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Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead Author(s): Andrew Norris Source: Diacritics, Vol.

Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead Author(s): Andrew Norris Source: Diacritics, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 38-58 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL:

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Death is most frightening, since it is a boundary.



Andas the same thingthereexists in us living and dead and the waking and the sleeping andyoung and old: for these thingshavingchangedroundare those, and those havingchangedroundare these. -Heraclitus, Fragment 88

Whatis politics today? Whatis its relationship to the traditionfromwhich it emerges?

The questions aredifficultones to answerin part becausecontemporarypolitics seems so schizophrenic. InaffluentWesterncountries politics is increasingly a matterof spec- tacle on the one handand managed economieson theother.HannahArendtseems quite confirmedin herclaim thatthe once-gloriouspublic realmof appearance is fundamen-


such as household management and gossip. If this "unnatural growth of the natural" [47] inclinesus to nostalgia for a time whenthe two realmswere moredecisively sepa-

rated,such nostalgia is likely intensified by the "ethnic cleansing,"rape camps, and genocide thatwe now associatewith names such as "Yugoslavia" and "Rwanda."But as improbable as any flight to the past may be, it is even less likely thatthe politics of

could help us navigate the treacherouswaters of our current technological

that past

society. I have in mindnot only the familiarclaim thatthe attemptedgenocides of our time are only made possible by quite modem forms of technology,organization, and experience,1 butalso recentscientificand"medical"advances.Consider just two: first, the corporate driven and controlled development of biotechnologies, in which huge multinationalsare acquiringpatents to genetic "information"such as "allhumanblood cells thathave come from the umbilicalcord of [any] newbornchild."If thereis any doubtthatsuch developments will lead us to redefinethe human being, these may be laid to rest by the case of JohnMoore, an Alaskanbusinessmanwho found his own bodyparts hadbeen patented, withouthis knowledge,by the University of Californiaat Los Angeles andlicensedto theSandozPharmaceutical Corporation[Rifkin60-61 ]. So muchfor Locke's attempt to ground the institutionof privateproperty in the fact that "every Man has a Property in his own Person"!2In its place we seem to be moving

I am grateful toGiorgioAgamben, Joe Campisi, Bill Connolly, TomRockmore,Hans Sluga, and

Eric Wilsonfor their helpful commentson earlier draftsof this essay. I wouldalso like to thank YaseminOk for her help.

degraded when it is overrun by concernsmore appropriate to the privaterealm,

1. For an excellentdiscussion of this, see Baumanl2-30.

2. Locke,TwoTreatisesof Government2: 27. Thereis, however,no necessary contradiction


diacritics 30.4: 38-58

toward something morelike the "logicalsynthesis of biology

by the National Socialist Institutallemandin Paris in 1942 [Agamben, Homo Sacer

redefinitionis alreadyunderway in the field of death,a phe-

and economy" called for

145]. A similar process of

nomenonthatscientistsand lawyers are having a harderandhardertime pinning down. Whereonce deathwas defined by thecessationof themovementof theheartand lungs, recentlife supporttechnologies have forced scientiststo define deathin termsof such technologies. WitnessDoctorNorman Shumway's defense of the definitionof deathas braindeath:"I'm saying thatanyonewhose brainis deadis dead.It is the one determi-

nantthatwould be universallyapplicable, becausethe brainis the one organ thatcan't

be transplanted"[163]. By for brain transplants, even

kindof life, perhaps as organ farmsfor otherswho areless ambiguouslyalive.

GiorgioAgamben, fromwhose bookHomoSacer: Sovereign Power andBare Life

I takeboththislast grislyexample andits analysis,arguesthat,contrary to appearances,

implication, if andwhen technology is

developed thatallows

those whose brainsare"dead"will be brought backto some

such developments do not represent a radicalbreakwiththetradition.His

analysis both

builds upon andcorrectsMichel Foucault'sclaim that politics in ourtime

is constituted

by disciplines of normalizationand subjectification thatFoucaultlabels "bio-power."

For Foucault,biopower is fundamentally modem. "What might be called a society's 'thresholdof modernity,"' he writes, "hasbeen reachedwhen the life of the species is

wagered on its own political strategies. For millennia,manremainedwhathe

was for

Aristotle:a living animalwith the additional capacity for political existence;


man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question"

[143]. This passage seems to imply not only that modernity is political in a different

way thanthe

so. If politics was an"additional capacity" withAristotle,now politics is of ouressence, andlife has become its object.

Agamben echoes such claims at times, and argues, for instance, that "the

previous millenniahadbeen, butthatit is more political, even essentially

constitutesthe decisive event of modernity and

signals a radical transformationof the political-philosophicalcategories of ancient thought"[4]. But he also maintainsthat this transformationis made possible by the metaphysics of those very ancient categories. As in Nietzsche's discussionof nihilism,

on Agamben'sanalysis,biopolitics fulfills the potential of its origin in turningagainst

that origin.3Hence,Agambenarguesagainst Foucaultthatlife in

been the definitive object of politics. His argumentbegins with a review of Aristotle's distinction,in the firstbook of Politics, betweenbarelife (to zen) andthe good life (to eu zen): "we may say thatwhile [thepolis] grows for the sake of merelife, it exists for

the sakeof a good life" [1.2.8]. Agambenrightlyargues thatthis

distinctionhas served

politicization of barelife as such

some sense always has

here,as Lockealsomaintainsthatourbodies belong to God,andthatourtacitconsentto the institutionofmoneytakesusbeyondthelimitations of theinitial formofprivateproperty[2: 6, 36, 50].Notcompletelyso, of course;anda defenderof UCLA,theSandozcorporation,or the proponentsoforganfarmingmightlookfor supporttoLocke's spoilagelimitation:"Asmuchas anyonecanmakeuse oftoanyadvantageoflifebefore it spoils; somuchmayhebyhis labourfix

a Property in

NothingwasmadebyGod for Manto spoil or destroy"[2: 31]. Onecanobject

ona number ofgroundstoghoulishproposalsto develop"neomorts,"bodiesthat,still "warm,

areneitherdeadnoralive,andhence beyondthe purviewofrights that

mightprotectus(?)frombeing turnedinto organfarms; butonecanhardly citea lack ofeither

industriousnessora desiretomakeuse of all thatGodhasgivenus.

pulsating, and urinating


3. Itmay takecenturiesfor a peopleto experiencethedisgustwithlifethatinitiallymade

thema people: theexhaustion ofEurope(thedeath of God)is a contemporaryevent,albeitone thathasbeenin genesisfor twothousand years. "Thetimehascomewhenwehavetopayfor havingbeenChristiansfor twothousandyears:wearelosingthecenterof gravitybyvirtueof

whichwelived;wearelostfor a while "


diacritics / winter 2000


as the foundationof the Westerntraditionof political philosophy, in that politics has been distinguished from essentially privateenterprises on the grounds that it is con-

cernedwith something morethanthe perpetuation of politics is differentfromthatof the variousrealmsof

holding, and village association, its principle of orderis differentas well. ForAristotle the "something more"that distinguishes the political is the realizationof the human capacity to structurea just commonlife in the community'snoncoercive,deliberative reflection upon the question of what justice is and what concretemeasuresit entails:

"Justice belongs to the polis; for justice, whichis thedeterminationof whatis just, is an ordering of the political association"[Politics 1.2.66]. For all of theirdisagreements,

thevast majority of contemporarypoliticalphilosophers areunitedin theircommitment to this self-reflexive project, and to its identification of the political and the just.4 Agamben, however,suggests thatthis politico-philosophicalprojecttoday standswith- out the foundationsthatAristotle proposed for it, namely the categorical distinction between bare life and the good or political life. And this is not because an element foreign to Aristotle'sschemahas polluted or subvertedit, but because the schemahas


Whatis the instability herethatwould allow for this?Whenwe readthe firstbook of Politics it appears thatAristotleis laying out a chronological accountof the rise of the polis. Humanbeingsbeganliving in families, then they acquired slaves andformed villages, untilfinallythey achieveda self-sufficient(autarkes)modeof life. Butto treat this as nothing morethana history is to misunderstandthe natureof the boundary that


Foucaultdoes in the passage cited above, that political life can be simply addedon to

humanlife. Aristotle,however,expressly denies this: "Themanwho is isolated-who is unableto sharein the benefits of political association,or has no need becausehe is already self-sufficient-is no part of the polis, andmustthereforebe eithera beastor a god."6 Tobe truly humanone mustbe a memberof a polis, for it is only as suchthatone can trulyspeak: "Themere making of soundsservesto indicate pleasure and pain, and

is thusa faculty thatbelongs to animalsin general

whatis just andunjust"[Politics 1.2.16].This conception of the humanlife as not sim-

4. ThismayseemtocontradicttheArendtianclaim-whichAgambenaccepts-that"Soci-

ety is theform in whichthefact of mutualdependencefor thesake of life andnothingelseas-

sumespublicsignificance andwheretheactivitiesconnectedwithsheersurvivalarepermittedto

appearinpublic"[HumanCondition 46]. However,accepting as fundamental thedistinction betweenthegoodlife andmere lifehashardlyprecluded liberalpoliticalphilosophyfromturning

backandsubordinating thepublicrealmto theinterestsof theprivate-a subordinationthat

redefines butdoesnotentirelyeliminatethecategoricaldistinctionbetweenthetwo.Itis simply thatin liberalismthe "goodlife" is increasinglya proceduralmatter,onethatmost efficiently regulatestheconflictsbetweenourdiscreteprivatelives.ThedebatebetweenMichaelSandel andJohnRawls,forinstance,isnotovertherelevanceof theAristoteliandistinction, butoverthe

definitionandpreconditionsofjustice. Henceeach party tothedebateunderstandshimself tobe contributingto theAristotelianproject.CompareSandel 317ff andRawls 424ff. 5.Agambendistinguishes his analysisfrom a deconstructiveone,apparently(thediscussion is uncharacteristicallyunclear)on thegroundsthatdeconstructionallowsitselfto becomeen-

tangled withparadoxes in an unhelpfulway[54]. Be thatas it may, I amusing theterm quite looselyhereto refer to a mode of analysisthatfinds theassertionsit treatsto require a logical structure(of, say,binaryoppositions suchas logic andrhetoric,performative andconstative language, innerandouter,politicallifeandbarelife) thattheythemselvesunravel.

biological life. Becausetheendof barelife, suchas familylife, slave

cross when their community becomes self-sufficient,andto assume,as

But language servesto


6. Politics1.2.14.If thisstatement-which,surprisingly,Agambendoesnotcite-strikesus

as hyperbolic, weneedonly recallthemore generalpointthatBook10 of NicomacheanEthics endswitha call for thePoliticsbecausetheparticularly humanaretecanonly berealizedwithin

a politicallife.


ply a given but an achievementis definitiveof the notionof humanculture.Most of us tend,however,to consider only the good and just life to which we aspire.Agamben in

contrastfocuses on the life thatfails to achieve humanity; theremains,as it were,of our

becomingmoral,just, and political. I say "asit were,"because"merelife" be exuviated.It too is humanlife, thoughperhaps not fully so. In his discussionof Aristotle'sPolitics Agambenarguesthat

cannot truly


on whichtherelation

between the living being and the logos is realized [si compie]. In the

"politicization"of bare life-the metaphysical taskpar excellence-the hu-

Thereis politics because man

is thelivingbeing who, in language,separatesand opposeshimselfto his own barelife [nudavita] and,at thesame time,maintainshimselfin relationto that bare life in an inclusiveexclusion[un' esclusione inclusiva]. [8]7

manityof living man is decided[si decide]

metaphysicsinsofar as it occupies thethreshold [soglia]

appearsas the trulyfundamentalstructure[struttura]of Western

"Threshold"is a wordthatoccurs again and again in Agamben'stext, andit invariably signifies a passage that cannotbe completed, a distinctionthat can be neithermain- tainednoreliminated.8The fundamental political distinctionbetween barelife andthe good,just life lived in accordancewiththe logos proposeshumanity as a project, one of self-overcoming. Butthis project, as such,relies upon "theexclusion (whichis simulta- neously an inclusion) of barelife [una esclusione (che e, nella stessa misura, un'im-

plicazione) della nudavita]"[7]. Barelife is a necessarypart of the good life, in thatthe good life is bothwhatbarelife is notandwhatbarelife becomes, "asif politics werethe

place in which life had to transformitself into good life

politicized were always already barelife" [7]. This is not a dialecticbetweentwo com- parable momentsof thehuman,forit is only political life thatis truly lived in language,

thatcan trulyspeak. Barelife is mute,undifferentiated,and stripped of boththe gener-

ality andthe specificity that language makes possible. If it is relatedand compared and evaluated,thatis always in the termsandin the service of whatit is not: political life.

But since political life barelife, political life

and in which what had to be

definesitself in termsof its genesis fromandits nonidentity with is defined by its relationwith the nonrelational.9 "Exteriority

7. Onpolitics as metaphysics,compare 44 ff., 182,andthediscussion of Heideggerand

Levinasat 150-53.

8. HomoSaceris dividedintothreeparts,withanadditionalintroduction.Thefirstis de-

votedtothenatureofsovereignty, thesecondtothatoftheHomoSacerof thetitle,andthethird to "theCampasBiopoliticalParadigmof theModern. " Each of theseendswitha sectionentitled "Threshold"(Soglia).Agambendoesnotannouncethis,butI believethewordis derivedfrom andmeantto referbacktotheselines,whichare found inthe first "Threshold":"Inthewordsof Benveniste,torenderthevictimsacred, itisnecessary'to separate itfromtheworldoftheliving, it is necessary to crossthe thresholdthat separatesthetwouniverses:thisis theaim of the killing'"[66].Ifthisis so, eachpartofthebookendsinthe"no-man's-land"[159]betweenlife

anddeath.Each thereforeservesas a differentpathto thesame goal, that of the confusionof politicsandlife.Compare this conceptionof thethresholdwithJean-Luc Nancy'sdiscussion of Caravaggio's Deathof the Virgin inhis essay"OntheThreshold":"Death:weareneverthere, wearealwaysthere.Insideandoutside,at once"[115].

9. Compare 24 ("Thesovereignexception is thusthe figure in which singularity is repre-

sentedas such,whichis to say,insofaras it is unrepresentable"),29 ("thesimplepositingof relationwiththenonrelational"),60 ("therelationshipofabandonmentis nota relation"),and

thepowerofmaintainingitself inrelationto somethingpresup-

110("Thebanis essentially posed as nonrelational").

diacritics / winter 2000


is truly theinnermostcenterof the politicalsystem, andthe politicalsystem lives off it"


This accountof the paradoxical inclusiveexclusion of barelife in the metaphysics of politics can be seen as a moreradicalversion of Arendt's paradoxical claim in The


Totalitarianismthat"amanwho is nothing buta manhas lost the veryquali-

ties which make it possible for other people to treathim as a man"[300]. Similarly,

Agamben's moreradicalaccountof the logic at workhere has obvious affinitieswith

anddebtsto Hegel's analysis of thelaw of identity as a self-contradictoryprinciplethat,

as such,proves to be

not see thatin this very assertion they arethemselves saying thatidentityis different; for they are saying thatidentityis different fromdifference;since thismustatthe sametime be admittedto be the natureof identity, theirassertion implies thatidentity, not exter- nally, but in its own self, in its very nature,is this, to be different" [Hegel 413]. The resultingconcept of negation is for Hegel the engine of history, and as such it allows him to reconcile his claim that historyprogresses with the evident fact thatthe most glorious and praiseworthyempires are inevitably ground underin the course of that progress.Negation as the dialecticalandhistoricalmovementof Reason thereby ulti- mately produces or reveals itself to be a harmonious,rational totality. In contrast,on Agamben'saccount,the Aufhebung of politics is neverachieved:barelife and political life are never reconciled, and political life's every attempt-the attempt that defines political life-to mediateits own relationship with the life thatit is not fails in the end. More significant thanthe differencesbetween Agamben and Hegel is the fact thatfor both it is the movement throughnegation that is essential, not the fiction of a static

result.Hence, on Agamben'saccount,politics must again and again enact its internal distinctionfrombarelife. It must repeatedly define itself through the negation of bare life-a negation thatcan always takethe formof death.10 The analysis of the metaphysical movement of the living being "into" language that undergirds these claims has been an ongoing concernof Agamben's."l His earlier Language andDeath: ThePlace of Negativityinvestigates the metaphysical connection betweenhuman mortality andthe human capacity for languageparticularly as it is de- lineatedin Heidegger and Hegel.Agambenbegins thebook by citing theformer'sclaim (from On the Way to Language) that "Mortalsare they who can experience deathas death.Animals cannotdo so. But animalscannot speak either.The essential relation betweendeathand language flashesbeforeus, butremains unthought"[xi]. He goes on to try to "think"thisrelation through a considerationof the originary natureof negativ- ity in Heidegger'sthought of Da-sein and Hegel's thought of theDiese, and argues that "boththe 'faculty' for language andthe 'faculty' for death,inasmuchas they open for humanity the most properdwelling place [la sua dimorapiu propria],reveal anddis- close this same dwellingplace as alwaysalreadypermeatedby andfoundedin negativ- ity" [xii]. There is, Agamben argues, a structural parallel between the ambiguousplace of deathwithinthehumanlife andthe place of indicationwithin language. Eachservesas a limit or thresholdwhich one can place neitherwithin nor withoutthe life or system

a law of contradiction:thosewho assertthe principle "A= A


10. Indeed,on Hegel 'saccountit must: "nichtdas Leben,das sich vordemTodescheuntund

vorder Verwiistung reinbewahrt,sonderndas ihn ertdgt undin ihmsich erhalt,ist das Lebendes

Geistes" [qtd. in Schnddelbach 46].

11. In an earlier work Agamben writes of "anunwrittenbook" on this theme,The Human

Voice,of whichhis writtenworks after 1977 serveas the prologue and afterwords. In thisunwrit- ten workthereare "numerous drafts"transcribing the passage in Politics whereAristotlebases man's political nature upon his ability to speakofjustice and injustice[see Agamben,Infancy and History3 and 7-8].


thatit defines. Deathis something like an ostensive definitionwith which one seeks to pick outthe nonlinguisticreality that language discussesandthatmakes language mean- ingful. Justas "thelimit of languagealways falls within language" such thatit "is al- ways containedwithin as a negative," so deathboth is and is not "anevent of life."12

Because of this structural parallel, deathassumesa privilegedplace in the logic of the

"meaning" of human life. As in the

Heidegger'searly insistence thatthe authenticor properresponse to

entails heeding the silent call of conscience, deathshows what language can neversay,

andin so doing servesas therevelationof

say thatdeathbecomesbeautiful.Thetwo momentsof the "speaking animal"are thereby

cast into an endless

of language(thatis, the experience of the humanas both living and speaking, a natural and a logical being) has appeared in the tragic spectacle divided by an unresolvable conflict."Theformthis conflicttakesis thatof the sacrificialviolence thatservesas the ungroundedground of all praxis[LanguageandDeath 58-62, 88, 105-06]. HomoSacer advancesthis analysis in at least two ways: in its reflections upon the kindof "life"thatis involvedin this process, andin its considerationof thedistinctively

politicalaspect of this movement.In Language andDeath the metaphysical movement into a relationship with the logos does not essentially involve the living body, nordoes Agamben spend much time drawing out the implications of this metaphysics for the body."4 ThenamesFoucault,Arendt,andSchmitt-each of which figureprominently in

Homo Sacer-do

human mortality

passage cited from Heidegger above, and as in

the negativeground of thehuman.13We might

struggle: "fromthe dawnof Greek thought,the human experience

not appear, andwhen Agamben does speak of the practicalimplica-

tions of metaphysics(that"whichenacts [compie] the experience[I'esperienza]merely shown [mostrare]by logic" [Language andDeath 88] he speaks of "ethics" repeatedly, and only two orthreetimes of "politics."15Nonetheless,the development andextension of the analysis does not alterits fundamentalstructure.

12. Language andDeath17 and Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.4311. Both

hereand in his appendix to The ComingCommunity,Agamben is influencedby the early Wittgenstein'sunderstandingof the mystical statusof ethicsandhis relatedinsistencethatthe

abilitytosay(sagen)things in language rests uponlanguage'sability toshow(zeichen)things. As DavidPearsputsit, "languagecannotcontainananalysisof theconditionsof itsownapplica- tion" [11].

13. '"Andto whatis onesummoned?Toone'sownself

Thecall is lackinganykindof

utterance.Itdoesnotevencometowords,and yet isnotatallobscureand indefinite. Conscience speakssolelyandconstantly in themodeof silence" [Heidegger,Being andTime252;cf. Lan- guage andDeath54-62]. 14.SeeLanguageandDeath:"Metaphysicsis notsimplythatthoughtthatthinkstheexperi- enceoflanguageonthebasis of an(animal)voice,butrather,italwaysalready thinksthis expe- rienceonthebasisofthenegativedimensionof a Voice" [61]. I shouldnotethatthisstatementis phrased as a conditional.However,thecontextmakesit clearthatit is Agamben'sconsidered view,as it is onthisbasisthatheconcludesthat Heideggerfails intheendto escapemetaphys-

ics-a conclusionthatis hardlyinsignificant,providing as it doesthe justificationfor much of Agamben'sownattempt tomove beyondHeidegger. Thatsaid,it remainstruethathisattemptto do thisis inmanywaysa working outof the problemof theplaceof theanimalinfundamental

ontologyandthecritiqueofmetaphysics, a problem thatislaidoutinadmirabledetailbyDerrida

in the sixth chapterof his Of Spirit:Heidegger andthe Question.

15. See LanguageandDeath86-88, 91. Thisdistinction,while significant,shouldnotbe

exaggerated,givenAgamben'scommitmenttothe Heideggerianinterpretationof "ethos"asnam- ing "theabodeofman"ratherthantheindividual'scharacterorhabit. CompareLanguage and

Death93 andHeidegger, "LetteronHumanism " 258.Forevidencethat Agamben 's conception

of theethicalnonethelessretainsfamiliarconnotationsofprivacyas opposed tothepublicityof

the political, see Language andDeath 107.

diacritics / winter 2000


Thetermsof this discussionmake plainAgamben's debtto Heidegger. In so doing,

they open his analysis to the threatof quiet dismissal by political theorists,many of whom arewearied by the abstractnessandthe density of this language. Inthis regard it is crucialto notehow well Agamben'sanalysisaccountsfor otherwiseobscurefeatures of canonicaltexts thathe himself ignores. We mightbegin by comparing the passages fromAristotle upon which Agambenfocuses with Socrates's strikingly similarclaimin the Critothat"the reallyimportantthing is notto live, butto live well."This claim is in fact the centralmove in Socrates'sjustification of his active participation in his own execution.He in otherwordsenactsthe sacrificeof barelife thatthe prioritization of the good life entails. Aristotle'suse of this formulationto describea political life that is meantto endureon both the level of biology and virtueis obviously more problem- atic-a factthat maygo some way toward explaining Aristotle'sown celebrationof the kalos death. Noris this the only suchmomentin thePlatonic corpus. We might consideras well the second book of Plato's Republic: this gives us as clear a picture of politics as the metaphysical movementdescribed byAgamben as anyother,generating as it does a just city from the inadequacies of Adeimantus's "city in speech," a city whose exclusive focus upon the satisfactionof bodily need prohibitsSocratesandhis companions from discerning the natureand origin of justice. In the first book of the Republicjustice is tentatively associatedwithtradeandwithinterstateconflict [332e,333a].Tradeis present in Adeimantus's city, as is at least the abstract possibility of war [372b], and so one might assume that justice will be as well. Yet Socrateshesitatesto say this. When he


plies, "'Ican't think,Socrates,

another"[372a]. Thoughthis sounds very much like the picture we ultimately

of one

get, in which justice is a matterof the internalstructureof the city, whereeach person does his own, propertask, andeach particularfinds its meaning andits satisfactionin the balancedwhole, Socrates hardly embracesAdeimantus'stentative,initialformula- tion with enthusiasm. "'Perhaps what you say is fine,"' he replies. "'It must really be consideredand we mustn'tback away"' [372a]. The considerationsthatfollow, how- ever, are entirely circumscribed by the guiding assumptions of the city's foundercon- cerning need andsatisfaction,and theyproducenothing morethananalmost comically banallist of the material arrangements of the city, its procreation andits production and

consumption of "bread,wine, clothing, andshoes" [372a]. It is at this point thatGlauconloses patience and objects thatthis is no human city at all. WhenSocratestakes up Glaucon's suggestion that they mustconsidera city that is driven by the desire to satisfy more than the needs of mere life, he notes that "in

considering such a city

naturallygrow in cities"[372e]. Why have they notbeen ableto do so up to now?Why does Socrates imply thatAdeimantus'sanswerwas inaccurate,because they werenotin

a position to answerthe question of justice? The answeris thathe has silentlyaccepted Glaucon'scriticismsof the city of merelife. This acceptance is implied when Socrates says of pigs: "'Thisanimalwasn't in ourearlier city-there was no need-but in this one there will be need of it in addition"'[373c]. For Socratesto say this of the city Glauconhas moments before termed"a city of sows" would appear to be an ironic confirmationof Glaucon's objection: it is unlikely that Socratesbelieves pork to be necessary to the feverishlife of luxury. It is more likely thathe says pigs wereunneces- sary in the "healthy"city because, as Glaucon claims, the citizens themselves were pigs. This silent agreementleads Socratesto help in the constitutionof Glaucon's"fe- verish" city, wherethe aspiration to satisfy morethanthe needs of life will require the sacrificeof life in war.It is this city which ultimately issues forththe just city which, as

would justice

and injustice be" [37le] in such a city, Adeimantusre- unless it's somewherein some need these men have

we could probably see in what way justice and injustice


a just city, literally breeds its inhabitants-that is to say, a city that self-consciously

reenactsthe genesis of the just life frombarelife.

Indeed,Socratescalls for morethan

simple breeding: the political "artof judging" is in fact made possible by an "artof medicine,"the practice of whichinvolves thatthe doctor"letdie the ones whose bodies are [corrupt], andthe ones whose souls have badnaturesandareincurable,they them-

selves will kill" [409e-410]. Socrateshere openly accepts thathis biopolitics must at the same time be a thanatopolitics.Here, perhaps more clearly than in the few lines fromAristotle upon which Agamben focuses, we can see thatArendtis both exactly right andexactly wrong when she argues that "politics is neverfor the sake of life."16 It is the movement from bare life to political life that defines both bare life and

entails the constant negotiation of the thresholdbetween bothincludedwithinandexcludedfromits body. But such

a thresholdis hopelessly unstable,as is signaled by the fact that politics is both the passage from bare life to itself and what lies beyond this passage.'8 The titles of the

political life.17Politics thus itself andthebarelife thatis

16. The Human Condition 37. For a more contemporaryexample of the relevance of

Agamben'sanalysis, consider WilliamConnolly'sclaim that "Identityrequiresdifferencein or- der to be, and it convertsdifference into othernessin orderto secure its own self-certainty."On

the face of it it would appear that Connolly'sanalysis of the paradoxes of political identityis limitedto a discussion of our need to distinguish ourselves from other individualsand groups

without reifying that distinctionby

threatening.Connolly howeverhas remindedmethathis analysishereof self andotheris opento

a thirdelement,that of life: "Thereis morein my life than any official definitionof identitycan

express. I am not exhaustedby my identity."Significantly this greater me is not me: "thisabun- dance is in me but is neitherme nor mine"; hence it "canhelp me to recognizeand attendto the claims of the other in myself." On the face of it the structureof this paradox would appear to exactly replicate that ofAgamben's bare life, whichbothis and is not a momentof the life of the polis. Wemustthenask whetherthe acknowledgmentof a life that "I"live butthatis not "mine"

can avoid the metaphysicalquandariesofAgamben'sanalysis [see Connolly64, 120]. 17. Agambenbegins by identifyingbare life withzoe, "thesimplefact of living commonto

all living beings," as opposed to bios,

livingproper to an individualor a

"which[in ancient Greek]indicatedtheform or way of

group " [1, 4]. Butin thepassagefrom Aristotle'sPoliticsupon

claiming that the other is so

differentas to be inferior or

which he places such importance, the distinctionbetweenbare life andpolitical life is between two variants of zoe. Moreover, on 88 "simple natural life" ("la semplice vita naturale")is con-

trastedwith "lifeexposed to death(bare or sacred life)" ("la vita esposta alla morte[la nudavita

o vita sacra]"). Presumably this is because simple natural life is not in itself in relationwith

political life, and sacred life is defined by precisely that relationship. This is corroboratedby Agamben's assertionon 90 thatsacred life is "neither political bios nor naturalzoe" butrather "thezone of indistinctionin whichzoe and bios constituteeach otherin includingand excluding each other"[and see 106, 109]. If we takethis process as the metaphysical movement ofpolitics,

this seems to come closest to Agamben's consideredview; but it is clearly incompatiblewiththe claimsmadeearlierin thebook.It is also unclearhowconsistentit is with Agamben 's suggestions thathis bare life is or can be a form of "purelife" ("puravita") [171]. Nonetheless,manyof the confusions that seem to plague Agamben's use of the term "bare life" are only superficial: on 114-15, for instance,he writes that "Sacrednessis a line offlight still present in contemporary politics, a line that is moving into zones increasinglyvast and dark, to the point of ultimately coinciding with the biological life [vita biologica] of the citizens. " This mightappear to repeat the same contradictionto which I have just pointed; but this appearance is deceiving: it is be- cause biopolitics in the form of sacred life defines both bare life and political life that these definitions can change, and even, as in modernity,collapse into one another.

18. The instabilityof the distinctionbetween political and apolitical life may already be

signaled inAristotle'stext: Thisentirediscussion is an explication and defenseof his claim that, pace Plato'sStatesman,"Itis a mistaketo believe thatthe 'statesman'is thesameas themonarch of a kingdom, or the managerof a household,or the master of a number of slaves" [1.1.2]. The order of the family is not "thedetermination of what is just" but the rule of the father and hus-


/ winter 2000


three parts of Agamben's bookmarkthedifferentmomentsof its unraveling: "The Logic

of Sovereignty," "HomoSacer,"and"The Camp as BiopoliticalParadigm of the Mod- em."Withtheriseof sovereignty we witnesstheconstitutionof a politicalauthority that correspondsto the ambiguities of this thresholdmore closely thendidthepolis. Sover-

eignty, on thisaccount,is not simply a

an expression of the inner dynamics of the logic of politics.Agamben herefollows Carl

Schmitt's analysis of the sovereign as "he who decides on the exception" [5].19 As

Agambennotes,theword "exception"(1'eccezioneordieAus-nahme),"accordingto its etymological root"refersto whatis "takenoutside(ex-capere),andnot simply excluded" [18]. The sovereign, in otherwords,has the legal authority to decide who shall be re- moved from the purview of law, as in a stateof martiallaw or the Schmittianstateof emergency.Sovereignty is the law's thresholdwiththe nonlegal; as Schmittwrites,it is

"aborderline concept

which the law entersinto relationwith thatwhich has no legal standing.

In identifyingthethresholdbetweenthe legal andthenonlegal,sovereignty defines them both. This is perhaps clearerin Schmitt's text than in Agamben's. "Thereis," Schmittwrites,"nonorm applicable to chaos.Fora legal orderto makesense, a normal

situationmustexist, andhe is sovereign who situationexists" [13]. A stateof emergency is

order;but the normalorderis only the absence of a state of emergency.21Agamben's

gloss on this is that

momentof therise of thenation-state,butinstead

one pertaining to the outermostsphere"[5].20It is the point at

definitively decides whetherthis normal the product of the collapse of the normal

The exception [l'eccezione] does not subtractitselffrom the rule [regola];

rather, the rule,suspendingitself,gives rise to the exceptionand,maintaining

itself in relation to the exception,first constitutes itself as a rule

sovereign decision [La decisione sovrana] of the exception is the orginary

of whichwhat is included

in the juridical orderand whatis excludedfrom it acquire their meaning.[18-


juridico-political structure[struttura]on the basis


He concludes from this that "Whatemerges in the limit figure [figura-limite] is the radicalcrisis of every possibility of clearly distinguishing between membership and inclusion,betweenwhatis outsideandwhatis inside,between exception andrule"[25]. Oncetherule acknowledges thatit gives rise to exceptions for whichit cannot legislate, every case can, in principle, be understoodin these terms.The only way to avoid this

band,whois analogous to a slave-owneranda monarch.In all threecases,domination,not

deliberation,is the orderingprinciple,just as theendis notthe goodlife, butthe perpetuationof life.However,intheface ofall ofthisAristotleassertsthatour perceptionsofgood andeviland just andunjustmakeupboth"a familyanda polis"[1.2.12]. 19.It might bebetterto saythat Agamben here appropriatesSchmitt,for it is certainly true thathisborrowingsfromHeidegger,Hegel,Schmitt,etal. pursuea commonthemethatis defined morebyAgambenthanbyhissources. 20.Fora very similardiscussion(albeitoneconductedona lessmetaphysicalplane)of the riseof sovereignty,seeBartelson.Here,as inAgamben 'sdiscussion,theriseof sovereigntyen- tailsthedestabilizationof "the verydividethatpreviouslyseparated theinsideof republican

politicsfrom itsmoreanarchicoutside, " a destabilizationinwhich "whatformerly was relegated

to theoutsidenowmovesintothe very centerofpolitical actionandunderstanding"[330-31; compare HomoSacer35-36]. 21.Itshouldbeclearthatthisdoesnotnecessarilyrepeat Bodin'sclaimthat sovereignty is the sourceof law,wherelaw is defined as command.Thesource of the law neednotbe the sovereign;but if thesovereign doesdecideonthe exception,then,inso doing, itdecidesonthe normas well[see Bodin38,51].


conclusion is to arguethat,even in those cases where the rule cannot legislate, it still does legislate in some impoverished sense. Onewouldhaveto argue, thatis, that excep- tionalcases are clearly definedas suchby therule.Butthisis in effect to denythe reality of the exception andthe need of the legal orderfor a sovereign decision upon it. Withtherise of sovereignty we witnesstherise of a formof life that corresponds to it. "The sovereign sphere [sfera] is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice [sacrificio], and sacredlife [sacra]-that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed-is the life that has been captured in this sphere"[83]. Agamben does not define the sacredin termsof "whatis set apart for worship of the deity." He is interestedin the morefundamental question of the logic of sacrifice (from Latin sacrificium, from sacr-, sacer, holy, cursed) as re- vealed in the life that is sacred (from Latin sacrare, also from sacr-, sacer). What Agamben terms sacred life is, like the sovereign, both within and without the legal order (or, as its etymology suggests, both holy andcursed).It is inside the legal order insofaras its deathcan be allowed by thatorder;but it is outsideit insofaras its death can constituteneithera homicide nor a sacrifice. But where sovereignty is a form of power that occupies this threshold,sacredlife is nothing morethana life that occupies this threshold,a life thatis excludedandincludedin the political order.Herethis takes the formnot, as in Aristotle,of a metaphysicalpuzzle, butratherof a mute helplessness

in the face of death."Sacrednessis

[nudavita] in the judicial order,andthe syntagm homosacer names something like the

originary'political'relation,which is to say, barelife insofaras it operates in an inclu- sive exclusionas thereferentof the sovereign decision"[85]. This is the explicit revela- tion of the metaphysical requirement that politics establish a relation with the

nonrelational[cf. note 8]. Indeed,the sovereign decision is the realizationof

guity of the distinctionbetweenbareand political life. Itis law (politicallife) thatis not law (insofaras it steps outside of the stricturesand limitationsof formallaw) dealing withbarelife (thatis, nonpoliticallife), andinsofaras it does so that nonpolitical(bare) life it treatsis political. The resultis the paradox of a sacrificethatis dedicatedto no

legal or religious end [114] butthat participates in andaffirmsthe economy or logic of the legal/religioussystem as a metaphysical,political system. Wherein Rene Girard's superficially similaraccountof sacrifice the victim is a scapegoat for the murderous desiresof the community thatunitesaroundher,herethe stakesare considerablyhigher. Insteadof an act of self-protection on the part of the community[Girard4, 101-02], sacrifice is the performance of the metaphysical assertionof the human:the Jew, the Gypsy, andthe gay mandie thattheGerman may affirmhis transcendenceof his bodily,


the originary formof the inclusionof barelife

the ambi-


Agamben, I think,complicates his account unnecessarily when he concludes that the

killing of bare life does not constitutea sacrifice [114]: the point is that the term "sacrifice" is

hereunderstoodin a differentway, as a move in a different and more fundamentaleconomy, one

that produces a

a great deal to

textscitedinhis bibliography,thoughonlybrieflyreferred to inhis text.Inthis readingof Alexander Kojeve 's reading of Hegel, Bataille argues that the logic of the human practice of sacrifice is revealedin the Hegelian account of the role of death in the constitution of the human. "Death

alone assures the existence of a 'spiritual