Giorgio Agamben

(2607 words)
  • Simon Morgan-Wortham

A student of Martin Heidegger, an acknowledged Walter Benjamin expert, and trained in classical and medieval philology, linguistics and philosophy, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben draws upon a vast body of scholarship and erudition (which also includes Enlightenment thought, scientific taxonomy and anthropology from the eighteenth century onwards, juridical and legal discourse in the Western tradition, right up to twentieth century continental philosophy), in order to throw light on a variety of contemporary questions of the most pressing kind. One feature of Agamben’s work is the way that he reanimates – as an historical legacy – the dynamic force-field of a network of ancient words, concepts and problems, bringing this understanding to bear on a variety of contemporary issues and concerns, as well as reconfiguring the intersections between a host of academic disciplines in the interests of a new philosophy of language and politics.

Earlier studies devoted to classical and religious texts, as well as works on poetry, prose, aesthetics and philosophical thought, provide the grounds and point of departure for Agamben’s spellbinding and hugely provocative theses in the field of political philosophy, notably in texts such as Homo Sacer, The Coming Community, State of Exception and Remnants of Auschwitz. Here, he suggests new interpretations of a diverse range of thinkers and writers including Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Benjamin, Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Primo Levi, rethinking their various insights concerning politics, violence, history, philosophy and law, in order to develop new political thought of the most distinctive and compelling kind. 

Before coming to Agamben’s more overtly political texts, however, it is worth mentioning some other examples of his writing, to establish a broader context for reading his work. Agamben’s Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, one of the earlier books by him to be published in English translation, confronts the problem of representation in terms of a vision of language as the locus for the production and storage of phantasms. All real objects are fractured by the phantasmic dimensions of language, and Agamben’s work compels us to encounter human language – beyond synthesis, identity or transparency – in its constitutive difference. In The Man Without Content, meanwhile, Agamben dwells on Hegel’s claim that art has exhausted its spiritual vocation, in order to address and imaginatively reinterpret the fate of aesthetics less in terms of the “death of art”, than according to the persistent continuation of art in what may be seen, in Hegel’s own terms, as art’s “self-annulling” mode. In the series of essays collected together in Potentialities three basic themes begin to coalesce: the pure fact of the existence of language, construed not just at the level of statements but as the very taking place of the linguistic, whereby language – formulated in terms of “there is language” – becomes both fundamentally unrepresentable and consequently construed as nothing other than potentiality itself; history seen from a perspective in which tradition and memory point towards the possibility or question of messianic fulfillment; and potentiality, itself grasped as the basic problem of metaphysics, ethics, and the philosophy of language. In all these texts, then (as well as in others, such as The End of the Poem), intimate and far-reaching connections are proposed between aesthetics and the philosophy of language, on the one hand, and ethics, politics, and historical consciousness, on the other. Most notably, all these texts engage in a thinking which might be able to reinterpret and thus renegotiate the experience of what is sometimes called “late” modernity.

Yet it is Agamben’s more overt or central engagement with “politics” that has won him most critical notice internationally. Through a variety of readings running from the classical period right up to the present day, Agamben seeks to demonstrate the paradox that it is exception that in fact gives rise to the law in all its force. Following Schmitt, he argues that the power to decide exceptions to the law is in fact what defines sovereign power, which therefore realizes itself in the capacity both to exclude and capture human “life” precisely within the sovereign exception. The most recent example of this might be the detention without legal status of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, although tellingly – and controversially – Agamben traces out a near identical structure of what he terms “biopolitical” power in the very form of the Nazi concentration camp, which he sees much less as the absolute outer limit of possibility of human endeavour within the history and traditions of the West, than a more or less inevitable consequence of its specific political formation since ancient times. As a consequence of his analysis, then, Agamben sees sovereignty – construed as the right to decide exceptions to the law – as far from waning: a perspective which runs counter to Foucault’s conception of sovereignty’s epochal demise amid the modern reconfiguration of power in terms of governmentality, administration and discipline.

Sovereignty, as that which is the innermost centre of the juridical order and yet also above or outside the law, thus constitutes itself through the ability to decide exception to the law as the law, and therefore to wield its power – in a state of “emergency” – against bare or “sacred” life: a category Agamben derives from Roman criminal law, one which indicates the enigmatic figure of the sacred man, homo sacer, who can be killed but not sacrificed, a “banished” individual who as such becomes the object of a purely profane violence that enacts itself to the complete exclusion of all categories or contexts of moral or ethical responsibility, and in total absence of legal rituals or rights. Sovereign power, that is, resides precisely in a ban-structure, whereby it acquires its force paradoxically by abandoning life to its barest condition; casting out or, in a certain sense, freeing biological existence from the politico-ideological reach of the law, in order to exercise power over “life” all the more unremittingly, precisely in its excluded “bareness”. From this perspective, Agamben casts a new and unsettling light on debates concerning basic human rights, eugenics, euthanasia, medical intervention, organ donation, brain death, ethnic cleansing and the concentration camp itself, by insisting that the power derived from the sovereign exception is ultimately biopolitical power, the “fundamental activity” of which is none other than “the production of bare life as originary political element” (Homo Sacer, p.181). Thus, Agamben detects a hidden complicity between discourses and practices devoted to the preservation of bare life (that is, those discourses which seek its “liberation” from ideological, political or religious determination in order to assert the basic, inalienable value of “life” itself), and the biopolitical or thanatopolitical death machines associated with the worst horrors of the last century. As Agamben therefore tells us, today it is not in the city but rather through the camp that we might find the fundamental political paradigm of the West.

Both sovereign power and bare life thus dwell at the threshold of indistinction between law and violence, states of emergency and the permanent condition of rule, exclusion and inclusion, inside and outside, the human and the non-human. (The latter categorial pair relating to one another from ancient times only through the production of a zone of indistinction which Agamben analyses in The Open, but which constitutes the threshold of bare life in a number of other texts.) And, since it can be found at the very origin of political and juridical formations, the state of exception – as precisely this threshold of indistinction – increasingly becomes the permanent structure or condition of the politico-juridical order, and is as such destined to extend itself in planetary terms. Thus the sovereign decision as exception is now exercised along a biopolitical horizon that includes the physician and scientist as much as the political leader; while the figure of the sacred man remains obscure to us today, Agamben insists, only inasmuch as we are all virtually homines sacri. Meanwhile, as Ben Noys, following Agamben, has put it, “‘bare life’ gains confirmation in the ‘humanitarian interventions’ that confront us with the images of that ‘bare life’ on our television screens and, at the same time, maintain that ‘bare life’ as the support for sovereign power” (Benjamin Noys, “Time of Death”, Angelaki 7.2 (2002): 51-9). In other words, in exceptional circumstances or states of emergency, such examples of “bare life” in fact maintain the power to decide beyond the law.

Obviously, this calls for a new politics to be imagined, one that would be utterly unrecognizable in terms of the political models and thought we inherit – or think we inherit – in the West. Agamben begins this task with a reconception of the political in terms of potentiality (and impotentiality), one which might be able to acknowledge rather than conceal the originary structure of the biopolitical, in order to negotiate it otherwise. Agamben’s effort to reconceptualise the political can be witnessed in texts such as The Coming Community, where he attempts to reconceive or even unravel notions of the social and political relationship in terms of the ungraspable singularity of the “whatever”. This is an unnamable, non-identical object beyond generalization and always “to come”, founding the possibility of, as Judith Butler has put it, “a kind of linguistic belonging that moves beyond both identity and universality”, allowing Agamben to “avow the contingency of communal ‘being’ within a history whose value is its irreparability”. Jean-Luc Nancy has written that, in The Coming Community, Agamben “tries to designate a community beyond any conception available under this name; not a community of essence, a being-together of existences; that is to say: precisely what political as well as religious identities can no longer grasp”. (Both Butler’s and Nancy’s comments were in fact included as endorsements for the publication of the English translation of this text.) Drawing again on his formidable resources in the philosophy of language, then, Agamben combines the themes of potentiality, the irreparable, and the non-place of “whatever” as pure singularity, tracing out the “novelty of a coming politics” at the limits of the State and our very tradition. The community-to-come thus offers itself in powerful contrast to the constituted political community of modern statehood. (Thus, in Means Without End, a politics of gesture – of means without end – is proposed, in the context of the ruination and bankruptcy of the current political field.)

In Remnants of Auschwitz, meanwhile, the figure of the “Muselman” or “muslim” – the inmate existing only in the barest form of life, indeed in a grey zone of indistinction between life and death, human and non-human, violence and law – offers for Agamben a complex (indeed, nearly unwitnessable) image not just of absolute sovereign domination but also possibly of an intractable disjunction or resistance, worked out in Agamben’s rethinking of a near impossible testimony which changes the very question of language, ethics and the political. Remnants of Auschwitz sees Agamben setting himself the task of thinking the legacy of the camps in terms of the near impossible possibility of witness. Declining to use the term “holocaust” because of its sacrificial connotations, yet distancing himself from some of the implications found in notions of the “unsayable” horror of Auschwitz, Agamben reflects at length upon the Muselman and survivor, notably through the writing of Primo Levi, and looks for the meaning of testimony “in an unexpected area” (Remnants of Auschwitz, p.34). If the impossibility of bearing witness except by proxy verges dangerously upon the dilemma of establishing juridical “proof” – for the only true witnesses to the absolute horror of the camps do not survive to tell the real story or verify the facts – then Agamben draws once again upon the philosophy of language in order to undertake the effort of rethinking testimony on the threshold of life and death, at the point of radical exchange between the human and inhuman, the visible and invisible. Auschwitz changes forever the possibility of preserving decency and dignity in the very task of bearing witness: “After Auschwitz, it is not possible to use a tragic paradigm in ethics” (Remnants of Auschwitz, p.99). Rather, for Agamben, a concept or thinking of shame allows for a new thought of testimony on the threshold between subjectification and desubjectification itself:   “Testimony takes place in the non-place of articulation” (Remnants of Auschwitz, p.130).

In summary, over the past decade or so, Giorgio Agamben has emerged as a leading European critical thinker, seemingly able to rethink and develop almost the entire terrain of twentieth-century thought in terms of an intellectual project that sets itself no less of a task than responding to the most urgent contemporary realities. Agamben is rapidly becoming a key figure with whom a broad range of academics, thinkers and activists need to engage, not just in the aftermath of the “end of theory” debate or in terms of pressing questions about the future after post-structuralism, but in order to embark on a project of re-envisaging the possible connections between intellectual commitment and contemporary “global” politics. Not surprisingly, then, there is a growing critical literature devoted to the work of Agamben in the form of numerous journal articles and book chapters, a number of references made to his writings by influential figures such as Zizek, Nancy, Judith Butler and Samuel Weber, and also a collection of essays recently published by Duke University Press (Andrew Norris, ed., Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). Spellbinding though Agamben’s overall project and analysis may be, however, one must ask: what, if any, are its limits and limitations? Are there exceptions to the logic Agamben proposes – indeed, does this very same logic (in which exception acquires unremitting constitutive force) in fact permit exception to be taken? Is the constitutive centrality of Agamben’s concept of “indistinction” in fact somewhat undone by the nature and style of his own highly distinct and distinctive analyses, which almost appear to present themselves as the culmination or completion of philosophical and historical thought? Does Agamben’s work ultimately come to dwell in the very zone of indistinction with which it is preoccupied, and where, he tells us, a rethought politics might be born; or does his writing (at something like the outermost point of philosophical possibility) stealthily assume an exceptional sovereignty over the entire field it surveys, or – miming the uncanny twinship of sovereignty and bare life – does it indeed do both? Decisive though Agamben’s re-readings of the entire philosophical tradition may appear, how might Agamben’s interlocutors respond to him?

Major works by Agamben referred to above are as follows: Stanze: La Parola e il fantasma nella cultura occidentale, Turin: Einuadi, 1977, translated as Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993; La comunita che viene, Turin: Einaudi, 1990, translated as The Coming Community, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993; L’uomo senza contenuto, Quodlibet, 1994, translated as The Man Without Content, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999; Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita, Turin: Einaudi, 1995, translated as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998; Mezzi sensa fine, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1996, translated as Means without End: Notes on Politics, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2000; Categorie Italiane: Studi di poetica, Marsilio Editori, 1996, translated as The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999; Potentialities: Collected essays in Philosophy, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999; Quel che resta di Auschwitz (RA), translated as Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, New York: Zone Books, 2002; L’aperto: L’uomo e l’animale, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002, translated as The Open: Man and Animal, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004; Stato di eccezione, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003, translated as State of Exception, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Morgan-Wortham, Simon. "Giorgio Agamben". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 March 2006
[, accessed 03 March 2015.]