Homo Sacer Essay

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is having an increasingly significant impact on Anglo-American political theory. His most prominent intervention to date is the powerful reassessment of sovereignty and the politics of life and death laid out in his multivolume Homo Sacer project. Agamben argues that in both the modern world and the ancient, politics inevitably involves a sovereign decision that bans some individuals from the political and human communities. For Agamben, the Nazi concentration camps—in which some inmates are reduced to a form of living death—are not a political aberration but instead the place where this essential political decision about life most clearly reveals itself. Engaging specifically with Homo Sacer, the essays in this collection draw out and contend with the wide-ranging implications of Agamben’s radical and controversial interpretation of modern political life.

The contributors analyze Agamben’s thought from the perspectives of political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, and the history of law. They consider his work not only in relation to that of his major interlocutors—Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, and Martin Heidegger—but also in relation to the thought of Plato, Pindar, Heraclitus, Descartes, Kafka, Bataille, and Derrida. The essayists’ approaches are varied, as are their ultimate evaluations of the cogency and accuracy of Agamben’s arguments. This volume also includes an original essay by Agamben in which he considers the relation of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” to Schmitt’s Political Theology. Politics, Metaphysics, and Death is a necessary, multifaceted exposition and evaluation of the thought of one of today’s most important political theorists.

Contributors: Giorgio Agamben, Andrew Benjamin, Peter Fitzpatrick, Anselm Haverkamp, Paul Hegarty, Andreas Kalyvas, Rainer Maria Kiesow , Catherine Mills, Andrew Norris, Adam Thurschwell, Erik Vogt, Thomas Carl Wall

About The Author(s)

Andrew Norris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.


“The Foucauldian thesis will then have to be corrected or, at least, completed, in the sense that what characterizes modern politics is not so much the inclusion of zoe in the polis—which is, in itself, absolutely ancient—nor simply the fact that life as such becomes a principle object of the projections and calculations of State power. Instead the decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life—which is originally situated at the margins of the political order—gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction. At once excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order, the state of exception actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested.” (pg. 9)

Table of oppositions and associations of terms:

In this non-comprehensive table, the terms are listed in their original oppositions and associations, acknowledging that many of Agamben’s conclusions involve the merger and indistinctness of these oppositions.

Zen – simple natural life, “life as such” 

Bare life


excluded, (and included through exclusion) from sovereignty

homo sacer

can be killed, yet not sacrificed

Eu zen –good life 

Forms of life


Included in sovereignty

Polis –political

“politically qualified life”

specific to humanity

Reading Notes:

Greeks have two separate words/concepts for what is currently signified in the contemporary usage of “life”

zoe – fact of living common to all living beings (animal, men, gods)

bios – form or way of living proper to an individual or group

zoe lacks plurar form, would not be used to describe a “kind of life.” bios is used to describe a type of “qualified life” a particular “way of life.”

[page 2]

Greek concept that “simple natural life” in itself was a good thing and something excluded from polis.

Agamben highlights Aristotle’s opposition of “simple fact of living” (zen) to “politically qualified life” (eu zen).

“Born with regaurd to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life.”

Political is not an attribute of the living being as such but rather a specific difference that determines the genus zoon

[page 3]

Human politics is distinguished from other beings due to its foundation, tied to language, on a community of pleasant and painful, good and evil, just and unjust.

Drawing on Foucault in History of Sexuality

At the modern era natural life begins to be included in the mechanisms and calculations of state power.

Politics becomes biopolitics

“man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for political existence: modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question.” (italics added)

thus, the “threshold of biological modernity” is the point where the species and the individual as living body becomes the stakes in political stragedy.

Indicates the shift from “territorial state” to “state of population.”

Increase in the importance of national health, “bestialization of men through sophisticated political techniques.

The results of this power, social sciences, authorize the holocaust while protecting lie. It additionally aides triumph of capitalism, created the “docile bodies” capitalism needed.

Drawing from Arendt’s The Human Condition

Homo Laborans– with biological life as such, occupy the center of political scene of modernity.

[page 4]

The primacy of natural life over political action caused the “transformation and decadences of the policitcal realm”

Zoe now goes into polis, “politicalization of bare life as such,” where before it was separate.

This inclusion of  zoe in polis seen as the decisive event of modernity, the transformations of political-philosphical categories of classical thought.

Only within biopolitical realm can “enigmas” of the last century be understood (Holocaust).

[page 5]

Agamben highlights features of Foucaults analysis of power – Foucault leaves behind juridico-institutional model for a concrete analysis of power the penetrates subjects bodies and forms of life.

Foucault’s two directives of research:

1)   political techniques: (ex: science of police) care of natural life of individuals as center of state

2)   technologies of the self: processes of subjetivization bring together individual consciousness and at the same time and at the same time an external power.

Thus, these two forms of power create a political “double bind” through individualization and simultaneous totalization of modern power.

[page 6]

Though Foucault states that these to powers converge and cross each other the intersection remains a bit of a blind spot for Foucault.  Agamben states that they appear as two parreal lines that converge as a vanishing spot.

Agamben posits that there is no separation of these two forms of power.

“The inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original – if concealed- nucleus of sovereign power. It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power.

By placing biological life at center of state’s calculations, the state reveals the tie between power/polis and bare life/zoe and thus shows the tie between modern and archaic power.

[page 7]

Now a revisting of Aristotle’s definition of polis as the opposition between life, zen, and good life, eu zen.

This opostion is also an implication of “life” in “good life”, bare life in politically qualified life.

“We must instead ask why Western politics first constitutes itself through an exclusion (which is simultaneously an inclusion) of bare life. What is the relation betweens politics and life, if life presents itself as what is included by means of exclusion.”

“In Foucault’s statement according to which man was, for Aristotle, a “living animal with the additional capacity for political existence,” it is therefore precisely the meaning of this “additional capacity” that must be understood as problematic. The particular phrase “born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life” can be read not only as an implication of being born in being, but also as an inclusive exclsion of zoe in polis, almost as if politics were the place in which life had to transform itself into good life and in which what had to be politicized were always already bare life. In Western politics, bare liufe has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.”

Agamben draws parallel between bare life/politics and where Aristotle places the metaphysical definition of man as living being with language using juxtaposition of voice and language (phone vs. logos)

[page 8]

paraphrasing Aristotle, “animals may have voice/phone and thus the ability ot signal pain and pleasure, but men have language to express fitting/unfitting and the feel the sensations of good/bad, just/unjust

in what way do living beings have language/  what way does bare life dwell in polis

life has logos by giving up and conserving its own voice/life exists in polis by excluding bare life as an exception within it.

In the “politicalization” of bare life the humainity of living man is decided

“The is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates  and opposes himself to his own bare life and at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion.”

Homo sacer (sacred man) – who can be kil;ed and yet not sacrificed.

“protagonist of bare life”

this figure, taken from archaic roman law, who exist in the political, juridical rules and regulation system through being excluded from it, in its ability to be killed.

[page 9]

It is not just the inclusion of zoe in polis or “life as such” as object of projectios and calculations of power that is of importance.

Instead the decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life—which is originally situated at the margins of the political order—gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.

Man as living being is subject not object of political power.

“Modern democracy presents itself from the beginning as a vindication and liberate of zoe, and that it is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoe. “

“it wants to put the freedom and happiness of people into play in the very place—bare life—that marked their subjection.”

[page 10]

“Today politics knows no value ( and consequently, no nonvalue) other than life, and until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism—which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle—will remain stubbornly with us. “

R. Antelme “calling into question the quality of man provokes an almost biological assertion of belonging to the human race.”

[page 11]

“In carrying out the metaphysical task that has led it more and more to assume the form of a biopolitics, Western politics had not succeeded in constructing the link between zoe and bios, between voice and language, that would have healed the fracture. Bare life remains included in politics in the form of exception, that is, as something that is included solely through exclusion.”

“Nevertheless, until a completely new politics—that is, a politics no longer founded on the exceptio of bare life—is at hand, every theory and every praxis will remain imprisoned and immobile, and the “beautiful day: of life will be given citizenship only either through blood and death or in the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it.”

C. Schmit- “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception”

Thus, sovereignty decides who to include as subjects and who/what is excluded/

Sovereignty becomes the border on the sphere of life and thus becomes indistinguishable from life.

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