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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Bare life and metamorphic being: Nazi propaganda, Agamben, Coetzee and Kafka
by Semler, Johanna Theresa, Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2012, 241; 3526966
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation discusses different forms of life, bare life and metamorphic being, and their relationship to identity and sovereignty. Taking Giorgio Agamben's concept of bare life and his discussion of happy life as a starting point, I argue that the potential inherent in the notion for changing out of the condition of bare life must be conceptualized as metamorphic being. Metamorphic being articulates the move from bare life to happy life and bridges the gap between the two notions that Agamben's work has left open. But at the same time, metamorphic being also offers a more extended way of conceiving what Agamben calls happy life. I argue that the move from bare life to happy life, what I call "metamorphic being," is in itself post-sovereign happiness that escapes sovereign politics and reconfigures individual agency as a strange passive-active practice of bodily presence that is entirely sufficient. Metamorphic being is a paradoxical experience of both a state of being and a transformative process that arises out of that state. Taking its cue from both literary metamorphosis, where two opposite poles of a metaphor are molded into one sign and biological metamorphosis, where it signifies a transformation from one species into another, metamorphic being challenges unitary concepts of species and individual identity. I examine texts that traverse the realms through which humanity has distinguished itself from other species–politics, rational thought and language–and in which metamorphic being becomes manifest, even though the term itself does not appear in them. On the face of it these texts are about bare life, but upon closer examination they demonstrate how bare life complicates biological life and changes into a state of continuous transformation: metamorphic being. First, I show how Nazi ideology's ideal of a perfect human form has concomitantly produced the fear of beings that threaten to dissolve this form by formlessness. Nazism externalized this fear and produced 'the Jew' as metamorph. Second, I explicate the connection in Giorgio Agamben's work between his notions of bare life and happy life, being-in-potentiality and profanation. I argue that my term of metamorphic being begins to conceptualize that link by offering a way to avoid the logic of inclusive exclusion, on which both sovereignty and bare life are predicated. Metamorphic being emerges as a practice of being-in-potentiality that reconceptualizes bare life into metamorphic being and represents happy life. Third, I further elaborate metamorphic being as the agency of bodily presence through Coetzee's novels Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. Metamorphic being in those novels appears as a sort of passive-active 'choice' for a solitary yet sufficient way of being. This 'choice' does not resemble intentional action, however, but simply happens. It is a 'choice' for just being there, being alive. Finally, I argue that Kafka's story The Metamorphosis represents not just metamorphic being as literary metamorphosis but that it relies on biological metamorphosis as well. The embodiment of metamorphic being, which humans share with all other beings, is bound up in natural cycles of growth and decay, embedded in political, philosophical or literary designs. Kafka's story represents two versions of metamorphic being: Gregor's transformation into a bug and Grete's metamorphosis into a mature woman through Gregor's decay and death. Metamorphic being emerges as a practice that brings into focus what all living beings have in common: life in all its constantly mutating forms.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Meltzer, Francoise, Chandler, Jim
Commitee: Keenleyside, Heather
School: The University of Chicago
Department: Comparative Literature
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 74/02(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Comparative literature, German literature, African literature, Philosophy, South African Studies
Keywords: Agamben, Giorgio, Austria, Bare life, Coetzee, J. M., Happy life, Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis, Nazi, Propaganda, South Africa
Publication Number: 3526966
ISBN: 978-1-267-61070-6
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