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Political abandonment and the abandonment of politics in Agamben’s critique of human rights
University of Exeter
Theory and Event
Johns Hopkins University Press
In this paper I examine Giorgio Agamben’s critique of human rights. In particular, I unpack the implications of the three key claims that Agamben highlights in concluding his book, Homo Sacer, for understanding the politics of human rights. These are all ontological claims which relate to the subject of politics (homo sacer), the relation between these subjects (the ban) and the space for politics in which these subjects come together (the camp). Human rights discourse represents the subject of politics, the person, as sacred in the sense of commanding a certain attitude of respect (e.g. as a self-authenticating source of valid claims in Rawls terms). It represents the relation between subjects in terms of a virtual social contract between free and equal persons. And it represents the space of politics as the polity (or the well-ordered society, again in Rawls’ terms). For Agamben this is all so much mystification. The real subject of politics (the human in human rights) is not the rights-bearing person but homo sacer: bare life that can be killed without committing murder. The true political relation is not a horizontal contract among free and equal persons but a vertical relation of abandonment between the sovereign and bare life. Finally, the fundamental space of politics is not the polity but the camp.
Pre-print version, submitted to the journal in 2008