Giorgio Agamben: Stasis

by | 1 Feb 2019


Key Concept
At a time when the world seems to be rejecting the universalist neo-liberal logic of governance to embrace various modes of cultural, political, socio-economical, and juridical nationalisms, an engagement with Giorgio Agamben’s concept of stasis becomes all the more urgent. If there is indeed one message to be taken from Agamben’s study of the modern variant of stasis, it is that such an entity as a territorially-framed, culturally-bounded, and ontologically self-defining ‘people’ has never been posited and is politically insignificant.[1] Current aspirations to return to idealised forms of nationalisms, then, might not only be impossible to realise; more fundamentally, they might be voided of historical content and legitimation.

But let us proceed in order. The term stasis derives from the ancient Greek verb istamaior istemi, meaning either to be standing up or to be waiting.[2] As such, it designates a moment of inoperativity, or equilibrium, out of which a new beginning arises. In the brief but highly valuable Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm (hereafter Stasis), published in English in 2015 by both Stanford University Press and Edinburgh University Press, Agamben delineates what role this concept plays in his political philosophy. Importantly, though, drawing from its etymology as well as from the practice of the Greek tragedy, Agamben only refers to the one of meanings of the term – i.e. stasis as ‘the act of rising, of standing firmly upright’.[3]

Based on two seminars delivered by Agamben at Princeton University in 2001, Stasisis a philosophical-archaeological study of the ways in which civil war was conceived and operationalised in Ancient Greece and at the outset of modernity in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Agamben’s intention with this work is to show that the study of these two apparently unrelated singularities proves civil war to be the political paradigm of Western biopolitics.

This alone would confirm the importance that the concept of stasis plays in Agamben’s philosophy. The latter is indeed aimed at reaching a communitarian politics beyond biopolitics through the formation of an inoperative ‘form-of-life’ capable of destituing the sovereign’s prerogatives over the politicisation of (bare) life (see below). In addition, however, one could also mention that Stasis has been recently reproduced as the third chapter of the complete Homo Sacer collection (Omnibus in English, published by Stanford University Press). Importantly, in the Italian edition, called Edizione Integrale and published by Quodlibet, the Omnibus also features a lengthy note on the concept of war whose purpose, Agamben tells us, is to ‘unmask the Schmittian dispositif of friend and foe.’[4] The fact that Agamben himself declares that this very note is one of the reasons why the Italian edition of the Omnibusis ‘superior’[5] to the French and English ones; and that Stasis also features a meaningful critique of Schmitt’s interpretation of Hobbes,[6] are both testament to the significance that the concept of stasis has in Agamben’s thought and our comprehension of it.

Stasis and Kinesis

A further reason for exploring Agamben’s take on stasis is the role he assigns to its very opposite, kinesis, to frame his coming politics. Indeed, the way stasis operates is directly related to the working logic of one of Agamben’s most discussed concepts, the sovereign’s state of exception. From this, it follows that stasis is a dispositif through which the Western biopolitical machine includes (bare) life into politics through its exclusion.

As such, and as its ambivalent etymological meaning reveals, stasis stands in clear opposition (but is also structurally related to) the concept of kinesis, or movement, which as Agamben writes in Opus Dei in a passage outlining the answer he gave to a question Martin Heidegger had asked during the seminar of Le Thor in 1966, forms the basis of the Aristotelian ‘theory of potential and habit.’[7] This too is of pivotal importance for grasping the core of Agamben’s political project. Indeed, several times throughout his scholarship, but most notably in Il Fuoco e il Racconto and Archeologia dell’Opera d’Arte,[8] Agamben argues that the destitution of Western biopolitics might only come through the overcoming of Aristotle’s (and thus, Western thinking’s) belief that humankind cannot be argos (i.e. inoperative; or without any assigned task, ergos). The Pauline, Fransciscan-oriented[9] community founded on our ethical profanation as ‘habitual-use-of-bodies’ (or Pulcinella-like ‘form-of-life’[10]) that Agamben urges us to think for the salvation of humanity requires an inoperative act of simultaneous potentiality and actuality (or destituent potential[11]) capable of deactivating the Aristotelian choice between the two.

A Stasiology?

Before going any further, it should also be noted that Agamben specifies from the very beginning of his essay that he does not intend to develop a ‘theory of civil war,’ or stasiology.[12] Yet this statement should be treated cautiously, as Agamben seems in fact to be taking the first step toward the development of a notionistic, and thus systematic, study of stasis in the West. This emerges from the preliminary reflections of the first chapter, as well as from the terminology that the Italian publisher Bollati Boringhieri has used to present Agamben’s work. Further, the combination of the very terminology used in the essay (i.e. stasis as a paradigm) with Agamben’s categorisation of paradigms as (analogical) forms of knowledge in Signatura Rerum,[13] provides further evidence that his reflections on the subject might qualify as building blocks of a broader political-philosophical theory of civil war (i.e. approaching stasis through paradigmatic, exemplary thinking allows the interpreter to understand and operationalise its nature and working logic). Agamben’s argument regarding the mutation, after classical Greece, of the ‘function, situation and form of civil war’ (see below) seems to confirm the accuracy of this reconstruction.

Stasis in Ancient Greece…

In the first part of his essay, Agamben draws on what he had expounded in both Homo Sacerand Means Without End14] about the Greeks’ distinction between zoē, which ‘expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings,’ and bios, which ‘indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group.’[15] At first glance, this schism appears to indicate that the managerial paradigm of the house (oikonomia) and the dominium of the political (government) were kept apart in the polis. Not coincidentally, the two spheres will overlap in a zone of indistinction in modern times through the formation of political economy as a specific science, i.e. as a combination of institutional and analytical economics on the one hand, and sociopolitical thought on the other. Thus, Agamben further notes that to Plato and Aristotle, ‘to speak of a zoē politikē of the citizens . . . would have made no sense.’[16] However, in Stasis, Agamben shows that in classical Greece civil war served to reveal the oikos, that is, to confer on it a political character. Moving beyond Nicole Loraux’s view,[17] Agamben writes that rather than ‘hav[ing] its place in the household,’[18] stasis ‘constitute[d] a threshold of indifference between the oikosand the polis, between blood kingship and citizenship.’[19] The act of civil war represented then a zone interaction, or indication, between the family and the city, or (unpolitical) private existence and (political) public presentification.More specifically, in Ancient Greece

civil war functions as a threshold in which family relationships are repoliticised: when it is instead the tension toward the polisthat prevails and the family bond appears to weaken, then the stasisintervenes to recodify the family relationship in political terms.[20]

However, this sort of balanced tension, or delicate equilibrium, between the managerial and political paradigms through which the family and the city were respectively administered and governed did not last very long. After classical Greece, Agamben specifies,there has emerged in the West ‘the tendency to depoliticise the city by transforming it into a house or a family, ruled by blood relations or by merely economic operations.’[21] This tendency has been cyclically interrupted by ‘symmetrically opposed phases in which everything that is unpolitical must be mobilised and politicised.’[22] Furthermore, Agamben goes on, ‘[i]n accordance with the prevailing of one or the other tendency, the function, situation and form of civil war will also change.’[23] For this claim to be correctly understood, one ought to bring into focus what Agamben had contended elsewhere—namely, that since the fall of the Greek polis, Western biopolitics has been characterised by the two paradigms of ‘politico-juridical’ and ‘economic-governmental’ rationality. The discussion of the Hobbesian conception of stasis in the second part of Stasisought to be explored from this perspective of inquiry.

…and in Hobbes

In the second part of Stasis Agamben embarks upon a path that unconventionally combines the figurative description of the Leviathan’s cover with the eschatological analysis of its content, as well as with that of De Cive and Elements of Law. Pauline Messianism plays a pivotal role in this part of Agamben’s reflections, as he focuses on the essence of the Parousia, or the second coming of Christ at the end of time. Here, too, Agamben draws heavily on his previous scholarship.[24]

Through a literal analysis of the third part of Leviathan and the ‘veritable treatise on the Kingdom of God’[25] contained therein, Agamben challenges the common (i.e. Schmittian) view according to which the modern governmental machine holds back the coming of the Kingdom of God (Parousia).[26] To the contrary, Agamben argues that

[a]gainst the prevailing doctrine, which tended to interpret the New Testament concept of the Basileia theouin a metaphorical direction, Hobbes forcefully asserts that in both the Old and New Testament the Kingdom of God signifies a real political Kingdom, which . . . Christ will restore at the end of time.[27]

Drawing a parallel between Hobbes’s conception and the relative passages in Paul and the Scriptures, Agamben further maintains that ‘the Kingdom of God on Earth will be realised . . . only at the moment of the second coming of Christ. Until then, the analyses of the preceding books of Leviathanremain valid.’[28] From this, it follows that the terrain and celestial kingdoms are ‘from the eschatological perspective . . . somehow coordinated, since both take place on earth and the Leviathan will necessarily disappear when the Kingdom of God is realised politically in the world.’[29] The ‘enigmas of the [Leviathan’s] frontispiece’ can, then, only be solved within this ‘eschatological perspective.’[30]

It is here that Agamben’s reveals the crucial role that his reading of Hobbes has for his coming politics beyond biopolitics. Indeed, once this eschatological perspective is adopted, it emerges that even the head of the Leviathan has a specific eschatological meaning (or function). Noting that ‘the tiny bodies that constitute the body of the colossus are curiously absent from his head,’[31] Agamben contends that the Leviathan represents the ‘“head” of a body political that is formed by the people of the subjects.’[32] ‘This image, he goes on, ‘derives directly from the Pauline conception.’[33] On these lines, the Leviathan is ‘the profane counterpart of the relation between Christ and the ekklēsia[34] — a reading which ‘cannot be separated from the thesis of Pauline eschatology.’[35] Indeed, as ‘at the end of time, in the Kingdom of Heaven, there will no longer be any distinction between the head and the body, because God will be in all.’[36] Only at that very moment ‘the cephalic fiction of the Leviathan could be erased and the people discover its own body’.[37]

The modern state, then, ‘coincides with the very eschatological beast which must be annihilated at the end of time.’[38] Thus, to conceive, as Schmitt does,[39] of the modern state as the katechōnis incorrect; rather, ‘contemporary politics is founded on a secularisation of eschatology.’[40] More specifically, ‘it is not the confusion of the eschatological with the political that defines Hobbes’s politics, but a singular relation between the autonomous powers.’[41] These are indeed ‘eschatologically connected, in the sense that the first will necessarily haveto disappear when the second is realised.’[42] In other words, the form of Pauline messianism advocated by Agamben and outlined above demands the destruction (or destitution) of the modern state and its sovereign (i.e. biopolitical) prerogatives.

Not coincidentally, Agamben wants us to think of the creation of the Leviathan as a step in biopolitics’ modern circular movement from the moment of civil war, to the ‘disunited multitude,’ to the ‘people-king’ paradigm, then to the ‘dissolved multitude,’ and finally back again to civil war.[43] Through the formation of the modern city, or body politic, the ‘disunited multitude’ of the state of nature exceptionallyconstitutes itself into the people. However, when giving form and substance to the sovereign, the people contemporaneously and paradoxically disappears, leaving the scene to an entity that ‘has no political significance’[44] —namely, the ‘dissolved multitude,’ which ‘is the unpolitical element upon whose exclusion the city is founded.’[45] Importantly, this logic of simultaneous constitution and dissolution applies to monarchies, democracies, and aristocracies alike.[46] Hence, Agamben continues, ‘in the city there is only the multitude, since the people has always already vanished into the sovereign’[47] as shown on the Leviathan’s cover. This passage is of pivotal importance for the correct understanding of Agamben’s philosophy and political project because it shows that, as he himself has further clarified more recently, ‘the city is founded in the division of life into bare life and politically qualified life.’[48]

Here is where civil war enters the scene to never leave it. Indeed, Agamben writes, ‘[i]f the dissolved multitude – and not the people – is the sole human presence in the city, and if the multitude is the subject of civil war, this means that civil was remains always possible within the state.’[49] This is why, after his eschatological analysis, Agamben reaffirms that until the second coming of Christ, ‘the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude and the Leviathan can only live together . . . with Behemoth – with the possibility of civil war.’[50] Civil war, we may therefore conclude drawing from Agamben’s Aristotelian terminology, lies at the threshold between actuality and potentiality. It lurks in the penumbra of social relations[51] constantly defining them and always reminding the body politic of its occult, demonic[52] origins: ‘civil war is a projection of the state of nature into the city.’[53]

Dr Luca Siliquini-Cinelli, Lecturer, School of Law, University of Dundee;

Call for contributions to ‘Key Concepts’.

[1] A similar conclusion had been reached, via a different route, by Roberto Esposito, whom Agamben does not cite. In Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, trans. Timothy Campbell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [1998] 2010) 28–29, Esposito places at the centre of the formation of the Hobbesian political construct ‘the drastic elimination of every kind of social bond.’ What paradoxically defines the Leviathan is, then, ‘absolute dissociation’ to the extent that ‘the state is the desocialization of the communitarian bond.’ Ibid.
[2] For the purposes of this entry, see Dimitris Vardoulakis, ‘Stasis. Beyond Political Theology?’ (2009) 73 Cultural Critique126–147, at 127: stasis ‘can be  either  the movement  upward  or the  state  in which  one finds oneself after the movement is completed.’
[3] Giorgio Agamben, Stasis. Civil War as a Political Paradigm, trans. Nicholas Heron (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2015] 2015) 13. ‘[S]tasimos,’ Agamben writes, ‘is the point in the tragedy when the chorus stands still and speaks; stasis the one who swears the oath while standing,’ ibid 13–14. Emphasis in original.
[4] Giorgio Agamben, Interview, ‘Three Questions to Giorgio Agamben on the Complete Edition of Homo Sacer,’ Quodlibet, October 25th, 2018, available at My translation.
[5] Ibid. My translation.
[6] Agamben, Stasis, supra note 3, at 66–69.
[7] Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei: An Archelogy of Duty, trans. Adam Kotso (Stanford University Press, [2012] 2013) 95.
[8] Giorgio Agamben, Il Fuoco e il Racconto(Rome: Nottetempo, 2014) 56; id. ‘Archeologia dell’Opera d’Arte’ in Creazione e Anarchia. L’Opera nell’Età della Religione Capitalistica(Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2017) 7–28, 18. See also id. ‘Heidegger e il Nazismo’ in La Potenza del Pensiero. Saggi e Conferenze(Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2012) 329–339, 338.
[9] Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty. Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, Adam Kotso trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2011] 2013).
[10] Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella ovvero Divertimento per li Regazzi(Rome: Nottetempo, 2015).
[11] Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotso (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2014] 2016) 23, 30, 56–65, and 267–279.
[12] Agamben, Stasis, supra note 3, at 4.
[13] Giorgio Agamben, Signatura Rerum. Sul Metodo(Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2008) 32. My translation.
[14] Curiously though, Agamben only cites Homo Sacer.
[15] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press [1995] 1998) 1.
[16] Ibid.
[17] In particular, Agamben questions Loraux’s thesis according to which ‘the original place of the stasis is the oikos; civil war is a “war within the family”, an oikeios polemos.’ Under this light, ‘the oikos. . . is simultaneously what causes the destruction of the city and the paradigm of its reunification.’ These ‘hypotheses,’ Agamben asserts, ‘nee[d] to be verified and corrected.’
[18] Agamben, Stasis,supra note 3, at 15.
[19] Ibid. Emphasis in original.
[20] Ibid 23. Emphasis in original. See also ibid 16.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains. A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2000] 2005) 69–72.
[25] Agamben, Stasis, supra note 3, at 59.
[26] Ibid 66.
[27] Ibid 59. Emphasis in original.
[28] Ibid 60. Emphasis in original.
[29] Ibid61.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid 62.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid 63.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid 67. Emphasis added.
[39] Ibid 66.
[40] Ibid 67.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid. Emphasis added.
[43] Ibid 46.
[44] Ibid 47.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid 44.
[47] Ibid 47.
[48] Agamben, The Use of Bodies, supra note 11, at 265.
[49] Agamben, Stasis, supranote 3, at 52.
[50] Ibid 63.
[51] The term is used here in an Agambenian fashion. In The Use of Bodies, which not coincidentally concludes the Homo Sacerproject, Agamben makes of the rethinking of relations beyond the standards set by ‘Western political philosophy’ a key-aspect of our ability to free ourselves. See supranote 11, at 272. See also ibid 268, where Agamben defines that of Homo Saceras ‘the project of an ontology and a politics set free from every figure of relation.’
[52] More recently, see Pier Giuseppe Monateri, Dominus Mundi. Political Sublime and the World Order(Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2018) 112.
[53] Agamben, Stasis, supra note 3, at 53. Whether Agamben’s statement is reflective of what Esposito has defined as ‘the first paradigmatic axis [in which] Italian thought is rooted,’ namely, ‘the immanentization of antagonism[or] [t]he idea that conflict is constitutive of order,’ is open to discussion. It might indeed be argued that by combining disorder and order together, Agamben is partly reading Hobbes through Machiavellian lenses. See Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2010] 2012) 24 and 53–54.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,511 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


Fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4000 subscribers.