Agamben, “The State of Emergency”

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly recognize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency…” — Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted eighth thesis in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Agamben wrote a short essay called “State of Emergency” that may help us understand Schmitt better. He reads Schmitt in Political Theology as responding to Walter Benjamin’s argument in “Critique of Violence” that aside from the violence asserted by the law, both to instantiate the law and to uphold it, there was a violence that exists outside the law entirely. Here Agamben reads Schmitt’s argument that the exception/emergency defines the limit, and thus the rule, of sovereignty as an attempt to bring Benjamin’s outside violence back into the framework of the law. Benjamin responds by pointing out that Schmitt’s exception — the state of emergency — is not an exception at all.



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