What are we going to do with Giorgio Agamben?


Mary Midgley would always refer to the philosopher’s job as one of maintenance: ‘If you have a problem with your pipes, you call a plumber. When you have a problem with your concepts, you call a philosopher.’ It is in this sense that we use the work of philosophers to clarify our most fundamental principles regarding our understanding of the world.

A philosopher can study this problem from various perspectives: one can ask how we derive knowledge acquisition, another in how we relate to sensory experience. When it comes to claims regarding our personal experiences, we can have a degree of certainty, but we may not have certainty that other’s recall our certainties in a similar way. We can build outward from this. The further things are divorced from our immediate realm of experience, such as the nature of black holes or the limits of our universe, the more general conceptual work needs to be done.

To bring this back to earth, when we talk about the political realm, our conceptual frameworks for how governments should work or how we believe political leaders should behave requires an analysis of the very qualities that best serve human nature. In this sense, our political concepts regarding statements, ideas, concepts, judgements, distinctions, etc. can be the most philosophical statements that we can possibly make.

This is where Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben comes into the picture.

Already a noteworthy intellectual starting from his work in the late 60s, through to his catapulting to academic stardom with his Homo Sacer project—a detailed combination of Foucauldian bioethics and Schmittian political theology—Agamben encapsulates the vision of a very twentieth-century idea of the public European intellectual: etymologically astute, politically alert, enthralling in his ideals as well as in his fears. Agamben writes in the same tradition as famous mid- twentieth-century writers and critics such as Walter Benjamin, referencing the tragic German critic consistently throughout his corpus. Regardless of whether Benjamin is directly referenced or not in Agamben’s work, that writer is always in the periphery of Agamben’s philosophy.

One of the defining traits of Benjamin’s work has been to marvel at the effects of technology in equal parts terror and awe. For Agamben, this extends into his understanding of the modern effects of political theory. For this, he turns to the bioethics of Foucault, the ontotheology of Heidegger, the political dynamism of Carl Schmitt, the regressive hierarchies of Hobbes. In each one of these individual writers, we see the threads that make up Agamben and what he stands for in a general sense. This entails three core aspects:

  1. A critique of discursive assumptions
  2. The distrust of technology and the ongoing march of modernity
  3. An obsessive desire to explore the machinations of governmentality and
  4. How each of those aspects affects the ‘bare life’ of those within the governing domain (we are going to come back to what that means later).

These writers were uniquely situated to assist Agamben in the most central themes: potentiality, and sovereignty. As a result, the first two books of his Homo Sacer project—Homo Sacer (1995) and The State of Exception (2003)—both expressed the concept of the friend/enemy distinction as well as describing sovereignty and governmentality as tenuously formed by the agency of governing bodies to determine the subaltern and reaffirm the limits of control to enact an essentiality of exception, which in turn, becomes the rule for the governing bodies.

As surveillance technology became more and more sophisticated and the turn towards neo-liberal economics began to reform how one may see the purposes of state and the conception of the rights of the citizen began to change in light of who is deemed a ‘correct citizen’, this was an extremely important line of inquiry: how does a government decide which neighborhoods have better access to clean water? How does a government determine who gets to live in a country and transcend their borders? How is social funding spent and who is deemed worthy of it? What ‘determines’ citizenship? These questions are at the forefront of a biopolitical critique: a critique defined by how governing bodies control (control is to be seen here in a particularly neutral sense) populations through the health and welfare of its citizens.

In the years both before and after the Bush era, during the supposed crises of ‘exceptional’ bodies which were determined as outside of the legal process and beyond the limits of grief and the limits of legal representation (think of those interned at Guantanamo, those deemed terrorists and subject to hate speech by virtue of their language or country of origin or family heritage), Agamben hit the peak of the intellectual zeitgeist and became a keen critic of these new forms of governance that seemed so reminiscent of the old totalitarian toolset. He was aware, as is the job of the philosopher, that our concepts were in trouble, and governance, as a form of care and a form of control, was one of the key problems of the modern era. Ironically, it was his ongoing distrust of modernity that made him such a unique critic of it—and it is here that we encounter our first major problem with Agamben.

*

Whilst Agamben achieved came to be well regarded in certain academic circles, the cracks started to appear almost as soon as his influence became more significant. It must be remembered that, for the majority of Agamben’s career, political philosophy was not his main area of expertise. His works were mainly focused on aesthetics, literary analysis, and studies of ancient or medieval thought. Foucault remained largely on the sidelines of his thought, and his early studies on law took a backseat to his more immediate interests such as the works of Kafka or the etymology of liturgical practices. However, with the publication of Homo Sacer and The Coming Community, it became harder for him to remain disassociated from political theory. After all, the origin of western political thought had, for him, deep roots not just in enlightenment philosophy, but in the very origin of western political thought itself, stemming from Aristotle and Plato. Foucault and the idea of self-care in his History of Sexuality project had placed a particular line of thought in Agamben and, once he grasped at Foucault’s work, it would never again leave his sight.

Yet, when 2020 came along, Agamben took a dark turn, and he emerged as one of the most insistent, most incendiary of the modern critics of the pandemic response.

At first, Agamben downplayed the effects of the virus. Progressively, however, his claims grew more and more outrageous. Comparisons of unvaccinated people as ‘the new jews ’ quickly began to infest his brazenly hyperbolic writings. Throughout 2020 and 2021, and even continuing to this day, Agamben cannot has directed his distrust of modernity and his critique of governmental overreach towards the pandemic, littering his pithy and insensitive remarks with the most extreme imagery.

Here are some passages from his first column on the pandemic, published in Il Manifesto on 26 Feburary 2020:

First of all, there is once again the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal paradigm of government. The decree-law immediately approved by the government ‘for reasons of hygiene and public safety’ in fact results in a real militarisation ‘of the municipalities and areas in which at least one person is positive for whom the source of transmission is unknown or in any case in which there is a case not attributable to a person coming from an area already affected by the virus infection.’ Such a vague and indeterminate formula will make it possible to rapidly extend the state of exception in all regions, since it is almost impossible that other cases do not occur elsewhere … [emphasis in the original]

It seems that once terrorism has been exhausted as the cause of exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic can offer the ideal pretext for extending them beyond all limits.

The other factor, no less disturbing, is the state of fear which in recent years has evidently spread in the consciences of individuals and which translates into a real need for states of collective panic, for which the epidemic offers once again the ideal pretext.

Thus, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitation of freedom imposed by governments is accepted in the name of a desire for security that has been induced by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.

These statements didn’t just occur on the fringes, nor did they exist entirely within the European sphere. A blog hosted by Stanford university republished Adam Kotsko’s translation of a subsequent ‘clarification’ Agamben wrote on March 17. It included this passage:

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society.

International reactions included an article entitled ‘How Philosophy Failed the Pandemic, Or: When Did Agamben Become Alex Jones?’ by the writer and art theorist Benjamin Bratton–a ruthless attack on Agamben’s stance as well as the biopolitical critique which he represents. Bratton highlights Agamben’s complete ineptitude in understanding the effects of the disease in a political realm:

In this ongoing performance, Agamben explicitly rejects all pandemic-mitigation measures on behalf of an ‘embrace tradition, refuse modernity’ conviction which denies the relevance of a biology that is real regardless of the words used to name it. Something seems to have recently cracked open for him, and yet at the same time, re-reading his foundational texts in the light of the pandemic pieces is illuminating. His position has not suddenly changed. It was there all along.

My plan here is not to disagree with Bratton, but to explore alongside his commentary the central concern of Homo Sacer. Did Agamben’s turn come from the very foundations of his philosophy? Or is there something else that can explain this dramatic turn?

*

Bratton’s article, like many reactions to Agamben’s columns, was markedly angry. 2021 was a year defined by how much we still remained tethered to the effects of Covid. Vaccines presented hope, yet new variants highlighted how much work was still needed. It wasn’t just vaccine intolerance and plague-weariness: out of the political instability that the disease had wrought, a singular discourse regarding human life had yet to emerge. Over a year after the first outbreak, scepticism remained high. Dismay over government inaction as well as a climbing death toll had yet to provide a united voice either in the public discourse or in academic philosophy. While thinkers as diverse as Spivak, Charles Mills, Sara Ahmed, Paul Farmer, Frantz Fanon, Margaret Battin, Jose Medina and others have made it clear that the various conditions that make up the world’s subaltern would leave the poor, undernourished and disaffected of the world the first victims of sudden and all-encompassing disaster (climate change is a key example), the possibility for a common discursive formation of change, of political action, of an immediate humanism, has not been easy to find nor to cultivate.

The key to Bratton’s critique is that it is not limited to Agamben alone, but is extended to the theory and tradition of biopolitics. For Bratton, this has the almost deterministic trajectory of identifying the authoritarian gene in every political arena, seeking to find the ghost of totalitarianism and to pick out its bones amongst the remnants of modernity:

In the name of being ‘critical’, the default approach to any biotechnology is often to cast it as a coercive manipulation of the sovereignty of the body and lived experience.

For Bratton, biopolitics has led to a view of the political sphere which sees core totalitarian features in all democratic institutions. It is the bad joke equivalent of a stereotypical reductionist framework: ‘You know, when you think about it, even school is quite fascist?’

Working backwards, then, can we find the origins of his move within Agamben’s work? Were his dangerous turn to the right and his harmful rhetoric always there, hidden within his philosophy? How did we get here and, more importantly, how can we find a way out?

Homo Sacer

Agamben’s best-known work begins with the thought of the well-lived life. In the distinction between zoē, individual life in itself, and bios, the living toward an individual or group, we see life as divided between a ‘natural’ state as well as a political state, as the ‘bare life’ of the individual and the bios: the living thing which exists in the context of a wider grouping of living beings.

Agamben treats this initial conceptual divide as the continuation of a political thought stemming from the ancient Greeks. For him, state power refers to what determines the best life, that which enables life to be ‘lived well’. The distinction between ‘natural life’ and ‘political life’ is the locus of Agamben’s entire project. It is here where ideologies and definitions of statehood and institutions thrive and thus, where power finds its absolute legitimacy.

Agamben reflects back on to the enemy/friend distinction initially posited by Carl Schmitt, in which the phrase Homo Sacer derives its significance: ‘The protagonist of this book is bare life … the life of homo sacer (sacred man) who may be killed and yet not sacrificed…’. This possibility of one who may be considered excluded in relation to the included is the core of the Homo Sacer project.

Now where do we go from here? Agamben once again returns to Schmitt: ‘[T]hrough the state of exception, the sovereign ‘creates and guarantees the situation that the law needs for its own validity.’ But what is this vindication used for? Is the force of law only that which vindicates itself in order to enact its own power? If the exceptions remains ‘the capacity to be killed’ but not ‘sacrificed’, that is, where the individual vanishes outside of the realm of sovereign rule, then this lineage of bios and zoē, inside-life and outside-life, relates to acting out an exception. To delve into how this ‘acting out’ occurs, Agamben begins his dialogue with Arendt, Foucault and, of course, Benjamin.

 Out of these three thinkers, each of whom Agamben is directly responding to, a central focus is placed on the transgression, instigation, and replication of laws designed to enact a critique of a public, politically orientated life. Explicitly, in Agamben’s view, these acts of transgression and formulation are the processes in which the enacting of a law gains its exact meaning. He then takes up himself Benjamin’s formulation of the distinct way’s that violence can be both perceived and enacted upon in Bejamin’s Critique of Violence:

The violence exercised in the state of exception clearly neither preserves nor simply posits law, but rather conserves it in suspending it and posits it in excepting itself from it.

So, it is in this exception wherein the perspectives of law gain their pertinence. It is in this sense that the law exists as a pure reference to something, to an authority, to a realm of exclusion, to a passivity in culpa esse.

The philosopher Serene Richards, who actively engages with and teaches biopolitical critique, explains:

Biopolitics is a technique of government; few governments declare to operate against the common good, and, in this sense, biopolitics has always been positive. Biopolitics, though, is more than the government of life, of the so-called ‘biological life’ of the population. Its real danger lies in its ability to objectify an abstraction, the idea that a part of ‘life’ can be readily identified as either biological or political, sensible or vegetative, and therefore capable of isolated care, exclusion or separation. This Aristotelian ontological apparatus, which, Agamben argues, has plagued the West’s conceptualisation of life and the living, is inherently biopolitical since it rests on articulating the ‘good life’ by way of division and separation of that which is thought to play no part in constituting it, ‘vegetative’ or ‘sensible’ life for instance. This is a fictional articulation of the living; it is not at all clear where one’s zoē ends and bios begins.

Disease, in this instance—or, to be more exact, when the concept of the zoē form of life (that is, that which is perceived as the form of living as itself) is abstracted by quantity as opposite the bios (that is, as a way of living amongst a group, genus, or category)—is where the enigma of the political being is at its most delicate. Agamben’s subsequent inquiry is to track this terminological barrier, best highlighted by Aristotle’s definition of man as a ‘political animal’.

The State of Exception and Stasis

Homo Sacer posits a very different distinction regarding the biopolitical power of the twentieth century. If Foucault’s analysis pointed to the prison and Althusser’s analysis posited the structural enactment of the school as the product of ideology, then Agamben points toward the very end goal of exclusionary politics: the (concentration) camp or variant thereof. This is either where readers are likely to uneasily agree or vehemently disagree with Agamben. Essentially, he wants to He wants to define contemporary political relations by three distinct pillars: (1) political thought is defined as an inside/outside (friend/enemy distinction) (2) sovereign power rests on a threshold between zoē and bios and, finally, (3) what best encapsulates these distinctions is the model of the ‘camp’ where the distinctions are either disintegrated completely, or subsumed by a sovereign entity.

By the end of Homo Sacer, it is these three points that determine the trajectory of Agamben’s entire philosophical project. What follows throughout the course of this twenty-year critique is more or less a historical project where political sovereignty becomes a mode of control rather than of care of this ‘bare life’.

One’s ease with this line of thought depends on how willing the reader is to trust Agamben’s trajectory: is it one of prediction, or of historical precedence? Is it an admission of the masses ultimate lack of power in relation to governments, or is it nervous fearmongering? The second book, The State Of Exception, in my opinion, encompasses all of the above.

The State of Exception investigates ‘public law and political fact’. It follows the history of the legal precedent of this particular mode of political being—the rescinding of the political state to enact the totality of sovereign power. Agamben traces it from Napoleon, through to the inevitability of the end of Germany’s Weimer republic and the rise of Hitler. He also defines the state of exception as a blurring state of distinction and inclusion, of indifference and of heightened awareness of what the state desires. His study of Roman law and ancient Greek ontology leads Agamben to give a political characterisation of the West as decidedly at odds with the bare life of the self. Returning again to Benjamin, he relates it to the political theories of Schmitt:

While Schmitt attempts every time to reinscribe violence within a juridical context, Benjamin responds to this gesture by seeking every time to assure it—as pure violence—an existence outside of the law.

This is where Agamben finds the relation to violence of the law as the determining power ‘capturing pure being in the meshes of the logos.’ This is what is at stake in the state of exception: violence as the ‘modality without ends’, writes Agamben, quoting Benjamin.

In Stasis—the third, decidedly terse book in the series—Agamben names civil war as a pure study of division within the polis that directly references a familial divide within the established community. Here, Agamben refers to the connection between language and civil strife, referring to political division in the ancient world as a break in the ordering of life or the ‘household’ (oikos, or oikonomia). Agamben’s subsequent study of Hobbes and of civil strife refers back to this concept of the ordering of a household, with the monarch as the patriarch of the living space. It is with this concept in mind that Agamben steers the conversation once again toward the split between the natural life (zoē) and the sphere of the city state (polis). In this fundamental split, Agamben cannot turn away from his essential questions:

What relations should we suppose between zoē and the oikos, on the one hand, and between the polis and political bios, on the other, if the former must be included in the latter through an exclusion?

Who continues to be sacrificed

The Homo Sacer project would grow in direction and intensity in the years following its initial conception, tracing from etymological studies of duty and oath-taking (The Sacrament of Language) to the study of emotive holocaust testimony in The Remnants of Auschwitz . For Agamben, a singular approach to government could not be seen without unveiling some intrinsic nature of a practice of effective law. At the centre of this conflict is the ethics of the self, one in which the self constitutes the distinction between forma vitae (form of life) and forma vivendi (form of living).

In the final (so far) iteration of his journey through the western ontology of political exchange, The Use Of Bodies, Agamben refers once again to the etymology of Aristotle’s singular focus of being, imperfectly translated from Aristotle’s to ti en einai as the ‘what-is-being’. This focus, undoubtably influenced by Agamben’s exposure to Heidegger’s exploration of Being, is perpetually linked to the idea of the modern paradigm of necessity and instrumentality. In the final book in the series, he posits this summary of the central thesis of his project found in his analogy of the machine:

What is decisive, rather, from the perspective of our study, is to ask ourselves if between modern technology and slavery there is not a connection more essential than the common productive end … What is in question in the animate instrument was, that is to say, not only liberation from labor but rather the paradigm of another human activity and another relation with the living body.

Agamben uses this as a pretext for pressing a claim regarding the nature of being, with the nature of the instrument as converging the juridical connection between technology, living beings, thought, and the relationship intertwining each:

And if the hypothesis of a constitutive connection between slavery and technology is correct, it is not surprising that the hypertrophy of technological apparatuses has ended up producing a new and unheard-of form of slavery.

By the time we go through this project of his, Agamben has led us down a very specific line of inquiry, one which, as I hope I have so far demonstrated, sees humans and the governing bodies they form as intrinsically connected to the labour of the body as separate from the labour of the juridical apparatus—one where ‘estrangement’ follows from the use of a body into ‘productive systems’.

What are we going to do with Giorgio Agamben?

In February of this year, Adam Kotsko, the translator of many of Agamben’s awkward and ill-timed articles, wrote an article for Slate that highlighted the connective tissue of his line of thought to his current stance. It’s worth quoting him at length:

Agamben’s academic fans might want to dissociate his pandemic writings from the work that made him famous. But it’s now clear that Agamben himself views the present situation as a radical confirmation of his thesis. Where previous states targeted specific groups, he argues, the pandemic measures embrace the entire population, reducing people to ‘bare life’ by depriving them (at the peak of the lockdowns) of all their rights—political, economic, religious, even the right to bury their own dead—in the name of their sheer biological survival. And what’s worse, from Agamben’s perspective, is that everyone seems so eager to go along with it, submitting to a medicalized dictatorship and even claiming, like SS commander Adolf Eichmann, that cooperating with it is their moral duty.

One of the most concise summations of this central problem of Agamben’s comes from Leland de la Durantaye’s introductory book on his thought. Here, he invites the reader to accept the fact that the central problem of Agamben’s entire project is also the central ethical and moral quandary of the twentieth century—a central problem that now unveils itself in the modern paradigm of governmentality. How does such a monolithic structure of ideas and concepts such as nationhood, ideology, superstructural influence and doxastic care such as a government (in whatever form that may take) exert its influence? Once again, the typical Agamben response that has been built from the ground up in Homo Sacer is that of, in the most visceral sense, ‘the camp’, the exception, the idealised citizen, and what adds and subtracts from that paradigm of essence that comprises the ideal substance of the political self. Writes de la Durantaye:

The reader of homo sacer does not, of course, need to accept the legitimacy—whether logical or ethical— of ascribing such a double status to unique historical situations. It should be recognized, however, that this problem lies at the very centre of his work.

We must ask, then, if we should carry on with any further kind of Agamben studies, knowing full well where his ideas have taken him, as well as those who take his line of thought seriously in the past thirty or so years. As students of contemporary continental philosophy, we have to ask ourselves: how have we validated his rhetoric to encompass a perspective so prescriptive, so intensely biased, and so immeasurably catastrophist as his modern anti-vaccination status? Agamben still voices his rhetoric even to this day, including active vitriol which was zoomed in directly to the Italian Parliament, as well as recently engaging in February of this year with a gathering of Studenti Contro il Green Pass, an organisation opposing the local vaccine passports. The video from that meeting, which has a viewership just shy of a mere four thousand, is almost three hours long and consists of Agamben’s long diatribes to the group. Unfortunately my Italian is not good enough to be able to summarise them.

Instead, I will turn for the closing of this article to a brief critique provided by Judith Butler in Notes toward a performative theory of assembly (2015)—one which, I think, presents a catalyst for how we can understand biopolitical critique and Agamben’s philosophy as a whole:

…[I]f we seek to take account of exclusion itself as a political problem, as part of politics itself, then it will not do to say that once excluded, those beings lack appearance or ‘reality’ in political terms, that they have no social or political standing or are cast out and reduced to mere being…Those who find themselves in positions of radical exposure to violence, without basic political protections by forms of law, are not for that reason outside the political or deprived of all forms of agency…[W]e have to be careful that the language we use does not further deprive such populations of all forms of agency and resistance…

Butler goes on to say:

… [W]e cannot within that vocabulary describe the modes of agency and action undertaken by the stateless, the occupied, and the disenfranchised, since even the life stripped of rights is still within the sphere of the political and is thus not reduced to mere being, but is, more often than not, angered, indignant, rising up, and resisting.

In Agamben, we see a format of political critique that arises from how government power exists as a mode of potentiality. Agamben’s critique lies primarily in the historical realm, ignoring the places of legitimate critique that we may find in, say, Miranda Fricker’s account of epistemology, or in Sally Haslanger’s social ontology, or Angela Davis’s reflection on racial historiography. To return to Bratton, I believe he is correct when he claims—in Revenge of the Real—that we may find some sincere fault with the direction of Agamben’s thought:

The traditionalism, the gestures to false ‘autonomy,’ the esotericism and social organicism, appeal to Natural Law, a Mediterranean perennialism…oddball references to the New World Order adamantly, anti-scientific views of bodies, gender, biology, and medicine, and a general but inconsistent resistance to the ‘technocratic modern world’ place Agamben and his orbit far closer to the European cultural Right …

It is a shame to see such a potent figure of thought summarised in such an unappealing way, but Bratton has a point. I do not think that Agamben as a political or cultural figure has much influence left to state his authority on, nor do I believe his philosophy to be entirely without merit. In writing this article, I am not seeking to validate his claims, but rather to point out how he has used the current political realm to validate a set of distinctions, no matter how esoteric or intellectually fruitless. In Agamben’s biopolitical critique, we see how we can establish a measure of government power, and perhaps not power with simply a small ‘p’ but one in which how the state of exception both validates and invalidates. I expect I will continue to read his work in the future, knowing that its underlying currents are of some worth, but watching out for the riptides that may come with it.

Agamben’s place within academia has long been established, and it may prove difficult to peel away the stark influence he has had on such a wide section of the humanities and social sciences. We will always have to grapple with Heidegger’s antisemitism, Kant’s racism, Aristotle’s defence of slavery. Agamben’s controversy is another aspect of a philosopher behaving badly—a behaviour inextricably linked to his writings in ways both astoundingly obvious as well as deliberately opaque.

Agamben may lose his influence eventually, but for now we are watching a philosopher attempting to redefine his legacy, reshaping it from a turn away from totalitarianism to an embracing of a fear of modernity so eerily reminiscent of the fascist mindset.

William Farnsworth

William Farnsworth is a queer writer living in Brunswick. They have written numerous articles for Melbourne publications as well as producing content for stage and radio.

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