an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, July 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




The Political Life in Giorgio Agamben


Colin McQuillan




            One of the reasons the work of Giorgio Agamben has been so tremendously appealing is its contribution to contemporary debates concerning the nature of sovereignty and its relation to the processes of political subjectification. However, there is another aspect of Agamben’s thought, concerning the ontology of potentiality, which, while closely related to the first, has been less emphasized in the reception of Agamben’s work.

            In the introduction to Homo Sacer, where these two aspects of his work come together most powerfully and define the problematic of all of his more recent work, Agamben tells us that he had not understood their relation when he began the book. Politics, subjectivity, and potentiality were bound together, so much so that the meanings they acquired in the social sciences–and, presumably, in contemporary theoretical and philosophical discourse–could no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, he says that they must be “revised without reserve.”1 The results of his revision have, however, been widely contested.

            Judith Butler seems to think that Agamben argues for the expansion of the concepts of “humanity” and “politics” to include marginalized and excluded elements of the community.2  Yet she fails to realize that, for Agamben, it is life itself which is at stake. That Butler has not appreciated this is evident in her new book Precarious Life, where she fails to explain why it is life–bare life–which is precarious, excluded, and imperiled, even as she considers the fragility of human rights and the rights of citizens, and a host of other critical political categories.3

            Slavoj Zizek, reads something different in Agamben, when he says that Agamben shows that liberal democracy is a mask hiding the fact that “ultimately, we are all homo sacer,” that is, in Zizek’s understanding, we are all subject to totalitarian domination and the mechanisms of biopolitical social control. He uses Agamben to make the further claim that there is no democratic solution to this problem.4 However, inasmuch as he equates bare life merely with the subject of domination and control, Zizek has failed to grasp the potentiality of bare life, that is, life itself, that Agamben develops, in Homo Sacer and elsewhere. This leads Zizek to abandon the intricacies of Agamben’s analyses, and to champion a heroic politics of decision–a politics that Agamben clearly does not share. In Welcome to the Desert of the Real, for instance, Zizek argues that the only way out of the contemporary “state of emergency” is in “the magical moment when the infinite pondering crystallizes itself into a simple yes or no,” …a gesture of radical and violent simplification”–a decision–which Agamben thinks leads back to the logic of sovereignty and subjection–the sacrifice by which bare life is both included and excluded by the “bloody mystifications” of the planetary order.5

            Antonio Negri–whose review of Agamben’s The State of Exception is one of the most insightful commentaries on Agamben there is, and who seems to be the only commentator to have really understood what is at stake for Agamben–celebrates Agamben’s attempt to formulate a “fully immanent redemption” through a critical ontology.6 He claims, however, that there are two Agambens. He accuses the first, Heideggerian Agamben of holding onto “an existential, fated, and horrific background,” where he is forced “into a continuous confrontation with the idea of death.” For Negri, this amounts to a kind of mysticism, an obsession with the margin and the limits, which “always stinks of the boss.”7

            It is this Agamben who declares “bare life” to be the protagonist of his political project. In Negri’s eyes, this is a concession to passivity and powerlessness, a denial of the posse de potentia of life. However, Negri sees the second Agamben–the Spinozist Agamben who “seiz[es]... the biopolitical horizon through an immersion into philological labor and linguistic analysis”–as being much closer to his own project of a wholly positive metaphysics, and so more capable of grasping the “ripe fruit of redemption,” that is, the productive or constitutive power of life itself.8  For Negri, this power is the power of living labor.

            While I do not think the “two Agambens” are as different as Negri suggests, the division he proposes brings forward a feature of Agamben’s work that has not been appreciated as much as his work on the relation between sovereignty and bare life–the inclusive exclusion which captures life and subjects it to the “bloody mystifications” of the modern state form at the same time as it abandons life and exposes it to the lawless violence of sovereign decision. Bare life, however, is not simply the subject of this political formation. It has a form of its own. A form, which Agamben will call “form-of-life,” and a power, which Agamben will discuss in terms of the power to be, and the power not to be. Where these powers intersect, there is the potentiality of life, of life itself, bare life.

            While Agamben does not propose any kind of “state of nature” or “natural right” or “natural law” attendant to this life, he does attempt, in several places, to lay out the politics appropriate to this life, to what he calls the “bios of zoē,” or “form-of-life,” and I will simply call “the political life.” He defines this politics in terms of “a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form-of-life” in which “the single ways, acts, and process of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always above all power.” My contention, in this paper, is that Agamben’s conception of the political life is the result of a radical rethinking of the potentiality of life, and life as potentiality.9

            To begin to explore this theme in Agamben’ work, I think it is important to note the Heideggerian matrix of Agamben’s thought. It is important to realize, against Negri, that Spinoza is not the only philosopher of the positivity of potentia and its necessarily political character. These can also be found in Heidegger. For Heidegger, possibility stands higher than actuality. This carries through from Being and Time to the Letter on Humanism, where Heidegger defines Being in terms its “favoring-enabling”–or possibilizing–human existence, inasmuch as man’s essence is existence. Agamben’s thinking of potentiality follows Heidegger’s in this regard, but generally takes Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein’s facticity as its starting point.

             In Homo Sacer, Agamben says Heidegger’s “philosophical genius” lay in having elaborated “the conceptual categories that kept facticity from presenting itself as fact.” Whereas sovereign power decides on life, dividing it between bare life and the various forms of life–the “concrete sciences” of race, nation, and class–Dasein’s existence, as factical, is always in question, always at issue for itself. Its life can never be separated from its world, or its way of life. It is engendered by and as this “essential context” or “indissoluble cohesion,” even though it is always in question and at issue. Dasein simply “is its mode of being,” as its own possibility, its own potentiality.10 In The Coming Community, Agamben calls this the “infinite omnivalence of whatever being,” and calls ethics the “free use” of this potentiality, inasmuch as he says “the only ethical experience (which, as such, cannot be a task of a subjective decision) is the experience of being (one’s own potentiality), of being (one’s own) possibility–exposing... in every form one’s own amorphousness and in every act one’s own inactuality.”11

            Further, Agamben understands thought, as Heidegger did, as the appropriation that lets beings be, which lets there be a world. Agamben even calls thought “the nexus that constitutes the forms of life in an inseparable context as form-of-life,” so that only where there is thought can there be a form-of-life “in which it is never possible to isolate something like [bare] life,” clearly echoing Heidegger’s claim that thought is a way of dwelling whose essence is “being-in-the-world.”12   World is the “abode” or “dwelling” of Dasein, its essential context–there is no Dasein without a world, the world is the da- of Dasein, its place. For Agamben, this “essential context” or “indissoluble cohesion” is the “inseparable unity of Being and ways of Being, of subject and qualities.” And this “inseparable unity” is the potentiality of bare life, comprising both its power to be and its power not to be.

            This bears some explaining. Agamben reads Aristotle’s claim that “all potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same”–as meaning that potentiality “maintains itself in relation to its own privation... its own non-Being.”13 In the Arabic tradition, this was known as “perfect potentiality.”14 But it has the curiosity of understanding potentiality only with respect to impotence. Thus, to be a potentiality or to have potential means “to be in relation to one’s own incapacity” and “to be capable of [one’s] own impotentiality.” “Other living beings are capable only of their specific potentiality,” Agamben writes, “they can only do this or that. But human beings are the animals who are capable of their own impotentiality. The greatness of human potentiality is measured by the abyss of human impotentiality,” by what Heidegger and Agamben will call “poverty.”15

            It is only on the edge of the abyss of this impotence, in poverty, then, that “the two terms distinguished and kept united by the relation of ban (bare life and form of life) abolish each other and enter into another dimension.”16 In rendering the very opposition of these terms ineffective, Agamben thinks impotentiality opens a space–a margin, a threshold–on which life can survive, free from the sovereign decision, unhinging and emptying the “traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities” which have borne it.17  This impotence does not, however, negate the potentiality of life. Rather, impotence is an integral part of potentiality–it is that part of potentiality that makes “a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form-of-life”–in which “the single ways, acts, and process of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always above all power”–possible.18 It is the power of thought. As Agamben writes in The Coming Community:


…thought, in its essence, is pure potentiality; in other words, it is also the potentiality to not think... Thanks to this potentiality to not-think, thought can turn back to itself (to its pure potentiality) and be, at its apex, the thought of thought... What it thinks here, however, is not an object, a being-in-act, but that layer of wax, that rasum tabulae that is nothing but its own passivity, its own pure potentiality... In the potentiality that thinks itself, action and passion coincide and the writing tablet writes by itself, or, rather, writes its own passivity.19


            It is for this reason that, in Language and Death, Agamben calls thought “the movement that, fully experiencing the unattainable place of language, seeks to think, to hold this unattainability in suspense, to measure its dimensions,” and claims that it is in thought that “the figure of humanity’s having emerges for the first time in its simple clarity: to have always dear as one’s habitual dwelling place, as the ethos of humanity.”20 In other words, thought is, for Agamben, “the nexus that constitutes the forms of life in an inseparable context as form-of-life,” and the key to an ethics of human potentiality, which is what Agamben’s talk of form-of-life constitutes.21

I have already argued that this ethics is basically Heideggerian in inspiration. It flies in the face of the history of metaphysics, which has understood potentiality as the way those things which are not and cannot be are, in some sense–as poverty, privation, or even evil. In this history, potentiality is the proper existence of a thing–its actuality–deprived of itself. To take hold of potentiality, to appropriate it for an ethics, then, is to “appropriate the improper”–the exterior, excluded, and exceptional–not as unreal, poor, or evil, but as “perfectly analogous” to the interior–that is, as possible.  In this sense, the “poverty” of human happiness is the perfect “appropriation of all possibilities,” achieved by an ethics of “the simple fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentially.”22 Indeed, this ethics is precisely the experience of being human, according to Agamben, the enjoyment of “the experience of being (one’s own) potentiality, of being (one’s own) possibility.”23 This is, again, Heidegger’s conception of the factical life of Dasein.

            To recover this experience and appropriate its possibilities, Agamben insists that “a new and coherent ontology of potentiality (beyond the steps that have been made in this direction by Spinoza, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger)” must replace “the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality.”24 In order to do this, it must be able to “think the existence of potentiality without any relation to Being in the form of actuality... not even... actuality as the fulfillment and manifestation of potentiality... and think the existence of a potentiality even without any relation to being in the form of the gift of the self and letting be.”25

            It is here that Agamben parts with Heidegger. Agamben says that talk of “being,” of human beings or being human “is not up to the level of the simple mystery of humans’ having, of their habitations or their habits.”26 And though this seems to mirror the movement by which Marx says “everything solid melts into air” and “all being is reduced to having,” Agamben will say that having language is the peculiar nature of the human being. This capacity, which the human being has, does not define what it is. Rather, it tells us what a human being is capable of–namely, language (logos). If we understand this as the “poverty” of the human being–the lack of a specific nature or identity, the impossibility of a specifically human existence–we can understand the possibilities of human capacities as “his ethos, his dwelling.”27 For Agamben, this allows the human being to live–unencumbered by the metaphysical primacy of actuality–by and as his own potentiality.

            This, however, leaves the human being exposed to his own groundlessness–that is, to his own violence. If it is not by virtue of metaphysical necessity that human life is divided between zoē and bios, then it must be a function of a human capacity, human action. Indeed, Agamben will say “man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own life that he at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that life in an inclusive exclusion.”28 And he will say that this is the daimon that “threatens humans in the very core of their ethos, of their habitual dwelling place, that philosophy has always to think and to ‘absolve’.”29

            Unlike Heidegger, Agamben will not retreat into a kind of mysticism of fundamental thinking. Absolution concerns not only thinking, but also living. This is why the philosophy is always already political for Agamben. Interestingly, this seems to be derived from Heidegger as well. Heidegger says that the polis  “signifies the place, the da-, where and how Dasein is,” so that the polis is “the ground and place of human Dasein itself, the spot where all these routes cross.”30 It is possible, then, to establish an identity between being-in-the-world and being-political. Insofar as Dasein is its da-, insofar as man dwells, his is a political life. Agamben takes Heidegger further on this point than he himself was willing to go. And this is, perhaps, why Agamben disagrees with Heidegger in one crucial regard. Where Heidegger says the polis is the site of the most extreme conflicts, where “there has to hold sway all the most extreme counter-essences, and therein all the excesses, to the unconcealed and to beings, i.e., counter-beings in the multiplicity of their counter-essence,” making the polis a frightful, horrible, atrocious place, Agamben will claim that there is a form-of-life “over which power has no hold,” a politics in which a life, withdrawn from decision and sovereignty, can survive.31

            Though obscured by the “absolute political space of the camps” in Modern thanato-politics, the factical life of Dasein is, according to Agamben, the “inseparable unity of Being and ways of being, subject and qualities, life and world... in which it is never possible to isolate something like bare life.”32 As such, it is an existence, a form-of-life, “over which power no longer seems to have any hold.”33 And this opens the door to a different politics, one more in keeping with the ethics of human potentiality as Agamben understands them. Following Walter Benjamin, he insists that this other politics be purely profane–that is, not resting on a secularized theological concept, as Carl Schmitt claims all truly political ideas do–and must be constructed on the idea of happiness.34 This is another condition of the political life–Agamben says it must be a happy life, a “life well-lived” or “sufficient.”

            Conceiving of human happiness in terms of potentiality requires a new understanding of the relationship between possibility and actuality. This is, I believe, the key to linking Agamben’s political theory, his analyses of sovereignty and the processes of political subjectification, to his ontology of potentiality. The site is of this linkage is ethics, the ethics of human potentiality, and their proper end, eudaimonia, happiness. Aristotle defined happiness as the “most complete end” for human beings, an activity which “lacks nothing.” Happiness must thus be defined in view of the best things–because “nothing incomplete is proper to happiness.”35 This makes it impossible for happiness to be the “human good,” as Aristotle claims at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics.  Human beings can experience happiness only for a short time, according to Aristotle, because human things are not best things–being generated, and, more importantly, being incapable of continuous activity, and so true happiness, defined as pure self-sufficiency and actuality. Because this power belongs only to God, true happiness belongs only to God–to self-thinking thought. As human beings do not exist in the sense of Aristotle’s God–perfectly, simply, eternally–being marked by the daimon that “separates and opposes himself to his own life.”

            Agamben explains this process by which “man... separates and opposes himself to his own life” in terms of sacrifice. At the end of Language and Death, he writes that what is essential to sacrifice is that “in every case, the action of the human community is grounded only in another action.”36 This establishes sacrifice as the “ungroundedness of all human (linguistic) praxis” which hides “the fact that an action (a sacrum facere...) is abandoned to itself...”37 Sacrifice serves as “that (linguistic) action which, remaining unspeakable (arreton) and intransmissible in every action and in all human language, destines man to community and tradition.”38 It is thus “the foundation for all legal behavior,” and a new kind of (linguistic) praxis, in which “every facere is a sacrum facere.”39

            Because Agamben says the original meaning of sacer is “doomed to death,” he will locate the sovereign right “to let live and make die” in sacrifice–in this “sacrum facere.” In Homo Sacer, Agamben explains this with reference to the archaic Roman vitae necisque potestas, the absolute right of the father over the life and death of his sons. This is the power that makes the pater–the father–domus–head of the household, dominator. Here, life–vita, zoē–is only a correlate of the power to kill–nex.  It is what the law presupposed in granting the father his right–there must be something for him to kill, namely, the life of his sons. And because the Romans thought there to be an “essential affinity” between this right and the power of imperium, exercised by the sovereign, man–as citizen, as bios politikos–was subject to sovereign decision regarding life and death, just as were the father’s sons. Here, man becomes homo sacer, sacred life–but this is simply life that can be killed.

            Because human life–zoē, the bare life of man– is, according to the law, merely the correlate of the power to kill, Agamben says life becomes the sacred, though unspeakable, ground of political order–as that which can be killed.40 The power of imperium–which came to be exercised by Roman consuls–comes from the sacrificial ax carried by their lictors–the fasces, used to perform executions.41 Imperium–sovereignty–is simply the power to execute–to kill. That this definition holds even in modern political philosophy is evident from Hobbes’ Leviathan–where the sovereign retains the power to punish by the “infliction of death; and that either simply, or with torment”–to Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology–where the sovereign is said to be the one who “decides the exception.”42

            Inasmuch as, for Agamben, bare life is what is excluded from–and so in exception to–the various forms of life–as their sacred, unacknowledged ground–Schmitt’s attempt to strike the word “man” from the German Civil Code–in 1935, as he was attempting to reformulate the principles of jurisprudence in light of the Nazi revolution–suggests the danger of the “division and opposition” of life and forms of life that so concerns Agamben. Schmitt claimed that


The legal concept of ‘man’ in the sense of Article 1 of the Civil Code conceals and falsifies the differences between a citizen of the Reich, a foreigner, a Jew, and so on. Replacing scientific abstraction as something remote from reality, thinking in concrete terms, seeing equal as equal and above all unequal as unequal, and emphasizing the differences among men of different races, nations, and occupational estates in the sense of God-given realities–that is the goal of National Socialist academic jurists, not just those who are organizationally led by Carl Schmitt.43


Agamben argues, on the contrary, that it is precisely the politicization of life–particularly as Schmitt advances it here, in terms of a concrete science of the “God-given realities” of race, nation, and class–which has led to the “bloody mystifications of a new planetary order.”44 To overcome these “bloody mystifications” requires an investigation of the possibilities of the human life–that is, an ethics–a political life freed from sovereign power. This ethics–an ethics of form-of-life–means the end of the separation and opposition of forms of life and bare life, of sacrifice, and sovereign power, insofar as it appropriates the process of exclusion and inclusion that constitute the exception. It designates an exemplary life, a life that is the “impotent omnivalence of whatever being,” in that it is “a single object that presents itself as such, that shows its singularity,” and allows for the possibility of community “without being tied to any common property, by any identity.”45 For Agamben, this is the very idea of the happy, political life.





an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, July 2005, ISSN 1552-5112



1. Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford, 1998. pg. 12.

2   Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia, 2000. pp. 81-82.

3. Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004. pp. 67-68.

4. Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002. pg. 100.

5. Welcome to the Desert of the Real, pg. 101.

6. Negri, Antonio “The Ripe Fruit of Redemption.” Translated by Arianna Bove. www.generation-

7.  Negri, Antonio. Time for Revolution. Translated by Matteo Mandarini. New York: Continuum, 2003. pp. 112-113.

8. “The Ripe Fruit of Redemption.”

9. Agamben, Giorgio “Form-of-Life.” Included in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2000. pg. 11.

10. Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Translated by Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1993. pg. 28.

11. The Coming Community, pg. 44.

12. “Form-of-Life,” pg. 9. Also, Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi and J. Glenn Gray. Included in Basic Writings (Revised and Expanded Edition). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San             Francisco: Harper, 1993. pp. 259-260.

13. Agamben, Giorgio. “On Potentiality.” Included in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Edited and Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford, 1999. pg. 182.

14. Homo Sacer, pg. 45.

15. “On Potentiality,” pg. 182.

16. Homo Sacer, pg. 55.

17. The Coming Community, pg. 83.

18. The Coming Community, pg. 40.

19. The Coming Community, pp. 36-37.

20. Language and Death, pp. 80-81.

21. “Form-of-Life,” pg. 9.

22. The Coming Community, pg. 43.

23. The Coming Community, pg. 44.

24. Homo Sacer, pg. 44.

25. Homo Sacer, pg. 47.

26. Language and Death, pg. 94.

27. Language and Death, pg. 96.

28. Language and Death, pg. 94.

29. Language and Death, pg. 93.

30. Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford, 1998. pg. 153. Also, Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale, 2000. pp. 162-163.

31. Homo Sacer, pg. 153. Also, Heidegger, Martin. Parmenides. Translated by André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington: Indiana, 1998. pg. 90.

32. Homo Sacer, pg. 153.

33. Homo Sacer, pg. 153.

34. Agamben, Giorgio. “Notes on Politics.” Included in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2000. pg. 114.

35. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000. 1177b20-27

36. Language and Death, pg. 105.

38. Language and Death, pg. 105.

39. Language and Death, pg. 105.

40. Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford, 1998. pp. 81-90.

41. Agamben, Giorgio. “Sovereign Police.” Included in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2000. pg. 104.

42. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan.  New York: Penguin, 1985. pg. 357 (II.28). Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Translated by George Schwab. Cambridge: MIT, 1988. pg. 5.

43. See Balakrishnan, Gopal. The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt. New York: Verso, 2000. pg. 188.

44. Homo Sacer, pg. 12.

45. The Coming Community, pg. 11.