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“The Ends of Homo Sacer.” A review of a Roundtable discussion on the work of Giorgio Agamben.
Jessica Whyte, Benjamin Noys, Jason E. Smith and Alberto Toscano. “The Ends of Homo Sacer. Roundtable discussion on the work of Giorgio Agamben. Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, Goldsmiths, University of London, 10 November 2015.

On November 10, 2015 a group of four scholars of Giorgio Agamben’s work gathered at Goldsmiths, University of London for a roundtable organized by the college’s recently formed Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought (CPCT). Contributing to the event, and representing a diverse array of interests in Agamben’s work, were Jessica Whyte, Benjamin Noys, Jason E. Smith and Alberto Toscano (who, alongside the roundtable chair Julia Ng, acts as co-director of the CPCT). The event was dubbed “The Ends of Homo Sacer,” a title whose most obvious motivation was the recent publication of Agamben’s Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm and of L’uso dei corpi (recently published in English as The Use of Bodies). The former book, originally delivered as two lectures in October 2001, slots into an earlier position in Agamben’s nine-book Homo Sacer series, whilst the latter marks its ostensible termination, if not its completion. As is well known, the series has been published out of the order envisioned by Agamben himself (a confusion to which the delayed publication of Stasis adds, since it displaces a spot previously accorded to The Kingdom and the Glory). Both the elusive ordering of the project and the question of its conclusion provided food for thought throughout the evening; neither problem, needless to say, attained definitive closure.

Though all panelists addressed the appearance of Stasis and The Use of Bodies—and with them, Homo Sacer’s curious publication history as a whole—only Smith drew direct attention to the plurality of “ends” in the event’s title. There are, as Smith pointed out, at least two levels at which this title is productively ambiguous. It poses the challenge that there might exist more than one conclusion to Homo Sacer and, moreover, suggests a multiplicity of meanings in such “ends” themselves (a semantic indeterminacy to which the plurality of ends is related but not necessarily reducible). What other meanings might Homo Sacer’s multiplicity of ends hold? As well as termini, ends can point to purposes, whether those of Agamben himself, or those of his readers and interlocutors. A panoramic glance reveals homo sacer as a concept that has (especially in its canonical formulation in the opening pages of the series’ first and eponymous volume) detached itself from its immediate context, in order to function as a tool for almost all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Much of this event’s relevance hinged on a critical reflection on the concept’s exile into other disciplines, a phenomenon seemingly matched by the intensification of the contemporary political crises to which Agamben has always accorded a structural significance.

This nomadic quality of homo sacer illuminates another equivocal element in the event’s title: the separability of the research project and book series Homo Sacer not only from the philosophical concept, but also from the historically specific legal figure (and its textual inscription) and, furthermore, from contemporary or historical homines sacri. Jessica Whyte’s paper, the most expressly concerned with contemporary crises of sovereignty, raised similar questions concerning the displacement of technical terms onto a generalized register. She was less preoccupied with the figure of homo sacer, however, than with the term “collateral damage” and its contemporary use as a justification for acts and ideologies of military and socio-economic ruination. The loss of human (and specifically civilian) life that military intervention requires, Whyte’s talk made clear, necessitates for its ideologues an appeal to higher sources in order to justify the suffering it causes. The term’s elasticity, as Whyte demonstrated, also allows it to be redeployed as a metaphor in the discourse of free markets and their enforcement upon indebted countries (Whyte referred to Yanis Varoufakis’s description of Greece as the “collateral damage” of the European Central Bank’s strategy to save the Eurozone by encouraging widespread austerity). Itself performing the wandering of the term “collateral damage,” Whyte’s approach skidded from the Christian theologies of Thomas Aquinas, Nicolas Malebranche and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet to religious apologias for the Greek crisis, and negotiated problems of sovereignty and governance from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek via Carl Schmitt. Models of a calculating but restful God, drawn primarily from Malebranche, and an actively pain-causing, interventionist one, taken from Bossuet, were offered as opposed paradigms for figures of sovereignty, only to be united at the end of Whyte’s presentation; a shift from sovereignty to economic governance demands, after all, the continuation of the right to kill alongside the techniques by which destruction can be normalized as a calculable letting-die. Collateral damage, rather than naming an unwanted effect of discrete actions, is put to use within the discourse of the law. A government reneging on its democratic mandate, enforced privatization, a sustained rise in suicides: these are not simply the collateral damage of measures that had to be imposed on Greece but, more significantly, they create a lawful norm according to which governments of indebted countries are forced to surrender the democratic will of their citizens. Collateral damage justifies the formalization of a non-legal process (the killing of civilians, an act which is said to be known but not intentional) into the law.

Homo sacer becomes a philosophical concept for Agamben precisely because of its locus in the legal formalism of Rome. Of all the contributors, Jason Smith was the most pointed in drawing out the limitations of Agamben’s focus on the apparatuses through which alegal or paralegal practices become structured and defined by their inclusive exclusion within the law. Smith contextualized Agamben’s use and transformation of homo sacer through a reference to Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in 1972 and 1973 (published in English as The Punitive Society), which is where Agamben discovered the concept, according to Foucault’s editors. While Agamben presents homo sacer as an obscure figure of law, Foucault shows that it was a relatively common form of punishment, according to Smith’s reading; the decisive difference, however, lies in Foucault’s emphasis on its unwritten nature, its lack of incorporation within a legal framework.

Attention to such parallels and divergences might threaten to sap the force of Agamben’s project, and it is surely not uncommon for events such as this one to undermine the premise of reading Agamben in a political context in the first place. Indeed, when the table fielded questions from the audience, Benjamin Noys carried out the somewhat unenviable task of advocating for Agamben’s idiosyncrasies with a provocative grace—if the “ends” of Homo Sacer are to remain a problem, the strangeness of Agamben’s methods demands a measure of fidelity. Nonetheless, Smith’s intention was less to historicize homo sacer than to ask whether Foucault’s articulation of exclusion makes the term’s modern history more legible, and expresses its heretofore unrealized dynamism. On the one hand, exclusion is a non-legal penalty whose afterlife determines punishment right through to the predominance of popular “scorn,” “contempt” or “infamy,” even in the late eighteenth century; indeed, it is only against the frame of this alegality that a general war against illegality—and a guarantee of control over an emergent working population—could take the form of mass incarceration. On the other hand, Smith argued, the tactic of exclusion has an immanent capacity to reemerge as the removal of juridical mediation in revolutionary forms of justice (Maoist, it was said). As provocative as this proposal was, it would have taken a different event—focused on a different set of texts, thinkers, and traditions—to work through its philosophical and legal ramifications, let alone its potential implications for problems of citizenship, sovereignty, and resistance in the contemporary world.

Alberto Toscano’s talk focused on Agamben’s use of “civil war” in Stasis, in contrast with Foucault’s use of the concept to describe the permanent state of exception inaugurated by mass incarceration. Toscano argued that Plato’s account of the relation between stasis and kinesis, which he rendered as immobility and movement, was absent from Agamben’s attempt to examine the problem of stasis in the ancient Greece. Although this was a welcome response to Agamben’s text, which readers might habitually assume carries out all the necessary etymological labour for them, the argument that Agamben is forced (as, perhaps, a “quiet Platonist” himself, in Whyte’s formulation) to more or less exclude Plato from his account was a little overstated. Toscano considered the role of stasis as a mediator between oikos and polis, terms more or less mappable onto the distinction of zoē and bios integral to the Homo Sacer project. For Toscano and Nicole Loraux, with whom Agamben’s text directly engages, the disarticulation of natural blood ties is enough to prove that the oikos in ancient Greece is always already politicized, that it cannot be thought at any point as an object of bare life, and that doing so enacts a formalization whose aim—or “end,” as it were—is to legitimize a false continuity between distinct moments of Western politics. Ritual, legal, and familial incongruities between Greece and Rome were offered as examples of that which Agamben’s method conceals with telling regularity. Toscano suggested that Agamben’s intervention ignores the peculiarity of this theme of artificial fraternity in Plato—what others have generalized as Plato’s communism—but Agamben himself is quite explicit in downplaying the theme of a “false fraternity” (Stasis 9). For Agamben, it is precisely the relegation of stasis to the role of revealing the oikos in the polis that requires correction. When rethought from the perspective of Agamben’s seminal articulation of inclusive exclusion, stasis comes to constitute a zone of indifference or undecidability between household and city, a threshold of politicization and depoliticization. Agamben’s concluding argument that global terrorism constitutes today’s predominant form of civil war might have proven a more productive point of debate, not least since it is predicated on the assumption of a perspective (the terrorist one) that no longer differentiates between polis and oikos, figuring the latter either as the “Common European Home” or as “the absolute space of global economic management” (24).

As Toscano argued, in the earlier parts of the Homo Sacer project, stasis does not count among the terms that Agamben attempts to rescue from their associations with abject experiences or forms. However, it could be counted alongside the “positive” orientation of the series’ more recently published volumes. Benjamin Noys traced this apparent shift by offering a succinct set of observations on three sets of relations: those within the Homo Sacer project, those between the project as a whole and Agamben’s earlier work, and those between the Homo Sacer texts and their potential readership. Noys suggested that Agamben’s articulation of a new notion of “use”—despite its affirmative sense—remains provisional relative to his pre-Homo Sacer output, and a far cry from the “affirmationism” that has characterized certain rehearsals of biopolitical theory. Noys outlined this characteristic of recent works vis-à-vis Agamben’s interest in the representation of totalitarian biopolitics in Sade; at the Château de Silling, every element of physiological life, in being identified with the law, is potentially public, classifiable, and thus susceptible to being used as an object of pleasure. If such situations mirror capital’s absolute subsumption, both in the danger it poses and in its promise of reversal within the law itself, Noys argues that Agamben’s recently lowered “tone” concerning both the implementation and perceptibility of this possible reversal is influenced by Walter Benjamin’s retelling of a Hasidic narrative about the world after the messianic coming—in which, as Benjamin wrote to Ernst Bloch, “everything will be as it is now, just a little different” (qtd. in The Coming Community 53).

Noys noted Agamben’s characterization of the Homo Sacer project as incompleteable and abandoned (L’uso dei corpi 9) in order to indicate the potential similarities between Agamben’s toned-down concepts and the project’s fragmentary status.1 This begged the question of whether it is possible for readers to find a new use of Agamben. The conceptual afterlife of homo sacer was the theme of most audience questions, and the term’s limitations were predominantly figured in two ways. Toscano argued that Agamben’s relatively unreflexive approach to the conditions of possibility for categories such as “the West,” “the Greeks,” “the Jews,” even “Judeo-Christianity” (a term that only came into common use in the late 1940s), impedes an understanding of their retroactive nature. Similarly, the question of Agamben’s relation to colonialism led Smith to restate his position that the methodological drift by which a specific form of punishment comes to stand in for a particular human life and then for human life as such (or, at another level, the drift from “homo sacer” to homo sacer to Homo Sacer) inevitably restricts what the term might mean at each point, and therefore curbs its productive reversibility for anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles.

As the evening ended, attention turned to the textual singularities of Agamben’s work: its typographic consistency, the use of “thresholds,” the significance of the Hebrew character aleph; Agamben’s “piety” to his philosophical influences within his books themselves; and the architectonic peculiarity of the Homo Sacer project as such. All of this reflected a dynamic in Agamben’s reception that seems to hinge on the perceived relations between his earlier and later works. For the majority of readers whose focus is on the Homo Sacer project, its promises and limitations for contemporary political crises are obvious, and remain only in need of spelling out. For readers of Agamben’s earlier work, its philosophy of language constitutes a means of interpreting the later politically-oriented research, but often at the expense of ignoring the aporias and shortcomings of the earlier writings, especially those outstanding from Agamben’s occasional polemics. As a whole, the roundtable would have benefited from a better situation of Agamben in his theoretical and philosophical contexts. Considering the wider problem of “tone” as it is formulated from Kant to Derrida, for instance, could have problematized Agamben’s notion of “use” and the model of transcendence that, arguably, continues to structure his thought. Despite, or rather because of, the quality of contributions at this event, it seems clear that the philosophical and methodological heterogeneity of Agamben’s writings, and of his readers, demands critical engagement at the closest proximity, perhaps closer than this roundtable could offer. A hope of my own, following this event, is that it might give rise to such critical groupings, from which the political actuality of Agamben’s thought ought to be inseparable.

Christopher Law
Goldsmiths, University of London
Christopher Law

Christopher Law
Christopher Law is a Ph.D. student in the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he also teaches topics in philosophy. He is completing a dissertation on the concepts of life and “uncriticizability” in the work of Walter Benjamin.


1. Agamben’s proposal that this incompletability applies to works of poetry as well as thought suggests another referent of the event’s title: the concluding section of his Categorie italiane (1996), which gave rise to its English translation as The End of the Poem.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.
———. L’uso dei corpi. Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2014. Print.
———. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm. Trans. Nicholas Heron. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2015. Print.