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The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life
 9780748634637

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben Law, Literature, Life Edited by Justin Clemens, Nicholas Heron and Alex Murray

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS

© in this edition, Edinburgh University Press, 2008, 2011 © in the individual contributions is retained by the authors Edinburgh University Press Ltd 22 George Square, Edinburgh First published in hardback by Edinburgh University Press in 2008 Typeset in 11/13pt Adobe Sabon by Servis Filmsetting Ltd, Stockport, Cheshire, and printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 0 7486 4365 3 (paperback) The right of the contributors to be identified as authors of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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Contents

Acknowledgements Notes on Contributors The Enigma of Giorgio Agamben Justin Clemens, Nicholas Heron and Alex Murray 1 2 3

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K Giorgio Agamben Integral Actuality: On Giorgio Agamben’s Idea of Prose Alexander García Düttmann The Role of the Shifter and the Problem of Reference in Giorgio Agamben Justin Clemens ‘Its Silent Working was a Delusion’ Jessica Whyte Politics and Poetics of Divine Violence: On a Figure in Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin Arne De Boever Idea of Poetry, Idea of Prose Nicholas Heron The Fading Memory of Homo non Sacer Anton Schütz Soulblind, or On Profanation Thanos Zartaloudis Face to Face with Agamben; or, the Other in Love Julian Wolfreys Beyond Spectacle and the Image: the Poetics of Guy Debord and Agamben Alex Murray Dismantling Theatricality: Aesthetics of Bare Life Barbara Formis

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Notes on Media and Biopolitics: ‘Notes on Gesture’ Deborah Levitt

Index

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Acknowledgements

As always with such collections, we, the editors, have acquired many debts. In addition to our contributors, we would like to thank Rachel Hughes and John Frow for their generosity, as well as the two anonymous readers of the proposal whose feedback allowed us to refine the scope of the collection at an early stage. We also need to acknowledge the support of the staff at EUP, in particular our excellent and understanding editor, Carol Macdonald. We would also like to thank SUNY for permission to republish Alexander García Düttman’s essay (reprinted by permission from Idea of Prose by Giorgio Agamben, the State University of New York Press © 1995, State University of New York. All rights reserved), here substantially expanded and revised, which was originally the introduction to Agamben’s Idea of Prose.

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Notes on Contributors

Giorgio Agamben teaches philosophy at the University of Verona. Among his many books translated into English are Language and Death (1991); Infancy and History (1993); Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998); Potentialities (1999); The Open: Man and Animal (2004) and Profanations (2007). Arne De Boever is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University in New York. His dissertation is a study of the contemporary novel and the state of exception and traces the relations between literature, life and politics after September 11. Justin Clemens has written extensively on philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature. His books include The Mundiad (black inc, 2004) and Avoiding the Subject (Amsterdam University Press), co-written with Dominic Pettman. He recently edited The Praxis of Alain Badiou (re.press, 2006) with Paul Ashton and A.J. Bartlett, and Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis (Duke University Press, 2006) with Russell Grigg. He is currently working on the relation between Galilean science and the Fall in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He teaches at the University of Melbourne. Alexander García Düttmann lives in London and teaches philosophy at Goldsmiths (University of London). Recent publications include Philosophy of Exaggeration (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004; London and New York: Continuum, 2007), That’s It. A Philosophical Commentary on Adorno’s ‘Minima Moralia’ (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004), Erase the Traces (Berlin and Zurich: Diaphanes, 2004) and Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood (Berlin: Kadmos, 2006; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008). In preparation is Derrida and I (2008).

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Barbara Formis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a member of the Centre of Philosophy of Art (CPA) at the Sorbonne University (Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne) where she has taught for five years. She is now the Director of an external Seminar at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and she teaches at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Cergy Pontoise and at the International School of Design of Toulon. Her areas of specialisation are: phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty), pragmatism (Dewey) and ordinary language (Wittgenstein). Her research focuses on the link between art and life through body practices and gestures like happenings, performance, post modern dance, Fluxus and walking art. She also works on the links between art and working life with an accent on the relation between politics and aesthetics. Her recent publications include: ‘Un SoiInachevé, pour une phénoménologie esthétique du corps en mouvement’ (Alter, Revue de Phénoménologie, October 2007, pp. 231–52); ‘Ça marche! Pratiques déambulatoires et performance ordinaire’ (Art Press, Special Issue on Performance, November 2007, pp. 38–46). Nicholas Heron is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication and Culture at the University of Melbourne. Deborah Levitt is Assistant Professor in Culture and Media Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School. She has published essays on Martin Heidegger’s theatricality, Antonin Artaud’s ontology of ‘live’ and Carl Dreyer’s gestural ethics, and is currently working on a book entitled, The Animatic Apparatus: Media, Biopolitics, Spectral Life. Alex Murray is lecturer in English at the University of Exeter. He works on twentieth-century literature and critical theory. He is the author of Recalling London (Continuum, 2007) and is preparing an introduction to Giorgio Agamben for the Routledge Critical Thinkers Series, as well as a study of late Victorian travel writing and Decadent poetics. Anton Schütz teaches legal theory at Birkbeck School of Law, London. He has studied the history of systems of thought in Paris and has trained as a lawyer in Vienna and Frankfurt. He publishes in the fields of historiographical methodology, discourse analysis, and legal and sociological theory. His current research addresses legal configurations in the Judeo-Christian divorce, and the Western-Christian origins of legal critique.

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Jessica Whyte is a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University. Her thesis is entitled ‘ “I am sure that you are more pessimistic than I am . . .”: Giorgio Agamben on the normalisation of the exception and the Coming Community’. She has published papers on the work of Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin, and on immigration control and Guantanamo Bay. Julian Wolfreys is Professor of Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University. His most recent book is Souvenirs d’amour: The Mnemotechnic of Alterity. He is currently compiling a concordance of the works of Jacques Derrida. Thanos Zartaloudis teaches and researches at the University of London, Birkbeck College. He is currently writing a book on the work of Giorgio Agamben to be published in 2008 by RoutledgeCavendish.

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The Enigma of Giorgio Agamben Justin Clemens, Nicholas Heron and Alex Murray

The more clearly mathematics demonstrate that the total elimination of the problem of representation – which is boasted by every proper didactic system – is the sign of genuine knowledge, the more conclusively does it reveal its renunciation of that area of truth towards which language is directed. The methodological element in philosophical projects is not simply part of their didactic mechanism. This means quite simply that they possess a certain esoteric quality which they are unable to discard, forbidden to deny, and which they vaunt at their own peril. Walter Benjamin What sense, in fact, would there be to an inspired philosophy, unless it were possible to find something like a Muse of philosophy, unless it were possible to find an expression which, like the song of that most ancient of muses the Thebans called the Sphinx, would shatter to pieces in the very moment it unveiled its truth. Giorgio Agamben

Every true philosopher introduces something new into the world, perhaps even a new world. This novelty is an essential phenomenon, not simply an accident or by-product of philosophy. As such, it cannot quite be evaluated, for no existing mode of thought is able to account fully for its emergence, its enunciation, its elaboration. Novelty is untimely, inasmuch as it irrupts into already established habits of thought, deranging or diverting customary modes of attention and expression, their rhythm and composition. Novelty is delocalising, insofar as it disrupts the standardised places of thought and resculpts their topologies. Taking such novelty seriously is tantamount to being stupefied or deranged: one cannot simply know how to respond, precisely because such a response would, by definition, fail to be up to the challenges of the novelty itself. Yet, because such novelty is a philosophical and not a religious experience, one cannot not respond either, and so, if one does so, it cannot be with mere assent or rejection. One must attempt to identify key propositions, sift

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their significance and freighting, discern allusions and affiliations, reorganise the field of rationality – all without any clear directions or directives for doing so. As Giorgio Agamben notes in the Idea of Prose of the etymology of the word studium: It goes back to a st- or sp- root indicating a crash, the shock of impact. Studying and stupefying are in this sense akin: those who study are in the situation of people who have received a shock and are stupefied by what has struck them, unable to grasp it and at the same time powerless to leave hold. The scholar, that is, is always ‘stupid’.1

Such stupidity is therefore never (only) a merely personal or psychological matter; it is rather the consequence of an overwhelming encounter, an event that proposes enigmas to thought. A new philosophy is always an event that proposes an enigma. An event and an enigma which demand, moreover, that we rethink what an event and an enigma might be – even if, stumbling stupidly about in their wake, we may never quite manage to grasp what is going on. Agamben’s work is of this order. Along with such philosophers as Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Zˇizˇek, Agamben has become one of the most influential thinkers working in the wake of the generation that included Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. From his first major publication, L’uomo senza contenuto (published in Italian in 1970), to his most recent work Il Regno e la Gloria (2007), he has been concerned with the proper ethical and political task of thought. His extensive body of work, which now totals fifteen booklength publications in English, covers fields as various as Biblical textual criticism, cinema studies, medieval literature, legal philosophy (ancient and modern), the philosophy of language, journalistic commentary on Italian and world politics, theories of friendship, art and aesthetics, ontology, poetics, holocaust literature, the history of philosophy, as well as speculative writing which gestures towards a creative practice. Despite its remarkable range, Agamben’s oeuvre is unified by a conviction of the necessity to undo the divisive powers of language, of the essential relationship of language to law and of the potentiality of literature and philosophy. On the basis of a confrontation with philosophies of language and theories of representation, Agamben develops a critical praxis that explores – and seeks to overturn – the hiatuses and aporias that govern our practices of life today. Yet the kernel of Agamben’s thought and the expansive terrain that he covers have been largely misunderstood and misrepresented

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in the extant critical literature. To date, the vast majority of responses to Agamben’s large body of work have focused on his 1995 study Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (translated into English in 1998). Such commentary has tended to focus quite strictly upon Homo Sacer and Agamben’s related statements on explicitly political matters, largely in isolation from his work on poetics. Even within analyses of Homo Sacer, the bulk of commentary has highlighted Agamben’s analysis of ‘the sovereign exception’ and his relation to the history of political philosophy (from Aristotle to Carl Schmitt), but without an adequate examination of the ways in which Agamben’s work on these issues is integrally articulated with allegedly ‘non-political’ factors, such as his interpretations of Pindar and Kafka. But to ignore these factors – which bear on the history of philosophy and philosophical concepts, the relation of poetry and prose, the impact of ‘the society of the spectacle,’ and so forth – is to separate precisely what Agamben’s work insists cannot be separated without repeating the very operations of sovereign power he takes as his task to undermine. It is for this reason that we have emphasised the trinity ‘Law, Literature, Life’ in the title of this collection; not, as it happens, merely as a manifesto, but as a reminder of what, according to Agamben, constitute the abiding sacred paradoxes that we need, above all, to profane. The present collection seeks to address this state of affairs, essaying to resuture the membra disjecta of Agamben’s work scattered by the critical response to date. For if allegedly faithful commentary can act as Seth, it can sometimes also act as Horus. Certainly, the contributors to this collection deal directly with key issues of politics and sovereignty, for example by examining the plausibility of Agamben’s often disturbing propositions about the status of contemporary political life, not to mention the philological, linguistic and philosophical foundations of works such as Homo Sacer. But they also illuminate the singular trajectory Agamben traces between poetics and politics, logic and linguistics, philology and philosophy, extending the range and direction of critical response into disciplines such as literary theory, linguistics, philology, cultural theory and, more broadly, to wider traditions of praxis. All of the contributors to this book therefore attend, in their own ways, to the peculiarly rigorous specificities of Agamben’s work, from his discussions of classical philosophical concepts such as ‘potentiality’ and ‘actuality’, to his singular ‘style’, itself an indispensable element of his programme.

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The subtlety, erudition and power of Agamben’s work is nowhere more evident than in the extraordinary essay that opens this collection. Titled simply ‘K’, it is an intervention into the interpretation of Kafka’s great novels The Trial and The Castle; implicitly, it constitutes a divided assault (the essay falls into two parts) on the divisiveness of the law. For Agamben, the nominal ‘K’ of The Trial does not refer to Kafka himself (as the standard accounts would have it), but to the ancient Roman legal creature that was the kalumniator, the propagator of false accusations, who, as punishment for his scandalous imputations, had the very same letter branded on his forehead. The K of The Trial is himself the bearer of a peculiar paradox, a man who has initiated the mysterious process that oppresses him by bearing false witness against himself. In other words, the guilt does not in this case concern a crime that has been covered up and might be brought to light by forensic evidence, but coincides entirely with his own (false) accusation. K’s self-slander is thus in no way a confession, but an attempt to render the law itself inoperative at its most elemental point. By contrast, the K of The Castle is to be linked to the kardo of the ancient Roman profession of land-surveyor, one of the fundamental lines to be drawn in the establishment of boundaries. Following this line leads Agamben to suggest that the enigmatic struggle of The Castle is not directed against sovereignty per se, but against those who propose themselves as its representatives, the functionaries and emissaries of power. Exemplifying one central claim of this volume – that Agamben’s ‘political’ work can only be misunderstood if its essential relation to ‘literature’ is missed – ‘K’, more importantly, undertakes the task of reimagining how to address the places and personages, their modes and manners, that dominate the political life of the present. That this address is necessarily oblique and difficult is a lesson that the commentaries in this volume try not to underestimate. In ‘Integral Actuality’, Alexander García Düttmann examines the relation between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ in Agamben’s book Idea of Prose. Showing that, for Agamben, thought must engage with ‘something that is neither poetry nor prose’, Düttman explores what we might call the ‘happy medium’ of pure communicability which obsesses Agamben, its drive towards an integral actuality that attempts to restore what has never taken place, beyond the indispensable hesitations of the melancholic temperament that refuses to give up on the constitutively lost object. To achieve a thoughtwithout-presuppositions, one that exposes the thing within language as the other of language, is Agamben’s goal; that is, he aims at

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recuperating the messianic powers of discontinuity in the willing assumption of an infinite task. For Justin Clemens, it is the implicit role that Agamben assigns to the linguistic shifter that proves a necessary way station on this endless pilgrimage. For Agamben, the fundamental problems of ontology cannot be separated from the problems posed by the shifter, which founds every transition between langue and parole and, as such, functions as the unconfessed negative foundation of Western metaphysics, the linguistic abyss on which all its positive constructions rest. In outlining Agamben’s doctrine of the shifter, Clemens brings out the decisive importance of the philosopher’s paratactical parables; that is, that the very ways in which Agamben broaches and pursues his theses are essential to his programme. Clemens deploys this concept in order to show how Agamben manages the nearimperceptible-but-absolute difference between nihilism and its overcoming, but how, in doing so, Agamben also cannot help but fall prey to certain romantic misconceptions of science. Jessica Whyte’s essay ‘ “Its silent working was a delusion” ’ opens with Kafka’s notorious short story ‘In the penal settlement’, establishing its emblematic function for Agamben: the blurring of linguistic and legal sentences, the fact that language itself is the precondition and paradigm of the institution of judicial punishment qua torture. Asking what it means for Agamben to claim that ‘language is a “penal machine” ’, Whyte moves into a discussion of Agamben’s explicitly political theses, through Carl Schmitt and Jean-Luc Nancy’s accounts of, respectively, the sovereign exception and abandonment, before returning to the project she identifies as the kernel of Agamben’s work: the unleashing of justice as the freedom from all presupposition. In ‘Politics and Poetics of Divine Violence’, Arne de Boever continues in a comparable vein, delving into the relation between violence and justice in Agamben’s work. He examines the essential role that Walter Benjamin’s classic essay ‘Critique of Violence’ plays for Agamben, especially the crucial injunction to find a third figure that will overcome the murderous dialectic between ‘law-positing’ and ‘law-preserving’ violence. Boever draws links between Benjamin’s obscure notion of ‘divine violence’ and his essay on ‘The Storyteller’, suggesting that the accounts of storytelling found in the latter text are themselves nothing less than Benjamin’s attempt to fill out what such divine violence might be. Agamben, picking up and criticising Benjamin’s attempts to evade the nightmare powers of myth, tries to

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take them further in his own re-readings of classical scenes, notably that of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Against Schmitt, then, Agamben tries to depose the logic of sovereignty by developing a radically democratic ‘idea of peace’. Nicholas Heron’s essay reconstructs the series of references, left largely unexamined by Agamben himself, that gather around the central notion of ‘the idea of prose’. Heron traces the origin of this movement in three major texts of Benjamin’s: ‘The concept of criticism in German Romanticism’, ‘The Storyteller’ and the preparatory notes to his final text ‘On the Concept of History’. In Heron’s presentation, the categories of poetry and prose (‘idea of poetry, idea of prose’), and the figurative expressions through which they are often configures in Benjamin’s work – that of the ‘seed’ and the ‘kernel’ – emerge as absolutely central to his thought. The essay therefore seeks to measure the acuteness of Agamben’s situating of these categories at the heart of Benjamin’s work. Anton Schütz, by contrast, explores what might be termed a ‘situational history-of-ideas’: that is, he asks whether the apparent divergences between the work of Agamben and Foucault are due, not so much to irreconcilable methodological and political differences, as to the specific differences of the political situations in which they found themselves. Noting that Foucault’s era was dominated by continuist fantasies of history whose emblem was ‘man’, whereas our own is governed by an incontrovertible conviction of denatured mediatised discontinuities, Schütz shows how Agamben’s response is to adapt a range of concepts from a range of very different thinkers, including Heidegger, Benjamin, Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. In doing so, Agamben is able to forge a philosophical passage through the reefs of the present that, while taking up many of Foucault’s propositions and techniques, manages to pursue a more complex trajectory than Foucault himself. ‘Soulblind, or On Profanation’ is Thanos Zartaloudis’ essay on how to re-think happiness, eudaimonia, chez Agamben. Identifying the secret of our metaphysical situation as onamastic, as entirely consumed in the secret of a name, Zartaloudis moves through a sequence of short meditations on Gilbert Simondon’s theses on individuation, the contemporary syncope of meaning for Jean-Luc Nancy, Nietzsche on Anaximander and Heraclitus, and the authoritarian clamp-down of teurgia, among others. As Zartaloudis argues, it is not a question of returning to an origin, to a past which we have somehow deleteriously lost, nor of simply embracing the ironic abandonment of the

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present, but of finding a way to elude both the ‘Ego’ and the ‘daimon’ in order to live a ‘human life, without mystery’. In a deconstructive encomium to love – a term at once ubiquitous yet only rarely thematised in Agamben’s work – Julian Wolfreys insists on its separation from desire and eroticism. Tracing the trace of love in its impossible giving place to the place of the other, Wolfreys meditates on its non-philosophical alterity, its status as the precondition of knowledge, its spectral reappearance throughout the text of philosophy. Irreducible to representation, at once temporalising and spacing, love comes, in Plato’s phrase, as ‘the sudden’. Wolfreys isolates a problematic missed encounter between Agamben and Heidegger whose consequences, when rigorously followed through, imply the immemorial, transgressive experience of the ‘souvenir’ of love. From the anti-philosophical elucubrations of the amorous encounter, Alex Murray returns to the crucial relationship Agamben forges with the work of Guy Debord and the concept of ‘the society of the spectacle’. As Agamben himself underlines, what is crucial about the work of Debord is its urgency, its attempt to assent to the pressing exigencies of the times. Murray isolates three key moments in which a relationship between the two thinkers can be productively pursued: in their critique of the spectacle, in their accounts of the power of the image and, above all, in the problematic of a poetics of life. Murray shows how it is in their shared turn to the ‘interstices’ of the commodity, to the moments of messianic potentiality in the most apparently degraded forms of spectacular culture (e.g. pornography and advertising), and their mutual ‘unworkings’ of labour in ‘strategy’ (Debord) or an ‘ethics’ (Agamben), that both affirm new possibilities for redemptive action in the present. Barbara Formis takes up the challenge of thinking through what a local, committed ethical practice might look like today by way of a close reading of the controversial dance piece Parades and Changes by the North American choreographer Anna Halprin. Why did Parades and Changes – in which men and women simply walk across a bare stage, line up, then undress and get dressed again before resuming their walk – cause such a scandal, to the extent that it was banned in the US for twenty years? Formis’ answer is that Halprin’s piece makes, in Agamben’s terms, a ‘gesture’; that is, it involves the liberation of a power whereby the separation between art and life is suspended, becoming thereby ‘pure praxis’, the unprecedented establishment of a way of living that has not (yet) been captured in the mortifying carapace of the contemporary spectacle.

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Deborah Levitt’s ‘Notes on Media and Biopolitics’ returns to Agamben’s engagement with the cinematic dispositif, to the problem of ‘the status of the image in general within modernity’. Taking off from Agamben’s account of cinema as the attempt by the modern Western bourgeoisie to recapture its gestures at the moment of their dissolution and loss, Levitt links this thesis to Agamben’s narrative of the emergence of the camp as the paradigmatic space of modern biopolitics. Showing how the studies of Etienne-Jules Marey and Gilles de la Tourette are homogeneous with the capture of everyday life by the most extreme developments of biopower, Levitt proposes that Agamben’s idea of ‘gesture’ is therefore directed against the destruction of experience exemplified by the modern regime of ‘images’. She concludes with a ‘dialectical image’ of her own, proposing a new kind of pragmatic ‘media ethology’, which would shuttle between singular description and political manifestation without collapsing the one into the other. If each of these articles takes a different tack on the work of Agamben, if each examines different terms, allusions and references, assembles and treats them differently, they are perhaps united by their conviction that Agamben’s work proposes genuine enigmas for any thinking of the present. ‘Enigma’, moreover (not to mention such near-synonyms as ‘mystery’ and ‘secret’) is a word that recurs, perhaps quite unexpectedly, in many of the articles in this collection. For this reason, we have titled this introduction ‘The Enigma of Giorgio Agamben’. Not so much for the degraded journalistic implication of something supposedly unknown or tantalising about the philosopher’s own persona, or because of some mysterious philosophical knowledge with which he might enjoy a special relationship, but, first, because of the aforementioned enigma his work manifestly constitutes – that is, it needs to be carefully read and re-read, its logic reconstructed and its consequences explored – and, second, because the term ‘enigma’ is itself a key term in his writings. We have already said something about the first of these, the effect of a shock of the new; let us conclude by saying something about the second, the reconstruction of a concept. In his seminar of 17 December 1969, Jacques Lacan remarks that: If I insisted at length on the difference in level between the utterance [énonciation] and the statement [énoncé], it was so that the function of the enigma would make sense. An enigma is most likely that, an utterance. I charge you with the task of making it into a statement.

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Sort that out as best you can – as Oedipus did – and you will bear the consequences. That is what is at issue in an enigma.2

Lacan’s distinction, which exacerbates the division within every speech-act between what is said and that it is said, is aimed at exposing humanity’s irrevocable subjection to something enigmatic in communication, that is, to the indestructible barrier that founds the possibility of speech. The Sphinx, in this conception, is itself the halfbody that bespeaks the half-said [mi-dire] of the enigma, which cannot ever be fully spoken. The enigma is therefore not a riddle to be decoded; indeed, Oedipus’ folly is that he treats the enigma as if it were a riddle, an utterance as if it were a statement. But there is nothing behind the enigma, which simply founds the statement as it disappears, constituting an ever-elusive and vanishing truth. In a chapter of Stanzas entitled ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’ Agamben turns his attention to this very term. What the Sphinx proposed was not simply something whose signified is hidden and veiled under an ‘enigmatic’ signifier, but a mode of speech in which the original fracture of presence was alluded to in the paradox of a word that approaches its object while keeping it indefinitely at a distance. The ainos (story, fable) of the ainigma is not only obscurity, but a more original mode of speaking. Like the labyrinth, like the Gorgon, and like the Sphinx that utters it, the enigma belongs to the sphere of the apotropaic, that is, to a protective power that repels the uncanny by attracting it and assuming it within itself. The dancing path of the labyrinth, which leads into the heart of that which is held at a distance, is the model of this relation with the uncanny that is expressed in the enigma.3

Agamben’s enigma is thus no mystery, either, in the sense of an esoteric secret that could be decoded, transmitted or guarded by an elite.4 Rather, the enigma is nothing other than the emergence of the pure being of language itself, its negative foundation without content. The enigma can therefore be read as one of the names that Agamben deploys to think the key problems of our era, one which bears a family resemblance to what Derrida denominates as the ‘undecidable’, Deleuze the problem of ‘sense’, Negri the ‘power of the multitude’ or Zˇizˇek the ‘identification with the sinthome’. In exposing the nothingness of the enigma, however, its pure nihilistic subsistence as the foundation of every possible utterance, such an exposure may itself attain to the stupefying powers of the gesture. For example, one thinks of Bartleby’s ‘formula’ ‘I would prefer not to’, which is not simply an undecidable, is neither paradoxical nor nonsensical, but a

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perfectly well-formed utterance that in no way expresses any romantic irruption of the multiple. On the contrary, it is a quiet phrase, which nonetheless utterly stalls the routines of the situation in which it arises leading to its total transformation. Or one might think of Agamben’s discussion of the dying infant Hurbinek in Remnants of Auschwitz, who utters the ‘obstinately secret’, that is enigmatic word, mass-klo or matisklo, which no one can understand and which each nonetheless somehow recognises as language, a language without meaning, the threshold-expression of a communicability without content. Scrambling the general and the particular, the great and the small, the situation and the event, Agamben proposes an extraordinary series of apparently disjoint examples of the enigma for our stupefaction. The etymology of the word ‘sphinx’ is unknown: it derives neither from a Greek nor Indo-European root. One theory is that it is a Greek mispronunciation of the Egyptian shesep ankh, which means ‘living image’. Other proposals (such as Robert Graves’) have suggested that ‘sphinx’ means ‘the throttler’ or ‘the strangler’, from the Greek word spiggo. There are at least two aspects of this mysterious word that are of interest in the present context. First, it links the fable of the sphinx to Agamben’s abiding interest in the classical myths of statues that suddenly come to life, the wolf-men of medieval Europe, the emergence of ‘parahuman or semidivine creatures’ in poetical atheology, the animal-headed survivors to be found in an illustration to a rare Jewish manuscript – all the bifurcated and diphasal creatures that populate the margins of the literary. Second, it links the sphinx to the problematic of the gesture, which ‘has precisely nothing to say because what it shows it the being-in-language of human beings as pure mediality’; that is it is a ‘gag’.5 Language is thereby forced to choke on itself, powerlessly constrained towards being a ‘means without end’. The bar and the gag are therefore the twinned insignia of the irreducible tension within the enigma, woven into the paradoxical tress of sovereignty and its annulment. The contributors to this collection, each in their own way, attempt to analyse the range and inventiveness of Agamben’s thought of the enigma, its powers and its limits. If the messianic lurks within every instance of ‘law, literature, life’, it is not, however, able to be activated without a savage work of creation – and of decreation – on the part of its putative bearers. We should perhaps conclude by noting just how many of Agamben’s heroes, whether ‘actual’ people or literary figures, metamorphose, disappear, go mad,

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commit suicide, flee into anonymity and utter weakness, fail miserably, are silenced, incarcerated, or otherwise destroyed. To seize such mystical dissolutions as if they constituted certain potentials for a political programme undoubtedly binds Agamben to such antecedents as Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin, and clearly represents one possible response to the collapse of effective mass revolutionary politics in our time. In The Coming Community, Agamben announces that: The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.6

So political action is reduced by Agamben to the struggle of an unidentifiable humanity against the violent routines of the state, at the very moment that the state form may itself seem to be still growing in force and rapacity. If, as Michel de Certeau has noted, mysticism tends to do very well in totalitarian times – indeed, mystical ascetic techniques are often pragmatically indistinguishable from practices of state torture – it is unclear whether Agamben’s proposals may be more a symptom than they are a solution.7 But if Agamben’s political mysticism is perhaps not the only or the best route to take through the situation, the challenge is not to reject but to respond affirmatively to his stunning interventions. The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life seeks to be a contribution to this end. Notes 1. Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Prose, trans. M. Sullivan and S. Whitsitt (Albany, NY: SUNY, n.d.), p. 64. 2. Jacques Lacan, Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, trans. R. Grigg (New York: Norton, 2007), pp. 36–7. 3. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. R. L. Martinez (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 138. 4. Agamben often uses the noun ‘enigma,’ as well as its adjectival form and near-synonyms (mystery, secret) in a variety of contexts, e.g. in discussing the term haplos by which Greek philosophy defines being and which also corresponds to the ‘bare’ of bare life: ‘precisely these two empty and indeterminate concepts seem to safeguard the keys to the historico-political destiny of the West. And it may be that only if we are able to decipher the political meaning of pure Being will we be able to master the bare life that expresses our subjection to political power, just as it may

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be, inversely, that only if we understand the theoretical implications of bare life will we be able to solve the enigma of ontology,’ Homo Sacer: Sovereign, p. 182; discussing Titian’s Nymph and Shepherd now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna: ‘Faced with this enigmatic paysage moralisé immersed in an atmosphere of both exhausted sensuality and subdued melancholy, scholars have been left perplexed, and no explanation has seemed complete,’ The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 85; and of Titian’s The Three Ages of Man in the National Gallery of Scotland, he says: ‘Sensual pleasure and love . . . do not prefigure only death and sin. To be sure, in their fulfillment the lovers learn something of each other that they should not have known – they have lost their mystery – and yet have not become any less impenetrable. But in this mutual disenchantment from their secret, they enter, just as in Benjamin’s aphorism, a new and more blessed life,’ The Open, p. 87; ‘Accomplished nihilism and Zarathustra’s message on the eternal recurrence of the same are part of the same enigma, but are separated by an abyss,’ The Man without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999) p. 90; and, regarding Deleuze’s final turn from the imagination of Charles Dickens to the image of infants: ‘One could say that the difficult attempt to clarify the vertigo of immanence by means of ‘a life’ leads us instead into an area that is even more uncertain, in which the child and the dying man present us with the enigmatic cipher of bare biological life as such,’ Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 230; this is only a sheaf from the complete dossier on Agamben’s enigma. 5. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 59. 6. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 86; italics in original. 7. See Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. B. Massumi, foreword W. Godzich (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

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CHAPTER 1

K Giorgio Agamben

I 1. In Roman law, in which prosecution had a limited role, slander (calumnia, in old Latin kalumnia) represented so serious a threat for the administration of justice that the false accuser was punished by the branding of the letter K (the initial of kalumniator) on his forehead. It is Davide Stimilli’s merit to have demonstrated the importance of this fact for the interpretation of Kafka’s Trial, which the incipit unreservedly presents as a slanderous trial (‘Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested’1). K., Stimilli suggests, recalling that Kafka had studied the history of Roman law while he prepared for the legal profession, does not stand – according to the common opinion that goes back to Max Brod – for Kafka, but for kalumnia, slander. 2. That slander represents the key to the novel (and, perhaps, to Kafka’s entire universe, so powerfully marked by the mythic powers of the law) becomes even more illuminating, however, if one observes that, since the letter K. does not stand simply for kalumnia, but refers to the kalumniator – that is, to the false accuser – this can only mean that the false accuser is the very protagonist of the novel, who has, so to speak, brought a slanderous trial against himself. The ‘someone’ (jemand) who, with his slander, has initiated the trial is Josef K. himself. But this is precisely what an attentive reading of the novel demonstrates beyond any doubt. Indeed, although K. may know all along that it is not at all certain that the court has accused him (‘I can’t report that you’ve been accused’,2 the inspector says to him in the first interview), and that, in any case, his ‘arrested’ condition does not entail any change in his life, he seeks to enter the court buildings anyway (which are not really court buildings, but attics, lumber rooms and laundries, which, perhaps, only his gaze transforms into courtrooms) and to

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bring about a trial that the judges seem to have no intention of initiating. That it is not a question, moreover, of a true trial, but that the trial exists only to the extent that he recognises it, is what K. fearfully concedes to the examining magistrate during the initial inquiry. Yet he does not hesitate to enter the court even when he has not been summoned and – precisely on this occasion – is admitted without needing to be accused. Just as, during the conversation with Fräulein Bürstner, he had not hesitated to prompt her to falsely accuse him of assault (he had, therefore, in some way, self-slandered). In the final analysis, this is precisely what the prison chaplain allows K. to understand at the end of their long conversation in the cathedral: ‘The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go’.3 That is: ‘The court does not accuse you, only accommodates the accusation that you level at yourself’. 3. Every man brings a slanderous trial against himself. This is Kafka’s point of departure. This is why his universe cannot be tragic, but only comic: guilt does not exist, or rather, the only guilt is selfslander, which consists in accusing oneself of a non-existent guilt (which is to say, of one’s own innocence – and this is the comic gesture par excellence). This accords with the principle, expressed elsewhere by Kafka, according to which ‘original sin, the ancient wrong committed by man, consists in the accusation that man makes and never ceases making, that a wrong has been done to him, that it was upon him that original sin was committed’.4 Here, too, as in slander, guilt is not the cause of the accusation, but is identified with it. There is slander, in fact, only if the accuser is convinced of the innocence of the accused, only if he accuses without there being any guilt to establish. In the case of self-slander, this conviction becomes, at the same time, both necessary and impossible. The accused, insofar as he slanders himself, is perfectly aware of being innocent, but, insofar as he accuses himself, is equally well aware of being guilty of slander, of deserving his brand. This is the Kafkaesque situation par excellence. But why does K. – why does every man – slander himself, falsely accuse himself? 4. Slander was perceived by the Roman jurists as a ‘corruption’ of the accusation (they used the term temeritas, from temere, ‘blindly’, ‘randomly’, etymologically related to ‘darkness’). Mommsen observed that the verb accusare did not seem originally to be a technical term

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of the law and in the most ancient testimonies (for example, in Plautus and Terence) is used in a sense more moral than juridical. But precisely in this its liminal function with respect to the law the accusation reveals its decisive importance. The Roman trial begins, in fact, with the nominis delatio – with the inscription, at the instigation of the accuser, of the name of the denounced within the list of the accused. Accusare derives etymologically from causa and means ‘to indict’. Yet causa is, in a certain sense, the fundamental juridical term, because it names the implication of something in the law (as res signifies the implication of something in language), the fact that something provides the ground for a juridical situation. Instructive, from this perspective, is the relation between causa and res, which in Latin means ‘thing, affair’. Both belong to the vocabulary of law and designate what is at issue in a trial (or in a juridical relation). But, in the neo-Latin languages, causa is progressively substituted for res and, after having designated the unknown in algebraic terminology (just as res, in French, survives only in the form of rien, nothing), gives rise to the term cosa (chose, in French). Cosa, the thing or the issue: this word, so neutral and generic, names, in reality, ‘what is at issue’, what is at stake in the law (or in language). The gravity of slander is, that is to say, a function of its calling into question the principle itself of the trial: the moment of accusation. For neither guilt (which, in ancient law, is not necessary) nor punishment define the trial, but rather, the accusation. Indeed, the accusation is, perhaps, the juridical ‘category’ par excellence (kategoria, in Greek, means accusation), that without which the entire edifice of the law would crumble: the implication of being in the law. The law is, that is to say, in its essence, accusation, ‘category’. And the being – implicated, ‘accused’ in the law – loses its innocence, becomes a cosa, that is, a cause, an object of dispute (for the Romans, causa, res and lis were, in this sense, synonyms). 5. Self-slander is part of Kafka’s strategy in his incessant struggle with the law. First of all, it puts guilt into question, the principle according to which there is no punishment without guilt. And, with guilt, the accusation, too, which is founded on guilt (to be added to the catalogue of Brod’s blunders: what Kafka is concerned with is not grace, but its opposite, the accusation). ‘How can any person in general be guilty?’ Josef K. asks the prison chaplain. And the chaplain appears in some way to agree with him, stating that there is no judgement, but that ‘the trial itself gradually merges with the judgement’.5 In the same sense, a

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modern jurist has written that, in the mystery of the trial, the principle nulla poena sine iudicio is overturned into that much darker principle according to which there is no judgement without punishment because all punishment is in judgement. ‘Trials like that’, K.’s uncle says to him at a certain point, ‘are lost from the start’.6 This is evident in self-slander and, in general, in the slanderous trial. The slanderous trial is a case without a cause, a case in which all that is summoned is the summoning itself – that is, the accusation as such. And where the guilt consists in initiating the trial, the judgement can only be the trial itself. 6. In addition to slander, the Roman jurists distinguished two further temeritates or obfuscations of the accusation: the praevaricatio, that is, the collusion between accuser and accused, symmetrically opposed to slander, and the tergiversatio, the abandonment of the accusation (for the Romans, who saw an analogy between war and trial, the abandonment of the accusation was a form of desertion: tergiversare originally means ‘to turn one’s back’). Josef K. is guilty of all three: because he slanders himself; because, insofar as he slanders himself, he colludes with himself; and because he is not in agreement with his own accusation (in this sense, he ‘prevaricates’, he looks for a way out and takes his time). 7. One understands, then, the subtlety of self-slander, as a strategy that aims to deactivate and render inoperative the accusation, the implication that the law addresses to being. For if the accusation is false and if, on the other hand, accuser and accused coincide, then it is the fundamental implication of man in the law itself that is called into question. The only way to affirm one’s innocence before the law (and the powers that represent it: the father, marriage) is, in this sense, to falsely accuse oneself. That slander might be a weapon in the struggle with authority is clearly stated by the other K., the protagonist of The Castle: ‘That would be a relatively innocent and in the end quite insufficient means of defence’.7 Indeed, Kafka is fully aware of the insufficiency of this strategy. For the law responds by transforming the implication itself into a crime and making self-slander into its own foundation. Not only, that is, does it pronounce the sentence at the very moment in which it recognises the groundlessness of the accusation, but it also transforms the subterfuge of the self-slanderer into its own eternal justification. Because men do not cease slandering themselves and others,

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the law – which is to say, the trial – is therefore necessary in order to establish whether the accusations are grounded or not. In this way, the law can justify itself, in presenting itself as a safeguard against the self-accusatory delirium of men (and, to some extent, it really has acted as such, for example with respect to religion). And even if man were always innocent, even if no man could, in general, be pronounced guilty, self-slander would still remain like original sin – the groundless accusation that he levels at himself. 8. It is important to distinguish between self-slander and confession. When Leni seeks to induce him to confess, suggesting that only when one has confessed guilt does one have ‘the chance to escape’,8 K. hastily declines the invitation. And yet, in a certain sense, every trial aims to produce confession, which, already in Roman law, served as a sort of self-condemnation. Whoever has confessed, a juridical adage has it, is already judged (confessus pro iudicato) and the equivalence between confession and self-condemnation is affirmed without reservation by one of the most authoritative Roman jurists: whoever confesses as it were convicts himself (quodammodo sua sententia damnatur). But for whoever has falsely accused himself, insofar as he is also the accused, it is absolutely impossible to confess; and the court can convict him as accuser only if it recognises his innocence as accused. In this sense, K.’s strategy can be defined with more precision as the failed attempt to render impossible, not the trial, but the confession. Moreover, a fragment of 1920 asserts that ‘to confess one’s own guilt and to lie are the same thing. In order to confess, one tells lies’.9 Kafka appears, that is, to enter into a tradition that, contrary to the favour which it enjoys in Judeo-Christian culture, decisively refutes every confession, from Cicero, who defined it as ‘repugnant and dangerous’ (turpis et periculosa), to Proust, who candidly advised: ‘never confess’ (n’avouez jamais). 9. In the history of confession, what is particularly significant is its link with torture, which Kafka must have been sensitive to. While in the law of the republican era confession was admitted with reservations and used more to defend the accused, in the imperial era, above all for crimes against power (conspiracy, treason, plot, impiety against the ruler), but also for adultery, magic and illicit divination, the criminal procedure involved the torture of the accused and his slaves in order to extort a confession from them. ‘To extract the truth’ (veritatem eruere) is the emblem of the new juridical rationality that,

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tightly binding confession and truth, makes torture – in cases of lèse majesté extended even to witnesses – the probatory instrument par excellence. Hence the name quaestio that designates it in juridical sources: torture is an inquiry into truth (quaestio veritatis) and it is as such that it will be taken up by the medieval inquisition. Conducted into the hearing room, the accused endured a first interrogation. Following the first hesitations or contradictions, or even only because he declared himself innocent, the judge administered torture. The accused was stretched out on a rack (an eculeus, little horse, which is why the German term for torture, Folter, derives from Fohlen, colt) with his arms tightly drawn back above him and with his hands bound by a rope that passed through a pulley, in such a way that, in pulling it, the executioner (quaestionarius, tortor) could bring about the dislocation of the collarbone. In addition to this first stage, from which torture took its name (from torqueo, to twist until breaking), it immediately also entailed flogging and laceration with hooks and iron harrows. The ruthless obstinacy of this ‘research into truth’ was such that torture could be prolonged for many days until obtaining the confession. Keeping pace with the spread of the practice of torture, confession is interiorised and – instead of truth extracted with force by the executioner – becomes something that the subject is compelled by his conscience to declare spontaneously. The sources register with surprise the cases of persons who confess without being accused or after having been acquitted in a trial; even in these cases, however, confession, as the ‘voice of conscience’ (confessio conscientiae vox), has probatory value and implies the conviction of the confessor. 10. Precisely this essential link between torture and truth seems to have almost morbidly attracted Kafka’s attention. ‘Yes, torture is extremely important to me’, he writes to Milena in November of 1920, ‘my sole occupation is torturing and being tortured. Why? . . . to get the damned word out of the damned mouth’.10 Two months earlier, he encloses within his letter a slip of paper with the sketch of a torture machine of his own invention, whose functioning he clarifies with these words: ‘Once the man is thus secured, the poles are slowly pushed outward until the man is torn apart in the middle’.11 And that torture was used to extort confession, he confirms a few days earlier, comparing his condition to that of a man whose head is tightened in a vice with two screws at the temples: ‘The sole difference is that . . . I don’t wait with my screaming until they tighten the

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screws to force the confession; in fact, I’m already screaming the minute something starts to move in the distance . . .’.12 That it was not a question of an episodic interest is proven by the story ‘In the Penal Colony’, which Kafka wrote in a few days in October of 1914, interrupting the draft of The Trial. The ‘apparatus’ invented by the ‘old commandant’ is, in fact, at the same time a torture machine and an instrument for the execution of a death sentence (it is the officer himself who suggests this, when, anticipating a possible objection, he says: ‘We only used torture in the Middle Ages’13). It is precisely insofar as it unites these two functions within itself that the punishment inflicted by the machine coincides with a particular quaestio veritatis, in which it is the accused – and not the judge – who uncovers the truth, which he does by deciphering the script that the harrow engraves in his flesh: Enlightenment dawns on the dullest. It begins around the eyes. From there it spreads out. A spectacle that might tempt one to lay oneself down under the harrow beside him. Nothing further happens, the man simply begins to decipher the writing, he purses his lips as if he were listening. You’ve seen that it isn’t easy to decipher the script with your eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds. It is a hard task, to be sure; he needs six hours to accomplish it. But then the harrow impales him completely and throws him into the pit, where he splashes down on the watery blood and the cotton-wool.14

11. ‘In the Penal Colony’ was written during the drafting of The Trial and the condemned man’s situation presents more than an analogy with that of K. Just as K. does not know what he is accused of, so, in the story, the condemned man is not aware of being so. And neither know the sentence (‘There would be no point’, the officer explains, ‘in announcing it to him. You see, he gets to know it in the flesh’15). Both tales seem to end with the execution of a death sentence (which, in the story, the officer appears to inflict upon himself instead of the condemned man). But it is precisely the obviousness of this conclusion that is necessary to call into question. That it is a question not of an execution, but only of torture, is clearly stated in the story precisely at the moment in which the machine shatters and is no longer in a position to perform its function: ‘This was no torture such as the officer had wished to achieve, this was just plain murder’.16 The true purpose of the machine is, therefore, torture as quaestio veritatis; death, as often happens in torture, is only a collateral effect of the discovery of truth. When the machine is no longer in a position to make

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the condemned man decipher the truth on his own flesh, torture gives way to a simple homicide. It is from this perspective that we must reread the final chapter of The Trial. In this instance, too, it is a question not of the execution of a sentence, but of a torture scene. The two men with top hats, who appear to K. as supporting actors or even as ‘tenors’, are not executioners in the technical sense, but quaestionarii, who seek to extract a confession that, until that moment, no one had demanded from him (if it is true that K. had falsely accused himself, it is perhaps precisely the confession of this slander that they wish to extort from him). This is confirmed by the curious description of their first physical contact with K., which recalls – even if vertically – the tension of the arms and the position of the accused in the quaestio: Just beyond the entrance, however, they took his arms in a manner K. had never experienced in walking with anyone. They held their shoulders right behind his, didn’t crook their arms, but instead wrapped them about the whole length of his, seizing K.’s hands below with a well-trained, practiced, and irresistible grip. K. walked stiffly between them; now they formed such a close unit that had one of them been struck down (zerschlagen hätte) they would all have been struck down.17

Even the final scene, with K. stretched out against the stone ‘in a very forced and implausible position’, is more an act of torture gone wrong than a capital punishment. And just as the officer of the penal colony does not succeed in finding in torture the truth that he sought there, so, too, the death of K. resembles more a homicide than the conclusion of a quaestio veritatis. Indeed, in the end he lacks the strength to do what he knew to be his duty: ‘to seize the knife as it floated from hand to hand above him and plunge it into himself’.18 Whoever has slandered himself can confess his truth only by torturing himself. In any case, torture, as an inquiry into truth, has lost its purpose. 12. K. (every man) slanders himself in order to subtract himself from the law, from the accusation that it seems inevitably to address to him and from which it is not possible to escape (simply to declare oneself innocent, the prison chaplain says to him at a certain point, is what the guilty usually do). But, acting in this way, he ends up resembling the prisoner, of whom Kafka speaks in a fragment, who ‘sees a gallows being erected in the prison yard, mistakenly thinks that it is the one intended for him, breaks out of his cell in the night, and goes down and hangs himself’.19 Hence the ambiguity of the law, which

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has its roots in the self-slander of individuals and yet presents itself as a power foreign and superior to them. It is in this sense that we must read the parable on the door of the law, which the priest recounts to K. in the scene in the cathedral. The door of the law is the accusation through which the individual comes to be implicated in the law. But the first and supreme accusation is pronounced by the accused himself (even if in the form of selfslander). This is why the law’s strategy consists in making the accused believe that the accusation (the door) is destined (perhaps) precisely for him; that the court demands (perhaps) something from him; that there is (perhaps) a trial underway that concerns him. In reality there is no accusation and no trial, at least as long as the one who thinks he is accused has not accused himself. This is the meaning of the ‘deception’ (Täuschung) that, according to the priest’s words, is at issue in the parable (‘in the introductory texts to the law it says of this deception: before the law stands a doorkeeper’20). The problem is not so much, as K. believes, who deceives (the doorkeeper) and who is deceived (the man from the country). Nor whether the doorkeeper’s two assertions (‘that he can’t grant him admittance now’ and ‘this entrance was meant solely for you’21) are contradictory or not. At any rate, they signify: ‘you are not accused’ and ‘the accusation concerns only you, only you can accuse yourself and be accused’. They are, that is, an invitation to self-accusation, to allowing oneself to be captured in the trial. This is why K.’s hope that the priest might give him a ‘decisive piece of advice’, which would help him, not to influence the trial, but to avoid it, to live forever outside of it, can only be vain. In reality, even the priest is a doorkeeper of the law, even he ‘belongs to the court’; and the true deception is, precisely, the existence of doorkeepers, of men (or of angels: in the Jewish tradition, guarding the door is one of the functions of the angels), extending from the lowest functionary up to the advocates and the highest judge, whose purpose is to induce other men to accuse themselves, to make them pass through the door that leads nowhere except to the trial. And yet, perhaps the parable does contain a ‘piece of advice’. It is a question, not of the study of the law, which in itself has no guilt, but of the ‘long study of its doorkeepers’ (jahrelange Studium des Türhüters), to which the man from the country uninterruptedly dedicates himself in his sojourn before the law. It is thanks to this study, to this new Talmud, that the man from the country – unlike Josef K. – succeeded in living to the end outside the trial.

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II 1. Insofar as he was concerned with the establishment of borders or boundaries, the land surveyor had a particular importance in Rome. In order to become an agrimensor (or gromaticus, from the name of his instrument), one needed to pass a difficult exam, in the absence of which the practice of the profession could be punished with the death penalty. Indeed, the border of Rome had a sacred character to such an extent that he who erased the borders (terminum exarare) became sacer and could be killed with impunity by anyone. There were, however, simpler reasons for the importance of the land surveyor. In both civil and public law, the possibility of distinguishing the borders of territories, of singling out and assigning portions of land (ager) and, ultimately, of resolving border disputes, conditioned the very practice of the law. This is why – insofar, that is, as he was par excellence a finitor, the one who establishes, distinguishes and determines borders – the land surveyor was also called iuris auctor, creator of law, and vir perfectissimus. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first collection of texts on land surveying precedes Justinian’s Corpus iuris by almost a century. And even less surprising that immediately after its appearance it was felt necessary to begin a new edition of the Corpus gromaticum, which interpolated the opinions of the jurists within the writings of the land surveyors. 2. The Roman land surveyor’s instrument was the groma (or gruma), a sort of cross, whose centre was placed in correspondence with a point on the ground (called the umbilicus soli) and at whose extremities four taut wires hung by a little weight. Thanks to this instrument, the land surveyor could trace straight lines (rigores), which enabled him to measure the ground and trace its boundaries. The two fundamental lines, which intersected at a right angle, were the kardo, traced from north to south, and the decumanus, which ran from east to west. These two lines corresponded, in the foundation of the castrum (fortified place or castle – castellum is the diminutive of castrum – but also military camp), to the two principal roads around which the dwellings (or soldiers’ tents in the case of the military camp) were assembled. For the Romans, the originally heavenly character of this fundamental constitutio limitum was unquestionable. This is why Hyginus’ treatise De limitibus constituendis begins with these words: ‘Among

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all rituals and acts that concern the most eminent measures is the establishment of boundaries. It has a heavenly origin and a perpetual endurance . . . for the boundaries are established in reference to the world: the decumani are indeed traced following the course of the sun and the kardines according to the axis of the poles’. 3. In 1848, three eminent philologists and legal historians, F. Blume, K. Lachmann and A. Rudorff, published in Berlin the first modern edition of the corpus of the Roman land surveyors: Die Schriften der römischen Feldmesser. The edition, which gathered the treatises of Julius Frontinus, Aginus Urbicus, Hyginus Gromaticus and Siculus Flaccus in two volumes, contained a large appendix which reproduced the illustrations of the manuscripts. Among these, one is struck by the image of a castrum, in no less than twenty-nine variations, which recalls in a truly surprising manner the description of the castle that appears to K. in the first chapter of the novel: ‘It was neither an old knight’s fortress nor a magnificent new edifice, but a large complex, made up of a few two-storey buildings and many lower, tightly packed ones; had one not known that this was a castle, one could have taken it for a small town’.22 In the illustrations, the round tower with little windows that reminds K. of the church tower of his own village appears many times. Other illustrations show, instead, the result of the first constitutio limitum: the fundamental division of space according to the kardo and the decumanus. Each time, at the northernmost extreme of the meridian that proceeds from north to south, one clearly reads the letter K, the initial of kardo. At the opposite pole stands the letter M (for meridianus), such that KM defines the first line, the fundamental limit, while DM (the abbreviation of Decumanus meridianus) defines the second to which the first is perpendicular. In this sense, the letter K – alone or in combination with others – also appears many times in the text. 4. Let us attempt to take seriously the profession of the protagonist of The Castle. In the language of the land surveyors, K. signifies kardo and this is so ‘because it is directed toward the poles of the heavens’ (quod directum ad kardinem caeli est). What K. is concerned with – the profession that he provocatively announces to the functionaries of the castle and which they take up as a sort of challenge – is, therefore, the ‘establishment of boundaries’. The conflict – if, as seems to be the case, it is a question of a conflict – concerns not so much, according to Brod’s rash suggestion, the possibility of settling

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in the village and being accepted by the castle, as the fixing (or the transgression) of boundaries. And if the castle, still following Brod, is grace as the ‘divine government’ of the world, then the land surveyor – who is presented without his instruments, but with ‘a knobbly walking stick within reach’23 – is engaged in a determined struggle with the castle and its functionaries over the limits of this government, in an implacable and very special constitutio limitum. 5. On 16 January 1922, during the drafting of The Castle, Kafka enters into his diary some considerations on limit, whose importance has been underlined many times, without, however, being put in relation to the profession of the novel’s protagonist. Kafka speaks of a breakdown (Zusammenbruch) he has endured in the past week, in the aftermath of which the inner and outer worlds have split apart and separated from one another. The savage wildness (Wildheit) that is unleashed in the inner process is described in terms of a ‘pursuit’ (Jagen), in which ‘introspection allows no representation to remain at rest, but pursues them upward (emporjagt), only in turn to be itself pursued (weitergejagt) as representation by a new introspection’.24 At this point, the image of the pursuit gives way to a reflection on the frontier between men and what stands outside and above them: This pursuit, originating in the midst of men, carries one in a direction away from them (nimmt die Richtung aus der Menscheit). The solitude that for the most part has been forced on me, in part voluntarily sought by me – but what was this if not compulsion too? – is now losing all its ambiguity and goes to the extreme (geht auf das Äusserste). Where is it leading? The strongest likelihood is, that it may lead to madness [Irsinn, etymologically linked to irren, to wander, to err]; there is nothing more to say, the hunt goes right through me and rends me asunder. Or I can – can I? – manage to keep my feet somewhat and be carried along in the wild hunt. Where, then, shall I be brought? ‘Pursuit’, indeed, is only an image. I can also say, ‘assault on the last earthly frontier’ (Ansturm gegen die letzte irdische Grenze), an assault, moreover, launched from below, from mankind, and since this too is an image, I can replace it by the image of an assault from above, aimed at me from above. All such writing is an assault on the frontiers; if Zionism had not intervened, it might easily have developed into a new secret doctrine, a Kabbalah (zu einer neuen Geheimlehre, einer Kabbala). There are intimations of this. Though of course it would require genius of an unimaginable kind to strike root again in the old cen-

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turies, or create the old centuries anew, and not thereby expend its forces, but begin only now to consummate them.25

6. The ‘decisive’ (in every sense) character of this entry has not escaped scholars. It draws together, in the same gesture, an essential decision (‘to go to the extreme’, to no longer surrender to the weakness that, as he will note on 3 February, keeps him ‘from going mad, but also from ascending [Aufstieg]’,26 from the idea of a new movement above) and a poetic theology (the new Kabbalah opposed to Zionism, the ancient, complex gnostico-messianic inheritance against the psychology and the superficiality of the westjüdische Zeit in which he lived). But it becomes even more decisive if referred to the novel that Kafka is writing and to its protagonist, the land surveyor K. (the kardo, ‘he who is directed toward the poles of the heavens’). The careful choice of profession (which K. has assumed upon himself: no one has employed him for this work, for which, as the chairman informs him, the village has no need) is then at once a declaration of war and a strategy. It is not the borders between the gardens and the houses of the village (which, in the words of the chairman, are already ‘marked out . . . and duly registered’27) that he has come to attend to. Rather, since life in the village is, in reality, entirely determined by the borders that separate it from the castle and at the same time keep it bound to it, it is above all these boundaries that the arrival of the land surveyor calls into question. The ‘assault on the last frontier’ is an assault against the boundaries that separate the castle (the high) from the village (the low). 7. Once again – this is Kafka’s great strategic intuition, the new Kabbalah that he prepares – the struggle is not against God or supreme sovereignty (Count Westwest, who is never really at stake in the novel), but against the angels, the messengers and the functionaries who appear to represent it. In this sense, a list of the personalities of the castle with which he has somehow to reckon is instructive: in addition to the various ‘girls of the castle’, a sub-steward, a messenger, a secretary and a director (with whom he never has direct relations, but whose name, Klamm, seems to evoke the extreme points – KM – of the kardo). It is not a question, therefore, pace Brod and Kafka’s theological interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, of a conflict with the divine, but of a conflict with the fabrications of men (or of angels) regarding the divine (first of all that common to the Western-Jewish intellectual environment to which he belonged). It is their borders, the separations and the barriers that they have established between men,

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and between men and the divine, that the land surveyor wants to call into question. The interpretation according to which K. wants to be accepted by the castle and settle in the village would then appear all the more mistaken. With the village as it strands K. does not know what to do. And with the Castle, even less. What interests the land surveyor is the boundary that divides and conjoins them and that he wants to abolish – or rather, to render inoperative. For where this boundary materially passes no one seems to know; perhaps, in reality, it does not exist, but passes, like an invisible door, within each and every man. Kardo is not only a term of land surveying: it also signifies the hinge of the door. ‘A hinge’, Isidore of Seville’s etymology recites, ‘is the place in which the door (ostium) turns and is moved, and is so called from the Greek term for heart (apo tes kardias), for just as the heart of man governs every thing, so the hinge rules and moves the door. Hence the proverb: in cardinem esse, to be at a turning point’. ‘The door (ostium)’, Isidore continues, with a definition to which Kafka could have subscribed unreservedly, ‘is that by virtue of which someone prevents us from entering’, and the ostiarii, the porters, ‘are those who in the Old Testament bar the entrance of the Temple from the impure’. The hinge – the turning point – is the place in which the door, which obstructs access, comes to be neutralised. And if Bucephalus is the ‘new advocate’ who studies the law only on the condition that it is no longer applied, K. is the ‘new land surveyor’ who renders inoperative the boundaries and borders that separate (and keep bound together) the high and the low, the castle and the village, the temple and the house, the divine and the human. What might become of the high and the low, of the divine and the human, the pure and the impure, once the door (that is, the system of laws, written and unwritten, that regulate their relations) has been neutralised, what might become of that ‘world of truth’ to which the canine protagonist of the story Kafka wrote when he definitively interrupted the draft of the novel dedicates his investigations – this is what is given to the land surveyor just to catch a glimpse of. Translated by Nicholas Heron Notes 1. Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. Breon Mitchell (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), p. 3.

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2. The Trial, p. 14. 3. The Trial, p. 224. 4. Franz Kafka, ‘He: Aphorisms from the 1920 Diary’, in The Great Wall of China and Other Short Works, ed. and trans. Malcolm Pasley (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 110; translation slightly modified. 5. The Trial, p. 213; translation slightly modified. 6. The Trial, p. 94. 7. Franz Kafka, The Castle, trans. Mark Harman (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), p. 252; translation slightly modified. 8. The Trial, p. 105. 9. Franz Kafka, Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (New York: Schocken Books, 1954), p. 308; translation slightly modified. 10. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, trans. Philip Boehm (New York: Schocken Books, 1990), pp. 214–15. 11. Letters to Milena, p. 201. 12. Letters to Milena, p. 198. 13. Franz Kafka, ‘In the Penal Colony’, in The Transformation and Other Stories, ed. and trans. Malcolm Pasley (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 142. 14. ‘In the Penal Colony’, p. 137. 15. ‘In the Penal Colony’, p. 132. 16. ‘In the Penal Colony’, p. 151. 17. The Trial, p. 226; translation slightly modified. 18. The Trial, p. 230. 19. Dearest Father, p. 87. 20. The Trial, p. 215. 21. The Trial, p. 217. 22. The Castle, p. 8. 23. The Castle, p. 3. 24. Franz Kafka, Diaries, 1910–1923, ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (with Hannah Arendt) (New York: Schocken Books, 1948, 1949), p. 399; translation modified. 25. Diaries, p. 399; translation modified. 26. Diaries, p. 411; translation modified. 27. The Castle, p. 59.

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CHAPTER 2

Integral Actuality: On Giorgio Agamben’s Idea of Prose Alexander García Düttmann

I If only by the discontinuous or elliptical character of its prose, Giorgio Agamben’s Idea of Prose revives the question of the relationship between philosophy and poetry.1 Is the constellation of ideas that it forms the product of a poetic vocation or of a thought that seeks to liberate truth from its linguistic reification? This question, the question of the relationship between philosophy and poetry, between meaning and melos, between a prose whose implicit philosophical determination regulates the effects of its signifying function and a poetry whose purely sonorous and rhythmic dimension seems to resist any translation – this question is also explicitly raised in the fragment or aphorism that bears the same title as the book itself, ‘Idea of Prose’. Agamben does not want to keep meaning apart from poetic sound and rhythm. Rather, for him, the question of the relationship between philosophy and poetry becomes the question of a language or a prose that no longer lets itself be determined by the difference inscribed in this relationship: ‘Neither poetry nor prose but – il loro medio.’2 How are we to translate ‘medio’, the word with which the aphorism or fragment entitled ‘Idea of Prose’ closes? If there is an idea of language or an idea of prose that leads beyond the opposition between signification and sonorous rhythm, between content and form, between the syntactical and the metrical, then these terms are all divided by what they share: ‘il loro medio’. On the one hand, the idea of prose does not merge with either (philosophical) prose or (poetic) sound. On the other hand, it is the divided place, the midst, the milieu, the medium where (poetic) sound and (philosophical) prose are constituted in their very specificity. Prose and poetry expose themselves thus to one another and never succeed in constituting a unity or a stable identity. To turn to the idea of prose, an idea that does not belong to a

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suprasensible world, is to understand that, although prose and poetry do not each form a unity, neither is there a unity that gathers them together. It is for this reason also that what thought must confront and what poetry leaves behind as a heritage is neither poetry nor prose. Thought must confront or come to terms with a ‘poetic inheritance’ that consists precisely in the impossibility of attributing an absolutely distinct and recognisable identity to poetry. ‘This sublime hesitation between meaning and sound’, Agamben writes, ‘is the poetic inheritance with which thought must come to terms.’3 Could thought function as thought if it did not have to confront something, or come to terms with it if it did not have to mark the tradition of a non-identity, of a hesitation without psychology? The double negation (‘neither poetry nor prose’) takes the form of a double injunction, of an orientation towards the past and an orientation towards the future. Thought, in order to attain the ‘medio’, has to orient itself towards an ‘idea of prose’, or towards an idea of poetry, but it can do so only by assuming a ‘poetic inheritance’. The ‘medio’ which already divides (philosophical) prose and (poetic) sound at the very moment each affirms its unstable identity, and which thought seeks to attain by following a double injunction, is certainly not a term placed in between the extremes, a third term adding itself to poetry and to philosophy. Faithful to the Aristotelian allusion of the text, and taking their clue from the spatial reference that assigns opposite movements to the cadence of poetry and to the sequential character of prose, the American translators of Idea of Prose render ‘medio’ as ‘middle term’.4 However, if a third term existed, the question of the relationship, of the relationship among the three terms, would pose itself anew, and thought would be caught up within an infinite regress. Also, the ‘medio’ cannot be an amalgam made up of a poetic element and an element of prose, a philosophical element, a language half-poetic and half-philosophical. If this were case, the elements of such a language would either allow themselves to be distinguished, and then the question of the relationship would come up yet again, or else they would become indistinguishable, and then thought would have to let itself be guided by the radicality of the ‘neither . . . nor’ instead of being content with the compromise of the ‘half . . . half’. ‘Medio’ has the double meaning of the word used by the German translators of the book, ‘Mitte’5. When Hegel, for example, notes that the Greeks lived in the ‘happy midst’ formed by the moral substance and a free and self-conscious subjectivity, he refers to what takes place

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in the middle, what, not giving way to the extremes, remains surrounded by the milieu that characterises such an intermediary state. The ‘medio’ of poetry and prose designates perhaps the midst and the milieu of the ‘between’ without which there would not be a relationship between (philosophical) prose and poetry. But this midst is an originary milieu, not a milieu created by two extremes already constituted or already presupposed. The milieu on which poetry and (philosophical) prose depend, the ‘between’ that exceeds what it simultaneously separates and brings together, is nothing but language, language itself in its sharing and its division, neither poetry nor prose. The idea of prose is language as midst and milieu. It is the ‘communicability’ which, in Benjamin, designates the being of language as the ‘medium’ of communication.6 If there is language, if there is communication, then there is necessarily an idea of prose, a medium that can never be reduced to a philosophical or poetic particularity, a communicability that always communicates itself. Each time that poetic singularity and philosophical universality dissociate themselves from each other and in this way make themselves known, they already efface themselves. Communication must be a communication of communicability because it is impossible to communicate what is not communicable and what does not belong to language. When there is communication, communicability, the fact that there is communication, is communicated. But communication can and does also imply an exteriority that transforms it into the communication of something. It is on the basis of this transformation that language gives rise to poetic singularity and philosophical universality, or that it lets differences be. To confront the ‘poetic inheritance’, to conceive of the idea of prose, means therefore – at least if one subscribes to the proposed interpretation – to attain communicability and language as midst, milieu, medium. One will wonder, however, whether attaining communicability is a question of touching upon the limit of a ‘sublime hesitation’, a limit at which the exteriority of communication disappears and continues to manifest itself, or whether it is a question of establishing an integral actuality of language, an actuality without hesitation, an actuality that would no longer betray a separation between potentiality and act, between possibility and reality, between essence and existence, between communicability and communication, between the midst, the milieu, the medium, the ‘between’ as such and the midst, the milieu, the medium, the ‘between’ in which philosophy and poetry come to stand.

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II How does thought confront what poetry seems to leave it as an inheritance? Heidegger describes the relationship between poetry and thought in terms of a double movement, a movement that, through its perpetual splitting, perpetually supplies its own lack, the lack that constitutes it as a movement and prevents it from stopping. As two parallels that do not cross except at an indeterminable point in the infinite, at a point that always precedes them and that does not presuppose any further tracing, poetry and thought do not cease to call to each other without ever regaining the silence in the call of the other. In this way, poetry and thought inscribe themselves in the existence that marks the difference of language; for what existence lacks, what calls for poetry and thought from the groundless bottom of existence, is the word that says the essence of the word, the word or the speech of Being. If the essence of the word does not consist in making the thing available; if the word calls the thing in order to let it appear, to show it by letting it show itself; if the word, and above all the word of the poet or the name that the poet gives to the thing, lets the thing be as a thing, as Heidegger argues in his lecture on a poem by Stefan George, then the difference that traverses each word and that separates it from itself, cannot be spoken or said without transforming itself into a being and without in turn dividing itself.7 Hence the word of Being, the essence of the word, is not a word. It is nothing but a pure communicability. Heidegger calls this communicability ‘Sage’, Saying, and he maintains that Saying and Being, the word and the thing, the opening that devotes language to the secret and the difference that relates each being to Being, are indissociable: The oldest word [. . .] for saying is logos. It means the Saying which, in showing, lets beings appear in their ‘it is.’ The same word, however, the word for saying, is also the word for Being, that is, for the presencing of beings. Saying and Being, word and thing, belong to each other in a veiled way, a way that has hardly been thought.8

The unsayable of language and saying, this secret that does not guard anything that one can identify or let appear, this absolute secret that itself is its own secret, as it were, and that, consequently, is anything but a secret, does not at all have the character or the consistency of something hidden or invisible. In Benjamin’s language one could say that communicability always communicates itself, for if it maintained itself separate from communication, the thing would not let itself be

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named and would be unable to appear. Yet at the same time, communicability cannot ever be communicated, for if it could be communicated, it would take the form of a thing, and communication, reducing itself to the simple communication of something, would erase itself immediately. Communicability opens the immanence of communication to a hesitation, a trembling, an indecision, to the affirmation and suspension of exteriority. The communication of communicability, the ‘objective’ contradiction inherent in communication that causes communicability and communication to exceed their objectification, perpetuates the lack that makes poetry and thought come into existence. Since this lack cannot be filled, it must be seized as such. But how can a lack be seized as such if the ‘as-such’ defines the appearance of the thing named? This question expresses perhaps the difficulty that poetry and thought never cease to encounter. If thought is called by what poetry says without ever succeeding in saying, then thought must in turn call poetry to confront its task, namely to think what, in any thing, is not a thing, and what, in any language, has no name. Unthinkable and unsayable, the alliance between thing and word evokes, provokes, incites poetry and thought, because communication is always a communication of communicability. What is at stake for any poetic word and for any thought that seeks to attain communicability, the medio, Sage, is to seize, in itself and beyond itself, a communicability that coincides with its own communication, a word and a thought that, being neither the word of the poet nor the prose of the thinker, exhaust the word of Being. Does the idea of prose indicate the integral actuality of such a coincidence? III In his essay on the relationship between poetry and society, Adorno attempts to describe the consolatory gesture that he detects in the indecision of certain poems.9 Does to console mean to affirm the presence of what seems lost and to negate its loss? No, for such an affirmation would be nothing but a denial, a vain attempt to reassure the one who is unconsoled. The consolatory gesture – the gesture of the poem itself, that is, not a gesture represented by the poet – consists rather in enduring the indecision which makes any limit tremble. In order to console, it is necessary to know how to render uncertain the limit that separates absence from presence and how to locate the uncertainty that traverses this limit like a trembling that cannot be

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sounded out. This is a question of a certain knowledge, given that rendering the limit between presence and absence uncertain may also lead to madness. What if the hesitation, the indecision, the ellipsis of the ‘neither . . . nor’ (neither prose nor poetry, neither philosophy nor art, neither presence nor absence) denotes in fact a kind of integral actuality? Is to seek an integral actuality, instead of restoring a particular presence, the true aim of the consolatory gesture? The hesitation that results from a fundamental indecision, from an experience of the undecidable that no longer belongs to the order of calculation, appears to be irreducible to possibility, to reality, to potentiality, or to actuality. Whenever one hesitates, whenever one lets oneself be carried by the vacillating movement that establishes itself between two or more possibilities, each possibility begins to oscillate, ceasing thus to remain in itself. In this sense, hesitation exposes possibility to a virtual or deferred realisation. If one could persist within pure possibility, there would be no place for hesitation. Perhaps hesitation also indicates a work of mourning that puts an end to the melancholy of potentiality. In the ‘Idea of Study’, one of the texts in his Idea of Prose, Agamben mentions the melancholic propensity of the one who devotes his life to interminable studies. It is true that nothing is more bitter than dwelling in the sphere of pure potentiality for too long, infinitely deferring the passage to action.10 Yet does melancholy not already signal a contamination of potentiality? Hesitation does not abandon itself to its sphere. However, it does not exclude potentiality either. Even if it hovers between possibilities and thus seems to perpetuate the possible in its very multiplicity or exteriority, which already exposes it to the real, hesitation begins to thwart the opposition between possibility and reality, act and potentiality, existence and essence. It touches upon the limit at which opposite or different terms no longer affirm their identity, their opposition, their difference. Hesitation opens or relates each term to the experience of an integral actuality, of an act exhausting potentiality and a potentiality actualised as such. At the moment when potentiality reaches this limit, it interrupts itself, it ceases to be what it is without becoming what it is not. To persist in hesitation, however, amounts to renouncing integral actuality. For just as hesitation, the experience of the undecidable, is only hesitation if it ends in giving rise to a decision, provisional and embarrassed or irrevocable and final, the experience of integral actuality is only such an experience inasmuch as it includes the force of exclusion inherent in any decision. It is here that the political dimension of

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an idea of prose reveals itself, the political significance of a midst, milieu, medium that forms the limit of what holds itself there, or of a communication that attains the limit of communicability. The idea of prose is incompatible with power. It defies it with such a radicality that power is incapable of becoming effective as a force of exclusion, or as a dividing and segregating force: ‘Power is the isolation of potentiality from its act, the organisation of potentiality.’11 But what about exclusion in the realm or in the state of integral actuality if actuality cannot exclude the dividing and segregating force without immediately losing its integrality, without opposing itself anew to a potentiality and thus producing the very possibility of power? Agamben conceives of a redemptive task assigned to memory in his essay on the literary figure of Bartleby, the scrivener. In the perspective of this essay, the question of exclusion that needs to be answered whenever one attempts to think the ‘neither . . . nor’ of the Idea of Prose can be phrased as follows. How does the ‘restitutio in integrum of possibility’, which holds occurrence and non-occurrence, the capacity-to-be and the capacity-not-to-be, in a precarious equilibrium, and which, as a consequence, must be a memory or remembrance of what ‘has never been’, relate to what renders possibility partial and memory exclusive, beyond any suspension and any hesitation?12 How does it relate to what is nothing except by excluding the possible through the real? How does it relate to the force of exclusion, which is always blind and uncompromising? IV There would be no exclusion if one did not belong to a whole, to something that can be identified and named. When exclusion is meant to be overcome by way of an appropriation of belonging itself, as Agamben suggests in The Coming Community, once again the decisive difficulty of an integral actuality becomes manifest, namely the difficulty of an integration and of an integrality that are supposed to restore what has not taken place and also what has taken place only on the basis of exclusion. To seize being-such(-and-such) in its being(as)-such; to seize being-singular in its being-whatever; to seize existence in its taking-place or in its idea – is this not to attain an in-difference that resists identification while not excluding any property of the thing or of the individual?13 Ultimately, perhaps, identification constitutes each property as an exclusive property. By resisting identification without, however, abandoning itself to a pure absence

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or lack of identity, by transcending belonging within belonging, the coming community holds together in an actuality that could be called integral. Elsewhere, in a text on the concept of a people, Agamben argues that, just as one should not construct grammars from jargons and slangs but let appear what the multiplicity of languages recover, the ‘factum of language’, one should not attribute a state-controlled identity to a people but let emerge the factum that it dissimulates and to which it points, the ‘factum of community’.14 We pass from a people to the community, from belonging to a band or a gang to the exposure of this belonging as such. Every people is, according to Agamben, the ‘more or less successful mask of the factum pluralitatis’. With the passage to the community as factum pluralitatis, the belonging to a people is not only dissolved. It also reveals itself as a simulacrum. In truth, one never belongs to a people because, as a dissembling mask of multiplicity, a people never is the substantial or spiritual individuality it claims to be. Nevertheless, it is not quite clear how the being-such(-and-such) is affected when it is seized in its being-(as-)such. On the one hand, the in-difference of the singularity insofar as it is whatever singularity, does not result from a lack of belonging. On the other hand, this indifference indicates the impossibility, for an existence that has appropriated its own belonging, of relating to what marks a difference, to what cannot be separated from the difference marked. Does such an in-difference not exclude the belonging that excludes the other? Does it not exclude the simulacrum of belonging, at least insofar as a simulacrum is only a simulacrum because of the efficacity of its artifice? Does it not risk abandoning itself to the dividing force and committing itself to the dialectics of exclusion? As soon as exclusion is necessary in order to constitute what cannot constitute itself or exist without it, as in Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’, that which has been excluded tends to become more powerful than the excluding force. As a consequence, exclusion is perpetuated infinitely. V The expression ‘idea of prose’ can be found in a fragment by Benjamin on the concept of history. Yet one must not forget that Benjamin was already interested in prose when he wrote his doctoral dissertation. As the ‘idea of poetry’, as the essence of art, prose possesses an absolute privilege in German Romanticism. If, within the Romantic hierarchy

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of literary genres, the novel distinguishes itself by a kind of double and contradictory potentiality, by the possibility of limiting itself and of extending itself into the infinite, as if reflexive self-limitation were possible only because of an unlimited self-extension, then criticism must present the ‘prosaic kernel’15 of the work of art. In so doing, it detaches itself from mere appraisal, or from a judgement that merges with opinion. For German Romanticism, prose is ‘indestructible’. It is marked by sobriety rather than by ecstasy or mania. Perhaps this trait of indestructibility, attributed to prose, also characterises the idea of language that, in the notes on the concept of history, coincides with the ‘messianic idea of a universal history’. Benjamin calls this idea of language the ‘idea of prose’, and he specifies that its coincidence with the ‘messianic idea of a universal history’ marks the end of the multiplicity of languages as well as the end of the plurality of histories. In the world of universal history and of the idea of prose, in the ‘messianic world’, translation comes to an end, and language finally reaches an ‘integral actuality’. It is Benjamin who expresses himself in this way; it is he who speaks of ‘integrale Aktualität’: The messianic world is the world of universal and integral actuality. Only in the messianic realm does a universal history exist. Not as written history, but as festively enacted history. This festival is purified of all celebration. There are no festive songs. Its language is liberated prose – prose which has burst the fetters of script or writing.16

If one wanted to paraphrase Benjamin’s remarks by referring to what Agamben says about the function of quotation marks in Idea of Prose, one could maintain that in the ‘messianic world’, thought will have accomplished its task and will have come to terms with its ‘poetic inheritance’ by breaking the bonds of writing and destroying the mute signs that haunt language and represent our ‘imprisonment within language’.17 The prose of redemption is free because it no longer depends on writing, on the constraints to which language remains subject as long as the difference between communication and communicability, or between translation and translatability, proves to be decisive for speech. Everyone understands this prose without writing, Benjamin claims. As a prose without convention, without fixation, without rhetoric, without pathos, without fetishism, it does not convey any meaning, does not deliver any message, does not have to be interpreted, deciphered or deconstructed, and therefore can be understood immediately. If one conceives it in terms of such immediacy, of a midst,

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a milieu, a medium that does not give rise any more to the difference between philosophy and poetry, then the idea of prose is indeed indestructible. Benjamin uses the expression ‘idea of prose’ to indicate a relationship among language, world and history that can no longer be thought according to the logic of presupposition. The integral actuality does not presuppose anything, for it is the language of completed or achieved translation and thus an exposition of language itself.18 But how is this relationship to be thought? Can it be thought in the light of Agamben’s Idea of Prose? In his lecture on the ‘thing itself’, written a year before the publication of his book, Agamben analyses the Platonic concept of idea in such a way that it recalls Benjamin’s notion of communicability and Heidegger’s notion of language in poetry: The warning that Plato entrusts to the idea is therefore that sayability itself remains unsaid in what is said and in that about which something is said, that knowability itself gets lost in what is known and in that about which something is known [. . .] The task of philosophical presentation is to come with speech to help speech, so that, in speech, speech itself does not remain presupposed but instead comes to speech.19

As long as language presupposes language, as long as knowledge presupposes knowledge, as long as communication presupposes communicability, as long as saying presupposes Saying or sayability, in short, as long as the thing, divided by difference, is not the thing itself and remains hidden within itself, so to speak, the idea merges with a presupposition. Thus the philosopher has to shed light on this confusion and restore the idea to the idea, as it were. The task mentioned here is the one that, at the end of ‘Idea of Prose’, directs the thinker to confront and come to terms with the ‘poetic inheritance’ of language. This can be verified by reading ‘Idea of Appearance’, a fragment or an aphorism in which the idea appears as an exposition of the sensible thing and hence as a presentation of the thing itself. Exposed and presented, the thing does not presuppose itself any more and is no longer ‘some sensible thing presupposed by language and knowledge’. It does not remain in the realm established by the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible, given that ‘the thing no longer separated from its intelligibility, but in the midst of it, is the idea, is the thing itself.’20 From such a conception of the idea, which relates language and knowledge ontologically or metaphysically, five consequences can be drawn:

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1. It makes no sense to talk about an idea of the idea, since the idea is the ‘thing itself’. Is the imposition of a logic of presupposition not the splitting of the idea into the idea of the idea, a separation of the idea from itself that threatens the thing? 2. The idea of prose is not an idea among others but the idea itself. The idea is always the idea of prose. 3. It is impossible to remember the idea (of prose), for the idea does not signal the presupposition of a past. Rather, it is the immemorial and unforgettable thing, or the nothingness that precedes both the present and memory, and that only turns into some thing, into a being or a substance, when it is transformed into a presupposition. A passage in ‘Idea of the Immemorial’ reads as follows: ‘The immemorial, which skips from memory to memory without itself ever coming to mind, is, properly speaking, the unforgettable. This unforgettable oblivion is language, the human word.’21 Another passage, to be found in the ‘Idea of Infancy’, reads: ‘For [the neotenic infant] it is a question of remembering precisely nothing: nothing that happened to him or manifested itself. Yet, as such, this nothingness also anticipates every presence and every memory.’22 4. As the thing itself, the idea (of prose) does not bring about a new thought or a new art-form, just as it does not inaugurate another epoch: ‘We do not want new works of art or thought; we don’t want another epoch of culture and society: what we want is to save the epoch and society from their wandering in tradition, grasp the good – undeferrable and non-epochal – which was contained in them.’23 5. The idea does not rise above the phenomenon but rescues or saves it. Only the immemorial, only absolute forgetting, can save what is always already forgotten, namely the sensible manifestation or the phenomenal appearance of the thing. Conversely, the phenomenon guards the immemorial, the idea that risks turning into a presupposition (of language and knowledge). If it is necessary to save the phenomena and to free thought and poetry from a logic or structure of presupposition, then the historical bond that links together world and language has to be elucidated at the very moment one establishes that the idea is nothing but the exposition and presentation of the sensible thing in its intelligibility, and that language is nothing but a ‘non-latency without presupposition which men always already inhabit’.24 But any attempt to save something must face a fundamental aporia.

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On the one hand, one can only save that which is not what it is. To save means to restore or constitute the integral actuality of the thing by exposing and presenting it itself. Hence Benjamin considers translating to be an activity of restitution and perceives in translation a movement of language that ‘ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages to one another’.25 On the other hand, however, one can never save that which is not what it is. There cannot be an integral actuality without non-being, without difference and oblivion, without exclusion, but non-being defers actuality and eventually exposes it to oblivion. How, from the double point of view of this aporia, can the institution of an integral actuality be thought, generally and historically? It cannot be thought as the result of a progressive approximation, as the aim or the end of a historical progress, whether assured or precarious. For approximation and progress presuppose a direction, that towards which history is heading. Therefore, since the idea can never be presupposed without splitting up, the institution of an integral actuality must be thought as a pure interruption, that is, as an interruption without a remainder. It is obvious that the inscription of presupposition in language and thought renders any assertion of this kind problematic from the start. To admit the possibility of a pure interruption, though, is not sufficient to think the institution or the emergence of an integral actuality. To be sure, a pure interruption escapes what it interrupts. It does not prepare anything and nothing precedes it. But is it not essential to show the place that integral actuality assigns to this nothingness? The question of the idea of prose reveals itself to be the question of an impossible integration because it is the question of how not to exclude the radical interruption on which the institution of an integral actuality depends. If one argues that the integral actuality does not depend on any interruption, that it proves to be the very interruption, one would still have to account for the moment of discontinuity without which an interruption remains inconceivable. VI The problem of language and thought with which the idea of prose confronts us is not simply an aesthetic or metaphysical problem, but above all a historical and political one. Agamben’s interest in political topics, in topics of political philosophy, is thus by no means the interest of a thinker who, not content with philosophical abstraction

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and speculation, also wants to be a politically committed intellectual. The thought that tries to clarify the conditions for instituting the integral actuality of the idea (of prose) opposes a vision of history and politics that is guided by the representation of an infinite progression, or by a kind of infinite idea, for example the idea of a community that establishes itself on the basis of free, rational and transparent communicative action. This thought justifies the necessity of a radical interruption by the impossibility, for any progressive logic of presupposition, of operating differently than by reproducing the historical, political and practical conditions from which it would like to liberate itself. It belongs to the logic of presupposition, to the reification of the idea and of language, to enclose itself inescapably within that which is the case – whence the notion of the infinite task. The thought of integral actuality as interruption reminds us of the fact, highlighted by Benjamin, that the catastrophe is never imminent and that what turns out to be catastrophic is that everything continues to move forward on the same path and in the same direction. Because, for this reason, every moment in history comprises a revolutionary chance, because history is nothing but the deferral of revolution, Benjamin not only emphasises the essential relation between interruption and integral actuality but also recognises the thinker of the revolution by the attention he pays to the specificity of the political situation.26 VII We find the intuition that leads to the thought of the idea of prose expressed with an extreme intensity and a disturbing simplicity in a fragment from Adorno entitled ‘On Metaphysics’. Here is the passage that raises the question of integral actuality, and that does so in terms of speculative dialectics: If the absolute cannot exist without the conditioned, then the conditioned has to be part of the absolute while still remaining conditioned. This agrees perfectly with the sense of life that everything in this life is at the same time absolutely insignificant and infinitely meaningful.27 Notes 1. This essay was first published as an introduction to Giorgio Agamben, Idea Of Prose, trans. M. Sullivan and S. Whitsitt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 3–28. For its publication in

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3. 4. 5. 6.

7.

8. 9.

10. 11. 12. 13. 14.

15. 16.

17. 18.

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this volume, the essay, written originally in French, and the translation by Kerstin Behnke, have both been revised by the author. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 41. Italian edition quoted: Giorgio Agamben, Idea della Prosa (Milan: Feltrinelli 1985), p. 23. Inasmuch as enjambement, the distinctive trait of poetry according to Agamben, denotes a ‘passage of prose’, poetry lets itself be carried towards an ‘idea of prose’ that cannot be reduced to prose or to poetry, to the (philosophical) meaning or to that which limits and transforms the signifying function in the poem: ‘By this headlong dive into the abyss of meaning, the purely sonic unity of verse transgresses its own identity as it does its own measure,’ Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 40. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 41. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 41. Giorgio Agamben, Idee der Prosa, trans. D. Leupold and C. Härle (Munich: Hanser, 1987), p. 21. ‘All language communicates itself in itself; it is in the purest sense the “medium” of the communication,’ Walter Benjamin, ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Man’, trans. E. Jephcott, in Selected Writings, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004), p. 64. Martin Heidegger, ‘Words’, in On the Way to Language, trans. J. Stambough (New York/Evanston/San Francisco/London: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 151. Heidegger, ‘Words’, p. 155. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, in Notes to Literature, trans. Sh. Weber-Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 41. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 65. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 71. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Bartleby, or on Contingency’, in Potentialities, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 267. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 1f. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Languages and Peoples’, in Means Without End, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 69. Walter Benjamin, The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism, in Selected Writings, vol. 1, p. 178. Walter Benjamin, ‘Paralipomena to “On The Concept Of History” ’, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, trans. E. Jephcott and others (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), p. 404; translation modified. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 104. Walter Benjamin, ‘Notes concerning “On the Concept of History” ’, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1.3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 1239.

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19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24.

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Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Thing Itself’, in Potentialities, p. 33 and p. 35. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 123. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 68; translation modified. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 97; translation modified. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 88. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Experimentum Linguae’, in Infancy and History, trans. L. Heron (London and New York: Verso, 1993), p. 9; translation modified. 25. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, trans. H. Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol. 1, p. 255. 26. Benjamin, ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History” ’, p. 402. 27. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Zur Metaphysik’, fragment quoted by Rolf Tiedemann in Frankfurter Adorno Blätter, vol. 2 (München: edition text + kritik, 1993), p. 109.

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CHAPTER 3

The Role of the Shifter and the Problem of Reference in Giorgio Agamben Justin Clemens

There is no there there. Gertrude Stein

PREAMBLE If language constitutes the philosophical problem for Giorgio Agamben, it’s not just any part of language that obsesses him. It is, rather, a peculiar kind of word, which twentieth-century linguistics denominated the ‘shifter’. It is even possible to say that, for Agamben, ‘in the beginning was the shifter’. In demonstrating this here, I deploy a number of words beginning with the letter ‘p’. These include: paradigm, parable, parataxis, paleonymy, potentiality, philology, prose and poeisis. These are directed against other p-words, such as ‘phatic’ and ‘performativity’. (This is admittedly kind of cheesy, but possibly mnemonically providential.) Above all, to miss the centrality of poetry in Agamben’s thought is to misunderstand every salient detail of his work. As soon as ‘the question’ of ‘the political’ arises, everyone starts slavering over this signifier, and its crucial nexus with poetry is missed.1 Yet, as Agamben himself declares, ‘The question is not so much whether poetry has any bearing on politics, but whether politics remains equal to its original cohesion with poetry.’2 It is the evidence, logic and consequences of this declaration that I explore here. THE DOCTRINE Agamben remains within the ‘linguistic turn’ effected in and by twentieth-century philosophy and, before that, by the great Romantic writers. Being what Anglo-Saxons like to call a ‘continental philosopher’, however, it is not simply a logico-grammatical analysis of propositions to which Agamben turns in order to establish truth-conditions,

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to demarcate sense from nonsense, meaningful propositions from the meaningless, logic from the illogical, science from art. Rather, Agamben asks as to the provenance of the logico-grammatical, its diversions at the limit. He declares: ‘The era in which we live is also that in which for the first time it is possible for humans to experience their own linguistic being – not this or that content of language, but language itself.’3 It is the consequences of this event, the experience of the advent of language itself in the era of accomplished nihilism, or what Agamben calls, following Jean-Claude Milner, the pure factum loquendi (the fact speaking beings exist), that he everywhere tries to think through. In his early text Language and Death, Agamben states his central conundrum: ‘In the tradition of Western philosophy, humans appear as both mortal and speaking.’4 He immediately continues: ‘The connection between language and death could not be illuminated without a clarification of the problem of the negative.’ So the problem of the articulation between mortality and speech entails the problem of the negative and, given that the two greatest modern attempts to elaborate the logic of the negative are those of Hegel and Heidegger, it is precisely to them that Agamben turns to illuminate its ruses. He doesn’t, however, find the crucial evidence where you might expect, in the explicit, canonical declarations of these thinkers. Rather, he finds it in the ‘diese’, the this, of Hegel and in the ‘da’, the there, of Da-sein; that is, in the problem of the localisation of being in the being that is essentially its localisation. For the da of localisation in Heidegger is also precisely the place at which negativity is introduced into humanity, and this goes too for Hegel’s dies. Hegel’s take on this this is evinced in the famous ‘Now is Night’ discussion, from the ‘Consciousness’ section of the Phenomenology.5 Heidegger’s own response underpins the entirety of Being and Time. For instance, in the discussion of Dasein’s lack of knowledge about how its constitutive irregularity of mood renders Being manifest as a burden, Heidegger comments: Dasein cannot know anything of the sort because the possibilities of disclosure which belong to cognition reach far too short a way compared with the primordial disclosure belonging to moods, in which Dasein is brought back before its Being as ‘there’.6

For Heidegger, ‘there’ is essential disclosedness. He is forced to treat it under the divided headings of, first, ‘existential constitution’ and, second, of the ‘everyday Being’ of the there, precisely because Dasein is nothing other than its own ‘there’ in its thrownness, a turning-away

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from its localisation in its very localisation. As such, ‘negativity’ and this ‘there’ are integrally if enigmatically linked. This this and this there are bound up with the linguistic category known as ‘deixis’ or the ‘shifters’. Their common negativity leads Agamben back through Aristotle’s Metaphysics (to the discussion of first essence, though Aristotle himself does not recognise the autonomy of the pronoun), through the Stoics (the first to give pronouns a definition as indicative articulations), through a variety of ancient grammarians (including Dionysus of Thrace, Apollonius Disculus and Priscian), all the way to Benveniste and Jakobson. What Agamben pinpoints are those philosophical, grammatical or theological accounts of the place of being where a suture between the fact of utterance and the enigma of situation is essayed. THE PHILOLOGICAL SEIZURE OF A DIS-JOINT SEQUENCE OF DEADLOCKS If Agamben begins his examination of the problem of the negative with Hegel and Heidegger as his privileged interlocutors, he directs his inquiry towards something which has proved a central problem for every philosopher involved in the linguistic turn, no matter what their orientation. This is the problem of ‘sense and reference’, to invoke Frege. What guarantees the suture of language to being when truth can no longer be thought of as adequation, when reference has become problematic, when the thinking subject can no longer function as foundation – and what are the consequences for thinking itself? These problems have forced philosophers towards a reexamination of language under such headings as ‘ostensive definition’, ‘indexicals’, etc. This engages, as we will see, the problematic of what Agamben elsewhere calls ‘whatever being’: a singularity without individuation. Crucially, this emergence is not itself simply due to the performative aspect of utterance; it is rather the ‘place’ at which the performative opens onto something quite other (to jump ahead, this will be dealt with by Agamben under such headings as ‘exposure’ or ‘exposition’). The main thing to ask here is: if the shifter is crucial in the experience of language but cannot ground language in its reference to the world or the self, what, exactly, does the shifter shift? Agamben’s answer is essentially ontological. As he says: ‘the problem of being – the supreme metaphysical problem – emerges from the very beginning as inseparable from the problem of the significance of the demonstrative pronoun, and for this reason it is

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always already connected with the field of indication.’7 This is why Agamben separates himself from (or at least complicates) Heidegger’s attempt in Being and Time to divide grammar from logic and ontology; for Agamben, these disciplines are irremediably imbricated, given they are all given by the pure fact of language itself.8 WHAT IS DEIXIS? Deixis is a grammatical category. Deictics (shifters, embrayeurs) are found in all languages. As Revere Perkins puts it: ‘There are several classes of linguistic forms that are basically deictic in nature. In English they include the personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, demonstrative adjectives, demonstrative adverbs, and tense whether marked on the verb or adverbially,’9 for example, I, you, he, she, we, they, this, that, here, there, now, then, etc. What’s interesting about deixis is that, in Gillian Brown’s words, ‘The function of deixis in language is usually held to be to anchor the utterance to the speaker at the moment of speaking . . . Deixis encodes features of the context of utterance, hence its interpretation requires the listener to be able to appreciate, and if necessary to construct, the relevant context.’10 But this ‘context’ is itself a problem given that deictics have no sense outside their own localisation in discourse. As Javier Martin Arista and Ana Ibáñez Moreno add, drawing an important distinction, ‘reference is basically contextual . . . deixis is situational.’11 But what is this ‘situation’? For Emile Benveniste, it is the personal pronouns that dominate the realm of deixis and, indeed, language generally. Take the ‘I’ itself: Each I has its own reference and corresponds each time to a unique being who is set up as such. What then is the reality to which I or you refers? It is solely a ‘reality of discourse,’ and this is a very strange thing. I cannot be defined except in terms of ‘locution,’ not in terms of objects as a nominal sign is. I signifies ‘the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing I.’ This instance is unique by definition and has validity only in its uniqueness. If I perceive two successive instances of discourse containing I, uttered in the same voice, nothing guarantees to me that one of them is not a reported discourse, a quotation in which I could be imputed to another. It is thus necessary to stress this point: I can only be identified by the instance of discourse that contains it and by that alone.12

The features of interest to us here thus include the following. Deixis: (1) anchors utterance to its speaker; (2) refers to the situation of its

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own taking place (one might even say ‘locution, location’); (3) is supposed (or is at least implied) in every utterance; (4) must always be repeated, must always take place again.13 For Benveniste, personal pronouns ‘are distinguished from all other designations a language articulates in that they do not refer to a concept or to an individual.’14 The significance of the pronoun – ‘intuited’ but never resolved by medieval grammarians – is ‘here clearly formulated’ for the first time. It confirms that logic, grammar, theology and philosophy have an inseparable origin in the taking place of language itself, moreover that these are ‘grounded’ in an extra-conceptual and pre-subjective event. According with Nietzsche’s remarks in regard to the individual being a function of grammar and with studies of language-acquisition in infants (where the ‘I’ emerges rather late in the day), Agamben displaces the problem of the I. The personal pronouns are themselves shown to rely on shifters which are pre-individual, and refer simply to their own taking place, which is where, in its very utterance, language interrupts itself by exposing the taking-place of its own utterance and, in doing so, also exposes the ‘Thing’ – the other of language that can nonetheless emerge only in language. A shifter may seem to effect the transition from world to language, from language to world, but in fact it effects an intra-linguistic shift (‘from langue to parole’ or ‘from code to message’ or ‘from semantic to semiotic’ as Agamben says at various points, although by saying so he is not necessarily committed to a full Saussurean doctrine of signs).15 We should also note that Agamben’s own appropriation of the concept of the shifter gives it a more profound destiny than do the linguists: such ‘appropriation’ is an integral part of his method, at once enabling his extension of the tradition and a covert distance-taking-without-direct-critique. Locution, location: the shifter is the Voice.16 It is deixis that Agamben exposes as the place of the Voice of language, the radically negative foundation of Western metaphysics. This is also the place to reiterate that, if one misses the centrality of Agamben’s philological deconstruction of grammatical problems to his thinking as a whole, one will also miss what’s important about his method and key concepts. PHATICS, PERFORMATIVES, PARATAXIS, PARABLES Why deixis in particular? Let’s examine two other possibilities, one to do with the void of speech, the other to do with its effectiveness and power. First, phatic speech. In a classic essay, ‘Linguistics and poetics’, Roman Jakobson writes:

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben There are messages primarily serving to establish, to prolong, or discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works (‘Hello, do you hear me?’), to attract the attention of the interlocutor or to confirm his continued attention (‘Are you listening? Or in Shakespearean diction, ‘Lend me your ears!’ – and on the other end of the wire ‘Um-hum!’). This set for contact, or in Malinowski’s terms phatic function, may be displayed by a profuse exchange of ritualised formulas, by entire dialogues with the mere purport of prolonging communication.17

Jakobson adds: ‘The endeavour to start and sustain communication is typical of talking birds; thus the phatic function of language is the only one they share with human beings. It is also the first verbal function acquired by infants; they are prone to communicate before being able to send or receive informative communication.’18 One might, somewhat fancifully, discern a double reference here: first, to one of Agamben’s favoured ideas, that of ‘infancy’, and, second, to Benjamin’s idea of prose as the language of the birds. More importantly, ‘phatic’ speech can thus seem very like Agamben’s motif of ‘communication without having anything to communicate’, pure communicability, which dissolves the received differences between ‘man’ and ‘animal’ in the pure opening of Voice. Why then does Agamben place the emphasis on deixis and not the phatic? Presumably because the phatic retains too great an emphasis on an end, that is, a will to start or to continue to communicate. By contrast, what Agamben finds in deixis is simply the ultimate condition of the ‘taking place of place’ (without this necessitating any will to continue to speak). Moreover, whereas deixis effects a shift within language (e.g. from langue to parole), the phatic does not necessarily entail any such shift. I would even say this: the inventiveness of poetic deixis is distinguished by Agamben from the nihilism of phatic utterance, although the difference between them cannot always be said, only shown, and shown in such a way that the difference may well be missed.19 We must also distinguish deixis from the performative. Why the performative? First, because it, like shifters, must be ‘relatively dependent on the situation in which the utterance takes place’,20 and, second, it is the paradigm for linguistic power in and over the world.21 Unlike deixis, however, the criteria for a successful performative include, precisely, strict criteria: proper place, proper people, proper means, all dedicated to predetermined ends. J. L. Austin himself adumbrates the requirements for a felicitous or happy performative

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as follows: it must (1) fulfil conventional criteria (only certain agents under certain circumstances can effect them); (2) there must be a fit between utterer and convention; (3) all the pertinent agents must act correctly and completely; (4) the agents must think and feel appropriately and continue to do so henceforth.22 Even stripped of their psychological presuppositions, Austin’s criteria are enough to suggest how and why deixis should be considered a more primordial category than the performative. If, with deixis, place, persons and words prove crucial, they become so without any presupposed properties. Deixis engages a taking place without conventional criteria; indeed, possibly before, without or beyond convention. By contrast, the performative is the very mode and model of established (linguistic) power, of established conventions. But Agamben is after something other than power, namely radical impotence – or what he calls ‘potentiality’.23 The shifter is, truly, before the law. This leads us back to another crucial philosophical term. After all, what is Agamben up to with his heterodox account of deixis? Hence the pregnancy of the Greek term, for example: para-deigma, that which is shown alongside . . . Hence the proper place of the example is always beside itself, in the empty space in which its undefinable and unforgettable life unfolds. This life is purely linguistic life. Only life in the word is undefinable and unforgettable. Exemplary being is purely linguistic being. Exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called . . . It is the Most Common that cuts off any real community. Hence the impotent omnivalence of whatever being. It is neither apathy nor promiscuity nor resignation.24

Agamben’s work of para-deixis is therefore his work of ontology, steering a course between the nihilistic reefs of the phatic and the performative. Agamben does this, so to speak, by para-dising deixis, by saying what it’s showing about saying; moreover, by turning his own work into an example of which he speaks, by seeking to show showing. The complications of this procedure engage further concepts, to which I will return: prose, poetry, parables, parataxis. Poetry is not the end of Agamben’s work; Agamben is after prose, but a prose that is only available as that which the poem must evade at all costs in order to be what it is. Just as Wallace Stevens once put it, it’s a question of ‘the intricate evasions of as’. It is precisely through such intricate evasions that Agamben is able to reconstruct a lineage of problems which, in and through this very work of reconstruction, opens onto something new: an immemorial without-relation.25

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This is an integral aspect of Agamben’s parabolic and paratactic praxis. Parabolic, because he speaks in parables, allegorically (allos + agoreuin, other + speak openly, speak in the marketplace), that is, indirectly. Yet the parabola of his thought is not due to political censorship (i.e. a prohibition issuing from the realm of the theologico-political, indissociable from the performative decisions, vetoes or exhortations of sovereign power), and nor is it a paranoiac’s dream of the esoteric (e.g. Leo Strauss’s re-readings of the philosophical tradition), but the consequence of an absolute impossibility (i.e. the Thing cannot be directly said). But the melancholic work of exposing impossibility simultaneously gives itself the peculiar task of turning impossibility into impotence; that is, of rendering potential without or beyond any will, faculty or capacity of actualisation.26 This parabolic practice is itself linked to the problematic of ‘the end of the poem’. Agamben theorises the ‘end’ of a poem, not as a moment of crisis, but as a catastrophic event. His argument runs something like this.27 Poetry is, par excellence, a form that attempts to distinguish itself from all other forms, and such a self-distinguishing is integral to its functioning. Yet the only textual feature that can distinguish ‘poetry’ from ‘prose’ is enjambement, for all other identifiably ‘poetic’ effects are, equally, features of prose. Rhyme, rhythm, repetition, images, metaphors and so on, are not sufficient markers of irreducible difference. In enjambement, however, the end of the line fails to constitute a stable unit of sense or, rather, it becomes undecidable whether the disjunction between the end of a line and the end of the sentence is itself a matter of or for sense. But this state of affairs does not necessarily hold for prose, in which syntax, semantics, prosody and metrics coincide (even if ultimately in the service of nonsense). If this is the case, then poetry can always force its distinction from prose, except at one critical point: the ending. At the end of the poem is poetry’s other, prose; the moment at which the end of the line must coincide with the end of the sentence. Prose is therefore always a catastrophe – a messianic advent – for the poem. This means that poetry qua poetry is integrally constituted by its attempt to evade its own ending. This is at once a historical, linguistic and philosophical thesis: it attempts to account for (among other things) poetry’s ceaseless transformation of the limits of its forms, its internal organisation and the sense of the foundational linguistic distinction between poetry and prose.28 So what I am calling ‘parabolic’ here is precisely this

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staging in prose of the apparition of prose in verse, something that is unable to be said by poetry directly, yet can be stated by prose only at the cost of the loss of its object.29 But Agamben’s style is also paratactic, because he refuses to the phenomena to which he attends, as he refuses in his own prose, the hierarchical subordinations of social and linguistic order. Parataxis is, according to the definition offered by the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary: M19. [Gk = placing side by side, f. paratassein place side by side, f. as Para- + tassein arrange: see Taxis.] Gram. The placing of clauses or phrases one after another, without the use of connecting words to indicate the relation (of coordination or subordination) between them. Opp. Hypotaxis.

Even a cursory glance at The Coming Community, Homo Sacer or Stanzas should confirm that Agamben’s paratactical praxis functions not only insofar as he attends to its apparition in others, nor just at the level of word and figure, sentence and paragraph – but even in the movement and presentation of his thought from article to article, from book to book. Moreover, as Angus Fletcher proposes in his book on allegory, at its limits parataxis can become indistinguishable from hypotaxis.30 Yet Agamben does not thereby squeeze himself through the narrow lyre of the genealogy of the destinies of being. Indeed, it is Agamben’s gesture of suspension between an articulation of the disparate that no longer has any proper proper name and the derangement of inherited concepts through their appropriation and redeployment that constitutes the singularity of his thought. In a meditation from the Idea of Prose entitled ‘The Idea of Language’, Agamben writes: While nature and animals are forever caught up in a language, incessantly speaking and responding to signs even while keeping silent, only man succeeds in interrupting, in the word, the infinite language of nature and in placing himself for a moment in front of mute things.31

Agamben’s doctrine of language hinges on the shifter, precisely because it is the place where language exposes its taking place in its taking place. In this emergence, which shows that all is captive to language, the Thing, language’s other, also glimmers.32 Messianism arises between two ends, between the end of life and the end of time, the last day and the very last day, as Kafka says. For Agamben, it is

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only by passing through the most thoroughgoing negativity, and by effectuating the most radical separation, that the absolute can arise in an act-of-thought. The shifter that is a poem engages the coming of means without end.33 CONCEPTUAL BENEFITS What are the conceptual benefits of Agamben’s cross-grafting of disparate traditions in this way? What are the characteristic operations of his thought? He typically: 1. isolates an interpretative problem (‘Homo sacer’, ‘manes’, Foucault’s inability to bring together his technological project with the theory of sovereignty, etc.); 2. exposes, in the philological re-examination of this problem, that its logic relates and regulates apparently unrelated zones in a specific way (e.g. biopolitics and sovereign power); 3. thereby distinguishes this problem from another, more radical, which the initial problem was obscuring, a new problem towards whose properly aporetic formulation he gestures (i.e. a ‘threshold’).34 These linked procedures are nothing less than Agamben’s own practice of politics-thought-prose, all at once. This is the justification for his paratactic parabolisms, which enable him to reconstruct what may initially appear a simple philological problem and show, in doing so, that the problem is in fact integrally articulated with the greatest problems of our political life. Life, in fact, turns out to be itself one of the greatest of problems, most striking in the relation Agamben examines between the terms zoé and bios in Aristotle’s Politics. Agamben focuses on a peculiar chiasmatic relation that Aristotle forges between these terms: zoé is the ‘bare life’ which must be excluded from the polis over which bios, qualified human life, holds sway. For Agamben, the persistence of this relationship means that politics continues to appear as the truly fundamental structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized. In the ‘politicization’ of bare life – the metaphysical task par excellence – the humanity of living man is decided. In assuming this task, modernity does nothing other than declare its own faithfulness to the essential structure of the metaphysical tradition. The fundamental categorial pair of Western

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politics is not that of friend/enemy but that of bare life/political existence, zoé/bios, exclusion/inclusion.35

This relation of exclusion-inclusion is not a simple outside-inside division; rather, what is excluded from human political life is precisely still included by its exclusion, that is, by being included as an exception. The topology of this ‘invagination’36 is extremely complex, further complicated by its relation to its double – the example. Whereas the exception is that which is included in a set through its exclusion, the example is that which is excluded from its set by the fact that it shows its own inclusion.37 The example and the exception therefore function as the twinned limits of politics, and Agamben will proceed to demonstrate the logic of their operations in a number of apparently very different fields. Law is integrally linked to sovereignty and to sacrality. Law literally cuts beings up into beings – a de-commissioning of a peculiar kind – and the founding rift of philosophy is not mind body, but zoé bios, bare life regionalised by qualities. The benefits of Agamben’s a-dialectical approach are many. Rather than a Heideggerean sending of beings, we now have a more nuanced biopolitical approach, which doesn’t junk the benefits of Heidegger’s problematic (e.g. the re-reading of certain key texts in order to retrace the destiny of nihilism and the possible routes for its overcoming). This sequence, for reasons I have already discussed, must be reconstructed: it’s in no way explicit due to the essential parabolisms of Agamben’s work. So let us reinscribe the dispensations of sovereignty implied by Agamben as further folds in the invagination of the global zoé bios distinction. Each dispensation can be thought as itself a biopolitical ‘paradigm’, a particular articulation of sexualgovernmental technologies, with its own characteristic concepts, organisation and figures. Yet, in line with the Heideggerean interpretation of the historicity of Being, this must also be considered all ‘one’ sequence. We can thus identify the following critical instances in sovereignty’s becoming: 1. its emergence with the Ancient Greek polis, legible in the establishment of the structure of exception/law in the polis from which zoé is excluded. Zoé is referred to the home, where it is incarnated in women, animals and slaves and thrown outside the walls, like the dying Oedipus of Oedipus at Colonus; 2. its installation with the Roman Empire, evident with the crystallisation of Homo Sacer as a particular figure for the first time, who

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben is linked in an antagonistic complicity with other figures in whom law is also directly life (e.g. the Flamen Diale); its consolidation in medieval feudalism, discernible in the doctrinal apotheosis of the king’s two bodies, Magna Carta and the poetico-legal figures of the wolfman and the bandit; its determination in early modernity, punctuated by such developments as Habeas Corpus (1679) and the constitutional monarchy of England; its exhaustion with modern nihilism: whence the Panopticon and modern biopolitics, human rights, ‘the people’, representative democracy; its abandonment and exposure in contemporary camp life, which sees the final separation of violence and law, accompanied by new military, medical and communicational technologies, and the production of refugees, neomorts, the Muselmänner, etc., as massphenomena (i.e. no longer isolated and extreme figures) at the most extreme nihilistic limit of metaphysics.

Against the logic of this sequence, Agamben drives towards threshold concepts that are also concepts of the threshold.38 We are now in a position to schematise Agamben’s system in its elemental architecture. The elements can be formalised under the rubrics of: (1) material; (2) operation; (3) paradigm; (4) figure; (5) medium; (6) poiesis. This is precisely why, in the ‘Preface’ to Means without End, Agamben lists the following as of crucial importance to his project: bare life; sovereign exception; concentration camp; refugee; language; gesture. The fundamental material in Agamben’s political work is the relation between bios and zoe; the fundamental operation is exception; the contemporary paradigm is the camp; the contemporary figure is the ‘Muslim’, a refugee even from language itself; the medium is language; poiesis is pure sign, that is, gesture or potentiality. This last point must be articulated with Agamben’s thesis in Means without End that: ‘Politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.’39 Since, for Agamben, philosophy is only one of the ‘pseudonyms’ of politics, thought itself must attain to the gestural. That is, thought (or thinking, for Agamben does not seem to make a stringent distinction in this regard) must at once be: (1) situational (it is always and only with respect to a place that it takes place); (2) erratic (thought takes place only in the place, but not always in the place)40; (3) experimental (thought is in the place, but not of the place); (4) it must be

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inseparated or singular (that is, it must induce a ‘form-of-life’, hyphenated, an enigmatic yet absolute one-multiple); (5) it must expose itself as having the aforementioned properties (it must be exemplary).41 These conditions are necessary and sufficient. Together, they constitute the thought of the task of contemporary thought as potentiality. Such potentiality is, as we have seen, neither total nor totalising. One can immediately note that this ‘gesture’ is itself precisely modelled on the structure of the linguistic shifter by means of its exposure as the poem. Poetry is thought, and thought is a shifter, that is, an event, the event of the experience of language as matter that gives onto an ethics. As Agamben says in The End of the Poem, ‘Anthropological changes correspond, in language, to poetological changes. These are all the more difficult to register in that they do not simply represent stylistic or rhetorical progressions, but rather call into question the very borders between languages.’42 To recapitulate Agamben’s ideal in a neologism, one might call it a poethics. Agamben does nothing other than seek this structure in every phenomenon that he examines, in order to unleash its potentiality. And he does this as neither an apostle (someone who testifies to an event which we ourselves have missed) nor a prophet (who testifies to an event we have not yet missed), but as a messianist: someone who gestures towards that time which remains between now and the end of time, the ‘time of the end’.43 Poetry has a messianic vocation because it precisely does nothing but attempt to avoid its own end (however ‘cheaply and abjectly’) which is that of prose, but such an end can only appear as such in the attempt not to end; and it is the task of philosophy, the paradigm of prose, to designate this end of end for the poem that could only show it.44 It is in this rift of non-relation between an event-without-knowledge and a knowledge-without-event that the Idea as such can arise.45 SOME DIFFICULTIES Despite Agamben’s astonishing range of reference, it is also the case that his ‘repertoire’ is ‘extraordinarily restricted’, to quote the Austrian film critic Drehli Robnik.46 As we have seen, the same forms of argumentation invariably recur in Agamben’s analyses of ‘the example’, ‘genius’, ‘the halo’, ‘manes’, etc. Agamben’s net is wide, but he catches the same fish time after time. This is a consequence of his adherence to the priority of natural languages, to the diagnosis of nihilism, to the messianic promise. This is by no means a criticism: it

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is at the very least testimony to Agamben’s fidelity to what he identifies as the fundamental conceptual and practical problems of the present. Nonetheless, this fidelity is indissociable from a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of certain other key problems. What Agamben seems incapable of thinking through is the status of mathematics, and, a fortiori, the status of those sciences which rely on mathematical formalisation. Instead, he must either ignore the quite peculiar status of mathematics, or implicitly fuse it with logic (in this, he’s part of the general ruck of post-Romantic thinkers). Symptomatically, whenever he turns his attention to mathematical matters, he goes seriously awry. Take section 1.5 of Homo Sacer, which begins with this statement: Set theory distinguishes between membership and inclusion. A term is included when it is part of a set in the sense that all of its elements are elements of that set (one then says that b is a subset of a, and one writes it b 傺 a). But a term may be a member of a set without being included in it (membership is, after all, the primitive notion of set theory, which one writes b 僆 a), or, conversely, a term may be included in a set without being one of its members.47

So far, this is merely a slightly misleading and overly compressed transcription of Alain Badiou’s account in Being and Event.48 However, Agamben immediately engages in two points of falsification. The first is evident in the statement ‘Alain Badiou has developed this distinction in order to translate it into political terms.’ If it is true that Badiou does note the political connotations of his own translation of the mathematics into classical philosophical terms, he does not do this simply ‘in order to’. Quite to the contrary, Badiou’s proposal is that such a political freighting will now have to be thought on the basis of the mathematics, and not the other way around. Second, and precisely to the extent that Agamben misrepresents Badiou’s project here, he can then reassert his own ‘logic’ at the expense of the mathematics, suggesting it adds a fourth way of thinking the political that corresponds to Badiou’s thought of the event: ‘The exception is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is always already included’ (25, Agamben’s emphasis). This beautiful paradox may well exemplify the ‘sovereign logic’ inscribed within natural languages, but it is incapable of touching on the rigour of set theoretical mathematics, whose axioms strictly prohibit such a claim. And if Badiou’s ‘event’ is also calibrated to evade such

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mathematics, it does this in two ways, neither conforming to Agamben’s description. First, one must start with mathematics as the paradigm of the rational, not with logic or natural languages, and mathematics’ separation from them is absolute.49 Second, ‘the event’ must for Badiou be thought together with a problematic of ‘nomination’ and of ‘subjective fidelity’ – which, instead of rendering the event exceptional in the way Agamben suggests, rather decides and fixes the difference between membership and inclusion, between a ‘situation’ and its ‘state’. So when Agamben continues that ‘from the point of view of language, it is possible to assimilate inclusion to sense and membership to denotation’, this is mere wishfulfilment with no bearing whatsoever on either the maths itself, or on Badiou’s own project.50 The point here is not simply that Agamben distorts Badiou’s work or doesn’t adequately take into account the status of mathematics. Rather, it’s that mathematics doesn’t conform to the impasses of natural languages, poetry, law and politics that Agamben seeks everywhere to think through; yet, given its centrality to modern science and technology, mathematics is hardly a discourse irrelevant to any thought of the present. I am thus suggesting that Agamben’s misrepresentation of Badiou is a symptom, a symptom that demands further interrogation. At the same time, it might also be taken as a profound diagnosis in an anti-Platonic frame. If the political was originally articulated with the poetic, was it (thereby) simultaneously also detached from the mathematical? This question itself implies a threshold of and for thought. Nor was my allusion above to the figure of Christ an accident. In a note to his Logiques des Mondes, Badiou denominates Agamben a ‘Franciscan of ontology’. As such, the ‘hero’ of Agamben’s work would be none other than homo sacer himself, that threshold being of absolute weakness in which the flickers of messianic redemption can be discerned.51 So Agamben’s remains an analytic of finitude at its limit, the tributary of a linguistic idealism that sustains itself through an evasion of the challenges of science. In this, Agamben’s special brand of materialist Christianity remains Romantic. Agamben’s project must be taken seriously, but one also might seek to delimit it, to ask: why must Agamben misrepresent the sciences in order to elaborate his theses? What are the consequences of such a misrepresentation? Is this Agamben’s own form of ‘unthought’? If so, towards what new realms can this ‘unthought’ itself direct us? There is the threshold; let us cross it together.

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Notes 1. Symptomatically, the first book-length collections in English are Andrew Norris (ed.), Politics, Metaphysics and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2005) and Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli (eds), Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007). Despite the often very fine essays collected in these volumes, one can scour both and come away with almost no understanding of the crucial role that Agamben assigns to poetry (with the limited exception of Erik Vogt, who alone recognises the poet functions as an ‘exemplary witness’ for Agamben, p. 94 of the Norris anthology); the other major option to overlooking the poetic is to dismiss it as merely literary affectation, i.e. bound up with a pretentious, obscurantist and ethically compromised attitude. As I argue here, however, a rigorous vision of poetry and its necessarily fraught imbrication with ontology and politics is at the very heart of Agamben’s project, and to mistake this centrality and this rigour is essentially to misunderstand what he is up to; moreover, the massive evidence of this attempt to overlook, dismiss and sever poetry from its others in Agamben’s work in the academic rampage to ‘criticise and apply’ is itself a function of the thoughtless divisiveness of what Agamben elsewhere calls ‘the anthropological machine’. See Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. K. Attell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004). 2. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy in History: The Destruction of Experience, trans. L. Heron (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 147–8. 3. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 83. 4. Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, trans. K. E. Pinkus with M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. xii. 5. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, analysis and foreword J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 60. 6. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), p. 173. 7. Agamben, Language and Death, pp. 16–17. Agamben’s emphasis. 8. For one of Agamben’s own, very subtle and nuanced formulations of the relationship, see his essay on Jean-Claude Milner, ‘Philosophy and Linguistics’, in Potentialities, pp. 62–76. 9. Revere Perkins, Deixis, Grammar and Culture (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1992), p. 101. 10. Gillian Brown, Speakers, Listeners and Communication: Explorations in Discourse Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996),

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pp. 108–9. Perkins also maintains that ‘Deixis may be understood as linguistic pointing to relevant portions of the context of an utterance and is often accompanied by extra-linguistic gesturing or indication by a turn of the head or a nod in a particular direction,’ Deixis, p. 100. Javier Martin Arista and Ana Ibáñez Moreno, ‘Deixis, reference, and the functional definition of lexical categories’, Atlantis, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2004), p. 71. Moreover, because ‘reference proper requires nouns’ (71), this suggests that deixis evades the presupposition of substance (and, a fortiori, of objects). Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. M. E. Meek (Miami, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971), p. 218. Benveniste continues: ‘This constant and necessary reference to the instance of discourse constitutes the feature that unites to I/you a series of “indicators” which, from their form and systematic capacity, belong to different classes, some being pronouns, others adverbs, and still others, adverbial locutions,’ p. 218. In yet another essay he adds: ‘The personal pronouns provide the first step in this bringing out of subjectivity in language. Other classes of pronouns that share the same status depend in their turn upon these pronouns. These other classes are the indicators of deixis, the demonstratives, adverbs, and adjectives, which organize the spatial and temporal relationships around the “subject” taken as referent: “this, here, now,” and their numerous correlatives, “that, yesterday, last year, tomorrow,” etc. They have in common the feature of being defined only with respect to the instances of discourse in which they occur, that is, in dependence upon the I which is proclaimed in the discourse,’ p. 226. See also, ‘The sentence is thus each time a different event: it only exists in the instant in which it is uttered and immediately effaces itself: it is a vanishing event,’ E. Benveniste, ‘La forme et le sens dans le langage’, Problèmes de linguistique générale, II (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), p. 227. Benveniste, Problems, p. 226. ‘The shifters are probably the most interesting double structure: the most ready example is that of the personal pronoun (I, thou) an indicial symbol which unites within itself the conventional and the existential bonds: for it is only by a conventional rule that I represents its object (so that I becomes ego in Latin, ich in German, etc.), but on the other hand, since it designates the person who utters it, it can only refer existentially to the utterance (C[ode]/M[essage]). Jakobson reminds us that personal pronouns have long been thought to be the most primitive layer of language (Humboldt), but that in his view, they point rather to a complex and adult relationship between the code and the message: the personal pronouns are the last elements to be acquired in the child’s speech and the first to be lost in aphasia; they are terms of transference which are difficult to handle. The shifter theory seems as yet to have been little

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben exploited; yet it is, a priori, very fruitful to observe the code struggling with the message, so to speak (the converse being much more commonplace); perhaps (this is only a working hypothesis) it is on this side, that of the shifters, which are, as we saw, indicial symbols according to Peirce’s terminology, that we should seek the semiological definition of the messages which stand on the frontiers of language, notably certain forms of literary discourse,’ Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith (New York: Hill & Wang, 1969), pp. 22–3. ‘The taking place of language between the removal of the voice and the event of meaning is the other Voice whose ontological dimension we saw emerging in medieval thought and that, in the metaphysical tradition, constitutes the originary articulation (the arthron) of human language,’ Language and Death, p. 35. Agamben’s emphasis. Roman Jakobson, Selected Writings, Vol. III, ed. with preface S. Rudy (The Hague: Mouton, 1981), p. 24. Pierre Guirard says that phatic communication ‘plays a very important part in all forms of communion: rites, solemn occasions, ceremonies; speeches, harangues; family conversations or amorous exchanges, in which the content of the communication is less important than the fact of being there and of affirming one’s membership of the group,’ Semiology, trans. G. Gross (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 8. Jakobson, Selected Writings, p. 24. There is perhaps a connection to be made here with Freud’s fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which a child throws a spool on a thread over the bars of his cot while he yells ‘fort’ (gone), and pulls it back with a ‘da’ (there). For Freud, the child generates this game in the absence of his mother, and ultimately provides substantial evidence for the death drive and repetition compulsion. As Arista and Moreno write, ‘both deixis and pseudo-deixis make use of mutually-exclusive pairs, namely demonstrative adjectives and pronouns, personal pronouns, and the adverbs now, then, here, and there,’ p. 71. For his part Heidegger speaks of a division within deixis: ‘the “there” points to a “here” and a “yonder” ’, Being and Time, p. 171. Arista and Moreno, ‘Deixis,’ p. 71. Agamben returns constantly to this problem, under various headings. In State of Exception, he links it explicitly to the problem of application of law: ‘In the relation between the general and the particular (and all the more so in the case of the application of a juridical norm), it is not only a logical subsumption that is at issue, but first and foremost the passage from a generic proposition endowed with a merely virtual reference to a concrete reference to a segment of reality (that is, nothing less than the question of the actual relation between language and world). This passage from langue to parole, or from the semiotic to the semantic, is

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22. 23.

24. 25.

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not a logical operation at all; rather, it always entails a practical activity, that is, the assumption of that complex apparatus that Benveniste defined as the enunciative function, which logicians often tend to undervalue,’ State of Exception, trans. K. Attell (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2005), p. 39. See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 14–15. This is one of the reasons why Judith Butler’s work remains, as they say, somewhat behind the eight-ball. First, it’s everywhere obsessed with ferreting out the secret of power; second, it wants to know how to seize this power itself, from a position of a relative lack-of-power; third, it thereby cannot avoid a kind of limit-voluntarism insofar as it concerns itself with such a seizure; fourth, it remains entirely uninterested in the real (situational and linguistic) conditions that establish the conditions of performativity (hence her recurrent misrepresentations of Lacan’s ‘phallus’); fifth, these features, taken together, render Butler’s work homogenous with ‘the era of accomplished nihilism’. The primary conceptual figure legible throughout Butler’s work is that of a victim-whojust-won’t-stand-for-it-anymore, a victim hungry for power (sometimes dissimulated, moreover, in the Levinasian terms of radical openness to the radical other, etc.). This couldn’t be further from Agamben’s work, which ceaselessly aims at something that the concept of ‘performativity’ is incapable of grasping, that is, incapacity itself, the messiah’s advent (who is himself entirely without power). Agamben, The Coming Community, pp. 9–10. This philological procedure is so crucial that Agamben dedicates an essay to it: philology, being concerned not only with the details of the transmission of texts but also in emendatio and coniectura (correction and conjecture), finds ‘its specific place between Halacha and Aggada, between truth and transmission, between subject matter and truth content,’ Infancy in History, p. 146. This is exactly the operation of melancholia that Agamben identifies in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. R. L. Martinez (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). Agamben’s argument draws on the analysis of Jean-Claude Milner regarding enjambement in ‘Réflexions sur le fonctionnement du vers français’, in Ordres et raisons de langue (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982), pp. 283–301. For example, ‘what is enjambment, if not the opposition of a metrical limit to a syntactical limit, of a prosodic pause to a semantic pause? “Poetry” will then be the name given to the discourse in which this opposition is, at least virtually, possible; “prose” will be the name for the discourse in which this opposition cannot take place,’ The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA:

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29.

30. 31.

32.

33.

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 109. Or, as Agamben puts it in Idea of Prose, ‘In this way, enjambement brings to light the original gait, neither poetic nor prosaic, but boustrophedonic, as it were, of poetry, the essential prose-metrics of every human discourse,’ p. 40. In a long parenthesis, Agamben writes: ‘(Wittgenstein once wrote that “philosophy should really only be poeticized” [Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten]. Insofar as it acts as if sound and sense coincided in its discourse, philosophical prose may risk falling into banality; it may risk, in other words, lacking thought. As for poetry, one could say, on the contrary, that it is threatened by an excess of tension and thought. Or, rather, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, that poetry should really only be philosophised),’ The End of the Poem, p. 115. See Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (London: Cornell, 1964), esp. pp. 162–72. Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Prose, trans. M. Sullivan and S. Whitsitt (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1995), p. 113. As Agamben says of the ‘Thing’ of Plato’s Seventh Letter, ‘The thing itself therefore has its essential place in language, even if language is certainly not adequate to it, on account, Plato says, of what is weak in language. One could say, with an apparent paradox, that the thing itself, while in some way transcending language, is nevertheless possible only in language and by virtue of language: precisely the thing of language,’ Potentialities, p. 31. Or: ‘Like dolphins, for a mere instant human language lifts its head from the semiotic sea of nature. But the human is nothing other than this very passage from pure language to discourse; and this transition, this instant, is history,’ Infancy and History, p. 56. For example, ‘As the pure form of relation, language (like the sovereign ban) always already presupposes itself in the figure of something nonrelational, and it is not possible either to enter into relation or to move out of relation with what belongs to the form of relation itself . . . the nonlinguistic is only ever to be found in language itself,’ Homo Sacer, p. 50. ‘To a word that does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, but says only itself, would correspond an action as pure means, which shows only itself, without any relation to an end. And, between the two, not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception,’ Agamben, State of Exception, p. 88. In this, he is clearly following Benjamin; for example, Thesis VIII in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ reads: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our

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position in the struggle against Fascism,’ Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn, ed. with intro. H. Arendt (New York: Fontana, 1992), pp. 248–9. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 8. See Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. B. Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). Agamben also investigates the complexities of exemplarity, which ‘escapes the antinomy between universal and particular,’ elsewhere. See, for instance, Agamben, The Coming Community, esp. pp. 9–10. In Andrew Norris’ words, ‘ “Threshold” is a word that occurs again and again in Agamben’s text, and it invariably signifies a passage that cannot be completed, a distinction that can be neither maintained nor eliminated,’ ‘Giorgio Agamben and the politics of the living dead’, diacritics, Vol. 30, No. 4 (2000), p. 41. Note that this ‘sequence’ is an attempt on Agamben’s part at a kind of genealogy of sovereign power (in the Foucauldian sense of the word), and not a history; he is essaying to outline diagrammatically the significance of key moments in the mutations of Western sovereignty; his project is not, therefore, ahistorical or amorphous, but can only be properly understood when referred, first, to a vast body of existing research by others on which he is implicitly relying (but not merely reproducing) and, second, when the properly philosophical elements of his project are taken seriously (as opposed to thinking of him as just offering another interpretation of certain historical events). Finally, Agamben’s own remarks seems to suggest that, in addition to correcting, critiquing or supplementing Foucault, his analysis of the articulation between law and the exception is able to think a number of things Foucault himself failed to do, for instance Foucault’s failure to discuss the concentration camps in adequate detail, not to mention Foucault’s inability to properly conceive the relationship between sovereignty, biopower and governmentality. Agamben, Means without End, p. 60. Agamben’s emphasis. Agamben notes that he is an Averroist insofar as he doesn’t believe in the continuous nature of thought, that is thought is erratic, irruptive, impersonal. As Charles Méla notes of Latin Averroeism in the course of an essay on medieval love, ‘the possible intellect’ ‘is a separated and eternal substance, which manifests itself in the individual without being tied to him . . . man has nothing truly proper to him except the affects and the images of a body which feels, imagines and suffers, and the thought that is born in him that is not of him nor for him. The man who thinks is in reality thought. It is therefore necessary to conceive thought according to a cleavage between two copresent subjects: one, which is “pure subjectivity,” remains exterior to the human soul and corresponds to the possible intellect, potential place, unique and separated, of intelligible species; the other, interior to the soul, is in fact thought: it is the seat of

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben mental images, that is of imaginary intentions (intentio or desire) that thought actualises in it,’ ‘L’amour et “l’Or riant” ’, A. Badiou and others, De l’amour (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), pp. 122–3. As Méla shows, love in this conception has no power over the possible intellect. By the way, if Agamben and Badiou agree that thought does not always take place (that it is, in Badiou’s terms, ‘rare’), where Agamben identifies the eventvoid-subject, Badiou separates the subject from the event qua upsurge of the void. In his essay on Melville’s Bartleby, Agamben writes ‘As a scribe who has stopped writing, Bartleby is the extreme figure of the Nothing from which all creation derives; and at the same time, he constitutes the most implacable vindication of this Nothing as pure, absolute potentiality,’ Potentialities, p. 253. See Means without End, esp. ‘Form-of-life’, pp. 5–12. Agamben, The End of the Poem, p. 96. There he also says, ‘What characterizes poetic atheology as opposed to every negative theology is its singular coincidence of nihilism and poetic practice, thanks to which poetry becomes the laboratory in which all known figures are undone and new, parahuman or semidivine creatures emerge,’ p. 91. My terms here are slightly dissonant with those Agamben himself mobilises in The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. P. Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005). ‘Cheap and abject’ are Agamben’s own words for the ways in which poems characteristically end: ‘The disorder of the last verse is an index of the structural relevance to the economy of the poem of the event I have called “the end of the poem.” As if the poem as a formal structure would not and could not end, as if the possibility of the end were radically withdrawn from it, since the end would imply a poetic impossibility: the exact coincidence of sound and sense. At the point in which sound is about to be ruined in the abyss of sense, the poem looks for shelter in suspending its own end in a declaration, so to speak of the state of poetic emergency,’ The End of the Poem, p. 113. In another context, Agamben will write: ‘The sestina – and, in this sense, every poem – is a soteriological device which, though [sic] the sophisticated méchané of the announcement and retrieval of rhyming end words (which correspond to typological relations between past and present), transforms chronological time into messianic time,’ The Time That Remains, p. 82. To harp on the point, we could put this another way: a poem is precisely the exemplum of an utterance which cannot be separated from its form (at its limits, pure enjambement for Agamben) and which, moreover, neither means nor bes (to parody Archibald MacLeish) . . . nor, indeed, says. If anything, a poem ‘events’ for Agamben. But the poem necessarily ends in and as prose, which must then supplement the impotentiality of the poem’s means prosaically, losing, as it does so,

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the form. In the space of non-relation thereby opened up opens, precisely, the Idea. Personal communication Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 24. This is precisely where Badiou’s contribution is so strong – insofar as he restitutes the claims of mathematics against its downgrading by Romanticism. See Badiou’s magnum opus, Being and Event, trans. O. Feltham (London and New York: Continuum, 2005). For an extended account of the vicissitudes of Romanticism, see my own The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). It is necessary to emphasise here how important it is to thoroughly reject those commentators who upbraid Agamben (or Badiou, for that matter) for undue formalism, in the name of some allegedly more ‘messy’ or ‘complicated’ reality that is apparently being reduced by such an adherence. Such rejections completely misunderstand – often to the point of downright falsification – the status of thought, its rigour and its systematicity, evincing a failure to examine the status of their own utterances. One symptom of this is, precisely, the inability to discern how and why poetry matters so much to Agamben. The suspicious mistranslations continue in the very same paragraph. Not content with his illicit translation of set theory into the terms of linguistics, Agamben proceeds to move only-too-rapidly, on the basis of pure assertion alone: Lévi-Strauss’s ‘theory of the constitutive excess of the signifier over the signified’, Benveniste’s ‘doctrine of the irreducible opposition between the semiotic and the semantic’ and deconstruction’s ‘positing [of] undecidables that are infinitely in excess of every possibility of signification,’ are all corralled without further ado (Homo Sacer, p. 25). See Alain Badiou, Logiques des Mondes (Paris: Seuil, 2006), pp. 583–4. This charge is also levelled – in a very different way – by Antonio Negri, who writes that, for Agamben, ‘if you wish for something new, you will find it on the margins of being. The event will be mystical rather than a hard ascesis within being. You will be left with vision and contemplation rather than activity and construction; ecstasy, in place of enjoyment. Once again, we see here how the height of resistance is interpreted by Agamben as passivity rather than as rebellion, represented by Bartleby rather than Malcolm X, by homo sacer rather than the slave or the proletariat,’ ‘Giorgio Agamben: the discreet taste of the dialectic’, in Calarco and DeCaroli, Sovereignty and Life, p. 123.

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CHAPTER 4

‘Its Silent Working was a Delusion’ Jessica Whyte

A cage went in search of a bird. Franz Kafka

In his short story ‘In the Penal Settlement’, Franz Kafka describes a machine, ‘the apparatus’, in which a condemned man is to be executed. This apparatus – as lovingly described by the officer who supervises it – works in the following way. Firstly, the condemned man is laid naked on a bed, stomach down; next, he is strapped in by his hands, feet and throat, while a piece of felt is stuffed into his mouth ‘to keep him from screaming and biting his tongue’.1 Above the bed is the inscriber and, attached to that, the harrow – a word that refers not only to the sharp teeth of the ploughing instrument it resembles, but also to the distress and torment it produces. Once the condemned man is firmly strapped in, the work of sentencing begins. While the idea that a sentence would be produced by the same machine that is to carry out the punishment seems unusual, this blurring of sentence and punishment, judgement and execution is precisely what is at stake in Kafka’s story. When the machine kills a man, it does so by inscribing a sentence – in this case, the sentence is Honour Your Superiors – onto his body, writing deeper and deeper into the flesh, until, after approximately twelve hours, the man is killed. In Idea of Prose, Giorgio Agamben discusses Kafka’s story in order to illuminate the ambiguity whereby the linguistic sentence blurs into the penal sentence. What Kafka reveals, Agamben suggests, is that the machine of torture in the penal colony is language. The apparatus, Agamben suggests, ‘is primarily a machine of justice and punishment. This means that on earth and for men, language is also such an instrument.’2 Agamben discusses the horrific ending to Kafka’s story, in which the officer straps himself into the machine and attempts to have it inscribe the sentence ‘Be Just’ into his own flesh. The attempt to have the machine inscribe this particular sentence, however, produces a result quite unlike the calculated penal procedure the officer had

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previously described: once the officer is strapped into the machine, it begins to malfunction; cogs and wheels spit out at random; the harrow doesn’t write but merely jabs violently into his body again and again. ‘The machine was obviously going to pieces’, the explorer realises, and ‘its silent working was a delusion.’3 While the officer had desired a form of redemption that would come from understanding the meaning of the sentence as it was inscribed into his body, what was produced was not redemption but, in the explorer’s words, ‘plain murder’.4 In Agamben’s view, the enlightenment produced by the machine was its revelation of the meaning of language, which is contained in language only as punishment. Here Agamben establishes an essential relation between logos and law: logic, he suggests, has its exclusive realm in judgement: ‘Logical judgement is, in truth, immediately penal judgement’.5 Agamben offers an interpretation of the machine’s destruction in which the officer inserts the injunction Be Just into the machine with the precise intent of destroying it. The tale, Agamben suggests, presents the ultimate meaning of language as precisely this injunction, Be Just. And yet, it is precisely this injunction that language cannot make us understand. ‘Or, rather’, Agamben writes, ‘it can do it only by ceasing to perform its penal function, only by shattering into pieces and turning from punisher to murderer.’6 The relation between language and law signalled here is essential to understanding Agamben’s more recent, and more overtly political, Homo Sacer series. What does it mean to suggest that language is a ‘penal machine’? And what is the implication – for a philosophy of law and a politics that desires justice – of Agamben’s account of the shattering of this machine? In another essay, also entitled ‘The Idea of Language’, Agamben defines the ‘idea of language’ as the sayability or communicability that language must presuppose in order to signify. What is presupposed is not a proposition but the very event of language prior to signification – that there is language, that language takes place. By presupposing this event, language captures it; because language cannot say sayability, because it cannot name the event of language, it renders it inaccessible. Sayability is that which, ‘in language, we always presuppose and forget . . .’.7 And yet today, Agamben argues, this presuppositional structure of language has been revealed. How are we to respond to this situation? In a thinly veiled critique of deconstruction, Agamben recounts Wittgenstein’s image of a fly trapped in a glass. Contemporary thought, he suggests, has now recognised the glass, has recognised that we are trapped within the limits of

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the presuppositional structure of language. And yet, ‘what is left aside is precisely the original project assigned to this image: the possibility that the fly might leave the glass.’8 This is the possibility of justice. Like language, law too relies on a presupposed foundation. In the absence of transcendent authority, law presupposes itself, retrospectively legitimating its own, non-legal, foundation and establishing a circle in which law’s authority stems from law itself. This produces what Adam Thurschwell has called the fundamental politicalphilosophical dilemma of our time: ‘the inability to articulate an emphatic conception of justice in any terms beyond those of positive law’.9 In contrast to those who would respond to this dilemma by revealing law’s lack of ground, only to leave this groundless law in place – a strategy Agamben refers to as ‘imperfect nihilism’ and attributes to thinkers as diverse as Gershom Scholem and Jacques Derrida – Agamben believes we must depose or deactivate ‘law itself’. Today, Agamben argues, this task is absolutely necessary, as the crisis produced by the unveiling of the presuppositional structure of law has led to the blurring of law and life and to the generalisation of a juridical model with all the hallmarks of Kafka’s penal settlement. Indeed, Kafka’s story perfectly illustrates this indistinction between law and life: in the settlement, the distinctions between judgement, sentence and punishment collapse, and we cannot distinguish where life ends and law begins, as the body becomes a parchment on which a sentence is violently inscribed. Similarly, we cannot distinguish the factual situation to which law would apply from law itself. ‘Those are the facts’, the Officer tells the explorer after outlining the allegations against the man he is about to have executed: The violence of this indistinction of law and life is clearly illustrated in the startling image of an unconstrained, arbitrary power, which can kill without appeal. The apparatus does not merely execute the condemned man however – it tortures him for six hours, ‘until he has no more energy for screaming’, then tortures him for six more hours until his death. This death by torture appears, in Kafka, as the ultimate result of the eradication of the boundary between law and life. THE STATE OF EXCEPTION In Agamben’s work, the blurring of law and life is the key characteristic of the state of exception, in which law is suspended and the word of the sovereign takes on the force of law. Life in this zone, Agamben argues, is bare life, or – after the Ancient Roman category that marked

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the person who could be killed with impunity but not sacrificed – homo sacer. Bare life is neither bios, a qualified form of life – bios politikos for instance – nor zoé, natural life. Rather, bare life is a creation of sovereign power, ‘a threshold of indistinction’ that enables an articulation between zoé and bios, natural and political life. It is a naked life, stripped of its political status, and yet ‘no life is more political than bare life’ as this life enters into the calculations of politics and of state power through its absolute exposure to death. Bare life is the politicisation of natural life and the state of exception is the place in which biopolitics and sovereign power combine with deadly results. Central to Agamben’s theorisation of the exception is the notion that the violence of the state of nature or anomie is the excluded presupposition of law. While law presupposes the juridical reference, this reference must be created through an articulation, which is simultaneously a discontinuity, between law and life. There can be no absolute demarcation between law and a non-juridical outside; anomie, or life itself, is always presupposed as a constitutive outside, which must be captured within law in the form of the state of exception. The exception, in Agamben, is an individual case that is excluded from the rule. However, ‘what properly characterizes an exception is that what is excluded in it is not, for this reason, simply without relation to the rule. The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying, in withdrawing from it.’10 The exception is a limit relation between law and anomie. The state of exception is ‘the presupposition of the juridical reference in the form of its suspension’:11 it is not the state of nature as outside to law; it is both a presupposition of law and a product of its suspension. This signals the intimate and irrevocable connection between law and the state of exception. In the exception we see the reappearance of what was assumed to lie outside – anomie – on the inside, thus provoking Agamben’s assertion that ‘there is nothing outside the law.’ For Agamben, the point of indistinction between law and violence, juridical and factual order, is marked by the sovereign, who – following Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty – exists in an undecidable position in relation to the juridical order and enables the internalisation, within this order, of anomic violence. The sovereign decision, Agamben writes, ‘represents the inscription within the body of the nomos of the exteriority that animates it and gives it meaning.’12 Like Schmitt, Agamben understands sovereignty as a ‘borderline concept’. The sovereign, Schmitt argued, ‘stands outside the normally valid legal order and nevertheless belongs to it, for he

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decides whether the constitution is to be suspended in its entirety.’13 This status, by which the sovereign is legally outside the law, is, Agamben suggests, the fundamental paradox of sovereignty. Sovereign power is revealed, in the exception, in violently producing the normal situation that is the presupposition of law. Sovereignty is the point of indistinction between law and violence, inside (law) and outside (anomie/life), which testifies to the impossibility of rigidly distinguishing these terms. PRESUPPOSITION AND THE PROBLEM OF APPLICATION: LAW, LIFE, LANGUAGE

The problem of the sovereign decision on the exception is ultimately that of law’s reference to life, of how an abstract body of rules can apply to a concrete segment of reality. What is crucial, for Agamben, is that there is no internal nexus between law and life, no logical passage from norm to reality. The application of a rule is not a logical question but a practical one. Law can only apply to life through an act of application, which is not contained within the law. What the state of exception reveals, then, is the separation of norm and application. In the exception, the norm is suspended to enable its application. This suturing of life to law occurs through the capture of anomie in the juridical, which nullifies anomie by inscribing it within law. No longer pure life, but not yet law, the state of exception is the mechanism of articulation that creates the conditions to which law could apply. From a technical perspective, Agamben writes, the specific contribution of the state of exception is the separation of the ‘force of law’ from law itself. What this separation produces is not simply an absence of law, which can be opposed to law, but ‘“a state of the law” in which, on the one hand, the norm is in force but is not applied (it has no “force” [forza] and, on the other, acts that do not have the value [valore] of law acquire its force.’14 This force of law without law, which Agamben names ‘force of law’, is the pure potentiality of law, separated from any content and severed from law’s application, to make this application possible. Force of law is not an absence of law; it is the pure form of law, the transcendence of form itself. This pure form of law, in which law remains in force without being applied, is a law that has become indistinct from life, but that maintains itself despite its lack of content. ‘Force of law’, writes Agamben, ‘in which potentiality and act are radically separated, is certainly something like a mystical element, or rather a fictio, in which law seeks to annex anomie itself.’15

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The reliance of the law on the exception and the possibility of its own suspension was a central preoccupation for Schmitt, who grounded his theorisation of the state of exception in the conviction ‘there is no norm that is applicable to chaos.’ The factual existence of a normal situation, Schmitt argued, ‘is not a mere “superficial presupposition” that a jurist can ignore’ but a properly juridical question.16 In State of Exception, Agamben glosses Schmitt in the following way: ‘In the decision on the state of exception, the norm is suspended or even annulled; but what is at issue in this suspension is, once again, the creation of a situation that makes the application of the norm possible.’17 In Schmitt’s view, jurisprudence responds to the lack of internal nexus between law and life by presupposing this reference. As Dyzenhaus suggests, the fundamental presupposition of liberalism and positive law is that ‘the problem of how social order is in the first place possible has largely been solved.’18 By presupposing law’s reference to life, liberalism obscures the necessity for this reference to be violently created through the suspension of law, obscuring law’s non-legal conditions of possibility. In contrast, Schmitt asserts that this reference cannot be presupposed but must be created through the suspension of law and the non-legal production of a normal situation. The sovereign ensures an articulation between this anomic production of a factually normal situation and the law by deciding on both the exception and the norm itself. This decision enables an articulation between law and life, by creating a zone in which they can no longer be distinguished. In Agamben’s words: Sovereign violence opens a zone of indistinction between law and nature, outside and inside, violence and law. And yet the sovereign is precisely the one who maintains the possibility of deciding on the two to the very degree that he renders them indistinguishable from each other.19

In the absence of a transcendent foundation, law grounds its authority on law itself. By presupposing itself, law obscures its reliance on its own suspension and on the violent and non-legal production of order. Agamben suggests that today this presuppositional structure is in crisis, while the state of exception can no longer play the role Schmitt ascribed to it. The presuppositional structure that inscribed life in the juridical order has broken down, and, as we saw in Kafka’s penal settlement, we are witnessing ‘the system’s inability to function without being turned into a lethal machine’.20

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To understand law’s application we must understand how sovereign power is able to refer to life, or how the political sphere is constituted. Since Aristotle, the political realm has been predicated on a caesura in the human, manifested in the division between zoé and bios. For the Greeks, it was the exclusion of zoé from the polis that enabled a political life: zoé, Agamben argues, ‘has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.’21 The possibility of an articulation between natural and political life is predicated on the creation of a zone in which they cannot be distinguished. To illuminate this zone, Agamben highlights the ancient Roman category of homo sacer, in which he finds the originary figure in which law refers to life by excluding it. Homo sacer could be killed with impunity but not sacrificed, and was thus defined by a double exclusion: while the unpunishability of his killing removed homo sacer from the sphere of human law, the ban on sacrifices excludes him from the realm of divine law. In this paradoxical status, Agamben identifies a limit concept of the Roman juridical order, ‘an originary political structure that is located in a zone prior to the distinction between sacred and profane, religious and juridical’.22 In the homo sacer, the father’s right over the life of his son, the vitae necisque potestas, is extended to all free male citizens. This power over life is situated at the limit of the home and the city: thus, ‘if classical politics is born of the separation of these two spheres, life that may be killed but not sacrificed is the hinge on which each sphere is articulated, and the threshold at which the two spheres are joined in becoming indeterminate.’23 Agamben uses the term ‘ban’, borrowed from Jean-Luc Nancy, to signify the exposure through which life is simultaneously excluded from the political community and captured in the realm of sovereign power. In his essay ‘Abandoned Being’, Nancy highlights the double meaning of the term ban – the one who is banned is both abandoned and held in a ban. ‘The destitution of abandoned being’, Nancy writes, ‘is measured by the limitless severity of the law to which it finds itself exposed.’ The law to which one is abandoned is not to be subpoenaed to present oneself before a court, or to be held within the jurisdiction of a particular law. Rather, it is a compulsion to appear absolutely under the law as such. To be abandoned is to be held in a ban, and also to be banished: ‘The law of abandonment is the other side of the law, which constitutes the law.’24 It is not difficult to see the step from Nancy’s theorisation of the ban, to Agamben’s conception of the exception, in which bare life – the figure in which the status of the homo sacer is both modernised and

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generalised – is irrevocably exposed before a law that has become indistinguishable from life. We see the force of this abandonment in Kafka’s story, in which the condemned man exists purely as naked life, absolutely deprived of rights or legal status, and yet is utterly exposed to the violence of an indeterminate law. Kafka’s condemned man is not simply set outside the law and made indifferent; he is abandoned by it, exposed and threatened on the very threshold in which life and law become indistinguishable. This ability to hold life in a ban is, for Agamben, the originary force of law. The ban is ‘the fundamental structure of the law, which expresses its sovereign character, its power to include by excluding’.25 Here Agamben undertakes a fundamental reversal of liberal political theory: it is not the social contract but the ban, not identity or belonging but exclusion, not the rule of law but the state of exception that founds sovereign power and constitutes a political community. The ban is the originary political relation, the structure in which exteriority is inscribed within law in order to constitute the law. ‘Law is made of nothing’, Agamben argues, with reference to Savigny, ‘but what it manages to capture inside itself through the inclusive exclusion of the exceptio: it nourishes itself on this exception and is a dead letter without it. In this sense, law truly “has no existence in itself, but rather has its being in the very life of men.” ’26 Here Agamben’s analysis of the presuppositional structure of law coincides with his analysis of bare life, and law and ontology become indistinct: law’s exterior is nothing but human life, and the ban is the original structure in which law refers to life by capturing it (just as language captures being by presupposing its own sayability).27 This means that while zoé is a presupposition of bios, zoé is presupposed as removed, as that which must be excluded to enable a political life. The possibility of this articulation, like that of the articulation between law and life, is predicated on the creation of a zone in which zoé and bios cannot be distinguished. In ‘bare life’, zoé – upon whose exclusion political life is founded – is captured within the city walls in the form of a biopolitical subject in whom life and politics cannot be distinguished. ‘This threshold alone, which is neither simple natural life, nor social life, but rather bare life, is the always present and always operative presupposition of sovereignty.’28 Sovereign power is firstly the power to create bare life by holding life in a ban, utterly exposed to the threat of death. This account of law and sovereignty, Agamben suggests, finds its model in language. Just as there is no logical passage from law to

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application, neither is there a logical passage between language and world. Like law, language secures its reference to the world through the possibility of its own suspension, through its ability to subsist as an abstract body of rules independently of any act of discourse. It is this split between langue and parole, in Saussure’s terminology, which, Agamben suggests, ‘exclusively and fundamentally characterizes human language.’29 Roman Jakobson has suggested ‘langue and parole stand in opposition to each other as potential values and realised values.’30 If parole is the functioning of langue, however, there is nonetheless nothing contained in langue itself which would ensure its actualisation. What is at stake for language, just as for law, is thus the ‘passage from a generic proposition endowed with a merely virtual reference, to a concrete reference to a segment of reality’.31 In the case of language, this passage occurs through the linguistic category of deixis, and through those indicators of the utterance (Benveniste) or shifters (Jakobson) through which language indicates its own taking place.32 What is indicated by the shifters – which include the pronouns and those demonstratives (‘this’, ‘here’, ‘now’, etc.) that always refer to a unique instance of discourse – is the fundamental presupposition of language, the taking place of language, that sayability itself, which, in Agamben’s work, constitutes the ontological dimension. Shifters are empty signs, which attain meaning only when they are consubstantial with an act of discourse. At the very limit of language, shifters indicate ‘pure being in itself, before and beyond any qualitative determination’.33 This nature of the shifters can be understood through the personal pronoun ‘I’. ‘To what does I then refer?’ asks Benveniste; ‘To something very singular which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of linguistic discourse in which it is uttered and it designates its speaker . . . The reality which it invokes is the reality of discourse.’34 The shifters are immanent to an act of discourse, from which they cannot be separated; indeed, they cannot exist in a suspended form. Indicators, writes Benveniste, ‘cannot exist as potentialities; they exist only insofar as they are actualised in the instance of discourse.’35 Through the shifters, which anchor language in a determinate event of discourse and indicate the taking place of language, langue is translated into parole, potentiality is actualised. This articulation enabled by the shifters, however, presupposes sayability, capturing it in language. Sayability, the dimension of the meaning of being, remains ineffable – it is what the machine cannot say – as it cannot be signified but only indicated. ‘Sayability’, says Agamben, ‘remains unsaid in what is said, and about which some-

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thing is said.’36 Like law, language has responded to the evacuation of foundations by presupposing its reference to the world. This selfpresuppositional structure of language is clearly elaborated by Roland Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’. The position of the author, Barthes suggests, was an essentially theological one: the author provided the past, foundation and meaning of the text (just as, in the theory of divine right, God is the past, foundation and meaning of sovereign power)’. Barthes’s death of the author reveals the selfpresuppositional structure of language: in place of the buried author, is the modern scriptor, for whom ‘the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression) traces a field without origin – or, at least, which has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.’37 In describing langue as the social side of language, Saussure writes that langue ‘exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of the community.’38 And yet, despite this contractualist language – which finds its parallel in that social contract on which liberalism sought to ground law’s authority – langue relies on the possibility of its own suspension and on a practical act of application, or enunciation, to secure its reference to the world. This act of enunciation, in turn, ultimately presupposes a voice. The problem of deixis is therefore the problem of the relation of language and voice: only the voice enables the shifters to anchor language in an instance of discourse, which, in turn, is only identifiable as such through the voice. Once again, just as we believe we have identified the figure that enables an articulation, we find, instead, a hiatus, a zone of indistinction. While there is ‘a necessary presupposition of voice in every instance of discourse’, the voice that is presupposed is, like zoé, presupposed as removed.39 Agamben makes this connection explicit: ‘The living being has logos’, he writes in Homo Sacer, ‘by taking away and conserving its own voice in it, even as it dwells in the polis by letting its own bare life be excluded, as an exception, in it.’40 No longer the animal phone, which must be excluded to enable human language, but not yet language, that which indicates the taking place of language is a removed voice, or as Agamben terms it, a Voice. This Voice is the taking place of language that occurs in a ‘no man’s land between sound and signification’.41 This Voice, which Agamben identifies as the ‘supreme shifter’ as it enables language to indicate its own taking place, is the ontological dimension, the dimension of pure being. By presupposing its own sayability, language captures being in a ban.

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We should by now be in a position to identify the common structural features of Agamben’s accounts of law, life and language. In each case, Agamben: (1) begins with the problem of reference, of how an abstract body of rules, whether langue or law, can refer to life; (2) traces this problem to a separation, in which the immanence of praxis has been separated from itself (‘not only language and law but all social institutions have been formed through a process of desemanticization and suspension of concrete practice in its immediate reference to the real’42); (3) identifies a figure – the state of exception, homo sacer, Voice – in which an articulation of these separated terms occurs; (4) demonstrates that this articulation in fact relies on its own presupposition; (5) reveals that the possibility of reference is predicated on the creation of a zone of indistinction, in which the separated terms constitute each other precisely to the extent that they blur into each other and become indistinguishable. This ban structure, Agamben suggests, has been illuminated by a number of thinkers, among them Schmitt, Nancy and Derrida. Where Agamben differs from these thinkers, however, is in his belief that this structure – the structure of the ban – can be overturned, and that the unveiling of this presuppositional structure creates the possibility for the eradication of all presuppositions and separations. SHATTERING THE MACHINE As we have seen, in the Penal Settlement the attempt to make the apparatus inscribe Be Just into the body of the officer shatters the machine. If this machine is language, which is, simultaneously, the juridical machine, why does this injunction shatter it? Justice, beyond judgement, is simply the sayability of things, the thing itself, which has been captured in language and made inaccessible to us. Justice is the sayability language cannot say without ceasing to be a penal machine, without ceasing to capture the ineffable as its presupposed foundation. When language says this presupposition, this shatters the machine which captures being within language: At this point, the presuppositional power of language touches its limit and its end; language says presuppositions as presuppositions and, in this way, reaches the unpresupposable and unpresupposed principle (arkhe anypothetos) that, as such, constitutes authentic human community and communication.43

If language has a privileged place in Agamben’s oeuvre – such that it is precisely by grasping the idea of language that humanity can free

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itself from presuppositions – this is because language is the ultimate presupposition of every speech act, the only being whose nomination necessarily implies its existence. ‘Language’, writes Agamben, ‘is what must necessarily presuppose itself.’44 This presuppositional structure of language is the meaning of revelation: In the beginning was the word. ‘The word that is absolutely in the beginning,’ Agamben claims, ‘that is therefore the absolute presupposition, presupposes nothing if not itself; it has nothing before itself that can explain it or reveal it in turn (there is no word for the word.)’45 To remain within the presuppositional structure of language is to accept that human thought and speech has, as its condition of possibility, a radically transcendent and incomprehensible foundation. Yet, asks Agamben, was philosophy not the discourse that sought to do away with presuppositions, even the most universal presupposition: that language exists? ‘Is philosophy not concerned precisely with comprehending the incomprehensible?’ Agamben asks. ‘The fact that current philosophy has abandoned this task may constitute its fundamental difficulty, condemning the handmaiden to a marriage with its theological master, even as the difficulty of faith coincides with its acceptance by reason.’46 If we wish to grasp pure existence, without presuppositions, we must grasp the pure existence of language. In Kafka’s ‘Penal Settlement’, redemption comes to the condemned when, on the sixth hour, he begins to understand the inscription. ‘You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one’s own eyes,’ the officer says, ‘but our man deciphers it with his wounds.’47 While this redemption may ‘tempt one to get under the harrow oneself,’ when the officer is strapped into the apparatus there is no redemption but only the destruction of the machine, which murders the officer as it shatters. Precisely by asking the machine to inscribe the idea of language, this idea was freed from its imprisonment within language, and justice was freed from that imprisonment within the judging word in which it could be comprehended only as punishment. ‘That the officer does not find in the machine what others have found is now perfectly understandable,’ writes Agamben, for ‘at this point there is nothing left in language for him to understand.’48 Why does Agamben give the name justice to that freedom from presuppositions granted by grasping the fact of language itself? In a 1916 text entitled ‘Notes to a Study on the Concept of Justice’, Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘Justice is the striving to turn the world into the highest good.’49 If presupposition is inherently theological – grounding

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humanity in something outside itself – then the attempt to turn the world into the highest good requires that we cease to presuppose the origin of the human and human community as incomprehensible. To turn the world itself into the highest good requires us to recognise that the human and human community has no ground but human activity itself. Plato writes that while the sciences move from presuppositions to conclusions, philosophy ‘treats assumptions not as principles, but as assumptions in the true sense, that is as starting points and steps in the ascent to something which involves no assumption and is the first principle of everything.’50 For philosophy to do away with presuppositions about humanity and human community is, for Agamben, not to find an essence, but to recognise the ungroundedness of human praxis. This thought would neither presuppose an incomprehensible foundation nor nihilistically presuppose the necessity of purposelessness and senselessness, but would grasp the foundation of man in man.51 The fact that man has no ground, no foundation, but in his own action, constitutes, Agamben suggests, ‘the basis for the oldest religious practice of humanity: sacrifice.’52 Indeed, it is this ungrounded nature of human action, he suggests, that the sacrificial mythologeme has sought to cure.53 Through sacrifice, humanity conceals its own lack of foundation by separating and excluding a determinate human activity, and grounding a community on the rules and prohibitions that stem from this separation. Sacrifice ‘thus furnishes society and its unfounded legislation with the fiction of a beginning; what is excluded from a community is in truth what founds the whole life of community, being taken up by a community as an immemorial past.’54 To free humanity from presuppositions is to eradicate the separation of human praxis from itself, and so to open the possibility of a wholly profane world, which needs neither God nor His negation.55 When Agamben wishes to provide an image of being without presuppositions, he turns once again to Kafka – indeed to the very same story he had previously offered as paradigmatic of the indistinguishability of logical judgement and penal judgement. While Agamben’s first reading of ‘In the Penal Settlement’ focused on the relation between the executioner and the machine, in the Coming Community, in contrast, he turns his attention to the freed convict – who, upon being released from the machine, ‘laughed wordlessly to himself’.56 In this life, which has outlived the machine that was to sentence and to execute it, Agamben sees a figure comparable to those children who die prior to baptism and thus inhabit limbo for eternity. What is conceived as a non-afflictive punishment, which consists exclusively in

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the lack of a vision of God, is, Agamben suggests, instead their greatest joy: as they have always already forgotten God, his judgement cannot touch them; he is impotent in the face of their ‘neutrality with respect to salvation’.57 These beings are beyond judgement and thus beyond law. Kafka’s apparatus had ‘promised redemption’.58 In these lives in which there is nothing to save, Agamben sees ‘the most radical objection that has ever been levied against the very idea of redemption’.59 Against this objection, the theological machine – with its presuppositions and sacralisations – runs aground. Like the freed convict in Kafka’s Penal Colony, who has survived the destruction of the machine that was to have executed him, these beings have left the world of guilt and justice behind them. The light that rains down on them is that irreparable light of the dawn following the novissima dies of judgment. But the life that begins on earth after the last day is simply human life.60 Notes 1. Franz Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 172. 2. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language II’, in Idea of Prose (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 115. 3. Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, p. 196. 4. Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, p. 197. 5. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language II’, p. 116. 6. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language II’, p. 117. 7. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Thing Itself’, in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 35. 8. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language’, p. 46. 9. Adam Thurschwell, ‘Specters of Nietzsche: Potential Futures for the Concept of the Political in Agamben and Derrida’, at: http://www. law.csuohio.edu/faculty/thurschwell/nietzsche.pdf, p. 47. 10. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter Benjamin’, in Potentialities, p. 162. 11. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 21. 12. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 26. 13. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 14. 14. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 38. 15. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 39.

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16. Schmitt, Political Theology, p. 13. 17. Agamben, State of Exception, p. 36. 18. David Dyzenhaus, ‘Why Carl Schmitt?’, in David Dyzenhaus (ed.), Law as Politics: Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 13. 19. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 64. 20. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 114. 21. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 7. 22. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 74. 23. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 90. 24. Jean Luc Nancy, ‘Abandoned Being’, in The Birth to Presence, trans. B. Holmes (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 44. 25. Agamben, ‘The Messiah and the Sovereign’, p. 163. 26. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 27. 27. If this notion seems difficult to grasp, we need only look at Australia’s immigration detention camps and at the position of those within them – both excluded from Australia and held in camps in the very interior of the nation, both abandoned and utterly subjected to the violence of Australian sovereignty, both external to the political community and constitutive of the nature of this political community and of its ability to continue to regulate the composition of its population. The constitutive nature of exclusion was in fact recognised in the High Court case that gave legal sanction to Australia’s mandatory detention regime, the Lim case. Here Justice Gaudron pointed out that citizenship is not enshrined in Australia’s Constitution, and hence cannot be seen as fundamental or immutable, whereas the category ‘alien’ is so enshrined. Hence Gaudron argued that the category of the alien could not necessarily be assumed to be synonymous with ‘non-citizen’, as alien was the more fundamental category. Hence it can be argued that the decision to declare some people aliens, and hence exclude them, is the decision that enables others to be considered citizens. A citizen in Australia can therefore be considered a ‘non-alien’. Exclusion precedes belonging. 28. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 106. 29. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), p. 51. 30. Roman Jakobson, ‘Langue and Parole, Code and Message’, in Roman Jakobson, On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique MelvilleBurston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 93. 31. Agamben, State of Exception, p. 39. 32. See Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, trans. K. E. Pinkus and M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). 33. Agamben, Language and Death, p. 20. 34. Quoted in Agamben, Infancy and History, p. 46.

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35. Emile Benveniste, ‘The Nature of Pronouns’, in Problems in General Linguistics, trans. M. E. Meek (Miami, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971), p. 220. 36. Agamben, ‘The Thing Itself’, in Potentialities, p. 33. 37. Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image, Music, Text, trans. S. Heath (New York: Hill, 1977), p. 146. 38. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (London: Owen, 1960), p. 14. 39. Agamben, Language and Death, p. 33. 40. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 8. 41. Agamben, Language and Death, p. 33. 42. Agamben, State of Exception, p. 37. 43. Agamben, ‘The Thing Itself’, p. 35. 44. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language’, p. 41. 45. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language’, p. 41 46. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language’, p. 45. 47. Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, p. 181. 48. Agamben, ‘The Idea of Language II’, p. 117. 49. Quoted in Eric Jacobson, Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin. 50. Plato, The Republic, p. 314. 51. Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 83. 52. Agamben, Language and Death, p. 105. 53. Agamben, Language and Death, p. 105. 54. Agamben, ‘*Se’, in Potentialities, p. 136. 55. Here we see the decisive influence on Agamben of that Marx who wrote ‘atheism is a negation of God, and posits man’s existence through this negation; but socialism as socialism has no need for this negation’, quoted in Agamben, Man Without Content, p. 126, n. 14. Rather than merely deny the problem of God as creator of man, Marx ‘suppresses it much more radically than any atheism’, Agamben writes. While Agamben draws on Marx in understanding that the ‘act of origin, then, is also the original act’, Agamben ultimately sees Marx’s conception of praxis as limited by a failure to think man’s self-grounding in praxis outside of a metaphysics of will, and therefore outside of a naturalistic determination. See Agamben, Man Without Content, pp. 68–93. 56. Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, p. 181. 57. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Limbo’, in The Coming Community, trans. M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 6. 58. Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, p. 197. 59. Agamben, ‘Limbo’, p. 6. 60. Agamben, ‘Limbo’, p. 7.

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CHAPTER 5

Politics and Poetics of Divine Violence: On a Figure in Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin Arne De Boever

DIVINE VIOLENCE Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Critique of Violence’ is a foundational text for Giorgio Agamben’s study of sovereign power because it lays bare the link between violence and law that is so important for Agamben’s critical project. As Agamben observes, Benjamin understands this link as a dialectical oscillation between the violence that posits the law and the violence that preserves it. The aim of Benjamin’s essay is to propose a third figure that would break the circularity of this dialectic. Agamben finds Benjamin’s essay problematic, however, in that it leaves this figure largely undefined, suggesting even that it can’t be recognised in the concrete case. Benjamin concentrates instead on the bearer of the link between violence and the law, bare life.1 All the more surprising, then, that Agamben’s own work also largely leaves it unclear as to what form the divine violence that constitutes an alternative to the problems of modern sovereignty should take. What would be an example of an act of divine violence? How should one understand divine violence to break the circular dialectic between law-founding and law-preserving violence? And what remains of sovereignty and law after this break has been achieved? This essay seeks to address some of these questions through a comparative reading of the politico-poetic concept of divine violence in Agamben. ‘What is certain [about divine violence]’, Agamben writes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, ‘is only that it neither posits or preserves law, but rather ‘de-poses’ (entsetzt) it.’2 The break between law-positing and law-preserving violence that divine violence achieves creates a zone of indistinction between the two and introduces a politics liberated from the law. The importance of this theoretical insight can be better appreciated when it is considered in the

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context of the debate between Benjamin and Carl Schmitt. As Agamben explains in State of Exception: whereas Benjamin in ‘Critique of Violence’ is interested in an anomic type of violence that breaks the dialectic between law-positing and law-preserving violence, Schmitt could not tolerate the possibility of such a politics outside the law.3 In Political Theology, Schmitt uses the device of the state of exception to bring divine violence within the legal order, defining the sovereign as ‘he who decides on the state of exception’. Following Samuel Weber, Agamben reads Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama as a literary critical response to Schmitt’s conservative move.4 Benjamin restates there his theory of divine violence and proposes a theory of sovereign power as the impossibility to decide. Whereas Schmitt’s sovereignty – the power to decide on the state of exception – confirms the difference between law-positing and lawpreserving violence by creating a zone of indistinction between them (namely, the state of exception), Benjamin’s divine violence creates a ‘real’ state of exception that does not leave the difference between these two kinds of violence intact. Thus Schmitt’s sovereignty confirms the dialectic between violence and the law; Benjamin’s divine violence breaks with it. For his theory of sovereign power, Agamben is indebted to Schmitt. But when it comes to formulating political responses to the problems of modern sovereignty, he turns to Benjamin. State of Exception shows him trying to theorise an anomic violence that would end the ‘lasting eclipse’ that politics has suffered through its (Schmittian) contamination by the law. By calling for a break between law-positing and law-preserving violence, Agamben wants to end the ways in which politics has been ‘seeing itself, at best, as constituent power . . . when it is not merely the power to negotiate with the law’: ‘The only truly political action’, he continues, ‘is that which severs the nexus between violence and law.’5 Divine violence is able to achieve this. At this point, it becomes clear what is at stake for Agamben. He wants to liberate politics from the law by dismantling the device of the state of exception by which Schmitt brought politics within the legal order (paradoxically, as the power to suspend it). But a number of important matters still remain unclear. What would constitute an act of divine violence? In what sense would such an act be divine? In what sense would it be violent? How does divine violence break with the dialectic between violence and the law? Agamben observes that it ‘de-poses’ it. Does that mean that it destroys it? What remains

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of sovereignty and law after divine violence has passed through town? In what follows, I will suggest that these questions provide exemplary sites for the investigation of the ‘original cohesion’ between politics and poetry that Agamben speaks of in the final essay of Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience.6 In the first part of my essay, I show how divine violence functions as a politicopoetic concept in Benjamin’s work, arguing that the political figure of divine violence that Benjamin proposes appears at other places in his work as a poetic figure. The focus of my analysis will be, perhaps surprisingly, Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’. Its place in a discussion of divine violence is not important because it functions as a paradigmatic example of Benjamin’s poetic understanding of divine violence – indeed, Benjamin’s essays on language as such or translation are better examples – but because it allows us to shed light on a subtle yet important difference between Agamben and Benjamin that pertains to their theorisations of the story. In the final section of my essay, I explain further the figure of divine violence in Agamben through the lens of this difference without, however, breaking with the figure’s Benjaminian origins. Indeed, it is only by tying this difference back to the original cohesion between Agamben’s and Benjamin’s work that we can develop a more concrete sense of divine violence’s politico-poetic acts of deposition. ‘THE STORYTELLER’ AND ‘CRITIQUE OF VIOLENCE’ Benjamin’s interest in Schmitt has always been adjudged scandalous. In State of Exception, Agamben turns the scandal around, arguing that Schmitt’s Political Theology was written in response to ‘Critique of Violence’. He also shows that ‘the decisive document in the Benjamin–Schmitt dossier is certainly the eighth thesis on the concept of history, composed by Benjamin a few months before his death.’7 (The eighth thesis is the one where Benjamin speaks of a ‘real’ state of exception that would break the dialectic of law-positing and lawpreserving violence, as opposed to Schmitt’s state of exception, which only confirms it.) In other words: both Benjamin’s early writings (the texts written during the 1920s) and his very last ones (those written only a few months before his death) can be read as documents in the Benjamin–Schmitt debate. What interests Agamben is how this debate and the position Benjamin took up in it was anticipated in

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Benjamin’s work before 1921 and elaborated in the texts he wrote between 1921 and 1940.8 I do not mean to reduce all of Benjamin’s thought to his disagreement with Schmitt, but rather than presuming that Schmitt suddenly reappears in Benjamin’s thought in 1940, my premise is that he remained a latent presence in the work done between 1921 and 1940, and that reading Benjamin’s work of this period through this lens can give us an insight into the poetic dimensions of divine violence. Rather than looking at the essays on language as such or translation that would easily lend themselves to such a reading because of the closeness of the concept of pure language that they propose to what Benjamin calls divine violence or pure violence, I will focus on a less likely candidate, Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’. I propose, quite simply, that Benjamin’s theory of the story and of storytelling can be read as an elaboration of the figure of divine violence. Considering that Benjamin formulated his response to Schmitt’s Political Theology in a book of literary criticism, it is not all that strange to assume that there would be a legal and political dimension to this literary critical essay. Apart from the fact that law and politics cannot have been too far from Benjamin’s mind when he was writing the essay – ‘The Storyteller’ was written in the 1930s while Nazism was on the rise in Germany, and published in 1936 when Germany was invading Poland – Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ also reveals that Benjamin was thinking about the connection between art, law and politics around the time when he was writing ‘The Storyteller’. But the presence of law and politics in ‘The Storyteller’ exceeds the circumstantial. As commentators have pointed out, the essay begins by tracing back a loss of community – of the ability to share experiences through storytelling – to the events of the First World War.9 This inscription of ‘The Storyteller’ in the world war sets the tone for the essay. In order to understand the precise tone of the essay, one needs to turn to the German original, where it becomes clear that throughout the essay, Benjamin associates what he calls the story and storytelling with the words ‘recht’ (law, justice, right) and ‘Freiheit’ (freedom). These words add an emphatic legal and political dimension to the text. On the first page of the essay, for example, when Benjamin writes that ‘one meets fewer and fewer people who know how to tell a tale properly,’ the German word for ‘properly’ is ‘rechtschaffen’ (emphasis mine, as in the following).10 A couple of pages later, he writes:

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free [freizuhalten] from explanation as one recounts it . . . [In a story,] the most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological events are not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them.

In the German, this last sentence reads: ‘Es ist ihm freigestellt sich die Sache zurechtzulegen.’11 Sentences like this can be found throughout the text, whenever Benjamin is trying to define what he means by the story and storytelling. The legal and political dimension to the story and storytelling, even if not stated in the text directly, nevertheless becomes visible in the very fabric of its writing (in its text, from the Latin ‘texere’, to weave). Maybe the essay’s obsession with law and politics becomes most explicit in a passage in which Benjamin tries to capture the difference between the fairy tale, which he offers as a prime example of what he means by the story, and myth, which in the essay he associates with law: In the figure of the fool it [the fairy tale] shows how mankind ‘acts dumb’ toward myth; in the figure of the youngest brother, it shows how one’s chances increase as the mythical primordial time is left behind; in the figure of the youth who sets out to learn what fear is, it shows us that the things we are afraid of can be seen through; in the figure of the wiseacre, it shows us that the questions posed by myth are simple-minded, like the riddle of the Sphinx; in the shape of the animals which come to the aid of the child in the fairy tale, it shows that nature not only is subservient to myth, but much prefers to be aligned with man. The wisest thing – so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times and teaches children to this day – is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits.12

Benjamin’s theorisation of the story and storytelling takes on a revolutionary dimension as Benjamin lists the ways in which the fairy tale liberates mankind from myth. Considering the world-historical events that Benjamin is witnessing around the time when he is writing, namely the rise of what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and JeanLuc Nancy have called ‘the Nazi myth’,13 it is difficult not to read this passage as a political passage. But if Benjamin associates myth with law and is trying to describe the story’s political work on mythical law, how are we to understand this work exactly? What does it do to law? What remains of law in the story? To address these questions, I would like to turn to ‘Critique of Violence’.

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That there is a relation between the politics of ‘The Storyteller’ and ‘Critique of Violence’ becomes clear when one begins to compare the conceptual framework of the two essays. ‘The Storyteller’ begins by opposing the story to the novel, which is associated with modern, secular times. The opposition revolves around the terms ‘voice’ (as opposed to ‘book’), ‘counsel’ (unlike the story, the novel is devoid of counsel) and ‘explanation’ (the story is free from explanation).14 Later in the essay, Benjamin introduces a third form of textual production that is also opposed to the story: information. This time, the opposition revolves around the term ‘verifiability’. Information is incompatible with storytelling because it ‘must absolutely sound plausible’. The story, on the other hand, is ‘intelligence that came from afar’.15 What interests me is that the particularity of the story and of storytelling only really gets articulated through the story’s opposition to myth, associated by Benjamin with primitive times. It is here that the essay’s association of the story with ‘recht’ and ‘Freiheit’ becomes most explicit. Benjamin speaks of the ‘liberating magic’ of the story and argues that the story ‘tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest.’16 In another section of the essay, he refers to the characters in a story as ‘righteous’ figures that are ‘magically escaped’.17 ‘Critique of Violence’ also begins with a set of oppositions: in the first instance, between means and ends, natural law and positive law, sanctioned and unsanctioned violence; then, more importantly, between violence’s law-positing and law-preserving function. All of this leads – via Benjamin’s discussion of two different kinds of strike, to which I will return later on – into the final opposition to which all of these previous oppositions amount, namely that between mythical and divine violence. Although myth is first introduced in the essay as a violence that would escape the oppositions that ‘Critique of Violence’ sets up, it eventually turns out to be ‘closely related, indeed identical, to lawmaking violence’: ‘Far from inaugurating a purer sphere, the mythic manifestation of immediate violence shows itself fundamentally identical with all legal violence.’18 This is why the essay ends by proposing a ‘real’ third figure that would break the dialectic between law-positing and law-preserving violence (or, as we can now also say, the dialectic of myth): divine violence. It is with divine violence that Benjamin is able at last to make the leap that myth in the essay was introduced to make but ultimately couldn’t.

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In both essays, Benjamin’s opponent is myth. In opposition to myth – which is Benjamin’s name for the various dialectics between the opposite terms that the essays list – each essay proposes a third figure that would break with these dialectics, by creating a ‘real’ state of exception in which the difference between these oppositions would no longer exist. In ‘The Storyteller’, this figure is the story or storytelling; in ‘Critique of Violence’, it is divine violence. What this reveals, I think, is that Benjamin is ultimately not interested in ‘The Storyteller’ in tracing out the differences between the story, the novel and information. The essay is rather an attempt to theorise a mode of speaking/writing that would exist beyond these differences and break the complicity of the story, the novel or information with myth. It also reveals that, with his concept of divine violence, Benjamin is interested in a non-violent violence, something like the violence of the story or storytelling – and with its effects on myth. He is interested in a kind of ‘intelligence’, as he puts it, a kind of ‘spirit’ that would supersede the mythical dialectic of lawmaking. In the final sentence of ‘Critique of Violence’, he characterises divine violence as ‘die waltende’, mistranslated, as Agamben’s reading of the essay leads one to conclude, as ‘sovereign’ violence.19 Whereas sovereign violence would reconfirm the mythical link that unites violence and law, divine violence breaks with this dialectic in order to create a ‘real’ state of exception in which the difference between law-positing and lawpreserving violence would no longer exist. This break should not be conceived as destructive, but as the ‘waltende’ violence that is afflicted by the non-violent violence of the story or storytelling. THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX As I noted earlier, Agamben finds it problematic that ‘Critique of Violence’ leaves divine violence largely undefined.20 ‘The Storyteller’ does make an attempt, if not to define, at least to capture the spirit of the story and storytelling. This is a risky undertaking – indeed, the essay is generally considered not to be Benjamin’s strongest work – and I would argue that this risk is also the risk of the politics of ‘recht’ and ‘Freiheit’ that Benjamin in his theorisation of the story and storytelling is exploring. On the one hand, the story emerges in the essay as something homely, supportive, emancipating, nurturing and illuminating (it brings counsel, for example). On the other, and at the same time, it is something much more unhomely, enigmatic, disturbing, subversive and opaque (it is free from explanation). This tension

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is certainly not an unpolitical one, in the sense that it reflects a basic problem of the relation between ‘recht’ and ‘Freiheit’ that Benjamin is also writing about, with ‘recht’ providing the (legal) home that the subject is looking for and ‘Freiheit’ marking the much more unhomely (political) quality that ‘recht’ is supposed to realise. (But, as Michel Foucault observed in a discussion with Noam Chomsky, freedom is freedom. It will never be realised by legal means, it can only be practised politically.)21 ‘The Storyteller’ can be read as an attempt to negotiate this tension, as an essay in which Benjamin is constantly torn not just between the story and myth, but also between home and the unhomely, and between ‘recht’ and ‘Freiheit’. There is a certain point in the essay at which this negotiation fails, and Benjamin allows myth to slip back into his defence of the story and storytelling. This occurs in the passage that I quoted above, where Benjamin characterises the story and storytelling as what ‘shows us that the questions posed by myth are simple-minded, like the riddle of the Sphinx.’ The story and storytelling are aligned here with the mythical Oedipus, who in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipous Basileus solves the riddle that plunges the Sphinx into the abyss. Because of the ways in which it inaugurates the incest taboo, the tragedy is considered foundational for Western civilisation. But in his book Stanzas, Agamben offers another reading of why the tragedy is foundational, and one that can be considered as an implicit critique of Benjamin’s essay. Agamben writes: The son of Laius resolves in the simplest way ‘the enigma proposed by the ferocious jaws of the virgin,’ showing the hidden meaning behind the enigmatic signifier, and, with this act alone, plunges the half-human, half-feral monster into the abyss. The liberating teaching of Oedipus is that what is uncanny and frightening in the enigma disappears as soon as its utterance is reduced to the transparency of the relation between the signified and its form, which the signified only apparently succeeds in escaping.22

For Benjamin, this is an example of the story and storytelling. For Agamben, it is an example of (what Benjamin calls) myth.23 ‘The sin of Oedipus is not so much incest’, he writes, ‘as it is hubris toward the power of the symbolic in general.’24 Oedipus is a civilisational hero – but an ambiguous one, as will be clear – because he makes us forget the original fracture between the signifier and the signified, the ‘/’ that bars the signifier from the signified and turns language into something symbolic rather than diabolic. For Agamben, this bar

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marks a fracturing presence that is eclipsed by the ‘togetherness’ of the symbolic. ‘From the point of view of signification,’ he writes, ‘metaphysics is nothing but the forgetting of the originary difference between signifier and signified.’25 Agamben’s reading of Oedipus and the Sphinx turns into an implicit critique of Benjamin when he develops his preference of the enigmatic Sphinx over and against the transparency that Oedipus brings into a reflection on the story. What the Sphinx proposed was not simply something whose signified is hidden and veiled under an ‘enigmatic’ signifier, but a mode of speech in which the original fracture of presence was alluded to in the paradox of a word that approaches its object while keeping it indefinitely at a distance. The ainos (story, fable) of the ainigma is not only obscurity, but a more original mode of speaking. Like the labyrinth, like the Gorgon, and like the Sphinx that utters it, the enigma belongs to the sphere of the apotropaic, that is, to a protective power that repels the uncanny by attracting it and assuming it within itself. The dancing path of the labyrinth, which leads into the heart of that which is held at a distance, is the model of this relation with the uncanny that is expressed in the enigma.26

In this passage, Agamben offers a theorisation of a mode of speaking that would repel the uncanny by assuming it within its law. The question is no longer whether one’s speech should exclude the uncanny or destroy it, but how one can achieve a mode of speaking that would carry within itself the uncanny’s subversive power. Although Agamben is mostly interested in the question of speech – which is ultimately the question of how language is not a search for meaning but the communication of communicability – the passage also reveals that the theory of speech he develops comes with an implicit theorisation of the story that, because of the ways in which it presents itself as a reading of the story of the Sphinx, can very well be read as a critique of Benjamin and as a theorisation of a ‘Freiheit’ that would not be opposed to ‘recht’ but be assumed within it, as its deactivation or inactivity. The story is a form of the mode of speaking that interests Agamben. It represents a kind of pure speech that, contrary to what Benjamin suggests, lies with the Sphinx rather than with Oedipus. As such, I would argue that the story actually figures in Agamben’s text as an example of the divine violence that he will much later call for in response to his theory of sovereignty. The examples of divine violence that he gives in the closing essay of Infancy and History are in

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fact similar, in the sense that they are all poetic examples: philology, poetry, translation and criticism. It is through these poetic acts that a break with the dialectic of law-positing and law-preserving violence can be achieved. These poetic acts achieve the overcoming of myth that Benjamin in both ‘The Storyteller’ and ‘Critique of Violence’ is after. Philology, for example, is defined in the essay as ‘critical mythology’.27 It is an ‘Aufhebung’ of mythology. Part of Agamben’s aim is to restore these poetic acts to ‘[their] status and [their] violence’ so that their connection with politics is laid bare.28 But the real question, as yet not fully addressed, is whether politics will remain true to its original cohesion with the poetic. What would such a politics look like, that is, what would be a political example of such a politics? It is to this question that I now turn. STRIKE, MESSIANISM AND THE IDEA OF PEACE It is still unclear what a politics would look like that would remain true to its original cohesion with the poetic. Agamben’s writings do not offer much to work with in this respect, perhaps because he does not consider it to be his task to answer the question of ‘what is to be done?’ (He is interested, rather, in what comes before any doing, namely the meaning of the political act in itself, or the conditions under which an act qualifies as political.) Thankfully, Benjamin provides an example of such a political act in ‘Critique of Violence’ when he discusses the strike as an example of non-violent – or, I would also say, divinely violent – political resolution. A closer look at this example will enable us to answer another question; namely, what remains of sovereignty and law after divine violence? Making reference to Georges Sorel, Benjamin distinguishes between two kinds of strike: the political strike and the proletarian general strike. He observes that they are ‘antithetical in their relation to violence’.29 Quoting Sorel, he writes: ‘The political general strike demonstrates how the state will lose none of its strength, how power is transferred from the privileged to the privileged, how the mass of producers will change their masters.’30 The proletarian general strike, in contrast, ‘sets itself the sole task [Aufgabe] of destroying [Vernichtung] state power.’ And, quoting Sorel again: ‘This general strike clearly announces its indifference toward material gain through conquest by declaring its intention to abolish [aufheben] the state.’ The way in which Benjamin rephrases the distinction between two kinds of strike is counter-intuitive: he considers the political strike to

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be violent, ‘since it causes only an external modification of labor conditions’. The proletarian strike, however, is denominated non-violent, since it does not take place ‘in readiness to resume work following external concessions’, but ‘in the determination to resume only a whole transformed work [eine gänzlich veränderte Arbeit], no longer enforced by the state [eine nicht staatlich erzwungene].’31 It is for these reasons that he characterises the former as lawmaking and the latter as anarchistic. The distinction between the violent political strike and the nonviolent proletarian strike makes perfect sense in the context of Agamben’s reading of the Benjamin–Schmitt debate. Because the political strike leaves intact the link uniting violence and the law, or the dialectic between law-positing violence and law-preserving violence, Benjamin considers it violent. It functions in the essay as an example of a violence that would cause only an external change of labor conditions but that wouldn’t change anything essential in the state of affairs. (It is an example of violence that remains within the logic of sovereignty and does not create a ‘real’ state of exception.) The proletarian strike, however, Benjamin calls non-violent because it severs the nexus between violence and law and creates a ‘real’ state of exception by suspending the difference between law-positing violence and law-preserving violence. The non-violent proletarian strike thus becomes an example of the divine violence that ‘Critique of Violence’ proposes: it destroys mythical lawmaking, but – and this is important to emphasise – this does not mean that it destroys the law. The verb that Benjamin chooses to describe the work of divine violence is not ‘destroy’ (‘vernichten’, as one might expect) or even ‘abolish’ (as the English translation has it) but ‘aufheben’. When he uses the word ‘Vernichtung’ it is in combination with the word ‘Aufgabe’, which, as commentators on Benjamin’s translation essay have tirelessly pointed out, contains both the semantic components of a ‘task’ and a ‘letting go’. One shouldn’t conclude too quickly that ‘destruction’ is the ‘task’ that Benjamin sets before the reader, but rather, ‘let go’ of such easy readings (and politics). I think ‘Aufhebung’ is closer to what Benjamin has in mind. The Hegelian term ‘Aufhebung’ captures perfectly the suspension or fulfilment of the law that Benjamin envisions the end of mythical lawmaking will achieve. Thus the proletarian general strike does not lead to the destruction of work but to resuming ‘a wholly transformed work’, in the same way that divine violence does not lead to the end of law but to another use of it. Benjamin is not calling for the end of law but for the end of the link between vio-

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lence and law. It is in this way that Benjamin’s insistence on ‘de-posing’ (‘entsetzen’) the law needs to be understood. Although Agamben does not discuss examples of political action in his work, one can see how Benjamin’s example and specifically the language in which it is expressed pervade the idea of politics that it contains. If Homo Sacer is the book that contains Agamben’s theory of sovereign power, the philological study of The Time that Remains, his book on Saint Paul, provides his divinely violent answer to the problems of sovereignty that Homo Sacer exposes. In response to, for example, the problematic political economy of the sovereign nationstate, in which there is no place for something like ‘the human as such’, Agamben uses philology to show how Paul in his ‘Letter to the Romans’ offers a theory of human life beyond all categories of identification, as a kind of remainder between identitarian categories. Through the division of flesh and spirit, Paul divides the division between Jews and Greeks, arguing that one can be a Jew in spirit but not according to the flesh (i.e. one can be uncircumcised), and that one can be a Jew according to the flesh (i.e. circumcised) but not in spirit. This messianic remainder within identitarian categories poses a radical challenge to the political economy of the sovereign nationstate and announces the coming of a political community of whatever being, a community that would not be indifferent to difference, but in which identitarian categories would not constitute differences that would limit and condition the community. Such a political community would also mark the end of the political theology of sovereignty by dismantling the device of the state of exception through which politics was brought within the law. As such, the messianic remainder that Paul’s letter theorises actually functions as a critique of theology; it is in this secular (or maybe better, post-secular) sense that it can be called divine.32 Philology’s divinely violent acts of deposition lead to what Agamben calls a messianic fulfilment of the law, or a time in which the law would not be destroyed but deactivated and rendered inoperative – that is, used in a different way. Although one can already begin to see the relation between what Agamben is proposing and Benjamin’s discussion of the strike, the connection can also be made philologically. The Time that Remains reveals that there is a historical-etymological relation between the word ‘inoperativity’ that Agamben uses to describe the messianic fulfilment of the law, and Hegel’s term ‘Aufhebung’. This puts Agamben’s theorisation of divine violence in direct relation with Benjamin’s characterisation of the

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divinely violent work of the strike as an ‘Aufhebung’.33 That there is also a relation between the messianic fulfilment of the law and Agamben’s theorisation of the ainos, the story or fable, becomes clear in at least one of the concrete cases of messianism that his work proposes, namely the enigmatic law-copyist from Herman Melville’s story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’.34 Recalling his statement in the closing essay of Infancy and History that poetry is an example of divine violence, The Time that Remains also offers a poem as a concrete case of the messianic fulfilment of the law.35 At first sight, it may seem odd that Agamben would find in the play with rhyme that this poem develops a vision of a political future that would supersede the mythical violence of sovereignty. I hope that this essay, even if it does not provide answers to the question ‘what is to be done?’ at least reveals the philosophy from which such a vision emerges: a philosophy of language that insists on the disjunction of language and meaning, instead drawing attention to language’s communication of communicability. In contrast with the conceptualisation of politics as ‘war continued by other means’ that can be found in Schmitt’s work, but also on the far side of depoliticised liberalism, Agamben’s message is radically democratic and related to what in one of his earlier books he theorises as ‘the idea of peace’. In a passage that resonates both with the discussion of his ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’ and Benjamin’s remarks about the difference between the political and the proletarian general strike that I have offered here, and that anticipates wonderfully well the critique of identity politics that is contained in his book on Saint Paul, Agamben writes: The truth is, however, that there is not, nor can there be, a sign of peace, since true peace would only be there where all the signs were fulfilled and exhausted. Every struggle among men is in fact a struggle for recognition and the peace that follows such a struggle is only a convention instituting the signs and conditions of mutual, precarious recognition. Such a peace is only and always a peace amongst states and of the law, a fiction of the recognition of an identity in language, which comes from war and will end in war. Not the appeal to guaranteed signs, or images, but the fact that we cannot recognize ourselves in any sign or image: that is peace – or, if you like, that is the bliss more ancient than peace which a marvelous parable of St. Francis’s defines as sojourn: nocturnal, patient, homeless – in non-recognition. Peace is the perfectly empty sky of humanity; it is the display of non-appearance as the only homeland of man.36

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Notes 1. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 63–7. 2. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 64. 3. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 52–64. 4. Samuel Weber, ‘Taking Exception to Decision: Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt’, in Harry Kunneman and Hent de Vries (eds), Enlightenments: Encounters Between Critical Theory and Contemporary French Thought (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1993), pp. 141–61. 5. Agamben, State of Exception, p. 88. 6. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Project for a Review’, in Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (Verso: New York, 2007), p. 164. 7. Agamben, State of Exception, p. 57. 8. Consider, for example, how he urges his readers to extend the Benjamin–Schmitt dossier to much more than just those documents that are strictly speaking a part of it: see Agamben, State of Exception, pp. 52–3. 9. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 143–66. Here p. 143. For the German original, see Walter Benjamin, ‘Der Erzähler: Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows’, in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2, ed. Theodor Adorno (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1955), pp. 229–58. 10. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, p. 143/229. 11. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, p. 148/236. 12. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, p. 157. 13. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Mythe Nazi (Paris: L’Aube, 1991). 14. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, pp. 143–6. 15. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, pp. 147–8. 16. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, p. 157. 17. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, p. 158. 18. Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/ Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 236–52. For the German original, see Walter Benjamin, ‘Zur Kritik der Gewalt’, in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2.1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), pp. 179–203. Here p. 248. 19. Benjamin, ‘Critique’, p. 252/203.

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20. The ideas I present in this section were developed in personal correspondence with Alex Murray. 21. Interview available on YouTube. The subtitles are not English, but Dutch. 22. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’, in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald Martinez (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 135–50. Here pp. 137–8. 23. Although Agamben’s own understanding of myth is, in essays such as ‘Project for a Review’, very close if not identical to Benjamin’s, there is at least one indication that it may also be different and that he is also trying to rethink myth; see Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 168. 24. Agamben, ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’, p. 138. 25. Agamben, ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’, p. 137. 26. Agamben, ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’, p. 138. 27. No doubt Agamben is moving too quickly here. As, for example, Stathis Gourgouris has shown, philology is orientalist and participates in what Benjamin and Agamben understand to be mythical lawmaking. See Stathis Gourgouris, ‘The Punishment of Philhellenism’, in Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, CA: Stanford University 1996), pp. 122–54. Note, though, that Gourgouris develops an entirely different understanding of myth than the one that can be found in Benjamin and Agamben. See Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Anti-Mythical Era (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). 28. Agamben, Infancy, p. 163. 29. Benjamin, ‘Critique’, p. 245. 30. Benjamin, ‘Critique’, p. 246. 31. Benjamin, ‘Critique’, p. 246/194. 32. Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 44–58. 33. Agamben, Time that Remains, pp. 88–112. 34. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Bartleby, or On Contingency’, in Potentialities, pp. 243–71. The figure of Bartleby recurs throughout Agamben’s work. Crucially, the word ‘enigma’ derives from the Greek ainigma, related to ainos. 35. Agamben, Time that Remains, pp. 78–87. 36. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Idea of Peace’, in Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 81–2.

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CHAPTER 6

Idea of Poetry, Idea of Prose Nicholas Heron

1. It has long been the tendency of critics to treat Walter Benjamin’s doctoral dissertation on ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik’, which was first published as a monograph in 1920, as something of an anomaly within his often fragmentary, but nonetheless vast body of work. And, at a first, provisional glance, this indeed appears to be the case. It was the first – and, to be sure, the last – of his writings to be conceived and accommodated entirely within the parameters of the university. Its successful defence before the faculty of philosophy at the University of Bern in June of 1919 was the only academic recognition Benjamin would ever receive. With its mannered academic style, its employment of a rigorous scholarly apparatus and its fierce anonymity with respect to its own critical intervention (all of which would, ultimately, be abandoned), it would appear to represent something like a momentary compromise, within the spectrum of his writings, to adhere to the strict disciplinary requirements that the shadow of this circumstance inevitably cast across his work. This is the position maintained, for example, by Philippe LacoueLabarthe in the preface to his 1986 translation of the essay into French, who, through the patient examination of Benjamin’s letters from the same period and on the basis of the sharp distinction that he traces between Benjamin’s own theory of writing and the necessarily conventional nature of the dissertation, advances the following, striking conclusion: that it was not by chance that the very text which took Benjamin the furthest away from his own working method would be dedicated to precisely the school of thinking, the early Romantics, from which that method was largely drawn.1 According to LacoueLabarthe – and here, once again, he follows Benjamin’s own pronouncements – if the dissertation indeed maintains itself at a distance from what would be its true subject, the ‘esoteric’ afterword that Benjamin prepared at the last moment for publication would present all that he considered essential. Yet the peculiar inversion of which

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Lacoue-Labarthe speaks already attributes an ‘exemplary’ status to the body of the text itself. In being withdrawn, on account of academic convention, from the no less strict requirements of the ‘objective and, at the same time, highly political style and writing’, with its ‘intensive orientation of words into the kernel of the innermost loss of speech [in den Kern des innersten Verstummens]’,2 which Benjamin had already formulated as early as 1916 in a famous letter to Martin Buber, it would describe the limits of an arena from which it was itself prohibited from entering. In this sense, it seems necessary, today, given the radical heterogeneity into which Benjamin’s works threaten to disperse, to inquire whether – since what is at stake in this text is nothing less than a rare attempt to legitimate the task of the critic vis-à-vis his object (which is to say, however obscurely, a form of self-legitimation) – something essential is not posed here, something that – even if tenuously, even if insufficiently articulated – continues to haunt his works, to traverse his writings from beginning to end. The present paper seeks to locate this epicentre, which, not surprisingly, reveals itself in an image (or rather, in a pair of images), and to begin to measure the aftershock that it generates across his work. In short, it seeks to trace, in broad outline, the path that leads from the ‘idea of poetry’ to the ‘idea of prose’; a path whose singular coherence, it suggests, finds its stunning confirmation in a short fragment by Giorgio Agamben. 2. ‘The idea of poetry is prose’: this is the ‘seeming paradoxical but in truth very profound intuition’ on which, according to Benjamin, the entire philosophy of art of early Romanticism, and especially its concept of criticism, ultimately rests, and for the sake of which his own investigation has been pursued to this point, as he writes, through so many ‘apparent digressions’.3 ‘The reflective medium of poetic forms’, he writes, appears in prose; for this reason, prose may be called the idea of poetry. Prose is the creative ground of poetic forms [der schöpferische Boden der dichterischen Formen], all of which are mediated in it and dissolved as though in their canonical creative ground. In prose, all metrical rhythms [gebundene Rhythmen] pass over into one another and combine into a new unity, the prosaic unity, which in Novalis is known as the ‘romantic rhythm’.4

‘The idea of poetry is prose’. It is certain that the interpretation of this enigmatic formula, which is itself presented as the ultimate destination of an investigation pursued over the course of many pages, constitutes the central difficulty of Benjamin’s essay. If, as he seems to suggest, the

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entirety of the early Romantic concept of criticism – the exposition of which represents the sole task of the essay – is, as it were, condensed in this formula, how are we to begin to understand it? What is clear is that, from the very beginning of the dissertation, the early Romantic concept of criticism is presented as the stage, so to speak, of a confrontation between two further correlative concepts, which, as Benjamin writes, provide its objective ground and, at the same time, circumscribe its outer limits. These are the concepts of the work of art and the idea of art. The first part of the dissertation will be devoted to determining the basic epistemological presuppositions that make this confrontation possible (and that, as such, extend beyond the strict consideration of the domain of art); the second part will examine its concrete determination precisely within this domain. According to Benjamin, the basic epistemological presuppositions of the early Romantic concept of criticism are entirely concentrated in the concept of reflection. This concept, which the early Romantics certainly received from their close contemporary Johann Gottlieb Fichte, nonetheless assumed, within their own thinking, he suggests, a decidedly different emphasis. It is Benjamin’s particular achievement, in this first part of the dissertation, not only to have identified a genuinely Romantic concept of reflection, entirely independent of its Fichtean model, but to have sought to establish its originality precisely at the point at which the two concepts, the one based entirely upon the other, parted company. If Fichte, Benjamin suggests, in his attempt to assure the immediacy of intellectual cognition for his science of knowledge, indeed established the form of knowledge as necessarily prior to the content of that knowledge (and thereby procured a concept of reflection that was in principle infinite), he nonetheless sought, precisely, to limit it by grounding its immediacy in a ‘special ontological determination’ through the reference to an ‘I’ that is concurrently posited. For the early Romantics, on the other hand – who, as Benjamin notes, raised no objection to the character of infinitude introduced in this process, who indeed saw in this the stunning confirmation of their idea of art – this ‘special ontological determination’ completely falls away.5 For them, according to Benjamin, the infinitude of reflection assumes its particular force insofar as it attests to the progressive ‘dissolution of the proper form of reflection in the face of the absolute’.6 In contrast to Fichte, therefore – and this is decisive – the infinitude of reflection would be conceived by the early Romantics not as an ‘infinitude of continuous advance [Fortgangs]’ but as an ‘infinitude of connectedness

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[Zusammenhanges]’,7 not as endless and empty but as substantial and filled. Indeed, in this ‘infinitude of connectedness’ – which, as Benjamin suggests, ‘can be grasped in a mediated way from the infinitely many stages of reflection’8 – the early Romantics discovered the very basis for their conception of the absolute. Benjamin can therefore define the absolute as a ‘medium of reflection’. ‘Reflection constitutes the absolute’, he writes, ‘and it constitutes as a medium’.9 And if art is, indeed, for the early Romantics, the highest objective manifestation of the medium of reflection, criticism of art will be treated, accordingly, as reflection in the medium of art. It is against this backdrop – upon this ‘methodological grid’,10 as Benjamin writes – that the concepts of the work of art and the idea of art (and, with them, the concept of criticism itself) acquire their consistency. He writes: Every critical understanding of an artistic entity is, as reflection in the entity, nothing other than a higher, self-actively originated degree of this entity’s consciousness. Such intensification of consciousness in criticism is in principle infinite; criticism is therefore the medium in which the restriction of the individual work refers methodically to the infinitude of art and finally is transformed into that infinitude.11

In this highly significant passage, the three correlative concepts are each aligned in their specificity. The individual work of art is, in relation to the unlimited, infinite nature of the idea of art (or, indeed, in relation to the unlimited, infinite nature of its own absolute idea), necessarily limited, necessarily finite; and criticism is, as it were, the medium in which the former is methodically referred to the latter, in which it is critically transformed into the latter. In this mediating capacity, however, the concept of criticism itself would appear to repose on a curious postulate. ‘In order for criticism’, Benjamin writes, in an explicit gloss on the passage quoted above, ‘to be the suspension of all limitation [Aufhebung aller Begrenzung], the work must rest on limitation’.12 Following the schema of reflection, however, the ‘suspension of all limitation’ can only mean the unfolding of the reflection that is concentrated in the limited individual work itself. Form is the name that Benjamin gives to the determinate manifestation of self-limitation in the individual work. Form, he writes, is the ‘objective expression of the reflection proper to the work, the reflection that constitutes its essence’.13 In the early Romantic conception, however, form was completely free of any formal constraint. Neither a rule for judging the work, nor one to be followed in producing it,

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form was for them, rather, the basic condition for the appearance of the work of art in the medium of reflection. It is through its form (or, more specifically, through its Darstellungsform, its ‘presentational form’), Benjamin suggests, that the individual work of art constitutes itself as a ‘living centre’ in the medium of reflection; it is through its form that it discloses itself as a merely ‘relative unity’ with respect to the absolute unity of the idea of art.14 In this singular intuition, according to Benjamin, the great achievement of early Romantic thinking, and, in particular, of its concept of criticism, finds its most significant articulation: in the establishment of an immanent structure specific to the individual work itself. ‘The immanent tendency of the work’, he writes, ‘and, accordingly, the standard for its immanent criticism are the reflection that lies at its basis and is imprinted in its form.’15 In this, he suggests, the early Romantics discovered the basis for a ‘completely different kind of criticism’, one that is ‘not concerned with judging’, he writes, ‘and whose centre of gravity lies not in the evaluation of the single work but in demonstrating its relations to all other works and, ultimately, to the idea of art.’16 In the early Romantic conception, according to Benjamin, it is the work of art itself that prepares the way for its own immanent critique. Indeed, as he notes, the value of a work is dependent solely upon whether it makes its immanent critique possible or not. ‘If this is possible’, he writes, ‘if there is present in the work a reflection that can unfold itself, absolutize itself and resolve itself in the medium of art, then it is a work of art.’17 The possibility of criticism in the work of art – the sole scale for measuring its value – is, then, an index of its ‘criticizability [Kritisierbarkeit]’.18 At this point, Benjamin decisively interrupts the course of his narrative through the insertion of the first of two striking interrelated figurative expressions to appear within his text and – in what will become a characteristic gesture of his writing – seeks to reconfigure this apparent paradox in the form of an image. Criticism, in the early Romantic conception, he writes, completes the work, it consummates the work; it dissolves the limited presentational form of the work and thereby resolves it in the absolute. Criticism of a work of art is its reflection, but this can only mean, he writes, taking up an expression from Novalis, ‘unfolding the seed [Keim] of the reflection that is immanent to the work’.19 3. ‘The idea of poetry is prose’: this formula, according to Benjamin, is the ‘final determination’ of the early Romantic idea of

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art, which finds its confirmation, its ‘comprehensible manifestation’,20 in that special presentational form that is the novel. In the novel, to the extent that the twin capacities for self-limitation and self-extension, whose articulation the early Romantics entrusted to their concept of criticism, are developed in the most decisive manner (and, at this ‘apex’, Benjamin writes, pass into one another ‘without distinction’21), poetry and criticism, too, appear ultimately to merge. The novel, in its prose form, Benjamin writes, is a ‘designation of the poetic absolute’.22 In the novel, the infinitude of connectedness with which the early Romantics aligned their conception of the idea of art, understood as a continuum of forms, emerges fully articulated. On this note, the dissertation appears to reach its triumphant conclusion. But we may well ask whether Benjamin’s formula does not consent to a different reading, one in which, moreover, a second concept of criticism, Benjamin’s own, begins, however tentatively, to emerge. It is important to note that Benjamin’s analysis does not simply stop here – at its ‘apex’, so to speak – in resolute confirmation of the early Romantic theory of the novel. The novel is not in fact afforded the final say. Rather, its significance is attenuated through a prolonged meditation on the notion of prose, which crystallises in the introduction of a second striking figurative expression, this time distinctly Benjamin’s own (even if of a decidedly Goethean coloration). It is only through the isolation of the notion of prose, he stresses, that the theory of the novel is understood ‘in its deepest intention’ and is ‘freed of an exclusively empirical reference to Wilhelm Meister’.23 But we may well ask whether the notion of prose should not itself be freed of an ‘exclusively empirical reference’ to the novel altogether. (In the novel, we might say, the medium of reflection substantiates itself, at the cost, precisely, of sacrificing its mediality.) And indeed, this second possible interpretation appears, at least in part – even if it never attains to the level of an explicit formulation – to be borne out by the text itself. For, in a seemingly abrupt about-face, Benjamin turns his attention, once again, to the limited presentational form of the individual work, and, taking up a striking thesis which he had introduced in the preceding section of the dissertation, which now emerges decisively transformed through its contact with the notion of prose, once again asserts the essential ‘indestructibility’ of the work of art. It is not by chance that this thesis should first emerge in the context of a discussion of Romantic irony, which, Benjamin suggests, is

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‘neutralised’24 in the novel. According to his interpretation, the concept of irony has a ‘double significance’25 for the early Romantic theory of art. What he terms the irony of form, whose name alone immediately registers its pertinence to the concept of reflection, is to be distinguished from the more familiar understanding, which he calls the irony of the material. Like criticism, the irony of form is ‘positive and objective’ (in contrast to the irony of the material, which he defines as ‘negative and subjective’26). But unlike criticism, even while ‘making palpable its total referential connection to the idea of art’, the irony of form, he writes, not only does not ‘destroy the work on which it fastens, but it draws the work nearer to indestructibility [Unzerstörbarkeit]’.27 Formal irony, Benjamin writes, ensures the ‘survival [Überleben] of the work’, even after its ‘empirical form’ has been consumed by the ‘absolute form’.28 But while for the early Romantics these two procedures – that of criticism and that of the irony of form – are presented as sharply distinct, in Benjamin’s later recuperation of this thesis, they appear, substantially, to merge. For here Benjamin takes recourse to the second, striking figurative expression – one that certainly recalls the first, but whose surprising appearance, at this late point in the dissertation, is decidedly more aporetic. If, earlier, it was the Keim, the ‘seed’ of the reflection immanent to the work that, as an index of its ‘criticizability’, paved the way for its resolution – and ultimate dissolution – in the idea of art, here it is the Kern, the ‘kernel’ of the work, that is presented as ‘indestructible’, and on account, precisely, of its ‘unassailable, sober prosaic form [Gestalt]’.29 And criticism itself is presented at this juncture, in the final, conclusive definition that Benjamin will give to it, as ‘the exposition [Darstellung] of the prosaic kernel [prosaischen Kerns] in every work’.30 In this subtle dislocation of figurative register we can begin to discern the emergence of a second concept of criticism, which itself diverges ever so slightly, but nonetheless decisively, from the early Romantic model. And, viewed from this angle, the two concepts appear, the one against the other, in sharp relief: whereas, in the early Romantic concept, in Benjamin’s presentation, it is the work of art that insists within the idea of art, in Benjamin’s own concept, on the other hand, it is the idea of art that insists within the individual work itself. 4. ‘Der Erzähler’ was written and published nearly two decades after the dissertation and, with its ‘loving’ depiction of this ‘artisanal form of communication’, whose roots are sunken in the milieu of

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craftsmen and whose distinct unfolding is presented as embedded in the ‘rhythm of work’,31 appears, at a first, provisional glance, to share little in common with the artistic and spiritual excesses of early German Romanticism described in the former text. The basic thesis advanced by the essay is well known: with the steady but gradual decline in the ‘communicability of experience’ and, indeed, in all collective forms of experience, as evidenced and accelerated by the vicissitudes of the First World War, the art of storytelling, too, is drawing to a close – is ceding its place to newer forms of communication without any foundation in the oral tradition, in the experience passed on from ‘mouth to mouth’ and from ‘generation to generation’ that constitutes ‘the source from which all storytellers have drawn’.32 The art of storytelling is coming to an end – this is what, according to Benjamin, the experience of the ‘press’, whose value does not survive the moment in which it is born, invariably teaches us. And yet, far from perceiving this process, which is charged with removing narrative from the ‘realm of living speech’, as a ‘symptom of decay’ – even less, as a modern symptom – Benjamin presents it as a ‘concomitant of the secular productive forces of history’, which makes it possible, at the same time, to ‘find a new beauty in what is vanishing’.33 With its portrayal of the constantly unfolding, constantly interpenetrating continuum of forms, which is progressively dissolved in the face of the poetic absolute, the movement traced by the dissertation nonertheless appears almost diametrically opposed to that described by the later essay. And yet, an almost imperceptible, subterranean thread unmistakably links the two texts. Unlike many of his essays, ‘Die Erzähler’ was published during Benjamin’s own lifetime in October of 1936. In 1952, however, some twelve years after his death, a second version of the essay appeared in the Mercure de France – a French translation prepared by Benjamin himself between 1936 and 1939, bearing the title ‘La Narrateur: Réflexions à propos de l’œuvre de Nicolas Leskov’. And, included among the many variations across the two texts are a pair of remarkable, yet decisive corrections, which allow us to draw a striking, if unexpected correspondence between the essay and the 1919 dissertation. At stake in both corrections is the discussion, which occupies sections XII and XIII of the essay, and which, in itself, constitutes the theoretical nucleus of the text, of the relationship between the writing of history and the different modes of remembrance, between the epic genre and its derivative forms, the story and the novel. ‘Any

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examination of a given epic form’, section XII begins, ‘is concerned with the relationship of this form to the historiography.’ But where the German text continues: ‘Ja, man darf weitergehen und sich die Frage vorlegen, ob die Geschichtsschreibung nicht den Punkt schöpferischer Indifferenz zwischen allen Formen der Epik darstellt’ (‘In fact, one may go further and ask whether historiography might not constitute the point of creative indifference among all epic forms’34), the French text has: ‘Bien plus on peut aller jusqu’à se demander, si l’œuvre de l’historien ne constitue pas le noyau d’indifférence créatrice parmi toutes les formes épiques’ (‘One can even go as far as to ask whether the work of the historian does not constitute the kernel of creative indifference among all epic forms’35). Written history, here, according to Benjamin’s new formulation, represents the ‘kernel’ of creative indifference with respect to the epic forms, just as white light, to take up the following simile, represents the ‘kernel’ of creative indifference with respect to the colours of the spectrum.36 But the decisive significance of this correction begins to be fully disclosed only once it is referred to the related passage contained in the following section of the essay, in which Benjamin again takes up the figure of schöpferische Indifferenz, which he appropriates from the title of the 1918 book by the German-Jewish philosopher Salomo Friedländer. After having established that ‘memory is the epic gift par excellence’ and that it is only by virtue of a ‘universal memory’ that the epic spirit can ‘confront the immense tide of things that have happened, on the one hand, and their irremediable loss, on the other’, he writes: Mnemosyne, the one who remembers, was regarded as the muse of the epic genre among the Greeks; this name should take us back to a bifurcation in the evolution of humankind. If, indeed, what memory records – written history – represents the creative indifference in relation to the different epic genres (just as classic prose represents the creative indifference in relation to the different measures of verse), its most ancient form, the epic, offers a kind of indifference in relation to the later genres, and most particularly in relation to the story and the novel.37

At a distance of close to twenty years the link between the notion of prose and the figure of the kernel is, by virtue of a decisive, parenthetical remark, once again re-established – but with this difference: where, in the earlier text, the unassailable prosaic kernel was fated to appear only at the end, here it stands, in its ‘undivided unity’, only at the very beginning.

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But there is more. In following paragraph, in which Benjamin introduces the threefold distinction between Erinnerung, Gedächtnis and Eingendenken (mémoire, souvenir and souvenance, in the French) which will become so central for his later thought, the unfolding of this ‘bifurcation’ is presented in a striking continuation of the figurative theme reintroduced in the preceding section. The story and the novel, those two ‘later genres’ that (according to a passage contained in the original German text, but removed from the French in order to accommodate this shift in metaphorical register) have emerged from ‘the womb of the epic’,38 are now, thanks to the second decisive correction, presented as ‘seeds’ that have, so to speak, with the inscrutable and inexorable course of the world, separated from the ‘undivided unity’ that is the epic.39 And just as the story and the novel – the ‘later genres’ – are the seeds that have separated from the ‘kernel of creative indifference’ that is the epic, so the different measures of verse would be the seeds that have separated from the ‘kernel of creative indifference’ that is prose. The entire figurative constellation from the 1919 dissertation is, here, completely reproduced; but it is, so to speak, inverted. Where, in the earlier text, it was the seed – enclosed, as a principle of ‘criticisability’, in the original work – that the critic resolved, in the end, in a prosaic kernel, here it is the seed that appears to fall away, to interrupt the prosaic unity. ‘Remembrance [Eingedenken], the musederived element of the novel’, as the final sentence of this section of the essay reads – and here we return to the German text – ‘steps alongside recollection [Gedächtnis], the muse-derived element of the story, the unity of their origin [Ursprung] in memory [Erinnerung] having split apart with the decline of the epic.’40 Among the preparatory notes to his celebrated final text, the theses ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, one finds a series of fragments that produce a profound, if distorted echo of the enigmatic formula with which the 1919 dissertation closes. Not the idea of poetry, but the idea of prose is the figure that, here, Benjamin offers as the key to the messianic idea of universal history. ‘The messianic world’, he writes, in one variant, reprising a phrase from his 1929 Surrealism essay, is the world of universal and integral actuality. Only in the messianic realm does a universal history exist. Not as written history [geschriebene], but as festively celebrated history. This festival is purified of all ceremony. There are no festive songs. Its language is integrally prose – prose that has burst the fetters of script [Schrift] and is understood by all people (as the language of birds is under-

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stood by Sunday’s children). – The idea of prose coincides with the messianic idea of universal history.41

It is not by chance that a parenthesis immediately added to this final sentence refers the reader directly to the ‘Storyteller’ essay – more specifically, to the very passage that we have already been analysing. ‘Compare the passage in the “Storyteller”’, another entry reads: ‘the types of artistic prose as the spectrum of historical types’.42 And yet where, in the ‘Storyteller’ essay, the undivided unity of prose, as of memory, was preserved only at the origin, here, following the movement described in the dissertation, it appears again only at the end. And where, in the former, it was constitutively linked to the writing of history, to the record kept by memory, here, where it coincides with the ‘messianic idea of universal history’, it appears ‘not as written, but as festively celebrated history’. It is ‘liberated prose’43 – the ‘idea of prose’, precisely – which has ‘burst the fetters of script and is understood by all people (as the language of birds is understood by Sunday’s children)’. 5. Idea della prosa is the title of a series of short, fragmentary writings published by Giorgio Agamben in 1985. With its unusual format, it too represents something of an anomaly. If, in his 1983 essay ‘Lingua e storia’, Agamben had already succeeded in establishing Benjamin’s enigmatic phrase as the ultimate destination of a singular itinerary of thought which had begun more than twenty years earlier with the 1916 language essay, here – substantially freed from its strict reference to the letter of Benjamin’s text – it assumes a decisive new significance.44 As it were reversing the formula announced by Benjamin in his 1919 dissertation, it is almost as if, for Agamben, the idea of prose is poetry. Indeed, what is at stake in the fragment that shares the title of the book is the very possibility (or impossibility) of defining poetry with respect to prose. Agamben begins: It is a fact upon which we will never reflect enough that no definition of verse is perfectly satisfying, except that which confirms its identity with respect to prose through the possibility of enjambment. Neither quantity, nor rhythm, nor the number of syllables – all elements that can also occur in prose – provide, from this point of view, sufficient criteria: but poetry is, of course, that discourse in which it is possible to oppose a metrical limit to a syntactical limit [. . .]; prose, that discourse in which this is not possible.45

This ‘fact’, which, as has been observed,46 rests on an explicitly technical definition first advanced by the French linguist Jean-Claude

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Milner, expressed most simply in the proposition ‘there is verse as soon as there is the possibility of enjambment’ (which is to say, as soon as there is the possibility of a ‘non-coincidence between the phonological limits and the syntactical limits pertinent in verse’47), is nonetheless displaced by Agamben onto a radically ambiguous terrain. For Agamben, the non-coincidence between a metrical (or phonological) limit and a syntactical limit immediately calls forth another, even more decisive non-coincidence – one not explicitly considered by Milner: that between sound and meaning. He writes: Enjambment exhibits a non-coincidence and a disconnection between metrical element and syntactical element, between sonorous rhythm and meaning, as if – contrary to a widespread prejudice that sees in it the place of an ultimately achieved, perfect adhesion between sound and meaning – poetry lives, instead, only in the place of their intimate discord.48

The consequences of this substitution are evidently striking. The unity of the poem would appear, in very being, to be irreparably split: in order to be, it would seem, it would have to cease to mean; in order to mean, conversely, it would have to cease to be. And yet this drastic but nonetheless simple binary is immediately even further complicated. He continues: The verse, in the very act in which, in breaking a syntactic nexus, it affirms its own identity, is, however, irresistibly compelled to arch itself onto the successive verse, in order to grasp what it has cast outside of itself: it hints at a passage of prose with the same gesture that attests to its own versatility. In this headlong projection onto the abyss of meaning, the purely sonorous unit of the verse transgresses, along with its own measure, also its own identity.49

In this remarkable passage, the great subtlety of Agamben’s argument begins to come to light. For poetry does not identity itself with respect to prose according to an external measure imposed upon it from without; rather, the poem itself, in its very staccato rhythm, incessantly confronts and interrogates the very limits of its own possibility. There is an idea of prose internal to the modus operandi of the poem itself. In this way, according to Agamben, enjambment ‘brings to light the originary bearing, neither poetic, nor prosaic, but boustrophedonic, so to speak, of poetry’; it discloses the ‘essential prosimetricità’, according to his felicitous neologism, ‘of every human discourse’.50 For neither the backward step into sound, nor the forward jump into meaning, in truth, characterises the poem – but only the tension

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between them. And at the very point, at the end of the line, in which this dialectical tension reaches the peak of its intensity (what Agamben calls the versura point, from the Latin term that indicates the spot at which the plough turns itself at the end of the furrow51), the idea of poetry itself attests, paradoxically, and but for an instant, to the idea of prose. Agamben writes: The versura, which, while remaining unnamed in treatises on metrics, constitutes the kernel [nocciolo] of verse (and the exposition of which is enjambment), is an ambiguous gesture, which turns itself at once in two opposed directions: backwards (verso) and forwards (prosa). This hanging-back, this sublime hesitation between meaning and sound, is the poetic legacy with which thought must come to terms.52

At this point, we can measure the pertinence of Agamben’s intervention with respect to the very Benjaminian figure that, beyond its inscription as the title of the fragment (and, indeed, of the book itself), appears nowhere within his text, but that nonetheless decisively inflects the entire presentation. That very figure which Agamben erects as the emblem of Benjamin’s thought and whose essential coordinates we have sought, in the preceding pages, to reconstruct. Just as, in the ‘Storyteller’ essay, the ‘different epic forms’ are the ‘seeds’ that carry within themselves, in their historical unfolding, the ‘kernel’ of creative indifference with which none of them singularly coincide, so here poetry, the ‘different measures of verse’, would bear within itself that idea of prose with which – by its very definition – it cannot coincide. Properly speaking, this ‘kernel’ stands neither at the very beginning nor at the very end: it is neither the ‘undivided unity of the different measures of verse’, nor the ‘unassailable, sober prosaic form’ into which the critic dissolves the poem. It is neither – or rather, it is both. It is the ‘idea of prose’ that insists within every measure of verse, the ‘idea of poetry’ with which thought must come to terms. In this light, we can grasp the acute sense of the ‘liberated prose’ into which Benjamin resolves the multiplicity of written histories in their messianic redemption, the prose that, in his striking expression, has ‘burst the fetters of script’. According to the profound intuition included in the soglia that opens Agamben’s book: ‘what could not cease writing itself was the image of what never ceased not writing itself’.53 It is to the exposition of this image, this ‘prosaic’ kernel that insists within every ‘poetic’ construction, that the critic must turn: this, precisely, is the ‘poetic legacy’ with which thought must come to terms.

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This is why the formula ‘the idea of poetry is prose’, the banner under which Benjamin gathers his investigation of the early Romantic concept of criticism, ultimately remains insufficient, incomplete, and must be confronted with that which we have attributed to Agamben (but which we can already discern, even if in minimal outline, in the concluding pages of the dissertation itself). The idea of poetry as that of prose must be confronted – according to that salient expression which, more than two decades later, suffuses Benjamin’s very last fragments – with the idea of prose, understood, precisely, as that of poetry. For what is essential is only the point at which they cross: that ‘idea of language’, to which Agamben entrusts the final words of his fragment, upon which, he suggests, Plato ‘fixed his gaze’, and which, according to the testimony of Aristotle preserved by Diogenes Laertius, was, for him – in Agamben’s beautiful translation – ‘neither poetry, nor prose, but their medium [né poesia né prosa, ma il loro medio]’.54 Notes 1. See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, ‘Introduction to Walter Benjamin’s The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism’, trans. David Ferris, in Walter Benjamin and Romanticism, ed. Beatrice Hanssen and Andrew Benjamin (New York and London: Continuum, 2002), pp. 9–18. 2. Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910–1940, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 80; original in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, I, 1910–1918, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1995), pp. 326, 327. 3. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism’, trans. David Lachterman, Howard Eiland and Ian Balfour, in Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 173. 4. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 174; original in ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik’, in Gesammelte Schtiften, Vol. 1.1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), p. 102. 5. See ‘The Concept of Criticism’, pp. 120–8. 6. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 129. 7. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 126; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 26. 8. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 126. 9. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 132.

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31.

32. 33. 34.

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‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 135. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 152. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 156; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 73. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 156. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 156. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 159. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 159. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 159. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 160; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 79. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 159; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 78; translation slightly modified, emphasis mine. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 173. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 172. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 173 ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 174; translation slightly modified. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 172. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 162. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 162. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 164; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 86. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 164; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 86. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 176; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 106. ‘The Concept of Criticism’, p. 178; ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik’, p. 109. It is worth noting that the discussion of irony here finds an important analogue in a significant passage from ‘Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers’, the celebrated preface that Benjamin composed two years later for his own translation of the cycle of poems that Baudelaire gathered under the title Tableaux parisiens. There, in the context, precisely, of a discussion of the Überleben of the original in translation, he speaks of that which, in a translation, is ‘more than communication’ and which transplants it – ‘ironically’ – into a ‘more definitive linguistic realm’. This element he terms the wesenhafte Kern, the ‘essential kernel’. See ‘Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers’, in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 4.1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972), p. 15. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 149. ‘The Storyteller’, pp. 145, 154, 144. ‘The Storyteller’, p. 146. ‘The Storyteller’, p. 152; original in ‘Die Erzähler: Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows’, in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2.2, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977), p. 451; translation slightly modified.

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35. Walter Benjamin, ‘La Narrateur: Réflexions à propos de l’œuvre de Nicolas Lesskov’, in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2.3, p. 1299, emphasis mine. 36. See ‘La Narrateur’, p. 1299. 37. ‘La Narrateur’, p. 1301. The original German text reads: ‘Mnemosyne, the rememberer, was the muse of the epic art among the Greeks. This name takes the observer back to a world-historical parting of the ways. For if the record kept by memory – the writing of history – represents the creative indifference of the various epic forms (just as great prose represents the creative indifference of the various measures of verse), its oldest form, the epic, by virtue of a kind of indifference, includes the story and the novel’, ‘The Storyteller’, p. 154; ‘Die Erzähler’, p. 453; translation slightly modified. 38. ‘The Storyteller’, p. 154. 39. ‘La Narrateur’, p. 1301. The relevant text reads as follows: ‘One finds an analogous element, but functioning differently, at the basis of the novel. And, as for the story, one can advance for the novel that originally – that is, in the epic – it formed only a seed [germe] in the undivided unity of the epic genre.’ The corresponding passage in the German original suggests only that the analogous element in the novel ‘lies concealed [verborgen liegt]’ in the epic. ‘The Storyteller’, p. 154; ‘Die Erzähler’, p. 454. 40. ‘The Storyteller’, p. 154; ‘Die Erzähler’, 454; translation slightly modified. 41. Walter Benjamin, ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History’’’, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, in Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 405–6; Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 1.3, p. 1238; translation slightly modified. 42. ‘Paralipomena’, p. 404. 43. ‘Paralipomena’, p. 404 44. See Giorgio Agamben, ‘Lingua e storia: Categorie linguistiche e categorie storiche nel pensiero di Benjamin’, in La potenza del pensiero: Saggi e conferenze (Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 2005), pp. 37–55. 45. Giorgio Agamben, Idea della prosa (Macerata: Quodlibet, 2002), p. 19. 46. Daniel Heller-Roazen, ‘Speaking in Tongues’, Paragraph, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2002), p. 104. 47. Jean-Claude Milner, ‘Réflexions sur le fonctionnement du vers français’, in Ordres et raisons de langue (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1982), p. 301. 48. Idea della prosa, p. 20. 49. Idea della prosa, p. 20. 50. Idea della prosa, p. 20. 51. See Giorgio Agamben, ‘La fine del poema’, in Categorie italiane (Venezia: Marsilio, 1996), p. 115.

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52. Idea della prosa, pp. 20–1; emphasis mine. 53. Idea della prosa, p. 12. 54. Idea della prosa, p. 21. The standard English translation reads: ‘Aristotle remarks that the style of the dialogues is half-way between poetry and prose.’ See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks (London: William Heinemann, 1926), p. 311.

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CHAPTER 7

The Fading Memory of Homo non Sacer Anton Schütz

Has there been a time before homo sacer? A bios forfeited (proscribed, banned, vogelfrei) and stripped of significance, reduced to zero-status and at the same time unsacrificeable: how far back does the history of this life disposed and disposed-of, supplied and confiscated, go? The question is all the more inevitable as Giorgio Agamben does not subscribe to the confident gesture with which Michel Foucault assigned a date of emergence to Western modernity, a ‘birth’ of what he called ‘biopolitics’. A clean-slate type discontinuity, particularly the idea of modernity as innovation – whether the innovation is a point, or whether it extends over more than a century, makes no decisive difference here – leaves one with the possibility of a calendar, of a sequence of ages succeeding each other in one unique trajectory. This is exactly what Agamben does not offer. Agamben’s stakes in Homo sacer are incompatible with the paradoxically soothing aspects of an approach that deconstructs the Western episode in a series of successive and independent epigenetic creations – and it would be tempting to draw the line through to Martin Heidegger on Seinsgeschichte and historiality. Although Agamben is just as wary as Foucault (from whom his work has doubtlessly received its most decisive impulse, after Heidegger) of the implications of what has become identifiable as the ‘legal’ or ‘juridical’ style of approaching politics and especially biopolitics, and is just as wary of the legalism that unconfessedly inspires a field like epistemology, the results both philosophers reach with respect to historical ‘method’ – and, far more importantly, to history itself – diverge significantly. Foucault sees historico-political factuality as subject to watershedlike historical discontinuities, and in consequence, before his turn towards antiquity around 1980, sticks to the idea that every configuration of Western culture as we know it can be fully traced back to its modern origins. This is an idea which Foucault shared not only with a vast majority of the Western left during the second half of the twentieth century, but with the entire spectrum of ‘progressive’ elements.

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Agamben, on the other hand, thinks the sequence of events known as ‘Western history’ as a compassing phenomenon, as the ever unfolding history and/or pre-history of Western modernity, rather than conceiving it as a series of discrete, mutually closed incidents in the way in which Foucault does. A certain historical compromise that flourished in Foucault’s days under the sign of progressivism, and which finally became Foucault’s own target – for instance, in his critique of the repressive hypothesis, and more generally in his parting ways with Marxism – has never had any purchase on Agamben. In spite of these divergences (in part perhaps merely generational), what one should not overlook is the fact that what stops Agamben from repeating Foucault is less Foucault than those who repeat Foucault. Among the most visible theoretical steps linked, wrongly or rightly, to the name Foucault is what might be called the ‘there-is-always-something-thathappens-just-before-or-around-1800’ stance. Once a provocative move, it has, in the meantime, become a commonplace. Audiences and minds have undergone, in the time since Foucault’s death, a rather drastic mutation which deserves to be noted, and needs to be identified. What had enjoyed massive public-intellectual credit in France, throughout the time that Foucault was teaching and writing there, was an overall conception of the way the world was moving. Let me call it the ‘leftist-humanist Janus bifrons’, and describe it as mildly Marxist and at the same time resolutely conformist. Foucault had recognised this as a mere compromise and rejected it, yet carefully avoided taking issue with it, limiting himself to making the distances clear, for instance by insisting, on a methodological level, on the superiority of small but demonstrable facts over large but false principles. Foucault opted for the model of hard-core discontinuities, both because this was heretical with respect to a prevailing intellectual consensus which he despised, and because it meant joining forces with the more ambitious, ‘anti-humanist’, forms of Marxism, such as Althusser (even if Foucault almost denies the Althusserian part of his ascendancy and presents his model on Nietzschean and subsidiarily Heideggerian premises). In the daily business of a global academic institution evolving under the durable spell of Foucault’s work, the assumption that all constituent parts of the world as we know it are born somewhere around 1800 looms large. It has dominated the history writing of the last third of the twentieth century, for three decades of which an important part of the historical profession mainly delivered birth certificates providing an all-but-unending series of institutions, achievements, cultural

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configurations, etc., with the confirmation of its origin in modernity. The major innovations responsible for the world as we know it, whether technological or anthropological, scientific, pastoral or mediahistorical, date from somewhere before or around 1800. In 2007, there is no trace left of what might have been so irresistible about the stance underlying this claim, when, from the late 1960s onward, clad in the dignity of its provocativeness, it conquered the hearts and minds. We are here confronted with a fact pertaining to the level where the discipline of history becomes itself visible in its historicity – the ‘history of historiography’ as the great Italian and English historian Arnaldo Momigliano had famously termed it. The suggestion that we live in a short and dense – 200 year long – genealogy of modernity is predicated on a whole intellectual-political structure. This structure, with the narrow relationship that connects it to the political history, has by now melted away without remnant. French politicians who, in 2007, denounce the ‘spirit of ’68’ are barking up the wrong tree. One should not forget, on the other hand, that today’s absolute unavailability of a politico-legal perspective that would be at once empirically acute and ethically acceptable provides as restrictive a set of conditions as did its earlier availability. The question here is simply whether the politically motivated philosophical thought reacts to situations. If our answer is yes, as it is, we cannot mimic surprise, when such a difficult question as to what happened during the past two or three millennia of Western history will, in different and incompatible historical circumstances, elicit different and incompatible replies. The point at stake here is not, obviously, the discrepancy between Foucault’s and Agamben’s historical perspectives regarding, for instance, biopolitics. Only – as their views are not simultaneous, but responding to different situations – what becomes undecidable is whether the discrepancy represents opposite viewpoints or rather different points in the history of a common, even identical project. If one compares the present tense of Foucault’s years to the present tense of the ten or twelve years preceding 2007, the one characterised by prisoner revolts, homosexual militancy and strike movements (to name only a few fronts of action), the other by their pacification and integration into institutional everyday life, even their cancellation out under the impact of new policies of ‘outsourcing conflict’ (of which the war in Iraq is an example) – it becomes much less surprising that even identical views might give rise to different positions, or at any rate to different ‘prises-de-position’.

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Such a comparative exercise in present or short-term history is able to show that philosophical thought, like everything else, has within its present a specific Sitz-im-Leben which conditions its existence. Contrary to the assumptions of a certain history of ideas the compatibility of different discourses within the social fabric is not nearly as unproblematic as that of books on a bookshelf. It is true, by the way, that even different minds are not always compatible, pace Foucault (who, as it is well known, was interested in that and only that which makes it to historical visibility – minds were thus of interest to him only to the extent to which they succeed in making themselves seen at the surface of history – of discourse). The Sitz-im-Leben of Foucault’s lesson was quite inseparable from those contemporaneous militancies and movements, which it would be difficult to hold, today, that they have fully survived. Yet, apart from Foucault’s methodological specificities, there are other, possibly even more massive differentiating factors. The media have changed their presence, increasing their strict economic dependency, while at the same time intensifying their role as laboratory of election results. The university has changed its structure. Most importantly, there had been a general conviction, half a lifetime ago, which was omnipresent and unproblematic, and which concerned something like the Western global stewardship, which was firmly in place both in its ethicopolitical principle and in its geopolitical invulnerability. It helps also to understand Foucault’s polemical foregrounding of discontinuities, his emphasis on the succession of epistémés, etc. Foucault took up an active resistance against an omnipresent preference for continuities if not for ‘transhistoric objects’ (Paul Veyne), which, he felt, loomed large in his times. Superficially, that was of course owing to Marxism and is no longer the case. It is true that, throughout the modern age, consensuses – when ‘alive and kicking’ – tend to modesty and low-key appearances, to painting their own self-portraits in unremarkable colours: consensus larvatus prodit, to paraphrase Descartes. What is common to Foucault’s times, forty to twenty-five years ago, and our own, is that both are characterised by the presence of views widely shared, indeed incontrovertible and sacrosanct enough to deny their specificity, their historicity, their merely ‘artificial’ consistency. Their content is, however, hugely different. The factor which Foucault was up against was a ‘natural-looking’ certainty predicated on continuity; this is scarcely what we find ourselves confronted by today. Today – and if this is not taken into consideration, there is simply no way to understand the history-related moves of an author

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like Agamben – similar effects emanate, on the contrary, from a postnatural certainty that emerges as a supplement of globalised technology. A different, if equally mythological, horizon has opened up, one based upon the idea that global self-programming is already in charge, that needs are already provided for, that life is a question of access to these provisions, that the age of Nature – or, more generally, the age of default-regimes or continuities – lies behind us. In certain respects, the well-known claims that we have outlived history is indistinguishable from the claim that we have outlived Nature. In this new setting, not continuity, but its opposite – namely mediaimposed discontinuity – is accredited wisdom. In Foucault’s time, the category of ‘man’ was only the most flagrant example of a whole range of continuous or long-term history-related stable categories. In the view that had been omnipresent, as something like a silent anthem, in classrooms, textbooks and all types and sizes of secularised successors to churches, man was the ultimate site of normativity, tautology or ‘non-learning’. It was subversive to maintain, at the time, what Foucault maintained: namely, that history is best understood as empty, as the indifferent whiteboard on which successive inscriptions succeed each other without beginning or end. Today – and no doubt partly owing to the success of Foucault’s claims – what underlies the ubiquitous anthem is no longer a claim or promise of an integrity placed in ‘man’. Instead, it is predicated on the disclaimer of any claim, the cancellation of any promise or common horizon, of any feature, in short, that would transcend the timelessly present network of real-time performances. It suffices to draw attention to these changed conditions and to what one might call the new empire of bare performance which results from them, in order to glimpse why the choice of following Foucault in matters of strict historicity is today intellectually sterile, why the ‘from-something-around-1800-onward’ stanza has lost the subversive potential which it commanded a lifetime ago, and why modernity-historicism (or postmodernism) is, in fact, today’s stale equivalent of the stale humanism of the first post-Second World War decades. That is, it is part and parcel of the stew of outlived programmes that constitute the retrospective scholastic menu of 2007, so different from earlier versions of the retrospective scholastic stew both in its ingredients and in its overall fragrance. With respect to Foucault, the step taken by Agamben is predicated on the undoing of the strict historical time-setting of a group of basic Foucauldian categories – biopolitics being among them. Wherever an undoing of a

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previously conquered and proudly asserted position is pursued in the history of politico-legal thought, it immediately gives rise to further questions. While some ask how to welcome it, others how to protect themselves against it, there are also more important issues, such as: why at all? why now? why here? why in this connection and not another one? In comparative perspective, Agamben’s criticism of Derrida is unquestionably much more complicated and philosophically complex than his sharp, yet also sharply circumscribed, ‘otherwise than Foucault’ move. What is obvious is Agamben’s unrestricted admiration of deconstruction as a philosophical method that, by means of its infinite renvoi to a text without outside, makes ‘opinionating’ irrelevant and unnecessary. Agamben’s admiration, which coexists with his philosophical critique of the deconstructive approach, has an important role to play, even in the historical parts and aspects of his work, and especially with regard to the regions of biopolitics, bare life and homo sacer. One of the more astonishing features of the history of global French philosophy in its Foucault/Deleuze/Derrida moment – as opposed to its Badiou/Rancière moment – was the incessant and faithful general respect paid to the demarcation lines which these thinkers succeeded in drawing between each other. While some moderate amount of frontier traffic between Foucault and Deleuze has existed for a long time, the number of border-crossings between these authors, on the one hand, and the Derridians, on the other, had been minimal and was limited – as far as I see without exception – to the one early dispute about Descartes, philosophy and madness.1 Although he never refers, as far as I can tell, to this canonical dispute, Agamben in one sense takes side with Derrida against Foucault’s commitment to sharp historicisation. If Agamben, while taking up a large number of Foucault’s claims, no longer assumes that the constituent parts of the world as we know it were born somewhere around 1800, it is at least tempting to see a passionate refusal on the part of Agamben to take on the idea that one ‘has to choose’. Derrida’s reaction to Foucault, directed against the historicisation of madness, is epitomised by the claim that philosophy has always involved as perilous and close a contact to the other side of Reason as did madness at the brink of modernity. Agamben, similarly, argues that biopolitics had emphatically not waited for modernity to set in: neither for the emergence of the modern practice of governance/discipline, nor for the modern substitution of population for territory.

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This is a crucial point, especially in the light of the fact that Agamben’s work, indebted to Heidegger in its relation to philosophy or Western metaphysics as much as it is to Benjamin in its relation to the messianic, remains, in its historico-political branch, unquestionably indebted to Foucault. Agamben, by force of his ‘faithless’ attitude, his picking and choosing, exposes himself clearly, no doubt intentionally, to the ban of the guardians of borders, gates and identities; ‘The struggle is not against God or supreme sovereignty . . . but against the angels, the messengers and the functionaries who appear to represent it.’2 Even if Foucault’s wrestling with the issue of historicity, with the datedness of modernity, has certainly not passed by Agamben unawares, the latter is obviously less interpellated by the entire issue of historical campaigns of emerging newness which plays such an overwhelming role in Foucault’s account of modernity and biopolitics. Agamben’s own notion of biopolitics accordingly follows an entirely different set of coordinates. It is, in fact, not easy to see what people really mean when they find that something is wrong about the fact that, while Foucault uses the notion of biopolitics in a particular way, related to one group of archives and documents, to one landscape of events or situations, Agamben uses it in another way, and in relation to an at least partly different, and historically much more extensive, substrate. The idea that of two people who make claims about a particular object – the one maintaining that it has only existed a short time, the other for a much longer time – one of them at least ‘must be wrong’ seems to be based, at most, on some commonsensical conviction and, in addition, on the idea that the meaning of a word is subject to a sovereign decision, an idea best portrayed in Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar. On a certain, exceedingly humble, factual level this idea is certainly, if not right, at least desirable from the viewpoint of discourse-economy. Yet one can scarcely avoid the question whether either of the two authors ever operated on this humble level. If the answer to this question is negative, to examine one of them on the basis of this type of expectation might be a category mistake, if not simply a case of ‘love’s labour’s lost’. Furthermore, the idea of awarding the earlier author a special, privileged position or mastery over the term he had coined first, simply because he has done so, is itself not entirely obvious. Is it not, perhaps, simply an illegitimate transposition of copyright law reasoning on a question of a wholly different sort? What remains is the issue of the most appropriate way – in the sense of the philosophically most rewarding – of historically and conceptually formalising the problem

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of the intrinsic indeterminateness of the concept of biopolitics. The risk was without any doubt already part of Foucault’s initial wager of short-circuiting, within one composite term, two of the most powerful root categories of a cultural-referential universe in order to create a fitting label for a certain modern innovation. Were not the elements far too rich in connections and references to do the work of a simple label? On the other hand, of course, was the term not purposely chosen by Foucault, in order precisely to abduct those culturally allpowerful root categories from the seraglio of philosophy? Agamben, of course, while deconstructing the notion of biopolitics and acknowledging the powerful network into which it is plugged thanks to the cultural omnipresence of its two components bios and politics, did not find any interest in pursuing the Foucault–Derrida conflict (which, in a sense, was still a ‘conflict of faculties’: an attack ‘against’ Philosophy, a riposte ‘in defence of’ Philosophy). Another aspect that should be kept in mind in this connection is the fact that the topics and academic disciplines implicated by Foucault’s and Agamben’s work are less than favourable to the construction of an axiomatic that would be valid once and for all – whether or not one deems this regrettable. It is true, of course, that a William of Ockham would have wished us to be as parsimonious as possible in our use of concepts and models, famously enjoining us not to ‘multiply’ them beyond necessity, but it is no less true that, dealing with exercises and investigations on matters that are highly and in a sense even ‘naturally’ subject to contestation because of their political implications, what is to be acknowledged is precisely the presence of such a necessity. Nothing precludes that the presence of different interrelating yet not fully compatible appraisals can be more instructive than the supposition that only one judgment can be ultimately right. Foucault throws light on the shores of biopolitics at the decisionist or decision-making level – the level of his famous phrase ‘a certain decision had been taken’ in History of Madness – outlining the new paradigm of Reason of the classical age.3 Later on, Foucault investigates biopolitics and the build-up of the new scientifically domesticated, disciplined and de-metaphorised reference to life that underlies it, with reference to its massive and ever-increasing historical effects over two centuries. He shows how the moment at which the governmental care for population sets in marks a historical point of no return. Agamben, by contrast, operates at ground rather than shore level, inspecting the continental shelf that joins the present to a much longer

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history – precisely the one which Foucault had opted to treat as irrelevant. Yet, looking at Foucault’s life work, one recognises that he was first on both accounts: first not only in the sense that it was he who coined the concept of biopolitics at the level of Western history of the past two or three centuries, but also first in examining the level of the ‘continental shelf’ of life-related social practices. He is first, and indeed unique, in his claim of learning and changing position, which he upheld until the end of his life. It is clear that if one dismisses the writing and lectures of his last five years as some sort of anecdotal postscript, no real understanding of Foucault is possible. During those final years, turning with increasing exclusiveness towards Hellenistic and Roman Antiquity, Foucault suspended his own earlier campaign in which he had substituted historical discontinuities for the great narratives of continuity (whether theological, Marxist or Whig). In his vast output of lectures and studies from these years, Foucault, for the first time, leaves the relationship which diverse moments and episodes of Ancient History are supposed to entertain with later horizons (up to and including the present) open and undefined. In that sense the final Foucault is certainly among the precedents of the narrative put to work in Agamben’s homo sacer. Clearly Agamben substituted a new topic, one unconnected with Foucault’s main topics – madness, the care of the self, discipline, government. Agamben takes up, at a later stage, the question of government, but more immediately and fundamentally, that of biopolitics. He resituates the topic at the crossroads of three hitherto unconnected series of concepts and observations: Foucault’s work on biopolitics from the 1970s is one example; the concept of bare life as it appears in a group of writings by Walter Benjamin from the 1920s is another; finally, the homo sacer, Agamben’s own philologically refined concept for the Western institutional coinage of dispossessed humanity, is a third. What do these notions have in common? The answer to this – apart from the fact that each of them expresses the notion of an inconsistent universal law – is a legal order which, while suffering no exception as to its validity, at every point coexists also with its own lawlessness. While there is nothing very surprising in the fact that lawyers do not welcome this news as soothing, it is difficult to see which are precisely the values that are threatened by such a claim. How, in other words, could this historically focused and philosophically argued account be all that threatening to ‘law’, as numerous – especially lawyerly – reactions to them seem to suppose. It is not even

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new, or, if it is, the newness does not lie in the structural account of rule and exception where it is often situated. For Hans Kelsen, a twentieth-century legal philosopher and constitutionalist – never mentioned by Agamben, who, in contrast, following Benjamin, relies on Kelsen’s intimate adversary Carl Schmitt – the condition of any legal order is the Grundnorm, a legal equivalent of what linguists refer to as a shifter. In the same way in which the shifter is not part of any of the messages it enables, so Kelsen’s Grundnorm is not part of the legal order: it is simply ‘presupposed’ by any existing legal order. Kelsen describes the Grundnorm even as a ‘mere hypothesis’ and, in later years, as a fiction. It is true that his conception, which comes close to Agamben’s concept of law as suspended by a state of exception, encountered much resistance not only among clerical and fascist natural lawyers throughout Europe, but even from ‘realist’ jurisprudence scholars in the US.4 In short, if we hear how much the notions of exception and state of exception are professionally unacceptable, that they represent a shocking insult to lawyers, it is by no means all that original. Kelsen, the ‘cleverest legal theorist of the twentieth century’ (as he was called in a 2004 meeting by the legal theorist and historian Tony Honoré, co-author of H. L. A. Hart, Kelsen’s competitor) had, apparently with no less insulting effect to many lawyers than Agamben’s short study, anticipated it. What is new is not the notion of exception per se, but the ambivalent and fascinatingly insight-provoking notion of the ban. Agamben draws this notion from an earlier work of J.-L. Nancy, and makes it the cornerstone of a new, unlawyerly, understanding of law. From Agamben’s dialogues with a whole gamut of disciplines – an aspect of Homo Sacer that, as we know, has chagrined many a devoted specialist in the trajectory of its wide-ranging argument – two results emerge. On the one hand, a taking, a Nehmen, has taken place: a ‘Nahme’ in Carl Schmitt’s idiom, who, however, uses the term exclusively in connection with territory, as in Landnahme. In the subject of bare life, subjection has become indistinguishable from dispossession, from exposure. The crucial point in understanding the structure at work is uncomplicated enough. In the homo sacer, the taking fails to move on to live up to its completion, namely the effective taking of the subject’s life. ‘Taken’ or ‘genommen’, the life is, not in the literal sense of being killed, but in the figurative sense of being degraded or abandoned to another, insignificant, indifferent life. One aspect not explicitly dealt with by Agamben is the strictly legal dimension of absolute exposure/bare life: what kind of transgression

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is constituted by the fact of attributing significance to life, or especially to the taking of life, if the life at stake had been legally – that is, correctly, validly – deprived of its right to being of significance? A clear case in point here is the extraordinary disproportion evident in the amount of fuss made about casualties in armed conflicts today. The normalcy of this disproportion normatively constitutes as preposterous the ‘humanist’ idea of the value of any human life whatsoever. The homo sacer is exactly this: devalued life, life as ce qui reste, a remnant that happens, not to ‘be’, but to be ‘around’. Dispossession without killing results in a provisional, precarious, merely factual existence.5 This – to the extent to which relevant modern and current examples do not come anywhere close to the horizon of sacrifice – inspires many readers of Agamben to ask whether we are effectively confronted with Festus’s category of homo sacer and not rather his secularisation.6 The majority of academic lawyers involved in the attempt of feeding Agamben’s thought into an academically or consensually sustainable critical jurisprudential world-view have never quite overcome the obstacle raised by what they perceive as the religious component of the ‘sacrifice’ involved in the paradigm of the homo sacer. The Agambinian double formula, ‘can be killed without breaking the law’ and ‘cannot be sacrificed’, leaves them speechless. Some delve into early religious history, trying to unsettle the author with the means of ‘internal critique’. Yet Agamben here refers to the legendary vocabulary of early or ‘archaic’ Roman institutions only in order to tap its potential for elucidating a situation, a fate, a case of fact, that does not cease to reappear through a large range of exemplary figures, each of them throwing its light upon the ban-structure according to which law has been instituted all along the extended – but in precisely this respect uneventful – history of the West.7 To the gods Agamben (and Festus) assign no other than a strictly institutional or structural standing, their quality of being addressees of prayers and sacrifices, their function as a raison d’être not only of priestly power, to be sure, but of power as such. A structuralfunctional attitude with respect to ‘religion’ that is expressed with equal and rather uncanny perfection by a number of eminent elder statesmen of the Roman tradition, such as Tacitus when he vituperates against ethnic or religious groups who refuse to participate in the sacrifices (as everyone knows, there had not been human sacrifices for a long time by Tactitus’s era).8 The sacrificial horizon from which the homo sacer takes his name is likewise purely structural; this is why it is pointless to body-search the sacred human to see whether he bears

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the religious je-ne-sais-quoi which supposedly constitutes particular social bodies or experiences as religious social bodies or experiences. Yet it is not only the question of religion that is absent from the homo sacer thesis. It is equally incorrect to suppose that its core reference resides in the sacrifice. Taken in itself, the sacrifice is of no importance, compared to the sacrificial institution’s late, derailed, fermented manifestations, its Schwundstufen or zero degrees. The manifold and heterogeneous incumbents of the homo sacer role, dedicated but not sacrificeable, who roam the common abode are readable as such Schwundstufen. The expression homo sacer is not religious and fails to correspond to religious sacrifice or any other notion of religious terminology. It should be understood as equidistant from or indifferent to realities both religious and secular. As Agamben explains in Profanations, the homo sacer corresponds to a different divide, the divide between the sacred as opposed to the profane.9 Whereas the first division refers to a certain phenomenology of social history, which here takes the aspect of an impoverished version of the Enlightenment mapping where the secular stands for the movement forward and the religious for the legacy of the past, the second division, between sacred and profane, is consistent with strict legal terminology, with the change of status before/without devotion as opposed to after/under the impact of devotion. This is the reason why it fits into Agamben’s reading of Western history, which is strictly law-related. The sacredness of the homo sacer transforms his life by banning it and abandoning it to a necessarily insignificant death. This tension in the semantics of the word ‘abandon’ between its two components ‘to leave somebody to himself’, ‘to give somebody into the ban’ – two clearly diverging meanings which the word nonetheless authenticates equally and simultaneously – is not discussed. To declare an individual lawless, deprived of legal protection, is equivalent to suspending a certain type of institutional flourishing, of effective legal rule or command: rather than clamping down on the culprit, the legal order chooses to ‘withdraw’ from him, limiting itself to revoking certain rights it had granted, thereby simultaneously falling back into a status quo ante. This amounts only to a relatively or at least potentially harmless partial cancellation or self-cancellation of the legal order, a downgrading of the level of legal protection, a withdrawal of the legal order, a ‘deregulation’. There is, however, undecidably, another sense of lawlessness as well, which is entirely located within the legal order, and according to which lawlessness in itself is registered as a legal

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status. Instead of being a mere exclusion or revocation from a title or a right, of a dismissal out of the commonwealth into the legally untouched state of nature, the lawless, or the excluded, here remain perfectly ‘included’ in the legal order, as lawless and no longer enjoying protection. All this constitutes the positive predicament of ‘ban’. While, technically (and logically) speaking, lawlessness is thus a perfectly negative determination, the non-role which embodies lawlessness is positively identifiable, and so is the life that awaits its incumbent. Agamben’s wager that the two meanings of abandoner (to abandon) and à-ban-donner (to banish, to outlaw) secretly but factually coincide is predicated on a strong presupposition of ‘law’s integrity’ (at least in Friedrich Carl von Savigny’s sense: law understood as man’s life if it is considered from a certain vantage point). The legal order ‘covers’ human life entirely, according to this view, not leaving any free space, any remaining space that would be open to being colonised by law (or, on the contrary, to be preserved against such a colonisation). As in the case of Pandora’s box, the gate of the law is wide open, and the history of its opening is irreversible. No way leads back to a space without law – and therefore without abandon and bare life – back to the homo non sacer. The integrity is, however, the effect of an incessant polar tension, and should not be mixed up with the other claim, namely it is an integrity only in the sense that it is accompanied by an outside, a potential or actual exception, that it presents itself at every point as the bipolar tension of nomos and anomia.10 It is this polar tension which Agamben refers to under the name ‘ban’. The law of law/lawlessness: one ‘abandons always to law’, as Agamben states quoting Nancy.11 Agamben find a hermeneutics of the inescapable ‘Pandoran’ ubiquity of law in Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’.12 Most of this tale’s many interpretations are impressed by the tragic aspect of the story, reading it as the tragedy of a person who fails to gain access to what he desires most, namely ‘entry into the law’. However, right from the start, the gate of the law stands wide open. The guardian forbids the man to enter, yet at the same time leaves the man to enter in spite of the forbidding words. The man chooses to stay at the gate. This is, in a sense, the surprise of the story (most people that any reader has met in her life would doubtlessly have entered at some point). Yet it is also the reason why the story can go on, and can become the biography of at least the whole mature part of the man-from-the-countryside’s life. In the end, or at the moment at which the man is close to his end, the

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guardian closes the door to the law. Looking back at his life, now, does it become clear that the law has been the main if not the sole focus of the man? Yes, as far as his social exchange is concerned. Yet it is essential to be more precise here. The role that the man from the countryside assigns to the law has been to provide the unique topic of an extended, indeed life-long, conversation with the guardian at the open gate of the law. The point here is of course the man’s steadfast refusal to give the law any other role in his life, apart from that of being the topic of his conversation with the guardian. To be that topic is the only role the man from the countryside assigns to the law. And it is in virtue of this unapparent restriction that Kafka’s story about the man from the countryside offers Agamben (as before him, Walter Benjamin, much to Gershom Scholem’s displeasure)13 the occasion of distancing himself from any hyperbolic interpretation of the law, and especially from any prematurely tragic interpretation of the man’s failure to penetrate into the law.14 In spite of one of the mottoes preceding the first chapter – Savigny’s famous line on law and life – Agamben never approaches the intricacies of legal-historical modernity, the advent of legal positivism, but rather inscribes this matter into a more ‘general’ philosophical (Heideggerian) account of an ever-uncompleted end of Western metaphysics. Law here becomes the paradigm of the untenable compromise between an exhausted raison d’être and the spell which nonetheless it continues to exert. Agamben denounces a common pattern of law’s continuation as legal zero degree (or Schwundstufe) as the philosophically insufficient solution of the problem posed by law; what Agamben opposes is the idea of endowing the law with the dignity of being its own negative representative by the idea of investing it with the role of being its own sign or pseudonym or, finally, the monument of its own disappearance. In Agamben’s eyes, the insufficiency of this solution manifests itself not only through the aura of unthinking tragicality which it exudes, but also through the admittedly illegitimate, i.e. unavowable, mode of being which results from this spectral condition. Kafka’s story and its interpretations offer a strong case in point. This anti-tragic bent of Agamben’s thought can be seen at work in other connections as well. It is, it might be suggested, also decisive for the fact that crime is far less central to the themes touched upon by his studies than the non-criminal facts linked to the abandonment, exposure and dispossession of survivors. The volume Agamben has dedicated to Auschwitz15 has been answered, in France, by a book of

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not far from the same size, a volume of substantial, sharp and in a sense unforgiving yet understanding and astute criticism.16 This is neither surprising nor difficult to understand; yet it should be pointed out that there is no clue in Agamben’s work that would allow us to construe his emphasis, especially regarding the figure of the Muselmann, as being, in one way or the other, at the expense of those murdered in the same or other concentration camps. Nonetheless, Agamben rejects the idea that the division between death and life is a sufficient, rather than only a necessary, condition of an appropriate ethical take on the question of Auschwitz. The praxis of the reference to death and destruction in the advanced society of the spectacle is patently characterised by the fact that destruction and death, or specific instances thereof, have been instrumentalised to render plausible actions and agendas that would otherwise not resist an examination of their ethical or legal acceptability. Agamben reacts to this situation by referring to ‘elimination’ rather than death or destruction. How should we understand this? Elimination, in the case of the homo sacer, should be taken in the sense of being erased from the book of life, according to the biblical passage in Exodus 32. The opposition of life and the book-of-life to which I am referring means the distinction and mutual dependence of life and its code-duplication, life and that which it is taken to stand in for. Freedom, roaming freely, are institutional attributes which pertain to the ‘book of life’ rather than to ‘life itself’. They are not superposable with factual or functional appropriateness.17 The question of the homo non sacer looks easy, as if a positive answer to its possibility would result, simply and in an almost selfexplanatory manner, from the fact that man can, at any rate, not be said to have entered the arena of history as homo sacer, that man cannot have been created as homo sacer. Yet the intricate internal structure of the notion involves too many levels of negation to allow such a clear-cut reply. The construction of the homo sacer throws its shadow forward – in the sense that it categorically excludes the implementation, even the elaboration, of a political programme that would allow the phenomenon to be got rid of, as the genealogy of the advent of the homo sacer leaves no doubt that such a remedy would re-enact, precisely and point by point, the process that has led to the phenomenon’s appearance in the first place. But also backwards. ‘There is an infinite amount of hope – only: not for us’, as Kafka said to Max Brod. In matters of the homo sacer this means that once the division between status and life has inscribed itself, the possibility of becoming

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again – of teaching ourselves to become again – homines non sacri has shut down behind us. Notes 1. This well-known dispute was triggered by a passage of Foucault’s 1961 Folie et déraison – Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, where the Descartes of the First Metaphysical Meditation is taken as representative of the rule of Reason proper to classic rationality and the operations which the classical age assigns to madness; Derrida’s reply, a conference paper ‘Cogito et histoire de la folie’ in 1963 (integrated, in 1967, into Writing and Difference), deconstructs the divide, asserting a common and unique origin to both Madness and Reason. Foucault’s riposte ‘This Body, This Paper, This Fire’ (published in 1972 as an appendix to the second edition of Madness and Civilization) uses Nietzsche’s critique of priestly pro domo thinking to push Derrida into the position of an apologist of Philosophy as a discourse of power. The rudimentary nature of the results of this fascinating but insufficient debate leaves a wide territory uncharted. Is it possible that part of the scandal of Agamben’s Homo sacer lies in its constantly moving sides between Foucault’s historicity and Derrida’s historiality, when most other interpreters have learned to stay put in one or in the other position? 2. Cf. (K), II, 7, in this volume, p. 25. 3. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, ed. Jean Khalfa, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (London: Routledge, 2006), Ch. 2. 4. Cf. Julius Stone, Legal Systems and Lawyers’ Reasonings (London: Stevens, 1964). 5. The primary object of this exposure is, in ancient history, the infant: ‘The killing of infants is generally considered as an indifferent action morally and emotionally, as the infant does not yet participate in the life of the social group. As long as it has not been integrated, through the required rituals, into the community, as long as, first of all, it has not been given a name, everything happens as if it did not exist; its disappearance, then, even fails to provoke what we call “natural feeling” ’, Pierre Roussel, ‘La famille athénienne’, Lettres de l’Association Guillaume Budé (Paris), Vol. 9 (1950), p. 26. 6. If the question of bare life and ‘auspicious life’ (or whatever other term one chooses to refer to bare life’s ‘opposite’) involves the difference a life makes, thus the attention it commands, it is essential to specify that the distinction refers to an effectively mobilisable attention in the present, rather than a discursively alleged memory of the past. Memory, and internal states generally, are unable to test or document precariousness or exposure. A sequence from Berthold Brecht’s play Mann ist Mann illustrates what is at stake at the threshold of bare life. ‘Und wozu auch

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7.

8.

9. 10. 11.

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben immer er umgebaut wird’ (‘and whatever he is transformed into’) is said about the protagonist, a job-seeking proletarian, ‘in ihm hat man sich nicht geirrt’ (‘there is no need to correct one’s views about him’). With shrill pseudo-optimism Brecht speaks, in 1920, of ‘transformation’, in order to point to the fact that prevailing views on lives subject to proletarian conditions are unspecific or callous enough to prevail, no matter the fate of their object. Brecht here takes issue with – or rather offers an explanation of – man’s indestructibility. ‘Man, being indestructible, can be infinitely destroyed,’ Maurice Blanchot, quoted in Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 73. The frequent contention that this equals playing the long since obsolete card of ‘universal history’ mixes up universality with globalisation and history with genealogy. Agamben does claim that a structure of immemorial occidental standing, of which it would be easy to prove that it is subject to ‘globalisation’, underlies a complex bipolar tension of which he proposes a genealogical account – not, however, the history of its meaning. Agamben’s topic offers the concept of law as ban, a concept of law which he subjects to a vast hermeneutic exercise that involves both sovereignty and bare life. This can be interpreted as an overall biography of the Western episode or, alternatively, as a redrawing of the starting line of Western modernity. Either way, we are dealing with the history of a singularity, where it remains difficult to spot a ‘universal’ character; the plausibility which accretes to the argument from the fact that the singularity has become subject to globalisation deserves to be considered spurious. Tacitus, Histories V.13.1, here quoted after the French edition, Histoires, ed J. Hellegouarc’h and H. Le Bonniec (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1992), p. 86, where Tacitus criticises the Jews for being enemies of religious practices. Giorgio Agamben, Profanazioni (Rome: Nottetempo, 2005); trans. as Profanations (New York: Zone Books, 2007). Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: Stanford University Press, 2005). The formula ‘quantum in se est’ – ‘as far as its/one’s capacities reach’ – supplements and nuances numberless propositions in Spinoza’s Ethics. In fact, the formula itself comes close to an expression of ban or abandon: it denies any standing to transcendence or providence, but sticks to a zero degree of legality, just enough to prescriptively state every entity’s abandonment to the law/exception compound. On another level, twenty-first-century society is portrayed in Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of a liquid society. In their successful pages, Bauman’s books offer an apt description of contemporary sociological conditions of life abandoned. Cf. Anton Schütz, ‘How aufarbeiten ‘liquid society’?

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14. 15. 16. 17.

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Zygmunt Bauman’s wager’, in Jiri Priban (ed.), Liquid Modernity and Its Law (London: Ashgate, 2007). Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), ch. 4, ‘Form of law’. Gershom Scholem, in one of his first letters on the topic of Kafka, criticises Walter Benjamin’s attempt of interpreting Kafka’s work without conceding fundamental importance to the legal reference. Cf. Walter Benjamin–Gershom Scholem, Briefwechsel 1933–40, ed. Gershom Scholem (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988), p. 117. Ibid. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999). Philippe Mesnard and Claudine Cahan, Giorgio Agamben à l’épreuve d’Auschwitz (Paris: Editions Kimé, 2001). As a reference to the uncoded and uncharted, ever revocable, merely factually accessible region in which alone the notion of bare life unfolds its meaning, see, apart from the sources given in Agamben, the term proletariat in its use by Marx. As in Benjamin’s ‘bloßes Leben’, ‘bare life’ should be maintained as the correct translation of nuda vita. Translating nuda vita as ‘naked life’ or ‘nacktes Leben’ inflates it with a dramatisation that seems incongruous; in German, it also triggers the association with the common phrase ‘mit dem nackten Leben davonkommen’ (‘to save one’s naked life’), where ‘life’ figures as a ‘saveable’ good, an object of ownership or capital open to enjoyment.

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CHAPTER 8

Soulblind, or On Profanation Thanos Zartaloudis

The more closely you look at a word, the more distantly it looks back. Karl Kraus

1. At stake: eu-daimonia, happiness. To traverse the juridico-political and theological model of a theocracy still prevalent today what is most in need of separation is the order of happiness from the order of the messianic. A profane experience of happiness (not conceived psychologically or transcendentally) may lie in the word. Working towards the conception of a profane historical order Walter Benjamin diagnosed as the condition of his time what seems to be still at stake today: the redemption of the mode of transmission of things that are held as ‘sacred heritage’: the hypocrisy of ‘the closed mouth’ as a place of authority, that reigns but does not govern. Redemption here refers not to the saving of the past, but the saving of what never was: the new, our ever infant form of being. Whereas politician-vicars of all kinds wish to consign desire to this or that silent topos, what is most needed as a radical praxis is to recall arguments, ideas and desires, the flesh of things to experience (an experimentum). It is the undecidability between the lived experience and the poietic life that defines the event of experience as taking place inbetween, in fable. It is in fable where the wild things are. It is not recognition any longer that ‘saves us’, but the realisation that we cannot recognise ourselves in any saviour-sign, let alone return to it. Unlearning is needed, for this proposition is not to be confused with empty nihilism or other horrors that remain deep scars on the face of our degraded culture and poverty of experience. As Agamben writes: ‘Genuine spirituality and culture do not forget this original, infantile vocation of human language, while the attempt to imitate the natural germen in order to transmit immortal and codified values in which neotenic openness once more shuts itself off in a specific tradition is precisely the characteristic of a degraded culture.’1 The ‘origin’ in this sense is what matters but, crucially, the origin is no longer an essentialist foundation or an eschatological end to which we shall return in order to be absolved.

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2. ‘Let us be clear’, with humour, as Henri Michaux once proposed: the ‘secret’ of our metaphysical situation, in the procession of now this and now that name, is that it is not a substantial nature or an essence that is postulated first and foremost, but a name (onoma). In this sense the key to our situation is that it is onomastic. Agamben has summarised what is at stake in his work in the following: In this authentic temporal dimension, the poetic status of man on earth finds its proper meaning. Man has on earth a poetic status, because it is poiesis that founds for him the original space of his world. Only because in the poietic epoche he experiences his beingin-the-world as his essential condition does a world open up for his action and his existence. Only because he is capable of the uncanniest power, the power of pro-duction into presence is he also capable of praxis, of willed and free activity. Only because he attains, in the poetic act, a more original temporal dimension is he a historical being, for whom, that is, at every instant his past and future are at stake.2

The opening of this more original temporal dimension or interruption is forever, it seems, consigned to sige (silence), indecision and passive, eschatological receptivity. Contrary to this prevalent under-standing, that knows nothing of real paradoxes, thought is instead to be understood as moving paradoxically along what is beside it (para); its potentiality. How is ‘movement’ to be thought, especially, such a movement that moves to both directions at once ever-forming transductive encounters between its polarities? Movement is a mysterious cul-de-sac for philosophical, as well as juridico-political and theological, thought. It could be noted, however, that Giorgio Agamben’s and Gilles Deleuze’s conceptions as to the understanding of thought’s fortune (or dike) are closer than ever in what could be termed as a moving-image of their thoughts: ‘the ethical imperative = to becometo become-other-to find a line of flight = to live’.3 It is indeed only a suggestion that can be offered here, but perhaps an interesting path that runs between the two thinkers lies in their mutual reference to Gilbert Simondon’s conception of the ‘transductive relation’ as such.4 What is ‘at stake’, then, is a dynamic and felicitous conception of individuation, a continuous process, rather than an intrinsic feature possessed by an individual like a predicate (the individual, that is, precedes the individuality of difference prescribed in the concept). To be certain, being felicitous means not a return to some essentialist end of praxis, but a certain change of attitude (a form of asceticism): praxis and being conceived and lived as inseparable. Against substantialism,

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essentialism as well as hylomorphism, Simondon draws attention to the process by which the individual comes to be ontogenetically. The individual is not constituted as through a static archetype that comes to fruition (frui), but is rather in a constant process of individuation (puer). This links Michel Foucault’s notion of power as other than ‘a fruit to pick’ to both Agamben and Deleuze. What is even more crucial, though, is that this leads logically to the proposition that the individual can no longer be conceived as a deduction. The individuation of the individual is to be thought as emerging from milieux and as happening in milieux. While this ‘interactionist’ mode is worthy of detailed investigation, what is noted here is only the way in which this process of individuation is a (be)coming, a radical passion, that takes its place between a pre-individual milieux of potentialities and a coexistent individual plane of continued tensions and real paradoxes (real abstractions). At this point it is worth keeping in mind Agamben’s long-held preoccupation with Aristotle’s concept of the passage to actuality as expressed in the second book of De Anima, where Aristotle analyses the nature of paskhein (passion, undergoing): ‘To suffer is not a simple term. In one sense it is a certain destruction through the opposite principle, and in another sense the preservation [so¯te¯ria, salvation] of what is in potentiality by what is in actuality and what is similar to it . . .’.5 3. Returning now to the sigetic reduction of onomatopoieia, what has for a long time been experienced as a crisis or poverty of signification becomes the battleground against the capitalist religiosity of indifference (humanity) and spectacularisation (end of history) that is prevalent. This crisis of meaning, or the caesura or syncope of signification to put it in Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms, is the event of a, yet to be traversed, transcendental history today: the current stage in the obsessive search for sense and essences (even evident in Nancy’s own scheme): ‘one thereby avoids recognizing that the entire structure of our philosophical discourse has come to measure itself against its own exhaustion: the will to signify finds itself confronted with the bare projection of signification.’6 For instance, the isolation of something like bare life (nuda vita) or of a ‘man without content’ (produced most violently today in the realm of the juridico-political, self-indulgent art and in the mass media) is made possible through the presupposition of the modern conception of human being as infinitely and inconsequentially replaceable (even if at its place stands nothingness). A bare signification, a Nothing (prevalent in Georges Bataille and Nancy),

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that is still in force without legislating anything in particular remains part of the problem for Agamben. As in a labyrinth, your worst nightmare, the hardest enigma, is your only way out. Modern subjectivity appears as what can be called a folded lie. One encounters everywhere an unhappy consciousness (a postponed fulfilment) and beside it the madman or the rogue. That a human being in order to be must undergo a scission (between appearance and nature, linguistic being and non-linguistic being, and so forth) is not in dispute as such, but the manner of the experience of such a scission is. Instead of a theologico-political technique (theurgia) that aims to guarantee the unintelligibility of history and its relation to silent primary causes, what is needed is the reawakening of thought from its alleged archetypical rigidity and isolation in the realm of the ‘king that reigns but does not govern’. Thought in its (re)turning, not in the sense of yet another transmission of a destiny, but in the sense of the (re)turn of the mythic past of humanity, what ‘has never taken place’, its experience of infancy: the new in its irreparable profanity. Human culture to be truly human passes into the hands of poetry where its soulblind matter resides in potentiality. 4. According to Nietzsche, Anaximander is the philosopher who gave expression to this degraded conception of existence as a negative theologico-political excess in the sense of an eternal (in)justice. Anaximander said, in Nietzsche’s rendering, ‘Beings must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of time.’7 In this reading Anaximander’s fragment is seen as the most ancient expression of the work of negativity, of the daimon of existence that the world of the pre-socratic philosophers encountered: existence is accused for its lack from the negative point of view of an apeiron as a superlative postulation. In contrast, as Gilles Deleuze writes, on Nietzsche, Heraclitus is the truly tragic thinker of profane justice: The problem of justice runs through his entire work. Heraclitus is the one for whom life is radically innocent and just. He understands existence on the basis of an instinct of play. He makes existence an aesthetic phenomenon, rather than a moral or religious one. [. . .] For there is no being beyond becoming, nothing beyond multiplicity; neither multiplicity nor becoming are appearances or illusions. But neither are there multiple or eternal realities which would be, in turn, like essences beyond appearance. Multiplicity is inseparable manifestation, essential transformation and constant symptom of

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Heraclitus offers not a theodicy, but a cosmodicy, not a sum of injustices to be expiated through the separation of experience and knowledge, but justice (dike) as the law of this world (where the ‘world’ is a juncture rather than an end); not hybris, but play (aion) and the innocence of a substantia separata, the product of desire, the phantasm that finds its fulfilment in the name of love (amor fati, perhaps, could make sense only in this way). Aesthetic, not anaesthetised. If coming thought is acosmic how can this justice (dike) be thought? Against the technique of the theurgia in the mysterious economy of being (where the open mouth receives its authority from the closed mouth – a static archetype – and where experience signifies either production or en-actment), what is posed is the undertaking, the carrying out of something, the assumption of total responsibility. That is where the place of the origin and its sigetic destruction (its totality) meet against the impossibility of locating responsibility, which for millennia has governed being and acting as its most silent principium. Such an assumption can only take place if a power is not separated from what it can do (res gerere).9 That is, when experience is founded on knowledge and (un)learning, rather than upon authority (which is always authoritarian and mysterious). 5. Religion, state politics, law, philosophy, morality, among others, have been almost from the beginning bound to theurgia, an experience founded on authority rather than knowledge. That is, as Agamben states, upon what cannot be experienced, since authority must find its foundation at the place of the closed mouth and the mystery of its economy.10 Agamben adds, however, that the point is not to merely deplore this state of affairs and to react against it, though this would be understandable as a temporary reaction.11 The effects of such a theurgia, or negative definition of being, have been significant for a number of reasons, one of which directly affects the conception of experience as such. Until the birth of modern science, as Agamben writes in Infancy and History, experience and science had their own place: experience had its subject in common sense that existed in every individual (pathema, soul) and science had its subject in the impassive, pure science of the nous or the active intellect. Mind and soul remained separate until Aquinas. Hence, the question before their unification was not about the subject–object relation, but about the relation between the one and the many. The modern Ego unites

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the properties of the separate intellect and the passivity of the subject of experience and becomes the centre that pre-emptively ends the experimentum of experience. We are so used to this simplification, where the subject is seen as a psychic reality, that the modern subject in Descartes, itself dipped in doubt, is not remembered as the uncertainty that it evinced: At the moment of its manifest emergence in the Cartesian formulation, it is not in fact a psychic reality [. . .], but a pure Archimedean point (‘nihil nisi punctum petebat Archimeds, quod esset firmum as immobile . . .’) which came into being precisely through the quasimystical reduction of all psychic content except the pure act of thought. [. . .] In its original state the Cartesian subject is nothing more than the subject of the verb, a purely linguistic-functional entity, very similar to the ‘scintilla synderesis’ and the ‘apex of mind’ of medieval mysticism, whose existence and duration coincide with the moment of its enunciation.12

Yet the old subject of experience no longer exists and experience – which today is the site of psychic processes or scientific knowledge or a combination – necessarily becomes asymptomatic to itself and as such incomplete. The old subject of experience has been split in a rather unique way in modernity: In its place there are now two subjects, which are represented to us in a novel at the beginning of the seventeenth century [. . .], advancing side by side, inseparable companions in a quest whose adventurousness matches its futility. Don Quixote, the old subject of knowledge, has been befuddled by a spell and can only undergo experience without ever having it. By his side, Sancho Panza, the old subject of experience, can only have it, without ever undergoing it.13

What could it mean for a research project, as Agamben’s, to be interested in a ‘pure genealogy’ of human being where both Quixote and Panza find peace? 6. Profanation: what does it mean to say that now ‘what strength I have is mine own,’ as Prospero does at the end of The Tempest? The irony of this is that the most personal and innate ‘god’ to us was always already within us as our nature of action (and inaction) and creativity (and destruction): divine desire as ultimately our own (our daimon or genio). A divine desire or being that reigns in indecision remains a problem. Indulgere genis, that is, the question seems to have always been: what relation is one to have with one’s own daimon in order to achieve eu-daimonia? While lucid in certain ways, the

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answer that all there is as our ‘source’ of power is our impotent genius or last god (our postmodern desire), this is not what makes us ‘finally’ human, disenchanted, free, powerful and fatal, as ever, to each other and ourselves. Such a ‘desire’ still seems to require a sacred source that disappears for itself and experience to be seen as self-sufficient (a theopoiesis). A way of being (ethos) becomes, from ancient times, a way of defrauding your genius or yourself as to the presence-absence of your genius or demon. Whereas it was thought that the ultimate victory over the old ways of negative dependence on nature, the stars, desires and gods was finally achieved in the theopoiesis of human being (its absolute freedom), but also (by seemingly simultaneous necessity) through its (moral, political, theological, economic, etc.) delimitation or struggle for recognition (ultimately a dispersion of unlocalisable responsibilities and truths), this bitter victory remains a fraud that still continues to defraud its demon or its self (indifferently by now) in order to mystify better and to live a life of slogans and empty desires. The old ways are not easy to get rid of, of course, as what is required is both an act of affirmative forgetting as well as an act of creative destruction. The imperative, if it is one, can be discerned yet in what ‘lies in ourselves’ (indulgere genio) as our very human capacity to generate and be generated, our infancy: our place of birth in coming as whatever being (genius mens nominatur quia me genuit). What remains is indeed a life that detracts its vision from the sight of death and mystical negativity and that with a different attitude holds that life and its form can no longer be separated. 7. Confronted with such prevalent negative demonology or geniology (and later on with angelology) it can be realised that this ‘most innate and proximate’ genius or demon in us is also the most impersonal, faceless ‘thing’ we have: a personification of that which ‘in’ us overcomes and escapes us (and that can even destroy us). As Agamben writes ‘Genius is our life to the degree that we did not create it, but it created us.’14 An ever elusive human life: its manner of expression is the key to its understanding – it is a question of reading the word human without quotation marks any longer, a humanity in the second power. While the old ways request that we submit to a disappearing source of empowerment of ourselves without second thought (‘follow your demon’s wish, your desire is his’), it is only when this expression is repeated to the second power that it provides with more lucidity as to its autopoietic source of expression (a real performative paradox). It is only in language that expression can attain such second power,

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and it is there that human beings attain their second nature, the happy one (eu-daimonia). Having said that, the scission of ourselves between something impersonal and faceless (an abyss) and our most personal desires and thoughts in our individual consciousness cannot be escaped or taken upon lightly. The difference between the ‘old ways’ and a ‘new life’, as proposed by Benjamin and Agamben, a demand for a poietic life, does not lie between accepting or not the scission in us between the one and the many, the impersonal and the individual. This scission is our very nature and our co-gnition as human beings: our nature is symbiotic-transductive between an Ego, or whatever you wish to call it, and a faceless pre-individual element. But what lies between them is not a negative relation but an encounter, an experimentum. At this encounter, if thought as such, lies the difference between the old ways and the new life that comes as whatever being (quodlibet). 8. It is not a matter of returning to a past topos, a chronological past that we can possibly recall through memory or utopia. It is not a matter of accepting the irony of modern life, a life of indecision and indifference, since capitalism, our very own destruction of means, has shown that irony is itself consumable and otherised. In a time when all publics have died and no sense of community survives other than neo-fatal returns to the old ways in this or that neo-religious or pseudo-political manner (which remain techniques of mastery, that is techniques of re-sourcing an authorial sovereignty upon a cosmos that is nowhere to be found or experienced). It is, rather, a matter of reinvestigating the very acosmic topoi of our expressions and actions, their linguistic being of expression, their life in the second power, devoid of a master; and this not in order to celebrate our ultimate emptiness through yet another dead-end-self-mastery in a life of images (simulacra without reality), but instead in order for a human life to be without negative origins and absolute ends. Agamben writes, summarising numerous ages of philosophical questioning as to this, as follows: The current concept of expression is dominated by the Hegelian model, in which all expression is realized by a medium – an image, a word, or a colour – which in the end must disappear in the fully realized expression. The expressive act is fulfilled where the means, the medium, is no longer perceived as such. The medium must disappear in that which gives us to see, in the absolute that shows itself, that shines forth in the medium. On the contrary, the image worked

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Our disappearing materiality is then, in one sense, a hylomorphia (a form of matter) that ultimately must be maintained if our expression is to be fully realised (the irony of many turns to materialism is that their very matter is negated in the very promise of returning to paradisiacal eating). This life remains a life of pseudo-immediacy that lies vibrant only in defrauding itself of its made-absent negativity. It is in our linguistic being that we are offered the possibility of realising that human being is the only existence with two phases, which results from the complex dialectic between a not (yet) individualised and lived part and a part that is always marked by destiny and individual experience. The former is not, though, a chronological past that we can possibly recall through memory. It continues to be present, even in the present, with us, through us, in good and evil.16

Everything depends on how these two phases are thought and specifically their relation as such (as a problem rather than as a dogma). It is necessary to note again that their ‘relation’ is a non-relation: it is an experimentum. This is not to repeat the negative absentification (the defrauding of negativity) of the old ways, but rather to say that this bipolarity of human being is not a limit as one set between two demarcated sides (there is not a third god, demon or pathway to absolute knowledge that predetermines this limit). Rather, it is to be conceived as a threshold, a zone of indifference between the two sides, our only inheritance (dike).17 9. In the opening piece of Profanations, which Agamben dedicates to Genio (gerere, generare, gignere) or Genius with reference to ancient Roman religion, this is what is at stake. The Romans named Genius (like the Greeks did with their idios daimon) the birth-giving demon, that is the god to whom the pastoral care of human beings was attributed separating what reigns from what governs. This understanding expanded so widely through time so that it covered the Empire (from Genius Populi Romani to Genius Augusti). The long and rather complex genealogy of Genio ranges, in this instance, from ancient Greek daimonology to the angelology of Christianity and beyond.18 What is striking is that Genius was conceived as being born simultaneously with each human being and every thing. The Genius was like the personification of the soul, the vital arche and spirit of human being. Ingenium, understood as the innate ethical or natural

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characteristics-capacities of human being, the most innate and personal god, commands indulgence and acclamation: indulgere genio according to which ‘his happiness is our happiness, otherwise a life without pleasures awaits.’ The image of Genius as a young man or child, with long hair and wings (to signify its being outside of time) signified the birthday not as a day that has passed, but as a break in time whereby what takes place is the epiphany and presence of Genius (a king who reigns but does not govern). Genius overcomes and interrupts us at every point since something always takes place beyond what we can handle. Yet, Agamben notes, before the impersonal power in us (the pre-individual) there are not any greater human beings and we all are small. Attitudes to this vary: the majority runs away from the faceless power or tries to play it down, while a minority tries to experience it as a gift, as its personal muse or magician. Arrogance is the common trait. The worthy few instead are the ones who realise that they cannot impersonate genius or let genius run them down to the abyss, an abyss one often has to encounter to attain this realisation. Rather, they proclaim that ‘the absence of God helps us.’19 The impasse of this advantage was hindered for a long time since the conception of genius and of the greek daimon experienced a gradual moralisation in being separated into a good demon and an evil demon (albus/alter), an angel of life and one of death.20 It is worth remembering, as Agamben suggests, that Horace instead maintained, against this moralisation and scission into two demons, that there is only one Genius – though an unstable and flexible one. Two crucial observations follow in Agamben’s essay: on the one hand, what changes, following Horace’s suggestion, is not genius (into good or evil), but our relation with it through time. In this sense this is a way of exploring the theurgia liturgic rituals and techniques at the heart of individuality and the understanding of passion (puer). On the other hand, what is equally crucial is the realisation that through such moralisation what is revealed is the post-historical vocation of this inquiry into the theurgia of the individual, its techniques of relating to the pre-individual. If genius is our life in the sense that it does not belong to us, then we are responsive in something that we are not responsible for, ‘our salvation and our catastrophe have a child’s face that is and is not our face.’21 Not being responsible in being responsive does not reduce us to a total lack of responsibility, but rather, paradoxically, to a total assumption of it. Our ‘saving’ is our communicability which, in turn, is our special manner of being, where desire and being unite: our eidos. Our eidos does not belong to

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us. Our imago lies between and is not our substance. Our eidetic being is within us, like a habitus or ethos (a way of being), our impersonal puer, between us, intentio, specie: the true meaning of communication.22 Ultimately this shows that one needs to escape both the Ego and his demon or Genius in order to fulfil or save his appearance, his face (eidos). What the medieval troubadour poets understood as love, it is worth noting, contains a related lesson. What one loves in another, in a true sense, is neither his or her Ego, or his or her impersonation of Genius: what one loves in another is the eidetic being of another that lies in between, as a threshold. That is, what one loves in another is the escaping from both the Ego and the Genius. Eidetic being, in this manner, fulfils our being in not belonging to the mystical scission, any longer, between nature and being. Nature is denaturalised and Being loses its superlative power. 10. Fulfilment does not mean self-indulgence and sufficiency, and this is to be measured no-where-else (not in some separate ‘political’ realm to be sure) in our everyday lives. A limit – one conception of genius as a moral or ethical limit-power for good or evil – always tries to defraud the demon in us, the pre-individual element of our nature, in order to lead our Ego to self-sufficiency, to this or that absolute end. Instead, a threshold-experience of negativity is unmoved by such limit-setting exercises, since its processual presencing is imminent and deters us from enclosing ourselves into an essential identity or substance. The old name for this experience is that of spirituality: a spiritual life (our second, and only, nature). That is, a co-gnition of the not-yet-individualised part of the individual being. Agamben writes: Genius is not just spirituality. It does not have to do only with the things that we are used to consider of a higher nature or value. [. . .] Whatever in us is faceless is demonic. Demonic is mainly the force that pushes the blood in our veins, or makes us fall asleep: the unknown force in our body that so subtly regulates its functions. [. . .] To live with Genius means to live a relation with a foreign part/existence; to relate continuously with a zone of non-knowledge.23

What is to be made of such a ‘relation’ is the most significant question. Between the old ways and the new life (which to be sure is not some coming utopian superlative) what changes is not Genius, but our non-relation with it. This is not to say that we will achieve or should aim to achieve some sort of absolute union with what escapes us. We all make our compromises with what, in us, escapes us. The way in which we do so, Agamben writes, is our character (our Ego is

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marked by the gesture, each time, of such an escape). Thus, Agamben continues, an artist’s style is characterised not by his/her demon, but by what has escaped the demonic call, his/her character. Equally the reason why artists today (and their art) are often intolerable is because, despite showing a spectacular character, they are so selfobsessed and self-sufficient that they ultimately do not escape their Ego, which becomes a cage. Our task, if it is one, is to find a manner of being between both the Ego and the demon, in order ultimately to escape both, and to live a human life, without mystery (without something that cannot be spoken of in order to ultimately somehow justify its indecision). Our task is to assume total responsibility. Total responsibility fulfils responsibility; it ends responsibility, without absolving it. It is the non-assumption of total responsibility that allows both the right and left petty bourgeois to compromise every thing with everything else in the spirit of some absolving future. 11. The prehistoric world of the daimon was dominated by divine law and guilt; the historic world is dominated by their absence in the sense of their delimitation and internalisation, the absolute soulblind government by an angelic authority over a life of indifference and total spectacle. This is not mere nihilism, but a hybrid of mystical authority with human desire, a modern onanism ever aiming at the separation of pleasure from life. As Benjamin wrote, ‘Neither purity nor sacrifice mastered the demon; but where origin and destruction come together, his reign is over.’24 Against historicism (the return or reintegration of something into an origin understood as a real and eternal figure of its truth) and post-historicism (the return of something into an origin that forever escapes it), then, an interruption. Becoming is not about some utopian future or some protofascist redemption of past deeds for the sake of sacred ends. Rather the crucial question is ‘what happens to the redeemed past?’ The idea is to end the interminable cycle, it seems, of laws of criticism and criticism of laws (juridical, political, theological and philosophical), always resulting in the recuperation of alternative heredities that arrive once more to save us. Benjamin, as Agamben reminds us, understood this well when he wrote that: In authentic history writing, the destructive impulse is just as strong as the saving impulse. From what can something be redeemed? Not so much from the disrepute or discredit in which it is held as from a determined mode of its transmission. The way in which it is valued as ‘heritage’ is more insidious than its disappearance could ever be.25

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This is not to liquidate the past (transforming it into available sources of redemption) or to redeem it in the sense, as Agamben explains, of a final absolving payment. The situation is more complex than that and both of these forms of historical consciousness are corrupt. The first form of historical consciousness aims to repeat a postulated origin infinitely in order to signify the singularity of each historical occurrence. The second form of historical consciousness aims to annul its origin in time – in simulacra – in order to ensure its reproducibility. The first aims at the eternity of singularity, while the second aims at the reproducibility of the One.26 Both are in need of eluding, in the sense of understanding, so that the similarity of singular eternity and reproducible singularity is shown as marked by a shared negative totality. Instead, the task of criticism, or whatever one wishes to call it, is that of a pure totality in a radical experience of undecidability.27 Such a radical undecidability between the lived and the poetised of life is experienced not as a limit of indecision between the two (the unity of which must always already refer to the trace of an ever returning origin, or indeed of its absence that still exercises authority by being in force without significance), but as a threshold, a zone of indifference between experience and poetry. 12. The Italian poet Antonio Delfini has put it in the following way: ‘. . . in reality man erects his life on his own justifications, [since] here no one creates anything other than the possibility of spiritual life.’28 In spiritual life or poietic life the recognition struggle of the old ways (that guaranteed their use and justification) finds its end in dictation. In dictation, this ‘intimate divergence’,29 the appeal to guaranteed signs or images hears the news that we cannot recognise ourselves in any sign or image, that in other words, non-recognition is paradoxically peace. This is what it means to understand the absence or death of god as an advantage. The laws of recognition as a struggle for truth always lead to an eternal civil war. Self-sufficiency is ultimately self-justificatory, even in its less extreme forms, which remain individualist and authoritarian. Such struggle presupposes that something transcends appearance. But what can, instead, the vision of a blindness mean? This Plato knew well when he argued that the eye cannot transcend its own blind spot: it must by necessity look into another eye (a face, an eidos). Agamben writes: I want to seize my obscurity, that which remains in me unexpressed and unsaid; but this is precisely my own openness, my own being

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nothing other than a countenance and an eternal appearance. If I were truly able to see the blind spot in my eye, I would see nothing (this is the darkness in which the mysteries say that God dwells).30

What is the relation between the abyss and the light in the word? Appearance or image is only known by human being as such. This ‘as such’ constitutes the blind spot of human consciousness. It is as if consciousness is formed by necessity out of tricking its own blindness, its delay or non-contiguity, the break between stimulus and responsivity. For a thing its being takes place only in the separation of the appearance of a thing from a thing that escapes it. Things are thus, Agamben writes, set ‘free’ only for us, they are only for us so that we can conceive of an immediate relation with them.31 We cannot grasp them, for there are marvellously (es gibt) just as they are, but they appear only for us. But: The only thing there would be to grasp here is a pure visibility: a face. And the countenance is not something that transcends the face – it is the display of the face in its nudity, victory over character: word. [. . .] And wasn’t language given to us to free things from their images, to carry to appearance appearance itself, to lead it to glory?32

This is the intimate divergence that Dino Campana describes memorably: ‘In singing I recall what I am trying, in singing, to forget.’33 Or as Agamben writes, recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘How the world is – this is outside the world.’34 The absence of identity is by no means a shelter or a new identity (hence the ultimate falsity of the struggle for recognition). Our passionate insignificance is not a void to be filled with this or that authority each time. If it is no-thing, it can nevertheless be shown in discourse: it is the taking place of the nonlinguistic in the linguistic being of appearances. 13. Our appearances are experienced through a transductive modality, to remember Simondon’s term, for they form and deform relations where one side always produces and is the motor of the other as in a zone of indistinction that ends the means/ends peripeteia. Similarly, it is worth noting, the parallel of Spinoza’s affectivity (in the infinitive) as a movement that moves to both directions at once so that the crucial matter is not identity and recognition, but becoming and metamorphosis (becoming as movement expressing ethos, a way of being). Every thing becomes-other continuously and so passion (paskhein) cannot (only) be defined by receptivity.35 Against those

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who quickly, and in a state of undisclosed panic, try to find this or that new authority – in order to declare their own vanity, power-craving and inner hideousness – a way out of thought and being can be sought that no longer claims to find a direct way to ‘good ethical conduct’ by placing itself above its potentialities, above what it can do. The issue is not whether human being is characterised by a privation (something that is lacking), the issue is rather how a human being has a privation. Of what having, what power or capacity can I speak? Negativity (genius, daimon) is not to be understood as leading to melancholy, shipwrecks or to the theurgia of the messianic. Every act of creation faces resistance (de-creation). To capture this coming of being it is necessary to not think of being as either a work (that can be produced) or a gift (that can be assumed and impersonated). The messianic order and that of happiness are distinguished in Benjamin’s TheologicoPolitical Fragment: ‘It is the order of happiness – and not the messianic order – that has the function of a guiding idea for the profane-historical order.’36 This is the only reason why the demon must be overcome in the end: ‘not in the name of redeemed humanity and liberated nature but in the name, Benjamin says, “of an archaic nature without history, in its pristine, primeval state.” ’37 Instead of a sacrificial life, an erotic life is one that receives the fullness of its past, that is pure totality: eidetic being. It is a power not separated from what it can do, a traversed mode of transmission that is achieved not as compensation, but as the only way out of mystical logistics. Appearance is itself to be returned to appearance, to cause appearance itself to appear: this is ‘victory over character – it is word.’38 That is the simultas (and not simulacrum) of human appearance, its coming in between potentialities, our infancy, that can interrupt through our everyday practice the horror and the lies of what is understood as ‘politics’, ‘economy’, ‘law’, ‘morality’ and that resurrects the word in the flesh, paradoxically, as the place of our eidetic matter. Notes 1. Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 97. 2. Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 101. 3. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. P. Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 57. 4. See Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective (Paris: Editions Aubier-Montaigne, 1989).

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5. Aristotle, De Anima, 417 b 2–16. Here I follow Daniel Heller-Roazen’s translation in G. Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 17. 6. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Gravity of Thought, trans. François Raffoul and Gregory Recco (New York: Humanity Books, 1997), p. 44. 7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, trans. M. Cowan (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962), p. 45. 8. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. H. Tomlinson (London: Athlone Press, 1986), pp. 23–4. 9. See Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. L. Heron (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 135–40. 10. Agamben, Infancy and History, p. 14. 11. Agamben, Infancy and History, p. 16. 12. Agamben, Infancy and History, p. 22. 13. Agamben, Infancy and History, p. 24. 14. Giorgio Agamben, Profanazioni (Rome: Nottetempo, 2005), p. 11 [my translation]. 15. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Cinema’, trans. B. Holmes, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, trans. B. Homves (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 318. I would like to thank Alex Murray for drawing my attention to this text. 16. Agamben, Profanazioni, pp. 9–10 [my translation]. 17. See Martin Heidegger, Mindfulness [Besinnug], trans. P. Emad and T. Kalary (London: Continuum: 2006/1978), p. 252. 18. On Genius and Daimon see, for instance, Richard Broxton Onians, The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951); Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (New York: Meridian Books, 1957) and her Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis (New York: University Books, 1962). The example that Agamben mentions in Profanazioni and that is central to the argument there and in this piece is the Iranian female angel named Daênâ. On this see Henri Corbin, En Islam iranien (Paris: Galimard, 1971). 19. Agamben, Profanazioni, pp. 16–17. 20. Agamben, Profanazioni, p. 20. 21. Agamben, Profanazioni, p. 20. 22. Agamben, Profanazioni, chapter on eidos at pp. 59–67. 23. Agamben, Profanazioni, p. 10. 24. Walter Benjamin, ‘Karl Kraus’, in Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, ed. M.W. Jennings, H. Eiland, G. Smith, vol. 2, part 2 (1931–34), at p. 457.

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25. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univeristy Press, 1999), p. 153. 26. See Agamben, Potentialities, pp. 154–5. 27. See Giorgio Agamben, Language & Death, The Place of Negativity (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 18. 28. Agamben, The End of the Poem, p. 84. 29. See Dino Campana, Orphic Songs, trans. I. L. Solomon (New York: October House, 1968). 30. Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 128. 31. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 128. 32. Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 128. 33. Quoted in Agamben, Idea of Prose, p. 57. 34. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 106. 35. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, n. 3, p. 78. 36. Walter Benjamin as quoted in Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities, p. 144. 37. Agamben, Potentialities, p. 150. 38. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 95.

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CHAPTER 9

Face to Face with Agamben; or, the Other in Love Julian Wolfreys

Seeing something simply in its being-thus – irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent – is love. Giorgio Agamben When every sweet embrace has faded The voices dip, the faces dim and memory drifts away – Still you stay in everyone you hold. Peter Hammill

Love is found everywhere in the text of Giorgio Agamben. We should neither confuse nor conflate ‘love’ with either desire or any erotism, as I shall go on to explain. Separating what is already other than these clinical and classical terms, love must be maintained as other to them. Neither synonymous nor supplementary, love remains in Agamben as that for which we will have to account in a language that, though indirect, must keep itself separate from the philosopher’s economy. More than merely ‘found’, as if it were encountered, scattered like the wind-blown detritus of hastily ripped apart love letters, love places itself in one’s way. The subject in reading is interrupted by love, as if it arrived to call the reader, to become the beloved, ‘in the spirit of a pseudo-Platonic letter’.1 It appears momentarily, here and there, disposing of its traces, in between one subject and another, or as the visible manifestation for the reader, the ‘illumination’ of and for a subject otherwise remaining unrepresentable. Hardly a subject at all, except in the example of one essay, ‘The Passion of Facticity’, which perversely and ingeniously speaks to the trace of love precisely at those places where it is found only in absentia, love remains, nonetheless – and as a trope, a topos, a souvenir. – Of what? Of that which is never present, no longer present, nor available to presence. A souvenir is kept as memory trace, it can cause one to

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reflect and so cause the other to appear, however indirectly. Love in the text of Agamben is therefore the souvenir of the other, as well as the sign under which the face to face with the other might be possible, however unlikely. Love’s trace remains in the place of, thereby giving place to the other. – Why love? Without getting ahead of ourselves, it is to be observed that love is the necessary pre-condition of knowledge. In his commentary on the apparent absence of love in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, a lack or silence that has troubled a number of commentators since that volume first appeared, Giorgio Agamben observes that, as far as one can discern for Heidegger, love ‘conditions precisely the possibility of knowledge and the access of truth.’2 It not only conditions the possibility of knowledge. In disturbing the time of reading with the demand for a different temporality, it opens a space in the search for truth, and in doing so interrupts the subject as the displaced phantom for the other; and specifically, the Other, as my title has it, in love. – To my knowledge, Agamben never uses the term ‘Other’. Is it the best term to use if you’re going to speak of Agamben? After all, Agamben has striven to keep a distance between himself and the work of Derrida or, by extension, Levinas, apropos any thinking of the matter of an ‘ethics of the other’. – It is, I think, precisely because neither the ‘other’ nor the ‘Other’ appear, nor do they become distinctly visible in Agamben’s text, that I take the work of alterity to be all the more persistent, particularly if we note, as I plan to, and as I have already signalled, the frequency of love. Beyond the obvious distance of Agamben from various philosophers of alterity, if I can put it like that, the very absence of the other signals itself and so demands consideration. What is also striking about such an absence – and this is no more than speculation, the projection of a fiction – that beyond the immediate distance that Agamben wishes to maintain from the discourse of alterity, there might be perhaps a question of refusing an encounter with psychoanalysis. Philosophy denies psychoanalysis, for psychoanalysis would insist on the other of philosophy, for which the philosopher – and in this term I wish to signal specifically Agamben contra both Derrida’s psychoanalysing of the philosophical corpus and Levinas’ return to a theological Other – cannot countenance alterity, an alterity that haunts philosophy as surely as does literature. While one cannot give more space to that consideration here, given love’s frequency, it would be perverse, if not to discuss otherness, the other, alterity, then at least

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to acknowledge its phantom presence, the breath of its passage, through the affirmation of its absence in the text of Agamben. The perversion arises because love is not philosophical. It remains – and as such is unavailable to philosophy, its institutions, its practice, its discourses. Love is the hauntological sign that plays on the ontological imperative in the philosophical corpus. If love arrives as a trace, interrupting repeatedly any reading, then love must arrive from somewhere – or even someone, some other. Arrival, interruption, disruption, transmission: all of these are impossible without an other location or location of an other, however occluded or impossible to situate such an imaginary or phantasmatic locus might be. That Agamben does not play down the play of love, that he turns and returns to it, that it returns insistently to him, suggests at least the possibility of the impossible, that is to say an unfigurable alterity within his discourse, that which is so wholly and completely other, that it remains as the unnameable in the text of Agamben and for Agamben. It may be also, to insist on this point, that the question has to be why Agamben avoids the term. In this avoidance (if it is one), there is an echo of infrequency, which Agamben notes concerning the paucity of references to love in Heidegger, and which therefore should give us pause, as I have remarked. Is Agamben’s silence – how can we tell if it is a silence? is silence the same as an avoidance? or does silence admit to an unbearable proximity for Agamben? – itself structural, and is this structure, at once strategic and necessary, informed by the haunting force of Heidegger? But beyond the question of avoidance (and we should not rush to assume this is simply the case, if it is at all), there is also another question concerning the possible relationship to be read between Agamben and any Derridean or Levinasian project having to do with that ‘ethics of the other’ to which you allude. I am not at all sure I can answer these questions. What I would say, though, is that perhaps – imagine this fiction if you will – that love is the name of the other; love names that which cannot be named, and so it is that naming directly must be avoided, if the wholly other is to remain the secret love of Agamben’s text. This is, of course, only a hypothesis. But bear with me, and listen to the title, once more. You might hear in this title, in passing, what I take to be at the heart of all love’s motivations, its numerous stimmung – all those otherwise untranslatable intonations, moods, emotive states and even opinions – as these are recorded and move across, thereby inspiring the text of Agamben. Whether Agamben writes of troubadour poetry, Auschwitz, a radical reformulation of historicity or the condition of the sovereign

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state, the innumerable stimmung and their pulse is felt. Even where it is not mentioned or paused over, Agamben’s writing nonetheless finds its endless motivation, its rhythmic turns, in love. Agamben’s is, we might say, a text in love, and as such expresses and stages the text that is in love, acting out in its patterns and pulses the endless desire that haunt’s Agamben’s writing of a face to face with the other. It is out of love, love of, for the other that Agamben moves after love, proceeds in the wake of love across multiple spaces, differing discourses and several centuries, in order to begin to ‘measure the revolutionary and novel character of a conception of love that despite changes during the passing of seven centuries, is still, with all of its ambiguities and contradictions, substantially ours.’3 The persistent stimmung and souvenirs of love repeat and transform knowledge for Agamben, and so by the dynamics and tempi of the amorous phantasm the reader encounters, coming face to face with the unspeakable other in the motions of the text. – Then it might be said that such movements and e-motions leave deposited across the surface of Agamben’s writing the whisper of a phantom breath (phantasikon pneuma), as if the merest scent were all that were left in the place one finds oneself. It is as if one recognises that, the other having departed ahead of one, this leaves the subject with the realisation that one is always after the other, one is always after love. One trails belatedly in the wake of the other. And this belated reflection, the untimely apprehension of finding oneself traversed and transgressed by the other is what causes Agamben to identify what takes place between one face and another, in the face to face, and in the face of the other, singularly the other in love. – Indeed. For it is not only that the other is in love with the self, as Agamben’s coyly lyrical text reveals, hesitantly and in sudden, momentary unveilings. It is not a question of there being simply some ‘external body’.4 It is also that there, there half-concealed and halfrevealed is the other, in love, in what is signalled in the name of love. The other who, or which, is in love, might be that other with whom I find myself face to face, facing up to the fact that love takes place, if at all, between. But this is not all. Indeed, it is nothing more than mere semblance, merely mimetic resemblance – and therefore not vraisemblance – of what remains unavailable to direct perception. This alterity in ‘love’ . . . – and also ‘in love,’ for does this ‘condition of being’ not name an alterity for and of the self, an otherness, which takes one out of oneself, in a ‘self-showing’ to the subject, to the other of the subject

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and the subject of the other? Is not this idiom, ‘in love’, the most transparent and enigmatic of ex-pressions, e-motions, articulating revelation and encryption of the self-transgressing and the selftransgressed? . . . this name for nothing as such, is, fundamentally and originarily, that which is at the fathomless heart of the revelation of the self to itself in the self-showing of its being, and therefore in the reflexive transcendence of Being, as this is given to one, by the other. In this chapter therefore, in having placed myself face to face with what has already fled, and so setting out on an endless quest after Agamben in order to come face to face with that which love gives to Agamben throughout his text, we come to find ourselves, together, in the proximity of a line or two from Giorgio Agamben’s essay, ‘The Face’, the concluding essay from the second part of Means without End: Notes on Politics.5 In pursuing the tropic and topical work of love in the text of Agamben, we find ourselves in the midst of a clearing. For Agamben’s text in its loving engagement constitutes the most sustained, transparent and yet, simultaneously, opaque of commentaries indebted to the phenomenological tradition. And this will lead, as I shall have occasion to argue in conclusion to this essay, with the most profound call for a reorientation to the question of temporality in any hegemonic model of historicity, which currently and in recent decades has informed, not to say dominated, academic, critical, political and philosophical discourses. Agamben’s remarks on love, through which various historical others come face to face with love, attuning themselves singularly in relation to that which takes place in the space between one face and another, constitute a history or, perhaps, genealogy of what he calls in Stanzas the ‘phantasmatic character of the process [not only] of love’ but in its ‘heroic-demonic’ dimension drives Being’s very historicity.6 Thus, love in the text of Agamben brings us face to face with the very grounds of history itself. This very orientation – of, and towards, the face to face – thus serves to remark that which is called in The Coming Community ‘the multiple common place . . . the place of the neighbour that each person inevitably receives.’ Without the reorientation and opening to the common place there can be no reading of the historical nor an apprehension of the necessary deconstruction of the historical in the name of that which is to come, and hence the weak messianic hope of a radical and revolutionary reorientation of Being towards its other. This ‘common place’, which both takes and gives place, is, argues Agamben, ‘nothing but the coming to itself of each

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singularity’. This, moreover, is an otherwise ‘unrepresentable space’, an ‘empty place where each can move freely . . . where spatial proximity borders on opportune time.’ This space or place (and the two are not the same, even though Agamben assumes correspondence, relation and a shared familial trait), in which transgression is the free radical condition of the making or taking-place of shared space, and wherein one comes to singularity through the subject’s reception of the neighbour, the lover, the other; such spacing is, according to Agamben, that which ‘designates’ if not ‘the very place of love’ then ‘love as the experience of taking-place in whatever singularity’.7 Such statements or observations on the part of the author concerning love remark it as a ‘topic’ (never quite a concept and perhaps more properly the taking-place that a word stages, a phantasm or ‘spacing’) . . . – and as you have noted, they turn up and are treated throughout Agamben’s oeuvre; not least throughout Stanzas and with less immediate intensity in The Coming Community, but additionally such reflections are to be read through the space of a carefully demarcated paragraph in Idea of Prose, and in that small but telling essay concerning the apparent absence or, at least, marked paucity of love in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.8 – Once we have been interrupted by love, it is always a matter of turning back, of reflecting and reorientation. Whatever the subject, ostensibly, where love arrives as the sign of the experience of a certain singularity, such singularity announces the other in love as my title has it. But to continue, this re-encounter, this revenant experience is not only an abstract reflection. It informs the most immediate and materially grounded experiences of one’s subjectivity. Here is Agamben, speaking of the encounter with another’s face and the taking place that goes by the strange name of love. ‘I look someone in the eyes,’ confesses Agamben. To which gesture, which gaze, there is returned the momentarily equivocal response: ‘either these eyes are cast down . . . or they look back at me.’9 Agamben maintains the equivocation, and with that the maintenance of an opening in the glimpse of another before meaning is given, relation established, in hypothesising that, on the one hand, ‘they can look at me shamelessly . . . Or, they can look at me with a chaste impudence and without reserve, thereby letting love and the word happen in the emptiness of our gazes’ (emphasis added).10 Something takes place here in the blink of an eye. I am witness to, and the subject of, a transgression, literally a movement across the

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boundaries of selfhood. What occurs, however, is not in one direction solely; it, moreover, is irreducible to, resists alignment with, any thinking of desire or any erotics. The ‘endless joy of erotic experience’ of which Agamben speaks in Stanzas has nothing to do with love as such, its experience or passage. For such joy would belong to a recuperative and aggrandising economics of the self-same. Such joy is the place where I can tell myself I master and so silence the breath of the other, where I engage in the ineluctability of the narcissistic loop, trapped always on playback. However, love opens one beyond this; there is a mutual experience of the other within the same, from either side. It happens – and I experience this happening, as it happens to me; I am not outside this experience that I observe – before I can articulate fully what has taken place, before I can name the experience or surround its nakedness and intimacy with the armature of an epistemology. There is in the experience the transgressive arrival of phainesthai before epistasthai. In this, love arrives; in coming (venire), it surfaces within my consciousness, from beneath (souvenir). And this is perceived, as Agamben argues Heidegger perceived throughout the composition of Being and Time, ‘precisely because the mode of Being of an opening [which is given in the gaze and its circuitous reciprocation] . . . is more original than all knowledge (and takes place, according to Scheler and Augustine, in love).’11 More original than all knowledge, in this touch of the other an originary interpellation befalls the subject, calling to him or her; in this call or interruption, there is the instauration of the phantasmic memory, a memory all the more spectral for having never been mine. The situation of opening in love as the singular condition of that originary coming to pass prior to knowledge is not to be ignored. The open return of the gaze, doubled and displaced, haunted in its very opening, once apprehended in this manner forces on one the recognition that ‘love can no longer be conceived as it is commonly represented, that is, as a relation between . . . two subjects. It must, instead,’ Agamben continues in his reading of Heideggerian Being, ‘find its place and proper articulation in the Being-already-in-theworld that characterizes Dasein’s transcendence.’12 Being is given, and gives place to the other in love, the other in love, an other which traverses the one and the other, leaving neither separate or untouched. The very idea of relation as stable is undone. The question of love is then, when truly considered, irreducible to the stasis of representation, specifically that of a relation between beings. Rather, as its unveiling through the passage between gazes

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makes manifest, the appearance or apparitioning of love has a temporal and spatial dimension, consisting in its showing of itself (phainesthai). Such ‘self-showing’ or seeming, as Heidegger has it [Scheinen]13 is at the same time revealed and yet remains veiled in the semblance or phainomenon of an other, materialised in the eidolon, in which, a correspondence having been sent and received, self and other remain themselves and yet other also, without correspondence, without relation. Love is what has been ‘let happen’ in Agamben’s phrase, whereby the reciprocity of the gaze, in opening the self to other, shows the self to itself as the other self-showing, in that self-showing of seeming and illumination, appearance as casting or shedding light. ‘Let happen’ marks the factical element in the phenomenology of love that Agamben is tracing, in which gesture he follows Heidegger, bringing to light that which remains for Heidegger the secret motivation in Being and Time. – Love is not natural; it does not spring from out of nowhere, but is of the order of a making. – No, from this perspective, love is the most unnatural experience. Uncanny in its intimacy, it is made. Love is therefore what comes to be crafted, not engendered through the touch that is shared between two souls, revealed and yet remaining invisible in the reciprocity, and touch, of the gaze, of eye touching upon eye. Love, as Agamben observes in a commentary on Heidegger’s Augustinian heritage, ‘is not natural’, for in ‘Latin, facticius is opposed to nativus’.14 Furthermore, there is no relation as such, much less anything that one can represent as being fixed in place in this giving-place that allows or lets love happen as a factical making. For the gazes are mutually, sympathetically, empty – it should be noted – as they fall into, enfolding, one another. Falling in love, as the commonplace has it, is, in effect, far from common, for it causes to be made known, given out to the self that shows itself in the registration of the appearance of the other in the singular encounter with and experience of the other’s gaze, a fleeting apprehension of Being as fallen. Love is just the memory of the originary fallenness of Being, of one finding oneself in the world. Love is uncanny to the extent that it is the memory trace, the encrypted mnemotechnic of the very condition of Being in its facticity, its historicity. – Yet, all takes place between, or there is nothing. At the same time, however, it is not only love that the gazes let happen. It is also, before knowledge, the word. To phrase this another way (and in order to move on from this in following Agamben): after Heidegger, it is not a question of articulating a phenomenology of love – although this

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preliminary project may well be what one finds scattered in intermittent traces across Agamben’s publications, through little occasions or experiences, what might be termed ‘surges’ – but rather that love is phenomenological. If it can be seen, if it can be understood in its revelation as the semblance of that which the other lets happen, then this is as a phenomenology, a phainomenon and a logos.15 Love is just this correspondence and mutual coinage: the intimate touch between the phainomenon, the phainesthai and the logos, the word or communication that carries in it the phantom, phantasm or revenant of Being. – I begin to see in this a missed encounter. It occurs that Agamben has found himself, repeatedly, face to face with Heidegger, but never directly. A seance takes place. What is more, in the name of love and as a result of the gaze that is staged everywhere, this encounter has resulted in those numerous frequencies that score Agamben’s text with their commentaries on love, in the midst of so many different and singular critical discussions. Whether these are focused on politics, philosophy, poetics or human identity, there is always a turn on the part of the philosopher, who finds in his turn the return of love, there as the secret that, unveiled everywhere, leaves its traces on the text. And all the while, this remains without apparent system or order in the work of Agamben. This is, for Agamben, the idea of love, which comes down to the following experience: To live in intimacy with a stranger, not in order to draw him closer, or to make him known, but rather to keep him strange, remote: unapparent – so unapparent that his name contains him entirely. And, even in discomfort, to be nothing else, day after day, than the ever open place, the unwaning light in which that one being, that thing remains forever exposed and sealed off.16

To live with someone implies a practice, a knowledge, a familiarity and understanding. However, Agamben maintains the unfamiliarity, the strangeness, of intimacy in order to articulate all the more powerfully the ‘idea’ of love. Such an idea opens, once more, a space, a taking and giving place, which in its staging or manifestation estranges – makes unquiet or unhomely – the phantom effects of love. The other, reduced to a name, resides within that sign, that logos as supplement to the self, always exposed by, in, the phenomenological light of Being. The coming logos that love offers to countersign, itself being traced by the countersignature of the other, this is the only passage, the sole transgressive translation of an otherwise inexpressible existence, ‘pure Being . . . which is simply ineffable’ unless

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expressed, and thereby translated from potentiality to actuality, as the singular inscription of the self. In this formula, and in the ‘process of acquiring knowledge’, love is the signature, logos or ‘“letter of which you are the meaning”’.17 The experience of love perhaps, then, serves to open expression of, and to, the otherwise, the wholly other and the ineffable that is inscribed in the sign of love, a palimpsest and imprimatur of the opening of alterity. It gives place therefore to the naming of this experience, however indirectly, whereby the logos provides the semblance of what remains hidden, invisible or ‘sealed off’ is made, of what takes place and has place, as ‘the very taking place of language in the unspeakable experience of the Voice’.18 Such places, such topoi, wherein love is unveiled in its facticity are also lieux de mémoire, sites of memory as I have sought to establish. What comes back therefore in the illumination that arrives to the gaze in its being returned is love, once more, as revenant, as souvenir, the ghostly memory made from the touch between the eyes of an other. But this memory is unlike any other memory. For, as I have already implied, it is a memory that has never been my own, or, indeed, anyone’s. This is the disquiet of the scenario given above. To live in intimacy with one who returns one’s gaze, but to whom one remains as a stranger – here is a forceful dislocation in the affirmation of love. In this manner the self is opened, and uncovers as it discovers in itself an abyss, a radical alterity in love. The return of the gaze affords a taking place and a staging of place opening what is between us for the memory of the other – and what is more, the other in love. My eyes ‘find’ what was already exposed and sealed off, as do the eyes of the other in looking into mine. Thus, as Agamben argues apropos the Provençal troubadours, love (Amors), in being the name given by the poets to the ‘experience of the poetic word’, and from which it is to be noted that the word, logos, emerges, thereby giving place not to ‘psychological or biographical events that are successively expressed in words, but rather, of the attempt to live the topos itself, the event of language as a fundamental amorous and poetic experience’, here in this word, in the place and taking place, it marks, there is the mapping of impossible coordinates:19 Logos then as memory of topos, in which place the revenant or phainesthai has seemed to appear, letting love happen. – Which suggests a temporal, if not historical dimension, a dimension to the encounter with each and every other, always already haunted by the untimely reminder and remainder that love announces?

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– Yes, yes; but, it has to be said, this temporal condition is why Agamben is so insistent on demanding a face to face with Heidegger, particularly apropos that which haunts Heidegger’s major work, the trace of love, by which Being is marked, and remarks, ‘the descent of actuality toward manifestation’.20 That manifestation or apparition is, there can be no doubt, the sign of the other, in love. It designates not the ‘factual situation’ of the relation between beings. Rather it signifies what Heidegger terms ‘the ‘character of Being’ (Seinscharakter) and ‘e-motion’ proper to life’,21 which is for Agamben a ‘kind of prehistory of the analytic of Dasein and the self-transcendence of Beingin-the-world’.22 [A brief digression: Agamben passes over in silence that phrase translated as ‘character of Being’. Yet the translation only alludes somewhat weakly to what is in the Heideggerian portmanteau, which is that Being is a ‘character’ not simply in the sense of personality but also as an inscription, a letter or manifestation of the meaning of Being.] Such signification, Agamben has us understand, is fundamental to the falling, the ‘thrownness’ of Dasein, a ‘movement [as Heidegger describes it] that produces itself and that, nevertheless does not produce itself, producing the emptiness in which it moves; for its emptiness is the possibility of movement’.23 Here, we see – do we not? – in this remarkable expression of Heidegger’s precisely the opening, the spacing and the movement, e-motion, which informs, bearing up in itself, the illumination that love offers in the text of Agamben, as it situates itself, again and again, at the very heart of Being in the face of the other. And that it is a movement – e-motion directed towards a falling ex-stasis – is itself indicative of the temporality at stake in being-in-love, which affirms in its singular experience Dasein’s self-transcendence. One could therefore say, in response to Agamben’s prompt, that if ‘the structure of Dasein is marked by a kind of original fetishism’24 (Agamben is at pains to point out the shared etymological heritage between facticity and fetishism) as he claims, then this fetish is to be found precisely in the eidolon, the phantasmic image of the beloved haunting my imagination, in the face of the otherwise ineffable alterity which lies in the radically depthless depths of love. The other arrives in the guise of love to interrupt me in the midst of my everyday existence, in which I reside inauthentically in a condition of having forgotten the condition of Being. It thus calls to mind the authenticity of Being, and so reminds us that, though forgotten, love, the sou-venir, is ‘always already present . . . and traverse[s] our Being from the beginning.’25 Along with hate, therefore, love is, for

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Heidegger as it is for Agamben, a ‘fundamental’ guise or manner, ‘through which Dasein experiences . . . the opening and retreat of the being that it is and must be.’ In love, Agamben continues, the being ‘establishes himself more deeply in that into which he is thrown, appropriating his very facticity.’26 The subject, opened to memory by the revenance of love, finds himself traversed, transgressed by the temporal e-motion of the other, in love. Love is thus the experience of an impossible face to face, and is transgressive precisely because in being ‘the passion of Facticity in which man bears . . . nonbeing and darkness,’ it exceeds mere narcissistic dialectical strife at the cost of the beloved, becoming through its singular experience ‘the passion and exposition of facticity itself and . . . the irreducible impropriety of beings.’27 The most authentic experience for Agamben in that it is the only possibility of the taking place of the face to face (which is the gift, the giving place of the other in love), love sheds light, illuminating the lover and the beloved ‘in their concealment, in an eternal facticity beyond Being’.28 Love is neither mine, nor yours; it is neither proper, nor a property. Love is made and so makes us in its name. That ‘eternal’ facticity to which Agamben addresses himself and which he seeks to outface in almost every text – thereby bringing its invisible persistence to light – bespeaks in secret the memory beneath the surface of my consciousness, traversing that border, transgressing the limits of consciousness. Always already there, the facticity of love, the only authentic souvenir of Being, promises to return, revenant source of illumination that it is. – But hadn’t you remarked how being-in-love was marked not only by a temporality but also an experience of historicity, of the historicity of beings, which offered to rewrite conventional discourses of historicity? – Yes, it remains for me to address this. So, permit me to recall here that love is the ‘experience of taking place in a whatever singularity’.29 Thus the experience of love is ‘invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time, which is implicit in it, [and] conditions it.’ While Agamben is speaking of the implication of time within any conception of history, the perception of the singular experience of love as similarly temporal opens to us the different reading of history that Agamben enables. Singularity, understood properly, can only be perceived through the possibility that whatever singularity we address is – fundamentally and in principle – endlessly iterable. If love is neither yours nor mine but is made, then there is the temporal condition by which

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making occurs, repeatedly, yet with a difference. Every time is singular, and therefore other. Yet every time that love returns it is disturbed by its familiar unfamiliarity, by that untimely return, despite the fundamental forgetting that informs Being. Love undoes from within, as anachronic ghost, that model or modality of history defined by Agamben as the ‘vulgar representation of time as a precise and homogeneous continuum’.30 Love therefore admits – confesses and gives entrance to – its own uncanny condition. It enlightens us, illuminating ‘the basis of the radical ‘otherness’ of time, and of its ‘destructive’ character’31 with regard to history conceived as undifferentiated continuum. A ‘destructive’ character, love as logos scores the unbroken line of history, rupturing its calm surface, haunting and insuring ‘Western man’s incapacity to master time and his consequent obsession with gaining it and passing it’.32 Such incapacity is doubtless caught up with the possessiveness of desire, with the desire to possess, to make property what is improper. It is also the repeated reminder that one is always after that by which one is obsessed; which, on the one hand, one can never catch up with; while on the other, being always placed in a belated relation to it. – One is never on time, then. – And for a very good reason, time being, like love, always untimely. Hence, as Agamben recollects, the ‘Augustinian anxiety in the face of time’s fleeting essence’. For time’s movement is, like love we feel, ‘the thing existing which is not when it is, and is when it is not: A half-glimpsed becoming.’33 We are back with the gaze, this time from that coy, lidded location of the other, in its provisional response. The other, half-glimpsed, looks us in the face and we are called, interrupted, displaced from the untransgressed continuity of our inauthentic historical Being. Half-glimpsed – and yet ‘for everyone there is an immediate and available experience on which a new concept of time could be founded.’34 Turning to the past, to Aristotle on the one hand and on the other to the Provençal troubadours, Agamben places a hope in the souvenir, that which is to come, the heterogeneity of pleasure – heterogeneous in that, as pleasure, it is irreducible to, ‘outside any measurable duration’.35 In history, yet outside its flow, we experience, in the blink of an eye, that which we later remember and which befalls us, ‘the full, discontinuous, finite and complete time of pleasure’.36 And it is this, Agamben demands, which we must ‘set against the empty, continuous and infinite time of vulgar historicism . . . [and the] chronological time of pseudohistory.’37 The other in love makes this possibility an actuality, every

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time there is love, and every time the other is apprehended as beingin-love. Notes 1. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), p. 3. 2. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed., trans. and intro. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 186. 3. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 23. 4. Agamben, Stanzas, p. 23. 5. Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 91–100. 6. Agamben, Stanzas, p. 121/120. 7. Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 25. 8. Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 61; Agamben, ‘The Passion of Facticity’, Potentialities, pp. 185–204. 9. Agamben, Means, p. 93. 10. Agamben, Means, p. 93. 11. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 187. 12. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 187. 13. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 25. 14. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 189. 15. Heidegger first observes the intertwining of phainomenon and logos in the expression ‘phenomenology’ in Part II, § 7 of Being and Time, p. 24. 16. Agamben, Idea, p. 61; emphases added. 17. Agamben, Potentialities, p. 247. 18. Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Death, trans. Karen E. Pinkus with M. Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 66. 19. Agamben, Language, p. 68. 20. Agamben, Potentialities, p. 247. 21. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 190. 22. Agamben, ‘Passion’, pp. 190–1. 23. Heidegger, cited by Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 191. 24. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 196. 25. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 198.

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Face to Face with Agamben; or, the Other in Love 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37.

Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 199. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 204. Agamben, ‘Passion’, p. 204; emphasis in original. Agamben, Coming Community, p. 25. Agamben, Infancy, p. 91. Agamben, Infancy, p. 93. Agamben, Infancy, p. 93. Agamben, Infancy, p. 98; emphasis added. Agamben, Infancy, p. 104. Agamben, Infancy, p. 104. Agamben, Infancy, p. 104. Agamben, Infancy, p. 105.

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CHAPTER 10

Beyond Spectacle and the Image: the Poetics of Guy Debord and Agamben Alex Murray

In the opening to a short essay on the metropolis Agamben relates the following story: Many years ago I was having a conversation with Guy (Debord) which I believed to be about political philosophy, until at some point Guy interrupted me and said: ‘Look, I am not a philosopher, I am a strategist’. This statement struck me because I used to see him as a philosopher as I saw myself as one, but I think that what he meant to say was that every thought, however ‘pure’, general or abstract it tries to be, is always marked by historical and temporal signs and thus captured and somehow engaged in a strategy and urgency.1

The fact that Debord rejected Agamben’s discussion of ‘political philosophy’ over ‘strategy’ is a distinction that is important to maintain. What is at stake here is not a debate over the proper disciplinary boundaries within which we should approach Agamben’s work, a debate which obfuscates the nature of the work itself. Instead I would like to use the distinction as for both Debord and, I would suggest, Agamben, it sustains both the necessity and the potential for a critique, a ‘poetics’ that exists in a symbiotic relation with the category of life. The importance of Debord in Agamben’s work has been observed by a number of critics, yet the relationship has, as yet, not been explored in any great depth.2 If the reasons for this are unclear, I would suggest it centres around questions of Agamben’s political philosophy and the rather strange place occupied by Debord in contemporary critical theory, and perhaps more importantly in recent French politics. Whatever the reasons, the relationship requires careful exploration. The necessity for care is not simply because it is a complex and nuanced relationship, but because, more importantly, there is a risk of thereby equating the ‘politics’ of Agamben with Debord’s extraparliamentary revolutionary project. Such an equation would simplify

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both thinkers. Instead I would like to isolate three areas in which we can read the two thinkers together, tracing intellectual genealogies and conceptual vocabularies that yield potentially insightful results: the first is the critique of the spectacle and commodity fetishism, the second the image and cinema, and the third, and perhaps more speculatively, the idea of a critical ‘poetics’ of life. THE SPECTACLE AND THE LOGIC OF CRITIQUE The most explicit debt that Agamben owes to Debord derives from the Situationists’ critique of the spectacular nature of modern society. For Agamben, Debord and the Situationists seized the complex and shifting nature of late capitalism at a point where scientific Marxism in its Althusserian guise had, somewhat hubristically, rejected Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish as an unfortunate trace of Hegelianism. This is famously evidenced in Georg Lukács’s assertion in 1923 in History and Class Consciousness that ‘The Chapter (in Capital) dealing with the fetish character of the commodity contains within itself the whole of historical materialism, and the whole self-knowledge of the proletariat seen as the knowledge of capitalist society.’3 Yet in the preface to the 1967 edition of the same text, Lukacs had dismissed Marx’s theory of alienation as not being nearly objective enough: in fact, it remained trapped in a model of subject-object relations that was hopelessly idealistic, pretending that alienation could be so easily transcended. For Lukács in 1967 theory instead needed to turn to Marx’s notion of objectification which was ‘a natural means by which man masters the world and as such it can be either a positive or negative fact. By contrast, alienation is a special variant of that activity which becomes operative in definite social conditions. This completely shattered the theoretical foundations of what had been the particular achievement of History and Class Consciousness.’4 So if alienation is produced by a process that for Lukács wasn’t necessarily negative, the move to ‘objectify’ the world was intrinsic to historical development – then its processes, such as alienation, had to be seen not as fundamental to its existence but a part of that development. This means that the notion of transcending alienation in the synthesis of a communist society was potentially idealistic as it aimed its sights at an outcome of the necessary ‘disenchantment of the world’. If all work contains an element of objectification then to insist on the destruction of such a process was at best naive, at worst trapped in a mode of idealism.

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For Debord, however, the alienation of capitalism is intrinsically linked to commodification and not to work.5 In fact, one could accuse Marxism of fetishising work, a process that was antithetical to the total revolution Debord prescribed. So Debord took up the commodity fetish as a means of articulating the perverse enslavement of modern man to the iniquities of capital. For Debord the crux of this commodity fetish is the spectacle, the means by which our experiences are constantly mediated by images which produce their own form of alienated social relations. The path to revolution ought not to be class struggle, but instead an attempt to smash the illusory nature of this mediated society. For Debord the spectacle is about control, not of the means of production, but of the entire social and cultural infrastructure that created an ideology able to maintain an illusion that obscured social relations. The focus is on the ways in which ideology is now about images; our very ability to ‘see’ has been replaced by prescribed images. As Debord famously states in Society of the Spectacle: For one to whom the real world becomes images, mere images are transformed into real beings – tangible figments which are the efficient motor of a trancelike behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society’s generalized abstraction. This is not to say, however, that the spectacle in itself is perceptible to the naked eye – even if that eye is assisted by the ear. The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle establishes the rule.6

Debord’s division here between the object (in this case, the image) and human activity is an important one. The spectacle simultaneously wants us to believe we are communing with it and its images, yet works tirelessly to prevent us from accessing it. This manipulation works on the illusion of dialogue. What marks the spectacle is perhaps not the images themselves, or, for that matter, the eye. Rather, we could read the spectacle as an in-between of object (image) and invested desire (eye) that suspends the two from a state of dialogue. To sustain a space in-between is then to posit the spectacle’s disintegration from within, a matter of using the in-between – rather than eye or image being controlled from without.

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The veracity of Debord’s critique of the spectacle is, for Agamben, marked by the political events of the twenty years between the publication of the Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), a period in which ‘the miseries and slavery of a society that by now has extended its dominion over the whole planet’ became apparent. Agamben highlights a number of instances in which the spectacular society has shown itself most openly, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the media coverage of the Timisoara ‘revolution’, suggesting that the blurring between the truth and televisual representation epitomises Debord’s notion that ‘In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.’7 For Agamben, more than anything Debord understood the processes whereby the aesthetic has been manipulated by the spectacle, emptied and hollowed out by the processes of banalisation. Perhaps even more importantly it spoke to the situation of Italian politics, whereby democracy had, under the cover of terrorism, been subjected to a spectacularisation that had evacuated its sense. Agamben sees Italy as ‘the laboratory’ in which this particular phase of Western capitalism had been implemented.8 One would only need to look at the rise of Silvio Berlusconi on the one hand and the repression of ultra-leftist activism on the other as examples of the growth of the spectacular society.9 This fact is acknowledged explicitly by Debord, who in the ‘preface’ of the fourth Italian edition of Society of the Spectacle (1979) explored the Moro affair and its mediatisation as part of the repressive nature of the spectacle.10 It is perhaps an explicit reference to Debord when Agamben uses the term ‘laboratory’, for Debord stated ‘being for the moment the most advanced country in the slide towards proletarian revolution, Italy is also the laboratory of international counterrevolution.’11 It is therefore again the historical signifiers that matter here, and it is again perhaps not coincidental that Debord uses the terms ‘historical and strategical’ to justify his intervention, which Agamben sees as both accurate and necessary. The return to the commodity fetish in Debord arguably attracts Agamben for more than just the veracity of its critique of postwar capitalism. Debord explored the ways in which we invest, unconsciously, in the objects of our own subjection – images – as well as how that investment and its perverse logic provide the means by which a utopia could emerge. For Debord, we seem to be invested at a far more complex fetishistic level, one that manifests itself in a range of forms. These processes should not be seen as wholly negative, but instead as

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a positive shift away from the dogmatic empiricism of eighteenthcentury ‘prejudice’ (as Agamben calls it in Stanzas). In short, the commodity fetish and its rapid development in the mid-nineteenth century (although beginning much earlier) mark the point at which the belief in an empirical reality that governed Enlightenment discourse is called into question. The commodity fetish forces us to believe that the ‘real’ or use value of an object is unimportant in relation to its mysteriously unjustifiable exchange value. The animation of objects provides simultaneously the enslavement to the commodity, but also the potential rupture of the necessary corollary between things and value, providing a space of the in-between. If we turn to Agamben’s most explicit addressing of the commodity fetish, the second section of Stanzas, we can see the ways in which his own reading of this Marxian category is essential in an analysis of forms of representation, and that the evidence of its accuracy is to be found in historical events, not in theoretical formulations. Discussing the Universal Exposition in London in 1851, Agamben states: If seen in relation to the Marxian theory of the fetishistic character of the commodity – which has appeared to at least one incautious reader as a ‘flagrant and extremely harmful Hegelian influence’ (the infelicitous remark is Althusseur’s) – requires neither explication nor philosophical references.12

Here we can see the importance of ‘historical’ and ‘temporal’ signs for Agamben. The theory of the commodity fetish is seen to explain perfectly the ‘transfiguration of the commodity into an enchanted object’ that turned the Crystal Palace into an enchanted scene, providing a paradigm for the process by which the spectacle would later develop such a hold. These signs don’t, however, limit the place of the theory of the commodity fetish in Agamben’s body of work. As I suggested, the commodity fetish provides a challenge to Enlightenment discourses of empiricism, yet the theory is also one of presentation and representation and provides the space for a broader reflection on the disavowal and affirmation of the object at work in the fetishist. For Agamben the work of the fetish is linked to the foundational scissions of Western thought. As Agamben states: This is the model that provided the frame both for an examination of human objects transfigured by the commodity, and for the attempt to discover, through analysis of form and the tale of the Sphinx, a model of signifying that might escape the primordial situation of signifier and signified that dominates Western reflections on the sign.13

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It is not for the fetishist the object ‘in itself’, nor the psychological investments that s/he projects onto the object. It is instead the interstices between the object and the self that marks the fetish, marking as well the notion of a view of language that isn’t obsessed with a science of grammar or with the meaning of things, but with the fact that language takes place and the essential role of the human in its very taking place. It is these ideas of the in-between and its dynamic potential that mark the relation between Agamben and Debord, as well as the sense of historical and temporal signifiers providing the impetus for, and demands to, pure thought. THE IMAGE WITHIN AND AGAINST THE SPECTACLE The role of Debord in Agamben’s theoretical project is arguably much greater than the concordance in their critique of the spectacle. The early period of Situationist activity was deeply implicated in the avant-garde programme of aesthetic revolution that had been bequeathed to it by Surrealism and Dadaism. While Debord later rejected the place of art in challenging the monopoly of the spectacle as the SI moved into its more ‘political’ phase following May ‘68, he still produced a number of films which attempted – through the manipulation of the image – to challenge the dominant modes of spectacular obfuscation. An integral aspect in Agamben’s relationship to Debord is film, and importantly the role of the image. In a lecture Agamben gave in 1995 on Debord’s films he attempts to define ‘certain aspects of Debord’s poetics, or rather his compositional technique’.14 The fact that Agamben uses the term ‘poetics’ in relation to cinema is important, as it suggests a general form of aesthetic construction rather than a technique relating to a specific media. The force of Debord’s film is not its cinematography; in fact, Agamben argues that the term ‘cinematographic technique’ is unsuitable for Debord. What is critical is its operation as history. For Agamben, Debord’s film participates in a messianic arrest of history analogous to Benjamin’s theorisation of the ‘dialectical image’,15 which Agamben describes, within Benjamin’s oeuvre as ‘the very essence of historical experience’. He goes onto say that ‘historical experience is obtained by the image, and the images themselves are charged with history.’16 The term ‘historical experience’ is important here, suggesting that it is in the Benjaminian dialectical image that we can see the potential for an attempt to arrest the destruction of historical experience that Agamben, following Benjamin, identifies

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as symptomatic of modern life.17 Suffice to say the term ‘historical’ is intended to relate to a messianic concept of history in which the image is, for Agamben, ‘the door through which the Messiah enters’. For Agamben this notion of the messianic image is embodied in the ‘transcendentals of montage’. Here it is the specific forms of repetition and stoppage that create the potential for a messianic cinema. Repetition is, as Agamben underlines, always a matter of a return, but not of the identical. Here repetition brings a possibility for the past to be grasped anew. Agamben sees this as a feature of history and cinema: they ‘transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real.’18 This process of transformation can be seen, for instance, in Benjamin’s exploration of slow motion which not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones ‘which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.’ Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man.19

Here we see the dialectical potential of cinema for Benjamin: the image presents us with something that is real, human movement, but now delivered over to the possibility of a different function. Simultaneously this new potential is for the body to become manifestly real, able to occur not simply as representation. In the very process of repetition we are also provided with a sense of stoppage, the point at which we are jolted out of the sense that what we are seeing on the screen is anything other than representation; analogously, we see the continuum of history interrupted. Stoppage is for Agamben, as it is for Debord’s cinema, related to narrative. Agamben suggests that this can be seen as a correlative of poetry. If prose relies on narrative for its power, poetry can only be differentiated from it by stoppage, or to use Agamben’s examples from Idea of Prose, enjambment and caesura. The stoppage of cinema can then be seen in a fashion similar to Valéry’s definition of the poem, that it is a ‘hesitation between sound and meaning’. Agamben can then state that ‘cinema, or at least a certain kind of cinema, is a prolonged hesitation between image and meaning.’20 Stoppage forces us to contemplate the split between the medium of the image and the form of narrative. In a cinema of stoppage we begin to see image not as a representation of something else, but as representability itself. The result is that we can no longer see film as the

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real, but see it as a constructed image. This is what Agamben refers to as ‘de-creating the real’, a process whereby we see the medium in the expression rather than the Hegelian notion that the medium must be obliterated by the representation. It is at this point that we can begin to see the ways in which Agamben is displacing Debord’s cinema into his own terms, his own ‘poetics’. Perhaps the most indicative instance of this is Agamben’s attempt to place the Debordian image-as-imagelessness in relation to other means of subverting the image, namely pornography and advertising. For Agamben pornography and advertising are the forms in which we can see the image of the body becoming transformed. In The Coming Community advertising and pornography are responsible for shifting the perception of the human form. Pornography and advertising present us not with the human form, but with a technologised image of it. Agamben’s famous instances of this representation are the geometric spectacle of dancing girls in adverts for nylon stockings, as well as the gaze of the porn star directly into the camera. What these two instances of the spectacle represent are the ways in which the spectacle itself opens up a space for its own undermining. As Agamben states in The Coming Community: To appropriate the historic transformation of human nature that capitalism wants to limit to the spectacle, to link together the image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated, and thus to forge the whatever body, whose physis is resemblance – this is the good that humanity must learn how to wrest from commodities in their decline. Advertising and pornography, which escort the commodity to the grave like hired mourners, are the unknowing midwives of this new body of humanity.21

What advertising and pornography represent is the ways in which the spectacle negatively transforms the real, putting on display a pure image of the real which suggests there is always something more which lies behind that image: the porn-star stares into the camera, suggesting that it is not her partner she is interested in, but us, the viewer. The body itself is an image which no longer refers to the real but to the means, the medium of representation. So we stare at the commodified body aware that what we are actually seeing is an image of the body that simultaneously covers over the fragile human body and replaces it. This example of the way in which the spectacle itself is transformed in the medium of its representation is coupled with what we might term the active and intentional form of rupturing the link between the

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form and content of the cinema. The other instance is to be found in the presentation of the image as image, as in Debord’s film. Here the image, through montage, both visual and aural, is able to be seen anew. Perhaps an example from Debord’s final and arguably most important film In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni will be able to provide us with a clearer sense of the ‘poetics’ of Debord’s cinema. The title of this film is a famous ancient Latin palindrome, which can be translated as ‘we go into the circle at night and are consumed by fire.’ The fact that the title retains an inherent ambivalence and repetition means that it in itself fulfils the conditions of cinema that Agamben puts forward. The film itself is, like the majority of Debord’s films, comprised of détourned images and voiceovers. A film such as Society of the Spectacle presents a rather strict formulation of image and critique, being the theses of the text of Society of the Spectacle read out with accompanying images, at once illustrative and discordant. In Girum instead presents a far more discordant and autobiographical series of images and audio, as Debord seemingly attempts to make both a further critique of the society of the spectacle, with the first part of the film mirroring those of previous films such as Society of the Spectacle and Critique of Separation, and a personal memoir. The film begins with an image of an audience watching a film, with themselves. This is complemented by a direct address in the voiceover: ‘I will make no concessions to the public in this film. I believe there are several good reasons for this decision, and I am going to state them.’22 This form of social critique shifts after about twenty minutes. The images don’t change, retaining the same form of repetition (alternately clips from Zorro, a tracking shot of a boat travelling around Venice, a Kriegspiel board game, a film depicting Colonel Custer), yet the voiceover announces the change that will henceforth take place: ‘Instead of adding one more film to the thousands of commonplace films, I prefer to explain why I shall do nothing of the sort. I am going to replace the frivolous adventures typically recounted by the cinema with the examination of an important subject: myself.’23 Eventually the repeated images become interspersed with images of Debord and other important figures from SI. The introduction of the autobiographical remains ambivalent. Vincent Kauffman describes this as ‘emblematic of Debord’s oscillation between “theory” and “self-portratiture,” or, if you will, of their continuity.’24 For Kauffman this key intertwining of the personal and the political is essential to the nature of Debord’s work, and In Girum

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as well as Panegyric are indicative of a later move to a reflective critical practice. Yet for Anselm Jappe In Girum depicts Debord ‘as the commander of an army of subversion and the whole film is replete with military metaphors and images of battle.’25 However, if we follow Agamben’s critical interpretation of Debord’s film we begin to see that there is no sense in reading In Girum with regard to Debord’s ‘authorial’ intentions or to attempt a metaphorical reading. Instead we should look at the films as part of a broader critical aesthetic, of being about processes of interruption and repetition, that work, both from within the images of the spectacle and from without, to create what we might term a poetics, one that eschews the autobiographical and the metaphorical, focusing instead on a process of rupture, an art of the in-between. This notion of a poetics, which I will explore further in the final section of this essay, works in the case of Debord’s cinema as an inbetween. Agamben concludes his essay on Debord by asserting that it is in between the self-destructing aesthetics of pornography and the ‘imagelessness’ of the image as image, ‘this difference, that the ethics and the politics of the cinema come into play.’26 Or, if you like, between pornography/advertising and the cinema of Debord. As was the case with fetishism, the ability to destabilise the authority of the cinema is to be found in the logic and processes employed by the dominant spectacle. The image of the spectacle has already exposed its imagelessness, and it is unsurprising that Debord utilises both détourned advertising and pornography in his own cinema. The inbetween here functions to suspend the authority and power of the image on display in the spectacle, as well as its counter-image which exposes the spectacle. The need for an in-between is that from within the interstices of spectacular society, a new notion of ethics and politics can begin to emerge, its image as yet unknown. POETICS, LIFE, WORK Language and power When faced with the question of the inheritance contemporary thought can take from Debord, Agamben is unequivocal: Because it is clear that the spectacle is language, the power of communication or the linguistic being of man. This means that the Marxist analysis is integrated in the sense that capitalism – or whatever you want to call the process today that dominates world

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I noted above that Agamben opened his essay on Debord’s films by referring to them as constituting a ‘poetics’. The term has an important place in Agamben’s work, referring not just to poetry, but to a broader critical practice. The term also has a place in Debord and the Situationist International’s work, one which functions analogously to Agamben’s. Tracing its contours briefly in the work of both thinkers can at once illuminate the commonalities and the proper place of the political for both. For Debord and Agamben language is essential to both the function of totalising forms of power and their undermining from within. Agamben conceptualises language, the type of everyday language that we use, as being a form of jargon, a language that attempts to cover over and therefore foreclose what language can truly reveal. In his essay ‘Languages and Peoples’ Agamben suggests that ‘it is only by breaking at any point the nexus between the existence of language, grammar, people and state that thought and praxis will be equal to the task at hand’.28 Agamben’s concept of a coming politics is then to be found within the hiatuses that emerge from this nexus: ‘It is here that I must find my space once again – here or nowhere else. Only a politics that starts from such an awareness can interest me.’29 This nexus is also a prominent feature in the writing of the Situationist International. An editorial note in Internationale Situationiste 8 (January 1963) entitled ‘All the King’s Men’ states: We live in language as in polluted air. Contrary to what men of wit assume, words do not play. Nor do they make love, as Breton thought, except in dreams. Words work on behalf of the ruling organization of life . . . under power’s supervision, language designates something other than authentic lived experience . . . it is precisely there that the possibility of total opposition resides.30

The total opposition of the SI and Debord to late capitalism – predicated on a severing of the relationship between power and language and on a return to ‘authentic lived experience’ – suggests that there is a correlation between the manipulation of language and the destruction of experience. As we have seen in the case of Debord’s films and in Agamben’s analysis of them, we should be in no way surprised to find that it is in the languages of power that Debord finds his notion of resistance.

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The (non)work of language If language in its hegemonic forms works for the governing power, to legitimate its authority, obscure its complicity and provide the means of its longevity, then what precisely constitutes a poetic alternative? The answer lies, for both Debord and Agamben, in the work of language itself. The subjection of language to power is maintained in the very sense of a semiotics that provides a correlate between signifier and signified. If, as deconstruction contends, there is a constant slippage between signifier and signified that destabilises the metaphysics of presence, there is still a sense that language obscures meaning, that there is a riddle in language that can, at least in principle, be solved. Yet, as Agamben suggests in Stanzas, the bar between signifier and signified is precisely where language makes itself manifest. The barrier between signifier and signified works not on an attempt to obscure and disrupt meaning, but is the very instance of language taking place. The work of language in power is thus not to obscure meaning, but to obscure the space in between, the taking place of language as such. Yet, as Agamben reminds us, the / between signifier/signified is the human: ‘the human is precisely this fracture of presence, which opens a world and over which language holds itself.’31 It is the human that constitutes the true taking place of language and as such has the potential to illuminate the ‘invisible articulation’, an illumination whose light has never been known. As Agamben states in the conclusion of Stanzas, what lies beyond the illumination is the ‘path’ that for Heidegger possibly ‘leads to the co-/belonging of poetry and thought.’32 Returning language to experience, to a co-belonging of poetry and thought, is conceived for the SI as a returning of language to life. As Mustapha Khayati states in ‘Captive Words (Preface to a Situationist Dictionary)’: The problem is knowing how to pass from language to life. The genuine appropriation of words that work cannot be achieved apart from the appropriation of work itself. The institution of liberated creative activity will simultaneously be the institution of genuine, finally liberated communication, and the transparency of human relations will replace the poverty of words under the old regime of opacity. Words will not stop working so long as men have not.33

In Khayati’s definition we can see a sense similar to Agamben’s. The regime of ‘opacity’ that seeks to engender in words a poverty is tied to the problem of work. There is a dialectical relationship between

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the two. The sense for the SI of ‘non-travaillez’ in both labour and language has a number of resonances with the Agambenian theme of inoperativity or désoeuvrement, a non-working or interruption of language, that in the figure of Bartleby marks the non-willingness to write with the non-working of the law.34 The realisation of incomplete work In the second edition to Panegyrique, made up almost exclusively of ‘iconographical evidence’ (largely photographs), is a short note by Debord on the difficulties of translating the text. While mainly offering examples of how his use of a subtly corrupted classical French has a particularly performative element, the short note also contains the following elusive passage: In any case, it is impossible at the present time to arrive at any proper conclusion about what the full and definitive meaning of this work will be: this remains wholly in abeyance since it is only the first volume. The end of the book is projected outside itself.35

The most obvious reading of this passage is that the end of the book will be Debord’s death. As a work of effective autobiography it is never finished as the final full stop, death, remains unwritten. Yet if we’re to instead read Debord’s work as a poetics then the meaning is perhaps more elusive still. The end of the book is in a sense unwritable, this work, like all of Debord’s body, becoming a prolegomena for a work never to be finished. The finished work is not realised as a ‘work’, a body of literature that realises a definite conclusion. The only ending lies in a unity of the author’s aim, the point at which the divisions between Language and Life have been collapsed into a poetics, a point which renders the textual edifice of Debord unreadable. Agamben’s own unwritten text The Human Voice, or Ethics, an Essay on the Voice, bears a similar inscription to Debord’s own. Agamben’s own call for an ‘ethics’ may seem antithetical to Debord’s position, which one would equate with something far more like a revolutionary fidelity. Yet these distinctions seek to return us to the so called field of the political and in doing so smooth over the fact that for both the human must be the site, the space in which an ethical or a political encounter must take place. But as both Agamben and the Situationists suggest this must be a matter of returning to life as the category that restores the human to something like an ethos. As Agamben asks:

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If the most appropriate expression of wonderment at the existence of the world is the existence of language, what then is the correct expression for the existence of language? The only possible answer to this question is: human life, as ethos, as ethical way. The search for a polis and an oika befitting this void represents the unpresuposable community that is the infantile task of future generations.36

The work that addresses these precise issues is impossible, its status as unpresupposable means that any work can only gesture towards the time – messianic – when it will be realised. Notes 1. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Metropolis’, trans. Arianna Bove, at: http://www. generation-online.org/p/fpagamben4.htm. 2. Catherine Mills notes the importance of the relationship in a footnote. Catherine Mills, ‘Agamben’s Messianic Politics: Biopolitics, Abandonment and Happy Life’, Contretemps 5, December 2004, 60 (endnote). 3. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone (London: Merlin, 1971), p. 170. 4. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p. xxxvi 5. For an account of Debord’s Hegelian heritage see Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, foreword T. J. Clarke (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). 6. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald NicholsonSmith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p. 17. 7. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 14. 8. See Giorgio Agamben, ‘Violence and Hope in the Last Spectacle’, Situacionistes: art, politica, urbanisme/Situationists: art, politics urbanism, ed. Libero Andreotti and Xavier Costa (Barcelona: Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1996), p. 75. 9. The specifically Italian contexts that Agamben cites raises the question of Agamben’s relation to the broader Italian political contexts. While Agamben aligns himself with Debord he is somewhat more circumspect in placing himself in relation to the radical political movements that emerged in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. His relation to, for instance, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno is uncertain. There are certainly a number of confluences between Agamben’s work and Virno and Negri’s, in particular the importance of the Marxian General Intellect for all three thinkers, yet here I can do little more than to notice both Agamben’s ambivalence and proximity. For a representative account of the theoretical work of postwar radical politics in Italy, including two of Agamben’s essays, see Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota

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10.

11.

12.

13. 14.

15.

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben University Press, 1996). More recently Antonio Negri has proffered a revealing insight into the context of Italian politics in Agamben’s early work. See Antonio Negri, ‘Giorgio Agamben: The Discreet taste of the Dialectic’, Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, ed. Matthew Colarco and Steven DeCaroli (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2007), pp. 109–25. See also Debord’s letters to Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Gerard Lebovici and Paulo Salvadori from 1978 for an account of his interest in the affair and Italian politics. Guy Debord, Correspondance Volume 5, janvier 1973 – decembre 1978 (Paris: Librarie Arthème Fayard, 2005), pp. 445–91. Guy Debord, Preface of the 4th Italian edition of ‘Society of the Spectacle’, trans. (from the French) Michael Prigent and Lucy Forsyth (London: Chronos, 1979), p. 19. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 39. Agamben, Stanzas, p. xvii Giorgio Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films’, trans. Brian Holmes, Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 313. The place of the image in Agamben’s work is not just related to Benjamin and the dialectical image, but also to Aby Warburg. We should recall here that Agamben describes Aby Warburg’s project as an attempt to turn the history of art into cinema, to animate it. As he states: Every image, in fact, is animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or as symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or in any sports photograph). The former corresponds to the recollection seized by voluntary memory, while the latter corresponds to the image flashing in the epiphany of involuntary memory. And while the former lives in magical isolation, the latter always refers beyond itself to the whole of which it is part. Even the Mona Lisa, even Las Meninas, could be seen not as immovable and eternal forms, but as fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true image. And this is so because of a certain kind of litigatio, a paralyzing spell we need to break, its constitution at work in every image; it is as if a silent invocation calling for the liberation of the image into gesture arose from the entire history of art. This is what in ancient Greece was expressed by the legends in which statues break the ties holding them and begin to move . . . Cinema leads images back to the homeland of gesture. According to the beautiful definition in Beckett’s Traum und Nacht, it is the dream of a gesture. The duty of the director is to introduce into this dream the element of awakening. (Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’, pp. 55–6)

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16. 17.

18. 19.

20. 21. 22.

23. 24.

25. 26.

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It is interesting to note here that Agamben uses the Benjaminian term awakening. The relationship between Benjamin and Warburg is a fascinating one which is beginning to receive critical commentary. See Matthew Rampley, The Remembrance of Things Past: On Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin (Wiesbaden: Harrossowitz, 2000). For an account of the movement from Myth to History to Mythistory in Modernity, including both Warburg and Benjamin as well as Kantorowicz and Burkhardt, see Joseph Mali, Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition’, p. 314. See Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993). To do justice to the relation between the historical experience of the Benjaminian image and Agamben’s exploration of the category of infancy lies far beyond the scope of this essay. What Agamben means by the term infancy is not our ordinary everyday sense of a pre-linguistic period of development. Instead what he means is something like the ‘experience’ of language as such. It is therefore not something we ‘go back’ to, some utopian point prior to having language. In fact that idea of a place prior to language needs to be discarded as it would rest on having an idea of an ‘event’ prior to language, when it is only because we have language that we can have an event and therefore have history. What it needs to be replaced with is an understanding that any ‘origin’ has to be incorporated into the very experience of language, we ‘get back’ to nothing, but uncover what is there at the core of language. The Benjaminian image can be read as a corollary to the ‘experience of language’, and therefore to the path towards an ‘infancy’ that can move us away from the necessity for conceptualising our relation to the world as ‘consciousness’. Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition’, p. 316. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducbility’, Illuminations, trans. Hary Zohn (London: Verso, 1970), pp. 238–9. Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition’, p. 317. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 50. Guy Debord, ‘In Girum Nocte et Consumimur Igni,’ Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills Documents, trans. and ed. Ken Knabb (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003), p. 133. Debord, ‘In Girum Nocte’, p. 149. Vincent Kauffman, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 29. Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord, pp. 113–14. Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition’, p. 319.

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27. Agamben, ‘Violence and Hope’, pp. 78–9. 28. Giorgo Agamben, ‘Languages and Peoples’, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 70. 29. Agamben, ‘In This Exile: Italian Diary, 1992–4’, Means Without End, p. 139. 30. Editorial, ‘All the King’s Men’, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, pp. 153–4. 31. Agamben, Stanzas, p. 156. 32. Martin Heidegger, as quoted in Agamben, Stanzas, p. 158 (endnote). 33. Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words (Preface to a Situationist Dictionary)’, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, p. 180. 34. See Giorgio Agamben, ‘Bartleby, or On Contingency’, in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. and ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 243–71. 35. Guy Debord, Panegyric, Volumes 1 & 2, trans. James Brook and John McHale (London: Verso, 2004), p. 173. 36. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Experimentum Linguae’, in Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), p. 11.

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CHAPTER 11

Dismantling Theatricality: Aesthetics of Bare Life Barbara Formis

A theatre stage, bare, without setting. The boards and walls are black. All at once, men and women enter the stage, one after the other, without clear order, without rhythmic scansion. They come from nowhere, as if they were already on the stage, as if they were already part of it. Each follows his or her own movement, without paying attention to the others, whether those are persons on the stage or spectators sitting comfortably in their armchairs. These men and women are neutral bodies. Identically dressed, they wear black suits, black shoes and white shirts. They walk.1 One foot after another, confident, as if directed by a superior orientation, they traverse the space in multiple enjambments. Their heels strike the ground, producing a repetitive, staccato sound. They walk. Each in his or her direction, they create lines that interweave without ever encountering or colliding. There is no physical shock. The walking bodies belong to a chaotic mass whose volume is made of silent irritation. The gazes are hard, those of human beings who work, whose time is occupied by business; the circulation is fast and easy because formatted. The arms oscillate in a rigid fashion, one forward, one back, directly opposed to the diagonal line of the legs. The chests are erect, proud but inexpressive. The bodies are the walk, they are militarised. The walk is a parade. And then, without any transition, one body stops, and then another, and then another still. The bodies align themselves facing the audience. A single long wall of people. Without waiting for others to join the line, these bodies begin to strip. With extreme slowness, they remove their clothes while keeping their eyes fixed on the audience. They take off one sleeve of the jacket, then the other; the jacket in their hands, they slowly fold it and place it on the ground. Every game of seduction has gone. One by one, they undo their shirt buttons, standing, proud and almost insolent. Under the shirts, bodies appear,

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muscles, bony or rounded shoulders, breasts, hairy chests. Under the conventional clothes, under this uniform corporeal modality, unique bodies live, sexually identifiable, with surprising characteristics: muscles more or less toned, marks of age, epidermic peculiarities. They unbutton their trousers, sit down to remove them, slowly stand up again, each with a different rhythm. Some first take off their shoes; others remain standing for several moments without trousers, in underpants, socks and shoes. Their gazes are so threatening one cannot laugh. Then, with their own rhythm, they discard their underpants, slowly, sliding them along their legs, balancing on one leg to do so, piercing eyes constantly on the audience. Women, men, muscles, hairs, sexes. One sees a line of sexed bodies, completely stripped of sensuality. And then, always without transition, never in unison, these men and women reclothe themselves. With the same extreme slowness, with the same gaze. They cover their bodies again with the uniforms, and, once reclothed, each in his or her turn, they resume their initial staccato walk. I have described the beginning of a choreographic piece that has marked the history of dance in the twentieth century: Parades and Changes, composed in 1965 by Anna Halprin, legendary choreographer of the American stage. This piece was censored in the United States for twenty years.2 When it was presented in New York in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, it provoked furious reactions and Anna Halprin barely escaped being arrested. On certain occasions, the ritual of unclothing and reclothing could not be completed or had to be reversed. The reasons for this censorship were not simply juridical or moral, but also had something to do with the superposition of two supposedly heterogeneous dimensions: theatre and war. The bodies in their nudity expose the brutality of the military march, ‘the state of birth’ rubs against the ‘reason of state’. And yet, carefully considered, theatre and war have something in common. These two states of the body seem to be submitted to the same law, what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘the exception’. A war permits the suspension of the force of ordinary laws, sometimes by relieving the actors of responsibility, sometimes by dehumanising the victims. The state of exception of the theatre is certainly of another order, but the resonances can be taken up all the same. If the stage is submitted to a ‘state of exception’ (the theatre is not submitted to the same laws as ordinary life), it is to the extent that the fictive illusion aims at exceeding the constraints of the presupposed ‘reality’. A crime accomplished on stage is not immediately perceived

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as such. This state of exception is produced on condition of isolating the stage from the surrounding world: the individuals acting on stage are supposed to comport themselves as if no one were watching. The Greek chorus is no exception to this rule insofar as it does not guarantee the ‘doing’ of the action, but only its ‘saying’. The theatre’s state of exception appears possible only on the condition that it doesn’t transgress the politeness of the space of representation – a politeness that has nothing to do with decency. It is this very politeness that permits the separation between the spaces of life and those of fiction that Parades and Changes overcomes. It is not, therefore, because this piece stages naked bodies that it has been submitted to a violent censorship of long standing, and it is not because these naked bodies rub up against the military bodies of work. It is because this piece works to dismantle the theatre as place of exception, as a gestural terrain differentiated from the surrounding space. This artistic dismantling at work in Parades and Changes directly echoes a social and political denunciation. The gaze that the actors on the stage bear towards the spectators in the room interrupts every sort of voyeurism and makes us understand that the persons [personnes] on the stage are not so much bodies or characters [personnages], but very much persons, anyones [personnes]. The ‘crime’ of which this piece is accused is returning the power of the gaze to the theatre, and therefore the faculty of subjectification that it is supposed to lose as a theatrical screen. The other crime, the one that it denounces, is that of war. The accusatory gaze of the dancers simply says: ‘We are all guilty.’ If the theatre ceases to be a space of exception, it ceases to be theatre, at least ‘good’ theatre. It becomes what Diderot classifies precisely as ‘bad taste’, namely ‘the game of an actor who addresses himself to the pit’, whereas we know ‘good’ theatricality consists in the taking account of the spectator as absent.3 It is by endangering, even losing, its theatrical status that this piece succeeds in scandalising the public, whereas the true scandal is to be found elsewhere, in the countries of South-East Asia. This dismantling of theatricality does not, for all that, coincide with its complete annihilation. It is a question, to the contrary, of an operation fundamental to contemporary theatricality: the alliance of theatre with life. This allows for the construction of an aesthetic frontline that might be approached with what Agamben, in a text dedicated to Guy Debord, names the ‘situation’: Nothing would be more illusory than thinking the situation as a privileged or exceptional moment in the aesthetic sense. This is neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art. The real

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben nature of the situation can only be understood if it is historically situated in the place that it is imparted, that is after the end and autodestruction of art, and after the passage of life through the test of nihilism. The ‘passage to the north-west in the geography of true life’ is a point of indifference between life and art, where both undergo a decisive metamorphosis at the same time.4

The exception is therefore nothing exceptional. It seeks rather a certain banalisation of aesthetics through the passage to life. But this passage is not a unilateral transformation (the life that transforms itself into art or vice versa) with regard to a mutual interdependence (life and art undergo a simultaneous transformation). The relation of reciprocity between life and art prevents any naive conception of aesthetic experience, a conception that believes in the possibility of the reciprocal transformation of the two terms of the relation (art and life), whether by way of a dandyish, romantic and aestheticising vision of life, or by a postmodern approach to art. Against this illusory transformation, Agamben proposes the challenge of the ‘point of indifference’, of the unassignable frontline situation where life and art are no longer exchangeable for each other – and quite simply because they undergo together, in unison, the same fate. In fact, this aesthetic aim is not guided by a mirage of freedom. To the extent that any transformation is possible, constraint is always there, slavery at work and invisible. Emancipation trapped within itself shows the corporeal constraint of which we are no longer conscious. In the same way, the theatricalisation of the stripping bare of the body does not only aim, in Anna Halprin’s piece, at emancipating its sexuality, but rather to constrain nudity to the mechanisation of gestures. In this regard one can recall the ‘real’ life anecdote that inspired this section of the dance. Anna Halprin explains: The whole nudity section of the piece came from an experience I had in one of Fritz Perl’s [Gestalt Theory psychologist] workshops. I was looking at a man sitting across from me. He had on a neat, tailored businessman’s suit with a white shirt and tie. He was wearing black silk socks and very conservative shoes. All of a sudden, everything he represented to me pushed my buttons, and I got up from my chair, walked over to him, and in a very brazen way, began to pull my clothes off piece by piece, until I was standing right in front of him, stark naked. He was appalled, and I was gloating. Fritz, in the meantime, had been standing in the doorway watching this little melodrama, and from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, he calmly

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walked in, took his seat, looked over at me sitting naked on the chair, and nonchalantly said: ‘And why do you have your legs crossed?’5

Habits of servitude – like crossing one’s legs – are anchored in the body, and an act eventually aiming to overturn them will not be able to abstract them completely. Legs are crossed, as if this position was natural, whereas it is rendered necessary by a biopolitical apparatus unconsciously rooted in our gestures and attitudes. In this ‘point of indifference’, art and life will no longer confront each other as two heterogeneous terms, the one freed and the other constrained. The condemnation of the society of the spectacle is therefore not made by a direct and destructive critique, but rather by wrecking the interior. It is therefore not a question of giving way on the desire to abolish or abandon the theatre (a rather naive option to the extent that it forgets that even in a non-theatrical context, for instance, the street, one is often confronted by procedures of staging).6 It is rather a question of accepting theatrical constraints in order to overturn them, to frustrate them in some way. Neither is it a question of banally staging what has nothing theatrical about it (undressing in a completely habitual way, for example), but of giving the ordinary a twist that would be indebted to its kinship with the theatrical staging. The ‘cinematic’ procedure of slow-motion can thus preserve the realism of gestures without flattening them onto their functional practicality. As Agamben says: ‘what takes place [. . .] is not the actualisation of a power, but the liberation of an ulterior power.’ 7 At the interior of this type of theatricality, the Aristotelian dialectic between act and potentiality is no longer effective. The liberation of an ulterior power is what Agamben calls ‘Gesture’: Gesture is the name of this intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution. It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics: it is pure praxis. The gesture is neither use value nor exchange value, neither biographical experience, nor impersonal event: it is the other side of the commodity, that lets the ‘crystals of this common social substance’ sink into the situation.8

The gestures accomplished by the dancers in Parades and Changes belong precisely to this kind of frontline between art and life. Marching [Marcher] in a military way is not an impersonal event – because the specificity of each gait [dé-marche] is essential to the

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march [la marche] in itself – nor is it a biographical experience – for we have learned to walk [marcher] and in our attitude the mark of the social is found. The military march accomplished in working clothes at once denounces capitalist ideology and warlike practice. The gestures of parades and changes are extracted from their quotidian context and therefore lose their ‘use value’, but do not thereby become purely expressive moments. The gestures of walking and dressing are not simply praxis but ‘pure praxis’; they purify the completely banal practical state of doing. Or, more precisely, they give an aesthetic value to the Aristotelian concept of praxis. We know – and Agamben makes explicit reference to it9 – that in The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle proposes the celebrated difference between poiesis (the result of poetic knowledge) and praxis (the result of practical knowledge).10 The first is a product of art (techné) and distinguishes a work external to the artist. Thus ‘art treats of production and not of action’ because ‘production, in fact, has an end other than itself, which is not the case for action, good practice being itself its own end.’11 Thus poiesis would be the knowledge of production, whereas practical knowledge is an activity that does not produce any work distinct from the agent, and which has no other end than internal, immanent action – eupraxis. Practical action does not posit any difference between the subject and the object: the result is internal, a sort of auto-fashioning of self. The wager is thus to consider the work upon the self – what Foucault called the ‘care for the self’ – as an aesthetic operation, even though not artistic. It is in this sense, and this sense alone, that praxis can be considered not only as a political and ethical experience, as Aristotle thought, but also aesthetic. One certainly understands the novelty advanced by Agamben: aesthetics is no longer the domain of art, aesthetic experience no longer needs an external product. It can therefore be associated with praxis, which tacitly implies that aesthetics is no longer the exclusive domain of art. There is even a third field that Agamben glimpses between praxis and poiesis: What is new . . . is the identification of a third type of action alongside the other two: if producing [poiesis] is a means in view of an end and praxis is an end without means, the gesture then breaks with the false alternative between ends and means and paralyses morality and presents instead means that, as such, evade the orbit of mediality without becoming, for this reason, ends.12

Behold the crime of Parades and Changes: it is at once a political and aesthetic gesture. A gesture between the walk [la marche] and the

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dance. Agamben expresses it clearly when he gives as an example of this type of gesturality the point of difference between ‘walking’ [marcher] (‘as means of moving the body from point A to point B’) and ‘dance’ (‘as aesthetic dimension’). The first is simple praxis, whereas the second is gesture because it ‘entirely consists in supporting and exhibiting the medial character of corporeal movements’: the gesture is the sphere of ‘pure mediality’.13 Ultimately, it is on the adjective ‘pure’ that everything seems to hinge. The gesture would be praxis deprived of its practical end, of its external goal – a pure praxis that ends by becoming a pure mediality, because the only action that remains is its own means. A type of Stoic activity par excellence, it is not the goal reached but the route traversed in doing so that allows the emergence, and not the production, of gesture. But what to say of Parades and Changes, where a walk is a dance? Is it, moreover, even a question of a dance? Anna Halprin would not seem to be as certain as Agamben in distinguishing between walking [la marche] and dancing, and this to the extent that the artistic appellation ‘dance’ hardly matters to her, as shown in this extract from an interview with Yvonne Rainer (American film-maker and choreographer taught by Halprin): Rainer: Do you feel a necessity to relate what you’re doing to dance any more? Halprin: No, I don’t even identify with dance. R: Do you have another name for what you are doing? H: No, it’s as much dance as anything – if you can think of dance as the rhythmic phenomena of the human being reacting to the environment. Essentially, this is what dance is. If the audience accepted this definition, then I’d say, yes, it’s dance. 14

The rejection of distinctions is what leads the American choreographer to put in place a way of inventing and working the body that seems to find itself in this space that Agamben associates with the gestural, and that Anna Halprin calls ‘task-like-dances’ – namely, gestures that are not completely free but which free themselves by their attachment to the dancing body. The task-like-dances seem to cover this third model of action that Agamben situates between praxis and poiesis, where they instigate a principle of composition that proposes to think the gestures of the body with the aid of the quotidian, of repetition, of understanding them as functional movements extracted from their context but not formalised as a highly expressive instance. Thus the staccato military walk staged by Halprin is certainly of the order of the gesture to the extent that it is distinguished from the walk

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going ‘from point A to point B,’ as Agamben specifies. The dancers walk on the stage, quite simply; they have neither direction nor finality, but show the walk in its ‘pure’ function. They do nothing but walk. This corporeal residue, this action absented from finality, even of cause, is means without end, the gesture properly called. This is therefore the crime that this type of theatricality brings to the conventional theatre: the gesture. Once staged in an explicitly theatrical context, the gesture overturns the state of exception proper to the theatre. If one understands the state of exception as a state of ‘non-law’ or ‘outside-the-law’, or, as Agamben says, of ‘force-of-law’ (if someone kills someone else on a theatrical stage, the observers will tend to take it first of all as a fiction), the ‘bad’ theatricality of Parades and Changes – and of many other performances that followed – permits a suspension of theatricality itself, and thus, in some way, the return of ordinary law. If, as Agamben explains in State of Exception, it is a question of a situation in which ‘the law is in force, but is not applied,’15 the gaze affronting the dancers is, in this piece, a way of restoring the ordinary law of the gaze, of the recognition of the other – but the force by which this gaze is imposed only finishes by creating an ambiguity: we are at once in a theatre and outside the theatre, the law applies and does not apply. As we have seen, this is ultimately what Agamben calls the ‘point of indifference’, a space where one will be unable to choose between one jurisdiction and another, between the world of art and the world of life. For the aesthetic experience incited by gestures, there are no longer two separated worlds, but a single subjacent world, where the one cannot transform itself into the other because they both undergo the same metamorphosis.16 Pure mediality is possible only in a third space: neither in ordinary law nor in the law of exception, but in the exception become rule and not law. As we know, it is in this sense that Agamben defines the ‘camp’: ‘The camp is the space that opens up when the state of exception starts to become the rule.’17 Like the gesture, the camp is also situated in an intermediary space: The increasingly widening gap between birth (bare life) and nationstate is the new fact of the politics of our time, and what we are calling camp is this disparity.18

Completed at the height of the Vietnam War, Parades and Changes is not simply a choreography about the enslavement of our bodies to an ever more demanding ideology of work; it is not simply an artistic critique of masculine domination and of the incapacity to express

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sexuality. It is also and above all a revolt in the face of the ‘banalisation of evil’, to speak like Hannah Arendt, in the face of the legislation of the war. The staging of nudity is completely ‘bare’ in the sense that Agamben gives to this adjective, namely not ‘pure’ and thus deprived of the ends that it would previously have had, but rigidified, petrified, stunned. It is a nudity of the order of life as zoé (an animal and vegetative state of existence) and not as bios (formally regulated communitarian life). In other words, the nudity of this piece is such that once placed on stage it explodes the stage; it indeed exposes not ‘pure life’ but ‘bare life,’ not a ‘form-of-life’ but a ‘fragment’ of life. The conceptualisation that Agamben develops around the idea of form-of-life is central to this topic. Inspired by Wittgenstein, the Italian philosopher defines form-of-life as ‘a life that can never be separated from its form,’ whereas a ‘bare life’ is an isolable element isolated from the continuum of ways of living. It is on this ‘bare life’ that Agamben founds the state of exception, as the domain in which life separates itself from its collective form of being. All things considered, this state is fundamentally unthought, because no radical thought can emerge there. The separation between form-of-life and bare life is essential for grasping the philosophico-aesthetic force of a theatricality such as that of Parades and Changes, namely a theatricality that puts this very separation on stage. It is, when all is said and done, a question of staging a sort of still life.19 The separation underlined by Agamben has many resonances with that of Wittgenstein on ‘form of life’ and ‘snapshot’ or ‘fragment of life’. In Culture and Value, the Austrian philosopher writes: Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes – surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. – But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view . . . A work of art forces us – as one might say – to see it in the right perspective but, in the absence of art, the object is just a fragment of nature like any other; we may exalt it through our enthusiasm but that does not give anyone else the right to confront

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben us with it. (I keep thinking of one of those insipid snapshots of a piece of scenery [eine jener faden Naturaufnahme[n]; insipides tranches de vie] which is of interest for the man who took it because he was there himself and experienced something; but someone else will quite justifiably look at it coldly, in so far as it is ever justifiable to look at something coldly.) But it seems to me too that there is a way of capturing the world sub specie aeterni other than through the work of the artist. Thought has such a way – so I believe – it is as though it flies above the world and leaves it as it is – observing it from above, in flight.20

Wittgenstein even speaks of a certain type of theatricality (‘the curtain goes up’), the solitude of intimate life (‘his room’), merely walking, sitting, lighting a cigarette. The theatrical effect is clear: one sees ‘a man from the outside’, as we have never been able to see ourselves. It is here a question of a procedure very precisely artificial, artistic in a sense. We see this man as if he were us; in such a way, however, that it is a question of an exteriorisation of the self. But this is not what matters when put on stage, no matter what type of representation of ordinary life permits the production of a terrifying wonder; only a certain aesthetic ‘flavour’ can evade the ‘insipid’ side of life. Wittgenstein finds this flavour in the ‘universal’ potential of ordinary life: these are not slices of lived life that a person who makes the labour of art would impose on us; this labour sees itself in a certain ‘impersonalisation’, that alone allows others to rediscover that the ordinary man making ordinary gestures can touch what is proper to the life of others. From this point of view, the irruption of the gaze accomplished in Parades and Changes makes theatricality properly called break down: the dancers accomplish ordinary tasks without the effect of any suspension. Rather than absenting the spectators, the dancers render them present through a double effect of subjectification, the watched doing the watching. At a stroke, the gestures are no longer ‘pure’ but precisely ‘bare’, showing the cruel law to which they are submitted, whether it be theatrical or, more generally, military. The possibility of a bare aesthetics is de facto submitted to a double dismantling, both of theatre (or art in general) and of life (or political action in particular). If such an aesthetics is no longer poiesis but pure praxis, it would be a politics detached from its imminent and immanent ends, a politics that would have as its goal the separation between the form of living and living itself. An aesthetics of ‘bare’ life would distinguish itself from an aesthetics of form-of-life. Where it would have an aspect of suspension, it would

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leave the rules of art in suspense as much as the laws of morality and politics – not to install the chaos of anarchy and mute revolt, but rather to attain the frontline space of the ‘point of indifference’, the domain of a subjacent aesthetics of art and life, as well as of political life. By this fact, such an aesthetics works beyond the censorship that silences it, like Anna Halprin’s task-like-dances have survived through teaching hand-to-hand, through workshops and encounters between human beings, beyond their representation on a theatrical stage. The aesthetics of bare life – even isolated from a collective form-of-life – survives silence and ghettoisation to establish a new way of being and living that is not yet form but an ulterior possibility of such. Translated by Justin Clemens Notes 1. In French, ‘la marche’ can mean both ‘marching’ (in a military sense) and ‘walking’ (in the general sense of perambulate). The author plays on this double sense of the word throughout. 2. Libby Worth and Helen Poynor, Anna Halprin (New York: Routledge Performance Practitioners, 2004), p. 16. 3. Denis Diderot, Œuvres esthétiques, ed. P. Vernière (Paris: Garnier, 1965), p. 792. 4. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle’, in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino (Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 78. The italics are Agamben’s. 5. Anna Halprin, Moving toward Life, Five Decades of Transformational Dance, Anna Halprin, ed. Rachel Kaplan (Hanover, NH and London: Wesleyan University Press, University Press of New England, 1995), p. 111. 6. See in this regard the analyses of Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971); Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974). 7. Agamben, ‘Marginal Notes’, pp. 79–80. 8. Agamben, ‘Marginal Notes’, p. 80. 9. Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’, Means without End, p. 57. 10. Cf. Aristotle, Book I, 1, 1094 a 1 and Book VI, 4, 1140 a 7, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2003.) 11. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 5, 1140 b 6.

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12. Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’, p. 57. 13. Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’, pp. 58–9. 14. Anna Halprin, in ‘Yvonne Rainer interviews Anna Halprin’, in Moving Toward Life, p. 100. 15. Agamben, State of Exception, trans. K. Attell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 38; translation amended. 16. See above, note 3. 17. Agamben, ‘What Is a Camp?’, Means without End, p. 39. 18. Agamben, ‘What Is a Camp?’, p. 39. 19. The author adds the English expression ‘still life’ to the French one ‘nature morte’ in order to put an accent on the vital dimension of scenic representation. [NdT] 20. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. Von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyaman, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), pp. 4–6.

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CHAPTER 12

Notes on Media and Biopolitics: ‘Notes on Gesture’ Deborah Levitt

In ‘Notes on Gesture’, a brief essay which has appeared in English in three different versions, Giorgio Agamben extends Gilles Deleuze’s reflections on the cinematic image and on the image in general, on ‘the status of the image in modernity’: Gilles Deleuze has argued that cinema erases the fallacious psychological distinction between image as psychic reality and movement as physical reality. Cinematographic images are neither poses éternelles (such as the forms of the classical age) nor coupes immobiles of movement, but rather coupes mobiles, images themselves in movement, that Deleuze calls movement-images. It is necessary to extend Deleuze’s argument and show how it relates to the status of the image in general within modernity. This implies, however, that the mythical rigidity of the image has been broken and that here, properly speaking, there are no images but only gestures.1

One of the central characteristics of Deleuze’s Bergsonian reading of cinema is the perspective that the boundaries Western philosophy has imposed between subject and object, mind and matter, interior and exterior, are, to use Agamben’s term, ‘fallacious’. And that the cinema – both in its earlier incarnations as movement-images and its later exhibition of a direct image of time – reveals this in a unique way. Released from the limiting perceptions of a massy anatomical entity, the images of the cinema’s machinic eye can produce a new image of thought, returning thought to the difference and creativity of life, and vice versa. Agamben submits Deleuze’s vitalist cinematic image to a critical genealogy of life as the joint production of modern biopolitics and new media technologies.2 The cinematic image’s breakdown of these boundaries are tied to the specific political dispositif we will find in Agamben’s conception of the porn star’s body as ‘camp’. And if

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Deleuze has alerted us to the circulation of pre-individual singularities, the affects and percepts that create bodies of all kinds (including, of course, political ones), in ‘Notes on Gesture’ – as well as in related essays on the work of Guy Debord – Agamben points to how these are linked to imbricated developments in the history of technology, medicine, industry and political economy. In a manner that parallels his determination of biopolitics as intrinsic to Western politics from antiquity on, and which nonetheless assumes a unique (and uniquely catastrophic) form in modernity, gesture is given a special modern genealogy. ‘Notes on Gesture’ contains five brief sections whose headings illustrate, telegraphically, the direction of Agamben’s analysis. These are as follows: 1. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Western bourgeoisie had definitely lost its gestures. 2. In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record that loss. 3. The element of cinema is gesture and not image. 4. Because cinema has its centre in the gesture and not in the image, it belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics (and not simply to that of aesthetics). And, finally, a section heading followed by no text, only the blank whiteness of the essay’s conclusion: 5. Politics is the sphere of pure means, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings. GESTURE AND ‘CAMP’ Agamben constructs a media history around this figure of gesture, whose vicissitudes run from the proto-cinematic medical imaging techniques of Gilles de la Tourette, Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, through silent cinema, to a particular tendency within modernist aesthetics that Agamben links with Rilke, Proust and Isadora Duncan, all the way to the created situations of Debord and the SI. To schematise its complex trajectory: gesture is expropriated by biopower; the former then becomes the focus of an aesthetic attempt to reclaim it; ultimately, in this attempted reclamation, gesture provides an opening to the future, to the coming community as the fulfilment of a non-statist, non-teleological, non-identitarian politics, that is of politics as a pure mediality, means without end. In

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revealing the spectacle’s ‘positive possibility’, the site and means of its immanent critique, Agamben’s ‘gesture’ reflects in an instructive way on his conception of biopolitics itself. Despite the impossibility of ‘summing up’ Agamben’s difficult and often shifting framework, I want to contextualise his thinking of media within the larger field of his thought. For Agamben, above all, the politico-philosophical history of the West is bound up with thinking – and enacting – a certain distribution of law and life. Sovereignty establishes itself by positioning life, or bare life, outside the polis. Yet this bare life is not something that pre-exists the sovereign decision, but is produced by it. Thus the polis, indeed sovereignty itself, is a function of this constitutive exclusion, which fractures life into zoé, or bare life, and bios, or qualified, political life. On the basis of this fundamental operation, the dispositions of law and life shift over time, finally reaching a kind of apotheosis in modernity: ‘The politicisation of bare life itself’, Agamben announces, ‘is the decisive event of modernity.’3 (If, in the past, bare life was always inside-outside the polis, it now occupies the very heart of the polis itself.) The figure for this decisive event, what Agamben will call the ‘nomos of the modern’, is the concentration camp. In ‘In This Exile’, Agamben very clearly describes this zone of indiscernibility between law and life, public and private, that he calls the ‘camp’: If one was a Jew in Auschwitz or a Bosnian woman in Omarska, one entered the camp as a result not of a political choice but rather of what was most private and incommunicable in oneself, that is, one’s blood, one’s biological body. But precisely the latter functions now as a decisive political criterion. In this sense, the camp truly is the inaugural site of modernity: it is the first space in which public and private events, political life and biological life, become rigorously interchangeable. Inasmuch as the inhabitant of the camp has been severed from the political community and has been reduced to naked life (and, moreover, to a ‘life that does not deserve to be lived’), he or she is an absolutely private person. And yet there is not one single instant in which he or she might be able to find shelter in the realm of the private, and it is precisely this indiscernibility that constitutes the specific anguish of the camp.4

Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life traces the history of this phenomenon of the camp. But here, in ‘In this Exile’, Agamben indicates that this zone of indistinction between law and life, public and private – body and image – has a much more ubiquitous

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and common cultural presence and, in fact, structures the mediasphere as much as it does the putatively separate zone of political detainees and ‘extraordinary renditions’: To this slippage of the public into the private corresponds also the spectacular publicisation of the private: are the diva’s breast cancer or [the sports star’s] death public events or private ones? And how can one touch the porn star’s body, since there is not an inch on it that is not public? And yet it is from such a zone of indifference – in which the actions of human experience are being put on sale – that we ought to start today. And if we are calling this opaque zone of indiscernibility ‘camp’, it is, then, still from the camp that we must begin again.5

While we might want, ultimately, to question the effectiveness of calling this nomos of the modern world ‘camp’, Agamben’s generalisation of this term summons us, in no uncertain terms, to reflect on the ways in which our mediasphere reproduces – or produces – such spaces. The star’s cancer, presidential blow-jobs or rectal polyps, the porn star’s in/accessibility, all reveal the collapse of old categories and the alienation of human being in its total exposure. In various places Agamben links porn and advertising in their presentation of a ceaseless progression of images. Even if we agree that the radical interchangeability of porn and advertising bodies exposes a fundamental ontological paradox at the heart of our concepts of singularity – and a paradox whose form of appearance is indisputably historical and contingent, related to our contemporary biopolitical indistinction between public and private, life and law, body and image – and, even further, if we recognise that it is thus always from the ‘camp’ that we must thus begin, the question then becomes: begin what, begin how? THE LOSS OF GESTURE; OR, THE BIOPOLITICISATION OF EXPERIENCE VIA THE IMAGE

The scene of what Agamben describes as the bourgeoisie’s dispossession of gesture opens with Gilles de la Tourette’s 1886 study of the human gait. In this experiment, a subject whose feet have been coated with iron sesquioxide to colour them rust-red walked the length of a long roll of white paper. Tourette then examined the traces of the subject’s footprints, describing in highly specific terms the angle of downward pressure, the length of stride, the coiling motion that raised the foot from the floor. Agamben tells us that what has intervened between Balzac’s analogous project, his 1833 Theory of

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Bearing, and Tourette’s study is a particular kind of gaze: ‘a gaze that is already a prophecy of what cinematography would later become.’ This cinematic gaze has a proper object – the living body – as well as a special mode of analysis and description. Agamben aligns Tourette’s method with the famous photographic studies of Jean-Martin Charcot, Muybridge and Marey, thereby linking the bourgeoisie’s loss of gesture with these physiological studies of human movement. We might add to Agamben’s series Alphonse Bertillon’s comparative photographic charts of the physical features of criminals and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s famous industrial efficiency studies, all these attempts to discover through photographic analysis any individual expressivity contained in the gestures of factory workers – and to excise it in favour of perfectly homogenous and efficient movements synchronised with the hands of the clock. Of the figures Agamben cites, Marey is perhaps the most persuasively emblematic. As a number of scholars have noted, social modernity and cultural modernity meet in the figure of Marey, in whose work physiological investigations of human movement, utopian dreams of a pristine and waste-free social hygiene and the impulse to find new imaging technologies converge.6 From 1866, Marey held the Chair of Natural History of Organised Bodies at the Collège de France. While this title might lead one to connect him to the gaze of a previous episteme in science, Marey’s work was very much in the vanguard of scientific method. His positivist optimism is almost unbounded, and he refuses to see interiority or invisibility as obstacles to scientific knowledge. Nothing can elude the type of eye he will turn on it. Marey also produced a study of the gait which appeared fourteen years before that of Tourette. In this early phase of his career, he developed several important medical imaging devices, including the cardiograph (with Auguste Chaveau). These apparatuses all used a technique he called ‘mechanical registration’: tambours and recording needles were used to write the rhythm of the foot’s fall or the heart’s beat, at a distance from the body itself. But it is Marey’s development of the chronophotographic gun, a high speed camera that could capture a single movement in multiple frames, that establishes him as a central figure in this history of the biopoliticisation of the body via the image – as well as making him the most important figure in the technical pre-history of the cinema. His chronophotographs are famous in this latter regard and often appear, beside those of Muybridge, in most standard histories of cinema.

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Mechanical registration as used in analyses of walking only gives a schematic, abstract image of its subject. When the details of movement become important, chronophotography – which images the whole body at each stage of a movement – becomes the ideal tool. It compensates for the very shortcoming of human vision. The faster mechanical eye of the camera freezes the body at moments in a movement that are too quick for the naked eye to perceive. The full movement can then be reconstructed from its fragments. What Marey calls the ‘real character of a movement’ can thus only be known from outside, and with the aid of scientific imaging technologies. When Agamben refers to the ‘loss of gesture’ he points to this shift in the means of knowing the body, the move from an internal, or external but human-scaled, perception of gesture to its capture by scientifictechnological analysis. It’s important to note also the discursive and political contexts for this new scientific method and its technologico-aesthetic tools. As Anson Rabinbach has argued (albeit in somewhat different terms), Marey is a kind of poster child for the special convergence of domains – scientific, aesthetic and (bio)political – that constitute the integrated spectacle of modernity. One of Marey’s students remarked that Marey was ‘never really a physiologist or doctor in the usual sense of those terms, but above all an engineer of life.’7 Marey believed that science, and particularly the science of life, could and would solve political and economic problems. His chronophotographic revelations of movement could alert workers, soldiers, gymnasts, etc., to which of their movements were wasteful and which the most effective. Moreover, his analyses could cut down on fatigue and increase productivity in almost all areas of social life. Marey’s statements on health and illness, fatigue and bodily force, strength and skill, logic and truth, encapsulate the utopian dimension of a biopolitical ratio that sought to eradicate fatigue and excess in the interests of an unimpeded productivity. As Rabinbach notes, and as Agamben consistently emphasises, this ratio does not discriminate between persons or places, operating equally forcefully within and across capitalist democratic and fascist ideologies and state formations. According to Agamben, these medico-legal-industrial analytics take over what was once the intimate ‘possession’ of the bourgeois individual, namely his gestures. As these postures are broken down and analysed, exposed and taken over by an eye of this kind, the undertakings of the individual and the moving images of expression and communication are exposed, decomposed and re-established.

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These alienated artifacts become, in Agamben’s terms, ‘indecipherable’, and the Western world ends up being caught in a crisis of human gesture, in a crisis of the meaning and the interpretation of the human itself. Of course, humans still could – and still can – make ‘gestures’, but Agamben draws our attention to how what once took place in a private world of the bourgeois individual moves into a public domain, while the public domain penetrates and operates within the body. This appropriation of gestures as images, as forms of knowledge deployed in the discipline of bodies, is centrally implicated in the emergence, by the early twentieth century, of a distinctly modern variant of biopolitics – a situation that would reach its horrific apotheosis only a few years later. The images produced by gestural analyses are emblematic of the increasing encroachments of biopower and of the resulting crisis within the domain of experience. It is not coincidental that cinema and these analytic technologies appear at the same time. While the political (as medical, legal and industrial techniques) penetrates what was once a private interior, the once private domain of gesture expands into the public display of images. As this gestural analytics fragments and disintegrates the body, it brings what was once the private sphere of the individual into the light of day, or, at least, into the public domain via indexical traces, narrative detail or the fill lights of the cameraman: a body, scrutinised, alienated, out-of-control and stripped of the privacy formerly ensured by the human eye’s very limitations (its inability to perceive, to use Walter Benjamin’s terms, ‘what happens during the split second when a person actually takes a step’).8 One of the fundamental claims of Agamben’s argument about the loss of gesture is that this loss takes place experientially; it constitutes what amounts to a kind of trauma in the experience of everyday life. It is not something that occurs ‘merely’ in the domain of images, science or politics. These phenomena, these transductive exchanges between media and everyday, affective experience, prove extremely resistant to analysis, even to description. Here Agamben chooses a startling phrase to express the loss of gesture: he asserts that the image analyses of Marey et al. produce a ‘generalized catastrophe of the gestural sphere’. He invokes another study produced by Tourette, one year before the study of the gait, of what would come to be called Tourette’s Syndrome: ‘On this occasion, the same distancing that the footprint method had enabled in the case of the most common gesture was applied to the description of an amazing proliferation of tics,

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spasmodic jerks and mannerisms – a proliferation that cannot be defined in any way other than as a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures’ (p. 51). Agamben then observes that while ‘thousands’ of these cases were observed soon after the 1885 study, they ‘practically cease to be recorded in the first years of the twentieth century’ (p. 52). He draws a startling conclusion: the disappearance of these cases is in fact an indication that this gestural catastrophe has become the norm, ‘that beyond a certain point everybody had lost control of their gestures and were walking and gesticulating frenetically.’ ‘This’, he concludes ‘is the impression, at any rate, one has when watching the films that Marey and Lumière began to shoot exactly in those years’ (pp. 52–3). CINEMA: AESTHETICS, ETHICS, POLITICS Although Agamben conceives the cinematic as a cultural medium that extends far beyond the celluloid of early film, this new medium is inextricably bound to the role of the image as such in human history. Humans, Agamben asserts, are the only animals that are interested in images per se. Other animals are only interested to the extent that they mistake them for real things; once they discover an image is ‘counterfeit’, they lose interest altogether. The human being, Agamben thus declares, can in this sense be defined as ‘the moviegoing animal.’9 This special relationship means that within human cultures images do an enormous amount of historical work. For Agamben, this is the work of messianic history more than of chronological history, of a history that moves toward both salvation and completion. When Agamben concludes that ‘the element of cinema is gesture and not image’, he refers this thesis back to the ontological structure of the image, and to the history of Western art. Every image, he says, ‘is animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or in any sports photograph)’ (p. 56). The image as such, Agamben thus argues, vacillates between cessation and stillness and motion and dynamics. (It is important to note here also that the figures he uses – the death mask and the sports photo – map the human body’s own vacillation between states of animation and inanimation. Everywhere the zones of indistinction appear and proliferate.) All images, Agamben continues, can thus be

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seen as ‘fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning’ (pp. 56–7). The image is not a completed object but one that is always dynamic. And what is dynamic in it is the gesture, a fragment of motion trapped, as it were, by its enframing: A certain kind of litigatio, a paralyzing power whose spell we need to break, is continuously at work in every image; it is as if a silent invocation calling for the liberation of the image into gesture arose from the entire history of art. This is what in ancient Greece was expressed by the legends in which statues break the ties holding them and begin to move. (p. 57)

The whole of Western history and art history is thus leading to the ‘liberation of the image into gesture’. The figure of the living statue ties Agamben’s formulations regarding the history of the image very directly to his genealogy of biopolitics. But if, in Homo Sacer, homo sacer itself – in its most extreme form in the figures of the bandit, the Führer and the Muselmann10 – is imagined as/in relation to a living statue, here the living statue is liberated from its ties, liberated as gesture. ‘Because cinema has its centre in the gesture and not in the image’, Agamben asserts, ‘it belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics (and not simply to that of aesthetics).’ As one privileged site of the work of messianic history, the image is properly an ethical and political element rather than ‘merely’ an aesthetic one. But it only fully assumes this messianic task in the cinema, that is, in the era when body and image are no longer distinguishable, and when the body of the porn star has itself become a ‘camp’. Whether or not we want, ourselves, to assume the mantle of this messianic history, Agamben draws our attention to a new power of the image-as-gesture. Nothing is more misleading for an understanding of gesture, therefore, than representing, on the one hand, a sphere of means as addressing a goal (for example, marching seen as a means of moving the body from point A to point B) and, on the other hand, a separate and superior sphere of gesture as a movement that has its end in itself (for example, dance seen as an aesthetic dimension). Finality without means is just as alienating as mediality that has meaning only with respect to an end. If dance is gesture, it is so, rather, because it is nothing more than the endurance and the exhibition of the media character of corporal movements. The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them. But, just as in a pornographic film, people caught in the act of performing a gesture that is simply a means addressed to the end of giving pleasure to others (or to themselves) are kept suspended in and by their own mediality – for the only reason of being shot and exhibited in their mediality – and can become the medium of a new pleasure for the audience (a pleasure that would otherwise be incomprehensible); or, just as in the case of mime, when gestures addressed to the most familiar ends are exhibited as such and are thus kept suspended ‘entre le désir et l’accomplissement, la perpétration et son souvenir’ [between desire and fulfilment, perpetration and its recollection] – in what Mallarmé calls a milieu pur, so what is relayed to human beings in gestures is not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of an endless mediality. (p. 58)

In this passage, Agamben hits almost all of the tenets of his theory of gesture. Gesture is neither a means to an end (getting from point A to B), nor a movement conceived as an end in itself (a kind of pure aesthetics). The latter is ‘just as alienating’ as the former. Such would, as he explains elsewhere, entail the separation of aesthetics and politics, art and life. Once he has elaborated what gesture is not, he explains what it, in fact, is: gesture is an exhibition, a process of making visible, a revelation device, and what it makes visible is the medium, the milieu of human beings. Such a milieu refers not only to the medium that human beings are in, but equally to the medium that human being is. When he asserts that this revelation of human mediality also ‘opens the ethical dimension’ for human beings, he posits ethics as bound to this revelation of a mediality without end, that is to the sphere of human being as without an original or final source in a vocation, destiny or identity. To open the proper sphere of ethics is thus to bring about not so much an awareness – this would be too rooted in consciousness – but, rather, an experience of this endlessness. Agamben locates these experiences in the sphere of spectacle, here with direct reference to porn films and mime. These examples are instructive, even if they demand considerable extension. The mime suggests the rather familiar formula of an avant garde estrangement. The mime’s gestures, torn from their home in the everyday (or even the theatrical) situation, are severed from normal ends and thus appear in relief, as it were, against a blank background or blue screen. Agamben echoes Benjamin’s reading of the gestus in Brecht, where Benjamin asserts that ‘“Making gestures quotable” is one of the signal achievements of the epic theater. An actor must be able to space

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his gestures the way a typesetter spaces type.’11 It is interesting to note, however, that whereas Benjamin stresses technics and interruption, Agamben puts the emphasis on the kind of ontological suspension suggested by Mallarmé’s milieu pur. In the porn film the mechanism of mediality is different. Here, gestures are not so much radically estranged as so completely at home that they never refer outside their medial situation. The porn star’s direct stare at the camera at once reveals that the audience, rather than her partner, is her gestures’ addressee, and that both audience and actors dwell in a milieu in which there is always more to be seen, an endless progression of images behind the image. It is between these two manifestations of image-as-gesture that ‘the ethics and politics of cinema come into play.’12 Gesture – as an enduring and supporting, as what Agamben describes as a third kind of action that dissolves the means-ends structure – opens this experience of mediality as the ethical dimension of human beings. This is the sense, as I suggested above, in which it is always spectacle that opens onto the coming community. But this revelation of mediality is only the first part of a theory of gesture that would indicate a meaningful direction for media studies in the age of biopolitics and the ascendance of affect. Agamben is trying to get at something else here too, something that he gestures toward but that is not yet fully articulated. If mediality is the essential – if also historical – condition of human being, gesture is as close as Agamben will come to considering what kind of pragmatics might issue from this scenario of ontological alienation-revelation. WORLD THEATRE (OR, REFLECTION WITHOUT END) While ‘Notes on Gesture’ illuminates our current conjugations of biopolitical and media culture (insofar as it even makes sense to continue to treat these as two separate domains), it does this through focusing on a pre-history of the present, and particularly on a moment when the loss of gesture was new and not yet naturalised (or second-naturalised) and was thus cause of both shock and obsession: An age that has lost its gestures is, for this reason, obsessed by them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny. And the more gestures lose their ease under the action of invisible powers, the more life becomes indecipherable . . . Thus Spake Zarathustra is the ballet of a humankind that has lost its gestures . . . The dance of Isadora

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben Duncan and Serghei Diaghilev, the novel of Proust, the great Jugendstil poetry from Pascoli to Rilke, and, finally and most exemplarily, the silent movie, trace the magic circle in which humanity tried for the last time to evoke what was slipping through their fingers forever. (pp. 53–4)

In this passage, Agamben is concerned with the fate of a human body caught between a biopolitical dispossession and an aesthetic redemption. He thus marks out the beginning – and the end – of an era which begins in the 1880s and ends before the coming of sound in film (not to mention the events of the 1930s that would end in the camp as such). Here, Agamben highlights a kind of long fin-de-siècle aesthetic sequence, which spans the rigour of Nietzsche’s ‘ballet’ and the kitsch gesture of the tale of Duncan’s demise: strangled by her exaggerated scarf caught in a wheel of the moving car in which she is a passenger. These are the chroniclers of a transitional period, whose deaths signal and coincide with the biopoliticisation of experience. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain would be the chronicle of these chroniclers, with its reading of Nietzsche’s modernity, its focus on health, illness and medicine, and its backward gaze at the hollowed gestures of old Europe. While Agamben asserts that cinema is the most exemplary site for this attempt to repossess and redeem gesture, ‘cinema’ here is not equivalent to the technical-social scene of the moving picture, but is rather a kind of impersonal eye, a perceptual modality, a kinesthetic sense, a social milieu. This cinematic gestural catastrophe appears, in fact, to be more visible in other media, in theatre, for instance, or in the philosophical text or novel. In this passage we can also hear echoes of Benjamin’s conception of gesture, particularly as he develops it through a reading of Kafka; it is almost impossible to imagine that Agamben, who prepared the Italian edition of Walter Benjamin’s collected works, did not have Benjamin’s conception of gesture in mind. Benjamin confronts what Agamben calls the ‘loss of gesture’ in a 1934 essay on Kafka, and points, in a way we have not yet encountered, to the redemption that may issue from gesture’s loss, or, at least, its ‘positive possibility’. For Kafka, Benjamin explains, it is precisely this loss which provides a platform for experimentation, and an opening onto the future – even onto heaven. We find that Kafka’s lost gestus has its mirror image in an experience emanating directly from technics, and in a particular experiment in which the subject is directly submitted to an experience of alienation and disorientation:

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The invention of motion pictures and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationships which have become their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own gait on film or his own voice on the phonograph. The situation of the subject in such experiments is Kafka’s situation; this is what leads him to study, where he may encounter fragments of his own existence – fragments that are still within the context of the role. He might catch hold of the lost gestus the way that Peter Schlemihl caught hold of the shadow he had sold. He might understand himself, but what an enormous effort would be required!13

The inventions of film and phonography are preceded by a cultural scenario of ‘maximum alienation’ and unpredictable relationships. But these technologies usher in another dimension of alienation, that of man from himself or, at least, from the fragments of his existence denoted by the term ‘gesture’. Film and phonography – which produce the most exact replications of the ‘objective’ world – are like funhouse mirrors where one’s own reflection is at stake, returning it amid so much distortion that it becomes unrecognisable. Everyday experience affirms the sense of these studies, even if initial surprise is followed by reluctant recognition. Like the image in Jacques Lacan’s famous scenario of the mirror stage, the reflection returned is not a true one, but, unlike the vision of false plenitude and cohesion found by Lacan’s subject, Kafka/Benjamin’s subject finds only a fragment – a distorted and, even more strikingly, a decontextualised experience of self. It is this experience of surprise at the strangeness and estrangement of one’s own being that Benjamin sees as the engine of Kafka’s world – where one might awake one morning to find oneself transformed into vermin, or to find one’s hands transformed into machines: ‘On many occasions, and often for strange reasons, Kafka’s figures clap their hands. Once, the casual remark is made that these are “really steam hammers”’ (p. 795).14 In this world, study is the experience of piecing oneself together from fragments, performing a kind of reconstitution of alienated objects. Kafka, Benjamin shows us, attempts this reconstitution on a broad scale within his work. If what is lost and found are the gait and the voice, these are rediscovered in the text, become an event, a fate, with each alienated instant, each movement or syllable uttered: ‘What Kafka could fathom least of all was the gestus. Each gesture is an event – one might even say a drama – in itself. The stage on which this drama takes place is the World Theater, which

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opens up toward heaven’ (p. 802). The gestus as alienated object, as fragment and as mystery becomes the source of his composition. Having ‘divest[ed] human gesture of its traditional supports, [Kafka] then has a subject for reflection without end’ (p. 802). THE SITUATION Agamben’s ‘coming community’ will unfurl from a gestural politics that does not find its origin or destiny in a vocation or an identity, that is from the exposition of the being-in-a-medium of humans. Before now, before the alienation of linguistic being in spectacle, before the loss of gesture and the becoming-image of capital, this true (absence of) ontological foundation was not visible in a world where words were consonant with the things they expressed, where images were still bound by the litigatio into their frames, where life at least appeared to find a true home in the household which, except in extreme and exemplary circumstances, was perceived to exist outside the claims of the polis.15 This is not to say that before now people could not philosophise, but that today this lack of destiny has become a common experience, and thus can – as in Kafka – become a platform for experimentation, an opening onto the future. In the modern bipolitical regime of the integrated spectacle, the breaking-down, the atomisation of both bodies and images produces a positive possibility whereby the image-as-gesture is no longer necessarily linked to a ‘whole’, to a scenario within which it gains its meaning. Gesture is thus liberated from the scene. It is the element which – within the modern zones of indetermination between law and life, body and image, public and private – rises to visibility and gains a new kind of potency. Perhaps the most useful direction for thinking gesture indicated by Agamben himself lies in the link he establishes between gesture and the Situationists’ ‘created situation’. You may recall Debord’s description of the task of the SI: Our central idea is the construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation of a superior passional quality. We must develop a systematic intervention based on the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction: the material environment of life and the behaviours which it gives rise to and which radically transform it.16

The situation is designed to transform experience directly, rather than through consciousness and contemplation. It reforms affective

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experience, or ‘passional quality’, in the interplay between different environments and the sensations, perceptions and behaviours to which they give rise. Agamben places gesture at the heart of his reading of the constructed situation, which he describes in the following way: Gesture is the name of this intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution. It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics: it is pure praxis. The gesture is neither use value nor exchange value, neither biographic experience nor impersonal event: it is the other side of the commodity that lets the ‘crystals of this common social substance’ sink into the situation.17

Agamben names the pure praxis of the Situation ‘gesture’. Just as gesture appears in its modern form in the zone of indiscernibility between life and law, public and private, body and image, it is also neither life nor art but something that appears in-between the two, and appears as ‘the crystals of this common social substance’, that is labour, re-emerging on the other side of the commodity. This Situationist utopia, as Agamben emphasises, always takes its place precisely within what it seeks to overthrow. (TOWARD A) MEDIA ETHOLOGY Agamben’s gesture opens the way to a reflective pragmatics, to a means of exploring media objects of all kinds in terms of the ways in which they materialise biopolitical relations; the ways they affirm and contest such relations; and how they enact, provoke and deploy new affects. To conjure some Deleuzian terms, it sends us toward an ontoethological approach to media. And, in fact, if Agamben begins his own analysis with Deleuze’s theory of the image, we can extend Agamben’s nascent pragmatics by re-engaging Deleuze. The next step would then be to read – from within Agamben’s descriptions of mime, porn star, silent cinema and the created situation – the following passages from Deleuze’s seminar on Spinoza of 21 December 1980, entitled ‘Ontologie-Ethique’: In an ethics . . . you do not judge. In a certain manner, you say: whatever you do, you will only ever have what you deserve. Somebody says or does something, you do not relate it to values. You ask yourself how is that possible? How is this possible in an internal way? In other words, you relate the thing or the statement

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben to the mode of existence that it implies, that it envelops in itself. How must it be in order to say that? Which manner of Being does this imply? You seek the enveloped modes of existence, and not the transcendent values. It is the operation of immanence . . . The point of view of an ethics is: of what are you capable, what can you do? Hence a return to this sort of cry of Spinoza’s: what can a body do? We never know in advance what a body can do. We never know how we’re organized and how the modes of existence are enveloped in somebody.18

Agamben and Deleuze provide important correctives to, and extensions of, one another’s thought. Agamben submits Deleuze’s vitalism to a critical genealogy of ‘life’ as the cultural object par excellence. And we can confront Agamben’s pure mediality and gesturality – which, despite the potentiality they enfold, threaten to end in the stasis of a kind of metaphysical experience – with the ontoethological, onto-genetic force of Deleuze’s Spinozist question: what can a body do? And, more specifically, for media studies, what do bodies do? What affects are contained or freed in the gestures of cinema in its most expanded sense? While a case study is beyond the scope of this essay, I would like to end with a kind of dialectical image. Whisking Agamben’s long fin-desiècle moment a few years ahead to the eve of the Second World War, we find that film-making of all kinds is preoccupied with new forms of human movement and human gesture. On both sides of the Atlantic, one of the burgeoning fields within medical film is the neurological (at that time, neuro-psychiatric) documentary, as doctors seek – in hospitals, clinics and patients’ backyards – to catalogue and classify the tics, tremors and torsions of gestural disorders. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, the Busby Berkeley musical is coming into its own in the Gold Diggers films. Here, Berkeley constructs a perfect optical girl machine: a mass ornament where legs and arms swing in perfect tandem, mirrored to infinity and amplified by the dazzling geometry of his crane shots. Each of these is the optical unconscious of the other, and, in between – between the tics, tremors and torsions of gestural disorder and the compensatory drama of the girl machine – we can read the ontoethology of this era’s gestural media. What separates a media-ethological reading of this kind of dialectical image from previous approaches is an attention to very specific, even literal-minded, description on the one side, and an attention to political manifestations on the other. But – and here, I think, is the rub – without collapsing one into the other. The political and biopolitical dimension of these texts is immediately

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apparent: the most exhaustive neurological film is made by Ellis Island’s Neuro-Psychiatric Service; 42nd Street is advertised as the ‘New Deal in American Entertainment’; and Goebbels urges UFA to make Berkeley-style revue films. At the same time, however, the movements and the affective reverberations that these films produce and release – whether these are related to new revelations of stuttering, stammering, trembling, spasming, jerking, convulsing and seizing, or novel modes of linking, rotating, swooping, diving, swimming, gliding and spinning – are not exhausted by these specific political materialisations and may in fact, as Agamben suggests, open as the positive possibility of contemporary biopolitics itself. Notes 1. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 55. Further references to this work are given in parentheses in the text. 2. In ‘Absolute Immanence,’ Agamben submits Deleuze’s concept of life to a more detailed interrogation. At stake there, however, is the same question: to what extent does Deleuze’s philosophy – as a vitalism and even a biophilosophy – share tacit assumptions with the cultural conception of life which grounds biopopolitcal logic, and to what extent does it shift such assumptions? See Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 220–39. 3. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 4. 4. Agamben, ‘In This Exile (Italian Diary 1992–1994)’, in Means Without End, p. 122. 5. Agamben, ‘In this Exile’, p. 123. 6. Virgilo Tosi, ‘Etienne-Jules Marey and the Origins of Cinema’, in Marey: Pionnier de la Synthèse du Mouvement (Beaune, France: Musée Marey, 1995); Marta Braun, ‘Movement and Modernism: the Work of Etienne-Jules Marey’, in Marey: Pionnier de la Synthèse du Mouvement and Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Anson Rabinbach, ‘Time and Motion: Etienne-Jules Marey and the Mechanics of the Body’, in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990). 7. See Rabinbach, The Human Motor, p. 90. 8. Walter Benjamin. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Third Version)’, Selected Writings, Volume 4:

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10. 11. 12.

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben 1938–1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott and others, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 266. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films’, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2002), p. 314. See Homo Sacer, p. 99 and p. 183 and ff. Agamben’s use of this unusual figure deserves a commentary of its own. Benjamin, ‘What is Epic Theater? (II)’, Selected Writings, Volume 4, p. 305. In ‘Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films’, Agamben suggests that there are two ways of showing the image as such, the image as pure means. He also refers to this condition as ‘imagelessness’: ‘One is pornography and advertising, which act as though there were always something more to be seen, more images behind the images; while the other way is to exhibit the image as image and thus to allow the appearance of “imagelessness,” which, as Benjamin said, is the refuge of all images. It is here, in this difference, that the ethics and the politics of cinema come into play’ (p. 319). Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death’, in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone and others, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 814. This ‘casual comment’ is drawn from Kafka’s miniature tale ‘In the Gallery’, which, with its circus spectacle, its consumptive equestrienne, her horse, her master and her alienated spectator, can be read as Kafka’s most incisive preview of gesture in the age of biopolitics. See Franz Kafka, ‘In the Gallery’, in Stories 1904–1924, trans. J.A. Underwood, foreword Jorge Luis Borges (London: Abacus Time Warner, 2002), pp. 189–90. Agamben positions this power of gesture in the sphere of the emptying out, the alienation, of the linguistic being of humans that is the spectacle: ‘It is evident, after all, that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity and linguistic being of humans . . . what we encounter in the spectacle is our linguistic nature inverted’, ‘Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle’, Means Without End, p. 82. He explains that it is because language loses its power to produce a common medium for human beings in the society of the spectacle that gesture, which exhibits what cannot be said, at once reveals this alienation and, in a new way, opens a common medium. It would be instructive to compare Agamben’s formulation of the new relations of images and language to that of Wlad Godzich: The problem is that a dissonance is now manifesting itself: images are scrambling the functioning of language, which must operate out of the imaginary

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in order to function optimally. Images are parasitical noises upon language at first – and then they supplant it: it must be recalled that the technology of images operates at the speed of light, as does the world. Language could slow down the world, thanks to its tremendous negative capability, but it cannot slow down images, for they operate out of the very imaginary that language would have to be able to organize in the first place. Indeed, the question for us is one of dissonance: can language bring the speed of images under control, that is, turn images into a kind of language (but the failure of the various visual semiotics is not reassuring on this score), or are we to see a world, images of this world, all traveling at the speed of light in a universe without logos, as a logical universe? Such would seem to be the postmodern predicament. (‘Images, Language, and the Postmodern Predicament’, Materialities of Communication, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 370)

16. Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action’, June 1957, trans. Ken Knabb, Situtationist International Archive, at: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/report.html. 17. Agamben, ‘Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle’, Means Without End, p. 80. 18. Gilles Deleuze, ‘DELEUZE/SPINOZA, Cours Vincennes: OntologieEthique’, 21 December 1980, at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/ texte.php?cle=190&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2.

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Index

abandonment, 16, 54, 72–3, 77, 123–7, 130n Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund, 32, 40 Agamben, Giorgio, works ‘Absolute Immanence’, 12n, 209n ‘Bartleby, or On Contingency’, 94, 176 The Coming Community, 11, 34, 49, 59–60, 149, 153–4, 160, 171 ‘Difference and Repetition’, 139–40, 169–70, 173 The End of the Poem, 55, 61n, 64n ‘The Face’, 153, 154 Homo Sacer, 3, 11–12n, 52–3, 56, 69–70, 82, 93, 71–3, 75, 122–7, 195, 201 ‘Idea of Language’, 67, 77 Idea of Prose, 3, 28–40, 51, 66–7, 107–10, 144–5, 170 ‘In This Exile’, 195–6 Infancy and History, 31, 74, 84, 90, 96n, 136–7, 161 Language and Death, 44, 46, 74–5, 78, 158 ‘Language and History’, 107 ‘Languages and Peoples’, 35, 174 The Man without Content, 12n, 133 ‘Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle’, 183, 207, 210n‘Metropolis’, 164 ‘Notes on Gesture’, 10, 54, 178n, 185, 187, 193–209 The Open, 12n ‘The Passion of Facticity’, 149, 159–60 Profanations, 125, 138, 140–3, 147n Remnants of Auschwitz, 10, 127–8 Stanzas, 9, 89–90, 94, 155, 168, 175 State of Exception, 70–1, 83, 84, 95n, 126, 188 ‘The Thing Itself’, 37, 76

The Time That Remains, 64, 93–4 ‘Walter Benjamin and the Demonic’, 143–4 ‘What is a Camp?’, 188 Althusser, Louis, 115, 165 Anaximander, 135 Aquinas, St Thomas, 136 Arendt, Hannah, 189 Aristotle, 3, 45, 52, 72, 110, 134, 161, 186 Aufhebung, 91, 92, 93–4, 100 Augustine, St, 155, 156, 161 Averroës, 63n Badiou, Alain, 56–7, 64n, 65n, 119 Balzac, Honoré de, 196 ban, 62n, 72–3, 75, 76, 114, 120, 123–7, 130n bare life (la nuda vita), 11–12n, 52–3, 54, 68–9, 72, 73, 75, 82, 119, 122, 123, 126, 129n, 130n, 131n, 134, 188, 189, 191, 195 Barthes, Roland, 75 Bataille, Georges, 134 Bauman, Zygmunt, 130–1n Benjamin, Walter, 1, 11, 30, 31, 35, 36–7, 39, 40, 48, 62n, 77, 82–94, 97–110, 111n, 120, 122, 123, 127, 131n, 132, 139, 143, 146, 169–70, 179n, 199, 202–3, 204, 205, 210n Benveniste, Emile, 45, 46–7, 59n, 61n, 65n, 74 Berkeley, Busby, 208–9 Berlusconi, Silvio, 167 Bertillon, Alphonse, 197 biopolitics, 52, 53, 54, 69, 73, 114–22, 185, 193–209, 210n bios, 52–3, 54, 69, 72, 73, 114, 121, 189, 195 Blanchot, Maurice, 130n Brecht, Berthold, 129–30n, 202

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Index Breton, André, 174 Brod, Max, 13, 15, 23–4, 25, 128 Brown, Gillian, 46 Buber, Martin, 98 Butler, Judith, 61n camp, 54, 63n, 80n, 128, 188, 193, 194–6, 201, 204 Campana, Dino, 145 Carroll, Lewis, 120 Certeau, Michel de, 11 Charcot, Jean-Martin, 197 Chaveau, Auguste, 197 Chomsky, Noam, 89 Cicero, 17 Debord, Guy, 164–77, 177n, 183, 194, 206, 210n Deleuze, Gilles, 9, 12n, 119, 133, 134, 135, 193–4, 207–8, 209n Delfini, Antonio, 144 Derrida, Jacques, 9, 68, 76, 119, 121, 129n, 150 Descartes, René, 117, 119, 129n, 137 Duncan, Isidora, 194, 204 Dyzenhaus, David, 71 enigma, 1–11, 11n, 12n, 45, 89–90 enjambment, 41n, 50, 61–2n, 64n, 107–9, 170, 181 exception, 3, 53, 54, 56–7, 63n, 123, 126, 130n, 182–4, 188 state of exception, 2n, 68–76, 83–4, 88, 92, 93, 123, 182–3, 188–9 Festus, Pompeius, 124 Fichte, Johann Gottlieb, 99 form-of-life, 55, 69, 189, 190–1 Foucault, Michel, 52, 63n, 89, 114–22, 129n, 134, 186 Frege, Gottlob, 45 Freud, Sigmund, 60 Friedländer, Salamo, 105 George, Stefan, 31 gesture, 9, 10, 54, 55, 178n, 184–8, 190, 193–209 Godzich, Wlad, 210–11n Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 102 Gourgouris, Stathis, 96n Graves, Robert, 10 Gromaticus, Hyginus, 22, 23 Guirard, Pierre, 60n

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Halprin, Anna, 182–91 Hegel, G. W. F., 29, 44, 45, 92, 93, 139, 165, 168, 171 Heidegger, Martin, 31, 37, 44, 45, 46, 53, 60n, 114, 115, 120, 127, 150, 151, 154, 155, 156, 157, 159–60, 175 Heraclitus, 135–6 homo sacer, 57, 69, 72, 76, 114, 119, 122–5, 128 Honoré, Tony, 123 Horace, 141 image, 10, 12n, 63n, 133, 139, 145, 159, 164–73, 178n, 179n, 193–209, 210n, 211n infancy, 38, 48, 135, 138, 146, 179n inoperativeness (inoperosità), 16, 26, 93, 176 Jakobson, Roman, 45, 47–8, 59n, 74 Jappe, Anselm, 173 Justinian, 22 Kafka, Franz, 3, 13–26, 35, 51, 66, 68, 71, 73, 77, 78, 79, 126–8, 204–6 Kaufman, Vincent, 172 Kelsen, Hans, 123 Khayati, Mustapha, 175 Kraus, Karl, 132 Lacan, Jacques, 8–9, 61n, 205 Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, 86, 97–8 Laertius, Diogenes, 110 language, 1, 2, 9–10, 15, 28–40, 43–58, 59–62n, 66–8, 73–7, 84, 85, 89, 90, 93, 94, 106, 110, 132, 138, 158, 169, 173–7, 179n, 210–11n Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 65 Levinas, Emmanuel, 61, 150, 151 Lukács, Georg, 165 Mann, Thomas, 204 Marey, Etienne-Jules, 194, 197–8, 199–200 Marx, Karl, 81n, 115, 117, 122, 131n, 165, 166, 168, 173–4, 177n mediality, 10, 102, 186–7, 188, 194, 201–3, 208 Méla, Charles, 63–4n Melville, Herman, 9, 34, 64n, 65n, 94, 176

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messianism, 10, 25, 36, 50, 51, 55, 57, 61n, 64n, 93–4, 106–7, 109, 120, 146, 153, 169–70, 177, 200–1 Michaux, Henri, 133 Milner, Jean-Claude, 44, 61n, 108 Momigliano, Arnaldo, 116 Mommsen, Theodor, 14–15 Muselmann, 54, 128, 201 Muybridge, Eadweard, 178n, 194, 197, 200 Nancy, Jean-Luc, 72, 76, 86, 123, 126, 134 negativity, 9, 44, 45, 47, 52, 64n, 103, 120, 126–7, 135, 136, 138–40, 142, 144, 146, 165 Nietzsche, Friedrich, 47, 115, 129n, 135, 204 nomos, 69, 126, 195, 196 Norris, Andrew, 63n Novalis, 98, 101

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The Work of Giorgio Agamben Saussure, Ferdinand de, 47, 74, 75 Savigny, Carl von, 73, 126, 127 Schmitt, Carl, 3, 69, 71, 76, 83–5, 92, 94, 123 Scholem, Gershom, 68, 127 Seville, Isidore of, 26 Shakespeare, William, 137 shifter, 43–58, 74–5, 123 Simondon, Gilbert, 133–4, 145 Sophocles, 9, 53, 89–90, 94 Sorel, Georges, 91 sovereignty, 3, 10, 25, 50, 52, 53, 54, 56, 62n, 63n, 68–75, 80n, 82–4, 88–94, 120, 130n, 139, 151, 195 spectacle, 3, 128, 143, 164–73, 185, 195, 198, 202, 203, 206, 210n Spinoza, Baruch, 130n, 145, 207–8 Stein, Gertrude, 43 Stevens, Wallace, 49 Stimilli, Davide, 13 Strauss, Leo, 50

Ockham, William of, 121 Paul, St, 93, 94 Peirce, C. S., 60n Perl, Fritz, 184 Plato, 37, 57, 62n, 63n, 78, 110, 144, 149 play, 135–6 poetry/prose, 3, 28–35, 41n, 49, 50–1, 55, 61–2n, 97–110, 170 potentiality, 2, 3, 30, 33–4, 36, 49, 55, 70, 74, 133–4, 135, 158, 208 profanation, 3, 72, 78, 125, 132, 135, 137, 140, 146 Proust, Marcel, 17, 194, 204

Tacitus, 124 Taylor, Francis Winslow, 197 Thurschwell, Adam, 68 Titian, 12n Tourette, Gilles de la, 194, 196–7, 199 Warburg, Aby, 178–9n Weber, Samuel, 83 Weil, Simone, 11 whatever being (l’essere qualunque), 11, 34, 35, 45, 49, 93, 138–9, 142, 154, 160, 171 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 62n, 67, 145, 189, 190

Rabinbach, Anson, 198 Rainer, Yvonne, 187 Rancière, Jacques, 119 Rilke, Rainer Maria, 194, 204 Roussel, Pierre, 129n

Valéry, Paul, 170 Veyne, Paul, 117 Virno, Paolo, 177n voice, 46–8, 60n, 75–6, 87, 158

sacred, 3, 22, 53, 72, 124–5, 132, 138, 143

Žižek, Slavoj, 9 zoé, 52–3, 69, 72–3, 75, 189, 195