The Inescapable Sovereign Powers in a State of Exception

This week’s blog asks a question ” is it possible for those who are subject to a state of exception and therefore cast outside of the sphere of normal legality to resist sovereign power?”  In short, I think, it is and it is not possible for those who are subjects to a state of exception to cast outside of the sphere of normal legality to resist sovereign power for many reasons. However, in the interest of time,  I will take one stance and argue why it is not possible to flee sovereignty in a state of exception. To begin with, the state of exception is not the norm and therefore what happens in a state of exception can be very different from what would otherwise be. It should not be forgotten that, “according to opinions which are very common, the state of exception [ makes] a point of imbalance between public law and politics which, like civil war, insurrection and resistance, is located in an ambiguous zone at the border between the juridical and the political” [European Graduate School, 2003].In a state of exception “ one who has been accused of committing a crime, within the legal system, loses the ability to use his voice and represent themselves. The individual can not only be deprived of their citizenship, but also of any form of agency over their own life” [ Wikipedia, 2013]. I can seldom see this happening in a normal state. In a state of exception, decisions strictly stay in the hands of the sovereign. Furthermore, in Schmitt’s words ” sovereign is he who decides on the exception” and the sovereign state decides the laws. The only exception from the law is the sovereign state itself. Since that is the case, it is ” is thereby ensured of remaining anchored in the legal order” [ European Graduate School, 2003]. The sovereign state is much too powerful for one person to exist outside of it successfully.  As stated by Pavlich that Agamben describes political environments that have sovereigns creating bandits that is neither ‘ animal’ or ‘man’ included nor excluded – they live within the law but as outlaws and treated accordingly, They have not fled sovereignty. They have simply attempted to resist sovereign power and failed.  As Pavlich says, it can be possible that “law [can] now operate as a force, but without the key elements that one usually associates with the rule of law. It [can] be stripped of its normative (justice-based) content and simply exercise force, becoming a force of law without content”[ 2011, p. 159]. In this kind of state, Pavlich explains that subjects according to law are outlaws and fall prey to a kind of law that emphasizes guilt and enforces itself without justice and any ethics. Pavlich goes on to say that It allows the sovereign to preserve his natural right to do anything to anyone[ 2011, p. 159]. Since sovereign powers are so centered during a state of exception it would be rather difficult to live outside of it. People attempting to live outside sovereignty in a state of exception is a thought that should be reconsidered since during this time, “the sovereign remains exterior to the normally valid legal order, and nevertheless belongs to it . . . ” [ European Graduate School, 2003].

In my concluding thoughts, it would be a difficult task to live outside of sovereignty in a state of exception since sovereignty can do what it likes and then defend its actions by saying it is in the best interest of the state and society for it to be that way.

Work Cited

Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Canada: Oxford University Press.

Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. (2003).In The European Graduate School: Graduate and Postgraduate Studies. Retrieved from

Giorgio Agamben.(2013). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from



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7 responses to “The Inescapable Sovereign Powers in a State of Exception

  1. You state that: “To begin with, the state of exception is not the norm and therefore what happens in a state of exception can be very different from what would otherwise be.”
    Agamben’s contention is that the state of exception has indeed become the norm, such that the potential for ‘casting out’ is a constant feature of political life in the contemporary context. It is the image of a solid and binding state of legality, he argues, that is problematic.
    Your conclusion emphasizes the power of the sovereign decision, and the dire circumstances that face those who are reduced to the status of bare life. Consider, though, the opportunities for resistance that still exist for those ‘cast out’ of the juridico-political order: hunger strikes, for example, involve the politicization of the body as a means of resistance.

  2. Yes, things like hunger strikes, protests are a great form of resistance. However, do you think that the power of sovereignty overrides these attempts? Forcing the participants to again be ruled by sovereignty?

    • In some cases, yes – acts of resistance result in little if any changes in the material conditions of persons subject to sovereign power. In some cases, resistance makes their conditions worse. Hunger strikers in Guantanamo were violently force-fed while restrained, and their actions were portrayed as propaganda by US officials, for example.

      But there are examples of hunger strikes and other forms of protest by detainees that have resulted in a change in circumstances – even a partial shift towards legal status. They key, in these circumstances, has been the ability of the hunger strikers to reach a broader audience, and in so doing undermine the public consent for the state of exception.

  3. Power in numbers! I am in the middle about hunger strikes and any form of resistance for a number of reasons. I think they are great ( if and) because they are 1. violent-less, 2. people using freedom of expression and as long as these people are not holding up traffic in society I do not think it should be seen as a problem or issue. Then, I think if there are no possible consequences to resistance than maybe more people would do it and it could lead to possible chaos. An example this reminds me of is a little off topic but I think it will help get my point across. During the riots in Vancouver the police let people drink in public, had TVs outside for people to gather around and combined with the emotions of the game people went crazy. Perhaps leniency can lead to people overstepping their boundaries, I am in the middle because it also means controlling people a lot more – an idea I do not really like. So, as you can see I am not sure if the positive outweighs the negative when it comes to resistance to sovereign powers.

  4. Thanks for the reply.

    Out of curiosity, why do you view resistance as a problem when it involves ‘holding up traffic’? If the cause is just, is this not reasonable? If the threshold of support (or acceptability) for resistance is ‘until it causes inconvenience’, this seems to effectively entrench the status quo.

  5. Yes, if the cause is just it is reasonable and should be reasonable. However, since we know that the views of people that are protesting are not supported by sovereignty, as a whole, chances are there will be negative consequences for their protesting. Although I do believe those consequences are unfair. In my personal opinion if those resisting perform their resistance in a way that allows society to move regularly than perhaps there is a better chance for support from those living their daily lives. For example, if I lived in the city and was trying to make it to work one morning I would probably appreciate those resisting a great deal more if they did not contribute to holding up traffic for me. Although my opinion on their protest is probably formed before I see them on the street I think it can still matter. That is not at all to say if they are creating a big traffic jam,then there consequences are deserved. Another thing is I think society teaches us to go with the status quo and to go with what sovereignty wants as the right way. As I talked about in my paper during the G 20 Summit in Toronto there were tremendous consequences from the police for people expressing their opinions and views. I do believe that is unfair but I think that is just the way society is set up so perhaps it is better to go with the masses than explain why it should be different. It is an unjust and unfair world and perhaps it is a bit easier to accept that than resist it. If resisting is going to lead to a temporary arrest, then I probably would not resist. It is true this is exactly what sovereignty wants but I think it is easier too. In other words, although people should be able to resist and express how they feel freely they cannot do so without consequences.They will be seen as a social issue by the state because they are a social issue to the state. This is unfortunate but it is embedded in society, according to my knowledge. So, personally, I would not resist because it is easier not to. Although, I still think, and to an extent promote, other people resisting. Possibly, it can make a difference. For me, the risk of resisting is too great and the potential success is too small.

  6. ( I wanted to clarify they are a social issue to the state as in for the government and not the people.)