More Agamben Notes: Il sacramento del linguaggio, §§13-21

§13. Agamben now turns to another institution closely tied to the oath: sacratio (also called a devotio), by which a person is declared sacer. This act consecrates a person to the gods and separates him from human society — either voluntarily or because they have commited some grave crime. He then quotes a ton of sources, with the goal of showing that the sacratio helps us understand why the curse or malediction is so often tied to an oath (i.e., in the formula). Tons of sources occur again, and Agamben says that it’s important to note that in the most solemn form of oaths, a benediction and malediction are paired — both can be dropped, but the malediction is most often retained. The most common elements of an oath seem to be some kind of affirmation, the invocation of the gods as witnesses, and a curse in cases of perjury — a combination that leads Agamben to believe that the oath combines elements of pistis and sacratio-devotio and that both of those two seemingly separate institutions find their origin in the oath. A footnote talks about the links between oaths and curses in Plato’s Critias.

§14. Another thing we need to analyze, however, is the fact that the gods are called as witnesses. Everyone agrees this is a constitutive element, including Aristotle. Yet we have to note that the testimony involved here is different from testimony properly so called, as in a trial, since nothing is contested or verified. Agamben toys with this idea for a while, then comes back around to what he said in connection with Philo: namely, that the god in some sense is the oath: “The testimony is given by language itself and the god names a potency implicit in the very act of speech.” What is at stake is the very ability of language to signify. A footnote discusses a source whose English name I can’t discern (Esichio) that verifies Agamben’s theory.

§15. The situation is no less confusing when it comes to the invocations of the gods in the curse that accompanies the oath. The very terms used to refer to curses are themselves ambivalent and can sometimes have a “positive” or at least neutral meaning — like prayer, for example. This dual meaning has to be clarified if we’re to make progress. The existing studies aren’t very helpful here because they’re still in thrall to the idea of the primordiality of a magico-religious or “numinous” element that explains nothing. He includes a long quote from Louis Gernet to this effect, where the magico-religious interpretation seems to Agamben to be palpably inadequate. He suggests that we need to bracket the mythological element whereby the god is supposed to punish the perjurer in order to get at what’s really going on — namely, that the call to witness “expresses the positive force of language, that is, the just relation between words and things,” while the curse names “a debility of logos, that is, the breaking of that relation.” This means that the blessing and the curse are cooriginary, stemming from the nature of language itself. A footnote berates the scholarly community for not making much progress on the question of the link between the curse and the oath.

§16. A scholar named Ziebarth has shown that malediction and Greek law are “consubstantial” — a “political curse” guarantees the effectiveness of the law in virtually every Greek city state. Both the oath and the curse function as “sacrament of power.” The declaration sacer esto is thus a curse, but gets at the way in which the law refers to reality. The homo sacer is only a specific development of the curse “by means of which the law defines its scope.” This curse is the root of penal law, and “this singular geneaology can in a way make sense of the incredibly irrationality that characterizes the history of punishment.” A footnote discusses the connection between curse and law in terms of Paul’s argument in Galatians that the one who submits to the law submits to a curse — something that is explained more by this deep structure than by the specific proof-text Paul draws out of the Torah.

§17. The question now is “how to understand this double valence (bene-diction and male-diction) of the divine names in the oath and in perjury.” The answer lies in the proper understanding of a closely related phenomenon: blasphemy. Not surprisingly, Benveniste is a major source for Agamben here, pointing out in a study of blasphemy that it is closely tied to both the oath and perjury and that blasphemy is an interjection, meaning that it does not communicate any message. It is strictly a vocalization. Benveniste draws on the Hebrew tradition of prohibiting the pronunciation of God’s name and Freud’s claim that this interdiction reflects a deep-seated human desire to profane the sacred. Agamben notes that this recourse to Hebrew rather than the Indoeuropean heritage and to a psychological explanation are both uncharacteristic of Benveniste — and the former move is unnecessary, because classical Greek and Latin culture also had equivalents of “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” which use formulas very similar to that of the oath (similar to an exclamation like “by God” in modern languages). To understand blasphemy, there’s no need for recourse to either the biblical prohibition or any supposed ambivalence of the sacred: “Blasphemy is an oath, in which the name of God is extracted from the assertorial or promissary context and is uttered in itself, in vain, independently of any semantic content.” Where normally it guarantees the connection between speech and fact, in blasphemy it expresses the breaking of that connection. “The name of God, isolated and pronounced ‘in vain,’ corresponds symmetrically to perjury, which separates the word from the thing; oath and blasphemy, as bene-diction and male-diction, are cooriginarily implied in the very event of language.”

A footnote talks about the prohibition of taking God’s name in vain in Judaism and Christianity. It’s a pretty long note, but the main points of interest are when he points out that Augustine talks about blasphemy in his treatise on lying, which seems to fit well with Agamben’s point, and when he analyzes Christ’s prohibition of oaths — he claims that Christ removes the name of God but doubles the rest of the oath formula, which ditches what one might call the “obscurantist” aspect and just focuses on the connection or lack thereof between word and deed. A kind of zero-degree oath, perhaps.

§18. The imprecation sanctions the decrease in the correspondence between word and fact in the oath. When the link is broken, the name of God becomes a curse rather than a blessing. This phenomenon explains the use of divine names in magic — it tries to capture the power that those names have in oaths, but the words themselves become nonsense. The use of ancient languages reinforces this nonsense aspect. This means that “the oath presents in a still-undivided unity that which we are accustomed to call magic, religion, and law, which result from it as its fragments.” The curse isn’t added to the oath — it is a product of the oath, its necessary consequence. They are “two symmetrical epiphenomena of one unique experience of language.” This recognition can in turn give us a fresh understanding of the relationships among magic, religion, and law that we see historically. A footnote addresses the etymology of the Greek term for perjury, epiorkos.

§19. “It is in this perspective that we must interrogate the originary sense and function of the name of god in the oath and, more generally, the very centrality of the divine names in the apparatuses we are accustomed to call religious.” The best source for this is Herman Usener’s book, published in 1896 and unsurpassed since in Agamben’s opinion. He argues that the names of gods were originally names of activities or parts of activities — there are many more divine names attested than appear in mythology, and those that are only names basically never got past that level. Even the more familiar gods who became personified have their origin in this phenomenon. Once the gods were “created,” they of course took on a life of their own in myth and cult, etc., but they all come from the names of activities or events. Ultimately, Agamben believes, this means that what is divinized is the event of the name itself: “naming itself, which isolates and renders recognizable a gesture, an act, a thing, creates as ‘special god,’ is a ‘momentary divinity’ (Augenblicksgott). The nomen is immediately numen and the numen immediately nomen.” Gods don’t come along as some secondary thing to ratify the oath — the come from the oath. Every naming is an oath. A footnote clarifies that Usener doesn’t really buy into the “mythical-religious” origin of language, as some critics have claimed he does.

§20. Now he returns to Benveniste’s claim that blasphemy is an interjection and therefore not a communicative act in the normal sense. Following Cassirer, Agamben claims that this is true of the names of the gods in general and of all names: “the adamic naming in Genesis 2:19 cannot have been a discourse, but only a series of interjections.” Blasphemy can also shed light on a curious linguistic phenomenon, the insult. Calling someone stupid isn’t the same as calling them an architect, for example: the insult aims not at description, but at practical effects (arousing anger or humiliation in the subject, etc.). And in fact, Augustine claims that blasphemy is a kind of insult against God. A footnote discusses the way that the Romans used to “call out” their opponent’s god in war, claiming that they would treat the god much better than their current crappy worshipers — obviously something meant to insult. The Romans were clever, though, and kept the real name of their god secret, so it couldn’t be invoked in that way.

§21. Agamben here turns to the name of God in monotheism, where God is almost totally identified with God’s name. If we start with the model of polytheism, where the names of gods refer to specific events of language, we must conclude that the name of the one God must refer to language as such. The divinization of a “bad infinite” of individual events is replaced by the divination of the logos. The oath is where the human being is able to approximate God. Agamben then discusses Maimonides explanation of the Tetragrammaton, which he says names God as such, abstracted from all his properties. His properties all stem from his relation to creation, so the other divine names only came into being with creation — the name YHWH, however, existed with God from all eternity. Thus the name, according to Maimonides, ultimately refers to the idea of a necessary existence, a being whose name corresponds to his very being.

There are two footnotes to this section. The first starts with Scholem’s study of the Kabbalah, which claims that all language (and specifically the Torah) derives from the true name of God. Thus Agamben proposes a communicatio idiomatum (in the Chalcedonian sense) between the language of God and the language of humans, with the oath as the point of unity. He also claims that Scholem’s study is inspired by Benjamin’s “On language in general and human language in particular,” where the point of contact was the proper name (but for Agamben proper names originate from the oath). [This is the first mention of Benjamin so far in the book.] The second footnote is essentially a long quote from Maimonides on the infamous “I am that I am,” which expands on the passage already quoted about how the name of God refers to a necessary being.

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