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April 29, 2007


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Kenneth Rufo

Wow, I see this as precisely the opposite of what Agamben is saying.


Jodi--I have to agree with Kenneth on this one. The point for Agamben is that the present political system situates all of us in the position of being virtually or potentially "sacred humans". He discusses this situation in both empirical and ontological terms in order to delimit it and clear the space for another mode of politics. And he spends considerable time laying out what such an alternative politics might look like.

The ontological gesture, as I mentioned before, is not intended to treat the established order as a dispensation of Being. Rather, the point is that we need to return to the level of ontology in order to figure out another political practice. His work is not about victimization or identity politics. Truly, it's not. It's about happiness, joy, potentiality, love, engagement with the irreparable, and so forth. Current forms of politics block those modes of life, and that's why he is critical of them.


Umm, I know Agamben's work is not about victimization or identity politics. I also see quick uses of and gestures to homo sacer in academic work that finds bare life everywhere. The claim that we are in a state of exception where fact and law now exist in a zone of indistinction is a version of everything is political. The attempt to go to ontology is a response to this.

Kenneth Rufo

Yeah, an oppositional version. As in this is the thing Agamben is arguing against.

I suspect that if there's an interpretive gap here, it relates to Agamben's rather Heideggerian structure, in that there is something of a biopolitical epoch in Agamben that he is tring to subvert. So to a certain extent he does say that everything is political but only in the sense that we have a failure of thinking, of philosophy, specifically as they relate to the form of life.

Kenneth Rufo

Trying to subvert, even.


Kenneth--you are saying that Agamben opposes the move to ontology? that he opposes rethinking politics at the level of ontology? that he does not think that the categories of Western ontology have produced a political horror show, dead end, or death trap? That can't be what you are saying, but that's what it seems like from your comment above.

Kenneth Rufo

Jodi, come on. You write: "The claim that we are in a state of exception where fact and law now exist in a zone of indistinction is a version of everything is political." I then say "Yeah, an oppositional version." So you say "version," I semantically mark your use of "version" by repeating the word, thus making it rather clear to what sentence I am responding. I then clarify, noting that Agamben does think that we have entered an epoch wherein everything is political, and that this is what he is arguing against. I even allude to his arguments on the form of life as the missing counterweight to this epoch. So do you really think I'm trying to suggest he opposes the move to ontology? Or is it that you think that if one moves to the level of ontology one must universalize or affirm the claim about the pervasiveness of the political?


I guess I misread the whole post. My bad.

Let me ask for clarification, then:

1. What do you mean by he makes the "everything is political" notion into something ontological?

2. When you see quick uses of homo sacer in the context of multiculturalism, do you think this has anything to do with Agamben's use of the concept? In other words, do multiculturalism and Agamben relate in any relevant way, or do you think certain multiculturalists just borrow the homo sacer concept and use it radically differently from him?

Kenneth Rufo

If I can add to Matt's questions:

3. Is there a version of everything is political that isn't ontological?

khalid mir

Jodi, is 'politicization' the same thing as political?
I think you're right that neoliberalism and globalisation require strategies and actions by nation states but on those grounds is it even possible to think of anything that ISN'T political? That cultural and identity issues have become 'politicized' , is this not an indication of the demise of the political? Is this not a substitution in late capitalism for a sense of belonging as the strength of citizenship and politcal community are on the wane?

I think the more important point is the direction in which things have been going (and the debate about citizenship/the republic vs the market, between positive liberty and negative liberty of the market is , I would say, a very old one ( interesting that you should relate it to the nineties only).

I think even David Harvey struggles with this idea that neoliberalism is about reclaiming "class power" -at least in the case of Thatcher-since it is not the return to any traditional form of class.

The more difficult point for the left to recognize is that we are all working class now; that, as Iris Murdoch (and Hannah arendt in her own way)says: labour has succeeded. It is interesting, for example, that Harvey primarily talks about the reclaiming of class power in terms of shares of the pie (inequalities)... thus undermining or ignoring an older leftist tradition that would question the very predominance of the market and the market mentality.

Where I disagree with you is this idea that capitalism is still fundamentally concerned about hierarchies and control. Perhaps I'm overly influenced by Bauman, but I can't help think that in an age of liquid modernity the problem is less of the excluded getting a foothold into the system but whether one can 'escape' beign included in the first place (Illich saw this with remarkable insight). Is it totally surprising that the rich now think of welfare services as something they can 'opt out' of?


Kenneth--I was having a very hard time telling what your were saying. I don't think he is arguing against 'everything is political.' I think he is explaining that this is a result of metaphysics and saying that this is why we need a new ontology. We got to the point of 'everything is political' because of bad ontology.

To answer the enumerated questions:

2. It isn't Agamben's fault that folks misuse homo sacer. But, it does account for his popularity and resonance. It doesn't make his use of the concept wrong or useless. But it means that lots of extensions of the concept are useless and unhelpful. And, Agamben isn't unique here--this happens with all sorts of concepts and theorists. In this post, I was reflecting a bit on how and why homo sacer is popularized and why this popularization is unfortunate. So, that isn't a critique of Agamben.

1. The claim 'everything is political' is ontological when one thinks there is nothing outside politics, nothing that escapes or eludes it. (I would put Hardt and Negri in the same camp on this one). It is a statement about our condition of being, the being of our condition. So, you can't find some kind of excluded element to politicize in order to change the formation. At that point, the only way to remedy the problem is at the ontological level--the problem is ontological so the solution is ontological.

I think there are version of the claim everything is political that are non-ontological--one might then want to say that they don't really include everything, but I think it is the case that in politics people may use words like everything and not mean everything. So, people will say everything is political and actually not have in mind grammar, matter, being. They may really mean something like every aspect of our social life or human life (and Agamben rightly addresses the ways this division involves life itself). So, the term 'everything is political' can be used symbolically, and rest on an exclusion of the Real as something outside of politics.

I'll be clear, I'm not defending this use of the term everything is political. I'm just trying to answer Kenneth's question.


Anti-empirical and "postmodernist progressivism" is, arguably, part of that neo-liberal programme. Criticizing consumerism and finance capitalism just as "theory"--- with no reference to data, demographics, stats, corporate culture, evidence of any sort---seems about as efficacious as say Bobby Dylan songs, or a Long Sunday frat-boy circle jerk in praise of Heidegger. Oh what happened to Jodi the occasional Rawlsian and empirical marxista......


Thanks for your very helpful reply, Jodi.

As for #2, point understood. Agamben's (mis)reception and popularity/unpopularity in the academy is of little importance to me (his star is already on the wane). As far as these debates go, I'm only interested in how the tools that he and others develop can be put to work. It would be a shame if those tools are used only in the service of the projects you describe. And if these folks are indeed using his concepts in the way you describe, it appears they haven't even bothered to read a single book of his. So, indeed, that appears to have nothing to do with Agamben or his books (except that they might be buying his books to look cool and have them sitting unread on their bookshelves).

As for Agamben thinking there is nothing or no place outside politics from which one might effect change, I know of no place in his work where he says or implies this. I know he is sometimes read this way. But his theories of subjectivity and potentiality are clearly and explicitly opposed to that reading. The move to ontology is intended to articulate and work through that other thought of subjectivity in a rigorous manner. Our present condition of being is not one thing (all is not political), and he is not a monist a la Hardt and Negri. Probably the clearest statement of this is in the 1999 interview that was translated in Rethinking Marxism. I think it's 2004, but I don't have it in front of me.

All of that matters little, though. Getting Agamben right or wrong is a matter for Agamben scholars--and I am not one.

I'm actually more interested in where you think we can find the resources for effecting change. On an earlier thread, I asked you if you had a concept of sovereignty you wanted to hold on to that Agamben's thought might be destroying. And I've often seen you say that you do politics, hence you only speak in terms of the State and so forth. Do you think there are tools in the current political order for effecting real change? Or do you simply use the tools of the State and the law as best you can? Perhaps that question is naively phrased . . .


Matt--these are hard questions. I wish I had good answers. I think that Santner's idea of signifying stresses, a version of symptoms and of miracles, is helpful. I think that it is possible to use and extend Agamben's not not-Jew. And, I think that the non-all of feminine sexuation might open up to new possibilities. All these are conceptual and might help thought think better about the present.

I am not trying to hold on to a particular notion of sovereignty. My point is more academic--sovereignty isn't one thing. The plurality here can keep possibilities for state action alive as resources against capitalism and for equality. That's not the way states are generally proceeding. But I have a naive and unrealistic set of hopes for Chavez. The new president of Ecuador is also pushing in this direction.

So, tools in current political order for real change? No. Hence my fantasy of the JRP (Jodi's Revolutionary Party). But a new order would still need law and the state. And, under current conditions, there are still better laws and worse laws, better uses of the current state and worse uses of the current state.


hi Jodi,
I apologize if I'm being tedious here (but I can't help it). When you say "sovereignty isn't one thing" of course you're right, but what is there that really is one (and only one) thing? To my mind, one-ness and multiplicity are perspectival. So "sovereignty isn't one thing" seems to me to be entirely compatible with Agamben, not an objection to him.
take care,


Nate--I disagree. Agamben follows Schmitt is saying sovereignity is a decision on the exception. This is but one way to think about sovereignty. One could say that sovereignty is the monopoly on the legitimate use of force with a territory. One could say that sovereignity is the spirit pervading a people and land, materialized in their practices and traditions, and irreducible to any government they might establish. One could say that only God is sovereign (an answer hinted at in the last few years by a nominee to a federal court in the US).


Jodi, I still don't get the basis of your anti-essentialist stance: "There is no such thing as sovereignty, but here are three examples of sovereignty." It seems to me that either these three things aren't sovereignty (I'm not convinced, for instance, that your passing reference to Weber is actually what he'd call sovereignty - he is clearly discussing the state and its relationship to politics and leaving open the question of sovereignty) and, if they aren't, then why do people insist on calling them such? Or there is another level of abstraction which subsumes these three, hence pointing to a common feature - i.e., sovereignty itself - that these three share.


Craig--what an odd way to think about it, "sovereignty itself"--it's Platonic, almost. Theorists think about sovereignty in different ways, grounding it differently, associating it with different elements. The same can be said for the notion of the state, the nation, the community. All of these terms can be and are used differently--and we wouldn't say that they rely on an essence.


hi Jodi,

To say that different theorists think about sovereignty (or anything
else) differently implies that those theorists are thinking about the
same thing. Presumably there is something that makes these theorists
all theorists who are thinking sovereignty. I agree with you that that
something can be different from an essence. But I don't see how
Agamben's claim is different in kind from this something.

Agamben says "sovereignty is a decision on the exception." I don't
read that as saying "sovereignty is a decision on exception and
nothing else." That would be something like what I think you're
implying Agamben is saying. I read this instead as saying "whatever is
called sovereignty will have among its traits the decision on
exception." That doesn't preclude any claims about sovereignty except
those which entail "whatever is called sovereignty does not have among
its traits the decision on exception."

Lastly, it seems to me that an argument like yours against Agamben
could be made about anything. For instance: Marxists say that
neoliberal capitalism is a strategy of political control and economic
exploitation. This is but one way to think neoliberal capitalism.
Theorists have thought neoliberalism capitalism in different ways.

take care,


I think Agamben agrees with Schmitt: sovereignty is a decision on the exception. I think that for both of them this is the essence or core of sovereignty. And, I think this is wrong. It doesn't apply to the US, for example, which has a split or distributed sovereignty, but is still considered a sovereign nation.

I don't think discussions are usefully boiled down to one thing, Nate. For example, there was a debate among some historians on fascism. One guy, Stanley Payne, argued for a fascist minimum--the one thing that had to be shared for the definition to apply. The other guys strongly disagreed with this.

On neoliberal capitalism: anyone who says that neoliberal capitalism is not a strategy of political control and economic exploitation is either lying, stupid, or wrong. They might want to say that it is an approach to development. This wouldn't conflict with the other statement--but it would be trivial and misleading.


hi Jodi,

I agree with you about neoliberalism and about its defenders. But I think you have two different implied treatments of claims here.

On the one hand, discussions are not usefully boiled down to being about just one thing. So, for you the claim "sovereignty always involves a decision on an exception" is unfairly boiling the discussion down to one thing. On the other hand, for you it seems that discussion about neoliberalism can be boiled down to political control and economic exploitation. I agree with you on the latter, and I don't think you're essentializing neoliberalism in saying this. If that's so, though, I don't see how what you're saying re: neoliberalism differs in kind from what Agamben is saying re: sovereignty. I don't think you can hold that Agamben's claim about sovereignty is boiling down a discussion in an illegitimate fashion whereas your claim about neoliberalism is not doing the same. You say "neoliberalism is about control and exploitation and talk about neoliberalism that hides that is misleading" and that's not an essentialist claim. So why is it that when Agamben says "sovereignty is about exception and talk about sovereignty that hids that is misleading" he is making an essentialist claim?

It seems to me that the issue here is not one of boiling down or not. It doesn't seem to me that your objection is a methodological or theoretical/meta-theoretical issue. It seems to me that the issue here is that you're interested in a type of politics which involves a use of sovereignty or the state (possibilities involving Chavez etc). Agamben would say that that kind of politics will always involve something like a repetition of decision on exception. In that case, even if Agamben is right, you could still claim in response to Agamben that while a progressive use of the state/sovereignty may still involve decisions on exceptions but that some states/sovereigns are better than others and barring other alternatives which don't involve states/sovereigns you choose a better state/sovereign. That would all hold and you would be free to proceed ignoring Agamben's claims until he had a counterargument.

I do think your remark that US sovereignty is split or distibuted is important for anyone who might want to use Agamben to make overly neat claims about the US. But "in the US sovereignty is split or distributed" is not necessarily an objection to "sovereignty involves a decision on exception." Agamben could just reply "well, then in the US, decision on exception is split or distributed."

take care,


'I think Agamben agrees with Schmitt: sovereignty is a decision on the exception. I think that for both of them this is the essence or core of sovereignty. And, I think this is wrong.'

Jodi: It's simply not true to say that Agamben follows Schmitt in saying that Sovereignty is essentially related to the decision on the exception. A critique of Schmitt is already implicit in Homo Sacer, but in State of Exception, this is made explicit, where Agamben endorses Benjamin's subtle critique of Schmitt's position (see Chapter 4). What interested Benjamin (in the Trauerspiel book) was precisely 'Sovereign indecision'. As Benjamin says, 'The sovereign, who is responsible for making the decision on the exception, reveals, at the first opportunity, that it is almost impossible for him to make a decision.' Without rehearsing the whole argument, suffice to say that Agamben concludes from this that the State of Exception in fact has no essential link to the Decision, which has the status of an ideological fiction. Agamben is much more interested in the zone of indistinction between Anomie and Law: i.e., precisely the zone where sovereignty is in a continual process of being 'split and distributed', and where it becomes more and more difficult to identify who makes the decisions, or, indeed, if any decisions are being made.


CG--I've been discussing Homo Sacer. If State of Exception breaks with the claim in Homo Sacer, then that seems like an argument in my favor--Agamben recognizes that the definition he was using is too narrow and not particularly useful.

Nate--I disagree with you. My claim regarding neoliberalism is a political claim. Agamben's is analytical. And I think it is wrong: sovereignty cannot (and should not) be reduced to one single act or moment. What continues to confound me is how academics raised on Foucault, productive power, discourse theory, governmentality, and/or Hegelian accounts of recognition could ever find such a view remotely plausible and interesting.


Is this really just an argument about identity and difference? The one and the many?

Note the absence of the rhetorical "isn't"--I really want to know.

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