No one is safe

Lilly Markaki on Agamben’s timely warnings about state power and perpetual war

December 10, 2015

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Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, by Giorgio Agamben

We should not be astonished if today the normal relationship between the state and its citizens is defined by suspicion, police filing and control. The unspoken principle which rules our society can be stated like that: every citizen is a potential terrorist. But what is a State which is ruled by such a principle? Can we still define it as democratic State? Can we even consider it as being something political? In which kind of State do we live today?

– Agamben, Public lecture in Athens, November 2011 [1] Giorgio Agamben was born in Rome in 1942. At the age of twenty two, he appeared as the young apostle Philip in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poetic film-adaptation of the first gospel, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. Today, he is considered to be one of the most important and challenging thinkers that the fields of contemporary philosophy and political theory have to offer.

While his thought traverses a wide range of topics – from law and religion to linguistics and art – Agamben is perhaps most known for a series of writings, now collected under the title of “Homo Sacer.” Binding these works together are a number of notions first encountered in the inaugural volume, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995). The most central of these is the concept of ‘bare life’, one that Agamben explores through the figure of the “sacred man” that gives the series its name. As found in Roman Law, the term describes a person condemned by society to live outside it, and who can therefore no longer be encompassed by its laws, human or divine – thus they may be killed with impunity, but not religiously sacrificed. It is in this sense that the being of homo sacer or “sacred man” can be said to be reduced to the status of ‘bare’ or animal life, as they are hereinafter included in society only by way of the form of their exclusion. “The individual as reduced to the most concrete and animalistic elements of its life, confronts a power that is also reduced to its most disembodied abstraction, to an empty form leaping out of Kafka’s narratives.”[2]

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Why should we care? The answer is simple. Agamben is not here sifting through history for the sake of it; like all of his political writing, his examination of the figure of homo sacer comes as a direct response to fundamental problems faced in politics today. And, having provided a legal definition, the thinker proceeds to show the entire history of Western politics to be a process which ultimately transforms all human life into sacred life. This might seem extreme, but we need only look at the current European border crisis and the abundance of images and news reports of refugees drowning, freezing to death, or being stuck at check-point facilities resembling concentration camps, for evidence. These are people who, deprived of their identity, must carry a barcode instead – a reminder that what matters most is that their lives are controlled, not protected. And this is only one of many contemporary examples of that laying ‘bare’ of life that Agamben speaks of:

If it is true that the figure proposed by our age is that of an unsacrificeable life that has nevertheless become capable of being killed to an unprecedented degree, then the bare life of homo sacer concerns us in a special way. Sacredness is a line of flight still present in contemporary politics, a line that is as such moving into zones increasingly vast and dark, to the point of ultimately coinciding with the biological life itself of citizens. If today there is no longer any one clear figure of the sacred man, it is perhaps because we are all virtually homines sacri.[3]

In the volumes that proceed Homo Sacer, Agamben returns to the concept of ‘bare life’ time and again to consider its relevance to the present form of all government, economy, and language. The latest addition to the “Homo Sacer” series, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, is no exception. Overarching as ever in its scope, the book is dedicated to an investigation of the paradigm of civil war. The true issue at stake here, however, is once more the relationship of human life to power. Indeed, both chapters of this short book – “Stasis” and the intriguing “Leviathan and Behemoth” – are case studies in the ways in which individuals move between private being and body politic, and intend to show that politics has no real substance but is “a field incessantly traversed by the tension currents of politicisation and depoliticisation, the family and the city.”[4]

A refugee child arrives in Austria

A refugee child arrives in Austria

It is in relation to this idea that civil war is discussed here, not so much in its instances, but for its function as a “threshold of politicisation” – central to the renewal of a sense of political unity between the members of a community, and which must, as such,“remain always possible in the city.”[5] That a state which expects the individuals that confer its powers to do so unconditionally, such as the ones we are currently experiencing, would view civil war as its “most malignant enemy,” to be “render[ed] impossible at every cost,”[6] should come as no surprise. Agamben brings the topic home:

… global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stakes of politics. Precisely when the polis appears in the reassuring figure of an oikos – the ‘Common European Home’, or the world as the absolute space of global economic management – then stasis, which can no longer be situated in the threshold between the oikos and the polis, becomes the paradigm of every conflict and re-emerges in the form of terror. Terrorism is the ‘global civil war’ which time and again invests this or that zone of planetary space. [7]

Let’s return to the question we began with, and consider it this time in the context of civil war: “In which kind of State do we live today?” I suggest that, like Agamben, we turn to the past, and revisit the final lines of an extraordinary 1967 film, Far From Vietnam: “In a few minutes, this film will end. Leaving the theatre, many of you will return to a world without war. It’s ours as well, and we know how easy it is to forget certain realities. We live in a society that has made an art of hiding its own ends, its own vertigo, and above all its own violence.”[8]

If you’re reading this today, you might be far from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, South Sudan, Libya, Ukraine, Iraq, Israel/Gaza, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, or any other ongoing war, but remember this also means you’re far from uninvolved, and even further away from a democratic world. No one is safe, until we all are.


“Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm” is the inaugural volume of the new ‘Encounters in Law and Philosophy’ series by Edinburgh University Press, and was first published in June 2015.


[1] Giorgio Agamben. “For a Theory of Destituent Power.” Public lecture in Athens, Greece (November 2013). URL:

[2] Kalliopi Nikolopoulou. “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Review).” SubStance, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2000), 126. URL:

[3] Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), 68.

[4] Agamben. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 17.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Far From Vietnam (“Loin du Vietnam”). Directed by Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais. (France: Societe pour le Lancement des Oeuvre Nouvelles, 1967), 115 min.



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