Agamben Notes: Appendix 1, “Law and Miracle”

[My lack of inspiration on the dissertation-writing front and my belief in the non-fungibility of time have resulted in a major push to finish this book. Reading the first appendix, my impression is that this is actually a very important part of his genealogical argument, but he was not able to find a way to incorporate it smoothly into the structure of the book overall — a structure that is in any case pretty weird. Rereading Negri’s review once I am finished should be interesting.]

Based on Pascal’s acerbic remarks about it, Agamben outlines the early modern controversy among Jesuits, Molinists, Thomists, and Jansenists about grace, which was based on the distinction between sufficient grace (which gives us “enough” grace to act correctly without forcing us to) and efficacious grace (which does force us to do what God wants). For Agamben, this is really a question of the divine governance of the world rather than of salvation as such, and it is in this context that Malebranche’s Tractate on Nature and Grace must be understood. He analyzes the text at great length, including super-long blockquotes, but the main point is that Malebranche is directly continuing the tradition of thought Agamben has been tracing throughout. A particular point of interest is Malebranche’s desire to keep the number of miracles to the absolute minimum, in the interests of elegance and order — he proposes that apparent violations of God’s general law/will are actually in the service of the will of God that put angels in charge of governing the world. That is to say, miracles are really interventions of angels and as such part of the overarching order, and Agamben sees in this a perfect foreshadowing of Schmitt’s theory of the exception that is still somehow within the legal order. The continuation of the tradition of theological economy is especially clear in the role Malebranche gives to Christ, which is basically that of administration. Agamben then traces the same ideas in the debate between Leibniz and Bayle, in what seems to be a further attempt to show that this stuff was pretty pervasive during the period.

The real payoff of the chapter is that it provides the “point of contact” where the theological paradigm was explicitly carried over into the political: namely, Rousseau’s Social Contract, specifically his distinction between the general will and the particular will, sovereignty and governance, which is parallel with the distinction between general providence and particular providence. Agamben notes that Foucault, in Security, Territory, Population, interprets Rousseau’s text as a key transformation in the notion of sovereignty and argues that his (Agamben’s) genealogical work allows us to see the stakes much more clearly. It is through Rousseau that “the economico-providential apparatus (with its polarities ordination / execution, providence / fate, Reign / Governance) … is transmitted as an inheritance to modern politics, without benefit of an inventory” [a loose paraphrase]. The unconsciousness of this genealogy has left modern politics unable to think the real relation between governance and economy (and in fact to think of them as distinct things in the first place when they’re actually not). Modern political thought consistently repeats the mistake of Christian theology, which made glory the foundation of glorification: “What our research has, in fact, shown is that the true problem, the central secret of the political is not sovereignty, but governance, is not God, but the angel, is not the king, but the minister, is not the law, but the police — or, the governmental machine that these form and keep in movement.”

[I will note here that in a forthcoming essay in Telos, I argue that in Homo Sacer and State of Exception, Agamben was busy making the very mistake he now castigates and that a more attentive reading of “Critique of Violence” in its own terms, rather than an attempt to shoehorn it into Schmitt’s, would’ve resulted in a more elegant and convincing argument in those two books. The question now is whether this book really represents a change in position on Agamben’s part — and I think it does, at least on the face of it.]

One footnote clarifies that popular sovereignty comes from the theological-economic paradigm and dynastic sovereingty comes from the theological-political paradigm. Another shows that Rousseau was conscious of his religious borrowings.

One thought on “Agamben Notes: Appendix 1, “Law and Miracle”

  1. Any idea when the English translation is coming out. I desperately need to read it. And, thank you for your contributions. This is the best I have at the moment and it is very insightful.

    Jay Joshi
    Ph.D. Candidate
    Department of Geography
    York University
    Toronto, Canada

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