Study Guide

Giorgio Agamben Quotes

The camp, which is now securely lodged within the city's interior, is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet. [From Homo Sacer]

People like to complain that my theory is "totalizing," meaning that it tries to explain everything, and this sentence gives you a sense of why they'd make that complaint. What can I say? I like my grand claims about the planet, and I really don't care that my prophet-voice can get on people's nerves. At least it gets people's attention, right?

Anyway, you're probably wondering what on earth I mean by the above, so I'll tell you: we tend to think of the concentration camp as a horrific place whose like we haven't seen before or since. We imagine that the Nazi regime perpetrated the worst crimes conceivable, and that when World War II came to an end, those crimes did as well.

We're wrong, though. We're wrong because those kinds of crimes keep happening; in fact, they're becoming commonplace. Even if it's not obvious to most people, I claim that cities across the globe have already pretty much become camps. They're places where bare life is marshaled and managed.

The camp, in other words, is everywhere in this day and age. When I say it's the new nomos, I mean it's not just the new normal; it's also the new rule of law. as in not just the new normal but the new rule of law. Watch out, world. I mean, really: watch out.

The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment. The matchless potentiality of the nomos, its originary "force of law," is that it holds life in its ban by abandoning it. [From Homo Sacer]

At this point, I suggest a deep breath.

Now that your head has stopped spinning, I'll walk you through this one step at a time. "Originary" is one of my favorite words, and I use it to mean "primal," "inaugural," "foundational," or just plain "original." So don't let the fancy vocab throw you off—or the foreign words, like nomos, which you've already seen.

The quote above is crucial for understanding how I think about the workings of law. The thing about the law, I'm saying, is that to begin with, it doesn't apply itself to life but rather abandons life, reducing life to the "bare" I make such a fuss just about everywhere in my work. I basically say that it reduces people to just bodies.

What difference does it make to think about law as something that abandons life rather than something that applies itself to life? Well, for one thing, it means we have to redefine the force of law as something punitive rather than protective. Law's function, according to my way of thinking, is not to watch over those it supposedly guards, but rather to guard and guarantee its own sovereign survival. The law is out to protect itself rather than its subjects.

But as if that's not bad—or bleak—enough, there's a final twist when I say that law has am amazing ability ("matchless potentiality") to "hold life in its ban." That means life feels protected by law even when it's in fact banned by it—the law makes life bare. Because of the law, we have little or nothing left of our own.

The coming being is whatever being. [From The Coming Community]

It's true that I became justly famous after 9/11 for predicting further disaster, but I have also made more hopeful predictions from time to time, and I wish my readers would pay attention to this side of me as well as to my tendency to be a Cassandra.

Think of "whatever being" as the improbable happy ending to the movie version of Homo Sacer. If the homo sacer seems like the most hopeless case imaginable, it's nevertheless possible, I argue here and there, to imagine a positive end to this sad fate.

How could this be, you ask? Well, being "whatever" in my work means being without particular qualities that allow you to claim belonging to a particular group. This may not sound like fun at first, but think about what it implies: if everyone is without particular group predicates (or qualities), then we're all in it together—"it" being a state of predicatelessness. It means that we're all individuals, and so we don't form groups—except for one big group that includes all of humanity.

This state has the potential to be beautiful, since it can mean new ways of being together and unprecedented organizations and forms of life. Tell that to those who say that my work is all unrelenting darkness and no light.

The messianic vocation is the revocation of every vocation. [From The Time that Remains]

Now things are really getting dicey, right?

Never fear. This may look like mere meaningless wordplay, but think again. This quote comes from a line-by-line analysis I did of Paul's Letter to the Romans, where I try to understand exactly what Paul's paradoxes are all about.

This leads me to make some pretty paradoxical affirmations (and negations) of my own, and the quote above is one example of my attempts to do justice to Pauline logic. You can imagine, maybe, why this logic would appeal to me: not only is it about end times (something my famously apocalyptic imagination really can't get enough of); it's also about what's suspended and therefore not altogether canceled out. Potentiality, anyone?

So when Paul says (in Corinthians, but it's still relevant here) that during the time of the Messiah, "even those having wives may be as not having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up," he has in mind a state of affairs that cancels out the way things were destroying everything altogether.

Wait, what?

I'm saying that Paul imagines a new arrangement of the world in which lives go on but are not as before, because everyone's "vocation" has been crossed or canceled out. All vocations are "as not," which leads me to say, in my riffing way, that these vocations are "revoked," taken back.

Basically, what I'm saying is that Paul is an example of someone who thought about things in a messianic way. He wasn't afraid of the idea that life could radically change, and neither am I. In fact, I think radical change is about the only thing that will save us from absolute disaster.

The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation. [From "In Praise of Profanation," in Profanations]

Here we are, back at profanation. As I've said, this is a super enigmatic idea, even for me. Still, I like to send out signals of something other than distress sometimes, and there is something especially satisfying about assigning the next generation—the real coming community, after all—a "political task."

Again, you might find this task as I formulate it "vague," and that's fair. But I think that by leaving the content of the task for the next generation open-ended, I leave some room (even if not much) for this generation to take my words they way they want to. Wherever they take my work, though, I hope they at least take to the streets. I want the coming generation to think in radical new ways, and I want them to act on their ideas.