Giorgio Agamben

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Giorgio Agamben
Western Philosophy
Contemporary philosophy
Full name Giorgio Agamben
School/tradition Aesthetics
Main interests Aesthetics · Political philosophy
Notable ideas Homo sacer
"State of exception"
"Whatever singularity"

Giorgio Agamben (born 1942 in Rome) is an Italian philosopher who teaches at the Università IUAV di Venezia. He also teaches at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris, at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and previously taught at the University of Macerata and at the University of Verona, both in Italy. He also has held visiting appointments at several American universities, from the University of California, Berkeley, to Northwestern University, Evanston, and at Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf. Agamben's best known work includes his investigations of the concepts of state of exception and homo sacer.[1]

Agamben received the Prix Européen de l'Essai Charles Veillon in 2006.


[edit] Biography

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 1970s 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, due to the courtesy of Francis Yates (whom he met through Italo Calvino), where he developed part of the volume Stanzas (1977).

Close to the Italian writer Elsa Morante, on whom he has written, and with the poets Giorgio Caproni and José Bergamín, he developed friendships, relations and collaborations with eminent figures of our times as Pier Paolo Pasolini (in whose The Gospel According to St. Matthew he played the part of Philip), Italo Calvino (with whom he collaborated, for a short while, as counsellor of the publisher house Einaudi and developed a project for a magazine), Ingeborg Bachmann, Pierre Klossowski, Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, Antonio Negri, Jean-François Lyotard and so many others.

His strongest influences include Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, whose complete works he edited in Italian translation (until 1996), and which was for him a kind of antidote to the strong influence Heidegger. Of Benjamin, he discovered several important manuscripts, some at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Within these, and of great relevance, were found the manuscripts of the thesis On the Concept of History. Since the nineties, he was mainly concerned with: the political writings of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, of whom we can read extensively in his Stato di eccezione (2003); and with Michel Foucault, from whom, in the last years, he confesses to have "had the opportunity to learn so much " [2].

Agamben's political thought - which started mainly as a revisitation, with rare deepness, of Aristotle's Politics, the Nicomachean Ethics and the short treatise On the Soul, and the exegetic late-antiquity and medieval tradition around them - draws on Hannah Arendt's and Foucault's studies and on the wide discussion initiated with the publication of Nancy's article La communauté désoeuvrée (1983)[3], and the immediate response to it by Maurice Blanchot, La communauté inavouable (1983); all these concerned with the notion of community at a time when the European Community was under a main debate. From such thoughtful texts and discussions, came, a few years later, his own proposal - La comunità che viene (1990/ translated in English in 1993), at a time when he was working around the ontological condition and "political" attitude of Bartleby (from Herman Melville's short story) — a scrivener who does not react, and "prefers not" to write.

[edit] Work

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 humans 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 in 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...


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. Agamben's concept rests on a crucial distinction in Greek between 'bare life' (la vita nuda, Gk.ζωή: zoê) and 'a particular mode of life' or 'qualified life'(Gk.βίος, bios) of a group or a single individual[5]. His analysis will henceforth aim to think through 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).

“In United States criminal law, people accused of committing crimes cannot be compelled to incriminate themselves verbally, but can be compelled to incriminate themselves physically.” In the state of exception this becomes an even greater heightened state. This addresses the distinction Agamben makes when turning to the theories of Hannah Arendt and her followers on zoe, bare life, and bios, referring to actions in the “form of life,” and notably the bios politikos: “the life of great actions and noble words.” One who has been accused of committing a crime, within the legal system, loses the ability to use his voice and represent him- or herself: the individual has not only been deprived of his citizenship, but also of any form of agency over his own life. “Agamben identifies the state of exception with the power of decision over life.” Within the state of exception, the distinction between zoe and bios is made by those in power. For example, Agamben would argue that Guantánamo Bay operates within the terms of the state of exception in the United States following 9-11.

Agamben mentions that basic human rights were revoked from Taliban individuals, captured in Afghanistan in 2001, who were then held within Guantánamo Bay. In reaction to the removal of their basic human rights, detainees of Guantánamo Bay prison went on hunger strikes. Within a state of exception, when a prisoner has been removed of their rights and placed within a state of being mere zoe, bare life, then what actions of dissent do the individuals have besides that of their own body? Here, one can see why such measures as hunger strikes can occur in such places as prisons. Within the framework of a system that has removed the individual of power, and their individual basic human freedoms, the hunger strike can be seen as a weapon or form of resistance. “The body is a model that can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious.” Within a state of exception the boundaries of power are precarious and threaten to destabilize not only the law, but one’s humanity, as well as their choice of life or death. Forms of resistance to the extended use of power within the state of exception as suggested in Guantánamo Bay prison also operate outside of the law. In the case of the hunger strike, the prisoners were threatened and endured force feeding not allowing them to die. During the hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay prison, accusations and founded claims of forced feedings began to surface in the autumn of 2005. In February 2006, The New York Times reported that prisoners were being force fed in Guantánamo Bay prison and in March 2006, more than 250 medical experts, as reported by the BBC [1], voiced their opinions of the forced feedings stating that this was a breach of the government’s power and was against the rights of the prisoners.

[edit] The Coming Community (1993)

In The Coming Community, published in Italian in 1990 and English translation by Michael Hardt in 1993, Agamben describes the social and political manifestation of his philosophical thought. The beauty and brevity of the text is augmented by the book layout, filled with design, white space and random dots. Employing diverse short essays he describes the nature of “whatever singularity” as that which has an “inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence”. It is important to note his understanding of “whatever” not as being indifference but based on the Latin translation of “being such that it always matters”

He starts off by describing “The Lovable”

Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover want the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is.


Following the same trend, Agamben employs, amongst others, the following to describe the “watershed of whatever”:

  • Example – Particular and Universal
  • Limbo – Blessed and Damned
  • Homonym – concept and idea
  • Halo – Potentiality and Actuality
  • Face - common and proper, genus and individual
  • Threshold – inside and outside
  • Coming Community – State & Non-state (humanity)[7]

Other themes addressed in The Coming Community include the commodification of the body, evil, and the messianic.

Unlike other continental philosophers he does not reject the age-old dichotomies of subject – object, potentiality - actuality etc outright, but rather turns them inside-out, pointing out the zone where they become indistinguishable.

Matter that does not remain beneath form, but surrounds it with a halo


The political task of humanity, he argues, is to expose the innate potential in this zone of indistinguishability. And although criticised as dreaming the impossible by certain authors [9], he nonetheless shows a concrete example of whatever singularity acting politically:

Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principle enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear


[edit] 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.

Roman law no longer applied to someone deemed a Homo sacer, although they would remain "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 necessity 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.[11]

Agamben would continue to expand the theory of the state of exception first introduced in "Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life", ultimately leading "State of Exception" in 2005. During 2003, he delivered a lecture describing the eclipse that politics has undergone. Instead of leaving a space between law and life, the space where human action is possible, the space that used to constitute politics, he argues that politics has “contaminated itself with law” in the state of exception. Because “only human action is able to cut the relationship between violence and law”, it becomes increasingly difficult within the state of exception for humanity to act against the State[12]

[edit] State of Exception (2005)

In this book, Agamben traces the concept of 'state of exception' (Ausnahmezustand) 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.

Giorgio Agamben’s text State of Exception investigates the increase of power structures governments employ in supposed times of crisis. Within these times of crisis, Agamben refers to increased extension of power as states of exception, where questions of citizenship and individual rights can be diminished, superseded and rejected in the process of claiming this extension of power by a government. Agamben explores the effect of the state of exception on the individual by looking at the ideas of bios and zoe.

The state of exception invests one person or government, with the power and voice of authority over others extended well beyond where the law has existed in the past. “In every case, the state of exception marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference" (Agamben, pg 40). Agamben refers a continued state of exception to the Nazi state of Germany under Hitler’s rule. “The entire Third Reich can be considered a state of exception that lasted twelve years. In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system" (Agamben, pg 2). However simplistic and obvious it is to mention, one must acknowledge the state of exception is a dangerous and violent place of operation.

The political power over others acquired through the state of exception, places one government - or one form or branch of government - as all powerful, operating outside of the laws. During such times of extension of power, certain forms of knowledge shall be privileged and accepted as true and certain voices shall be heard as valued, while of course, many others are not. This oppressive distinction holds great importance in relation to the production of knowledge. The process of both acquiring knowledge, and suppressing certain knowledge, is a violent act within a time of crisis.

Agamben’s State of Exception investigates how the suspension of laws within a state of emergency or crisis can become a prolonged state of being. More specifically, Agamben addresses how this prolonged state of exception operates to remove individuals of their citizenship. When speaking about the military order issued by President George W. Bush on November 13, 2001, Agamben writes, “What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POW’s as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws" (Agamben, pg 3). Many of the individuals captured in Afghanistan were taken to be held at Guantánamo Bay without trial. These individuals were termed as “enemy combatants.” Until July 7, 2006, these individuals had been treated outside of the Geneva Conventions by the United States administration.

[edit] Auctoritas, "charisma" and Führertum doctrine

Agamben shows that auctoritas and potestas are clearly distinct - although they form together a binary system".[13] He quotes Mommsen, who explains that auctoritas is "less than an order and more than an advice".[14]

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 charisma. 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 phenomena such as the fascist Duce or the Nazi Führer, it is important not to forget their continuity with the principle 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 different 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 principle 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".

[edit] 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 treatise "On law and justice" by pseudo-Archytas, conserved by Stobaeus with Diotogene's treatise 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."

[edit] Criticism of US response to "9-11"

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.[18][19]

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 become 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 notes that the Jews deportation in France and other occupied countries was made possible by the photos taken from identity cards.[20] 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.

[edit] Endnotes and references

  1. ^ Generally speaking, "state of exception" includes German Notstand, English state of emergency and others martial law. Agamben prefers using this term as it underlines the structure of ex-ception, which is simultaneously of inclusion and exclusion. "Ex-ception" can be opposed to the concept of "example" as developed by Kant.
  2. ^ Giorgio Agamben, Signatura rerum, Sul metodo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2008), p. 7.
  3. ^ This was a response to a proposal by Jean-Christophe Bailly, who put under discussion the word community, not touch yet by thinkers. Bailley enunciate was «The community, the number», a topic for one of the numbers of the French magazine Aléa, edited at that time by Christian Bourgois. Cf. Jean-Luc Nancy, La communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1983). In english transl., The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
  4. ^ The Coming Community (1993), section 11.
  5. ^ 'the form or manner of living proper to an individual or a group', G.Agamben, Homer sacer: Il potere sovrano e la vita nuda, Einaudi, Turin 1995 p.3'
  6. ^ The Coming Community (1993), page 2.
  7. ^ The Coming Community (1993)
  8. ^ The Coming Community (1993)
  9. ^ IJBS
  10. ^ The Coming Community (1993), page 86.
  11. ^ Of course, this understanding of "biopower" is distinct from Foucault's use of the term.
  12. ^ Video clip of Agamben's lecture: On the State of Exception, Saas-Fee, Switzerland (2003) is available here or a smaller file here
  13. ^ Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (2005)
  14. ^ Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht ("Roman Constitutional Law", volume III) (Graz, 1969)
  15. ^ Agamben, State of Exception (ibid.), chapter 6 "Auctoritas and potestas", §7.
  16. ^ Agamben, ibid., chapter 6, §8.
  17. ^ Agamben, ibid., chapter 5, §3.
  18. ^ (French)"Non au tatouage biopolitique "No to Bio-Political Tattooing"". Le Monde. 2004-01-10. 
  19. ^ [|"No to Bio-Political Tattooing" By Giorgio Agamben, Le Monde, Saturday 10 January 2004
  20. ^ (French)"Non à la biométrie ("No to Biometrics")". Le Monde. 2005-12-05.,40-0@2-3232,50-717595,0.html.  (also available here)

[edit] Bibliography

Only English translations are listed here; there are translations of most writings to German, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. There also is an updated list of publications including translations to other languages and links to texts here and a more complete bibliography here.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] French

[edit] Italian

[edit] Polish

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