the state of exception appears as a threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism.

Agamben, State of Exception, p. 3.

Christine Sleeter's 1989 analysis of learning disability which examined the sociopolitical context of a new category of disablement opened to the field of education a novel orientation that shifted the discourse on what was historically called backwardness out of a quasi-biomedical frame of reference and into the realm of social constructionist theory. Sleeter's insights helped to lever open consideration of deficit as non-deficit, of the learning disability (LD) label as initially a sign of relative middle class privilege, and thus focused attention on the production of categories and classificatory regimes via cultural clash rather than biological waywardness or degeneration theses. Crucial in this opening was the broader understanding of the nature of democracies that becomes exposed when exclusions operate from within, when status anxiety drives new strategies for maintaining a gap, when liberty and discipline are understood as twin and interdependent vectors of modernity, with mass compulsory schooling as one instance of the social projects of modernity/nationalism in functionally differentiated disciplinary societies.

My aim is to rethink the relationship between learning disability, ambiguity/liminality (and the figurations-expressions that incites) and conceptions of justice as both advanced and delimited within democratic political systems at the turn of the twenty-first century. In particular, I reframe the thought-experiment that follows as that which takes seriously the aporia to which Sleeter's analysis inevitably points and which sit in homologous relation to Giorgio Agamben's analysis of the state of exception, especially in regard to that ill-defined yet highly versatile nexus between law (and not just juridical law, but psychological law, medical law, etc) and life.

Agamben posits that at Constitutional and federal levels this relation is being rewritten from within democratic societies as they tilt toward the totalitarian, and that instrumental to this process is a zone of anomie whose usefulness is precisely its ambiguity in regard to law and authority: "if exception makes rule possible, what then happens when exception and rule become undecidable?" (2005, p. 58) States of exception, resembling martial law or suspension of a Constitution in cases of revolution, outside attack or internal sedition are, according to Agamben, being increasingly deployed to shift the balance of power away from the populace and into quasi-dictatorial hands:

The subsequent history of the state of siege is the history of its gradual emancipation from the wartime situation to which it was originally bound in order to be used as an extraordinary police measure to cope with internal sedition and disorder, thus changing from a real, or military state of siege to a fictitious, or political one. In any case, it is important not to forget that the modern state of exception is a creation of the democratic revolutionary tradition and not the absolutist one. Although the paradigm is, on the one hand (in the state of siege) the extension of the military authority's wartime powers into the civil sphere, and on the other a suspension of the constitution..., in time the two models end up merging into a single juridical phenomenon that we call the state of exception. (p. 5)

The difficulty of definition arises because of the liminal position such states have been bequeathed. The question of borders and the totality that they are meant to sequence participates in the simultaneous abandoning and binding of the living being to law:

it is difficult even to arrive at a definition of the term [state of exception] given its position at the limit between politics and law. The question of borders becomes all the more urgent: if exceptional measures are the result of a period of political crisis and, as such, must be understood on political and not juridico-constitutional grounds, then they find themselves in the paradoxical position of being juridical measures that cannot be understood in legal terms, and the state of exception appears as the legal form of what cannot have legal form. On the other hand, if the law employs the exception — that is the suspension of law itself — as its original means of referring to and encompassing life, then a theory of the state of exception is the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds and, at the same time, abandons the living being to law. (p. 8)

The risk for Agamben is both the privilege given to law to define life and the murkiness of what is legal in a state of exception, especially in regard to killing. But rather than seeing this just as about party politics, Constitutional theory, and internal debates in political philosophy, Agamben points to a more ubiquitous and also hidden possibility, verging on a logocentrism in which the strategies used to maintain "democracy" via appeal to a state of exception are similar if not the same as the strategies that attempt to undermine democracies and transform them into a different social arrangement: "All such theories [of the state of exception] remain prisoner in the vicious circle in which the emergency measures they seek to justify in the name of defending the democratic constitution are the same ones that lead to its ruin" (p. 8).

One of the potential dangers that further ensues is the reduction of being to logos and the assumed right of law to define the very constitution of life: "This struggle for anomie seems to be decisive for Western politics as 'the battle of giants concerning being' that defines Western metaphysics. Here, pure violence as the extreme political object, as the 'thing' of politics, is the counterpart to pure being, to pure existence as the ultimate metaphysical stakes; the strategy of the exception, which must ensure the relation between anomic violence and law, is the counterpart to the onto-theo-logical strategy aimed at capturing pure being in the meshes of the logos" (p. 59).

For Agamben, then, the point of laying out how important the state of exception has been to Western democracies is in part an effort to "ceaselessly try to interrupt the working of the machine that is leading the West toward global civil war" (p. 79). At the very least his analysis points to the ways in which there has been across the late nineteenth and twentieth century a relative contraction of the sites in which "democracy" can be practiced or recognized.

I suggest indirectly at least two implications that Sleeter's important opening of a new discursive space and insightful understanding of institutions invites, and that Agamben's analysis has helped me elaborate, especially in regard to contemporary circumstances in systemic and institutional settings. First, the overuse or continuous redeployment of the state of exception to accrue unusual powers in governmental authorities and subsequently not return them to the rest of the population is due in part to a recuperation of modernist efforts to fix perspective from a single locus of authority and to a fear of and exploitation of ambiguity to assert absolutist or totalitarian responses to the "clash of civilizations." In the wake, production (e.g. markets, economies, Gross Domestic Product) and reproduction (e.g., of a population, canon, values, lifestyles) become central intellectual and institutional tropes. Sleeter's analysis, as noted above, not only underscores how the invention of a learning disability category in the USA results from cultural clash and in this case desire to reproduce socio-economic status privilege, but honors the real struggles that children have in classrooms and that should not be dismissed as merely ephemeral or illusory. Both insights are simultaneously possible, held side by side, and both suggest the ways in which learning disability might operate akin to Agamben's theorization of the state of exception in democratic traditions — that which appears relative to other states or conditions as ill-defined, and thus "useful" for other purposes that may seem to have little to do with concern for the entire populace or the individual diagnosed child. As Tait (2009) notes, in societies where empiricism operates as a regime of truth, learning disability thus far is not able to be confirmed by blood test, MRI scans, or other related "physiological" markers. In the absence of such (and I would add even with such), deeper consideration of how assemblages of governmental practices produce notions of difference that affect real lives remains a necessary and responsible act.

Second, I offer a different but related intervention that joins in spirit with Sleeter and Agamben's ethical concerns from a variety of other vantage points, ones that not only ceaselessly try to interrupt the workings of a machine that is leading the so-called West to global civil war at the level of Constitutions and rule of juridical law, but ones that recognize at another level, the complicated costs of attempting to capture pure being in the meshes of the logos. Such costs are not always directly communicable within the rationalist structure of language or administrative logics up against which they almost inevitably push in contemporary circumstance. In the gap that Sleeter's pathbreaking analysis opened, my narrative could thus take shape, maintaining an optimism amid (and due to) the mystery and wonder that make the discipline of education special rather than unscientific or problematic, an optimism that still attempts to honor the irreducibility of life, of expression, of passion-even if from within the workings of the educational machine.

Works Cited

  • Agamben, G. (2005). State of exception. Trans Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Sleeter, C. (1987). Why is there learning disabilities? A critical analysis of the birth of the field in its social context. In T. S. Popkewitz (Ed.), The formation of school
  • Tait, G. (2009). Philosophy, behaviour disorders and the school. Rotterdam: Sense.


  1. This submission is a new and independent preface to an original article written on Learning Disability by the author:

    Baker, B. (2007). The apophasis of limits: Genius, madness, and learning disability. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 11(1), 1-33.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Bernadette Baker

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