Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life

September 3, 2017 | Author: erteletubi | Category: Sovereignty, Politics, Politics (General), Science, Philosophical Science
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Giorgio Aganbem...


Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Nikolopoulou, Kalliopi. SubStance, Issue 93 (Volume 29, Number 3), 2000, pp. 124-131 (Review)

Published by University of Wisconsin Press DOI: 10.1353/sub.2000.0038

For additional information about this article http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sub/summary/v029/29.3nikolopoulou.html

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Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. 199. At a time when criticism indulges in reading current cultural phenomena at their most detailed and microcosmic level, Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer takes an altogether different route to the problematic relationship between politics and thought. Agamben’s is a book whose scope and implications are deliberately overarching, as is the core of its subject matter, namely, the relation of human life to political power. The novelty of his approach lies in his conviction that there are still phenomena in our present that have been untouched by the many epistemological shifts recently declared, and that demand a serious examination of the past in which they remain deeply rooted. Consequently, in investigating the current relation between human life and state power, Homo Sacer finds many of its answers in remotest antiquity, in the political writings of Aristotle and the legal theory of ancient Rome. In Aristotle, Agamben finds the first separation between the simple, animal life (zoé) we are born into and the “good” life of political participation (bios) that we enter into—a conceptual separation which, at times pronounced and at other times blurred, still haunts our politics. To pass from mere life to political life means that mere life is the necessary prerequisite of our entrance into politics. However, mere life is recognized as that prerequisite only by being excluded from the elevated sphere of politics. The central example of this paradoxical structure appears in Roman law, which provides the book with its title figure of homo sacer. It is through this metaphorical figure of the “sacred man” that Agamben grounds the workings of biopolitics—a term he borrows from Foucault but pushes, as I will discuss, toward a different direction. Significantly, the sacred man proves to be a juridical category, not a religious one, as may be first supposed. The term designates a criminal whom the state deems worthy of death, but whom it bans from being either legally executed or religiously sacrificed. Instead, the sacred man may be killed by anyone with impunity, a status that casts him, like Cain, simultaneously both in and out of human and divine law. Since his biological life is at stake, 124

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isolated from the rest of his being and given over to the law as the law’s absolute price, homo sacer experiences the law in its most abstract, formal, excluding, and death-carrying capacity. Starting with this legal definition, Agamben traces the history of Western politics as the history of the production of homines sacri. To do so, Agamben balances the philosophical and speculative tone of his writing with an abundance of concrete historical instances which describe the transformation of human life into sacred, hence perishable, life. The refugee, the comatose, and the death row inmate are some of the present-day examples of homines sacri, of lives that meet in the wasteland between exile and belonging, between life and death. Such examples do not simply illustrate Agamben’s theoretical assumptions. In fact, the example of sacred life is elevated here to the level of a theoretical concept and of a heuristic device. This is not a coincidence, since early on in the book Agamben finds in the example the structure that opposes the logic of the exception, which for him is equivalent to the logic of sovereignty (22). The dialectic of example and exception plays itself throughout the book, which concludes by establishing the camps as the ultimate paradigm of the state of exception. In the brief conclusions—all entitled “Threshold”—following each of the three thematic divisions of the book, Agamben draws a continuum in the history of biopolitics by exposing ways in which the earlier instances of homo sacer anticipate the totalitarian nature of the modern camps. The figure of homo sacer, from its Roman exiles to the prisoners of Auschwitz proves to be an exemplary figure of the state of exception, a diachronic case study of Western politics. The resonance of this book is due to Agamben’s extensive knowledge of the classics, rhetoric, and theology—traditions which, starting with The Coming Community, have proved indispensable to his understanding of the ethical dimension of politics. Such theoretical fluency coupled with a wide set of historical references make Homo Sacer both a demanding and a rewarding reading experience. Unencumbered by the recent theoretical privileging of particularity, Agamben’s questions concerning sovereignty transcend both chronological and cultural boundaries—and to his credit— they do so not at the expense of the particular. To the contrary, the most compelling aspect of Homo Sacer consists in undertaking a philosophical and ethical defense of the particular—namely, of the body abandoned to the law, without a fear of or aversion to the powers of generalization. By not confusing the particular with the immediately available, Agamben succeeds in synthesizing the content of his book—the defense of the excluded particular—with his rather omniscient methodological plateau. Substance # 93, 2000



Indeed, at the bottom of Agamben’s study lies the old philosophical and political question of how to reconcile particularity with totality. This question, which establishes a common ground between philosophy and politics, marks also the intersection from where the visionary spirit of ethics bade farewell to the pragmatic spirit of politics. Through the example of homo sacer and his paradoxical relation to the law, Agamben exposes how the tenuous relation of human life to power has been long disguised in the language of social contracts as the inevitable and beneficial relation of the individual to the collective; disguised, because neither the term “individual” nor the term “collective” evoke the vulnerable image of a biological life laying itself bare before the authoritative structures of sovereign power. Agamben’s analysis illustrates how politics functions by driving the terms individual and collective to their extremes, and then collapsing them one upon the other. The individual, reduced to the most concrete and animalistic elements of its life, confronts a power that is also reduced to its most disembodied abstraction, to an empty form leaping out of Kafka’s narratives. Though initially the mere life of the body was considered as the thing most distant from politics, it turns out that the ultimate criterion of sovereign power consists in the decision over the protection or destruction of a human body. Thus, the founding moment of Western politics consists precisely in putting mere biological life at stake, in a way that renders this life simultaneously subject to welfare promises and death threats. This power over life and death becomes the hallmark of sovereignty. In Agamben’s words, “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power” (6). By establishing homo sacer as a metaphor for any situation in which human life is threatened at the same time as it is sacralized as the highest value, Agamben also criticizes the anthropological and religious connections between violence, sacrifice, and the sacred, which culminated in the twentieth century in the theories of Georges Bataille. Agamben argues fervently that the category of homo sacer, and by extension of “sacredness,” is legal through and through. As such, the psychoanalytic and ethnological interpretations of sacrificial victimhood do little more than drape a mythological veil over the cold legalese through which sovereign power announces itself in secular and religious terms as “biopower.” Particularly interesting is Agamben’s analysis of law and its share in the paradoxical structure of sovereignty. With Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” as his guide, Agamben explores the relation between law-positing (“constituting”) and law-maintaining (“constituted”) violence. Agamben Substance # 93, 2000



argues that today we live mostly under the violence of constituted power, which forgets its origins in law-positing violence and becomes sacralized as state power, forestalling any possibility of change. Yet if any form of constituting power can become at some point constituted or sovereign power, then what are the criteria of distinguishing between them? In attempting to answer this question, Homo Sacer performs its most speculative gesture toward an alternative vision of the political, rephrasing this opposition as one between actuality and potentiality, thus sending the problem of politics back to ontology. Existing ontology, however, is far from offering the answer to the problem of a politics beyond sovereignty. Indeed, Agamben comes up against a difficulty: potentiality—even in its utopian dimension, the potentiality not to become actualized, or the potential for “permanent revolution”—is still linked to actuality, and hence to sovereignty, in a relation of suspense. “Sovereign power can also, as such, maintain itself indefinitely, without ever passing over into actuality” (47). At this impasse, Agamben proposes an absolute separation of potentiality from actuality: [O]ne must think the existence of potentiality without any relation to Being in the form of actuality—not even in the extreme form of the ban and the potentiality not to be, and of actuality as the fulfillment and manifestation of potentiality—and think the existence of potentiality even without any relation to being in the form of the gift of the self and of letting be. This, however, implies nothing less than thinking ontology and politics beyond every figure of relation. (47)

Agamben wishes to terminate the dialectic of potentiality and actuality, which even through their negative interrelation, still binds potentiality to actuality and thus to a sovereign act or non-act. Terminating the dialectic also entails the termination of a politics of relation. The question arises as to why and how to think a politics beyond relation when relation lies at the heart of politics. Agamben embraces non-relation as an ethical response to the absolutism that he sees governing our most constitutive of relations, namely, our relation to the law. “The originary relation of law to life is . . . Abandonment” (29), he writes, alluding to the law’s sovereign demand that we submit under its full force even when its contents fail to make sense. After an astounding reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law” (49-58), which overshadows ethically and exegetically the impressive deconstructive readings of this parable, Agamben shows that we are not simply summoned by the law, but that we appear compulsively in front of it. Whatever the law, it is law only insofar as it solicits from us the Substance # 93, 2000



sense of absolute abandonment and unconditional respect, the sublime sentiment Kant called reverence. This relation to the law, however, is not merely a theoretical exaggeration. It is, according to Agamben, a lived relation currently experienced by many people on our planet, be they ethnic refugees, prisoners, or mentally ill or physically incapacitated patients, all of whom are unable to decide their fate, and all of whom depend on the clemency or punishment of the law. In his attempt to surpass the totalitarian reality of being abandoned under a law which is “in force without significance” (51), Agamben proposes a radicalization of the notion of abandonment. As if the side of the law is ethically exhausted and inoperative, Agamben looks for answers in the notion of abandonment. He thinks abandonment as a figure of existence divorced even from its last vestige of relationality which previously bound it to an empty law: to be truly abandoned and exposed not because of a law and not unto a law; in short, to understand abandonment as a thoroughly intransigent state of passivity. The radicalness of this gesture toward a new ontology ought to be attributed at least in part to a certain disenchantment with a modern version of ontology—namely, Heidegger’s—and its conceptual affinity with Nazism. Late in the book, Agamben claims that Heideggerian ontology and Nazism share in their definition of life. For both, “life is immediately political in its very facticity” (153). Without the need to transcend life into politics as Aristotle would have it, life is immediately reified and objectified as politics. Faced with the dilemma of a biopolitics that either acknowledges mere life by exclusion, or simply eradicates any difference between life and politics by reducing life to immediate politicization, the text is driven to imagine a completely uncharted horizon of politics, a politics outside its most essential prerogative: the existence of relations. Despite the obvious criticism that such a speculative gesture invites, Agamben makes a strong case for the necessity of staying within ontology while trying to resolve a political question: “Brought to the limit of pure Being, metaphysics (thought) passes over into politics (into reality), just as on the threshold of bare life, politics steps beyond itself into theory” (182). In other words, if concrete reality— the cornerstone of politics—becomes politics’ own blind spot, then elucidation might best be hoped for in the realm of thought. Though it is indebted to Foucault’s work on biopolitics, Homo Sacer diverges from Foucault’s trajectory on several major points. First, in conducting his own archaeology of sovereign power, Agamben concludes that the biopolitical state is not simply a modern phenomenon. Aristotle’s Substance # 93, 2000



philosophical distinction between zoé and bios, and its practical manifestation in the figure of homo sacer, are only two of the earlier examples of the biopolitical kernel of power. Agamben supplements these with the image of medieval werewolves, another example of life under ban. Partly animal and partly human, these hybrid creatures occupy a state between nature and culture, a space of indistinction similar to homo sacer’s simultaneous inclusion and exclusion by the law. The recognition that the biopolitical structure of power has archaic roots leads Agamben to criticize this structure even more radically—that is, from these very roots to the present—and in ways that require serious modifications to our contemporary understanding of power. Agamben identifies the oppressiveness of political power with the intrusion of politics into private life, thus problematizing one of the most revered theoretical corollaries of today, one which in certain ways and often incorrectly has been attached to the Foucauldian legacy: “the personal is (the) political.” Not only is biopolitics as old as state sovereignty (whether monarchic or democratic), but biopolitics has always relied on rendering the personal political, and it is this which exposes the potentially dangerous connotations of this seemingly progressive cliché. “Politics is now literally the decision concerning the unpolitical” (173), writes Agamben, reformulating the more extreme version of the above motto where the political is not an adjectival qualifier to the personal, but a noun absolutely synonymous with the personal. Agamben rightly attributes the first realization of this to Sade, whose inaugural understanding of modern biopolitics is best expressed in his reduction of politics to the boudoir. Sade displays the terror of a state of affairs in which sexuality is an absolutely politicized domain, and furthermore, the only politicized human activity. This terror cannot be accounted for by any facile optimism concerning unmediated equations between the private and the public. The point, then, is not to champion the inclusion of the personal into the political, even if such a move provisionally serves the “empowerment” of certain marginalized identities; indeed, for Agamben, the progressive tone with which this notion of empowerment has been invested in current cultural politics cannot be taken for granted and requires scrutiny for its residual associations with existing sovereign power. Rather, the point is to investigate how this inclusion has already taken place—namely, by the simultaneous dialectical expulsion of mere life from politics at the very moment when simple life was defined as the absolute concern of politics. Substance # 93, 2000



A second major difference from Foucault lies in the attention Agamben pays to the concentration camps, where biopolitical terror reached an unprecedented level. Despite Foucault’s keen eye for power structures, he chose to investigate the processes of biopower in the smaller, more containable spaces of prisons, clinics, and mental institutions. Similarly, Hannah Arendt’s inquiry into totalitarianism also stopped short of offering a critique of the biopolitical character of the modern totalitarian state. The task, then, of Agamben’s study is to demonstrate not merely the biopolitical basis of totalitarianism, but more importantly, the fact that power—always exerted as biopower—is indelibly marked by totalitarian principles. By establishing the camp, rather than the clinic, as the exemplary biopolitical space of modernity and by exposing the fundamentally totalitarian basis of any biopolitics, Agamben does not merely propose a different example. The change has the effect of significantly differentiating his analysis of power from Foucault’s. In diagrammatic terms, Homo Sacer reintroduces a vertical model of power as opposed to a horizontal one in which power disperses continuously from one place to another. Instead of analyzing the biopolitical effects in smaller institutions, Agamben concentrates on the immensity of the totalitarian state, from which these institutions of even democratic countries borrow their model. Less interested in the “positive effects” of power that might ensue from the dispersion and diffusion of power into many areas of life, Agamben sees in the absolutism of the camps the very basis for many other camp-like spaces of modernity such as airport transits and urban ghettos. The stadium in Bari into which the Italian police in 1991 provisionally herded all illegal Albanian immigrants before sending them back to their country, the winter cycle-racing track in which the Vichy authorities gathered Jews before consigning them to the Germans, . . . or the zones d’attentes in French international airports in which foreigners asking for refugee status are detained will then all equally be camps. In all these cases, an apparently innocuous space . . . actually delimits a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign. (174)

In order to solidify his analysis of the camp’s biopolitical structure, Agamben launches a historical and ethical critique of the institution of modern medicine and of the prolific, but ineffectual, legal literature on human rights. The unethical practices in eugenics, euthanasia, and experiments on humans are shown to precede the Nazis—for whom they served retroactively as a legitimating defense—and to continue today in Western democracies. In a parallel move, the language of human rights declarations, from the Substance # 93, 2000



Magna Carta to the habeas corpus is exposed to be complicit with biopolitics. Through an eloquent reading of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Agamben addresses the slippage from “man” to “citizen” and the subsequent reductions of citizenship to nationality and of the “inalienable” human rights to birthrights: “Rights are attributed to man (or originate in him) solely to the extent that man is the immediately vanishing ground (who must never come to light as such) of the citizen” (128). The conflation between man and citizen (bare corporeality and stateinscribed corporeality) has often veiled the exclusion of certain people who fail the definition of a citizenship that is coextensive with nativity, namely, with birth and soil. From here, the step to the Nazi obsession with racial purity and with blood and soil is made convincingly: “Fascism and Nazism are, above all, redefinitions of the relations between man and citizen, and become fully intelligible only when situated—no matter how paradoxical it may seem— in the biopolitical context inaugurated by national sovereignty and declarations of rights” (130). Rather than marking an absolute discontinuity with the past, Nazism is shown to be a reworking of a pre-existing conception of the nation-state, one that appeared natural before the genocide, but that reappears afterwards as monstrous in its supposed unfamiliarity. In that sense, Agamben haunts us with the presentation of the political uncanny. The all-too-familiar and heroicized face of human rights discourse turns out to be hung on biopolitical underpinnings, the worst effects of which were carried out during the Third Reich. “How is it possible to ‘politicize’ the ‘natural sweetness’ of zoé?” (11) asks Agamben, following Aristotle, who early recognized the difficulty of giving up the beauty of simple life for the complexity of politics. Though Agamben does not mention it, this old question evokes also the agon of Freud, who in Civilization and its Discontents wrestled more recently with this very issue. Freud saw the high cost a human being pays to become socialized, and lamented the ego’s fragility in front of the terrible demands placed upon it. Despite Agamben’s preference for a non-psychological description of the struggle of human life against external power, Homo Sacer too is haunted by its own oedipal confrontations—in this case, with the Western political tradition it wishes to overcome in order to generate a new politics. Marked by a turn-of-the-century sense for the urgent, both texts share in a profound speculation brushed by the melancholy that accompanies any understanding of a concept so complex and overwrought as the human. Kalliopi Nikolopoulou Vanderbilt University Substance # 93, 2000

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