Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: What can the work of Agamben offer disability studies? (paper, 2008)

Reeve, D. (2008) ‘Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: What can the work of Agamben offer disability studies?’, paper presented at 4th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, 2-4 September.


The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, as part of his analysis of contemporary Western politics (Agamben, 1998), describes how the figure of 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. Whereas Foucauldian approaches have been useful in understanding the ways in which technologies of power differentiate the abnormal from the normal, Agamben instead focuses on how the suspension of law (states of exception) can create zones of indistinction where homo sacer can be found. One good example of a zone of indistinction is that of Camp Delta set up to hold US ‘detainees’ (rather than ‘prisoners’) who are at the mercy of presidential decrees and the will of military personnel. The camp itself occupies an indistinct spatial zone because of its location in Guantánamo Bay – it is on Cuban soil, but outside the realm of Cuban law.

In this paper I will draw on narratives of disability experiences generated as part of my PhD to present some ideas about how these concepts of homo sacer and zones of indistinction can be used to understand some contemporary experiences of structural and psycho-emotional disablism.

Structural dimensions of disablism affect what disabled people can do; examples include barriers in the built environment or lack of information in accessible formats. I will show how flawed implementations of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK lead to spatial zones of indistinction where disabled people find themselves (legally) both included and excluded at the same time. This is because of the unspecifiable ‘reasonable adjustments’ term in the Act which means that disabled people are at the ‘mercy’ of planners and architects as to how these adjustments are implemented. Although there are examples of excellent inclusive design, this is not guaranteed; so whilst a separate entrance for wheelchair users restores independence, it does not necessarily restore the disabled person’s self-esteem and dignity.

Finally I introduce the new concept of ‘psychic’ zones of indistinction to examine some examples of psycho-emotional disablism experienced by people with visible impairments. Within most parts of society it is considered rude to stare or call people names; however for many people with visible impairments this is a daily occurrence and can feel invalidating and humiliating. I suggest that these psychic zones of indistinction are created by the suspension of behavioural norms or ‘internal’ laws’. In addition, the disabled person is never certain of how the next stranger will react to them which reflects the way in which homo sacer is always ‘at the mercy of his fellow men’.