The Camp/States of Exception/KIHC: Agamben, Larsen and Piché

For the third installment of my blog posts, I have chosen to elaborate on several concepts discussed within this week’s Food for Thought. As the topic at hand is broken down into two separate sections, I feel it is only appropriate that we begin by discussing the first talking point.

The first section asks the question of how does the theorization of KIHC presented by Larsen and Piché in their Canadian Journal of Law and Society article differ from Agamben’s theorization of “the camp?” As this question alludes to material we have somewhat already covered within this blog, I will forgo a lengthy discussion of Agamben’s work; rather I will touch on key points that are critical to the comparison at hand. Furthermore, I will elaborate on the work by Larsen and Piché, providing a link the full article for those of you that wish to engage in the material further.

In order to properly understand how both perspectives differ I will begin by lightly dissecting Agamben’s concepts surround “the camp.” The Camp Agamben refers to, is the imagery of a Nazi era World War Two Concentration Camp. Agamben uses this concept in order to examine the concept of exceptional circumstances, or “states of exception.” Moreover, Agamben’s work attempts to analyze the legality surrounding Concentration Camps, as well the atrocities that occured within; this focused approach narrows in on how egregious acts can occur under the watchful eye of the law. Agamben suggests that “states of exception” and sovereign power go hand in hand with one another, as only those in total control can deem circumstances needing actions above what the law permits. Agamben uses concentration camps to illustrate a physical nature to exception and sovereignty, as the actual crossing of theoretical borders would manipulate the law and transform individual rights in the blink of an eye.

As Agamben analyzed concentration camps, Larsen and Piché have focused their attention toward the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, in Ontario, Canada. Kingston Immigration Holding Centre (from here referred to as KIHC), is a building individually situated on the Kingston Penetentiary Groumds. The KIHC was constructed and used to hold individuals held under Security Certificates which deems them as threats to national security; security certificates (from here referred to as SC) can only be issued to non-citizens. Although the area of SC’s is fantastically complex, for the purposes of this blog I will not engage in a lengthy unpacking of the area, rather I will provide an additional link for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the topic. Most importantly, in order to compare and contrast Agamben, Larsen and Piché, what must be stated, is those that are held under SC’s lose most, if not all, their fundamental legal rights enjoyed by the rest of Canadian society. Additionally it is important to note, as many others have, although we are comparing Agamben’s work against Larsen and Piché, we are not attempting to compare concentration camps with SC’s, rather the legality behind both.

Larsen and Piché’s theorization differs from Agamben’s in that Agamben envisioned a sovereign state as the main actor within states of exception and the actions that occur within such circumstances. Larsen and Piché have extrapolated this concept, looking at the inner workings of government within exceptional circumstances. This imagining of sovereignty is one where state powers are distributed amongst the many, with different sectors controlling different aspects of power and discretion. Unlike Agamben, Larsen and Piché bring forth the concept of counter-law in order to fully understand and realize the true nature of permanent or normalized “states of exception.” Larsen and Piché bring forth counter-law and explain its nature by stating “While security certificates themselves allow immigration law to be used in place of criminal law in order to facilitate precautionary national-security policy, the KIHC MOU uses a legal contract to circumvent the correctional and criminal-justice aspects of CSC’s mandate in order to facilitate preventive detention” (Larsen and Piché, 2009, p. 210). Ultimately, we see some of the main differences between Agamben and Larsen/ Piché within the nature of government as it is explained that within states of exception “the operationalization of exceptionality demands—and is reinforced by—the involvement of professionals and institutions operating within a governmentality of unease. (Larsen and Piché, 2009, p. 225). This point further supports the dynamic nature presented by Larsen and Piché as opposed to the more centralized version presented by Agamben. One could suggest that Agamben has focused on a general version of normalized states of exception, whereas Larsen and Piché have focused in on specific circumstances which give rise to institutionalized policy and counter-law.

Moving forward we will now focus on the secondary portion of this week`s blog, attempting to answer the question of what is the normative argument in opposition to the KIHC and to security certificates? Lasen and Piché state that although calls for the closing of the KIHC are correct in response to SC, “The real target must be the logic of the camp itself, and it must be challenged at all levels, particularly where it finds a foothold in expressions of necessity and pragmatism, or legitimacy in institutional setting or counter-law” (Larsen and Piché, 2009, p. 227). Much like Agamben, Larsen and Piché have focused their attention on the legality surrounding the KIHC and SC, the laws which permit, borderline encourage, such institutionalized attitudes and behaviours in relation to rights. With this in mind, I find myself in agreement, only when you have struck at the heart of the problem, the root of the issues at hand will you be able to make headway and change; addressing surface issues will not result in the change one wishes to see. Like the Hydra, if you simply cut the head off, two will grow back. By focusing in on the tools which permit such actions the effort to eliminate similar circumstances from occurring again will succeed. Through their incorporation of counter-law into the Agambian framework, Larsen and Piché have successfully addressed needed areas of discussion in relation to states of exception and the legal issues that arise out of such circumstances.

Provided Links:

Larsen and Piché:

KIHC Closes:

Agamben and the State of Exception:

Security Certificates:

Security Certificates:


Larsen, M. & Piché, J. (2009). Exceptional State, Pragmatic Bureaucracy, and Indefinite Detention: The Case of the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 24, 203-229. doi: 10.1353/jls.0.0082


1 Comment

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One response to “The Camp/States of Exception/KIHC: Agamben, Larsen and Piché

  1. This is a fantastic post.

    You have done an excellent job of outlining the distinctions between Agamben’s notion of the camp and our theorization of KIHC. This point: “One could suggest that Agamben has focused on a general version of normalized states of exception, whereas Larsen and Piché have focused in on specific circumstances which give rise to institutionalized policy and counter-law.” is particularly apt.

    Something else worth noting – though we do not emphasize it to the extent that we could in the article – is the importance of contestation and resistance in the case of the KIHC. Agamben does not portray the denizens of camps as actors capable of exercising and resisting power – indeed, they are by definition stripped of political status. By contrast, it is clear that the emergence of the KIHC was influenced by acts of resistance and push-back from detainees.

    One point of clarification: KIHC was not situated on the grounds of Kingston Penitentiary, but on the grounds of Millhaven Institution – also a maximum-security prison located in the Kingston area.