Giorgio Agamben

Kai Eriksson

Posted on June 28 2018

One of the most important figures in contemporary continental philosophy and political theory



1942 Born 22 April


Takes his law degree at the University of Rome


Participates in Martin Heidegger's seminars on Heraclitus and Hegel as a post-doctoral scholar in Freiburg


Moves to Paris and teaches Italian as a lecturer at the University of Haute-Bretagne


Is a fellow at the Warburg Institute, University of London


Stanze, his first major work, is published


Acts as the Directeur de programme at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris until 1993


Works as an associate professor of Aesthetics at the University of Macerata until 1992


La communità che viene is published


Takes up a position as an associate professor of Aesthetics at the University of Verona until 2003


Rises to international prominence after the publication of Homo Sacer


Appointed Distinguished Professor at New York University. In the following year, abandons his position in protest against the way US government gathered biometric information on all foreign visitors


Receives the Prix Européen de l'Essai Charles Veillon


Is awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize





  • Aristotle
  • G.W.F. Hegel
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Aby Warburg
  • Guy Debord
  • Michel Foucault
  • Hannah Arendt
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Émile Benveniste
  • Carl Schmitt
  • Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Maurice Blanchot






  • Language and representation
  • History and temporality
  • The force of law
  • Politics of the spectacle
  • Scholasticism
  • Jewish mysticism
  • History of Christian theology
  • Greek and Roman law
  • Midrashic literature
  • The relationship between the human and the animal
  • Philosophy of potentiality  [potenza]
  • Vocabulary of inoperativeness  [inoperosità]





In The Coming Community (1990), Agamben intervenes in the theoretical debate following the publication of Jean-Luc Nancy's essay La communauté désoeuvrée (1983), and Maurice Blanchot's response, La communauté inavouable (1983). At the center of this debate were Georges Bataille's ideas of community.


Agamben proposed his own model of a community which would resist totalisation, that is, conceptions of community that are built upon a sense of closure, continuity, and unity.


For Bataille, the only community that would be immune to this danger would be a community that offered no criteria for exclusion.


Like Nancy, Agamben presents the idea of community that is based on the notion of belonging without identity.


He proposes ‘whatever-singularity’ [singolarità qualunque] as something which escapes the logic of sovereignty. Taken from Deleuze and Guattari, a singularity is something which is unique and which can’t be reduced to a representation. It has general value as it is.


Agamben refers to the coming community as a social form which is counterposed to the logic of sovereignty. It is based on ‘whatever-singularities’ in their antagonism with the state and sovereignty.


He believes that whatever-singularities can form communities without affirming ‘representable conditions of belonging’ such as laws and norms. That is, there can be a community without either representation or possible description.


According to Guy Debord, the real world is transformed into an image, thus destroying traditional identities. This transformation leads us to view the world as a representable totality.


What this means is the alienation from human communicativity and, thus, from the means of constructing a community free from exclusion.


Yet, Agamben declares that we are the first human beings who have become completely conscious of language not this or that content of language but language itself.


The world's transformation into an image (the society of the spectacle) has become so complete that we can see something normally obscured by the message: the medium itself.


The coming community calls for a continual unworking of totalizing and exclusionary myths of collectivity. It also calls for alternative conceptions of being together.


Community in this sense is a community without unity – without destiny and without essence.








Sovereign power, Agamben argues, establishes itself through the production of a political order based on the exclusion of bare, biological life. Examples of the manifestations of bare life include the inhabitants of concentration camps, refugees, and the global poor.


The sovereign decides which lives will belong 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.







The separation of zoē from bios indicates a Western politics that has constituted itself from its beginnings as a biopolitics, a term coined by Michel Foucault.












The task of his multi-volume work, Homo Sacer:


A rethinking of all the categories of our political tradition in light of the relation between sovereign power and bare life (Agamben)


Foucault: The shift from sovereign power to bio-power is what inaugurates modernity.


Whereas in earlier epochs sovereignty was based primarily on the control of territory, in the modern era it has become mostly concerned with population: population became the target of a regime of power.


Agamben confronts this distinction and suggests that sovereignty and bio-power are fundamentally interconnected: Sovereign power is itself already biopolitical, based on the constitution of bare biological life.


Western politics has been a biopolitics since its very inception at the time of Aristotle.


Foucault has been criticised for downgrading the centrality of sovereign state power in favour of a multiplicity of power relations that permeate every level of society.


Agamben, on the other hand, restores sovereignty, law, and the state to their central position.


Preceding Foucault, Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, attributes the transformation and decadence of politics to the primacy of natural life over political life.


Following Arendt, Agamben posits the inclusion of zoē into politics as the decisive step into modernity and echoes the declaration that this event demands a radical transformation of classical politico-philosophical categories.


His hope for the future comes from the collapse of the border between politics and life.







  • Simon Behrman: as much as law is a tool of sovereign power, it also grants citizens fundamental rights, which they can use against sovereign power. 

    • Andreas Kalyvas critiques Agamben’s ahistoricism as an “almost totalistic, agentless history”. The uninterrupted expansion of sovereign biopolitics remains unaffected by quite distinct models of sovereignty such as the birth of the ancient-Greek democratic city or the emergence of commercial capitalism.

    • Andrew Robinson: Agamben explains the current situation mainly through the unfolding of a single dynamic, that of sovereignty. This underestimates the extent to which the state’s unfolding is inflected by other social forces. No political entity such as the state is completely independent of the myriad forces running through the social body (Foucault). 

    • Jessica Whyte: Agamben does not take into account the political struggles of modernity – women’s rights, human rights, workers’ rights. In general, and as opposed to, for instance, the work of Benjamin, Foucault, or Žižek, struggle is almost entirely absent in Agamben's writings.

      Why? He is suspicious of any active political subjectivity presumably because of his Heideggerian conception that Being (medium) comes before beings (messages). Rather than an individual, what is important is instead the structure which generates individual identities. As opposed to Heidegger, however, Agamben insists on the ethical and political stakes of the question of being.


      Yet, there are ontic conditions for ontological change (see Diiplooks on Latour and especially Deleuze; an enunciation speaks on the same level as things and content).


      The result: Agamben turns away from political movements today, which leads to a potential deterministic understanding of social transformation (Jessica Whyte).



      • Agamben's analysis of the connections between the Nazi era and contemporary governmental actions is said to be inaccurate. 

        Thus, Agamben’s work and proposals for the politics to come is considered too nebulous and esoteric to be of use (e.g. Slavoj Žižek).


        • While focusing upon ‘modernity’, Agamben allegedly underestimates the way in which capital creates new identities. His analysis of modernity is inadequate in grasping the global dominance of capital (Jessica Whyte).







          Primary Literature


            • Il linguaggio e la morte: Un seminario sul luogo della negatività (1982); Language and Death: The Place of Negativity (1991)
            • La comunità che viene (1990); The Coming Community (1993)
            • Homo Sacer. Il potere sovrano e la vita nuda (1995); Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998)
            • Mezzi senza fine. Note sulla politica (1996); Means Without End: Notes of Politics (2000)
            • Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (1999)



              Secondary Literature


              • Leland de la Durantaye: Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (2009)
              • Mathew Abbott: The figure of this world: Agamben and the question of political ontology (2014)
              • Jessica Whyte: Catastrophe and redemption: The political thought of Giorgio Agamben (2014)



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