Political Theology and Historical Materialism: Reading Benjamin against Agamben

Lotte List*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Giorgio Agamben’s work on the power of sovereignty has been greatly influential in recent political thought. However, it has also overshadowed the independently original contributions of his two primary theoretical sources, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. In this article, I argue that Agamben’s political defeatism can be traced back to a double misconception in his reception of these two authors: first a formalistic reduction of Schmitt, and second a Schmittian reduction of Benjamin. Through this reduction to juridical formalism, the radicality of Benjamin’s historical materialist critique is replaced by a messianic nihilism, leading to the colonization of society by the logic of the concentration camp. Though Agamben’s theory of sovereignty and its implications for a positive political project have been contested, this origin of the decline of radical philosophy has not previously undergone a systematic critique.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTheory, Culture & Society
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)117-140
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Published online: September 7, 2020.


  • Agamben
  • Benjamin
  • Materialism
  • Messianism
  • Schmitt
  • Sovereignty

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