Review of International Studies (2009), 35, 729–749 Copyright British International Studies Association
The generalised bio-political border?
Re-conceptualising the limits of sovereign
Abstract. This article is a response to calls from a number of theorists in International
Relations and related disciplines for the need to develop alternative ways of thinking ‘the
border’ in contemporary political life. These calls stem from an apparent tension between
the increasing complexity of the nature and location of bordering practices on the one hand
and yet the relative simplicity with which borders often continue to be treated on the other.
One of the intellectual challenges, however, is that many of the resources in political thought
to which we might turn for new border vocabularies already rely on unproblematised
conceptions of what and where borders are. It is argued that some promise can be found
in the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose diagnosis of the operation of
sovereign power in terms of the production of bare life offers significant, yet largely
untapped, implications for analysing borders and the politics of space across a global
bio-political terrain.
Borders are vacillating [. . .] they are no longer at the border, an institutionalised site that
could be materialised on the ground and inscribed on the map, where one sovereignty ends
and another begins.1
Étienne Balibar
If Étienne Balibar’s pithy observation is taken seriously then the debate about the
status of borders between states in contemporary political life appears to be
somewhat missing the point. According to this familiar inter-disciplinary debate,
which is often associated with arguments about the character and extent of
globalisation, state borders are characterised either as a thing of the past or as an
enduring feature of world politics post-1648.
* An earlier version of this article was presented at the 48th Annual Convention of the International
Studies Association, Chicago, IL, 28 February – 3 March 2007. Special thanks are due to Mathias
Albert, Jenny Edkins, Yosef Lapid, Hidemi Suganami, R.B.J. Walker, the Editorial team of the RIS
and two anonymous reviewers. An extended version of the argument presented here can be found
in N. Vaughan-Williams, Border Politics: The Limits of Sovereign Power (Edinburgh and New York:
Edinburgh/Columbia University Press, 2009).
E. Balibar, ‘The Borders of Europe’, trans. J. Swenson, in P. Cheah and B. Robbins (eds),
Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation (London and Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 217–8.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
The former discourse has it that the transformation of global production,
involving the growth of multi-national companies, a 24 hour market and
post-Fordist industries, has rendered the notion of a national economy obsolete.2
On this view, economic change is said to have ushered in new patterns of
governance, in which the role of the modern, sovereign, territorially bordered state
has diminished.3 Consequently, it is sometimes argued that the erosion of state
borders over recent decades threatens the very idea of the so-called Westphalian
territorially defined international states-system.4
By contrast, the latter discourse maintains that national economies have been
left intact if not actually strengthened by globalisation.5 From this perspective, the
modern state, paradigmatically defined by Max Weber as ‘a human community
that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given
territory’,6 remains the primary political entity in global politics.7 Moreover,
especially since the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the
Pentagon on 11 September 2001, some writers now argue that state borders are
more important than ever before.8 Yet, according to this tired and totalising
debate, the focus is on the presence/absence of state borders, rather than the
possibility, as hinted at by Balibar, that the concept of the border is playing out
in different and often unexpected ways at a multiplicity of sites in contemporary
political life.
In the context of the theoretical lexicon of International Relations (IR),
R. B. J. Walker has diagnosed a dominant spatial-temporal logic of inside/outside.9
Spatially, discourses of international relations presuppose a series of demarcations
between inside and outside, here and there and us and them, in order to affirm the
effect of the ‘presence’ of sovereign political community. Temporally, these
demarcations work to secure a primary distinction between a realm of progress
‘inside’ and a realm of immutable violence, warfare and barbarism ‘outside’. On a
preliminary reading, therefore, the concept of the border of the state conditions the
possibility of thinking in the above terms and this border is taken to be located at
the geographical outer-edge of sovereign territory.
As such, the concept of the border of the state can be said to frame the limits
of sovereign power as something supposedly contained within fixed territorially
C. Brown, ‘Globalisation’, in C. Brown with K. Ainley (eds), Understanding International Relations,
3 (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), p. 167.
S. Strange, ‘The Westfailure System’, Review of International Studies, 25:3 (1999), pp. 345–54.
D. Held and A. McGrew (eds), The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the
Globalisation Debate (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), p. 39; J. A. Scholte, Globalisation: A Critical
Introduction (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), pp. 135–6.
P. Hirst and G. Thompson, ‘Globalisation in Question’ (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000); P. Hirst and
G. Thompson, ‘The Future of Globalisation’, Cooperation and Conflict, 37 (2002), pp. 255–66.
M. Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber: Essays
in Sociology (London: Kegan Paul, 1948), p. 78.
B. Carlson, J. Warner and K. Wang, ‘Foreword’, The SAIS Review of International Affairs, Special
Issue on ‘Borders’, 26:1 (Winter-Spring, 2006), pp. 1–2.
H. Starr, ‘International Borders: What They Are, What They Mean, and Why We Should Care’,
The SAIS Review of International Affairs, Special Issue on ‘Borders’, 26:1 (Winter-Spring, 2006),
pp. 3–10; E. Zureik and M. Salter, ‘Introduction’, in E. Zureik and M. Salter (eds), Global
Surveillance and Policing: Borders, Security, Identity (Cullompton, Devon and Portland, Oregon:
Willan Publishing, 2005), p. 1; D. Newman, ‘Borders and Bordering: Towards an Inter-Disciplinary
Dialogue’, p. 181.
R. B. J. Walker, ‘Inside/outside: International Relations as Political Theory’ (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993).
The generalised bio-political border?
demarcated parameters. This is illustrated by Weber’s influential formulation in
which the realm of sovereign power (‘successful claims to the monopoly of the
legitimate use of force’) is defined by territorial borders (‘within a given territory’).
In turn, the inside/outside model conditioned by the concept of the border of the
state provides a powerful foundation for the theory and practice of international
relations: it is codified in international law by the norm of ‘territorial integrity’ (see
Article 2 Paragraph 4 of the UN Charter); it acts as an epistemological and
ontological anchor on the basis of which seemingly diverse conceptualisations of
global politics proceed; and, as Anthony Jarvis and Albert Paolini have pointed
out, it allows for a compartmentalisation of global politics into two supposedly
distinct spheres permitting a division of labour between Politics on the one hand
and IR on the other.10
However, despite the imperiousness of the inside/outside model conditioned by
the concept of the border of the state, a growing number of critical scholars concur
with Balibar’s observation about the paradoxical and complex nature of borders in
contemporary political life. Walker, for example, not only diagnoses the logic of
inside/outside but also seems to call this logic into question throughout many of
his texts.11 Hence, he argues that, ‘We have shifted rather quickly from the
monstrous edifice of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the paradigm of a securitized
territoriality, to a war on terrorism, and to forms of securitization, enacted
anywhere.’12 In the same vein, Achille Mbembe has argued, ‘in [the] heteronymous
organisation of territorial rights and claims, it makes little sense to insist on
distinctions between “internal” and “external” political realms, separated by clearly
demarcated boundaries’.13 Similarly, Zaki Laïdi refers to ‘a global social system in
which there is no longer a frontier between internal and external’.14 Moreover,
albeit in different ways and contexts, Louise Amoore,15 Didier Bigo,16 David
Campbell,17 Yosef Lapid,18 Noel Parker,19 Chris Rumford,20 Gearóid Ó Tuathail
A. Jarvis and A. Paolini, ‘Locating the State’, in J. Camilleri, A. Jarvis, and A. Paolini (eds), The
State in Transition: Reimagining Political Space (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995), pp. 1–4.
Walker frequently implies the inadequacy of the inside/outside model conditioned by the concept of
the border of the state, see: R. B. J. Walker, ‘Inside/outside’, p. 20, p. 159, p. 161; R. B. J. Walker,
‘Sovereignty, Identity, Community: Reflections on the Horizons of Contemporary Political Practice’
in R. B. J. Walker and S. H. Mendlovitz (eds), Contending Sovereignties: Redefining Political
Community (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1990), p. 180; R. B. J. Walker
‘Foreword’ in J. Edkins, N. Persram and V. Pin-Fat (eds), Sovereignty and Subjectivity (Boulder and
London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), p. xii; R. B. J. Walker, ‘On the Immanence/Imminence
of Empire’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 31:1 (2002), p. 343; and Walker, After the
Globe/Before the World (Unpublished manuscript) p. 1.
R. B. J. Walker, ‘International/inequality’, International Studies Review, 4:2 (2002), p. 17.
A. Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, trans. L. Meintjes, Public Culture, 15:1, pp. 11–40. See also A. Mbembe,
‘At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality and Sovereignty in Africa’, Public Culture, 12
(2000), pp. 259–84.
Z. Laïdi, ‘A World Without Meaning: the Crisis of Meaning in International Politics’ (London:
Routledge, 1998), p. 97.
L. Amoore, ‘Biometric Borders: Governing Mobilities in the War on Terror’, Political Geography,
25 (2006), pp. 336–51.
D. Bigo, ‘The Möbius Ribbon of Internal and External Security(ies)’, in M. Albert, D. Jacobson and
Y. Lapid (eds), Identities, Borders, Orders: Rethinking International Relations Theory (Minnesota and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 91–116.
D. Campbell, ‘Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity’
(Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
Y. Lapid, ‘Introduction: Identities, Borders, Orders: Nudging International Relations Theory in a
New Direction’, in M. Albert et al (eds), Identities, Borders, Orders, p. 2.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
and Simon Dalby,21 Michael J. Shapiro,22 William Walters,23 to name only a few,
have all made claims about the need for alternative border imaginaries in the study
of global politics.
Yet, despite these insistences, there has been relatively little work on the
development and application of new and innovative ways of border thinking in IR.
On the one hand, as Walker has argued, such reticence is perhaps unsurprising
given the stakes involved: ‘better explanations – of contemporary political life – are
no doubt called for, but they are unlikely to emerge without a more sustained
reconsideration of fundamental theoretical and philosophical assumptions than can
be found in most of the literature on international relations theory’.24 On the other
hand, there is a danger of a growing disjuncture between the increasing complexity
and differentiation of borders in global politics and the apparent simplicity and
lack of imagination with which borders continue to be identified and analysed.
In this article, I argue that there are potentially useful resources for developing
alternative border imaginaries to be found in the recent work of Italian philosopher
Giorgio Agamben. The following discussion begins with a detailed exegesis of some
of Agamben’s key arguments as articulated in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and
Bare Life (1998), Means Without End: Notes on Politics (2000), State of Exception
(2005) and several key essays and interviews. By now, the use of Agamben in IR
has become popular in the study of diverse aspects of the ‘War on Terror’,25
especially in relation to debates about the rule of law and sovereign exceptionalism,26 although his work has not gone without criticism.27 Departures will be made
from extant interpretations of Agamben’s work, however, in respect of his central
concept of ‘bare life’, the importance of what he calls ‘a logic of the field’ and,
perhaps most importantly, the implications of his oeuvre for an understanding of
the spatial dimensions of sovereign power. Building upon what I consider to be a
distinctive reading of Agamben, I then develop the idea of the ‘generalised
bio-political border’ as a re-conceptualisation of the limits of sovereign power: not
as fixed territorial borders located at the outer-edge of the territorial state, but
N. Parker, ‘A Theoretical Introduction: Spaces, Centres, and Margins’, in N. Parker (ed.), The
Geopolitics of Europe’s Identity: Centres, Boundaries, and Margins (Basingstoke and New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 3–24.
C. Rumford, ‘Introduction: Theorising Borders’, European Journal of Social Theory, 9:2 (2006),
pp. 155–69.
G. Ó Tuathail and S. Dalby (eds), Rethinking Geopolitics (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 29.
M. J. Shapiro, ‘Violent Cartographies: Mapping Cultures of War’ (Minnesota: University of
Minnesota Press, 1997).
W. Walters, ‘Mapping Schengenland: Denaturalising the Border’, Environment and Planning (D):
Society and Space, 20:5, (2002), pp. 564–80 and W. Walters, ‘Border/Control’, European Journal of
Social Theory, 9:2 (2006), pp. 187–203.
R. B. J. Walker, ‘Inside/outside’, p. 159.
A. Closs Stephens and N. Vaughan-Williams (eds), Terrorism and the Politics of Response (London
and New York: Routledge, 2008); E. Dauphinee and C. Masters (eds), Living, Dying, Surviving: the
Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror (New York: Palgrave, 2007); J. Edkins, V. Pin-Fat, and
M. J Shapiro, (eds), Sovereign Lives: Power in Global Politics (New York: Routledge, 2004).
A. Neal, ‘Exceptionalism and the Politics of Counter-Terrorism: Liberty, Security, and the War on
Terrorism’ (London and New York: Routledge, 2009); M. Neocleous, ‘The Problem with Normality:
Taking Exception to “Permanent Emergency”’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 31 (2006),
pp. 191–293; S. Prozorov, ‘X/Xs: Towards a General Theory of the Exception’, Alternatives: Global,
Local, Political, 30 (2005), pp. 81–112.
J. Butler, ‘Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence’ (London and New York: Verso,
2004); W. Connolly, ‘The Complexity of Sovereignty’, in J. Edkins et al, Sovereign Lives, pp. 23–41.
The generalised bio-political border?
infused through bodies and diffused across society and everyday life. As I will
suggest, thinking in terms of the generalised bio-political border has potentially
radical implications for the way we conceptualise what and where borders are in
global politics, which, in turn, raises some provocative questions for IR and
security theorists.
Giorgio Agamben: indistinction, sovereign power, and bare life
Over the past twenty years or so, Giorgio Agamben has attempted a critique of the
dominant treatment of the relation between politics and life in political philosophy.28 According to Agamben, the main influence in the Western context has been
Aristotle’s account of the connection between the state and the human in his
Politics. In the First Book, Aristotle presents the rise of the polis as the joining
together of families and villages. The state, originating in ‘the bare needs of life’,
continues to exist for ‘the sake of the good life’.29 Since for Aristotle ‘the state is a
creation of nature’, he argues that ‘man is by nature a political animal’ or ‘politikon
zōon’.30 Thus, he who is without a state is ‘[. . .] either above humanity, or below it:
he is the “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one” whom Homer denounces – the outcast
who is a lover of war’.31 To be fully human, therefore, one must be a member of the
polis for it is only here that the good life can be achieved.
In Agamben’s reading, the distinction between ‘natural life’ on the one hand
and the ‘good life’ in the polis on the other is at the heart of Aristotle’s conception
of the state. According to Agamben, this distinction reflects the way in which the
Greeks had no single word for ‘life’. Rather, he claims, two terms were used in its
place: zoē (the biological fact of life common to all living beings) and bios (political
or qualified life).32 As such, the private realm of zoē is taken to be simply excluded
from bios, understood as the politically qualified life of the public sphere. Agamben
notes that the key insights of Aristotle’s Politics – his definition of man as a
political animal, his opposition between the simple fact of living and politically
qualified life, and his distinction between private and public spheres – have all had
a lasting impact on the political tradition of the West. Nevertheless, Agamben
argues that these insights concerning the relationship between politics and life have
largely been assumed rather than interrogated within political thought. For
Agamben, however, one notable exception is the work of Michel Foucault.33
At the time of writing the Homo Sacer series translated into English includes: G. Agamben, ‘Homo
Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); ‘Remnants of
Auschwitz: the Witness and the Archive’ (New York: Zone Books, 1999); and ‘State of Exception’,
(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., p. 28.
See G. Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 1 and G. Agamben, ‘Form-of-Life’, in P. Virno and M. Hardt
(eds), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1996), p. 151.
By now there is growing literature on the relationship between Agamben and Foucault, which,
especially in the Politics and IR literature, tends to privilege the importance of the latter over
the former. See, for example, A. Neal, ‘Cutting Off the King’s Head: Foucault’s Society Must
Be Defended and the Problem of Sovereignty’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 29 (2004),
Nick Vaughan-Williams
In The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Power (1976), Foucault
refers to the process by which biological life (zoē) has become included within the
modalities of state power (bios). He captures this inclusion in terms of the
transition from politics to bio-politics with reference to the emergence in the 17th
century of attempts to govern populations as populations. Foucault argues that,
whereas for Aristotle life and politics are considered separate, bio-politics takes life
itself as its referent object: ‘modern man is an animal whose politics calls his
existence as a living being into question’.34 On this view, the entry of zoē into bios
has occasioned a fundamental shift in the nexus between politics and life, where the
simple fact of life is no longer excluded from political calculations and mechanisms
but absolutely central to modern politics.
At certain points in the book Homo Sacer it seems as though Agamben agrees
fully with Foucault’s historical schematisation. For example, in his introduction,
Agamben writes, ‘the entry of zoē into the sphere of the polis [. . .] constitutes the
decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the politicalphilosophical categories of classical thought’.35 But while Agamben is highly
indebted to Foucault he argues that ‘the Foucauldian thesis will [. . .] have to be
corrected, or at least completed’ because a historical shift to bio-politics has not
actually taken place.36 Agamben makes a different claim from Foucault’s about the
historical-philosophical structure of the West: ‘the production of a bio-political
body is the original activity of sovereign power’.37 In other words, whereas
Foucault reads the movement from politics to bio-politics as a historical
transformation involving the inclusion of zoē in the realm of the polis, for Agamben
the political realm is originally bio-political. On Agamben’s view, the West’s
conception of politics has always been bio-political, but the nature of
the relation between politics and life has become more exposed in the context of
the modern state and its sovereign practices.38
Agamben shows how the originally bio-political element of politics can be seen
to be at play in Aristotle’s definition of the polis in terms of the exclusion of zoē
from bios. For Agamben, this ‘exclusion’ of zoē is not entirely exclusive, because
zoē still remains in a fundamental relation with bios. Indeed, zoē is included in bios
through its very exclusion from it: as Jenny Edkins puts it, ‘natural life or zoē is
there as that which is excluded, the outlaw that haunts the sovereign order’.39 We
are not dealing with a straightforward exclusion, therefore, but what Agamben
calls an ‘inclusive exclusion’. To explain this paradoxical formulation he introduces
a spatial-ontological device used by Jean-Luc Nancy: the ban.40 If someone is
‘banned’ from a political community he or she continues to have a relation with
that group: there is still a connection precisely because they are outlawed. In this
pp. 373–98; A. Neal, ‘Foucault in Guantanano: Towards an Archaeology of the Exception’, Security
Dialogue, 39:1 (2006), pp. 31–46; M. Ojakangas, ‘Impossible Dialogue on Bio-Power: Agamben and
Foucault’, Foucault Studies, 2 (May 2005), pp. 5–28.
(Quoted in) Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 3.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., p. 6 (emphasis in original).
Ibid., p. 6.
J. Edkins, ‘Trauma and the Memory of Politics’(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003),
p. 180.
J-L Nancy, ‘Abandoned Being’, trans. B. Holmes, in J-L Nancy (ed.), The Birth to Presence
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 36–47.
The generalised bio-political border?
way, the figure of the banned person thus complicates the simplistic dichotomy
between inclusion and exclusion. As we shall see, the idea of an ‘inclusive
exclusion’ is important in Agamben’s theoretical edifice because it is pivotal in his
account of the Western paradigm of sovereign power.
Agamben’s treatment of sovereignty is influenced by Carl Schmitt’s definition
of the sovereign as ‘he who decides on the exception’.41 According to Schmitt, such
a decision declares that a state of emergency exists and suspends the rule of law
to allow for whatever measures are deemed to be necessary in response. In addition
to the Schmittian logic, however, Agamben also invokes Walter Benjamin’s critique
that ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” in
which we live is the rule’.42 I shall return to the Schmitt-Benjamin debate in greater
detail but for now suffice it to say that Agamben’s diagnosis of the relation
between politics, life, and sovereignty fuses Nancy’s concept of the ban, Schmitt’s
definition of sovereignty, and Benjamin’s idea of the permanent state of exception.
For Agamben, sovereign power relies on the ability to decide on whether
certain forms of life are worthy of living. Such a decision, which is a sovereign cut
or dividing practice, produces an expendable form of life that Agamben calls ‘bare
life’. The sovereign decision bans bare life from the legal and political institutions
to which citizens normally have access. This ban renders bare life amenable to the
sway of sovereign power and allows for exceptional practices such as indefinite
detention, torture, or even (but not inevitably) execution. Importantly, bare life is
neither what the Greeks referred to as zoē nor bios. Rather, it is a form of life that
is produced in a zone of indistinction between the two. Agamben, therefore, argues
that it is necessary to identify and analyse the way in which the classical distinction
between zoē and bios is blurred in contemporary political life: ‘Living in the state
of exception that has become the rule has [. . .] meant this: our private body has
now become indistinguishable from our body politic’.43
Elaborating on his ‘correction’ of the Foucauldian thesis, Agamben thus argues
that the decisive characteristic of modern politics is not so much the simple
inclusion of zoē in bios, but rather:
The decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere
becomes the rule, the realm of bare life – which is originally situated at the margins of the
political order – gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and
inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoē, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible
This ‘zone of irreducible indistinction’ is precisely that which sovereign power relies
upon producing in order to sustain its own operation. What Agamben ultimately
seeks to show is that the production of bare life is the originary (if concealed)
activity of sovereign power. Before dealing with his central claim about the
relationship between sovereignty and subjectivity, however, it is first necessary to
C. Schmitt, ‘Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty’, trans. G. Schwab,
3rd Edition, (Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 2005).
W. Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, in H. Eiland and M. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin:
Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 2003) [1940], pp. 389–400.
G. Agamben, ‘Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics’, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino
(Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press, 2000), p. 139.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 9 (emphasis added).
Nick Vaughan-Williams
unpack and illustrate aspects of Agamben’s central thesis. His understanding and
usage of key terms such as ‘zones of indistinction’ and ‘bare life’ are not always
clear or even consistent: there is a need to take them as areas for debate rather
than as simple givens.
The politics of indistinction: towards a ‘logic of the field’
Agamben contends that thinking in terms of borders, separations, and distinctions
is actually quite unhelpful when trying to understand the relationship between
politics and life. This contention is significant when trying to come to terms with
the privileged status he affords to otherwise seemingly idiosyncratic concepts such
as ‘inclusive exclusion’, ‘the ban’, and ‘zones of indistinction’. In an interview
published in the German Law Review, Agamben argues for an approach to the
study of politics that allows for the identification and analysis of what he calls
[W]e need a logic of the field, as in physics, where it is impossible to draw a line clearly and
separate two different substances. The polarity is present and acts at each point of the field.
Then you may suddenly have zones of indecidability or indifference. The state of exception
is one of those zones.45
Agamben’s reference to the need for a ‘logic of the field’ gestures towards the
importance of one of the key insights of developments in theoretical physics at the
beginning of the last century: that entities within the electromagnetic field are not
mutually exclusive phenomena but physically continuous within their milieu of
interaction.46 On this view, the flow of electrons and protons renders entity x
always already part of entity y: entities are shown to interpenetrate each other,
collapse into each other and are thus inseparable from each other from the outset.
Accordingly, ‘a logic of the field’ provides an alternative paradigm of thought
in which the concept of the border no longer makes much sense. Such a logic reads
binary oppositions such as inside/outside not as ‘dichotomies’ but as ‘di-polarities’,
not substantial, but tensional’.47 In order to illustrate this alternative topological
register, Agamben makes reference to the figure of the Möbius strip: a surface with
only one side so that what is ‘presupposed as external [. . .] now reappears [. . .] in
the inside’.48 Whereas the zone of indistinction remains obscured within the
horizon of an inside/outside topological relation it is brought into relief when
thinking in terms of a logic of the field. Such a shift is paramount for Agamben
since it provides a spatial theory that informs his analysis of sovereign power and
the nomos – or spatial-juridical orientation – of the West: ‘It is precisely this
topological zone of indistinction [. . .] that we must try to fix under our gaze’.49
G. Agamben, ‘Interview with Giorgio Agamben – Life, A Work of Art Without an Author: the State
of Exception, the Administration of Disorder, and Private Life’, German Law Review, 5:5 (2004)
p. 612.
See A. N. Whitehead, ‘Science and the Modern World: the Lowell Lectures 1925’ (London: Free
Association Books, 1985) and S. Kwinter, ‘Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in
Modernist Culture’ (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
G. Agamben, ‘Interview with Giorgio Agamben’, p. 612.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 37.
Agamben, Ibid, p. 37.
The generalised bio-political border?
As I have already noted, Agamben applies a ‘logic of the field’ to his analysis
of the relationship between politics and life by focusing on the classical distinction
between zoē and bios.50 He argues that in order to better understand the logic of
sovereign power it is necessary to isolate and analyse the way in which the classical
distinction between zoē and bios gets blurred in contemporary political life. It is
within the zone of indistinction between zoē and bios that sovereign power
produced bare life: a form of life that scrambles the Aristotelian co-ordinates with
which the relationship between politics and life is conventionally studied. Bare life
is a form of life that is amenable to the sway of sovereign power because it is
precisely caught in a sort of legal and political vacuum conducive to the permanent
instantiation of ‘exceptional’ practices. According to Agamben, the ‘locus par
excellence’ of contemporary blurring of zoē and bios and the production of bare
life is the detention camp at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay.51
Bare life in Guantánamo Bay
Despite the centrality of the concept of bare life in Agamben’s work, it nevertheless
remains somewhat elusive and a site of debate.52 Indeed, there is sufficient
ambiguity (and inconsistency) in Agamben’s usage of the concept for a multiplicity
of possible interpretations to emerge. Many writers who draw on Agamben refer
to bare life as if it were synonymous with zoē.53 I want to suggest, however, that
a more faithful reading is one that sees bare life as a form of life produced
immanently by sovereign power in a zone of indistinction between zoē and bios:
The foundation (of the modern city from Hobbes to Rousseau) is not an event achieved
once and for all but is continually operative in the civil state in the form of the sovereign
decision. What is more the latter refers immediately to the life (and not the free will) of
citizens, which thus appears as the originary political element. [. . .] Yet this life is not simply
natural reproductive life, the zoē of the Greeks, nor bios, a qualified form of life. It is, rather,
the bare life of homo sacer [. . .], a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between
man and beast, nature and culture.54
On this alternative reading, bare life is not something antecedent to or outside
of sovereign power relations. It is not something we are born with and can be
stripped down to: ‘life conceived as a biological minimum [. . .] to which we are all
Ibid., p. 612.
G. Agamben, ‘Interview with Giorgio Agamben’, p. 612.
The term ‘bare life’ is Daniel Heller-Roazen’s translation of ‘nuda vita’, contained in the sub-title
of Agamben’s original Homo Sacer: Il Potere Sovrano e la Nuda Vita. However, not all scholars
agree with this translation. For example, Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino translate ‘nuda vita’
as ‘naked life’, see ‘Translators’ Notes’ in G. Agamben, ‘Means Without End’, p. 143.
See, for example, J. Edkins and V. Pin-Fat, ‘Through the Wire’. Edkins and Pin-Fat note that the
concept of bare life is contentious and open to different readings. However, they set-up and use the
terms ‘bare or naked life’ and ‘zoē’ interchangeably (pp. 6–7). For other examples of this tendency
see: J. Butler, ‘Precarious Life’, p. 67; J. Edkins, ‘Missing Persons: Manhattan, September 2001’ in
E. Dauphinee and C. Masters (eds), Living, Dying, Surviving; C. Lausten and B. Diken, ‘Zones of
Indistinction: Security, Terror, and Bare Life’, Space and Culture, 5:3 (2002), pp. 290–307; A. Norris,
‘Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead’ in A. Norris (ed.), Politics, Metaphysics, and
Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer (Durham and London: Duke University Press,
2005); and M. Ojakangas ‘Impossible Dialogue on Bio-Power: Agamben and Foucault’, Foucault
Studies, 2 (May 2005), p. 7.
G. Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 109 (Emphasis added).
Nick Vaughan-Williams
reducible’.55 Bare life is not zoē: any attempt at qualifying life as ‘bare’ or ‘good’
is a move away from zoē.56 Rather, as Agamben states clearly, bare life is
something that is actively produced by sovereign power for sovereign power: ‘bare
life is a product of the machine and not something that pre-exists it’.57 What
Agamben shows is that sovereign power depends upon creating and exploiting
zones of indistinction in which subjects’ recourse to conventional legal and political
protection is curtailed: a technique of governance he argues is illustrated by the
status of detainees held indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay.
As is by now well known, the US government established the detention centre
at Guantánamo Bay in January 2002 to hold suspected terrorists captured in
Afghanistan. Since its establishment approximately 520 detainees from 40 different
countries have been held there, some of who are cab drivers, farmers and 13
year-old children.58 A UN report on the ‘Situation of detainees at Guantánamo
Bay’ highlights the conditions under which they are detained. Detainees are housed
in 8ft by 8ft cells with wire walls, metal roofs and permanent electric lighting.
Interrogation methods, approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
consist mainly of: the use of stress positions (like standing) for up to four hours;
isolation up to 30 days; sensory deprivation; removal of comfort items; forced
grooming; use of individual phobias (for example, fear of dogs) to induce stress.59
Other policies include: degrading treatment (such as the removal of clothing –
sometimes in the presence of women); cultural and religious harassment (such as
using female interrogators to perform ‘lap dances’ and kicking the Holy Koran);
and beating detainees who resist.60 Moreover, the uncertainty generated by the
indeterminate nature of confinement has, according to the UN, led to serious
mental health problems: as of 13 June 2006 there have been three suicides and
many more attempted suicides.
Detainees in Guantánamo are held in what Amnesty International calls a ‘legal
black hole’.61 Under the ‘Military Order on the Detention, Treatment and Trial of
Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism of 13 November 2001’ (hereafter the
‘Military Order’), the US government has denied most detainees the right to trial
and legal counsel.62 As such, the UN has concluded that the US is in breach of
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which seeks to
guarantee the right to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court (ICCPR,
Art. 9(4)) and the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial
court of law (ICCPR, Art.14). According to the US Defense Department, the
indefinite detention of suspected terrorists in Guantánamo is a ‘military and
security necessity’ in the context of the global ‘War on Terror’.63 As the UN report
J. Butler, ‘Precarious Life’, p. 67.
I must acknowledge my thanks to Alex Murray for this formulation.
Agamben, ‘State of Exception’, pp. 87–8.
Response of the United States of America, dated 21 October 2005, to the inquiry of the Special
Rapporteurs of the UN dated 8 August 2005 pertaining to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, p. 52.
United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights, ‘Situation of
Detainees in Guantanamo Bay’, 15 February 2006, E/CN.4/2006/120, p. 24.
Ibid., pp. 24–5.
In June 2004 the Supreme Court held that US courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the
legality of detention of foreign nationals in Guantanamo. However, no habeas corpus petition has
been decided on the merits by a US Federal Court. E/CN.4/2006/120, p. 15.
Ibid., p. 3 (Emphasis added).
The generalised bio-political border?
points out, however, detention ‘without charges or access to counsel for the
duration of hostilities’ amounts to a radical departure from established principles
on human rights law.64 Further still, as far as the UN is concerned, the global
struggle against international terrorism ‘does not, as such, constitute an armed
conflict for the purposes of the applicability of international humanitarian law’.65
Formally, the Bush administration classified detainees held in Guantánamo as
‘unlawful enemy combatants’, but this is not a term recognised by the UN or any
other international institution.66 Such a classification itself constitutes ‘arbitrary
deprivation of the right to personal liberty’ since it creates a deliberate legal and
political ambiguity surrounding detainees’ status.67 In contravention of Article 5 of
the Third Geneva Convention, and despite repeated calls from the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), none of the detainees have been declared
prisoners of war or presented before a competent tribunal in order to establish who
or what they are.68 It is precisely this production of a deliberate uncertainty
surrounding the status of detainees that allows for the indefinite use of exceptional
measures against them. As ‘pure killing machines’, Guantánamo detainees are not
deemed to be ‘humans with cognitive function’ who are ‘entitled to trials, to due
process, to knowing and understanding a charge against them’.69 Rather, as Judith
Butler argues, ‘they are something less than human, and yet – somehow – they
assume a human form’.70 Indeed, the subject of sovereign power in Guantánamo
is precisely ‘the subject who is no subject, neither alive nor dead, neither fully
constituted as a subject nor fully deconstituted in death’.71
Guards who stand watch over the detainees in Guantánamo confront a peculiar
form of ‘human life’. Stripped of political and legal status, it bears no resemblance
to Aristotle’s conception of man as politikon zōon in the public sphere or bios. Yet,
importantly as far as the interpretation of Agamben advanced here is concerned,
neither does this life in any simple way conform to what the Greeks would have
called zoē. Rather, the life confronted by the guards is a life that scrambles these
Aristotelian co-ordinates: we no longer have any idea of the classical separation
between zoē and bios in this context.72 It is a bare life produced by the sovereign
practices of the camp that is caught in a zone of indistinction between zoē and bios:
a life that is mute and undifferentiated. For Agamben, such a life belongs to homo
sacer or sacred man: a figure in Roman law whose very existence is in a state of
exception defined by the sovereign. The figure of homo sacer is sacred in the sense
that it can be killed but not sacrificed and is both constituted by and constitutive
of sovereign power. Moreover, as the state of exception is arguably less anomalous
and more a permanent characteristic, according to Agamben we all run the risk of
becoming bare life: ‘we are all (virtually) homines sacri’.73
Ibid., p. 12.
E/CN.4/2006/120, p. 13.
Ibid., p. 12.
Ibid., p. 12.
The UN report on the situation of detainees in Guantanamo points out that the US government
relies upon the deliberate cultivation of ambiguity in order to flout the Geneva Conventions.
E/CN.4/2006/120, p. 23.
Butler, ‘Precarious Life’, p. 98.
Ibid., p. 74.
Ibid., p. 98.
G. Agamben, ‘Means Without End’, p. 138.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 111.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
The problem of sovereignty and subjectivity in Agamben
Agamben’s seemingly hyperbolic claim that we are ‘all (virtually) homines sacri’
raises many interesting and important questions that are not dealt with explicitly
in his oeuvre to-date: What is meant by the idea that we are all ‘virtually’ bare life?
Does the concept of bare life allow for any form of differentiation between
subjects? What are the limitations of adopting Agamben’s logic of sovereign
power? How might it be elaborated upon?
Though highly indebted to Agamben, Butler argues that the universality
implied by the claim that we are all ‘virtually homines sacri’ exposes an area of
weakness in his understanding of political subjectivity. Butler’s chief criticism of
Agamben is that he does not tell us how ‘power functions differentially’ among
populations.74 Focusing on issues of race and ethnicity, Butler argues that the
generality of Agamben’s treatment of the political subject fails to appreciate the
ways in which ‘the systematic management and derealization of populations
function to support and extend the claims of a sovereignty accountable to no
law’.75 For Butler, certain populations are more likely to be produced as bare life
than others. Although security warnings issued to citizens do not currently involve
overt racial profiling, Butler suggests that the creation of an ‘objectless panic’ all
too often ‘translates [. . .] into suspicion of all dark-skinned peoples, especially
those who are Arab, or appear to look so to a population not always versed in
making visual distinctions’.76 As such, Butler’s criticism presses Agamben’s
thesis on its tendency to universalise and over-simplify the relationship between
sovereignty and subjectivity: a charge that William Connolly has also made.
Connolly advances a similar critique to Butler’s of Agamben’s account of the
logic of sovereignty.77 Connolly’s main objections are twofold. First, he argues that
Agamben naively and problematically assumes that there once was a separation
between zoē and bios: ‘What a joke [. . .] [e]very way of life involves the infusion
of norms, judgements, and standards into the affective life of participants at both
private and public levels’.78 While Connolly accepts the way in which ‘new
technologies of infusion’ have ‘intensified’ bio-political life, he maintains that ‘the
shift is not as radical as Agamben makes it out to be’.79 Second, according to
Connolly, Agamben’s answer to the problem of sovereignty is to simply transcend
it altogether by offering a diagnosis that is too elegant, cerebral, and convenient:
‘biocultural life exceeds any textbook logic because of the non-logical character of
its materiality [. . .] [it] is more messy, layered, and complex than any logical
analysis can capture’.80 Connolly thus arrives at the damning conclusion that
‘Agamben displays the hubris of academic intellectualism when he encloses political
culture within a tightly defined logic’.81
Running throughout Butler’s and Connolly’s criticisms of Agamben is an
understandable worry that his perspective ultimately closes off questions about
Butler, ‘Precarious Life’, p. 68.
Ibid., p. 68.
Ibid., p. 68.
W. Connolly, ‘The Complexity of Sovereignty’, in Edkins et al, Sovereign Lives.
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., p. 29.
Ibid., p. 29.
Ibid., p. 29.
The generalised bio-political border?
subjectivity, sovereignty, and politics more generally.82 At the heart of this critique
is a common complaint that the concept of bare life is too homogenising and
thus too simplistic to appreciate the detailed complexity of the production of
differentiated subjectivities. On the one hand, with its seemingly universalistic
pretensions, the notion of bare life might indeed appear too sweeping to allow
for nuanced analyses of subjectivity. On the other hand, I want to suggest, the
sting of this criticism is largely neutralised once the notion of bare life is untied
from the concept of zoē. If bare life is treated as precisely an indistinct form of
subjectivity that is produced immanently by sovereign power for sovereign power
then the true undecidability of the figure of homo sacer is brought into relief. This
move allows for a more differentiated approach to the production of subjectivities
under bio-political conditions because it does not fix bare life as some sort of
pre-given outside sovereignty. On this reformulation, bare life can be interpreted
as a form of subjectivity whose borders are always already rendered undecidable
by sovereign power; a form of subjectivity whose identity is always in question.
Therefore, a subjectivity whose inhabitation of a zone of indistinction requires
different modes of political analysis such as a ‘logic of the field’. Adopting a logic
of the field, with its privileging of analysis of the production of zones of
indistinction, does not only have implications for the way we consider the
production of subjectivities in world politics, however. Rather, Agamben’s work
opens up provocative lines of enquiry for thinking differently about the politics
of space and bordering practices.
Re-conceptualising the limits of sovereign power
While Agamben’s diagnoses of sovereign power, the generalised state of exception,
and bare life are all relatively well known in IR and related disciplines, the spatial
dimension of his work is perhaps the least explored.83 In many ways this is
surprising since Homo Sacer ends with the provocative claim that the contemporary bio-political nomos, which has seen the holy trinity of order, territory and
birth lapse into crisis, can only be diagnosed on the basis of the alternative spatial
register of a logic of the field: ‘Every attempt to rethink the political space of the
West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the
classical distinction between zoē and bios, between private life and political
existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s
political existence in the city’.84 So, we might ask, what are the implications of this
conclusion for thinking about sovereign space and the construction of an
alternative border imaginary?
For examples of other attempted critiques of Agamben’s work along these lines see A. Neal, ‘Cutting
Off the King’s Head’ and A. Neal, ‘Foucault in Guantanamo’.
The notable exception here is the work of Political Geographer Claudio Minca. See C. Minca,
‘Agamben’s Geographies of Modernity’, Political Geography, 26:1 (2007), pp. 78–97; C. Minca,
‘Giorgio Agamben and the New Biopolitical Nomos’, Geografiska Annaler, 88B:4 (2006),
pp. 387–403; and C. Minca, ‘The Return of the Camp’, Progress in Human Geography, 29 (2005),
pp. 405–12.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 187.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
Security as the normal technique of government
As we have already seen, Agamben’s approach to sovereignty is indebted to
Schmitt’s theory of the decision on the exception.85 Embellishing this theory of
sovereignty, however, Agamben invokes Benjamin’s critique of Schmitt in an
attempt to move the notion of the exception away from the issue of emergency
provisions towards a more relational and original function within the Western
political paradigm. In this way, for Agamben, Benjamin’s engagement with Schmitt
‘proves the necessary and, even today, indispensable premise of every inquiry into
Schmitt’s theory of exception was in part attempting to neutralise Benjamin’s
concept of divine violence outside the law outlined in his 1921 essay, ‘Critique of
Violence’.87 Through the concept of the exception, Schmitt was able to show how
there is no pure violence outside the law: the exception is a mechanism by which
extra-legal operations can function as part of the juridical-political order. Yet, in
his ‘Eighth Thesis on the Concept of History’, Benjamin responded to Schmitt’s
theory of exception by arguing that, ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that
the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule’.88
According to Agamben, the ‘Eighth Thesis’ is the ‘decisive document in the
Benjamin-Schmitt dossier’ because it effectively ‘[puts] Schmitt’s thesis in check’.89
Benjamin’s counter-argument, while not dismissing Schmitt’s thesis entirely, points
to the way in which the Third Reich thrived on confusing the difference between
norm and exception, law and fact and order and anomie.90 It is precisely
Benjamin’s identification of the role of this confusion in the Nazi state that
inspires Agamben to attempt to then re-configure the activity of sovereign power
in terms of the creation of zones of indistinction: ‘the essential point [. . .] is that
a threshold of undecidability is produced at which factum and ius fade into each
In his brief history of the state of exception, Agamben emplaces Benjamin’s
‘Eighth Thesis’ within a broader tradition of early twentieth century thought
dealing with the transformation of democratic regimes during the two world wars.
One of the cases Agamben draws upon is the post-1914 British legal system, which
witnessed the generalising of formerly exceptional measures within the state
apparatus. After Britain declared war on Germany the government asked
parliament to approve laws without debate. On 4 August 1914 the Defence of the
Realm Act (DORA) was passed giving the government powers to regulate the
economy and limit citizens’ rights. Later, parliamentary activity virtually ceased
altogether and on 29 October 1920 the Emergency Powers Act was introduced in
C. Schmitt, ‘Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty’, trans. G. Schwab,
3rd Edition (Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Ibid, p. 63.
W. Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, in M. Bullock and M. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin: Selected
Writings Volume One 1913–1926 (Cambridge, MA and London: the Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2004), pp. 236–52.
W. Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, in H. Eiland and M. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin:
Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA and London: The Bellknap Press of
Harvard University Press), p. 392.
Agamben, ‘State of Exception’, p. 58.
The Nazi state proclaimed a state of exception in 1933 but this was never repealed.
Agamben, ‘State of Exception’, p. 29.
The generalised bio-political border?
which Article One stated that: ’[. . .] His Majesty may, by proclamation [. . .],
declare that a state of emergency exists.92
For Agamben, Article One of the Emergency Powers Act constitutes a decisive
event in British legal history because it established the principle of the state of
exception within the juridical-political order. Since then, Agamben claims, ‘the
voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (though perhaps not declared
in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary
states, including so-called democratic ones’ like Britain.93 In other words, on
Agamben’s view, the state of exception (or ‘security’) has increasingly appeared as
what might be referred to as the ‘dominant paradigm of government in
contemporary politics’.94 In support of this view, which resembles something like
an ‘unstoppable global civil war’, Agamben refers to contemporary sovereign
practices that blur the otherwise taken-for-granted threshold between democracy
and absolutism.95 One example is President George W. Bush’s ‘Military Order’
authorising the ‘indefinite detention’ and ‘trial by military commissions’ of
non-citizens suspected of terrorist activities. This Order, justified with reference to
national security imperatives, works to secure sovereign power by removing the
legal and political status of a suspected individual thereby producing a ‘legally
unnameable and unclassifiable being’, as we have already seen.96
It is possible to identify something of a tension in Agamben’s account of the
history of the state of exception, which can be summarised as a question of
intensity or structure.97 On the one hand, Agamben sometimes talks about the
becoming-general of the state of exception in the West as if it were a gradual
turning of the screw since World War I, through fascism, to our current
situation.98 On the other hand, Agamben also emphasises on many more occasions
that the transformation of the state of exception into a paradigm of government
is not a modern innovation but a systemic feature of Western politics: it is the
constitutive paradigm of the juridical-political order.99 Agamben argues that the
years since World War I have seen the ‘testing and honing’ of this paradigm of
government that is in a fundamental sense an originary aspect of the juridicalpolitical life of Western societies.100 In other words, as Didier Bigo usefully puts
it, ‘the state of emergency in which we live is not an exceptional moment, limited
in object, space and time, but the norm, or more exactly it is the perpetuation of
the emergency as a rule, as a form of prolonged state of exception’.101
Some readers will no doubt be displeased with the apparent tension above,
although the extent to which one must choose between intensity or structure as if
they were mutually exclusive is debatable. If the production of bare life is not a
(Quoted in) Agamben, ‘The State of Exception’, p. 19.
Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 3.
I am indebted to one of the anonymous reviewers for this formulation and their critical commentary
on Agamben more generally.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 4, p. 9; Agamben, ‘Means Without End’, p. 39; Agamben, ‘State of
Exception’, pp. 2–3.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 6, p. 7, p. 8, p. 19, p. 28, p. 83; Agamben, ‘Means Without End’,
p. 37; Agamben, ‘State of Exception’, p. 3, pp. 6–7.
Ibid., p. 87.
D. Bigo, ‘The Ban the Pan and the Exception’, p. 5.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
new or particularly recent phenomenon, as Agamben maintains and illustrates with
reference to the figure of homo sacer in Roman law, then the exception must be
seen as a fundamental feature of Western politics. However, as I will go on to
argue, what has arguably changed within this over-arching framework is the
historically contingent character of both the method and location of the production
of bare life. In this way, reflecting Agamben’s commitment to a ‘logic of the field’,
it is also possible to read intensity and structure not as dichotomous but
fundamentally inter-related.
The generalised space of the exception
Agamben argues that what is at stake in the sovereign exception is the ‘creation
and definition of the very space in which the juridical-political order can have
validity’.102 He also claims, however, that such activity, which constitutes what
Schmitt calls the sovereign nomos,103 is not simply the taking of land but the taking
of an outside or exception. Borders, typically understood in terms of the
delimitation of sovereignty at the territorial outer-edge of the state, might be seen
as exceptional spaces on one reading: a zone of anomie excluded from the ‘normal’
juridical-political space of the state, but, nevertheless, an integral part of that space
(in fact the very condition of its possibility).104 Yet, for Agamben, the ‘constitutive
outside’ of sovereign territory is not a space that is localisable or to be found
literally at ‘the edge’ of the state in a geographical sense. Rather, Agamben sees
the constitutive outside as something fundamentally interior to the Western
bio-political juridical order.
According to Agamben, the constitutive outside of sovereign territory is the
generalised state of exception that brings together the otherwise separate realms of
law and life. The constitutive outside refers precisely to the sovereign decision on
the worthiness of life itself as belonging to either the citizen or bare life as its
ghostly shadow. As such, if we are to consider the spatiality of the constitutive
outside, it makes little sense to think of this as occupying a localised and static
terrain associated with traditional state borders. Instead, Agamben’s work prompts
a re-conceptualisation of the limits of sovereign power and a re-situation of the
constitutive outside of sovereign territory in a more generalised way. It is through
the inclusive exclusion of bare life, resting upon a decision about its status, that
sovereign power establishes its constitutive outside. Such a ‘decision’ is not
necessarily isolatable in space-time (though it can be), but rather simulated
throughout everyday life that places us all, virtually, under conditions of great
uncertainty.105 The generalisation of the space of exceptionalism is captured by
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, pp. 18–9.
C. Schmitt, ‘The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum’,
trans. G. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2003).
See, for example, M. Salter, ‘The Global Visa Regime and the Political Technologies of the
International Self: Borders, Bodies, Biopolitics’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 31:2 (2006),
pp. 167–89.
N. Vaughan-Williams, ‘Virtual Border (In)Security’, paper presented at the Annual Convention of
the International Studies Association, New York, February, 2009. See also F. Debrix, ‘Banning
Space: The Nomos of Exception and Virtual Territoriality’, paper presented at the Annual Meeting
of the American Association of Geographers, Las Vegas, March 2009.
The generalised bio-political border?
Agamben’s reference to the camp as ‘in some sense [. . .] the hidden matrix and
nomos of the political space in which we live’.106
Agamben refers to the emergence of concentration camps in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, historically associated with the state of exception and martial
law, in order to illustrate how the simple dichotomies between inclusion and
exclusion, inside and outside, zoē and bios fail to hold in the final analysis. For
Agamben, the space of the camp is fundamentally paradoxical: ‘the camp is a piece
of territory that is placed outside the normal juridical order’ and yet ‘it is not
simply an external space’.107 The camp excludes what is captured inside, which, as
an inclusive exclusion, blurs conventional spatial distinctions such as those above.
Because law is suspended in the camp and arbitrary or exceptional decisions on the
status of life become the rule, Agamben argues that the camp represents: ‘the most
absolute bio-political space that has ever been realised – a space in which power
confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation’.108 As
such, people in camps, as we have seen in the context of Guantánamo, ‘move
about in a zone of indistinction between the outside and the inside, the exception
and the rule, the licit and the illicit’.109
To some extent the camp is another figure that is characterised somewhat
ambiguously in Agamben’s work. The camp can be read as a historically
contingent manifestation of the operations of sovereign power: ‘the space that
opens up when the state of exception starts to become the rule’.110 However, for
Agamben the camp is not understood as an anomaly or merely a historical fact.111
Rather, he argues that the camp is itself a structure: ‘if sovereign power is founded
in the ability to decide on the state of exception, the camp is the structure in which
the state of exception is permanently realised’.112 On this basis, Agamben claims
that the camp reveals something fundamental to the Western paradigm born of the
exception: the attempt to materialise the state of exception and create a space in
which bare life and juridical rule enter into a threshold of indistinction.113 Thus,
even if President Barack Obama succeeds in his stated intention to close the
detention camp at Guantánamo Bay by January 2010, the fundamental biopolitical structure of which it is symptomatic would for Agamben persist and
simply be manifested elsewhere.
The generalised bio-political border?
On the one hand, the production of bare life in zones of indistinction is most
visible in contemporary camps specifically designated for that purpose (not only
Guantánamo, but, for example: Bagram and Kandahar air bases in Afghanistan;
Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in Iraq; the Baxter immigration facility in Southern
Agamben, Means Without End, p. 37.
Ibid., p. 40.
Ibid., p. 41.
Ibid., pp. 40–1.
Ibid., p. 39.
Ibid., p. 37.
Ibid., p. 40.
Ibid., pp. 171–2.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
Australia; the new Sodhexo-run detention centre near Heathrow; and various
so-called CIA ‘black sites’ in Eastern Europe). At these sites, as I have shown
against the backdrop of Guantánamo, exceptional practices have become routine
and bare life is produced through the blurring of zoē and bios.
On the other hand, Agamben draws attention to the way in which the
production of zones of indistinction, where exceptional activities become the rule,
is more and more widespread in global politics. Indeed, the notion of the
generalised space of exception points to the way in which characteristics usually
associated with the edges, margins, or outer-lying areas of sovereign space
gradually blur with what is conventionally taken to be the ‘normality’ of that
space. Whereas the space of the exception was once localised in spaces such as the
camps, Agamben implies that in more recent times it has become increasingly
generalised in contemporary political life: ‘the camp, which is now firmly settled
inside [the nation-state], is the new bio-political nomos of the planet’.114
In Homo Sacer Agamben refers to zones d’attentes in French airports (where
foreigners seeking refugee status are detained) as an example of the way in which
the structure of the camp permeates everyday life: ‘in [. . .] these cases, an
apparently innocuous space in which the normal order is de facto suspended and
in which whether or not the atrocities are committed depends not on law but the
civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign’.115 Under
bio-political conditions in which ‘the paradigm of security has become the normal
technique of government’, Agamben argues that we can no longer rigorously
distinguish our biological life as living beings from our political existence.116 In this
way, as Claudio Minca has put it, there has been a ‘normalisation of a series of
geographies of exceptionalism in Western societies’.117
Agamben’s central thesis, that the structure of the camp is the ‘hidden matrix
and nomos of the political space in which we live’, calls for a reconsideration of
what and where borders in contemporary political life might be. Instead of viewing
the limits of sovereign power as spatially fixed at the outer-edge of the state,
Agamben reconceptualises those limits in terms of a decision or speech act about
whether certain life is worthy of living or life that is expendable. Such a decision
performatively produces and secures the borders of sovereign community as the
politically qualified life of the citizen is defined against the bare life of homo sacer.
The concept of the border of the state is substituted by the sovereign decision to
produce some life as bare life: it is precisely this dividing practice, one that
can effectively happen anywhere, that constitutes the ‘original spatialisation of
sovereign power’.118 Such a decision is very much a practice of security because the
production of bare life shores up notions of who and what ‘we’ are.
Although Agamben does not refer to it in his work, one way of capturing the
alternative border imaginary he proposes is in terms of what I want to call the
‘generalised bio-political border’. This concept refers to the global archipelago of
zones of indistinction in which sovereign power produces the bare life it needs to
sustain itself and notions of sovereign community. Here, following Eyal Weizman,
Ibid., p. 45.
Ibid., p. 174.
Ibid., p. 39.
Minca, ‘Giorgio Agamben and the New Biopolitical Nomos’, p. 388.
Ibid., p. 388.
The generalised bio-political border?
the concept of the ‘archipelago’ is used to refer to ‘the spatial expression of a series
of ‘states of emergency’, or states of exception that are either created through the
process of law (through which law is in fact severely undermined or annulled) or
that appear de facto within them’.119 Thinking in terms of the generalised
bio-political border unties an analysis of the activity of sovereign power from the
territorial limits of the state and relocates such an analysis in the context of a
bio-political field spanning domestic and international space. As such it reflects
Balibar’s observation that borders are being ‘thinned out and doubled, [. . .] no
longer the shores of politics but [. . .] the space of the political itself’.120
By way of illustration, the dynamics of the generalised bio-political border can
be seen to be at play in two episodes of the ‘war on terror’ in the UK: the case
of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005 and the Forest Gate
raids on 2 June 2006.
In the immediate hunt for those behind the so-called ‘failed’ bombings in
London on 21 July 2005, UK anti-terrorist officers killed Jean Charles de Menezes
the following day onboard an underground train at Stockwell station, South
London.121 The shooting was an arbitrary decision on the status of life. Crucially,
however, in the light of my overall argument, it was an arbitrary decision that did
not occur in a particular zone or space designated for exceptional practices. On the
contrary, the shooting took place within what is usually considered to be the
‘normal’ juridical-political space of the state. Yet, Menezes, a Brazillian citizen
working in the UK, was produced as bare life within the ‘normal’ space: not
safeguarded by the rule of law but subjected to the whims of CO19 who, as
temporary sovereigns, assessed his description and demeanour, considered his
identity to be that of a bomber suspect, and concluded his annihilation would not
constitute a crime. In this case, Menezes had effectively been banned from – or
rather abandoned by – the law: ‘exposed and threatened on the threshold in which
life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable’.122
As I have argued elsewhere, the Menezes shooting provides an illustration of
the way in which bare life is not a form of life into which one is somehow born.123
Rather, since Menezes was a Brazilian citizen, his case demonstrates how sovereign
power works to produce bare life immanently: temporary sovereigns rendered his
life ‘bare’. Furthermore, the shooting can also be read as adding credence to
Agamben’s claim otherwise seemingly sensationalist claim that ‘we are all
(virtually) homines sacri’.
Similar dynamics reflective of the generalised bio-political border are illustrated
by the Forest Gate raids in East London. On 2 June 2006, 250 police officers
surrounded 46–48 Lansdowne Road in the Forest Gate area of London on
suspicion that a chemical bomb had been hidden in the property.124 At 4am, the
E. Weizman, ‘On Extraterritoriality’, in G. Agamben et al (eds), Arxipèlag D’Excepcions: Sobiranies
de l’extraterritorialitat (Barcelona: Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona: 2007), p. 13.
Balibar, ‘The Borders of Europe’ (1998), p. 220.
BBC News Report, Menezes death a ‘state execution’, 19 September 2005, {
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 29.
For further elaboration of my argument on the shooting of Menezes in this context see N.
Vaughan-Williams, ‘The Shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes: New Border Politics?’ Alternatives:
Global, Local, Political, 32:2 (June 2007), pp. 177–95.
Account given by BBC news website, {} accessed on 14 June 2006.
Nick Vaughan-Williams
Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Squad raided the house and, without any
warning and at close range, shot a suspect in the chest, narrowly missing his
heart.125 The injured man was identified as Mohammed Abdul Kahan and he was
rushed immediately to hospital, while another man, Kahan’s brother Abdul
Koyair, was taken to Paddington Green High Security Prison. Under the
Terrorism Act 2000, both men were detained for a week for further questioning
despite having not been charged with any specific offence according to their
What these events demonstrate is the way in which sovereign power blurs the
traditional distinction between zoē and bios so that, as Agamben remarks in Homo
Sacer: ‘we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between [. . .] private
life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house
and man’s political existence in the city’.127 As such, whereas the Menezes case
illustrates the difficulty of upholding any rigorous distinction between ‘normal’ and
‘exceptional’ space, the Forest Gate raid takes the illustration of Agamben’s
argument further by showing how the home itself offers little refuge from the
sovereign operation.
The scenes at Stockwell tube station and Lansdowne Road respectively
resembled what might be conventionally, though perhaps not exclusively, associated with a border site: a heavy police presence; the use of exceptional measures;
shootings legitimised by an emergency situation and national security imperatives.
Both episodes took place in what is ordinarily considered to be the ‘normal’ space
of the state, however, not an ‘exceptional’ space on its margins, outer-edges, or
peripheries. In both cases sovereign power produced bare life caught in a zone of
indistinction between zoē and bios.
Although the character and outcome of the shooting of Menezes and the Forest
Gate raids are different in some important respects, Agamben’s portrayal of the
logic of sovereign power is common to both. They also indicate that, if the
production of bare life in zones of indistinction constitutes the limits of sovereign
power, those limits are not necessarily coterminous with the territorial borders of
the state. On the contrary, the concept of the generalised bio-political border
enjoins us to rethink ‘the border’ as a far more complex and differentiated site than
that portrayed by the traditional geopolitical imagination.
Conclusion: re-thinking the border in IR and security studies
The concept of the border of the state has acted, and continues to act, as a lodestar
in the theory and practice of global politics. Yet, as Balibar and others have sought
to point out, it is possible to identify how, under current global conditions, ‘the
border’ has become an increasingly complex, differentiated, and dispersed array of
practices. Instead of being solely fixed at the territorial outer-edge of the state, as
According to police shooting guidelines officers can shoot ‘to stop an imminent threat to life’.
However, firearms officers must identify themselves and give oral warnings of their intent to shoot.
Shots are only to be fired in the ‘most serious and exceptional circumstances’. See {
Account given by BBC news website, {} accessed on 14 June 2006.
Agamben, ‘Homo Sacer’, p. 187 (Emphasis added).
The generalised bio-political border?
represented by the dominant modern geopolitical imagination, borders are
evermore electronic, invisible, and mobile. Despite the increasing sophistication of
diverse bordering practices, however, there is a sense in which border thinking
within IR, security studies, and related disciplines, continues to lag behind. This lag
is detectable in at least two senses: first, in terms of the somewhat limited range of
concepts, metaphors, and vocabularies available to talk about the possibility of
empirical shifts in the nature of ‘the border’; second, in the sense that much of the
theoretical literature produced by these disciplines continues to rely upon an
unexamined epistemological and ontological anchor point provided by the concept
of the border of the state. These problems are fundamentally inter-related in that
many of the theories, categories and logics to which we might turn for the
development of new analytical tools beyond the modern geopolitical imaginary are
themselves part of that very horizon of thought.
In their reflections on the role of radical theory, Paolo Virno and Michael
Hardt call for the ‘proposition of new concepts for political theorising today
adequate to our conditions’.128 Responding to those who have called for the
development of alternative border imaginaries, and in the spirit of radical
theorising suggested by Virno and Hardt, this article has developed the concept of
the ‘generalised bio-political border’ as one possible route forward in terms of
re-thinking what and where borders are. Building upon the otherwise largely
overlooked spatial dimensions and implications of Agamben’s controversial
thought, the generalised bio-political border reconceptualises the limits of sovereign
power as a decision on the status of life that can effectively happen anywhere: a
multi-faceted and decentred bio-political apparatus that is as mobile as the subjects
it seeks to control. Agamben reveals the reproduction of the juridical-political
order as a bio-political border performance: a dividing practice that leads to the
perpetuation of the production of bare life detained indefinitely in camps, shot in
public spaces such as the London underground, or left to die in cargo containers
at sea. This border performance is also, therefore, a body performance: subjects’
bodies do not simply encounter pre-existing borders as if they were timeless
territorial artefacts waiting to be transgressed. Rather, borders are continually
(re)inscribed through bodies in transit that can be categorised into politically
qualified life on the one hand and bare life on the other. Agamben’s diagnosis of
the activity of sovereign power thus prompts a more pluralised and radicalised view
of what borders are and where they might be found in contemporary political life.
Thinking in terms of the generalised bio-political border opens up new and
provocative ways of identifying and interrogating bordering practices that would
otherwise remain obscured as such.
P. Virno and M. Hardt (eds), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 7 (Emphasis added).

Review of International Studies (2009), 35, 729–749 Copyright