Agamben, Giorgio (1942–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

5. Homo Sacer 3

The importance of Auschwitz for Agamben’s account of the trajectory of Western politics is demonstrated by the fact that Remnants of Auschwitz is the only book in the third volume of the Homo Sacer series. Framed both as a treatment of the ‘ethical and political significance of the extermination’ (11) and as a ‘kind of perpetual commentary on testimony’ (13), the book draws on survivor accounts, the etymology of terms such as ‘holocaust’, ‘witness’, and ‘martyr’, and the writing of Rainer Maria Rilke, Heidegger, Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Émile Beneviste, Emmanuel Levinas, Foucault, Fernando Pessoa, and Kimura Bin. Its treats the problem of witnessing, which Agamben argues finds its limit in the Nazi Lager, because here it concerns ‘something that cannot be borne witness to and that discharges the survivors of authority’ (34). The true witnesses of Auschwitz, Agamben follows Primo Levi in arguing, are those who ‘touched bottom’ (quoted 34): these were the Muselmänner, reduced by the conditions obtaining in the camp to a state of mere subsistence, dwelling in a zone of indistinction between the human and the inhuman; thus the true witnesses were those who lost their capacity for witnessing.

For Agamben, Auschwitz is decisive because what happened there resists the ethical categories of Western philosophy, such as dignity, responsibility, tragedy, and amor fati. It represents the most extreme example of the capture of bare life in the state of exception and its exposure to sovereign violence. The book’s treatment of the human capacity for language – and of how that capacity contains within itself the threat of its own undoing – reverberates uneasily with similar accounts given in Agamben’s other texts.

Citing this article:
Abbott, Mathew. Homo Sacer 3. Agamben, Giorgio (1942–), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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