Draft translation from Agamben’s Opus Dei: An Archeology of Office

From Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei: Archeologia dell’ufficio [Opus Dei: An Archeology of Office] (Turin: Bollati Birnghieri, 2011), pp., 7-9. Translated by Adam Kotsko.

[This draft translation is intended solely for purposes of personal edification and curiosity-satisfaction. Please do not cite without permission.]


Opus Dei is a technical term that, in the tradition of the Latin Catholic Church, starting from the Rule of St. Benedict, designates the liturgy, that is, “the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ… in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members” (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, December 4, 1963).

The word “liturgy” (from the Greek leitourgia, “public services”) is, however, relatively modern. Before its use was extended progressively beginning from the end of the 19th century, we find in its place the Latin officium, whose semantic sphere is not easy to define and in which nothing, at least at first glance, would seem to have destined it for its unusual theological success.

In The Kingdom and the Glory, we investigated the liturgical mystery above all in the face it turns toward God, that is, in its objective or glorious aspect. In this volume, the archeological study is instead oriented toward the aspect that particularly concerns the priests, that is, the subjects to whom there belongs, so to speak, the “ministry of the mystery.” And as, in The Kingdom and the Glory, we have sought to clarify the “mystery of the economy,” which theologians had constructed by reversing a Pauline expression that was clear in itself, here it is a matter of tearing the liturgical mystery out of the obscurity and vagueness of the modern literature on the subject, returning it to the rigor and splendor of the great medieval treatises of Amalarius of Metz and Guglielmo Durando. The liturgy is, in truth, not very mysterious at all, to the point that one can say that, on the contrary, it coincides with perhaps the most radical attempt to think a praxis that would be absolutely and wholly effectual. The mystery of the liturgy is, in this sense, the mystery of effectuality, and only if one understand this arcane secret is it possible to understand the enormous influence that this praxis, which is only apparently separate, has exercised on the way in which modernity has thought both its ontology and its ethics, its politics as well as its economy.

As usually happens in every archeological study, so also this one has led us, in fact, well beyond the sphere from which we started. As the diffusion of the term “office” in the most diverse sectors of social life attests, the paradigm that the Opus Dei has offered to human action has been shown to constitute for the secular culture of the West a pervasive and constant pole of attraction. More efficacious than the law, because it cannot be transgressed, but only counterfeited; more real than being, because it consists only in the operation by means of which it is realized; more effective than any ordinary human action, because it acts ex opere operato, independently of the qualifies of the subject who officiates it, the office has exercised on modern culture an influence so profound–that is, subterranean–that we do not even realize that not only does the conceptuality of Kantian ethics and of Kelsen’s pure theory of law (to name only two moments, though certainly decisive ones, in its history) depend entirely upon it, but that the political militant and the ministerial functionary are also inspired in the same way by the model of the “acts of office,” that is, duties.

The paradigm of the office signified, in this sense, a decisive transformation of the categories of ontology and of praxis, whose importance still remains to be measured. In the office, being and praxis, what a human does and what a human is, enter into a zone of indistinction, in which being dissolves into its practical effects and, with a perfect circularity, it is what it must (be) and must (be) what it is. Operativity and effectuality define, in this sense, the ontological paradigm that, in the course of a centuries-long process, has replaces that of classical philosophy: in the last analysis–this is the thesis that the study will wish to put forward for reflection–being and acting today have for us no representation other than effectuality. Only what is effective, and as such governable and efficacious, is real: this is the extent to which office, under the guise of the humble functionary or the glorious priest, has changed from top to bottom the rules of first philosophy as much as those of ethics.

It is possible that today this paradigm is going through a decisive crisis, the results of which cannot be foreseen. Despite the renewed attention toward liturgy in the 20th century, of which the so-called “liturgical movement” in the Catholic Church on the one hand and the imposing political liturgies of the totalitarian regimes on the other are an eloquent testimony, many signs allow one to think that the paradigm that office has offered to human action is losing its attractive power precisely at the point where it has reached its maximum expansion. Thus it was all the more necessary to try to establish its characteristics and define its strategies.

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