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Food for Thought: Law, Sovereign Power, and States of Exception

We dedicated this week’s class to an exploration of the complicated and troubling questions about the relationship between legality, legitimacy, and power that emerge from the work of Giorgio Agamben and other theorists of exceptionality.

For our final ‘food for thought’ exercise for the term, I would like to offer two options. You may choose to respond to either of these questions (but not both!).

1. Regarding the rhetoric of exceptionality

During my presentation on this topic, I suggested that, in the context of late modernity, the invocation of a state of exception involves two related moments or actions:

  1. The sovereign decision, as discussed by Agamben. This involves the opening-up of a zone of exceptionality in relation to an individual (on the basis of a deemed status), a space, or a period of time, and;
  2. A discursive act whereby the sovereign decision – the exercise of sovereign power – is explained and rationalized through an appeal to necessity / crisis / emergency

A great deal of socio-legal research focuses on the first moment / act, but it is important to note that those able to exercise sovereign power generally seem to be compelled to give an account of their decisions that justifies the state of exception while simultaneously affirming a commitment to legality.

For this food for though question, I would like you to select an example or case study that fits the definition of a state of exception. This can be from any historical period, and any location. Your post should:

  1. Provide an introduction to the case study / example
  2. Explain how this case study / example demonstrates the exercise of sovereign power and the creation of a state of exception (drawing on concepts from Pavlich’s chapter)
  3. Explain how this exercise of sovereign power was justified rhetorically through an appeal to necessity

For part 3, I am particularly interested in primary source documents or direct quotes from politicians or government officials. Please provide links and excerpts.

2. Regarding bare life and resistance

To be the denizen of a camp or normalized state of exception is, according to Agamben, to be reduced to the status of bare life – life excluded from law / politics. In explaining this, I referred to Arendt’s important comment about “the right to have rights” (a right that one cannot claim as homo sacer or bare life). This raises some interesting and important questions, especially when we consider it in light of Foucault’s claim that all exercises of power necessarily imply resistance:

What possibilities for resistance exist for those whose status is that of homo sacer?  Put differently, 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? If so, how? On a related note, if it is the exercise of sovereign power that creates the juridico-political space of the camp and places people into this space, how can people exit the camp? Is it possible for persons to move from the status of homo sacer to a ‘legal’ status, despite the decision of the sovereign? If so, what kind of power are they exercising?

For your response, write a post that reflects on one or more of these questions. You should respond to the question and provide examples to support your position.

Posts written in response to either of these questions should be submitted before next week’s class.




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