State of Exception – Agamben

Here, we discuss one of the most influential philosophical works of recent times: Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception. It investigates the use of exceptional powers and laws which governments acquire through declaring states of emergency during crises, whether they are real or invented.

Here’s what we thought:


This is one of Giorgio Agamben’s most famous works, and one that often gets cited in academia. At the core of Agamben’s argument here is that the state of exception (SoE) operates as a zone effectively ‘without law’ that serves to enshrine the law itself through the process of its exclusion. Agamben then goes on to argue that whereas before the exception was just that – an ‘exception’ – it has in modern times become the rule.

While this is undoubtedly the book that academics so often cite in relation to Agamben and the SoE, I would suggest that Homo Sacer is perhaps the more useful in terms of his discussion of the workings of the SoE itself. Some extracts that may be useful for discussion below:

  • ‘The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.’1
  • This can be reformulated as ‘the law is outside itself’ OR ‘I, the sovereign, who am outside the law, declare that there is nothing outside the law’2
  • Furthermore: ‘The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying, in withdrawing from it.’3

Here, life itself is cast as being worthy or indeed as being ‘human’ relative to the non-human cast within the SoE.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

1 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 15.
2 Ibid., p. 15.
3 Ibid., p. 18.

Agamben’s work really is fascinating. Indeed, I was recently at a conference on the ‘State of Exception in the Middle East’ hosted by the Richardson Institute here at Lancaster. The entire day was thoroughly interesting and covered many different experiences and context of states of exception.

I’d really like to see how the ideas in Agamben’s work could be applied to international law governing the actions of states in the international system, rather than its domestic application. I’ve recently been thinking about how customary international law progresses partly through violations, and so in effect, it progresses through exceptionalism. Yet, as this is an accepted part of international law, it is also unexceptional simultaneously.

It’s an area I’d really like to look into further.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Please, let us know what you think in the comments below, or e-mail us if you would like to join our network.

4 thoughts on “State of Exception – Agamben

  1. @Josh — I’d look less at the application of SoE to international law, and more at transgression (this is probably less Agamben and more someone like Deleuze and/or Derrida who have quite a lot to offer in this area). SoE in itself is a complete void of law, which I don’t think applies fully with respect to international law, and becomes very difficult when you move beyond one state. (This is Agamben’s biggest weakness in my opinion). Either way I do agree with you about how law is shaped by ‘exceptions’ of a kind, though the sorts of exceptions that shape international law aren’t the sort of ‘cut-and-dry’ clear-cut types that definitively mark what is inside and what it outside the bounds of law.

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  2. Derrida and Deleuze are both really hard going if I’m honest, especially for someone who doesn’t necessarily need to read them! A Thousand Plateaus is Deleuze and Guattari’s most famous work I’d say, though very long and not requiring a full read. There is however a great chapter in it called ‘Micropolitics and Segmentarity’ — possibly my favourite chapter of philosophy, and has a good bit on bureaucracy and perversion (very Kafka).

    In terms of transgression I’d say have a look at select elements of Deleuze’s ‘Difference and Repetition’, where he talks about repetition and irony. Great line for you to ponder:

    ‘Repetition belongs to humour and irony; it is by nature transgression or exception, always revealing a singularity opposed to the particulars subsumed under laws, a universal opposed to the generalities which give rise to laws.’ (6)

    But as I say, it gets very deep and you can spend your whole career reading this stuff and not necessarily end up with too many answers! 🙂

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