SubStance 29.3 (2000) 124-131
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Sovereign Power and Bare Life
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. 199.
At a time when criticism indulges in reading current cultural phenomena at their most detailed and microcosmic level, Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer takes an altogether different route to the problematic relationship between politics and thought. Agamben's is a book whose scope and implications are deliberately overarching, as is the core of its subject matter, namely, the relation of human life to political power. The novelty of his approach lies in his conviction that there are still phenomena in our present that have been untouched by the many epistemological shifts recently declared, and that demand a serious examination of the past in which they remain deeply rooted. Consequently, in investigating the current relation between human life and state power, Homo Sacer finds many of its answers in remotest antiquity, in the political writings of Aristotle and the legal theory of ancient Rome.
In Aristotle, Agamben finds the first separation between the simple, animal life (zoé) we are born into and the "good" life of political participation (bios) that we enter into--a conceptual separation which, at times pronounced and at other times blurred, still haunts our politics. To pass from mere life to political life means that mere life is the necessary prerequisite of our entrance into politics. However, mere life is recognized as that prerequisite only by being excluded from the elevated sphere of politics. The central example of this paradoxical structure appears in Roman law, which provides the book with its title figure of homo sacer. It is through this metaphorical figure of the "sacred man" that Agamben grounds the workings of biopolitics--a term he borrows from Foucault but pushes, as I will discuss, toward a different direction.
Significantly, the sacred man proves to be a juridical category, not a religious one, as may be first supposed. The term designates a criminal whom the state deems worthy of death, but whom it bans from being either legally executed or religiously sacrificed. Instead, the sacred man may be killed by anyone with impunity, a status that casts him, like Cain, simultaneously both in and out of human and divine law. Since his biological life is at stake, [End Page 124] isolated from the rest of his being and given over to the law as the law's absolute price, homo sacer experiences the law in its most abstract, formal, excluding, and death-carrying capacity.
Starting with this legal definition, Agamben traces the history of Western politics as the history of the production of homines sacri. To do so, Agamben balances the philosophical and speculative tone of his writing with an abundance of concrete historical instances which describe the transformation of human life into sacred, hence perishable, life. The refugee, the comatose, and the death row inmate are some of the present-day examples of homines sacri, of lives that meet in the wasteland between exile and belonging, between life and death. Such examples do not simply illustrate Agamben's theoretical assumptions. In fact, the example of sacred life is elevated here to the level of a theoretical concept and of a heuristic device. This is not a coincidence, since early on in the book Agamben finds in the example the structure that opposes the logic of the exception, which for him is equivalent to the logic of sovereignty (22). The dialectic of example and exception plays itself throughout the book, which concludes by establishing the camps as the ultimate paradigm of the state of exception. In the brief conclusions--all entitled "Threshold"--following each of the three thematic divisions of the book, Agamben draws a continuum in the history of biopolitics by exposing ways in which the earlier instances of homo sacer anticipate the totalitarian nature of the modern camps. The figure of homo sacer, from its Roman exiles to the prisoners of Auschwitz proves to be an exemplary figure of the state of exception...