Agamben, Giorgio (1942–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved April 23, 2019, from

3. Homo Sacer 1

In Homo Sacer – the only book in the Homo Sacer 1 volume – Agamben begins by highlighting an aspect of Ancient Greek he claims is crucial for understanding the trajectory of Western politics: the difference between zoē and bios. Zoē refers to the ‘simple fact of living common to all living beings’, and is shared by animals, humans, and gods. Bios refers to ‘the form or way of living proper to an individual or group’ (1): it is the politically qualified life led by members of the city state, endowed with the capacity for speech, and concerned not just with survival but with living well. Drawing on Aristotle’s Politics, Agamben argues this distinction was crucial for setting up the polis as a properly political space, because it excluded natural, non-political life from its sphere of concerns, confining it to the sphere of the oikos, or home. In a characteristic move, however, Agamben claims that this act of exclusion, because it founds the polis, also implicated natural life in it. The polis is structured by an opposition between natural life and political life, reproductive life and the good life, animal life and the life of speaking beings, but ‘the opposition is, in fact, at the same time an implication of the first in the second…’ (7).

This is the basis of Agamben’s account of modern politics, in which the classical opposition reaches a crisis, as ‘natural life begins to be included in the mechanisms and calculations of State power, and politics turns into biopolitics’ (3). In modernity, Agamben argues, the fact of living appears at the heart of the space from which it was supposed to have been excluded, as the life of populations takes on unprecedented political significance, and the borders between private and public life, and economic and political life, begin to blur. As he writes: ‘[T]he entry of zoē into the sphere of the polis… constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought’ (10).

Agamben calls this politicized version of natural life ‘bare life’ [nuda vita] because its politicization sets it up as mere subsistence: it is life exposed to capricious forms of power, whose death makes no claim on us. Describing it as the protagonist of his book, Agamben works throughout Homo Sacer to chart the historical genesis and contemporary consequences of the emergence of bare life in modernity. This leads him directly to the problem of Sovereignty, which he claims is the blind spot of Foucault’s account of biopower, or the set of political technologies concerned with the management of the life of populations. For Foucault, biopower is a uniquely modern phenomenon, and must be contrasted with pre-modern forms of sovereignty, which were concerned not with the management of life but the power of death, and which functioned not through techniques of government but through the punishment of transgressions of law. For Foucault, the great failing of modern political thought was that it had failed to grasp this transformation in the functioning of political power: because they were focused on the state, political theorists remained within the conceptual ambit of sovereignty, unable to grasp the more insidious and distributed forms of power that emerge in modernity. For Agamben, however, this ‘decisive abandonment of the traditional approach to the problem of power, which is based on juridico-institutional models’ (5) leaves Foucault unable to account for the forms of sovereign power that persist in modernity and operate biopolitically, targeting the bare life of populations and individuals.

In the logic of sovereignty, Agamben identifies a paradox that mirrors the one at work in the inclusive exclusion of natural life. Just as natural life is both part of and excluded from the polis, the sovereign is both part of and separate from the legal order: to make his claim to authority, the sovereign must stand above the legal order; yet that very claim is founded on the notion that nothing stands outside the law. Following Schmitt, Agamben identifies the declaration of a state of exception – in which the sovereign deactivates the everyday functioning of law so as to deal with exceptional circumstances – as the moment in which this paradox is brought to light. Again following Schmitt, Agamben highlights the role of life in this moment of sovereign decision: on the one hand, the state of exception is meant to protect the life of the population; on the other hand, it demonstrates the sovereign’s absolute power over bare life, and his capacity to destroy it at will. Crucially, Agamben’s claim is not that, in the exception, the sovereign is granted power over life: it is that in the exception, the constitutive role of power over life in the structure of sovereignty is revealed.

This is the basis of Agamben’s controversial claim it is ‘not the city but the camp’ (181) – figured by him as the space of domination that opens when the exception becomes the rule – that forms the paradigm of modern politics. It is also the source of his interest in the homo sacer of Roman law: the man who is banned from the polis, and who may be killed by anyone without retribution, yet whose death cannot represent a sacrifice. For Agamben, the homo sacer is the ‘originary figure of life taken into the sovereign ban’, which ‘preserves the memory of the original exclusion through which the political dimension was first constituted’ (83).

First published in 2002, L'aperto (The Open) turns to humanity and animality, and the ‘anthropological machine’ (37) that works to produce the former by excluding the latter. Though it is not part of the Homo Sacer series, it is important for grasping its fundamental problematic.

Citing this article:
Abbott, Mathew. Homo Sacer 1. Agamben, Giorgio (1942–), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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