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In an act of protest, world-renown Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has cancelled plans to teach atNew York University and UCLA because of the United States’ new policy of photographing and fingerprinting foreign visitors. Described by the New York Times and Newsday as a mere professor of philosophy and aesthetics, Agamben has written extensively about the holocaust and questions of political sovereignty.
These news organizations, however, described his protest as being based on a simple comparison between the new US policy and Hitler’s concentration camps. The New York Times gave the final word to Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, noting that he “was not aware of other professors who had declined to come to the United States because of its fingerprinting policies.” Steinbach himself said, “There is an undertone of massive paranoia that is speculative and anticipatory that is seemingly permeating some elements of the professoriate.”
In truth, Agamben explained his position in the Italian daily La Repubblica with great care that hardly resembles any knee-jerk reaction: “Because I do not wish to undergo such a procedure, I immediately cancelled the lecture I was scheduled to give in March inNew York University.” An over-reaction? Agamben explains that he made the decision, “despite my liking for the American students and professors, who I have felt bound to in friendship and work for many years.”
The New York Times abbreviated his position omitting the context in which he makes his comparison. Here is a more complete version and a better translation:
“A few years ago I wrote that the political model of the west is not the city but the concentration camp, not Athens but Auschwitz. That was, of course, a philosophical, not a historical thesis. This is not about mixing phenomena that must be separated. I only want to remind readers that the tattooing in Auschwitz possibly appeared as ‘normal’ and economic in order to regulate the admission of the deportees to the camp. The bio-political tattooing, which we are forced to undergo today in order to enter the United States is a relay race to what we could tomorrow accept as the normal registration of the identity of the good citizen considering the mechanisms and machinery of the state.”
It is not at all rash and is very much worth considering, especially because Agamben belongs to the tradition of philosophy that includes Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
Agamben’s positions is particularly honorable considering that as an Italian citizen he is exempt. Twenty-seven countries, limited largely to Bush’s hallucinatory pro-war coalition, have been exempted from the policy that began this month and subjects foreigners to photographing and fingerprinting. He says his position is one of solidarity with those excluded from the exemption.
In his philosophical writings, Agamben has repeatedly explored notions of exemption that would be threatening to US interests. He has also written critically about issues of the nation state, most famously asking, do we really care “to solve the Palestinian question in a way just as insufficient as the way in whichIsrael has solved the Jewish question.”
Agamben teaches at the University of Verona, the College International de Philosophie in Paris and the University of Macerata in Italy. Recently, he has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Northwestern University, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
STANDARD SCHAEFER is a free-lance journalist and can be reached at email@example.com.
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