The State of Exemption as a Paradigm of Government

Girogio Agamben, in his book Homo Sacer, look at the interplay between philosophy, biology and politics and how with the advent of modernity their resultant combinations have forever altered the way man (in the context of society and people) sees or refuses to see his fellow man. He argues that modernity has been characterized by the transition of sovereign powers concerning themselves with controlling land mass to now controlling population mass.  Furthermore, he states, that the question always asked in modernity has been “who has the power?” not “what are the boundaries of that power?”  In examining the processes that constituted the actions of the 20th century he urges for a new politics, one unable to control the zoe of its people.

Agamben introduces the dichotomy of zoe and bios from philosophical antiquity, showing how the two remained separate in the Polis and other historic sociological structures.  He then references Foucault who demonstrates how for, modern man, a change occurred in the Biopolitical Threshold.  Foucault saw the convergence of increasing individualization and increasing totalitarianism but was unable to come up with a unifying theory of power. Agamben says that this convergence between politics and life (zoe) is the root characteristic of all modern political regimes democratic and totalitarian, right and left.

He then goes into an analysis of how democracy proved incapable of protecting zoe, looking at the structure of “camps” and how they arose, looking at what laws were enacted and how those laws changed the relationship between zoe and bios. This process of experiences that make up the camp is referred to as nomos and became justified in places like Nazi Germany through the suspension of personal liberties “until further notice.”  He states the laws of exemption, of emergency, became the normal laws and what was inherently implied through these laws was the twofold: politics assumes a direct assertion over zoe and political law and real fact become indistinguishable.  Because a camp is at its core comprised of an inseparable binding between “bare life” and “judicial rule,” Agamben asserts that anytime we enter a space where law is synonyms with fact and action upon zoe, bare life and the physical body we are entering a camp.

He then goes on to use the space of the camp as an entity created by sovereign powers, and because of this creation it is present in the division of people.  Here Agamben sets out to say that governments (be they American democracies or Marxist communisms) are perpetually creating camps in order to sustain themselves.  Again he references language as a tool of man, now used in the definition of a people. The argument is made saying, governments derive their sovereign power from People (with a capital P), a collective group identity, that must engage in a process of exclusion or purification of people (lowercase p). In purging itself of a group, in putting divisions and placing one against the other, the dominant People are able to maintain their singular identity, giving themselves power in the process.

Agamben concludes the argument for an eradication of the assertion of politics on zoe by offering a few examples of the Biopolitcal threshold in miniature case studies of Homo Sacer, the Furher, the camp person, “Wilson”, and Karen Quinlans.  In each of these cases he refers back to how bios and zoe and how they are interacting in each case.  He concludes with a plea for reexamination of modern medicine, politics, philosophy and the judiciary system (keeping the concepts of bios and zoe from antiquity as the keys to understanding these) so that we do not continue to repeat the events of the 20th century, which saw a disregard for human life in its highest quantity.

Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government,” State of Exception, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005): 1-31.


About mhgoblue

Architecture Undergrad University of Michigan

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