On Derrida’s critique of Agamben

I have not closely studied Derrida’s critique of Agamben from The Beast and the Sovereign, yet given how frequently it’s been deployed by Agamben skeptics, I feel comfortable giving a brief, blog-style response to it: that bios and zoē cannot be neatly distinguished does not undermine Agamben’s project, but is indeed the entire point.

Agamben reads the Western tradition as a series of increasingly destructive failed attempts to separate them out in some kind of stable and sustainable way. The reason these attempts fail is that the neat distinction is impossible — indeed, even in the encounter between the sovereign (the very embodiment of bios as political life) and the homo sacer (the emblem of zoē as bare life), which should surely count as the starkest possible contrast between these two concepts of life, an uncanny overlapping occurs wherein both are included through their very exclusion.

Agamben is thus not trying to get rid of bios in favor of a pure zoē — i.e., to abolish politics and allow us all to return to our raw animality or unblemished nature — but to get at another politics, another form of life that would not be governed by this founding opposition of the contingent historical reality that is Western politics.

There is doubtless a lot to be said in critique of Agamben’s project, but Derrida’s critique misses its target as far as I can tell.

13 Responses to “On Derrida’s critique of Agamben”

  1. Eric Daryl Meyer Says:

    Your reading here seems correct to me. I think Derrida was uncharacteristically off the mark on this one. It does take a careful re-reading of the first half of Homo Sacer to really “get” just how Agamben is actually positioning himself relative to the distinction between zoe and bios. Or, minimally, I remember that I had some significant confusion on that point.

    I’ve got an essay coming out soon that argues that Agamben and Derrida are doing very, very similar things with regard to animality (zoe) and politics. Both are strategically accepting the lines of a distinction that they find highly questionable—that between bare/animal life and politically organized/truly human life—in order to demonstrate how the distinction breaks down on the very terms in which it is drawn.

  2. cruth01 Says:

    “Agamben is thus not trying to get rid of bios in favor of a pure zoē — i.e., to abolish politics and allow us all to return to our raw animality or unblemished nature — but to get at another politics, another form of life that would not be governed by this founding opposition of the contingent historical reality that is Western politics.”

    That seems patent to me…I’ve heard it suggested elsewhere that Agamben wants to liberate ‘bare life,’ and it’s beyond me where that idea comes from.

  3. Ethan Says:

    If I remember correctly (not guaranteed), Derrida says–though without really getting into any detail–that for the ancient Greeks there never was the kind of exclusionary separation between the two terms that Agamben attributes, so A’s baseline philology is wrong.

    Also, taking no sides here, but Derrida’s personal mockery of Agamben is brutal and hilarious.

  4. S. (@darknessatnoon) Says:

    If, in fact, that is Derrida’s criticism, it seems shockingly uncharacteristic of him.

  5. cruth01 Says:

    I should say that I haven’t read Derrida’s critique and would be surprised if it wasn’t more nuanced than we’re getting second hand.

    Here’s a brief something:


  6. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I just finished reading Homo Sacer — I am behind everyone else on reading Agamben, I guess, so bear with me if I’m reaching a little for something new to me — and this is very helpful, having not really read the critiques myself. And I am new to the conversation. It seems to me that Adam’s point is not explicitly stated by Agamben but a question is what does he mean by saying that bios and zoe are a “categorical pair?”–this is the term used on p. 8 of the introduction (the book is still on my desk). Does this from the outset lead us to assume that they are separated but are intertwined with each other? Derrida seems to beieve the earlier, but, as Adam says, this assumption misses the whole point.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The critique is easily accessible if one searches for “Agamben” in The Beast and the Sovereign using Amazon’s “search inside” feature. One can then see that Derrida does regard Agamben as trying to demarcate an “airtight frontier” between the two terms.

  8. Eric Daryl Meyer Says:

    What Adam posted really is Derrida’s criticism of Agamben.

    To clarify a bit: Derrida is taking Agamben to task for a contrived reading of Aristotle—and on that point he’s probably right. The bios/zoe distinction as Agamben wants to employ it doesn’t seem to be as rigid and “airtight” in Aristotle as Agamben would like it to be. Partly for that reason, Agamben isn’t entirely consistent in his terminology, and sometime shifts to the distinction (more helpful in my opinion) between zen as bare life and eu zen (the good life) as politically modified or organized life.

    So Derrida, in my opinion, gets some purchase on Agamben as a reader of Aristotle. But Derrida (uncharacteristically) doesn’t read Agamben’s text very well, and mischaracterizes the function of the zoe/bios distinction within Agamben’s own critical project.

  9. Eric Daryl Meyer Says:

    The italics escaped their airtight boundaries on that one . . .

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I should clarify that I do think Derrida’s sarcasm toward Agamben is broadly justified — there is much in Agamben’s style and approach that is off-putting and irritating.

  11. cruth01 Says:

    Yeah, that’s true… I like when he pronounces, “The true genius of Aristotle lies in the following” before giving an idiosyncratic reading of half a sentence. It’s kind of funny, really…he tries to be Heidegger in the vatic pronouncements department…

  12. Scu Says:

    In everything that has been going on, I have misplaced my copy of the first volume of B&S. So, just going off memory, but I want to echo Ethan that part of the critique was philological. On the same point, but with a lot more examples, I suggest Laurent Dubreuil’s “Leaving Politics: Bios, Zōē, Life”, diacritics Volume 36, Number 2, Summer 2006. I have no desire to be seen with agreeing with all of Dubreuil’s argument, or even his reading of Agamben. However, the first several pages are pretty convincing that Agamben is wrong on the issue of Greek “semantically and morphologically distinct” usage between zoe and bios. I don’t know enough Greek to even pretend to be an expert, so I could be wrong. But Dubreuil is pretty convincing.

    Oh, Eric, I am really interested in seeing that essay on Derrida and Agamben. As I am sure you know, that is a constant argument in certain critical animal studies circles (see for example Matt Calarco’s Zoographies, and Aaron Bell’s “The Dialectic of Anthropocentrism” in Critical Theory and Animal Liberation)

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