Against Totalitarianism: Agamben, Foucault, and the Politics of Critique

  • C. Heike Schotten University of Massachusetts Boston


Despite appearances, Agamben’s engagement with Foucault in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life is not an extension of Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics but rather a disciplining of Foucault for failing to take Nazism seriously. This moralizing rebuke is the result of methodological divergences between the two thinkers that, I argue, have fundamental political consequences. Re-reading Foucault’s most explicitly political work of the mid-1970s, I show that Foucault’s commitment to genealogy is aligned with his commitment to “insurrection”—not simply archival or historical, but practical and political insurrection—even as his non-moralizing understanding of critique makes space for the resistances he hopes to proliferate. By contrast, Agamben’s resurrection of sovereignty turns on a moralizing Holocaust exceptionalism that anoints both sovereignty and the state with inevitably totalitarian powers. Thus, while both Agamben and Foucault take positions “against” totalitarianism, their very different understandings of this term and method of investigating it unwittingly render Agamben complicit with the totalitarianism he otherwise seeks to reject.

How to Cite
Schotten, C. H. (2015). Against Totalitarianism: Agamben, Foucault, and the Politics of Critique. Foucault Studies, (20), 155-179.
Section in collaboration with Foucault Circle