Study Guide

Giorgio Agamben - Biopoliticians

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These folks take power's invasion of our bodies very, very seriously. They're all deadly serious—some would say humorless—but dark times call for dark theoretical measures, and real political danger demands straight-up diagnoses. These folks keep it real. Maybe a little too real for some.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah's book The Human Condition pretty much paved the way for Homo Sacer. You name it—if it appears in Agamben's work on biopolitics and bare life, then Arendt probably prepared it with a thought or three of her own.

In Arendt's view, the entry of "life" (as in the daily and reproductive needs of the body) on the political scene spelled catastrophe for politics. Arendt's disdain for life as we know it and her nostalgia for the pure politics of the ancient Greek city-state may make some readers queasy. Agamben, for his part, takes these as his cues, offering a rereading of the "originary" tradition of politics that tries to show what was compromised—and biopolitical—about state power from the start.

Michel Foucault

It's hard to overestimate the impact that Foucault's work has had on all critical theory that came after him. He's all over the map, by which we mean that he speaks to everyone—and Agamben is no exception.

Together with Arendt, Foucault, inventor of the notion of "bio-power," inspired Agamben's thoughts on biopolitics in Homo sacer and elsewhere in Agamben's work. Foucault's late lectures are especially relevant, and we'd encourage you to check them out if you're interested in seeing where Agamben's getting some of his ideas from.

Frantz Fanon

Fanon is famous for his analyses of the racist "epidermal schema" that colonialism bequeathed to the world. (We're talking about racist thoughts on skin color.) For Fanon, racism's all about how ideology essentially writes over the body, making people feel superior or inferior based just on the color of their skin.

Even if he didn't use the word "biopolitics," Fanon provided an important point of reference for thinkers like Agamben who were concerned with "bio-power" in all its forms. Fanon also adds an element to Agamben's theory about homo sacer, since Agamben himself doesn't really talk about the issue of slavery.

Fanon shows that because racism is obsessed with skin, faces, crania, and brains, to say nothing of other body parts, it takes its place among the worst—that is, the most damaging and lasting—forms of bio-power.

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