Research Publication Title

Bare Life, Sovereignty, and the Marquis de Sade: Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu (1791)

Major

French

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Hedwig Fraunhofer (hedwig.fraunhofer@gcsu.edu)

Keywords

Sade, Giorgio Agamben, Justine, Bare Life, Sovereignity

Abstract

My research puts the French Enlightenment writer, the Marquis de Sade, in conversation with the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. In Sade’s most famous novel, Justine, a graphic and violent anti-bildungsroman written during the French Revolution, the orphaned title character attempts to lead a virtuous life, only to be taken advantage of by nearly every person and institution she meets. The concepts most readily associated with Agamben’s work -- bare life and sovereignty -- offer us a new way of looking at the relationships between humans and modern governments. More specifically, Agamben attempts to understand the exact point at which a government, made in democratic modernity by the people and for the people, justifies reducing people and populations to ‘bare life’, that is, a life without political rights or protections. Bare life is the destruction of a political life that previously existed. Modern politics has witnessed the reduction of political rights to individuals and groups with astonishing speed; one such example of bare life can be seen most succinctly during the Shoah, when the Nazi government authorized the systematic genocide of Jews, ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens, prisoners of war, communists, homosexuals, freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, and others. There are other notable examples of bare life in our modern society: detainees of Guantanamo Bay, prisoners on death row, illegal immigrants, refugees, even stem cells. Sade’s novel is rife with physical and sexual violence, abuse, and horror. His work shows us the systematic destruction of one person’s political rights in what can be considered an avant-garde novel on bare life and sovereignty -- issues that continue to reverberate in our society today.

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Bare Life, Sovereignty, and the Marquis de Sade: Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu (1791)

My research puts the French Enlightenment writer, the Marquis de Sade, in conversation with the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. In Sade’s most famous novel, Justine, a graphic and violent anti-bildungsroman written during the French Revolution, the orphaned title character attempts to lead a virtuous life, only to be taken advantage of by nearly every person and institution she meets. The concepts most readily associated with Agamben’s work -- bare life and sovereignty -- offer us a new way of looking at the relationships between humans and modern governments. More specifically, Agamben attempts to understand the exact point at which a government, made in democratic modernity by the people and for the people, justifies reducing people and populations to ‘bare life’, that is, a life without political rights or protections. Bare life is the destruction of a political life that previously existed. Modern politics has witnessed the reduction of political rights to individuals and groups with astonishing speed; one such example of bare life can be seen most succinctly during the Shoah, when the Nazi government authorized the systematic genocide of Jews, ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens, prisoners of war, communists, homosexuals, freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, and others. There are other notable examples of bare life in our modern society: detainees of Guantanamo Bay, prisoners on death row, illegal immigrants, refugees, even stem cells. Sade’s novel is rife with physical and sexual violence, abuse, and horror. His work shows us the systematic destruction of one person’s political rights in what can be considered an avant-garde novel on bare life and sovereignty -- issues that continue to reverberate in our society today.