Giorgio Agamben’s seminal works of political philosophy, Homo Sacer and State of Exception, contain problematic and undefined conceptions of sovereignty. His tergiversation demands, first, an explication of his deployment of the concept. This leads to the articulation of three dissents from his position, along historical, material, and geopolitical grounds. Those dissents recall the work of earlier theorists, one of whom he cites and one of whom he ignores. The argument calls upon an alternative piece of archival analysis to complicate Agamben’s method. Finally, it proposes a different way of approaching political philosophy, one that refutes, without circumventing, his logic.
Rhetorical and logical negation permeate Agamben’s position. Sovereignty does not rest at the capacity to govern, as it is not invested in the gubernatorial or princely body itself. Agamben insists on the absence of an origin for power, sovereignty, subjectivity, his archive… For him, none of these concepts invests in a body, and therefore none of them describes a capacity or potential to do anything as such. Foreclosed actions include decision, thought, and especially political organization.
And yet, Agamben argues that potentiality grounds the very authority to act, even as it divests from (or, more properly, never invests in) an acting subject. Sovereignty displays a dual lack of origin: it has no ontological point of origin in any body, and it has no methodological or epistemological point of origin in Agamben’s argumentation. But this negative ontology and absent epistemology of sovereignty neither precludes nor concludes Agamben’s deployment of the concept.
Sovereignty’s inequality with authority’s grounds in potential complements its inequality with decision’s grounds in action. Just as the capacity to decide on a state of exception cannot alone describe sovereignty, sovereignty does not describe execution of or in that state. Execution of a state of exception involves more than the capacity to decide on it. Likewise, execution of any body (Agamben and his tutors might phrase this: ‘of whatever body’, singular or multiple, individual or collective, human or textual — in short, biopower in Michel Foucault’s first sense of power over death) requires conditions of undecidability, a milieu of pure action beyond potential. In this way, Agamben’s originary negations of origins invert themselves into a certain (negative?) positivism.
Consider Agamben’s method of textual analysis as one example of his use of constitutive negation without admitting to it. As Agamben frames Walter Benjamin’s (mostly implicit) critique of Carl Schmitt’s political theology, the deployment of pure (revolutionary or state) violence both grounds and excludes decision as such. Action, here, regardless of its medium (such as language, governance, cooking, sex, or whatever), is violence.
Action is the violence of a negation.
The clearest form of such a negation is the extinguishing of another’s life. Exceptional action, in these terms, is action qua action, because it is self-conscious violence. In short, such violent action cannot be described merely by sovereignty. It exceeds and elides that concept in both its grounds and its activity. Agamben’s concept of sovereignty must therefore refer to some other, more closely qualified relation between action and capacity – even if it does so without reference to violence as such.
The relation to which Agamben refers when he deploys the concept of sovereignty must therefore be understood as the decisive action, the very relation between action and decision. In other words, his concept of sovereignty emerges and becomes solvent through the examples that he provides of various dissolutions of governance. This is because sovereignty requires the phenomenal existence of a governing capacity that it can negate. As a relational force that makes intelligible both the forces and relations implicit in establishing a state of exception in (or against or after or or or) a governmental state, sovereignty complicates Agamben’s argument. Agamben’s conflicted concept of sovereignty reflects its implicit paradoxes. It quietly invests in the negating expression of the decision to negate the expression of decision.
His argument generates historical, geopolitical, and material exceptions to itself.
The historical exception glares most obviously. His description of protean states of exception presages an ongoing and semi-permanent state of exception, based on those Roman, German, and otherwise European contexts. He focuses on the relationship in these ancient and medieval settings between law and sovereignty. However, in so doing, he fails to explain how his very historiography of states of exception could either follow or complicate any sense of linear temporal (that is, properly sovereign historical) logic. One problem with the way he writes the history of an ahistorical phenomenon, his selective archive, will return later. More saliently, though, Agamben ignores or misinterprets an important aspect of Benjamin’s critique of Schmitt’s concept of exception.
For Benjamin, revolutionary time bears only a punctual relationship to historical time. Pure violence never returns to history. For example, revolution follows its own temporal logic. The few weeks of ‘pure,’ revolutionary, anarchic violence that constitute a state of exception also constitute an historical exception from the history of the State in or against which that violence takes place (takes time?). Consider any revolution that comes to mind, regardless of Agamben’s privileging or exclusion of them in his semi-historical archive: France, America, and Haiti, of course; also North Africa and the Middle East these past few months — none of these takes place within the history of the states that precede or succeed them; they constitute only an exception.
The only nod that Agamben makes to the incommensurability of a revolutionary time frame with an historical one is his discussion of the interregnum, a discussion from which Benjamin remains curiously absent. Perhaps, just as sovereignty’s existence absent of a ruling body is demonstrated by the interregnum for Agamben, he hopes that his silence on Benjamin demonstrates some form of rhetorical transposition to reintroduce Benjamin’s critique by its absence. Beyond this rhetorical ellipsis, however, Agamben places the concept of sovereignty in positive relation to historical states of exception. His argument admits of no contradiction, least of all of any constitutive contradiction, at work in such an opposition or relation. In so doing, his silence about the historicity of a given (whatever) state of exception becomes a demonstration, through negation, of the historical exception to his historiography of exception.
Geopolitically, a similar complication arises. Agamben remains silent on the concrete implications of his opposition between bare life and sovereignty. This silence clashes with his often supplemental and differential logic. It demonstrates, once again through negation, a Manichaean indifference to nuances of subjectivity. Neither gender nor race nor class nor religion nor political leanings nor the rest of the cultural laundry list affects his abstract dialectic. His dichotomy elides culture itself. It relegates culture to either paradoxically ungrounded sovereignty or to the destitution of bare life. This multiple reduction that destabilizes cultural identities while aligning culturally mediated privilege with abstract sovereignty holds chilling consequences for theory’s responsibility to whatever destitute subject of representation.
(Speaking of representation, in both its senses of speaking-for and of demonstrating, Gayatri Spivak has already critiqued the reduction that appears here in Agamben’s logic. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” she traces just such an implicit tendency, to reinscribe sovereignty in a privileged position, throughout the conversation between Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. [The same critique appears in her own public-intellectual conversation with Judith Butler, on the topic at hand – sovereignty and politics.] In order to come to terms with the bankruptcy of the subaltern subject-position, that which Agamben reduces to nude or bare life, one must also come to terms with the bankruptcy of the sovereign subject-position. That is, the one who speaks (for or about) another does so from a position of privilege that must always be understood as socially constructed, and never allowed to rest on some ontological assumption. Agamben makes just such an assumption about his authority to speak about sovereignty and bare life. In so doing, he assumes the mantle of the sovereign subject, and without critiquing his own problematic position, marginalizes those without access to his sanctified word.)
Attention to geopolitical destitution leads on to the material critique. Agamben’s evidentiary archive, as has been abstractly noted, reinscribes the tired biases of Western philosophy against the centrality of any Other subject than the (white straight cissexual Northern Western European male etc) sovereign subject. Distilled through his textual analyses, and concentrated around the deep, narrow questions of State of Exception Agamben re-presents the archive of privilege itself. In this way, he eliminates or marginalizes the material traces of those for whom the concepts he critiques are most materially dangerous. His immaterial archive makes material and literal the abstract implications of an unproblematized sovereign subject, because it only renders immaterial those Other, destitute subjects, not the sovereign subject or the subject of sovereignty itself. One could speculate on the reasons for this reinscription of sovereignty – has philosophy just stopped caring about alterity, or about privilege? Is that too banal for today’s cosmopolitan thinker? Such trains of thought, without a viable alter/native approach to the same problems, remain impotent and cheap.
Conceptual labor demands material grounds.
Here, then, I turn to some archival material that Agamben leaves inexplicably unexamined — Biblical concepts of sovereignty. In so doing, I wish not simply to challenge Agamben’s selectivity, but to suggest that his gestures toward ‘stopping the machine’ and so on require a deeper attention to materiality, concrete geopolitics, and to an even only slightly deeper history.
To illustrate what an attention to the Biblical scriptures might have generated for Agamben’s deployment of sovereignty, consider the Book of Judges. Likely composed and codified in the 6th century BCE, the book traces a history of interregnum, during which the Israelites came to inhabit (either by military conquest, as in Joshua which precedes Judges in the Old Testament, or by gradual settlement) the land of Canaan. During this time, between prophetic leadership (Moses) and the establishment of a Kingdom proper, ‘the people’ bear a triangular relationship to both their own collective conduct and to the ‘Holy’ land as such. Throughout Judges, a cycle of sin and redemption corresponds to both leadership and control of territory.
The pattern begins with a righteous collective, who (by and for their righteousness) gain control over the land, and live peacefully, with a stable, hierarchical leadership. Such stability leads, however, to decadence. That decadence and sin leads (through a combination of divine punishment and tactical unreadiness) to the invasion and loss of control of the land by outsiders (for example, Babylonians.) In exile and in disgrace, the people turn to the leadership of a Judge, who leads them back to righteousness, and thus to control over the land once more. The tripartite cycle repeats thirteen times, as the people sin and lose their land, judges rise up during or servitude, and a newly righteous Israel establishes control once more, from after (the Books and figures of) Joshua into Othniel through Samson and into Samuel.
This highly schematic reading of an ancient and problematic text affects Agamben’s archival framework for several reasons. First, it illustrates that he left out an opportunity to extend his political-theological argument about the relationship between sovereignty and exception by nearly a thousand years. In this example, sovereignty does not invest in the body of the judges but inthe collective consciousness of ‘the people,’ mediated through governance and territorial control, but expressed in terms of sin and redemption. Second, the text remains the site of contestation over whether an ancient geopolitical shift in populations and territorial control took place gradually or swiftly, peacefully or through military conquest, and it founds that debate through a displacement of material stakes for many peoples’ lives (and contemporary claims to the sanctity and rights over territory) onto the discourses of law and of religious values.
If what is at stake for Agamben is a way of existence that ceases to play with the illusions of historical progress and recognizes the vacancy of power from sovereignty, then this text provides one example of how deeply rooted his mode of analysis remains in the discourses of law and theology without their counterparts in historical, material geopolitics. The framework of materiality made theological, exemplified in this text, highlights the immateriality of Agamben’s archive.
Agamben’s selectivity, rather than problematizing or supplementing a dichotomy between power and disenfranchisement, and without making any positive claims to action, ignores subalternity as well as the uniqueness of sovereignty. Reading this ancient scripture, by contrast, gives an approach by which to scale between bare and sovereign life, instead of mutually opposing them as contradictions without constitution. On the same grounds, it returns materiality to history. Most significantly, the addition of even one piece of archival material provides the very positive program that Agamben elides, through his constant rhetorical and logical negations.
That politics requires that the analyst keep attention on their own subjectivity as well as on the concept of subjectivity, to be sure. But more importantly, it emphasizes that in order to critique the problem of modern states in any significant way, one must deepen their time frame. In other words, Agamben’s critique negates, even as it demands, the necessity of historical consciousness. In order to critique the modern state, one must think beyond pre- and postmodern states (of…).
Agamben reads the state of exception into banal, modern historical time. Benjamin (at, one might argue, Adorno’s insistence) had already shown that Schmitt’s tautological paradox, of exception as normality, dissolves when actually existing time is also considered a factor of history. Likewise, Agamben reads sovereignty as historically normative, but doesn’t ground sovereignty’s historicity. Spivak had already critiqued this elision of privilege as a locus of sovereignty in Foucault and Deleuze. Adopting a longer time frame in both archival method and speculative realism reveals Agamben’s conflation of sovereignty with exception, and that it falls to the same critique. Violence certainly grounds and limits geopolitics, but Agamben’s argumentation of that rather banal point re-inscribes the biases of elite philosophy. His ostensibly radical critique of a logic of contemporary fascism cannot escape a certain liberal humanist gesture at its nominal (logical) core. Regardless of the insistence of his interlocutors, such as Slavoj Zizek, the major problem with Agamben’s logic remains at stake: he approaches a supplementary problem dialectically, but frames his discursive strategy in precisely the opposite way, as though he were approaching a material problem supplementarily. Cutting ‘at will’ (to liberalize and humanize Friedrich Nietzsche’s work), into his archive of decisions, Agamben misses the point of his own critique. To dwell on his logical sleight of hand in the service of his or my rhetorical bombast, though, would also miss the point.
Philosophy exists materially, not metaphorically.
Metaphors and puns do not suffice to affect conditions of thought, let alone of violent inequality. In order to do more than raise sophomoric provocations about throwing a wrench into some machine that would halt the very production of intellectual labor, we must conceive of philosophy as more than a historiography of its own conditions. In short, we must plumb a deeper time than that of the modern state punctuated by exception will more honestly reveal the violence inherent in banality itself. Rather than repeat, ad nauseam, the critiques of liberal humanist thought raised by other liberal humanists who then repeat what they critique in some other guise, intellectuals must engage with the problems and lives of other people. Only in this way can political philosophy have any bearing on the material conditions of human and posthuman life.Tags: Agamben, Facism, Geopolitics, Nietzsche, Sovereignty, Spivak