Agamben and Jewish Difference: Some scattered thoughts

I’ve been reading Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population the last few days, and it has prompted some thoughts on Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, which is a kind of response to Foucault’s work. The trigger for these thoughts came when Foucault said that the notion of the king as a shepherd is a not a classical Greek or Roman theme and was brought in from the Mesopotamian and specifically Hebrew tradition by means of Christianity.

That claim makes perfect sense, but it struck me that it’s absolutely impossible to imagine Agamben making such a claim. That’s because he is fundamentally Heideggerian in orientation: he views the West as a fundamental unity stretching from ancient Greece to today, and more than that, as a self-contained whole that is not fundamentally influenced by anything else. Hence even in K&G, where he delves most deeply into Christian traditions, he is concerned primarily to situate them within the broader Western tradition and specifically the Aristotelian tradition — Christianity for him does not and cannot represent a break. Nor indeed can modernity be a break. Instead, it is simply a particularly destructive reorganization of the forces that were at work from the very moment that sovereignty claimed bare life, etc.

Nowhere is Agamben’s insistence on the monolithic nature of the West more evident than in his continual reference to Judaism, where he portrays the rabbinic tradition as in essential continuity with Western debates. I cannot recall a single time when he cites the Hebrew Bible, for instance, or indeed any Jewish text before the first century. On a certain level, this approach might seem “good,” insofar as it works against the stereotypes of the essential foreignness of the Jew, etc. — yet it completely forecloses the notion that the Jewish community, as a segregated and often persecuted group, might have come up with a substantially different intellectual tradition than the surrounding groups. More than that, the overall pattern of assimilation seems to privilege the non-Jewish Western source: rabbinic messianism gets read through Aristotle, Benjamin gets read through Schmitt, etc.

Thus, even though Agamben is obviously a leader among the Gentiles in drawing on Jewish sources, he does so in such a way as to erase any possibility of genuine Jewish difference — and this is itself only the most serious symptom of his general tendency to make the West a self-enclosed entity that cannot be influenced from the outside.

25 thoughts on “Agamben and Jewish Difference: Some scattered thoughts

  1. I have absolutely no background here, but this seems like an extremely serious problem. Do you feel that this is true?

  2. I was assuming that you are right here, given that you likely know more about the issue in question than anyone I know or am likely to meet. My real question relates to my impression that this sort of problem constitutes unambiguously damning against Agamben’s powers of perception and analysis. This is related to my previously discussed view of scripture, but of all of the things I feel like I’ve gleaned from 12 years of adult intellectual life, one of the most obvious things has been the utter insanity (and I mean that as highest praise) of the Jewish tradition vis-a-vis the “greco-roman west.”

  3. I should add that my recent reading of Margaret Barker’s work has raised this issue to the forefront of my thoughts. Pre-Christian Judaism is infinitely more complex (and ill-understood from a scholarly perspective) than I had even thought based on my reading of the Old Testament.

  4. The greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Monolithic readings of anything are almost always misguided.

  5. Wow. This sounds like an interesting topic to pursue. I’ll admit that the short time I have read Agamben, I am oftentimes surprised at some of the sources he uses and the stuff he pulls out of them. Do you know if The Kingdom and the Glory coming out in English translation soon?

  6. A big weakness for me in the Paul book was that Agamben’s philological labors were all focused on the Greek. He paid no attention at all to the relevant Hebrew–erecting an elaborate polemic on the fact that “Christ” translates “Messiah,” accepting “Messiah” at face value. Which for me turned it into quicksand.

    Your post is making me think there’s a book to be written on philosophy and the Septuagint.

  7. This is a great point, and for me another example of how Agamben’s relatively recent engagement with Foucault, rather than a taming of his Heideggerianism, is actually a suppression of Foucault’s fundamental insistence on dispersal, rupture, contingency etc. in favour of the monolith you speak of (and e.g. its originary philosophical configurations).

  8. The Heideggerian label issue aside (I’m not sure whether this is actually that important), I guess what is at stake is the following:

    1. Do Agamben’s readings of Jewish sources through non-Jewish work to destabilise the putative status of those non-Jewish Western sources and if not, might a reading along the lines of his project that works to open it up to overstepping his remit of reworking the “Western tradition” be possible? (i.e. Not just calling him an imperialist Heideggarian, but looking at how, for instance, modern sovereignty is always colonial sovereignty etc)

    2. Does the argument that modernity consists of a destructive reorganisation of forces at work from the moment of sovereignty’s claiming of bare life not account for the break of which modernity consists? It might, in which case we need to work toward understanding that reorganisation as a specific kind of break.

    Both of these questions are things we might do well not to expect answers for from Agamben himself – and therefore demonise him in resentment. Thank him for the problem in an anticolonial spirit of gratitude.

  9. I think that a strategy like #1 would be a very interesting way of “reading Agamben against the grain” and preserving what is most helpful in his work — which in my opinion is, as you indicate, the problems he sets up.

  10. I suspect that Foucault’s mention of the Mesopotamian idea is of a piece with his interest in all things oriental. Initially this was part of the French fanaticism with the East (Japan); later (after the Iran trips?) he was also interested in the hypothesis that Cynicism was influenced by antiquity’s links with the far East.

    I’m not sure how to assess this early interest, but it doesn’t strike me as the element of his thought I’d really like to reclaim.

    Certainly, you find little Hebrew thought in the works published in his lifetime: there the care of the self goes straight from Plato, through late Stoicism, to Renaissance Stoicism. Much like an Agamben history. Who’d have known he was interested in Dorotheus of Gaza before the lectures were published? Not I, sirrah.

  11. Adam, you’re on to something important here. As is well-known, Agamben draws significantly from Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the concentration camp in her Origins of Totalitarianism where she uses the idea of bare life. Agamben’s reception of Arendt is entirely onesided, however. Arendt will develop an alternative to the violence of sovereignty through an appropriation of the idea of the covenant. This is basic to her book On Revolution but also to The Human Condition where she discusses the political significance of promising. Arendt, and thinkers in her wake like Seyla Benhabib and Bonnie Honig, wants to find a way beyond sovereignty through the biblical idea of the covenant. Agamben (and, of course Schmitt, who is his teacher in this) reduces the political to sovereignty. By pretending that this is the core of political theology is to silence the politics of the Hebrew Bible (recall the attack on sovereignty in Samuel, to say nothing of the prophets) and also, I may say, a long and central tradition in Christian political thought (medieval consiliarism). It is time to break the spell of sovereignty (without reverting to Erik Peterson’s mistake of thinking that only a trinitarian theology can do it, another Hebrew Bible-silencing myth popular among anti-Schmittian Christian political theologians like Metz).

  12. Yes, that has been one of my main critiques of Agamben, his reduction of the political to sovereignty — though I came to this view not primarily through his silencing of Jewish difference, but rather from the simple fact that his reduction of the political to sovereignty is so obviously forced, for instance requiring him to cut corners on the reading even of one of his primary sources, Benjamin (as I argue in my Telos article). His fixation on Schmitt is simply pathological, causing him to overlook major features of Arendt as well as Foucault.

  13. I’m not sure that he does make this reduction: isn’t that the point of the difference between bios and zoe? The former is politics, the latter is government?

  14. But sovereignty is the structure that articulates them together, right?

    By the way, on your previous comment about Foucault: I think that’s a fair remark. I meant only to contrast with Agamben’s approach, not necessarily to valorize Foucault. There are definitely problematic ways of addressing the “outside” of the West, but it still seems problematic to me to simply assume that the apparent “outside” really is “inside.”

  15. Yes. Is that inevitable in Agamben’s thought? Having studied him largely while thinking primarily about Foucault, I sometimes have problems picking them apart. Certainly for Foucault it’s a radically contingent combo.
    I guess where they part ways is that Agamben sees all this occurring far before Foucauldian populations emerged at all, i.e. before serfs.

  16. Foucault definitely is not committed to identifying the political with sovereignty. The whole realm of the biopolitcal is outside of sovereignty (until sovereignty makes its racialized cut between those it will “let live” and those it will “make die”). Foucault (in Society Must Be Defended) talks about a counter-sovereign historiography (he calls it “anti-Jupiterrean”) that draws from the biblical prophetic tradition to voice its outrage at the power of the King. Recently, Roberto Esposito has tried to find a way to salvage something from the biopolitical that is counter-sovereignty. I am not sure how successful he is, but he wants to recuperate a Nietzschean life-affirming power to ground an anti-sovereign politics. There a number of thinkers who explicitly contest the Schmittian identification of the political with sovereignty: Benjamin, Bloch, Arendt, Taubes, and Derrida are among them (no accident that they are all Jewish, I would argue).

  17. I would add Butler to the list. Reading her work on sovereignty in relationship to the Bush administration was a real eye-opener to me in terms of recognizing that there’s something missing (or even forcefully covered over) in Agamben’s account.

    On another note: I’ve decided that my summer project is going to include reading all the Foucault lecture series that are out. (I did read Society Must Be Defended in grad school, but I hardly remember any of it.)

  18. Yeah, he does identify an alternative tradition, but it’s really difficult to pin down what it is. It’s all about non-obedient free speech (the famous parrhesia). But the problem is that this kind of technique is precisely what lies at the heart of modern governmentality. We look after ourselves by listening to the truth about ourselves – delivered by the fearless speech of prosecutors, psychiatrists, and priests.

    For Foucault, the disaster was the combination of these: fearless speech traditions and government.

    My summer project is more modest: to read the 71 course. May do notes again, but am not promising!

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