Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Giorgio Agamben's Franciscan Ontology

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Giorgio Agamben's Franciscan Ontology

Article excerpt


Giorgio Agamben's critical analysis of biopolitics, a politics for which power 'confronts pure biological life without any mediation', (1) famously revolves around the notion of homo sacer. This notion is derived from an enigmatic figure of Roman law that, for Agamben, embodies both 'the originary "political" relation' (2) of the West and an 'essential function' in modern and contemporary politics. (3) In being the 'damned' [sacer] who may be killed and yet not sacrificed--the one who may be killed with impunity by any man, and yet not sacrificed to the gods--the sacred man represents a limit concept. In other words, the life of homo sacer, that is 'bare life', is excepted from both human jurisdiction--since in his case the application of the law on homicide is suspended--and divine law--since his killing cannot be regarded as a ritual purification. (4) However, this double exclusion of homo sacer is clearly at the same time a double capture of his bare life, absolutely exposed to violence and death, in the juridical order. (5) As Agamben writes, 'homo sacer belongs to God in the form of unsacrificeability and is included in the community in the form of being able to be killed'. (6) For this reason, the structure of sacratio should be connected with that of sovereignty, or sovereign exception, on which the juridico-institutional foundations of modern and contemporary Western politics allegedly rely. Like sacratio, the sovereign exception founds itself on an inclusive exclusion. Indeed, the sovereign paradoxically lies, at the same time, 'outside and inside the juridical order'. (7) Just as in the case of homo sacer, the law applies to the sovereign in no longer applying to him: it is by means of its power of imposing death with impunity, and not through its ability to sanction a transgression, that the sovereign exception constitutes the originary form of law over life. From this Agamben can therefore conclude that:

   The sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures that
   have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the
   one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and
   homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as
   sovereigns. (8)

At this stage, Agamben's logic of biopolitics as the logic of the symmetry between sovereign power and the sacredness of bare life should readily be understood in terms of its historico-ontological destiny. Although this theme is only hinted at in Homo Sacer (1995) and the volumes that follow it, Agamben resolutely maintains that biopolitics is inherently metaphysical. If on the one hand 'the inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original [...] nucleus of sovereign power' and 'biopolitics is at least as old as the sovereign exception', (9) on the other hand, this political nexus cannot be dissociated from the epochal situation of metaphysics. Here Agamben openly displays his Heideggerian legacy; bare life, that which in history is increasingly isolated by biopolitics as Western politics, must be strictly related to 'pure being', that which in history is increasingly isolated by Western metaphysics: (10)

   Politics [as biopolitics] appears as the truly fundamental
   structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the
   threshold on which the relation between the living being and the
   logos is realized. In the 'politicization' of bare life--the
   metaphysical task par excellence--the humanity of living man is
   decided. (11)

Commentators have not as yet sufficiently emphasized how biopolitics is consequently nothing else than Agamben's name for metaphysics as nihilism. More specifically, while bare life remains for him the 'empty and indeterminate' concept of Western politics (12)--which is thus as such originally nihilistic--its forgetting goes together with the progressive coming to light of what it conceals. …

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