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Bare Lives
Part 4 – Repossessions and re-affectations

The Barest of Lives: Looking at War from the Heart of Things in Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)’

La plus nue des vies : voir la guerre depuis le cœur des choses dans Anatomy of a Soldier de Harry Parker (2016)
Catherine Bernard


Alors que la réalité physique des corps en guerre est devenue omniprésente à notre horizon médiatique, le premier roman de l’écrivain anglais Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber and Faber, 2016) choisit de décaler la logique narrative de la guerre et de réveler sa matérialité organique. Réinventant l’ancienne tradition des ‘it-narratives’, dans lesquels la réalité est perçue du point de vue de choses ou d’animaux, Parker, qui a combattu en Afghanistan et en Irak, narre la guerre du point de vue des objets et des animaux qui croisent le chemin du protagoniste — un officier de l’armée britannique en Afghanistan —, de son entraînement à sa rééducation, après qu’il a été sévèrement blessé par une mine anti-personnel. L’autobiographie indirecte de Parker est plus qu’un tour de force stylistique. Elle joue de l’omniscience narrative afin d’imaginer une éthique empathique qui dévoile une physique post-humaniste qui déborde les limites de la vie humaine. L’expérience que Parker fit de la ‘vie nue’ ouvre sur une cognition incarnée et démocratique. Une expérience commune de la dépossession et de la souffrance est rendue tangible dans un récit fragmenté qui jette les bases d’une nouvelle intellection de ce que Jane Bennett a défini comme ‘une matière vibrante’.

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  • 1 This is also true of contemporary visual arts; see for instance Mark Wallinger’s Tate installation (...)

1War, and specifically the two World Wars have provided contemporary English literature with ample material towards an exploration of the power of mimesis.1 For Anthony Burgess, Pat Barker, Edward Bond, Sebastian Faulks or Martin Amis, as had been the case for earlier writers (Rawlinson 6–30), war is the ultimate testing ground of representation, where the visionary and empathetic power of writing pushes against its own limits. Those limits are internal to representation, because they are inherently internal to social life itself and to the politics of life. War brings fictional representation up against the intractable truth of writing’s entanglement with history. Choosing to write of war necessarily entails an acknowledgement of literature’s historicity and ethical accountability.

2The two World Wars further complicate the issue, with their engineering of mass death and their unprecedented rationalisation of human destruction. Coming to literary grips with the trenches or the Shoah requires literary form to bear the full brunt of what Michel Foucault, in Les mots et les choses, defined as the death of man (Foucault 1966, 397). By extension, one may argue, it requires literature to face up to the demise of the very humanist, emancipatory, agenda that had contributed to the birth of modern literature. With the two World Wars, human life is relegated to a form of infra-human, closely regulated existence. What Barker’s Regeneration trilogy or Amis’s Time’s Arrow and The Zone of Interest lay bare is the full impact of biopolitics on the living when biopolitics expresses itself as full sovereignty. What fiction thus explores is the logic of domination at its most extreme, when it becomes coextensive with the power to decide over life and death.

3Those writers’ confrontation with the lethal triumph of biopolitics seems to echo contemporary analyses offered by political scientists and philosophers also reflecting on the concept of sovereignty. In his 2003 ground-breaking essay ‘Necropolitics’, philosopher and post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe for instance insists that

the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. Hence, to kill or to allow to live constitute the limits of sovereignty, its fundamental attributes. To exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power. (11)

  • 2 This analysis is central to the lecture given on 17th March 1976. The conference was later adapted (...)
  • 3 The original reads : ‘C'est le droit de faire mourir ou de laisser vivre. Ce qui, bien entendu, int (...)
  • 4 More recent analyses have tried to move beyond the paradigm of biopolitics (see Ogilvie 108); some (...)
  • 5 On the filiation between Foucault’s and Agamben’s conceptions of sovereign power, see Genel. For a (...)

4Such a vision is inspired of course by Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics and even more directly by his 1975–1976 series of lectures at the Collège de France on sovereignty: Il faut défendre la société (213, 227, 232)2, one of his rare frontal analyses of war which predates La naissance de la biopolitique. In his lecture of March 17th, Foucault already defined sovereignty as the asymmetrical power to say who is to die and who is allowed to live: ‘It is the right to take life or let live. And this obviously introduces a startling dissymmetry’ (Foucault 1997, trans. 2003, 240–41)3. For Foucault and Mbembe, the grammar of sovereignty leaves no room for any kind of objection. Foucault’s and Mbembe’s controlled and subtle syntax encapsulates the unbalanced and yet regulated apportioning of death and life. Sovereignty is its own tautological object and law and is characterised by its gradual all-encompassing project, in the form of what Foucault defines as ‘a “biopolitic” of the human species’ (‘“une biopolitique” de l’espèce humaine’ [216]).4 In the wake of Foucault’s reading of sovereignty, Giorgio Agamben was, in Homo Sacer, to reactivate Aristotle’s distinction between zõê and bios in order to understand how the distinction between bare life (zõê) and political life (bios) informs ‘western metaphysics’ (16). Homo Sacer intends to do justice to bare life itself, the political repressed on the far side of bios, the bare life that may be killed but never ‘sacrificed’, i.e. that exists on the obscure horizon of political life as its excluded other (17, 19).5 More precisely even, Agamben intends to do justice to bare life that is not so much expelled from the life of the polis as in fact ‘included’ within it ‘through its exclusion’ (19).

  • 6 Foucault insists on the evolution that takes place, at the end of the Middles Ages, from what he se (...)

5One of the concerns of recent British novels dealing with war has been precisely to attend to the bare life that is excluded from the polis, or entirely subsumed under its asymmetrical law. More than ever, it seems, fiction’s ethics lies in its capacity to heed what exists out of bounds, out of the remit of the lawful polis and of its controlled discourse. As the war poets did previously, writers turn their gaze to the lives caught in those extreme states through which the polis asserts itself as pure power struggle (Foucault 1997, 40). To the overarching power of state biopolitics,6 they will oppose the non systemic, fragile forms of lives exposed in pain and in fear, and that lie on the far side of bios.

6The bare lives that return at the heart of the polis know no nation or motherland. As often as not, they produce the barest of messages, messages sometimes as inchoate as the ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’ that is heard in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (59). It is precisely the inarticulacy of their messages that challenges the language of state and motherland and allows the discrete experiences of ‘minuscule lives’ to be heeded. In the chapter entitled ‘Motherland’ of his essay Insurrection des vies minuscules, Guillaume le Blanc interprets the gentle voice of the poor barber in Chaplin’s The Dictator as precisely the voice of the subaltern murmuring against the totalitarian voice of war and tyranny: ‘It is from the heart of an ill-assured voice, a voice that is hardly audible at first, that something unheard of may be uttered and that noone is ready to hear initially’ (le Blanc 127, my translation). The gentle voice of the barber and the bare language of the wounded body in Owen’s poem seem to have little in common, if only because Owen writes from the wasteland of despair, while Chaplin’s voice is that of utopia. But in both cases, the ‘gargling’ and the murmur open fissures in the language of biopolitics; they reach us from ‘a place that is no nation and which the will to coalesce into a motherland cannot appropriate’ (le Blanc 127, my translation).

  • 7 The French translation reads: ‘Nous ne sommes pas seulement des animaux dans la politique desquels (...)

7Recent British war fiction has similarly been attentive to the ‘insurrection’ of those inchoate voices. To the tautological law of bios as the expression of modern, sovereign power, Barker, Bond, Amis and Faulks all object with the small narratives of unregulated life. Heeding the small language nestling at the heart of life, when it can no longer speak the language of state and nation, is no easy task, as we shall see. These voices are often discordant, or resist meaning. The truth they speak out, from the heart of war, yields a negative truth, or, more precisely, a truth that is ‘presque rien’ and ‘grows more and more insignificant’ (Adorno 407). The words are Theodor Adorno’s and apply to the retreat of metaphysics into ‘micrologies’ which offer it ‘a haven from totality’ (Adorno 407). The ‘negative dialectics’ Adorno called for in 1966 is the fraught, contradictory, offspring of a consciousness thinking and writing against the grain of coherence and meaning. Adorno’s negative truths may seem remote from Agamben’s painstaking disclosure of how sovereign power originates itself in the suppression/incorporation of bare life (Agamben 100). Yet both philosophical gestures offer critical rejoinders to the ‘exterminism’ (Ogilvie) of the 20th century and to modernity’s sovereign absolutes, as inscribed in totality and biopolitics. In the concluding pages of Homo Sacer, Agamben insists on the necessity to learn from modernity’s complete and lethal subsumption of zõê under bios, as exemplified by the death camps. He tentatively defends the idea of reversing the dominant relation of sovereignty, so that bios may come to fully rest in zõê. We must, according to him, come to the full acknowledgement of the political ethics of natural life: ‘we are not only animals whose life as living beings is at issue in their politics’, but also ‘citizens whose very politics is at issue in their natural bodies’ (Agamben 1997, trans. 1998, 188).7 Only then, according to him, may the ‘task’ and ‘enigma’ of metaphysics (Agamben 1997, 202) be addressed. Both Adorno and Agamben are speaking for modes of understanding or, in the case of Agamben, ‘forms of life’ (Agamben 1997, 9) that might eschew totality. Although their perspectives are very different, they meet in ‘micrologies’ that aspire to do justice to the minimal, bare knowledge to be found in modes of infra-knowledge.

8Unexpectedly taking their cue from Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, certain new materialists similarly insist on the necessity to pay attention to what Adorno himself defines as ‘the moving forces of dialectical thinking’ produced in ‘the convergence of specific materialism with criticism’ (202, 203), an aspect of Adorno’s thought that has remained overlooked. In Vibrant Matter, political theorist Jane Bennett picks up Adorno’s notion of ‘nonidentity’ that works against knowledge and yet nestles at the heart of lived intellection:

Nonidentity is the name Adorno gives to that which is not subject to knowledge but is instead ‘heterogeneous’ to all concepts. This elusive force is not, however, wholly outside human experience, for Adorno describes nonidentity as a presence that acts upon us: we knowers are haunted, he says, by a painful, nagging feeling that something’s being forgotten or left out. (14)

9With its emphasis on ‘human experience[s]’ that remain ‘heterogeneous’ to all concepts, contemporary British war fiction lays bare the ‘nonidentity’ that opens at the heart of knowledge and works against it. For materialists like Jane Bennett, this haunting presence ‘that acts upon us’ and that exists, as zõê does at the heart of polis for Agamben, is that of ‘thing-power’: ‘the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience’ (Bennett xvi). In the case of war fiction, such micrologies are embodied in the body, in the organic materiality of trauma and of physical experience. For Pat Barker, in the Eye in the Door, such infra-knowlegde nestles in the uncanny presence of the body fragments of soldiers blown-up in the trenches. Throughout her Regeneration Trilogy, these fragments return, insist, haunt Billy Prior, the central protagonist of the trilogy, as well as his shell-shocked fellow-soldiers. At the heart of the trilogy rests one of these uncanny fragments: the eye of a soldier who has just been blown-up by a shell and which nestles delicately in the cusp of Prior’s hand. The eye is the trace of a radical disembodiment engineered by sovereign power. Yet, it also manifests life as bare life, mere life, an inchoate sign that will, for a long time, fail to make sense to Prior. For Sebastian Faulks, in his novel on the First World war, Birdsong, bare life is experienced in the suffocating lungs of soldiers buried under the damp earth of the trenches. In Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, such infra-knowledge lies in the most visceral of physical manifestations, the smells of the death camps that gradually saturate the air well beyond the remit of the death camps. Anthony Burgess’s evocation of the death camps, in Earthly Powers is also overtaken by the organic presence of bare life exposed in its radical, ‘pure’ material reality (Burgess 454–458). Edward Bond’s theatre and especially his War Plays also conjure extreme visions of bare life which resist any dialectical sublation. The trilogy ends on the vision of a silent stage, strewn with the desiccated bones of the woman protagonist. They lie ‘not as a skeleton but […] roughly in the human shape’ (Bond 243). Infra-human, the bones resist as pure matter. They insist, on the periphery of the trilogy’s minimal narrative and, just as the woman refused to be saved, they haunt us—‘knowers’—, with their denial of the solace of closure.

10Harry Parker’s debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier, published in 2016, also ‘finds a haven from totality’ in materiality and the bare lives of things when they come into contact with life laid bare by war and catastrophe. For Parker, writing war, and life laid bare by war, implies the novel should use the cognitive regime of novel-writing against itself to disclose what lies ‘forgotten’ at the heart of human experience and yet underlies its cognitive apparatus. As is the case with many war novels, it tests mimesis and opens dissonances at the heart of representation. The formal experimentation to be found in other war-narratives does not merely testify here to the intractable nature of war as literary material. It unhinges the aesthetic apparatus, and its related ethics, to open unexpected, ‘nonidentical’ cognitive possibilities. As Agamben also suggests about zõê, in his conclusion to Homo Sacer, paying renewed attention to material and biological life may also help us reach a form of embodied intellection of the vibrant matter which we both harness and deny in our existence in and to the polis. As is often the case in recent British fiction, aesthetic self-reflexiveness thus places writing at the empirical junction of experimentation and experience, at the junction of form and body.

11Directly inspired by the author’s experience as an infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, Anatomy of a Soldier describes the painful return to life of Captain Tom Barnes—BA5799—after he has been severely injured when stepping on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). The narrative is closely autobiographical, Parker having himself been severely injured in a similar situation on July 18th 2009, when he was serving in Afghanistan. The plot unfolds, in forty-five fragments, in a non-linear way around the event and also encompasses the daily life on Barnes’s camp, the difficult interaction with the Afghan population and the rebels’ painstaking preparations for the successive attacks. Tightly interlacing flashbacks and flashforwards, the narrative is structured as a puzzle painstakingly gathering the broken pieces of Barnes’s story. The narrative structure itself may be understood as doubly allegorical and thus, by extension, indirectly mimetic. The fractured structure of the narrative offers an analogical projection of Barnes’s shattered body and of his fractured life, just as the allegory of anatomy points to the iconographic and philosophical tradition of anatomical exploration, as if the language of medecine was brought into complex constellation with Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy. By reconstructing the story, it somehow follows Barnes’s re-membering and final coming back to life. The narrative may thus be read as an updated allegorical redemption narrative, capturing, in its very indirectness, the protagonist’s physical and psychological redemption.

12But such mimetic analogy is deceptive and is immediately made even more complex by the novel’s treatment of point of view and narrative voice. Far from distributing vision—even in its mimetically fractured state—around Barnes’s point of view, as any redemption narrative might do, the novel eschews the lyrical certainties of monological vision to fracture and decentre the perspective further. Each fragment is narrated by a thing, an animal, or a phenomenon which the protagonist under erasure comes across, from his training days to the aftermath of his rehab. Instead of Barnes’s voice and consciousness, we thus hear the sotto voce murmur of the things that come into contact with his all too human body: from the tourniquet placed on his leg right after the tragedy in the incipit fragment, to the carbon blades that replace his legs and propel him in a mad and elated run in the concluding fragment.

  • 8 Many were anonymous, like The Secret History of an Old Shoe (1734), or History and Adventures of a (...)

13Anatomy of a Soldier reactivates the ancient form of the it-narrative, or novel of circulation, which, in the 18th and 19th centuries, captured Europe’s social and economic mutations.8 As Mark Blackwell notes, the it-narratives responded to the changing and ‘intricate relations between persons and things’ (10), at a time when the spread of capitalism profoundly impacted the economy and experience of ownership. The form, born with the new economy of the novel itself and modernity’s empirical interest in cognitive experimentation, from the start pushed against the frontiers of consciousness. Thing theory has recently shown how objects, in Bill Brown’s terms ‘organize our private and public affection’ (7) and the materiality of our affects, whether private or collective. From the inception of the genre, it-narratives laid bare the materialism of nascent capitalism. They captured something of the entangled nature of materialism. They told us the complex and layered stories of our emotional involvement with the modern world of things. They showed how our subjectivity could come to rest in this mute universe of matter, thus laying bare the inadequacy of the subject-object dichotomy.

14Like the original it-narratives, Anatomy of a Soldier pluralises subjectivity and discloses the intricate economy of the political body. To the verticality of sovereign power, it opposes the meshing of affects and things. Some objects—a pre-Afghanistan picture of a happy Barnes which a friend shows to him as he is fighting death in hospital, his mother’s handbag—function as minute glyphs of his traumatised psyche. But most objects do not even penetrate his consciousness. They remain mere objects, distantly, although often fatally, interacting with him: whether it be the fertilizer used by the insurgents to produce makeshift but lethal explosives, or the cherished bicycle of the son of a village chief who becomes a collateral victim of the conflict.

  • 9 Jean-François Lyotard defines the ‘différend’ in relation to the death camps. In Le Différend, he e (...)

15Such objects are often minuscule; yet they are intimately woven into the fabric of history and of the body politic embodied in material experience. They speak of a globalised and yet dislocated body at war and of the violence of sovereign power cutting across all political bodies. Each object remains discrete, taken in its full singularity. Laying bare their ipseity is a way for Parker to show what, borrowing Jean-François Lyotard’s term, may be defined as the differend of sovereign power at work in its full verticality.9 From fragment to fragment, the material solidarity of things informs the whole novel; yet the things, animals or phenomena that narrate each section of the story are denied the meta-narrative that might eventually redeem their dislocated state. Within the broader referential context of the war, the differend is also of a historical nature. That differend which opposes the invading army, the civilian victims and the rebels is another modality of the asymmetry Foucault sees as defining the exercise of sovereign power. To the pain of the village chief whose innocent son has been the collateral victim of a skirmish between Barnes’s platoon and the rebels, Barnes can only respond with a receipt allowing the father to claim compensation for his son’s death; but the form is no longer valid and ends up on the black market.

16To such a management of trauma, the things-narrators precisely object that suffering and mourning are not to be managed, but to be known subjectively. The things object that they are also what the subject’s pain is made of. To the seamless and tautological language of allegory—characteristic of all redemption narratives—they oppose the bare ‘micrologies’ of the profuse world of emotions and affects. A chorus of things is here to be heeded in which one hears the voice of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define as the power of the ‘multitude’, that, like le Blanc’s minuscule lives, knows no motherland and is no ‘people’:

To understand the concept of the multitude in its most general and abstract form, let us contrast it first with that of the people. The people is one. […] The multitude, by contrast, is not unified but remains plural and multiple. […] The multitude is composed of a set of singularities—and by singularity here we mean a social subject whose difference cannot be reduced to sameness, a difference that remains different. The component parts of the people are indifferent in their unity. […] The plural singularities of the multitude thus stand in contrast to the undifferentiated unity of the people. (99)

17Parker’s conjuring trick is a fully political act in which bare life is conjured up in the ‘plural singularities’ of a vibrant matter that speaks back to/at us. Resorting to prosopopeia—that most archaic and most political of dramatic tricks, in which, in Greek theatre the anonymous multitude speaks through the impersonal voice of the mask, the prosopon—Parker allows the proliferating body of the world to be heard. One may be tempted to suggest that the objects, animals or phenomena that narrate Barnes’s story produce a phenomenological chiasmus through which we become conscious of our coexistence with matter. Yet the vicarious experience forced upon us above all produces a form of cognitive dissonance in which the empathy produced by internal focalisation engineers uncanny effects revealing the hidden presence of the bare and repressed life of matter.

18Most of the objects or phenomena that narrate the tragedy are disaffected entities which hardly feature on our cognitive horizon. Some are the bare, minimal tools of war, standardised and expendable: bullets, guns, night vision cameras, etc. Others have a curative function, but remain just as subaltern and disposable: a hospital drip, a catheter or a mirror in which Barnes catches his image after he has been amputated and in which he refuses to recognise himself. Prosopopeia does not merely allow these seemingly dead and deathly things to speak up. It reaffects and acknowledges them as ‘vibrant matter’, fully part of Barnes’s experience, and by extension of the reader’s experience.

19The empirical fabric of experience is thus disclosed, laid bare: from the battery that triggers off the IED that shatters Barnes’s body, to the bed his parents set up in their drawing room to accommodate him while he is convalescing. But the empirical close-up takes us even further into the bare matter of experience. Fragment 9 discloses the microscopic fabric of life by giving voice to a zygote fungus whose spores nestle in one of Barnes’s wounds and unleash a massive infection which nearly dispatches him. Fragment 42 grants voice to the shockwave released by the IED and thus purports to take us to the heart of physical matter. To the anomy of a disaffected social body, this chorus of voices opposes what, with Bruno Latour, we might define as ‘a parliament of things’ (194–198). Beyond the fragmentary structure of the novel, the voices speak up, act as representatives of the entanglements that undo the human-inhuman binarism. They lay bare the material reality of our organic interdependencies.

20The inaugural fragment from the start places us at the heart of this parliament of things which also reworks the politics of representation. Opening literally in medias res, it is narrated by the tourniquet which is placed on Barnes’s most seriously injured leg, right after the bomb has gone off. The tourniquet, after having been confined ‘eight weeks, two days and four hours’ (1) in one of the pockets of his battledress, suddenly finds itself ‘in the light’:

There was dust and confusion and shouting. I was on the ground beside him. He was face down; he was incomplete. I was beside him as rocks and mud fell around us.
I was in the dust as a dark red liquid zigzagged towards me over the cracked mud. I was there when no one came and he was alone and couldn’t move. I was still there as fear and pathetic hopelessness gripped BA5799. (1).

21The tourniquet is still there, hanging on, when Barnes is evacuated to the nearest field hospital, when his heart gives up and the tourniquet no longer feels the blood pounding. Eventually it is unfastened. BA5799 no longer needs it and it ends up ‘at the bottom of a surgical bin and then [it is] burnt’ (2). The tourniquet is but one item in a long chain of regulated gestures and reified practices imposed by the standardised management of war and of its collateral damages. Like the other instruments of war, and like Barnes himself, it is a mere ‘serial number’. But in these mere two pages, the act of fiction transforms it, emancipates it and turns it into the consciousness on which Barnes’s own humanity hinges. It becomes the juncture of life and death, the krisis, the moment of truth during which the subject can be felt pounding in its full materiality, during which it dies and is reborn. It eventually turns to dust and ashes, but, for a brief moment, the power of fiction and prosopopeia sets it free and turns it into a subject. One may object that such subjectivation remains ambiguous. After all, the text’s anthropomorphism harnesses materialism to a subjectivity indexed on humanism, just as the original it-narratives did, precisely at a moment in history when modern subjectivity was being defined. But the pathic impact and the empathetic gambit exceeds the traditional object-subject binarism. It extends the remit of experience and unhinges the biopolitical doxa.

22Fiction is a utopian space in which the entranched hierarchies that regulate meaning may be reinvented. As Myriam Revault d’Allonnes insists in her recently published essay, Le miroir et la scène. Ce que peut la représentation politique, the political truth of Aristotelian mimesis lies in its capacity to ‘explore what is possible and to unfold in the field of action and pathos’ (‘le champ de l’agir et du pâtir’, 21 my translation). From the heart of the agonistic relations of subjection that war establishes, fiction acts as a utopian and ethical gambit that deconstructs the mechanisms of subjection and reification. To reification it opposes on the contrary what Jane Bennett defines as the ‘materialim of life’:

For the materialist […] the starting point of ethics is less the acceptance of the impossibility of ‘reconcilement’ and more the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality. We are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. (my translation, 14)

  • 10 In The Posthuman, and in her chapter ‘The Politics of ‘“Life Itself” and New Ways of Dying’, Rosi B (...)

23The voice of the tourniquet is a spectral voice, coming back to us from beyond death and it is striking that Parker should have chosen to open his novel on such a prosopoeia coming back to us from the world of shadows, ghostly and yet so fully embodied, speaking so close to the bone of life. Anatomy of a Soldier speaks to us of / from a world of ashes. Yet the vital materialism of its embodied prosopopeia also looks to the vital materialism advocated by Jane Bennett or such thinkers as Rosi Braidotti in her essay The Posthuman (Braidotti 2013).10 As Braidotti suggests, only in such a corporeal confrontation with the embodied reality of life itself, can the post-humanist project be revitalised, beyond the object/subject binarism. Speaking through the voice of tangible things and phenomena thus allows us ‘to experiment with different modes of constituting subjectivity and different ways of inhabiting our corporeality’ (Braidotti 2010, 209). The usage of prosopopeia is here crucial to the ‘ethico-political project’ of post-humanism. While acknowledging the reification of a traumatic subjectivity, it also channels an experimental phenomenology that re-energises subjecthood. Such vital materialism pushes against the logic of reification and speaks against the necropolitics dictating ‘who may live and who must die’. It speaks in the murmured chorus of the barest of beings, of zõê, vibrant with the life of the reaffected multitude.

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Revault d’Allonnes, Myriam, Le miroir et la scène. Ce que peut la représentation politique, Paris: Seuil, 2016.

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1 This is also true of contemporary visual arts; see for instance Mark Wallinger’s Tate installation State Britain of 2007 which orchestrated a violent protest against the British intervention in the Iraq war.

2 This analysis is central to the lecture given on 17th March 1976. The conference was later adapted and published under the title ‘Faire vivre et laisser mourir’, Les Temps modernes 56.535 (1991): 37–61.

3 The original reads : ‘C'est le droit de faire mourir ou de laisser vivre. Ce qui, bien entendu, introduit une dissymétrie éclatante’ (Foucault 1997, 214).

4 More recent analyses have tried to move beyond the paradigm of biopolitics (see Ogilvie 108); some of them by reading war from a gendered perspective (Cavarero, ch. 3).

5 On the filiation between Foucault’s and Agamben’s conceptions of sovereign power, see Genel. For a critical reading of Agamben’s own critical relation to Foucault, see Blencowe (107–114). For all its acumen, Claire Blencowe’s understanding of Agamben should however be reread in the light of Agamben’s final remarks in Homo Sacer, in which he repositions zõê at the centre of his emancipatory praxis (Agamben 200–203).

6 Foucault insists on the evolution that takes place, at the end of the Middles Ages, from what he sees as ‘private wars’ to ‘state’ wars, the states being the only entities powerful enough to concentrate the instruments of war and to manage them (41). Although their point of view is very different, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari will, in Mille plateaux, also stress the appropriation of the ‘war machinery’ by the state (524).

7 The French translation reads: ‘Nous ne sommes pas seulement des animaux dans la politique desquels est en jeu leur vie d’êtres vivants, selon l’expression de Foucault, mais aussi, inversement, des citoyens dans le corps naturel desquels est en jeu leur être politique même’.

8 Many were anonymous, like The Secret History of an Old Shoe (1734), or History and Adventures of a Lady's Slippers and Shoes (1754), but prominent writers also tried their hand at the genre, such as Tobias Smollett with The History and Adventures of an Atom (1749), In The Economy of Character, Deidre Lynch similarly perceives a convergence between the rise of the novel of circulation and the development of an economic system based on the circulation of goods and money. In The Things Things Say, Jonathan Lamb complexifies the analysis by linking the it-narrative to the changes taking place also in the understanding of rationality and fantasy, during the Enlightenment (Lamb 203). Experimenting with a thing-narrator was also an indirect way of probing into the making of the isolated, free-standing consciousness also key to the development of instrumental reason (Lamb 219).

9 Jean-François Lyotard defines the ‘différend’ in relation to the death camps. In Le Différend, he explores the intractable ‘dispute’ that opens at the heart of language when confronted with the intractable crime of the Shoah. Something remains that cannot be phrased within the existing language of justice: ‘The differend attached to the Nazi names, to Hitler, to Auschwitz, to Eichmann, could not be transformed into a litigation and regulated by a verdict’ (Lyotard 56).

10 In The Posthuman, and in her chapter ‘The Politics of ‘“Life Itself” and New Ways of Dying’, Rosi Braidotti has spoken, originally from a feminist perspective, in favour of ‘bio-ethical citizenship’ and of ‘a higher degree of lucidity about post-human bio-organic existence’ (Braidotti 2013, 116) that would move beyond both anthropomorphism and naturalism.

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Catherine Bernard, « The Barest of Lives: Looking at War from the Heart of Things in Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Paris Diderot University (Paris). Her research has focused both on Modernism and on contemporary English fiction (Graham Swift, Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Pat Barker, John Lanchester). She has also published extensively on contemporary art (Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, but also Gillian Wearing or Rachel Whiteread). She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Virginia Woolf among which Woolf as Reader. Woolf as Critic, or, the Art of Reading in the Present (Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2011). She is the author of critical editions and translations into French of Flush (Paris: Gallimard, coll. La Pléiade, 2012) and of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Paris: Gallimard, 2015). Among her recent articles, one may mention: ‘Writing Capital, or, John Lanchester’s Debt to Realism’, Études anglaises, ‘The British Contemporary Novel: 2008-2015’ 68/2, 2015. As running president of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines, she has also edited several volumes of Études britanniques contemporaines: ‘State of Britain’, Études britanniques contemporaines 49, 2015,, as well as ‘Commitment / L’engagement’, Études britanniques contemporaines 50, 2016. She is currently working towards a monograph on the body politics of contemporary British fiction and visual arts to be published with the Presses Universitaires Paris-Sorbonne.

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