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  • The Sacred and the Unspeakable:Giorgio Agamben's Ontological Politics
  • Daniel McLoughlin (bio)

"it may be that only if we are able to decipher the political meaning of pure Being will we be able to master the bare life that expresses our subjection to political power, just as it may be, inversely, that only if we understand the theoretical implications of bare life will we be able to solve the enigma of ontology. Brought to the limit of pure Being, metaphysics (thought) passes over into politics (into reality), just as on the threshold of bare life, politics steps beyond itself into theory."

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer1

In his early work on ontology and language, Agamben's primary philosophical concern is the factum loquendi, the fact that humans are speaking beings, distinguishing the human animal from other living beings and dividing us internally from the "mere fact" of our biology. Agamben's political works, are, by contrast, concerned with the factum pluralitatis, the "simple fact that human beings form a community."2 When, in the Homo Sacer project, Agamben turns to diagnose the way in which political community has historically been produced, the merely living being once again plays a decisive role: political community is possible, according to Agamben, due to the division between the juridically recognized and protected life of the citizen, and a politically unrecognized "bare biological life" that may be killed with impunity.

Agamben frequently intimates that there is a close relationship between ontology and politics, and his explicitly political texts draw on a range of concepts such as potentiality, play, and happy life, developed in his earlier first philosophical thought. Nonetheless, the nature of the relationship between the two remains indistinct, a difficulty that is particularly evident in the ambiguous role that 'bare life' plays in Homo Sacer. While the term principally refers to life that is excluded from the protection of the law, Agamben often also refers to bare life as zoe, natural or nutritive life, a move that conjoins the juridical problem of sovereignty to the philosophical definition of both the human as a speaking being, and the political as a linguistic form of life, and reworks the very idea of nature or zoe as it has been inherited from the philosophical tradition. What, then, is the relationship between the ontological fracture between the merely living being and the speaking being, and the juridical division between political and bare life? And between the facts that give rise to these fractures (speaking, community), and the ontology and political philosophy through which they are theorized?

Homo Sacer famously opens by noting that the Ancient Greeks had two different terms for life: bios, denoting "the form or way of living proper to an individual or group,"3 and zoe, which described "the simple fact of living common to all living beings."4 This linguistic distinction between form of life and bare life was reflected in the Greek definition of the bios politikos, Agamben citing a passage from The Politics "that was to become canonical for the political tradition of the West," in which Aristotle writes that man is "born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life."5 The political articulation of the good life is thus defined by Aristotle as both distinct from and dependent upon zoe, the simple fact of living. According to Agamben, the focus of the political tradition has historically been the inquiry into the form of the good life. This has, however, left unaddressed a more originary question: "why Western politics first constitutes itself through an exclusion (that is simultaneously an inclusion) of bare life. What is the relation between politics and life, if life presents itself as what is included by means of an exclusion?"6

Drawing on Carl Schmitt's definition of the sovereign as "he who decides on the exception,"7Homo Sacer argues that the inclusion of bare life in the political realm is effected by sovereign power.8 While, for the most part, law relates to life through juridico-political categories (citizen, minor, resident alien), Agamben asserts that when the limit of the political is at stake, the law will be suspended...

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