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Weekend Gems 005

May 31, 2020

This one is a bit different.

There is no need for me to explain why this weekend was not just like any other weekend of 2020 so far, and why this Weekend Gems is a deviation from what I normally write here.

Instead, I feel there is the need to share a particular essay that, back in 2016 when I first read it, changed decisively the way I perceive the world and which, unfortunately, today is more relevant than ever.

‘Necropolitics’, written by Achille Mbembe and translated by Libby Meintjes, is an essay about the different expressions of ‘death worlds’, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead. It examines the notion of ’sovereignty’ in relation to ethics, politics, death, power and control, and puts forward writings and thought pieces by some of the most brilliant theorists and philosophers of the 20th and 21st century such as Arendt, Bataille, Schmitt, Agamben, Hegel and Foucault.

The essay is brilliant and, if you have to gain anything from this little corner of mine on the internet during such times, I believe it should be this—whether you will use it as a standalone read or a window to more, thought-provoking pieces.

Because apparently, we are still not able to answer one of Mbembe’s more crucial questions:

What is the relationship between politics and death in those systems that can function only in a state of emergency?

In case Mbembe’s words do open a window for you, I would also like to offer some more readings, mostly revolving around the main writings upon which Agamben is building his argument (or, in the case of the first book suggested, expand it):

︎ Necropolitics Racialization and Global Capitalism: Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Poltiics, Art, and Life by Marina Grzinic and Sefik Tatlic︎

Foucault, Biopolitics and Governmentality edited by Jakob Nilsson Sven-Olov Wallenstein︎

The Birth of Biopolitics by Thomas Lemke ︎

Visions of Excess: Selected Writings by George Batailles︎

Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt︎

Wars of the Globalization Era by Zygmunt Bauman

I would also like to share a small piece I wrote back in 2018 at UC Berkeley, while pitching an idea for a publication on Death and the City. The pitch is shamelessly and heavily driven by Mbembe’s take on necropolitics and Agamben’s State of Exception and, even though its trajectory shifts at points to a slightly more spatial read of Death in the urban environment, I feel it has to offer something to the current, very important dialogue we are having.

(Full disclosure: I completely understand the huge irony of starting a piece on Death and States of Exception with Heidegger’s words. As Joshua Rothman once said, “Even if his philosophy isn’t contaminated by Nazism, our relationship with him is.” Since this is apparently becoming a theme around Weekend Gems, I might as well write at some point about appreciating someone's work only to realize they might have been major assholes—Nietzscheans take notes)


In his work ‘Being and Time’, Heidegger reads death as the absolute negation of possibilities; possibilities which, the state of being-in-the-world has always understood itself in terms of. Operating simultaneously on a symbolic and physical level, such a state is sustained through the constant creation, interpretation and reconstruction of meaning in the domain that it chooses to locate itself. Thus, the negation of possibilities alludes to a being-in-the-world stripped away of its rights to its own temporality, spatiality and representation. In that sense, death is not a mere passive negative but a very much active negation; an omnipresent possibility that cancels all the rest and, as an active possible agent, acquires spaces.

A Deathscape is, first and foremost, the space where the omnipresent possibility is the absolute negation of locality. It manifests itself in modes of exclusion, disposal and extermination where subjects are assigned to various states of ‘non appearance’. Suppression through displacement and obscuring are some of the most blatant vehicles of such a state. Others, usually less apparent, are the enforcement of limits and the creation of limbo lands of ’not-being-yet’; liminal zones and thresholds of eternal ephemerality which nonetheless operate as epistemic and ontological boundaries for the subjects inside.

Appearance, however, is not exclusively a privilege of the physical domain. Oblivion is also one of the main devices of the Deathscape. The right to be remembered and forgotten as well as witnessing and being witnessed is key to the possibilities of being-in-the-world; possibilities that are forcefully and blatantly negated in the Deathscape. Probably the best manifestation of such an idea lies in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Imperial Rome; damnatio memoriae, literally translating to ''condemnation of memory', was a practice of condemning enemies of the state to eternal oblivion by erasing all of the evidence of their existence. Their names would be erased from all public records, statues were deformed or in some cases completely destroyed and coins with faces engraved upon them would immediately fall out of circulation.

When associated with death and issues of ‘'being-in-the-world’, matters of concurrent temporalities, variations in spatial perception and the discomfort of the finite, manifest themselves in spaces that have come to be known as uncanny. Loosely defined by Ernst Jentsch as the uncertainty on the level of logic, the uncanny plays probably the most prominent role in discussions around death, space and culture. For Jentsch, whatever triggers the realization that human existence lacks transcendental roots due to its inherently mechanical, material and consequently perishable nature should be counted as a true catalyst of the uncanny. The history of the landscape and the transmutation of nature into the English garden, the macabre cemeteries of the 16th and 17th century and the Elysian Fields a century later not only reveals the evolution of the ‘uncanny’ in spatial terms but also places it parallel to the human body and the knowledge produced through processes of its exploration, rationalization and romanticization.

Everyday, issues of locality, memory, and temporality are being negotiated in the urban space while the ''being-in-the-world' is gradually being subsumed by the ''being-in-the-city'; a hypertrophic organism that feeds off of both the urban and the rural. Standing as the contemporary battleground of all these concepts, cities around the world are quietly being shaped by all the bits and bytes that constitute our understanding of death. As polarized opposites, the space that negates all possibilities and the space that builds on their promise, the relationship between the City and the Deathscape is persistently charged by the antithetical poles of extreme antagonism and suppressed phobias.

Built in reference to borders and limits, new Isles of Exclusion are constantly being formed as impromptu non-places within the confinements of the proper. At the same time physical death is being removed from view, its management is assigned to invisible networks and sophisticated infrastructures and, in some cases, it is being exported under the imperatives of necropolitical strategies (Grcinik, Tatlic). Death reaches the public domain merely through spontaneous memorials, informal urban shrines and other acts of commemoration while performative memorializing takes its particular contemporary form as an extension of the experience of mediated witnessing in the era of networked digital media (Papailias). Finally, urban dereliction, images of abandonment and decay, followed by an ever-growing environmental threat in the age of the Anthropocene stand as reminders of the urban project's mortality and the distance between 1980's utopia and 2010's reality.

The Deathscape is superimposed on the urban fabric, creating a friction expressed in conflicts, the iterative reconstitution of identities of the urban actors and the constant reinvention of the macabre. However, in between this simultaneously phobic and antagonistic relationship connecting death and the city lies a paradoxical symbiosis; their coalition forms an exemplary e-scape of social and atomic worries, fears and fantasies which openly challenge concepts of authenticity, inclusion, power and presence. It is, concertedly, ephemeral and eternal, material and representational, quantifiable and boundless. —

Bonus Round

On another note: