The infamous state of exception

31 March 2011: Discussion on Giorgio Agamben’s essay “The State of Exception” at Punto ES

Despite the fairly prevalent criticism against Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception, the concept still seems to exert an undeniable fascination, giving way to a series of mis-readings and appropriations in art contexts that speak to the trope’s imaginary (if not actualized) potential. In fact, only a few days before artist Chryse Tsiota suggested “The State of Exception” among other texts as potential reading material for our meetings, I remember coming across the notion in an essay written by a group of feminist artists who seemed to be using it as a means of reformulating the idea of the other. While I have to confess that I had thus far avoided the text despite its widespread appeal and influence, mistakenly believing that it was on its way out, it yielded a surprisingly productive discussion around current issues and concerns.  

There was a good turn out at Punto ES and the discussion never relented during the three hours that we were there. At first, it covered some of the arguments in the text as well as critiques leveled against it, but soon launched into a heated debate regarding the ways in which the state of exception might be useful in thinking through contemporary events. We began by discussing the concept’s basis in Roman Law, the differences between Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin’s approach to the state of exception and Agamben’s statement that the latter “tends more and more to present itself as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics”, using examples like Guantanamo Bay. We went on to consider some of the critiques against Agamben including his tenuous back and forth between the legal and the political, and the ways in which the divide between citizenship and bare life problematically strips people of any capacity beyond the framework of the socio-political body.

From there on, our discussion opened up onto how the notion might be useful to art practitioners, how it forces us to deal directly with violence and how it might be useful in unpacking contemporary political rhetoric. At a time when violence is erupting in Arab states where popular movements are being suppressed, there seems to be an opposite movement at work in Western countries.

Indeed, one of the most compelling examples brought up during our discussion, in my view, was that of the declarations made by the then Greek minister for Citizens’ Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis to the effect that he supported the political demonstrations in Greece but disavowed the violent acts that played a visible part in these protests. By portraying the latter as a form of hooliganism in excess of the political movement, his statement had as an implication to depoliticize these violent political acts. As one participant proposed, this example suggests a new way of reconsidering the state of exception as a tool to examine how governments might discredit violent political movements by framing them as a form of pure violence in excess of the political body.



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