TWIN TOWN, Kevin Allen, 1997


‘Good understanding giveth favour: but the way of the transgressor is hard’ Proverbs 13:15
[1]

Or in an edited and embellished version proposed by the character Jeremy Lewis, one of twins played by Rhys Ifans in Twin Town:

“The way of the transgressor is fuckin’ ‘ard.’”

Which, although removes the positive condition offered in the Biblical proverb, remains true, if not profanely so, to a powerful negative condition. It is with this in mind that we approach the negative condition and must ask the questions that this condition provokes. The first of which being: what is it to transgress? Which leads us directly to the second and perhaps more difficult question: what is it that the act of transgression entails that ensures ‘hardness’ or difficulty in the way, path or life of the transgressor?

In answering these questions we must stray from an analysis of the film; instead we must pose them outside the narrative structure of the film. Therefore, to take these questions in turn, we must first note that the act of transgression is one that exceeds, goes beyond or violates a boundary. The act of transgression can be seen as one which violates the law and is perhaps the least provocative in our society, but is one that entails the second question. This further question, which we must devote to the remainder of the paper, is situated within a space of immense historic contention, the scope of which exceeds the precise limitations of this paper. However, drawing upon the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben we can perhaps embark upon a tentative path with regards to this second question.

Those who transgress are those who go beyond the law, as was said earlier, however what was not said, which the work of Agamben attempts to remark upon is the notion of the simultaneously outside yet inside, which is inscribed into the very nature of the transgressor. For these remarks to become clearer it is prudent to draw upon Agamben’s work and in particular Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life of which the chapter entitled ‘The Ban and the Wolf’ will be of greatest import for us.

In this chapter we are acquainted with the notion of the medieval ban, which as an action, ‘to ban’, is considered by Cavalca ‘to say that anyone may harm him’ [2]. However, legitimately we should ask who is to be banned? The answer, which is by no means exhaustive, must be put simply as the transgressor. He who transgresses or strays beyond the law must be considered subjected to the ban, thereby assuming the name bandit. As a figure the bandit’s liminal status is expressed for Agamben in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources by ‘defining him [the bandit] as a wolf-man (wargus, werewolf …[3] Furthermore, Agamben uncovers an echo of the wargus or werewolf in the laws of Edward the Confessor (1030-35) in which the bandit is defined as a  ‘wulfesheud (a wolf’s head).’ [4] The decisive aspect, which must be underlined here, is that the bandit is not simply a wolf or pure animality, instead the bandit is a hybridisation of animal and human; a werewolf. In the words of Agamben:

The life of the bandit, … is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither. [5]

What follows from this must be an attempt to bring to light that which maintains the simultaneity of animal and man in the person of the bandit. For Agamben, an echo of this simultaneity can be found in the work of Thomas Hobbes, and in particular the Hobbesian notion of the state of nature. Contra to many readings, which oppose the City to the state of nature – in that the state of nature is supposed as chronologically prior to the foundation of the City – Agamben asserts that the state of nature is ‘but a principle internal to the City, which appears at the moment the City is considered tanquam dissoluta, “as if it were dissolved.”’ [6]  Therefore, in a certain sense the Hobbesian state of nature can be seen as a state of exception. Moreover, it is through reference to a state in which ‘”man is a wolf to men,” homo hominis lupus,’ [7] that Hobbes in the eyes of Agamben founds the notion of sovereignty; not by reference to the ‘fera bestia and natural life but rather a zone of indistinction between the human and the animal.’ [8] In this we can read not a state of all against all in which the state of nature may be posited as prejuridical, rather the Hobbesian state of nature dwells within the law of the city, only to be realised in the tanquam dissoluta or state of exception, thereby giving rise to the condition in which everyone is a wargus to everyone else.

Returning now to the Hobbesian notion of sovereignty we can see that in Agamben’s words sovereign power is based upon ‘the sovereign’s preservation of his natural right to do anything to anyone.’ [9] The sovereign’s natural right, or what maybe discerned as sovereign violence, is neither targeted toward natural nor qualified life, rather it is for Agamben targeted at ‘the bare life of … the wargus, a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast, nature and culture.’ [10] Therefore, the foundation of sovereign violence is in ‘the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state.’ [11] What we are confronted with here is an echo of the previous formulation in which ‘”man is a wolf to men,”’ [12] wherein the sovereign in his person becomes, ‘the wolf-man of man’ [13] and as such the sovereign preserves his natural right or animality whilst dwelling ‘permanently in the city.’ [14]

From this Agamben asks us to ‘reread from the beginning the myth of the foundation of the modern city.’ [15] This must for Agamben take the shape of a reading in which the foundation of the City is: ‘not an event achieved once and for all but is continually operative in the civil state in the form of the sovereign decision,’ [16] by which is meant, always open to the state of nature in which for an instant the City appears tanquam dissoluta.

The implications of Agamben’s thought are far reaching. What at first began with an attempt to answer questions related to the transgressor, has now come to concern us all. Perhaps this is, in a sense, a result of the disingenuous character of presenting the ‘originary political act as contract or a convention,’ [17] a characterisation that for Agamben must be discretely and definitely ‘left wholly behind.’ [18] The transgressor was seen as the one who violates the originary political act of contract and therefore as subject to the ban. In opposition to this conception Agamben’s reading asserts the primacy of the ban as the ‘originary juridico-political relation.’ [19] Therefore, who is subject to the ban is neither dependent on their natural nor qualified life, an act of transgression or not; rather the ban is precisely bare life’s original connection with sovereignty. It is this tie which constitutes the indiscernibility between nomos and physis; the consequences of which are displayed when the State tie, in the form of ban, is for Agamben ‘always already … non-State and pseudo-nature, and in which nature already appears as nomos and the state of exception.’ [20]

The power of the ban remains essential to the structure of the State today. It is for this reason that Agamben asserts that: ‘we must learn to recognise this structure of the ban in the political relations and public spaces in which we still live.’ [21] Moreover, in the final passage of this chapter Agamben elucidates the true consequences of that which we have explored, by arguing:

…The banishment of sacred life is the sovereign nomos that conditions every rule, the originary spatialisation that governs and makes possible every localisation and every territorialisation. And if in modernity life is more and more clearly placed at the centre of State politics (which now becomes, in Foucault’s terms biopolitics), if in our age all citizens can be said, in a specific but extremely real sense, to appear virtually as homines sacri, this is possible only because the relation of ban has constituted the essential structure of sovereign power from the beginning. [22]

In lieu of any concluding remarks we might say that a once seemingly innocuous instance of the Swansea vernacular has allowed us to bring to light – with aid of the work of Giorgio Agamben – the originary juridico-political relation of the State: the ban. However, to end I must assert that this paper must serve as the faintest glow in the darkest forest, of which many experienced travellers have carved a difficult route, which nonetheless remains unlit.

Alex Smith

References:

[1] King James Bible – Proverbs 13:15, available at http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Proverbs-13-15/

[2] Desiderio Cavalca, Il bando nella prassi e nella dottrina medieval, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, G. Agamben (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p.105.

[3] Giorgio Agamben,  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p.105.

[4] Ibid., p.105.

[5] Ibid., p.105.

[6] Ibid., p.105.

[7] Ibid., p.106.

[8] Ibid., p.106.

[9] Ibid., p.106.

[10] Ibid., p.109.

[11] Ibid., p.107.

[12] Ibid., pp.105-106.

[13] Ibid., p.107.

[14] Ibid., p.107.

[15] Ibid., p.109.

[16] Ibid., p.109.

[17] Ibid., p.109.

[18] Ibid., p.109.

[19] Ibid., p.109.

[20] Ibid., p.109.

[21] Ibid., p.111.

[22] Ibid., p.111.

Bibliography:

Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998)

King James Bible – Proverbs 13:15, available at http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Proverbs-13-15/

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