Giorgio Agamben (Rome 1942-)

Major works Homo sacer: sovereign power and naked life (1995)
Key concepts Biopolitics, naked life, homo sacer, sovereignty, state of exception
Related figures Aristotle, Arendt, Schmitt, Foucault, Benjamin, Debord, Negri, Virno
Quote The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the seizure and control of the state, but the fight between state and non-state (humanity): an unbridgeable disjunction of the singularity qualunque from state organisation. (The coming community)
Political Associations Holocaust studies, Refugees

Giorgio Agamben is best known in the Anglo-American world for his The Coming Community. He writes on Adorno, Benjamin, Schmitt and aesthetics. Agamben�s work is important for our reflection on biopolitics, for he theorises post sovereign power and is concerned with those invested by its operations. Foucault�s critique of the theory of sovereignty and his historical investigations into the emergence and practices of biopower throughout history, both in discourse and in society, are the point of departure for Agamben's reflections on bare life. His work is concerned with the notion of sovereignty and human rights within the modernist paradigm of biopolitical rule, the political / judicial and social realm. Agamben systematically attempts throughout his works to undermine the theory of sovereignty and unveil the political rationality operating behind its rhetoric in the present. One of the main innovative notions we find in his work is that of Homo Sacer and bare life, to which we will try and provide a definition: naked life means the life that can be killed but not sacrificed of the homo sacer (living dead).

In defining Homo Sacer Agamben runs through the etymological origin of the term both within the studies of Roman law and anthropological findings of Levi-Strauss, Mauss, Durkheim amongst others. According to him, the task of metaphysics par excellence is the politicisation of naked life. His reference to Schmitt is functional to explaining the paradox of sovereignty that lies in the notion of Ausnahme: �Sovereign is whoever decides on the state of exception�. According to this, exception is granted the highest status for the formulation of positive right, expressing at once the limit of sovereign power and its legitimation. Only in so far as the value of positive right can be suspended in a state of exception, it is able to define normality as its realm of validity.

�It is not the exception that gets subtracted from the rule, but the rule that, suspending itself, gives raise to the exception and only in this way can constitute itself as rule, by constantly maintaining a relation to it. [�] The situation that is created by exception can neither be defined as a factual situation, nor as a situation of right, but institutes between the two a paradoxical threshold of indifference�. [Homo Sacer: il potere sovrano e la vita nuda. Torino: Einaudi, 1995, p. 22-23]

According to Schmitt then, the sovereign does not establish what is legal and illegal, but rather the originary implication of the living within the sphere of right, or, in his words, the �normal structuration of life relations�, which the law needs. The decision relates neither to a quaestio facti nor to a quaestio iuris, but to the relation itself between fact and right.

Alongside Schmitt, Agamben�s point of reference is Benjamin and his critique of violence. Agamben criticised the tendency to see constituent power as that which is granted with the task of defending the constitution. In this move, the revolutionary moment that brings about a constitution and which makes constituent power irreducible and external to constituted power and juridical order, is relegated to a �pre-juridical� and merely factual status. Agamben then cites Benjamin�s idea of a relation of constituent to constitutive power as that of a violence that brings about right to a violence that preserves it. In this sense, the constitution presupposes itself as constituent power (see Sieyés and Negri), and in this form it expressed the paradox of sovereignty.

�Just as sovereign power is presupposed as state of nature, that is then maintained in a relation of exclusion with respect to the state of right, so does it separate itself into constituent and constitutive power and still relates to both by placing itself in their point of indifference.� Ibid. p. 48

Violence, according to Benjamin, occurs where exception and rule become undistinguishable. He calls the link between violence and right naked life (blosses Leben). Naked life is thus the element which, in a state of exception, holds the most intimate relation to sovereignty.

In Stato di eccezione, Agamben shows how Western democracies become effectively invested with the need of turning emergency into the foundation of their operative field of existence during the World Wars. The military and the economic 'state of emergency' merge often merge into one even though war metaphors are main currency in speeches.

'The principle according to which necessity defines a singular situation in which the law loses its vis obligandi (this is the sense of the phrase: necessitas legem non habet), is inverted into that according to which necessity constitutes, so to speak, the ultimate foundation and the very source of the law.� [Stato di eccezione. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003. p. 37]

Unwritten law is defended in case of necessity prior to legal designation of legislative operations. Agamben successfully outlines the development in history of a political rationality whereby the executive comes to acquire legislative power by means of decrees that parliament is only called to approve or rectify. Agamben observes that this process, which began during the World Wars and was instantiated as a state of emergency, nowadays functions in substitution for the 'democratic' legislation process.

�The most informed formula is that which establishes that the state of emergency is in Italian law an illegal procedure, whilst also conforming to a positive unwritten law, thus being juridical and constitutional. The fact that necessity can win over the law derives from its own nature and its original character, both from the logical and the historical point of view.� [Romano, 1909, quoted by Agamben, Stato di eccezione, 2003, p. 38]

Thus, what Foucault describes as a retreat of disciplinary institutions, for Agamben also coincides with the permanent state of exception becoming the realm of application of political power. By state of exception Agamben understands the suspension of the rule that provides it with its legitimacy.

�The integrated State-Spectacle (or spectacular democracy) constitutes the extreme point of evolution of the state form, towards which monarchies and republics, tyrannies and democracies, racist regimes and progressive ones are swiftly moving. This global movement, the moment it seems to rejuvenate national identities, in fact tends towards the constitution of a sort of supranational police state, where the norms of international law are tacitly abrogated one after the other. Not only has there not been a �declared war� for a long time (thus realising Schmitt�s prophecy that all wars would become in our time civil wars) but the very open invasion of a sovereign state can be presented as the execution of an act of internal jurisdiction.� [Moyens sans fins. Notes sur la politique, Paris: Rivage Poche, 2002, p. 97]

Agamben looks into the functioning of decision in the context of a suspension of the law, and observes that both the Fascist and Nazi regimes operated without cancelling their respective constitutions in a paradigm that has been defined a �dual State� whereby a further structure that was not legally formalised was added to the constitutional settings by virtue of a state of exception.

�The term �dictatorship� is absolutely inadequate to provide a reason from the legal point of view for these regimes, just as the sharp opposition democracy/dictatorship is misleading for an analysis of contemporary governmental paradigms�. [Stato di eccezione, 2003, p. 63]

The supposed exteriority to the law characteristic of exception is in fact the field of application of power. In maintaining a relation of juridical indifference to the state of exception, the law effectively abandons this field. In this Agamben refers to Nancy's idea of abandonment as 'a putting a band, where the band is an order, a prescription, a decree, a permission and the power that holds these freely at his disposal', as well as that of being banned, at the mercy of and at one's own will, freely (see bandits). What is captured in this ban according to Agamben is precisely bare life. Adopting the language of Roman Law, he defines the point of inclusive exclusion of bare life into the juridical order by going back to the notion of as homo sacer: the living dead.

'The sacred man is the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide; in the first Tiburtinian law, in fact, it is noted that 'if someone kills the one who is sacred according to the plebiscite, it will not be considered homicide'. This is why it is customary for a bad or impure man to be called sacred. [Homo sacer, 1995, p. 71]

Thus human life is politicised the moment it occupies this space, when it is exposed to death. The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred like is the life that has been captured in this sphere of double exclusion and double capture (from the law and religion). The sacred man is a living dead, who constitutes the law through its externality as well as indicating the limits of its operation. Sacred men are the pariahs of society, which Agamben at points identifies with migrants held hostage in detention camps as well as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. [see for instance his �Au-delà des droits de l�homme� and �Qu�est-ce qu�un camp?�, in Moyens sans fins, 2002, p. 25 and p. 47]

If biopower is power exerted onto population and bare life, then the emergence of the notion of the people as population is in fact the premise upon which contemporary �civil wars� are construed.

Agamben takes up Foucault�s distinction between bios and zoe, the former identifying existence as the object of a technique, the latter referring to life as a property of organisms . [Foucault treats of this distinction in his 1981 Lecture Course at the Collége de France, entitled �Subjectivité et vérité�]. For Agamben, the nation state operates a subsumption of naked life (zoe) under political life (bios) in so far as it grounds its sovereignty on the very notion of birth (natio). This is also evident in the intrinsic ambiguity of the notion of people:

�Any interpretation of the political meaning of the term people ought to start from the peculiar fact that in modern European languages this term always indicates also the poor, the underprivileged, and the excluded. The same term names the constitutive political subject as well as the class that is excluded - de facto, if not de jure - from politics.�

Such ambiguity reflects the foundation of sovereign power on what Agamben calls a fundamental biopolitical fracture: that between zoe and bios, between people and People.

�The Italian term popolo, the French term peuple, and the Spanish term pueblo - along with the corresponding adjectives popolare, populaire, popular - and the late-Latin terms populus and popularis from which they all derive, designate in common parlance and in the political lexicon alike the whole of the citizenry as a unitary body politic (as in "the Italian people" or in "giudice popolare" [juryman]) as well as those who belong to inferior classes (as in homme du peuple [man of the people], rione popolare [working-class neighbourhood], front populaire [popular front]). Even the English people - whose sense is more undifferentiated - does retain the meaning of ordinary people as opposed to the rich and the aristocracy. In the American Constitution one thus reads without any sort of distinction: "We, the people of the United States ..."; but when Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address invokes a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," the repetition implicitly sets another people against the first.� [�Qu�est-ce qu�un peuple?, in Moyens sans fins, 2002, p. 39]

According to Agamben, the attempt at overcoming this fundamental biopolitical fracture and, through certain ideas of development, to turn the state and the people into one body, characterises the raison d�être of the modern sovereign state. Before the French revolution the two sides of the people were in a state of perpetual civil war. The revolution aimed at raising the body of the nation to formal political equality by eliminating the cour des miracles, the destitute and the poor. Poverty and misery become a burden and an embarrassment to society that needed to be abolished. For Agamben, Marx�s idea of class struggle is one of civil war in this fundamental biopolitical fracture.

Agamben also aptly reminds us of Benjamin�s VII Thesis on History: �If one asks with whom the adherence of historicism actually empathise, the answer is inevitable : with the victor, and all rulers and the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. they are called cultural treasures, and the historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception, the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to their efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner onto another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as is possible. he regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.�



On this site

On other sites

Read essay

The sacrament of language: Archaeology of the oath (Homo Sacer II, 3)

Metropolis (seminar given at the Nomad University in November 2006)

Rethinking the Movement (seminar given at the Nomad University in January 2005)

The State of Emergency (lecture on Schmitt given at the Roland Barthes Centre, and summary of his latest book on the state of exception)



Security and Terror

No to Biopolitical Tattooing (2004)

What is a paradigm? A lecture by Giorgio Agamben (2002)

Le cinéma de Guy Debord. Image et mémoire (1995)

We Refugees

Interviews with Agamben:

Life: a work of art without an author (2004)

A minor biopolitics (1999,fr)


Reviews of State of Exception (2003):

The ripe fruit of redemption by Antonio Negri

States don't really mind their citizens dying (provided they don't all do it at once): they just don't like anyone else to kill them (Malcolm Bull reviews State of Exception in the London Review of Books)

On the state of exception by Brett Neilson

Virno comments on Agamben

Contretemps special issue on Agamben - features Agamben on Friendship (pdf)

Agamben Critical arts ensemble Reading Group archive: Intro to Homo Sacer - Part 4: Form of Law

Homo sacer as the object of the discourse of the university (Slavoj Zizek)

What is a camp? (Suvendrini Perera)

Retour sur le camp comme paradigme biopolitique (fr, par Bernard Aspe, Muriel Combes)

Biopower in Foucault and Agamben (fr)


"> The Open. Man and Animal (Stanford University Press, 2004; Bollati Boringhieri, 2002)

La comunita' che viene (Bollati Boringhieri, 2001)

The coming community (Minnesota, 1993)

Homo Sacer: il potere sovrano e la nuda vita (Einaudi, 1995)

Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life (Stanford, 1998)

Moyens sans fins: notes sur la politique (Rivages, 1995)

Stato di eccezione. Homo Sacer volume II (Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2003)

Agambeniana unofficial multilanguage bibliography

Selected Bibliography


6/3/09 11:13 AM