Through surprising detours, Agamben plumbs Western thought to reveal unexpected insights.
Since its inception over two decades ago, Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer series has emerged as one of the most ambitious, influential, and hotly debated intellectual projects of our time. As Agamben brings this series to a close—or, in his words, “abandons” it—with The Use of Bodies, this blog event will explore the stakes of the project as a whole from a variety of perspectives. Kevin Attell takes a very Agambenian approach of jumping between the micro- and macroscopic view, highlighting the unexpected contribution of what might initially have appeared as isolated bons mots to Agamben’s systematic concerns in the Homo Sacer project. Peter Fenves connects Agamben’s most famous project to his less well-known early works, guided by Agamben’s use of the concept of topology. The concept of form-of-life, arguably the most crucial in all of Agamben’s work, is at the center of David Kishik’s contribution, which also gathers materials from Agamben’s earlier writings as well as more recent texts that fall outside the Homo Sacer architectonic. By contrast, Alberto Toscano provides an account of the place of Stasis—an “in-between” volume of the series that was paradoxically published after its official concluding (or abandoning) installment—and what Nicole Loraux, one of Agamben’s most important interlocutors, can tell us about what remains unthought in Agamben. Lorenzo Chiesa focuses on teasing out the political implications of Agamben’s work, as clarified in light of The Use of Bodies.
Agamben seeks to reframe our understanding of the Western tradition—and to provide us with tools to help us move beyond its destructive deadlocks.
This post aims to provide a basic orientation to the Homo Sacer series that can serve as a background and point of reference for the other contributions. The series begins with the eponymous first volume, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, which was published in Italian in 1995. This dense and allusive volume establishes the basic terms of Agamben’s investigation. By establishing a series of structural parallels between its central political, linguistic, and ontological categories, Agamben seeks to reframe our understanding of the Western tradition—and to provide us with tools to help us move beyond its destructive deadlocks.
Central to his critique is the structure of the exception, which at once excludes the exceptional element and paradoxically includes it. While the mainstream of the Western tradition has tried to create a clean distinction between natural life and politically qualified life (zoè and bios, respectively), the exclusive inclusion or inclusive exclusion worked by sovereignty produces a new and uncanny figure of life that Agamben calls “bare life,” a life that is no longer merely natural but has been stripped of its political status. His key example is the figure of the homo sacer from Roman law, which translates literally to the “sacred man,” but colloquially is more resonant with the definition of an “accursed man”—one who is excluded from the political community. In this most extreme of punishments, the victim is put beyond the reach of legal punishment and legal protection (he cannot be sacrificed or publicly executed but he can be killed with impunity). Agamben argues that this unfortunate figure and the sovereign who “decides on the state of exception”—who both defines the law and stands above it—belong together on the deepest level, such that the truly foundational gesture of sovereignty is the production of the homo sacer, which is to say, the production of bare life.
The political implications of Agamben’s argument have been most widely discussed, above all for their stark relevance during the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.” In the second volume of the series, State of Exception, Agamben makes that connection explicit with an historical overview of “states of emergency” in Western states that culminates in the Patriot Act. Yet in both volumes, there is a strong emphasis on linguistic and ontological categories—and the “answer,” insofar as there is one, is provided by a Kafka short story rather than any overtly political program. The pattern continues in Remnants of Auschwitz, where Agamben’s investigation of the most extreme figure of the homo sacer, the so-called “Muselmänner” (a slang term among their fellow inmates for those who reached the point of ultimate degradation in the Nazi concentration camps), opens out, quite unexpectedly, onto a discussion of the relationship between language and subjectivity.
After the publication of the three initial volumes—which were actually published “out of order,” with Remnants of Auschwitz (volume 3) appearing prior to State of Exception (volume 2)—most readers expected a fourth volume that would serve as the constructive counterpoint to the first three volumes’ critique. What actually followed, however, was a series of part-volumes that vastly expanded the scope of the project. One of those volumes, The Highest Poverty, was designated as the first half of volume 4, which has now been completed with the publication of its sequel, The Use of Bodies. The final ordering of the series is as follows:
2.1. State of Exception
2.2. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm
2.3. The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath
2.4. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Glory
2.5. Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty
As with the original “trilogy,” the more expansive version of the project was also published out of its stated architectonic order. Moreover, the ordering has been retrospectively revised, with The Kingdom and the Glory, initially designated as 2.2, being moved to the long-vacant 2.4 slot. It would appear that Agamben maintained the broad outlines of his plan while leaving room for improvisation—a point that he makes explicit when he notes that he did not initially plan to write Opus Dei (2.5), but felt it was necessary in order to provide needed background for The Highest Poverty (4.1).
The relative emphasis on the different volumes varies widely. The first volume remains a continual point of reference in most, though not all, of the subsequent texts. Some volumes seem relatively isolated, particularly The Sacrament of Language, which Agamben does not explicitly cite in any later installments, or Opus Dei, which is connected solely to The Highest Poverty. Texts that are officially “outside” the series sometimes prove more decisive for Agamben’s investigation—this is true above all of The Open: Man and Animal, which is cited almost as frequently as Homo Sacer itself in The Use of Bodies—or provide crucial background and clarification, as in the methodological reflections in The Signature of All Things.
Overall, then, we are dealing with a project that is flexibly structured and that does not claim to be fully self-contained. Nor, indeed, is Agamben making any attempt at exhaustive thoroughness. With its total disregard for disciplinary boundaries and its lack of explicit historical exposition and contextualization, the Homo Sacer series is not an authoritative and systematic survey of Western thought. It proceeds, instead, by a series of conceptual and historical detours, excavating the neglected corners of the tradition in search of hidden foundations and outsize influences. This digressive style is most evident in his distinctive in-line footnotes, marked with the Hebrew letter aleph (א), which draw the most unexpected connections to seemingly distant and unrelated figures and concepts.
The Homo Sacer series is not an authoritative and systematic survey of Western thought. It proceeds, instead, by a series of conceptual and historical detours, excavating the neglected corners of the tradition.
At its best, Agamben’s approach can produce startling revelations. In The Kingdom and the Glory, for instance, he uses his investigation of the fate of the term oikonomia to virtually rewrite the entire history of the development of Christian theology, all while shedding unexpected light on the theological roots of modern economic institutions. On a smaller scale, his investigation of the concepts of liturgy and office in Opus Dei provides an unexpected—and strikingly sinister—vantage point for reevaluating Kantian ethics. Arguably most ambitious of all is the short, and relatively neglected, Sacrament of Language, in which the experience of the oath proves to be the crucial nodal point linking together the Western relationship to language, politics, and ontology.
How do all of these disparate studies fit together into a single project? Why have these volumes been included while other, seemingly highly relevant studies, such as The Open, have not? And what can it mean for such an improvisational and open-ended project to have come to a conclusion? In his prefatory note to The Use of Bodies, Agamben leaves these questions open, claiming that all “who have read and understood the preceding parts of this work know that they should not expect a new beginning, much less a conclusion.” He goes on to describe his investigation as one “that, like every work of poetry and of thought, cannot be concluded, but only abandoned (and perhaps continued by others).” It remains to us, in short, to discern whether and how this particular grouping of studies proves to be productive and illuminating—or to decide that the whole is less than the sum of its parts and to pursue the paths opened up by individual texts without regard to its place in the series.