Micah M. White | January 17, 2008
Giorgio Agamben begins his inquiry into this topic in The Open: Man and Animal by noting the collapse of distinction between the human and the animal in eschatological depictions:
When the difference vanishes and the two terms collapse upon each other – as seems to be happening today – the difference between being and the nothing, licit and illicit, divine and demonic also fades away, and in its place something appears for which we seem to lack even a name. (22)
It is not a coincidence that Agamben finds this particular figure of thought – two terms collapsing upon another – at the end times. It is a curious characteristic of the end is that it is symbolically figured by an overlap with the beginning. Imagine two circles depicted three ways: as distinctly separate, as partially overlapping and as entirely overlapping. We repeatedly encounter the final figure, that of the indistinction between two differences, in all areas as we approach the end of thought and the completion of Western metaphysics. While it may seem obvious that such an overlap can only be understood as the equivalence between two previously different beings, this conclusion leads us astray from understanding the deeper significance of this figure of thought. Instead, what this figure represents is that two beings have become indistinct not because they have become the same but because they’ve becoming indistinguishable from each other. When two beings have become indistinguishable there arises a zone of indistinction in which a being can occur which is neither one nor the other -- a situation that results in a heretofore unknown being.
Let us clarify this position by taking an example, that of the distinction between humans and animals. Agamben writes that the human distinguishes itself from the animal in two ways. In the modern age, the human is constructed by “excluding as not (yet) human an already human being from itself”. (37) An example of this form of exclusion would be the Nazi’s exclusion of “the Jew” as non-human. Prior to the modern age, the construction of the human was accomplished through a symmetrical operation: “If, in the machine of the moderns, the outside is produced through the exclusion of an inside and the inhuman produced by animalizing the human, here the inside is obtained through the inclusion of an outside, and the non-man is produced by the humanization of an animal.” (37) Agamben names several examples of this inclusionary exclusion: “the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner, as figures of animal in human form.” (37) The result of this situation – in which “the outside is nothing but the exclusion of an inside and the inside is in turn only the inclusion of an outside” – is the creation of a central zone of “indifference” or indistinction in which a being that occupied this zone would be neither human nor animal. It would be, in Agamben’s words, “neither an animal life nor a human life, but only a life that is separated and excluded from itself – only a bare life.” (38) And here we encounter the being that did not heretofore exist.
This zone of indistinction between the human and the animal is not only the result of the “anthropomorphic machines” of exclusion and inclusion, it is also primarily a feature of the completion of metaphysics. However, the completion of metaphysics cannot be thought without reference to technology because for Heidegger technology (and machinational thought) is the completion of metaphysics: it is the culmination of an interpretation of Being which began with the Greeks and has now ended in our time with the transformation of all beings (including ourselves) into standing-reserve. This transformation of all beings into standing-reserve has lowered beings beyond their already degraded status as objects. “Already today there are no longer objects (no beings, insofar as these would stand against a subject taking them into view) – there are now only standing reserves (beings that are held in readiness for being consumed).” (Heidegger, Four Seminars, 61) All beings, including ourselves, are taken as standing-reserve ready for consumption as information or energy. And at this dire point, arises a zone of indistinction between the subject and the object, which Agamben names “bare life” but which we now see is the transformation of the human into standing reserve.
And what form of humanity best exemplifies our collective transformation into standing reserve? It is the consumer immersed in the virtual world of the television – that human-animal whose sole meaning is the consumption of beings and the corresponding production of a consumer identity awaiting exploitation by marketing researchers tasked with expanding consumption. It is in this way that the consumer is the last form of humanity – for we will stay in this state until a leap is attempted, a leap that places us firmly outside the zone of indistinction between the subject and the object, beyond machinational thought and away from the world as standing reserve.