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A Light That Never Goes Out: Bare Life and the Possibility of Ethics in McCarthy’s The Road

Chapter in book
Authors Zlatan Filipovic
Published in Broken Mirrors: Representations of Apocalypses and Dystopias in Popular Culture / edited by Joe Trotta, Zlatan Filipovic and Houman Sadri
Pages 15-33
ISBN 9780367235918
Publisher Routledge
Place of publication New York
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Languages and Literatures
Pages 15-33
Language en
Keywords bare life, ethics, Agamben, Levinas, McCarthy, The Road
Subject categories History of Ideas, General Literature Studies, Specific Literatures


This chapter argues that, in spite of its defeat, humanity in McCarthy’s novel is buried alive as a resilience of ethics. Using Agamben’s notion of bare life and Levinas’s writing on the absolute primacy of ethical relation, the chapter explores McCarthy’s vision of a humanity that is backed up against its limit. For Agamben, the modern paradigm of bare life, characterized by its infinite exposure to death, is the concentration camp where there is no longer any distinction between law and life. The crisis of political existence this implies as well as the divestiture of value that life is exposed to represent the ontological warrants that allow McCarthy to examine the significance of a humanity abandoned to the threshold of its presuppositions. When life is cut back to its intrinsic terms, the only value that seems to remain is pure life (zoē) or life deprived of its political value, in Agamben’s terms. In a colorless landscape of the novel where all distinctions have been burnt to cinders that cover the earth as the ubiquitous remainder of their absolute destruction, the topography of what makes us human, however, can yet be traced as an ethical intrigue that, in spite of all, still flickers in the ashes and powers the novel. For McCarthy, in other words, the call of goodness is what constitutes the gravity of being whose pull, in the end, remains stronger than its fear of death.

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