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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.3 (2005) 255-276

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The Killing Machine of Exception

Sovereignty, Law, and Play in Agamben's State of Exception

University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal
State of Exception. Giorgio Agamben. Translated by Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Giorgio Agamben's slender but profound monograph on the state of exception is an intervention into a world that is becoming more and more exceptionalist. The events of 9/11, the War on Terror, and the successive decrees and acts authorizing fingerprinting, interrogation, and indefinite detention of suspects in terrorist activities, all testify to Agamben's prophetic portrayal of contemporary politics in which the state of exception—normally a provisional attempt to deal with political exigencies—has become a permanent practice or paradigm of government. When the exception becomes the rule, it results, argues Agamben, not only in the appropriation of the legislative or judiciary power by the executive, the suspension of the constitution, and the extension and encroachment of the [End Page 255] military's wartime authority into the civic sphere, but also in a state of global civil war, which "allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system" (2005b, 2). In a way, therefore, the State of Exception is an exploration or analysis of the ways in which this killing machine of exceptionalism works.

Besides the scary and probably scandalous historical parallels drawn in this text, for instance, between Hitler's Decree for the Protection of the People and the State and the USA PATRIOT Act, Agamben is also interested in theoretically and generally exposing the growing transformation of the contemporary government into a killing machine through a fictitious production of the exception by the executive. The reference to the specific historical instances of the state of exception, therefore, occasions a sustained philosophical meditation on the fate of law and life after the suspension of the juridical order in the exception or after the application of law is withdrawn in order to expose life to the force of law without application. In other words, the state of exception unfolds as an emptiness of law that at once bans in order to abandon the living being to law.

Through the idea of the abandonment of life to law, Agamben succeeds in illustrating the biopolitical significance of the state of exception that culminates in "producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being"— bare life (or la nuda vita, as the original Italian text calls it). Along with undertaking the task to clarify the conceptual uncertainty around the syntagm, the state of exception—which, in its semantic as well as practical indeterminacy, has been conflated with the state of necessity, emergency, full powers, and martial law—Agamben, in the State of Exception, attempts to provide an answer to the question "that never ceases to reverberate in the history of Western politics: what does it mean to act politically" (2). That is to say, the retrieval of politics in the wake of the end of all politics by the exception is inextricably intertwined with the biopolitical nexus that binds life to law by means of exclusion. The biopolitical threshold of the exception is the extreme zone of intensity wherein law remains but its application is deactivated. Agamben characterizes this exceptional locus where law blurs with violence as a zone of anomie where law remains but [End Page 256] only as a pure force of violence. Agamben puts this anomic place of law as the "force of law."

In this assessment of the proper locus of the exception, Agamben juxtaposes Carl Schmitt's notion of dictatorship and Benjamin's idea of pure violence. He also revisits ancient Roman institutions and practices of the iustitium and auctoritas only to find that the exception is a no man's land, an absolute nonplace, an empty space in which is manifested a legal void ("vuoto" as...


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