Agamben, Stasis

Giorgio Agamben’s short book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm comprises two brief essays, one on the Athenian concept of “stasis” or civil war, the other on the role of the multitude in Hobbes’s Leviathan. What links them, he tells us, is the notion that “the constitutive element of the modern State” is “ademia [. . .] that is, [. . .] the absence of a people” (vi). Obviously enough, this will come as something of a surprise to “the Western political tradition” for which, as Agamben notes, the “concept of people” is “arguably the fundamental concept” (39). Think after all of the opening of the United States constitution, for which “we the people” are presented as that country’s basic political bedrock.

Agamben proposes instead the multitude as the core concept of political theory. So far, so good, and no doubt also so Italian. But what Agamben adds to the work of (say) Toni Negri and Paolo Virno is the observation that “the multitude is the subject of civil war” (40) and, further, that it is thus through civil war that the political realm is established. Or, as he puts it in his discussion of the Greeks:

it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family [oikos] and the political space of the city [polis]. [. . .] In the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family. (12)

For, as Agamben points out, Solon’s law explicitly punishes those who do not take part in civil war: such people forfeit their rights to citizenship; “not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confined in the oikos” (13). Civil war is, therefore, not (as we tend to see it) simply the point at which the political dissolves, as the state fractures and society is reduced to warring factions. It is also constituent, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city,” however much today, by contrast, we regard it as “something that one must seek to make impossible at every cost” (16).

To put this another way (in terms that Agamben himself does not use), it is civil war that is the threshold or hinge between infrapolitics and politics per se. He offers here a theory of the ways in which the political emerges and is dissolved. Moreover, in his study of Hobbes, Agamben further offers civil war as the process by which what he calls the “dissolved multitude” (the multitude subject to biopolitical power) is transformed into the “disunited multitude” that makes itself known by turning on the absent people (absorbed into the figure of sovereign power, the Leviathan). And though it is not entirely obvious how these two conceptions mesh with each other, in both cases civil war has to remain an intimate possibility in the heart of any and every political order. For sovereignty, at least until the coming of the end times, can only remain an (optical) illusion, a trick of representation. In the meantime, “no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude” (49). Agamben thus reverses the eschatological tendencies inherent (as I have argued elsewhere) in Negri’s vision of the multitude: here it is only the state that dreams of a substantial presence and unity to come. The multitude, by contrast, is located on a perennial threshold, figured as civil war, between house and city, infrapolitics and the political.

The sting in the tail of Agamben’s analysis, however, is given only sotto voce, in a digression or coda to the first essay that’s presented in smaller font than the rest. This is the observation that “the form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. [. . .] Global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stake of politics” (18). This only goes to show once again that (whatever Negri thinks) nobody should look to the multitude for their salvation. But instead of denying the possibility of civil war, trying to exclude it from the political order, we need to recognize that order’s indebtedness to it, and pick one of the many sides (who says there should be just two?) that any such conflict opens up. For this is the very paradigm of the political, of the perpetual emergence and dissolution of political activity as such.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.


Resistance arises as a friction or interruption to the regularity and predictability of habit. The very notion of performance, after all, implies also the possibility of breakdown. The difference between watching a film and going to the theater or the circus, say, resides in part in a certain unpredictability: this time, unlike almost every other time, an actor may fluff his or her lines, or the trapeze artist may lose his or her grip and fall. The fact that a performance is “live” means that we are always half-holding our breath, wondering what could go wrong. The beauty of a live event is its imperfection, the rough edges that constitute its singularity and that fact that it is never an entirely flawless reproduction. Flawlessness is deadening: the liveliness of a concert or show derives from the fact that it allows for elements of spontaneity or creativity, whether that be the jazz musician’s improvisation in which new resonances, riffs, and rhythms are explored, the banter between a stand-up comic and his or her audience, or an inspired performance by an actor who goes beyond what the script demands. For performance is never fully representational: even if there is an original subject to imitation, what is essential is the difference between copy and model, not the similarity.

Social reproduction, likewise, is never truly flawless. It is always somewhat hit and miss. Judith Butler’s theorization of performativity as embodied enactment of identity roles stresses the ways in which such roles can also be “queered”: bent out of shape if not necessarily fully avoided. In Excitable Speech, she takes issue with Althusser’s notion of interpellation, insisting on the possibilities of failed interpellation (for Althusser, unimaginable) to show that the voice of power, the state’s “hailing,” and the order of bodies are not fully synchronized, that the body always falls short of or exceeds the voice. Hence she argues that “useful as it is, Althusser’s scheme [. . .] attribut[es] a creative power to the voice that recalls and reconsolidates the figure of the divine voice in its ability to bring about what it names” (Excitable Speech 32). In other words, although Althusser’s essay is a critique of the fetishism that imagines that the state alone authorizes and inaugurates subjectivity, Butler suggests that he remains within precisely this paradigm. For Althusser, not only is “ideology in general” necessary and eternal; so therefore is the state that acts as the essential lynchpin of the double circuit of ideology, command and habit. Butler points, on the one hand, to interpellation’s citational quality: the fact that the state endlessly has to back to previous instances of interpellation in order to legitimate its attempts to constitute subjects and so can never fully establish its claim to originality. On the other hand, Butler is also concerned with what remains always unvoiced and unspoken. Censorship, for instance, “produces discursive regimes through the production of the unspeakable” (139), and more generally the gap between what may and may not be spoken also determines “the conditions of intelligibility” of any regime of power. “This normative exercise of power,” she argues, “is rarely acknowledged as an operation of power at all. Indeed, we may classify it among the most implicit forms of power [. . .]. That power continues to act in illegible ways is one source of its relative invulnerability” (134). Here, then, Butler turns to Bourdieu, as the theorist of “a bodily understanding, or habitus” that does not depend upon the voice or upon speech. For habit describes what exceeds interpellation, whether that be the state’s biopower or a possibly insurgent biopolitics.

As life itself becomes fully subject to power, it becomes therefore the terrain of political struggle, a differentiation between distinct forms of vivacity, ways of life that are at odds with each other. For Agamben, for instance, totalitarianism signals that “life and politics [. . .] begin to become one,” and what is at stake is the increasingly blurred distinction between biopolitics and “thanatopolitics” that plays out in the space of “bare life,” pure potential or habit, in which we all now find ourselves (Homo Sacer 148, 122). Biopolitics describes then both the apogee of politics, its ubiquity and immediacy, and also the effort to preserve a space for politics against its dissolution, to show that there is a life beyond the law. In Agamben’s words, “to show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of ‘politics’” (State of Exception 88). This “nonrelation,” then, is the struggle by which biopolitics opposes biopower; it is a gamble on autonomy even within immanence, on a detotalization that unlocks the power of creativity. It is the deployment of what Michel de Certeau terms “tactics” implicit within “the practice of everyday life.” Habitual but far from routine, against the functionalist tone of Bourdieu’s theorization of habitus but in line with the allowance that he makes for unpredictability, a tactic is a “guileful ruse” by means of which agents carve out spaces of autonomy immanent but ever so slightly off kilter to the norm, “mak[ing] use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers” (The Practice of Everyday Life 37). Or in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s words, “playing different tactical games in the continuity of strategy” might open up “two conflicting recognitions: one organizing the desire of life and the other the fear of death, biopolitics against biopower” (Multitude 356). From the friction of resistance, the strategy of refusal and tactics of differentiation, to the “multitude” as “a diverse set of singularities that produce a common life” (Multitude 349). This is a liveliness that breaks from life as usual. But can biopolitics and biopower be so easily distinguished? Again, old habits of sovereignty and social reproduction die hard.


Further as to whether boredom is affect or affectlessness: Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Heidegger in The Open ascribes to boredom (“profound boredom”) a privileged role in the anthropological machine producing humanity from animality.

Boredom is the site of “an operation enacted upon the not-open of the animal world” (62) by which (what will come to be) the human suspends its animal captivation with its habitual stimuli, the “carriers of significance which constitute its environment” (41). It is in that suspension that the living being “awaken[s] [. . .] to its own being-captivated” (70). And it is this awakening, this “anxious and resolute opening to the not-open, [that] is the human” (70). “Dasein,” Agamben concludes, “is simply an animal that has learned to become bored” (70).

This is what separates us from the beasts: our sense of tedium, both the tedium of having nothing especially to occupy us, and the tediousness of what does occupy us, what enables us briefly to forget how much we are enclosed by our habits.

Boredom, in this sense, is a non-relation. Or rather, it is the estrangement of our relationship to our normal preoccupations, our captivated relations with our environment. As such, then, it is either pure affectlessness or, perhaps better, a kind of degree zero of affect: the affect proper to the Body without Organs?

But how to relate this boredom, as a functional part of the anthropological machine, with the post-anthropological figure of “otium” or “workless [. . .] inactivity” (87) that for Agamben defines our post-anthropological predicament or possibility? This “human nature rendered perfectly inoperative” (87) would also seem to be far distant either from captivation or from any determinate affect.

Agamben’s figure for otium is a painting by Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, itself a reworking of an earlier Titian, The Three Ages of Man.

The Three Ages of Man
Drawing on the work of Judith Dundas, Agamben suggests that Nymph and Shepherd is “in a darker, more despairing key” than the earlier painting (86). He says that its atmosphere is simultaneously “both exhausted sensuality and subdued melancholy,” and he quotes Erwin Panofksy to the effect that it is “fraught with emotion,” too much so for any allegorical interpretation, but this is an emotion that is “restrained and somber” (85).

Nymph and Shephere
In this image of inactivity, then, rather than a degree zero of affect, we have something like its surplus, its excess beyond habit or function: an affect that manifests its resistance to narrative, to allegory.

Agamben argues that in their “mutual disenchantment,” the figures in Titian’s painting have entered “a new and more blessed life, one that is neither animal nor human. It is not nature that is reached in their fulfillment, but rather [. . .] a higher stage beyond both nature and knowledge, beyond concealment and disconcealment” (87). Theirs is a “zone of non-knowledge” (91) that is also a fundamental disarticulation of the machine that produces humanity from animality, and so also of the machine that lies at the heart of (bio)politics.

Against the articulations of hegemony, then, the disarticulation of some blessed post-humanity, marked by its otiose surplus of affectivity.

But again, this post-historical, post-human heaven, in which nothing ever happens: well, won’t it be rather boring?

For more discussion of The Open, see The Weblog’s reading group archive.


The final chapter of Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception adds a third term for power to the couplet of constituent and constituted power: to potentia and potestas is added auctoritas, “authority.” I suspect that this concept is a useful corrective or addition to Negri’s theory of power, and that it might clarify some of what remains obscure or contradictory in his and Hardt’s theory of Empire.

Auctoritas is a figure of sovereign power, and yet it “has nothing to do with the potestas or the imperium of the magistrates or the people” (78). Auctoritas supplements and legitimates potestas: “the auctoritas patrum intervenes to ratify the decisions of the popular comitia and make them fully valid” (78).

At the same time, it is auctoritas that has the power to suspend potestas, to announce the state of exception, and it is auctoritas that is the force of suspended law (“force of law,” as Agamben calls it) that holds sway in the absence of constituted power. Agamben therefore concludes that

auctoritas and potestas are clearly distinct, and yet together they form a binary system. [. . .] auctoritas seems to act as a force that suspends potestas where it took place and reactivates it where it was no longer in force. It is a power that suspends or reactivates law, but is not formally in force as law. (78, 79)

The “essence” of auctoritas is that it is a “power that can at once ‘grant legitimacy’ and suspend law [. . .]. It is what remains of law if law is wholly suspended.” It is, adds Agamben, in this sense “not law but life–law that blurs at every point with life” (80).

Auctoritas is the very figure of biopolitics, the sovereign pole to be set against Agamben’s other paradigmatic image of the biopolitical, the “bare life” of the camps, of Guantánamo. Agamben can therefore contrast “the biopolitical tradition of auctoritas” to “the legal tradition of potestas” (84). Auctoritas is the biopolitical anchor for constituted power.

Caesar AugustusImmanent to life, auctoritas is fully embodied, incarnate in the collective body of the Senate or in the person of the Emperor. It is auctoritas that the Emperor embodies, not power as such:

The Roman principate [. . .] is not a magistracy, but an extreme form of auctoritas. [Richard] Heinze has described this contrast perfectly: “Every magistracy is a preestablished form, which the individual enters into and which constitutes the source of his power; auctoritas, on the other hand, springs from the person, as something that is constituted through him, lives only in him, and disappears with him.” (82)

Auctoritas is therefore an affective form of power, comparable to what Weber termed “charisma,” which also “coincides with the neutralization of law and not with a more originary figure of power” (89).

Incarnate in the leader, in the Führer, in the President, auctoritas is something like the shadowy mirror image of potentia, of the constituent power embodied in the multitude. It is as though, with the figure of auctoritas, sovereignty offered a biopolitical double for potentia, in order to ground its (un)constitutional order.

Auctoritas might also be the figure for what elsewhere goes by the name of hegemony: some kind of explanation to the question as to why constituent power so often ends up, alienated and inverted, as constituted power. (A question that Negri never answers.) It is in and through auctoritas that potentia is harnessed to potestas: auctoritas is the transmission mechanism that simultaneously gives constituted power its (borrowed) life and deadens, blocks, constituent power.

Auctoritas, then, would be the fundamental articulation, “effective though fictional” (87), between multitude and state, “the fiction that governs the arcanum imperii [secret of power] par excellence of our time” (86).

But something has gone awry with this mechanism, in these posthegemonic times. Rather than articulating constituent to constituted power, auctoritas now stands revealed as the sole principle of power in the permanent state of exception whose roots Agamben traces in the period immediately following World War I. All that remains is the fictive embodiment of charisma, of affect, in individuals: Bush, Cheney, Blair (Saddam, Osama, Fidel?).

This is a mechanism that has “today reached its maximum worldwide deployment” (86), but only because it is simultaneously in crisis:

The ancient dwelling of law is fragile and, in straining to maintain its own order, is always already in the process of ruin and decay. The state of exception is the device that must ultimately articulate and hold together the two elements of the juridico-political machine by instituting a threshold of undecidability between anomie and nomos, between life and law, between auctoritas and potestas. (86)

But here Agamben has too quickly assimilated auctoritas back into potentia: for surely auctoritas is the fictive link itself, rather than one element in what it articulates.

And that articulating mechanism (perhaps, following Deleuze and Guattari, we would do better to think of it as a machinic synthesis) is predominant in the age of Empire, preserving only the remnants of transcendence in its immanent capture of potentia, found now in displaced form as charismatic gift of leadership, aura of self-confidence, but also corruption incarnate.