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Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) Paperback – April 1, 1998

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Editorial Reviews


"Agamben's intuition, chronicle and meditation are fascinating."—The Review of Politics

"The story of homo sacer is certainly worth reading because of its suggestiveness and provocations."—Modernism/Modernity

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Italian --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics
  • Paperback: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1 edition (April 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804732183
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804732185
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #32,656 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Giorgio Agamben is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Venice. He is the author of Profanations (2007), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (2002), both published by Zone Books, and other books.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

44 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Martin M. Rayburn on August 15, 2008
Format: Paperback
"Homo Sacer" proposes a succinct thesis: contemporary political regimes, including both liberal democracies and totalitarian governments, have increasingly relied on a juridical space that isolates and rules over the "bare life" (zoe) of their subjects. According to the author, the founding gesture of political sovereignty does not simply grant or restrict the rights of citizens, but wields an absolute power over the life and death of men. As the argument goes, today's biopolitical machinery betrays a hidden complicity with the most detestable forms of domination, exemplified by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Whilst many forms of contemporary sovereignty might seem benign compared to this singularly horrible event, these forms share with Nazism a tendency to expunge mediating political categories such as rights and contracts, and subject biological bodies to the immediate control of a sovereign.

Reviving a forgotten subject of ancient Roman law, Agamben defines the homo sacer (sacred man) as a political unit that can be killed but not sacrificed. Anybody can terminate the life of the sacred man with impunity, and no worth can be conferred upon his being through a ritualistic sacrifice. Although the sacred man is not actually deceased, he inhabits an indeterminate ground between life and death because homicide laws do not apply to him. He lives a virtual death. His "being-toward-death" is not only ontologically implicit but juridically authorized.

The figure that completes this grim picture is the sovereign, who may at any time call for a "state of exception." That is, he may suspend the laws of the land and thus produce a collective of sacred men who occupy a threshold between nature and civilization.
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
When all politics is about life, the shadow of death disappears. At this point life itself, despite its glory, is in terrible danger of burning up in this high-noon of the political world. Putting this point less obliquely one might say, with Giorgio Agamben in his Homo Sacer, that a world which is increasingly concerned with ridding itself of any political value except that of serving the exigencies which are thrown up by the brute fact of maintaining biological human life is a world which is dangerously unstable. The danger may lie in either of two directions. The first is that the emergence of a strong political value which co-opts a vision of the importance of biological human life but redefines the borders of 'human' gains an immediate political legitimacy in 'cleansing' the political populace of what become cast as simply vermin. The second danger is that the lack of political value apart from life itself leaves a space wherin 'life itself' increasingly begs definition, and with this definition arrive categories of life regarded as less valuable and, ultimately, as 'life not worth living'. Both of these features can be recognised as elements of the political program of National Socialist Germany. Agamben, untypically, sees Nazi Germany not as a historical abberation, but rather as an extreme case of what characterises all Western political systems and which springs from 'politics' itself, rather than any particular playing out of a political scheme. This is the condition of 'biopolitics', the condition of life as valuable or not within an overall scheme of governance. This condition reaches its paradigm expression in 'the camp', where life is usable or expendable outside the restraints of any legal structure.Read more ›
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43 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Saul Boulschett on May 2, 2004
Format: Paperback
The obscurity embedded in the Roman Law that declared one who was condemned to death "sacred" is never really clarified here. It is better and more succinctly described in _Means Without Ends_.
In this is book, Agamben soberly traces the origin of the single most deracinating event in human history: the Holocaust. Soberly, because Agamben sees the Holocaust not as an anomaly, but as an unavoidable consequence given the political origin of the West. But this book is not so much about the Holocaust per se, but about the various historical interventions concerning the notion of the Sovereign that wove the matrix of Western politics into what it became capable of in the 20th century.
The locus of Agamben's view of modernity is the (concentration) camp. Agamben stresses the fact that the camp is not only a place where the unspeakable takes place but more importantly and fundamentally where a human being is stripped "Naked", stripped of 'bios' and exposed as mere 'zoe', such that anything--including the unspeakable--CAN be done to him since nothing could be considered a criminal act. The camp, according to Agamben, is "the space that opens up when the state of exception starts to become the rule."
Agamben argues that the camp is the new biopolitical NOMOS of the planet by connecting the dots that Carl Schmitt first drew but left unconnected. Closer to the homefront, Agamben's meditation ultimately takes us to see the totalitarian implications behind those "gated communities" in the US today, and the impossibility of dying without the State's approval. If a good life is hinged on the hope of a good death, should the State define and decide who shall get "good death" (euthanasia)?
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