Agamben Notes: “Threshold” to Ch. 8

[As I sat down to write these notes, my neighbors were setting off fireworks.]

Agamben believes that his inquiry can, at least provisionally, come to a stop here, because he has exposed “the machine that glory covers over with its splendor and its songs.” Yet it seems as though glory is in decline — public ceremonials still exist, but they are increasingly simplified and irrelevant. Though it was only within the last hundred years that “glory” made a major comeback in Nazism and Fascism — he asks whether any acclamation had ever been made as sincerely as the “Heil Hitler” or “Duce duce” — even that seems to be a distant world that is irrevocably gone.

Or is it?! Carl Schmitt, in his Constitutional Theory, discusses the constitutive role of acclamation in democracy, a role that is present already in Rousseau. The classic public assemblies of yore no longer happen, of course, so Schmitt proposes that “public opinion” is the modern equivalent of acclamation. Though he admits that there is always the danger of a manipulation of public opinion, he believes that even a corrupted public opinion fulfills the acclamatory role that is necessary for the state to have legitimacy — especially in light of the fact that the state is founded on the friend/enemy distinction and not on accuracy in reporting. Agamben notes that the inclusion of acclamation in the democratic tradition seems bizarre initially, but in light of his genealogy, it appears that glory has not disappeared from modern democracy but simply escaped into another realm, that of public opinion.

If this is the case, then the question of the media becomes even more urgent than before. Agamben of course refers here to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which he says now seems more accurate than ever. When we combine Debord with Schmitt, we see that what was once confined to ceremonies and liturgies is now proliferating everywhere. (He notes that perhaps it’s not an accident that one term for public opinion is doxa.) Just as was the case with previous political systems, the supposedly democratic moment of acclamation is captured by the governmental machine. This is illustrated by a debate between Habermas and the constitutional scholar Dieter Grimm about the question of a European constitution. Grimm maintains that the lack of a common language doesn’t allow for the emergence of a common political culture and thus a European constitution cannot be established because it would lack the element of acclamation. Habermas argues on the contrary that Grimm is stuck in an outdated model and that popular sovereignty has now liberated itself and become public opinion (I think that’s what Agamben’s saying here).

In both cases, there’s the element of glory, though differently conceived — meaning that both ultimately run the risk of winding up agreeing with Schmitt and Peterson, completely against their intentions. (Agamben claims that this is illustrative of the risk people run by not doing the necessary genealogical work.) The term “government by consent” is interesting, too, because the first time the term appears as a technical political term is in the Res gestae Augusti, in Augustus’s account of being proclaimed emperor — consensus names the acclamation. It all points toward the notion of contemporary democracy — by consensus, of the spectacle — as a “glorious democracy, in which the oikonomia has been completely dissolved into glory, and the doxological function, emancipating itself from liturgy and ceremonial, is absolutized to an unheard-of degree and penetrates into every area of social life.” In our democracy, “the people” ultimately amounts to acclamation or glory, under whatever form.

What remains, then, is an investigation of the “eternal life” that glory covers over, which is to say a thinking of the political “starting from an inoperative disarticulation as much of bios as of zōē.”

[And what remains for me is only about 30 pages, consisting of two appendices.]