April 22, 2013
The work of Italian philosopher GIORGIO AGAMBEN (born 1942) was late in coming to the English-speaking academy, mostly for want of qualified translators, and so it was with a remarkable rush of published works that he seemed to burst upon the scene. A line of thought that was in fact developed over some years, struggling with the influences of Martin Heidegger (with whom Agamben studied) and Walter Benjamin (who provided “the antidote that allowed me to survive Heidegger”) has sprung into prominence in the space of a decade. The three essential works are: The Coming Community (1993), a poetic meditation on the nature of life and silence — Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and the post-live-performance Glenn Gould make guest appearances; Homo Sacer (1995), which outlines Agamben’s essential notion of “bare life” in biopolitics, the state in which no rights can be claimed; and State of Exception (2005), his densely argued duel with the extreme statist thought of Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt and the anti-liberals who follow him, the sovereign is “he who decides upon the exception,” suspending the rule of law in the name of the law in order to save the state, and declaring friend against enemy. Agamben responds by showing how such suspensions continually operate even in liberal states, reducing persons to the condition of being at once outside the law (without any claims to make) and inside it (governed by its execution). His historical examples, from the German concentration camps to the ongoing travesty that is Guantanamo Bay and the American-approved policy of “enhanced interrogation” — also known as torture — indicate both the practical scope of Agamben’s philosophical concerns and the urgency of their essential message. Stripped of rights and responsibilities, we are just bodies awaiting disposal by the powers of the state.
READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).