Sovereign Exception: Notes on the Thought of Giorgio Agamben

Key Concept

euh06052Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, the first book of his multi-volume Homo Sacer project, urges a reconsideration of theories of sovereignty as put forward ‘from Hobbes to Rousseau’ (1998: 109). The theory of sovereign power offered by the book is based on the state of exception (as in Schmitt[1]) and the production of a bare, human life caught in the sovereign ban, which constitutes the threshold of the political community. Responding to Foucault’s theory of biopolitics, in which human life becomes the target of the organisational power of the State, Agamben argues that there exists a ‘hidden tie’ between sovereign power and biopolitics, forged in the exceptional basis of State sovereignty.

Sovereign Power and Law

Sovereign power, Agamben argues, establishes itself through the production of a political order based on the exclusion of bare, human life. This it achieves through the enactment of the exception in which the law is suspended, withdrawn from the human being[2] who is stripped of legal status and transformed in relation to sovereign power into a bare life without rights. Bare life, encompassed in the exception, inhabits the threshold of the juridico-political community.

The sovereign exception, Agamben shows, gives rise to the juridical order. ‘[T]he rule, suspending itself, gives rise to the exception’ – that is, the juridical order, suspending its own validity, produces the exception of bare life – ‘and, maintaining itself in relation to the exception, first constitutes itself as a rule’ (ibid: 18). Upon this (inclusive) exclusion of bare life, Agamben argues, the Western State itself is constituted.

Homo Sacer

The bare life in the sovereign exception is captured in a specific relation to sovereign power, what Agamben terms a ‘relation of exception’ or ‘relation of ban’. Those who inhabit the state of exception cannot be said to be freed from the juridical order and sovereign rule; bare life is not ‘simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it’ (ibid: 28). Through its own suspension, the ‘law encompasses living beings’ (2005: 3) who are simultaneously bound and abandoned to it. As such, the bare life captured in the sovereign ban is included in the juridical order ‘through its exclusion’; it finds itself tied to the order, and the sovereign power by which it is constituted, in the relation of exception (1998: 18).

The paradigm of the bare life captured in the sovereign ban Agamben finds in the figure of homo sacer of archaic Roman law (ibid: 8). Homo sacer

has been excluded from the religious community and from all political life: he cannot participate in the rites of his gens, nor […] can he perform any juridically valid act. What is more, his entire existence is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he can save himself only in perpetual flight or a foreign land. (ibid: 183)

Stripped of legal status and expelled from the political community, homo sacer is exposed unconditionally to the potential for killing by anyone. Homo sacer ‘is in a continuous relationship with the power that banished him precisely insofar as he is at every instant exposed to an unconditional threat of death’ (ibid).

Zoē and Bios

Those who are captured in the sovereign ban and stripped of all legal status, find themselves, by the same act, banned from the political community. In this way, the sovereign decides which lives will be recognised as belonging to the community of political beings and which will be classified only in terms of biological fact. The basis of this distinction is addressed by Agamben with recourse to the two terms used by the Greeks to distinguish between forms of life: zoē, ‘natural reproductive life’ confined to the private sphere, and bios, ‘a qualified form of life’, political life (ibid: 1).

Those who are banned from the domain of political beings are reduced by the sovereign to life defined only in terms of zoē (ibid: 183), recognised by the sovereign only as biological beings.

The separation of zoē from bios, and the production of a bare, human life as a product of sovereign power can be said to undergo a transformation in modernity as zoē, or biological life, is repositioned inside the polis, becoming the focus of the State’s organisational power. This process, rooted in classical politics and extending into the present, indicates, for Agamben, a Western politics that has constituted itself from its beginnings as a biopolitics (ibid: 181).


Michel Foucault identified a transition in modernity by which the State increasingly took as its task the care and regulation of biological, human life itself. The establishment, beginning in the 17th century, of what Foucault terms ‘biopower’, a regularising technology of power that ‘distribut[es] the living in the domain of value and utility’ (1990: 144), signifies for him the emergence of ‘a “biopolitics” of the human race’ (2003: 243).

Biopower is distinguished for Foucault from sovereign power. This new technology of power, he argues, ‘has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor’ (1990: 144). As such, biopolitics begins with the emergence of biopower in modernity. Agamben, however, offers a corrective to Foucault’s theory: sovereign power is itself already biopolitical, based on the constitution of bare life as the threshold of the political order. For Agamben, the emergence of the technology of biopower signifies, not a break in the history of Western politics, but the expansion of the existing biopolitical imperative of the State, as bare life moves from the periphery to the centre of the State’s concerns, entering in modernity into the political order as the exception increasingly becomes the rule (1998: 9). ‘Placing biological life at the center of its calculations, the modern State […] does nothing other than bring to light the secret tie uniting power and bare life’ (ibid: 6).

The production of bare life through the exception, and the preoccupation of State power with the management of zoē, advance increasingly and in parallel throughout modernity, reaching an apex in the 20th century as the concentration camp system of the totalitarian State attempted the first ‘normal and collective […] organization of human life founded solely on bare life’ (ibid: 135).

The Camp

The historical concentration camp, such as those of the Spanish in Cuba or the British in South Africa, Agamben writes, were born ‘out of a state of exception and martial law’ (ibid: 167). Writing of the Nazi State, Agamben argues that a transition has occurred, that the concentration camp system of 20th century totalitarianism is now the product of a ‘willed’ state of exception. It is

thus the structure in which the state of exception […] is realized normally. The sovereign no longer limits himself […] to deciding on the exception on the basis of recognizing a given factual situation (danger to public safety): laying bare the inner structure of the ban that characterizes his power, he now de facto produces the situation as a consequence of his decision on the exception. (ibid: 170; emphasis in original)

Under modern liberal democracy, the state of exception, once a temporary suspension of law, became a stable, generalised condition[3]: ‘the declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government’ (2005: 14). This tendency provided the totalitarianisms which emerged in the 20th century with the framework by which rule by a permanent state of emergency was possible (ibid: 2). As the site in which the state of exception is ‘given a permanent spatial arrangement’ (1998: 169), the concentration camp is, for Agamben, the paradigmatic space of this new political arrangement. It is ‘the space that is opened up when the state of exception begins to become the rule’ (ibid: 168-9).

The camp, brought into being through the enactment of the state of exception, is distinctly the product of sovereign power. It is the space in which bare life is most clearly seized by the State. ‘Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp was […] the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation’ (ibid: 171). Agamben quotes Arendt who writes that the camp is the space in which ‘everything is possible’ (ibid: 170). The camp cannot be said to be defined by the atrocities that take place there, but by the potential that exists that they may. This is the condition to which the bare life of homo sacer is banished. As such, the camp is realised wherever bare life abandoned by law is produced.

Agamben locates the camp in such spaces as the Stadio della Vittoria in Bari to which thousands of Albanian immigrants were consigned in 1991 before being forcibly deported, and the Vélodrome d’Hiver where in 1942 Jews were detained following mass arrests by the French police before being sent to Auschwitz (ibid: 174). Agamben’s analysis of the process by which the state of exception has become generalised shows, however, that our conception of the camp should not be limited to historico-geographical instances. Rather, the camp, as the space of the exception, must be understood as an ever-present condition existing in potential within the political order.

Today, as politics has been transformed ‘into the realm of bare life (that is, into a camp)’ (ibid: 120), and the exception has been realised as a permanent and stable condition, ‘all citizens can be said […] to appear virtually as homines sacri‘ (ibid: 111).


Agamben, G., 1995. ‘We Refugees’. Translated by M. Rocke. Symposium. 49(2), Summer, pp. 114-119.
Agamben, G., 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Agamben, G., 1999. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Translated by D. Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books.
Agamben, G., 2005. State of Exception. Translated by K. Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Agamben, G., 2007. ‘The Work of Man’. In: M. Calarco and S. DeCaroli eds., 2007. Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Foucault, M., 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by R. Hurley. London: Penguin.
Foucault, M., 2003. ‘Society Must Be Defended’, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. Translated by D. Macey. M. Bertani and A. I. Davidson eds. London: Penguin.
Raulff, U., 2004. ‘An Interview with Giorgio Agamben’. German Law Journal, 2004, Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 609-614. [Pdf] Available at <> [Accessed 17 June 2015].

[1] ‘The decision [on the exception] reveals the essence of State authority most clearly’ (Schmitt quoted in Agamben, 1998: 16).
[2] The juridical order ‘withdraw[s] from the exception [bare life] and abandon[s] it’ (ibid: 18).
[3] During World Wars I and II, Agamben writes, ‘the democratic regimes were transformed by the gradual expansion of the executive’s powers’ (2005: 6); ‘World War One (and the years following it) appear as a laboratory for testing and honing the functional mechanisms and apparatuses of the state of exception as a paradigm of government’ (1998: 7).

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