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  • Bare Life and the Limits of the Law
  • Margaret Kohn (bio)
Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 104 pp. $12.00 (pbk). $30.00 (hc). 0226009254.

Giorgio Agamben is best known for his provocative suggestion that the concentration camp – the spatial form of the state of exception - is not exceptional but rather the paradigmatic political space of modernity itself. When Agamben first made this claim in Homo Sacer (1995), it may have seemed like rhetorical excess. But a decade later in the midst of a permanent war on terror, in which suspects can be tried by military tribunals, incarcerated without trial based on secret evidence, and consigned to extra-territorial penal colonies like Guantanamo Bay, his characterization seems prescient. The concepts of bare life, sovereignty, the ban, and the state of exception, which were introduced in Homo Sacer, have exerted enormous influence on theorists trying to make sense of contemporary politics. Agamben recently published a new book entitled State of Exception that elaborates on some of the core ideas from his earlier work. It is an impressive intellectual history of emergency power as a paradigm of government. The book traces the concept from the Roman notion of iustitium through the infamous Article 48 of the Weimar constitution to the USA Patriot Act. Agamben notes that people interned at Guantanamo Bay are neither recognized as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention nor as criminals under American law; as such they occupy a zone of indeterminacy, both legally and territorially, which, according to Agamben, could only be compared to the Jews in the Nazi Lager (concentration camps) (4).

Agamben’s critique of the USA Patriot Act, at least initially seems to bare a certain resemblance to the position taken by ACLU-style liberals in the United States. When he notes that “detainees” in the war on terror are the object of pure de facto rule and compares their legal status to that of Holocaust victims, he implicitly invokes a normative stance that is critical of the practice of turning juridical subjects into bare life, e.g. life that is banished to a realm of potential violence. For liberals, “the rule of law” involves judicial oversight, which they identify as one of the most appropriate weapons in the struggle against arbitrary power. Agamben makes it clear, however, that he does not endorse this solution. In order to understand the complex reasons for his rejection of the liberal call for more fairness and universalism we must first carefully reconstruct his argument.

State of Exception begins with a brief history of the concept of the state of siege (France), martial law (England), and emergency powers (Germany). Although the terminology and the legal mechanisms differ slightly in each national context, they share an underlying conceptual similarity. The state of exception describes a situation in which a domestic or international crisis becomes the pretext for a suspension of some aspect of the juridical order. For most of the bellicose powers during World War I this involved government by executive decree rather than legislative decision. Alternately, the state of exception often implies a suspension of judicial oversight of civil liberties and the use of summary judgment against civilians by members of the military or executive.

Legal scholars have differed about the theoretical and political significance of the state of exception. For some scholars, the state of exception is a legitimate part of positive law because it is based on necessity, which is itself a fundamental source of law. Similar to the individual’s claim of self-defense in criminal law, the polity has a right to self-defense when its sovereignty is threatened; according to this position, exercising this right might involve a technical violation of existing statutes (legge) but does so in the name of upholding the juridical order (diritto).

The alternative approach, which was explored most thoroughly by Carl Schmitt in his books Political Theology and Dictatorship, emphasizes that declaring the state of exception is the perogative of the sovereign and therefore essentially extra-juridical. For Schmitt, the state of exception always involves the suspension of the law, but it can serve two different purposes. A “commissarial dictatorship” aims at...

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