Study Guide

Giorgio Agamben Buzzwords

Homo sacer

Say my name, and this will probably be the first phrase that comes to people's minds. I wrote a series of books on a figure called the "sacred man" or "accursed man," who has his origins in Roman law. (Riddle me that: in Latin, sacer means both sacred and accursed.)

I argue that the current, catastrophic biopolitical situation leads to a lot of people being turned into copies of the homo sacer. Meaning that these people are basically zombies, or the living dead. This situation is unacceptable. The most spectacular example of this is the Holocaust, but one of my claims is that the Holocaust isn't nearly as exceptional as people tend to think.

There are holocausts of different scales happening all the time, all around us. If that sounds like a bleak forecast to you, so be it. No one said that it would always be sunny when you're doing philosophy.

State of Exception

Here's another phrase that is very often associated with my name. In several works—but especially in my book State of Exception—I consider an increasing and alarming trend in recent years: the law is starting be suspended more and more often during states of emergency.

One thing that Nazi Germany and the U.S.-led War on Terror have in common, I think, is a reliance on these kinds of states of emergency. As we've seen at Guantanamo Bay as well as in Nazi concentration camps, state power likes to declare itself to be under threat so that it can get around the rule of law.

Put another way, the law finds a way to cancel itself out, even while it remains in force. Something crazy and crucial happens in situations like these, and I have made it my mission to figure out what this something is. Never one to shy away from paradox, I argue that the "state of exception" demonstrates how paradoxical the rule of law is... and was from the first.


Not to be confused with the stuff of science class, this pair of concepts and phrases refers to power's tendency in modernity to rule over the bodies of citizens, and not just over their hearts and minds.

Once upon a time, the thing that people in power cared most about was securing the obedience of their subjects. The wellbeing of these subjects—their physical health—was really of no concern. As long as bodies were robust enough to work, power breathed easy.

But something happened with the onset of the modern age, something that both Arendt and Foucault (who coined the phrase "bio-power") associate with power's new interest in securing obedience through control over the bodies of subjects.

This is awful, in my book, because it leads to the erosion of all kinds of basic rights and freedoms—as well as to the destruction of forms of social life. Here's where I get my reputation for doom and gloom: I keep saying that there's no way out of the biopolitical predicament. We need to accept our reduction to the status of bodies, bodies that power claims the right to sustain or dispose of.

If we are to find a better alternative—and if you read me carefully, I say that we need to and that we can—we have to accept this reality rather than deny it. So when people accuse me of pessimism, I say they're just not facing up to reality.

Bare Life

This is life stripped of its social and political attributes, reduced to a bodily minimum. As in the concentration camps and other dire places a little closer to home (like Gitmo or Bari), life goes on, but only barely. You can barely call it life at all.

Unfortunately, I think that this form of life is becoming the norm with the spread of sovereign power and the proliferation of states of exception in today's world. No wonder people call my theory depressing.


Another keyword in my work, "sovereignty" refers to power's ability to rule over those it subjects.

Foucault tracked changes in the shape of power during the course of modern history and argued that "sovereign power" (the kind wielded by absolute monarchs) gave way to disciplinary regimes, and then governmental regimes.

My work on sovereignty is indebted to Foucault, but I also mount a critique of his theory. I argue that sovereign power doesn't go away in modernity; I think that in the twentieth century, it was actually enhanced as time went on. It just gets worse and worse.


Of all the toughies in my work, this one may be the toughest. I spend lots of time in my book Potentialities showing why this concept, originally from Aristotle, is still useful today. Knowing what I think about potentiality can help you to understand what I think about lots of other things.

Basically, I ask what happens to possibilities if they're not straightforwardly realized. For example, what happens to the poet who's not writing a poem? He has the potential to write a poem, whether or not he's writing one at a given time, and this potential fascinates me, because it's power held in reserve or kept in suspension.

You can maybe see how and why this kind of investigation looks forward to my more recent work on law. What happens to a law that exists as a potential but isn't quite realized? Is there still rule of law? What happens in a state of exception?


Another toughie, but this one's more fun: the way I use the term, "profanation" doesn't just refer to obscenity. Instead it's about a principled refusal to respect the separations that power sets up: separations between sacred and profane, first and foremost, but also between private and public, off-limits and open, untouchable and touchable, and so on.

Why get all excited about profanation? Well, I'm tired of always thinking according to old rules and old categories. If we want to learn to think in new ways, we have to start by "profaning" the categories ruling our thinking.