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English Department
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Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

"What does it mean to act politically?" Giorgio Agamben asks (2). It is a question that has importance far beyond deciding what candidate one votes for, if we conceive of politics as a crucial dimension in the formation of our cultural and human values. For Agamben, politics influences how we think about who we are.

Agamben's credentials to examine this topic include writings that meld literary theory, philosophy, political thought, literature, and art. He has taught at major universities across the U.S. and Europe, and currently holds teaching positions in aesthetics at the University of Verona and philosophy at College International de Philosophie in Paris.

The task of the book, and thus its relevance to the Mary Louise White Symposium, is to explore the situation of contemporary democracies whereby the executive power of government supercedes law, can enact law by decree, and can suspend legal and constitutional protections and rights. One issue raised in State of Exception explores a form of government that permits actions (as a recent executive order of George Bush did) that "[...] radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally un-nameable and unclassifiable being" (3). Agamben closely examines this trend in government function, noting "The state of exception is not a special kind of law [...] it is a suspension of the juridical order itself" (4).

Though originally intended as an emergency measure during times of war, the state of exception is evolving into a permanent mode of government, and "Because the sovereign power of the president is essentially grounded in the emergency linked to a state of war, over the course of the twentieth century the metaphor of war has become an integral part of presidential political vocabulary" (21).

If Agamben is right about this trend, it leads to a question with multiple, and dangerous, implications: Does this mean that a situation has occurred, or is occurring such that politics is war by other means?

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