Key Theories of Giorgio Agamben

Giorgio Agamben (b.1942) is a philosopher of Italian origin who, since the World Trade Centre attacks in September 2001, has challenged the wide use of emergency measures for people control. Indeed, while en route to give lectures at New York University in January 2004, Agamben became personally involved when, at New York airport, he refused to conform to the US requirement that visitors provide biometric information to confirm their identity. As a result, Agamben was unable to enter the United States and had to return to Italy.

agamben-c2-768x512Agamben has taught at the universities of Verona and Venice in Italy, and has been a visiting professor at the College de philosophie in Paris, as well as at a number of American universities, such as the University of California at Irvine. His contributions to political philosophy on the subjects of life (particularly bare life), sovereignty, power, the law and the exception have now been recognised as opening up a new era in thinking about politics. Agamben is, however, also a noted theorist of art and aesthetics, particularly in the fields of poetry and language. Although a new ontology, based in ethics, also underpins his thought, the emphasis here will be on Agamben’s ideas on life, art and biopolitics.

During the 1960s, Agamben wrote a thesis on the political thought of Simone Weil at the University of Rome and, in 1966 and 1968, attended Martin Heidegger’s Le Thor seminars in Provence, France, on Heraclitus and on Hegel. During the 1970s he established his interdisciplinary orientation working on issues in the fields of linguistics, philology, poetics and mediaeval history. His book, Stanzas (1977), came out of a fellowship at the Warburg Institute in London in 1974–75. During the 1980s, Agamben edited the Italian edition of Walter Benjamin’s works, and it is Benjamin’s essay, ‘Critique of Violence’, which has greatly influenced Agamben’s analyses of sovereignty. Always in touch with developments in artistic life, Agamben played the part of Philip in Pasolini’s film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

Zoe, Bios and Biopolitics

A key distinction maintained as a continual source of reflection by Agamben in his work – one stemming from Aristotle and classical Greek political thought – is that between zoe– and bios as descriptors of life. Zoe– refers to life as bare physical survival, including biological reproduction and domestic labour (of the household: oikos), as well as all the labour required to sustain biological life – the labour that was largely done by slaves. Zoe– is thus the level of necessity and of means, not that of ends. The latter is the province of bios. Thus, for classical Greek culture, to remain immured in bare life was to remain at the animal level of necessity, rather than to achieve a fulfilling way of life as bios: life as freedom and ends.

Bios is the sphere of politics proper – of the polis – the sphere of freedom and the creation of a form of life. It is the sphere from which slaves, women and children were excluded, as they were part of life as zoe-. They could not arise to the level of freedom. Hannah Arendt (a key influence on Agamben) even goes so far as to equate the social domain in its essence with necessity (with means), which implies that purely social activity would be excluded from the polis (see Arendt 1958: 38–49). Agamben is particularly interested today in the mode of exclusion of such a category of activity or existence – of zoe- – as the being/activity of bare life.

In addition, Agamben is interested in the focus on bare life that emerges in Foucault’s theory of ‘biopolitics’. First mentioned as early as 1976 in the last chapter of the first volume of the Histoire de la sexualite´ (Foucault 1976: 183), the term was further elaborated in lectures Foucault gave in Paris at the Colle`ge de France in the academic year, 1978–79. Like the theme of governmentality, biopolitics has become an important aspect of Foucault’s thought, even though it was never the subject of a full-length book, and is quite different to the approach Foucault later takes to the history of sexuality, where the individual subject assumes centre stage.

For Foucault, biopolitics arises in the eighteenth century, and is defined as ‘the way attempts were made to rationalise the problems raised for governmental practice by phenomena proper to a collection of living beings constituted as a population: health, hygiene, natality, longevity, races’ (Foucault 1989: 109). Agamben sees this as the emergence, in the political domain, of bare life, after so many centuries of its being excluded. Biopolitics brings the domain of power and government out of a strictly juridical framework, where, in particular, Liberalism had placed it, and into the domain of life as the health – in the broadest sense – of populations.

Homo sacer and Sovereignty

‘Exclusion’ also needs explanation. For what is excluded is invariably included in some way – if we are dealing with the domain of politics. Biopolitics brings with it the echo of Roman Law, where homo sacer is the one who cannot be sacrificed (cannot have a definite legal or moral status), yet is the one who can be killed by anyone – because of this entity’s bare life status. Homo sacer is thus the point of exception that gives the law its capacity to function according to the normal case. The law needs an outside, external element so as to constitute its internal order. Homo sacer is thus included in the legal system only by being excluded (in this sense it evokes the membership of set theory, as discussed by Badiou, where belonging does not entail membership. Homo sacer belongs to the polity without being a member).

The ‘sacer’ in homo sacer evokes the sacred, but not as sacrifice. Sacrifice entails purification and consecration prior to the act of killing (the sacrifice). A passage – frequently paraphrased by Agamben, from Emile Beneveniste’s Indo-European Language and Society (1973), explains exactly what is at stake: ‘A man who is called sacer is stained with a real pollution which puts him outside human society: contact with him must be shunned. If someone kills him, this does not count as homicide’ (Benveniste 1973: 453).

Homo sacer, then, is the outcast who can be killed, but not sacrificed. Sacrifice is a ritualised activity and thus has a quasi-legal status as it is enacted according to forms of the law (Agamben 1998: 102). Homo sacer is never subjected to ‘sanctioned forms of execution’ (Agamben 1998: 103) Thus, ‘sacer’, in the sense that Agamben wants to emphasise is ‘bare life’, is ‘zoe-, in the Greek sense, the fact of being alive and nothing more, the fact of life exposed to death. According to our author, ‘the production of bare life is the originary activity of sovereignty’ (Agamben 1998: 83). The point is that the sacredness of life is currently claimed to be opposed to power, whereas homo sacer implies that sacredness is constitutive of power. A symmetry exists between the two. Sacredness (inclusive exclusion) becomes the original mode of the inclusion (as that which is excluded) of bare life in the juridical order. Life is sacred only to the extent that it is ‘taken into the sovereign exception’ (Agamben 1998: 85).

Many questions arise about the nature of the relationship between homo sacer, the law and sovereignty in the complicated history of human, and particularly European, societies, and Agamben addresses a number of these. He considers, for example, the relationship between religious sentiment and the sacred, the nature of the sovereign’s body, the connection between Roman law and modern legal forms, the basis, in the foundation of democracy, of Habeas corpus as a presentation of the (natural) body (Agamben 1998: 124). He also addresses these questions in his quest to show that sovereignty and bare life are inextricably linked, that vita is not a juridical concept in Roman law, but is excluded. In answer to the criticism that he is on thin ice when it comes to legal history, Agamben has claimed in an interview that he is working with paradigms, not taking an historical or sociological approach (Raulff 2004: 609).1

State of Exception

Quite pointedly (for it touches upon post 9/11 politics), a state of exception, which is homo sacer, gives force to sovereignty: after Carl Schmitt, whose work is also analysed in his more recent work, State of Exception (2005), Agamben says that the one is sovereign who can determine the state of exception. The paradox of sovereignty is that the sovereign, like homo sacer, is both ‘outside and inside the juridical order’ (Agamben 1998: 15). According to Schmitt, Liberalism is unable to understand the true nature of politics because it assumes that, on the whole, the juridical system will incorporate political events, will anticipate them and so make legal relations the dominant form of political relations. One should think here of constitutions setting the ground rules of political conduct and the court system as ensuring that constitutions are adhered to by all parties. Were such circumstances to be the norm, there would not be any issue of establishing the nature of sovereignty. However, Schmitt argues, political life is subject as much to the contingent and the unpredictable as it is to any normality anticipated by the law. The contingent and the unpredictable form the basis of the state of exception. The sovereign must, first of all, decide when a state of exception exists and, second, decide upon strategies – including the suspension of normal legal processes – to deal with it. These include, above all, calling a state of emergency. There is thus a correlation between the sovereign and the exception. The exception has no power as such (for the exception is determined by the sovereign); however, without the exception, it would be impossible for sovereignty to be and to maintain itself. Following Jean-Luc Nancy, Agamben invokes the old German term ‘ban’ to describe this situation (Agamben 1998: 28–29). He who is banned by the law is not simply set outside the law, but is ‘abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order’ (Agamben 1998: 28–29, Agamben’s emphasis). Thus, the law both posits the sovereign and makes the sovereign the one who is also outside the law. This is the paradox of sovereignty.


The issue arising for contemporary societies with their juridical systems, and in particular, for Western style liberal democracies, concerns the extent to which the empty space beyond (and within) the law is taken up by violence. For, with the law (legally) suspended, the will of the sovereign becomes supreme. This ‘will’ can be imposed on a situation with any means chosen by the sovereign, and these might well include violence. Indeed, the sovereign in Hobbes is precisely the extent to which the State of Nature ‘survives in the person of the sovereign’ (Agamben 1998: 35), and we know that this state is one where, famously, people live in fear of violent death (Hobbes 1962: 100). In the state of war, ‘nothing is unjust’ (Hobbes 1962: 101).

Here then is the worry behind the paradox of sovereignty: the risk that a sovereign might resort to violence in an irresponsible way. Agamben points, for example, to the suspension of law (including the suspension of the Geneva conventions on the conduct of war) in the ‘war on terrorism’ with respect to those interned by America at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. There, prisoners have no legal identity and recall the plight of stateless people between the wars referred to by Hannah Arendt (see Arendt 1951: 292). Agamben also cites the arbitrary policies involving the suspension of the law being employed to deal with asylum seekers. Increasingly, asylum seekers are purposely processed and their claims assessed outside the boundaries of any state, in international territory. They thus have no legal status and thus cannot appeal to any authority if their human rights are violated. They are non-persons.

Agamben’s further point is that the condition of the asylum seeker seems to be the general condition on the horizon, as ever larger numbers of people find that conditions have become impossible within the state of origin. Increasingly, too, therefore, the political entity of the nation-state is unequal to meeting the challenge of this new political reality. It is unable, for example, to guarantee human rights by virtue of a person’s humanity, founded as the state is on essentially legal principles.

Law can be in force without significance, as illustrated by Kafka‘s The Trial (1968), and as demonstrated to be the normal case by deconstruction. Moreover, the ‘force of law’, is the phrase used when the sovereign rules by decree, the latter being said to have the ‘force of law’. ‘Force of law’ thus implies that what would normally be outside the law (arbitrary will) is brought inside. Indeed, decrees founded on violence (sovereign violence) mean that a zone of indistinction is introduced between law and nature, outside and inside.

Human Rights and Bare Life

What is the connection between human rights and the nation state? Natural, or bare life is the subject of the French Declaration of 1789, not the free self-conscious individual. Also, the Declaration separates active rights of the citizen from passive rights acquired by virtue of one’s humanity. Can passive rights (those acquired simply by virtue of being human) be sustained and defended? The record is not good when it comes to supporting refugees and stateless people.

Refugees put sovereignty in question because they cannot be classified in terms of ‘blood and soil’, ‘nativity and nationality’ (cf. the German ‘blood and soil’ and the juridical ius soli and ius sanguinis, from Roman law), but only in terms of passive human rights (Agamben 1998: 131). The problem is that human rights are linked to the rights of the citizen. Bare life has no rights.

What is essential is that, every time refugees represent not individual cases but – as happens more and more often today – a mass phenomenon, both these organisations [Bureau Nansen (1922) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (1951)] and individual states prove themselves, despite their solemn invocations of the ‘sacred and inalienable’ rights of man, absolutely incapable of resolving the problem and even of confronting it adequately. (Agamben 1998: 133)

The problem concerns the separation of the rights ofman fromthe rights of the citizen. Rwanda is an example where human life, as sacred, could be killed but not sacrificed.

As Hannah Arendt said, human rights are connected to the fate of the nation-state, and that when the latter declines, so does the defence of human rights. The implication is that globalisation impacts negatively on human rights.

The Camps

A key element of politics for Agamben is that it is a big mistake to see the Holocaust as sacrifice. Rather, the Jew becomes homo sacer (can be killed by anyone, but not sacrificed). ‘The dimension in which the extermination took place is neither religion nor law, but biopolitics’ (Agamben 1998: 114). The work of both Foucault and Arendt is limited, however, to the extent that it does not include a consideration of the camps.

The Nazi concentration camp is the exemplar of the space of the state of exception, created under the Schutzhaft (protective custody), which allowed for imprisonment without trial, and had no need for a juridical foundation in existing institutions.

The camp is included in the political system through its own exclusion. ‘Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense’ (Agamben 1998: 170). Unlike previous uses of ‘states of emergency’ based on a factual situation, the camp is the ‘most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized’ (Agamben 1998: 170) in order to confirm the power of the sovereign. No act committed against the inmates of the camps could count as a crime. How was this possible?

Without the camps, without refugees, without limit cases of life and death – that is, without factual situations – Agamben’s thesis would have no meaning. In other words, it is not a matter of searching for the essence of theWestern juridico-political system in the interest of a new political philosophy, but of understanding how, in light of the existing juridical imperatives, the most horrific political events of our era – from Nazi concentration camps to Guantananamo – could come about.


In a separate book, which elaborates on the nature of the camps, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (2002) Agamben investigates how witnessing and thus testimony are possible in relation to the Nazi concentration camps, particularly Auschwitz. How is testimony possible? Agamben’s view is that it is possible and that to deny this is, unconsciously, to accept the Nazi view that no one would believe the survivors of the camps when they described what happened. The camps are thus an inexpressible mystical realm. It is also important to link the camps to law, even if many (including Eichmann) wanted to put them beyond the law.

Using Emile Benveniste’s theory of enonciation, (enunciating act) which sees subjectivity established in the act of language, Agamben analyses the category of the Muselmann (Moslem), described particularly poignantly in Primo Levi’s writings. The Muselmann is a person in the last stages of survival, on the edge of death, a person whose status consists of nothing other than being ‘bare life’. Testimony takes place in the space between the sayable and the unsayable which captures the position of the Muselmann. Testimony takes place even though the subject (as in the e´nonciation) is constitutively fractured.

In sum, Agamben argues for the possibility of ‘speaking Auschwitz’, or bearing witness, against the notion (asserted by the Nazis), that the event is too monstrous ever to be ‘sayable’. Agamben is for the idea that Auschwitz is sayable, that there can be a witness: ‘The witness attests to the fact that there can be testimony because there is an inseparable division and non-coincidence between the inhuman and the human, the living being and the speaking being, the Muselmann and the survivor’ (Agamben 2002: 157). Again: ‘The authority of the witness consists in his capacity to speak solely in the name of an incapacity to speak – that is, in his or her being a subject’ (Agamben 2002: 158, Agamben’s emphasis). It is a matter of establishing a monument to the impossibility of fixing the truth in relation to real events, or to memory. Testimony occurs where there is an impossibility of speaking.

What we have witnessed, then, is the depth of insight that Agamben’s theory has achieved in addressing the question of the camps.

1 For critiques of Agamben on this issue, see Fitzpatrick (2005: 51–53) and Van der Walt (2005: 279 n. 5). Both critiques, in their own way, dispute the validity of the category of ‘bare life’. Both tend to make law, or sacrifice entirely primary, so that there is no domain exterior to the law (Fitzpatrick), or one exterior to sacrifice (Van der Walt).

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Agamben, Giorgio (1998), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
—— (2002), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books.
—— (2005), State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, Hannah (1951), The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt Brace and World..
—— (1958), The Human Condition, Chicago: The University of Chicago
Benveniste, E´ mile (1973), Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer, London: Faber & Faber.
Fitzpatrick, Peter (2005), ‘Bare Sovereignty: Homo Sacer and the Insistence of Law’ in Andrew Norris, ed., Politics, Metaphysics, and Death. Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Foucault, Michel (1976), Histoire de la sexualite´ 1. : La volonte´ de savoir, Paris: Gallimard.
Foucault, Michel (1989), Re´sume´ des cours, 1979–1982, Paris: Julliard.
Hobbes, Thomas (1962), Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshot, New York and London: Collier, Collier-Macmillan.
Kafka, Franz (1968 [1925]), The Trial, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books.
Raulff, Ulrich (2004), ‘An Interview with Giorgio Agamben’, German Law Journal, 5, 5, 609–614.
Van der Walt, Johan (2005), ‘Interrupting the Myth of the Partage: Reflections on Sovereignty and Sacrifice in the Work of Nancy, Agamben and Derrida’, Law and Critique, 16, 277–299.

Agamben’s Major Writings
(2005a [2003]) State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
(2005b [2000]) The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(2004 [2002]) The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(2002 [1998]) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books.
(2000 [1996]) Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
(1999a [1970]) The Man without Content, trans. Georgia Albert, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1999b) Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1999c [1996]) The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics trans. Daniel Heller- Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1998 [1995]) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller- Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1995 [1985]) Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan, Albany: State University of New York Press.
(1993a [1990]) The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(1993b [1978]) Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron, London and New York: Verso.
(1993c [1977]) Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Further Reading
Franchi, Stefano (2004), ‘Passive Politics’, Contre Temps, 5, (online journal).
McQuillan, Colin (2005), ‘The Political Life in Giorgio Agamben’, Kritikos, Vol. 2 July.
Mills, Catherine (2004), ‘Agamben’s Messianic Politics: Biopolitics, Abaondonment and Happy Life’, Contre Temps, 5, (online journal).
Wall, Carl Thomas (1999), Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben, New York: State University of New York Press.

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