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Performing the state of emergency in situ, part 2 (intervention)

Performing the state of emergency in situ, part 2 (intervention) Section of The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara in 1202 (oil on canvas), Vicentino, Andrea (Michieli) (1539-1614) / Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy/copied from The Encyclopedia of War – From Ancient Egypt to Iraq, Dorling Kindersley, London 2012, p77

II. From language to paradigm.
The structural relationship between language (and therefore, its pragmatic function too) and law (and therefore, the state of emergency too) is also revealed in another, indirect way through Agamben's work. Many years before he attempted to offer some clarifications upon the central position of the notion of paradigm in his work, the Italian philosopher wrote: “exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called” [1].  It would therefore suffice to even briefly ponder over the definition above in order for one to see the similarity this holds with the exposure-to-language that Agamben focused upon in the late part of the same book, and to which he dedicated and continues to dedicate a large part of his work as a whole [2].

An unquestionable similarity that momentarily challenges logic, a fair question concerning what could be paradigmatic about the exposure in question. This pure relationship with language ––which as we saw, comprises the statuary condition for the reproduction of any given rule–– is characterised by the properties of a paradigm. But how is the notion of the paradigm used in the work of Agamben? The Italian philosopher deals with the issue in both his book The Coming Community and in The Signature of All Things – On Method. Nevertheless, despite any possible similarities, these two public appearances of the paradigm in Agamben's work appear to hint at different directions. A conclusion that is rather plausible, if one takes into account that the two lie eighteen years apart. And this distance might very well be symbolised by the fact that the Italian thinker chooses to use, in these two texts, two different terms of the italian language: esempio (which corresponds to the english word example) and paradigma (which corresponds to the english word paradigm), in order to describe their paradigmatic function [3]

Nevertheless, and for the purposes of our own investigation, it would make sense to ponder over the second, more contemporary and detailed description of the notion of the paradigm. Agamben writes in relation to this: “In the course of my research, I have written on certain figures such as homo sacer, the Muselmann, the state of exception, and the concentration camp. While these are all actual historical phenomena, I nonetheless treated them as paradigms whose role was to constitute and make intelligible a broader historical-problematic context”  [4]. 

Here, then, the enigmatic function of the state of emergency becomes up-to-date through our introduction to the notion of the paradigm. But what is a paradigm characterised by, and how exactly is the state of emergency related to it? As mentioned already, the paradigm might claim its pragmatic legitimisation through resorting to some specific historical phenomenon. Yet the reason for which one might chose to focus upon this phenomenon, assigning it with paradigmatic qualities, has to do with the capacities offered by the latter in relation to the comprehension of broader phenomena; some phenomena that might be characterised by qualitative and quantitative differences –– and which would not necessarily be chronologically connected in any way. The paradigmatic relationship is activated through the relationship of analogy, not the relationship of metaphor –– as Agamben himself clarifies [5]. And it “...does not merely occur between sensible objects or between these objects and a general rule; it occurs instead between a singularity (which thus becomes a paradigm) and its exposition (its intelligibility)” [6]. The performative dimension, then, appears to return ––through the descriptions above–– with a double meaning. On the one hand the paradigm is born through its own exposure, that is, through its performance [7]. On the other hand it performs, through this exposure, the comprehension of wider phenomena [8]. The state of emergency, as one of the nodal examples of Agamben's thought, is conceived precisely through this dual function –– and this is where any given reading of it is rendered necessary.

We therefore see that the paradigm appears to carry a crucial performative dynamic that is expressed simultaneously at two different levels. One could claim that in his clarifications above, Agamben focused primarily upon the second of these levels –– attempting to highlight its meaning-assigning qualities through the analogy relationship, while at the same time making sure to clarify this does not comprise a mere activation of a typical semantic process [9]. What it would mean, though, for him to focus upon the first level of this double function? To focus, that is, upon how the paradigm is exposed through its singularity –– and upon how it is only through this exposure that it acquires its paradigmatic quality? It therefore becomes clear that any attempt to study the function of a paradigm ought to weight itself against the conditions of its own public exposure. In other words, it ought to judge it through its materialities, its observability and its applicability.

This knowledge, even if it does not appear to comprise a priority for Agamben, explains his ––far from coincidental–– reference to the work of Thomas S. Kuhn; that is, his entering upon the world of epistemology and the natural sciences. The importance of this reference is not limited upon the capacities offered by the syntax of epistemology for the needs of describing the notion of the paradigm: it also allows us to study how the state of emergency is constructed upon its materiality, precisely in the way that a paradigm is constructed in the natural sciences section; that is, through theory, observations and tests.

Alan F. Chalmers, a philosopher of science, writes that “a paradigm is made up of the general theoretical assumptions and laws and the techniques for their application that the members of a particular scientific community adopt”  [10]. And despite the fact that the paradigm is not quite open to a specific definition, it seems that it is possible to describe some of its typical ingredients [11]. Chalmers, then, identifies ––among others–– the “explicitly stated fundamental laws and theoretical assumptions”  [12], the “standard ways of applying the fundamental laws to a variety of types of situation” [13], the “instrumentation and instrumental techniques necessary for bringing the laws of the paradigm to bear on the real world” [14], and “some very general, metaphysical principles that guide work within a paradigm” [15]. Nevertheless, the paradigm is used in Kuhn's work in an ambivalent way. As Chalmers writes, the American science historian admits, in the postscript of the 1970 edition of his fundamental work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that he uses the notion in a dual meaning [16]. That is, both in its generic and its strictly scientific use –– which corresponds to what he terms the disciplinary matrix [17]. But also in a more specialised use, for which Kuhn reserves the term exemplar. While Chalmers focuses particular upon the first notion of the paradigm, Agamben ––who has knowledge of this ambivalence–– appears, in his related clarifications, to have more interest for the second one which, as he emphasises, appeared to be more interesting for Kuhn himself [18]. On the basis of this second meaning, and attempting to disentangle the composition of science from the existence of a strict system of rules, Agamben writes that “a paradigm is simply an example, a single case that by its repeatability acquires the capacity to model tacitly the behavior and research practices of scientists” [19].

In this way, then, the performative function of the notion of the paradigm is re-articulated –– a notion that is now, through the exposure of its uniqueness (and in particular, through the repetition of this exposure) tacitly guides the practices of the scientists and gives shape to a more-or-less concrete line of research. It is clear that Agamben wishes, through this description, to distance himself from the meaning preserved by strict rules and laws during the composition of scientific paradigms. He even hints that the paradigm is only or mostly born through its exposure –– and it is conceived through the observation of this exposure, without any theoretical tool or system of basic interpretative rules as a prerequisite.

Chalmers however, who focuses upon the first interpretation of Kuhn's paradigm, stresses that “in science, theory exists before observation” and that “observations and tests are conducted with the aim of the control or the clarification of some existent theory”  [20]. And if we were to recall that one of the typical elements of the paradigm are the “explicitly stated fundamental laws and theoretical assumptions”, then it becomes evident that the paradigms do, indeed, play a crucial role in the “guidance of the observation and the test” [21]. Nevertheless, such an apparent dichotomy should not overpower us –– to the extent that one could reach some particularly useful conclusions from this conversation between the different meanings of the paradigm. And we shall see that in the cases that will concern us later on, such a conversation is not only in a position to interpret in a more effective manner the reality created by the state of emergency (the state of emergency-as-paradigm) but in addition, it updates its performative function as well.

What is important for one to keep in mind from these observations is that the state of emergency appears to constitute itself both epistemologically and performatively. That is, both through the discourse about the state of emergency and through its repeated performative manifestations.

The constant repetition of a paradigm (in the sense of the exemplar, as Agamben would prefer) acquires its paradigmatic meaning only amidst the conceptual framework that allows it to claim paradigmatic capabilities [22]. Respectively, the theoretical framework does not remain invariant, but it transforms and reconsiders itself (in a performative manner) through the constant repetitions of the paradigm (once again, in its sense of the exemplar). And we should keep in mind that the state of emergency clearly does not appear as a physical phenomenon, but it manifests itself on the one hand as result of intense processes taking place at the level of ideological production and on the other hand, through its materiality: as way, that is, of applying some “theoretical assumptions” and one conceptual and operational framework that is formed specifically for this end.

Should we therefore wish to study the state of emergency as a paradigm, that is in its repetition, it would make sense to visit the theoretical labs that design it and that make sure to indue it both with the ideological guarantees necessary (those that will allow it to claim its full paradigmatic meaning, to demand its requisite legitimation and to resume, at any given moment, its very particular historical capacities) as well as with the conceptual framework that will successfully guide any given applications of it at the field of operations. It comprises, therefore, a double theoretical-conceptual responsibility –– whose claiming has been concerning the headquarters of police science long before the state of emergency established its by now well-known terms upon public space.


by Christos Filippidis



[1]: Agamben, The Coming Community, ibid., p.10 (go back to text)

[2]: See footnote 28 of part I. (go back to text)

[3]: See the chapter titled Example in Ibid., pp.9-11 and the chapter titled What Is a Paradigm? in Agamben Giorgio, The Signature of All Things – On Method, trans. by Luca D' Isanto with Kevin Attell, Zone Books, New York 2009, pp.9-32 (go back to text)

[4]: Agamben, The Signature of All Things, ibid., p.9 (go back to text)

[5]: Ibid., pp.18,20 (go back to text)

[6]: Ibid., p.23 (go back to text)

[7]: Ibid., pp.18,23 (go back to text)

[8]:  Ibid., pp.9,31. Agamben writes that the purpose of the use of the paradigms in his work “...was to make intelligible series of phenomena whose kinship had eluded or could elude the historian's gaze”. Nevertheless, and following criticism that he received in relation to the use of paradigms and their historical extensions, the Italian philosopher was quick to state: “I am not an historian. I work with paradigms. A paradigm is something like an example, an exemplar, a historically singular phenomenon”, see the interview titled Interview With Giorgio Agamben – Life, a Work of Art Without an Author: The State of Exception, the Administration of Disorder, and Private Life, as given to Ulrich Raulff, in the German Law Journal, Vol.05, No.05 (May 2004), p.610. Available electronically at For some critiques to the paradigmatic uses of Agamben, see de la Durantaye Leland, Giorgio Agamben – A Critical Introduction, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2009, pp.220,221,243,246(go back to text)

[9]: Agamben writes characteristically: “Here we are not dealing with a signifier that is extended to designate heterogeneous phenomena by virtue of the same semantic structure”, in Agamben, The Signature of All Things, ibid., p.18. We therefore return, in a paradoxical way, to the linguistic suggestions that had introduced us, early on, to the notion of performativity and pragmatics and which, as a reminder, asserted their meaning through some respective diversions of their strict semantic function. (go back to text)

[10]: Chalmers Alan A., What Is This Thing Called Science?, trans. by Giorgos Fourtounis, Crete University Press, Heraklion 1994, p.140 (quotes used from the Greek translation) (go back to text)

[11]: Ibid., p.142 (go back to text)

[12]: Ibid. (go back to text)

[13]: Ibid. (go back to text)

[14]: Ibid., p.143 (go back to text)

[15]: Ibid. (go back to text)

[16]: Ibid., p.158 (go back to text)

[17]: “The first meaning of 'paradigm'...”, writes Agamben, “...designates the common possessions of the members of a certain scientific community, namely the set of techniques, models, and values to which the group members more or less consciously adhere”, in Agamben, The Signature of All Things, ibid., p.11 (go back to text)

[18]: Ibid. (go back to text)

[19]: Ibid. (go back to text)

[20]: Chalmers, ibid., p.51. See also pp.52,187 (go back to text)

[21]: Ibid., p.156 (go back to text)

[22]: Chalmers even suggests, concerning the relationship between theory and observation, that during an experiment ––and in-between the enormous volume of both relevant and irrelevant information existing in the world surrounding the researcher–– there is a tendency only for those observations to be recorded that are considered relevant with the control or the clarification of an existent theory; he describes, in this way, the strong correlation between experiment and observation and theory itself. We could therefore imagine that an observation, even if it repeats itself consistently during an experiment, might nevertheless not be related to the theory that we want to test –– and to therefore be unable to act neither in the direction of the strengthening the consistency of a paradigm, nor towards its radical challenging. To remain, that is, altogether uncorrelated. See also Ibid., pp.50-51. Along the effect of theory, one should not ignore the influence exercised by the “general metaphysical principles that govern scientific work”, as part of the paradigm. And let us hereby remember, in order to return to language, the respective dependence of the pragmatic force of utterances upon their different cultural contexts, as this dependence was articulated in the 9th footnote of part I. (go back to text)

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