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Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life by…

Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995)

by Giorgio Agamben

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Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life is the first of seven (and counting) volumes in a large project by contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben. (I have previously read the fourth, The Sacrament of Language.) Homo Sacer was first published in 1995, and some have suggested that it was serendipity that the political developments of the early 21st century have been so vulnerable to the tools of analysis that Agamben began to formulate here. Such judgments rest on the dubious view that the events in the US of September 2001, along with the political and governmental reactions to them, were some sort of freak accident alien to the cultivated soil of Western polity.

The point of departure in this book is the antique idea of the homo sacer, a declared outlaw who cannot be "sacrificed," but can be killed without repercussion. Agamben places this figure at the opposite pole from that of the sovereign, in the constitution of the paradoxical "state of exception" -- a concept that he takes from the Nazi jurist and theorist of "political theology" Carl Schmitt, and advances as the principal germ of government, newly exposed in the modern phenomena of "biopolitics" (this latter term from Michel Foucault). Agamben insists -- quite credibly -- that a common biopolitical skeleton lies under the skin of both mass democracies and the notorious totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

Agamben identifies the homo sacer "bandit" (i.e. one under a ban) with "bare life," and this condition is explored through tangent human realities such as human subjects of medical experimentation (especially Nazi Versuchspersonen), prisoners condemned to capital punishment, euthanasia candidates, and the "overcomatose," relating these also to the deprecated and disenfranchised classes confined and condemned in totalitarian states. The book is a declared inquiry into the genealogy of the idea of the sanctity of life, and the complicity of this idea with forms of biopolitical oppression and even "thanatopolitical" extermination. It seems a curious oversight that the category of the sovereign fetus is never raised in this survey, given its relationship to the "sanctity of life" in US political rhetoric. (Prohibiting abortion was, of course, a conspicuous biopolitical initiative of Nazi rule.) On a more speculative note, the "ectogene" (a parentless "test tube baby") plays into the nexus of concerns raised in the closing chapters of the book.

One of the chief claims of the book is that human polity should no longer be investigated under the sign of the city, as understood in centuries past, but rather that of the concentration camp. Agamben extends the term to cover all sites of detention, where civil dignities are suspended in consideration of political priorities: refugee quarantine areas, prisons holding aliens to be deported, and so on. Instances of the type have multiplied virally in the last twenty years: the "free speech zones" to divert and suppress street protest in the US, CIA "black sites," and the Homan Square "off-the-books interrogation compound" run by Chicago police are a few that occur to my mind.

Homo Sacer brought ideas together from many other thinkers who have been objects of my attention. Agamben also characterizes the book as an effort to synthesize the political realizations of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault (120). Scholars of religion should attend to the theoretical critique bodied forth in the chapter on "The Ambivalence of the Sacred." Thelemites can find ideas worth pondering regarding "pure will" in the Kantian ruminations of the chapter on the "Form of Law." Agamben's work was not a flawless performance, though. Humanistic scholars should probably avoid mathematical or scientific metaphors when they are only superficially familiar with the relevant concepts; he unaccountably wrote "Leyden jar" where he evidently intended "Klein bottle" (37).

Overall, this book was well worth my time, and I expect to read further in the Homo Sacer project, and possibly in some of the secondary literature reacting to Agamben's ideas.
2 vote paradoxosalpha | Mar 6, 2015 |
All the best continental philosophy* books display the best and worst things about continental philosophy: they introduce a profoundly useful concept and make a number of interesting but lesser points about the world in general while they do it. They also needlessly confuse the concept itself, display far too much irrelevant learning (of the "I was reading book x while I was writing book y, therefore book x and y are somehow connected" variety), and make statements that are so over-the-top and ridiculous that any sane reader will only retain her sanity by keeping in mind Adorno's marvelously self-referential claim that all real thought is exaggeration.

According to this implausible statement of mine, Homo Sacer is among the best continental philosophy books. Agamben introduces a very useful and interesting concept by thinking about a)sovereignty, particularly as discussed by Schmitt; b) the figure of homo sacer and the much discussed 'ambiguity of the sacred'; and c) Foucault's concept of biopower. The concept is 'bare life,' which is what the figure of homo sacer is meant to have, what sovereignty rules over, and what Foucault (ait Agamben) was really trying to get at.

This should all be plain sailing, really: the sovereign, Agamben suggests, doesn't so much decide on the exception as decide on the boundaries of legality. The sovereign has the power to turn someone (or some group) into homines sacres, or 'bandits,' or, more making the idea a bit clearer, outlaws. Homo sacer, the outlaw, is both no longer subject to the law- but also no longer protected by it. He can kill you if he wants, but you can kill him without having any legal problem. So the sovereign and the outlaw both stand at the boundaries of human law, civilization etc... When you're in this position, though, you don't really have a full 'life' as such. You aren't a citizen, you aren't a subject- now you're bare life. I doubt it's very nice. This brings with it some interesting points about Heidegger (Dasein as a kind of benign bare life, which is no longer subject to power structures or politics or whatever), anthropological investigations of the sacred and a bunch of other issues in which you might be interested.

Now for the bad stuff:
i) this interesting concept does not allow you to make wildly exaggerated claims like 'economic development turns the entire population of the Third World into bare life,' or 'concentration camps signal the political space of modernity.' Regardless of whether some people are treated as bare life, the vast majority of us remain citizens.

ii) Aristotle's discussion of potentiality in book theta of the Metaphysics has nothing to do with sovereignty, no, nothing at all, and no matter how much fancy footwork you do you will not make them have any relevance to each other. Pindar might have something to do with it, but in a very uninteresting way. Kafka probably has something interesting to say about it, but Agamben doesn't tell us what. Benjamin certainly does, but you could only explain what in a freestanding book length essay on him. All this means that about two thirds of part one of this book are gratuitous and quite irritating. This is a side-effect of the argument-by-outlandish-example method, which also takes up too much space in part three: 'scientists sometimes turn people into lab rats' adds nothing to the concept of bare life.

iii) And finally, I actually have a complaint of substance: despite all the talk of bodies and biopolitics and what-not, Agamben's work is the worst kind of obfuscating idealism. I say this as someone who doesn't mind a little idealism every now and then. But saying 'the Romans conceived of homo sacer in this way... and now we're all homines sacres' leaves out a couple of pretty important *millenia,* through which one probably can't track the figure of homo sacer. What possible effect could this fascinating but arcane legal dispute have today? How is it that such ideas have some immediate impact on people who have never had a politically theoretical idea in their lives?
Agamben could answer, say, 'that's not what I mean; it's not that these ideas have actual worldly effects in the present. It's just a way to think about our world.' That would be okay.
*But*, I'm pretty sure that's not what's going on. He routinely says things like "only a politics that will have learned to take the fundamental biopolitical fracture of the West into account will be able to... put an end to the civil war that divides the peoples and cities of the earth," p 180. I suppose we could dedicate the next twenty years to re-thinking the relation between politics and bare life and sovereignty and so on. We could try to get an absolutely true political theory that steps beyond all of western history and metaphysics, since *only* then will injustice cease. But I'd like to think it isn't *only* when you have a perfect political theory that you can take steps to stop the environmental, political, economic, social and cultural havoc that we seem intent on wreaking.

*yes, I am aware that continental/analytic is a silly distinction, but it holds in this case. ( )
2 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Superb. Considering his contemporaries, I expected to get utterly confused. As it happens, it was a beautifully written and incredibly clear work of grace and eloquence. Even if his analysis isn't to be agreed with (jury is still out for me), the historical and etymological information is rivitting. ( )
2 vote mrclarinet | Aug 20, 2008 |
This book's English translation had *just* enough time to raise eyebrows in academia before September 2001... and, since then, it's become practically impossible to escape it. It's helpful to reread the final chapter of the introductory volume to Foucault's History of Sexuality alongside Homo Sacer; for those interested in political theology, bring your Carl Schmitt. It's not the easiest book to read, but it's worth it if only so you won't feel nervous when someone else refers to it in your graduate seminar.
4 vote Fullmoonblue | Jul 21, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0804732183, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:15 -0400)

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