- Paperback: 216 pages
- Publisher: Stanford University Press (1 April 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0804732183
- ISBN-13: 978-0804732185
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.4 x 21.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #79,906 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) Paperback – 1 Apr 1998
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"The story of homo sacer is certainly worth reading because of its suggestiveness and provocations." -- Modernism/Modernity "Agamben's intuition, chronicle and meditation are fascinating." -- The Review of Politics
From the Inside Flap
The work of Giorgio Agamben, one of Italy's most important and original philosophers, has been based on an uncommon erudition in classical traditions of philosophy and rhetoric, the grammarians of late antiquity, Christian theology, and modern philosophy. Recently, Agamben has begun to direct his thinking to the constitution of the social and to some concrete, ethico-political conclusions concerning the state of society today, and the place of the individual within it.
In Homo Sacer, Agamben aims to connect the problem of pure possibility, potentiality, and power with the problem of political and social ethics in a context where the latter has lost its previous religious, metaphysical, and cultural grounding. Taking his cue from Foucault's fragmentary analysis of biopolitics, Agamben probes with great breadth, intensity, and acuteness the covert or implicit presence of an idea of biopolitics in the history of traditional political theory. He argues that from the earliest treatises of political theory, notably in Aristotle's notion of man as a political animal, and throughout the history of Western thinking about sovereignty (whether of the king or the state), a notion of sovereignty as power over "life" is implicit.
The reason it remains merely implicit has to do, according to Agamben, with the way the sacred, or the idea of sacrality, becomes indissociable from the idea of sovereignty. Drawing upon Carl Schmitt's idea of the sovereign's status as the exception to the rules he safeguards, and on anthropological research that reveals the close interlinking of the sacred and the taboo, Agamben defines the sacred person as one who can be killed and yet not sacrificed--a paradox he sees as operative in the status of the modern individual living in a system that exerts control over the collective "naked life" of all individuals.
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This is an important book making striking points, though it is dominated by an exaggerated view of "biopolitics." Also, the validity of important insight does not prove the complex theses on the foundational significance of homo sacer, as bare life under a "ban," who "can be killed but not sacrificed" (p. 113). Thus, there is no shred of evidence for statements such as "Not simple natural life, but life expose to death (bare life or sacred life) is the original political elements" (p. 88). The main ideas making this book significant do not depend on the theory of "homo sacer" and may well be clearer without it.
Leaving aside the discussion of "state of exception," which Agamben develops in another book to be reviewed separately, the strong points of the Homo Sacer book include, inter alias, the following:
1. Emphasis on ontology of potential, with the valid conclusion that "Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality...has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality ... a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable" (page 44).
2. Pinpointing weaknesses of democracy, such as "The understanding of the Hobbesian mythologeme in terms of contract ...condemned democracy to impotence every time it had to confront the problem of sovereign power and has also rendered modern democracy constitutionally incapable of truly thinking a politics freed from the form of the State" (p. 109). This may well provide a key to understanding and coping with increasingly fateful global issues on which organizations based on states are quite impotent. As succinctly put, "...every time refugees represent...a mass phenomenon, both [international organizations] and individual states prove themselves, despite their solemn invocation of the `sacred and inalienable' rights of man, absolutely incapable of resolving the problem and even of confronting it adequately" (p. 133). This is validated by recent developments, such as Syrian refugees, and is sure to become worse - such as when climate change results in masses of refugees.
3. A sharp distinction between the rights of citizen and human rights, with dire consequences for human welfare. Indeed "The separation between humanitarianism and politics that we are experiencing today is the extreme phase of the separation of the rights of man from the rights of the citizen" (p.133).
4. A profound discussion, in chapter 7, of "The Camp as the `Nomos' of the Modern" (p. 166), with the "camps being a "hybrid of law and fact in which the two terms have become indistinguishable" (emphasis in original) and in which "everything [bad] is possible" (p. 170). However, it is a gross exaggeration to regard "the camp...as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity" (p. 123).
The most problematic frame of the book is biopolitics, with claims such as "in modernity life is more and more clearly placed at the center of State politics (which now becomes, in Foucault's terms, biopolitics) (p. 111). But the author, while largely wrong on the contemporary situation, shows premonition. Human enhancement and other science and technology innovations will indeed put a radical form of biopolitics at the center of global concerns, with issues related to human enhancement becoming central on political agenda. They are likely to lead to quite some revaluations, such as on science and technology freedom, leading through harsh crises to a new global regime and a novel genre of political leaders (as discussed in my recent book).
Indeed, humanity is moving towards "risking an unprecedented biopolitical catastrophe", as stated in the concluding sentence of the book (p.188), with "the sovereign ... entering into an even more intimate symbiosis not only with the jurist but also with the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest" (p. 122). Statements such as "In modern biopolitics, sovereign is he who decides on the value or the nonvalue of life as such" (p. 142) and "politics ...giving form to the life of a people" (pp. 144ff) are likely to fit the future, making this book more into a high-quality longer-term prognosis than a valid diagnosis of the present time.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusal
Be prepared to look up random Latin phrases. Be prepared to go back and read Hiedegger, Schmitt, Benjamin, Deleuze, Foucault, Freud, Nancy, Kant, Derrida. He gives short mentions (one might say reductive, judging from the ones I'm a little more familiar with) to works by those kids, draws out complex concepts from them without explaining them thoroughly.
I don't know if he is actually a hack or if his writing just needs more patience than I have given it. Either way, if you try to trudge through it, it'll make you work your brain, which is never a bad thing.