Apocalypse Deferred

Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press. January 2005.

Giorgio Agamben’s work has come to be widely read in American universities in the last ten years. The former Autonomia theorist Antonio Negri and the American academic Michael Hardt have enjoyed a more public success with their two books Empire and Multitude, where, with catch-all verve and unstable prose, they continued poststructuralist efforts to explain globalization and the contemporary international order. But Agamben’s work makes a different kind of claim to immediate political significance among recent attempts by “high theory” to deal with a globalized and post-9/11 world. He is more lucid than some colleagues, better able to summarize the insights of predecessor intellectuals without distortion, and, through a set of recent events, seemingly more prophetic about the governmental and juridical realities of the moment.

The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste. Agamben allies himself with a line of intellectuals that goes back before World War II, and puts together figures who, though many had minor personal connections, seem antithetical. Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt regularly get historical rendezvous; so do Georges Bataille and Alexandre Kojève. Heidegger stands on his own, usually arriving after the midpoint of books like mystic cavalry to illuminate and redeem them. The sense is that Agamben has an unusual, unforced sensitivity to the hidden affinities of early-20th-century thinkers—he’s arranging these assignations for the thinkers’ sakes, not his own. Beyond that are his many Talmudic, medieval, and ancient Roman anecdotes.

He also shows taste in his writing style, at least in his way of structuring his books, with a prodigious number of asides, mini-essays, epigrams, curious and wonderful stories. It seems like a revival of a nonsystematizing tradition of philosophical art-writing that preceded the post-’68 experimentalist eruption. He is not playful or Nietzschean. Line for line, Agamben can often be obscure and, when finally understood, obtuse. But his books can be read with real pleasure for their fabric alone, and his English publishers have been delivering plentiful, often extremely short recent volumes at an impressive rate.

It’s true that not every philosopher is best where he tries to be most original. We should honor anyone who avoids becoming another single brickmaker for the vast edifice of academic philosophy. If Agamben stands on the shoulders of others, he can be saluted for the vigor and curiosity with which he’s revived and juxtaposed certain questions. He becomes what Vincent Descombes said a certain kind of modern philosopher would always become, after Hegel—one who takes eternal philosophy to measure the events and history that unfold in the newspaper, a barometer of the metaphysical environment.

The central work in Agamben’s oeuvre for Americans, and the ground of his claim to importance, has to be Homo Sacer. The book outlined three concepts Agamben would return to in many publications: “bare life,” the “camp,” and “the state of exception.”

“Bare life” is built on an ancient Greek distinction, which defined human life as made of two parts: bios, the form of life, encompassing personality, lifestyle, status, and behavior; and zoē, the merely animal or vegetative aspect of biological life. For the Greeks, these two kinds of life were just analytic categories—they didn’t separate in reality. But Agamben argues that modern institutions have come into existence that reduce human beings to a point where only a politicized version of zoē (biological life) remains. The Nazi concentration camps proved this to the world. In a camp, “bare life” is brought out of human beings, by a combination of legal withdrawal and the intrusion of norms of health, security, and racial distinction. Jewish camp inmates were reduced to biological life of a particularly worthless, yet governmentally significant, kind: determined by state power; reinforcing state authority; but so deprived of legal and political standing that a human animal became (in Agamben’s somewhat confusing phrase, drawn from Roman law) a homo sacer, a person who could be “killed but not sacrificed”—that is, disposed of like waste, but not given a death as a human being within a context of ritual or law.

The creation of a place (the camp) outside the law and not subject to legal procedures or citizens’ protections, and a population to fill it (the Jews), defines for Agamben the truest manifestation of the “state of exception” in which a modern state achieves full reach and authority over its whole territory and citizenry. Normally, “state of exception” is a rarely used piece of legal terminology, the German equivalent of what in England and America is called a “state of emergency,” or, in France, a “state of siege”—that is, a crisis of public order in which a duly constituted authority (president, parliament, or monarch) suspends the law to save the political system itself. But “state of exception” had a particular significance in Hitler’s interruption of German law during the Nazi period, and Agamben follows the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s argument, in his Political Theology of 1922, that sovereign power is in fact only ever really constituted by its ability to decide the state of exception. Agamben generalizes the condition still further. Power over “bare life”—attained by a state’s ability to designate certain places and populations as an exception to the rest, thus solidifying control over everyone—comes to be, for Agamben, the permanent precondition of all modern sovereignty.

Minus the Nazi tincture, these arguments echo some familiar arguments of intellectual life that don’t go back further than our parents’ lifetimes. Agamben is perfectly open about his debts to predecessors. He points out that the relevant arguments had already been launched by Foucault about the rise of biological life as the modern medium of power, and by Arendt about the suspension of rights for “stateless persons” as the precondition for totalitarianism and camps.

Foucault’s famous theory of modern biopower and biopolitics originated in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Formerly, Foucault argued, a sovereign had dominion over his subjects by his power of death; he was capable of executing them or sending them to war. Most of everyday life was thus left untouched and unmonitored. Modern sovereignty, in contrast, has dominion over subjects by its power of life, guaranteeing and regulating life (as longevity, quality of life, biological status) through discourses of health and race.

Arendt’s well-known demonstration of how Nazi dictatorship had been preceded, in all the nations of Western Europe, by laws providing for denationalization and the creation of noncitizen persons, appears in chapter nine of The Origins of Totalitarianism. She showed a historical manifestation of the old paradox that under the Rights of Man, the naked, individual human being, who supposedly possesses rights by virtue of his humanity, is simply not protected whenever he becomes only a human being; “human rights” wind up being protected, in practice, when they coincide with citizenship in a nation that is usually constituted through other principles (say, race or religion). Plus, Arendt had gone on, in a later work (The Human Condition), to produce a biopolitical paradigm very like Foucault’s. Dealing explicitly with America and contemporary Western Europe, she criticized the transformation by consumer society of all of life into “labor,” or the need to work and act and think only for those things that support and extend biological life itself, making biology a spectacle and a commodity.

Agamben’s contribution is to take these familiar arguments out of their frames—where they were portraits of particular phenomena in late modernity—and blow them up to metaphysical size. Agamben makes two characteristic maneuvers in each of his recent books, no matter what he’s investigating: one is geometrical, the other historical (or, rather, antihistorical). He resolves contradictions between concepts whose connections would require extensive empirical research by invoking the figure of a “zone of indistinction” or “inclusive exclusion” to insist the fundamental terms depend on or produce one another—without showing how, or tracing practical political relations within this fine haze. And when he chooses a major concept, he runs it to ground through all the preceding centuries of written history—making it an essential and eternal phenomenon, and thus evincing, despite the quotations of scholastics and Romans, a surprising disdain for historical specificity.

The geometry seems to be a hangover from poststructuralist rhetoric, and the antihistory seems an inheritance from Heidegger—a direct influence, who appears as the final authority in many of Agamben’s books, and practically invented this way of making 20th-century insights also eternal and existential while claiming to end metaphysics. One thing to know about Agamben is that he actually attended the Le Thor seminars from 1966 to 1968, at which the aged Heidegger held forth. Both Arendt and Foucault certainly had Heidegger in their intellectual backgrounds, but each turned to a practice of historical specificity. The two, in fact, stopped calling themselves philosophers, though they clearly wrote philosophy. Arendt called herself a political theorist, Foucault, a historian.1

For his apparent failure to advance on Foucault and Arendt, his preoccupation with Nazis, and his shortcut Heideggerianism, Agamben’s theory would have been easy to dismiss. But a curious thing happened to his speculations. After two airplanes piloted by Arab terrorists hit and destroyed the World Trade Center, the Bush Administration embarked on a new line of policy and created institutions to make war on an abstraction it called “terror.” The United States became a “homeland”—which, having no ties of blood to soil, it had never been—and made “security,” the old catchphrase of states of exception everywhere, its justification for executive overruling of law. The president insisted on the era’s exceptional circumstances to launch preemptive wars on two fronts, as a weak Congress handed its authority to the executive. With the war prisoners of Afghanistan, whom it denied state affiliation or the standing of any country, the Bush Administration created a camp at Guantanamo Bay, which would be outside the US and international systems of law and yet represent the most terrifying aspect of American authority—on the island of a nation, Cuba, that the US barely recognizes. Nonexistence of rights, but the authorized existence of torture, became the defining feature of this camp; the US seemed to prepare a parallel security apparatus at home, with the Patriot Act, and in the effort, in effect, to begin the legal denationalization of US citizens, renamed “enemy combatants,” as in the case of José Padilla. All these events, happening so quickly, seemed uncannily like the “state of exception” that Agamben had been insisting was waiting, all along. He seemed, that is, not mistakenly nostalgic for the clarity of the concentration camp, but gifted with predictive power.

The works that have appeared since Homo Sacer expand on one or another of that book’s terms, and continue to draw the history, or nonhistory, of particular Agambenian concepts back through the European interwar period and then into Roman, Greek, or Jewish antiquity. Remnants of Auschwitz treats the “camp” and its inmates in the Holocaust. The Open expands on the notion of “bare life,” metaphysicalizing it even further, in tracing the political distinction between man-as-man and man-as-animal that, Agamben says, “governs every other conflict. . . . That is to say, in its origin Western politics is also biopolitics.” And the new book, State of Exception, traces once again the eponymous “state of exception.”

The opening of the new book is remarkable for Agamben’s awareness of the success of his own prophecies, and an acknowledgment of the obligation to give a concrete cast, using contemporary events, to an analysis that had formerly been speculative and perhaps too heavily tied up with World War II. In a chastened and dry tone, he first outlines the abstract problem of the “state of exception” among legal theorists—whether the emergency suspension of law is actually contained within the law, or exists outside it. Then he reviews the actual history in the Western European nations and the United States of their acquisition of modern rules for a “state of emergency,” and invocations of them—including, according to Agamben, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s war powers in World War I (delegated by Congress), and FDR’s expansion of executive authority during the Great Depression. His conclusion is that in all the Western nations, since World War I, versions of the state of exception have in fact become the norm, always under the rationale of “security”—and so “democracy is transformed from parliamentary to executive”: “[I]n conformity with a continuing tendency in all of the Western democracies, the declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.”

Gratifyingly, Agamben makes the consequences of his analysis for the present moment quite explicit. The growth of the state of exception has “perhaps only today reached its full development.” It is comparable, in the democracies, to the Nazi and fascist security of wartime Germany and Italy. Guantanamo Bay is indeed a “camp” in the Agambenian sense, it reduces the detainees to “bare life,” and it is comparable legally only to the Nazi concentration camps. Most importantly (for this statement is actually true, and everybody ought to have the nerve to say it): “Bush is attempting to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.”

From there, as usual, we go back to learned discussions of a Roman legal institution, the Iustitium, more Carl Schmitt, more Walter Benjamin—and then still more Greco-Roman jurisprudence. It’s quite incredible, since the book ends—as, I should perhaps have confessed earlier, all of Agamben’s books end, and sometimes begin, too—with a promise of direct political relevance, in which the foregoing analysis will help us to intervene in and fix the world. How? Never by restoring the power of parliaments, or the rule of law. It’s too late for that. Rather, by finding a way to return to a “pure” politics—divorced from law, from power, from states—as Benjamin once fantasized a “pure” language and “pure” violence. You would only make gestures, never command; you would only manifest action as a “means,” that had no goal or “end.”

Alas, this has been Agamben’s underlying political remedy—as opposed to his biopolitical analysis—all along. The hoped-for intellectual advance—in confrontation with a really exceptional imperial project, the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror”—has not occurred. Agamben’s vision of political salience starts to seem like the empty promise of a student paper or a grant proposal: the analysis will free us, it will transform everything—as if his work could not be justified without such claims.

As always, his political thought has a distinguished ancestry. One source is the Hegelian and Marxist vision of a final synthesis and overcoming of the cycles of history. Agamben hints at a reversed version of the contemporary reading of the Hegelian-Kojèvean “End of History”—now familiar to us in America as the neoconservatives’ favorite bedtime story, since it moved from Hegel via Kojève to Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, then to Francis Fukuyama. (Paul Berman traced this history in A Tale of Two Utopias.) Rather than liberal democracy being the end state of political history for Agamben, the biopolitical project of the regulation of health and life will teach people to manifest their own bare life voluntarily and thereby prove indigestible (somehow) to all states and sovereignty—bringing us into the post-national utopia.

Another inheritance is the notion of politics as a pure face-to-face interaction in which human beings disclose their full humanity, the more so when they lack all institutions, positive law, and governmental forms. The idea is present in Arendt as well as Benjamin, not only in The Human Condition (where Arendt has been extensively criticized for her idealized picture of Athenian democracy) but in the description of the French Resistance that opens her Between Past and Future—where real politics vanished in 1945 as soon as the underground dissolved and a French state returned.

But the most important and basic tradition that seems to lie behind Agamben’s politics is the deep hostility to human rights, derived from Marx, that has always divided certain kinds of European thought from most of the American left. The classical text of Marx for opposition to human rights (as the Rights of Man) was his early “Reflections on the Jewish Question.” It contains the famous passage, after Marx’s analysis of the various rights awarded to citizens by the French and American Revolutions, on true human emancipation:

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being [i.e. recognizes human community]; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.

You feel here the mood of Agamben’s politics of the revived human being overcoming the spurious, rights-based “citizen”—but also many genuinely political particulars that have no correspondence in Agamben. Marx anticipated Arendt’s historical work, critiquing human rights that pretended to apply to “humans” or “men” but only applied to citizens who derived rights from the state. (This was Joseph de Maistre’s conservative critique, too: “I have met Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Englishmen, Frenchmen, but I do not know Man.”) More characteristically, Marx argued that when a bill of rights prohibits the state from certain powers over parts of individual life (property, speech), it only relocates coercive power to the level of civil society and its bourgeois masters, so that men can be exploited while calling themselves free. But his solutions, therefore, moved toward the concrete level of production (as he moved forward toward Capital), and the “organization” of “social power” as recognizable political power. When the language of rights must be invoked, a longstanding Marxist argument opts for a conception of substantive positive rights (to employment, to food and shelter, to livelihood) against the purely negative rights of freedom from state repression. (A history of this critique, and its analogues on the Right, is traced in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut’s Political Philosophy 3: From the Rights of Man to the Republican Idea—a work in service of the human-rights-based, republican turn of French thought in the early 1980s, but no less accurate for that.)

“Bare life,” as a remedy as well as a problem, is inimical to political rights. Means Without End, Agamben’s clearest and simplest political book, clarified the motivations of Homo Sacer in a series of short essays. The title is an allusion to Agamben’s central political idea: that when people can come to manifest pure means, without asking for anything substantive as an end, they will demystify power and slip the yoke of all of its imprisoning forms. “Politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings,” he suggests (italics in original). A coming community of true political actors will manifest pure “impotence” or powerlessness, becoming like the concentration-camp inmate so removed from daily actuality he could no longer be touched by Nazi power; or like Melville’s Bartleby, who would neither do nor not do, but only “prefer not to.” The new actors will manifest their bare life, discovering thereby their true humanity, a humanity restored because it surrenders any hope of finding its inner divisions or human nature.

Agamben’s idea, rather than holding that revolutionaries’ demands should be directed differently, as in Marx, is that they should necessarily be nonspecific and, indeed, unfulfillable in any way that ordinary politics would recognize. As he writes in Means Without End:

[T]o risk advancing a prophecy here—the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or to control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity). . . . This is the lesson that could have been learned from Tiananmen, if real attention had been paid to the facts of that event. What was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May, in fact, was the relative absence of specific contents in their demands. (The notions of democracy and freedom are too generic to constitute a real goal of struggle, and the only concrete demand, the rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang, was promptly granted.)

For Americans, this can lead to a kind of sticking point (and maybe for the Chinese protesters of Tiananmen Square, too, if you asked them). Are “democracy,” along with “freedom”—which I presume in the context of the Chinese protests means civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, etc.—“too generic to constitute a real goal of struggle”? Unless you are prepared to launch into true nonstate politics—unless, that is, you are messianically ready for a coming apocalypse, in which things must get far worse before they could get better—you might have to say no.

Even a year or two ago, as Agamben’s more far-out warnings began to seem plausible, it did look like we were heading for the apocalypse. But, of course, just when it looked as if the Bush Administration was leading us into never-ending worldwide war and internal repression, more curious things happened.

The first was the military catastrophe of the occupation of Iraq and the surprising, gross ineptitude of the Administration, despite the remarkable competence and initial successes of the armed forces. Originally, we had to anticipate a plan of continuous war against the “Axis of Evil,” and a wholesale attempt to reshape the world militarily; that is now sidelined, and the mismanagement of Iraq has helped to preserve the fragile American Republic. The second was that there was no large-scale crackdown, even covert, on the internal dissent against the War in Iraq before it occurred; such people just were ignored. An implication was that the members of the Bush Administration might not conceive of themselves as determinedly antidemocratic in the way they first appeared, when they put in place the initial structures that (as Agamben, via Arendt, reminded us) once had led to totalitarianism; rather, they might just have put antidemocratic institutions in place for immediate pragmatic reasons, power hunger, and greed. Indeed, so far it seems the rhetoric of democracy may still restrain them to just the degree necessary for the United States to survive a second Bush Administration. Third, government entities outside immediate executive oversight were not as hopeless as suspected. Though the Congress continues to be a disappointment—essentially turning into an adjunct for party and presidential politics, rather than asserting its genuine rivalry with and perhaps superiority to untrammeled presidential power—the professional political classes of the CIA, the intelligence community, and the ambassadorial service expressed useful doubts about Administration policy, and, in one of the most absolutely crucial events of the last four years, the same US Supreme Court that had unjustifiably intervened to hand Bush the 2000 election slowed down the possibility of denationalizing citizens as “enemy combatants” in the case of Yasser Hamdi (though not yet in the more egregious case of José Padilla, deferred on a problem of jurisdiction). And, fourth, a presidential election in 2004 forced the Democratic Party to reassert the national political divisions of a two-party system, critiquing the war at last, and offering a reminder that there is a choice of sorts for the population. Perhaps most important—though it’s not clear the message ever got across—Kerry, for all his defects, did not embrace the overall “security” or “terror” model put forward by the Bush administration (which would be essential to the totalitarianization of the United States) and followed, instead, an “anti-terrorist model” of more limited reach (for which he was pilloried, after expressing these ideas to the author of a New York Times Sunday magazine article). Bush’s reelection may be a disaster, but the moment of real danger, when it seemed a totalitarian consolidation might occur, may also have passed. We can be curiously relieved that Bush is distracted with destroying the social and economic fabric of the United States, through the dismantling of Social Security, retention of tax cuts, and enlargement of deficits, rather than developing his internal security apparatus.

And Agamben? He had been given a “Global Distinguished Professorship” at NYU, and a growing band of American admirers was eager to see him take his place on these shores. In January 2004, a few months before his New York course was to start, he published an editorial in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and in Le Monde, announcing his refusal to return to a United States that now required the electronic fingerprinting of foreign visitors at its airports. This fingerprinting, he said, was a further step of biopolitical domination close in spirit to the tattooing of prisoners in Auschwitz. In his self-exile, Agamben claims he has “hope” his decision “will be shared by other European intellectuals and teachers.” I don’t know if it has been.

A new era in civilization would emerge, I sometimes fantasize, if human beings were able to produce for other people’s eyes their capacity for total abjection. Today we count on photojournalists to capture “collateral damage” in hospital beds, and show us crossfire victims with missing limbs and blood-soaked bandages; the ghetto poor, sullen beside boarded-up shops, and the imprisoned, or executed, or tortured; union members on strike, dissenters marching, minorities on the steps of city hall, with the visual totems of exclusion from their workplaces or their lives: fires in barrels, picket signs, hands clutching coffee cups and children looking on as representatives of “the future.”

But all these pictures don’t do enough. I daydream what would happen if protesters could directly manifest all the bad things being done to them, or to other people around the world—outside the legal and political battles over citizenship, justice, rights, and choice. What if people dragged their stumps on the pavement on hands and knees, wailed, screamed and babbled, vomited on the sidewalk, covered themselves in their excrement, tore off their clothes and humiliated themselves—but really, you see, they’d be showing off their degradation by law and society, and all the interference and damage to simple private things they should never have had to trouble over: an unwounded body, ability to eat, liberty to make love? For some reason, I imagine this parade taking place on Park Avenue. Wouldn’t witnesses be struck with horror—and change the world?

This, I have to admit, is all I can think of when I imagine Agamben’s call for people to begin to manifest their bare life against the power of the state to control it. I know that he may mean other things—democratic protests whose democratic implications he would find insignificant, like the popular demonstrations in late 2004 in Ukraine; “people power,” as it was once called, the sheer appearance of citizens in the streets to call for a new vote or the removal of a government—but I honestly don’t think they really belong to his analysis. And I do think there’s something powerful about the notion of a manifest abjection, an incomprehensible and visible refusal of power, a pure gesture. But it has no place in politics except as the sort of aesthetic symbol that mobilizes those who know how to read it. It is still the merely human or merely bodily who are most invisible to fellow citizens as well as to leaders; only when the abject have a means of redress within the law can they be seen. Dull as it may seem, the withdrawal of law has to be opposed, the protections of law retained. Fantasies aside, all we really have are rights.

  1. We might have developed doubts at the very beginning of Homo Sacer, when Agamben described the difficulty of the synthesis he promised to attempt: “That Foucault was able to begin his study of biopolitics with no reference to Arendt’s work (which remains, even today, practically without continuation) bears witness to the difficulties and resistances that thinking had to encounter in this area. And it is most likely these very difficulties that account for the curious fact that Arendt establishes no connection between her research in The Human Condition and the penetrating analyses she had previously devoted to totalitarian power (in which a biopolitical perspective is altogether lacking), and that Foucault, in just as striking a fashion, never dwelt on the exemplary places of modern biopolitics: the concentration camp and the structure of the great totalitarian states of the 20th century.”

    But this is distorted. Foucault didn’t write directly about the Nazi concentration camps in his books, and Arendt didn’t go in depth into totalitarianism in The Human Condition, for obvious and still significant reasons. The necessary analysis of Nazism had been made by predecessor intellectuals (in Arendt’s case, by herself). More fundamentally, contemporary life in the Western liberal democracies was something else. It did not need fascism to explain it. It possessed its own phenomena needing philosophical treatment. Turning to the Nazis, then as now, would have been obscurantist and retrograde. Strictly speaking, Arendt did in fact come to The Human Condition by way of work on totalitarianism of the Soviet kind, in her reading of Marx for a planned expansion of the inadequate treatment of the Soviets in her earlier book. Instead, discovering a philosophical key to modernity in Marx’s concept of “labor,” she opened the door to a linked but distinct analysis of contemporary America and Western Europe. She could be acid about the values of American society, but she didn’t conflate liberal democratic crisis with totalitarianism—it would have ended the analytic specificity of both phenomena. Since the French publication in 1997 of Foucault’s 1975–6 Collège de France lectures under the title “Society Must Be Defended,” we’ve known that Foucault did in fact have Nazi race policy on his mind in the period of The History of Sexuality. Again, though, Foucault didn’t need Nazis in his published works, because the fact that liberal democracy is not totalitarian does not mean you fail to critique it. Anyway, Foucault was not a historical literalist: he always pushed forward in time, to expose the pitfalls of the supposedly “liberatory” practices of democracy, by a talent for allegorizing contemporary life through historically specific but much earlier examples (as in his final books, featuring an antique Greece and Rome that looked a lot like 1980s California health, diet, and body culture).


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