Editors' Introduction:Form-of-Life: Giorgio Agamben, Ontology and Politics
This symposium emerged as a response to the tenth anniversary of the English language translation of Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. The first of a projected tetralogy, Homo Sacer provides a compelling yet enigmatic account of the biopolitical trajectory of the West from the Ancient Greek polis to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the post-democratic spectacular capitalism of the contemporary West. Bringing the eponymous protagonist of the work into conjunction with Carl Schmitt's account of sovereignty, Michel Foucault's theorisation of biopolitics, and political problems as diverse as mass flows of refugees and medical definitions of death, Agamben provocatively claims that there is an "inner solidarity" between democracy and totalitarianism, and that "it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West."1
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, a text crucial to Agamben's philosophical project, Walter Benjamin writes that to articulate the past historically "means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger."2 The moment in which Agamben seized hold of the political import of an obscure figure of archaic Roman law was that of an increasingly dystopian liberal triumphalism. Almost a decade before the publication of Homo Sacer, Francis Fukuyama had claimed that the collapse of "totalitarian" regimes and the generalisation of free market economics across the globe provided evidence of a historical telos that corroborates the insights of the liberal democratic idea.3 Yet the collapse of the Soviet bloc saw a transformation in the liberal democracies that Fukuyama had portrayed as the victors of history. While ostensibly defeating totalitarianism in ideological battle, liberal democratic states were being hollowed out from within.
The suspension of basic rights was one of the most obvious symptoms of this process. By the early 1990's, a host of Western states had introduced restrictive migration policies and built internment camps to contain those unauthorized arrivals they had welcomed as political trophies during the cold war. Ominously, it was in this period that the United States began to make use of the extra-legal status of its military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, establishing it as an internment camp that at times held up to 40,000 asylum-seekers.4
In the years following its publication, Agamben's claim that the concentration camp is paradigmatic for contemporary politics was taken up by sociologists, geographers, legal theorists and political scientists, who used it to analyse everything from migrant detention centres to humanitarian camps.5 By 2002, when then US President George W. Bush, echoing Fukuyama, told a military academy gathering that "the 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress," the proliferating wars and draconian emergency regimes in place in many liberal states made it more difficult to view this as cause for optimism.6 By 2005, when State of Exception was published in the midst of the "War on Terror"—which saw the declaration of a state of emergency, the suspension of a host of basic rights and the utilisation of Guantanamo Bay as an interrogation camp in which so-called enemy combatants were placed outside the reach of the US court system—Agamben's analysis of our time seemed disturbingly prescient.
The reception of Homo Sacer was undeniably bound up with these events, which seemed to confirm its central theses. The immediate descriptive value of Agamben's thought was, however, double-edged. While the political prescience of the work led to enormous interest from across a range of disciplines, it also tended to obscure the underlying philosophical claims about the nature of Western politics and metaphysics that provide the horizon of intelligibility for his more provocative arguments. Homo Sacer not only took aim at the proliferation of camps and exception in contemporary politics, but identified them as symptomatic of a profound dysfunction in the architecture of the political and philosophical architecture of modernity. For Agamben, the categories and institutions that we have inherited from our political tradition have been emptied of their meaning by contemporary biopolitics, and yet continue to live a spectral afterlife through their hold on our political imagination. Contemporary politics demands both a diagnosis of the nature and structure of the new nomos in which we live, and the radical renewal of the categories of political thought.
In responding to this epochal political task, Agamben's work turns to the register of ontology. In a reading that derives from an engagement with book Theta of Aristotle's Metaphysics, Agamben argues that the human is a uniquely and radically negative being: "to be potential," he writes, "means: to be one's own lack, to be in relation to one's own incapacity."7 Every potentiality, if it is not to disappear immediately into actuality, must also be the potential not to do something. This reading of potentiality is not, however, only drawn out of Aristotle's metaphysics. Rather, for Agamben, the fundamental potentiality is the human capacity for language, and this is both the philosophical preoccupation of his early works, and a problem that he returns to obliquely throughout his explicitly political analyses.
Indeed, Agamben is convinced that the categories of ontology are deeply political categories —so much so he argues that in his analysis of potentiality, "Aristotle actually bequeathed the paradigm of sovereignty to the West."8 According to such a view, sovereignty is not only a juridico-political structure, but also an ontological one, and Homo Sacer traces problems as diverse as contemporary medical decisions about what constitutes death and the detention of so-called "enemy combatants," back to the problem of potentiality, as it was understood at the origin of Western metaphysics.
While Agamben has been reproached for the pessimism of his account of politics, potentiality is also the lens through which he identifies the shards of messianic time amongst the wreckage of today's biopolitical catastrophe.9 The crucial complement to his diagnosis of the camps is his view that our time also makes possible a new form of life in which potentiality is thought and practiced differently, and in which political being is irreducible to substantive or juridical identities. Here, too, there is a link between his political diagnosis and the political situation in which it emerged. While less often discussed in relation to Agamben's work than the camps, the period immediately following Homo Sacer's publication in English saw the rise of what Naomi Klein has termed a "movement of movements" that challenged the globalisation of free market capitalism. In a direct challenge to the neo-liberal closure of the political imagination, expressed most brutally in Margaret Thatcher's assertion, "There is No Alternative," these movements asserted that "another world is possible," and sought to open up new possibilities for collective and individual life across the planet. Agamben's philosophical concern with potentiality and his elaboration of a new form-of-life that could not be captured by the state was echoed by the movement's concern with freeing 'life' from the grip of the free market, perhaps best captured by the Zapatistas in Mexico, who declared in 1996: "Life is what they owe us."10
The motivation for this symposium was to examine the continuing relevance of Agamben's Homo Sacer beyond the particular political moment in which it was initially received, and to contribute to working through its underlying philosophical and political claims, and its implications for political praxis. We solicited contributions under the subtitle "Giorgio Agamben, Ontology, Politics," and it is through the constellation that many of its contributors rethink Agamben's political philosophy, in light of his critique of Western metaphysics, and his contribution to a new ontology of potentiality.
In "Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy," Giorgio Agamben brings the analysis of sovereign power that marked the early volumes of his Homo Sacer project into relation with the question of government, the focus of his more recent work. He identifies a tension at the heart of the concept of democracy, suggesting that it refers both to a form of constitution and to a technique of government and as such, that it is split between a juridico-political rationality concerned with power's legitimation and an economic-governmental one concerned with management. Tracing this tension in Aristotle's Politics and Rousseau's Social Contract, he argues that the contemporary dominance of the economic-governmental over popular sovereignty may be due to our tradition uncritically viewing government as mere executive power. Our continued reliance on such a conception leaves us unable, he suggests, to recognize that the space between government and sovereignty is an empty one, allowing for no possible articulation between the two. Rather than a cause for despair, however, it is from this empty space that he suggests, in an intriguing and new development of his thought, that the "ungovernable" may emerge.
In "Feminine 'I can': On Possibility and Praxis in Agamben's Work," Ewa Plonowska Ziarek examines Agamben's account of potentiality in the light of political praxis. Drawing on the feminist theory of Luce Irigaray, she problematizes Agamben's placing of the potentiality/impotentiality relation solely in the context of the isolated subject and asks how impotentiality might instead be a collective action. To this end Ziarek considers the poetry of Ana Akhmatova and in particular her statement "I can" as an alternative to Agamben's use of Bartleby's "I prefer not to", which Agamben takes as a model of withdrawal which offers a strong objection to sovereign power.
In "The Abandonment of Sex," Justin Clemens further pursues the political possibilities of withdrawal through an examination of Agamben's early work on melancholia and fetishism. In line with Freud's observation that there is something of the frustrated social revolutionary in the melancholic, Clemens suggests that a touch of melancholia may be a necessary condition for genuine thought, and melancholia's interruption of inherited technologies and modes of life may be an integral aspect of the formulation of a new means without end in the political realm.
In "A New Use of the Self," Jessica Whyte examines the non-identitarian form of singularity that Agamben argues is constitutive of the coming form-of-life, interrogating his location of its condition of possibility in the expropriative force of spectacular capitalism. She suggests that this concern with a singularity that "makes use" of itself, rather than being bound within a naturalized and/or politicised identity, enables Agamben to contest the contemporary conception of politics as a process of apportioning juridical rights and representing pre-given constituencies. Nonetheless, she goes on to question the presupposition of Agamben's account of such a singularity—that is, his claim that the society of the spectacle has dissolved all social classes into a single petty-bourgeoisie.
In "The Sacred and the Unspeakable: Giorgio Agamben's Ontological Politics," Daniel McLoughlin addresses Agamben's assertion that contemporary political thought needs to turn to the register of ontology, examining the complex play of relations between ontology, law and politics through the figure of the "merely living being," which resonates ambiguously in each of these registers. McLoughlin illuminates Agamben's claims by turning to the "sacrificial mythogeme," through which Western thought and praxis attempts to "cure" the human of its radical contingency through the negative foundation of an unspeakable limit experience. He argues that the musselman is the exemplary figure of the ontological limit to which the sacred has been pushed in contemporary biopolitics, and that this motivates Homo Sacer's call for a politics rethought from an ontology of radical contingency.
In "Agamben's Missing Subjects," Nina Power compares Agamben's relation to Aristotle to that of Paolo Virno, who also engages substantially with questions of potentiality, linguistic capacity and politics. She suggests that Agamben's thought does not enable us to think a substantial notion of the subject, and she connects this to his indebtedness to Heidegger and to his conceptualisation of contemporary work in terms of metaphysics, rather than capital. Power argues that, in the context of contemporary capitalism, Virno's historically situated naturalism may offer a more nuanced, and politically relevant, approach to the question of human potentiality—or capacity.
Brett Neilson's "Politics without Action, Economy without Labor" addresses the implications of Agamben's thought for political praxis, considering Agamben's recent addition to his Homo Sacer series, Il regno e la Gloria, in the context of work on the immaterialization of labour by Antonio Negri and other contemporary Italian Marxists. He then rejects the criticism that Agamben's ethics of inoperability is indifferent to material politics and instead asks whether inoperability might be thought in relation to class struggle.
By placing the problem of potentiality at the centre of their interrogations, these pieces help both to reveal new political possibilities opened by Agamben's thought, and to draw attention to the limitations of this work for thinking about political praxis in the present. Together, they serve to contest the view that "there is no alternative" and encourage a transformative thought and praxis.
Richard Bailey is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney. His research explores ontology, power, and resistance in the context of biopower and the camp, looking primarily at the experience of detainee resistance in Australian immigration detention. Richard is the author of "Strategy, rupture, rights: reflections on law and resistance in immigration detention," published in the Australian Feminist Law Journal, 2009, and "Up against the wall: bare life and resistance in the camp," published in Law and Critique, 2009.
Daniel McLoughlin is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy in the University of New South Wales, working on the relationship between ontology and politics in the thought of Giorgio Agamben. He has published in Law and Critique on Agamben's work, on both the problem of nihilism, and the relationship between law and language. He has also published on modernity, crisis, and Carl Schmitt's decisionism in the Australian Feminist Law Journal.
Jessica Whyte recently completed a doctoral thesis on the political thought of Giorgio Agamben in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Monash University. She has published articles on Agamben, Jacques Ranciere, Walter Benjamin, Immigration Control and Guantanamo Bay, in Law and Critique, Arena Journal, Conflitti Globali, and Ephemera and has published chapters in the collections Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life (2008) and Trauma, History, Philosophy (2008). She is a co-editor of the Australian Feminist Law Journal Edition "Law, Crisis, Revolution" and of the Agamben Dictionary (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2010).
1. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 181.
2. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 463.
3. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 2006).
4. Justice Mark Weinberg (Federal Court of Australia), "…and Justice for All?," Paper prepared for The Criminal Lawyers Association of Australia and New Zealand, Eighth International Criminal Law Congress, Melbourne 2-6 October 2002, p3.
5. See for instance Richard Ek [ed.], "Giorgio Agamben and the Spatialities of the Camp," Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography Journal Compilation, 2006.
6. George W. Bush: "Remarks by the President at 2002 Graduation Exercise of the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York" [The West Point Speech], June 1 2002, http://www.nti.org/e_research/official_docs/pres/bush_wp_prestrike.pdf
7. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 182.
8. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 46.
9. On the subject of pessimism in Agamben's thought, see "'I am sure that you are more pessimistic than I am...": an Interview with Giorgio Agamben," Rethinking Marxism 16(2) (2004).
10. First Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and against Neoliberalism, Mexico, January of 1996; http://www.struggle.ws/mexico/ezln/ccri_1st_dec_real.html