In This Article Giorgio Agamben

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Works: Art, Language, and Ontology
  • Transitional Works
  • The Homo Sacer Project
  • Other Books
  • Essays
  • Articles
  • Lectures
  • Interviews
  • Monographs
  • Edited Collections
  • Journal Special Issues

Literary and Critical Theory Giorgio Agamben
by
Daniel McLoughlin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0042

Introduction

Giorgio Agamben was born in Rome in 1942. He studied law and philosophy at the University of Rome and completed a thesis on the political thought of Simone Weil as part of his laurea degree (the Italian equivalent of an undergraduate qualification). The most important influences on his early thought were Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger, the latter of whose seminars he attended at Le Thor in 1966 and 1968. His first book (The Man without Content) was published in 1970 and drew heavily on Heidegger to analyze the relationship between art and nihilism, and for the next twenty years his published work focused on language, ontology, and poetry. Agamben returned to his early concern with politics at the close of the Cold War with the publication of The Coming Community, and he then began work on the nine-volume Homo Sacer project. The early volumes of the project drew on the German jurist Carl Schmitt to argue that the state is founded on the sovereign suspension of the law in response to a state of emergency. They also drew heavily on Michel Foucault’s work on biopolitics and Hannah Arendt’s analyses of totalitarianism. More recently, Agamben has turned his attention to the theological origins of contemporary government and economy, and to articulating the conceptual conditions for a politics that might resist the apparatuses of sovereignty and economy—a politics that he describes in terms of use, form-of-life, and inoperativity. Agamben has had a substantial influence in the Anglophone academy over the past twenty years, and the timeliness of Homo Sacer has had a great deal to do with the critical uptake of his work. The first volume of the project was translated into English just three years prior to the attacks of 11 September 2001, and its analysis of sovereignty played a major role in the debates on security politics that subsequently took place in the critical humanities. As a result, the early reception of Agamben’s thought tended to focus on his political thought, and on his analysis of sovereignty and biopolitics in particular. A second phase of scholarship began to develop a more comprehensive account of his work, and a more nuanced reading of his political thought, by turning its attention to his earlier analysis of language. More recent scholarship has mirrored the diversity of Agamben’s own thinking, covering everything from his historical method to his philosophy of poetry and his thinking on capitalism.

General Overviews

Much of the early commentary on Agamben appeared in journals and edited collections, and it took some time before more comprehensive treatments of his work began to appear in the form of monographs. Mills 2008 was the first to be published, providing an excellent introduction to and overview of Agamben’s early work on language and art, and to the early volumes of the Homo Sacer project. The next slew of books took a similar approach and read Agamben’s political thought in the context of his broader philosophical development. Deladurantaye 2009 is an important resource for understanding Agamben’s thinking, providing a detailed book-by-book account of the development of his thought, from his early work on art and language through to the early volumes of Homo Sacer. It is the longest and most heavily cited monograph on Agamben to date. Murray 2010 provides a concise if descriptive account of Agamben’s work on language, art, and the early volumes of Homo Sacer. Zartaloudis 2010 focuses on law, but also provides an overview of Agamben’s thinking that includes more recent volumes of Homo Sacer, such as The Kingdom and the Glory. It can be dense, however, and so is more useful for the reader already versed in Agamben’s work. Colebrook and Maxwell 2016 is also a useful resource as it addresses some of Agamben’s more recent works.

  • Colebrook, Clare, and Jason Maxwell. Agamben. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016.

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    Emphasizes the relationship between Agamben’s political thought and his philosophy of language. Traverses almost the entirety of his corpus (from The Man without Content to Opus Dei) and reads him in relation to his philosophical influences, late-20th-century French theory, and critical Marxism. Foregrounds the central role of indifference in Agamben’s thought.

  • Deladurantaye, Leland. Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

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    Provides an excellent overview through a book-by-book account of Agamben’s work from The Man without Content through to State of Exception. A sophisticated account of Agamben that illuminates his philosophical influences. There is less focus on the explicitly political dimensions of Agamben’s work than other monographs.

  • Mills, Catherine. The Philosophy of Agamben. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen, 2008.

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    The first monograph devoted to Agamben’s work, and a very clear exposition of five major themes: metaphysics, aesthetics, politics, ethics, and messianism. Mills makes sense of Agamben’s political theses by reading them in the context of his early work.

  • Murray, Alex. Giorgio Agamben. London: Routledge, 2010.

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    A shorter introduction to Agamben’s thought, from his work on language through to the early volumes of the Homo Sacer project. Provides an overview of Agamben’s analysis of language, sovereignty, messianism, witnessing, art, and literature. Concise and useful for those new to Agamben.

  • Prozorov, Sergei. Agamben and Politics: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

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    Focuses on Agamben’s political work prior to The Kingdom and the Glory, and reads this in the context of his early work on language. Responds to the charges that Agamben is a pessimist by tracing the function of inoperativity in his work on language, the human/animal relation, law, and history.

  • Watkin, William. Agamben and Indifference: A Critical Overview. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

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    Focuses on Agamben’s recent works on economy and method, but provides a rigorous account of his broader philosophical project. Argues that Agamben is philosophically unique in that he responds to the history of metaphysics by trying to render its founding oppositions indifferent. Convincingly responds to critiques of Agamben’s approach to history.

  • Whyte, Jessica. Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben. New York: State University of New York Press, 2014.

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    Particularly useful for those interested in Agamben’s political thought. Reads Agamben’s political thought (from The Coming Community through to The Kingdom and the Glory) in the context of his work on language and contemporary Continental political theory. Is also very concerned with the concrete political implications of his philosophy, particularly for praxis.

  • Zartaloudis, Thanos. Giorgio Agamben: Power, Law and the Uses of Criticism. London: Routledge, 2010.

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    Focuses on Agamben’s treatment of law, but useful for those in other disciplines as it surveys Agamben’s thought from his early work on language through to his analyses of government and messianism. Can be dense, so more appropriate for those with an existing knowledge of Agamben.

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