This year, the AAR hosted two sessions on Agamben, a truly remarkable event even if the papers were of remarkably uneven quality. One issue that came up repeatedly was the predictable plea that this abstract theorizing be brought down to earth–that distinctively American desire for all theory to have an immediate practico-political payoff. The presenters were admirably circumspect about attempting to answer this class of questions, all of them basically saying, “I don’t know.”
During one of these sessions, I had an epiphany. In point of fact, it’s absolutely clear what Agamben thinks the “answer” is. He clearly states it in what is arguably his most programmatically “political” work, State of Exception:
One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born only after it. And use, which has been contaminated by law, must also be freed from its own value. This liberation is the task of study, or of play. And this studious play is the passage that allows us to arrive at that justice that one of Benjamin’s posthumous fragments defines as a state of the world in which the world appears as a good that absolutely cannot be appropriated or made juridical. (64)
To repeat: “This liberation is the task of study, or of play.” To use Aristotle’s terminology, one might call it theoria, contemplation. In other words, the political action that one must take in response to Agamben’s work is just what Agamben is doing in that work itself–studying law, playing with it, contemplating it. This isn’t just a matter of a proof-text — it coheres with the entire structure of his thought, with what he finds most important in all of his major sources.
One can certainly argue that his vision is inadequate, but I don’t think one can fault Agamben for being unclear on this point.