Agamben, Giorgio (1942–)

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

6. Homo Sacer 4

Though they do not simply present a positive, constructive counterpart to the critical work carried out in the other installments of the Homo Sacer series, the two books of Homo Sacer 4 have a somewhat different slant, as Agamben tries to trace images of life and thought beyond the sovereign ban and the exigencies of economy. The Highest Poverty turns to the monastic phenomenon of the Middle Ages, which Agamben reads as (failed) attempt ‘to construct a form-of-life… a life that is linked so closely to its form that it proves to be inseparable from it’ (xi). Because members of monastic communities work to live every instant in a state of worship, monasticism tracks the possibility of undoing the distinction between law and life, the ordinary and the exceptional: of putting the fact of living at stake in one’s way of living. Agamben finds the clearest exemplar of this in Franciscanism, which pursued this form-of-life with the greatest rigour and consistency, thus developing a communist approach to poverty and use that – because it failed to extricate itself from the juridical sphere – inevitably aroused the ire of the Church, which eventually co-opted it.

The Use of Bodies returns to problems basic to the Homo Sacer series, including private and public life, ethics and ontology, use, property, and appropriation, and form-of-life. In its first section, an extended discussion of slavery in Aristotle refigures the problem of use. Agamben ties it with the obscure 1916 text on justice by Benjamin referred to in State of Exception (see 64), which he now links to the Franciscan notion of poverty (81). Engaging with Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, the second section connects problems of ontology, modality, and ethics to Heidegger’s claim – which played a significant role in the conclusion of Homo Sacer 1 (see 188) – that the essence of Dasein lies in its existence (175). In the third, final section we find Agamben’s most extended treatment of the concept ‘form-of-life’, or a life that is inseparable from its form, in which it is impossible to isolate a bare life. Engaging with Aristotle, Plotinus, and Wittgenstein, it ends on a dialogue with Plato, a figure rarely treated in the series, despite his importance for Agamben’s thinking (as demonstrated in a number of the pieces collected in Potentialities, an anthology of essays mostly written in the 1980s, and published in 1999). Agamben reads the notion of the soul at work in the closing pages of the Republic as figuring the fact that zoē and bios are ‘neither separate nor coincident’ (262).

As we should expect given Agamben’s method, the book does not complete the Homo Sacer series as much as throw new light on it, creating unexpected connections with and between previous ideas and arguments. Perhaps more clearly than the other texts, however, it demonstrates his commitment not only to critiquing the violent tendencies of Western metaphysics, but of finding within its tensions and paradoxes the resources for living and thinking differently.

Citing this article:
Abbott, Mathew. Homo Sacer 4. Agamben, Giorgio (1942–), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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