No Life is Bare, the Ordinary is Exceptional: Giorgio Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology

Parrhesia 14:23-36 (2012)
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In this article I develop a theory of political ontology, working to differentiate it from traditional political philosophy and Schmittian political theology. As with political theology, political ontology has its primary grounding not in disinterested contemplation from the standpoint of pure reason, but rather in a confrontation with an existential problem. Yet while for Schmitt this is the problem of how to live and think in obedience to God, the problem for political ontology is the question of being. Thus the political ontologist agrees with the political theologian that the political cannot be thought without an awareness of an irreducible exigency – the fact that one thinks as situated in response to a certain moral or ethical demand – but it takes this demand to consist not in divine revelation, but rather in the fact that the human being is a being for which being is at issue. With this definition in mind I go on to read Giorgio Agamben in resolutely ontological terms, arguing that his concepts of bare life and the exception are largely unintelligible if understood ontically. Instead, these concepts are part of a critique that has as its primary target not the ontic political systems and material institutions of modern states but rather the (negative) metaphysical ground of those systems. Political ontology insists on the intertwining of ontology and politics, claiming that theirs is a relation of mutual determination.



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