Agamben Notes: Ch. 3, “Being and act”

In this brief chapter, Agamben traces the separation between theology and economy, that is, between the divine nature and the economy of salvation. Agamben sees the division between the divine being and divine action as one of the most decisive innovations of Christianity. Whereas classical antiquity, as illustrated by Aristotle’s theology, had identified being and act in the divine — i.e., God qua unmoved mover doesn’t decide to move the celestial field; doing so directly springs from God’s nature — Christianity separates the divine nature from his actions, which are understood as the product of will. The concept of economy will be the way of bringing together what Christianity itself had separated.

A key issue for theology is how to found the divine economy in being. Agamben argues that just as in Pascal’s famous saying about the mystical foundation of authority, the divine economy is truly foundationless and anarchic. The concept of “will” comes to be the privileged way of attempting to connect the foundationless economy to the divine nature, and the increasing centrality of will in theology comes to fruition in modern philosophy, which shares with Christianity the division between being and action, ontology and ethics. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is simply one illustration among many of the more fundamental division between being and act.

Agamben detects in the Arian controversy a privileged symptom of theology’s struggle to reconcile being and act. Going against the traditional presentations of the controversy, Agamben emphasizes the similarities between the Arian and orthodox positions — most fundamentally, both agree that the Son is in some sense generated, and indeed generated before time. The real point of contention is whether the Son has a foundation, an arche. The Nicene fathers declared that the Son as well as the Father exists absolutely, without arche, that the Son “pantote, anarchōs kai ateleutētōs reigns together with the Father.” Although this issue is debated on the level of what will later be called theology rather than economy, Agamben sees here the continuing influence of the more originary notion of economy (my wording), insofar as the Son represents in a privileged way the divine economy in the restricted sense. Economy (again, in the more originary sense) and Christology are inseparable, and if we don’t understand this “originary ‘anarchic’ vocation of Christology, it is not possible to understand either the successive historical development of Christian theology, with its latent atheological tendency, nor the history of Western philosophy, with its ethical break between ontology and practice.”

The break between being and act is, as already said, shown in the break between theology and economy, which theologians increasingly understand to be two separate discourses, each with its own particular logic. Yet in a very satisfying passage (to me at least, insofar as I am one of the only people in the world who cares about the worst heresy of all), Agamben argues that the distinction between the two logics breaks down in the controversy over monothelitism — I apologize for not summarizing in more detail, because capturing it would basically require me to translate the whole thing — and that this demonstrates that (the more originary concept of) economy is ultimately the controlling concept in the relationship between theology and economy. In a final footnote, Agamben connects the anarchic character of economy with the relationship between anarchy and governance in Western politics: “The governmental paradigm, of which we are here reconstructing the genealogy, is, in reality, always already ‘anarchico-governmental.'”

The threshold seems to me to cover very little new ground, other than to clarify that Agamben is arguing against Schmitt that Christianity implies not a politics, but an economy — but this makes Christianity all the more relevant to the political development of the West and means that we need to make a fresh investigation of that development with Agamben’s theses in mind.

7 thoughts on “Agamben Notes: Ch. 3, “Being and act”

  1. Adam, does this chapter seem to suggest that Agamben is siding with Foucault (i.e, governmentality) over Schmitt (i.e., sovereignty) as the defining feature of modern politics? Or does Foucault figure in the argument at all? Does there seem to be any relation between Agamben’s discussion of economy and Foucault’s genealogy of the government of life through the city-citizen, shepher-flock/pastoral, reason of state, police, biopolitics genealogy?

    Thanks again for the notes.

  2. I just wanted to say I found your blog because you are doing this, and am very excited about seeing how this Agamben book goes.

    Roughly how big is the book? Like how long of chapters are we talking about? Homo Sacer length, or Coming Community length?

  3. The book is over 300 pages long, his longest book by far to my knowledge. The chapters vary in length — ch. 3 was about 10 pages, but ch. 4 is over 40. Just doing the math, the average chapter length is probably 25-30pp.

Comments are closed.