Giorgio Agamben – The concept of Homo Sacer within a “State of Exception”

Philosophy has always been something to which I am drawn to, but in which I tend to get hopelessly lost in. Giorgio Agamben is an Italian political philosopher that has written extensively on the subject of human nature as it exists in a circumstance of war. Agamben, so is my interpretation, applies philosophy to understand the nature of humanity within war. Below is my attempt to tackle the complexity of his argument and extract some understanding.

Giorgio Agamben: an assessment of the ‘State of Exception’

Historically, a state of exception was a situation where, under the pretext of protecting public security and maintaining public order, the fundamental rights of the citizenry were temporarily removed, so as to facilitate the locating and subsequent internment of those individuals considered as being the source of conflict. Under a state of exception, the sovereign, guided by preventative ideals, ordered the taking into custody of individuals who as of yet had not taken part in any criminal behavior, but who were considered as being a potential threat to the security of the state. Historically, states of exception existed in most societies, regardless of political ideology; thus we find internment of communists under Social Democrats in Germany during the 1920’s as well as internment of Japanese American citizens by the U.S. government during WWII.

A state of exception is, by definition temporary. Fundamental human rights and the rule of law are generally returned once the threat to national security ceases to exist. Yet, as Giorgio Agamben observed in his works on totalitarian Germany under Hitler, this unfortunately is not always the case. He finds that the state of exception, as found to have existed in the Third Reich, was in itself an exception in so far as it was, in fact, not a state of exception, but a continuous reality that lasted for twelve years. The fact that this state of exception, based on Weimar Republic laws, lasted as long as it did gave it the appearance of being juridical rule. Agamben cites National Socialists jurists that defined this particularity as a “state of willed exception”, with the aim of explaining how acts carried out under the state of exception became norms, widely accepted as a political reality. This concept is strongly connected to the idea of Hitler’s role as Führer, as ‘Germany incorporate’, and Carl Schmitt’s concepts that identify the Führer as the “biological life of the German people” that “demands nothing of the German people except what it in truth already is” (Agamben). Summarizing, the Führer’s every order can be considered as law.

As Agamben argues, such a state of exception is closely connected to two definitions that we apply to the concept of ‘people’. One is inclusive, pertaining to the ‘Volk’ of a nation, while the other seeks to exclude, as ‘people’, those elements that are considered an “embarrassing presence” to society, such as Gypsies, Jews or, more generally, genetically inferior races. Agamben concludes that this led to the modern era phenomenon of ‘misery and exclusion’ not only being an economic or social concept, but more frighteningly a political concept as well. This in turn leads to his postulation that “Where there is a people, there will be bare life”. Here, Agamben draws on the Greek concept of life, as first reasoned by Aristotle, that divides the notion of life into two separate forms: zoê or ‘bare life’ and bios, the ‘qualified life’. The distinction being that ‘bare life’ pertains to the raw, fundamental concept of being ‘alive’, of having a functioning body and mind, while ‘qualified life’ is a characteristic of being part of a distinguishing politics or a citizenry.

In Agamben’s state of exception the sovereign has the power of stripping individuals of all their human rights and freedoms that they had been privy to as citizens, leaving them without the identifying features that had tied them to their society or people. The place where such an individual, a modern homo sacer, was then kept, apart from society, was the concentration camp. Here, he existed as pure zoê, as what was left to him was nothing but his ‘bare life’. As concentration camps held individuals with no legal rights, they became spaces unreachable by penal or prison law. Here, “anything became possible” and according to Agamben, law and fact (objective reality), became indistinguishable. The mass extermination of countless human beings was thus an observable reality that by the mere fact that it was carried out, was considered as law.

If, as Agamben argues, we accept these established definitions of ‘camp’ and ‘state of exception’, then we can subsequently find concentration camps and states of exception throughout history as well as in present day society, expressed in various forms. Such state of exceptions, for example, are exemplified in their more moderate form by post 9/11 U.S. government actions such as those brought on by the U.S. Patriot Act, which infringes significantly on individual human rights and freedoms. Due to the constant, real or constructed, threat of terrorism, the U.S. will be involved in an indeterminately long war on terror such that the state of exception gradually will begin to take on the characteristic of an accepted norm. Internment centers such as the Guantánamo Bay prison serve as the modern form of camp, in that individuals held there, retain few, if any rights. Their existence tends towards ‘bare life’. Taliban fighters or ‘considered terrorists’, captured during the war on terror, are, as a general rule, not being subjected to the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war. They have no formal legal status and “do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws” (Agamben).

Other examples might be found in analyzing regimes such as those by Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Kim Il-sung or any of the numerous dictatorial regimes that rose and fell in the Latin Americas. Within each, we find a division of ‘people’ into its two forms (superior and inferior), and a sovereign that dictates a state of being where individuals are contained within a system under which they are stripped of their rights of citizenship. As Agamben states, within each regime, we find a space in which “the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign” (Agamben). This applies as much to states of exception within before mentioned regimes, as it does to the numerous versions of refugee camps we find scattered throughout society. Here too, the absence of citizenship and rights accorded to it leads to the convergence of power and ‘bare life’ with often tragic consequences.

The concept of Homo Sacer within a state of exception is thus as relevant today as it has been throughout the last century.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s