On structure and order in Homo Sacer.
As Agamben “abandons” the Homo Sacer project with the publication of The Use of Bodies, there arise a number of questions concerning the former’s seriality. What, for instance, governs the order and numbering of the volumes? And is the series ultimately convergent or divergent? Questions of this kind extend beyond the Homo Sacer project. As early as his first book, Stanzas, Agamben launches an inquiry into certain “zones of indetermination” that he would specify and develop under the “homo sacer” rubric. What first emerges from a retrospective glance at Stanzas, however, is not so much the intimation of a more expansive series as the surprising importance Agamben attributes to another term of mathematical modernity, namely topology, for, from the perspective of topology, the opening sections of the Homo Sacer project can be seen as a repetition of the Introduction to Stanzas.
What governs the order and numbering of the volumes? And is the series ultimately convergent or divergent?
From its title onward—“stanza,” of course, means “room” in Italian—Agamben’s first book presents itself not only as a study of space but as an exercise in topology: “Each of these essays here,” he writes in the Introduction to Stanzas, “thus traces, within its hermeneutic circle, a topology of joy (gaudium), through which the human spirit responds to the impossible task of appropriating what must in every case remain inappropriable.” Along the same lines of argument, section 1.1 of Homo Sacer (Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life) establishes the framework of its inquiry into the paradox of sovereignty in terms of a space in which the inside is also the outside: “The topology implicit in the paradox is worth reflecting upon, since the degree to which sovereignty marks the limit (in the double sense of end and principle) of the juridical order will become clear only once the structure of the paradox is grasped.” Agamben maintains the implicitness of the topology under investigation at the opening of Homo Sacer by refraining from—to use a phrase borrowed from Walter Benjamin—conducting a “frontal assault” on the concept. This is not the case with the Introduction to Stanzas, the final passages of which are worth recalling for this reason: “Only a philosophical topology, analogous to what in mathematics is defined as an analysis situs (analysis of site) in opposition to analysis magnitudinis (analysis of magnitude) would be adequate to the topos outopos, the placeless place whose Borromean knot we have tried to draw in these pages. Thus topological exploration is constantly oriented in the light of utopia.” To indicate the place toward which Stanzas strives, a version of the Borromean knot can be found here:
In topological terms, this knot is a configuration of three closed loops, in which any given pair of loops can be separated from each other—“unlinked” in technical terms—but the loops as a whole cannot be disconnected from one another and thus remain, like the Trinity prescribed by Nicaean doctrine, a unity. In his Homo Sacer series, Agamben proceeds in a different manner altogether. Above all, there is no tracing via topological imagery of where his investigations are headed. And instead of proceeding with introductory remarks that would give a sense of what is thereafter meant by “topology,” he allows the sense of the term to emerge from the following passage in the first section of the original volume: “The sovereign exception is the fundamental localization (Ortung), which does not limit itself to distinguishing what is inside from what is outside but instead traces a threshold (the state of exception) between the two, on the basis of which outside and inside, the normal situation and chaos, enter into those complex topological relations that make the validity of the juridical order possible.” And in a passage from the second section, Agamben illustrates the topological character of the situation in question by means of two seemingly unlinked figures: “The state of nature and the state of exception are nothing but two sides of a single topological process in which what was presupposed as external (the state of nature) now reappears, as in a Möbius strip or a Leyden jar, in the inside (as state of exception), and the sovereign power is the very impossibility of distinguishing between outside and inside, nature and exception, physis and nomos.”
The first of the figures to which Agamben draws attention is relatively familiar and easy to construct. It is a bounded, two-dimensional surface in which there is only a single side:
The second figure is rather more complicated, above all because the Leyden jar is not itself an object of study in the branch of mathematics called analysis situs or topology; rather, it is the name for what would later be called an electrostatic condenser or capacitor. Under the presumption that electricity is a fluid substance—this is how it was understood by Ewald von Kleist, the inventor of the jar that fails to bear his name—a process akin to the one described by Agamben can be seen to occur:
It is also possible, however, that by “Leyden jar,” Agamben gestures toward the Klein bottle, a topological figure akin to the Möbius strip that was first constructed by Felix Klein in the course of his inquiries into Riemann’s theory of algebraic functions:
The situation with regard to the implicit topology that sets the Homo Sacer project in motion becomes as complicated as the supposedly topological figures themselves. At the end of the second section of Homo Sacer, Agamben uses neither the Möbius strip nor the Leyden jar to represent the relation between the state of nature and the state of law in the state of exception; rather, the process by which the state of exception becomes the rule is illustrated by three figures of intersecting circles, none of which, however, is topologically “complex.” Or, to use a technical term that applies to the Möbius strip and the Klein bottle, none is “non-orientable.” Agamben seems to allude to this technical term when he says of his essays in Stanzas that they are “oriented in the light of utopia” and thus, in some sense, non-orientable. With regard to the light that orients Homo Sacer, by contrast, “disaster” would be a more appropriate term than “utopia”: “As the absolute space of exception,” Agamben writes in the first section of Homo Sacer, “the camp is topologically different from a simple space of confinement.” At this point, a line of inquiry immediately suggests itself, driven by questions of the following kind: what are the topological characteristics that distinguish the camp from the “simple space of confinement”?
The situation with regard to the implicit topology that sets the Homo Sacer project in motion becomes as complicated as the supposedly topological figures themselves.
Such a question, however, is not posed directly in Homo Sacer or any of its sequels. Indeed, after the first volume, Agamben does not directly address the topological implications of the situation from which the project as a whole departs. With the exception of two passages in State of Exception, the term drops out of Agamben’s lexicon, and these two passages reiterate what is said in the opening sections of Homo Sacer. Even in Remnants of Auschwitz the term is not to be found. Until The Use of Bodies, that is, wherein Agamben “abandons” the series. Given the significance of the topological terminology in Agamben’s two points of departure—Stanzas and Homo Sacer—it is therefore worth reflecting on this final use of the term. It occurs in the context of Agamben’s effort to understand the enigmatic Greek word χρῆσις (“use”) by way of Émile Benveniste’s evocative formula for what is implied by the use of the middle voice: “Il effectue en s’affectant”: “On the one hand,” Agamben writes, “the subject who achieves the action, by the very fact of achieving it, does not act transitively on an object but first of all implies and affects himself in the process; on the other hand, precisely for this reason, the process presupposes a singular topology, in which the subject does not stand over the action but is himself the place of its occurring.” This is, to be sure, a notably humble use of “topology,” and is scarcely connected with the term’s appearance at the opening of Homo Sacer, nor with its use in the Introduction to Stanzas. Nor, finally, does this use of “topology” seem to function as a link or passage from one to the other. It is, however, as I read it, intended to suggest the kind of body that emerges out of—but cannot be contained by—the exploration of “rooms” in Stanzas and “the camp” in Homo Sacer. In the Agambenian body implied by the use of the middle voice, regardless of how or whether this voice is grammatically articulated, a figure akin to the Klein bottle becomes discernible: a non-quantifiable and non-orientable “situs” consisting of an unbounded and thus “infinite” surface, with only a single side and therefore, in effect, without any (opposing) sides at all. In short, a “bare” opening, from which a series of other such openings can be envisaged.