The State of Exception is where Agamben says that we shouldn’t let casualty figures get in the way of acknowledging the fact that from a legal perspective there is no difference between Guantanamo Bay and a concentration camp. I read the first chapter, which is a brief history of how constitutional governments have attempted to codify the transgression of the law by authorities in times of crisis. This is good because it means he gets away from badmouthing Foucault for not addressing “exceptional circumstances” which Foucault recognized as totally normal.
This is an important shift, because really the exception is only really interesting inasmuch as it is, in fact, indistinguishable from the norm. Pathology is really nothing more than common sense examined closely, as any history of political contortions to justify powers will show. Our national state of emergency extends for another year because it is our reality now. God bless America, folks; god bless America.
So I really did my level best to read all of Homo Sacer, but I found myself getting hung up on the Arendt citations, and the abuse of Foucault. I did a fairly good job of getting through the broad coverage at the beginning, and that’s the best part anyways. When we get to particulars, Agamben seems to forget the way power obfuscates the interior/exterior dichotomy, and we end up discussing the differences (!) between how life is politicized under fascism and whatever we’re calling the corporate democracy of The West (as such) these days.
Probably the most intriguing insight in Homo Sacer is the categorization of state violence as a lifting of the law, rather than the law being brought into force, and that this suspension is, in fact, originary to law. Unlike the structure suggested by the so-called “social contract” the sacrifice of individual liberty is part of a bargain that is essentially one-sided. Further, the conditions of the contract are malleable from the perspective of the authority, but not from the perspective of the subject, meaning that abiding by the law is no protection against it. Instead, an individual is compelled to act in such a way that their status under the law is preserved. Security states produce subjects who are always involved in a manic avowal of the status quo, as this is the condition of maintaining your protections.
The next book I’m going to write about is Agamben’s Homo Sacer, and it’s taking a while because I’m reading the whole thing. It’s not particularly long, but I have lost the habit of plowing through works like this while retaining their high-points. Hopefully this will come a little easier as things go on. By the time I get to Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism I’ll get the reading done in a day and the only thing that will push the review back is me running out of synonyms for “fucking awesome.”
What has already been called clearly to mind, however, is that Homo Sacer is a real mixed bag. While it is full of interesting and original insights it tries to carve out additional territory for itself by basically claiming that Foucault didn’t observe or analyze things that any honest reading will show quite clearly that he did. I don’t know if it’s cojones or craziness that drives a man to suggest that he has one-upped Foucault in the realm of penality (I know, right?), but it doesn’t come off well. My margins are full of comments like “fuck you” and “shut up,” and there is even a paragraph I scratched out (although not so densely that I couldn’t refer to it in the future.) Definitely some first-rate disingenuous bullshit going on with ol’ George.
Nevertheless, the good part is serious grade-A, and with this out of the way the next entry will almost certainly be unadulterated praise.