Bear Life

This paper discusses the keeping of polar bears in the Singapore Zoo, where they undergo a displacement from the Arctic to the tropics. In the context of this bear life, which is at once contingent upon the status of environments, and is also faced with the threat of extinction, we ask, ‘What is life?’ and ‘What is “bare life”?’

The philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests that bare life emerges at the ‘mobile border’ that separates human from animal. For Agamben, bare life occurs at the divisions between that which is conscious in the world and that which is vegetative, or in an in-between state of living death. It is these multiple practical and political divisions between human and animal life that make a conceptualization of the human possible. Crucially for Agamben, that which constitutes bare life is neither animal life nor human life, but rather is this politics of separation that inform life. Aping Agamben, we explore the bare life of bear life in the Singapore Zoo and beyond, to suggest that the life of polar bears significantly qualifies and challenges the concept of bare life.

A Weather Permitting project, published in Focas: Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, Vol. 6: Regional Animalities, ed. Lucy Davis (National University of Singapore Press and the Documenta 12 Magazines Project, 2007; ISSN 978-981-05-8681-2), 66-83.