- Divine but Not SacredA Girardian Answer to Agamben's The Kingdom and the Glory
Though the literature on the topic has been slim, several recent commentators have identified a close affinity between the philosophical project of Giorgio Agamben, as articulated in his Homo Sacer series, and René Girard's theory of mimetic rivalry with its resolution through sacrificial scapegoating.1 Both are theories of social unity made possible through highly ritualized forms of exclusion. Girard's work posits desire and its conflictual consequences as the ultimate ground for all social systems, while Agamben views the same systems with an eye toward the maintenance of sovereign power. Agamben begins his study with an obscure figure of Roman law, the "sacred man," who is excluded from the laws of both the city and the gods such that he is not fit to be sacrificed to the gods but may yet be killed with impunity.2 This example becomes a paradigm in Agamben's thought, a figure for the ways in which sovereign power claims for itself the right to delineate between bios—politically recognized life—and zoe—"naked" life stripped of its political rights. Sovereignty, according to Agamben, operates by colonizing zoe through the rule of law in such a way that it becomes intelligible only through the apparatuses of bios. Drawing on the work of Carl Schmitt, he theorizes that [End Page 237] sovereign power paradoxically locates itself both inside and outside the rule of law by deciding on the "state of exception," the emergency circumstances under which the law—and with it the rights of citizenship—can be suspended by the sovereign.
I do not rehearse Girard's own theory of mimetic violence at great length here, but one can certainly see where scholars have been tempted to make connections. Agamben's Homo sacer bears many similarities to the sacrificial victim who, just as in Girard's theory, is sovereignly excluded from the protections of the law due to perceived guilt. Meanwhile, the paradoxical status of sovereignty described by Agamben is very like that described by Girard, in which the king maneuvers his victimary place within the sacrificial system in order to maintain power.3 Christoph Schmidt notes that, according to Girard's anthropology, modern society remains founded on some version of the state of exception: "Only the strongest power can establish civilizational order and the very law, which supports the power as it is supported by this power."4 Such affinities demonstrate that these two thinkers have crucially identified a common mechanism at the heart of human relationships. However, while Girard's theory begins in human interpersonal relationships before extrapolating into theories of religion and politics, Agamben begins from the other end. Theorizing the development of Western government, Agamben appears committed to a separation between religion and politics. Consequently, the sacred manifests differently in the projects of these two thinkers. For Girard, the sacred is the violent heart at the core of human interaction that is perpetuated within all institutions. The religious sacralizing of violence has long been humanity's core threat to itself, but Girard also believes that a religion untethered from the seductions of the scapegoat mechanism and allied instead to a true transcendence can provide a path to a new form of life. Meanwhile, Agamben is keen to keep the sacred at a distance, loath to dignify the violence of government with such a term as "sacrifice," and insistent that while religion may have a role to play in what he terms the "coming community," that role is as handmaid to philosophy and the pursuit of a politics yet to come. Even so, such a religion may only be permitted to function in a radically transformed way as, in such works as The Kingdom and the Glory (2011) and elsewhere, Agamben holds up traditional Trinitarian-Christian theologies of transcendence, glory, and acclamation as political theologies that are at least partially responsible for the aporias of modern government.5
This crucial difference in the definition and treatment of religion has gone largely unaddressed in juxtapositions of these thinkers' work. Most investigations into the relationship between Girard and Agamben have been conducted on Agamben...