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Redemption between Politics and Ontology: Agamben on the Coming Politics

Frost, Tom (2016) Redemption between Politics and Ontology: Agamben on the Coming Politics. Review of: Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben ; The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology by Whyte, Jessica and Abbott, Mathew. ephemera: theory & politics in organization, . pp. 129-137. ISSN 2052-1499. E-ISSN 1473-2866. (KAR id:102842)


There is a prevailing view of the thought of Giorgio Agamben that reads him as a decidedly pessimistic thinker, and a modern day Cassandra, or even a philosopher who is channelling Chicken Little, telling all and sundry that the sky is collapsing and the modern world is on an inexorable path to destruction. This prevailing view has held sway for much of the past decade and a half, but it is, slowly, and thankfully, being challenged by a new wave of scholarship. This ‘negative’ reading of Agamben was not without apparent justification. Agamben’s Homo Sacer series of works propelled him to fame in the Anglophone world. His volumes began being translated into English in the late 1990’s, and his declaration that ‘it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West’ (Agamben 1998: 181) appeared to predict the events of the ‘War on Terror’, the detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and CIA ‘Black Sites’ around the world, and emergency powers passed in the name of protecting citizens against terrorism. His work appeared to draw direct connections between the Nazi era and contemporary governmental actions, yet many scholars questioned his analysis of contemporary responses to terrorism, arguing that they were inaccurate and lacking the scholarly attention necessary to adequately describe what was happening in the first years of the twenty-first century (Neal 2004; Rabinow and Rose 2006).

Jessica Whyte notes in her introduction to Catastrophe and Redemption both the fact that the reception of Agamben’s work has been tied up with these outside events, and that this coincidence led to the obscuring of the underlying philosophical claims in his work (Whyte 2013: 3). This obscuring ultimately led to Agamben’s work and proposals for the politics to come to be derided as nebulous and esoteric, too removed from the everyday to be of use (Sharpe 2005; Žižek 2007; Bailey 2009). Both Whyte and Mathew Abbott in The Figure of This World attempt to redress the balance here, adding recent ‘positive’ reconstructions of Agamben’s thought, which can also be found in recent books published by Sergei Prozorov and David Kishik, again illustrating a sea change in how Agamben is being viewed (Prozorov 2014; Kishik 2012).

The redemptive qualities of Agamben’s thought often appear elusive within his writings, not least because of his claim that ontology is directly political (Whyte 2013: 32). Therefore, we can agree with Whyte that Agamben’s writings on potentiality and life are also his contribution to political theory. His hope for the future comes from the collapse of the border between politics and life (Whyte 2013: 44). Despite this, whilst Agamben has often spoken of the life and politics to come (Agamben 1993: 1), details of this ‘happy life’ have often been scarce, particularly because they are to comprise the final part of his Homo Sacer series of works (Sharpe 2009; Kalyvas 2005). This final volume has been published in Italian, and is titled L’uso dei corpi, and an English translation will be forthcoming. Those scholars eagerly anticipating resolution to all the philosophical problems Agamben has identified over the past 40 years will be disappointed. As Agamben himself declares in his introduction, he has ‘abandoned’ the Homo Sacer series of works. Abandoned, because every philosophical effort cannot be pushed to an end or concluded (Agamben 2014a).

Item Type: Review
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
J Political Science > JC Political theory
K Law
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > Kent Law School
Funders: University of Sussex (
Depositing User: Tom Frost
Date Deposited: 19 Sep 2023 14:12 UTC
Last Modified: 10 Jan 2024 18:23 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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