To Be and to Do
The Life’s Work of Giorgio Agamben
January 26, 2016
Jan 26, 2016
17 Min read time
Philosopher Giorgio Agamben grapples with a humanity that has no work it must do.
Photograph: Alexander Lyubavin
L’uso dei corpi. Homo sacer, IV, 2
Neri Pozza, €18 (paper)
In June of 1968, twenty-six-year-old Giorgio Agamben left Paris, scene of spectacular unrest, for the first of two unusual seminars he would attend that year. Held at Harvard University and directed by Professor Henry Kissinger, it hosted participants from around the globe who had been selected by their governments as “future world leaders.” One day in class, Agamben interrupted Kissinger to inform him that he “simply knew nothing about politics.” Kissinger smiled. By the end of the year, he was President Nixon’s assistant for national security affairs, the first of many high-ranking government posts he was to hold. The second seminar, in the south of France, was hosted by poet and hero of the French Resistance René Char and taught by the seventy-nine-year-old éminence grise of European philosophy, Martin Heidegger. There were eight members. One day Heidegger said to those present that he could not see his own limits, although they might—for that was the nature of a limit, and the nature of students.
In the aftermath of those seminars Agamben abandoned his legal studies, and his activity as a poet, to become a philosopher. And, at last, in 1995 he ceased to be a philosopher known in certain philosophical circles and instead came to be known in all. The catalyst of his sudden renown was the publication of the first volume in his Homo Sacer series, the ambition of which was to link political questions such as those discussed in Kissinger’s seminar with the kind discussed in Heidegger’s. Scandalously, Agamben drew a parallel between the juridical spaces of modern life and those of the Nazi concentration camp. The next volume, Remnants of Auschwitz (1999), created an even greater scandal. Now, seven books and twenty years later, this political and philosophical project has come to an unexpectedly dramatic close.
Agamben's ambitious series aspires to give politics a new foundation.
Homo sacer is a juridical term from ancient Roman law denoting an individual who, in response to a grave trespass, was expelled from the city. With the ritual pronouncement of homo sacer this person could be killed with impunity, but not used in sacrificial rituals that demanded the taking of a life (you cannot very well sacrifice that which for you has no value). This “sacred man” was thus removed from the sphere of social activity and communal legislation, the only law still applicable to him being the one that irrevocably cast him out. Agamben’s choice of homo sacer as a figurehead for a project aspiring to give politics a new foundation might seem strange—depending, of course, on how you see the current state of global affairs.
In the first volume, readers quickly became accustomed to such radical claims as, “Today it is not the city but rather the [concentration] camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West.” The idea was not that life today, for all or even most, is like that of a concentration camp in experiential detail but that the divisions between public and private, sacred and profane, are undergoing unprecedented change, and that new forms of legality and legitimacy are collapsing a space long held open with, as result, the subjection of many to limitless violence. As the years went by, subsequent volumes in the series seemed as much appendices to the initial theses as developments of them, and many readers quite reasonably expected the project to have no real end, continuing indefinitely as a set of scholia to an initial claim that was not fully supported because not fully supportable.
Over the past twenty years the series has elicited much attention, interest, praise, condemnation, misunderstanding, and frustration. The frustration has been of two types. The first has to do with the incendiary nature of some of the books’ claims. The second stems from how faintly sketched was the first bookʼs proposal: a new relation between potentiality and action, between mere biological life and politically conditioned life, between existence and essence, between order and anarchy, between politics and ontology. While in the later volumes many matters were clarified, these fundamental metaphysical connections and disconnections remained as uncertain as at the project’s outset in 1995. How faintly sketched were these ontological suggestions led many to feel mystified, and to accuse Agamben of mystification. It is for this reason that the eighth and final volume in the series, L’uso dei corpi (The Use of Bodies), comes as such a shock. A great many will contend with it for a long time. It is far and away the finest, richest, and most broadly interesting book in the series. But it is most remarkable for how it brings together the concerns of those preceding works, with their vast and often detailed examinations of legal and liturgical practices, revolutions and repressions, classical philosophy, sovereignty, economy, monastic orders, the Holocaust, and much more. L’uso dei corpi begins by informing its reader that “those who have read and understood the preceding parts of this project will know not to expect here a new beginning or, still less, a conclusion.” This is a perfectly unsurprising line to read at the outset of the final volume, but a surprising one to consider at its end, for what lies between the two looks for all the world like a conclusion, and thus a new beginning.
• • •
In the forty-five years since the publication of Agamben’s first book, two things have been utterly uncontroversial: he is an unusually erudite philosopher, and he is an unusually graceful writer, something that translation, of necessity, struggles to reflect. He has a high level of technical competence in a wide range of fields, from classical philology to modern jurisprudence, from ancient Greek to modern German, from theology to art history to poetics and ontology. L’uso dei corpi’s central question is, however, easy to grasp, and requires neither ancient Greek nor modern German to formulate. It is: What is yours, and how do you use it? Your body, for instance, is yours, as is the life you lead with it; but in what way, to what degree, subject to what restrictions? And, above all, how is it conditioned or curtailed by which notions of what life is, what it is for, what obligations it carries, and what tasks it may be assigned?
The method Agamben employs to ask and answer these questions is one he calls “genealogical,” which is to say historical. It is explicitly borrowed from Foucault, just as Foucault’s use of “genealogy” was explicitly borrowed from Nietzsche. In each case there was, of course, more to the matter than the mere carrying over of a concept. Agamben’s genealogy moves into different, and above all more distant, regions. “Foucault once said something quite beautiful about this,” Agamben has noted. “He said that historical research was like a shadow cast by the present onto the past. For Foucault, this shadow stretched back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For me the shadow is longer.” Much longer, as L’uso dei corpi makes clear. Agamben’s name for the limit—the depth of that deepest past which ontology, theology, philosophy, and poetry jointly explore—is “anthropogenesis,” or how we became what we are. It is this which lies at the center of all his disparate writings.
One answer to the question of what is at issue in L’uso dei corpi, and in the Homo Sacer series is subjectivity. The notion receives a meticulous genealogical investigation, following the decisive stages of its evolution from early Greek philosophy to the present, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Paul and the Church Fathers, scholasticism, Leibniz and Spinoza on to the tradition of German Idealism which culminates in Heidegger. The word subject literally means that which is cast down or beneath. This Latin notion is an inheritance from a Greek word, hypostasis, which, although completely absent in Plato and Aristotle, rose to sudden prominence in the second and third centuries CE with the Stoics and has, in various forms, under various names, determined modern conceptions of subjectivity since. In ancient Greek hypostasis literally meant the remnant or residue of a process, such as the solid remnant of an evaporated liquid (Aristotle uses the term only in this sense, in a discussion of urine). The third and last section of Agamben’s book is called “Form-of-life” and presents a different notion of subjectivity based on a different sense of what life is such that we can use it, and what meaning use may have in it. Agamben’s treatment of use is most easily seen when opposed to ownership, and the paradigm Agamben most frequently offers is the Franciscan order’s distinction that it did not possess things but merely used them, as had Christ. As concerns the using subject, as concerns what Hölderlin called “the free use of what is one’s own,” Agamben claims that we may see ourselves as destined to do this or that, directed by character or reason or cruel gods, but that we might far better see ourselves as the sum of our usages, as the moment distended in time by this or that free usage of the situation in which we find ourselves. The form of our life, for ourselves as for others, need not be that of a subject, a residue, a part below which moves a part above, and might be something just as substantial while far less subject to the reigning political conceptions which, for Agamben, are undergoing acute crisis. For about our current state of emergency, and the need to reconceive the global situation in which we find ourselves, there is permitted no doubt. In Stasis, another recently published volume in the series, Agamben describes our present state as one of “global civil war.” Lest this remain suspended in mid-air, a precision is offered: “The form taken by civil war at this point in world history is terrorism.” And to be still more precise, he adds, “global terrorism is the form civil war assumes when life as such becomes what politics treats.”
If there is no thing which we must do, everything is just as sacred as it is profane.
Such claims will sound airy to anyone unwilling to entertain the notion that ontological determinations are intimately related to political ones, right down to their mundane or murderous minutiae. How then would this truth—if it is one—coexist alongside explanations of global terrorism focusing on factors of a more concrete nature, such as oil in the Middle East, abandoned allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of radical Islam, sectarian conflict, economic disenfranchisement, flows in global capital, and a long list of other quite concrete factors? Agamben’s claim is that terrorism, while a modern phenomenon, has ancient roots and represents an unresolved border dispute not simply in specific places in the world but also in world history. To say that there is a part of experience, individual and communal, which concerns mere biological process, and which is excluded from political consideration, and yet which in the course of Western history becomes that of which states are the custodians (the reason Foucault called modern politics “biopolitics”), is to speak of a complex but not unchangeable state of affairs. Here and elsewhere in the Homo Sacer series, we are exhorted to rethink our notion of what politics is for the reason that this one is not working, and it is through the first distinctions—such as sacred and profane, man and animal—that such a reconception must proceed. If the murderous state of exception is to cease being the rule, the edifice of which it is a part needs not just to change but to fall.
• • •
Following in the footsteps of Marx and Weber, and more precisely in those of Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt, Agamben has stressed at a number of points in the series the degree to which political conceptions have a sacred lineage, the degree to which a political theology shapes our thinking and our institutions. But political concepts are not the only ones in Western culture Agamben deems to have a sacred lineage. So too are literary and artistic ones. At the outset of still another recent book not within the Homo Sacer series (Agamben has been uncommonly prolific of late), Il fuoco e il racconto (The Fire and the Story, 2014), Agamben tells a story about fire, one that had been told before by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Gershom Scholem, Elie Wiesel, and others. When Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, was confronted with a difficult task he would go into the forest, light a fire, speak the sacred words, and receive what he needed. A generation later, when the Maggid of Mezeritz was faced with a similar difficulty, he went to the place in the forest and though he could no longer light the fire, he could still say the prayers. This sufficed, and what he desired came to pass. A generation still later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov was confronted with an equally intractable problem, and though he could no longer light the fire, and no longer knew the prayers, he went to the place in the forest, and this too was enough. When at last, another generation later, Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn found himself in such a situation he said, “We cannot light the fire, cannot say the prayers, and no longer even know the place in the forest. But of all this we can tell the story.” And this too, it is said, sufficed.
This story of fire, Agamben argues, is “an allegory of literature.” There is no final revelation or transformation, no ultimate fiery core of language which is literature and which we might discover in an exalted state or in a shadowy wood if only we said the right words in the right place at the right time before the right fire. In a phrase of which Agamben is fond, Wittgenstein remarked that Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten, “philosophy should really be done through poetry.” The idea was not, of course, that philosophy might be written exclusively in terza rima but that in its highest form philosophy can only ever be done creatively, in language. Elsewhere in Il fuoco e il racconto, we are told that “to write means to contemplate language, and if you do not see and love your language, do not hear its murmured ode, do not pronounce its delicate elegy, then you are not a writer.” Agamben began as a poet and has a poet’s sensitivity to language. This is seen not only in the care he takes with his own language, but also in his manner of approaching philosophical questions. His minute linguistic analyses of the terms “form-of-life,” “use,” “hypostasis,” “stasis,” “zoe,” “bios,” “sacer,” and others are not, for him, digressions into detail. On the contrary, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, Agamben has remarked that “philosophical problems become clearer if they are formulated as questions about the meaning of words.” For Agamben philosophy does not represent a closed body of concerns or writings. It has, moreover, no internal or external limits besides those of language.
A naturally occurring phenomenon in philosophy is that the key concept, the one whose weight is greatest and thus whose gravity is strongest—eidos in Plato, cogito in Descartes, Dasein in Heidegger—is all but untranslatable, the convergence of meanings that allows the philosopher to make a term a central one often insuring its untranslatability. In Agamben’s case that key term is inoperosità. The English “inoperative,” while close in etymology, is far in register and resonance. For Agamben, the word denotes a mode where no opera, no work (opera is Italian for work), either in the sense of an ongoing activity or a finished product, is at issue. And the meaning he assigns to it is best seen through a lens offered to him by Aristotle. Aristotle says that happiness is unique in human affairs in being its own end. Even in the cases of honor, pleasure, and reason, he says, we aspire to those things not merely for their own sake but “also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy.” “To say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude,” Aristotle concedes, and so to make it more than one he turns to the question of the purpose of mankind. “For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good . . . is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he naturally functionless?” Carpenters and tanners have, of course, the vocations of carpenter and tanner, but do they also, Aristotle thus asked, have a vocation on another level, that of being human? To speak of such a vocation or function is to assign a task—an essential defining activity—to mankind as a whole, and it should come as no surprise that Aristotle pauses to wonder whether mankind could indeed be said to have such a collective calling. Agamben points out that the question Aristotle asks—usually translated “Is man naturally functionless?”—would be more accurately rendered, “Is man born without work [senz’opera] (argos)?” His answer to the question is yes, and the central term in his formulation of it is inoperosità.
For Agamben the great political danger, in the name of which the Homo Sacer series and all of his books are written, is in seeing the world with an end, in seeing humanity as something that involves the accomplishment of a task, individual or collective. It is, moreover, Heidegger’s attachment to a notion of an epoch having a task that marks, for Agamben, the limit of his teacher’s philosophy. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein, begun in Being and Time (1927), remained unfinished for the final half-century of his life. As Agamben makes clear in L’uso dei corpi, what led those problems to become so intractable as to be abandoned was Heidegger’s sense of Dasein having such a task—one which Heidegger, moreover, found for a time compatible with National Socialism. For Agamben, mankind has no millennial or messianic task to complete, no divinely ordained work it must do, no set function it must exercise. For there can be no one thing that humanity must do, no specific single task that must be accomplished or work that must be done, no tower to the heavens or coalition of the pure that will allow us to become what we already are. The story for Agamben is thus not about how far we have fallen, how lost we are, how remote the once bright fire of sacred speech, pure thought, and incandescent experience. His is a story where there is no task that must be accomplished, no work that must be completed, no single spot, no sacred words, no special fire.
Christian theology sees time as a line and its point an arrow. The intersection of the vector of history with that of eternity is the mystery of Christianity and its guiding notion. One of its effects is to project forward, ceaselessly, a state that will at last be in alignment, and thereby end the world, and an interim in which that world must be governed in a certain manner. A curious result of the Homo Sacer series was an invitation extended to Agamben in 2009 to speak in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and it was just this question he treated there, offering the Mother Church a stern sermon about the riches of the earth and the time for change. Agamben’s intense interest in messianic texts and themes, so clear in that talk, stems not from the question of how to bring to earth and life a god or gods, not how to summon and anoint a messiah to end history and redeem humanity. If there is no thing that we as a society or species must do, nothing that humans must accomplish so as to be, become, or remain human, then philosophical, political, and artistic activity appear in a new light, where everything is just as sacred as it is profane. On more than one occasion Agamben has cited Giacometti’s claim that one can never complete a work, only abandon it. If the Homo Sacer project has now been abandoned, it is in the way that Giacometti abandoned his works: with mastery.
Editor's note: All translations from L'uso dei corpi are the author's own. An English translation by Adam Kotsko, The Use of Bodies, forthcoming from Stanford University Press in March, was not consulted for this review.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
January 26, 2016
17 Min read time