State of Exception – Agamben

Here, we discuss one of the most influential philosophical works of recent times: Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception. It investigates the use of exceptional powers and laws which governments acquire through declaring states of emergency during crises, whether they are real or invented.

Here’s what we thought:

This is one of Giorgio Agamben’s most famous works, and one that often gets cited in academia. At the core of Agamben’s argument here is that the state of exception (SoE) operates as a zone effectively ‘without law’ that serves to enshrine the law itself through the process of its exclusion. Agamben then goes on to argue that whereas before the exception was just that – an ‘exception’ – it has in modern times become the rule.

While this is undoubtedly the book that academics so often cite in relation to Agamben and the SoE, I would suggest that Homo Sacer is perhaps the more useful in terms of his discussion of the workings of the SoE itself. Some extracts that may be useful for discussion below:

  • ‘The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.’1
  • This can be reformulated as ‘the law is outside itself’ OR ‘I, the sovereign, who am outside the law, declare that there is nothing outside the law’2
  • Furthermore: ‘The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying, in withdrawing from it.’3

Here, life itself is cast as being worthy or indeed as being ‘human’ relative to the non-human cast within the SoE.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

1 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 15.
2 Ibid., p. 15.
3 Ibid., p. 18.

Agamben’s work really is fascinating. Indeed, I was recently at a conference on the ‘State of Exception in the Middle East’ hosted by the Richardson Institute here at Lancaster. The entire day was thoroughly interesting and covered many different experiences and context of states of exception.

I’d really like to see how the ideas in Agamben’s work could be applied to international law governing the actions of states in the international system, rather than its domestic application. I’ve recently been thinking about how customary international law progresses partly through violations, and so in effect, it progresses through exceptionalism. Yet, as this is an accepted part of international law, it is also unexceptional simultaneously.

It’s an area I’d really like to look into further.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Please, let us know what you think in the comments below, or e-mail us if you would like to join our network.

Information Warfare A Philosophical Perspective – Taddeo

Our final article from Month 1 is Information Warfare A Philosophical Perspective by Mariarosaria Taddeo in Philosophy & Technology, 2012, Vol.25(1), pp.105-120.

The article is available for free here.

Here is our analysis:

Several articles have focussed on the blurred distinction between war and peace in relation to small-scale physical military operations, such as special forces raids, or drone strikes. Yet, this article raises the same question in relation to ‘Information Warfare’, mostly considering cyber conflict. A cyberwar in attack could be strictly limited to military targets, ‘due to the blurring between civil society and military organisations’ (p.117). Nor could it in defence, as military cyber units are being used at the forefront of defending civilian infrastructure from cyber-attacks, whether potentially destructive enough to begin an armed conflict, or merely cyber-disruption.

As most cyber-attacks do not rise to the level of armed conflict, I don’t think we can say yet that cyber-attacks blur the line between war and peace quite like drone strikes. But I think because of those involved, such as US Cyber Command, Chinas PLA Unit 61398, UK Cyber Reserve, and signals intelligence agencies, this does blur the line relating to who is involved. Is it a military domain, or is it the domain of civilian intelligence and police for cyber security. I don’t think there are any easy answers, and it might be that there is no resolution as the capabilities will be required by states in the future, and the distinction about who is doing cyberwarfare or other cyber-related things might not bother to the governments who ask them to do it.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

There seems to be a real definitional issue here surrounding Information Warfare and how we define it. The author here ties robotic weapons and cyber attacks alongside ‘communication management’ (we can assume here she means propaganda), but to take this line of reasoning surely then all warfare becomes ‘information warfare’? Where does one draw the line with technology and the separation between what the author defines as ‘information’ (software, autonomy and remote control) and other forms of weapon that all to some extent or another require an interface, and more often than not, a software intermediary?

For me, this piece doesn’t really tell us anything particularly new, and as a philosophy student, doesn’t really address any of the key philosophical issues at play here, aside from suggestions at the blurring of the border between combatant and civilian – a blurring that has been in existence now at least since WW2, if not before.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

Information is the new 5th dimension – an addition to the conventional foursome  of land, sea, air and space .

What links ICT deployment is disruptive intent. The key idea within the paper is that IW is transversal  in regards to (1) environment, (2) agents involved and (3) modes of combat; and the transversality of IW is what produces the policy-related and  ethical problems.  For instance there is a slippery conceptual, coding and material-digital slide between a DdoS attack that could stop water supplies for an hour , to a cyber-attack that could  shut down a power station for a day, to a cyber attack that could destroy or explode an enemy missile in situ.   Moreover, the agents involved in such an attack can be ontologically varied: they could be soldiers who slot in thumb drives to enemy computers, or digital-beings such as automated, digital –sphere roaming viruses which seek vulnerabilities, or code-savvy civilian operators who work remotely from offices in civilian areas, or even from their homes.  Where is the command centre, who is the enemy? Pre-emption of such attacks may require extensive surveillance of populations to identify hostile actors – a reduction in human right to privacy that in itself brings ethical problems.

The paper is heavy with acronyms and sometimes feels as if it is having to cram its ideas into a very limited space. The paper’s  concentration on the nature of Information warfare is useful; its main concept – that of IW’s transversal nature – seems its most pungent point.

Peter Kalu, Lancaster University


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