Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Homo Sacer

I looked at my (temporarily much reduced) bookshelf while I was finishing Ellen Wood’s book, and decided that the best thing to read next was Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer. I have resisted reading Agamben. In a question and answer period after a lecture early last year, a grad student asked the professor, who was in the English department, something about what he was reading and thinking with these days. He said something like, “I’m reading, really seriously, Agamben.” A room full of heads bobbed up and down reverentially. At that moment I decided not to read Agamben. But I keep running across him, and have now accumulated enough context that he has come to seem interesting.

The category of the political is certainly mentioned often enough in Homo Sacer, as, in connection with the idea of sovereignty, it can hardly fail to be. Agamben’s basically ontological point of view, however, means that I have very little to grasp onto when thinking about what he means by it. Certainly he is miles from Wood, who is happy to regard politics as a space of civic equality. Similarly, echoes of Rancière’s distinction between politics and police appear at certain moments, though it seems to me likely that Agamben would, in Rancière’s terms, find only police and no politics in the modern world.

Agamben presents himself as bringing together, so to speak, Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, and Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics (it seems to me that what is happening here is really adding the latter to the former, rather than combining). Although I am not now in a position to say firmly what politics is for Agamben, it is unsurprising, given this description of his project, that analyses of power and sovereignty would occlude or explode the political as a category.

I will not say very much about this book now. I read it quickly, though with pleasure. It does seem to me that Agamben consistently ignores the meaning of half of his central formulation. Homo sacer is one who can be killed, but not sacrificed. In the ancient context, it seems that the most important part of this formula is sacrificial—homo sacer is not buried with funeral rites. In the modern period, more important is that homo sacer may be killed, but not murdered. Are we to understand that the juridical order has simply replaced the religious one in an unproblematic way? Agamben objects to the Victorian doctrine of the ambiguity of the sacred, which he says arose at just the moment when sacredness no longer made sense to Europeans (that is, when the decisively became secular—but can this claim really be accepted?), and that it consequently infected much thinking on the subject, especially Bataille. I confess that on first reading I do not quite understand how it is that this objection—which seems to me valid—hooks into the rest of the argument, and in particular what kind of sacredness is supposed to have replaced it? Is Agamben arguing that the State (and, therefore, everyone within it, inasmuch as they are understood to partake in bare life) has indeed, in the figure of the sovereign, claimed the title of sacred? This seems to me to be dismissing anthropological investigation into the idea of the sacred very quickly. Moreover, the biopolitical imperative, and its articulation into juridical orders, does not, it seems to me, ‘cover’ the sacred in the contemporary world.

These comments are inadequate. To finish, I will make again the objection that I usually make to this kind of Heideggerianism. Agamben does not seem to need very much evidence about “today” in order to construct an ontology for it different from some supposed and unitary past (under which, none the less, today’s ontology flowed “like a river” (121)). Although I can read and enjoy this kind of talk, it seems to me that in order to render it useful, not to say meaningful, it must be handled carefully.

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