In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben writes of a soccer match between the SS and the Jewish Sonderkommando (pg. 26):
This match might strike someone as a brief pause of humanity in the middle of an infinite horror. I, like the witnesses, instead view this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp. For we can perhaps think that the massacres are over–even if here and there they are repeated, not so far away from us. But that match is never over; it continues as if uninterrupted. It is the perfect and eternal cipher of the “gray zone,” which knows no time and is in every place. Hence the anguish and shame of the survivors, “the anguish inscribed in everyone of the ‘tohu-bohu,’ of a deserted and empty universe crushed under the spirit of God but from which the spirit of man is absent: not yet born or already extinguished” (Levi 1989: 85). But also hence our shame, the shame of those who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match, which repeats itself in every match in our stadiums, in every television broadcast, in the normalcy of everyday life. If we do not succeed in understanding that match, in stopping it, there will never be hope.
My gut reaction is also to find the soccer match unbelievably offensive — how, in the midst of the camps, can it occur to the guards to say, “Hey, do you guys want to play soccer”? At the same time, it may initially seem to be an obscene exaggeration to say that we’re living in that soccer match today, as though he’s indulging in the most heavy-handed version of the moralizing gesture that would ask, “How can you be writing a blog post when people are starving in Africa?!”
Yet Agamben is not finally making a moral, but a legal claim: if we take seriously his view that the camp is the limit condition of the state of exception that has become a norm, and if we understand the entire postwar era as an endless state of exception, then all our petty entertainments are versions of that soccer match, fruitless attempts to establish something like normalcy within a sphere of potentially infinite violence. Surely the Cold War was one extended state of exception on both sides of the divide — the entire Soviet project was an exceptional measure meant to preserve the revolution at all costs, while the US government engaged its own secret police and even conducted secret medical experiments on its own citzens, and of course the entire world was held under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Agamben also makes it very explicit that the War on Terror is an extended state of exception.
Within this scheme, the one period that may seem difficult to account for is precisely when Agamben is writing, the 1990s, when the Cold War had ended and the War on Terror was still a glimmer in Dick Cheney’s eye. In retrospect, of course, we can see that the state of exception was never repealed during the “happy 90s” — the nuclear weapons were trained on their targets, and the national security apparatus was already reorienting itself toward terrorism even before the Cold War ended. The fact that Clinton ordered extra-legal bombing of Iraq while the Lewinsky scandal was unfolding in the press is perhaps emblematic here.
Taking a broader view, then, we can see in this passage Agamben’s response to the widespread sentiment that things were “finally returning to normal” in the 1990s — so that we could finally settle accounts with what happened in the Shoah (is it any coincidence that there was such an explosion of interest in the topic, which filtered down even to public school curricula, at precisely that historical moment?) and could move on to supposedly “apolitical” concerns such as environmentalism, human rights, etc.
From this perspective, Agamben is not simply talking about something like Bush asking people to go shopping after 9/11 — he is saying that the entirety of Western public discourse in the 1990s was that obscene soccer match. And in retrospect, it seems clear to me that he was right.