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homo sacer


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Translated literally as ‘sacred man’, this classical concept has attracted significant attention in contemporary critical theory because Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has devoted several books to exploring the intricacies of its multi-layered meaning. Homo sacer is a paradoxical figure: it is the one who may not be sacrificed, yet may be murdered with impunity. In this sense, the homo sacer is outside or beyond both divine and human law. Agamben's provocative thesis is that the homo sacer is evidence not merely of an original ambivalence in the notion of the sacred, as anthropology has long contended, but that the realm of the political itself is constituted by making an exception of the very people in whose name it is created. The homo sacer thus emblematizes the sovereign's power over life and death, the power to designate a life that is worth neither saving nor killing. For Agamben, the most complete realization of homo sacer is the concentration-camp inmate, particularly the hapless figures known in the colloquial language of the camps as ‘die Muselmänner’ (i.e. the ‘Muslims’) because of their apparent surrender to God or Fate. But rather than argue that homo sacer is a product of Nazism, or totalitarian politics more generally, Agamben contends that on the contrary it is the sheer possibility of so regarding human life that enabled Nazism's exterminationist politics. The very same possibility, he argues, is at the origin of democracy too, a fact that is displayed in the way politics has been constituted as a biopower focused on the population not the individual. See also bare life.

Further Reading:

G. Agamben Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998).G. Agamben Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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