Notes on Stasis.
From the vantage of the overall montage of the Homo Sacer series, the slim volume Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm would appear to be at once peripheral and interstitial. Unlike any of the other volumes, it consists of two public lectures, rather than a newly crafted text. These lectures were delivered in October 2001 at Princeton, giving their reference to global terrorism a curiously diffracted and belated, though topical, echo. Stasis is situated between State of Exception (2.1) (a concept that is explicitly, if briefly, tied to civil war), and The Sacrament of Language (2.3) and a decimal point away from The Kingdom and the Glory (2.4), with which it entertains more tenuous links: its treatment of the thresholds between oikos and polis prepare possible interrogations on what becomes of these with the Patristic introduction of oikonomia, of divine management, while the tantalising foray into Hobbesian eschatology opens up a different avenue into a critique of the theocratic imagination, and resonates with a passing mention of Hobbes on the oath in Sacrament. Stasis was also published in Italian a few months after the final volume with which Agamben “abandons” the project, The Use of Bodies.
Over and above its specific thesis and position, Stasis also presents us with two miniatures or models of the theoretical archipelago of Homo Sacer as a whole. I will try to elucidate this point with special focus on the first essay, “Stasis.” In a gesture that is a veritable signature of Agamben’s thought, he identifies a tremendous lacuna in our thinking, one that he proceeds if not to fill at least to delineate, in a mix of problematizing modesty and forceful conviction (or, depending on your taste, conceit). A science is pronounced missing. Here, the science of civil war itself, a stasiology that contemporary polemology is incapable of producing but which becomes all the more urgent as civil war becomes more pervasive.
As Agamben asserts: “It is generally acknowledged that a theory of civil war is completely lacking today, yet this absence does not seem to concern jurists and political scientists too much. … There exists, today, both a ‘polemology,’ a theory of war, and an ‘irenology,’ a theory of peace, but there is no ‘stasiology,’ no theory of civil war.” With characteristic erudition, a related contention governs the second essay, “Leviathan and Behemoth”:
We are in need of knowledge that would combine the resources of iconology with those of what is arguably the most tenuous and uncertain discipline among the many taught in our universities: political philosophy. The knowledge that would be required here would be that of a science we could call iconologia philosophica; a science which perhaps existed between 1531 (the date of publication of Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata) and 1627 (when Jacob Cats’s Sinne- en minnebeelden appeared), but for which today we lack even the most elementary principles.
In Stasis, declarations about the absent science are also accompanied by the invocation of two of the handful of tutelary figures (though we could also call them tutelary nemeses, ‘best fiends’ accompanying Agamben’s theoretical incursions) who escort the whole Homo Sacer project, in this instance Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt, here invoked for their more or less simultaneous naming of a “global civil war.” One of the ways of conceiving the “constellation” of Homo Sacer as a whole, and of the various modules and gestures that comprise each of its instalments, is in terms of the creation of an improbable space of “compossibility” (somewhat in the sense employed by Deleuze with respect to Leibniz’s philosophy of the baroque) not just between Schmitt and Arendt, but between them and Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin (which is to say the philosophical problems tenuously affixed to those names).
We are in need of knowledge that would combine the resources of iconology with those of what is arguably the most tenuous and uncertain discipline among the many taught in our universities: political philosophy.
“Stasis” also exemplifies—in its engagement with an essay by the masterful historian of Ancient Greece Nicole Loraux—Agamben’s habit of foregrounding certain thinkers and texts as probes into the uncharted waters of his “new science,” even while identifying their “unthought,” and therefore their inability to trespass into the new kind of thought that Agamben is both demanding and announcing. The “unthought” here is what could be called the entire Homo Sacer project’s origin, the inclusive exclusion of zoè by bios, bare life by political life. Loraux’s excavation of Plato, Thucydides, and the record of strife in Ancient Greece, reveals the “tension” or “ambiguity” emerging in stasis between the order of the oikos and that of the polis. Agamben takes this occasion to redefine civil war as a specification of the bio-political capture that defines the very political paradigm of the West: “[Stasis] constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family and the political space of the city. In transgressing this threshold, the oikos is politicized; conversely, the polis is “economized,” that is, it is reduced to an oikos. This means that in the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family.” An entire dissertation could probably be written on Agamben’s deployment of the threshold (soglia) as a concept but also as an organising principle within the volumes of Homo Sacer themselves. A threshold is neither a spatial frontier nor a temporal transition, and its mixture (evident in the discussion of civil war) of under- and over-determination is distinctive of Agamben’s speculative style.
But what goes unthought in this identification of the unthought? Readers of Loraux’s remarkable oeuvre will be struck by what she might allow us to identify in reverse as unthought, or merely neglected, in Agamben. Not least, I would argue, is her attention to the discontinuities in political discourse and practice: stasis is not bellum civile, Corcyra is not the Paris Commune. In Agamben’s engagement with Loraux, but we could also argue in his détournement of Foucault’s genealogy or his assumption of Benjamin’s thinking of history, a fundamental Heideggerian inspiration always prevails: there is one political paradigm of “the West”—as though the latter did not have its own conflicted, discontinuous, and sordid genealogy (“the West” remains singularly underived, perhaps underivable, in Homo Sacer).
What is also glaringly unthought in this engagement with Loraux is the centrality of gender, of the problem of woman to the French thinker’s understanding of stasis, as well as of tragedy. Not to engage with her writings on the politics and anti-politics of mourning, not to think the gendered and sexed character of the oikos and its de-politicization (without even broaching the critical question of processes of racialization and class struggle in the historical figures of civil war)—is this not to remain under the sway of the “mythological machines” that oversee politics, not to mention blind ourselves to the contemporary condition of civil war? (A condition, we could note, which is unthinkable without broaching the question of the colonial-imperial genesis of the West.)
“Stasis” exemplifies Agamben’s habit of foregrounding certain thinkers and texts as probes into the uncharted waters of his "new science."
But it is perhaps in a passing comment in “Stasis” that one of the most surprising “unthoughts” in Homo Sacer rears its head. At the beginning of the essay, Agamben remarks that one of the reasons for the absence of stasiology at the time of Arendt and Schmitt’s remarks on global civil war (1963) was the widespread preoccupation with the concept of revolution. He then adds: “It is likely that the difference between the two concepts [of revolution and civil war] is in fact purely nominal.” Are we to understand that for Agamben revolution is also nothing but a threshold of the politicization of zoè and the de-politicization of bios? The suspicion is corroborated by a remark on the French Revolution (without naming it, as in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit) at the very end of the essay where Agamben asserts: “Terrorism is the ‘global civil war’ which time and again invests this or that zone of planetary space. It is no coincidence that the ‘terror’ should coincide with the moment in which life as such—the nation (which is to say, birth)—became the principle of sovereignty.”
If so, we could argue that Agamben remains—without the republican nostalgia for the Founding Fathers—well within the horizon of Arendt’s On Revolution, with its attempt to separate the political experience of revolution from the “biopolitical” capture of the social question (a tendency that can also be registered in Agamben’s effort to separate proletariat from working class in a messianic register in The Time that Remains). Viewed in this light, then, and notwithstanding some attempts elsewhere to positively develop “civil war” in an Agambenian vein, the theory of “destituent power [potenza],” with its evident polemic against Toni Negri’s theory of revolution, could also be seen as an attempt to think a “non-revolutionary” disactivation of power, a kind of metaphysical anarchism built on an anti-Leninist reading of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” and crystallized in the opposition between a constituent power, set on destroying and recreating new forms of law (which is to say new forms of the inclusive exclusion of bare life in political life), and “destituent violence, which, insofar as it deposes the juridical order [il diritto] once and for all, immediately inaugurates a new reality.” To have done with the judgment of Robespierre?