State of Exception: Nazi Germany and September 11

Food for Thought:
This is a multi-part question, intended to facilitate clarification regarding the work of Agamben.
1. What is the state of exception?
2. How do states of exception come into being?
3. What is the legal status of the subjects of a state of exception?

The state of exception is drawn from earlier work of Carl Schmitt which was called prior the state of emergency. It is based on a higher power that surpasses the rule of law to come to a level of all good for the public and interests. The state of emergency was first used as a way to change people into believing that something is changing for the good. It was also used to take away people’s  human rights and freedoms even though they were supposed to be protected under the constitution. This was implemented for emergencies that were manmade or for during periods of civil uproar (Zartaloudis, 2010). Agamben responded to Carl Schmitt’s state of emergency and discussed the definition of sovereignty as the power to claim the exception (Zartaloudis, 2010).

As stated earlier the state of exception much like the state of emergency was looked at as a way to use government bodies to take full control even when it meant taking over the rights of people (Dickinson, 2011). In addition this government control could even be seen in one person who had the power and authority to rule over all. An example of a state of exception is Nazi Germany when Hitler was in power and Germany’s “Third Reich” (Calarco & DeCaroli, 2007). The elimination of human rights and citizenship from the Jews during the Holocaust was a plan superseded the time before Hitler. The original plan years ago in the early 1900’s were Germany’s plan was to move all the Jews to the island of Madagascar (About, 2012). However, they did not have enough money for the transportation due to the fact that it would take almost 4 years to move all Jews to the island. Thus, because of the lack of money, millions of Jews were exterminated (About, 2012). The sovereign that operated during the time of the holocaust was so powerful that not only were the citizens forced to listen to one being ( that of Hitler), they were stripped of their human rights and eventually sentenced to death because they could not be integrated into the political system (Calarco & DeCaroli, 2007). Agamben also discusses that that while this occurs in the time of crisis, that sometimes this can become a prolonged state of being (Dickinson, 2011). Thus, resulting in a long ruling of the elimination human rights and citizenship.

Another example of a state of exception is the war on terror in relation to September 11. According to Mark Danner, an American writer, and journalist, “We are living in the State of Exception. We don’t know when it will end, as we don’t know when the War on Terror will end” (Danner, 2011). What Danner is trying to convey is that since September 11 the American people have been living a different life. He discusses that since the September 11 tragedy, American people have lived for  10 years in this new way of living. Danner (2011) says “Call it, then, the state of exception: these years during which, in the name of security, some of our accustomed rights and freedoms are circumscribed or set aside, the years during which we live in a different time”. This suggests that after a certain period of time, normalization kicks in and this becomes the norm even when it takes away individuals status and rights. Finally, when this state of exception comes into power, it erases any legal status of the individual which in Agamben’s words “producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being” (Calarco & DeCaroli, 2007).
Calarco, Matthew and Steven DeCaroli, eds. Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Dickinson, Colby. Agamben and Theology. London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2011.
Zartaloudis, Thanos. Giorgio Agamben: Power, Law and the Uses of Criticism. London and New York: Routledge, 2010


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One response to “State of Exception: Nazi Germany and September 11

  1. To clarify, the state of exception or state of emergency can be understood as a temporary suspension of the normal legal order, made possible by an act of sovereign power (as Schmitt would say, a sovereign decision), in response to a perceived crisis.

    Agamben’s innovation is to propose that the state of exception has become a paradigm of government – all laws are subject to suspension or circumvention, and all persons are potentially exposed to unrestrained sovereign power. Your example of the potentially-interminable ‘war on terror’ is illustrative of this point.

    What is the legal status of subjects of a state of exception? In class, we spoke about the concept of ‘bare life’. What does this mean?