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Thomas Lemke “A Zone of Indistinction”

Lemke, Thomas 2005. “A Zone of Indistinction” – A Critique of Giorgio Agamben’s Concept of Biopolitics. Outlines (7)1: 3–13.

Foucault shows that sovereign power is by no means sovereign, since its legitimacy and efficiency depends on a “microphysics of power”, whereas in Agamben’s work sovereignty produces and dominates bare life. For Agamben “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power” (1998: 6; emphasis in orig.). The binary confrontation of bíos and zoé, political existence and bare life, rule and exception points exactly to the very juridical model of power that Foucault has criticized so convincingly. Agamben pursues a concept of power that is grounded in categories of repression, reproduction and reduction, without taking into account the relational, decentralised and productive aspect of power. In that it remains inside the horizon of law, Agamben’s analysis is more indebted to Carl Schmitt (1932) than to Michel Foucault. For Schmitt, the sovereign is visible in the decision about the state of exception, in the suspension of the law, while for Foucault the normal state that operates beneath, alongside, or against juridical mechanisms is more important. While the former concentrates on how the norm is suspended, the latter focuses on the production of normality. Schmitt takes as the point of departure the very sovereignty, that signifies, for Foucault, the endpoint and result of complex social processes, which concentrate the forces inside the social body in such a way as to produce the impression that there is an autonomous centre, or a sovereign source of power. (9)

Our reading of Agamben leads to a surprising result. Following a binary code and a logic of subsumption that does not allow for differentiations, his argument remains committed to exactly the juridical perspective that he so vividly criticizes. He reduces the “ambiguous terrain” (1998: 143) of biopolitics by operating with a notion of politics that is at once too broad in its explanatory scope and too narrow in empirical complexity. On the one hand Agamben conceptualises the political as a sovereign instance that does not allow for an outside that would be more than an “inner outside” and an “exception”. On the other hand his presentation of sovereignty is completely limited to the decision on the state of exception and the killing of bare life. (10)

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