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Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995)

Tekijä: Giorgio Agamben

Sarjat: Homo Sacer (I)

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioMaininnat
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The work of Giorgio Agamben, one of Italy's most important and original philosophers, has been based on an uncommon erudition in classical traditions of philosophy and rhetoric, the grammarians of late antiquity, Christian theology, and modern philosophy. Recently, Agamben has begun to direct his thinking to the constitution of the social and to some concrete, ethico-political conclusions concerning the state of society today, and the place of the individual within it. In Homo Sacer, Agamben aims to connect the problem of pure possibility, potentiality, and power with the problem of political and social ethics in a context where the latter has lost its previous religious, metaphysical, and cultural grounding. Taking his cue from Foucault's fragmentary analysis of biopolitics, Agamben probes with great breadth, intensity, and acuteness the covert or implicit presence of an idea of biopolitics in the history of traditional political theory. He argues that from the earliest treatises of political theory, notably in Aristotle's notion of man as a political animal, and throughout the history of Western thinking about sovereignty (whether of the king or the state), a notion of sovereignty as power over "life" is implicit. The reason it remains merely implicit has to do, according to Agamben, with the way the sacred, or the idea of sacrality, becomes indissociable from the idea of sovereignty. Drawing upon Carl Schmitt's idea of the sovereign's status as the exception to the rules he safeguards, and on anthropological research that reveals the close interlinking of the sacred and the taboo, Agamben defines the sacred person as one who can be killed and yet not sacrificed--a paradox he sees as operative in the status of the modern individual living in a system that exerts control over the collective "naked life" of all individuals.… (lisätietoja)
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The concept of Homo Sacer, taken from the ancient Roman code, is a marginal existence excluded by both divine law and human law.

Through the allusion of homo sacer, Agamben reinterprets the paradox of "Biopolitique" in modern society and its historical origin (continuing on the basis of Foucault's "Biopolitique"). Before the introduction of "Homo Sacer", Agamben made an important classification of life management -- formal life (bios) and naked life (zoe). The combination of zoe and bios is that zoe in the private domain is pulled into the public domain and thus managed by the modern ruling body. Agamben introduced the concept of "homo sacer", which is special in that it is included in the city state in an excluded form, reflecting the most complete form of naked life, and the construction of the social normality that Foucault worried about can be traced back to a long time ago.

One of the most peculiar points of Agamben's argument: There is an inescapable dilemma in modern society, another aspect of the management of life can be eliminated for the same reason, and democracy, which is divided into the opposite of totalitarianism, is also in fact in the logic of the management of life with the enemy, especially through the suspension of the law by the "state of exception", the sovereign with the right to dispose of life and death will re-emerge. This is the most important addition to Foucault's argument.
  Maristot | Jul 29, 2023 |
“Sovereign violence is in truth founded not on a pact but on the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state."
For a certain class of reader (myself not excepted) Agamben is a better instructor on Hegel than the Phenomenology. Agamben's demonstration of the state of the Sacred as dialectical synthesis of example-exception in the first part of this text is illuminating. The example is excluded precisely as it is set aside from the group to be used as an example – inversely for the exclusion. His discussion of the application of the Law, although appearing to draw heavily from Foucault, is a similarly interesting:
"Just as the law, in the sovereign exception, applies to the exceptional case in no longer applying and in withdrawing from it, so homo sacer belongs to G-d in the form of unsacrificeability and is included in the community in the form of being able to be killed. "
To a lesser extent this Hegelian turn is also applied in the very first sections, which elaborate Sovereign power as that which exists outside the law and declares that nothing is outside the law, but is only able to make this claim because the sovereign is outside it. (In a return to Aquinas’s proofs he has demonstrated that in order to posit the Law (creation), the sovereign (G-d) must first exist outside it.)

Agamben’s discussion on the Creation of the Law is also remarkable in that it proceeds backwards from effects to causes. Per Agamben, its genesis consists precisely in the an act of violence in exception to the normal state of affairs. Only the systematic application of this violence to the extent that it forms a pattern could be called the means of creation of the Law which cobbles its name in retrospect. The function of the law is also inverted – not negative injunction and “not the act of tracing boundaries, but their cancellation or negation is the constitutive act of the city (and this is what the myth of the foundation of Rome, after all, teaches with perfect clarity). […] The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).”

His discussion of Nature goes beyond the critical dichotomies of historical-nature and natural-history, and this might be the truest section of the piece.
“We have seen that the state of nature is not a real epoch chronologically prior to the foundation of the City but a principle internal to the City, which appears at the moment the City is considered tanquam dissoluta, […] but what then appears is in fact not the state of nature (as an earlier stage into which men would fall back) but the state of exception. The state of nature and the state of exception are nothing but two sides of a single topological process in which what was presupposed as external (the state of nature) now reappears in the inside.”
The discussion on Kafka's "Before the Law' (section of The Trial) is an entertaining application of "Theory" toward the reversal of dusty canonical interpretations, though the exegetical reverence for Kafka's works as of biblical parables is tiresome (not Agamben's fault the literati love this dude).
"The interpreters seem to forget, in fact, precisely the words with which the story ends: "No one else could enter here, since this door was destined for you alone. Now I will go and shut it." If it is true the door's very openness constituted, as we saw, the invisible power and specific "force" of the Law, then we can imagine that all the behavior of the man from the country is nothing other than a complicated and patient strategy to have the door closed in order to interrupt the Law's being in force. And in the end, the man succeeds in his endeavor, since he succeeds in having the door of the Law closed forever "
Yet everything proceeds too easily. Agamben is taking some liberties (his sovereign right for creating this work). Contrast the authoritative English translation of Benjamin’s VIII Thesis on the Philosophy of History with Agamben’s: Instead of "… state of emergency in which we live ... it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency," we find, "… state of exception in which we live. Then we will have the production of the real state of exception before us as a task." Agamben appears to be Breaking Benjamin, upon whose concept of “Bare Life” this work seems to depend.

Agamben also transgresses a boundary in his discussion of brain death. He appears to make one of the classic rhetorical blunders, using ‘obviously’ to describe a statement in which he has the least certainty:
“The hospital room in which the neomort, the overcomatose person, and the faux vivantwaver between life and death delimits a space of exception in which a purely bare life, entirely controlled by man and his technology, appears for the first time. […] What is at stake is, once again, the definition of a life that may be killed without the commission of homicide (and that is, like homo sacer, "unsacrificeable," in the sense that it obviously could not be put to death following a death sentence)."
Rather than the epitome of “Homo Sacer”, “Coma Depasse/Deep Coma” appears to be precisely the inverse: a body in the state of exception which cannot be killed but can be sacrificed. The Deep Coma patient cannot be killed except by strictly-prescribed ritual i.e. "pulling the plug" or "live-organ harvesting". The application of the death sentence would not be inappropriate as it now occurs by the same medicated rituals as the organ harvesting process. The death sentence, where it still exists in the united states, is already separated from the notion of the exercise of capricious sovereign power upon bare life. No longer functioning in the service of a concept of deterrence or public safety it and now struggles along purely as sacrificial rite – (open to discussion). In fact, the overcomatose patient is precisely the person for whom the death sentence would be most appropriate. Conversely, the idea of stabbing such a person to death is inconceivable (they are already dead and thus cannot be killed).

Most significantly, Agamben returns to another proof of Aquinas (Argument from Degree) to support the strongest impacts of his work i.e. there exists a state of greatest realization of biopolitics and we might therefore call this state the epitome of the ‘modern’  the State of Exception as a unique feature of modern societies is therefore their defining quality and such States will soon extend over the entire planet:
"What is happening in ex-Yugoslavia and, more generally, what is happening in the processes of dissolution of traditional State organisms in Eastern Europe should be viewed not as a reemergence of the natural state of struggle of all against all-which functions as a prelude to new social contracts and new national and State localizations but rather as the coming to light of the state of exception as the permanent structure of juridico-political de-localization and dis-location. Political organization is not regressing toward outdated forms; rather, premonitory events are, like bloody masses, announcing the new nomos of the earth, which (if its grounding principle is not called into question) will soon extend itself over the entire planet."
I don’t trust this conclusion for a couple reasons. First, might it not just as readily turn out otherwise? The Biopolitical “Argument from Degree” has its share of proponents, yet one is reminded of the Marxist declaration on the unsustainability of the capitalist system, the end of which has not quite yet arrived although they have in its stead devised a series of pejorative terms "late/end-stage capitalism" and now “neoliberalism". I might interject, "The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent,” &c. Second, if the state of exception exists in “zones d'attentes in French international airports”, then "the state of exception as a modern phenomenon does not exist, because it has always existed” in the exclusive-inclusion of the refugee camp and leper colony/ghetto within the city gates.

Finally, instead of the Camp, one might more accurately posit the State of Staring-At-Your-Phone (SAYP) as the epitome of the modern. To its credit, SAYP has already succeeded in extended over the entire earth in the decentralized deterritorialized sphere of the internet and without the aid of the prophesies of prominent Italian intellectuals. By contrast the centralized bureaucracies of the modern totalitarian states have never been able to sequester “free time” beyond the positive injunction. SAYP is not the state of exclusion-inclusion but rather state of excrescence-involution. The online profile – at least in the context of this review – is precisely one of representation without presentation i.e. Agamben's presentation of Badiou’s concept of “Excrescence” as Representation in a group without Presentation, and which produces an excess/overdetermination of signifiers. "The relationship between membership and inclusion is also marked by a fundamental lack of correspondence, such that inclusion always exceeds membership. [...] The signifier always extends over and beyond the signified." And indeed even the metadata accumulated on me regarding my browsing patterns represents a significant excess over my actual contributions as a "user" in the state of Excrescence. Yet, at exactly the beginning of the attempt to define a profile by these data, the profile paradoxically enters the realm in which it is presented but without representation i.e. involution. The signs of all superfluity of data signifiers cannot begin to describe the signified person who has generated them. As such SAYP is the modern state of Excrescence-Involution (copyright pending). Recent attempts at reconciling these noumena (the ideological core of the social media project – if such a thing exists) threatens to collapse the dichotomy and “return to nature” (meaning, per Agamben, to socially-create for the first time) and replace the current opposition with an undialectical state of “normal membership” (i.e. persons both represented and presented), which, if successful, (and this is not a foregone conclusion), will result of an inversion of public and private life. Private life – being by oneself, bored, staring into space, looking at your phone – unrecorded events since prehistory, now occur publicly as the True Self represented and presented in the Metaverse(tm). Public life – meeting people, talking, a witty phrase – everything recorded in the memory of another, now occurs privately as unrecorded incognito existence and as practice of the unquantifiable.

With as much justification as Agamben’s declaration of the example-exception of the Camp as the epitome of the modern state, I would declare the excrescence-involution of Staring-At-Your-Phone and its threatened (but never actually arriving) collapse into the determined state of Normal Membership to be the fundamental category of relation within the modern state. By the numbers alone I should have him beat, if not by shock value. ( )
  Joe.Olipo | Nov 26, 2022 |
A book I read in full for a paper and did not ever use for that paper. How frustrating! I think that this concept of homo sacer is a little weak, that the enigma of it is what's so attractive about it, but I don't know how far we should try to extend and apply it. I liked best the parts about the homo sacer and the loup-garou, but that's just because I have liked for so long the concept of a werewolf as the fringe of humanity, neither part of it nor entirely out of it. Glad I read it and might use it some day, most likely to pull out and sound perfectly pretentious when I'm feeling the need to distance/impress in mixed company. ( )
  likecymbeline | Apr 1, 2017 |
Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life is the first of seven (and counting) volumes in a large project by contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben. (I have previously read the fourth, The Sacrament of Language.) Homo Sacer was first published in 1995, and some have suggested that it was serendipity that the political developments of the early 21st century have been so vulnerable to the tools of analysis that Agamben began to formulate here. Such judgments rest on the dubious view that the events in the US of September 2001, along with the political and governmental reactions to them, were some sort of freak accident alien to the cultivated soil of Western polity.

The point of departure in this book is the antique idea of the homo sacer, a declared outlaw who cannot be "sacrificed," but can be killed without repercussion. Agamben places this figure at the opposite pole from that of the sovereign, in the constitution of the paradoxical "state of exception" -- a concept that he takes from the Nazi jurist and theorist of "political theology" Carl Schmitt, and advances as the principal germ of government, newly exposed in the modern phenomena of "biopolitics" (this latter term from Michel Foucault). Agamben insists -- quite credibly -- that a common biopolitical skeleton lies under the skin of both mass democracies and the notorious totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

Agamben identifies the homo sacer "bandit" (i.e. one under a ban) with "bare life," and this condition is explored through tangent human realities such as subjects of medical experimentation (especially Nazi Versuchspersonen), prisoners condemned to capital punishment, euthanasia candidates, and the "overcomatose," relating these also to the deprecated and disenfranchised classes confined and condemned in totalitarian states. The book is a declared inquiry into the genealogy of the idea of the sanctity of life, and the complicity of this idea with forms of biopolitical oppression and even "thanatopolitical" extermination. It seems a curious oversight that the category of the sovereign fetus is never raised in this survey, given its relationship to the "sanctity of life" in US political rhetoric. (Prohibiting abortion was, of course, a conspicuous biopolitical initiative of Nazi rule.) On a more speculative note, the "ectogene" (a parentless "test tube baby") plays into the nexus of concerns raised in the closing chapters of the book.

One of the chief claims of the book is that human polity should no longer be investigated under the sign of the city, as understood in centuries past, but rather that of the concentration camp. Agamben extends the term to cover all sites of detention, where civil dignities are suspended in consideration of political priorities: refugee quarantine areas, prisons holding aliens to be deported, and so on. Instances of the type have multiplied virally in the last twenty years: the "free speech zones" to divert and suppress street protest in the US, CIA "black sites," and the Homan Square "off-the-books interrogation compound" run by Chicago police are a few that occur to my mind.

Homo Sacer brought ideas together from many other thinkers who have been objects of my attention. Agamben also characterizes the book as an effort to synthesize the political realizations of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault (120). Scholars of religion should attend to the theoretical critique bodied forth in the chapter on "The Ambivalence of the Sacred." Thelemites can find ideas worth pondering regarding "pure will" in the Kantian ruminations of the chapter on the "Form of Law." Agamben's work was not a flawless performance, though. Humanistic scholars should probably avoid mathematical or scientific metaphors when they are only superficially familiar with the relevant concepts; he unaccountably wrote "Leyden jar" where he evidently intended "Klein bottle" (37).

Overall, this book was well worth my time, and I expect to read further in the Homo Sacer project, and possibly in some of the secondary literature reacting to Agamben's ideas.
2 ääni paradoxosalpha | Mar 6, 2015 |
Un livre difficile mais passionnant, une philosophie qui n'a pas peur de déranger et de questionner les idées habituellement admises. Ce qui rend Agamben si intéressant, c'est qu'il puise dans l'histoire et remonte jusqu'aux origines pour essayer de comprendre nos pratiques, notre rapport au monde et au politique. ( )
1 ääni duportje | Mar 15, 2014 |
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The work of Giorgio Agamben, one of Italy's most important and original philosophers, has been based on an uncommon erudition in classical traditions of philosophy and rhetoric, the grammarians of late antiquity, Christian theology, and modern philosophy. Recently, Agamben has begun to direct his thinking to the constitution of the social and to some concrete, ethico-political conclusions concerning the state of society today, and the place of the individual within it. In Homo Sacer, Agamben aims to connect the problem of pure possibility, potentiality, and power with the problem of political and social ethics in a context where the latter has lost its previous religious, metaphysical, and cultural grounding. Taking his cue from Foucault's fragmentary analysis of biopolitics, Agamben probes with great breadth, intensity, and acuteness the covert or implicit presence of an idea of biopolitics in the history of traditional political theory. He argues that from the earliest treatises of political theory, notably in Aristotle's notion of man as a political animal, and throughout the history of Western thinking about sovereignty (whether of the king or the state), a notion of sovereignty as power over "life" is implicit. The reason it remains merely implicit has to do, according to Agamben, with the way the sacred, or the idea of sacrality, becomes indissociable from the idea of sovereignty. Drawing upon Carl Schmitt's idea of the sovereign's status as the exception to the rules he safeguards, and on anthropological research that reveals the close interlinking of the sacred and the taboo, Agamben defines the sacred person as one who can be killed and yet not sacrificed--a paradox he sees as operative in the status of the modern individual living in a system that exerts control over the collective "naked life" of all individuals.

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