Fetish and brutish


The big, desert city of El Paso, on the US border with Mexico, for years felt like a lesson from the work of Giorgio Agamben. In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben analyzes a law from the Roman Empire specifying that if a man committed certain crimes, all of his citizenship rights would be revoked. This punishment, oddly enough, rendered the criminal a homo sacer, a sacred man, whom it was forbidden to ritually sacrifice to the gods. Yet in the everyday world the sacred man could be killed by anyone, with no penalty at all invoked on the killer. He inspired the highest veneration and the basest contempt. He constituted yet another category from Agamben’s work: bare life, or human existence stripped of its social nature and reduced to the purely biological. Bare life defines brutes. Homo sacer, brutes fetishized.

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