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ethics of bare life Arrow vol 2 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 1, 2003


An Ethics of Bare Life: Agamben on Witnessing

Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books: New York, 1999.

Catherine Mills
Australian National University

1. Giorgio Agamben’s recently translated volumes of the Homo Sacer series offer extremely provocative considerations of Western politics and ethics. In the first volume, entitled Homo Sacer, Agamben develops a political analysis of the contemporary biopolitical conditions of existence, whereas in its companion volume, Remnants of Auschwitz, he develops an account of ethical response to biopolitical subjection. While he argues in Homo Sacer that the concentration camp operates as ‘the nomos of the earth’, the biopolitical space par excellence, in Remnants, Agamben takes the condition of the camps as his starting point for a reconsideration of ethics in light of the political determination of life worth living. In doing so, he argues for a conception of ethics as bearing witness to the absolute separation of human life from inhuman survival that biopower aims at.

2. Structured as a comment on Primo Levi’s essays on the status of the survivor and the necessity of bearing witness to the Nazi concentration camps, Remnants gives philosophical elaboration to the intuitions and paradoxes that illuminate Levi’s ethics. Agamben argues that ethics can no longer be thought through the fundamentally juridical categories of responsibility or dignity, but must instead be sought in a terrain before judgment, a terrain in which the conditions of judgment are suspended through the indistinction of the human and the inhuman. Locating the figure of the Muselmann at the zone of indistinction between the human and the inhuman, Agamben elaborates on Levi's paradox that the Muselmann, the one who cannot speak, is the true witness of the camps. The ethical aporia of testimony that Agamben circumscribes in reflection on this paradox yields an account of an ethics of bare life, that is, natural life politicized through its irreparable exposure to sovereign violence and death (Agamben, 1998: 88). The particular contribution to the project of an ethics 'after Auschwitz' that Agamben makes then lies in his evocative reconsideration of testimony as an ethics of witnessing the collapse of the human and inhuman.

3. As with Agamben's other books, Remnants of Auschwitz is a deeply enigmatic text, in which the central argument develops recursively through interlocking comments and philosophical observations, the connections between which are not always made explicit. Indeed, much of the argumentation remains suggestive, often without clarification of the central claims and their implications. While this may leave many political and ethical theorists unconvinced, Agamben's insights nevertheless disclose and expose the assumptions often too readily accepted in contemporary debates and open a theoretical space for further elaboration. Conversely though, Agamben's silences on for instance, the intersubjective affectivity of ethics and questions of representation and historical responsibility leave the impression that he holds back from his own problematization of ethical responsibility, which makes this problematization less compelling than it might otherwise be.

Remnant, Witness

4. One of the central though equivocal concepts within Agamben's account of an ethics of witnessing is that of the remnant, indicated in the title. Toward the end of the book, Agamben notes that the notion of remnant does not simply indicate the part of a whole remaindered through a process of selection and segregation but instead indicates the troubled caesuras and points of contact between the part and the whole. Agamben claims that the remnant is a theologico-messianic concept, which designates the consistency of a people in relation to salvation or the messianic event. Marking the division or non-coincidence between the whole and the part, the remnant appears as the 'redemptive machine' that permits the salvation of the whole from which it emerges as the signification of division and loss (Agamben, 1999: 162). The remnants mark the division between the whole and part and provide the only means of redemption. Thus in relation to Auschwitz, the remnants of Auschwitz are neither those who died in the gas chambers nor those who survived the camps, neither the drowned nor the saved, but rather, that which remains between them. And insofar as testimony marks the non-coincidental intimacy of the human and inhuman, that is, the human being's remaining human in enduring the inhuman, testimony appears as the task of the remnant of biopolitics.

5. Agamben begins his reflections on the aporia of witnessing the event of Auschwitz by noting two terms for witness in Latin: the first of these is testis, which indicates the position of a third party in a trial or lawsuit between rival parties. The second is superstes, a term that designates a person who has lived through something, 'who has experienced an event from beginning to end and can therefore bear witness to it', that is, one who has survived an event and can thus speak of it from the position of having undergone it. (Agamben, 1999: 17)

6. It is in the second of these definitions of witnessing that Agamben is most interested, as it is on the basis of this definition of witnessing that Auschwitz presents a particular problem for an account of testimony. The paradox of bearing witness to Auschwitz is presented in Levi's observation that

We, the survivors are not the true witnesses…we survivors are not only an exiguous but also anomalous minority. We…did not touch bottom. Those who did so, who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the 'Muslims', the submerged, the complete witnesses…(Levi, 1988: 63-63; Agamben, 1999: 33).

Agamben's question then is: if the complete and true witnesses of Auschwitz are not the survivors but rather the drowned and desolate, those who have not returned at all or who have returned mute, then how is it possible that the event of Auschwitz be borne witness to? What are the ethical implications of this paradox?

7. To respond to this question, Agamben takes up Levi's reference to the 'Muslims' or 'Muselmann' of the camps, the extreme figures of survival who no longer sustained the sensate characteristics of the living but who were not yet dead. The term 'Muselmann' refers to those in the camps who had reached such a state of physical decrepitude and existential disregard that 'one hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death' (Levi cited in Agamben: 1999: 44). 'Muselmann' names the 'living corpses' that moved apparently inexorably toward death in the camps, beings who, through exhaustion and circumstance, had lost the capacity for living. They are the 'anonymous mass' that formed 'the backbone of the camps' – 'the drowned' in Levi's formulation (Levi cited in Agamben, 1999: 44). For Agamben, the suggestion that the Muselmann is the true witness of the camps reveals that 'the value of testimony lies essentially in what it lacks; at its centre it contains something that cannot be borne witness to and that discharges the survivors of authority' (Agamben: 1999: 52). Further, assuming the task of bearing witness in the name of those who cannot speak reveals that the task of bearing witness is at base a task of bearing witness to the impossibility of witnessing.

Human, Inhuman

8. While the impossibility of bearing witness has been addressed previously in post-Holocaust literature, the particular contribution that Agamben makes to this literature is to link the question of the aporia of witnessing to the definition of the human and the inhuman within the context of biopolitics. Against understanding the status of the Muselmann as a threshold state between life and death, Agamben argues instead that the Muselmann is more correctly understood as the limit-figure of the human and inhuman. Rather than simply being a death camp, Auschwitz is the site of an extreme biopolitical experiment, wherein 'the Jew is transformed into a Muselmann and the human into a non-human' (Agamben, 1999: 52).

9. As the threshold between the human and the inhuman, however, the figure of the Muselmann does not simply mark the limit beyond which the human is no longer human. Agamben argues that such a stance would merely repeat the experiment of Auschwitz, in which the Muselmann is put outside the limits of human and the moral status that attends the categorization. Instead then, the Muselmann indicates a more fundamental indistinction between the human and the inhuman, in which it becomes impossible to distinguish them from each other. The Muselmann is an indefinite being in whom the distinction between humanity and non-humanity is brought to crisis, and as such, calls into question the moral categories that attend the distinction (Agamben, 1999: 55-63). Agamben concludes then that 'in Auschwitz, ethics begins precisely at the point where the Muselmann, the complete witness' makes it forever impossible to distinguish between man and non-man' (Agamben, 1999: 38).

10. The ethical problematic presented by Auschwitz then is that of remaining human or not; however, in the biopolitical situation of the camps, remaining human takes on a particular cast that eludes and contradicts attempts to sanctify human life through moral categories such as dignity and respect. Agamben argues that neither the claim that the intolerable uniqueness of Auschwitz lies in the degradation of life nor, conversely, in the degradation of death, is sufficient to yield an understanding of the indistinction of the human and the inhuman and an ethics adequate to the challenge presented by the Muselmänner. This is because 'Auschwitz marks the end and the ruin of every ethics of dignity and conformity to a norm…The Muselmann…is the guard on the threshold of a new ethics, an ethics of a form of life that begins where dignity ends' (Agamben, 1999: 69). In light of the failure of the dignity of either life or death to definitively characterize the human being and ground a post-Auschwitz ethics, Agamben characterizes the Muselmann as 'the non-human who obstinately appears as human: he is the human that cannot be told apart from the inhuman' (Agamben, 1999: 82). How then does he understand the distinction between the human and the inhuman and what are the implications of its irreparable collapse in the biopolitical space of the camps?

11. Of this relation, Agamben begins by suggesting that

human power borders on the inhuman; the human also endures the inhuman…humans bear within themselves the mark of the inhuman…their spirit contains at its very center the wound of non-spirit, non-human chaos atrociously consigned to its own being capable of everything (Agamben, 1999: 77).

Being human is a question of enduring, of 'bearing all that one could bear', and surviving the inhuman capacity to bear everything. In this, testimony plays a constitutive role, since for Agamben remaining human is ultimately a question of bearing witness to the inhuman: 'human beings are human insofar as they bear witness to the inhuman' (Agamben, 1999: 121). To endure the inhuman then is to bear witness to it, and it is in this sense that Levi speaks of the Muselmann as the true witness, for the Muselmänner have endured the inhuman, borne more than they should ever have had to bear, and in doing so, remained fundamentally human. Correlatively, the survivor is human to the extent that they bear witness to an impossibility of bearing witness, that is, of being inhuman. Hence, testimony takes place at the site of non-coincidence between the human and the inhuman as the task of the human being's bearing witness to the inhuman. The human being exists as the nodal point for 'currents of the human and the inhuman', and as such, presents testimony itself as a question of the human being's remaining human.

Testimony, Shame

12. Agamben argues that the disjuncture between the human as living being and speaking being is the condition of possibility of testimony. Testimony arises in the intimate non-coincidence of the human and inhuman or the speaking being and the living being, the subject and non-subject. As Agamben states, 'if there is no articulation between the living being and language, if the 'I' stands suspended in this disjunction, then there can be testimony' (Agamben, 1999: 130). Testimony marks the fracture of the human being in its own potentiality for being human or not-being human, since the 'place of the human being is divided, …the human being exists in the fracture between the living being and the speaking being, the inhuman and the human' (Agamben, 1999: 135). It is in this sense then that testimony appears as the practice of remaining human, since testimony marks the trial by which the human being undergoes the double process of appropriation and expropriation in speaking, in which the human endures the inhuman and survives beyond its own expropriation or desubjectivation in language.

13. Agamben's account of subjectivation, which he defines as the 'production of consciousness in the event of discourse' (Agamben, 1999: 123), emerges through theorization of two interrelated existential modalities, the first affective and second linguistic. Taking up Levi's identification of the particular shame felt by survivors of the camps, Agamben argues that shame is the constitutive affective tonality of subjectivity. Agamben rejects interpretations of the shame of the survivor in terms of guilt or innocence to argue that the experience of shame derives not from culpability but from the ontological situation of being consigned to something that one cannot assume (Agamben, 1999: 105).

14. This conception of shame is extended through an analysis of pronouns as grammatical shifters, in which Agamben argues that the enunciative taking place of the subject is itself an occasion for shame and the double movement of subjectification and desubjectification it entails. Grammatical shifters, or 'indicators of enunciation', are linguistic signs that have no substantive reference outside of themselves, but which allow a speaker to appropriate and put language to use. Thus, terms such as 'I' and 'you' indicate an appropriation of language, without referring to a reality outside of discourse. Instead, their sole point of reference is to language itself and particularly the taking place of enunciation (Agamben, 1999: 115-116).

15. For Agamben, the appropriation of language as an enunciative taking place of language indicates the double movement of subjectification and desubjectification that marks the relation of the subject to the language in which it speaks and thus appears. That is, the appropriation of language requires that the psychosomatic individual erase or desubjectify itself as an individual in its identification with the grammatical shifters that indicate the taking place of enunciation in order to become the subject of enunciation. From this, testimony then appears as a matter of bearing witness to the impossibility of speaking, that is, to the process of desubjectivation that attends every subjectivation. In testimony, the subject turns back on itself to give account of its ruin in the constitutive desubjectivation endured in becoming a subject of enunciation and in doing so, bears witness to the impossibility of speaking (Agamben, 1999: 115).

Biopolitics, Ethics

16. Consequently, the ethics of witnessing that Agamben develops can be understood as an ethics of survival, insofar as the subject survives its radical and constitutive de-subjectification in testimony. As Agamben notes, the double movement of desubjectification and subjectification suggests that within humans, 'life bears with it a caesura that can transform all life into survival and all survival into life' (Agamben, 1999: 133). This suggestion clearly bears a strong relation to the distinction between bios and zoç that Agamben argues is crucial to the operation of biopolitics in his earlier book, Homo Sacer. In this text, Agamben argued that biopolitics operates through the disjuncture of bios and zoç, and the production of bare life as the excrescence of the failure of modern democracy to broach that disjuncture. Similarly, in Remnants, Agamben states that 'biopower's supreme ambition is to produce, in a human body, the absolute separation of the living being and the speaking being, zoç and bios, the inhuman and the human – survival' (Agamben, 1999: 156). Thus, against Foucault, Agamben suggests that the definitional formula of biopolitics is not 'to make live or let die', but rather, to make survive, that is, to produce bare life as life reduced to survival through the separation of the human from the inhuman, or the speaking being from the living being.

17. In this, biopolitics entails the absolute breaking apart of the double articulation of subjectification and desubjectification in the space of the camps, where subjectification is installed in the place of desubjectification and the impossibility of speaking, that is, the reduction of the human or the speaking being to the living being, the inhuman. Given then that testimony takes place in the interstices between the human and the inhuman, the speaking being and the living being, that is, between subjectification and de-subjectification, the value of testimony is that it presents an interminable opposition to the reduction of human life to survival. In bearing witness to desubjectification, testimony resubjectifies and resists the biopolitical operations on the caesuras in human life. In this, testimony appears as an ethics of survival insofar as 'with its every word, testimony refutes precisely this isolation…of survival from life' (Agamben, 1999: 155). Testimony provides a means of response to bare life that does not either abandon bare life to its absolute exposure to violence or sacralize human life at the expense of the biological and inhuman.

Responsibility, Non-responsibility

18. The motivating aim of Agamben's elaboration of an ethics of witnessing is the specification of an ethical domain before the legal codification of judgment and culpability, since the law is only ever concerned with judgment and not with justice or truth. Hence, for Agamben, what is at issue is 'a zone of irresponsibility and "impotentia judicandi"... that is situated not beyond good and evil but rather... before them....This infamous zone of irresponsibility is our First Circle, from which no confession of responsibility will remove us' (Agamben, 1999: 21; also see Levi, 1988: 43). Taking inspiration from Levi's text 'The Grey Zone', in which Levi refuses to allocate blame and culpability in his analysis of complicity within the camps, Agamben points out though that the necessity of elaborating an ethical domain apart from the juridical is not because a judgment cannot be made, but simply because it cannot be presumed that the law exhausts the question of responsibility. Moreover, it is precisely that which exceeds the law that concerns the survivor. Given this, Agamben rejects the concept of responsibility, claiming that it is founded in the Latin legal term of 'spondeo' or sponsor, meaning someone who offers legal guarantee for a course of action, and therefore always returns ethics to the problems of the law.

19. Over and against this conception of responsibility, which is 'irremediably contaminated by law', Agamben suggests that ethics has seized terrain from the juridical not in order to assume another kind of responsibility, but to articulate 'zones of non-responsibility'. By the idea of non-responsibility, Agamben indicates not a zone of impunity or amoralism, but rather, 'a confrontation with a responsibility that is infinitely greater than any we could ever assume. At the most, we can be faithful to it, that is, assert its unassumability' (Agamben, 1999: 21). One might note the resonance of such a conception of non-responsibility set against the juridical delimitation of culpability and responsibility with Derrida's conception of justice as that which exceeds the law, which also find precedent in Levinas' considerations of an ethics before the law. Additionally though, it is important to ask here how such an unassumable responsibility bears upon the subject of ethics.

20. Agamben argues that the non-responsibility or ethical confrontation with responsibility imposes itself upon the subject through the apostrophic address that emerges in the absolute exposure of bare life. The rhetorical device of apostrophe, by which the narrative convention of a text is disrupted in a figurative turn to an absent character or audience, marks an unavoidable call within a text, an authorial turning toward the reader or audience to call them into the text. Taking up this figuration, Agamben suggests that the Muselmänner of the camps present an apostrophic call for ethical response in their transformation from the human to the inhuman and the irreconcilable disjuncture of the speaking and living being that this marks. The proper response to such a call is testimony, a task in which the inhuman is borne witness to and which thus allows the human to endure.

21. As provocative as this formulation is, the figure of apostrophe also helps bring into focus several important silences within Agamben's text. First, given the centrality of the rhetorical figure of apostrophe in Agamben's ethics, there does seem to be a sense in which Agamben overemphasizes the theoretical need to move away from the terms of responsibility in his selective etymology of the term, since apostrophe brings out the sense of responsibility as response that subtends Agamben's argument. While Agamben bases his rejection of the term of responsibility on its juridical origins in the Latin root of 'spondeo', he neglects that responsibility can also be traced to the term 'responso', meaning to give an answer, to reply or respond to another (Oxford English Dictionary; Oxford Latin Dictionary).

22. This alternative etymology of responsibility as a kind of capacity for response is of course central to the Levinasian precedent of Derrida's formulation of an ethics of hospitality. It is also given articulation in Kelly Oliver's recent account of an ethics of witnessing (2001), in which she strives to overcome the perceived problems of recognition-based theories of subject-formation such as those of Axel Honneth and Judith Butler. Oliver argues that 'response-ability' must be central to an account of witnessing, as it brings to light the fundamental dependence of the subject on the dynamic of address and response entailed in bearing witness for its own emergence and survival. In this light, the ethical confrontation with legally delimited concepts of responsibility that Agamben suggests also seems to require a conception of response, which in turn presupposes a prior capacity for response.

23. The alternative sense of responsibility suggested here also highlights Agamben's theoretical neglect of the intersubjective foundation of ethics, or the sense in which ethics always entails 'being-with' others (Nancy, 1991). Oliver also makes a similar point in her account of witnessing, where she claims that the problems of testimony and bearing witness are central to subjectivity. For Oliver, the dependency of the subject on the possibilities of address and response means that witnessing appears as the dilemma at the heart of the subject. The dynamic of address and response in testimony means that the subject is necessarily in relation with others, a condition that indicates that subjectivity itself entails a fundamental responsibility to and for others (Oliver, 2001: 88-91). Similarly, in Agamben's account, the taking place of enunciation can itself be seen as always a matter of 'being-with' others, insofar as grammatical shifters do not simply indicate the double movement of subjectification and desubjectification, but also indicate the position of the subject in relation to others. That is, the living being's entering into language through the designation of pronouns does not simply indicate the position of the individual vis-à-vis language, but also necessarily indicates the position of the individual in relation to other living and speaking beings. Pronouns such as 'I', 'you' and 'we' necessarily position the speaking subject in relation with those being addressed or discussed (cf. Irigarary, 1993).

24. Furthermore, the figuration of apostrophe as a call to ethical 'non-responsibility' raises questions of historical responsibility and representation that are not sufficiently addressed by Agamben. Agamben claims at one point that 'a mute apostrophe [is] flying through time to reach us, to bear witness' to those who died in the camps. This suggests that the affective force of apostrophe is not lessened by time and reaches us unmediated by the successive transmissions of testimony and historical record. But it is unclear that that is the case, particularly given the aporia of testimony that structures Agamben's argument: the true witnesses are not the survivors, but the remnants, those who exist between the drowned and the saved. There are thus questions of representation that must be taken up, since testimony appears to be self-reinforcing insofar as an ethics of witnessing presupposes a witness and a prior testimony through which that apostrophe might be borne. Further, questions of historical responsibility begin to emerge, for what hold does that apostrophe have on us today? What does it call for and to whom does it call? These questions seems to be redoubled if Agamben's apparent rejection of the sense of responsibility as response is taken at face value, for here, what is the force of apostrophe if not a call for response? Given these silences within Agamben's argument, it appears that his text ultimately betrays that which he is attempting to establish: the unassumable yet unavoidable responsibility of ethics.

Catherine Mills currently lectures in Philosophy at the Australian National University. She recently completed doctoral research on questions of biopower, subjectivation and violence. She is also interested in questions of responsibility, particularly in the intersection of ethics and politics, and has published in the areas of Feminist theory and Political theory. Email:


Agamben, G. (1999) Remnants of Auschwitz, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books: New York.

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

Levi, P. (1988) The Drowned and the Saved, trans. R. Rosenthal, Abacus: London.

Irigaray, L. (1993) je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, Routledge: New York and London.

Nancy, J-L. (1991) The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Oliver, K. (2001) Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

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