I am the decider

Hal Foster

Over the last decade or so critical theory has seen a marked turn to questions of ‘bare’ and ‘creaturely’ life. Why this interest in such threshold states? What’s at stake here? This kind of discourse, in which the ideas of Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida and Eric Santner are central, has little to do with animal rights, and whatever bestiality is at issue is entirely our own. (As Derrida points out, animals are not cruel to one another; only ‘man is wolf to man,’ as the ancient saying, revived by Hobbes, has it: homo homini lupus.) For that matter, the connection between this discourse and human rights isn’t always clear either. Rather, it is concerned above all with the nature of sovereignty and the origin of law, or, more exactly, with what appears to be the lack of any solid basis for these institutions, at least one that is not founded in violence, the violence of self-authorised power. It is this paradox that intrigues these theorists: that the beginnings of sovereignty and law seem to lie in an exception to the just rule that they otherwise purport to represent and to secure. They puzzle over this conundrum for what it might tell us not only about power as such but also, implicitly, about wayward governments and rogue states in our own time.

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[*] Malcolm Bull wrote about Agamben’s State of Exception in the LRB of 16 December 2004.

[†] On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago, 216 pp., £14, 2006, 978 0 226 73503 0).