Marginal notes on Homo Sacer.
It is easy to get lost in Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical forest. Planted tree after tree, reference after reference, interpretation after interpretation, thesis after thesis, book after book, for more than two decades, the Homo Sacer series is vast and manifold. It can hardly be surveyed with a single, sweeping glance. Here and there are clearings—his external texts such as The Open and The Time That Remains, Profanations and Nudities—that help the dedicated reader not so much to get oriented, as to get some air and sun before heading back into this predominately dark woodland. But now, with The Use of Bodies, Agamben’s ninth and last installment, we discover the limits of this botanical metaphor. In retrospect we can see that his literary project, composed with quiet determination and unrivaled mastery, is actually structured like the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno. Despite Agamben’s predilection for archaic sources, he has written the perfect guidebook to our still young but already scarred twenty-first century as it grows old and decrepit.
In The Use of Bodies, Agamben deploys a revealing quote that can function as a useful epigraph for his lifework: “The historical vocation is always that of transforming the already-given into what is given-as-task.” This Heideggerian formulation can correct a common misreading of Homo Sacer. The series is not a description of a distinct problem that we ought to either solve or transcend. The progressive attempt to include the person who is being excluded makes little difference from this perspective. There is no “before and after” in Agamben’s thought: the misery of our current politics is the only place where the potentiality of the politics to come can be found. To use Agamben’s own words from his Prefatory Note to the final volume, “In a philosophical inquiry, not only can the pars destruens [the destructive, negative part] not be separated from the pars construens [the constructive, positive part], but the latter coincides, at every point and without remainder, with the former.” Which might sound like what Derrida calls deconstruction, but is probably closer to what Weil calls decreation.
There is no “before and after” in Agamben’s thought.
It is therefore important to revisit the ambivalent character of the earliest protagonist in Agamben’s project. Homo sacer, who is both holy and cursed, lives a life that is separated from its form. This bare life, to which human beings are reduced by the biopolitical machine, is not only a palpable danger that we must fight against or get protection from—it is also Agamben’s secret promise. This is the distinct sense that one gets from reading together the last three books in the series: Remnants of Auschwitz, The Highest Poverty, and The Use of Bodies (another helpful way to organize the Homo Sacer project is as a trilogy, with three books in each part). They explore a forsaken life that is stripped of clothes and rights, language and law, property and work, subjectivity and dignity. But it is also the only life that cannot be constituted through its relation to what it is not (for example, what makes me a citizen is that I'm not a refugee, what makes me white is that I'm not black). Which is why only this destitute (or "destituent" or “decreated”) existence encapsulates within itself the great revolutionary power that Agamben calls “form-of-life.”
In a sense, form-of-life is bare life surrounded by a halo.
In The Coming Community, a short book from 1990 that is to the Homo Sacer series what the first kiss is to a long marriage, Agamben recounts a Jewish parable about the world to come in which “everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” Instead of a colossal destruction followed by massive rebuilding, the Day of Judgment involves an almost imperceptible displacement of the present order of things. This small difference reminds Agamben of Aquinas’s approach to halos, which do not alter in any essential way the blessed bodies they surround. The main aim of the 1,691 painstaking pages of the English translation of the now-complete Homo Sacer series is to bring about a single, minuscule, but decisive adjustment. In a sense, form-of-life is bare life surrounded by a halo.
According to Arendt, there is a specific way to experience this truth in everyday life: “This mere existence, that is, all that which is mysteriously given to us at birth … can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, “Volo ut sis” [I want you to be], without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation.” Similarly, in Agamben the lovable is defined as “whatever singularity.”
“They were naked ... but they were not ashamed.” This description of the Edenic couple gave rise to the assumption that they were first covered in garments made of light. These are the original halos. Plato, who gets the final word in Agamben’s magnum opus, is therefore only philosophy’s stepfather. If we follow Benjamin (as Agamben so often does), we might say that philosophy’s real father is in fact Adam. After all it is Adam and Eve, along with the other characters from the first chapters of Genesis up to Abraham, who are best qualified to address a problem that stands at the core of Agamben’s thought: How does one become the human being that one still is? Homo Sacer teaches us that this puzzle, which is called anthropogenesis, can only be confronted by first answering another question: What is a life that is lived but only barely?