The Exception Becomes the Rule

August 13th, 2012 2:15 pm

Matthew Gardner

The distinction between liberal democracy and totalitarian dictatorship is not as clear-cut as we like to think. This is the inevitable conclusion that arises from a foray into the work of Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1944-), whose multivolume Homo Sacer project explores the structure of sovereign power and its proximity to ‘bare life’ (valueless, unsacraficeable life, which exists only in order to be killed ).

The historical symbols par excellence of bare life are the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. ‘Holocaust’ (a burnt sacrifice which is offered whole) is a misleading name because this was one of the most flagrant unsacrificial killings of modern times. The death penalty – modernity’s version of ritual killing, a sacrifice in the sphere of law rather than religion – was not applied, there was no grand significance or meaning to the slaughter, rather the Jews were exterminated as ‘lice’ – bare life which is only identified by its capacity to be killed.

Agamben traces bare life back to the Ancient Roman figure of homo sacer, the exile who could be killed by anybody but was not allowed to be sacrificed, through to its various manifestations in the last century – not only the Jews, homosexuals and mentally ill in the Nazi camps, but also human guinea pigs in US prisons, refugees in detention camps, prisoners on death row, and (in the field of medicine) the overcomatose person or ‘neomort’ (a proposed idea of ‘living corpses’ that are kept for the purpose of future transplants). Slavoj Žižek gives a powerful example:

When a conservative member of the US Congress recently designated the Guantanamo prisoners as ‘those who were missed by the bombs’ and thus forfeited their right to live, he almost literally evoked Agamben’s notion of homo sacer, a man reduced to bare life no longer covered by any legal or civil rights.[1]

In every case, bare life is identified by its relationship to sovereign power. The ‘state of exception’, which involves suspension of the law, rule-by-decree, and a conflation of executive and legislative powers, has been used increasingly by all kinds of governments: as the ‘dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics’[2], the state of exception has become the norm.

In these circumstances, Agamben argues, the original political act is revealed not to be the contract (as according to the enlightenment political philosophy of Hobbes and Rousseau), but the ban:

What has been banned is delivered over to its own separateness, and at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it – at once excluded and included, removed and at the same time captured.[3]

And likewise, the modern political paradigm is not the city of classical political thought, but the camp – the materialisation of the state of exception, where the normal order is ‘temporarily’ (but indefinitely) suspended, and whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the sovereign (military, police, etc.)

Liberal political thought would have us believe that where such spaces are so obviously visible (the camp at Guantanamo being the prime example) they are an aberration, against the rule of law which ought to be used to contain them. In truth, the state of exception is the life ‘more secret and true’ of our law, the abandoned homo sacer is the foundation on which our politics is built, and the camp is the essential juridical-political structure which our law and politics both rely on and inevitably create. The camp at Guantanamo may be closing, but the forces which made it possible have yet to be confronted.

Matt Gardner has studied music and theology, worked for the British SCM for three years and used to help to run a community café. He is the Treasurer of WSCF Europe (2007-2011), and works in London for Jubilee Debt Campaign, a coalition of organisations which campaign for the cancellation of unpayable poor country debt.


Giorgio Agamben Homo Sacer (Stanford University Press, 1998).

Giorgio Agamben State of Exception (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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[1]              Žižek, quoted on the cover of Agamben.: State of Exception (Chicago University Press, 2005).

[2]              State of Exception p.2

[3]              Homo Sacer p.174

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