Monthly Archives: July 2010

Biopolitics and bare life: Does the impaired body provide contemporary examples of homo sacer? (chapter, 2009)

Reeve, D. (2009) ‘Biopolitics and bare life: Does the impaired body provide contemporary examples of homo sacer?’, in K. Kristiansen, S. Vehmas and T. Shakespeare (eds) Arguing about Disability: Philosophical Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 203-217.


Agamben describes the concept of homo sacer which refers to someone whose “entire existence is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him [sic] without committing homicide” (Agamben, 1998:183). Homo sacer can be considered to be an outlaw or bandit; someone who is not simply outside the law and indifferent to it, but who has instead been abandoned by the law. This renders homo sacer exposed and threatened on the threshold where life and law, inside and outside, become indistinguishable. Whilst Agamben uses homo sacer to analyse contemporary Western politics, I will utilise this figure on a less grand scale to present some initial ideas about how homo sacer can provide a model for the exclusion of disabled people from participation in society.

I will argue that foetal screening and the recently proposed (and rejected) Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill represent clear examples of bare life within which  “normative schemes of intelligibility establish what will and will not be human, what will be a liveable life, what will be a grievable death” (Butler, 2004: 146). I will also explore the ways in which institutional care of disabled people and enforced psychiatric hospitalisation can be linked to recent discussions about the nature of refugee camps and detention centres – examples of modern day ‘camps’ which represent states of exception.

Finally I will use the concept of homo sacer to consider some examples of psycho-emotional disablism arising from the experience of living and moving within the zones of indistinction between inclusion and exclusion, exception and rule. This paper aims to show that the liminal figure of homo sacer offers an alternative to existing Foucauldian analyses of disability which focus on the production of normality rather than the suspension of law and production of exception provided by Agamben.

This chapter was my first publication using the work of Agamben, an approach which underpinned my PhD thesis.