Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A short comment on Agamben's Homo Sacer

     This is a move away from the more immediate recent writings, focusing on the current political situation. I recently came across this engagement with Agamben and thought I would put it up. Don't worry, I'll probably return to questions of the contemporary Occupy movement, and will probably spend some time discussing the protests that will be occurring in a couple weeks on the various campuses of California colleges and universities.

      The first section of Agamben’s book tries to ask the question of what is the structure that defines sovereignty. We find this formulated in the following manner in the introduction.

     Today, now the great State structures have entered into a process of dissolution and the emergency has, as Walter Benjamin foresaw, become the rule, the time is ripe to place the problem of the originary structure and limits of the form of the State in new perspective. The weakness of anarchist and Marxian critiques of the State was precisely to have not caught sight of this structure and thus to have quickly left the arcanum imperii aside, as if it had no substance outside of the simulacra and the ideologies invoked to justify it. But one ends up identifying with an enemy whose structure one does not understand, and the theory of the State (and particular of the state of exception, which is to say, of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transitional phase leading to the stateless society) is the reef on which the revolutions of our century have been shipwrecked. (12)

      We find that Agamben is interested in engaging in a certain critical intervention within the understandings of sovereignty that have been produced by its traditional enemies. Agamben is clearly engaged in the same project that the two movements, marxism and anarchism are engaged in, the destruction of the state. But Agamben argues that these movements have missed something crucial in the construction of the state. He finds that this structure is tied to the state of exception, and the creation of the state as the moment of indistinction. Perhaps if we use Bataille’s terminology rather than Badiou’s, we could define the State and the homogenous as being produced out of the heterogeneous. We find this logic being presented in Bataille’s understanding of fascist movements in “The Psychological Structure of Fascism.”

       In any case, the remainder of the book seems to be a genealogical study of the structures of law and sovereignty that Agamben sets out and the beginning of the book. In a certain sense, one can read the entire book as an attempt to accomplish Walter Benjamin’s imperative to understand history. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized….” (Benjamin 255)

      This genealogy begins with the figure of the ‘sacred man’ in Roman history, who can be “killed, but cannot be sacrificed.” He moves through discussions of the king’s two bodies, and also a discussion of the figure of the werewolf and its linkage to the figure of the bandit, but the most significant section seems to be the one dealing with the figure of the camp, which Agamben sees as the nomos of the age. In order to understand this structure of exclusion he spends a considerable amount of time discussing the death camps. It seems that Agamben is interested in making a connection between this camp and the various crises that came up through the 1990’s, primarily the situation in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, and the crisis in Rwanda. He links these crises with the “Life that does not deserve to live.”

      Furthermore he links up the production of the state of exception of the camp with the democratic tradition that is ostensibly in opposition to it. In this sense, he is also following Benjamin, who also makes such a linkage. He links it with the 1789 document on the rights of man, as well as connecting it to a whole series of acts that limited who could be considered a citizen throughout Europe. There is an obvious linkage that can be made with the discussion of the production of the race, which Foucault discusses in Society Must Be Defended. After all, this disallowing life to the point of death is directed to the production of a stronger ‘people’, a stronger ‘race’.

     There seem to be a number of potential problems. The first that comes to mind is the absence of resistance within Agamben’s model. The camp may become a way of creating a state of exception, but the residents of the camp have never really been totally compliant in this situation. Even in the most extreme example of the Nazi death camps, one can find modes of resistance. There are moments when one feels that Agamben may be a bit ensorcelled by the model of power that he has found in the particular genealogy. The other note that I would want to make concerns the lack of discussion around colonialism. I find this peculiar given the importance that it has for one of his sources, Hannah Arendt, in her understanding of the rise of fascist power.

      On the other hand, I think that it does begin to chart the course of a particular response of capitalist sovereignty in response to the crisis that exists in its structure. In a sense, it dovetails with the project of Antonio Negri who is interested in following the trajectory of resistance within the current structures. But unlike Negri, Agamben seems to lack an understanding of the living labor that supports the system.


  1. The first that comes to mind is the absence of resistance within Agamben’s model. Yes. Even if you call it "less" than resistance, this seems to me to be the flaw, definitely fatal, in his theory of the state of exception. You don't even have to engage in vulgar autonomism to make this critique; he seems to think the state is just imposed and never negotiated and reproduced. Actually, that doesn't capture the whole of his corpus, but the way his books and concepts have been kept separated and pure evinces a sorry kind of dialectics. (I say all that somewhat regrettably, since I love his coming community stuff.)

  2. Ultimately, the Negri I'm thinking of is the work of the 1980's, particularly the work on Spinoza and the lectures on the Grundrisse, although Virno is also an excellent source for thinking through these questions as well. (You could probably just go to the new Foucault lectures, which are far more interesting.)