greek heroes of The Iliad, even though it seems plausible to me to see their boasts and insults as hyper-masculine and sadly adolescent posturings that justify an aggression that is hardly appealing.  Not every one gets to be remembered; only the great.

Two final comments: life, Arendt seems to be saying, is only fully satisfying if we can claim a victory over death insofar as we will be remembered after our life is done.  Thus, even as she denigrates “life” as the supreme motive, she ends up wanting a victory of life over death—and uses “action” as a means to garner that victory.  It is, it seems, not so easy to banish “life” as the supreme motive.  Instead, what really seems to be the crux is not “life” versus “non-life,” but (instead) bodily life versus some notion of a “higher” (more meaningful, more self-conscious) life.  We are invested in “life”—and, even more, in our own individual life and its persistence.  In the “higher” form, that investment entails a stake in achieving an identity through action in the space of appearances, and in having that unique identity, recognized (minimally) and admired (maximally) during our lifetimes and remembered after our deaths.

Still, even if we conclude that Arendt cannot banish life as fully from our imagination of the polis as she wants to do, we can accept the performative paradox that troubles her as worthy of some worry, even though I take her anxieties on this score overblown.  We ensure the survival of a language every time we use it to communicate.  A language exists and persists by virtue of its being used; nothing else secures that existence.  Yet speakers of the language only contribute to its survival inadvertently.  In talking with others, I am not aiming to keep my language alive.  Of course, in some circumstances, a language can be seen as endangered and various linguistic activities can be undertaken with the explicit aim of preserving the language. But in a thriving speech community, with a large number of members, no one is speaking with the purpose of preserving the language. (In this vein, I would argue that grammarians, those who teach language in schools, are, in fact, futilely trying to hold back the changes internal—and inevitable—to any language in use.  But that’s another story).

Arendt’s worry seems to be that, in pursuing life, the persistence of the space of appearances, the public square that is the polis, will not be insured.  Unlike a language that survives precisely because it is being used, the space of appearances might disappear because people lose their taste for “public happiness.”  The split she introduces between labor and action, a split between pursuing necessities and acting freely, means that “bare life” could proceed (maybe even flourish) in the absence of action, the loss of “the world.”  Maybe we will (as a species) lose our longing for fame, our desire to be remembered after our deaths.  Again, the hint of an aristocratic melancholy at the disappearance of “honor” as a motivating factor for the bourgeoisie lingers in Arendt’s work.  If “getting and spending” comes to be the all in all, “the world” will be lost—and with it any hope to be remembered.

  1. Enough for now. I will try to think about “honor” in subsequent posts.

Population Control and Violence

To go back a few steps, one puzzle is why Arendt, Foucault, Taylor and others believe that taking “life” as the primary value leads to states that kill (in large numbers?)

James Scott’s Against the Grain (Yale UP, 2017) (which I have just about finished reading) offers some ideas along that line.  Scott accepts that both slavery and war existed before the emergence of the state.  But he sees the state as obsessed from the start with population control.  So much for Foucault’s bringing the question of population on board somewhere in the eighteenth century.  For Scott, it is all about people, and almost nothing to do with territory, when considering the underlying motives of war.

Life, in its barest form, is about subsistence, about producing enough to sustain life.  (In that sense, Scott is a materialist of a fairly straight-forward Marxist/Darwinian type.)  The state always creates classes of people who do not directly (or even indirectly) produce the stuff needed for subsistence.  Thus, any state must 1) organize production in such a way that a surplus is produced, and 2) appropriate that surplus for distribution to those who do not produce the basics (food, clothing etc.)  Furthermore, states create a need for non-subsistence goods (metals, luxuries, the implements of war, the ceremonial architecture of hierarchies) that necessitate 1) trade and 2) even more laborers who are not directly producing subsistence goods and who must be fed.

The problem with life—if we think in Arendt’s terms—is that it requires “labor.”  The problem of the state, in Scott’s rendering, is that it amplifies the need for labor because states invent so many more things to labor on.  War is a primary means to gain access to more labor.  The most important prize of a successful battle is prisoners who can be turned into slaves.  Or, alternatively, the threat of violence can make a neighboring society agree to pay tribute.

The state, then, has a stake in keeping its slaves alive, in increasing its population in order to secure an adequate supply of labor.  But it also has to coerce people into doing that labor because there is no good reason to voluntarily do the work.  It’s economic exploitation and appropriation from the get go—and all the way down.  States are always kleptocracies—and taxes are the form that robbery takes.

Scott has written a book called Two Cheers for Anarchism that is not very good.  His other work is off the charts fantastic.  (Seeing Like a State, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Weapons of the Weak, and The Art of Not Being Governed.)  He comes down squarely on the side of organized violence is far worse (because more effective and more systematic) than the sporadic but ever-present violence found in non-state societies.  Far be it from Scott to accept Steven Pinker’s insistence that the rule of law curbs violence.  If we go by the numbers, the legitimate violence of the state always claims more victims than free-lancers.

Still—does a state that claims to be working in the service of life inflict more death than a state that locates its raison d’être elsewhere.  And does it even make any sense to think in those terms?  What would a state look like that did not claim to be enhancing, protecting, sustaining the life of its subjects?  Even the most brutal regime, one that accepts, without putting any kind of pretty face on it, that power must be deployed ruthlessly and continuously, still sees that power as enhancing and protecting the lies of the powerful. The wielders of power don’t will their own death.

The alternative is a sacrificial culture, one centered around a death cult.  The Nazis approach that elevation of death over life.  “Balanced against this life, this death.” (Yeats).  It seems plausible to me that, in certain circumstances, a kind of fatalistic embrace of death, an even joyful embrace of destruction including destruction of the self, would be possible.  In all the stuff about killing that I have been reading, about the ecstasy, the “high,” of battle, I haven’t seen anyone talk about the ecstasy of embracing one’s own death in the general conflagration.  Surely, however, that’s an ecstasy of submission, not one of power.  (The ever presence of those two sides of Nietzsche, his celebration of the “beast” who acts unapologetically out of the will to power shadowed by the masochism of the Dionysian figure who glories in suffering and in willing to live his whole painful life over and over again.)  To embrace death is an odd combination of hatred for life and never feeling more alive than when the end of life is imminent.

The point, if we take the Darwinian perspective that also appealed so much to Engels, is that the preservation of life (enabling its reproduction) is the first requirement imposed upon us by biology.  No state could possibly escape that imperative.  Scott is simply arguing that the state is not necessarily the most efficient and preferable (according to a variety of criteria) means for preserving life—and employing the state as the means for subsistence comes with some very high costs.  He clearly believes that non-state solutions to the problem of subsistence are actually better for most involved (if not for the elites at the top of state hierarchies.)

Scott’s conclusion is driven by his not valuing the achievements of “civilization” very highly and by his firm belief that “culture” (as opposed to “civilization”) is preserved (and can ever flourish) in the stateless conditions that we have mistakenly thought of as “dark ages.”  Arendt’s take, it seems to me, would be the exact opposite.  She sees the polity—and politics—as the pinnacle of human achievement precisely because it transcends labor and the necessities of subsistence.  “Man’s life would be cheap as beasts” (King Lear) if we didn’t aspire to—and actually achieve—something more than mere subsistence.  “Freedom” is only granted to us by the polis and precisely means escaping from the bonds of necessity, of being able to indulge in the non-productive “action” that politics enables.  Arendt is motivated by a horror of production, of doing something for the sake of securing or making the means to life.  She values those things that are not conducive to preserving or sustaining life.

Thus, she also wants a state not oriented toward life.  Instead, her ideal state (just like her ideal political actor) is motivated by a “love of the world.”  That’s where I will pick it up tomorrow.

Lives Worth Living

The dilemma: if we adopt a universal, egalitarian, minimalist standard, then every life should be preserved.  To say that “every life” refers to all living things on the planet, we are proposing the impossible, enunciating an “ought” that is completely disconnected from “can.”  The only real choice is between “letting Nature take its course” or intervening to over-rule what Nature would produce if left alone.  Such interventions cannot, however, cannot avoid killing some creatures (whether it is antibiotics killing bacteria or protecting sheep from wolves and thus condemning the wolves to starvation or condemning the creatures the wolves will devour when they can’t get at the sheep).  Interventions, in other words, always make a value judgment that some lives are more worth preserving than some other lives.  We can’t slip the noose of death, altogether.  Death will come—to all creatures in the long run.  We can either let it come as it may—or shunt it in one direction or another, buying time for some creatures even as we reconcile ourselves to, or even actively promote, the death of other creatures.

Humanism, at its most basic, presumably, is a prejudice in favor of human lives over the lives of non-human creatures.  Such a definition of humanism would make it strictly homologous with racism and sexism—namely the valuing of one category (a particular species or race or sex) over another.

Robinson Jeffers writes “I’d rather kill a man than a hawk.”  A radical attempt to slough off humanism.  But not a way to avoid judgment or standards.  There are, presumably, reasons for preferring the hawk’s life to the human’s.  So—to reiterate—it comes to seem impossible to just say that my ethic is to respect all life, to work to preserve every life.  Since life feeds on life, some must die in order that others may live.

But there is another problem, one in a rather different register.  Let’s assume a full-bore humanism for the moment.  So now it might seem the ethic would be revised to say: all human lives are to be preserved, accepting the consequence that all non-human lives are to be sacrificed to the needs of human life prior to any sacrifice of one human life to preserve another human life.  This universalist egalitarianism is “liberal” in many ways, although liberals like Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler are made queasy by the thought of animal sacrifice for human life.  Still, both of them are adamant that all human lives should be equally valued—or, to phrase it differently, for Nussbaum all humans have an equal right to live, while for Butler all human lives should be equally grievable.

Certainly for Nussbaum  (and I suspect for Butler, but won’t pursue here how she would make her case) this equal right of all humans to live is only a minimum, a floor—and, as such, does not represent her full ethical ambitions.  It is not just a life humans are entitled to.  Each human has an equal claim on the means, resources, and liberty required to “flourish.”  Nussbaum offers a detailed list of 10 things—ranging from food, shelter, leisure, and education, to family, friends, and health—one needs in order to flourish.  Nussbaum is not arguing that “bare life” (to use Agamben’s term for “zoe”; Agamben is working from similar texts from Aristotle as those that inspire Nussbaum) is not worth living.  But she is arguing there are non-minimalist ways of living that are superior to bare life.  For Agamben, “bios” in Aristotle’s texts names this life that is more than “bare life.”  And one crucial question is what kind of society, what kind of polity, enables the achievement of bios, of flourishing.

But I want to defer that political question for the moment and concentrate on the judgment, the standard, that justifies distinguishing bare life from flourishing.  Because now we have a hierarchy within the set of all human lives.  They are not all equal.  Some are fuller, better, than others.  One way of marking this difference would be to say that some lives are more satisfying than others.  A life lived without the burden of chronic illness or fairly constant pain would be more enjoyable, easier to bear, even if not necessarily more fulfilling in other ways, than one lived in poor health.   Another way of marking this difference would be to say that some lives are more meaningful than others.  This second way seems to lead to issues (and ideas) of productivity.  A meaningful life is given over to an activity that is deemed important (or significant)—and it has some success in achieving the important aims that it sets out to accomplish.  We could say some lives are more admirable than others (in relation to the tasks that life is devoted to advancing and the success of those advancement efforts), just as (negatively) we can think of some lives as “wasted,” as having not made a very productive use of the time that person was allotted on earth.

The “liberal” solution to this dilemma, which introduces troubling (because unequal) distinctions among lives, is a) to try to distinguish between what is freely chosen by the individual and what is imposed from without, and b) to acknowledge a pluralism that realizes that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”  The sum result of these two tenets is, basically, to say that material and other deprivations that limit the range of an individual’s life chances and choices are unacceptable—especially if others receive the material goods and social/educational/psychological opportunities denied to some.  In practice, this usually comes to rest in the assertion that a strict equality of material goods and other kinds of opportunities is neither necessary nor achievable.  But we can identify a “floor” of necessities (that is what Nussbaum 10 point list aims to do) that any “good” polity must provide if its citizens are all to enjoy a decent prospect of creating a flourishing life for themselves.

And the pluralism point says that—once that floor has been provided for all—the polity has no right to intervene in the choices people make about how to live their lives.  Full bore tolerance is the only sensible approach to the variety of values that underlie people’s choices.  Attempts to impose notions of meaning and importance can only lead to conflict.  People are incredibly, perhaps congenitally, stubborn—which means that efforts to dictate how they should behave cause way more trouble than they are worth (because such efforts are rarely successful).

The Nussbaum position seems to me fairly unassailable.  A good society should make available the means for flourishing.  And her list of basic means is pretty convincing.  A simple Kantian test works well here, in my opinion.  Look at her list and consider which of its items I would willingly dispense with.  Then consider on what grounds could I possibly deny to others any of those items.  Why do I deserve something I would begrudge to others or, worse, claim that they did not deserve?

The most common candidate, of course, is work.  I deserve something because I work for it.  That slacker doesn’t deserve it.  Don’t work, don’t eat.  And that self-righteous distinction between effortful me and slacker him slides into the thrill of meting out punishment.  If conservatives are obsessed with envy as the poison pill vice that afflicts all liberals, then leftists need to become equally obsessed with the sadistic desire to punish that is barely hidden within so much conservative moralism.

I want to finish up today’s thoughts by going in a different direction.  What are we to do when the basic requirements for a flourishing life are not withheld by social and political arrangements, but by Nature itself?  I speak out of personal experience here, but out of an experience more and more widely shared: witnessing old people outlive their lives, lingering on in debilitated physical and/or mental condition in ways that cruelly condemns them to live a life not worth living.  Our humanist commitment to fighting against the death that Nature will eventually dole out, to delay as long we can, has the effect of sustaining a life that is worse than death.  The values get completely inverted here.  There are circumstances in which death is better than life.  (Arendt made this point in her totalitarianism book in a most chilling way when she reminds us that certain kinds of torture can also make death preferable to continued life.)

I understand all the complexities of euthanasia and also understand all the legal safeguards put in place even in jurisdictions that allow assisted suicide.  I don’t want to get into how to create a good euthanasia program here.  What I want to assert—and I think this should be fairly uncontroversial although many would disagree—is that some lives are not worth living.  We can—and should—be pluralistic here as well.  A life that would be intolerable to me still might be well worth living for another.  And maybe there are some people wo are—and can be—absolutists on this score.  For them, any life, no matter how dire its circumstances and its debilities—is better than death.  But it is certainly the case that there are also many people who find death preferable to certain lives.

This all makes me unhappy.  I would like to take life as an absolute standard.  But I am compelled by this logic to accept a) that we do judge among lives, finding some more satisfactory or significant than others (even if we want to protect against the polity devaluing some lives below a minimalist floor because other lives are worthier), and b) that in certain circumstances death is better than life.

In short, we can’t just leave it at “bare life” as a good all should have protected and preserved.  Bare life is too bare—and in some cases so extremely bare that death is preferable.

The Only Wealth Is Life

In Unto This Last, John Ruskin declares that the “only wealth is life.’  There is something deeply attractive to me in this absolute declaration.  Here my spade turns.  Whatever does not avail to life, Ruskin adds, we should designate “illth, for we ought to have a corresponding term” to wealth, one that designates those things that impede or even actively destroy life.  (pp. 209, 211 in Penguin edition.)

To take “life” as one’s standard of value means that, at a minimum, that which provides for the material goods required for subsistence is good.  For starters, it would seem we need to supplement that standard with the proviso that all are equally entitled to “life”—from which it follows that all should have the means to sustain life.  When it comes to mere existence (what the new discourse is calling “bare life,” having resurrected the term zoe out of Aristotle’s work), no life is more valuable than another.  Life is a non-discriminating term.  “I know when one is dead and when one lives,” says Lear (V, iii, 264), and that basic difference is all that counts.  We should value, Ruskin is saying, everything (whether it be food, or a way of arranging human and social affairs) that contributes to sustaining life and delaying death.

What appalls Ruskin—and me—is that, despite the lip service we pay to life as, if not the highest, at least a recognizable, good, we hardly act that way.  “We usually speak as if death pursued us, and we fled from him; but that is so in only rare instances.  Ordinarily he masks himself—makes himself beautiful—all-glorious; not like the King’s daughter, all glorious within, but outwardly: his clothing of wrought gold.  We pursue him frantically all our days, he flying or hidden from us” (190).  Our actions belie our devotion to life since so much of what we do is death-dealing, either for ourselves or for others.  Isn’t it enough that nature brings pestilence, famine, and death?  Do human actions have to add to those burdens?

Yet even Ruskin—as determined a seeker of firm, absolute values as any writer I know—cannot maintain “life” as an unqualified standard.  He, too, like almost all writers on the subject is moved to consider what makes a life worth living (to borrow William James’s phrase).  It seems impossible to view all lives as equal or equivalent.  We are pushed to judge among lives, to compare them, to see some as more valuable than others.  For Ruskin, this evaluation takes the form of assessing various modes of living in the world as contributing to the promotion of life.  “Five great intellectual professions, relating to the daily necessities of life, have hitherto existed,” he tells us:

The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.

The Pastor’s to teach it.

The Physician’s to keep it in health.

The Lawyer’s to enforce justice in it.

The Merchant’s to provide for it. (177).

And the value of these lives, when we come to judge them, is not only determined by how well different individuals performed the professional task they assumed, but (crucially) rests on the willingness of those individuals to die instead of failing to perform that task.

“[T] duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it [i.e. life].

“on due occasion,’ namely—

The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle.

The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.

The Paston, rather than teach Falsehood.

The Lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice.

The Merchant—what is his “due occasion” of death?

It is the main question for the merchant, as for all of us.  For, truly, the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live (177).

What happened to the supreme value of life?  It has evaporated in front of us—or, at the very least, some individual lives must willing accept death “on due occasion” in order to promote the general life (of the species?, of a more circumscribed community?).  A life not devoted to the furthering of life is a life not worth living.  Integrity to that purpose, faithfulness to duty, could require death.  And if one does not acknowledge the claim death has upon him in such instances, one “does not know how to live.”

So, it seems, life is not such a simple matter.  One has to learn how to live.  Or maybe it is better to say that one has to self-consciously, reflexively, assess one’s life in light of the standard to promote life—and then judge if one’s life meets the standard.  A certain reading of Nietzsche would see him as precisely scorning this sort of evaluation.  Living creatures should pursue life—its continuation and the pleasures it might afford along with the sufferings that it entails—period.  No second thoughts, no regrets, no judgments of good and evil.  Any evaluation beyond seeing something as “good” because it avails life or “bad” because it impedes it only hinders life’s full expression.  To affirm life unreservedly is to damn the consequences in ways that Ruskin cannot bring himself to do.

The sticking point is, as Esposito (in Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy) makes clear in his chapter on Nietzsche, is that Nietzsche denies that it is either possible or desirable to “preserve life through the abolition of conflict” (85).  Life is only abundant, only fully realized, in conflict.  Thus, life cannot be sequestered from death; life is, to a large extent, the infliction of death.  In the most basic terms, this boils down to the fact that life feeds on other lives.  Everything that eats must kill some other living creature for its food.  If every creature (as the conatus doctrine in Spinoza asserts) aims to persist in its own mode of being, the life is sustained only through the destruction of some conative beings by other conative beings.  There are no willing sacrificial victims to life’s persistent hunger.  In order to sustain life, we must kill.

It is this logic that I am trying to puzzle out.  Lots of different ways to go from here.  One is the Girard route, toward the idea that the sacrifice is inevitable, and thus the issue is whether the sacrifice will be imposed on another creature or assumed by one’s self.  Freely chosen self-sacrifice (the model is Jesus Christ) is the only path to peace.

A different track leads to my opening concern.  If Nietzsche states some fundamental law of life, then how come Foucault, Arendt, Taylor etc. seem to think that a special attention to life is a “modern” development—and that this “special attention” leads to death-dealing polities/societies.  Why is the attempt to preserve life, an attempt to fend off the Nietzschean fatalism about the inevitability of conflict, a formula for increasing the violence some humans direct toward others.  And, finally, I also want to consider how “bare life” is not enough, so that (on the one hand) we have the appeal of the Aristotelean notion of “flourishing” (a la Martha Nussbaum) and (on the other hand) we can think of lives not worth living (leading to issues of assisted suicide as well as unassisted suicide).

I’ll see how far I get in subsequent posts.