Agamben and the Biopolitical – Nihilistic and Thanatopolitical Expressions. Thought of the Day 56.0


Agamben’s logic of biopolitics as the logic of the symmetry between sovereign power and the sacredness of bare life should be understood in terms of its historico-ontological destiny. Although this theme is only hinted at in Homo Sacer and the volumes that follow it, Agamben resolutely maintains that biopolitics is inherently metaphysical. If on the one hand ‘the inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original […] nucleus of sovereign power’ and ‘biopolitics is at least as old as the sovereign exception’, on the other hand, this political nexus cannot be dissociated from the epochal situation of metaphysics. Here Agamben openly displays his Heideggerian legacy; bare life, that which in history is increasingly isolated by biopolitics as Western politics, must be strictly related to ‘pure being’, that which in history is increasingly isolated by Western metaphysics:

Politics [as biopolitics] appears as the truly fundamental structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized. In the ‘politicization’ of bare life – the metaphysical task par excellence – the humanity of living man is decided.

Commentators have not as yet sufficiently emphasized how biopolitics is consequently nothing else than Agamben’s name for metaphysics as nihilism. More specifically, while bare life remains for him the ‘empty and indeterminate’ concept of Western politics – which is thus as such originally nihilistic – its forgetting goes together with the progressive coming to light of what it conceals. From this perspective, nihilism will therefore correspond to the modern and especially post-modern generalisation of the state of exception: ‘the nihilism in which we are living is […] nothing other than the coming to light of […] the sovereign relation as such’. In other words, nihilism reveals the paradox of the inclusive exclusion of bare life, homo sacer, qua foundation of sovereign power, as well as the fact that sovereign power cannot recognize itself for what it is. Beyond Foucault’s biopolitical thesis according to which modernity is increasingly characterized by the way in which power directly captures life as such as its object, what interests Agamben the most is:

the decisive fact that, together with the process by which 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.

The political is thus reduced to the biopolitical: the original repression of the sovereign relation on which Western politics has always relied is now inextricably bound up with its return in the guise of a radical biopoliticisation of the political. Like nihilism, such a generalisation of the state of exception – the fact that, today, we are all virtually homines sacri – is itself a profoundly ambiguous biopolitical phenomenon. Today’s state of exception both radicalizes – qualitatively and quantitatively – the thanatopolitical expressions of sovereignty (epitomized by the nazis’ extermination of the Jews for a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in their condition as such) and finally unmasks its hidden logic.

Agamben explicitly relates to the possibility of a ‘new politics’. Conversely, a new politics is unthinkable without an in-depth engagement with the historico-ontological dimension of sacratio and the structural political ambiguity of the state of exception. Although such new politics ‘remains largely to be invented’, very early on in Homo Sacer, Agamben unhesitatingly defines it as ‘a politics no longer founded on the exceptio of bare life’. beyond the exceptionalist logic – by now self-imploded – that unites sovereignty to bare life, Agamben seems to envisage a relaional politics that would succeed in ‘constructing the link between zoe and bios’. This link between the bare life of man and his political existence would ‘heal’ the original ‘fracture’ which is at the same time precisely what causes their progressive indistinction in the generalized state of exception. Having said this, Agamben also conceives of such new politics as a non-relational relation that ‘will […] have to put the very form of relation into question, and to ask if the political fact is not perhaps thinkable beyond relation and, thus, no longer in the form of a connection’.

Conjuncted: Occam’s Razor and Nomological Hypothesis. Thought of the Day 51.1.1


Conjuncted here, here and here.

A temporally evolving system must possess a sufficiently rich set of symmetries to allow us to infer general laws from a finite set of empirical observations. But what justifies this hypothesis?

This question is central to the entire scientific enterprise. Why are we justified in assuming that scientific laws are the same in different spatial locations, or that they will be the same from one day to the next? Why should replicability of other scientists’ experimental results be considered the norm, rather than a miraculous exception? Why is it normally safe to assume that the outcomes of experiments will be insensitive to irrelevant details? Why, for that matter, are we justified in the inductive generalizations that are ubiquitous in everyday reasoning?

In effect, we are assuming that the scientific phenomena under investigation are invariant under certain symmetries – both temporal and spatial, including translations, rotations, and so on. But where do we get this assumption from? The answer lies in the principle of Occam’s Razor.

Roughly speaking, this principle says that, if two theories are equally consistent with the empirical data, we should prefer the simpler theory:

Occam’s Razor: Given any body of empirical evidence about a temporally evolving system, always assume that the system has the largest possible set of symmetries consistent with that evidence.

Making it more precise, we begin by explaining what it means for a particular symmetry to be “consistent” with a body of empirical evidence. Formally, our total body of evidence can be represented as a subset E of H, i.e., namely the set of all logically possible histories that are not ruled out by that evidence. Note that we cannot assume that our evidence is a subset of Ω; when we scientifically investigate a system, we do not normally know what Ω is. Hence we can only assume that E is a subset of the larger set H of logically possible histories.

Now let ψ be a transformation of H, and suppose that we are testing the hypothesis that ψ is a symmetry of the system. For any positive integer n, let ψn be the transformation obtained by applying ψ repeatedly, n times in a row. For example, if ψ is a rotation about some axis by angle θ, then ψn is the rotation by the angle nθ. For any such transformation ψn, we write ψ–n(E) to denote the inverse image in H of E under ψn. We say that the transformation ψ is consistent with the evidence E if the intersection

E ∩ ψ–1(E) ∩ ψ–2(E) ∩ ψ–3(E) ∩ …

is non-empty. This means that the available evidence (i.e., E) does not falsify the hypothesis that ψ is a symmetry of the system.

For example, suppose we are interested in whether cosmic microwave background radiation is isotropic, i.e., the same in every direction. Suppose we measure a background radiation level of x1 when we point the telescope in direction d1, and a radiation level of x2 when we point it in direction d2. Call these events E1 and E2. Thus, our experimental evidence is summarized by the event E = E1 ∩ E2. Let ψ be a spatial rotation that rotates d1 to d2. Then, focusing for simplicity just on the first two terms of the infinite intersection above,

E ∩ ψ–1(E) = E1 ∩ E2 ∩ ψ–1(E1) ∩ ψ–1(E2).

If x1 = x2, we have E1 = ψ–1(E2), and the expression for E ∩ ψ–1(E) simplifies to E1 ∩ E2 ∩ ψ–1(E1), which has at least a chance of being non-empty, meaning that the evidence has not (yet) falsified isotropy. But if x1 ≠ x2, then E1 and ψ–1(E2) are disjoint. In that case, the intersection E ∩ ψ–1(E) is empty, and the evidence is inconsistent with isotropy. As it happens, we know from recent astronomy that x1 ≠ x2 in some cases, so cosmic microwave background radiation is not isotropic, and ψ is not a symmetry.

Our version of Occam’s Razor now says that we should postulate as symmetries of our system a maximal monoid of transformations consistent with our evidence. Formally, a monoid Ψ of transformations (where each ψ in Ψ is a function from H into itself) is consistent with evidence E if the intersection

ψ∈Ψ ψ–1(E)

is non-empty. This is the generalization of the infinite intersection that appeared in our definition of an individual transformation’s consistency with the evidence. Further, a monoid Ψ that is consistent with E is maximal if no proper superset of Ψ forms a monoid that is also consistent with E.

Occam’s Razor (formal): Given any body E of empirical evidence about a temporally evolving system, always assume that the set of symmetries of the system is a maximal monoid Ψ consistent with E.

What is the significance of this principle? We define Γ to be the set of all symmetries of our temporally evolving system. In practice, we do not know Γ. A monoid Ψ that passes the test of Occam’s Razor, however, can be viewed as our best guess as to what Γ is.

Furthermore, if Ψ is this monoid, and E is our body of evidence, the intersection

ψ∈Ψ ψ–1(E)

can be viewed as our best guess as to what the set of nomologically possible histories is. It consists of all those histories among the logically possible ones that are not ruled out by the postulated symmetry monoid Ψ and the observed evidence E. We thus call this intersection our nomological hypothesis and label it Ω(Ψ,E).

To see that this construction is not completely far-fetched, note that, under certain conditions, our nomological hypothesis does indeed reflect the truth about nomological possibility. If the hypothesized symmetry monoid Ψ is a subset of the true symmetry monoid Γ of our temporally evolving system – i.e., we have postulated some of the right symmetries – then the true set Ω of all nomologically possible histories will be a subset of Ω(Ψ,E). So, our nomological hypothesis will be consistent with the truth and will, at most, be logically weaker than the truth.

Given the hypothesized symmetry monoid Ψ, we can then assume provisionally (i) that any empirical observation we make, corresponding to some event D, can be generalized to a Ψ-invariant law and (ii) that unconditional and conditional probabilities can be estimated from empirical frequency data using a suitable version of the Ergodic Theorem.