07 October 2017


'The Jargon of Exception—On Schmitt, Agamben and the Absence of Political Society' by Jef Huysmans in (2008) 2(2) International Political Sociology 165–183 comments
The idiom of exception is again central to the politics of insecurity in Europe, the United States, and Australia. Its resurgence applies to a range of developments. Among the most visible are the “return of the camps” (for example, Andrijasevic Forthcoming; Cultures et Conflits 1996; Guild 2003; Le Cour Grandmaison, Lhuilier, and Valluy 2007; Neal 2006), counter-terrorism legislation and policy (for example, EU Network of Independent Experts in Fundamental Rights (CFR-CDF) 2003; Steyn 2003; Talbot 2002; The Center for Constitutional Rights 2002; van Munster 2004), increased focus on border controls (for example, Lynn Doty 2007; Salter 2007), and military interventions legitimated by humanitarian ethics and/or international law (for example, Reisman 1990, 1999). This article focuses on conceptions of exceptionalism, that is, the concepts of the political that are invested in the idiom of exception. It draws out how exceptionalist readings of sociopolitical developments frame political problems and solutions in a particular way, excluding the political significance of societal practice.
Fleur Johns observed in her analysis of Guantanamo Bay that events taking on the affect of exceptionalism soak up critical energies with considerable effect in liberal societies. “[I]t is the exception that rings liberal alarm bells” (Johns 2005). The liberal critique of current policy developments tends to define stakes and solutions in terms of exceptionalism, that is, a conflict between rule of law and executive, arbitrary government and/or the direct exercise of governing power over biologically, in contrast to politically, defined life. Johns is uneasy about such a development but does not develop why we should take exception to exceptionalism.
This article introduces one of the main reasons for sending out a distress signal about the rise in the idiom of exception. When exceptionalism soaks up critical energies in liberal societies, it risks suppressing a political reading of the societal. By reading the concept of exception through two of the most “popular” political theorists of the exception, Schmitt and Agamben, the article shows that structuring politics around exceptionalist readings of political power tends to politically neutralize the societal as a realm of multi-faceted, historically structured political mediations and mobilizations. Or, in other words, deploying the exception as a diagram of the political marginalizes the societal as a political realm. In doing so, it eliminates one of the constituting categories of modern politics (Balibar 1997; Dyzenhaus 1997), hence producing an impoverished and ultimately illusionary understanding of the processes of political contestation and domination (Neal 2006; Neocleous 2006).
Huysmans concludes
Working through Schmitt’s and Agamben’s conceptions of politics two related but different idioms of exception emerged. The Schmittian idiom works largely within a legal-constitutional framing of politics and arranges political stakes and dynamics through a specter of dictatorship. Its main characteristics are (1) a dialectic between law and politics, (2) a sovereign guarding the dialectic by deciding on legal transgressions as well as on conditions in which the institutionalized normative processes have become inoperable and demand a decision on a new constitutional order, (3) the structuration of a politics of fear by making enemy/friend distinctions the organizing principle of politics, and (4) the erasure of the “people” as a political multiplicity by a conception of nationalist politics that amalgamates the people into a unity produced by the leadership.
The other idiom, that Agamben unpacks, works with the total collapse of the dialectic between anomie and law and a biopolitical conception that organizes political stakes and dynamics through a specter of life. Its main characteristics are that (1) the exception has become the rule as there is no relation between law and anomie, law and politics—both exist in completely separate spheres, (2) life is no longer mediated by objective forms such as law and becomes naked biological being, (3) biopolitical power renders and acts directly upon naked life with no legal or other mediation—the concentration camps are the matrix of modern politics, (4) naked, anomic life displaces societal categories of life, such as class, legally mediated interests, and property relations, turning biopolitics into a struggle between the direct enactment of power upon this life and the anomic excesses of life that “resist” the sovereign biopolitical governance.
When Fleur Johns observes how exceptionalism soaks up critical energies with considerable effectiveness in liberal societies, she seems to lament the loss of something else, of some other form of critical energies (Johns 2005:629). This main thrust of this article has been to show that the idioms of exception indeed produce a categorical absence. They delete from the political the category that is a placeholder for various histories and sites of politically oriented societal practice as structured by objectified mediations. Paraphrasing Adorno, the idiom of exception has been called a jargon precisely because it marginalizes, and in the more radical cases, erases the societal as a realm of multi-faceted, historically structured political mediations and mobilizations. The article has deliberately introduced conceptions of the societal—such as liberal pluralism, Marxist class analysis, Foucaultian analysis of technologies of governance, etc.—only in very general terms, to keep the focus on the more “formal” thrust of the analysis, that is, identifying a “blind spot” and its consequences for how one interprets certain practices such as balancing liberty and security, democracy, and camps.
The main reason here for pointing out this absence has not been the sociological argument that Schmittean and Agambean concepts miss crucial elements of how current governmental practice work (Bigo 2007). Or, that they grant “little purchase on how these exceptions are in fact made, how they come to seem legitimate, and how they manage to destroy the liberties they are supposed to secure (…) [on] how those limits in turn generate identities, agencies, and institutions that work through practices of self-limitation, and transgression” (Walker 2006:78–79). The more central reason has been that reading the current political and security predicaments as a question of exceptionalism risks to reproduce a “jargon” that produces concepts of the political that at best marginalize and at worst eliminate from view the category that in modern political thought and history has been an essential component of democratic political practice.