- Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life
The central claim in Giorgio Agamben’s latest book to be translated into English (the Italian original was published in 1995) is extremely provocative: the concentration camp is the hidden paradigm for the exercise of power in western politics, including contemporary liberal democracies. He pursues his argument not through historiographical inquiry but, rather, through what he calls an “historico-philosophical” analysis of nothing less than the fundamental structure of sovereign power as exercised in the West from Aristotle to the present (10). Through primary reference to Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, the book defines sovereignty [End Page 163] as a relation of exclusionary inclusion between the sovereign power and what Agamben terms “bare life.” Bare life (“la nuda vita”) is something like “life in general” (66) or “pure being” (182), as opposed to the “way of life proper to men” (66). Within the context of the sovereign relation, bare life is the part of the political subject’s existence excluded from the juridical order instituted by the sovereign power. Nevertheless, this exclusion of bare life from the juridical order in fact constitutes a hidden inclusion with relation to sovereign power because the sovereign power must, in order to be able to manifest its absolute authority at any given moment, reserve the right to suspend the juridical order it instituted. Thus the thing upon which sovereign power exercises its absolute, extrajuridical power within the state of exception is the very thing that was excluded at the moment of juridical institution: bare life. Paradoxically, then, bare life is “the element that, in the exception, finds itself in the most intimate relation with sovereignty” (67).
If all of this sounds abstract, that’s because it is. Indeed, for a book intended as a response “to the bloody mystification of a new planetary order,” it is in many ways too abstract, particularly in its first third (12). Only when Agamben arrives at the second of his three sections, the one devoted to the “protagonist” of the book, homo sacer (sacred man, the incarnation, so to speak, of bare life), does the sovereign relation Agamben is describing become clear in concrete terms (8).
This second section of the book is the most “historical” insofar as it builds out of various well-chosen, logically and structurally homologous examples of power relations drawn from archaic Rome to the present a narrative account of the developing fate of the life of homo sacer in relation to sovereign power. This narrative begins with homo sacer, a man so designated in archaic Roman law as he who, in punishment for a crime, cannot be sacrificed according to the methods proscribed by divine law and yet may be killed without the killing being considered murder according to the laws of the city. The life of homo sacer thus, argues Agamben, concretely instantiates bare life’s relation of excluded inclusion with regard to sovereign power.
From this fascinating point of departure, Agamben proceeds to construct a chronological narrative of key moments of transformation in homo sacer’s relation to the sovereign, evoking along the way such intriguing figures as the King and his two bodies in the English and French royal contexts, the “wolf-man” of early medieval Anglo-Saxon and Germanic law, the corpus singled out in the writ of habeas corpus, and the citizen of the “Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.” Then, in the book’s third part, Agamben finishes his protagonist’s story with a consideration of the Nazi concentration camp internee and such contemporary incarnations of homo sacer as the comatose patient on life support or the refugee. In the course of this narrative, some of the most interesting consequences of Agamben’s argument surface—for instance, his critique of the understanding of the sacred as ambiguous, which in turn leads, on the one hand, to a critique of Georges Bataille’s understanding of sovereignty (Agamben sees it as politically empty and therefore...