The Use of Bodies

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Giorgio Agamben
Adam Kotsko
Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the last two decades, Giorgio Agamben has become one of the most widely-read living continental philosophers. Much of this attention is due to his “Homo Sacer project,” a multivolume critique of the foundations of the contemporary West. For his English audience, this series began in 1998 with the publication of Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press), and came to a close in 2016 with The Use of Bodies. As I and other commentators have noted, perhaps the most impressive feature of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project is its breadth, encompassing theology, metaphysics, ontology, literature, linguistics, and politics. The Use of Bodies is somewhat narrower in scope—remaining within discourses of politics, ontology, and metaphysics—it remains a far-reaching text, but perhaps less daunting than others.

Unlike many “final volumes,” Agamben does not intend for The Use of Bodies to serve as a conclusion. Indeed, he directly states that his investigation “cannot be concluded but only abandoned (and perhaps continued by others)” along with the concepts developed throughout the project (xiii). Though The Use of Bodies differs from previous works in terms of its specific content, the themes of life, inoperativity, act, and possibility will be familiar to readers of Agamben.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, “The Use of Bodies,” pursues the figure of the Ancient Greek slave as a middle way between mere life and political life, potentiality and act, as the body of the slave is used. He traces the development of “use” as habit, care, use-of-oneself, and use of the world, through the Stoics, Georg Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and others. A known skeptic of technology, one of the more provocative passages of this section occurs when Agamben proposes that “slavery is to ancient humanity what technology is to modern humanity,” stating that “the modern way [is] revealing itself in the end to be no less dehumanizing” (78). Discussions of the importance of language for existence and the “aesthetics of experience” lived out by Foucault lead Agamben to argue that the fundamental relation of use is ontological (108), leading directly to the second section, titled “An Archaeology of Ontology.” Agamben canvasses the temporalizing and linguistic effects of ontology, insofar as our attempts at comprehending existence fix it in time and language (125). In this section, Agamben develops his case for a “modal ontology,” informed by Gottfried Leibniz and focusing on relationality, not a particular pole of the potentiality/actuality binary.

The third section of the book resumes a discussion from the epilogue of Homo Sacer, as well as Means Without End (University of Minnesota Press, 200) and The Highest Poverty (Stanford University Press, 2013) bearing the title “Form-of-Life.” Agamben begins Homo Sacerwith a reflection on the two Greek words for life: zoe, meaning existence; and bios, the form of life proper to and within a group. Agamben’s idea of form-of-life is that, if life as such were inseparable from its form, then life could not be “reduced” to a lesser form. Agamben finds this in the individual within the multitudo (213): that is, the formless non-state, non-citizenry collectivity. This can only be achieved by “rendering both bio sand zoe inoperative,” such that humanity in its animal existence is sufficient to be equal in membership (225). Agamben then ponders examples of similar projects from other philosophers: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games, Plato’s Myth of Er, Aristotle’s discussion of the philosopher-as-foreigner, and so on. This continues the ontological work of the prior section, as Agamben seeks out a new style of being that does not allow for the separation of proper life from existence.

The epilogue of The Use of Bodies represents the most prescriptive articulation of Agamben’s political theory published as part of the Homo Sacer project. “Toward a Theory of Destituent Potential” develops Agamben’s earlier book chapters and public speeches on destituent power, and reengages themes of inoperativity, impotentiality, and popular constitution from across his Homo Sacer project as well as earlier works such as The Coming Community (University of Minnesota Press, 1993). Destituent potential is the name that Agamben gives to a form of political activity that will remain beyond what he has critiqued as the oppressive system of sovereign states in the contemporary West. Agamben posits that human social structures are formed when a particular constituted structure emerges out of the constituent power of a citizenry. Since revolutions—even those with the highest of aims—are merely new articulations of constituent power, Agamben argues that they are destined to fail. To free ourselves from the “unceasing, unwinnable, desolate dialectic between constituent power and constituted power” (266) we must favor “a purely destituent potential … that never resolves itself into a constituted power” (268). Agamben does not offer any specific strategies for destituent potential, drawing instead on the examples of St. Paul’s messianism (274), and his own form-of-life (277) as potential guides.

Finally, The Use of Bodies completes its task as set out—Agamben draws together lines of inquiry, sets the stage for destituent potential as an inspiration for the coming politics, and then abandons the project to be taken up by others. (For Agamben, that this is frustrating for the reader is irrelevant.) This work is an essential read for any followers of Agamben’s work, as well as one of the more accessible works in his Homo Sacer project.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael P.A. Murphy is a PhD student and SSHRC doctoral fellow in International Relations at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giorgio Agamben is a contemporary Italian philosopher and political theorist whose works have been translated into numerous languages. His most recent title with Stanford University Press is Stasis (2015).

Adam Kotsko joined the Shimer College faculty in 2011 after completing his PhD at Chicago Theological Seminary in 2009 and teaching for two years at Kalamazoo College. He teaches a range of courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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