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Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer

Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer

by Andrew Norris (Editor), Thomas Carl Wall (Contribution by), Peter Fitzpatrick (Contribution by), Erik Vogt (Contribution by), Andreas Kalyvas (Contribution by)

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The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is having an increasingly significant impact on Anglo-American political theory. His most prominent intervention to date is the powerful reassessment of sovereignty and the politics of life and death laid out in his multivolume Homo Sacer project. Agamben argues that in both the modern world and the ancient, politics


The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is having an increasingly significant impact on Anglo-American political theory. His most prominent intervention to date is the powerful reassessment of sovereignty and the politics of life and death laid out in his multivolume Homo Sacer project. Agamben argues that in both the modern world and the ancient, politics inevitably involves a sovereign decision that bans some individuals from the political and human communities. For Agamben, the Nazi concentration camps—in which some inmates are reduced to a form of living death—are not a political aberration but instead the place where this essential political decision about life most clearly reveals itself. Engaging specifically with Homo Sacer, the essays in this collection draw out and contend with the wide-ranging implications of Agamben’s radical and controversial interpretation of modern political life.

The contributors analyze Agamben’s thought from the perspectives of political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, and the history of law. They consider his work not only in relation to that of his major interlocutors—Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, and Martin Heidegger—but also in relation to the thought of Plato, Pindar, Heraclitus, Descartes, Kafka, Bataille, and Derrida. The essayists’ approaches are varied, as are their ultimate evaluations of the cogency and accuracy of Agamben’s arguments. This volume also includes an original essay by Agamben in which he considers the relation of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” to Schmitt’s Political Theology. Politics, Metaphysics, and Death is a necessary, multifaceted exposition and evaluation of the thought of one of today’s most important political theorists.

Contributors: Giorgio Agamben, Andrew Benjamin, Peter Fitzpatrick, Anselm Haverkamp, Paul Hegarty, Andreas Kalyvas, Rainer Maria Kiesow , Catherine Mills, Andrew Norris, Adam Thurschwell, Erik Vogt, Thomas Carl Wall

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Politics, Metaphysics, and Death provides the most lucid and penetrating accounts available of the political thought of Italy’s most influential philosopher. Agamben’s engagement with the complex entanglement of modernity and the tradition, the contributors to this volume show, cannot be ignored by anyone who would face up to the demands now placed by politics on political theory.”—Frederick M. Dolan, author of Allegories of America: Narratives, Metaphysics, Politics

“Andrew Norris and the contributors to this collection have not only performed extraordinary feats of textual exegesis but also produced a critical context and set of arguments with and concerning Agamben’s theory of sovereignty which will provide the starting point for all future study on his political thought.”—Thomas Dumm, author of A Politics of the Ordinary

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Essays on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3537-5

Chapter One



The theses of Giorgio Agamben in his still expanding Homo Sacer project are, in part: (1) the original political "element" is sacred life; (2) this sacred life, at one time defined as exceptional and excluded from public life, is now virtually coextensive with the political as a whole; (3) as such, as virtually coextensive with the entirety of the political, this sacred life is also virtually banalized (as in the banal expression "politics as usual"); and thus (4) it is the goal of sovereign power, in accord with the logic of the ban, to isolate and to actualize sacred life as banal in conformity to its classical definition as that life which can be killed but not sacrificed. Insofar as it is worthless, utterly banal, this life-nothing but bare life, or life purely insofar as it is political-falls outside any but legal language. There is nothing much to say about this bare life. (I am able-to-be-killed. So what?) Bare life may or may not be "fit" to live, "fit" to die, or "fit" to be spoken of, as with the innumerable anonymous victims of highway accidents, as Agamben mentions, who do not make the news. Barelife is fabricated only to be judged, decided on, as speed limits are a calculated determination of how many are likely to die in any given period of time. Naked life, as Agamben attempts to think it, is prior to the sacrificeable life/unsacrificeable existence conceptual economy delineated by George Bataille and Jean-Luc Nancy.

The fabrication of this banalized life moves in a zone where life and death, animate and inanimate, human and inhuman, nature and culture, law and bodies, cannot be clearly differentiated. In the lager the dead were not counted as dead and hence were not called corpses but figuren (figures or dolls, like chess pieces) and the Muselmänner were very often described as alive but as if dead, or, dead but as if alive. These are exemplars of Agamben's vision of thresholds wherein can be identified "a new living dead man, a new sacred man." This threshold is a fictive zone, a zone of "as if": a materialization of semblance. Once the site of myth, this zone is now the source of calculated liquidation.

It is this zone that Walter Benjamin identifies when, in "Fate and Character," he says that "it is not really man who has fate, rather, the subject of fate is indeterminable," and, of the judge's dictation of a man's fate, that it "is never man but only the bare life in him that it strikes-the part involved in natural guilt and misfortune by virtue of illusion." At the level of bare life there is only the Cartesian certainty of seeming but without any proper thinking since bare life is prior to any self for which life would be an issue, concern, or pleasure. In this egoism without an ego (a determination I borrow from Maurice Blanchot's discussion of Robert Antelme) there will only have been that which seems to be. Bare life has all the phenomenality of a dream: it is indubitably there where I am not, as when I am bracketed by sleep-this is where the whole force of dreaming comes from-and with a certainty so basic because it precedes all doubts. Doubting, Wittgenstein teaches us again and again, is a social game. Doubting, according to his various analyses, has less to do with ascertaining the real than with the reassuring non-dreamlike activity and enjoyment of talking to each other. The feeling of certainty, however, is very unnerving and uncanny, because, as I have said, it is there where I am not and therefore, paradoxically, the feeling of certainty is the one I most wish to be reassured about, made even more certain of, guaranteed in fact. But I can be no more right to say "I am alive" than to say "I know what I am thinking," or "the world exists," or "I am dreaming," because at the level of bare living I am stripped of any criteria that would make this life (this thinking, this dreaming, this world) familiar.

In his incomparable book The Human Race, Robert Antelme reports that when the survivors of the Nazi death camps were finally liberated, they wanted to speak and tell their stories to the liberators, but when they tried they choked on their words: "No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it. And then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable" (italics in original). This choking, like the choking they had experienced when they smelled the decomposing bodies and tried to talk of the sea and the sun, was not the hesitation of the shy and inexperienced speaker before a crowd of strangers, nor was it the vicious ambiguity of Heideggers's near silence concerning the camps, nor a facile speechlessness before that which offends, nor the babble of the delirious, nor the stuttering of the confused. The survivors choked on their very capacity for articulation. Words were not lacking. Their very appearance, Antelme says, was articulate. The words were there, in their throats, but stuck like lumps: Zungenentwurzeln, in the garbled articulation of Paul Celan (whose poetry ought always to be read in light of this choking). This experience would recur even years afterwards, as we can see in the film of Claude Lanzmann, Shoah:

A friend of mine worked as a barber-he was a good barber in my hometown-when his wife and his sister came into the gas chamber.... I can't. It's too horrible. Please. We have to do it. You know it. Don't make me go on please. Please. We must go on.

The word that sticks in the throat is the word of the first person, the I: the I whom each survivor henceforth had to be. From the anonymity of surviving in the camps to the personality of living in the world, one must take on the first person. Yet, the survivors choked on their words because what had happened to them was still happening (and is still happening). The first person was caught in the throat of the one who wanted to speak because the one who wanted to speak was still surviving, still living. The experience they had had, Antelme says, "was still going forward in our bodies." Their bodies were still phenomenal, not yet historical. With Sara Kofman, I note and wish to emphasize that Antelme, like many survivors of the camps, speaks much more often in the first person plural than in the first person singular because the experience of surviving is not lived in the first person singular but in a solitude without first persons. It is lived in the utter sincerity of an egoism without an ego. In the camps lived the solidarity of those whose solitude would have to be endured again when they would testify. They had been brought to the camps to die and now they would have to speak in and of the very person who was to have died, who was still alive, and who was still to die. The interval between life and death had been discreetly obscured in the camps. Again, from Shoah: "I want to tell you something. To have a feeling about that ... it was very hard to feel anything, because working there day and night between dead people, between bodies, your feeling disappeared, you were dead." This pronominal shifting, as if in obedience to a demand, from I to we, you, or one, and the choking on the very words that would tell what happened, are a consequence of having been rendered utterly banal:

Degradation, and flabbiness of language. Mouths whence nothing any longer came that was ordered, or strong enough to last. A weakly woven cloth fraying to bits. Sentences succeeded one another, contradicted one another, expressed a kind of belched up wretchedness; a bile of words. They were all jumbled together: the son of a bitch who'd done it, the wife left on her own, food, drink, the old lady's tears, the fuck-in-the-ass, and so on; the same mouth could say it all, one thing after another. It came forth all by itself; the gut would empty. It only stopped at night. Hell must be like that, a place where everything that's said, everything that's expressed, comes forth equalized with everything else, homogenized, like a drunkard's puke.

The camp inhabitants, described here by Robert Antelme, are concentrated into a plethora. The status of their speech should be contrasted to the garish theater of torture in which speech is separated out and immediately politicized.

In his important essay "Torture: A Discourse on Practice," Ñacuñán Sáez points out that, under torture, a victim will not be reduced to primordial pre-signifying cries of animal pain, but will instead talk. The victim will not reveal the destruction of language and the spectacle of the purely pre-linguistic. The victim will say anything to make the pain stop. Statements roll off the tongue. The victim will reveal the sheer dependence on language that "comes from a body which is still (or already) controlled by the laws of language. Pain, the pain inflicted by contemporary torture, does not break down a pre-existing subject. It does something more and something less than that: paradoxically, it produces the subject as already (or still) absent." The victim speaks and empties subjectivity of his or her person while becoming totally gregarious. Still controlled by the laws of language, the subject is nonetheless already absent from him- or herself, is not responsible for the words that are articulated. The subject who speaks does not own the words spoken and is mutely in flight from pain to the neutrality of language, that is, to language that prescribes nothing except that one must talk. The value of the words for the torturer is double: if the statements are true, "enemies" of the state will be captured; if the information is false, others will be captured instead and a generalized terror will infect a region. Pain, fear, and anxiety obscure the distinction between the true and the false. (When Socrates sets out to talk with his fellow citizens about subjects the truth of which he wishes to reach, he customarily induces a relaxed and even jovial atmosphere in which to chat.) At the same time, according to Sáez, this state of indistinction proves to be a potentially generalizable source of inspiration for the population at large to find the courage to fight their oppressors.

For the camp survivor only one person, the first person, can speak the truth of what happened. Except, what had happened could not be discursively true because it was beyond doubt, it was not even possible. It was certain. The first person who could have said this, however, had died millions of times over in the camps, or was rendered nearly insensible, brought to the stupefaction of bare life which is inhumanely apersonal. The survivor chokes on every I of whom he or she cannot-but must-speak. What is manifested here is an obscuring of the distinction between the possibility and the impossibility of speaking (a point I shall return to). As a survivor, he or she is deprived of all that would be his or her own except for the bare fact of having survived, which belongs to no one. Experience, we know from Bataille, demands to be communicated, yes, but in what person? Experience resists such identifications. To the survivor, every I is other-than-I. Every I is an immersion in, or a belonging to, something I am calling "certainty." Antelme says: "The calling into question of our quality as men provokes an almost biological claim of belonging to the human race. After that it serves to make us think about the limitations of that race, about its distance from 'nature' and its relation to 'nature'; that is, about a certain solitude that characterizes our race; and finally-above all-it brings us to a clear vision of its indivisible oneness." This appeal to the most general of communities, however, touches on the very element that obscurely organizes and authorizes the killing. Politics had become the Ockham's razor that separated out of the indivisible oneness and solitude of human being the very solitary element of oneness: being alive. The only status that remained recognizable by the camp guards was that the captives were still alive in order to die. Without any qualities except this state-imposed status, the prisoners were an equation of law and life.

If torture reveals originary dependence on language (a dependence that reveals the subject as still-or already-absent: dependency and subjectivity in différance), survival in the camps reveals the sheer dependence of law on life and life on law such that life was immediately as inherently political as is speech to state-sponsored torture. This is the issue Giorgio Agamben takes up in his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, to which I now turn. The very certainty of belonging to the human race, the certainty of being alive, is the most fragile and politically slick of conditions. Together with the originary dependence on language that characterizes social existence goes the originary insecurity of the certainty of living that characterizes political existence.

Homines Sacri

Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer is about life. At the same time it is about politics. Not because human life is by nature political, nor because politics is a capacity that can be added on to the simple fact of living. There is politics, Agamben argues (in proximity to the position of Hobbes), because a human being purely and simply lives and, as such, is able to be killed by anyone, at any time, for any reason (or even without any reason). That which the citizens of Leviathan wish to safeguard-bare, simple, haplos zoe-is that which neither politics, nor science, nor metaphysics, nor fundamental ontology can isolate without confronting a limit. In his Being and Time, Martin Heidegger could only include life in his existential analyses of Dasein in scare quotes, as David Farrell Krell points out in his provocative book Daimon Life. As difficult as it is to think Being and to think Being as nonrelational to beings but instead as Ereignis (as the event of "owning," each time, as one's self, that which has no self, Being), it is at least as difficult, and as astonishing, to think bare life (zoe) in isolation from various ways of life (bios): "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." Into theory because to think bare life in isolation from various ways of life (la dolce vita, the contemplative life, the life of industry, etc.) and prior to unum, verum, bonum, is to think "in stupor." Heidegger turned from life to death and analyzed the ability-to-die that defines Dasein: the to-death, which it can appropriate to itself thus delivering itself to its own-most potentiality rather than being led spellbound unto this or that way of being. As such, as authentic (or, strictly, auto-hentic: self-owning, self-occupying, self-seizing) and decided, factical existence appropriates itself as there and as being (as ontological), and not merely as living (as ontic). However, even decidedly being, Dasein still includes in itself that which is prey to the political because every Dasein is still impudently living, as if in spite of its ontological decisiveness. Life is included in Dasein's existence in scare quotes, included as excluded, included as the permanent possibility of an estrangement dierent from ontological anxiety. Krell writes:

In Heidegger's Being and Time "life" proves to be both essential to existential analysis and utterly elusive for it, quite beyond its grasp. Life falls into the gap that yawns between beings that are of the measure of Dasein and beings that are altogether unlike Dasein. Life neither precedes nor succeeds existential analysis but remains outside it, being both necessary to it and inaccessible for it. In short, life supplements Dasein, and like all supplements it is the death of Dasein. Fundamental ontology discovers a kind of being-there that is born and that dies, an existence it "fixes" terminologically as Dasein; what it is unable to determine is whether such a being is ever properly alive, or what such "life" might mean.


Excerpted from POLITICS, METAPHYSICS, AND DEATH Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Norris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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