Homo Sacer (Book Cover) by Georgio Agamben
Agamben, Georgio. Homo Sacer: Il potere soverano e la vita nuda (1995). Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. 1998.

Agamben takes up an investigation into the meanings attributed to the Homo Sacer (Sacred Man) of Roman Law, during the Roman Empire. His analysis contributes greatly to broader issues which interleave taboo, sacredness, rule of law, notions of sovereignty, and power-dynamic relationships. The sacred person, in this case and if viewed in contemporary context, would seem to be defined by contradictory means. In it’s day, to be designated as a Homo Sacer was to be banned from normative life by law, to be rejected by one’s society and expunged from it’s protections. This would mean, for example, that to kill such a person would not be to commit homicide. Meanwhile law also forbid the sacrifice of such persons; they are excluded from the benefits of both human and divine law. The author notes that early cultures did not attribute distinction between sacred and un-pure, but entwined cleansing practice with the designation of impure or taboo objects. Thus both horror and respect represented the sacred, as “two aspects of one genus.

The author argues that what defines the penalty and consequences of the Homo Sacer is the “particular character of double exclusion” which implicates “bare life” (zoe) within the “limit sphere”. Bare life is viewed as defined by the potential for exposure to death; a body stripped of political identity, belonging, protection, or influence. The existence of such law nonetheless includes acknowledgement and mandates treatment of such citizens, placing them at the threshold of society (a more recent example is given of the Holocaust of WWII).It was only in tandem with religious instituting that interpretations of what is holy or cursed that dual or polar opposite notions were concretized. Too, interpretations of morality were shaped over time and in tandem with evolutions in the character of ruling authorities; where rulers were once also subjects to metaphysical powers and protected divine laws, eventually rulers represented divinity itself and had sovereign authority over law. Thus, in earlier times, to murder a Homo Sacer was not sacrilegious / taboo but to sacrifice such a person was, whereas under latter religious rule taboo represented an antithesis of the sacred which, for example, was applicable in context with the unauthorized taking of a life, no matter the context.

Agamben notes that Church approaches to taboo, the sacred, and exceptions tied to sovereignty have been absorbed and can be observed in the example of State leaders and heroes. He offers the example of the state of exception that is legalized with intent to exempt both from the absolute rule of law. He also cites contemporary traditions in burial and commemorations which engender earlier rituals intended to preserve the metaphysical authority of emperors and warriors, and which differentiate between authorized and unauthorized digressions. The adoption, redefining, and reconstituting of belief systems appears to describe a progressive aggrandization of a particular sociopolitical and ruling system, even while traces of pre-history can quite literally be read into today’s practices. Agamben’s text support his suggestion that the premise of banishment and bare life have constituted the essential structure of power in which all citizens may be treated as Homo Sacer in context with the State; there is no political life that is not bound to it, no one can participate outside of it, but one can be banished to it’s margins through mechanisms of sovereign rule.


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