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Agamben, Exile and Compassion

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 24, 2011

Today I worked outside with others on a spontaneous project to create an outdoor stage for our New Year’s party. It’s summer solstice, the longest day. The sun was hot, the sky, cloudless. I made a salad while others prepared the evening BBQ. Recently I’ve been studying fresh social theory in between working.

I want to share several paragraphs from my reading with you, and explain what they mean to me. Hopefully my thought process won’t be too muddy.

Firstly, Giorgio Agamben speaks of global populations being transformed into a vast, “planetary petty bourgeoisie… in which all the old social classes are dissolved” (Agamben 1993: 62). Class is an important term many sociologists use. I think of myself as “middle class”. If I worked as a factory labourer I might be “working class”. What I find intriguing is that Agamben suggests that classes have become so blurred that there is now only one planet-wide class. There is now no individuality, late-modern capitalism has made us all the same. This is a radical suggestion, but one I find resonating with the idea of the 99% as a single class – the majority of the world who do not have significant economic and political power.


It is noteworthy that Agamben titles his chapter “Without Classes” (Agamben, [1990] 1993). For those in his enormous petty bourgeoisie even death itself cannot grant them an individuality, as Agamben writes:

The fact is that the senselessness of their existence runs up against a final absurdity … : death itself. In death the petty bourgeois confront the ultimate expropriation, the ultimate frustration of individuality: life in all its nakedness, the pure incommunicable, where their shame can finally rest in peace. Thus they use death to cover the secret that they must resign themselves to acknowledging: that even life in its nakedness is, in truth, improper and purely exterior to them, that for them there is no shelter on earth. (Agamben, [1990] 1993)

Agamben’s most famous term is homo sacer. Homo sacer is an old Roman term for a person who has been banished so far from society, that they can be killed by anyone. However, they cannot be “sacrificed” to the gods, as this would make them a part of the community. (As an aside, I’m also thinking a bit about death in preparation to tutor a summer course on death, dying and religion. It starts in three weeks.)

As noted above, even death cannot give homo sacer an individuality separate from the rest of the vast petty bourgeoisie. But all is not lost, for “this also means that the petty bourgeoisie represents an opportunity unheard of in the history of humanity” (Agamben, [1990] 1993: 65). In spite of the pessimistic prelude, Agamben finishes on a note of optimism. Again, I see the Occupy Wall Street movement as providing that note of optimism for the universally petit-bourgeois 99%.

Someone who is homo sacer can also be considered an outsider and an exile in my view. Diken & Laustsen talk about “exile” as a social state, not a physical one (Diken & Laustsen, 2005, p. 153). The exile could be sitting in the same room as everyone else, but has chosen not to be “integrated” with society.

The distinguishing mark of the ‘exile’ is not sheer physical movement, but ‘the refusal to be integrated’, a kind of ‘spiritual’ exercise. The exile is the one who is determined to remain ‘nonsocialized’, as a singularity that is present but not represented, ‘in, but not of the place’. The exile only accepts relation in the form of a nonrelation, integration through the condition of non-integration (referencing Zygumunt Bauman, 2000: 207-9).

From time to time I feel exiled from my social groupings. One time several years ago this coincided with a general frustration with my music performance. It was at this point, that I renamed my musical project “xhile”. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like an exile. Just a couple of days ago a house where I thought myself welcome decided to exclude all non-residents. They had good reason for it, but I still felt hurt when included with the general lot of untrustworthy people. For the last few days I’ve been doing more participant observation with our local “occupy” movement. I’ve been literally homeless and penniless, sleeping on the streets while I await my welfare to come through. (I have applied for jobs, little has eventuated as yet). As it happens, I was able to squat a building on my own one night, and I am currently allowed to camp in a community garden. Nevertheless, this experience of exile has made me ponder. I have been thinking of some of the homeless people who were part of the Civic Square occupation before it ended, and wondering if they are homo sacer, people who are so completely outside of society that they could be killed with impunity. However, I am also homo sacer, and I understand that Agamben thinks most people have now moved into this category.

This leads me to think of compassion and praxis, something that academics are not always known for. One of the things sociologists sometimes do is interview people to find out how they see the world. One of the most famous current sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu writes of interviewing:

I would say that the interview can be considered a sort of spiritual exercise that, through forgetfulness of self, aims at a true conversion of the way we look at other people in the ordinary circumstances of life. The welcoming disposition, which leads one to make the respondent’s problems one’s own, the capacity to take that person and understand them just as they are in their distinctive necessity, is a sort of intellectual love: a gaze that consents to necessity in the manner of the ‘intellectual love of God,’ that is, of the natural order, which Spinoza held to be the supreme form of knowledge.” (Bourdieu, 1999, p. 614)

I too, in my interviews last year felt such compassion and intellectual love, and I can say my informal interviews with those in the occupy movement, combined with the challenge of Agamben’s ideas, have led me to something of a conversion of the way I look at other people.


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Agamben, Giorgio. ([1990] 1993). The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre et al. (1999). Understanding The Weight of the World. London: Polity Press.

Diken, Bulent, & Laustsen, Carsten Bagge. (2005). The Culture of Exception. Sociology facing the camp. London: Routledge.


One Response to “Agamben, Exile and Compassion”

  1. SugarPop said

    Interesting post… I’d specifically like to know more about what you mean by your closing comment:

    “I too, in my interviews last year felt such compassion and intellectual love, and I can say my informal interviews with those in the occupy movement, combined with the challenge of Agamben’s ideas, have led me to something of a conversion of the way I look at other people.”

    How do you look at other people differently? What is it that has changed for you? Is it a subtle change or a material shift? Does this apply to everyone? Friends? Family? People whose acquaintance you have just made?

    Looking forward to hearing more.


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