Homo Sacer, Part 2: §5-6

Here is the reading for July 9th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

The first four sections of Part 2 began to argue that the ban, rather than a social contract, is at the origin of western politics.  Sections five and six complete this argument.  Section five is a historical study of the image funeral and its relation to three figures: the Roman devotee, the Emperor, and the homo sacer, or sacred man.  Each of these three figures has a different relation to bare life: the devotee’s bare life was expelled from the city, the Emperor’s bare life was divinized, and sacred man’s bare life was exposed to death.

Part six contrasts social contract theory with the ban.  The social contract, as an alleged founding event of the city, cleanly separates between nature and culture, or nature and law.  Agamben argues that the state of nature lives on in the heart of politics in the form of the bare life of the homo sacer and the sovereign, who exist in a liminal state between human and animal, hence the comparison to werewolves.  In short: Werewolves, therefore Holocaust.

  • 5. Sovereign Body and Sacred Body

A major work of political philosophy, Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, focussed on a particular idea of political continuity: sovereignty is perpetual and outlives its physical bearer.  He argued this connected it with the idea of Christ’s risen body, but it also has a close connection with Roman funeral rituals.  For at least some of the Imperial funerals, mourning did not begin until after the Emperor’s body had been disposed of; the rituals themselves involved an effigy which was treated as the Emperor himself for seven days.  It was very much a “The king is dead, long live the King” situation.  This paragraph is basically the thesis of this section:

“The macabre and grotesque right in which an image was first treated as a living person and then solemnly burned gestured instead toward a darker and more uncertain zone, which we will now investigate, in which the political body of the king seemed to approximate—and even to become indistinguishable from—the body of the homo sacer, which can be killed but not sacrificed.” (94)

Another 20th century scholar, Elias Bickermann, described this as a “funeral by image,” in which the wax effigy was treated as “the emperor himself, whose life has been transferred to the wax doll by means of this and perhaps other magical rites.”

The key point for understanding this is the function of the image; Bickermann found examples of this sort of “picture magic” in other times and places.  He compared this imaginary funeral right to a  different Roman funeral rite, specifically for a warrior who had dedicated his life to the underworld before a battle survives the battle; “And it is here that the body of the sovereign and the body of homo sacer enter into a zone of indistinction in which they can no longer be told apart” (96).

Scholars have often associated the homo sacer with the devotee who consecrates his life to the gods to save the city from disaster.  Livy gives an example of a Roman consul, watching his army being defeated, first ritually praising the gods then personally charging straight into the lines; Livy says “To both armies he appeared more august than a man, as though sent from heaven to expiate the anger of the gods.”  If the devotee did not did, then an image funeral (using a statue called a colossus) was carried out, and until this funeral, the devotee could not perform any rituals, either private or public.

The homo sacer is like a devotee who cannot be redeemed by an image funeral; it is nothing other than a subjection to a power of death.  The homo sacer was the Greco-Roman encounter “with a life that, excepting itself in a double exclusion from the real context of both the profane and the religious forms of life, is defined solely by virtue of having entered into an intimate symbiosis with death without, nevertheless, belonging to the world of the deceased” (99-100).  This is also the first appearance of bare life.  The most important thing, though, is that it had a political nature and was essentially linked with sovereign power.

“What unites the surviving devotee, homo sacer, and the sovereign in one single paradigm is that in each case we find ourselves confronted with a bare life that has been separated from its context and that, so to speak surviving its death, is for this very reason incompatible with the human world” (100).  Sacred life cannot dwell in the city: for the devotee, the imaginary funeral  fulfills the consecration of their bare life, returning them to normal life.  For the emperor, the double funeral divinizes their sacred life, and for homo sacer, there is an irreducible bare life which is exposed to death.

Supreme power, which is always founded on a life that may be killed but not sacrificed–requires that the person who is sovereign “assume within itself the life held in its power.”  Supreme power is, finally, “the capacity to constitute oneself and others as life that may be killed but not sacrificed” (101).

If this symmetry between the body of the sovereign and homo sacer is correct, then we should be able to find analogies and correspondences in their actual legal and political statuses.  So for example: the killing of homo sacer is not a homicide, and it is also true that there is no legal system in which the killing of a sovereign is simply treated as an act of homicide; it is always a special crime, even if “more” than homicide.  Another trait of homo sacer is that it cannot be sacrificed; this is also true for a sovereign.  What was shocking for the French about the decapitation of Louis 16th was not the killing itself, but the fact that he was condemned to capital punishment after a trial.  This survives to some extent in modern constitutions; for example, under the American constitution, impeachment is a special process that cannot result in a legal sentence, but only a dismissal from office.

  • 6. The Ban and the Wolf

In the 19th century, a legal historian named Rudolf Von Jhering argued that the homo sacer is not wholly attached to an already constituted legal order, but “goes all the way back to the period of pre-social life.”  He says the homo sacer is directly connected to very old Indo-European ideas of the bandit and the outlaw, and to the “wargus,” the wolf-man, and the “Friedlos,” the “man without peace.”  All of these figures could be killed without committing homicide, and had a border status between man and animal.  

Agamben explains it this way: “What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city” (105).  The life of the bandit, like that of the sacred man, is not simply an animal without any relation to law or the city; “It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.” (105)

It is only in this context that Hobbes’s state of nature gets its real sense.  We have already seen that the state of nature is not an actual historical period which preexisted the City, but a principle internal to the City which appears in a state of exception.  In Hobbes’s state of nature, “man is a wolf to man,” and so we should hear echoes of the werewolf there.  The werewolf is not simple a beast, but a zone of indistinction between the human and the animal, just like the homo sacer.  It is not a pre-legal state that is indifferent to law; the state of nature “is the exception and the threshold that constitutes and dwells within [the law].  It is not so much a war of all against all as, more precisely, a condition in which everyone is bare life and a homo sacer for everyone else, and in which everyone is thus [a werewolf].”  This animalization of man and humanization of the wolf is the always possible state of exception.  “This threshold alone, which is neither simple natural life nor social life but rather bare life or sacred life, is the always present and always operative presupposition of sovereignty” (106).

In contrast to our usual notions of citizen’s rights, free will, and social contracts, from the point of view of sovereignty only bare life is actually political.  This is why in Hobbes, the basis of sovereign power is not the subject’s giving up of their natural rights, but the sovereign’s ability to do anything to do anyone, which now appears as the right to punish.  Attached to this right to punish, which is how the state of nature survives at the heart of the state, is the subject’s capacity not to disobey but to resist violence; as Hobbes says, “for. . . no man is supposed bound by Covenant, not to resist violence; and consequently, it cannot be intended, that he gave any right to another to lay violent hands upon his person.”  Sovereign violence is not founded on a pact, but on the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state.  And just like sovereign power’s first object is the life that may be killed but not sacrificed, so in the person of the sovereign, the wolf man, has a permanent place in the city.

We need to rethink the entire idea of the founding of the state, from Hobbes to Rousseau.  The state of nature is a state of exception in which the city appears for a moment (in both chronological and logical senses) as dissolved.  So the foundation of the city is not something achieved once and for all, but is continually operated in the state in the form of the sovereign decision.  “What is more, the latter refers immediately to the life (and not the free will) of the citizens, which thus appears as the originary political element, the [archetype] of politics.  Yet this life is not simply natural reproductive life, the zoe of the Greeks, nor bios, a qualified form of life.  it is, rather, the bare life of homo sacer and the wargus, a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast, nature and culture.” (109)

The thesis that the originary political relation is the ban is not just formal or logical, but also substantive: what it holds together is bare life and sovereign power.  Any idea of the originary political act as passing from nature to the State has to be left behind.  Instead, it is a much more complicated zone of indistinction between law and nature, in which the state is always already also non-State and pseudo-nature, and in which nature always appears as law and the state of exception; “The understanding of the Hobbesian mythologeme in terms of contract instead of ban condemned democracy to impotence every time it had to confront the problem of sovereign power and has also rendered modern democracy constitutionally incapable of truly thinking a politics freed from the form of the State.” (109)

The ambiguity of the relation of abandonment is ambiguous, and this is why it is so hard to break from it.  “The ban is essentially the power of delivering something over to itself, which is to say, the power of maintaining itself in relation to something presupposed as nonrelational.  What has been banned is delivered over to its own separateness and, at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it—at once excluded and included, removed and at the same time captured.” (109-110)  The ban is the force of both attraction and repulsion that ties together the two poles of sovereign exception: bare life and power.  

  • Threshold

The 20th century French philosopher Georges Bataille tried to find the basis of sovereignty in life as experienced in the extremity of death, excess, and the sacred, but he missed the link that binds sacred life to sovereign power.  Bataille wrote, “The sovereignty of which I speak has little do with that of states.”  What Bataille was trying to think was bare life, but he missed its political nature.  The experience of this life was only ever given in heightened moments, especially involving sacrifice. Bataille’s exchange of the political body of the sacred man for the prestige of the sacrificial body allowed hints of fascism to slip into his work.

Jean-Luc Nancy first showed this failing in Bataille, and argued for something unsacrificeable in life, but the problem is that the homo sacer cannot be sacrificed anyways.  The element of bare life that found sovereign power is more basic than any distinction between sacrificeable and unsacrificeable.  In modernity, the relation of the sacred to the sacrificeable has been left behind: “What confronts us today is a life that is exposed to a violence without precedent precisely in the most profane and banal ways” (114).

“The wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term “Holocaust” was, from this perspective, and irresponsible historiographical blindness.  The Jew living under Naziism is the privileged negative reference of the new biopolitical sovereign and is, as such, a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed” (114).  The Jews were not exterminated as a sacrifice, but “as lice”, as bare life.

“If it is true that the figure proposed by our age is that of an unsacrificeable life that has nevertheless become capable of being killed to an unprecedented degree, then the bare life of homo sacer concerns us in a special way.  Sacredness is a line of flight still present in contemporary politics, a line that is as such moving into zones increasingly vast and dark, to the point of ultimately coinciding with the biological life itself of citizens.  If today there is no longer any one clear figure of the sacred man, it is perhaps because we are all virtually homines sacri.” (114-115)

A Second Crack at Forms-of-Life

This essay is from early in his career, and it seems to offer at least an initial program for the Homo Sacer series of books (a recently completed 20-year project).  In this essay, the key distinction is between form-of-life and form of life.  In Homo Sacer (the first book in the Homo Sacer series), he argues that sovereignty is the capacity to turn others into homo sacer, that is, into people who may be killed but not sacrificed.  They can be killed, but their deaths have no particular significance.  Hence, sovereign power–whether it claims to be derived from Divine Right or “the people,” is basically the capacity to kill.  It gains this capacity to kill by reducing people to bare life, simply their bodies, just fodder for factories, drone strikes, camps, or prisons.

A form of life is this kind of life in which bare life and an actual way of living are abstracted away from each other; what matters to sovereignty is that your body can be killed (or, I think, can produce things).  To avoid confusion, let’s just call “form of life,” without dashes, bare life.

Form-of-Life, on the other hand, is a life that cannot be separated from its form; bare life cannot be isolated from an actual way of living (as a student, journalist, doctor, and so on).  Let’s say that form-of-life is synonymous with political life.

Hannah Arendt argued that the private realm was the realm of necessity: you get all the necessities of survival in order, and then join the public realm where you speak with other people and actually carry on a political life.  The private realm takes care of the body, or bare life, and it involves necessities.  The things we cannot do without.  The public realm, on the other hand, is the realm of freedom, where we are not beholden to necessity because the public realm and its attendant politics are concerned with the good life, not mere survival.  We need food, but we do not need, e.g., newspapers.  We build them because we are free.

Arendt’s position makes sense, but it already introduces a split between bare life and political life, in which bare life must be left behind.  For Agamben, a form-of-life, a properly political life, cannot be separated from bare life–in fact the attempt to do so is, as we have seen, the founding gesture of sovereign power.  

The important thing for political life is that it answers to possibility, or potentiality, rather than necessity.  In Part 1 of Homo Sacer, we saw why this is important in the distinction between constituting and constituted power.  Constituted power is constrained by, e.g., a constitution, while constituting power is the power to create (or, to some degree, change) constitutions.  Political life, which answers only to endless possibility, is the ability to create new political forms.  It is politics taken to the nth degree, and it is precisely this that sovereign power attempts to monopolize by reducing everyone to bare life.

The political life, as a form-of-life, is not quite the same thing as political power.  Political power is founded on the separation of of bare life from forms of life.  For example, in Roman law, life [vita] only appear as a legal category in the context of the father’s power of life and death over his children.  Life originally appears in law as a power that threatens death.  This continues into Hobbes: life in the state of nature is always threatened with death, but once this bare life is submitted to the Leviathan, only the sovereign threatens death.

Any kind of political form-of-life is only thinkable (understandable, or articulable) starting from the dissolution of the bare life/political distinction, and hence the “exodus from any sovereignty” (8).  

Agamben defines thought as the framework that constitutes forms of life as being inseparable from a form-of-life. He does not mean the exercise of an individual capacity, but rather an experience that takes the potential character of life and human intelligence as its object.  Thinking is not about being affected by any particular actualized thought, but to be affected by the pure power of thought itself.  It is only if one is not totally and solely actualized, but rather existing as a potentiality can a form of life become a form-of-life, in which it is not possible to separate out bare life.   

An attempt to rephrase that paragraph: thought is the framework that keeps bare life and political life together, and hence keeps political life open to endless possibility.  By “thought,” he does not mean whatever random thoughts go through your head, or even any particular ideas you have or principles you hold, but instead the sheer potential character of human intelligence.  If we treat thinking as something that produces final ideas or ultimate principles, then we treat it as a seed that becomes a flower, and we know that a flower exhausts the potential of a seed.  Thought, in contrast, never “becomes a flower,” thus exhausting potential; there is always more to come.  It is always potential, never actual.

The experience of thought is always an experience of a common power (which in this context means capacity).  Community and power are connected because power is a potential, and every community has a potential character.  If we were entirely actualized, exhausting our potentiality, we would have stable identifies but no community; only coincidences and empirical factions, which is precisely what sovereign power attempts to produce by stripping away the potentiality of political life, reducing everything to bare life. We are only capable of community to the extent that something has remained potential.  This focus on potentiality-in-common is, for Agamben, the center of any future politics.


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