Agamben – Homo Sacer

Homo Sacer

Homo Sacer

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford UP, 1998.

Agamben finds the essence of modern politics – in accordance with modernity and capitalism – at the “inclusion of zoē in the polis” or, in other words, the “politicization of bare life as such.” By referring to Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics”[1] as well as Schmitt’s definition of “sovereignty,” Agamben tries to trace the origin of what confronts us today: “inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism”(10). That is an aporia of modern democracy, and thus he asks the reason “why democracy, at the very moment in which it seemed to have finally triumphed over its adversaries and reached its greatest height, proved itself incapable of saving zoē, to whose happiness it had dedicated all its efforts, from unprecedented ruin”(10). In this context, Nazism in Germany and state-oriented socialism in old USSR are not different fundamentally with Cold War and War on Terror in the US.

The problem of contiguity between democracy and dictatorship (Fascism) starts from the puzzle about exceptio of bare life: how bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception(11). That is the way sovereignty works. It works through an act of abandoning subjects, reducing them to bare life. Hence the paradox of sovereignty: “the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order”(15). In other words, through the mechanism of the “state of exception” – for instance, Auschwitz in Nazi’s state of emergency and Guantanamo in the war on terror after 911 in the US – the sovereign power emerges. However, this use of the state of exception is not that simple: it is not about class distinction or racial discrimination. It is rather about topological conception discerning the inside and the outside of power, law, or nomos. Furthermore, it is about the state where everything is indiscernable – the sovereign can be only exist on the threshold by making zone of indistinction[2] between law (de jure, nomos) and nature (de facto, physis), inclusion and exclusion, violence and justice, and so on: “the sovereign power divides itself into constituting power and constituted power and maintains itself in relation to both, positioning itself at their point of indistinction”(41).

If only the sovereign power or Law can localize (Ortung) and order (Ordnung) the exception, by either excluding itself from juridical inclusion or including homo sacer into nowhere, how can we imagine or determine the location of us? Can we say that it is as only the effect of “ideology” that this process of sovereignty and “politicization of life” or “subjectivization of bare life” in modern society function? If the role of ideology, in Lacanian and thus in Althusserian sense, is reproducing the condition of society status quo by interpellating a subject (human) as the subject (citizen), what would be difference between ideology and law as representation of sovereign power?

In this sense, it seems inadequate for us to say that there is no outside of ideology. Rather, we would better to say that ideology makes us know nothing about the location of us. Thus, as the subjects of sovereign power in the form of bare life, we are not assumed to recognize whether we are included or excluded. Put it differently, in the paradox of modern subjectivity and mass democracy, how can we escape the zone of indistinction between citizens (public) who have got freedom in polis and demos (masses) who own nothing but bare life?  

Moreover, if the dominant ideology of the late capitalism is “eliminating the poor classes through development” which  “not only reproduces within itself the people that is excluded but also transforms the entire population of the Third World into bare life”(180), where could be the position of the critical intellectuals in the First World? Inside or outside?



[1] If Foucault would have understood the difference between zoe and bios, Foucault might have called it “zoepolitics.”

[2] He seems to borrow this idea from Deleuze’s concept of “zone of indistinction” where animal and man is not discernable for example.   

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