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Ghosts – Bare Life and Biopolitics

Ghosts have always played a huge role in Cambodia’s politics, at least in the records we have from the last half of the 20th century until today. A few days ago, a minister of the interior apparently discussed the problem of ‘ghost voters,’ in the upcoming elections, which has the potential of altering the results.

A ghost voter, as you might imagine, is merely a name on a voting roll. The person may exist or may not. He or she may be dead, or never have existed. Still, they have the right to vote, since they are on the voting rolls. Since the dead rarely haunt polling stations or cast ballots, someone else will cast their votes for them.
This is similar to a more famous type of ghost – ‘ghost soldiers,’ who collect salaries and child-support benefits, without being alive, or doing the work of soldiers. These ghost soldiers were the focus of a great deal of International Agency actions, such as the attempted (and miserably failed) World Bank funded demobilization program. Having ghost soldiers on the rolls allows the superiors of these soldiers to collect their pay. A related practice is the selling of one’s name to a superior, who then excuses you from actual duties. You receive a small stipend (in one friend’s case, 10,000 riel, or about $2.50 USD, every other month), and the superior retains the balance.

A final type of ‘ghost’ is the famous example of the “Three Ghosts” of the early revolutionary period under Sihanouk, prior to his removal from power. The name seems to have begun after Khieu Samphan, known then as a scrupulously upright and tireless worker on behalf of the poor, fled into the maquis from anticipated repression. Rumors abounded regarding their actual death or life, and many understood that they were not actually dead, but in hiding. Why then refer to them as ‘ghosts?’

In my eyes, at least two things link these different types of ghosts together. First, the bodies of the ghosts are absent, but their names are present. Second, their names have socially-significant power (voting, collecting pay, inspiring opposition). The power of the second is made possible by the ambiguity of the first, in a situation where ghosts must be spoken for, hallucinated, or manipulated by others. In what follows, I will only address (and then, only briefly), the first element, leaving the question of how such power is appropriated for another discussion.

How is a ghost created? The obvious answer might merely be ‘death,’ though most cultures, including Cambodia’s, have understandings that are both many-stranded and rather precise, such as ‘untimely death.’ Most generally, however, and in line with the examples above, we can say that a ghost is created through the separation of the qualification of life as such from the qualification of life as a specific (and powerful) social identity, perhaps most explicitly rendered in the name, such as the names on a payroll, a list of eligible voters, or the names of martyrs or revolutionaries.

I’ve commented previously on Giorgio Agamben’s lovely book Homo Sacer. In it he ‘corrects’ Foucault’s definition of biopower to the modern age. For Foucault, biopower is characteristic of modern regimes of power and is therefore a new phenomenon. Agamben, drawing on Karl Kérenyi‘s work on Dionysos (though almost completely without attribution), argues that classical ideas of sovereignty were in fact already predicated on a distinction between ‘bare life’ and ‘social life,’ a distinction he attributes to the Greek words zoë and bios. Zoë, for Agamben, is the mere fact of being alive, an embodied being: this is a life-power which is in its essential characteristics no different from the life-power attributable to plants or animals. Bios, on the other hand, is the ‘good,’ ‘social,’ or ‘political’ life which is superadded to zoë whenever human beings live in situations where the issue of sovereignty is raised.

Without getting into the details of Agamben’s argument, I would like, for the moment, to adopt his division. Therefore, a ghost is created through the survival of bios after zoë has been destroyed or rendered absent. A ghost is created when bios remains active (in power) in the absence of zoë. What is a ghost, however? I don’t think I would want to identify a ghost with bios itself, but rather with the difference between bios and zoë: perhaps we can even say that a ghost is the traumatic difference (since not all difference between bios and zoë need be traumatic) between bios and zoë.

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One thought on “Ghosts – Bare Life and Biopolitics

  1. Pingback: buddh•ism ad•junkt › Anthropology: Open Access and Blowback: the revenge of the Orientalist “subject”

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