More Agamben Notes: Il sacramento del linguaggio, §§22-29

§22. This section discusses so-called “ontological arguments” for the existence of God. Agamben claims that what’s really at stake in Anselm’s argument is that id quo maius cogitari non potest is the most fitting name for God — which ammounts to “that experience of language in which it is impossible to separate name and being, speech and thing.” Agamben highlights the places where Anselm explicitly mentions saying “God” (or the definition) as well as the original title Fides quaerens intellectum, which seems to link it up with the oath. The name of God, then, represents “the status of the logos in the dimension of the fides-oath, in which nomination immediately realizes the existence of that which it names.” He then says that Alain of Lyle and Aquinas do basically the same thing with the argument. In the end, pure existence (God) can be neither stated nor deduced logically: it can’t be signified, only sworn. A footnote discusses the place of the name in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Ultimately, we have to have faith in language.

§23. Naturally, Agamben now turns to speech acts, where words are said to bring about a certain fact directly. Benveniste in fact says that the oath is the archetypal speech act, and Agamben believes that his theory of the oath can shed new light on the theory of speech acts, namely by claiming that “they represent in language the residue of a stage (or rather the cooriginarity of a structure) in which the connection between words and things was not of a semantico-denotative type, but a performative one, in the sense that, as in the oath, the verbal act verifies the being.” Agamben highlights the self-referential nature of speech acts, which doesn’t just mean that it denotes itself — rather, it suspends the normal denotative function of speech. Language itself becomes the decisive fact, rather than referring to facts. The real model of the correspondence between word and thing is when the word is itself the thing. (There is an analogy here with the state of exception.) Returning to the ontological argument, we can see that it’s essentially saying that if language exists, God exists — it is a performance of this metaphysical truth. The decline of ontotheology goes along with the decline in the experience of language that the ontological argument is getting at. Metaphysics and science both correspond to this experience as well, which is rooted in the oath — and if the oath goes into decline, then these other things do too. What remains is perjury and blasphemy. The “indoeuropean scourges,” then, are inherent to the structure of speech founded in the oath — which brings with it truth and perjury, etc. A footnote discusses the Christian critique of idols not as non-existent, but as “false gods,” gods who can’t keep their promises.

§24. The division between assertion and promise in the oath represents a loss of the originary experience of the oath, which is best described by the Foucauldian term “veridiction.” Assertion is secondary and doesn’t directly implicate the subject (i.e., something is true whether or not I say it is) — whereas “veridiction” constitutes the subject, puts the subject at stake. Performatives are the remnant of this constitutive veridiction. Paul gets at veridiction with his talk of “the word of faith” being in your mouth and heart — later Christianity bastardizes this by turning faith into an assertorial rather than veridictive reality. Law and religion more generally represent an attempt to get veridiction under control, to clearly separate truth and lies, etc. The performative experience of language encapsulated in the oath is thus at the root of both, meaning that the oath truly is the “sacrament of power.” A footnote talks about how ancient philosophers, including Aristotle, didn’t seem to be able to understand performativity and claims that logic derives from the oath as well.

§25. The performative nature of the oath is clear in the trials in ancient Greece and Rome, which were based on competing oaths. Both parties gave a certain sum of money that was rendered sacred, and the one whose oath was found to correspond more to reality was given back the money. Via a connection that is not entirely clear to me, Agamben then moves on to say that the conflict between faith and reason comes down to a conflict between veridiction (law and religion) and assertion (logic and science). (No footnote for this one.)

§26. Now we are in a position to figure out the “force” that lies behind the oath — it is the force of language itself. We don’t need to have recourse to any kind of religious notions. The losing party in the trial isn’t necessarily a perjurer, his oath just winds up being inferior. No magic or divine force is needed — it worked back then just like it does when a judgment is pronounced in court today. Another example: No magic is required to make a couple “really married” — they just are married when they go through the appropriate ritual, including the oath. An initial footnote claims that the imperative has its origin in the act of naming. A second footnote explains that the money at stake in the trial used to be an animal and presumably also used to be the person himself (who would be homo sacer if he lost). For Agamben, this explains the sacred aura that surrounds money even in the modern world.

§27. Fortunately for me, David Kiskik has translated this section in full already. I copy his translation here (if he objects, I will remove it and leave the link — I feel it’s better this way because it makes it easier for when I compile the whole thing into a PDF):

Let us try to arrange in a series of theses the new understanding of the phenomenon of the oath that arises from the analysis developed hitherto.

1. Studies have always explained, in a more or less explicit manner, the institute of oath through a reference to the megico-religious sphere, to a divine power, or to a “religious force” that intervenes in order to guarantee the effective punishment of perjury. With a curious circularity, the oath is therefore interpreted, as in Hesiod, as what serves to prevent perjury. Our hypothesis is exactly the reverse: the megico-religious sphere does not preexist, logically speaking, the oath, since it is the oath. The oath is an originary performative experience of speech, which can in turn explain the phenomenon of religion (and law, which is closely connected to religion). This is the reason why horkos, or oath, is considered in the classical world as the more ancient entity, the only potential power to which the gods must submit. In monotheism, God is also identified with the oath: God is the being whose word is an oath, or the being that coincides with the true and effective word in principio.

2. The oath can therefore be properly understood within the context of those institutes, like fides, or faith, where it functions as the performative affirmation of truth and the reliability of speech. The horkia are par excellence pista, trustworthy, and the pagan gods summon in a performative way the oath essentially as a testimony to this trust. Monotheistic religions, Christianity above all, inherited through the institute of oath the centrality of faith in the word as the essential content of the religious experience. Christianity is, properly speaking, a religion and a deification of logos. The attempt to reconcile faith as a performative experience of veridiction, or truth-telling, with the belief in a series of assertive dogmas, is the service and, at the same time, the central contradiction of the Church. Overlooking a perspicuous evangelical credo, the Church henceforth forces what is technically considered as an oath and a curse into specific juridical institutions. This is the reason why philosophy, which does not try to fixate veridiction within a system of codified truth but, in each and every event of language, leads to the word and exposes the veridiction on which it is founded, is necessarily what we may call vera religio.

3. It is in this sense that we need to understand the essential proximity between the oath and sacratio (or devotio). We have interpreted sacertas as an originary performance of power by means of the production of a naked life that can be killed but not sacrificed. To this we must now add that even more than being a sacrament of power, the oath is the consecration of living beings through speech and according to speech. The oath can function as the sacrament of power insofar as it is, above all, the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that finds its place in the institute of oath takes the technical form of a curse, of a politiké ara, which accompanies the proclamation of the law. The law, in this sense, is constitutively tied with the curse. Only a politics that breaks this original connection with the curse could one day eventually bring about the emergence of another use for speech and law.

§28. Now Agamben can return to the link between the oath and anthropogenesis, which has already been implicitly at stake insofar as this study has looked at the oath as the testimony to an originary experience of language. Turning to Levi-Strauss’s intro to Mauss is helpful here, insofar as he claims that the primordial fact of human existence is the fact that the world can be signified, which is logically prior to the world being known. From the perspective that privileges knowledge, mana appears to be some kind of opacity or lack, and even Levi-Strauss seems to fall prey to this stance insofar as he claims that myth represents the inadequation of speech and world (i.e., as though full knowledge is the implicit goal). This focus on knowledge also has the much more serious drawback of ignoring the ethical implications of language. When humanity emerged as a specific kind of speaking being, the most serious problem can’t have been a lack of knowledge — rather it’s what do I do, how can my speech become effective in my actions. The focus on knowledge doubtless springs from the natural tendencies of scientific research — but we need to move beyond seeing humanity as solely homo sapiens to seeing it as homo iustus. It is precisely this ethical-political thrust to language that marks human as opposed to animal language — it’s not just that human language is a more supple tool, but that the human being’s very life is put at stake in language. The oath is the engine of anthropogenesis [here we probably need to reread The Open], insofar as it renders language a problem, a project, a question. If mana expresses the inadequacy of speech to the world, then the oath “expresses the demand, for the speaking animal in every sense decisive, to put its nature at stake in language and to link together in one ethical and political connection speech, things, and actions. Solely by means of this could something like a history, distinct from nature and, nonetheless, inseparably interlaced with it, have been produced.”

§29. “It is in the wake of this decision, in fidelity to this oath, that the human species, in its misfortune as in its fortune, in some way still lives. Every nomination is, in fact, twofold: it is a benediction or a malediction.” Religion and law are attempts to manage this duplicity of the word, which is at the heart of the anthropogenic experience of language. The “force of law” is an “epiphenomenon of the oath and of the curse that accompanies it.” Agamben now returns to Prodi’s claim that the oath is in bad decline, saying that if this is true, then a whole new politics must be coming into being given that the link between word and life is breakin down, and Agamben thinks that’s true: we’re stuck between bare life and the increasingly meaningless politics/word that governs it. The loss of the ethical link has led to a proliferation of empty words — to the point where language itself seems to be “in vain.” [But as always in Agamben, the point isn’t to go back to the previous, seemingly more stable state:] “It is perhaps time to put in question the prestige that language has enjoyed and still enjoys in our culture, as an incomparable instrument of power, effectiveness, and beauty. Nevertheless, considered in itself, it is no more beautiful than the song of the birds, it is not more effective than the signals of the insects, not more powerful than the roar with which the lion affirms its lordship.” The key element in human language is the ethical charge, by which the human subject takes responsibility for language. While Western linguistics has finally, after millenia, started to get a handle on the position of enunciation by means of the “shifters,” it still hasn’t gotten at the ethical implications of language, the fact that the human being can “bless and curse, swear and perjure.” The Western tradition has taken the risk of truth and falsity in embracing the experience of the oath, with all the bad consequences that have followed now that it has begun to fall apart — but it also gave birth to philosophy at the same time. Drawing on various skeptical sources, Agamben says: “Philosophy is, in this sense, constitutively critical of the oath: that is, it puts in question the sacramental link that connects the human to language, without for all that simply speaking at random, falling into the vanity of speech. In a moment in which all the European languages seem condemned to swear in vain and in which politics can only assume the form of an oikonomia, that is of a governance of void speech over naked life, it is still from philosophy that there can come, in the sober consciousness of the extreme situation which the living being that has speech has reached in its history, the indication of a line of resistence and transformation.” A footnote links Kant’s transcendental schematism to the oath in the Opus posthumum.

One thought on “More Agamben Notes: Il sacramento del linguaggio, §§22-29

  1. Many thanks for all this, Adam. It feels like Badiou and his connection between ‘fidelity’ and ‘nomination’ is some kind of implicit dialogue partner here… Maybe in terms of what the sequel to Being and Event would have looked like if Badiou had ‘kept faith’ with his theory of nomination, after Lyotard’s intervention…???

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