A Review of Agamben’s Homo Sacer, with special reference to Cambodian Human Sacrifice

Agamben, Giorgio. 1995. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

This is really an astonishing text, which encompasses a wide range of literatures, including, importantly: Carl Schmitt (Nazi political theorist), Walter Benjamin (Nazi Victim), Hannah Arendt (lover of a man who would become a Nazi, and herself a victim and theorist regarding fascism), Georges Bataille, a dedicated antifascist whose work was attacked by Benjamin as pseudofascist, and Michel Foucault, who created the concept of ‘biopower’ which exemplifies, for Agamben, the very crux of the problem: the relationship of the sovereignty of the state to the bare fact of being alive, and the erosion, historically, of the line separating the state’s sovereignty from the fact of bare life.

Agamben sees biopower therefore in an at least structural identity, if not a real identity, with bare life, which he then later qualifies is precisely the vulnerability to being killed. ((Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, 87ff)) Foucault’s concept of biopower was a means of investigating precisely the microscopic and ‘self’-disciplinary ways in which the political power of the state fragmented to shape and constitute governed and governable subjects. This subjection of the body, the realm of ‘bare life’ rather than properly ‘political life’ is the basis of biopolitics, or biopower.

For Foucault, bio-power or biopolitics was largely based on the normalizing and highly individual practice of subjecting power. Agamben notes repeatedly Foucault’s general lack of attention to the institutional aspect of the same times of power, which was related to these changes. Foucault and foucauldian scholars see the ‘modern,’ especially the ‘modern state,’ as inherently marked by the inclusion of “natural life” “in the mechanisms and calculations of State power and politics turns into biopolitics.” ((Ibid. 3))

Whereas biopolitics for Foucault is a mark of the modern state, Agamben claims that biopolitics is always necessarily implicit in any notion of sovereignty. What is different about the modern state for Agamben is not the fact of the exception (the inclusion of bare life into the political sphere, from which it had been classically excluded), but the degree to which the formally excluded bare life is included in the sovereign’s state of exception (see below).

Agamben’s argument rests on the foundation of the Greek origin of the concept of the social life and state, the civitas, or the Platonic Republic. Aristotle’s classic description of man as a political animal calls forward the distinction in Greek between bios and zoe, a “way of life” compared to “bare life,” or more properly the “good life” in comparison to “life in general.” Contra Foucault, and with Schmitt (see below), Agamben argues for the inherency of biopolitics to the definition of the sovereign.

Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion. ((Ibid. 11))

By this Agamben identifies the fact that bare life is the bare life of being alive (Greek: zoe), rather than the good life of a social style, culture, or politics. This is so because of the codeterminacy of the Sovereign with the State of Exception. This is the start of the book, which we can now see as an excursion from the main argument, which surrounds the book itself.

The larger argument is about the nature of the state, or sovereignty in general. Arguing from the basis of the notion that sovereignty is an incoherent concept which bases itself on an exception it itself brings into being, Agamben shows that the very notion of sovereignty necessarily includes the right of life and death over its subjects, a violent power of domination, and that this power is equivalent to the ‘bare life’ of the political subjects. There is therefore a seriously correction or rejection of Foucault’s characterization of biopolitics as modern. Instead, for Agamben, what matters is the entrance, during the modern, of the social into a permanent state of exception, when all bare life is subjected to state powers, and from which he does not believe it is possible to return to a previous state; it may be possible to invent new ways out, but a simple return is denied.

Beginning with Carl Schmitt, Agamben analyzes the Ausnahme, or ‘state of exception,’ which he sees as one part of a mutually productive pair, the other part of which is the sovereign. Schmitt defined the sovereign this way: “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” ((Ibid. 11)) The sovereign is himself the exception to the law which makes the law effective (Remembering always that Schmitt was the political theologian of German National Socialism). Therefore, the sovereign is the person who has power of life and death over others and over whose own self no one else has sovereignty. ((Ibid. 87ff.)) But because the state of exception is also the requirement of the sovereign’s legitimacy (the universal rule), it is simultaneously the expression of its fundamental power and it’s fundamental illegitimacy.

The second part, “Homo Sacer,” traces a figure we are constantly told is ‘obscure’ – the Roman figure of the Homo Sacer, or ‘sacred man,’ who is excluded from the law’s protections and therefore may be killed by anyone without repercussion, but precisely may not be sacrificed in ritual. This strange duality is the root of Agamben’s argument: what does it mean that this condemned man was unprotected from individual violence and reprotected from ritual sacrificial violence?
Agamben shows that Homo Sacer is nothing more than the corpse in fact: the ability to render ‘bare life’ to the status (symbolic or real) of the corpse, the sovereign-less body completely subject to external control: still under “the spell” of the juridical, but without the protections of it – that is, able to be killed by anyone without fear of retaliatory punishment from the king. Bare life is the capacity to be killed. So the duality emerges that “the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially hominess sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.” ((Ibid. p. 84))

Finally, the third part, “The Camp as biopolitical paradigm of the modern,” traces the expansion of the state of exception (the application of the sovereign’s power to the bare life of the subjects) in modern times, primarily through the German concentration camp. This has created a realm of indeterminacy about the sovereign and the state of exception that we must work – in a constructivist manner – to escape, but from which we cannot simply return.

Cambodia’s Sovereigns: Gleeful Vampire Elites

Agamben doesn’t, in my opinion, sufficiently investigate the notion that the homo sacer may specifically not be sacrificed. It seems that for him this is important only insofar as it notes that the homo sacer is different from ‘natural man,’ – he is ‘political man’ from whom the political has been withdrawn, leaving him uncomfortably between the political and the natural. ((This is especially found in his chapter “Sacred Life”)) Agamben also has a penetrating analysis of Hobbes’ ‘social contract’ here which puts to rights the notion that power is ‘given’ to the sovereign. (( Ibid. 105-107)) I don’t propose to unravel that here, but would like to rework some fieldnotes I took regarding human sacrifice in light of Agamben’s insights.

In the act of ritual violence we should always see note first the assertion that inheres in the act itself, especially as communicated to the witnesses. If violence is for Agamben, like Weber in a different way, the definition of the sovereign/State, then we may examine its violence as a form of communication to those it holds as subjects. In a famous Cambodia example, two human prisoners were sacrificed in 1877 near Ba Pnum to celebrate the establishment of a new Sdac Tran. ((Chandler, David P. “Royally-sponsored human sacrifices in Nineteenth-century Cambodia.” 199-136. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 1996)) In this case Buddhist monks prayed over the victims for two days prior to retreating during the sacrifice itself. What statement is being made by the royal officials? Whatever other statements are being communicated (about the presence or non-presence of real divinity, the moral nature of political power, etc.) at the least we can say that this one is made:

I am murdering a person in cold blood, and no one stops me. I do not know this person and bear no personal animus. This is to fulfill the demands of something greater even than my own person, who am its agent. My power over life and the expression of violence is complete, for you do not raise your hands against me or complain, but instead applaud and prostrate yourselves before me, and even the guarantors of moral behavior have sanctified this act by preparing the victim.

Perhaps the sovereign does not execute his violence himself, but he is the possibility of its execution, he is the pulsating state of exception, which allows him to identify both the sacrifices and those who cannot be sacrifices. Sovereign murder, or the withdrawal of sovereign protection from a subject, has this in common with sacrifice: it is the expression and instantiation of absolute power and its possession of legitimate violence. Nothing expresses this more clearly than the judicial murder of a human being, especially if that victim stands guilty of the same crime of murder.

We can bring this analysis forward to the present day, when the Day of Hate ceremonies are presented by the CPP to the Khmer People. There is a double-representation there – for the members of the CPP it is a sort of pseudo sacrificial kinship act, for those outside and opposed, it can be seen as a threat. One person described it to me in this way:

It’s essentially a threat – ‘we made Pol Pot go away, and we can allow it to come back.’

This may have been especially effective during the ongoing civil war, which finally disintegrated along with the coherency of opposition factions. Political violence is less common these days, though its geographical extension is, if anything, increased, and its pervasion of everyday life ubiquitous.

The power of the sovereigns over bare life – the ability of subjects to be killed – seems to increase with the stability of sovereign rule. But this kind of violence also twists back on itself, for when the sovereign state of exception expands, the legitimacy of the sovereign becomes equally indistinct. Hence, the mass murder of suspected moto thieves becomes visible not only as the horrific murder by a mob of a stranger, but also as the exclamation that people deny the sovereign’s exclusive right to violence.

Agamben shows, following Hobbes, that sovereign power is not the acquisition of the right to violence over others, but the retention of that right when all others have renounced it. (( Agamben. Op Cit. 105-107)) But can mob violence be seen as the return of sovereignty? Logically, the answer would seem to be yes.

This is at the heart of Agamben’s project: to question the very moral coherency of the concept of sovereignty, which entails the rights of murder and violence in its very constitution.

4 thoughts on “A Review of Agamben’s Homo Sacer, with special reference to Cambodian Human Sacrifice

  1. I have seen three so called mob lynchings in Cambodia. I recommend additionally reading Rene Girard Scapegoat and Frazers Golden Bough. The status of a sacrificial subject has been deprived off the notion of possible innocence in the first and last place, which marks for Girad the very innovation of Christianity; and the Kings of Angkor weren’t allowed to die of natural causes, a priests would run daggers in the heart of the cakravartin, as Frazer purports.
    (Please delete my former comment)

    • Girard’s work on violence and the sacred could certainly also be usefully enrolled here, if one were so inclined. I’m less likely to endorse taking much from the Golden Bough as good history, though.

      How do you think Girard’s work would affect this reading? Thanks!

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