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Christopher Budd, «Homo Sacer», in The Philosophers Magazine, no 7, London, Summer 1999, p. 55.
Homo Sacer is a book that is enjoyable not so much for what it says itself, but for the topics it raises and the way in which it raises them. Reading it is more an exercise in sitting by the lake and skipping stones across the waters of profound depth : each stone is a different topic, and all of the topics together begin to weave a unique pattern of ripples and interference with one another.
The main focus of Homo Sacer is a combination of three ideas. First, the increasing degree to which politics controls life not only through issues of warfare and justice, but through increasing political control over the issues of bare life : nutrition, health care, euthanasia, and birth control. Second, the idea that the establishment of law and politics is almost always in times and by methods outside of the state of law. Third, the idea in classical Rome of the Homo Sacer, a person who could not be sacrificed, but can be killed; a person who occupies that same liminal space in which law and politics is founded.
Agamben takes these three very interesting ideas and weaves them into a tapestry of thought. He examines how the ever-closer ties between politics and bare life affect a world after the Nazi holocaust and modern medical experimentation. How does Homo Sacer speak to us in a world struggling with euthanasia, abortion, and ethnic cleansing? How does a law born of lawlessness that controls life itself address those who inhabit the very fringe where law is born? It is a question at the root of many of our most troubling and divisive issues today.
In the end, though, Agambens treatment is not systematic, nor exhaustive. His work is one that sparks great new trains of thought in the reader, but does not bring any to closure itself. It is dense reading, but raises and connects many, many issues that a citizen of the industrialized West is dealing with on a day to day basis. However, if you approach Homo Sacer looking for a system of thought, you will be disappointed. At the end, you will find more questions raised, and few answers given.
This text is reproduced here by courtesy of Dr Jeremy Stangroom, The Philosophers Magazines editor. (Katie)