homo sacer

11 08 2007

Homo sacer (Latin for “the sacred man”) is an obscure figure of Roman law: a person who is banned, may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in a religious ritual. The person is excluded from all civil rights, while his/her life is deemed “holy” in a negative sense.

Giorgio Agamben used this concept for his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Agamben describes the homo sacer as an individual who exists in the law as an exile. There is, he thinks, a paradox: It is only because of the law that society can recognize the individual as homo sacer, and so the law that mandates the exclusion is also what gives the individual an identity.

Agamben holds that life exists in two capacities. One is natural biological life (Greek: Zoë) and the other is political life (Greek: bios). This zoe is related by Agamben himself to Hannah Arendt‘s description of the refugee‘s “naked life” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The effect of homo sacer is, he says, a schism of one’s biological and political lives. As “bare life”, the homo sacer finds himself submitted to the sovereign‘s state of exception, and, though he has biological life, it has no political significance.

Agamben says that the states of homo sacer, political refugees, those persecuted in the Holocaust, and the “enemy combatants” imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and other sites are similar. As support for this, he mentions that the Jews were stripped of their citizenship before they were placed in concentration camps.

Thus, Agamben argues, “the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man prove to be completely unprotected at the very moment it is no longer possible to characterize them as rights of the citizens of a state”, following in this Hannah Arendt’s reasoning concerning the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which tied human rights to civil rights. Although human rights were conceived of as the ground for civil rights, the privation of those civil rights (as, for example, in the case of stateless people or refugees) made them comparable to “savages”, many of whom were exterminated, as Arendt showed, during the New Imperialism period. Arendt’s thought is that respect of human rights depends on the guarantee of civil rights, and not the other way around, as argued by the liberal natural rights philosophers.

from Mr Wikipedia on homo sacer

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