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on 16 May 2008
This is an important book, and one which deserves wide readership. It deals with the relationship between sovereignty and bare life, and explores this theme through the concept of the "homo sacer" - a man in ancient Rome whose life is not subject to conventional legal protection (he can be killed, but not put to death under the law), and thus exists within the state of exception - a legal space where, paradoxically no law exists, that defines the limit of the law.

With the advent of National Socialism - brilliantly analyzed through Agamben's application of Foucault's notion of "biopolitics" - homo sacer becomes central to the way in which citizenship and life are conceived by the state. The concentration camp, an arena legally constituted where no law exists, becomes the ultimate space where sovreignty over life is constituted. Even with the disappearance of Auschwitz in 1945, argues Agamben, the concentration camp casts its shadow over the way the state describes life, different legal categories of life and their limits. While perhaps Agamben concepts could be tested more thoroughly in their various mid and late twentieth century contexts in order to refine his argument, this is a compelling (and terrifying) view of the operation of state power and politics in our era.
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on 18 May 2006
This is an extremely heavy philosophical text which is not for beginners or those unfamiliar with continental philosophy.

The basic thesis Agamben advances is that sovereignty (hence state power) is constructed through the exclusion (which is simultaneously an inclusion-as-exception) of "bare life", which is to say, the body and relations of force. This exclusion returns in the figure of sovereign power (as law-making and thus as excess over law) and its construction of homo sacer, a type of subject who can be "killed but not sacrificed" (and who is thus outside both profane and sacred law). Homo sacer reaches his apogee in the camp, such as Nazi concentration camps. The camp is the "paradigm" of the modern state, and homo sacer and the "state of exception" in which the state suspends basic rights is becoming the normal condition of politics.

There are several problems here. The first is that Agamben is prone to argue by assertion and exegesis. The result is that his claims are largely unsupported and "take it or leave it" - either you're convinced by his account or you aren't. The second is that he doesn't draw political conclusions from what is obviously a political subject. If the state of exception and homo sacer are inherent to state sovereignty as such, Agamben's thesis would seem to be a powerful case for anarchism, yet he never draws any such implication, nor addresses the corresponding question of how else bodies can be "politicised". Thirdly, the thesis isn't really as original as Agamben seems to think - it's a repetition of themes arising in the work of A. Hirschman, John Zerzan, ecofeminists such as Robyn Eckersley, the Frankfurt School (e.g. Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment"), and a host of other authors dealing with the exclusion of the "natural", the emotional and the embodied from masculine, industrial, or public institutions. An engagement with such prior literature would have strengthened Agamben's case, not least in allowing him to show how his thesis differs from theirs, and what precisely is added by ideas such as homo sacer and bare life.
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on 19 May 2010
Homo Sacer is one of those few books that after reading I was a different person. It is a profound but very difficult text to understand. However difficult it may be, I would argue it is a necessary read for anyone who is interested in current politics matters of law and many contemporary ethical issues. In the introduction Agamben reflects on the fact that the Ancient Greeks had two words for life bios, and zoe: he characterizes Zeo as natural or "Bare Life" and argues that this, inclusions by exclusion of Zoe from bios is a fault-line that has been in the heart of politics (western) from its very inception. Building on the ideas of Foucault, Arendt, and in definition of Sovereignty suggested by Schmitt "sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception" Agamben constructs a power critic of political-Judical systems, and how they come more and more to exercise their power on the bodies of their subjects, the camps and the holocaust being the most extreme expression. However Homo Sacer is a very difficult read in the tradition of Continental Philosophy, I also feel it is something of an introduction to Remnants of Auschwitz.

Once read nobody can hear the argument surrounding "the war on terror" in the same way. Agamben raises many challenging questions, although it has to be said not all that many solutions. However difficult this text is it is profound and important a must read.
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on 30 May 2015
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch

This is an important book making striking points, though it is dominated by an exaggerated view of "biopolitics." Also, the validity of important insight does not prove the complex theses on the foundational significance of homo sacer, as bare life under a "ban," who "can be killed but not sacrificed" (p. 113). Thus, there is no shred of evidence for statements such as "Not simple natural life, but life expose to death (bare life or sacred life) is the original political elements" (p. 88). The main ideas making this book significant do not depend on the theory of "homo sacer" and may well be clearer without it.

Leaving aside the discussion of "state of exception," which Agamben develops in another book to be reviewed separately, the strong points of the Homo Sacer book include, inter alias, the following:

1. Emphasis on ontology of potential, with the valid conclusion that "Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality...has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality ... a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable" (page 44).

2. Pinpointing weaknesses of democracy, such as "The understanding of the Hobbesian mythologeme in terms of contract ...condemned democracy to impotence every time it had to confront the problem of sovereign power and has also rendered modern democracy constitutionally incapable of truly thinking a politics freed from the form of the State" (p. 109). This may well provide a key to understanding and coping with increasingly fateful global issues on which organizations based on states are quite impotent. As succinctly put, "...every time refugees represent...a mass phenomenon, both [international organizations] and individual states prove themselves, despite their solemn invocation of the `sacred and inalienable' rights of man, absolutely incapable of resolving the problem and even of confronting it adequately" (p. 133). This is validated by recent developments, such as Syrian refugees, and is sure to become worse - such as when climate change results in masses of refugees.

3. A sharp distinction between the rights of citizen and human rights, with dire consequences for human welfare. Indeed "The separation between humanitarianism and politics that we are experiencing today is the extreme phase of the separation of the rights of man from the rights of the citizen" (p.133).

4. A profound discussion, in chapter 7, of "The Camp as the `Nomos' of the Modern" (p. 166), with the "camps being a "hybrid of law and fact in which the two terms have become indistinguishable" (emphasis in original) and in which "everything [bad] is possible" (p. 170). However, it is a gross exaggeration to regard "the camp...as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity" (p. 123).

The most problematic frame of the book is biopolitics, with claims such as "in modernity life is more and more clearly placed at the center of State politics (which now becomes, in Foucault's terms, biopolitics) (p. 111). But the author, while largely wrong on the contemporary situation, shows premonition. Human enhancement and other science and technology innovations will indeed put a radical form of biopolitics at the center of global concerns, with issues related to human enhancement becoming central on political agenda. They are likely to lead to quite some revaluations, such as on science and technology freedom, leading through harsh crises to a new global regime and a novel genre of political leaders (as discussed in my recent book).

Indeed, humanity is moving towards "risking an unprecedented biopolitical catastrophe", as stated in the concluding sentence of the book (p.188), with "the sovereign ... entering into an even more intimate symbiosis not only with the jurist but also with the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest" (p. 122). Statements such as "In modern biopolitics, sovereign is he who decides on the value or the nonvalue of life as such" (p. 142) and "politics ...giving form to the life of a people" (pp. 144ff) are likely to fit the future, making this book more into a high-quality longer-term prognosis than a valid diagnosis of the present time.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on 30 October 2015
an interesting book, but to take the Hobbesian idea that an individual who no longer comes under any law is returned to a state of nature - cast out so that anybody who kills that person is not punished, in the old Roman maxim - is one thing; to stretch it to argue that we are all becoming homo sacer is smethng else. I'm about to read his second book, State of Nature, in the hope that he's going to convince me. Interesting idea though, especially given the Guantanamo Bay inmates and the current refugee crisis.
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on 2 July 2014
This text is an absolute must-read for any thoughtful person. I cannot, in the space of a marketplace review, do justice to the profundity, the exquisite judgement and interpretative genius of Homo Sacer but it is clear that for any thinker worth his or her salt that there will be a before and an after Giorgio Agamben.

To be sure this is not a layman's read. An uncanny facility with language including the classical languages, German, French and English is a requisite - as indeed it is for all worthwhile modern philosophy - in addition to a deeply philosophical and noble temperament.

The highlights include incredible and mind-boggling interpretations of a Kafka parable, fragments by Pindar, Holderlin, Benjamin and Carl Schmidt as well as the great Aristotle - but so much more is contained in this exceptional book such as interpretations of the messiah, even the Antichrist, the concept of the wolf-man (werewolf) and the most astute understanding of sovereign power I have had the chance to read:

A real feast. Don't miss out!

P.S. I look forward to reading the sequels to this monumental work of thought, namely State of Exception and The Kingdom and the Glory.

Five stars, no question
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on 28 March 2016
thank you
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