Giorgio Agamben

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48, 104, 106, conversations.

Giorgio Agamben (born 1942) is an Italian philosopher who teaches at the University of Verona. He also holds a professorship at the European Graduate School, teaches at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and at the University of Macerata in Italy, and has held visiting appointments at several American universities. He became famous for his investigations on the concepts of state of exception and Homo sacer.


Agamben was educated at the University of Rome, where he wrote a thesis on the political thought of Simone Weil. Agamben participated in Martin Heidegger's Le Thor seminars (on Heraclitus and Hegel) in 1966 and 1968. In the seventies he worked primarily on linguistics, philology, poetics, and medievalist topics, where he began to elaborate his primary concerns, though without as yet inflecting them in a specifically political direction. In 1974-1975 he was a fellow at the Warburg Institute, where he wrote Stanzas (1979).

Close to Elsa Morante, on whom he has written, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in whose The Gospel According to St. Matthew he played the part of Philip, Italo Calvino, Ingeborg Bachmann, Pierre Klossowski, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard, his strongest influences include Walter Benjamin, whose complete works he edited in Italian translation. Agamben's philosophy draws from Michel Foucault as well as from Italian neo-marxist thought. He frequently cites Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. While sometimes being cryptic in his writings, in interviews he makes himself clear as a public thinker in Foucauldian tradition who is interested in social conflicts on a global scale.

Criticism against US response to "9-11" and biometrics

Giorgio Agamben is particularly critical of the United States' response to September 11, 2001, and its instrumentalization as a permanent condition that legitimizes a state of exception as the dominant paradigm for governing in contemporary politics. He warns against a "generalization of the state of exception" through laws like the USA PATRIOT Act, which means a permanent installment of martial law and emergency powers. In January 2004, he refused to give a lecture in the United States because under the US-VISIT he would have been required to give up his biometric information, which he believed stripped him to a state of "bare life" (zoe) and was akin to the tattooing that the Nazis did during World War II.

However, Agamben's criticisms target a broader scope than the US "war on terror". As he points out in State of Exception (2005), rule by decree has became common since World War I in all modern states, and has been since then generalized and abused. Agamben points out a general tendency of modernity, recalling for example that when Francis Galton and Alphonse Bertillon invented "judicial photography" for "anthropometric identification", the procedure was reserved to criminals; to the contrary, today's society is tending toward a generalization of this procedure to all citizens, placing the population under permanent suspicion and surveillance: "The political body thus has became a criminal body". And Agamben to remind that the Jews deportation in France and other occupied countries was made possible by the photos taken from identity cards ==References==

. Furthermore, Agamben's political criticisms open up in a larger philosophical critique of the concept of sovereignty itself, which he explains is intrinsically related to the state of exception.


In The Coming Community (1993), Giorgio Agamben writes:

If human beings were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible... This does not mean, however, that human are not, and do not have to be, something, that they are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely decide whether to be or not to be, to adopt or not to adopt this or that destiny (nihilism and decisionism coincide at this point). There is an effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one's own existence as possibility or potentiality... ==References==

This potentiality of life would become one of Agamben's main threads, throughout his critical conception of an homo sacer, reduced to "bare life", and thus deprived of any rights. Henceforth, Agamben intents to think a kind of "subjectivity without subject": humans are "an effect", "but this is not an essence nor properly a thing", but the "simple fact of one's own existence as possibility or potentiality". This "coming community" opposes itself to sovereignty, which reduces through the state of exception qualified life (bios) to bare life (zoe).

Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998)

In his main work "Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life" (1998), Giorgio Agamben analyzes an obscure figure of Roman law that poses some fundamental questions to the nature of law and power in general. Under the Roman Empire, a man who committed a certain kind of crime was banned from society and all of his rights as a citizen were revoked. He thus became a "homo sacer" (sacred man). In consequence, he could be killed by anybody -- while his life on the other hand was deemed "sacred", so he could not be sacrificed in a ritual ceremony.

To a Homo sacer, Roman law no longer applied, although he was still "under the spell" of law. Agamben defines it as "human life...included in the juridical order solely in the form of its exclusion (that is, of its capacity to be killed)". Homo sacer was therefore excluded from law itself, while being included at the same time. This figure is the exact mirror image of the sovereign (Basileus) - a king, emperor, or president -- who stands, on the one hand, within law (so he can be condemned, e.g., for treason, as a natural person) and outside of the law (since as a body politic he has power to suspend law for an indefinite time). Indeed, Giorgio Agamben draws on Carl Schmitt's definition of the Sovereign as the one who has the power to decide the state of exception (or justitium), where law is indefinitely "suspended" without being abrogated. But if Schmitt's aim is to include the necesity of state of emergency under the rule of law, Agamben on the contrary demonstrates that all life can't be subsumed by law. As in Homo sacer, the state of emergency is the inclusion of life and necessity in the juridical order solely in the form of its exclusion.

Since its origins, Agamben notes, law has had the power of defining what "bare life" (zoe, as opposed to bios: qualified life) is by making this exclusive operation, while at the same time gaining power over it by making it the subject of political control. The power of law to actively separate "political" beings (citizens) from "bare life" (bodies) has carried on from Antiquity to Modernity -- from, literally, Aristotle to Auschwitz. Aristotle, as Agamben notes, constitutes political life via a simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of "bare life": as Aristotle says, man is an animal born to life (zen), but existing with regard to the good life (eu zen) which can be achieved through politics. Bare life, in this ancient conception of politics, is that which must be transformed, via the State, into the "good life"; that is, bare life is that which is supposedly excluded from the higher aims of the state, yet is included precisely so that it may be transformed into this "good life." Sovereignty, then, is conceived from ancient times as a state of exception. According to Agamben, biopower, which takes the bare lives of the citizens into its political calculations, may be more marked in the modern state, but has essentially existed since the beginnings of sovereignty in the West, since this structure of ex-ception is essential to the core concept of sovereignty.

State of Exception (2005)

In this book, written in the aftermath of Bush's campaign labelled the "War on terror", Agamben traces the concept of state of exception used by Carl Schmitt to Roman justitium and auctoritas. This leads him to a response to Carl Schmitt's definition of sovereignty as the power to proclaim state emergency.

Auctoritas, "charism" and Führertum doctrine

Agamben shows that auctoritas and potestas are clearly distinct - although they form together a binary system" ==References==

. He quotes Mommsen, who explains that auctoritas is "less than an order and more than an advice".

While potestas derives from social function, auctoritas "immediately derives from the patres personal condition". As such, it is akin to Max Weber's concept of charism. This is why the tradition ordered , at the king's death , the creation of the sovereign’s wax-double in the funus imaginarium, as did Ernst Kantorowicz demonstrate in The King's Two Bodies (1957). Hence, it is necessary to distinguish two bodies of the sovereign in order to assure the continuity of dignitas (term used by Kantorowicz, here a synonym of auctoritas). Moreover, in the person detaining auctoritas - the sovereign -public life and private life have become inseparable. Augustus, the first Roman emperor who claimed auctoritas as the basis of princeps status in a famous passage of Res Gestae, had opened up his house to public eyes.

The concept of auctoritas played a key-role in fascism and nazism, in particular concerning Carl Schmitt's theories, argues Agamben:

"To understand modern phenomenons such as the fascist Duce or the nazi Führer, it is important not to forget their continuity with the principe of auctoritas principis {Agamben refers here to Augustus's Res Gestae}. {...} Neither does the Duce nor the Führer represent constitutionally defined public charges - even though Mussolini and Hitler endorsed respectively the charge of head of government and Reich's chancellor, just as Augustus endorsed the imperium consulare or the potestas tribunicia. The Duce 's or the Führer 's qualities are immediately related to the physical person and belong to the biopolitical tradition of auctoritas and not to the juridical tradition of potestas ".

Thus, Agamben opposes Foucault's concept of "biopolitics" to right (law), as he defines the state of exception, in Homo sacer, as the inclusion of life by right under the figure of ex-ception, which is simultaneously inclusion and exclusion. Following Walter Benjamin's lead, he explains that our task would be to radically differentiate "pure violence" from right, instead of tying them together, as did Carl Schmitt.

Agamben concludes his chapter on " Auctoritas and potestas " writing:

"It is significative that modern specialists were so enclined to admit that auctoritas was inherent to the living person of the pater or the princeps. What was evidently an ideology or a fictio aiming to be the groundwork of auctoritas ' preeminence or, at least, specific rank compared to potestas thus became a figure of right's {law - "droit"} immanence to life. (...) Although it is evident that there can't be an eternal human type that would incarnate itself each time in Augustus, Napoleon, Hitler, but only more or less comparable ("semblables") mechanisms {"dispositif", a term often used by Foucault} - the state of exception, justitium, the auctoritas principis, the Führertum -, put in use in more or less differents circumstances, in the 1930s - overall, but not only - in Germany, the power that Weber had defined as "charismatic" is related to the concept of auctoritas and elaborated in a Führertum doctrine as the original and personal power of a leader. In 1933, in a short article intending to define the fundamental concepts of national-socialism, Schmitt defines the Führung principe by the "root identity between the leader and his entourage" {"identité de souche entre le chef et son entourage"} (we shall note the use of weberian concepts)."

Agamben’s thoughts on the state of emergency leads him to declare that the difference between dictatorship and democracy is thin indeed, as rule by decree became more and more common, starting from World War I and the reorganization of constitutional balance. Agamben often reminds that Hitler never abrogated the Weimar Constitution: he suspended it for the whole duration of the 3rd Reich with the Reichstag Fire Decree, issued on February 28, 1933. Indefinite suspension of law is what characterizes the state of exception. Thus, Agamben connects Greek political philosophy through to the concentration camps of 20th century fascism, and even further, to detainment camps in the likes of Guantanamo Bay or immigration detention centers, such as Bari, Italy, where asylum seekers have been imprisoned in football stadiums. In these kinds of camps, entire zones of exception are being formed: the state of exception becomes a status under which certain categories of people live, a capture of life by right. Sovereign law makes it possible to create entire areas in which the application of the law itself is held suspended, which is the basis of Bush administration's definition of an "enemy combatant".

Interregnum, justitium and nomos empsuchos (the sovereign as "living law")

In the chapter preceding Auctoritas and potestas, Agamben advances an explanation of the transformation of justitium, a technical term referring to the state of exception, declared to cope with tumultus state (rebellion, uprising, riots...), at the end of the Roman Republic, into a term simply referring to the mourning of the sovereign's death during interregnum periods:

"The correspondence between justitutium and mourning here shows its true signification. If the sovereign is a living nomos, if then anomie and nomos coïncide in his person without any left-over, then anarchy (which, at his death, when the link attaching him to law his broken, threatens to unleash itself in the city) must be ritualized and controlled, by the transformation of the state of exception into public mourning and of mourning into justitium (...) Before acquiring the modern form of a decision on emergency {Schmitt's definition}, the relationship between sovereignty and state of exception presents itself under the form of an identity between the sovereign and anomie. As living law, the sovereign is deeply anomos. Here also the state of exception is the life -more secret and true - of the law."

The first formulation of the thesis according to which "the sovereign is a living law" found its first formulation on the treaty "On law and justice" by pseudo-Archytas, conserved by Stobée with Diotogène's treaty on sovereignty. It is the first attempt to conceive a form of sovereignty completely enfranchised from laws, being itself the source of legitimacy. This theory must be radically distinguished from natural rights theory or Antigone's appeal to the "eternal and unwritten laws" to which even monarchs must abide, as it is a theory of sovereignty (in fact, it is quite the reverse of Antigone's rebellion).

Pseudo-Archytas distinguished the sovereign (basileus), who is the law, from the magistrate (archōn), who limits himself to observing the law. "Identification between law and sovereign has as consequence, writes Agamben, the scission of law into a "living" law (nomos empsuchos), hierarchically superior, and a written law (gramma), which is subordinate to the first one". He then quotes A. Delatte's Essais sur la politique pythagoricienne (Paris, 1922), himself quoting the pseudo-Archytas:

"I say that all communities are composed of an archōn (the magistrate who commands), a commanded one, and, as tierce party, laws. Among those ones, the living one is the sovereign (ho men empsuchos ho basileus), and the inanimate one is the letter (gramma). Law is the first element, the king is legal, the magistrate accorded to law, the commanded free and all of the city happy; but, in case of corruption ("dévoiement"), the sovereign is a tyrant, the magistrate is not accorded to law and the community is unhappy."