- “The Ends of Homo Sacer.” A review of a Roundtable discussion on the work of Giorgio Agamben.
On November 10, 2015 a group of four scholars of Giorgio Agamben’s work gathered at Goldsmiths, University of London for a roundtable organized by the college’s recently formed Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought (CPCT). Contributing to the event, and representing a diverse array of interests in Agamben’s work, were Jessica Whyte, Benjamin Noys, Jason E. Smith and Alberto Toscano (who, alongside the roundtable chair Julia Ng, acts as co-director of the CPCT). The event was dubbed “The Ends of Homo Sacer,” a title whose most obvious motivation was the recent publication of Agamben’s Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm and of L’uso dei corpi (recently published in English as The Use of Bodies). The former book, originally delivered as two lectures in October 2001, slots into an earlier position in Agamben’s nine-book Homo Sacer series, whilst the latter marks its ostensible termination, if not its completion. As is well known, the series has been published out of the order envisioned by Agamben himself (a confusion to which the delayed publication of Stasis adds, since it displaces a spot previously accorded to The Kingdom and the Glory). Both the elusive ordering of the project and the question of its conclusion provided food for thought throughout the evening; neither problem, needless to say, attained definitive closure.
Though all panelists addressed the appearance of Stasis and The Use of Bodies—and with them, Homo Sacer’s curious publication history as a whole—only Smith drew direct attention to the plurality of “ends” in the event’s title. There are, as Smith pointed out, at least two levels at which this title is productively ambiguous. It poses the challenge that there might exist more than one conclusion to Homo Sacer and, moreover, suggests a multiplicity of meanings in such “ends” themselves (a semantic indeterminacy to which the plurality of ends is related but not necessarily reducible). What other meanings might Homo Sacer’s multiplicity of ends hold? As well as termini, ends can point to purposes, whether those of Agamben himself, or those of his readers and interlocutors. A panoramic glance reveals homo sacer as a concept that has (especially in its canonical formulation in the opening pages of the series’ first and eponymous volume) detached itself from its immediate context, in order to function as a tool for almost all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Much of this event’s relevance hinged on a critical reflection on the concept’s exile into other disciplines, a phenomenon seemingly matched by the intensification of the contemporary political crises to which Agamben has always accorded a structural significance.
This nomadic quality of homo sacer illuminates another equivocal element in the event’s title: the separability of the research project and book series Homo Sacer not only from the philosophical concept, but also from the historically specific legal figure (and its textual inscription) and, furthermore, from contemporary or historical homines sacri. Jessica Whyte’s paper, the most expressly concerned with contemporary crises of sovereignty, raised similar questions concerning the displacement of technical terms onto a generalized register. She was less preoccupied with the figure of homo sacer, however, than with the term “collateral damage” and its contemporary use as a justification for acts and ideologies of military and socio-economic ruination. The loss of human (and specifically civilian) life that military intervention requires, Whyte’s talk made clear, necessitates for its ideologues an appeal to higher sources in order to justify the suffering it causes. The term’s elasticity, as Whyte demonstrated, also allows it to be redeployed as a metaphor in the discourse of free markets and their enforcement upon indebted countries (Whyte referred to Yanis Varoufakis’s description of Greece as the “collateral damage” of the European Central Bank’s strategy to save the Eurozone by encouraging...