Agamben the “left Heideggerian”

Matthew Abbott shared with me via Twitter an article of his in which he presents a thorough-going Heideggerian reading of Agamben, coining the term “political ontology” to set his work apart from both “political theology” and “political philosophy.” I need to think this through more, but on a first reading, it’s certainly a very convincing systematization — I also appreciate the parallels he draws with Nancy’s work, positioning them both as “left Heideggerians.”

A passage I just translated yesterday from Opus Dei speaks to this problematic of “political ontology.” Discussing Cicero and Ambrose’s introduction of the term officium into ethics and priestly practice, respectively, he writes: “But, as often happens, a terminological transformation, if it expresses a change in ontology, can turn out to be just as effective and revolutionary as a material transformation. Putting on the garments and mask of officium, not only the virtues but, with them, the entire edifice of ethics and politics meets with a displacement whose consequences we must perhaps still weigh” (pg. 95 of the Italian).

5 thoughts on “Agamben the “left Heideggerian”

  1. Great article. I have read some articles in Swedish that argue that Agamben is a left heideggerian, and I find it very plausible. I more or less thought that this was the hegemonical understanding/reading of Agambens project, but maybe I am wrong.

    It would be interesting to hear how you evaluate the quote in your post. Because personally I am not quite sure that Toscano and others are right in their criticism of Agamben, but one thing that I do like with a more classic materialist/marxist criticism of ontology is that it shows the idealism with a position that argues that “a terminological transformation … can turn out to be just as effective and revolutionary as a material transformation.” This seems strange to me, for what is a change in ontology if it is not a material transformation? Or more specifically: how can we evaluate the effectiveness and revolutionary consequence of terminology if not through it´s material transformation of the order of things? I know that Agamben want´s to destruct the ontology of operativity, but even decreation and inoperativity has to be understood in relation to it’s material consequence if we want to keep inoperativity as a relevant tool for political change.

    So doesn’t the quote from Opus Dei seem to imply for a sort of “autonomy of the concept”? – which of course exists as a concept is always mediated reality, reality in thought, but the fact that terminology is in thought also shows that philosophy, theology etc. has nothing but thoughts at it´s disposal. So if the quote above is true, that the power of terminology is shown in it’s relation to ontology, then we have to ask ourselves what ontology is if ontology is not the same thing as an understanding of “material transformation” (which for me probably could be identified with being).

    Personally I feel quite near both too Agambens and Heideggers project, but I would say that if Agambens critique of western ontology as an economical theology differentiates the relation between terminology and ontology from the revolutionary effectiveness of material transformation, then it is basically nonsensical. I have read Agambens criticism of Adorno and his defense of Benjamin, but Benjamin would never argue that a term has a relation to ontology, he would rather argue that there is a quite immediate relation between terminology and praxis, material transformation and thought.

    It seems to me that the quote from Opus Dei could be criticized for being “negative philosophy” in a schellengian sense, that is that the genealogical understanding of theological and philosophical terminology could show itself have no meaning to real life. Agamben would probably never accept a distinction between reality and thought, praxis and terminology, but for me that is a real distinction, especially if you as Abbot try to read Agamben in relation to Marx´ understanding of communism as a real movement. A reading that in the end doesn’t seem plausible, as Marx and Engels quite explicit argues in the German Ideology – where the quote on communism as a real movement comes from – that every position that judges society/history through the terminology of it´s apologists, for example through the work of western theologians, will turn to be an ideological critique of an ideology. An ideology that has nothing to do with capitalism as a mode of production and communism as a real movement – as communism and capitalism only produces thought but never can be identified or pinned down by an understanding of thought. This is why communism is a real movement, it is not produced in thought or as thought but through the real antagonism that so many philosophers dismiss as a crude materialism – mainly because the determinism of the Engels and Marx who wrote the German ideology would show how worthless thinkers are when it comes to the struggle for communism. So basically, if we want to prove that Agamben is right – which I do – then we have to show how the concepts he destructs has a real relation to that material transformation that he wants to separate from ontology. But to me this also seems to imply a destruction of ontology, even political ontology.

    So let´s save Agamben with a big doze of dialectical materialism. But before I end I must say that Agamben at least in Altissima Poverta shows that there is a real albeit quasi-dialetical relation between terminology and the material transformation of history and reality, I guess this is because AP probably his best book. So maybe the problems with the franciscans wasn’t their conceptualization of the use of poverty, but rather that they were too weak as a real movement and that their terminology reflected this lack off material and revolutionary effectiveness. Then maybe we should ask ourselves – is Agamben conscious about how ineffective his philosophy is for change, even for a change that comes through inoperativity? Is that why Rilke and Kafka, werewolves and angels, are more important for him than spanish miners or unemployed youth? And I don´t mean this as a criticism, but it could be case that he is only important for poets and philosophers but not for the masses that for Marx and Engels constituted the real movement that abolishes the existing things.

  2. So if we convince him to adopt the ideas of dialectical materialism, his ideas will be more effective in the real world?

    I’m sorry to be sarcastic, but I find this line of critique to be really simplistic and unsatisfying — as though we need to make sure we don’t get the incorrect idea that ideas somehow influence reality, because then…. It seems obvious that the conceptualization of something as culturally central as priestly and liturgical practice would make a big difference to that very practice and to the practices that took it for a model. Similarly, the sovereignty-bare life dynamic is important because of the way it’s shaped political practice. Monasticism is explored as a concrete, practical attempt to get out of the Western machine. Etc., etc.

    I don’t see how Agamben’s conceptual work is ipso facto more problematic than Marx’s work on the concept of commodity fetishism. And if it’s because Marx’s is more “directly” economic, you were probably convinced that that should be the priority by, you know, an intellectual argument. I don’t understand why it’s productive to have the discussion at the level of “how practical are your ideas” at all. Neoliberal ideas have been hugely influential, and they work directly at the level of the economy — are they better because of that?

  3. In terms of Agamben’s reception in the English-speaking world, I think the reason the Heideggerian influence hasn’t been so clearly seen is that Homo Sacer was the first book that really broke through, and that is a book where Heidegger is much more in the background — in general, Agamben is more likely to be grouped with Foucault as a thinker of the “biopolitical.”

  4. To Adam’s “in general, Agamben is more likely to be grouped with Foucault as a thinker of the “biopolitical.”” Foucault was also a left-Heideggerian, so in this sense being linked to Foucault and being linked to Heidegger – at least when it comes to ontology – is if not the same, that at least not mutually exclusive (see for example Foucault’s Remarks on Marx and other interviews with Foucault where he tells that (the late) Heidegger was his most important source of inspiraton). I think it is very plausible to read both Agamben and Foucault as a new version of thinking a ‘history of being’ – but this time more politically charged.

    Just saying…

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