Images of State and Stásis

[Talk delivered at Historical Materialism 2015, on a panel with Jason E. Smith and Jessica Whyte on The Ends of Homo Sacer]


For fame had rumour’d that a fleet at sea, / Would cause our nation’s catastrophe. / And hereupon it was my mother dear / Did bring forth twins at once, both me and fear.
– Thomas Hobbes, Verse Autobiography


Agamben’s Stásis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm is the slim final volume of the Homo Sacer series, published, with some architectonic confusion (it is listed as II.2, originally the designation for The Kingdom and the Glory) after the compendious The Use of Bodies, which closes if not completes the series. Stásis is composed of two seminar presentations on a theme, civil war, that has coursed in and out of Agamben’s work, and in those of some of his intellectual and political comrades (namely Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee). Here it is dealt with first in a dialogue with the brilliant historian of stásis in Ancient Athens, Nicole Loraux, and then, in the essay from which my remarks today take their cue, in an attempt to excavate, from an analysis of the 1651 frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a philosophical iconology of civil war. 


Agamben’s work here is deeply indebted to the scholarly attention recently lavished on the frontispiece, and on the place of the visual in Hobbes’s theory of politics, by several scholars, most significantly perhaps the art historian Horst Bredekamp, whose work on the ‘Urbild’ of the modern state, Thomas Hobbes Visuelle Strategien (1999), remains the guiding reference. Following Bredekamp, the frontispiece has been the object of investigation by the historian Carlo Ginzburg, in his striking 2008 essay ‘Fear Reverence Terror: Rereading Hobbes Today’, and, in the same year in Quentin Skinner’s Hobbes and Republican Liberty. Where Agamben evokes a yet inexistent science called philosophical iconology, Bredekamp and Ginzburg speak with regard to the frontispiece of political iconography. In what follows, I want to explore some of the iconographic findings and political theses emerging out of this wide-ranging focus on the frontispiece, paying particular attention to the question raised by the Gramsci quotation in our conference title – how do we think the time and subjectivity of a political interregnum, as a time of unsettled divisions under the shadow of the state?

The frontispiece operates as an emblematic threshold and over-determined allegory of Hobbes’s theory of the state. Hobbes participated directly (as he had in the frontispieces of his translation of Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War and De Cive) in its design (likely by the engraver Abraham Bosse), which is redolent with enigmas, some of which we’ll touch on, for instance: What is the meaning of the arrangement of gazes between sovereign and subjects? On what is this Mortall God standing? The question Agamben homes in on is a different one: why is the fortified city over which this ‘android’ looms – a rex populus in which the rex is the head, and the cives the corporeempty? For Agamben, as he remarks in the brief prefatory note to Stásis, the ‘constitutive element’ of the modern state is ademia, the absence of a people. At the same time, civil war – precisely because it is rarely thought in political philosophy, which lacks a real stasiology – is the ‘fundamental threshold of politicisation of the West’. The frontispiece will bring these two theses together.

The fields and city we encounter in the frontispiece are of course not properly speaking empty. Yes, the multitude have been symbolically composed, neutralised and pacified into a people, ‘deported’ we could say, over the horizon. But there are figures in the landscape. In the main, these are soldiers, patrolling both within and without the city.


In a recent paper, ‘Hobbes’s Hidden Monster’, Magnus Kristiansson and Johan Tralau have argued that far from being a picture of pacification, the frontispiece subtly indicates a state of war – more specifically, as firing from forts and roadblocks indicate, preparations for an invasion from abroad. 


A reflection on Hobbes’s place within the horizon of possessive individualism may also want to reflect on the fact that there is no labour taking place in the frontispiece, contrasting greatly with the far less dialectical but more didactic frontispiece of the 1642 De Cive, which, following the emblematic literature of Hobbes’s day, produces a stark juxtaposition between an Imperium looking over commodious, ordered and improving labour, on the one hand, and, on the other, an image of Libertas, entirely grounded on the equation between the original state of nature and the contemporary figure of the North American ‘savage’, which stands over a scene in which stásis devolves into manhunting. The forgetting of labour in Agamben’s diagnosis of ademia, which resonates with his subtraction of class from his investigation of stásis, certainly calls for further investigation.


Following a detail stressed by Francisca Falk and also commented upon, following her work, by Ginzburg, Agamben turns our attention to two figures, 3mm high in the original image, standing beside the church.


These are plague doctors, wearying their characteristic birdlike beaked masks.


Both Agamben and Ginzburg point us towards the affinity between civil war (stásis) and epidemic which Hobbes had encountered and emphasised in his 1629 translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War (whose frontispiece also includes a telling image of democracy as dissension; Hobbes himself was proud of having drawn the map himself).


In The Second Book, Chapter 53, Hobbes translates Thucydides’s account of the Athenian plague as follows:

And the great licentiousness … began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble and not acknowledge to be done from voluptuousness, he durst now do freely, seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. … Neither the fear of the gods nor laws of men awed any man.


This arresting image of the world upside down, stripped of law, is echoed in the famous passages in the Third Book, Chapter 82, on the stásis in Corcyra. 

The cities therefore being now in sedition and those that fell into it later having heard what had been done in the former, they far exceeded the same in newness of conceit, both for the art of assailing and for the strangeness of their revenges. The received value of names imposed for signification of things was changed into arbitrary. … A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valour.

Agamben and Ginzburg alike note the manner in which Thucydides-Hobbes’s description of the plague joins anomia (translated by Hobbes as ‘licentiousness’) to metabole (here rendered as ‘revolution’). Agamben sees the Leviathan’s punitive allegory of the body politic as sovereign android as the point of precarious equilibrium in a cyclical movement where a disunited multitude generated by civil war (or originarily, by the state of nature) is composed into a rex populus which in turn having, so to speak, evacuated the people into the sovereign, makes of the multitude under a condition of sovereignty only a multitudo dissoluta, ready to tip (back) into civil war. 


The dissolved multitude thus appears as an amorphous mass of the plague-stricken. In Agamben’s own words, it is as if, ‘the life of the multitude in the profane kingdom is necessarily exposed to the plague of dissolution’ (58). Conversely: ‘The people is … the absolutely present which, as such, can never be present and therefore can only be represented‘ (59). The presence of the plague makes the bio-political character of the frontispiece patent, as a symbolic realisation of the central motto of the Hobbesian state (in De Cive Ch. 13 and Leviathan Ch. 30), recalled by Agamben: salus populi suprema lex (‘the health of the people is the supreme law’). But, as readers of the volume of Homo Sacer that Stásis displaced from its position as II.2, The Kingdom and the Glory, would know, such a biopolitics is not separable from the state’s spectacle of glory.

Agamben, curiously, does not really address the manner in which the frontispiece performs the Hobbesian necessity of a ‘visible Power to keep [subjects] in awe’. This is instead, at the core of Ginzburg’s inquiry, which traces with characteristic nuance, insight and erudition the manner in which the choice of awe to translate the Greek verb apeirgein (to hold back), as the crucial antidote to the dissolution of the political body, can be traced back to the discussion of religion in a metaphorical travelogue by one of Hobbes’s partners in the colonial Virginia Company, Samuel Purchas, who was criticising the view of religion as a continued custome, or a wiser Policie, to hold men in awe whereas Hobbes drew the origins of religion precisely from anxiety and perpetuall feare.

And they that make little, or no enquiry into the naturall causes of things, yet from the feare that proceeds from the ignorance it selfe, of what it is that hath the power to do them much good or harm, are inclined to suppose, and feign unto themselves several kinds of Powers Invisible; and to stand in awe of their own imaginations. (Ch. XI)


Agamben, following Bredekamp, treats the Hobbesian state-fetish as a fundamentally optical dispositif. As Bredekamp notes:

one invaluable source for Leviathan is the epic by his poet friend Sir William Davenant, Gondibert’, which Hobbes compared to the optical technique of the perspective glass. To the extent that the poem developed the topoi of civil war and loyalty to a sovereign as fundamental alternatives, it had a similar effect to looking through the perspective glass, according to Hobbes (42).

In Bredekamp’s gloss: ‘By optically sacrificing themselves, they form their sovereign.’ Following Ginzburg’s suggestions, we may want to consider the ways in which the Real Unity of the Leviathan-sovereign as person is undermined, in a kind of immanent ideology-critique, by this wonderful expression: ‘to stand in awe of their own imaginations’, a phrase that unsettles the key doctrine of authorisation in the Leviathan. As Skinner has it, to the extent that subjects ‘have already bound themselves “every man to every man, to Own, and be reputed Author of all, that he that already is their Soveraigne, shall do, and judge fit to be done”. If they cast him off, they will simply fall into the contradiction of authorising and repudiating his actions at one and the same time’ (164-5). Note also how the verb ‘to feign’ carries across from the materialist critique of religious awe to the political prescription of the necessary representation of the populus in the person of the rex. As Hobbes has it in Ch. XVI of Book I of Leviathan

A person, is he whose words or actions, are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of an other man, or of any other thing to whom they are attributed, whether truly or by Fiction. When they are considered as his owne, then is he a Naturall Person: And when they are considered as representing the words and actions of an other, then is he a Feigned or Artificiall person.


We may suggest then that what joins the biopolitical ademia of the Leviathan with the sacred political terror that it is engineered to generate is the very operation of ideology, in which subjects do not just authorise the sovereign but, so to speak, stand in awe of their own authorisation. (It is difficult in this respect not to treat the détournement of the frontispiece in a later history of ancient Britain, Aylett Sammes’s 1672 Britannia Antiqua Illustrata to represent the ritual of collective immolation in the ‘wicker man’, as a kind of acerbic commentary on the immanent dissolution of the Leviathan, something perhaps even more ironically attested in the eponymous 1973 film, where it is a representative of church and state, a deeply religious cop, who finds his demise inside this pagan artificial person.) Contrary to the continuity within a ‘political paradigm of the West’ that Agamben stresses, a consideration of political iconography can bring out the caesura represented by the frontispiece. Skinner, in his Hobbes and Republican Liberty, suggestively contrasts the frontispiece to the Eikon Basilike, the immensely successful apologia for Charles I, allegedly written by the king himself and published on the day of his decapitation, with Hobbes‘s frontispiece. By way contrast, we can simply focus on the image of the people in the two frontispieces. In the Eikon Basilikon it is the ‘natural person’ of the king which is the object of reverence and respect. As Skinner notes ‘There is no suggestion that the people might have played any role in the instituting of his authority’.


On the contrary, in the explanation of the emblem, we see the people allegorically represented as the waves in the upper left corner crashing against the immobile rock of the sovereign (‘furorem / Irati Populi Rupes immota repello). Far from being a distant raging, the people make up the scales in the Leviathan’s armour. As the doctrine of authorisation suggests the sovereign is, in a sense, nothing but them. That is why we can follow Skinner’s suggestion that the Leviathan is a kind of reactive image, one that takes very seriously the novelty introduced by its republican and revolutionary nemesis: its ‘representation of sovereign power [is] one that visibly embraces rather than defies the revolutionary changes that had taken place’ (185). Ellen and Neal wood, in A Trumpet of Sedition, refer to this process as one of redefinition and neutralisation of the multitude.



This is even testified to by the almost identical arrangement of gazes between the frontispiece and the 1651 seal of the Commonwealth (this is reproduced in Skinner, but not commented upon), though unlike the arrangement of the gazes in the hand-drawn frontispiece for the volume for Charles II, where the awed faces look directly at the king, or for the 1652 French edition of De Corpore Politico where there is actually communication and dissension, as well as social difference, among the component parts.



While civil war may be a threshold of politicisation, Agamben’s improbable extension of the Western paradigm of politics tellingly ignores the very revolutionary thought and movement that coursed through the English civil war, interestingly repeating the seeming equation between ancient and modern civil war that Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides intimates. The frontispiece, as machine, monster, android, artifice, which is to say representative, allows Agamben to engineer his own logical time of politics, breaking out of which can only take a messianic form.

In this regard we may instead draw greater inspiration from Bredekamp’s suggestion that, among other sources, we should see in the frontispiece the effect of the tradition of the state effigy, ‘created to fill the period of an interregnum with a quasi-active representation of the state’ (36). As he concludes: ‘The idea of confronting civil war with a colossal living statue to represent peace as an “artificial eternity” is one of the most radical consequences of Hobbes’s attempt to raise the conflict between the passions of the natural state and the artificiality of reason to the level of a political iconography of time’ (38). Behind this lay the idea of the time of war, of wartime. Hobbes’s state effigy – the state as effigy – was there not to vault a passing interim, but to confront a durable state, memorably described by Hobbes in Ch. XIII of Leviathan: ‘For WARRE, consisteth not in battle onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as is in the nature of Weather‘. Perhaps Agamben’s iconologia philosophica, sundering time into the permanent present of representation and the messianic, can not think this time, a time which is not that of the concept but a time of civil war, whose icon might be, as Bredekamp suggests, a melancholy Goyian colossus rather than a Hobbesian one. 



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Images of State and Stásis

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Alberto Toscano shares the text and images from his Historical Materialism talk earlier this month.

  2. Pingback: Multitude | The Nomos of Images

  3. Pingback: Sotto assedio - Prismo

  4. Pingback: Pestnase – CENEX•

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s