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February 11, 2014

As a matter of fact, the hypothesis I would like to suggest is that the prevailing governmental paradigm in Europe today is not only non democratic, but that it cannot either be considered as political. I will try therefore to show that the European society today is no more a political society: it is something entirely new, for which we lack a proper terminology and we have therefore to invent a new strategy.

“For a theory of destituent power” by Giorgio Agamben, transcript of a public lecture delivered in Athens, on November 16, 2013. Invitation and organization by Nicos Poulantzas Institute and SYRIZA Youth. Transcript produced and published by the online magazine Chronos.

A slightly different version of this text was translated to French and published in the January 2014 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique (pp. 22-23). The French version has bibliographic references, but it lacks the concluding remarks on Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”.

In February 2014, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space published the translation of a much longer, 6,500-word essay titled “What is a destituent power?” (tr. by Stephanie Wakefield, Vol. 32, Issue 1, pp 65 – 74). Although it is said to be “based on a lecture given in central France in the summer of 2013”, it does also share parts of its argument with the Athens lecture of November 2013 (the one being discussed here).

For example, the sections about Christian Meier’s “politicization” (§3) and the comments on Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (§7) are common to the lecture and to the translated essay. That being said, both text are clearly different. On one hand, the topics of security and biometric technologies central to the lecture are not mentioned at all in the translated essay, nor is the theme of “indifference”. On the other hand, the essay develops in much more details concepts that are absent, or only only hinted at in the November lecture. More specifically, in the translated essay published in February 2014:

  • the discussion pertaining to the ancient distinction between polis and oikos, is further developed from the perspective of civil war in ancient Greece (or Stasis). Agamben does so by examining the work of Nicole Loraux (§4);
  • Agamben develops on the concept of “use” as a middle voice verb, and how it transforms the ontology of the concept “subject” (§5);
  • more explanations are provided about the concept of “inoperativity” as a model of politics, which is central to Agamben’s thought (and reminiscent in some ways of Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on “désoeuvrement”) (§6);
  • the theory of “destituent power” get a much more elaborated presentation: to the discussion about Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence” is added an important development about Paul’s relation to law (§7);
  • the equally important term “form-of-life” is explained in light of a “modal ontology”, that is an ontology of the “how” instead of an ontology of substance (§8).

The Athens lecture discussed below represents a very good complement to this more elaborate essay, especially in regard to the treatment it offers on the topics of security and biometric technologies.

• • •

What follows is a rough summary of Agamben’s lecture “For a theory of destituent power” (Nov. 2013), along with a few notes and complementary resources. It is based on the transcript shared by Chronos Magazine.

Agamben’s main argument is about the “depoliticization” of humans societies. For all that, it does not mean that societies have become apolitical. Agamben’s argument is rather that the distinction between what is political and what is not is blurred: it has become a zone of indifference. Political apathy could be said to be one expression of this phenomenon. As we will see, there are others.

In order to understand this transformation, Agamben offers a genealogy of the concept of security in two parts. The first part examines the concept of security in relation with the “state of exception”. Agamben has already examined this topic exhaustively in a previous book, published a little over a decade ago (The State of Exception, tr. by Kevin Attell, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [2003] 2005).

However, Agamben quickly acknowledges that since no state of exception is currently officially declared in modern democratic states, this paradigm is not quite adequate to understand what is happening today. What we have instead is a situation that is juridically vague.

For example, there has been no official cancellation or suspension of the articles of the United States Constitution regarding personal liberties. Yet, after the Boston Marathon bombings, countless private homes were searched without warrants (see previously here). The debates pertaining to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) global surveillance program is in part fuelled by a similar judicial “vagueness”.

Agamben explains that a crisis is etymologically and traditionally associated with a specific moment: the moment of decision. What we are currently experiencing is a paradoxical situation where this particular moment has become generalized: it is not discrete anymore, but continuous.

Thus, for the second part of his genealogy of the concept of security, Agamben sets aside the paradigm of the state of exception and turns his attention to the origin of the concept of security in modern, liberal economy. Following Michel Foucault research, he concentrates on the work of François Quesnais and the Physiocrates. The reference here is obviously Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978, and I believe more specifically the second lecture of January 18, 1978 (tr. Graham Burchell, New York: Picador [2004]2007 pp. 51-71).

Quesnais and the physiocrates promoted a new way of thinking governmentality in light of the category of security (sûreté in French). For them, security had less to do with the control of causes than with the control of effects. The idea was to let the problems happen –such as famines, for example– in order to deal with the actual consequences instead. This principle was summarize in the famous motto “Laissez faire, laissez passer” (which is not from Quesnais: see Security, Territory, Population, Jan. 18, p. 57, note on Vincent de Gournay; The Birth of Biopolitics, Jan. 10, p. 20). Agamben underlines the importance of this shift from causes to effects:

We should not neglect the philosophical implications of this reversal. It means an epoch-making transformation in the very idea of government, which overturns the traditional hyerachical relation between causes and effects. Since governing the causes is difficult and expensive, it is more safe and useful to try to govern the effects. I would suggest that this theorem by Quesnay is the axiom of modern governmentality.

(One wonders how Agamben would take into account another shift in recent times: that of a politic of deterrence (during the Cold War) to a politic of preemption (after 9/11). On this topic, Brian Massumi has written excellent analysis. See for example “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption”, 2007; and “Perception Attack: Brief on War Time”, 2010)

For Agamben, Quesnay’s theorem furthermore allows to understand a dynamic that would otherwise seem incomprehensible: the convergence of a liberal paradigm in economy with a paradigm of increased state control. This double articulation is reminiscent of the way both Deleuze (1987) and Tiqqun (2001) understand the highway as an apparatus where “maxi­mum circulation coincides with maximum control” (previously here).

This dual convergence finds its most worrying expression in the rapid development and diffusion of biometrical security apparatuses. Agamben identifies two major issues to this trend. First, it increasingly mingles the private interests of big technology industries with the public interests of governments.

(Evgeny Morozov discussed a similar issue in a recent lecture he delivered at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. More specifically, he discussed the city as a key site for current debates about democracy. One of those debates, he argues, should focus on the increasing responsibility and importance given to private technology companies who offer to solve various problems associated with urban coexistence: energy consumption, health, crimes, waste, etc.)

The second issue, crucial to Agamben’s main argument, has to do with the ways security technologies fundamentally transform political identities and political relationships:

This transformation is so extreme, that we can legitimately ask not only if the society in which we live is still a democratic one, but also if this society can be still considered as political.

In order to understand this process of “depoliticization”, Agamben first start by going back to the process of “politicization” that took place in Greece in the fifth century B.C. For this, he relies on the work of German historian Christian Meier, who is considered “an authority on both ancient Greek and Roman history, and among the few German classicists to specialize in political thought” (The History of Political and Social Concepts : A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 33; see also de.Wikipedia). Among other things, Meier has shown how Greek citizenship emerged as a functional political identity through the participation to public affairs: a unique form of life distinct from the private life of citizens. Agamben uses an excerpt which is well worth quoting at length:

“The result was a specifically greek conception of citizenship, in which the fact that men had to behave as citizens found an institutional form. The belonging to economical or religious communities was removed to a secondary rank. The citizens of a democracy considered themselves as members of the polis, only in so far as they devoted themselves to a political life. Polis and politeia, city and citizenship constituted and defined one another. Citizenship became in that way a form of life, by means of which the polis constituted itself in a domain clearly distinct from the oikos, the house. Politics became therefore a free public space as such opposed to the private space, which was the reign of necessity”

The reference to Christian Meier text is only provided in the French version of Agamben’s text. The quote comes from the article “Der Wandel der politisch-sozialen Begriffswelt im V Jahrhundert v. Chr.”, in Historische Semantik und Begriffsgeschichte, ed. by Reinhart Koselleck, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1979. A PDF copy of the original German text is available at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica website (2MB). A modified version of this text exist in an English translation as well. Christian Meier’s article was later included in his book Die Entstehung des Politischen bei den Griechen (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983; This book was in turn translated to English as The Greek Discovery of Politics (tr. by David McLintock, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990; see especially “Changing Politicosocial Concepts in the Fifth Century B.C.”, pp. 157–185;, Google Books).

Previous to Meier, Werner Jaeger has also examined the crucial distinction between the private sphere (ἴδιον) and the public sphere (κοινόν) in ancient Greece (a difference that is subject to some debate). His argument would be used by Hannah Arendt in her chapter on “The Public and the Private Realm” in The Human Condition (see previously here). She too insists on the difference between the political life of the city and the familial life of the household. She does so specifically to highlight the difference between the ancient world and our modern world:

In the modern world, the social and the political realms are much less distinct. […] In the modern world, the two realms indeed constantly flow into each other like waves in the never-resting stream of the life process itself. The disappearance of the gulf that the ancients had to cross daily to transcend the narrow realm of the household and “rise” into the realm of politics is an essentially modern phenomenon. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, [1958]1998,p. 33)

Agamben, who had previously discussed Arendt’s theories in Home Sacer (1995), uses Meier’s quote in order to define “a process of increasing depoliticization”. This process, argues Agamben, is precisely fuelled by the blurring of such categories as action and inaction, private and public. He goes on to explain the “decisive role” played by the paradigm of security in general, and by biometrical technologies in particular, in this process:

For the first time in the history of humanity, identity is no longer a function of the social personality and its recognition by others, but rather a funtion of biological data, which cannot bear any relation to it, like the arabesques of the fingerprints or the disposition of the genes in the double helix of DNA. The most neutral and private thing becomes the decisive factor of social identity, which loose therefore its public character. If my identity is now determined by biological facts, that in no way depends on my will and over which I have no control, then the construction of something like a political and ethical identity becomes problematic.

While on one hand biometrical technologies “depoliticize” the concept of citizenship, on the other hand they tend to “politicize” the biological body: what Agamben calls “bare life”. Video surveillance illustrates this double process by the way it captures private lives in public, thus transforming the streets into a “zone of indifference between the prison and the forum”. The problematic nature of this transformation finds an expression in the ongoing debates about the “state surveillance” and the right to privacy (February 11, 2014, was dubbed The Day We Fight Back and declared a “worldwide day of activism in opposition to the NSA’s mass spying regime”)

This is hardly the first time Agamben shares those concerns. In 2004, he signed a text titled “Non au tatouage biopolitique” (Le Monde diplomatique, January 10, 2004). A much shorter text was published on December 2005, also in Le Monde diplomatique: “Non à la Biométrie”. Those ideas found their way into the short essay “What Is An Apparatus”, first published in Italian in 2006:

While a new European norm imposes biometric apparatuses on all its citizens by developing and perfecting anthropometric technologies invented in the nineteenth century in order to identify recidivist criminals (from mug shots to fingerprinting), surveillance by means of video cameras transforms the public space of the city into the interior of an immense prison. (tr. by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2004]2009, p. 23)

In order not to reduce Agamben’s observations to a series of dull complaints, one has to remember how they are answered throughout his work. Indeed, the “indifferentiation” he identifies as a modern phenomenon finds its counter-part in an critical methodology of indifference. For Agamben, the most acute problem also carries its most promising answer:

And how can one touch the porn star’s body, since there is not an inch on it that is not public? And yet it is from such a zone of indifference in which the actions of human experience are being put on sale–that we ought to start today. (Mean Without End, tr. by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1996] 2000, p. 122).

The crucial concept of indifference in the work of Agamben was given the book-lenght analysis it deserves in William Watkin’s Agamben and Indifference. A Critical Overview (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014).

Returning to Agamben’s lecture, it is not surprising to find a reference about Foucault’s Surveiller et punir. From Middle Age fortresses to urban prisons to widespread video surveillance (i.e. prisons turned inside out), Agamben traces the evolution of different models of modern states up to what Deleuze called “les sociétés de contrôle” or “control societies” (“Postscript On Control Societies” in Negocitations, [1990] 1995, tr. by Martin Joughin, pp. 177-182). At the state level, the process of indifferentiation finds its expression in a “security state” where the function of the police is not clearly delineated: it exists in an undecidable position in-between the judicial power and the executive power.

“Security”, Agamben remarks, comes from the absence of care (securus from sine cura). The modern security state may well be the result of a strong desire “not to worry”. However, lifting the worries also seems to neutralize the capacity to care and, with it, the very possibility for a political life. This was clear at least for Günther Anders who had coinded the motto: “Inquiète ton voisin comme toi-même!” “Worry your neighbor like you worry yourself!” (Austriaca, n°35, 1993, p. 47). Although Agamben doesn’t develop much on this point, it would certainly worth extending his observation in the directions of Heidegger’s sorge and Foucault’s souci. Likewise, it would be interesting to explore the possible relationships between the “security state” and the rise of anxiety disorders and their accompanying drug treatments.

Agamben concludes his lecture by a proposition which is coherent with his demonstration. The problem any form of critique faces today is that of co-optation: how to come with strategies or tactics that won’t be immediately co-opted by that which need instead to be rendered inoperative? In Agamben’s own words:

The Security paradigm implies that each dissension, each more or less violent attempt to overthrow its order, become an opportunity to govern them in a profitable direction. This is evident in the dialectics which binds tightly together terrorism and State in an endless vicious spiral. Starting with French revolution, the political tradition of modernity has conceived of radical changes in the form of a revolutionary process that acts as the pouvoir constituant, the “constituent power” of a new institutional order.

Instead, Agamben relies on Benjamin’s essay “On the critique of violence” (1921; PDF) to propose experimenting with a “purely destituent power” (which ultimately gives its title to his lecture). The general idea is to render inoperative the dialectical coupling of power and counter-power (or transgression) which always has been the foundation of all “lawmaking violence” (I’ve briefly commented this problem before: see Community without power?). The task would involve worrying about new forms of political life, while keeping in mind both the danger of co-optation and the problematic conditions of the actual security state model.

Giorgio Agamben delivering his lecture “For a Theory of Destituent Power”, Athens, November 2013
Giorgio Agamben delivering his lecture “For a Theory of Destituent Power”, Athens, November 2013. Image retrieved from Chronos.
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