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nomos of the modern Arrow vol 4 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 4 number 3, 2005



'The Nomos of the Modern': Sociology and the Culture of Exception

Diken, B. and Laustsen, C. B. The Culture of Exception: Sociology Facing the Camp, Routledge: London and New York, 2005.

Daniel McLoughlin
University of New South Wales


1. The departure point for Bülent Diken and Carsten Bagge Laustsen's analysis in The Culture of Exception: Sociology Facing the Camp is the recent work of Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer. For Diken and Laustsen, Agamben's diagnosis of modernity is devastatingly accurate, their work following Homo Sacer's claim that the camp has become the "nomos of the modern" (Agamben 1998: 166). The camp, once constituted at the margins of the city as its exception, has now become the rule. As such, Diken and Laustsen argue that sociology is now faced with a new object of study in a 'society of the camp'.

2. The new social logic which orders this society is unsettling for traditional sociological theory. This is because the camp is an 'exceptional' space in which rule is suspended. The society of the camp thus experiences the disappearance of traditional distinctions on which sociology and politics are built, such as that between inclusion and exclusion, nomos and nature, human and inhuman. Instead, the new social logic of camp society is one of indistinction and indifference. Sociology then needs new theoretical tools, and must be rethought in light of the camp as the paradigm of modern society, politics, and law.

3. Diken and Laustsen's work is an ambitious attempt to create a theoretical picture of this society of the camp. They write:

Much has been written on the fragmentation of the contemporary city, e.g. on gated communities, shopping centres, theme parks, holiday resorts, war camps, ghettoes, and other spaces that represent the camp. But, as if it were mimicking its object of study, this writing itself remains fragmented and is rarely brought together in a broader diagnostic analysis. We aim at such a diagnosis (p. 7).

In line with the broad sweep of the task, this is a highly eclectic collection of ideas and theses, weaving together phenomena as diverse as rape camps, Abu Ghraib, and Princess Diana's death, with theorists ranging from Agamben and Deleuze, to Barthes, Butler and Bataille.

4. The work is divided into three parts, each comprising three chapters. The first and third Parts explore the theory of the camp. 'Part I: Approaching the Camp' draws a genealogy of the camp, while 'Part III: Consequences' examines the challenge the normalised exception presents to sociological theory. What I would regard as the central theoretical claims of the work are spread across the final Chapter of Part I and the first Chapter of Part III.

Twin Camps

5. Sandwiched in between these theoretical explorations is 'Part II: A Tale of Two Camps'. Here, the authors make their argument for particular socio-political phenomena as instantiations of the logic of 'the camp'. For Diken and Laustsen, camps "come in twins".The 'logic of the camp' is to be found, not only in spaces we traditionally associate with camps, such as concentration or refugee camps, but in spaces understood as 'liberatory'. On this basis they draw what might be seen as controversial analogies between refugee camps and gated communities (Chapter 4), rape camps and party islands such as Ibiza (Chapter 5) and the discourses of Islamist terrorism and the security policy of the War on Terror (Chapter 6).

6. The analysis of each phenomenon makes for a good read. In Chapter 4, the authors are on good ground in their analysis of refugee camps in terms of homo sacer, illustrating the exceptional nature of the refugee with regard to constituted legal orders. In particular, Chapter 6 presents a strong argument for terror and security as the twin political logics of post-politics, traversing the politics of bin Laden and Bush, the concept of jihad, globalisation and the film Independence Day. Diken and Laustsen argue that both paradigms erase the possibility of political antagonism, one in the name of orthodoxy, the other through the fetishisation of security. This is the most successful of the analogies they draw, and is a convincing argument on the relation of securitisation and fundamentalism to the political that uses Zizek's critiques of post-politics to good effect.

Thinking through the Camp

7. However, in its own terms, the success of their work rests not in the ability to present analyses of particular social phenomena. Rather, the crux of the work is presenting a conceptual framework within and through which to understand the seemingly disparate social phenomena analysed in Part II.

8. Part I opens with two Chapters that largely follow Agamben's argument in Homo Sacer . 'Chapter 1: Naked Life' argues that the camp can be characterised by two primary phenomena, both of which exhibit the concept of indistinction. First, as law does not apply in the camp, the camp can be considered outsideor an exception from the law.   Following Schmitt, the exception is also characteristic of sovereign power, for sovereign is "he who decides the exception".   Just as the rule of law is given life by the sovereign exception, so too the exclusion of the camp from the political is the constitutive possibility of the political. Hence it is conceptually impossible to decide whether the camp is excluded from or included in the polis, just as the sovereign exception is both included and excluded in the law. The second phenomenon is that the camp produces 'bare' or 'naked life', which Agamben figures in the ancient roman legal category of homo sacer. Someone who was homo sacer could be killed legally, in that the law would offer no sanction against those who took his or her life. At the same time, however, they could not be sacrificed, that is killed according to the rituals of divine law. Homo sacer was thus simultaneously included and excluded from 'the law', and as such they exhibit the same conceptual indistinction that characterises the camp's legal relation to the city.

9. 'Chapter 2: Entrenched Spaces', examines the camp as a spatial and historical practice, mapping the rise of camps in modernity. Starting with Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth, they argue that particular political orders tend to produce a localised space which manifests the state of exception. In actual historical examples of the camp, the exception which is supposed to be outside of law, is produced inside the territorial order, and the conceptual indistinction between law and anomie, inside and outside, that exists in the theory of the exception is made manifest.

10. These chapters largely follow the central theses of Agamben's Homo Sacer, but they do contain a wide range of interesting elaborations upon Agamben's examples of the camp. For example, Diken and Laustsen argue that colonial imperialism produced the 'New World' as a kind of camp, an exceptional space with no law, and deemed the colonised other as homo sacer through racism. With the practices of the concentration camp, the exception which was 'outside' the law in the case of colonialism is brought within the political territory from which it was excluded, and European society becomes dominated by the logic of indistinction that rules the camp.

The Camp in Late Capitalism

11. It is in 'Chapter 3: The Camp as Discipline, Control and Terror' that Diken and Laustsen's work begins to depart from Homo Sacer. It is here, along with 'Chapter 7: Sociology after the Camp', that the authors advance what I would regard as the central theoretical claim of their work: an ambitious attempt to bring Agambenian biopolitics into conjunction with the analysis of late capitalism.. It is through the union of Agambenian biopolitical sovereignty and analysis of late capitalism as a network/post-political/spectacular society that they attempt to create to create a unified conceptual frame for thinking through post-modern politics as the 'culture of exception'.

12. In Chapter 3, they present power in the society of the exception as operating in three modalities: Foucauldian discipline, the Deleuzian model of 'control', and an account of power as terror that leans heavily on Baudrillard. These are mapped as successive modalities of power, each of them responding to the previous mode: discipline leads to control, leads to terror, leads back to discipline. Yet today, each modality of power is simultaneously operative, forming a differentiated yet continuous system of power. Thus, they argue,

Discipline establishes sovereignty by creating zones of exception through confinement, a logic in which it proves difficult to sustain the difference between the master and the slave, between the free subject and the inmate, for they are all subjects of a bare life. Control reverses this, realising the fantasy generated by disciplinary society, that of breaking through the wall. Free movement becomes a necessity. However, this gesture brings with it an even more sinister, mobile power. Then, again, master turns into slave. 'Freedom' of movement (along with strictly regulated flows) coexists with confinement and fixation; sheer movement leads to inertia. Thus the utopia generated by control society is of an unregulated, anarchic flow.

13. Terror emerges in this sense as a utopia specific to control society, as its line of escape. It invests in insecurity, uncertainty and unsafety, turning citizens into hostages, to homini sacri. the fantasy generated by terror is, in other words, based on the promise of security, certainty and safety. Which brings us back to disciplinary entrenchment as a protection against terror (p. 74).

14. For Diken and Laustsen, the link between Agamben and the triple reading of discipline/control/terror exists in that each of these models can be thought of in terms of the camp, for they each create 'zones of indistinction', and both the hostage of the terror society, and the master and slave of both control and disciplinary societies, can be thought in terms of bare life.

15. This Chapter makes for interesting reading as an argument for the operation of power in post-modernity, and has previously been published as a stand alone piece in Space and Culture . Problematic however is the exact nature of the conceptual relationship they propose between Agamben's theory of sovereignty and biopolitics as expressed in the camp as nomos, and the other theorists of post-politics. Their claims are ambitious ones, given the divergence in the conceptual frameworks that Agamben, Deleuze and Foucault each use in analysing the political. Yet the argument the authors make for the link between these philosophers is thin, and reference to Agamben in particular is scant. Breaking from Agamben's texts and concerns in this chapter opens out the prospect of an innovative dialogue to flesh out the Agambenian claims that open the book. However it simultaneously forecloses the possibility through the radicality of the rupture it stages.

16. It is in Chapter 7 that the authors present their most detailed argument for the conjunction of Agamben and other theorists of difference, for it is here that they ask the crucial question "What is the conceptual and ontological status of indistinction?" (p. 148). The authors argue that difference is central to 'the social' as it is thought in sociology. The society of the camp radically problematises this model, as differences become indistinct. The question then arises of how to think through the society of the camp.

17. They write that at first "it would seem that the concept of indistinction is opposed to difference, that the camp is a de-differentiation machine, which creates a flattened world devoid of difference. That is, however, not the case" (p. 148). Rather, indistinction is a mode of hyper-differentiation. To make this argument, they invoke a distinction between two understandings of difference. The first is the transcendent ontology of ground "With homo sacer as a transcendent point of reference, real differences among human beings are reduced to negative differences that originate from a homogenous, indistinct ground zero of humanity" (p. 149). Against this, they posit the Deleuzian ontology "in which difference becomes the ground of being" (p. 149). Difference is not thought in relation to some negative origin. Rather, "repetition of difference is the only form of identity, becoming is the only form of being" (p. 149).

18. Diken and Laustsen go on to argue that indistinction "refers to the process in which the binary organisation of the strata on the basis of negative differences is undone. It presupposes a previous process of differentiation of social formations and shows that their binary divisions no longer work. What disappears or becomes indistinct in this process is negative, not positive difference" (p. 149). As tradition deconstructs itself, the traditional logic of binaries upon which sociology is based is undone. Social organisation becomes Deleuzian, and we are left with the positive difference machine of 'the camp'. As Diken and Laustsen put it, "we are speaking of two kinds of indistinction. First, the kind of indistinction that characterises the flux (of positive difference) that precedes the social, which should not be confused with the state of nature, and second, the indistinction in the sense of the de-differentiation of negative differences" (p. 150).

Theorising Indistinction

19 According to Agamben's diagnosis, modern politics, society and law face a crisis as the exceptional space of the camp becomes the rule. However, his own account of the logic of the exception is one of the most elusive and ambiguous parts of his work. He writes that the exception is a 'zone of indistinction' where normativity is suspended, and that in modernity the exception has become the rule. It is clear from his account that this indistinction occurs in the breakdown of the binaries that founded classical politics, the public and private, nomos and nature, man and animal. Beyond this however, the nature of this 'indistinction' Agamben associates with the modern becoming rule of the exception remains unclear.

20. Caching out the nature of (post)modern biopolitics and the indistinct form of sovereignty and power associated with it is a crucial project, and there is then much important theoretical work to be done in mining links between Agamben's claims for the current worldwide extension of the logic of the camp, and other theoretical approaches to the political in post-modernity. Further, while much has been made of the comparison between Agamben and Foucault, Agamben's various brief references to Debord, and his minor engagements with Spinoza and Deleuze, are suggestive for Diken and Laustsen's attempt to bring the logic of the camp as a zone of indistinction into conversation with theorists of late capitalism and the spectacle.

21. However, there are a number of factors that hamper the productivity of the dialogue the authors bring about. These methodological issues combine to render Diken and Laustsen's thesis suggestive, but theoretically underdeveloped.

22. The first is the lack of detailed treatment of the most relevant sections of Agamben's work when the text turns towards its reading of other theorists such as Foucault and Deleuze. For example, in elaborating the concept of the social logic of the camp, either through the model of discipline/control/terror, or the analysis of indistinction as (in)difference, there is no reference to the central chapter of Homo Sacer on this topic, "Chapter 4: Form of Law". Here, Agamben describes the form of law in the exception, and hence the legal condition of modernity, as a 'law in force without significance', a form of law that he sees expressed best expressed in Kant's Moral Law and the works of Kafka. This is one of the more obscure chapters of Homo Sacer, and one that has received little comment in the critical literature. Unfortunately, Culture of Exception also avoids engaging with one of the most crucial sections of Agamben's work to any consideration of the operation of law and power in the culture of the exception. Likewise, an engagement with the chapter on Debord in Means Without End, would have added a richness of detail to an analysis of the camp in terms of late capitalism as spectacle. The text also sidesteps an engagement with Agamben's response to the nihilism of this form of law, his Benjaminian messianic politics, preferring to draw upon the theory of the multitude.

23. There is also sometimes a lack of clarity in the way in which key concepts such as homo sacer or exception are being deployed. On occasions this could be put down to brevity, given the range of theories deployed in the course of a comparably short argument. At some stages however, this lack of clarity does pose problems for the conceptual coherence of their argument.

24. This is most evident when the authors draw analogies between the conceptual frameworks of different philosophers, such as in chapters three and seven. While each philosopher they draw upon is broadly analysing the the political in postmodernity, each provides a different diagnosis grounded in differing ontologies. However, Diken and Laustsen's text tends to treat these conceptual differences as relatively unproblematic. For example, in fleshing out the relation between Deleuzian immanence and Agamben's transcendent ontology, Culture of Exception argues for homo sacer and Hardt and Negri's 'Multitude' as twin concepts. Both are figured as 'bodies without organs', humanity without defining characteristics. Yet "If the naked life of homo sacer is the negative limit of human togetherness and is constituted through human passivity, multitude signifies the potentiality of naked life, 'the power that naked life could become" (p. 151). In Diken and Laustsen's account "Homo Sacer and the multitude are the two extreme horizons for the contemporary processes of (de)subjectification that attract or repel the consumers/denizens of liquid modernity" (p. 152).

25.   This is an interesting argument for a conjunction between these two theories.   However, the relation between Agamben and Hardt and Negri is one of considerable conceptual difficulty Agamben and Negri have expressed some fundamental disagreements over the ontology of the multitude and bare life and their political significance, a disagreement that has a long history through their works. Diken and Laustsen's treatment of the relation rests upon Negri's 'The Ripe Fruit of Redemption' in which Negri distances himself from the transcendent ontology of bare life. However, Negri also attempts to inscribe the positive moment of Agamben's critique, the theory of the 'coming community' within the horizon of the multitude, asserting that here Agamben moves in a "Spinozan/Deleuzian direction" (p. 152). Following this, Diken and Laustsen conflate the multitude and the positive moment of Agamben's political critique, the 'coming community', stating "in this movement, homo sacer is unfolded, turning from inert biopolitical material into an active and creative agency, into the multitude , or a 'coming community'" (p. 152)

26. Despite Negri's assertions as to the 'Spinozan/Deleuzian direction' of Agamben's politics, these two philosophers receive but brief treatment within Agamben's work. Indeed, Agamben critiques Negri's Spinozist/Deleuzian political ontology in Homo Sacer , asserting his theory of the multitude as a constituent power fails to escape the conceptual problems of sovereignty. Agamben's essay 'Absolute Immanence' in Potentialities is his most direct engagement with Spinozist/Deleuzian ontology, and is a crucial resource for any attempt think the relationship between Deleuzian difference and Agamben's indistinction.   In the essay, while Agamben does mark an ontological genealogy in terms of theorists of transcendence and immanence, and notes the potential of the Deleuzian immanence, he also remarks on its limitations in thinking beyond the ontology of bare life. Agamben's idea of the politics to come also owes much to Heidegger, Benjamin's messianism, and a reading of the Aristotelean relation between potentiality and actuality in the context of language. Yet it is precisely the Heideggerian Agamben that Negri rejects as the root of a melancholy in Agamben's work that limits its transformative political potential. These are crucial texts and issues to wrestle with in any attempt to bring the multitude and homo sacer into relation.

27. This is but one example, but it is characterisic of the approach of Culture of Exception, which tends to highlight the similarities between authors without seriously exploring their differences. Such an approach limits the conceptual force of the thesis, and to abuse the Agambenian terminology of the book, it tends to turn the theory into a 'zone of indistinction'.


28. Culture of Exception is an ambitious and eclectic work, which in the sweep of its claims and the diversity of its sources, makes for provocative reading. In bringing theorists such as Deleuze and Agamben to bear on sociology, Laustsen and Diken successfully illustrate the importance of these conceptual tools to an analysis of post-modernity. Utilising these theories, they also advance a number of interesting stand alone analyses of social and political phenomena, particularly Chapter 3 on discipline/control/terror, and Chapter 6 on terror and securitisation. While the overarching diagnostic that the authors advance tends to be undertheorised, the conversation Diken and Laustsen stage between Agamben and other theorists of late capitalism is an important project that deserves to be further developed.


Daniel McLoughlin is a PhD student in the School of Philosophy at UNSW. His thesis is on sovereignty and metaphysics in the work of Agamben and Derrida.


Agamben (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Diken, B. and Laustsen, C.B. (2005) The Culture of Exception: Sociology Facing the Camp, London and New York, Routledge.

Negri, T. (2003) 'The Ripe Fruit of Redemption',

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