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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)

Intersections and Divergences in Contemporary Theory: Baudrillard and Agamben On Politics And the Daunting Questions of Our Time

Form of Life1

Giorgio Agamben
(Collège In International de Philosophie, Paris, France)

Translated by Vincenzo Binetti
(Department of Romance Languages, University of Michigan, USA), and

Cesare Casarino
(Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota, USA)

With an Introduction by

Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada).


I. Introduction

            There are some interesting writers – I like what Agamben writes…2

We are now in the transpolitical sphere… the zero-point of politics, a stage which also implies the reproduction of politics, its endless simulation. …politics will never finish disappearing – nor will it allow anything else to emerge in its place. A kind of hysteresis of the political reigns.3


Politics has suffered a lasting eclipse…4

            Why does Baudrillard enjoy reading Agamben? One reason is that while there are few direct conceptual overlaps – there are many thematic ones – as each, in his own way, attempts to push us beyond contemporary understandings of the state and politics. Both share a deep mistrust of media and political elites, the nation state, technology, and are strong proponents of thought and writing as powerful forms of resistance. Both are also deeply concerned about terrorism but more so with the terrorism perpetrated by states than rogue groups. Both thinkers also share a kind of optimism although if there is a difference between the two, it may reside in Baudrillard’s understanding that the catastrophe that Agamben seeks to avoid, may have already taken place. Finally, both thinkers have suffered a certain marginalization which speaks to the depth of the banality of our institutions of higher learning given that Agamben and Baudrillard press us to examine some of the most daunting questions humans have ever faced.

            The reappearance of Agamben’s 1993 essay “Form of Life” which follows, and this introduction, are intended to serve two purposes: 1) To provide Baudrillard scholars with one of Agamben’s most important earlier writings – one in which he deploys many of the concepts he has been working with since; and 2) to stimulate those interested in Baudrillard’s writing to consider some of the points of intersection and possible points of divergence between these two important contemporary theorists.

            Agamben’s essay anticipates key aspects of our current “hysteresis of the political”5 by a decade, especially the current effort to replace discourses of progress and freedom with discourses of catastrophe and security. Critical thought on terrorism and security is now dominated by mainstream analyses such as Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil.6 Such books, which provide little more than scholarly justification for U.S. government actions, are accompanied by the painful appearance of a leading American civil libertarian, Alan Dershowitz, in the national mainstream media delineating the acceptable (legal) way for the U.S. government to implement torture in interrogations.7 And so the Americans run their “camp” at Guantanamo Bay, Tony Blair emerges from the British election cleansed of the misleading statements that took Britain to war in Iraq,8 and everywhere people doubt the trustworthiness of their leaders (Enron, the Canadian sponsorship scandal,9 the War in Iraq, Food for Oil, the European Constitution, Berlusconi, etcetera).  In such times, it is useful to look at the thought of Agamben and Baudrillard in concert as we attempt to think beyond the present. This leads to complex and disconcerting questions as we enquire into an “other” side of the current morass and wonder if we may have entered into a terminal phase of humanity?

            The work of Agamben and Baudrillard shares a deep and necessary distrust of the contemporary nation state. In “Form of Life,” we find Agamben, like Baudrillard, uncomfortably at home in the uncertainty of our times, attempting to provide a challenge to the system which envelopes us. Agamben is a proponent of thought and writing against the systemic forces of science and technology. For Agamben a political life is aimed at the one thing that makes us human – the fact that happiness is always at stake in our living – essential to our form-of-life as humans. For Agamben life can never be separated from its form-of-life but this is precisely what political power attempts to do today as what Agamben terms “pseudo-scientific” ideology has invented the term “biological life” as the secularized term for “naked life.” Naked life, for Agamben is now the dominant form of life everywhere because political power has succeeded in founding itself on a separation of naked life from “form-of-life”.10        

            I think of Agamben when Baudrillard speaks of his own “virtual state of rupture” with the political world11 and it is precisely this break, the lack of system commitments,  that make both he and Agamben such acute commentators on the (trans)political today. Baudrillard has long identified the state with the management of “the epidemic of consensus” from which terrorism, ridiculous and destined to failure as it is, protects us. Indeed, the state and terrorism both serve the system well. The state has held us nuclear hostages since the end of World War II,12 and now the entire planet is reduced to a battleground for the war against terrorism. Today terrorism and the state have become “accomplices in a circular set-up where terrorism makes no more sense than the state does.13

            Taken together, the thought of Agamben and Baudrillard anticipates a kind of escape velocity from the tired formulas and repressing structures of the present and its seeming slide into the inhuman.14 Agamben recognizes not only that the “state of emergency” is not the exception but the rule in modern political power, 15 while perceptively pointing out that political power works very hard to produce emergency and in so doing attempts to construct “naked life” as the dominant form of life everywhere (which is the hidden foundation of modern political power). This is not far from Baudrillard’s focus on the “police state globalization” and “total control” of the “terror” of economic deregulation and liberal globalization which “ends up in a maximum of constraints and restrictions, akin to those of a fundamentalist society”.16 For Baudrillard, a survivor of the twentieth century, the century of the camps, of Stalin, and of the stillborn but enforced consumer freedoms of the West, “terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it”.17 As he wrote over two decades ago:

...what kind of state would be capable of dissuading and annihilating all terrorism in the bud...?  It would have to arm itself with such terrorism and generalize terror on every level.  If this is the price of security, is everybody deep down dreaming of this?18


Here we find Baudrillard’s position very close to Agamben’s assessment of the state of exception: “If the terms were not contradictory, one would say that security has become our destiny…”an“ overprotected species which, in their domestication, are dying of too much security”.19

            Agamben and Baudrillard each seize upon the faked [and much televised] massacre at Timisoara, Romania over a decade ago to illustrate the way in which the media compounds the depths of uncertainty. For Agamben “Timisoara is “…the Auschwitz of the age of the spectacle: and in the same way in which it has been said that after Auschwitz it is impossible to write and think as before, it will no longer be possible to watch television in the same way”.20 As Baudrillard expresses the problem of Timisoara: “...this Romanian affair, and the artificial heaps of corpses… Never again will we be able to look at a television picture in good faith…”21 In this, and elsewhere, the writing of both Agamben and Baudrillard is refreshingly devoid of mediated platitudes about the roles of Europe and America in the world. Agamben sounds quite like Baudrillard when he speaks of a “Europe…  whose catastrophe one can already foresee”.22

            Despite (or because of) their loss of faith in politicians and the media, and the shared understanding that the greatest threat to civil liberties and freedom emerges from the very state institutions whose role it is to protect and uphold them, there is a hopeful and optimistic tone in both Agamben and Baudrillard. Agamben has a faith in people as (essentially) political animals to reach new solutions while Baudrillard privileges ruptures, backfires and reversals in the operation of the system that he believes are more likely to provide momentary relief it not solutions.23 Throughout Agamben’s writing since 1993 one finds a consistent pessimism of mind (his understanding of history) tempered with an optimism of heart (his belief in human kind to overcome the limits it has placed on itself). As in Arendt, thought always remains our hope for Agamben. For Baudrillard the task of thought is to press beyond the conceptual confines of the system:

…the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and problematic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic.24

            Baudrillard appears more willing than Agamben to look over the edge of the political abyss we face at present and he, like Virilio, has a well honed sense of catastrophe. For Agamben, what Baudrillard terms the transpolitical is the protracted eclipse politics is undergoing in which it “appears in a subaltern position with respect to religion, economics, and even the law,” because it is “losing sight of its own ontological status: it has failed to confront the transformations that have gradually emptied out its categories and concepts”.25

            If there is a significant difference between Agamben and Baudrillard, it may well concern the actual level of optimism each holds for the future. Agamben maintains a vague hope for the future in his understanding of the citizen and community based essence of politics and language. Baudrillard wants us to examine the possibility (I tend to take it as a warning more than a forgone conclusion) that the catastrophe has already taken place. Agamben’s project is to contribute to the resuscitation of the ontological status of politics and to seek genuinely political paradigms in “experiences and phenomena that usually are not considered political or that are considered only marginally so”.26 This approach leads Agamben to investigate what he calls “the natural life of human beings” and the “state of exception,” which takes him to the camps, refugees, language, and the sphere of gestures as central concepts. Alongside of Baudrillard’s use of theory as challenge and his notion of the transpolitical, Agamben takes his place with important conceptual and methodological questions.

            It is possible to think of Agamben writing about a fork in the future road of humanity. One fork leads to what Baudrillard calls the “perfect crime” or in Agamben’s words, where post historical humans take on their animality and govern it with technology. The second fork, which Agamben wants us to take, leads us to “take on our animality” in such as way that it no longer “remains hidden nor is made an object of mastery”27 in a state of “bare life”.28 It is in this way that Agamben believes we can prepare for a politics to come. Agamben’s purpose in writing is to constantly force us to think about the fact that there is no truly human future or animal future if we take the first fork in the road.

            Baudrillard’s post-catastrophic tone29 forces us to consider that we may have already taken the wrong fork in the road. If we take Baudrillard (and Agamben) seriously, while approaching our situation with a Baudrillardian sense of the post-catastrophic, we may look more clearly into the heart of the (in)human. There we find that Auschwitz was the destiny of a creature committed both to technology and difference – a modern death factory – as the industrialization of death at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an ultra-modern form of death dropped from the sky – the anticipatory act of America’s current zero deaths (to US troops) policy. After these catastrophes is it possible that we have lingered on in a post-catastrophic civilization in varying conditions of the indefinite – a growing uncertainty as the only revolution we know? Perhaps television (and all screens – which may be the greatest catastrophe of all), arrived just in time to spare us opportunity for reflection on catastrophe while promotional culture accelerates us toward our appointment with destiny. The culture of self congratulation, promotion, and advocacy enjoins speed with television, attaining hyper-velocity while reconciling us to our artificial environment of violent images superimposed on fear and the desire for hyper-security, virtual war, and total triviality. The world becomes an infinite garbage dump for the consumer processors of the hyper markets. Were we made for this? Are we the virus to kill the planet?30

            For Baudrillard we must enquire into the history of the species which globalizes and ponder the fatal destiny of this human creature. We must understand that before Europe and America perpetrated the holocaust on cultures around the world they achieved the same offence on themselves. The mass destruction exported today by the “moderns” is a violence emanating from deep in the recesses of our culture. How many regional dialects were sacrificed on the alters of the French and German “national” languages? How many aboriginal cultures savagely destroyed by the European settler societies? Modern culture is the product of millennia old processes of this kind of ethnic cleansing. We must recall these holocausts perpetrated first in the “modern” countries and see them as further developments in a long chain of globalizing catastrophe.

            Benjamin’s Angel31 is helpless and has long been so. As the pile of wreckage accumulating at his feet grows higher, as hundreds of cultures and languages become extinct in the face of promotional modern culture, we must ask ourselves a Baudrillardian question: “what impulse, deep down in the species, lies at the origin of this ruthless murder, this ruthless suicide”.32 It is in a context that takes such questions seriously, and which no longer attempts to avoid the question of fatal destiny,  that we can examine in a new light the death factories of our time (Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Durfur).  Baudrillard also leads us to wonder if the experiment we conduct on ourselves today is merely part of a longer one we have perpetrated on all the animals:

What did the torturers of the inquisition want? ...confession restored a reassuring causality… Otherwise, the least heresy would have rendered all of divine creation suspect.  In the same way, when we use and abuse animals in laboratories, in rockets with experimental ferocity in the name of science, what confession are we seeking to extort from them, from beneath the scalpel and the electrodes? … Animals must be made to say that they are not animals.33


To this has recently been added the torture of ourselves as a species with our technologies. We have become the subjects of our own experiment – our own guinea-pigs for genetic experimentation, cloning, and Cyborg implants. But the destiny we gamble with is more than out own, it is the life of all the animals of the planet with whom our genetic structure is enmeshed. Is self extermination and the ending of all animal life on the planet our destiny?

...perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called “human”: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated.34


            It is an open question whether anything human can survive. If the experiment goes wrong, like all species we will have arrived and departed. It may be precisely our purpose to not “let be.” For Agamben there will be a politics and a philosophy to come and I can only envy the poet in him who has such faith. I remain uncertain as I ponder the irony of the publication of Agamben’s book The Open, which takes up these questions in detail, just as the clock struck twelve in the conquest of our own genetic code and its privatization in corporate laboratories.35 If we are however, now our own prisoners – one wonders how a politics and philosophy to come – beyond the transpolitical – could emerge? And it is here, on questions concerning our survival and our culpability, that Baudrillard and Agamben sit side by side so well, pointing us to some of the most daunting questions humans have ever faced.

            Finally we must acknowledge that Agamben and Baudrillard are at the margins of political analysis today. The mediatized information continuum, the system of corruption and security, the education system, including Sociology and Political Science (enmeshed as they are in the banal discourses of policy analysis), function efficiently to protect citizens and students from Agamben and Baudrillard. This poses a great challenge to students of contemporary theory more generally. Elsewhere36 I note how an earnest intellectual like Susan Sontag is pulled, as she admits, into the informational continuum during her time in Sarajevo despite her efforts to oppose it. We think also of Marshall McLuhan whose work is constantly reinterpreted and co-opted in the most banal manner. Baudrillard and Agamben, for all the contempt they draw, have avoided this fate. Is contempt and marginalization the best intellectuals can hope for in the current experience of the transpolitical?37 This is another challenging question we may consider while turning now to one of Agamben’s earlier writings.

Gerry Coulter is the founder of IJBS.

II. “Form of Life” by Giorgio Agamben

            The Ancient Greeks did not have only one term to ex­press what we mean by the word life. They used two se­mantically and morphologically distinct terms: zoē, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, humans, or gods), and bios, which signi­fied the form or manner of living peculiar to a single in­dividual or group. In modem languages this opposition has gradually disappeared from the lexicon (and where it is retained, as in biology and zoology, it no longer in­dicates any substantial difference); one term only –  the opacity of which increases in proportion to the sacralization of its referent –  designates that naked presup­posed common element that it is always possible to iso­late in each of the numerous forms of life.

            By the term form-of-life, on the other hand, I mean a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate something such as naked life. A life that cannot be separated from its form is a life for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself. What does this formulation mean? It defines a life – hu­man life – in which the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power.38 Each be­havior and each form of human living is never prescribed by a specific biological vocation, nor is it assigned by whatever necessity; instead, no matter how customary, repeated, and socially compulsory, it always retains the character of a possibility; that is, it always puts at stake living itself. That is why human beings – as beings of power who can do or not do, succeed or fail, lose them­selves or find themselves – are the only beings for whom happiness is always at stake in their living, the only beings whose life is irremediably and painfully assigned to hap­piness. But this immediately constitutes the form-of-life as political life. "Civitatem… communitatem esse institutam propter vivere et bene vivere hominum in ea" [The state is a community instituted for the sake, of the living and the well living of men in it].39 Political power as we know it, on the other hand, always founds itself-in the last instance-on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of the forms of life. In Roman law, vita [life] is not a juridical concept, but rather indicates the simple fact of living or a partic­ular way of life. There is only one case in which the term life acquires a juridical meaning that transforms it into a veritable terminus technicus, and that is in the expression vitae necisque potestas, which designates the pater’s power of life and death over the male son. Yan Thomas has shown that, in this formula, que does not have a disjunctive function and vita is nothing but a corollary of nex, the power to kill.40

            Thus, life originally appears in law only as the counterpart of a power that threatens death. But what is valid for the pater's right of life and death is even more valid for sovereign power (imperium), of which the former constitutes the originary cell. Thus in the Hobbesian foundation of sovereignty, life in the state of nature is defined only by its being unconditionally exposed to a death threat (the limitless right of everybody over everything) and political life – that is, the life that unfolds under the protection of the Leviathan – is nothing but this very same life always exposed to a threat that now rests exclusively in hands of the sovereign. The puissance absolue et perpétuelle, which defines state power, is not founded – in the last instance – on a political will but rather on naked life, which is kept safe and protected to the degree to which it submits itself to the sovereign’s (or the law’s) right of life and death. (This is precisely the originary meaning of the adjective sacer [sacred] when used to refer to human life. The state of exception, which is what the sovereign each and every time decides, takes place precisely when naked life – which normally appears rejoined to the multifarious forms of social life – is explicitly put into question and revoked as the ultimate foundation of political power. The ultimate subject that needs to be at once turned into the exception and in­cluded in the city is always naked life.

            "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight".41 Walter Benjamin's di­agnosis, which by now is more than fifty years old, has lost none of its relevance. And that is so not really or not only because power no longer has today any form of legitimization other than emergency, and because power everywhere and continuously refers and appeals to emer­gency as well as laboring secretly to produce it. (How could we not think that a system that can no longer func­tion at all except on the basis of emergency would not also be interested in preserving such an emergency at any price?) This is the case also and above all because naked life, which was the hidden foundation of sovereignty, has meanwhile become the dominant form of life every­where. Life – in its state of exception that has now be­come the norm – is the naked life that in every context separates the forms of life from their cohering into a form-of-life. The Marxian scission between man and cit­izen is thus superseded by the division between naked life (ultimate and opaque bearer of sovereignty) and the multifarious forms of life abstractly recodified as social­ juridical identities (the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman) that all rest on naked life. (To have mistaken such a naked life separate from form, in its abjection, for a superior principle – sovereignty or the sacred – is the limit of Bataille's thought, which makes it useless to us.)

            Foucault’s thesis – according to which “what is at stake today is life” and hence politics has become biopolitics – is, in this sense, substantially correct. What is decisive, however, is the way in which one understands the sense of this transformation. What is left unquestioned in the contemporary debates on bioethics and biopolitics, in fact, is precisely what would deserve to be questioned before anything else, that is, the very biological concept of life. Paul Rabinow conceives of two models of life as symmetrical opposites: on the one hand the experimental  life42 of the scientist who is ill with leukemia and who turns his very life into a laboratory for unlimited research and experimentation, and, on the other hand, the one who, in the name of life’s sacredness, exasperates the antinomy between individual ethics and techno science. Both models, however, participate without being aware of it in the same concept of naked life. This concept – which today presents itself under the guise of a scientific notion – is actually a secularized political concept. (From a strictly scientific point of view, the concept of life makes no sense. Peter and John Medawar tell us that, in biology, discussions about the real meaning of the words life and death are an index of a low level of conversation. Such words have no intrinsic meaning and such a meaning, therefore, cannot be clarified by deeper and more careful studies.)43

            Such is the provenance of the (often unper­ceived and yet decisive) function of medical-scientific ideology within the system of power and the increasing use of pseudoscientific concepts for ends of political con­trol. That same drawing of naked life that, in certain cir­cumstances, the sovereign used to be able to exact from the forms of life is now massively and daily exacted by the pseudoscientific representations of the body, illness, and health, and by the "medicalization" of ever-widen­ing spheres of life and of individual imagination.44 Bio­logical life, which is the secularized form of naked life and which shares its unutterability and impenetrability, thus constitutes the real forms of life literally as forms of survival: biological life remains inviolate in such forms as that obscure threat that can suddenly actualize itself in violence, in extraneousness, in illnesses, in accidents. It is the invisible sovereign that stares at us behind the dull-witted masks of the powerful who, whether or not they realize it, govern us: in its name.

            A political life, that is, a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form-of-life, is thinkable only starting from the emancipation from such a divi­sion, with the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty. The question about the possibility of a non statist poli­tics necessarily takes this form: Is today something like a form-of-life, a life for which living itself would be at stake in its own living, possible? Is today a life of power available?

            I call thought the nexus that constitutes the forms of life in an inseparable context as form-of-life. I do not mean by this the individual exercise of an organ or of a psychic faculty, but rather an experience, an experimentum that has as its object the potential character of life and of human intelligence. To think does not mean merely to be affected by this or that thing, by this or that content of enacted thought, but rather at once to be af­fected by one's own receptiveness and experience in each and every thing that is thought a pure power of think­ing. (“When thought has become each thing in the way in which a man who actually knows is said to do so… its condition is still one of potentiality… and thought is then able to think of itself. ")45

            Only if I am not always already and solely en­acted, but rather delivered to a possibility and a power, only if living and intending and apprehending themselves are at stake each time in what I live and intend and ap­prehend – only if, in other words, there is thought – ­only then can a form of life become, in its own factness and thingness, form-of-life, in which it is never possible to isolate something like naked life.

            The experience of thought that is here in question is al­ways experience of a common power. Community and power identify one with the other without residues because the inherence of a communitarian principle to any power is a function of the necessarily potential character of any community. Among beings who would always al­ready be enacted, who would always already be this or that thing, this or that identity, and who would have en­tirely exhausted their power in these things and identities – among such beings there could not be any com­munity but only coincidences and factual partitions. We can communicate with others only through what in us­ – as much as in others – has remained potential, and any communication (as Benjamin perceives for language) is first of all communication not of something in common but of communicability itself. After all, if there existed one and only one being, it would be absolutely impo­tent. (That is why theologians affirm that God created the world ex nihilo, in other words, absolutely without power). And there where I am capable, we are always already many, (just as when, if there is a language, that is, a power of speech, there cannot then be one and one only being who speaks it.)

            That is why modern political philosophy does not begin with classical thought, which had made of contemplation, of the bios theoreticos­, a separate and solitary activity ("exile of the alone to the alone”) but rather only with Averroism, that is, with the thought of the one and only possible intellect common to all human beings, and, crucially, with Dante's affirmation – in De Monarchia – of the inherence of a multitude to the very power of thought:

It is clear that man's basic capacity is to have a poten­tiality or power for being intellectual. And since this power cannot be completely actualized in a single man or in any of the particular communities of men above mentioned, there must be a multitude in man­kind through whom this whole power can be actual­ized… [T]he proper work of mankind taken as a whole is to exercise continually its entire capacity for intellectual growth, first, in theoretical matters, and, secondarily, as an extension of theory, in practice.46


            The diffuse intellectuality I am talking about and the Marxian notion of a "general intellect"47 acquire their meaning only within the perspective of this experience. They name the multitudo that inheres to the power of thought as such. Intellectuality and thought are not a form of life among others in which life and social pro­duction articulate themselves, but they are rather the unitary power that constitutes the multiple form-of-life. In the face of state sovereignty, which can affirm itself only by separating in every context naked life from its form, they are the power that incessantly reunites life to its form or prevents it from being disso­ciated from its form. The act of distinguishing between the mere, massive inscription of social knowledge into the productive processes (an inscription that character­izes the contemporary phase of capitalism, the society of the spectacle) and intellectuality as antagonistic power and form-of-life – such an act passes through the expe­rience of this cohesion and this inseparability. Thought is form-of-life, life that cannot be segregated from its form; and anywhere the intimacy of this inseparable life appears, in the materiality of corporeal processes and of habitual ways of life no less than in theory, there and only there is there thought. And it is this thought, this form­-of-life, that, abandoning naked life to "Man" and to the "Citizen," who clothe it temporarily and represent it with their "rights," must become the guiding concept and the unitary center of the coming politics.

Giorgio Agamben teaches Philosophy at the College International de Philosophie in Paris and at the University of Macerata in Italy. He is author of several books including: The Coming Community. University of Minnesota Press,1993; Means Without End: Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2000; Remnants of Auschwitz. Zone Books, 2002; The Open. Stanford University Press, 2004; State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

III. Epilogue

            We face a circumstance in which we share the frustration but reject the tools and means of the terrorists. We know terrorist violence satisfies only the state’s need for a violence of its own upon which its legitimacy (and increasing illegitimacy) is based. It is here that theory comes to a pause… to contemplate the emptiness of both terrorism and the state, understanding perhaps, that neither terrorism nor the state as we know them, make sense.  Theory remains radical now by refusing to be pulled in either direction – by fundamentalist terrorists, by state terrorism, or the fundamentalism of globalizing consumerism and all the states endorsing it. Political freedom is held hostage by those who employ the terror of the law in an effort to accomplish a state capable of ending terrorism. Theory is a very serious game played while we look for a future of freedom already being denied us.  “Writing”, writes Baudrillard, “has always given me pleasure”.48 Agamben and Baudrillard both seek other times and places in their writing which is lived as a kind of freedom seeking a space beyond the contemporary transpolitical and the state of exception which constitutes its surveillant life force.


1 “Form of Life” (1993) appeared as the first essay of Agamben’s book: Means Without End: Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2000:3-12. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

2 Jean Baudrillard. Interviewed by Paul Hegarty in Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2004:139.

3 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:11.

4 Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception (c 2003). University of Chicago Press, 2005:88.

5 Jean Baudrillard uses this term in the Transparency of Evil (c 1990). New York: Verso, 1993:11

6 Michael Ignatieff. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics In An Age of Terror. New York: Penguin, 2004. In this book Ignatieff provides the always comforting, and never surprising, mainstream academic support of the university-military-industrial elite’s reply to terror with a war on terror.

7 Dershowitz’s argument is that if the American government is to use torture, they should do so through legal structures: “Judges should have to issue a ‘torture warrant’ in each case. Thus we would not be winking an eye of quiet approval at torture while publicly condemning it”. For a longer criticism of Dershowitz’s solution see: http://www.spectacle.org/0202/seth.html and for a more detailed look at Dershowitz’s perspective see: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/01/17/60minutes/main324751.shtml

8 For a discussion of the whitewashing and reputation cleansing of politicians in elections, see Jean Baudrillard. “The Great Laundering” (Liberation) August 7, 1995 In Jean Baudrillard.  Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:70-74.

9 Canada’s “sponsorship scandal” concerns federal government ministries paying for contracts for work which was never done. The Commission is the end result of a probe by Canadian Auditor General Sheila Fraser which found that: $100 million of the $250 million sponsorship program went for fees and commissions; Widespread non-compliance with contracting rules, involving five crown corporations; Sponsorship funds transferred to crown corporations “by highly questionable methods;”  Methods designed to pay commissions to communication agencies while hiding the source of funds; Rules broken or ignored at every stage of the process for more than four years. All companies receiving questionable funds were located in Quebec and the money (delivered in brown paper bags) came from a special “unity” fund which was to be used to convince Quebecers to remain in confederation. See http://www.gomery.ca/en/index.asp 

10 Baudrillard has a different way of positing the relation of happiness and modernity. As he writes in the Singular Object of Architecture:

The question of happiness, like that of freedom or responsibility, and a host of other questions about modernity, the ideals of modernity – these are no longer really relevant, at least in terms of expecting a response. ...If modernity is conceived in this way, which was to subjectively ensure – whether it was the subjectivity of the individual or the group – a maximum of accumulation, a maximal number of things, then modernity has overshot the goal it set for itself. Maybe it didn’t fail at all, maybe it succeeded all too well, it propelled us well beyond our goal and now all the questions are about lost objects (Minneapolis, Minnesota:University of Minnesota Press, 2002:30).

11 Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with Gane and Arnaud” in Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live. New York: Routledge, 1993:19.

Baudrillard’s suspicion of the political class and elites more generally is an extension of his thought on seduction, symbolic exchange, and reversibility. It also fits well into his concern that it may be our human destiny to subject ourselves to an experiment that humanity will not survive:

We are subjecting ourselves as a human species to the same experimental pressure as the animal species in our laboratories. Man is without prejudice: he is using himself as a guinea-pig… He is cheerfully gambling with the destiny of his own species as he is with that of all the others (Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford University Press, 1994:83).

12 Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford University Press, 1994:32, 43,

13 Jean Baudrillard. “Forget Baudrillard: Interview with Sylvere Lotringer”, (1985) in Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:121.

14 For an interesting discussion of Agamben on the inhuman see Catherine Mills. “Review Essay: An Ethics of Bare Life: Agamben on Witnessing.” Borderlands E-Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, 2003: http://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide.edu.au/vol2no1_2003/mills_agamben.html

For Baudrillard it is the inhuman which is also being whitewashed and expunged from our society. This is part of our domestication and whitewashing of history and our species. For Baudrillard this denial of the inhuman may well be part of our “species itself commencing its own disappearance either by disenchantment with – or ressentiment towards – itself, or out of a deliberate inclination which leads it here and now to manage that disappearance as its destiny”. Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c 1992). Stanford University Press, 1994:83.

See also Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002.

15 In a world where the United Kingdom and the United States restrict the civil liberties of their respective populations, while each promises to bring democracy to the world, the state of exception is no longer the exception. See also Tony Da Silva’s book review of Agamben in this volume. http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/dasilva.htm.

16 Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism. New York: Verso, 2002:32.

17 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. (c1983) New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:47.

18 Ibid.:22. One thinks here that even in Hitler’s state of near total control, brutality, and surveillance, where someone on every street watched and listened for the party, “terrorist” strikes still took place against NAZI targets. What kind of state apparatus could stop terrorism against itself?

19 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (c1979). Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990:154-155.

20 Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000:82.

21 Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford University Press, 1994:60.

22 Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000:24.

23 See Gerry Coulter. “Reversibility: Baudrillard’s One Great Thought” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 2, Number 1 http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol1_2/coulter.htm  Further, Baudrillard says “the Perfect Crime is an hypothesis of radiant optimism.” Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion (c 1999) New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:78.

24 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion (c 1999) New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:83.

25 Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2000:i.

26 Ibid.

27 Giorgio Agamben. The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford University Press, 2004:80.

28 Ibid:38.

29 My impression is that Baudrillard’s post catastrophic and perhaps apocalyptic tone is his way of attempting to be heard among all the sources of noise and information in our contemporary.

30 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II (c1990). New York: Verso, 1996:23.

31 From Walter Benjamin. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969:

The Angel of History does not move dialectically into the future, but has his face turned towards the past.  Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at this feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and join together that which has been smashed to pieces, but a storm is blowing from paradise and irresistibly propels him into the future toward which his back is turned, while the pile of ruins before him grows skyward. What we call progress is that storm.

32 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV (c2000). New York: Verso, 2002:53-54.

33 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulations (c1981). The University of Michigan Press, 1994:129.

34 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:15-16.

35 See Giorgio Agamben. The Open: Man and Animal (c 2002). Stanford University Press, 2004. In this book Agamben seeks to learn to think of the human as that which results from the practical and political separation of humanity and animality.

36 Gerry Coulter. “Passings: Cool Memories of Susan Sontag: An American Intellectual”. In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 2, Number 2, (July 2005). http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/coulter.htm/

37 I wish to express my sincere thanks to Paul Taylor for this insight and question.

38 The English term power corresponds to two distinct terms in Italian, potenza and potere (which roughly correspond to the French puissance and pouvoir, the German Macht and Vermögen, and the Latin potential and postestas, respectively). Potenza can often resonate with implications of potentiality as well as with decentralized or mass conceptions of force and strength. Potere, on the other hand, refers to the might or authority of an already structured and centralized capacity, often an institutional apparatus such as the state.

39 Marsilius of Padua. The Defensor of Peace, Translated by  Alan Gewirth. New York: Harper and Row, 1956:15.

40 See Yan Thomas. “Vita necisque potestas: La Père, la cité, la mort,” in Du châtiment dans la cité: Supplices corporals et peine de mort dans le monde antique Rome: L’École française de Rome, 1984.

41 Walter Benjamin. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1989:257. In the Italian translation of Benjamin’s passage, “state of emergency” is translated as “state of exception,” which is the phrase Agamben uses in the preceding section of this essay and which will be a crucial refrain in several of the other essays included in the volume from which this essay is reprinted (see endnote 1).

42 “Experimental life” is in English in the original.

43 See, for example, Peter Medawar and Jean Medawar. Aristotle to Zoos. Oxford University Press, 1983:66-67.

44 The terminology in the original is the same as that used for bank transactions (and thus “naked life” becomes here the cash reserve contained in accounts such as “forms of life”).

45 Aristotle. On the Soul, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 1. Jonathan Barnes (Ed.) Princeton University Press, 1984:682-83.

46 Dante Alighieri. On World Government. Translated by Herbert W. Schneider. Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1957:6-7.

47 In English in the original. This term is taken from a single reference by Marx, in which he uses the English term. See Karl Marx Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Random House, 1973:706.

48 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Le Journal des Psychologues (c 1991), in Mike Gane. Baudrillard Live. New York: Routledge, 1993:179.


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