Agamben, Kristeva, and the Language of the Sacred

By Hansen, Sarah Kathryn | Philosophy Today, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Agamben, Kristeva, and the Language of the Sacred


Hansen, Sarah Kathryn, Philosophy Today


In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Giorgio Agamben outlines a theory of biopower that purports to extend and "correct" Michel Foucault's writings in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. Where Foucault suggests that biopower "fosters life or disallows it to the point of death," Agamben claims that biopower maintains a hidden and violent "solidarity" with sovereign power; biopower, as he puts it, "makes survive." Agamben's titular figure symbolizes the rethinking of the sacred involved in this provocative thesis. An archaic figure of Roman law, homo sacer is that sacred man whose killing constitutes neither murder nor sacrifice, who lives beyond the reach of both human and divine law. Included in the juridico-political order by being excluded from it, this obscure vulnerable figure is, for Agamben, the original meaning of the sacred and the original element of politics; by marking life's radical and unambiguous exposure to law's violence, homo sacer implies that Western politics has always been a biopolitics.

Framed by Agamben's account of biopower, homo sacer challenges a long tradition that defines the sacred through its apparently ambiguous or ambivalent character. Since the late nineteenth century, and especially in anthropological, psychoanalytic and linguistic texts, the theory of the ambivalence of the sacred has focused on the term's contradictory associations; sacer can mean both sacred or cursed, sacred objects are objects of both veneration and fear, sacred persons "cannot [be] touched without dirtying oneself or without dirtying."1 If ambivalence appears a persistent characteristic of the sacred, it nevertheless does little to elucidate - and in fact occludes - the figure of homo sacer. A "psychologization of religious experience," ambivalence fails to explain why divine law does not recognize homo sacer, why he is excluded from sacrifice.2 While thinkers from Durkheim to Freud to René Girard assume that ambivalence is proper to the sacred and obscure its political character, Agamben exposes a necessary, intimate and violent link between the sacred and the sovereign, a link that might hide within but still functions through "scientific mythologemes."3

Working in a psychoanalytic lineage, Julia Kristeva's theory of the sacred extends Agamben's concern with the violent intersection of power and life; as Kristeva might revise it, contemporary power - increasingly chaotic, normalizing and empty- "makes [the psyche] survive." In terms that resonate with Agamben's account of biopolitics, Kristeva writes that today a "new version of soft totalitarianism erects life [itself] as the supreme value" and threatens to "destroy life after having devalued the question of its meaning."4 For Kristeva, however, "soft totalitarianism" represents a danger to the sacred (understood as the intersection of life and meaning) rather than an expansion of the sacred (in which the exception becomes the rule). On her reading, a politics of "life itself threatens the sacred experience of "giving meaning to the act of giving that is life" and imperils the sacred passage between "the animalistic and the verbal, the sensible and the nameable."5

To be sure, Kristeva's distance from Agamben vis-à-vis the sacred suggests that she participates in an economy of ambivalence and sacrifice, especially in her association of the sacred and "the abject." In Powers of Horror, Kristeva posits "abjection" as an essential part of the sacred passage of symbolic development. In abjection, the child renders the mother's body disgusting or revolting in order to facilitate maternal sacrifice; " as "something rejected from which one does not part," the abject symbolizes the child's ambivalent relationship to the mother. Despite Agamben's warnings about ambivalence, the notion of abjection appears dedicated towards exposing rather than obscuring political violence.6 In the Kristevan text, abjection marks the failure of "soft totalitarianism" to support the development of symbolic bonds; disempowered and disconnected, the sacred gives way to the abject as subjects re-invoke violent processes of identity differentiation against vulnerable populations. …

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