Citizenship-to-Come: The Political Futures of Derrida and Agamben

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


Agamben's critique of deconstruction culminates in the charge that Derrida offers no solutions to the violence of state sovereignty. For Agamben, Derrida's reading of the aporia of law amounts to an infinite deferral of the resolution to the dilemma. Dismissing Derrida's suggestion that we reform our political and legal institutions by embedding an ethics of hospitality, Agamben calls for an overturning of the law that inaugurates nothing less than a new era of humanity. Agamben's critique is valuable to scholars of deconstruction because his work is not directly antithetical to Derrida's — there are moments of intersection — and yet their conclusions remain incompatible. In this paper, I consider the intersection of citizenship, and locate the ontological foundations of their dispute over the nature of the messianic and the future of politics.

Both thinkers adapt Arendt's theory of citizenship, particularly her view that human rights fail to protect people from state violence. This becomes a cornerstone of Agamben's concept of biopolitics: the incorporation of rights in law simply captures human life within the political, by destroying the traditional division of zoē and bios. Derrida disputes Agamben's interpretation of these categories of life, arguing that citizenship can be redeemed if it incorporates an ethical responsibility to the Other. This commitment to alterity has its roots in Derrida's notion of the affirmative foundation of language, which also explains his approach to the messianic: the irreducible undecidability of both the promise and 'the perhaps' forecloses eschatology. Agamben also roots politics in an ontology of language, but concludes that the only way to recover 'language-in-itself' from its abandonment in politics is a redemptive deactivation of this modality of being.

The aim of my paper is to show that a close reading of citizenship provides a route through some of the more elusive moments in Derrida and Agamben. I also argue that this debate can inform political action; in the process of drawing their different conclusions about the future, the two thinkers reveal the nature and location of a constitutive violence that we may wish to challenge.
Period23 May 201826 May 2018
Event titleDerrida Today
Event typeConference
LocationMontreal, Canada, QuebecShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Derrida
  • Agamben
  • Citizenship
  • Messianism