Agamben, Hegel, and the State of Exception
In his account of the state of exception, Agamben repeatedly relies upon what Hegel would have called Wesenslogik or ‘transcendental thinking’. Because of this reliance, the state of exception appears in Agamben’s account as the hidden ground of modern liberal democracies. When conceived as such a ground, it appears to be a condition of possibility that inexorably persists in the modern state. Moreover, within the state of exception all juridical order is suspended, leaving no normative or juridical criteria on the basis of which to decide what the structure of any emergent political order should look like. This means that from the state of exception we can just as easily land in a totalitarian as we can in a liberal democratic or democratic socialist state. Without such criteria—lacking due to the total suspension characterizing the state of exception—Agamben’s own alignment with Benjaminian revolutionary messianism over Schmittian authoritarianism is arbitrary, and he leaves us with no basis for making any such decision ourselves. Drawing upon Hegel’s dialectic of freedom and his critique of transcendental thought, this paper argues that within the state of exception there is an implicit logic that points the way out of it. Furthermore, it does so in such a way that the state of exception is neither annexed by the structure of a predetermined juridical order along the lines proposed by Schmitt on the one hand nor posited by it as a transcendental structure underlying or always preceding modern liberal democracies on the other. This alternative is overlooked by Agamben precisely because of his own insistence upon conceiving of the state of exception in a transcendent way.