Homo Sacer, P3: §6-7

Here is the reading for Saturday, August 13th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In the previous passage, Agamben used examples of sinister medical experiments, such as blacks being infected with malaria in the U.S., to argue that doctors and scientists now wield a measure of sovereignty.  Remember that sovereignty is the capacity to decide who is killable.  In  section 6, Agamben explains how the line between life and death has become an increasingly political issue, as opposed to simply scientific or empirical.  

Section 7 is the last piece of the puzzle.  The first point is that sovereign power, the fundamental form of political power, is based on the capacity to decide, in exceptional cases, who is killable.  The second point is that the nation state has always been built on a connection between birth, land, and law.  The camp, as it developed over the last century, is the new fourth piece.  It is a space in which the exception is the new normal.  In our time, the key political issue which fundamentally divides people is no longer where one was born, or the territory a state holds, or the particular legal system of a given state. Now, the fundamental issue is who is inside a camp, and who is outside: and what’s more, everyone has the virtual capacity to be placed inside a camp.

Continue reading


Homo Sacer, Part 3: §1-5

This is the reading for Saturday, July 30.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In parts one and two, we saw Agamben’s argument that sovereign power is founded on a relation of ban, rather than something like a social contract.  The foundation of sovereign power is the capacity to decide who is outside politics, and therefore killable: the homo sacer.  

Part three applies this framework to the twentieth century, examining both totalitarian and democratic governments, and argues that this power to decide who is killable is common to both styles of government.  Further, this power is no longer limited to a traditional political sovereign, but is now also in the hands of doctors and scientists.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Homo Sacer, Part 2: §1-4

This is the reading for June 18th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

This portion of Homo Sacer is quite strange, so let’s try to put it in context.  First, consider the idea of the social contract as an attempt to explain political legitimacy.  The people give up some of their power to the government, and the government provides justice.  Hence, we respect the law and follow it because we are all implicit signatories to a contract.  Part of Agamben’s project appears to be to set up a competing account of the origins of politics.  Instead of a contract between free individuals, politics arises when the a distinction between inside the law and outside the law appears.  More precisely, it is when there is an apparent but not real distinction between them; when someone can be both inside the law and outside the law, Agamben (for etymological reasons) says they are in a relation of ban, or abandonment.  We have seen that the sovereign is both inside and outside the law, because of their capacity to suspend the law.  Like the Leviathan of the social contract, the sovereign has the right to kill, but they specifically have the right to kill the person who is both inside and outside the law: the homo sacer, or sacred man.  

Second, while this is a work of political ontology which searches for the underlying concepts and possibilities, it is influenced by Carl Schmitt’s idea of political theology.  In short, Schmitt says that political concepts are secularized theological concepts: “The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization.  The determination of such an identity is the sociology of the concept of sovereignty.”  This chapter of Homo Sacer introduces a key “metaphysical” image, that of the homo sacer, which for Agamben is a fundamental element of Western political power, despite having its origins in an obscure Roman legal text which seems to confuse political and religious issues.

Continue reading

Homo Sacer, Part 1: §3-4

Here is the reading for Saturday, May 7.  A printable copy is here, and we will meet here at 4:30.

In the first two sections, Agamben argued that there is a paradox inherent to sovereignty: sovereignty must be both inside and outside the law.  It is inside the law because no legal structure can escape the inevitability of exceptional cases, and it is outside the law because it is capable of suspending the law.  The sovereign decision is not, first and foremost, the decision of a dictatorial leader, but the way that the border between inside-the-law and outside-the-law appears within a political body.  It does not decide on what is legal or illegal, but on how life (with all its vagueness and details) is to be “included” within the legal system.  Schmitt describes the exception as an “eruption of real life,” (i.e. from outside the legal order) but Agamben argues life (zoë) was included from the beginning: it is included as excluded.  The relation between life and law, maintained by the sovereign exception, is a relation of ban.  

The remainder of Part 1 argues that the sovereign exception holds sway over law and life because our legal logic, or better, our common political ontology, insists that the potential to found a new legal system (which we can call constituting power or law-founding violence) maintains an ongoing relation to actual legal systems (constituted powers, or law-preserving violence).  Agamben wants to find a way to think potentiality without any relation to actuality at all, in order to show how our fundamental political ontology can think constituting power without the necessity of the sovereign exception and its inclusive exclusion of life.  Part of the answer he finds in messianism, which is a different exception; instead of life and law being made indistinguishable because the exception secretly includes life as excluded, life becomes law as the transgression of the law.

Continue reading

Homo Sacer, Part 1: §1-2

Here is the reading for April 23.  You can find a printable copy here, and we meet at 4:30 here.


The Greeks had no single term for what we mean by “life”.  They had two words: zoē and bios.  Zoē is the life that all living beings, animals and humans alike, share, while bios is the kind of life proper to a group of humans.  When Plato speaks of the three kinds of life, or when Aristotle distinguishes the contemplative life and the political life, neither used the term z. Zoē is an unqualified life, while Plato and Aristotle were interested in particular kinds of lives. The Greeks did recognize that bare life had a goodness of its own, but it was strictly excluded from the polis.  Bare life was for the home.  Aristotle’s definition of the goal of the community was to become canonical for western political theory: “born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life.”

Continue reading