Agamben, Giorgio

Assigned: Agamben, Giorgio. From Means Without End: Notes on Politics, “What Is a Camp?” (1968-72); from Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, from Part Three: “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern,” §1 The Politicization of Life, §2 Biopolitics and the Rights of Man (1972-83). Also read the editors’ introduction (1966-68).

From Means Without End: Notes on Politics (1994)

What Is a Camp?

1. On 1968-69 (“What happened in the camps…”), in his meditation on concentration camps, Giorgio Agamben points out that they “were not born out of ordinary law” (1968) or in any way linked to changes in prison law. What, then, were they developed out of? How does Agamben show this development by reference to the historical run-up to the establishment of Hitler’s Lagers in Germany from 1933-45? How does he analyze the Lagers’ legal foundation in Schutzhaft (the doctrine of protective custody) going back to mid-nineteenth-century Prussian law? More generally, under what conditions do camps of this sort become possible? (In responding, consider Agamben’s references to “the state of exception”—a concept similar to “martial law.”)

2. On 1969-70 (“One ought to reflect on…”), Agamben points out that the concentration camp is “not simply an external space” outside the nation-state’s territory. How does he characterize the “paradoxical status” (1969) of these camps in relation to the state’s “sovereign power” (essentially, its right to rule)? How do such camps become spaces in which “everything [i.e., any kind of cruelty and atrocity] is truly possible” (1970)? According to Agamben, it is pointless to ask “how it could have been possible to commit such atrocious horrors” (1970) as were committed by the Nazis. What, then, is the correct question to ask about what happened?

3. On 1970-71 (“If this is the case…”), how does Agamben extend the concept of “the camp” to spaces other than the “concentration camp” proper? What sorts of spaces, in his view, would qualify as camps, and why so—how is the supposed rationale for their existence basically the same as for the terrifying and murderous Lagers established in Hitler’s Germany?

4. On 1971-72 (“From this perspective, the birth…”), Agamben writes that the coming-into-being of the camps “marks in a decisive way the political space itself of modernity” (1971). How has the concept of the camp, then, become foundational to the existence and legitimacy of the modern state, a permanent space within which “every form of life and every norm can be captured” (1971) rather than a place where people’s usual rights are temporarily suspended?

5. On 1972 (“It is from this perspective…”), how does Agamben use the 1991 example of post-Yugoslavian Serbs’ “ethnic cleansing” atrocities against Bosnian Muslims to reinforce the claims he has been making about the centrality of “the camp” to the existence of modern states? Why, according to Agamben, did the Serbian atrocities take the specific forms they did? How did Serbian “rape camps” make plain the increasing dysfunctionality of the “principle of birth” that formerly “ensured the inscription of life in the order of the nation-state”?

6. General question: In Means without End: Notes on Politics, “What Is a Camp?” Giorgio Agamben writes that the world’s most notorious concentration camps in Nazi-Era Germany were “not born out of ordinary law” (1968). Even so, he goes on to detail how unsettlingly vital the idea of “the camp” is to the legitimation and functioning of the modern state. Agamben’s work prompts us to reflect on the fragility of the democratic political systems we so often take for granted. What key factors sustain a democracy, and what are some ways in which democratic institutions can be weakened and ultimately destroyed? How would you assess the “health” of the American republic at present—is it in good condition, or are there serious problems to deal with? Explain.

From Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995)

From Part Three: “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern”

§1 The Politicization of Life

1. On 1972-73 (1.1 “In the last years of his…”), as a means of introducing his own topic, what contrast does Giorgio Agamben make between Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt regarding the matter of “biopolitics” (1972)? How did Foucault apparently understand the meaning of that term? What was Arendt’s philosophy regarding the concentration camps operated in and beyond Germany by Hitler’s Nazi regime? (1973) Finally, how does Agamben describe his own project as consisting in the bringing-together of the insights offered by Foucault and Arendt?

2. On 1973-75 (1.2 “Karl Löwith was the first…”), what important insight, according to Agamben, did political philosopher Karl Löwith develop regarding the similarity of the legitimation principle for both democracies and totalitarian regimes? (1973-74) What further insight does Agamben—first in his own words and then quoting Foucault—enunciate in connection to the centrality of what he calls “bare life” to the legitimacy of parliamentary democracies and authoritarian regimes alike? (1974-75; “bare life” means roughly, as the editors say on 1966, “the physical life of the body” as opposed to one’s political life as a “citizen.”)

3. On 1975-77 (1.3 “The first recording of bare life…”), according to Agamben, how does the 1679 codification of the older habeas corpus concept signal the change from an ancient and medieval understanding of freedom to the modern democratic understanding of that ideal? (1975-76) In what sense is “bare life” or “the body of homo sacer” (the sacred man/the accursed man), or again, zoē (“the bare, anonymous life” as opposed to bios, “the qualified life of the citizen”) at the center of theories grounding modern democracy, and in what sense does bare life also constitute democracy’s “inner contradiction” (1976)? How do the theories of political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan, provide further evidence for this new and contradictory political reality? (1977)

From §2 Biopolitics and the Rights of Man

4. On 1977-79 (2.1 “Hannah Arendt entitled the fifth chapter…”), Agamben refers to Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the problem presented to nation-states by influxes of refugees. In what way did nation-states’ response to such crises indicate a decline in their viability as political entities, according to Arendt and Agamben? (1977-78) In Agamben’s view, “declarations of rights” like the one promulgated by the French Revolutionaries are never truly promises to uphold “eternal, metajuridical values binding the legislator” (1978). What, then, are they? What relationship do they assert between “bare life” (the sort of life a refugee would necessarily lead) and “the state’s legitimacy and sovereignty” (1978)?

5. On 1979-81 (2.2 “Declarations of rights must therefore…”), Agamben in part explains what he considers the “essential historical function of the doctrine of rights” (1979). What profound shift occurs in the way individual members of a nation-state are conceived of? What is the new relation between “[t]he principle of nativity [birth] and the principle of sovereignty,” and how does this relation, according to Agamben, help us understand “the ‘national’ and biopolitical development and vocation of the modern state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (1979)? Why does the term “citizenship” (1980) become so vital to Revolutionary France, and yet so ambiguous? Finally, how does Agamben’s commentary on the changing foundation of political legitimacy help us understand why, even as the natural rights or “native rights” (1980) of the French people were being exalted by the Revolutionaries, prominent thinkers such as the Abbé Sieyès insisted on dividing rights into “active” and “passive” categories—why should that have been necessary? (1980-81)

6. On 1981-82 (2.3 “If refugees {whose number has…}”), how, according to Agamben, do refugees bring into question “the originary fiction of modern sovereignty” (1981)? What is that fiction, and how do refugees, by their very existence, trouble it? What “two most significant phenomena” (1981) does Agamben discuss that show the loosening of the once-foundational connection between “birth” and “nation”? Why, in Agamben’s analysis, have the world’s nation-states and international organizations failed so badly to deal with the increasing “mass phenomenon” (1982) of immigrants and refugees?

7. On 1982-83 (2.4 “The separation between humanitarianism…”), why is it, according to Agamben, that humanitarian organizations cannot help, even in spite of what we may presume to be good intentions, but “maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight” and “reproduce the isolation of sacred life at the basis of sovereignty” (1983)? What does Agamben believe might be the solution to this problem of the logic of the “camp” as “the pure space of exception” (1983)? How, that is, should we start thinking about refugees and the “bare life” they have been reduced to living?

8. General question: In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life,Giorgio Agamben’s assessment of the prospects for the continued viability of Western democracies is chilling; he suggests that the principle of legitimacy in both parliamentary democracies and autocratic regimes is essentially identical, and anything but humane. How do you judge the times we live in as citizens of the United States, which many people consider the world’s most impressive democratic republic? In the most recent couple of decades (post-9/11/2001, that is), many things Americans have long taken for granted about how our political and legal institutions work have been thrown into doubt. Are you optimistic that America will remain a robust republic, as it has been for most of its history? Why or why not?

9. General question: In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Giorgio Agamben characterizes the modern democratic West’s most cherished foundational principles of citizenship, subjectivity and sovereignty as fictions, or illusions, and suggests, in rather Nietzsche-like fashion, that what we like to think of as our humane self-conception and fine institutions are grounded by, and inextricable from, something approximating primal violence. (This idea is not new; you can find variations on it in literature at least as far back as the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia.) Agamben thereby touches upon additional questions that we might raise about the status of foundational fictions in a democratic political entity. Can we, for instance, have a politics without fiction or illusion, or are fictions and illusions always to some extent necessary for the maintenance of a way of life, order, etc.? If they are removed, does change for the better or worse seem more likely? Does a foundational fiction lose its value if people recognize it to be such? Why or why not? Yet, to what extent is it ever really acceptable for people not to investigate the fictions that ground their political lives and understand them to be such?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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