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The Geography of Bare Life

The Geography of Bare Life

The discussion of the work of Giorgio Agamben has highlighted again the ways that sovereignty is tied up with questions of life and death. The project explores the notion that certain categories of individual lose their politically qualified status and become reduced to no more than bare life and that in that condition the decision to let them live or die is a matter of tolerance and not of any right to life. The project explores these ideas in two ways: first in terms of colonialism and secondly in terms of the HIV pandemic.

Publications

  • (and Simon Reid-Henry), 'Vital geographies: life, luck and the human condition,' Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99:3 (2009) 554-574

Colonialism

Agamben treats the suspension of rights (states of exception) as the basic form of sovereignty. However, one should be wary of the essentialism of this claim. We are also keen to distinguish between different sorts of exception. In particular, it would seem that Agamben under-estimates two features of colonial sovereignty. First, martial law is so regular a feature of colonial rule as to be practically a norm. This means that the suspension of rights is a sign of the weakness of a sovereignty that is often more virtual than real. The exception, then, asserts a virtual sovereignty that can only be realised in its suspension. Second, Agamben ignores questions of legitimacy altogether. For example, he writes of the writ of habeas corpus as an obligation whereby the sovereign has to produce in court the body of the person previously taken into custody. Thus the suspension of habeas corpus becomes one of the key examples of the state of exception. However, the other side of the writ is that the subjects of the sovereign give themselves up to arrest, or assist the police in the arrest of others, knowing that they will have their day in court to answer charges against them. Where a people refuse to acknowledge an arrest warrant and where their neighbours will not co-operate in their apprehension, then, in those circumstances, it may be said that the writ of habeas corpus does not run in such a place; that sovereignty again is more virtual than real.

The project explores these ideas in the context of Irish-British relations. It would appear that the reduction of people to bare life was at the heart of British rule in Ireland. This was shown not only in the penal laws but also in the regulation of the Great Famine. It is also clear that in much of Ireland the writ of habeas corpus did not run at various times. Clearly, the areas beyond the pale were recognised as such even by the Crown but the beyond that, and in later periods, British justice had so little legitimacy among the people that direct rule rather than normal judicial administration was practised. We explore the ways that larger or smaller parts of Ireland were spaces of exception for longer or shorter periods of its colonial history. The project also looks at the ways that Northern Ireland, during at least the first fifty years of its existence, constituted another type of exceptional space. The project, therefore, tries to identify colonial and postcolonial spaces of exception.

Publications

  • 'Bare life, political violence and the territorial structure of Britain and Ireland,' in Derek Gregory and Allan Pred (eds), Violent geographies: fear, terror and political violence (New York: Routledge, 2006) 9-34.
  • 'The geography of terror,' Political Geography 27 (2008) 360-364;

AIDS

In rich countries, the question of bare life, of lives barely worth the living, was raised in a particularly acute way during the first decade or so of the AIDS epidemic. It is now raised in a slightly different way in poor countries as part of a singular failure of global solidarity. In rich countries, ignoring the needs of gay men and injecting drug users was so extreme that many concluded that their governments were quite willing to contemplate mass deaths among these marginal people. It is still shocking to realise just how little concern was expressed until it became clear that straight men also could die from AIDS.

The role of geographical metaphors in sustaining this neglect has been well studied. It is well known that ideas of easy contagion reinforced a conceptual segregation between the general population and these marginal groups. It is also clear that conflating infection with danger discarded the infected and treated them as virtually (even preferably) dead. We are interested in the ways that, in fighting this neglect, culture as critique developed other sorts of geographical metaphors. Geographical ideas were part of the cultural fight-back, and culture played a central role in resisting homophobia, and later in resisting the racism implicit in ignoring injecting drug-users. The place of geography within radical culture has not been much studied but the geographical imagination is alive and well in these oppositional areas. The project explores literature, painting, music, theatre and performance art to describe some dimensions of this radical geographical imaginary.

Publications

  • Gerry Kearns, 'The social shell'; Historical Geography 34 (2006) 49-70.
  • Gerry Kearns, 'The history of medical geography after Foucault,' in Stuart Elden and Jeremy Crampton (eds) Space, knowledge and power: Foucault and Geography (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2007) 205-222.