Wednesday, 12 July 2000

From a lecture

By Giorgio Agamben.

The most rigorous attempt to construct a theory of the state of emergency can be found in the work of Carl Schmitt. The essentials of his theory can be found in Dictatorship, as well in Political Theology, published one year later. Because these two books, published in the early 1920s, set a paradigm that is not only contemporary, but may in fact find its true completion only today, it is necessary to give a resume of their fundamental theses.

The objective of both these books is to inscribe the state of emergency into a legal context. Schmitt knows perfectly well that the state of emergency, in as far as it enacts a "suspension of the legal order in its totality," seems to "escape every legal consideration"; but for him the issue is to ensure a relation, no matter of what type, between the state of emergency and the legal order: "The state of emergency is always distinguished from anarchy and chaos and, in the legal sense, there is still order in it, even though it is not a legal order." This articulation is paradoxical, since, that which should be inscribed within the legal realm is essentially exterior to it, corresponding to nothing less than the suspension of the legal order itself. Whatever the nature of the operator of this inscription of the state of emergency into the legal order, Schmitt needs to show that the suspension of law still derives from the legal domain, and not from simple anarchy. In this way, the state of emergency introduces a zone of anomy into the law, which, according to Schmitt, renders possible an effective ordering of reality. Now we understand why the theory of the state of emergency, in Political Theology, can be presented as a doctrine of sovereignty. The sovereign, who can proclaim a state of emergency, is thereby ensured of remaining anchored in the legal order. But precisely because the decision here concerns the annulation of the norm, and consequently, because the state of emergency represents the control of a space that is neither external nor internal, "the sovereign remains exterior to the normally valid legal order, and nevertheless belongs to it, since he is responsible for decision whether the Constitution can be suspended in toto." To be outside and yet belong: such is the topological structure of the state of emergency, and since the being of the sovereign, who decides over the exception, is logically defined by this very structure, he may also be characterized by the oxymoron of an "ecstasy-belonging."

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