Potential and Form : From the Forms of Life to the Political Uses of the Body
Joyce C. H. Liu Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan
“To think … at once to be affected by one’s own receptiveness and experience in each and every thing that is thought a pure power of thinking. …… Only if I am not always already and solely enacted, but rather delivered to a possibility and a power, only if living and intending and apprehending themselves are at stake each time in what I live and intend and apprehend—only if, in other words, there is thought—only then can a form of life become, in its own factness and thingness, form-of-life, in which it is never possible to isolate something like naked life.” (Agamben “Form-of-Life” 8) “to think a form-of-life, a human life entirely removed from the grasp of the law and a use of bodies and of the world that would never be substantiated into an appropriation. That is to say again : to think life as that which is never given as property but only as a common use. Such a task will demand the elaboration of a theory of use—of which Western philosophy lacks even the most elementary principles—and, moving forward from that, a critique of the operative and governmental ontology that continues, under various disguises, to determine the destiny of the human species. This task remains reserved for the final volume of Homo sacer.” (Agamben, The Highest Poverty xiii)
1. Aestheticization of Post-1989 Neoliberalist Capitalism
I want to begin with looking at three art works by contemporary Chinese artist XU Bing (徐冰). The first one is Background Story : Misty Rivers and Layered Ridges (背後的故事：煙江疊嶂圖), an installation that was exhibited at Taipei Fine Art Museum in 2014. As what he has done in previous 15 pieces of Background Story Projects starting from 2004, exhibited respectively in Berlin, London, Gwangju, Suzhou, New York, Massachusetts and other places, Xu Bing took the scroll painting Misty Rivers and Layered Ridges (ca. 1604) by the late Ming great master Dong Qichang in the 17th century (董其昌1555-1636), a classic collection from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, as the blueprint for his adaptation. Dong’s Misty Rivers and Layered Ridges itself was an imitation of the painting of the same title by the Northern Song painter Wang Shen in the 11th century (王詵1036-ca. 1093). The compositions of the landscape of the two pieces by Wang and Dong are roughly the same, while the lines and the brushes are fundamentally different. Likewise, in Xu Bing’s Background Story : Misty Rivers and Layered Ridges, the viewers saw on the surface of the frosted-glass-panels the composition of a typical Chinese landscape painting, with scattered houses and trees in the foreground and the background, and rolling hills and strips of water and mist extended in the middle and extended to the background. The entire installation was arranged with three large light boxes, size 520 x 2185 cm. When walking behind the large glass boxes, the viewers would surprisingly see an assemblage of waste objects glued onto the glass, such as fishing lines, cotton balls, scraps of newspapers, wooden sticks, dry grass, twigs of various trees, bricks and so on. The local artists who collaborated with Xu Bing said that, in order to collect these objects, they walked around Taipei city streets and campuses to pick up these discarded objects from various corners of the city. In so doing, even though the viewers saw the forms of hills, trees and houses that echoed the painting of Dong Qichang, these three dimensional installation in fact presented the physical labor and temporal movement behind the scene and linked the city life, as he did in the exhibitions in various cities, through the projection of light to the two dimensional flat space. The double cycle of the consumption of objects in the artistic labor is what triggered my interest. The forms of people’s life were transformed through the double cycles, first from the functional use of objects to the used-up objects on the primary level, and then from the consumed objects to the re-used object in the artistic processes on the secondary level. What we saw on the glass screen was not the forms of life themselves, but the forms of death that had been consumed in different functional uses. These re-assembled and re-configured forms of death, through the artist’s body movement, told us different stories of the forms of life that had been experienced and perceived by the artist before he took his action in his artwork.
The second series of artwork that can help us understand further the double cycle of the artistic labor is Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project 1999-2011 : 1st Class. This installation, size approximately 1500 x 600 cm, irst exhibited in Virginia in 2011, was also exhibited in Taipei Fine Art Museum in 2014. The shape of this piece looks like a tiger-skin rug, but is composed of over 500,000 cigarettes, with the aroma of tobacco permeating the entire space of the exhibition hall. Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project 1999-2011 originated from his visit to the tobacco factory in Durham, North Caroline, during his trip to Duke University in 1999. Duke family in fact established the British-American Tobacco Company in Shanghai in the beginning of the twentieth century and was the first company that introduced the tobacco-rolling technology into China. Over the past years, Xu Bing has explored different aspects of the uses of tobacco and its complicated relations with Chinese societies and histories in different exhibitions, such as Tobacco Project : Shanghai, Pipe, Little Redbook, Chinese Spirit, Tobacco Book, Backbone and 1st Class.
In Tobacco Project : Shanghai exhibited in 2004, for example, the juxtaposition of the skyscrapers at the Bund (外灘) with the photos of the old tobacco factory at the harbor a century ago was striking. The Bund was the waterfront area in central Shanghai where packs of big mansions of international trading companies gathered from mid-19th century, after Shanghai was forced to open itself to international trade as one of the five treaty ports, besides granting Great Britain extraterritoriality and the cession of Hong Kong Island, dictated by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 upon the failure of the first Opium Wars, also named as Anglo-Chinese War, in 1839-1842. It is the symbolic historical moment when China launched into the path of modernity. Today, the Bund is also crowded with high-rise buildings of international banks and business centers. The rapid growth of the highly invested financial center and the soaring tall buildings drastically altered the landscape of Shanghai. The traces of the socialist past and its postponed development during the socialist era in the middle of the twentieth century were almost entirely erased. Instead, China has re-emerged within the past decade and caught up with the rest of the world with tremendous will and speed and the progress of modernity has been seamlessly sutured. What Walter Benjamin said about the aestheticization of politics, the will of the nation that shaped the landscape with bombardments and barbed wires, now is transformed in the post-1989 and post-socialist era in China into the aestheticization of neoliberal and transnational capitalism. The project of the aestheticization of capitalism reflects not only the alteration of the landscape with super-tall buildings, but also the modes of desire deep-rooted in the people. The tiger-skin shaped contour of the Tobacco Project : 1st Class refers both the trophy won through the capitalist logic and the desire of the people longing for each and every one pieces of the 500,000 cigarettes.
Xu Bing’s Phoenix is another extraordinary piece of the aestheticization of the effect of the post-1989 neoliberal and transnational capitalism in China. Phoenix, or Fenghuang, was commissioned by CBC (Beijing) in 2008 for the new Beijing World Financial Center. This work was composed of two huge metallic birds, 12 feet above the ground, 28-meter long and 6 tons each. Xu Bing returned to Bejing in 2008, 18 years after he left China in 1990, when the lingering atmosphere of the June 4th Event of 1989 in Beijing was too much an unspeakable tension for him. Xu Bing was stroke by the sight of the rapidly changed city and the harsh working conditions of migrant laborers in the city, a sharp contrast to the laborers in the socialist China in mid-twentieth century when he himself used to be a laborer and worked in rural villages. In his installation of these two gigantic birds, Xu Bing then assembled the rusted and wasted tools used by the workers at the construction sites. If we look closely, we could see objects such as tower crane hoists, rusted tire rims, steel saws and scoops, iron barrels, screwdrivers, hose tanks, girders, safety helmets, glass fragments and construction gadgets. These garbage-like objects were the necessary subsistence indispensible to the migrant laborers in their daily works and their daily lives. They became attached to these metallic tools, while they themselves also have turned out to be part of the objects consumed by the rapid developmental projects and easily disposable through the production process. The elegant but horrible gigantic figures of the mythological birds, symbolizing the rebirth of China in an ironic way, hang above the ground in the new business center and marked the alternation of the landscape of Beijing city. CBC in the end cancelled the commission and, after a long process of negotiation, the artwork was exhibited instead in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 2014. The displaced location of the exhibition of this sculptural Phoenix, removed from Beijing and re-installed in New York, manifested the ironic turn of the capitalist move, with the huge iron birds as the embodiment of the aestheticization of the capitalist logic and the re-birth of a new China, energized by its tremendously financial power.
1. Forms of life and the political economy
The double cycle of the consumption and production of objects that I mentioned previously needs further elaboration. Let us first think the question of the primary cycle of the transformation of the consumption and production of things in life. To be more precise, my question here is how and why human life, through the uses of things, bodies and objects, is shaped, measured, calculated, regulated and processed into various forms of life, retroactively conditioned and produced by the functional and utilitarian uses of things, and even by remote forces of the global flow of capitals.
What Xu Bing demonstrated through his Tobacco Project : Shanghai, Tobacco Project : 1st Class and Phoenix referred to the forms of life that have been drawn and shaped through a process of rapid involution in post-socialist China. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the number of the farmer-workers (農民工) amounted up to 268,940,000 in 2013, with 2.4% increase rate from the previous year. In a recent study by HUANG Dan, we learn that the percentage of the “new workers” is currently about 20% of the entire population of China.(2) These farmer-workers mostly have left their rural hometown, worked in big cities and could no longer go back to their former ways of life because they had sold up their farmlands and because they prefer higher salaries that they could earn through the construction projects in the big cities, despite the fact that they could never get settled, might not have regular income, could only inhabit in a tiny room with the entire family, and would always be marginalized in the cities. (3) This large number of migrant workers was sucked in and dispersed along with the speedy swirl of the emerging new status of China both as the financial center, the world factory and the world markets. The construction of the high-rise buildings that occupied the urban space in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other major cities, and the heavy traffics of commercial, informational and financial activities, not only attracted but also up-rooted the farmer-workers from their homes. These displaced bodies are literally utilized in accordance with the huge increase of the demand for laborers because of the rapid growth of the infrastructure of transnational entrepreneurial networks and financial centers in China. These forms of life, caught up by the momentum of the global post-socialist and neo-liberal capitalist growth, have also been embodied by the compartmentalization of urban space, that is, the segregation of high-rise architectures and the ghetto areas of the laborers’ villages.
Likewise, in Chen Chieh-jen’s
How do we consider the life of these people ? Why do they voluntarily accept or desire such forms of life ? In spite of the fact that we might like the concept of the camp, as what Agamben described in Homo Sacer, we literally see in these people, displaced and dispersed in urban ghettos, “a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe” (Agamben 1998 : 188). The subjects’ bodies and forms of life, as what we see in the different corners of the urban space in post-socialist China, are no longer the farmers and laborers that co-habited in the people’s communes who shared the common beliefs and common life experiences, who worked for the common goal, but are isolated individuals who had been cut off from their hometowns and inserted into various construction sites and laborer’s new villages in the margins of the big cities. (4) We seem to see various metamorphoses of the camp, the hidden matrix of the biopolitics that function as an apparatus of dislocating localization. “The political system no longer orders forms of life and juridical norms in a determinate space ; rather, it contains within itself a dislocating localization that exceeds it and in which virtually every form of life and every norm can be captured” (Agamben 2000 : 44).
The un-asked questions of the forms of life that are turned into the forms of death are the stakes Agamben addressed in his Homo Sacer projects. The Marxist scission between man and citizen had been superseded by the division between naked life and various forms of social-juridical identities such as the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, the HIV-positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman, and so on (Means Without End 6-7). The techniques of the management of human life includes everything from his birth to his death, the entry and exit of the territory, the crossing of the borders, preventive quarantine, protective custodies, eugenics, citizenships and so on. To me, as what Foucault and Agamben have pointed out, the motor that triggers the apparatus of biopolitics is therefore no longer only the nexus connecting the juridical rule with the techniques of subjectivation, but the power of political economy at the center.
Economy here apparently does not refer to a system of rules or a science of knowledge, but to a paradigm that was associated with administrative activities, including management, arrangement, dispositive, organization and execution of the order of things in the household, as what oikos-nomia suggests (Agamben 2011 : 17-18). Oikos to us designates private household space while polis refers to public domain. Oikos-nomia therefore should mean the arrangement of household affairs. But, the line between the oikos and polis is a tricky question. Carl Schmitt has pointed out that, basing on Erich Przywara’s etymological studies, in the context of pneumatic logos, oikos refers to the house of God. From the beginning of the patriarchal society, oikos-nomia is in the realm of polis and is essentially political economy (Schmitt 2003 : 336-345). Agamben also pointed out that economic theology, conceived as an “immanent ordering” of both divine and human life, was the roots for modern biopolitics. The current triumph of economy and government over every aspect of social life is due to this tradition of economic theology (Agamben 2011 : 1). Agamben’s research shows that, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the oikia was defined as “a polis on a small and contracted scale” and economy as “a contracted politeia,” while the polis was defined as “a large house [oikos megas],” and politics as “a [common] economy [koine tis oikonomia]”. Community therefore was referred to as “the house of God” (oikos theou) and the messianic community was also conceived of in the mode of oikonomia. (Agamben 2011 : 24-25)
The question here then is : what are the “things” and according to what orders are these “things” to be arranged, administered and distributed in the polis ?
In the practice of modern biopolitics, not only natural resources such as agricultural, fishery, mining, forestry, industrial and commercial products are to be managed, reproduced and circulated, but also human physical and intellectual powers are to be controlled, guided and monitored so that they can be part of the reproduction machine. The forms of human life, consequently, are shaped and engineered according to the utilitarian goals of the polis and turned out to be the bodies and appendixes that are annexed to the social productive apparatus. What is life, or the power of life, then is the stake for us to consider.
2. The power of life, the manipulation of form, or the Chinese way ?
Is life merely the productive forces to be shaped and utilized ? Are the powers of life inevitably managed and manipulated by the social apparatus in terms of the visible and actual labors ? How do we conceive of the potential of life, the generic power of life that is to remain as constantly active and not as readily actualized into fixated forms ?
François Jullien offered a perspective concerning the concept of potential, different from the Western mode, through applying Chinese concept of “shi” (勢), based on his readings of classical Chinese philosophies. According to Jullien, as he elaborated in The Propensity of Things : Toward A History of Efficacy in China (La propension des choses : Pour une histoire de l’efficacité en Chine), the logic of “shi” considers reality as “a process of transformation.” The propensities of things lies within every element in reality and in the very “configuration or disposition of things.” In politics, we see the potential born of hierarchical disposition ; in calligraphy, painting and literature, we see the force working through the form of a character in the tension emanating from the disposition of things ; in the process of history, we see the tendencies resulting from particular situation in history and the propensity that governs the overall process. (Jullien 1995 : 13-17) Jullien’s notion of “shi” is particularly inspired by Sunzi’s writings on military strategy which stresses on minimizing the armed engagement and seeking victory at the earliest stage. The leader of the army needs to know how to intervene “when dispositions and maneuvers are still depending on our own initiatives and to be adjusted at will”. The force of the development of the combat is derived from the correlation of all factors involved in the situation. Sunzi wrote : “For a man who is expert at using his troops, this potential born of disposition may be likened to making round stones roll down from the highest summit.” (Jullien 1995 : 27-29)
The notion of “shi” is best exemplified through Jullien’s elaborations of Chinese aesthetics of calligraphies and paintings. In the study of calligraphy, shi is extremely important. There is potential force or shi inherent within the forms of the configuration and the strokes of the ideograms. The strategic positioning of the elements on the paper, as the troops on the battlefield, creates the potential [shi] that would run through the entire sphere. Jullien explained that shi could be defined as the force that runs through the form of the written character and animates it aesthetically : “a particular gesture is converted into a form, just as a particular form is equally converted into a gesture. In this schema the figure produced and the movement producing it are equivalent ; one can speak of the shi of the brush that delineates the ideogram just as one speaks of the shi of the ideogram that it traces” (Jullien 1995:76). Jullien further stressed that the function of shi from stroke to stroke is evaluated through its correlation with the totality of the work : the factors within the overall sphere operate and interact with one another not only through networks of affinities but also through contrast in a series of co-related polarities and tensions. (Jullien 1995 : 77-78)
In his discussion of the dynamism of shi in Chinese landscape paintings, Jullien showed us how the Chinese would notice the narrow crest of rock creating a “dynamic configuration” (shi) through its line “snaking and weaving like a dragon” (蜿蟺如龍). The tension and suspension between the lines and forms depends on the correlation and composition of the entire scope, the rise and fall of the pinnacles and flanks of the mountains, the trail of clouds or mist circulating along the stretches and folds of the mountains, the woods, waterfalls, rivers, huts, villages and figures here and there on the canvas. “Shi” is often employed in the description of the effects of the tension and suspension of these correlated elements and the tendencies of the movements. (Jullien 1995 : 79-82) Jullien also pointed out that it is crucial to conceive of shi in its “totality” because the reality of things “only exist – and thus only manifest itself – in a totality, through the force of propensity that links its various elements as a whole.” (Jullien 1995 : 99) This imperative need for shi, according to Jullien, merges with the need for the unity of composition that is seen as a source of dynamism. Jullien wrote : “even the bridges and hamlets, towers and belvederes, boats and carriages, people and their houses, at times shown clearly, at times hidden, should from the beginning be determined by this general order” (Jullien 1995 : 100).
The emphasis on the general order that determines the totality of the situation is further discussed in his Traité de l’efficacité. Jullien explained that, for the Chinese, the form (xing 形) and the potential (shi 勢) are coupled concepts. On the one hand, there is the situation or the configuration (the form) of the actualized power relation that took shape before our eyes ; one the other hand, there is the propensity of things that is implicated in this situation. We are not merely driven by the disposition of things within this situation ; we can also manipulate the order of things so that it can turn out to be beneficial to us (Jullien 2011 : 37-38). Jullien stressed that the Chinese emperor knew the art of governing by relying on the efficacy of the apparatus in the position and let the totality of situation unfolds its inherent inclination. As long as the emperor makes the apparatus of the position function, his people will automatically submit to the position (Jullien 2011 : 57).
In order to further illustrate the Chinese wisdom of absolute immanent governmentality, Jullien explained the concept of “the potential of the situation” (幾之勢) as the initial moment of conception, as embryonic primal point, the point that is far antecedent to the happening of the event (Jullien 2011 : 109-110). Jullien stressed that the Chinese ruler knows how to manipulate the situation in the very beginning, make it implicated with the desired tendencies and let the transformation takes place on it’s own (受含帶而自化). This immanent “pure dispositif” could accomplish the development of things by not doing anything (sans agir, 無為) and leave the rest to the inclination of things, laisser advenir l’effet (任其自成) (Jullien 2011 : 143). Jullien writes : this act-without-acting is a “laisser faire (laisser-faire, laisser-passer),” and this doing nothing is not really nothing because this “letting” is an active act (ce laisser est actif) (Jullien 2011 : 147). The active and strategic “non-act,” for Jullien, had inspired the Chinese tradition of dictatorship and achieved the apparatus of immanent submission. The apparatus of power functions in the way that the ruler does not need to judge because the punishments and retributions are automatic ; there is no need to surveil because there’s already a system of denouncement ; when this regime is perfectly assimilated, there’s also no need for chastisement because the desire or repulsion is already internalized and each one would spontaneously respect the law that has been imposed upon him. (Jullien 2011 : 156) There will be no grudge of the conscience and no waste of efforts. Everything will be smoothly processed. The imperceptible manipulation could result in automatically and spontaneously subjectivated docile bodies. (5)
What is striking in Jullien’s argument is that, bringing together the dynamism of shi that he observed in Chinese military strategies, calligraphy, paintings, literature and Chinese discourse of geomancy, Jullien arrived at his conclusion about the Chinese ways of governmentality. In the “Preface” to The Propensity of Things, Jullien wrote : the art and wisdom in exploiting the propensity emanating from that particular configuration of reality to the maximum effect, that is, the notion of efficacy (Jullien 1995 : 15). Jullien stressed that, from ancient time, the Chinese knew perfectly well the techniques of governmentality through the manipulation of shi so that the entire mechanism functions automatically and that the manipulator is inconspicuous. The people are not forced to obey, but would spontaneously follow the dictate of the emperor (Jullien 1995 : 60). For the Chinese thought, everything is implicated by tendencies and therefore is ineluctable. The sequence of changes stems entirely from the power relations inherent in the initial situation and thereby constitutes a closed system (Jullien 1995 : 221). In the concluding section, Jullien again stressed that the necessary evolving process is already implicated within the system and its variation through alternation. Conforming and adapting to the propensity of things and not to go against it, according to Jullien, is the wisdom and strategy particularly demonstrated by the Chinese (Jullien 1995 : 262-263). Jullien stated : “It is therefore hardly surprising that Chinese thought is so conformist. It does not seek to distance itself from the ‘world,’ do not question reality, is not even surprised by it.” There is no need for myth to save reality from absurdity and to confer meaning on it. There are only rites to regulate behavior on the reality level. (Jullien 1995 : 264)
In François Jullien’s elaborations, through his employment of the concepts of apparatus, dispositif, régime and efficacité, we see an immanent system of total manipulation and conformity within the Chinese culture. According to Jullien, Chinese people are used to conform, to obey and to adapt to the propensities of the situation to the extent that all human activities and tendencies are implicated and manipulated in the very beginning of the total scheme. We cannot but propose our doubts : Jullien’s interpretation of the active “non-act” (sans agir) and “letting it be” (laisser advenir l’effet) has depicted a perfect scheme of governmentality that no on can escape. The propensities of things are determined in the configuration of the larger situation. What Jullien observed in the operation of active laisser is already imbedded in the logic of neo-liberalist laisser-faire, and all is pre-determined in the configuration of the form according to the intended utility and efficacy. Even the potential power of each and everyone in the scheme has been implicated, measured, calculated and prescribed in the first place.
We need to revert the question and start all over from the beginning. Can we think the power of life through the configuration and re-configuration ? Can we envision a life that can be considered, as Agamben suggested, as a life of power ? A life that cannot be separated from its form, a life in which “the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power” ? (Agaamben 2000 : 3) Or, can we propose a different understanding of the power of form that can be achieved through art and thought through the political uses of the bodies and the forms in an open dialectic cycle ? How do we think, for example, the hidden potential power of life beyond the dimension of the visible assemblage of the objects and bodies ? How do we conceive the alter-dimensions of the objects and bodies that are related to the physical movements and life processes, be it the artist, the thinker and each and everyone, beyond the form that he presents us to our eyes ?
3. Sovereign thought and sovereign form : political uses of the bodies in life
In discussing the concept of power (potential) in Spinoza’s writings, Negri pointed out that power does not merely refers to the “intensive relevance” of the self-foundation of being, but also to the “extensive relevance” in terms of the articulation of the various levels of reality. Articulation always is “a possibility.”(Negri 51) The generic motor of being is what concerns Negri, and he differentiated potentia from potestas in his discussion of power : “potentia as the dynamic and constitutive inherence of the single in the multiplicity, of mind in the body, of freedom in necessity—power against Power—where potestas is presented as the subordination of the multiplicity, of the mind, of freedom, and of potentia.” (Negri 190-1) Negri stressed that the Spinozian mechanism denies any possibility of a conception of the world that is not represented as a singular, flat, and superficial emergence of being. Within the totality of events, “each is absolute itself.” The points on which constitutive thought is developed are those that result “from the critical process : points, instances, events that … are submitted once again to the tension, the power of the totality of being.” The reconstruction of the world is the very process of “the continual physical composition and re-composition of things” (Negri 212-3).
Negri’s emphasis on the constitutive power of each “point” within the totality of event, and the continual composition and re-composition of things, is important for us to consider. Following this line of thought, Francois Jullien’s depiction of the first point as the embryonic moment that implicates and determines the potential of the totality of the situation would not be possible. But, to Agamben, Negri’s proposal of the constituent power and the continuing act of free choice, as the re-composition of the multitude, cannot solve the question that every sovereign act is in the first place an act of original ban and exclusion. (Agamben  1998 : 47)
In order to think a life of power, a life that is not separated from itself and is removed from the grasp of the law and the ban, Agamben suggested in The Highest Poverty, we need a different “theory of use.” The question raised by Agamben in this study, I think, is revealing for our discussion here. Agamben wrote :
How can use—that is, a relation to the world insofar as it is inappropriable—be translated into an ethos and a form of life ? And what ontology and which ethics would correspond to a life that, in use, is constituted as inseparable from its form ? The attempt to respond to these questions will necessarily demand a confrontation with the operative ontological paradigm into whose mold liturgy, by means of a secular process has ended up forcing the ethics and politics of the West. (Agamben 2013 : 144)
The critique against “the operative and governmental ontology,” with various disguises, is essential for Agamben to resist the appropriation of life and bodies as properties according to utilitarian functions. This observation is consistent with Agamben’s works in the past with regards to his inquiries into the separation and appropriation of things and lives by law. In The Open : Man and Animal, Agamben proposed to make the anthropological machine inoperative so that the animality of living being could be disinhibited and a new path and a new space could be opened (Agamben 2004 : 79-80).
The concept of inoperative (desoeuvrement) and distention elaborated by Georges Bataille is echoed in Agamben’s thought. Bataille said, “I can exist totally only by transcending in some way the stage of action. Otherwise I become soldier, professional revolutionary, scholar – not the whole man” (“On Nietzsche : The Will to Chance,” The Bataille Reader 336). To Bataille, the “whole man” becomes possible only if he “refrains from positing himself as the end or object of others” and not to be enslaved by the teleological function of productivity. (“On Nietzsche : The Will to Chance,” The Bataille Reader 342) This resistance against being fragmentalized and enslaved, and the persistence in striving for the inner wholeness, for Bataille, is to retain the sovereign thought and sovereign art as he discovered in Nietzsche.
For Agamben, likewise, the task to maintain the sovereignty of life is to dis-articulate the link constituted by the law and to restore the live-ability of every life in itself. Religion for Agamben exercised the first power of separation, and to profane means to challenge the line of separation and to restore life that is not separated from its form. In this sense, the “pure use” of things means that the use takes place in relations, while the concept of property and ownership makes the thing attached to juridical rights instead of relations. Agamben wrote : “The creation of a new use is possible only by deactivating an old use, rendering it inoperative” (Agamben 2007 : 86). To deactivate an old use, to make it inoperative and to create a new use, it requires the power of thought. The power of life is the power of thought as the nexus that can constitute the forms of life “in an inseparable context as form-of-life.” Agamben explained that it is not the individual exercise of an organ or of a psychic faculty, but rather “an experience, an experimentum that has as its object the potential character of life and of human intelligence." (Means Without End 9)
Agamben’s proposal to deactivate the old use and create a new use of things resonate with the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s discussion of the use of things in his Qiwulun (齊物論 On the Equality of All Things). Zhuangzi said that a thing is called by its name through the constant application of the name to it, and the thing is therefore differentiated by its name and becomes partially recognized. But everything has its inherent character and its proper capability, and is not limited by the name attached to it. If we can give up the views we have acquired by learning, and use the things as they are, the use (用) then is in mutual assess (通). It is called the Dao of things. To Zhuangzi, to restore the things from the confinement of their names is to assess them as they are, just like to make the music of the nature sound their own notes (吹萬不同，使其自已). Zhuangzi said, to face the others as they are, one needs to experience and listen to them not with his ear (聽之以耳), nor with his mind (聽之以心), but with his qi (聽之以氣). For Zhuangzi, it requires qi (氣) to disentangle the logic of separation and to restore all things to their equal status, that is, to dis-articulate the things from the names that are attached to. What is Qi ? It is nothing else but life itself. The qi is not any physical or conceptual capacity, but the flow and the movement which uphold and support life, that is, the liveliness of life itself in its totality.
In Zhuangzi, we see a relation to the world in the use of things. These relations could easily be confined by our customary acquisition and the pre-given nominal systeem. When the symbolic law separates things and bodies according to subjective utilities and functions, the forms of people’s life would also transformed into functional and fragmentary bodies. Zhuangzi’s proposal to receive new bodies in an vacuous and inoperative position (虛而待物) is a politics of negativity to constantly work on the unbinding of the fixated images and ideas bound by the nominal system (滌除名相), to maintain the dynamic and dialectic flow of opening and closing of oneself so that we can arrive at the perception of the equality of all beings.
The experience or the experiment that Agamben proposed to conceive a “form-of-life” that is not separated from life itself and to bring things back to pure use, and the politics of negativity proposed by Zhuangzi to clear away the nominal confinement and to use things as they are, to assess the others with one’s qi [life], can give us a new perspective to the question of the power of form that is not separated from life.
4. The power of form
If we read the visible forms in Xu Bing’s works through François Jullien’s analysis of the configurations within the totality of the frame, we would see only misty rivers and layered ridges on the surface of the panel, consumable objects produced through the tobacco industry, and the beautiful phoenix from ancient Chinese mythology. We could not see the “background stories” Xu Bing wanted to draw our attention to. The backgrounds of the forms in these stories, Xu Bing apparently wanted to show, are interwoven with physical trajectories, temporal processes and manual labors, combined with layers of local and global histories. Through the political uses of the bodies and the forms, as what we’ve seen in XU Bing’s Background Story : Misty Rivers and Layered Ridges, Tobacco Project and Phoenix, Xu Bing unveil the ironic logic of the capitalist development that rooted its effect in contemporary Chinese society. The consumed objects, such as the tobacco, the rusted tire rims, steel saws and scoops, iron barrels, screwdrivers and safety helmets used by the migrant workers at the construction site for the new World Financial Center in Beijing, demonstrated the first cycle of use and exposed the forms of life shaped by the law behind the objects. Through the second cycle of artistic consumption, however, not only the law of separation is exposed, but the old use of bodies is also deactivated, and we see a re-configured form of life and renewed use of the bodies through Xu Bing’s artistic labor. These bodies are linked both with the past lives in history and with Xu Bing as an artist.
A recent work by a contemporary Taiwan artist Chen Chieh-jen exhibited in Beijing in June 2014, Realm of Reverberation (殘響世界), can take us further to think the question of the political uses of the bodies and the power of form. Realm of Reverberation is an installation piece with simultaneous screenings of four short videos in an enclosed space with four walls.
The scenarios of each of the four videos is mainly about the remains of past lives depicted from different perspectives, including a memoir of a volunteer keeper in the Losheng Sanatorium who participated the protest movement, and witnessed the processes during and after the leveling of the sanatorium due to the urban renewal plan, the old leprous patients’ memories of their planting the trees in the yard where they had stayed for over half a century, the women migrant workers from China whose work were to clean the construction site where the rapid rail station was to be built after the sanatorium was torn down, and finally, the memories of a funeral ritual for one anonymous prisoner who was kept and executed in the prison built during the Japanese colonial period, the same architectural design as the sanatorium built in the same period, a prison that was also to be demolished, along with the veteran village surrounding it, also due to urban developmental planning.
The power of these images does not merely lie in the bodies and objects captured within the frame, but also in the interwoven layers of past forms of lives that are recalled and reverberated with one another. We do see many traces on the screen. The dusty piles of documents and slides collected by the volunteer keeper, the wrinkled old faces of the leprous patients on electric wheelchairs, the migrant workers from mainland singing songs from their childhood, the ghost of the dead prisoner, the funeral band players, the evacuated hospital and villages, and the machines at the construction sites. All these objects and bodies were telling stories of the past lives, once gone and could never return, pushed aside through the engine of the urban development.
Again, just like what Xu Bing has achieved in his series of projects, Chen Chieh-jen also took pains over the past two decades to think, through his artistic labors, the question of the direct and indirect violence the State had inflicted on its people, from the civil war between KMT and CCP, the rule under the Japanese colonial period, the white terror during the Martial Law period in Taiwan, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group in Taiwan under the guise of the “Western Enterprise” (xifanggongsi 西方公司), and the pervasive dominance of the transnational entrepreneurial system in the post-1989 condition. (9) The primary process of the functional and utilitarian uses of the bodies by the State, or the polis, through the technique of political economy, have formed people’s life into fragmentary forms of life in order to better govern them. The workers migrated from rural places to big cities, from China to Taiwan, working in different construction sites. The marginalized inhabitants in the cities were further marginalized and put into different ghettos, the workers’ villages, the veterans’ villages, the lepers’ hospitals, the political dissidents’ prison, and so on. The political uses of the bodies through the artistic labor, a secondary process of the aestheticization, helped us to see the past forms of life and the capitalist logic of the political economy in the background. The power of form here is the power of life that demonstrates itself through itself, each time a critical experiment, and each time a new use of the bodies that opens up a new space of understanding and experience, as what we can see in works by Xu Bing and Chen Chieh-jen.
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1 http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/2..., released in May 12, 2014. Accessed in July 15, 2014.
2 HUANG Dan, 黃丹：《認識論之無法斷裂》，國立交通大學社會與文化研究所碩士論文，2014。
3 LU Tu, WANG Hui, 呂途著：〈總述〉，《中國新工人──迷失與崛起》，北京：法律出版社，2013，頁2─3；汪暉：〈我有我自己的名字〉（序言），呂途著，《中國新工人──迷失與崛起》，北京：法律出版社，2013。頁7。潘毅，〈壟斷資本與中國工人〉，《文化縱橫》；任燄、潘毅，〈跨國勞動過程的空間政治：全球化時代的宿舍勞動體制〉，《社會學研究》，2007，4月，頁21-33.
4 LU Tu, PAN Yi,
5 Jullien wrote, for the Chinese, “tout pour elle étant affaire de processus, la conduit humaine aussi, la pensée chinoise n’a pas h ésité à penser la manipulation dans l’amont du process. Manipulation imperceptible, par consequent, au stade où, tout étant lisse encore, et ductile, les homes se laissent si aisément régir qu’on n’en rencontre pas de résistance – qu’on n’est plus dérangé par la conscience.” (Jullien 2011 : 213-214)
6 Negri, Antonio (1991) The Savage Anomaly : the power of Spinoza’s metaphysics and politics. trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.
8 The protest went on for ten years, starting from 1997 to 2008, involved students, scholars, layers, engineers, documentary directors, photographers, theatric groups, and music group, but to no avail.
9 Chen Chieh-jen’s projects include :