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Posts Tagged ‘society’

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.

Posted in Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Does Society Need Religion?

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 28, 2010

It’s about time we had a Jewish voice on this site, so I’m pleased to welcome a guest post by the UK’s chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Well, he didn’t actually agree to write for me, I just pinched his opinion piece in the times.

Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality
Do you have to be religious to be moral? Was Dostoevsky right when he said that if God does not exist, all is permitted? Clearly the answer is “no”. You don’t have to be religious to fight for justice, practise compassion, care about the poor and homeless or jump into the sea to save a drowning child. My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a committed atheist. He was also one of the most reflective writers on morality in our time.

Yet there were great minds who were less sure. Voltaire did not believe in God but he wanted his butler to do so because he thought he would then be robbed less. Rousseau, hardly a saint, thought that a nation needed a religion if it was to accept laws and policies directed at the long-term future. Without it, people would insist on immediate gain, to their eventual cost. George Washington, in his farewell address, said: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Were they wrong? Yes in one sense, no in another. Individuals don’t need to believe in God to be moral. But morality is more than individual choices. Like language it is the result of social practice, honed and refined over many centuries. The West was shaped by what today we call the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Lose that and we will not cease to be moral, but we will be moral in a different way.

Consider what moves people today: the environment, hunger and disease in Third World countries, and the growing gap between rich and poor. These are noble causes: nothing should be allowed to detract from that. They speak to our altruism. They move us to make sacrifices for the sake of others. That is one of the distinguishing features of our age. Our moral horizons have widened. Our conscience has gone global. All this is worthy of admiration and respect.

But they have in common the fact that they are political. They are the kind of issues that can only ultimately be solved by governments and international agreements. They have little to do with the kind of behaviour that was once the primary concern of morality: the way we relate to others, how we form bonds of loyalty and love, how we consecrate marriage and the family, and how we fulfil our responsibilities as parents, employees, neighbours and citizens. Morality was about private life. It said that without personal virtue, we cannot create a society of grace.

Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if that sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution”. Things that once made sense — duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do — to many people now make no sense at all.

This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have. What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.

The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.

So far, the Times only has two comments, one from the kind of christian who argues poorly and dogmatically. *sigh*. There are some more useful comments here. I shall add my comment below, but I want to know what YOU think: Is the chief rabbi right? Please comment.


Some atheists imply or state outright that to be a believer one must be stupid. It’s simply not true, there are some immensely intelligent and educated religious people out there including many who teach in secular universities. I haven’t trawled in depth, but here’s Intelligent Christian, a website by mensa-level IQ christians.

Today’s Fun Unrelated Link: Odd and strangely satisfying video – exploding banana face

Posted in agnostic, atheism, Judaism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »