Giorgio Agamben, Baruch Spinoza Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.
Giorgio Agamben (b. 1942) is one of the leading figures in philosophy and political theory. His unique readings of literature, literary theory, continental philosophy, political thought, religious studies, and art have made him one of the most innovative thinkers of our time.
Agamben was educated in law and philosophy at the University of Rome, where he wrote an unpublished doctoral thesis on the political thought of Simone Weil. As a post-doctoral scholar in Freiburg (1966–1968), he participated in Martin Heidegger’s seminars on Hegel and Heraclitus and was later a fellow at the Warburg Institute, University of London, from 1974 to 1975. Agamben then began teaching and–over the course of the next four decades–taught at the University of Macerata, the University of Verona, the Collège Internationale de Paris, the Università della Svizzera Italiana, the Università Iuav di Venezia, the New School in New York, and The European Graduate School / EGS, where he holds the Baruch Spinoza Chair.
Although Agamben’s doctoral thesis focused on the work of Simone Weil, his greatest influence is more likely Walter Benjamin. Much of his work is an elaborate and recursive engagement with the issues introduced into Western philosophy by the enigmatic work of Benjamin. While this continual return to the theses of Benjamin underpins his work, Agamben’s roots and influences are expansive and include many canonical figures of Western philosophy. Indeed, his indebtedness and engagement with Aristotle, Heidegger, Michel Foucault, G.W.F. Hegel, Carl Schmitt, and Sigmund Freud, among others, is clear and profound. In addition to this philosophical heritage, Agamben has critically engaged with religious and legal texts from the Torah to Greek and Roman law, as well as with some of the most important literary figures and poets in Western culture, including Friedrich Hölderlin, Franz Kafka, Fernando Pessoa, Dante Alighieri, and Giorgio Caproni. The breadth of his scholarship, in concert with the critical precision of his readings and interpretations, contributes to the challenging density of his work.
It is impossible to summarize Agamben’s oeuvre in a brief biography. However, we can consider the outlines of a small, but significant, focus throughout his work. Since the 1980s, much of the philosopher’s work can be read as a movement towards the Homo Sacer project, which begins with the book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995). The work takes up and builds upon issues raised by a number of theoreticians from the twentieth century, most notably, Michel Foucault. In brief, the project is a response to questions surrounding totalitarianism and bio-politics. To date, there are four volumes of the Homo Sacer: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), State of Exception – Homo Sacer II.1 (2003), The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government – Homo Sacer II.2 (2007), The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath – Homo Sacer II.3 (2008), Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty – Homo Sacer II.5 (2013), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Homo Sacer III (1998), and The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Forms-of-Life – Homo Sacer IV.1 (2013).
In the first volume, Agamben develops his analysis of the condition of bio-politics, first identified by Foucault in Volume One of his History of Sexuality (1976). According to Foucault, modern power is characterized by a fundamentally distinct logic from that of sovereign power: the fundamental principle of the former is the sovereign right over life and death, while modern power assumes a productive relation to life, captured in the dictum “fostering life or disallowing it.” Bio-politics is an instrument for molding life and keeping it alive. According to the French philosopher, this shift from sovereign power to bio-power is what inaugurates modernity. From the outset of the Homo Sacer project, Agamben confronts this clear distinction and suggests that sovereignty and bio-power are fundamentally inter-connected. According to Agamben, the production of biological life is the first and elementary objective of sovereign power.
His genealogical analysis begins in antiquity, wherein there was an essential distinction between zoe, or biological life, and bios, the form or way of living proper to an individual or community. In fact, Agamben notes in Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes three distinctions within bios: the contemplative life of the philosopher, bios theoretiko; the life of pleasure, bios apolaustikos; and political life, bios politikos. In the classical world the latter was included in politics, while natural life was excluded from the polis and confined to the sphere of oikos, home. In Politics, Aristotle repeatedly affirms a qualitative distinction between these two realms: the polis and oikonomos, or the simple act of living and the politically qualified life.
According to Foucault, the threshold of modernity is crossed when natural life is included into the instruments and calculations of the State and politics becomes bio-politics. This shift, he suggests, can be articulated as the passage from “territorial State” to the “State of population” or from “Sovereign power” to a “government of men.” Without bio-politics, without the capacity to discipline and control bodies, Foucault proposes that the very development and triumph of capitalism would have been impossible.
Preceding Foucault, Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958), attributes the transformation and decadence of politics to the primacy of natural life over political life. Following Arendt, Agamben posits the inclusion of zoe into politics as the decisive step into modernity and echoes the declaration that this event demands a radical transformation of classical politico-philosophical categories. The “Homo Sacer project” starts from both Foucault’s and Benjamin’s suggestion that all modern ideologies maintain a secret alliance by their common inclusion of bare life into politics and from the wager that only an interrogation of this link “will be able to bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its proper calling” (Homo Sacer 4–5). In the “Introduction” to Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben situates the point of departure of the entire project at an unresolved point in Foucault’s work on bio-politics. In the last years before his death, Foucault abandoned juridical institutional models of power in the name of investigating concrete ways that power penetrates forms of life and the very bodies of subjects.
While Agamben’s overall analysis in the Homo Sacer project is highly critical of the contemporary state and its apparatuses, his conclusion is not one of complete despair. Rather, for Agamben, the means for overcoming the aporias of the modern democratic state lie precisely within the heart of the crisis itself. To the project of such an overcoming, he gives the name “coming politics,” an idea first developed in The Coming Community (1993) and Means without End: Notes on Politics (2000). In brief, the “coming politics,” a politics of pure means, is a politics wherein “politics is the sphere neither of an end in itself nor of means subordinated to an end; rather, it is the sphere of an end intended as the field of human action and of human thought” (Means without End 117). More specifically, such a new politics would be a politics without any reference to sovereignty or any of its associated concepts: such as nation, people, democracy, etc. Such a new politics would require the formulation of a new form of life, wherein bare life is not separable as a political subject and what is at stake is the experience of community itself.