The exception and the paradigm: Giorgio Agamben on law and life

William Stahl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Political theorists continue to be provoked by Giorgio Agamben’s disturbing diagnosis that ‘bare life’ – human life that is excluded from politics yet exposed to sovereign violence – is not a sign of the malfunction of modern politics but rather a revelation of how it actually functions. However, despite the enormous amount of attention this diagnosis has received, there has been relatively little discussion of Agamben’s proposed ‘cure’ for the problem that he diagnoses. In this article, I analyze the three main concepts of Agamben’s positive philosophical program – ‘infancy,’ ‘potentiality,’ and ‘form-of-life’ – in order to show how he attempts to subvert the sovereignty of law over life with his idea of a life of habit in which life is sovereign over law. In addition to analyzing these concepts, I engage in an immanent critique of Agamben’s philosophy and contrast his vision of politics with those of other influential contemporary political theorists. I find that while Agamben’s philosophical program is almost undone by internal difficulties, it still radically challenges current theories of subjectivity, humanity, and community.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)233-250
Number of pages18
JournalContemporary Political Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • Giorgio Agamben
  • bare life
  • exemplarity
  • potentiality
  • state of exception
  • subjectivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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