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Agamben State of Exception

Agamben State of Exception

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Law Critique (2009) 20:259–270 DOI 10.

1007/s10978-009-9055-0

Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty, Governmentality, Economy
Arne de Boever

Published online: 11 August 2009 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract This essay reconsiders Marx’ prehistory of capital through the lens of the work of Giorgio Agamben, who in the wake of Foucault has proposed a biopolitical theory of sovereignty that breaks down the analytical separation between sovereignty and governmentality that Foucault in his work tries to maintain. Although Agamben mentions Marx only once in his study of sovereign power, I argue that his study nevertheless contributes to our understanding of the capitalist relation as not only a governmental but also a sovereign power relation. In the first part of this essay, I show through a philological commentary on Marx’ use of the adjective ‘vogelfrei’—translated as free, rightless, without protection, outlawed—to characterise the proletariat, that the Marxian proletariat is a figure of what Agamben in his study of sovereign power calls bare life. In the second part of the essay, I show that this sovereign dimension of the capitalist relation is also substantiated by Marx’ analysis of the logic of the capitalist relation as that of the exception. After Carl Schmitt, who wrote that ‘sovereign is who decides on the state of exception’, Agamben has argued that the logic of the exception is the logic of sovereign power. Reconsidered through the lens of Agamben’s argument, Marx’ account of the prehistory of capital reveals that there is a sovereign logic of the exception at work in the capitalist relation. In the final part of the essay, I start from Agamben’s single reference to Marx in his study of sovereign power to discuss the importance of my conclusions for Agamben’s political message. Keywords Agamben Á Divine violence Á Economy Á Foucault Á Governmentality Á Marx Á Sovereignty Á Vogelfrei

A. de Boever (&) Department of English and Comparative Literature, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University, 602 Philosophy Hall, Mail Code 4927, 1150 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027, USA e-mail: ard2012@columbia.edu

123

‘The governmentality of tolerance’. the extortion of its forces. life expectancy and longevity […]’ (Foucault 1990. the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of biological processes: propagation. de Boever The Capitalist Relation. between discipline and security. 123 . etc. or the ways in which power regulates the life of the population. A government is secure when the population. governmentality disposes things. or between governmentality and sovereignty. quoted in Butler (2004. Foucault argued that capitalism is bio-political.1 In order to understand the dynamics of power. even though actual power relations can never be reduced to one mode of power that would be fully separate from another. p. which is concerned with territory and imposes laws on people to protect the government against both civil war and external enemies. the optimization of its capabilities. an essential part of the prehistory of capital as Karl Marx tells it in the section in Capital entitled ‘So-called Primitive 1 See Brown. Bio-power was a key term in Foucault’s analysis of what he called governmentality. for example. he thus implied that as a power relation. etc. 139) and sovereignty. or would chronologically supersede each other. Both in the lectures and elsewhere.260 A. When in the lectures. the level of health. As Foucault explains. Unlike disciplinary power. Sovereignty is. It does not force power onto the people. for example. changing people’s moral and religious values. Whereas sovereignty imposes laws on people. specifically people in their relation to things such as natural resources. riches. governmentality aspires to security. 139). one needs to take recourse to these analytical distinctions. security does not aim to control in this disciplinary or sovereign way. but aims to make the people live in such a way that the organisation of their lives contributes to the consolidation of power (see Foucault 2007). Sovereignty As is well known. but operates through laissez-faire. it also partly risks forgetting the ways in which sovereignty is implicated in capitalism. He used it to refer to a kind of power that is ‘focused on the species body. The idea here is not so much that these different modes of power are actually separate. 59–60). Foucault maintains an analytical separation— stricter in some texts than in others—between the different concepts he defines. Although such an argument has taught us much about capitalism that would otherwise have remained in the dark. the parallel increase of its usefulness and docility. pp. security is centrifugal and operates through laissez-faire. Governmentality. through marriage laws. guarantees the continuation of power. its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls’ (p. by regulating commerce. which is ‘centered on the body as machine: its disciplining. through the ways in which its life is organised. it should be understood as a predominantly governmental relation (see Foucault 2004). Michel Foucault started using the term bio-power in his lectures ` at the College de France in Paris in the mid-nineteen seventies. births and mortality. but that they operate at the same time. Whereas discipline is centripetal and aims for final control. in fact.

2 In this essay. as I show in the second part of the essay. specifically for the acts of divine violence that he is calling for in response to the problems of sovereign power that he analyses. It is perhaps for this reason that the relation between Agamben’s work. without protection. Marx’ account of the prehistory of capital reveals that there is a sovereign logic of the exception at work in the capitalist relation. a separation that he is then partly forced to undo when he turns to the particular historical examples he analyses. 51–100). It is this logic that produces the proletariat as a figure of bare life. In the final part of the essay. pp. rightless. as the power to suspend national and international law in the name of national security or a national emergency. or to draw attention to the Marxist dimension of Agamben’s work. when we are witnessing a return of sovereignty within the field of governmentality. 5). In Butler (2004. 123 . such integrated modes of analysis are of crucial importance today. namely the word ‘vogelfrei’ or ‘free. p. Governmentality. Antonio Negri has emphasised the importance of Marx and Marxism for Agamben’s thought (Negri 2007). As Judith Butler has argued. This sovereign dimension of the capitalist relation is also substantiated. I show that the proletariat in Marx is a figure of what Agamben in his study of sovereign power calls bare life. I think the translation I offer here. After Carl Schmitt. mod. has proposed a biopolitical theory of sovereign power in order to draw attention to the ways in which governmentality and sovereignty operate together. My aim is not just to highlight the presence of sovereignty in Marx’ prehistory of capital. wer u ¨n ¨ber den Ausnahmezustand entscheidet’. Agamben has argued that the logic of the exception is the logic of sovereign power. I start from Agamben’s single reference to Marx in his study of sovereign power to discuss the importance of these conclusions for Agamben’s political message. Economy 261 Accumulation’. 3 4 5 This is my translation of the first sentence of Politische Theologie.4 In the first part of this essay. in the wake of Foucault. by Marx’ analysis of the logic of the capitalist relation as that of the exception. I do so not by considering bare life through the lens of Marx’ theory of value (which is another interesting track to pursue) but through a philological commentary on the adjective that Marx uses again and again to characterise the proletariat and that partly gets lost in the English translation of his text. Although Agamben mentions Marx only once in his study of sovereign power. Reconsidered through the lens of Agamben’s argument. the sentence goes as follows: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’ (Schmitt 1985. which retains the indeterminacy of Schmitt’s pronoun ‘wer’ and translates ‘Ausnahmezustand’ not just as ‘exception’ but as ‘state of exception’ is more precise.3 I will argue that his study nevertheless contributes to our understanding of the capitalist relation as not only a governmental but also a sovereign power relation. Considering that Schmitt wrote ‘Souvera ist. who wrote that ‘sovereign is who decides on the state of exception’ (Schmitt 1985. p. outlawed’. 2 One of the most interesting things about the lectures is that they show Foucault trying to analytically separate between different concepts and kinds of power. 5. but also to explore a mode of power analysis that would integrate the concepts and kinds of power that Foucault defines.)5. Marx and Marxism remains relatively unexplored. See Butler. trans.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. The capitalist relation demands an analysis of power that would integrate the different concepts and kinds of power that Foucault defines. ‘Indefinite detention’. I will reconsider Marx’ prehistory of capital through the lens of the work of Giorgio Agamben who. In George Schwab’s translation into English of Schmitt’s book.

I found that my colleague Nate Holdren from the University of Minnesota was developing a similar argument on his weblog (Holdren 2006). When I returned to the argument in 2007. As an outlaw figure. which he also uses as the title of his book on sovereign power (Agamben 1998). Contrary to what one may expect. sovereign power is the power to suspend national and international law in the name of a national emergency or national security. What interests Agamben about this figure is that s/he could be killed with impunity. 123 . the holy person was a person who was in between human law and divine law and could be killed but not sacrificed. without the killing being considered a crime. One of the examples Agamben discusses that make this clear is human rights. the possibility that is contained within the law to suspend the law in exceptional circumstances. 6 I began to develop the argument I offer in this section of my essay in Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Spring 2004 graduate seminar on Marx at Columbia University. Although this ultimately erases the concrete differences between a citizen and a refugee. Instead. I want to argue that the proletariat in Marx is a figure of what Agamben calls bare life. Agamben calls the life that is produced in the camps at the borders of the sovereign territory ‘bare life’. the holy person belonged to the legal and political order of the Roman Empire by being excluded from it. If a human being does not want to assimilate to the identity the sovereign community believes to share. Following Schmitt. he defines sovereign power as the power to decide on the state of exception. His work is filled with figures of bare life. The camp is the bio-political matrix of the modern sovereign nation-state. this ‘human as such’ is internally excluded within it. All human life that is related to the legal and political order of the sovereign nation-state is related to it through the logic of exception. de Boever The Proletariat is a Figure of Bare Life6 Taking his cue from Foucault’s work on bio-politics. Agamben will polemically assert that all human life (both that of a citizen and of a refugee) relates to sovereign power as bare life. Although Agamben does not discuss this. Excavating this relationship can contribute much to our understanding of the capitalist relation as a power relation.262 A. s/he is in fact internally excluded within the legal and political community that sovereign power founds. has become the rule. He uses this term to refer to a life stripped of all its qualities except for the mere fact of being alive. In modern sovereign nation-states. we all live in a virtual state of internal exclusion within the sovereign nation-states to which we belong or to which we relate. he takes from Roman law: homo sacer or the holy person. s/he will be held indefinitely in a camp at the borders of the sovereign territory. one could say—by sovereign power. Thus. Bare life is the ultimate biopolitical substance: it is life that is produced—excreted. Agamben proposes a bio-political theory of sovereign power. as far as we are all instances of ‘the human as such’. Whereas a citizen of a sovereign nation-state may think s/he is living under the protection of sovereign power. The very fact that they exist illustrates that there is no place within the legal and political community of the sovereign nation-state for something like ‘the human as such’. and if s/he refuses to be repatriated also. and deconstructing the separation between governmentality and sovereignty that Foucault sets up. The most important one.

the life of the population. But to limit one’s analysis of capitalism as a power relation to governmentality and biopolitics. p. it also needs to be noted that the dictionary translation of the word is ‘outlawed’. i. All the guarantees of the old feudal relations suddenly fell away and what remained was an extremely vulnerable kind of life that existed in between the dying feudalist and the emerging capitalist orders. ‘rightless’. 874). Governmentality. free but outside of the human community and therefore entirely unprotected and without legal rights’ (p. a split through which it enters into a freedom that Marx understands to be the absence of a protection that was guaranteed by the structures of feudalism.’’ i. means of production.’ In this section. to forget about the role that sovereignty plays within these developments. by creating the desire for freedom that then leads to the people’s expropriation. Economy 263 The relation between the holy person and the proletariat becomes visible in the first volume of Marx’ Capital in a section entitled ‘So-called Primitive Accumulation. Although Fowkes’ translations of ‘vogelfrei’ are of course correct. which is produced as bio-political substance by the emerging capitalist order. ‘unattached’. ‘the owners of money. Of the forty instances of the word ‘proletariat’ or ‘proletarian’ in the first volume of Capital. Consider for example. would mean to overlook an important dimension of the prehistory that Marx narrates. or ‘unprotected’.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. Although the word is highly idiomatic and poses some difficulties for the translator. it is now split from the means of production. what was produced during this prehistory of capital was a kind of life: whereas human life used to be a part of the means of production. This reorganisation pertains to the biological life of the people. Ben Fowkes variously translates ‘vogelfrei’ as ‘free’. and specifically of bio-politics. Marx describes the historical process through which the producers (the workers) were divorced from the means of production. and means of subsistence’. As Marx tells the story.’’ literally ‘‘free as a bird. 7 Much could be said here about Foucault’s relation to Marx and Marxism. sellers of their own labor-power. This reorganisation is not forced on the people but actually operates through laissez-faire. where he adds the note: ‘Here. Marx uses the word ‘‘vogelfrei. a word that in combination with the other translations that Fowkes offers begins to reveal the connection between the proletariat and the holy person. as elsewhere. 896). and. the ‘free workers. nineteen occur in the section on so-called primitive accumulation. Fowkes does not comment on it until the beginning of the chapter on bloody legislation.7 The prehistory of capital tells the story of how people’s lives are being reorganised in such a way that they contribute to the consolidation of the new capitalist order. As he points out. It is not difficult to see how what Marx is describing can be read as an example of what Foucault called governmentality. but doing so would lead me too far away from the immediate concerns of this essay. and therefore the sellers of labor’ (Marx 1990. this process produced a kind of freedom around which two kinds of commodity owners arose: on the one hand. in seven of those nineteen instances the word is accompanied by the adjective ‘vogelfrei’. the proletariat. how Marx describes the group of people—the ‘class that does not form a class’—that capitalism’s bio-politics produces.e. on the other.e. 123 .

the logic of the exception is that of theology. The sovereign relates to the law from a transcendental position of exception. its primary meaning is actually that of ‘outlawed’ or ‘free. which considers this kind of life to be inextricably related to sovereignty. the proletariat is a figure of a legal and political abandonment in which Agamben is also interested. The relation between the proletariat and the holy person becomes most explicit in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s explanation of the word: ‘exlex … verbannet … expositus ad necem’ (‘outside the law … banned … exposed to death’). which means that by the time that Marx is writing (1867). da dem Ko ¨rper eines Gea ¨chteten das Grab versagt wurde’ (‘free for the birds to be eaten. p. this second semantic component becomes dominant. ‘dem ko ¨rper eines gea ¨chteten wird das grab versagt mit der sich mehr und mehr vordra ¨ngenden vorstellung dasz der gea ¨chtete der to ¨tung ausgesetzt ist und nicht behaust werden darf’ (‘the body of an outlawed person cannot be buried. with the more and more foregrounded idea that the outlawed person can be killed and cannot be put up in one’s house’) (Wo ¨rterbuch et al. Agamben starts from there in order to formulate the paradox of sovereign power: in order to declare that there is nothing outside the law. without legal protection. As I show in the next section of this essay. From the 16th century onwards. i. unprotected’. 408–409). These philological notes reveal that the proletariat is related to the holy person. the refugee. They show that the life of the proletariat is conceived by Marx as a kind of life that can be killed with impunity. The literal meaning of the word ‘vogelfrei’ underlines the bio-political dimension of this abandonment.e.264 A. since the body of an outlawed person could not be buried’) (1916). de Boever This connection can be made more substantive by adding a few historical etymological remarks about the word ‘vogelfrei’. 1951. free as a bird in the sky’. pp. 16th century) (Etymologisches Worterbuch des Deutschen 1989. through the logic of exception. it means both ‘frei von Herrschaftsdiensten. According to most dictionaries. It thus seems that for Marx. This last semantic component actually works well with another figure of bare life that I mentioned earlier on. s/he needs to except him/ herself from the law in order to take up a place from where the legal order can be founded and suspended. without the killing being considered a crime.e. frei wie ein Vogel in der Luft’ (‘free from [feudalist] servitude. Schmitt wrote at the beginning of Political Theology. this is not only because the proletariat is a figure of bare life. It literally means ‘den Vo ¨geln (zum Frasse) freigegeben. 1916). but also because capitalism acts in the ways that sovereignty does. This is the situation that is evoked by the adjective ‘vogelfrei’. That the law contains the sovereign possibility of its own suspension also 123 . ohne gesetzlichen Schutz. the sovereign needs to take up a position outside the law. even though he is of course also interested in the word’s meaning ‘free from servitude’. According to Schmitt. ¨ outlawed’. end of the 15th century) and also ‘rechtlos. one can thus begin to see that there is something sovereign about the capitalist relation as a power relation. rightless. gea ¨chtet’ (‘rightless. i. On the basis of Agamben’s study of bare life. Capitalism Operates Through the Logic of the Exception ‘Sovereign is who decides on the state of exception’.

It shows the capitalists to be acting like little sovereigns. This side-stepping move may be a move that is familiar to sovereignty. It happened ‘without the slightest observance of legal etiquette’ (p. Although this means there is a complicity between sovereignty and capitalism through the ways in which they both operate according to the logic of exception. In this prison. human beings 123 . it is ultimately the law itself that becomes the instrument of exploitation (see Agamben 2000). As Marx’ discussion anticipates. the law itself became ‘the instrument by which the people’s land is stolen’ (p. Their actions produce a figure of bare life. but a bio-political position of subjection. how capitalism came into being through a series of exceptional measures that are situated at the limit of the legal order. The prehistory of capital was carried out by legal means. They were side-stepping the legal and political order that was guaranteed by the sovereign in a successful attempt to continue the relation of servitude that existed under feudalism.e. however. but it does not come with sovereignty’s important ethical and political implications. p. for example. In order to understand the capitalist relation as a power relation. and through which politics has been eclipsed by bio-politics. But he also discusses the relation of the capitalist to the law. and that the transition of feudalism to capitalism is an example of what Foucault called governmentality. Economy 265 means that human life relates to sovereign power through the exception. The problem is. Marx’ use of the word ‘vogelfrei’ reveals his interest in the relation of the proletariat to the law. but ‘without any legal formality’ (Marx 1990. we need to integrate the different kinds of power that Foucault ` outlines in his lectures at the College de France. This insight is particularly important today when we try to understand. and would be able to limit and condition the claims of capitalism. Marx’ prehistory of capital shows not only that the capitalist relation as a power relation is bio-political. 884). governmentality and sovereignty. Its position in relation to the law is not a transcendental one. according to the logic of exception. which is responsible for political and economic abuses of power. Agamben’s aim is to dismantle the device of the state of exception through which life has been brought within the law. since in the pre-history of capital. it gestures to a kind of power that would be greater than economic power. What he describes in the prehistory of capital is. in other words. ´ a phenomenon like the Guantanamo Bay prison. the mere granting of rights— which is arguably associated with capitalism—does not necessarily overcome this problem. Reconsidered through the lens of Agamben’s bio-political theory of sovereign power. but also that sovereignty plays a crucial role in this development. i. that both sovereignty and capitalism suffer from the logic of exception. Governmentality. namely the proletariat. the law became a capitalist law. however. 883). but for its other uses. the capitalists actually acted like little sovereigns in order to put through their reorganisation of the lives of the people. it also reveals there is a difference between the two because the capitalists are actually side-stepping a legal order that is guaranteed by the sovereign. As Marx sees it. Marx’ account thus does not simply raise the need for law.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. Politics emerges here as that which could keep economics in check. basically. he writes. In the end. I would argue that the prehistory of capital as Marx tells it actually opens up new possibilities for sovereignty in the resistance against capitalism. 885).

there is no place for something like ‘the human as such’ is nothing but a critique of the political economy of the sovereign nation-state. in a meditation about the notion of ‘the people’. this does not mean such an integrated analysis should erase the differences between discipline. Sovereignty and Capitalism After Divine Violence At first sight. there is a more dramatic relation between both. It is within the field of political economy that the connections between Marx and Agamben.266 A. in the classless society or the messianic kingdom. Agamben is interested in the relation of sovereign power to bare life. Agamben’s argument. sovereignty. Marx and Agamben seem to be thinkers who are interested in fundamentally different issues. though. People and people will coincide and there will no longer be. the ways in which its methods of ‘counting’ internally exclude human life and produce it as bio-political substance. It is from this insight. Agamben in the political economy of sovereign power. which I discuss in the next section of this essay. on the basis of very little or no evidence. This shows that there is a relation between the economic exploitation that Marx was interested in and the relation between sovereign power and totalitarianism that Agamben addresses. Homo Sacer.8 As I have tried to emphasise above. Agamben suggests we understand the Marxian ‘class conflict’ as ‘nothing other than the civil war that divides every people and that will come to an end only when. 123 . These interests are similar. de Boever suspected of terrorist activities are being held indefinitely. security. and without the possibility of a civil trial. that within the legal and political order of the modern sovereign nation-state. in order to understand its existence. Marx is interested in the political economy of capitalism. sovereign measures taken in the name of national security that make indefinite detention possible and that produce human life as bare life—a life stripped of all its qualities. lived in suspense. bio-politics etc. In this last sense. in the sense that they both concern questions of political economy. 2005b). we need to understand the exceptional. that we can begin to get a better sense of Agamben’s political message. Sovereignty is not capitalism. Guantanamo Bay necessitates. any people’ (Agamben 8 Butler provides such an analysis. for example. Whereas Marx is interested in the question of economic exploitation. and the complicities between capitalism and sovereign power. strictly speaking. a much more integrated analysis of power than the one that could all too easily be derived from the analytical framework Foucault sets up in his lectures. he mentions him only once in his study of sovereign power and bare life. which opens up possibilities for other uses of both politics and economy. Although Agamben has written about Marx in his aesthetic works and in his philological commentary on Saint Paul’s ‘Letter to the Romans’ (Agamben 1993. are revealed. at the borders of the legal ´ and political order of the sovereign nation-state. Guantanamo is an ´ example of governmentality. I would argue. See footnote 4. 1994. This prison is not just an example of disciplinary power. In the final chapter of this book. in other words. capitalism does not have sovereignty’s important ethical and political implications.

See Thurschwell. Although Marx is largely absent from the bleak diagnosis of sovereign power’s bio-politics that Homo Sacer offers. They have not become obsolete. he does reveal in interviews that the questions Marx raises are important for him. Like Marx. who both diagnoses the class situation of the proletariat and finds in the proletariat the potential for a revolutionary overthrow of class society. the final section of this essay should make clear that I disagree with the conclusions he draws from this with respect to the political message that is contained in Agamben’s work. and I have offered here no more than a few philological notes and reflections that go in the direction of such a 9 One can see clearly here the difference between the task that Agamben sets before humanity and the vision of community as ‘to come’—even if by that ‘to come’ he means something that has always already happened. the practices through which power within the legal and political order of the sovereign nation-state separates citizens from second-class citizens). within the paradigm of modern power. Class conflict would thus become an instance of the civil war that Agamben considers to divide every people. Agamben considers the proletariat to be both a figure of bare life and the site from where the coming community emerges. of the practices of internal exclusion through which sovereign power bio-politically separates the People from the people (for example. as a name for the group that would come into being through the dissolution of the people—that is created by Paul’s division of the division. 178). arguing that one can be a Jew in spirit but not according to the flesh (i.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. Paul’s thought achieves something that puts us on the way to the ‘classless society or the messianic kingdom’ that Agamben is talking about when he refers to Marx in Homo Sacer. in other words. but they need to be thought anew. then what is the place of Marx in the critique of sovereign power from which this vision emerges? Although Agamben so far has not explicitly addressed this question. the bio-political theory of capitalism that Foucault uncovered in it—to Agamben’s theory of sovereign power. as a name for the group of people—or more precisely. As he will explain in his later The Time that Remains.9 Because of the ways in which Saint Paul in his ‘Letter to the Romans’ divides the division between Jews and Greeks through the division between flesh and spirit.e. which is that of the sovereign nation-state’s bio-politics (see Grelet and Potte-Bonneville 2000). If there is a relation between Marx’ work and Agamben’s vision of a coming community. This presence of Marx in Agamben’s vision of a coming community begs the question that I have tried to address above. p. in one of those frequent passages where Agamben is trying to gesture beyond mere diagnosis toward a vision of the legal and political community that would remain after sovereign power’s bio-politics has been dismantled. namely of the relation of Marx’ work— specifically. it is only through the division of this bio-political separation—by dividing the division itself—that we will enter into a classless society and that something like the community of ‘the human as such’ will arrive. 123 . It is in this way that the proletariat becomes interesting for Agamben. he nevertheless appears in the book’s closing chapter. there can be such a thing as an uncircumcised Jew). Governmentality. Agamben acknowledges this is a difficult task. Although I find Thurschwell’s contrastive discussion of Agamben and Derrida’s philosophies and the role that messianism plays within them very helpful. On this. is ‘to come’ in the here and now—proposed by Jacques Derrida. Economy 267 1998. and for our time.

in order to begin to get a better sense of the political message that his work contains. Agamben is calling for non-violent acts of divine violence that would dismantle the state of exception. however. But what are the acts of divine violence for which Agamben is calling? Perhaps surprisingly. and maybe frustratingly so. 123 .268 A. de Boever rethinking. philology and criticism are directly implicated in the realisation of the coming community for which Agamben is calling. The examples of acts of divine violence that he gives in the closing text of Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience are: philology. criticism and translation (see Agamben 2007a). In ‘Critique of Violence’. that explicitly 10 I have written about this elsewhere (De Boever 2008). and what would be its effect on sovereignty and the law? This is one of the questions about Agamben’s work that is most difficult to answer. i. He takes this figure from an essay by Walter Benjamin entitled ‘Critique of Violence’ (Benjamin 1996. Throughout his work. nonviolent violence that would dismantle the device of the state of exception through which life has been brought within the law. was born.10 I nevertheless want to summarise briefly Agamben’s understanding of it. What Agamben is concerned with. and those who think otherwise. This has to do with severing the nexus between life and law through which human life has become bio-politicised. in such a way that a politics true to its cohesion with the poetic would become possible. When he is proposing solutions to the problems that he analyses. For his analysis of sovereign power. and that divides his critics into those who think he advocates the destruction of sovereignty and law. and liberate politics from its ‘lasting eclipse’ (Agamben 2005a. mark the end of sovereign violence. poetry. Benjamin calls for a kind of human agency that is outside the law. more specifically a kind of human agency that would break with the mythical dialectic of law-making and lawpreserving violence that is characteristic of sovereign power (this should be clear from what I wrote above about the sovereign logic of the exception). pp. but whether there can be a politics that would remain true to its cohesion with the poetic.e. 88). p. p. Interestingly. Thus. In certain places. Divine violence is a paradoxical. 163) that he (following Benjamin) considers to characterise sovereign power. How will the classless society or messianic kingdom that is announced in the closing chapter of Homo Sacer be achieved? Agamben argues this will come about through acts of what he calls ‘divine violence’. however. He is arguing for a ‘poetic’ activity that would reclaim its place within the political. the conservative juror Carl Schmitt—who could not tolerate Benjamin’s call for a human agency outside the law—brought divine violence within the law through the device of the state of exception. These ‘poetic’ acts of divine violence are intensely political according to Agamben because they achieve an ‘Aufhebung of the mythology’ (Agamben 2007a. they are all in some sense ‘poetic’. his concept of sovereignty. 236–252). What would such a politics look like. however. defined as the power to decide on the state of exception. Agamben seems to argue for the former. critics have cited passages in Homo Sacer or Agamben’s notes on politics entitled Means without End. Leaving aside what Benjamin means by this exactly. In response to Benjamin’s essay. Agamben is with Schmitt. is not so much the politics of these poetic acts. he is with Benjamin.

to take up a position that is against all political economies. The question that remains.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. Is a similar ‘other use’ of capitalism possible? Maybe one should broaden the question here and ask about uses of the economic order that would be other than capitalist. and sovereign power and law are not abandoned but wholly transformed. 11 12 Thurschwell focuses on these passages in order to explain Agamben’s political message. where Agamben explicitly writes that he is not interested in the destruction of sovereign power and law. p. 97–98). 64. divine violence does not violently destroy the law. also helpful in this respect is his discussion of the problem of Jerusalem. and political order that would be liberated from the logic of the exception. and modern economy remain to be explored. but in a non-violent way introduces a minimal difference into it through which the device of the state of exception is dismantled. When Agamben proposes that the notion of ‘right’ be replaced by that of ‘refuge’ so as to dismantle the logic of exception that characterises the political economy of the sovereign nation-state. as Agamben explains (Agamben 2005a. Agamben himself has not yet addressed this question explicitly. but in another use of them. sovereignty-less community. The poetic acts of divine violence that Agamben is interested in lead to a messianic fulfillment of the law. at this point. which he develops into a new model for international relations that would liberate the transnational constellation of Europe from the sovereign nation-state’s logic of exception (Agamben 2000). or a time in which the law would not be destroyed but deactivated and rendered inoperative—that is. This suggests that a reading of Agamben’s work as advocating a blind destruction of sovereign power and law is too easy and does not take seriously enough the difficult task it sets before humanity. I followed a course with Agamben at the College Internationale de Philosophie in Paris (Agamben 2008) in which the philosopher was largely drawing from the research he had done for this book. 123 . obviously. be used in a different way. Governmentality. Agamben acknowledged nevertheless that many relations between what he calls theological economy— the economy of the trinity—and its relation to the power Foucault calls governmental. pp. rather. he engages with the question of economy in a way that is relevant to this project (Agamben 2007b). Economy 269 advocate a non-statist. Although Agamben’s investigation of economy’s relation to sovereignty and governmentality took an altogether different track than the one I have pursued here. is what this entails for capitalism. the question is.12 The present essay has been an attempt to explore the relation between Marx’ work and that of Agamben. especially in the more recent work. As such. and the complicities between capitalism and sovereign power (or between the question of economic exploitation and that of the complicity between modern sovereign nation-states and totalitarianism) in order to open up possibilities of thought and practice within the economic. it may be that the alternative uses of sovereign power and law that will emerge from poetic acts of divine violence will inspire alternative uses of political economy also. a question of government: what kind of political economy do we want? How can the political economies that we have and in which we live be improved on? (But what does ‘improve’ mean? Improve for whom?) As I suggested above. ` A few months after I completed this article. It makes no sense. I would argue. Il Regno e la Gloria. b. although I have been informed that in his last book. legal. one begins to get a sense of what such a transformation would look like.11 But there are as many other places.

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