“E proboscis unum: Law, literature, love, and the limits of sovereignty”

Date29 February 2008
Published date29 February 2008
AuthorHarriet Murav
Harriet Murav
The phrase ‘‘e proboscis unum,’’ a parody on the more familiar Latin
phrase that means ‘‘out of many one’’ is taken from the courtroom scene
of the 1964 Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! In this scene, the entire cast
is under arrest for disturbing the peace, but the young impoverished clerk
Cornelius Hackl takes the opportunity to proclaim his love for the milliner
Irene Molloy in the song ‘‘It only takes a moment.’’ The matchmaker
Dolly pokes fun at the judge, the figure of authority, by commenting on
the appearance of his nose, which she characterizes as ‘‘a flaming beacon
of justice’’ and ‘‘living symbol of the motto of this great land,’’ ‘‘e
proboscis unum.’’ The bickering, fighting crowd, however, in spite of the
parody, are transformed into a community as they witness the young
man’s declaration. As this episode shows, popular culture reads the law
and the courts as making possible a space for personal transformation and
transformative sociality. The recent debate about same-sex marriage in
Massachusetts shows that both individual persons and the law itself are
open to a process of mutual transformation. The chapter uses Hello,
Dolly!, the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on same-sex
marriage, and Shoshana Felman’s The Juridical Unconscious to argue
Special Issue: Law and Literature Reconsidered
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 43, 1–20
Copyright r2008 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(07)00601-1
that the study of law and literature is crucial in the current academic
environment in which many critics, influenced by Giorgio Agamben, argue
that law and the courts are merely the space for the exercise of the state’s
sovereign power to carry out punishment.
In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Girogio Agamben
provocatively argues that the basis for the state’s protection of human ‘‘life
is the possibility of destroying it.’’ The constitution of sovereign power is the
ability to decide life and death. Agamben provides three fundamental theses
at the conclusion of his work:
1. The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as zone of
indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).
2. The fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare
life as originary political element and as threshold of articulation between
nature and culture, zoe and bios.
3. Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental
biological paradigm of the West (Agamben, 1998, p. 181).
The way that political life, or sovereign power, also called state power –
creates itself is by expelling a part of itself, which it defines as ‘‘bare life.’’
Bare life marks the constantly shifting boundary between what and who is
included in political life, and its protections and opportunities, and who is
not. Andrew Norris, explicating Agamben, writes ‘‘Politics thus entails the
constant negotiation of the threshold between itself and the bare life that
is both included within and excluded from its body’’ (Norris, 2000, p. 47).
The state of exception, or, the boundary space, is the all-important defining
moment of political life for Agamben.
Bare life means human life as nothing more than a mere instrument that
performs labor and, as Agamben says, can be killed, but not sacrificed. Bare
life is the life of ‘‘homo sacer,’’ the‘‘sacred’’ human. The concentration camp
inmate, stripped of all rights, outside of all law, and reduced to a status of a
‘‘living corpse’’ – is the exemplar of bare life for Agamben. The model of the
‘‘living corpse’’ comes from the discussion of the concentration camp in
Hannah Arendt, on whom Agamben significantly depends. In The Origins of
Totalitarianism Arendt relatess the camp inmate to the citizen of the
totalitarian state: ‘‘the human specimen reduced to the most elementary
reactions, the bundle of reactions that can always be liquidated and replaced
by other bundles of reactions that behave in exactly the same way, is the
model ‘citizen’ of the totalitarian state; and such a citizen can be produced
only imperfectly outside the camps’’(Arendt, 1973, p. 456). For Agamben the

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT