STATE OF EXCEPTION
TRANSLATED BY KEVIN ATTELL
Wherever possible, I have included references to published English translations of Agamben’s French, German, and Italian sources in the references list. However, in order to maintain consistency in terminology throughout the text, and to better reflect Agamben’s own translations of these sources, the published English versions have frequently been modified. Where an English edition is listed in the bibliography, the first page number in the text citation refers to the original, and the second to the English edition (e.g., [Benjamin 1942, 697/257]). Where no English edition is listed, the translation is mine.
I would like to give my deepest thanks to Courtney Booker, David Copenhafer, Samuel Gilbert, Sirietta Simoncini, and to Giorgio Agamben for their generous help in preparing this translation.
Quare siletis juristae in munere vestro?
[Why are you jurists silent about that which concerns you?]
The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government
1.1. The essential contiguity between the state of exception and sovereignty was established by Carl Schmitt in his book Politische Theologie (1922). Although his famous definition of the sovereign as “he who decides on the state of exception” has been widely commented on and discussed, there is still no theory of the state of exception in public law, and jurists and theorists of public law seem to regard the problem more as a quaestio facti than as a genuine juridical problem. Not only is such a theory deemed illegitimate by those authors who (following the ancient maxim according to which necessitas legem non habet [necessity has no law]) affirm that the state of necessity, on which the exception is founded, cannot have a juridical form, but it is difficult even to arrive at a definition of the term given its position at the limit between politics and law. Indeed, according to a widely held opinion, the state of exception constitutes a “point of imbalance between public law and political fact” (Saint-Bonnet 2001, 28) that is situated—like civil war, insurrection, and resistance—in an “ambiguous, uncertain, borderline fringe, at the intersection of the legal and the political” (Fontana 1999, 16). The question of borders becomes all the more urgent: if exceptional measures are the result of periods of political crisis and, as such, must be understood on political and not juridico-constitutional grounds (De Martino 1973, 320), then they find themselves in the paradoxical position of being juridical measures that cannot be understood in legal terms, and the state of exception appears as the legal form of what cannot have legal form. On the other hand, if the law employs the exception—that is the suspension of law itself—as its original means of referring to and encompassing life, then a theory of the state of exception is the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds and, at the same time, abandons the living being to law.
It is this no-man’s-land between public law and political fact, and between the juridical order and life, that the present study seeks to investigate. Only if the veil covering this ambiguous zone is lifted will we be able to approach an understanding of the stakes involved in the difference—or the supposed difference—
between the political and the juridical, and between law and the living being. And perhaps only then will it be possible to answer the question that never ceases to reverberate in the history of Western politics: what does it mean to act politically?
1.2. One of the elements that make the state of exception so difficult to define is certainly its close relationship to civil war, insurrection, and resistance. Because civil war is the opposite of normal conditions, it lies in a zone of undecidability with respect to the state of exception, which is state power’s immediate response to the most extreme internal conflicts. Thus, over the course of the twentieth century, we have been able to witness a paradoxical phenomenon that has been effectively defined as a “legal civil war” (Schnur 1983). Let us take the case of the Nazi State. No sooner did Hitler take power (or, as we should perhaps more accurately say, no sooner was power given to him) than, on February 28, he proclaimed the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State, which suspended the articles of the Weimar Constitution concerning personal liberties. The decree was never repealed, so that from a juridical standpoint the entire Third Reich can be considered a state of exception that lasted twelve years. In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. Since then, the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (though perhaps not declared in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so-called democratic ones.
Faced with the unstoppable progression of what has been called a “global civil war,” the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics. This transformation of a provisional and exceptional measure into a technique of government threatens radically to alter—in fact, has already palpably altered—the structure and meaning of the traditional distinction between constitutional forms. Indeed, from this perspective, the state of exception appears as a threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism.
The expression “global civil war” appears in the same year (1963) in both Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution
and Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan
. However, as we will see, the distinction between a “real state of exception” (état de siège effectif
) and a “fictitious state of exception” (état de siège fictif
) goes back to French public law theory and was already clearly articulated in Theodor Reinach’s book De l’état de siège. Étude historique et juridique
(1885), which is at the origins of the Schmittian and Benjaminian opposition
between a real and a fictitious state of exception. Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence prefers to speak here of “fancied emergency.” For their part, Nazi jurists spoke openly of a gewollte Ausnahmezustand
, a “willed state of exception,” “for the sake of establishing the National Socialist State” (Werner Spohr, quoted in Drobische and Wieland 1993, 28).
1.3. The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the “military order” issued by the president of the United States on November 13, 2001, which authorized the “indefinite detention” and trial by “military commissions” (not to be confused with the military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.
The USA Patriot Act issued by the U.S. Senate on October 26, 2001, already allowed the attorney general to “take into custody” any alien suspected of activities that endangered “the national security of the United States,” but within seven days the alien had to be either released or charged with the violation of immigration laws or some other criminal offense. What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POWs as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of persons charged with a crime according to American laws. Neither prisoners nor persons accused, but simply “detainees,” they are the object of a pure de facto rule, of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. The only thing to which it could possibly be compared is the legal situation of the Jews in the Nazi Lager [camps], who, along with their citizenship, had lost every legal identity, but at least retained their identity as Jews. As Judith Butler has effectively shown, in the detainee at Guantánamo, bare life reaches its maximum indeterminacy.
1.4. The uncertainty of the concept is exactly matched by terminological uncertainty. The present study will use the syntagma state of exception as the technical term for the consistent set of legal phenomena that it seeks to define. This term, which is common in German theory (Ausnahmezustand, but also Notstand, “state of necessity”), is foreign to Italian and French theory, which prefer to speak of emergency decrees and state of siege (political or fictitious, état de siège fictif). In Anglo-Saxon theory, the terms martial law and emergency powers prevail.
If, as has been suggested, terminology is the properly poetic moment of thought, then terminological choices can never be neutral. In this sense, the
choice of the term state of exception
implies a position taken on both the nature of the phenomenon that we seek to investigate and the logic most suitable for understanding it. Though the notions of state of siege
and martial law
express a connection with the state of war that has been historically decisive and is present to this day, they nevertheless prove to be inadequate to define the proper structure of the phenomenon, and they must therefore be qualified as political
, terms that are themselves misleading in some ways. The state of exception is not a special kind of law (like the law of war); rather, insofar as it is a suspension of the juridical order itself, it defines law’s threshold or limit concept.
א The history of the term fictitious or political state of siege is instructive in this regard. It goes back to the French doctrine that—in reference to Napoleon’s decree of December 24, 1811—provided for the possibility of a state of siege that the emperor could declare whether or not a city was actually under attack or directly threatened by enemy forces, “whenever circumstances require giving more forces and more power to the military police, without it being necessary to put the place in a state of siege” (Reinach 1885, 109). The institution of the state of siege has its origin in the French Constituent Assembly’s decree of July 8, 1791, which distinguished among état de paix, in which military authority and civil authority each acts in its own sphere; état de guerre, in which civil authority must act in concert with military authority; and état de siège, in which “all the functions entrusted to the civil authority for maintaining order and internal policing pass to the military commander, who exercises them under his exclusive responsibility” (ibid.). The decree referred only to military strongholds and ports, but with the law of 19 Fructidor Year 5, the Directory assimilated municipalities in the interior with the strongholds and, with the law of 18 Fructidor of the same year, granted itself the right to put a city in a state of siege. The subsequent history of the state of siege is the history of its gradual emancipation from the wartime situation to which it was originally bound in order to be used as an extraordinary police measure to cope with internal sedition and disorder, thus changing from a real, or military, state of siege to a fictitious, or political one. In any case, it is important not to forget that the modern state of exception is a creation of the democratic-revolutionary tradition and not the absolutist one.
The idea of a suspension of the constitution was introduced for the first time in the constitution of 22 Frimaire Year 8, Article 92 of which reads, “In the case of armed revolt or disturbances that would threaten the security of the State, the law can, in the places and for the time that it determines, suspend the rule of the constitution. In such cases, this suspension can be provisionally declared by a decree of the government if the legislative body is in recess, provided that this body be convened as soon as possible by an article of the same decree.” The city or region in question was declared hors la constitution
. Although the paradigm is, on the one hand (in the state of siege) the extension of the military authority’s wartime powers into the civil sphere, and on the other a suspension of the constitution (or of those constitutional norms that protect individual liberties),
in time the two models end up merging into a single juridical phenomenon that we call the state of exception
א The expression full powers (pleins pouvoirs), which is sometimes used to characterize the state of exception, refers to the expansion of the powers of the government, and in particular the conferral on the executive of the power to issue decrees having the force of law. It derives from the notion of plenitudo potestatis, which was elaborated in that true and proper laboratory of modern public legal terminology that was canon law. The presupposition here is that the state of exception entails a return to an original, pleromatic state in which the distinction among the different powers (legislative, executive, etc.) has not yet been produced. As we will see, the state of exception constitutes rather a kenomatic state, an emptiness of law, and the idea of an originary indistinction and fullness of power must be considered a legal mythologeme analogous to the idea of a state of nature (and it is not by chance that it was precisely Schmitt who had recourse to this mythologeme). In any case, the term full powers describes one of the executive power’s possible modes of action during the state of exception, but it does not coincide with it.
1.5. Between 1934 and 1948, in the face of the collapse of Europe’s democracies, the theory of the state of exception (which had made a first, isolated appearance in 1921 with Schmitt’s book Dictatorship) saw a moment of particular fortune, but it is significant that this occurred in the pseudomorphic form of a debate over so-called constitutional dictatorship.
This term (which German jurists had already used to indicate the emergency [eccezionali
] powers that Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution granted the president of the Reich [Hugo Preuss: Reichsverfassungsmäßige Diktatur
]) was taken up again and developed by Frederick M. Watkins (“The Problem of Constitutional Dictatorship,” 1940), Carl J. Friedrich (Constitutional Government and Democracy
,  1950), and finally Clinton L. Rossiter (Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies
, 1948). Before them, we must also at least mention the book by the Swedish jurist Herbert Tingsten, Les pleins pouvoirs. L’expansion des pouvoirs gouvernementaux pendant et après la Grande Guerre
(1934). While these books are quite varied and as a whole more dependent on Schmitt’s theory than a first reading might suggest, they are nevertheless equally important because they record for the first time how the democratic regimes were transformed by the gradual expansion of the executive’s powers during the two world wars and, more generally, by the state of exception that had accompanied and followed those wars. They are in some ways the heralds who announced what we today have clearly before our eyes—namely, that since “the state of exception . . . has become the rule” (Benjamin 1942, 697/257), it not only appears increasingly as a technique of government rather than an
exceptional measure, but it also lets its own nature as the constitutive paradigm of the juridical order come to light.
Tingsten’s analysis centers on an essential technical problem that profoundly marks t...