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Agamben’s Errors

Giorgio Agamben’s two treatises Homo Sacer (1998) and State of Exception (2005) have been popping up in many other texts I have been reading of late. So, I have been reading Agamben (in what little spare time I have). While reading Agamben is thought provoking, in this post I dwell on a few interrelated errors in his argument; places where I think he is simply wrong.

The following passage from Homo Sacer is where I focus my attention. In his final chapter (Threshold), he summarizes three provisional conclusions to his inquiry, the first of which is:

“(1) The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).”

This conclusion, Agamben argues,  “calls into question every theory of the contractual origin of state power and along with it, every attempt to ground political communities in something like ‘belonging,’ whether it be founded on popular, national, religious or any other identity.”

Agamben’s extended treatise on “the ban” and “bare life” are valuable contributions to social and political theory. But the argument state above is confused and problematic.

First, as an argument about “origins” it implies some sort of historical sequence. If that is the case, then to say that the ban precedes the (contracted) social or political community seems nonsense. I would be willing to grant either that they come into existence at the same moment, or (perhaps better) that knowledge of the contracted social-political body is brought to consciousness through the ban. In other words, we know what it (the community) is by what it excludes. However, to place the origin of the polis (the political community) in the ban and in so doing to exclude the contractual (relational) from that same origin is a discursive sleight of hand that ultimately makes no sense. We can accept Agamben’s argument that the political community requires the ban as origin of its existence (or knowledge of its existence). But Agamben seems to go further, to deny the pre-existence of some sort of social-political “contract” (relationship) prior to the ban. My question is: how does the ban take place if there is nothing to be banned from?

Second, and related, Agamben is crucially confusing and conflating a fundamental distinction between the communal (community, and here I would say polis) with the social (including but not limited to contracted relationship). The communal or community, in the way Agamben uses is, is clearly a matter of identity – of “belonging” – and a matter of ideational boundaries on who is included and who is excluded (banned). In this respect it is very much the sort of “imagined community” of Anderson’s influential writings. Community, however, is not the same thing as society – in the strict sense interconnected (networks) of social relationships. Sociality’s defining feature are relationships (of exchange). Society is stitched together through relational, exchange practices embodied in gifts (which also can be come fetishes – particularly in the form of the commodity fetish). Community, as I (and Agamben) are using it, has to do with identity and belief about belonging (and exclusion).

Therefore, the social (social contract, if you like) can and does exist as a pre-existing condition to the community (communal or in political terms, polis). The polis and the ban may have their origins in the same moment, but both are preceded by the social (society, social relations).

Update to this post: The critique of Agamben that I highlight above seems, to me, very close to Esposito’s critique in Communitas, which is currently on my bedside stand.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment