Thought of the outside

Foucault contra Agamben

RP 175 () / Article

It is gladly believed that a culture is more attached to its values than to its forms, that these can easily be modified, abandoned, taken up again; that only meaning is deeply rooted. This is to misunderstand … that people cling more to ways of seeing, saying, doing, and thinking, than to what they see, what they think, say or do… In the twentieth century things have taken an unusual turn: the ‘formal’ itself, reflexive work on the system of forms, has become an issue. And a remarkable object of moral hostilities, of aesthetic debates and political clashes.

Michel Foucault

If Giorgio Agamben expressly situates his work on biopolitics in relation to Michel Foucault’s, it is on a somewhat ambiguous footing. ‘The Foucauldian thesis’, he famously states in Homo Sacer, ‘will then have to be corrected, or at least completed.’1 More recently in The Signature of All Things, Agamben claims a methodological filiation: ‘these observations appear to be investigations on the method of Michel Foucault, a scholar from whom I have learned a great deal in recent years.’2 ‘Archaeological vigilance’ brings him to interpret the affinities, and perhaps even the signatures among their respective genealogical inquiries on life, the body, and their politicization.3 Yet critics argue that Agamben’s interpretations of Foucault’s biopolitics amount to radical transformations; that his analyses take place on ontological, epistemological, historical and political planes that fundamentally alter those of his precursor. Arguing from a juridico-institutional, linguistic and transhistorical perspective, through what Paul Patton terms ‘conceptual fundamentalism’,4 it seems that Agamben would be guilty of turning Foucault on his head, apparently without noticing.5 I would like to return to the crux of this argument and suggest that Agamben is indeed following lines of analysis drawn by Foucault, but by the early Foucault, the one before May ’68, the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons and Discipline and Punish – paradoxically, the Foucault who, by his own admission, did not have the concepts or the means to deal with power, bio- or otherwise.6



1. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998, p. 9.

2. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’Isanto with Kevin Attell, Zone Books, New York, 2009, p. 7.

3. Ibid., p. 8.

4. Paul Patton, ‘Agamben and Foucault on Biopower and Biopolitics’, in M. Calarco and S. DeCaroli, eds, Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2007, p. 218.

5. Mika Ojakangas, ‘Impossible Dialogue on Bio-Power: Agamben and Foucault’, Foucault Studies 2, 2005, pp. 5–28. Ojakangas states that ‘Foucault’s bio-power has nothing to do with that kind [Agamben’s] of bare life. In fact, to the same extent that bio-power is the antithesis of sovereign power, its concept of life is the antithesis of bare life’ (p. 11). See also Catherine Mills, The Philosophy of Agamben, Acumen Publishing, Durham, 2008.

6. Michel Foucault, ‘Truth and Power’, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 3: Power, ed. J.D. Faubion, The New Press, New York, 2000, p. 117.