More Agamben Notes: Il sacramento del linguaggio, §§1-6

Last summer I produced a series of reading notes over Agamben’s Il Regno e la Gloria, a text that is still unavailable in English as of this writing. Since then, a follow-up volume has come to my attention. Designated as Homo sacer II, 3, it is entitled Il sacramento del linguaggio: Archealogia del giuarmento (The Sacrament of Language: Archeaology of the Oath). The book itself is constructed as a long essay, with 29 numbered sections adding up to just under 100 pages — more on the scale of State of Exception than Homo Sacer or Il Regno. I currently plan to divide the notes into five installments, pausing to summarize when I get through 5 or 6 sections. This first post will cover the first six sections, as indicated in the title. (It will likely seem much less substantial than my previous summaries, but that’s because of the short pagecount combined with larger type.)

§1. Agamben begins by discussing a book called Il sacramento del potere, published by Paolo Prodi in 1992, which drew attention to the central role of the oath in Western political history and went so far as to claim that the oath was “the base of the political pact in the history of the West.” Now, however, Prodi believes that the oath is in bad decline and that new political forms are coming into being. Agamben seems to believe that Prodi has assembled most of the relevant evidence (perhaps giving Prodi a role parallel to that of Peterson in Il Regno), but due to the methodological constraints of a historical investigation cannot achieve what he clearly wants to achieve. He is forced to draw eclectically on the findings of various disciplines in order to define the oath, without there being any possibility of a general “science of the human” that would be able to get at the oath in its singularity — for that reason, Agamben doesn’t propose a historical investigation into the oath’s origin, but rather a philosophical archeology. The guiding question will be what the oath is and what is at stake in it, “if it defines and puts in question the human itself as political animal? If the oath is the sacrament of political power, what, in its structure and in its history, has rendered it possible that it would be invested with such a function? What anthropological level, decisive in every sense, is involved in it, so that the entirety of the human, in life and in death, can be put in question in it and by it?”

§2. Prodi quotes Lycurgus as saying that the oth is “what holds [to synechon] together democracy.” Agamben suggests another relevant passage from the neoplatonist Hierocles [sorry if these names are wrong — the Italian versions of classical names can be weird, and I haven’t found any straightforward resource for translating them], who claims that oaths bind both gods and humans, meaning that the oath is what keeps the universe as such together. Agamben notes that in both these figures, the oath doesn’t create anything — it only unites and conserves that has already come into being in some other way. Both these factors are at work in the passage Prodi takes as most decisive in the history of the oath, namely Cicero, De officiis III, 29, 10. Agamben homes in on Cicero’s attribution of power (vis) to the oath, a theme that he also finds in Benveniste, who claims that the oath is fundamentally about establishing a relationship between language and some power that renders it effective. It’s not about content, but about the truth and realization of the statement.

§3. Agamben notes that all scholars seem to agree that the oath is a matter of guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language (and as regular readers of Agamben wil know, any time everyone agrees on something, it’s a very, very bad sign). Quoting Philo, he says that the oath seems to be necessary to human society — to the point where the Church could develop a whole series of oaths despite the clear prohibition of them in the gospels. Samuel Pufendorf (1672) avers that this necessity goes beyond guaranteeing particular statements and agreements to legitimating language itself. [Where is he getting this guy? Where is the quote from Philo coming from? Is there any kind of rhyme or reason to his citations? Seriously.] He then repeats the same basic definition of the oath that he’s been giving so far — “a linguistic act meant to confirm a significant proposition (a dictum), of which it guarantees the truth or effectivness” — and says that it will be necessary to verify the correctness and implications of this definition. In a footnote, he then talks about the difference between the verification and promissory functions of the oath, saying that the scholars seem to agree that both functions are basically the same thing, except that the dictum is different.

§4. Georges Dumezil discusses the division of society into three orders — religion, war, and economy — and the “scourge” that pertains to each. The sacerdotal function corresponds to the “scourge” of dissolving oaths, which seems to imply that the oath is meant to respond to the possibility of lying. Yet the oath seems to be obviously inadequate to the purpose of preventing lying, and Hesiod even seems to suggest that perjury — which makes sense only when an order of oath-taking exists — is actually logically prior to the oath. Noting that Greeks in the classical era were notorious for lying, Agamben suggests that the oath isn’t a cure for the “scourge,” but the “scourge” itself — it makes the consequences of the inevitable lie that much worse. He then goes a step further and suggests that the oath is actually a response to the weakness inherent to language itself, reinforcing its capacity “to refer to things and that of the human to take action in their condition as speaking beings.” A footnote comments further on the Hesiod passage and notes that a character from Homer is praised for his artful use of oaths to mislead.

§5. What is the “arche” of this archeaology? In the scholarly tradition of the early 19th century, the “arche” would be the supposedly more originary form of words derived from the study of comparative linguistics — a project that culminated in the development of the entirely hypothetical Indoeuropean language that could then serve as the basis for an investigation of prehistoric social institutions. Dumezil is indebted to this tradition, even though he pushes its boundaries to what he calls “the fringe of ultra-history.” This “ultra-history” has the same existence as the Indoeuropean language — which “is only an algorith that expresses a system of correspondences between the forms existing in historical languages.” In a sense, then, this is a field of historical research that creates what it studies. Dumezil, however, pushes it in a more helpful direction by pointing out that his three functions, which don’t exist in every single society in a clear way, are ideals toward which historical societies tend. One could say the same of Benveniste, and insofar as we keep clear on the limitations of such study, the archeaologist can make use of their results because they point toward “a force operating in history” just like the Big Bang continues to radiate in the present. But this “force,” which Agamben calls anthropogenesis, is not the result of a one-time event like scientists think the Big Bang was — anthropogenesis must be assumed as an event but can never be located on any chronology. The “arche” of the archeology is therefore “a field of historical currents held between anthropogenesis and the present, ultra-history and history.” Agamben will proceed by means of an investigation of Greek and Roman sources, with an eye toward mapping out this field and pointing toward the ultra-history or anthropogenesis that is always going on: “homo sapiens never ceases to become human, has perhaps still not finished acceding to language and swearing on its nature as speaking being.”

§6. This section goes into detail about the etymology of horkos (oath in Greek) and controversies surrounding it as found in Benveniste and later scholars — the payoff being that Agamben sees in the scholarship a distressing tendency, which has remained a fixture throughout the modern period, to assume that every human practice or institution can be traced back to religion. Thus the “force” of the oath is supposed to be sacred or religious in some way. (Hence the decline of religious faith means the decline of the oath.) The overall idea is that there is a homo religiosus who precedes the historical human being we know — setting up an opposition between the faithful/religious human existence and the unfaithful one. Agamben wants to put this whole method into question. [Here I would point to the really sarcastic chapter on the modern literature surrounding the “sacred” in Homo Sacer.] A footnote traces the influence of a particular article on Benveniste.

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