Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

This is totally an aside, but there is something in me that increasingly rebels at a philosophical or theoretical exploration that begins (inevitably, almost) with what the Greeks thought, only to conclude that what the Greeks thought is not the progenitor of a long lineage of thinking but instead to some extent another episteme, that modernity is alien or unthinkable within a classical Greek way of thought–that the Greeks are used as a way to have another possibility than the modern, but one with sufficient complexity (in part so the philosopher and theorist can show themselves adequately credentialed to do intellectual work) and without the presumed dilemmas of alterity that non-Western examples present.

Biopolitics, explored via Foucault, re: its possible extensions and further intellectual development. Liberation from power that derives out of sovereignty, to power that is a property or a field that permeates social relations, institutionalizations of all kinds, etc. Agamben wants to explore relation between biopower and sovereign power. “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”. p. 6

“The protagonist of this book is bare life, that is, the life of homer sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert.” p. 8

“Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion.” p. 11

Agamben is partly trying to initiate an account of Marxist/anarchist inability to understand the state–I’m not entirely sure what the inadequacy of a simpler, more classically liberal or libertarian analysis is in that respect, that many radicals underestimate the state because they regard it as simply subordinate to or sheltering capital. But this does take the thought further: what kinds of power might be distinctive to sovereignty, and what kinds of personhood and practices do they produce?

Now familiar, derived in part from Schmitt, proposition of the exception–that the sovereign is inside and outside of law or juridical power all at once. This is where “natural law” proponents come in and are pretty much dismissed out of hand–their insistence that there is some limit to the sovereign in human nature, in God, in some principle outside and beyond the sovereign (as opposed to some material or practical limit) just can’t stand up given that these limits do not function unless the sovereign describes, accepts and interprets them. E.g., the sovereign uses the juridical to describe what the juridical does not address. “Inalienable rights”, but if they were, we should not need a Constitution to specify them or identify their existence. If I set the rule that prohibits me from acting, then I can unset the rule: the rule does not exist before nor will not persist after my willingness to set it. If the protection of the citizen from the sovereign is by the magnaminous consent of the sovereign, then it is no protection at all.

I wonder a bit if this underrates the materiality of history. Take a similar position: identity is constructed. But this does not mean that one can at will unconstruct it, adopt any other identity, etc.: the history and structure of identity has a kind of materiality in the present that’s important.

For our course, it is Ch. 3, Sacred Life, that is the biggest payoff–it explains why the elaborated ritual or ceremonial setting aside of a particular kind of “exception”–essentially, why the state is not a murderer, why the sovereign is entitled to the exception. “Life exposed to death” is “the originary political element”.

“The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule”. p. 168-169

As always in this sort of work, there is a kind of presumption of descriptive universality out of the specificity of Western history–I wonder for example how highly organized stateless societies (Igbo) would work in relationship to this description.

Certainly to re-read this after 2001 is to have an interesting new understanding of al-Qaeda and “stateless actors”, especially Ch. 5 Threshold–very much explains why so many cited or turned to Agamben at that point. Osama bin Laden as the “bandit” of bare life? The exception becoming the rule in a new and different way, the world as “camp” which the sovereign can strike at will from no particular place?

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