The camp as “nomos”

In many responses to Agamben’s provocative claim that the concentration camp is the nomos of modernity, I have not seen much attention to the text from which Agamben draws the curious term nomos — namely, Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth. In that text, Schmitt puts forth the concept of nomos as being fundamentally about the way the earth is divided or portioned out, so that the meaning of nomos as “law” is secondary to this more originary meaning. Just as with all of Schmitt’s other major concepts (the exception, the enemy), the most fundamental division is between the inside (the politically ordered zones, in this case) and the outside (the “free zone” — the sea, in the eras he studies most closely).

As Agamben observes of the sovereign exception, however, this “outside” is actually simultaneously “inside” of the political, and indeed represents its most decisive motive force — in what Schmitt regards as the “classical” era of European politics, what was really decisive in the struggle among European nations was not military confrontations on land, but hegemony over the sea. Similarly, he predicts (accurately, it seems) that the US will gain hegemony over world politics through its hegemony over the newly emerging free zone, the air.

Agamben’s countermove within Schmitt’s scheme is to claim that the concentration camp is the more decisive “free zone,” the true incursion of the outside into the “normal” political order. Admittedly, “the camp as nomos” is a compressed way of expressing this, but it’s fundamentally justified in that the defining feature of any nomos of the earth, of any divisioning or portioning out of regions, is for Schmitt precisely the “free zone” that is inside-outside of the political order.

Thus Agamben is not saying that every state is “secretly” a concentration camp or anything of the sort, but that the free zone in which the earthly powers carry out their struggle is within the strange ontological topology of the camp — as opposed to the recognized political boundaries, for example. The experience of the War on Terror seems to bear this out, insofar as the US prefers to ignore recognized national boundaries but is very attentive to establishing camp-like spaces of extra-legal violence (most notably Guantanamo). We might also observe that the struggle between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations, after a brief episode of “traditional” military confrontations, has primarily taken the form of a struggle over the strange political no-man’s-land that is the Palestinian Occupied Territories (neither “officially” part of Israel, nor a “real” country, they are something like a huge refugee camp that has persisted for generations). More generally, under the contemporary global political dispensation, national boundaries are regarded as sacrosanct and unchangeable, so that military conflict tends to produce populations of refugees that constitute the real site of political struggle between and within nations.

Now I’m not going to say this account is indisputable. There are other candidates for the nomos of modernity — Schmitt’s example of the sky springs to mind still, as does the sweatshop — but Agamben’s diagnosis does seem fairly robust and defensible.

4 thoughts on “The camp as “nomos”

  1. How about the Internet?

    There are already many different wars being fought over/through/within the Internet, not just among nation-states, but also large global firms, various criminal organizations, ‘rogue’ states, black/white hat groups, &c. In this sense, the Internet is open sea available for any piracy or mercantilism. That none of these conflicts make major headlines seems part of the idea that nothing important in the concentration camp takes place that you need to know about. As the Internet of Things becomes more and more a necessity for upper middle class and above lifestyles, and thus part of the dream for the rest of us, control and retention of the huge amounts of information about (particular kinds of) human living the IoTs will reveal will become top priorities for any scaling of power’s movement.

    Economic warfare among states and firms is already a reality in the electronic trading markets, but maybe that’s an exaggeration. I’m just thinking that the breadth of tuning the algorithms is apparent in how rigged many of those transactions are. When robot traders are so much better at naming their price and sticking to it or jumping in line for how fast they choose, using them to shift markets in directions one’s competitors cannot seems the rational thing to do. Why wouldn’t you trust a robot over a human if it means greater efficiency, dependability, and speed? But then your competitors deploy their robots; the race was already underway, and the finish line nearer and nearer every update.

    Either way, how does one divide or portion out the Internet? Where is it? With rulings such as this one (, it’s going to be that it won’t matter where the data is physically, so long as it is held virtually by name and capacity to maintain denial of access. Kids with skills and access are able to get all kinds of information on each other, humiliating one another with what they expose. Governments and firms humiliate one another as well, while using the information to disrupt economic and industrial production.

    If a concentration camp physically reduces a human to non-rational life, the material of flesh, perhaps databases of our information and associations bought and sold reduce our humanity to rational life, the material of information needed for efficiently conducting money or debt through us. The advances happening in Internet connectivity are so fast, they outpace not just the laws of nation-states use or the market techniques of firms used to gain hegemony over it, but all of our questions about the right way to imagine this alternate world of rules and social behaviors. Is it a web? Is it a sea? Is it a cloud? Is it a network? Are we crawling it? Trawling it? Surfing it? Accessing it?

    The very instability of the metaphors we use to talk about how we interact and exist on the Internet leaves many hidden zones for power to arrange in ways not yet discerned as something we are capable of objecting to. With the pacing of these developments, it often occurs we find out too late about how dangerously these wars had been fought, too late to acknowledge the damage done to us, too impotent from that damage to say anything really substantial about it. When it becomes finally apparent the financial markets are all deeply rigged, when people start trying to remove themselves more and more from this aspect of connectivity, that’s probably when it’ll be clear that people, all of us being temporary and fungible people, are just that through which the Internet already flows in the service of war.

    We’re already mines of information. My precious ores removed and reassembled alongside so many others, and collectively we become “Computer Owners Under 40 Who Listen to NPR” or “Purchases Kashi Cereal Very Infrequently” or “Has a Library Card and Does Not Have a Bicycle”. Such categories delimit me based on predictions ( and also put me on various lists for various law enforcement agencies, restricting my travel in ways I do not even realize yet, if I ever will. But, certainly how I move around on the Internet is already restricted by what I can afford, how difficult I want to make balancing my privacy with my access.

  2. Already the new [i]phone has led to an eruption from the director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey. At a news conference on Thursday devoted largely to combating terror threats from the Islamic State, Mr. Comey said, “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.”

    Perhaps he meant “beyond the beyond of the law.”

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