Outlaws, barbarians, slaves: Critical reflections on Agamben’s homo sacer

Magnus Fiskesjö


Agamben’s political philosophy of state power as founded on the expulsion of outcasts, who are embraced as key components of the system precisely by virtue of their potential exclusion, strangely omits such cardinal and long-familiar figures of sociopolitical inequality as the slave and the barbarian. These are neglected despite how they, together, stare us in the face from the very same pages in Aristotle from which Agamben derives his theory of bare life, and despite their key historical role in imperial state ideology and in the formation of empires. Agamben instead resurrects the obscure figure of homo sacer, an ancient Roman form of outlaw interpreted as bare life, mainly for the purpose of rethinking and debating citizenship, exclusion, and the ruse of the “rule of law” in the modern Western state form. As a transhistorical-paradigmatic figure it leaves aside not only its obvious counterparts—slaves and barbarians (whose real-life referents, like homo sacer, are also both historical and contemporary)—but also the pre-state and pre-law excommunication of outcasts. In this article I discuss the historical and political anthropology of outcasts and outlaws, slaves, and barbarians, what is obscured by homo sacer, and what this “limit figure” can bring to light.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.1.009