Posts Tagged ‘Giorgio Agamben’

Jeffrey Bussolini “What is a Dispositive?”

Bussolini, Jeffrey 2010. What Is a Dispositive? Foucault Studies 10: 85–107.

Given the particular choice of this term over against appareil, and the associated difference in theory of state (étatisation in Foucault) from Althusser’s (appareils idéologiques d’État), dispositif has an important specificity in this context—as distinct from the State itself, more distributed, and an important element of the theory of security and governmentality. (86)

In Histoire de la sexualité I: La volonté de savoir, where he first and most extensively develops the notion of the dispositif, Foucault gives an exposition of it in terms of its analytical function and its relation to resistance, but also in terms of its relation to historical processes and the operations of power. Foucault’s usage of the concept dispositif is relevant to an aspect of his theory of history as that which we are no longer or that which we are becoming, a perpetual inventiveness. When considering ‛the multiple relations of force which are formed and operate in the apparatuses (appareils) of production,‛ he writes of a ‛general line of force which traverses local battles and links them together.‛4 If his genealogical approach to history is one that emphasizes continual change in institutions and concepts, the dispositif is an important conceptual
development enabling him to elucidate it. It allows him to evaluate a moving field of continuities predicated on continual change. (88)

One dispositive does not neatly and simply substitute for another, but the very interaction between them is an aspect and signature of the historical change, and mobile field of forces, being analyzed. (90)

The concept of the dispositive in Foucault is also integrated with his theory of power and his descriptions of its operations. As already broached in the previous section about history, the dispositive is a tool for analyzing or understanding a multiplicity of forces in movement and contest. Indeed the way Foucault described the concept, it seems first and foremost a tool to think about power in the perpetually dynamic social field. (90)

Within a heterogeneous and dynamic field of relations, the dispositive would seem to be a kind of moving marker to allow some approximation of a particular preponderance or balance of forces at a given time. It helps to identify which knowledges have been called out and developed in terms of certain imperatives of power, and it aids in the discernment of the many resistances that also necessarily run through the multiple relations of force according to Foucault. (91)

The dispositive is not so much the individual elements which make it up—the long list that Foucault gives in the first paragraph—as it is the particular arrangement and relations between them. It is this distinctive (moving) form that is decisive. As seen in his analysis of the dispositives of alliance and sexuality, or of discipline and security, the same ‛elements‛ or institutions can be part of more than one dispositive. This is an explicitly relational concept predicated on a view of continual dynamism. (92)

Rather than a descriptive account of power, the dispositive is part of an ontological reckoning of it as a multiplicity of forces. It is strongly relational, emphasizing a particular arrangement and conjunction of plural forces. (92)

But, neither is the account entirely relativistic, as if any given force could disappear or cease immediately or simply. Though his view of history and power is based on continual change, there are inertias, partially-formed systems, configurations of institutions and practices that persist over time (though their meaning and the nature of their interaction may change over time). (93)

The ways in which bodies, selves, and discourses are created and shaped are much more far-reaching then relatively simple codes of allowed and banned activities. Identifying what is at stake in his inquiry about power, Foucault remarks that ‛in fact what is at issue is the production of sexuality itself.‛17 Again, given the ontological substrate of the play of forces in his view, perpetual inventiveness and the manifestation of new configurations of forces would be a necessary and regular correlate. (93)

In trying to account for why we have so insistently thought of power as interdiction and prohibition, Foucault says that ‛there is perhaps a historical reason for this. The great institutions of power which were developed in the middle ages—the monarchy, the State with all its apparatuses.‛18 The apparatus here is clearly associated with the State in a way that the broader notion of the dispositive could not be, as it would always encompass a greater frame than the State or cut across its techniques and discourses depending on the particular conjunction of forces. (93)

Although the concept of the apparatus is clearly indispensable to his description and identification of the dispositive, he does not see them as the same thing but as related concepts, such that apparatus is a distinct subset of dispositive. As in Althusser, the apparatus maintains a tie to the State and its exercise of power. Although Althusser’s concept was itself a move to expand and make more diffuse, or encompassing, the operations of power, Foucault’s archaeology of the dispositive goes much further still in looking at diffuse and multiplicitous power relations, and he much more circumscribes the role of the State. (94)

Appareil is a contrivance, telephone, aircraft, system, or apparatus. Dispositif names the enacting terms (of a law or decision), disposition of troops in battle, or a device or contrivance. Similarly, in Italian apparato is a machine, system, military deployment, state apparatus or critical apparatus. Dispositivo refers to an appliance, device or equipment, or to the act of putting things into place, ordering (or deciding upon purview, jurisdiction, or applicability, as in the legal sense). (95)

The main area of overlap between them is in terms of the technical meaning, where both can be used as a general reference to a tool, piece of equipment, or mechanism. (95)

[…] we might tentatively be able to put forward (or ‛set out‛ in the sense of pono) the following provisional distinction regarding their technical significations, especially as informed through the usage in Foucault and Agamben. Apparatus might be said to be the instruments or discrete sets of instruments themselves—the implements or equipment. Dispositive, on the other hand, may denote more the arrangement—the strategic arrangement—of the implements in a dynamic function. (96)

A dispositive acts in part by determining what we can see and say in a certain historical configuration of forces. Deleuze emphasizes this perceptual but also onto-creative aspect, describing the curves of enunciation he says they are ‛not subjects and not objects, but the regimes which must be defined for the visible and the sayable, with their derivations, with their transformations, their mutations.‛40 He situates the dispositive in respect to Foucault’s ongoing interest in the articulation of the visible (seeable) and sayable in a certain time or context. (100)

Deleuze identifies the dispositive as a conceptual tool in accounting for that which we have been, that which we are no longer, and that which we are becoming. As such he sees this as an ontological concept in Foucault and as crucial for discerning possibilities for resistance and for the elaboration of new subjectivities. (102)


Giorgio Agamben “The Use of Bodies”

Agamben, Giorgio 2016. The Use of Bodies. Homo Sacer IV, 2. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Ivan Illich observed that the conventional notion of life (not “a life”, but “life” in general) is perceived as a “scientific fact”, which has no relationship with the experience of the singular living person. It is something anonymous and generic, which can designate at times a spermatozoon, a person, a bee, a cell, a bear, an embryo. It is this “scientific fact”, so generic that science has given up on defining it, that the Church has made the ultimate receptacle of the sacred and bioethics the key term of its impotent foolishness. In any case, “life” today has more to do with survival than with the vitality or form of life of the individual. (xx)


  1. The Human Being without Work

The soul is to the body as the master is to the slave. The caesura that divides the household from the city persists in the same threshold that separates and at the same time unites body and soul, master and slave. And it is only by interrogating this threshold that the relationship between economy and politics among the Greeks can become truly intelligible. (4)

That the slave is and remains a human being is, for Aristotle, beyond question (anthropos on, “while being a human being”; 1254a 16). This means, however, that there are some human beings whose ergon is not properly human or is different from that of other human beings. (5)

“the work of the human being is the being-in-action of the soul according to the logos

the work of the slave is the use of the body”

energeia and chresis, being-at-work and use, seem to be juxtaposed precisely as are psychè and soma, soul and body. (5)

The slave is here compared to equipment or to an animate instrument, which, like the legendary automatons constructed by Daedalus and Hephaestus, can move itself on command. […] let us note that for a Greek, the slave plays, in modern terms, more the part of the machinery or fixed capital than of the worker. […] it is a matter of a special machine, which is not directed to production but only to use. (11)

In the expression “use of the body”, use must therefore be understood not in a productive sense but in a practical one: the use of the slave’s body is similar to that of a bed or clothing, and not that of a spool or plectrum. (12)

A first, necessary precaution is therefore that of abstracting the slave’s “use of the body” from the sphere of poiesis and production, in order to restore it to the sphere – according to Aristotle by definition unproductive – of praxis and mode of life. (12)

[…] it is necessary to restore to the Greek term organon its ambiguity: it indicates both the instrument and the organ as a part of the body (in writing that the slave is an organon praktikon kai choriston, Aristotle is obviously playing on the double sense of the term). (13)

The strategy that leads Aristotle to define the slave as an integral part of the master shows its subtlety at this point. By putting in use his own body, the slave is, for that very reason, used by his master, and in using the body of the slave, the master is in reality using his own body. The syntagma “use of the body” represents a point of indifference not only between subjective genitive and objective genitive but also between one’s own body and that of another. (14)

[The slave’s] praxis is not defined by the work that he produces but only by the use of the body. (15)

The separation of something like a labor activity is here possible only by separating the body as object of use from its activity as alienable and remunerable: “the worker is divided between two zones of law that correspond respectively to what he is as body and what he is as merchandise, as incorporeal good” (Thomas 2, p. 233). (16-17)

[…] while the one who acts or uses without producing possesses energeia in his very action, the artisan who produces an object does not possess in himself the energeia of his activity, which instead resides outside him in the work. For this reason his activity, constitutively submitted to an external end, is presented as inferior to praxis. (19)

The slave in fact represents a not properly human life that renders possible for others the bios politikos, that is to say, the truly human life. And if the human being is defined for the Greeks through a dialectic between physis and nomos, zoè and bios, then the slave, like bare life, stands at the threshold that separates and joins them. (20)

Let us attempt to fix in a series of theses the characteristics of the activity that Aristotle defines as “use of the body”.

  1. It is a matter of an unproductive activity (argos, “inoperative”, “without work” in the terminology of the Nicomachean Ethics), comparable to the use of a bed or a garment.
  2. The use of the body defines a zone of indifference between one’s own body and the body of another. The master, in using the body of the slave, uses his own, and the slave, in using his own body, is used by the master.
  3. The body of the slave is situated in a zone of indifference between the artificial instrument and the living body (it is an empsychon organon, an animate organ) and, therefore, between physis and nomos.
  4. The use of the body is, in Aristotelian terms, neither poiesis nor praxis, neither a production nor a praxis, but neither is it assimilable to the labor of moderns.
  5. The slave, who is defined by means of this “use of the body”, is the human being without work who renders possible the realization of the work of the human being, that living being who, though being human, is excluded – and through thus exclusion, included – in humanity, so that human beings can have a human life, which is to say a political life. (22-23)
  6. Chresis

The process does not pass from an active subject toward the object separated from his action but involves in itself the subject, to the same degree that this latter is implied in the object and “gives himself” to it. We can therefore attempt to define the meaning of chresthai: it expresses the relation that one has with oneself, the affection that one receives insofar as one is in relation with a determinate being. (28)

Somatos chresthai, “to use the body”, will then mean the affection that one receives insofar as one is in relation with one or more bodies. Ethical – and political – is the subject who is constituted in this use, the subject who testifies of the affection that he receives insofar as he is in relation with a body. (29)

  1. Use and Care

[…] if it is true, as Deleuze observed, that masochism always entails a neutralization of the juridical order by means of its parodic exaggeration, then one can form the hypothesis that the master/slave relation as we know it represents the capture in the juridical order the use of bodies as an originary prejuridical relation, in whose exclusive inclusion the juridical order finds its proper foundation. In use, the subjects whom we call master and lave are in such a “community of life” that the juridical definition if their relationship in terms of property is rendered necessary, almost as if otherwise they would slide into a confusion and a kononia tes zoes that the juridical order cannot admit except in the striking and despotic intimacy between master and slave. And what seems so scandalous to us moderns – namely, property rights over persons – could in fact be the originary form of property, the capture (the ex-ceptio) of the use of bodies in the juridical order. (36)

  1. The Use of the World

It is with this neutralization of handiness that, with a radical subversion of the rank (up until then primary) of the “familiarity that uses and handles,” he can propose the striking thesis according to which intimacy with the world “is a mode of Dasein’s uncanniness [Unheimlichkeit], not the reverse. From an existential-ontological point of view, the ‘not-at-home’ must be conceived as the more primordial phenomenon” (p. 189/234). And it is only after the apparent primacy of familiarity has been swept aside thanks to anxiety that care can appear, in the paragraph immediately following, as the original structure of Dasein. That is to say, the primacy of care has been rendered possible only by means of an operation of annulling and neutralizing familiarity. The originary place of care is situated in the non-place of handiness, its primacy in making the primacy of use disappear. (43)

  1. Use-of-Oneself

In all these texts – whether it is a matter, as for the physician Galen, of affirming the providential character of nature or, as for the philosopher Hierocles, of proving the familiarity of each animal with itself – the decisive element every time is in fact use. Only because the animal makes use of its body parts can something like a self-awareness and therefore a familiarity with itself be attributed to it. The familiarity, the oikeiosis of the living being with itself is dissolved without remainder into its self-perception, and this latter coincides in turn with the capacity of the living being to make use of its own body parts and its own constitution. (51)

The reversal of the relation between organ and function amounts to liberating use from every established teleology. The meaning of the verb chresthai here shows its pertinence: the living being does not make use of its body parts (Lucretius does not speak of organs) for some one predetermined function, but by entering into relation with them, it so to speak gropingly finds and invents their use. The body parts precede their use, and use precedes and creates their function. (51)

Let us reflect on the extraordinary intertwining of familiarity and self-hood, of consciousness and use-of-oneself that Seneca, though of course not without some contradictions, develops […]. Oikeiosis or conciliatio does not have as its ultimate object the constitution of the individual, which can change over time, but, by means of it, its very self […]. This self – despite the fact that the Stoics seem at times to preconstitute it in a nature or an innate knowledge – is therefore not something substantial or a preestablished end but coincides entirely with the use that the living being makes of it […]. If one accepts this relational and non-substantial interpretation of the Stoic self, then – whether it is a matter of self-sensation, of sibi conciliatio, or of use-of-oneself – the self coincides each time with the relation itself and not with a predetermined telos. […] The self is nothing other than use-of-oneself. (54)

  1. Habitual Use

Habit is what renders possible the passage of potential from mere genericity to the effective potential of the one who writes or plays the flute, builds tables or houses. Habit is the form in which potential exists and is given reality as such. (59)

Use is the form in which habit is given existence, beyond the simple opposition between potential and being-at-work. And if habit is, in this sense, always already use-of-oneself and if this latter, as we have seen, implies a neutralization of the subject/object opposition, then there is no place here for a proprietary subject of habit, which can decide to put it to work or not. The self, which is constituted in the relation of use, is not a subject, is nothing other than this relation. (60)

Habit is the point at which subjectivity seeks to make itself master of being, the place in which, with a perfect circularity, having, which derives from being, appropriates the latter to itself. Having is nothing but the appropriation of a being. (61)

There is a text of Aristotle in which a different conception of habit could perhaps have been founded. In the above-cited passage from book Delta of the Metaphysics, one reads that if habit is defined as the relation between the one who has and that which is had, then “it is impossible to have a habit, because if it were possible to have the habit that one has, there would be infinite regress” (1022b 7-10). It is in this elusive, fugitive place that modern thought will situate its subject, which is posited as master of what cannot be had. (61)

Contemplation is the paradigm of use. Like use, contemplation does not have a subject, because in it the contemplator is completely lost and dissolved; like use, contemplation does not have an object, because in the work it contemplates only its (own) potential. Life, which contemplates in the work its (own) potential of acting or making, is rendered inoperative in all its works and lives only in use-of-itself, lives only (its) livability. We write “own” and “its” in parentheses because only through the contemplation of potential, which renders inoperative every energeia and every work, does something like the experience of and “own” and a “self” become possible. The self – whose place the modern subject will usurp – is what is opened up as a central inoperativity in every operation, as the “livability” and “usability” in every work. And if the architect and the carpenter remain such even when they are not building, that is not because they are title-holders of a potential of building, which they can also not put to work, but because they habitually live in use-of-themselves as architect or carpenter: habitual use is a contemplation and contemplation is a form of life. (63)

  1. The Animate Instrument and Technology

Technology is in fact nothing other than a human action directed at a goal. (68 – of Heidegger)

What defines the instrumental cause – for example, the axe in the hands of a carpenter who is making a bed – is the particularity of its action. On the one hand, it acts not in virtue of itself but in virtue of the principal agent (namely, the carpenter), but on the other hand, it works according to its own nature, which is that of cutting. That is to say, it serves the end of another, only to the degree that it realizes its own end. The concept of instrumental cause is thus born as a splitting of the efficient cause, which is divided into instrumental cause and principal cause, thus securing an autonomous status for instrumentality. (70)

Technology is the dimension that is opened when the operation of the instrument has been rendered autonomous and at the same time is divided into two distinct and related operations. This implies that not only the concept of instrument but also that of “art” now meet with a transformation with respect to their status in the ancient world. (74)

The connection between the instrumental cause and the figure of the slave is, however, still more essential. It is implied in the very formula “the human being whose ergon is the use of the body” and in the definition (which we have seen to have an ontological and not a juridical character) of the slave as the one who, “while being human, is by nature of another and not of himself.” The slave constitutes in this sense the first appearance of a pure instrumentality, which is to say, of a being that, while living according to its own end, is precisely for that reason and to the same extent used for another’s end. (75)

What is decisive, rather, from the perspective of our study, is to ask ourselves if between modern technology and slavery there is not a connection more essential than the common productive end. Indeed, if it is clear that the machine is presented from its first appearance as the realization of the paradigm of the animate instrument of which the slave had furnished the originary model, it is all the more true that what both intend is not so much, or not only, an increase and simplification of productive labor but also, by liberating human beings from necessity, to secure them access to their most proper dimension – for the Greeks the political life, for the moderns the possibility of mastering the nature’s forces and thus their own. (78)

It is necessary, at this point, to restore to the slave the decisive meaning that belongs to him in the process of anthropogenesis. The slave is, on the one hand, a human animal (or an animal-human) and, on the other hand and to the same extent, a living  instrument (or an instrument-human). That is to say, the slave constitutes in the history of anthropogenesis a double threshold, in which animal life crosses over to the human just as the living (the human) crosses over into the inorganic (into the instrument), and vice versa. The invention of slavery as a juridical institution allowed the capture of living beings and of the use of the body into productive systems, temporarily blocking the development of the technological instrument; its abolition in modernity freed up the possibility of technology, that is, of the living instrument. At the same time, insofar as their relationship with nature is no longer mediated by another human being but by an apparatus, human beings have estranged themselves from the animal and from the organic in order to draw near to the instrument and the inorganic to the point of almost identifying with it (the human-machine). For this reason – insofar as they have lost, together with the use of bodies, their immediate relation to their own animality – modern human beings have not truly been able to appropriate to themselves the liberation from labor that machines should have procured for them. And if the hypothesis of a constitutive connection between slavery and technology is correct, it is not surprising that the hypertrophy of technological apparatuses has ended up producing a new and unheard-of form of slavery. (78-79)

  1. The Inappropriable

And only in this context does the opposition between style and manner acquire its true sense. They are the two poles in the tension of which the gesture of the poet lives: style is disappropriating appropriation (a sublime negligence, a forgetting oneself in the proper), manner an appropriating disappropriation (a presenting oneself or remembering oneself in the improper). We can therefore call “use” the field of tension whose poles are style and manner, appropriation and expropriation. And not only in the poet but in every speaking human being with respect to their language and in every living thing with respect to its body there is always, in use, a manner that takes its distance from style and a style that is disappropriated in manner. In this sense, every use is a polar gesture: on the one hand, appropriation and habit; on the other, loss and expropriation. To use – hence the semantic breadth of the term, which indicates both use in the strict sense and habitual praxis – means to oscillate unceasingly between a homeland and an exile: to inhabit. (87)

The passage from the environment to the world is not, in reality, simply the passage from a closure to an opening. The animal in fact not only does not see the open, beings in their unveiled being, stunned in its own non-openness, its own being captured and stunned in its own disinhibitors. The skylark that soars in the air “does not see the open,” but neither is it in a position to relate to its own closure. “The animal,” writes Heidegger, “is excluded from the essential domain of the conflict between unconcealedness and concealedness.” The openness of the world begins in the human being precisely from the perception of a non-openness. (90)

The openness that is in question in the world is essentially the openness of a closure, and the one who looks into the open sees only a closing up, sees only a non-seeing. (90)

We can call “intimacy” use-of-oneself as relation with an inappropriable. (91)

[…] intimacy is a circular apparatus, by means of which, by selectively regulating access to the self, the individual constitutes himself as the pre-supposition and proprietor of his own “privacy”. (92)

The dominion of privacy therefore replaces, as a constitution of subjectivity, the use of bodies, in which subject and object were indeterminated. One can therefore understand how, in a society formed from individuals, the transformation of use-of-oneself and of the relation to the inappropriable into a jealous possession in reality has a political significance that is all the more decisive insofar as it remains stubbornly hidden. […] If the sovereign subject is first of all sovereign over his or her own body, if intimacy – which is to say, use-of-oneself as inappropriable – becomes something like the fundamental biopolitical substance, then one can understand that in Sade it can appear as the object of the first and unconfessed right of the citizen: each individual has the right to share his or her liking of the other’s inappropriable. Common above all is the use of bodies. (92-93)

Intermezzo I

The relation with oneself, that is to say, constitutively has the form of a creation of self, and there is no subject other than in this process. For this reason Foucault breaks with the conception of the subject as foundation or condition of possibility of experience. On the contrary: “experience is the rationalization of a process, itself provisional, which results in a subject, or rather in subjects” (Foucault 2, p. 706). This means that properly there is not a subject but only a process of subjectivization: “I would call subjectivization the process through which results the constitution of a subject” (ibid.). And again: “I don’t think there is actually a sovereign, founding subject, a universal form of subject that one could find everywhere. … I think on the contrary that the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more anonymous way, through practices of liberation, of freedom …” (p. 733). (101)

Ethics is, for Foucault, the relationship that one has with oneself when one acts or enters into relation with others, constituting oneself each time as a subject of one’s own acts, whether these belong to the sexual sphere, the economic, the political, the scientific, etc. (102)

The practice of the self is that operation in which the subject adequates itself to its own constitutive relation and remains immanent to it: “the subject puts itself into play in taking care of itself” (Foucault 1, p. 523). The subject, that is to say, is what is at stake in the care of the self, and this care is nothing but the process through which the subject constitutes itself. And ethics is not the experience in which a subject holds itself behind, above, or beneath its own life but that whose subject constitutes and transforms itself in indissoluble immanent relation to its life, by living its life. (104)

The ontological aporia is found in Foucault, as one could have foretold, on the level of practice, in the theory of power relations and of the governance of human beings that is actualized in it. Power relations, unlike states of domination, necessarily entail a free subject, which it is a matter of “conducting” and governing and which, as free, stubbornly resists power. And yet, precisely insofar as the subject “freely” conducts and governs itself, it will inevitably enter into power relations, which consist in conducting the conduct of others (or allowing one’s own to be conducted by others). The one who, by “conducting” his life, has been constituted as subject of his own actions, will thus be “conducted” by other subjects or will seek to conduct others: subjectivation into a certain form of life is, to the same extent, subjection to a power relation. The aporia of democracy and its governance of human beings – the identity of the governors and the governed, absolutely separated and yet to the same degree indissolubly united in an indivisible relation – is an ontological aporia, which concerns the constitution of the subject as such. As constituent power and constituted power, the relation with the self and the subject are simultaneously transcendent and immanent to one another. And yet it is precisely the immanence between self and subject in a form of life that Foucault persistently sought to think up to the end, tangling himself in ever more difficult aporias and, at the same time, forcefully pointing in the only direction in which something like an ethics could become possible for him. (106)

What Foucault does not seem to see, despite the fact that antiquity would seem to offer an example in some way, is the possibility of a relation with the self and of a form of life that never assumes the figure of a free subject – which is to say, if power relations necessarily refer to a subject, of a zone of ethics entirely subtracted from strategic relationships, of an Ungovernable that is situated beyond states of domination and power relations. (108)


  1. Life Divided

A genealogy of the concept of zoe must begin from the recognition – not initially to be taken for granted – that in Western culture “life” is not a medical-scientific notion but a philosophico-political concept. (195)

The De anima is probably the first text in which “life” (zoe) takes on a generic sense, distinct from the life of the single individual, from a life. Ivan Illich has defined the modern concept of “life” as a “spectral” concept and a fetish, and he has traced its first appearance to the Gospel passage in which Jesus says: “I am the Life.” He does not say, “I am a life”, but “I am Life”, tout court” (Illich, p. 225). “The notion of an entitative life”, he writes, “which can be professionally and legally protected has been tortuously constructed through a legal-medical-religious-scientific discourse whose roots go far back into theology” (samas, 226). Church and lay institutions are converging today in regarding this spectral notion, which can be applied in the same way to everything and nothing, as the sacred and principal object of their care, as something that can be manipulated and managed and, at the same time, defended and protected. (201)

What we can now call the ontological-biopolitical machine of the West is founded on a division of life that, by means of a series of caesurae and thresholds (zoe/bios, insufficient life/autarchic life, family/city), takes on a political character that was initially lacking. But it is precisely by means of this articulation of its zoe that the human being, uniquely among the living, becomes capable of political life. The function proper to the machine, that is to say, is an operation on the living that, by “politicizing” its life, renders it “self-sufficient”, namely, capable of taking part in the polis. What we call politics is above all a special qualification of life, carried out by means of a series of partitions that pass through the very body of zoe. But this qualification has no content other than the pure fact of the caesura as such. This means that the concept of life will not truly be thought as long as the biopolitical machine, which has always already captured it within itself by means of a series of divisions and articulations, has not been deactivated. Until then, bare life will weigh on Western politics like an obscure and impenetrable sacral residue. (203)

  1. A Life Inseparable from its Form

With the term form-of-life, by contrast, we understand a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate and keep distinct something like a bare life. (207)

It defines a life – human life – in which singular modes, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all potential. And potential, insofar as it is nothing other than the essence or nature of each being, can be suspended and contemplated but never absolutely divided from act. (207)

[…] form-of-life is a being of potential not only or not so much because it can do or not do, succeed or fail, lose itself or find itself, but above all because it  is its potential and coincides with it. For this reason the human being is the only being in whose living happiness is always at stake, whose life is irredeemably and painfully consigned to happiness. But this constitutes form-of-life immediately as political life. (208)

This means that what we call form-of-life is a life in which the event of anthropogenesis – the becoming human of the human being – is still happening. (208)

The mystery of the human being is not the metaphysical one of the conjunction between the living being and language (or reason, or the soul) but the practical and political one of their separation. (208)

Biological life, a secularized form of bare life, which has in common with the latter unspeakability and impenetrability, thus constitutes the real forms of life literally into forms of survival, remaining intact in them as the obscure threat that can be suddenly actualized in violence, in extraneousness, in sickness, in an accident. It is the invisible sovereign that watches us behind the idiotic masks of the powerful who, whether they realize it or not, govern us in its name. (210)

We call thought the connection that constitutes forms of life into an inseparable context, into form-of-life. […] Thought is, in this sense, always use of oneself, always entails the affection that one receives insofar as one is in contact with a determinate body […]. (210)

  1. Living Contemplation

For Plotinus, however, with a radical inversion that constitutes one of the most characteristic traits of the late-ancient world’s vision, it is not that thought is also living, but life itself, in all its forms (including animals and plants), is immediately contemplation (theoria). (215)

The first consequence of this “theoretical” or contemplative character of physis is a transformation of the very idea of natural life (zoe), which ceases to be a sum of heterogeneous functions (psychic life, sensible life, vegetative life) and is defined from the very start with a strong accent on the unitary character of every vital phenomenon, as “neither vegetative nor sensitive nor psychic” but rather as “living contemplation”. (215)

Thos who deny to irrational beings the capacity of living well end up, without realizing it, placing living well in something other than life (for example, in reason). (217)

  1. Toward an Ontology of Style

Form-of-life is not something like a subject, which preexists living and gives it substance and reality. On the contrary, it is generated in living; it is “produced by the very on for which it is form” and for that reason does not have any priority, either substantial or transcendental, with respect to living. (224)

If every body is affected by its form-of-life as by a clinamen or a taste, the ethical subject is that subject that constitutes-itself in relation to this clinamen, the subject who bears witness to its tastes, takes responsibility for the mode in which it is affected by its inclinations. Modal ontology, the ontology of the how, coincides with an ethics. (231)

It is not justice or beauty that moves us but the mode that each one has of being just or beautiful, of being affected by her beauty or her justice. For this reason even abjection can be innocent, even “something slightly disgusting” can move us. (232)

A double tendency seems to be inherent to form-of-life. On the one hand, it is a life inseparable from its form, and indissoluble unity in itself, and on the other, it is separable from every thing and every context. This is evident in the classical conception of theoria, which is in itself united but separated and separable from every thing, in perpetual flight. This double tension is the risk inherent in form-of-life, which tends to separate itself ascetically into an autonomous sphere, theory. It is necessary to think form-of-life as a living of its own mode of being, as inseparable from its context, precisely because it is not in relation but in contact with it. (232)

What we call form-of-life corresponds to this ontology of style; it names the mode in which a singularity bears witness to itself in being and being expresses itself in the singular body. (233)

  1. Exile of One Alone with One Alone

Exile from politics cedes its place to a politics of exile. In this way, philosophy is presented as an attempt to construct a life at once “superpolitical and apolitical” (hypsipolis apolis): separated in the ban from the city, it nevertheless becomes intimate and inseparable from itself, in a non-relation that has the form of an “exile of one alone to one alone”. “Alone with one alone” (“alone by oneself”) can only mean: to be together beyond every relation. Form-of-life is this ban that no longer has the form of a bond or an exclusion-inclusion of bare life but that of an intimacy without relation. (236)

Western politics is, in this sense, constitutively “representative”, because it always already has to reformulate contact into the form of a relation. It will therefore be necessary to think politics as an intimacy unmediated by any articulation or representation: human beings, forms-of-life are in contact, but this is unrepresentable because it consists precisely in a representative void, that is, in the deactivation and inoperativity of every representation. To the ontology of non-relation and use there must correspond a non-representative politics. (237)

Intimacy as a political concept, which is here in question for us, is situated beyond the Heideggerian perspective. It is not a question of having an experience of difference as such by holding firm and yet negating the opposition but of deactivating the opposites and rendering them inoperative. Archeological regression must neither express nor negate, neither say nor un-say; rather, it reaches a threshold of indiscernibility, in which the dichotomy diminishes and the opposites coincide – which is to say, fall together. What then appears is not a chronologically more originary unity, nor a new and superior unity, but something like a way out. The threshold of indiscernibility is the center of the ontlogico-political machine: if one reaches it and holds oneself there in it, the machine can no longer function. (239)

  1. Work and Inoperativity

What we call form-of-life is not defined by its relation to a praxis (energeia) or a work (ergon) but by a potential (dynamis) and by an inoperativity. A living being, which seeks to define itself and give itself form through its own operation is, in fact, condemned to confused its own life with its own operation, and vice versa. By contrast, there is form-of-life only where there is contemplation of a potential. Certainly there can only be contemplation of a potential in a work. But in contemplation, the work is deactivated and rendered inoperative, an in this way, restored to possibility, opened to a new possible use. That form of life is truly poetic that, in its own work, contemplates its own potential to do and not do and finds peace in it. The truth that contemporary art never manages to bring to expression is inoperativity, which it seeks at all costs to make into a work. If artistic practice is the place where one is made to feel most forcefully the urgency and, at the same time, the difficulty of the constitution of a form-of-life, that is because in it there has been preserved the experience of a relation to something that exceeds work and operation and yet remains inseparable from it. A living being can never be defined by its work but only but its inoperativity, which is to say, by the mode in which it maintains itself in relation with a pure potential in a work and constitutes-itself as form-of-life, in which zoe and bios, life and form, private and public enter into a threshold of indifference and what is in question is no longer life or work but happiness. And the painter, the poet, the thinker – and in general, anyone who practices a poiesis and an activity – are not the sovereign subjects of a creative operation and of a work. Rather, they are anonymous living beings who, by always rendering inoperative the works of language, of vision, of bodies, seeks to have an experience of themselves and to constitute their life as form-of-life. (247)

Thomas Lemke “A Zone of Indistinction”

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

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)

Steven DeCaroli “Giorgio Agamben and the Field of Sovereignty”

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

DeCaroli, Steven 2007. Giorgio Agamben and the Field of Sovereignty. In: Calarco, Matthew; DeCaroli, Steven (eds). Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 43–69.

Instead of treating sovereignty as a foregone socio-political fact, the moderns would come to see sovereignty as a problem, so much so that the question of politics becomes largely indistinguishable from the question of sovereign authority. (44)

By situating politics squarely within an ontology of the subject and by refusing any absolute separation between political life and life-as-such, Agamben underscores rhe convergence of power and subjectivity that has, since the earliest appearance of the sovereign command, quietly materialized beneath the political mythologies sanctifying the “right to rule.” It is, then, at the intersection of the juridical model of
power (What legitimates sovereignty?) with the biopolitical model (What is the subject?) that Agamben’s work resides. (45)

Te classic typology of authority, defined as power that is recognized as legitimate not only by those holding positions of privilege but also by subordinates, all too easily envisions authority as a power distinct from those who are affected by it, namely, those individuals whose recognition, support, and obedience constitute the legitimacy authority enjoys. For this reason, it is altogether more helpful to engage the question of authority from the site of this obedience itself, rather than from within the confines of a conceptual debate that seeks to ascertain what constituent aurhoriry is apart from, or prior to, the social environment in which it is exercised. Te point here is that authority, of which sovereignty is the most extreme form, is a context-dependent concept, and to overlook this fact is to treat the authority embodied by sovereignty as a force existing independent of the field in which it is deployed. (48)

Sovereignty is the embeddedness of authority within a field of application-comprised of both a space and a multitude, a territory and a citizenry-and it is this legitimized connection between authority and territory that warrants further attention, because if politics is to be placed on a new footing it must do so by reformulating this relation. (48)

Te study of sovereignty must therefore begin with a study of those seemingly mundane forms of political life that are caught up in relations of power and self-recognition, rather than with the political logic of the state and its rulers. Te conditions for obedience are, therefore, not legal, nor are they, temporally speaking, merely pre-legal. Rather, the stabilization of the sovereign field is an ongoing, immanent process that subtends all activity within a jurisdiction, ordering all of its social actors, including he who wears the crown, as well as those who envision themselves as oppositional. (50)

Obedience comes before the law; it is the ground of the law and literally makes the law plausible. This is what Schmitt has in mind when he writes that there is no law applicable to chaos, and when in the course of this analysis, I speak of territory, or of jurisdiction, or of field, this fundamental preparedness is what I am referring to. (51)

[…] the political distinction between inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, structures the basic logic of sovereignty itself, insofar as sovereignty maintains a boundary not between the legal and the illegal, both of which participate fully in the logic of legality, but between the legal and the non-legal, that is, between the lawful and the outlaw, between the citizen and the exile. (51)

The ability of sovereignty to simultaneously gencrate both a “state of exception” and juridico-political order provides Homo Sacer with its central theme, and it is in reference to this double movement that Agamben concludes that the “exception” (l’eccezione) refers to what is “taken outside (ex-capere), and nor simply excluded” (HS, r8). (52)

Reduced to this state, the occupants of the camp unmediated by traditional forms of political belonging, ordinarily expressed in the form of rights-encounter juridico-political power from a condition of comprehensive political abandonment. 1he camp is, for Agamben, an absolute biopolitical space in which power is exercised not against juridical subjects but against biological bodies. (53)

[…] the bare life that exists within the state, a the state’s internal exception, constitutes the field of obedience that enables the judicial machinery of the state to function. Bare life, then, the object of biopolitics, is precisely that which, within the state, is made obedient prior to the law. When, on occasion, the contingency of this obedience is brought to light-for instance, in the case of political anarchy, or in the event of natural, economic, or military crises sovereignty responds rapidly. (54)

Under ancient Roman law, persona referred co anyone or anything capable of bearing rights, and the technical term for the position of any individual regarded as a persona was status. In the Institutes of Justinian (535 c.E.), we have the definitive explication: “Te status of a Roman citizen was composed of three elements: libertatem, civitatem, familiam [freedom, citizenship, and family] .”14 First, status entailed liberty. A persona was free and, unlike a slave, could bear rights. Secondly, status consisted of citizenship. For the Romans, the state was a privileged body separated from the rest of the world by the exclusive possession of certain public and private rights that were granted to its citizenry. It was an essential part of the status of a Roman citizens that they possess citizenship in the state, beyond which were the citizens of other states and the barbari. Finally, status involved membership in a family. In Rome, family ties were established not through blood but through a system of legal privileges that granted to the head of the family alone, usually the father, an independent will (sui juris). Te head of the family held absolute authority over all other members through the exercise of patria potestas, and since persons under the power of another could not hold property, the father was sole property owner of the family and, accordingly, what the son acquired was de facto acquired for the father. Moreover, the son himself was a real possession of the father and in some cases could be killed by the father without it being considered legal homicide. (59)

By simply refusing to rule, the Roman judiciary brought about the desired end without ever commanding it. Indeed, in the case of those subject to the interdictio, as opposed to the forceful banishment to, for instance, an island, it was the individuals themselves who bore ultimate
responsibility for their own exile. Te law, by refusing to rule over certain individuals, by deciding not to include them within the sovereign field,
effectively placed the fate of each individual into his or her own hands. A was the case for Aristotle, banishment is here the consequence of a refusal to rule, a withdrawal of the state from an individual. (62)


William E. Connolly “The Complexities of Sovereignty”

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Connolly, William E. 2007. The Complexities of Sovereignty. In: Calarco, Matthew; DeCaroli, Steven (eds). Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 23–42.

Agamben’s attempt to fold a double sense into the logic of the sacred should be rejected in favor of the conventional rendering he seeks to overturn. The sacred is that which is to be approached with awe. There might well be ambivalence in people’s orientation to the sacred, one they do not themselves acknowledge because of the fear of divine or human retribution. Those most punitive toward others who criticize or “defile” what they consider to be sacred often enough harbor such ambivalence. (29)

Agamben contends that biopolitics has become intensified today. This intensification translates the paradox of sovereignty into a potential disaster. The analysis that he offers at this point seems not so much wrong to me as overly formal. It reflects a classical liberal and Arendtian assumption that there was once a time when politics was restricted to public life and biocultural life was kept in the private realm. What a joke. Every way of life involves the infusion of norms, judgments, and standards into the affective life of participants at both private and public levels. Every way of life is biocultural and biopolitical. (29)

Agamben rends to describe the state as the “nation-state.” He does not ask whether disturbing developments in the logic of sovereignty are bound, not merely to a conjunction between biopolitics and sovereignty, but to a conjunction between them and renewed attempts to consolidate the spirituality of the nation during a time when it is ever more difficult to do so. A the reactive drive to restore the fictive unity of a nation is relaxed, it becomes more possible to negotiate a generous ethos of pluralism that copes in more inclusive ways with the nexus between biology, politics, and sovereignty. More than anything else, the dubious drive to translate deep plurality into nationhood translates sovereignty into a punitive, corrective, exclusionary, and marginalizing practice. (30)

I doubt, however, that politics or culture possesses as tight a logic as Agamben delineates. If I am right, biocultural life displays neither the close coherence chat many theorists seek nor the tight paradox that Agamben and others discern. Biocultural life exceeds any textbook logic because of the nonlogical character of its materiality. It is more messy, layered, and complex than any logical analysis can capture. Te very illogicalness of its materiality ensures that it corresponds entirely to no design, no simple causal pattern, no simple set of paradoxes. Agamben displays the hubris of academic intellectualism when he encloses political culture within a tightly defined logic. (31)

Giorgio Agamben “State of Exception”

January 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Agamben, Giorgio 2005. State of Exception. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

  1. The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government

The state of exception is not a special kind of law (like the law of war); rather, insofar as it is a suspension of the juridical order itself, it defines law’s threshold or limit concept. (4)

Schmitt’s distinction between commissarial dictatorship and sovereign dictatorship reappears here as an opposition between constitutional dictatorship, which seeks to safeguard the constitutional order, and unconstitutional dictatorship, which leads to its overthrow. (8)

[Schmitt]: “No sacrifice is too great for our democracy, least of all the temporary sacrifice of democracy itself.” (9)

In truth, the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other. The suspension of the norm does not mean its abolition, and the zone of anomie that it establishes is not (or at least claims not to be) unrelated to the juridical order. (23)

[…] in the forms of both the state of exception and revolution, the status necessitatis appears as an ambiguous and uncertain zone in which de facto proceedings, which are in themselves extra- or antijuridical, pass over into law, and juridical norms blur with mere fact – that is, a threshold where fact and law seem to become undecidable. […] The essential point, in any case, is that a threshold of undecidability is produced at which factum and ius fade into each other. (29)

In analogy with the principle according to which the law may have lacunae, but the juridical order admits none, the state of necessity is thus interpreted as a lacuna in the public law, which the executive power is obligated to remedy. In this way, a principle that concerns the judiciary power is extended to the executive power. But in what does the lacuna in question actually consist? Is there truly something like a lacuna in the strict sense? Here, the lacuna does not concern a deficiency in the text of the legislation that must be completed by the judge; it concerns, rather, a suspension of the order that is in force in order to guarantee its existence. Far from being a response to a normative lacuna, the state of exception appears as the opening of a fictitious lacuna in the order for the purpose of safeguarding the existence of the norm and its applicability to the normal situation. The lacuna is not within the law, but concerns its relation to reality, the very possibility of its application. It is as if the juridical order contained an essential fracture between the position of the norm and its application, which, in extreme situations, can be filled only by means of the state of exception, that is, by creating a zone in which application is suspended, but the law, as such, remains in force. (31)

  1. Force-of-Law

In Dictatorship, the operator of this inscription of an outside of the law within the law is, in the case of commissarial dictatorship, the distinction between norms of law and norms of the realization of law and, in the case of sovereign dictatorship, the distinction between constituent power and constituted power. Indeed, because it “suspends the constitution in concreto in order to protect its concrete existence” (Schmitt 1921, 136), commissarial dictatorship ultimately has the function of creating a state of affairs “in which the law can be realized” (137). In commissarial dictatorship, the constitution can be suspended in its application “without thereby ceasing to remain in force, because the suspension signifies solely a concrete exception” (137). On a theoretical level, commissarial dictatorship can thus be wholly subsumed in the distinction between the norm and the techno-practical rules that govern its realization. (33)

In suspending the norm, the state of exception “reveals, in absolute purity, a specifically juridical formal element: the decision” (Schmitt 1922, 13). The two elements, norm and decision, thus show their autonomy. “Just as in the normal situation the autonomous moment of decision is reduced to a minimum, so in the exceptional situation the norm is annulled. And yet even the exceptional situation remains accessible to juridical knowledge, because both elements, the norm as well as the decision, remain within the framework of the juridical” (13/12-13). (34)

Being-outside, and yet belonging: this is the topological structure of the state of exception. (35)

Take now the opposition between norm and decision. Schmitt shows that they are irreducible, in the sense that the decision can never be derived from the content of a norm without a remainder (Schmitt 1922, 9/6). In the decision on the state of exception, the norm is suspended or even annulled; but what is at issue in this suspension is, once again, the creation of a situation that makes the application of the norm possible (“a situation in which juridical norms can be valid must be brought about”). That is, the state of exception separates the norm from its application in order to make its application possible. It introduces a zone of anomie into the law in order to make the effective regulation of the real possible. We can, then, define the state of exception in Schmitt’s theory as the place where the opposition between the norm and its realization reaches its greatest intensity. (36)

[…] the concept of “force of law”, as a technical legal term, defines a separation of the norm’s vis obligandi, or applicability, from its formal essence, whereby decrees, provisions, and measures that are not formally laws nevertheless acquire their “force”. (38)

[…] from a technical standpoint the specific contribution of the state of exception is less the confusion of powers, which has been all too strongly insisted upon, than it is the separation of “force of law” from the law. It defines a “state of the law” in which, on the one hand, the norm is in force but is not applied (it has no “force”) and, on the other, acts that do not have the value of law acquire its “force”. (38)

[…] in the case of law, the application of a norm is in no way contained within the norm and cannot be derived from it; otherwise, there would have been no need to create the grand edifice of trial law. Just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there is no internal nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other. (40)

[…] in order to apply a norm it is ultimately necessary to suspend its application, to produce an exception. (40)

  1. Gigantomachy Concerning a Void

What the law can never tolerate – what it feels as a threat with which it is impossible to come to terms – is the existence of violence outside the law; and this is not because the ends of such a violence are incompatible with law, but because of “its mere existence outside the law” (Benjamin 1921, 183/239). (53)

The theory of sovereignty that Schmitt develops in his Political Theology can be read as a precise response to Benjamin’s essay. While the strategy of “Critique of Violence” was aimed at ensuring the existence of a pure and anomic violence, Schmitt instead seeks to lead such a violence back to a juridical context. (54)

The sovereign violence in Political Theology responds to the pure violence of Benjamin’s essay with the figure of a power that neither makes nor preserves law, but suspends it. Similarly, it is in response to Benjamin’s idea of an ultimate undecidability of all legal problems that Schmitt affirms sovereignty as the place of the extreme decision. (54)

While for Schmitt the decision is the nexus that unites sovereignty and the state of exception, Benjamin ironically divides sovereign power from its exercise and shows that the baroque sovereign is constitutively incapable of deciding. (55)

While in Schmitt “the sovereign is identified with God and occupies a position in the state exactly analogous to that attributed in the world to the God of the Cartesian system” (Schmitt 1922, 43/46), in Benjamin the sovereign is “confined to the world of creation; he is the lord of creatures, but he remains a creature” (Benjamin 1928, 264/85). This drastic redefinition of the sovereign function implies a different situation of the state of exception. It no longer appears as the threshold that guarantees the articulation between an inside and an outside, or between anomie and the juridical context, by virtue of a law that is in force in its suspension: it is, rather, a zone of absolute indeterminacy between anomie and law, in which the sphere of creatures and the juridical order are caught up in a single catastrophe. (57)

What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity – that is, another use of the law. This is precisely what the force-of-law (which keeps the law working beyond its formal suspension) seeks to prevent. Kafka’s characters – and this is why they interest us – have to do with this spectral figure of the law in the state of exception; they seek, each one following his or her own strategy, to “study” and deactivate it, to “play” with it. (64)

  1. Auctoritas and Potestas

In the sphere of private law, auctoritas is the property of the auctor, that is, the person sui iuris (the pater familias) who intervenes – pronouncing the technical formula auctor fio [I am made auctor] – in order to confer legal validity on the act of a subject who cannot independently bring a legally valid act into being. Thus, the auctoritas of the tutor makes valid the act of one who lacks this capacity, and the auctoritas of the father “authorizes” – that is, makes valid – the marriage of the son in potestate. Analogously, the seller (in a mancipatio) is bound to assist the buyer in confirming his title of ownership in the course of a claim proceeding involving a third opposing party. (76)

[…] we need only reflect on the formula auctor fio (and not simply auctor sum) to realize that it seems to imply not so much the voluntary exercise of a right as the actualization of an impersonal power [potenza] in the very person of the auctor. (77)

As we have seen, in public law auctoritas designates the most proper prerogative of the Senate. The active subjects of this prerogative are therefore the patres: auctoritas patrum and patres auctores fiunt [the fathers are made auctors] are common formulas for expressing the constitutional function of the Senate. (77)

Under extreme conditions (that is to say, under the conditions that best define it, if it is true that a legal institution’s truest character is always defined by the exception and the extreme situation) auctoritas seems to act as a force that suspends potestas where it took place and reactivates it where it was no longer in force. It is a power that suspends or reactivates law, but is not formally in force as law. (79)

The norm can be applied to the normal situation and can be suspended without totally annulling the juridical order because in the form of auctoritas, or sovereign decision, it refers immediately to life, it springs from life. (85)

The juridical system of the West appears as a double structure, formed by two heterogeneous yet coordinated elements: one that is normative and juridical in the strict sense (which we can for convenience inscribe under the rubric potestas) and one that is anomic and metajuridical (which we can call by the name auctoritas). The normative element needs the anomic element in order to be applied, but, on the other hand, auctoritas can assert itself only in the validation or suspension of potestas. (86)

The aim of this investigation – in the urgency of the state of exception “in which we live” – was to bring to light the fiction that governs the arcanum imperii par excellence of our time. What the “ark” of power contains at its center is the state of exception – but this is essentially an empty space, in which a human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life. (86)

The normative aspect of law can thus be obliterated and contradicted with impunity by a governmental violence that – while ignoring international law externally and producing a permanent state of exception internally – nevertheless still claims to be applying the law. (87)

But if it is possible to attempt to halt the machine, to show its central fiction, this is because between violence and law, between life and norm, there is no substantial articulation. (87)

There are not first life as a natural biological given and anomie as the state of nature, and then their implication in law through the state of exception. On the contrary, the very possibility of distinguishing life and law, anomie and nomos, coincides with their articulation in the biopolitical machine. Bare life is a product of the machine and not something that preexists it, just as law has no court in nature or in the divine mind. Life and law, anomie and nomos, auctoritas and potestas, result from the fracture of something to which we have no other access than through the fiction of their articulation and the patient work that, by unmasking this fiction, separates what it had claimed to unite. (88)

To show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of “politics”. […] The only truly political action, however, is that which severs the nexus between violence and law. And only beginning from the space thus opened will it be possible to pose the question of a possible use of law after the deactivation of the device that, in the state of exception, tied it to life. We will then have before us a “pure” law, in the sense in which Benjamin speaks of a “pure” language and a “pure” violence. To a word that does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, abut says only itself, would correspond an action as pure means, which shows only itself, without any relation to an end. And, between the two, not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception. (88)

Sergei Prozorov “Like a Thief in the Night”

January 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Prozorov, Sergei 2017. Like a Thief in the Night: Agamben, Hobbes and the Messianic Transvaluation of Security. Security Dialogue 48(6): 473–487.

I shall argue that in the messianic approach, security does not figure as an unquestionable good or as a necessary (or even unnecessary) evil but rather as the problematic aspiration, whose failure itself brings about the messianic event in an oblique manner, ‘like a thief in the night’. Rather than denounce or renounce security, the messianic approach retains it as a demand at the same time as it maintains the impossibility of its fulfilment. The state’s claim to provide security thus becomes the effective means of its undoing. (474)

What messianic politics thereby seeks is only security from the existing apparatuses that are undermined by the demands they could not possibly fulfil. This affirmation of ‘security from security’ reorients security studies towards at once a greater appreciation of security as a desirable good and the dissociation of this good from the structures and institutions that have derived their legitimacy from claiming to provide it. (474)

Rather than read Hobbes’s theory in the familiar terms of the exchange of liberty for security, Agamben insists that the Hobbesian commonwealth ensures no such trade-off and the Leviathan and Behemoth, nomos and anomie, remain entwined to the point of indistinction in every secular order. Insofar as it is not and cannot be the kingdom of God, the security state is forever resigned to the insecurity of stasis. (474)

Since Tertullian, the katechon has been identified with the Roman Empire, a worldly power that delays the end of days and secures public order. For Carl Schmitt, who brought the concept of the katechon into late-modern political-philosophical discourse in his Nomos of the Earth (2003), the idea of the katechon endowed Christianity with a historical dimension, serving as the ‘only bridge between the notion of an eschatological paralysis of all human events and a tremendous historical monolith like that of the Christian empire of the German kings’ (Schmitt, 2003: 60; see also Hooker, 2009: 49–54; De Wilde, 2013; Hell, 2009). (475)

It is a real kingdom, in which God reigned not merely over all beings but also commanded, in a literal sense, such ‘peculiar subjects’ as Adam, Noah and his family, Abraham, Moses and others, with whom he spoke and made covenants. It is this real kingdom with God as its real king that will be restored after the Second Coming and it will be restored here on earth and not in heaven (Hobbes, [1651] 1985: 480–484). (476)

The analyses of the civil commonwealth in the preceding chapters of Leviathan are therefore only valid until the second coming of Christ, after which a different kind of kingdom takes hold, for all eternity. The two kingdoms are perfectly autonomous and only coordinated from the eschatological perspective: ‘both take place on earth and the Leviathan will necessarily disappear when the Kingdom of God is realized politically in the world’ (Agamben, 2015: 48). (476)

The impossibility of fully separating the state of nature from the civil state of the commonwealth, whereby the former survives in the latter in the form of the state of exception (1998: 35–36, 105), only testifies to the transitory and ultimately unsuccessful character of the commonwealth as the project of attaining unity and peace, tranquility and security. Until the kingdom of the God at the end of time, ‘no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into the multitude and the Leviathan can only live together up until the end with Behemoth – with the possibility of civil war’ (Agamben, 2015: 49). (477)

While Benjamin’s text is notoriously elliptic, Agamben’s reinterpretation of Hobbes actually helps us to understand this point. ‘The Leviathanstate, which must ensure the “safety” and “contentments of life” of its subjects, is also what precipitates the end of time’ (Agamben, 2015: 53). It does so precisely by repeatedly failing to ensure the security that should render it legitimate. It is precisely the understanding of this failure as necessary and inescapable that underlies the messianic disposition. At the very end of Stasis, Agamben makes an allusion to Paul’s famous claim in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, the consideration of which will help us understand the messianic approach to security: ‘For you are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and security”, destruction will come upon them suddenly, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in the darkness so that this day should overtake you like a thief.…’ (1 Thessalonians 5:3, cited in Agamben, 2015: 53). (478)

The accelerationist disposition is thus an important part of the Western ontopolitical tradition that has served as an explicit or implicit antagonist of the arguably more dominant katechontic disposition. What is common to different strands of accelerationism is their impatience with the katechon and its politics of restraint, which keeps at bay the danger that accelerationism views as pregnant with possibility. (479)

While continuing to be obsessed with security as a scarce good, the neoliberal state no longer posits its own function in the katechontic terms of restraint or delay. Instead, it simply seeks to manage things as they are, with no end in sight in both senses of the word, there being no ultimate goal of government and no recognition of its finitude. (480)

The neoliberal state may therefore be termed a postsecurity state, not because it relinquishes the katechontic function, but rather because in its concern with its own efficiency it loses sight of the effects it was meant to produce. In the post-security state, the katechon which does not delay any end joins forces with the accelerator which does not have any end in view. Critical studies of neoliberalism that emphasize its ‘zombie-like’ status as ‘dead but still dominant’, repeatedly surviving every proclamation of its demise albeit in an ever more dysfunctional state (Peck, 2010; Smith, 2008), illuminate a highly important feature of neoliberal government – its drivenness with no direction and hence no possible end; only a perpetual imperative for acceleration. (480)

The responsible and resilient subject must instead make its security its business: come to terms with a perpetual presence of insecurity, invest in insuring itself against it, learn to bounce back after suffering from it, etc. In this manner, the apparatuses of the Leviathan have not only learned to coexist with Behemoth, but also succeeded in making this coexistence the basis of a veritable ‘ethics’ of eternal insecurity. (480)

In the messianic perspective, little would be gained from a return from a ‘postsecurity’ discourse of risk, responsibilization and resilience to some ‘proper security’. The significance of Agamben’s reinterpretation of Hobbes in the messianic key consists precisely in demonstrating that the katechontic promise was void already in and for Hobbes. The contemporary developments in the governance of security that downgrade, diminish or devolve the katechontic function only make this void character painfully clear. And yet, if the katechontic claim to hold back the disaster is no longer credible, should we then welcome the disaster in question with open arms and even hasten it as the condition of possibility of our emancipation? Such an extreme version of the accelerationist position would locate the problem in our very desire for security, on which the state feeds to justify its existence and then proceeds to convert into the production of insecurity, all in the name of the aversion of the greater catastrophe. Thus, wars are fought in the name of our presumably threatened way of life, while our rights and liberties are trampled on in the name of our physical survival. If it is our desire for security that leads to the production of insecurity, then perhaps this desire should be renounced and (at least a modicum of) insecurity should be affirmed as such (Neocleous and Rigakos, 2011). (481)

The affirmation of insecurity over security ends up in a fatal contradiction, since it was precisely the production of insecurity in the name of security that was the problem in the first place. If we desire security, we could not possibly affirm its opposite. Yet if we happen, for some reason, to desire insecurity, then we do not seem to have a problem because our apparatuses of security already provide more than enough of it to go around. A critique of security would thus find itself with precious little to criticize. (482)

The insecurity that the state produces in the name of security must be exposed and opposed not in the name of a better security to come (or in the name of the insecurity that we should tolerate and come to terms with), but solely in the name of twisting loose from the existing apparatuses and the dangers they pose. The messianic disposition affirms neither a pure security that cannot be attained nor the insecurity that no one could possibly want, but rather security from security, safety from the harm that comes with being secured by the Leviathan that always uncannily resembles Behemoth. (482)

Thus, security in the messianic approach is neither valorized as a glorious end-state nor scornfully refused in a quasi-heroic posture. Instead, it is what we desire and demand but, having seen that our demands lead to nothing more than insecurity, we are now content to be secure from it. Messianic security is a modest and transient – but still eminently real – experience of relief, of being without care or at least of having one of our cares lifted off our shoulders. (483)

The messianic disposition thus resonates with one of the famous slogans of 1968: by demanding the impossible, the security that Leviathan/Behemoth could never provide, messianic subjects act as genuine realists who have freed themselves from all illusions of better security and only seek security from the apparatuses of security themselves. (484)