Terri Schiavo and
the State of Exception

Eric L. Santner

Eric L. Santner reflects on the Terri Schiavo case in light of two new Chicago books on political theology: Giorgio Agamben’s The State of Exception and Julia Reinhard Lupton’s Citizen Saints.

When a series of news items grip the national imagination within a short period of time, one rightly wonders whether there might be connections between them, whether an underlying set of issues animates them. I am thinking of two stories: the Abu Ghraib prison tortures and the Terri Schiavo case. Let us forget for a moment that both stories involve powerful images that don’t simply illustrate the subject matter but actually co-constitute it (the taking of photographs was a tool of humiliation at Abu Ghraib; the images of Terri Schiavo have led many—among them members of Congress—to believe that they know something about her medical condition). What interests me more is how in each story human life is positioned with respect to law and political power.

It is now clear that at Abu Ghraib as well as numerous other detention centers, the problem of prisoner abuse—including clear cases of torture and murder—has not simply been the consequence of a handful of rogue soldiers living out sadistic fantasies on helpless victims. But nor has the problem been one of isolated and contingent miscommunications down the chain of command. The real problem has to do with the legal status of the prisoners themselves and of the sites where they are being detained. With respect to Guantanamo Bay, to cite the most obvious example, the Bush administration has argued that the detention centers there effectively occupy a lawless zone, a site where a permanent (if undeclared) state of exception or emergency is in force. The prisoners have been stripped of all legal protections and stand exposed to the pure force of American military and political power. They have ceased to count as recognizable agents bearing a symbolic status covered by law. They effectively stand at the threshold where biological life and political power intersect. That is why it is fundamentally unclear whether anything those in power do to them is actually illegal.

If places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay represent sites where life, lacking all legal status and protection, stands in maximal exposure to pure political power, then the case of Terri Schiavo—and here I am thinking of the law passed by Congress that was intended to keep her alive—offers us a strange reversal. We find here the paradox of an intrusive excess of legal “protection” that effectively serves to suspend the law (the judicial process running its course in the Florida courts) and take direct hold of human life. A law designed to lift a single individual out of an ongoing judicial process is essentially a form or caprice, law in its state of exception (a sanctioned suspension of legality). This paradox reaches its greatest intensity where the law attempts to take charge of the pure biological life of the human being in question. At this point Terri Schiavo’s life assumes a “biopolitical” dimension in which life and politics can no longer be fully distinguished. To put it simply, if an act of Congress were to lead to the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, it will not be only water and chemical nutrients that enter her system; it will also be the invasive force of political power. This, of course, says nothing about the cynicism at play in this political power. (Many of the most prominent sponsors of the legislation in question have exhibited a shameless disregard for human life in countless other areas of public policy.)

Another way of thinking about the two faces of the state of exception in which political power takes a direct hold of human life is to note the two modes of reduction/amplification at play in each instance. In Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and other such places, the prisoners are fully sentient beings who in some sense no longer exist in the “book of life”; their legal and symbolic status has been nullified, they have been reduced to a pure point of application of state power (again, how could those in charge of such beings not be confused as to what constitutes abuse?). Terri Schiavo, by contrast, is a no longer sentient being who is having a symbolic status imposed on her (she has become, among other things, the name of a Cause). In the one case we have human life violently stripped of the cover of a symbolic status/value, in the other, the intrusive imposition a symbolic status/value in the absence of sentient life. The results, however, are uncannily similar: the radical exposure of the body to the pure caprice of political power.

With respect to the latter case, one might ask why it matters at all whether Mrs. Schiavo is kept alive by a feeding tube. That is, if it is true that she is in a persistent vegetative state without awareness, without access to pleasure and pain, joy and sadness—and no credible evidence has been brought forward that would cast any doubt on this diagnosis—why should anyone care if her parents take her home and keep her alive artificially? Whom does it harm if this makes her parents happy? I think that many would respond that it harms the soul of Terri Schiavo to be so totally subjected to the will of others even if those others are her parents who no doubt love her (or politicians who at least claim to speak on her behalf). And what greater form of subjection is there than to have the will of others impinge directly on our life substance, our existence as living tissue? Those pleading for state intervention into Terri Schiavo’s persistence as living tissue are pleading for the most radical form of domination one can imagine. And domination does damage to the human soul. I am tempted to say that the effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive is a kind of soul murder.

Of course, the Terri Schiavo case would never have entered the national awareness were it not for certain Christian groups that adopted it as a battleground in the larger cause of defending so-called innocent life. There is much to say about this phrase, “innocent life.” Given the fact that many who oppose abortion also condone capital punishment, one has good reason to wonder whether what is really at stake here is not innocent life but rather living innocence, that is, a fantasy of protecting not a human life but a condition of purity and innocence that can, in turn, only be truly embodied by non-sentient life. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder whether what President Bush has referred to as the “culture of life” only refers to non-sentient life; as soon as one acquires feeling, perception, and awareness one is more or less abandoned to the minimally regulated vagaries of the market place.

Be that as it may, one of the real theological peculiarities at the heart of the Terri Schiavo case pertains to the concepts of creation and creaturely life. As Julia Lupton notes in a wonderful book chapter on Shakespeare’s The Tempest entitled “Creature Caliban,” the word “creature” comes from the future-active participle of the Latin creare, meaning that the “creatura is a thing always in the process of undergoing creation; the creature is actively passive or, better, passionate, perpetually becoming-created, subject to transformation at the behest of the arbitrary commands of an Other.” In its theological sense, then, “creature” isn’t so much the name of a determinate state of being or essence as that of an ongoing exposure, of being caught up in the process of becoming creature through the dictates of divine authority. This dimension of radical subjection—of created thing to Creator God—has induced, in the history of the concept, a series of further articulations, ultimately becoming generalized to signify, as Lupton puts it, “anyone or anything that is produced or controlled by an agent, author, master, or tyrant.” At the end of such a trajectory it makes sense that a word that once denoted the entire domain of nature qua God’s creation comes to be “increasingly applied to those created things that warp the proper canons of creation.” Perhaps the most famous literary example of such a creature is Frankenstein’s monster, itself in many ways an embodiment of an inability to countenance death in modernity, which is no doubt a central feature of the Terri Schiavo case. (Is it not particularly strange that among those who seem to lose all bearings in the face of death, all sense of compassion and reverence, are people who claim deep religious faith?)

What ultimately underwrites this paradoxical passage from the natural to the unnatural in the semantic field of creaturely life is that feature of the “master” I have referred to as the state of exception or emergency. That is, it is not the mere fact of being in a relation of subject to law that generates creaturely “non-nature” but rather the exposure to an “outlaw” dimension of law internal to state authority. Governmental authority in the state of exception marks a sanctioned suspension of law, an outside of law included within the law. Creaturely life emerges precisely at such strange thresholds where the subject is touched by this force of law in excess of law. The decision to categorize the prisoners taken in the “war on terrorism” as enemy combatants without legal status and Congress’s attempt to intervene into the Terri Schiavo case are two instances in which life has been rendered creaturely in this sense.

What is especially disturbing in the Schiavo case is that this process is being performed in the name of a “culture of life” ostensibly consonant with Christian morality. What we find instead is a radical perversion of the order of creation and the theological status of the creature, its conversion, that is, into a purely biopolitical entity. Christianity is being used, in other words, to give cover to the radical intrusion of political power into the sphere of life. A theology that might have provided the resources for deep compassion for a woman in her dying and for the family of this woman, has become instead an ideological tool of political power in a state of exception.


Eric L. Santner is chair of the department of Germanic studies at the University of Chicago. His books include The Psychotheology of Everyday Life and The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and Kenneth Reinhard, and forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in December 2005).

© 2005 Eric L. Santner. Posted 29 March 2005.


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