Agamben, Giorgio (1942–)

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

4. Homo Sacer 2

The books of Homo Sacer 2 trace paradigms of Western politics and metaphysics, treating paradoxes of political life and natural life, underlining the fractures Agamben claims are constitutive of sovereignty, the state, the human relation to language, economy, and duty.

In State of Exception, Agamben analyses the role declarations of states of emergency, martial law, and states of siege have played in the extension of sovereign power, tracking how ‘law employs the exception… as its original means of referring to and encompassing life’ (1). With reference to specific historical moments – including the passing of the Emergency Powers Act in the United Kingdom in 1920, the invocations in Germany of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, and the USA PATRIOT Act issued by the United States Senate on 26 October 2001 – Agamben works to show how the logic of exception functions in modern states, including contemporary liberal democracies.

Stasis consists of two essays, originally delivered in seminars on civil war given at Princeton University in October 2001. They examine the role of civil war in Ancient Greek political thought, and in the philosophy of Hobbes. The first essay argues that civil war is a limit concept that ‘marks the threshold’ (22) between the politicization of private life and the economization of political life. It concludes with the claim that terrorism is ‘[t]he form civil war has acquired today’ (23). The second essay turns to the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan, which Agamben interprets in biopolitical and eschatological terms, developing an account of the Hobbesian ‘multitude’ as ‘the unpolitical element upon whose exclusion the city is founded’ (47). The Sacrament of Language presents an archaeology of the oath, which Agamben claims is located at the intersection of life, language, and politics. He reads ‘the decline of the oath in our time’ (1) as connected to the depoliticization characteristic of late modernity.

In The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben presents a genealogy of economy, in contrast to the account of sovereignty developed in Homo Sacer 1. Returning to the Aristotelian division of oikos (the Greek root of ‘economy’) and polis, Agamben traces the development of an economic paradigm through St Paul, early Christianity, Trinitarian debates, medieval thought, and early modern Liberalism. The paradox at the heart of economy, Agamben argues, is that it functions both to found and to supplement sovereignty, just as zoē is both excluded from and included within the space of politics. Developing some elliptical claims regarding capital first articulated in The Coming Community, The Kingdom and the Glory concludes with an account of spectacle as the modern form of glorification, or the means by which the essential disarticulation between sovereignty and economy is covered over.

In Opus Dei, Agamben presents an archaeology of the concept of duty – tracing its emergence back through the history of Christian liturgy – which culminates in an account of the split in Western philosophy between ‘the ontology of the command, proper to the juridical-religious sphere’ and the ontology of being ‘proper to the philosophical-scientific tradition’ (120). The priest is the key figure of the book. With his commitment to doing the work of God through acting as his earthly instrument, he prefigures Kantian ethics, with its emphasis on the disinterested will to act according to duty.

Concerned as they are with paradigms of domination and expropriation, the thrust of these works is negative and critical. But at decisive moments in them Agamben puts forward emancipatory and redemptory ideas that echo some of those initially formulated in The Coming Community, as he gestures toward the possibility of rethinking the problems of Western politics, and developing forms of political life that could elude sovereignty and shake the grip of economy. In the final paragraph of State of Exception, Agamben argues that the task is to ‘sever the nexus between violence and law,’ deactivating the exceptional device that ties law to life (88). The last paragraph of Stasis interprets Hobbes’s Leviathan as prefiguring the ‘advent of the day of the Lord,’ on which the righteous will be ‘freed forever from the bonds of law’ (69). In the last paragraph of The Sacrament of Language, Agamben claims philosophy is ‘constitutively a critique of the oath: that is, it puts in question the sacramental body that links the human being to language’ (72). In the final paragraph of Opus Dei, Agamben writes that the task of ‘the coming philosophy’ lies in ‘thinking an ontology beyond operativity and command and an ethics and a politics entirely liberated from the concepts of duty and will’ (129). The Kingdom and the Glory concludes on an ambiguous note: its final sentence asks ‘whether it is possible, as was announced at the end of Homo Sacer I, to think politics… beginning from the inoperative disarticulation of bios and zōe’ (259).

Agamben returns to positive concepts of redemption, messianism, and political subjectivity in 2000’s Il tempo che resta (The Time That Remains). Like The Open, it is important for understanding the Homo Sacer project.

Citing this article:
Abbott, Mathew. Homo Sacer 2. Agamben, Giorgio (1942–), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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